Finding my bearings in Vienna and Bratislava

I have just come back from a little holiday to Vienna and Bratislava in Slovakia. In short, Vienna was not as beautiful as I had imagined, and Bratislava was poorer and more touristy, though both were full of glorious sunshine, marble, churches, trams and stags. I think, to use modern parlance, my takeaway from my five day break is that to counteract our world of pandemics, war, social isolation, and corruption, more people must be turning to each other, getting married and finding solace and escape in stag parties.

On arrival in Vienna, dismissing taxis, we launched ourselves into public transport, boarded a double level train, alighted at an underground station and dragged our Ryanair cabin bags into daylight, along streets lined with high rise buildings that seemed to have no destination.  Following Google, Joe found our Airbnb studio on the noisy outer ring road which encircled a canal with a lovely towpath full of outdoor cafes, beaches, people pedalling, walking, running.

We dropped off our bags and set off to get our bearings. It seems this is best done by sitting at a canal café, in glorious sunshine, drinking Weisstephan beer (known as dusty beer) and pinching and swiping google maps. Don’t get me wrong, I do adore google maps, and I would have seriously been lost without it and Joe who seems to be able to walk and map read at the same time. However, I do like to see and hold a paper map which gives some sort of perspective. But, really, these days, it is not cool to be seen on a corner with a map looking confused.

Anyway, that afternoon we walked along the canal, getting our bearings, which I have to say I promptly lost as we stopped for sun drenched drinks, and soaked up the vibe of the city.  

In Vienna, there are thousands of grand, old, beautiful buildings, galleries, museums, and gothic, Gaudi looking church spires, and blue and gold tiled domes in the sky, but they were all surrounded by a conglomeration of high speed avenues, traffic, and noisy intersections. It felt like a wedding cake of a city which had exploded and its beautiful detritus had landed willy nilly.

The next day, the first place we visited was Karls Kirche  (a church) which was a little too opulent for my taste. There were a lot of friezes and statues in gold and marble, and cherubs and angels cavorting about. We went up an internal scaffold in a rickety lift to see the painted dome and my stomach turned, sadly not with delight. There was too much glory, gold, and crosses for my liking.

The highlight of Vienna for me was the Natural History Museum which was full of wonderful glittering minerals, dinosaurs, and very interactive so that I found myself cavorting back in the day with my ape friends. Then we sauntered off to  the Sigmund Freud museum which was set in the apartment that the family lived in before escaping the Nazis in 1938 and moving to London. It was interesting to see how people lived.

Actually, the real highlight was the Bloody Mary’s that night in the First Floor Jazz Club. Spanish students were trying to waltz to jazz music. Well, let me tell you, after the fourth Bloody Mary, Joe and I soon put pay to that and cleared the floor!

Or maybe my highlight was the next morning, admittedly bleary and weary, we visited the Hundertwasser Museum before leaving for Bratislava. We had a lovely breakfast in a gorgeous outdoor café which replenished our spirits and provided sustenance for the museum…which was fab.

 Hundertwasser was a surrealist artist and built the museum on the values of water, wind, tree and colour. It was wobbly (not so practical with a hangover), full of psychedelic circles and airy fairy, spiritual wonder. I loved it. I loved his designs for incinerators, housing developments, churches: colourful, curvaceous, and he had a wonderful eye for the glory of beauty. He was marvellously mad and I wished he’d had more luck in his lobbying of politicians. However, he was successful in his seduction of me and I bought a wonderful hat which I’m sure will go down well in the streets of Cavan.

 (Funnily enough, we found a similar exhibition in Bratislava the next day by an artist, Peter Bartos, who drew a million sketches of a wonderfully bright future with buildings that took account of nature, people, animals, trees, weather. I particularly liked them because looked rather like my own paintings.

