ciento volando

travel, stories, and other flights of fancy


1 Comment

a little more Pesht than Buda

Just got back from a nearly six day stay in the happening Hungarian capital. Feeling a wee bit on the tired side (it’s only a three hour direct flight to Madrid, but since when have I ever taken direct flights?!), but otherwise content with my getaway. It was the perfect amount of time – I didn’t do everything, but did enough. Didn’t quite stick to my budget, but didn’t go too far overboard either. I forgot lots of (fairly essential) items (like a camera, ear plugs, daypack, and sunglasses) but I don’t think my experience of Budapest suffered too badly for it (although this post has – apologies for the lack of photos). I had a couple of days travelling solo, and then some pilgrim friends I met on the Camino de Santiago joined me for the second half of my stay.

Judging by the other tourists I talked to, and the locals working in tourism, it seems that most people try to “do” Budapest in just a couple of days, before jetting off to Prague or Vienna or Bratislava. Even if it’s at the cost of missing another city, I highly recommend taking a little extra time to soak up Budapest at a more relaxed pace. Particularly as a visit to any of the thermal baths (which is a must-do) inevitably leaves one feeling decadently lethargic, effectively wiping out the rest of the post-bath afternoon. A shame, as there is quite a lot to see.

There are two things that never cease to amaze me about European cities; the beauty and grandeur of the architecture, and the barbarity of the history. Budapest is no exception.

Whilst the walking tour I did was fascinating, the information was a bit all over the shop and difficult to take in. The wind in my ears and the guides malfunctioning microphone didn’t help the confusion. Or perhaps some basic knowledge of European history was required, something which my supposedly first rate Australian education neglected to provide me with. Anyway, the main ideas I managed to grasp were: that Hungarian is completely unrelated to all its neighbouring European languages, and that the country’s history seems to mostly consist of war and oppression. A bit of superficial online research only served to muddle me further, however (after much pausing and pondering) I think I’ve managed to decipher the history of Budapest as more or less the following:

The town was first built by the Celts on the banks of the Danube, where it was a centre of craft and trade, until it was conquered by the Romans sometime in the first century. Under Roman rule, it rose to be the military capital of “Pannonia Inferior” (the geographical region of the Carpathian Basin, which is more or less modern day Hungary). After the Romans came the Huns, followed by Germanic tribes, Slavs, and many others, in the aptly named “Age of Migrations” (around about the 6th – 9th centuries AD). One group, known as the Magyars, conquered the city and surrounding lands in 896, and managed to stick around until this day.

The Magyars, ancestors of modern Hungarians, were a people originating from an area of Eurasia somewhere between the Ural Mountains and Volga River. Back in the day (a long long time ago BC), the tribes of this region were nomadic pastoralists, and spoke various ancient tongues belonging to the Uralic language group. Eventually these tribes went their many separate ways, and their languages developed into modern day Finnish, Turkish, Siberian and Hungarian. (Which is why these languages have nothing in common with most European languages, which developed from the Indo-European language family)

By the time the Magyars came to the Carpathian Basin, they were a little less pastoral, a little more martial. After formally delineating the boundaries of the Principality of Hungary, they sought to extend them, as every fledgling Nation/wannabe Empire tends to do. Their leader, Géza, established a dynasty (however one does) and named his son, Vajk (later baptised as Stephen) as predecessor to the crown. This was in conflict with the old Magyar/Hungarian traditions (which dictated that Géza’s brother should have been next in line for leadership), and Géza’s death provoked a civil war. Young King Stephen won, and with many of his pagan adversaries conveniently dead, he set about to convert the rest of his people to Christianity. Those who wouldn’t convert (many thousands), were killed, and the King was canonised and named patron of Hungary for his miraculous persuasiveness.

Violence begets violence and that pretty much sums up the following millennia until the present day. There was more trouble with the Romans, plus the usual medieval crusades, as well as war/invasion/occupation/oppression with/from/by the Ottomans, Mongols, Goths, Bulgarians, Austrians (until they settled for becoming the Austro-Hungarian Empire), Nazis and finally Soviets. The death tolls of the various wars and executions is staggering, and I really don’t understand how there are any people left there today, let alone how the language has survived (though perhaps the reinforcement of language helps the people retain their identity…dunno, but I’m sure that many academics write theses on the topic).

With the fall of the Iron Curtain, Hungary transitioned into democracy, and has been a member of the European Union since 2004. It kept its own currency, at the cost of high rates of inflation, and these days one Euro is worth about 300 Florins.

