Category Archives: Festivals

Down by the Danube 1 – Festivals, fireworks, and the Hand of the King

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WHEN THE SUMMER COMES TO AN END

Campsites have a difficult time out of season. Most close altogether, becoming strange little glamping-pod ghost towns. Others diversify, letting out the space to groups and organisations. Several times during this trip we’ve been told we can only stay until Thursday morning, because then somebody is moving in to set up an event for the weekend.

At Jasov, in Slovakia, it was the turn of the annual Pit Bull and Staffi Weight-pulling contest. So that week some pretty impressive canine specimens pitched up, along with their proud (and equally scary looking) owners. We used to have a beautiful Staffi called Gizmo, so we weren’t phased, but the campsite cleared incredibly fast, I must say.

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One chap came over to borrow a wrench from Steve in order to fix some tracking that was to be used in the contest. The dogs were going to pull a loaded cart along it for several metres. Here’s the cart, on the left – ready to be stacked with that enormous pile of concrete blocks on the right. I’m not even joking.

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So we left, because we had to, and took a jaunt down towards Budapest, in Hungary. This meant meeting up again with the River Danube. It’s a flighty little stretch of water – it gets about a bit. So far, we’ve run into it in Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary and Croatia.  I’ve noticed that khaki is it’s hue of choice, although it will don shades of silver, slate, greige, black, brown or olive if the mood takes it. But not once, not once have I seen it blue.

BUT BUDAPEST THO

Sometimes we are clever but mostly we are just lucky, which is how we managed to arrive in time to see the start of the St. Stephen’s Day Festival. I’m not going to give you a history lesson about King St. Stephen (Google him if you’re interested) but he was a really big deal. The first king of Hungary as we know it today, and their version of King Arthur and the Pope, all mixed together. They’ve got his right hand in the Basilica, and it gets paraded through the streets to much fanfare and celebration, followed by fireworks.

I was concerned that parking would be an issue as thousands of people flock to the city for the event, but when we got there a helpful traffic cop said, ‘Park where you like – it’s free’. Seriously? We found a spot alongside the river, opposite parliament (here it is beautifully un-reflected in the khaki green Danube).

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We took a very short walk to ‘The Street of Hungarian Flavours’. Here you could taste everything from the soup, to goulash, to langos (a sort-of pizza dough that is stretched, and flash fried, and then covered in garlic sauce and grated cheese), to spit-roast pork, and beer, and ice-cream, and cakes, and more beer – really, lots more beer.

Our UK Health and Safety would have gone nuts. There were open fires with massive bubbling cauldrons, right on the street with no barrier between them and the crowds. I bloody loved it.

CRAFTS AND PERFORMANCES

The ‘street’ led up to the castle on the hill, where the ‘Festival of Folk Art’ was in full swing. There was a hell of a lot of beautiful embroidery, as well as traditional crafts from visiting nations such as Tibet, China, and Nepal. The costumes were amazing.

Of course, there were crafts there that nobody should either make, show, or try to sell…

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…and this strange, hairy, masked guy in bloomers kept showing up. But that was part of the fun.

We also got to see the Changing of the Guard. They have two types here: one is a dainty quick-swap two-step; the other is the full turn-turn-step-turn-kick-turn version, with drums. We saw both.

Then we heard music, and a handsome Australian chap shoved a paper into my hand. He was part of a group that sang mainly Bartok, and they were just finishing their rehearsal.   The paper had the words to the folk songs they were going to sing (with audience participation), so we thought we’d give it a go. Apart from the obvious (we couldn’t understand how to pronounce any of the words, and didn’t know the tunes) it all went swimmingly, until the guy with the bagpipes came to the front of the stage.

Here’s a picture of the soften-you-up-with-some-merry-tunes-before-unleashing-the horror bastards, in their hideous shirts.