 Anyway, after buying the hat, we took our leave of Vienna, and after a train journey across a rather boring plain, we landed in Bratislava and Joe guided us through more noisy, sweaty, sun drenched main roads towards our accommodation. After a fifteen minute hurried walk, I was relieved to follow him under an arch, down a cobbled street into the old town which was lovely: turreted church towers, charming squares all painted pale pinks, lemons, blues and lined with outdoor cafes enticing us to come and eat traditional Slovak food: dumplings with sheep’s cheese, cabbage soup with calves tongue, garlic soup served in a role, and spicy sausages. To get to our lovely pad, we had to go through large wooden doors, into a courtyard, up a circular staircase to the fourth floor. There, we dropped our bags and stepped out to …get our bearings.

After refreshing ourselves with beer, hummus and olives, we set off around the square, up the cobbled side streets, through the courtyards, along the Danube, past the statues, in and out of the vintage shops, popping into a lovely water colour gallery, and finally found a resting place with wine, trout soaked in bread, and a plate of spicy meat and cheese.

After ten minutes, it started to rain. Fortunately, we were under an awning, so we stayed put. Unfortunately, the rain got heavier and it began to thunder massive claps and bangs. The black sky lit up with silver cracks, flashing venom and anger. Literal rivers cascaded down the marble floor so we had to keep our feet lifted off the street. The rain drummed and flayed the canvas umbrellas. People scattered, holding plates of salmon, pasta and goulash close to their chest. Lights went out. It was very exciting. When it finished, we sniffed the fresh air and ended up in Baudelaire’s putting the world to rights. I was drinking rum garnished with gingerbread sticks. Delicious! Does anyone know where to get gingerbread sticks?

The next day was a little cloudy, so we decided to hit the art galleries. Entering the Central City Art Gallery and Natural History museum was rather like stepping back into a tawdry seventies affair with badly curated exhibitions. Poor Marie Therese, the first Austro Hungarian Queen (1740 – 1780) during whose reign Bratislava reached its pinnacle of glory, was the subject of a paltry exhibition set on shiny red, wonky exhibition stands stuffed into a delipidated bare room. On another floor we threw plastic balls at a video of passing dinosaurs, who if our aim was good enough, collapsed dead and disappeared. On the top floor were three exhibits that had been donated to the gallery by the artists, along with a sign that highlighted that this was all that was really available in terms of art as the gallery was so underfunded. However, I did like the three posters of the workers smiling on the second floor as they forged Stalin’s five year plan.

At midnight, having again put the world to rights with more cocktails, I headed up to bed to toss away the hours of the techno/house music rocking the walls of the studio apartment. Joe was more sensible…he went to the disco and danced into dawn with a Bratislavian beauty.

 Our last day was a tad more gentle. We visited the 13th century castle perched on the top of the hill with baroque gardens and views across to the Czech Republic and Hungary and then came back down and again wandered around the square, watching and commenting on the waves of determined octogenarian tourists hanging onto their sticks and each other. They perambulated in the mornings and filled the cafes at lunch but then disappeared (presumably for afternoon naps) and were replaced in the afternoon by traditional, four wheeled hooded prams pushed by mummies with small children darting between legs and Dads who trudged behind. They then all disappeared as the sun set and were replaced by groups of rowdy Irish, English, German stags who told bad jokes and laughed raucously til dawn.

Some were still there, collapsed in corners and doorways as we made our way across the square at 4.30am to get a taxi to the airport to fly back to Ireland. It was a great break.

Hundertwasser Museum
incinerator model
mineral in the Vienna Nat History Museum
Bratislava Castle
view of Bratislava
The Old Town Square

“Writing is Like Walking into a Room and Dancing with a Complete Stranger”: The heightened emotion of my 60th Celebrations:

There was no dancing during my 60th birthday celebrations, so this piece of writing is as close as I will get to the Nabokov simile which I heard three times at the Borris Festival of Creative Ideas and Writing on day six of my birthday celebrations. On the birthday itself, I felt prickly and anxious. My stomach was a kaleidoscope of different patterned beads. Dancing was not an option. I was more concerned that old age might come barrelling out of a corner, hunch backed, wart faced with 300 dernier flesh coloured stockings. However, when I glanced in the mirror,  I looked the same as yesterday, maybe a little paler. What did come barrelling out was a worm, inveigling its way through my intestine, slippery with what felt like a lascivious grin on its face. However, with a taut lip, and a determination as grim faced at Teresa May’s, I started baking cakes and experimenting with cocktails in preparation for the start of the celebrations. There was certainly no dancing with strangers.