Like most places, the central, touristic areas of the city appeared very affluent (in a vibrant, young money kind of way), and (conversion in mind) the prices were similar to Spain. However, the outskirts were incredibly drab, and there were tonnes of sex shops and empty buildings. Whether or not Hungary has been affected by the current economic crisis, or things are struggling along as they always have, was hard for me to tell. The weather was pretty depressing too; it was cold, rainy, and bitterly windy. All this, in combination with such a bloody history, and brutal memories of communism still strong in much of the population’s memory, it’s no wonder that Hungarians aren’t the smiley-est of people. At least that’s the justification that came to my mind. Some Germans I met thought the service was actually better than in their country, which surprised me, as in general I find Germans to be really friendly (then again, I tend to hang out with the ones that travel). Anyway, I did meet some smiley and helpful Hungarians (notably the staff at Unity Hostel), but these were the exception rather than the rule. I’m afraid to say that in Budapest I experienced some of the rudest, most infantile and petulant service I’ve ever had in my life. Let’s hope it’s just because I was (repeatedly) unlucky. Or perhaps I was unconsciously breaking some social code of conduct, you never know.

Anyway, in general, Budapest is a very easy and tourist friendly city. English is widely (albeit reluctantly) spoken, the public transport (though nothing fancy) seemed reliable and efficient, and strangely enough, the drivers were incredibly courteous of pedestrians, often slowing down to let people pass (even when it wasn’t obligatory).

Despite the sour demeanours and unfriendly weather, Budapest has become quite an epicenter of partying and foodie/hipster culture. Something that makes me think I’ve judged the people way too harshly, because to have built so many inventive and fun venues, there must be a lot of optimism and creativity amongst the population.

Whilst the Buda hills (on the southwest bank of the Danube) boast some nice hotels and the best viewpoints of the city, the real action is almost entirely concentrated in Pest (pronounced “Pesht”) on the north bank. Here, students, tourists, and local intellectuals/elite congregate in the innumerable ruin bars, hipster cafes, alternative art spaces, and converted alleyways/warehouses, to sip designer coffees and, one can only assume, come up with more ideas for more interesting themed bars and innovative pastimes. Budapest is apparently the home of “escape rooms*” (you and your friends pay to be locked up in a room and you have to solve puzzles to get out, but they let you out after an hour anyway), and now you can also find “anger rooms” (you and your friends pay to be locked in a room full of rubbish, which you smash to smithereens), who knows what they will think of next.

*If you’re interested in escape rooms, a film worth seeing is “La Habitación de Fermat”, (Fermat’s room), a Spanish thriller about some ill-fated mathematicians, who were not automatically let out after an hour.

So, what other commentaries and/or recommendations can I make about Budapest?

  • Book Café: It’s amazing how quickly we become creatures of habit. This amazing, decadent old café was upstairs from a massive bookshop on Andrássy street, just around the corner from my hostel. It had high, elaborately painted ceilings, mirrors, chandeliers, and a grand piano (and live piano music). Coffee and cake ranged from about 2 – 5 euro, not a bad price to journey back in time and up a few rungs of the class ladder all at once. Another Budapest favourite is the New York Café, another decadent ancient coffeehouse, but was a bit more expensive, crowded and noisy.
  • A good time to see Buda Castle: is at 12 noon, when you can watch the changing of the guard. It has a certain comic value. I’m not sure if the soldiers always wear sunglasses, or if perhaps they were a tad hungover on the day I was there, but either way I do think they’re a little in need of some fresh choreography and some less restrictive uniforms (or more rigorous training/less strudel). A definite “A” for effort though, and kudos for keeping straight faces and pointed toes!
  • The Hungarian cake of the year: is decided annually on the 20th August (St.Stephen’s Day), by the National Guild of Hungarian Confectioners. What a wonderful tradition! If only I’d found a cake shop (other than the packed out tourist traps next to the Matthias Church) that was selling it! I didn’t really look hard enough though. Mum, if you ever go to Budapest, this is your mission!
  • Hummus Bar: Hungarian cuisine is famous for its hearty goulash, paprika poultry, and disgustingly cheap force-fed-goose-liver-pate, none of which appealed to my newly meat-free palate. Even the vegetable soups and salads seemed to somehow contain hundreds of tiny bits of bacon, and there’s a limit to how much battered fried cheese covered in jam one can eat (it was good, but that’s it for me until 2020). Fortunately, there was Hummus Bar, a Hungarian Restaurant chain which specializes in amazing hummus, plus a wide variety of affordable and healthy Middle Eastern cuisine, with plenty of options for vegetarians, vegans, and omnivores alike.
  • Bakeries: were both the bane of my existence and a godsend (as Hummus Bar wasn’t open for breakfast). The Hungarians do fantastic things with poppy seeds, walnuts, plums and cottage cheese; strudels, scrolls, and stuffed croissants… the poppy seed strudel fast became my daily staple (ie addiction), so much so that despite being a reluctant baker, I’ve bought nearly a kilo of what I hope is the filling (it’s all in Hungarian but they look like crushed poppy seeds) to try making some at home…
  • Poppy seed gelato: just because two things are delicious separately does not mean we should try them together.
  • A38, aka “The Best Bar in the World” (according to a 2012 Lonely Planet survey): this was… extremely disappointing. A38 is an old Ukranian stone carrier ship that has been reincarnated as a bar/restaurant/“cultural centre” and moored on the banks of the Danube. The idea is cool. The clever lighting is very cool. But we went quite out of our way to get there, and the restaurant turned out to be sleek but boring (very conservative), the cocktails less than ordinary (sometimes not speaking the language keeps me out of trouble, I was so tempted to challenge the bartender to an Aperol showdown!), and although the service was attentive, last drinks were called at 10.30pm! The bar downstairs was closed for a private concert, which sounded like some kind of hideous Hungarian death metal…and so we traipsed back along the windy riverfront, to Pest side, for some real drinks on dry land.
  • Szimpla Kert: A derelict (or should I say, “Derelique”?!) factory, once sentenced to demolition, that was converted into a “cultural reception space” (ie, bar) in 2002. It’s since become a Budapest institution and now hosts an arthouse cinema festival, live music, and lots of dancing every night of the week. The décor is outrageously ‘organic’ (chaotically strewn recycled bits and pieces), and the music is fantastic (electro swing, dance, really old oldies, all done well). There are many sub divisions and mini bars, serving fine wines, pastries, cheap and flavourless local beers, potent berry liquors, hot real food at 3am, kachimbas/shishas/waterpipes (whatever you call them, with every flavour), fresh carrots (I kid you not), CDs, t-shirts, postcards, paintings by local artists… and that’s at a fairly superficial first glance. Despite its dilapidated aspect, it was well run, and even had toilet paper, which is more than can be said for many bars in Spain.
  • Fisherman’s Bastion: a collection of Neo-Gothic terraces on the top of Castle Hill (Buda side), with fantastic views of the city, and in particular, Budapest’s famous Parliament building on the opposite bank. Best to go there at dusk, watch the sunset, and see the Parliament, the Basilica, and the three big bridges all spectacularly lit up.