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Now, I assume that these were traditional instruments, because there’s absolutely no excuse for them otherwise. Apart from the bagpipes – which both looked, and sounded, as if he’d trapped a startled pig – he had a tin whistle (sigh), and a long, bamboo, tubey thing he blew down. Well, they all did. It was very impressive – not.

And a recorder – which he hummed into as well as blew into it, which added a weird didgeridoo-type of element. To say it was shrill is to be kind. Within a minute I had the sensation that all the fillings in my teeth were vibrating.

Three weeks later, one of my fillings fell out. I know who I blame.

Then It was time for the finale: fireworks over the Danube. And they were great because even crap fireworks are great, and these were not crap. Went on for a full thirty minutes. They included some that I genuinely hadn’t seen before – they formed gyroscopic shapes, which I thought only Gandalf could do.

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COSTUMES TO DIE FOR

As I said, we are lucky, and on our last day in Budapest we chanced upon another festival, a bit like our Harvest Festival, I think. Lots of dignitaries in regional costumes walked up, two by two, to put baskets of local produce on a huge map, outside the Basilica.

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We’d gone to the Basilica to see the hand of King St. Stephen, having drunk too much beer to catch it on it’s jaunt around town the previous week. And here it is – THE HAND OF THE KING, been around since 1038. That’s a set of knuckles you are looking at there.

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NEXT TIME…

I’ll tell you more about Budapest, from the Vasarely Museum to the Roman ruins at Aquincum. Thanks for reading. Ciao. xxxx

 

 

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Oh Vienna

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A WORD ABOUT ROAD SIGNS

In Portugal the road signs were fairly familiar: they were just applied in surprising ways. Don’t graze your cattle on the motorway, was a good example.

In the Czech Republic and Slovakia they were the old-fashioned kind, with more detail than in the UK. The trains still showed great clouds of steam and the bicycles were practically perfect. The men depicted were always natty gents in suits, sporting trilbies, and holding skipping children by the hand. The girls had huge bows in their hair and the boys wore those girly coats that only the Royal family still favour.

In Austria, the flashing signs on the pelican crossing depicted two people holding hands, with a heart between them. Even Steve thought that was cute.

But in Poland the signs changed again. The first one I noticed was the cow – he was made out of rectangles, as if an impatient person had cut him out of black paper and stuck him down. I imagined the justification:-

‘What your problem? You can see is cow, is good enough. Now I go home.’

After a while I noticed that all the illustrations were angular, apart from the round, football-shaped heads which floated – dismembered – above pointy-footed bodies. There was also a crazily-smiling, pig-tailed girl, wielding a head-sized lollipop in the manner of a hatchet. She appeared near zebra crossings and was really quite freaky.

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BUT BACK TO AUSTRIA

After Barry let us down on our Helpx placement we had some time free for ourselves. We decided to go and see Vienna, as I’ve never been and it’s, well, Vienna.

So we fetched up at a suburb just north of the city, called Klosterneuberg. It’s on the Danube and has a spectacular monastery overlooking the campsite. We went for a quick walk around and it was beautiful. The tiles on the roof formed a pattern that turned into pure, sparkling, silver in the setting sun.

Inside, the various sections were all decorated to the nines, with different colour schemes in each room, and every vaulted facet beautifully painted.

It was just as well that the monastery was so nice, because then we found a café to have a late lunch in. OK, I know it was Sunday, but after Czechia it was still a bit of a shock. I think we were charged about 600 euros for a tiny slice of French bread with some sort of vinegary egg on it. Oh, the horror.

Back at the campsite bar that evening, we met our next-caravan-neighbour, Rudi. We’d hoped to have a meal there (as we were too tired to cook) but had arrived too late. Rudi kept insisting he had food, he would cook for us, no trouble. But we couldn’t be bothered even with that, so instead we had cake, and wine, and a nice chat.

We invited him for dinner the next night (he bought beer, wine and schnapps – good man) and we talked about volunteering. Apparently, he has done A LOT of fund-raising, and almost single-handedly paid for a school in Tibet (principally because he fancied the blonde who was volunteering there. I’m not judging).