On the day of the party, I discovered that cocktails and cakes are good ingredients for a celebration. Gluten free flour is less successful (my beautiful cakes crumbled), but what did work was the limited number of friends who, because they all lived in the same county, knew each other, or of each other, and were happy to chat and gossip. My hostess skills were not necessary and, very quickly, I found myself surplus to requirements. I was able to retire to the outer ripples of the party and enjoy the Sangria amid the hubbub of natural chatter and laughter.

The next day, however, not wanting to risk the sudden appearance of the wart faced, hunchback with flesh coloured stockings, I followed the last guest out the door and hot tailed it for Limerick.

Limerick is a licorice all-sorts kind of city. I love the wide, elegant Georgian streets that rise out of the chill of the narrow alleyways. Giant, foreboding, grey stone warehouses overhang and shadow the flower laden bridges. Tiny red bricked terraced houses line up to the grandeur and rotundity of St John’s Castle. It is a city with no airs and graces and is full of fluidity and light. I love the splendour of the Shannon, the fast pace of the Abbey River; the way water  of the rivers and canal weaves itself around the flow of the city. It has few pretensions. Limerick combines ancient with modern and thrives on itself, its history and seems to have no need of the outside world.

We walked in Clare Glens for the first time, climbing up alongside a gushing, rushing, swirling river and through swishing ashes, rain laden oaks and birches. The rhodendrums shimmered a purple haze. We got back to town just in time to go to hear a Brahms and Beethoven recital at a lunch time concert in the ancient,atmospheric St Mary’s Cathedral. Then off for Pizza and back for an official tour of the Treaty Beer brewery in Nicholas St, except it wasn’t the brewery. It was more a show house ( a very fine one with a beautiful, 13th century ‘Rembrandt’ wall). Steve, the proprietor/showman, stood at a classic walnut and cherry bar and, declaimed to Joe and myself, the glory of Limerick, his ancestry and the history of Treaty Beer. Great craic. Other Limerick highlights were the young women in the Social Democrat branch meeting I accompanied Joe to. They were excited, enthusiastic, and committed. In the pub after, we discussed setting up work plans, goals, how to reach further into the local community. Meanwhile, the young Social Democrat men huddled together, over pints discussing stats, data, and political gossip.

The Borris Festival of Writing and Creative Ideas was next on my celebratory schedule.  Joe drove me across rolling pastures of sheep, elderflower and hawthorn, past sombre mountain ranges, through small towns and villages with strange names and odd ancestry, deeper into a lush green unknown. As we were using Google Maps, I had no reference to where we were passing through, or what the mountains were. However, eventually, Joe and Google dropped me off (“Dada will pick you up on Sunday, have a good time, have you got your sandwiches?”) and waved me away, no doubt relieved to have fulfilled his filial duties.

I began stage four of the celebrations listening to William Dalrymple interview Simon Schama, sitting on a damp chair, in a mizzling rain, outside the Borris Ballroom for 25 minutes. I haven’t read any Simon Schama books, and I couldn’t see him, but he obviously hails from the upper English class as his talk was littered with Oxbridge, and art or literary references which flew between the quadraphonic speakers over my head. After a while, shivering, I felt ready to go to the Step House Hotel for ‘A Living Hell’, a discussion about Yemen between Ben Anderson and Lindsay Hilsum, two war correspondents. It was an aptly titled session (but, happily for us in a warm, comfortable surroundings). I was impressed by the knowledge, and passion of both journalists. In a sense, their dedication reflected the grim determination of both the Huthis and the Saudi backed men and child fighters, to fight to the death despite the cholera, famine, death, starvation, and homelessness that is wreaked on their family and peoples. War is a terrible thing and seems to be the corollary to man.