It’s also worth adding that something I didn’t do, but would have liked to, was see some of the cave networks under the city. The land is apparently full of tunnels, which have played an important role through history (mostly as hiding places, but once as a hospital), and it would no doubt be fascinating to do a tour of some of them.

But tours cost money… and caves make me claustrophobic… and it was such a long way to walk through the rain to to get to the starting point. And I was having such a nice time ‘Pest side’ with the Pilgrims, where there were so many more than six days worth of cafes to visit…

Advertisements


Leave a comment

150 palabras

???????????????????????????????

Hace un tiempo escribí un cuento para “Rincones de Segovia”, un certamen anual de microrrelatos convocado por la Librería Antares. El desafío, como uno se puede imaginar, era escribir un relato de solo 150 palabras que hiciera referencia a Segovia. Para mí fue todo un reto, no sólo por la cuestión de idioma, sino también por lo mucho que me cuesta ser concisa. Comparé lo que suponía escribir un microrrelato con el famoso “Cubo de Rubik”, es decir, me parece como un rompecabezas. Sin embargo, disfruté del proyecto y, gracias a la ayuda de una amiga que me corrigió el texto, quedé contenta con el resultado (aunque no sea perfecto). Por supuesto no gané el concurso, pero eso tampoco era mi objetivo.

Como ahora se están acercando las vacaciones, estoy pensando mucho en escribir. Será uno de mis proyectos veraniegos. Por eso, el microrrelato, que tenía olvidado, me vino a la cabeza. Me di cuenta de que este año la colección de entregas no la publicó la librería. ¡Qué pena! Me habría gustado ver mi cuento impreso, y leer los otros, sobre todo los premiados.

Bueno, no pasa nada. He subido el mío, ¡qué fácil es “auto-publicar”! Así que, si os interesa, pinchad el enlace abajo. El microrrelato se llama “La huida”. Por supuesto, se agradecerá cualquier comentario, ya sea crítico o consejo.

pincha aquí para la pagina de cuentos


2 Comments

El Laberinto, Córdoba (the best way to spend your daylight savings).

El Laberinto

This weekend I travelled south to visit some friends – teachers who worked in the same village as me during my first year in Spain. The expedition involved spending most of Friday in transit, crashing two nights on a couch, and not making it back to Segovia until late Sunday night…  quite the journey for just a casual Saturday lunch. But of course, (and in keeping with the predictably upbeat, possibly saccharine, tone of this blog), it was totally worth it.

The reunion was exactly as I’d hoped and expected*. As for the rest of the weekend, I hadn’t had a chance to give it any thought, so of course it all came as an unlooked for bonus.

The first factor that I hadn’t contemplated was that it would be hot. This stands to reason, Córdoba being a lot further south than Segovia, but didn’t enter my head as I rushedly shoved extra jumpers into my bag before leaving. But better to be too hot than too cold, and my top half (saved by a last minute singlet) spent the weekend bathing in sunny glory…whilst my legs silently roasted in black jeans and long boots.