He got a bit over-happy on the schnapps, started talking only to me, and told Steve to watch out because – and I quote – I was dangerous. It seems I have a mysterious allure, but I’ve noticed it only works on blokes over seventy.

The next day we went to look at Vienna. I nearly killed Steve by encouraging him to climb the 343 steps up the bell tower of St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Once up there, we saw a guy wandering along the ridge of the incredibly pitched roof, doing some repair work. Don’t care if he had a rope around him – still an idiot. Also saw a cute couple of pigeons doing some family planning.

The view of the city is certainly impressive. I think everyone here lives in an amazing building, even the dustmen, because every house is stunning.

Sadly, we’d arrived in Vienna too late to see the snow-coloured, dancing, Lipizzaner horses, which had gone to the country for the summer. But we did see lots of carriage horses, so that was nice.

We passed a church that had beautiful choral music wafting out. An American choir was on tour with a famous-and-important-composer, so we sat in on the rehearsal. Afterwards, I told the famous-and-important-composer how much I’d enjoyed it and he kissed my hand. Honestly, I am catnip to these old guys.

HUNTING FOR WOOL

When my CFS makes things difficult I do needlepoint tapestries, and I’d nearly finished my second one when I ran out of a particular blue wool. So Steve Googled wool shops for me, and we set off to spend at least a euro. And found nothing. Nada. Nil. Plenty of weird crocheted things and frankly terrifying lace objects, but no blue wool. Back at the campsite we were told, ‘Go to Muller, they have everything’, and they were not wrong.

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Muller is a big warehouse that mostly stocks fabric and thread, lace, ribbons and buttons. Also, a million other things that I can’t imagine anybody wanting to have. They had shelves full of the kind of thing that doesn’t even sell in a charity shop, and you only consider buying – as a joke present – for someone you hate (or is that just me?). They had a real of tan-coloured yarn that a mouse had eaten into, and it was still for sale!

There were whole walls of buttons – mostly brown, it must be said – and aisles of ribbons. It covered two floors, spilled out onto the street (for which read dirt-road car park), and surrounded some steps, open to the air, on one side.

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Tidiness was not a priority.

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Nor was service. But it was incredibly cheap, and I found a good match for my wool in a massive bin that I had to dive down. Sorted.

ARTY STUFF

We went to the Wien Museum to see the Klimts, and were promptly distracted by a fascinating exhibition showing the history of the city as depicted by maps and relief models.

Then it was on to the Hundertwasser Museum and house. Hundertwasser was an architect who believed that the curves and undulations in nature produced a more natural way to live. So none of the floors are flat. Even in the café.

He also wanted every building to have a ‘tree tenant’, so they are built into the structures and given priority over other things. But it’s his sense of joyous, abundant colour that really did it for me. And, although none of his paintings are quite my style, the effect of seeing so many works of rich exuberance was food for my soul.

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The museum also housed an exhibition by celebrated photographer, Edward Burtynsky, on the subject of water in all its glorious forms. Marvellous, dramatic, thoughtful, inspiring. Good day out, that was.

P.S.

I know this post is both out of date and rather short, but I am struggling to find good WiFi in my particular part of Poland. Will tell you all about the festival in Trencin, teaching English through Angloville, finding Dory, and the now famous ‘Food Revolution’ as soon as I can. In the meantime, take care, love to all, and thanks for reading. xxxxx

The Five-Petaled Rose

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We were all set to move on to our first Helpx placement (assisting Barry in setting up his Music and Art Centre), when Barry bailed. Why? Because our van is too big. Had we told him about the size of Georgie? Only a gazillion times. Numerous emails had contained sentences like:-

‘Our motorhome is ten metres long. That’s ten whole metres. Read it again to make sure you’ve got this – ten metres.’

‘Yes, I understand and it’s no problem.’