In contrast, the Julian Barnes session next was like listening to liquid gold. Instead of the crude bang of land mines and bullets, there was English reserve, understated, gentle humour, and a deft handling of the interview with Alex Clark. I liked his idea that a novelist will never know all the sources of their writing, even when the book is finished. Writing is like memory, as time passes, it changes complexion and colour. Both Barnes and Hisham Matar (The Return), who I saw interviewd later, referred to the importance of changing perceptions and imagination in both fiction and non-fiction.

Borris is a great combination of politics and literature, and I like mixing and matching the two. The MisInformation Age session featured Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame, Misha Glenny, the ubiquitous Simon Schama and Fintan O’Toole. It was an interesting discussion on the Mexican narcos, corruption, globalisation, Trump, Brexit but the male hormones were flying up on the stage, and it became a bit of a pissing contest as to who knew the most. Also, at the end of it, I felt that I had listened to the gloom and doom of this subject matter long enough, and wanted to hear more about possible alternatives.

I had, by now, met up with my partners in crime and we ended the day picnicking with pizza, wine, olives, hummus, crisps sitting in foldable picnic chairs, drinking out of wine glasses, in the shelter of the car. They had come prepared.

I went to Afghanistan and Libya the next day with Christina Lamb (war correspondent) and Hisham Matar who were discussing non-fiction. Both authors felt that non fiction writing was motivated by the need for truth, but Matar felt that imagination was absolutely crucial to non-fiction as non-fiction is a selection of life, coloured by enthusiasm. While Christina Lamb nodded, she felt that her books were underscored by the rhetorical questions of ‘why do people have to die and for what?’. She reflected on the question that is never considered by any army, what happens next?

‘Heightened emotion’ is a core ingredient in every piece of writing, fiction, non fiction, reportage, but it is particularly so in the gothic novel as discussed by Joe O’Connor and Sarah Perry. I was intrigued by this discussion as I hadn’t really thought about the inversion of right and wrong in gothic writing, the bargain between the individual and the other, the multiplicity of selves, the fluidity of identity, the exaggeration of the rhythm and the spotlight of the tone. I’m going to read both Joe O’Connor and Sarah Perry’s latest books, Shadowplay and Melmouth, respectively.

Donal Ryan and Nicole Slattery were both charming and fluid and provided a relaxing interlude to the war torn realities and heightened emotion of the writers that had made up my day so far. The whispered, undulating vowels, soft consonants, the gentle praise and the pretty surroundings of the chapel had a lovely soothing effect. I was also interested that Nicole Slattery perfects each paragraph before she moves on to the next, as indeed, I discovered does Hishmar Matar. When I dance with my total stranger, I step on toes and twirl in the wrong places. Only after getting the feel of him, do I get his rhythm.

Martin Amis and Julian Barnes were in perfect rhythm discussing Christopher Hitchens. Between the two and fro of them, they drew a wonderful caricature of the once editor of the New Statesman and supposed life-long Trotskyist. Hitchens came from the British upper class, attended Oxford, was loud, acerbic, arrogant, a brilliant thinker but, apparently, a terrible writer. He believed he didn’t have the musicality to write and that it was ‘frivolous’ to invent someone who wasn’t real. Julian Barnes thought it was more because he probably couldn’t write women characters. His female descriptions would have been more in the PG Wodehouse mode of ‘fragrant’. As they discussed Christopher Hitchens and regaled us with anecdotes, it sounded to me like Hitchens was like many well educated, upper class men: arrogant, cruel, witty, and irrational. Amis agreed that he took positions that were difficult to justify – like being an anti abortionist on the premise that his mother had had two abortions, one before he was born, one after. Apparently, Hitchens railed “It could have been Hitch!” Both Barnes and Amis agreed that he was a ‘self shackling Houdini.”

On the last day of Borris, I discovered a new heroine in actor, Fiona Shaw. She was interviewed by Olivia O’Leary. I found myself gazing up at her in the Ballroom, mesmerised by her humour, wit, intelligence, vivacity and I was totally engrossed in her anecdotal stories about rehearsals, props and accents. She has given me a template to take me to my 70th birthday: props need to be done away with and if you are engaged with what you do, your heartbeat goes up, and so does your audience. Also, Shakespeare doesn’t work with a Cork accent.

So, finally, that afternoon Dada did pick me up and took me home. Great 60th celebrations and I want to thank everyone who shared them with me. If you travel with me to the 70th, look forward a racing pulse! I’m looking for dance partners. I hope you feel highly emoted.



Welcome to Beirut

After an epic dodgem like drive through the streets of Beirut following ten hours of travel, we arrived at the hotel, Le Bristol, to be greeted by top hatted door men and shiny glass doors. We entered an echo chamber of lurid purple, ornate furniture, mirrors and marble floors. Heavy metal and Lebanese Red popped into my mind. The reception staff were austere, with wide painted mouths and long faces, but they were helpful, and occasionally, they would smile.

Our room was more muted, grey and pink, a vast white bed floating in a sea of mauve, and green pillows. As we pushed open the door, there, on the brown glass table, stood a bottle of Lebanese white, a large slice of chocolate cake and a card to welcome us, ‘Mama and Dada, Happy Anniversary, love Róisín’. We found the culprit on the roof, stretched out by the pool, itself a sun rippled square of blue. Around us zoomed tower blocks of curved glass and white concrete. Car horns tooted below. We poured three glasses and toasted each other. “Welcome to Beirut.”

Róisín had, that day, been on an Alternative Walking Tour, so felt she had grasped the lie of the land. She took us by the hand, and guided us through Hamra to Down Town, past the lit-up palace, many militia points, the Christian Church, Mosque, both minaret and steeple touching dark skies, vying for glory, side by side. Beautiful.

The traffic was mad: It careered, braked, screech stopped, raced and dodged, hooting horns. Beiruties don’t walk, and park where they like – in the middle of the road, but at the same time are courteous to pedestrians. If you step out, they will perform an emergency stop, and wave you across.

We ate that night at restaurant City Chef, recommended because its cheap and famous for feeding the poor. The food was simple but fine, like the Lebanese wine. After dinner, we wandered around the trendy Gemmayzeh bars, tasting cocktails. We watched and gazed, welcomed everywhere. I tried out my French, but because of the Mandate set up after the war, everyone speaks English. They want to know why we are here and are filled with disbelief and delight when we say we are tourists. Welcome.

The next morning, I got up early for a refreshing swim, plowing up and down amongst the top of deserted buildings. Then out to explore, find breakfast and a walk to the national museum. Róisín and I set off, following the blue dots of google. We were staying in the Hamra neighbourhood, mental with banks and high-rise towers, many empty, with no windows. There were also beautiful houses, broken and ruined, ornate brickwork and tumbled down balconies, laced with bullet holes. The streets are a maze of concrete and dust, cars and lorries, but every so often, I caught a glimpse of the old world, the faded glory. We crossed the Green Line (now a highway) into the Christian side where life is less tumbled. It seems hip, richer, less noisy, trendy with shops and restaurants – though all of Beirut thrums with neon fast food.

We came across the Jewish cemetery, an oasis of silence, and a ravaged building held together by bullets, now an arts centre, but it was closed. We drank citron pressé through glass straws in a tiny French café by the museum.
There, I discovered death and destruction, necropolises and resurrection. The Phoenicians, Egyptians, Romans and Turks, tombs and sarcophaguses, bowls with the burnt human bones, mummies and mosaics – all magnificent. You are welcome.