‘That means we need room to turn, and no low bridges, or 3.5 ton limits. And did we mention it’s ten metres long?’

‘Yes, absolutely fine. No problem.’

And so the day before we are due to set off, Barry says:-

‘Your van is too big. Sorry. Gotta cancel.’ Flake.

So we stayed another few days in Chvalsiny, while we decided how to fill our time before our next placement at the beginning of July.

MEDIEVAL CESKY

And how fortuitous was that, because we caught the opening night of the Five-Petaled Rose Celebrations in Cesky Krumlov! This takes place every year and is a three day festival in honour of the Rosenbergs, the five-petaled rose being their insignia. Lots of medieval costumes, and parades, and jousting, and hog-roasts, and people selling huge amounts of weaponry, and mad gothic music. And belly dancing, no idea why, but who cares.

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The Rosenbergs arrive

 

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The tiny town was full of seriously over-excited Chinese tourists having their photo taken with Czechs in frocks.

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The town square held the main stage and, when we arrived, a series of dances were being performed by the ladies of the local Exotic and Oriental Dance School. So, lots of belly dancing, and lots of other dances that used props like beautiful fringed shawls or swords balanced upon heads, but as far as I could see were basically variations of belly dancing.

Then a procession led by the Rosenbergs arrived to much fanfare and cheering. All the nobles were presented to the knobs, as kids squirmed in linen shirts and velvet dresses, and dogs tried hard to look regal whilst sniffing each other’s bottoms.

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There were definately some people that gave the impression they dressed like this all the time.

There were workshops for all things medieval; leatherwork, pottery, authentic food and medicine making, glass-work, etc., and of course the blacksmith – who showed us the best way to light a fag with a coal.

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The market had an abundance of armour and weapons on sale. Ranks of long-bows and crossbows, tons of hatchets, scimitars and swords, and a rather fetching brass bra.

Towards dusk, we wandered off to another stage set in a park. Arcus, a group described as playing Gothic music, came on and spent a fairly painful-sounding ten minutes tuning up two bagpipes and a couple of stringed things, one of which was played like a guitar, the other with a bow. Not a clue what they were, and also fairly doubtful that I was going to like Gothic music, or anything with too many bagpipes, but curiosity and beer kept me in my seat. They also had long leather skirty-trousers, which was a bit worrying.

But they were brilliant. And maybe it was the incessant quaffing I’d already done or just the mood of the festival, but once those drums started I didn’t give a toss that the tuning up had been largely unsuccessful. I just loved it.

And I wasn’t alone: the kids all started dancing, and whirling, and doing cartwheels in front of the stage. Then some of the mums joined in with their kids (in that way that says, ‘I can get away with dancing like crap because I’m dancing with a four year old and I’m lowering myself to that level. I’ve got moves, oh yes, just not doing them today’).

And then, oh joy, some of the velvet-clad, Anne Boleyn-bonneted ladies, (who clearly attended that dancing school), started twirling their hands and hips, and doing something vaguely belly dancer-ish, but with total abandon. Heads were flung back, arms shot up flamenco-style, and skirts were twirled until we saw the tops of their popsox. You had to be there, I tell you. Little boys got up on stage to show off their moves (or wave to their mums), encouraged by that tall hairy chap in the photo above. One little jerkin-clad moppet was so unspeakably cool that they got him to introduce their next song, and gave him and his mate free CD’s.

This all led nicely up to the torch-lit procession back through town, before the serious drinking got under way to the fire-eating and twirling show (with draped python???). We just had a brilliant time.

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BUT ALL GOOD THINGS…

We’ve loved Cesky but it was time to move on, so the next day we drove to Vienna as we’ve never been, and everyone says it’s beautiful. We crossed the border into Austria, and the first thing I saw was a doe, a deer, a female deer (stop it Bev, you are not Julie Andrews). But I did.

And now I have to go because, as ever, the WiFi is too slow. I will tell you what happened next very soon. XXXXX thanks for reading.