We then walked the Corniche, a prom by the Med, edged with tall tower blocks of apartments, presumably with fabulous views, but burnt out, devastated, empty. Occasionally, there was a period house, or a new building that I loved with straight, clean lines that reflected a truly gorgeous horizon. Sadly, as the huge red Middle Eastern sun set, it was on hillocks of litter on pebbled beaches. It was plastic bottles on rocks that glittered. Beirut has a huge issue with its collection of rubbish. We were told it was because of political corruption. You are welcome.

For dinner, that evening we met Aisha, the daughter of an old friend, who lives in Beirut and works with Syrian refugees. Over tapas we talked of the Middle East, its joys and difficulties.

The next day, we met Ali, a taxi driver, who drove us across the mountains behind Beirut to Baalbec in the Beqaa Valley. Here is the Quaa – a wondrous site of temples and ruins dating back to 37 BC. Welcome. The first temple was completed under Nero in 36 AD, and more were erected over the following centuries by different peoples. It is truly amazing that, despite the invasions over the centuries, the bombing by the Israelis that these magnificent stones still stand, glorious and breath taking. It was amazing to be able to scramble and perch our bums, run our hands over columns and temples created by people over thousands of years ago.

Back in Beirut that evening, it began to storm: flashes of sheet lightening and bulbous drops of water exploded, drenching the city and us in seconds. We ran to a bar full of hubble bubble and cushions, ordered wine and tapas and settled down. Welcome.

The next day, Róisín was gone and I set off to do her recommended Alternative Walking Tour of East and West Beirut. I took an Uber to the meeting place. The driver was concerned that an older woman alone was going for a walk in the city on her own. He tried to persuade me instead to walk the Corniche, where he said it was safe. Eventually, he dropped me where I wished, at the bottom of the steps of St Nicholas. Welcome. The first person I met was also Irish, from Kildare, but living in Tyre. In the end, there were sixteen of us – Spanish, Italian, Australian, French and Swiss. Mustapha led us through the Christian district of Sodeco, through a well-tended garden of one of Beirut’s oldest families. It seems there are very few such houses left in Lebanon. Only 30,000 exist, not bombed or abandoned. Welcome

As I mentioned, the tour was ‘alternative’ and group hugs were encouraged (partly to protect us from the traffic) and politics discussed. Mustapha regaled us with economic facts and stories of corrupt politicians, the high cost of living, the soulless new build built by Solidaire, (the Dublin Docklands equivalent). He went through the history of wars and incursions, his home being bombed by the Israelis in 2006 and him rescuing his mother, brothers and sisters, and how his mother is still a refugee. She will not return from her sanctuary; I think it is in Jordan, but I could be wrong for he had so much to say, so much passion, arrogance and anger (he was young).

That night, Jerry and I booked a table at an Armenian restaurant, the Mayrig, and dined in splendour, surrounded by shrubs and green leaves. After walking the streets and dodging the traffic, the peace and Lebanese wine was a wonderful relief. Welcome

Food has been a joy on this trip. I’ve had chick peas that melt in your mouth, meat that falls apart on your tongue, cheese and spices that explode with taste, peppers, beetroot, tomatoes, chili hors d’ouvres that have been really delicious.
IMG_1760 (1)

On Sunday, in Down Town Beirut we went to The Egg, a bombed out building, the shape of a dome, perched in the midst of the soulless new build. We were visiting an exhibition, Plastic, by an unknown artist who wishes to remain incognito. His/her art displayed the penury of cult. There were video portraits of famous people, graffitied, exposing their shame. It was clever and got great acclaim.

Our last day, Ali took us North to Biblos – where humans have lived for the last 7,000 years. It had a tiny harbour, full of boats, and a castle, a lovely fish restaurant and expensive souks. On our way, we had planned to cable car up to Harissa, where the Virgin Mary looks out over the sea. But the cable cars were being repaired, so Ali drove. There stood the cathedral on top of a mountain whose roof rippled like waves in the sky. I stood and looked down on Beirut, spread like a banquet, a city of white, full of friendship and history, of people with troubles, and knew that one day, I would like to return.