Secondly, I’d forgotten all about typical Andalusian breakfasts. So good!! Toasted fresh rolls, with (incredible) olive oil and grated tomato, milk coffee, and freshly squeezed orange juice…at a relaxed pace, in the aforementioned sun, for only 1.50€. What a way to start the day.

Then of course there were the free tapas, chosen from the menu and not from the bar top (as they are in Segovia, not that I’m complaining). But getting free food a la carte is really something special. Hooray for Andalucía.

basking bargainsBut the true highlight was having a whole unexpected Sunday morning in which to indulge. Thanks to daylight saving (and the surprising absence of hangover), I had time to wander the streets, photosynthesise, and finally peruse El Laberinto, a beautiful second hand bookshop that I’ve been wanting to visit for months.

El Labrinto is special for a number of reasons, the first of these being that in the world of antiquarian bookshops, it’s just a baby. Despite the fact that in today’s technology driven, crisis bound economy, longstanding bookstores are struggling to survive, El Laberinto boldly opened in mid 2012 and appears to be thriving. Surprising? Not really, it’s a wonderful store with a prime location (on the riverside), that’s been well thought-out and is clearly well run. The service is knowledgeable, personalised, and considerate (I was even talked in to buying a cheaper book than what I had originally selected, but one that I will hopefully enjoy reading more***). And as well as a range of foreign language books, Spanish classics, and vintage children’s books (of which a colourful abridged version of Don Quijote definitely tempted me), there were many other curious trinkets for sale or on display. A large collection of amusing/beautiful retro postcards (1€), re-printed Civil War facsimiles in zine form (3€), records, scientific specimens, pot plants, and comics.

Unlike many second hand bookstores (and despite the tonnes of books lining the walls and and floor), El Labrinto is well lit, clean and spacious. There’s none one of the hayfever inducing dustiness or back breaking pokiness that normally needs to be endured in this kind of shop. There are plenty of chairs, and customers are invited to sit down and take their time sorting through the contents of the large wooden dining tables. The background music was cool and reason enough to linger, as were the literary quotes that decorated the concrete walls.

So if you’re in Córdoba, and have time (time is important), treat yourself to a leisurely breakfast in the sun (ideally at El Pimentón on the riverside) and then mosey on next door to El Laberinto to pleasantly wile away some hours. But if slow ain’t your style, I’m sure you could still scoot by and pick up a bargain from one of the outdoor 1 – 3€ baskets, without having to think too hard or take off your headphones.

So I’ve checked the forecast and it’ll be warm in the south for the next quite a while. Weird, but it may as well be enjoyed. As for Segovia, bordered by mountains and currently mizzling… well here’s a good place to have plenty of reading material.

*We met up at 2pm and didn’t part ways til after midnight. “Lunch” included plenty of traditional Cordovan food (salmorejo, aceitunas, flamenquín, and garlic garlic garlic), bar hopping (the highlight being The Jazz Bar, if you’re in Córdoba, go there), watching a clásico (Madrid vs Barcelona football match), and seeing a live rock band (long hair and denim, just so you knew they were legit). The only downlight (?) was the post pub grub…if you know the franchise 100 montaditos (100 little bread rolls), and are curious to try the new Spanish fast food sensation**, 100 pizzitas, don’t!

**100 pizzitas, the only fast food in the world that causes you to lose weight …the fuss of the ordering process (and stress of waiting for the hockey puck to buzz), isn’t worth the actual pizzas (which are wafer thin, and all 100 flavours come out looking the same).

*** Instead of El Dorado (a slim paperback with a beautiful cover), I walked away with Ramon J. Sender’s Aventura Equinocial, a novelised version of the same history (in a less glamorous jacket).


Leave a comment

tea and tattered pages

is an English language bookshop/café in Paris that’s definitely worth a visit, but has nothing to do with this post – except that I love the name and decided to steal it for my musings.

This Sunday afternoon I sat down with a cup of tea and Good Weekend, the Saturday magazine from The Age, a Melbourne newspaper. Reading the weekend papers, especially the magazine faux-news lift outs, is one of my favourite rituals.

As a uni student I worked most weekends in hospitality, and was always incredibly jealous of the creatures of habit who I’d serve breakfast to on Sunday mornings, as they read the paper, cover to cover, over the course of several ($4 a pop) cups of tea. I remember thinking that If I could one day be rich enough to regularly eat out for breakfast, and not have to work or study on weekends, then I truly would have made it in life. As it was, I’d hold on to the newspapers, guarding the weekend lift outs in a neat, colourful pile next to my bed, and if I was lucky I’d find the time to read them before the next weekend rolled around and the pile grew again. It wasn’t so much about the quality of the publications (which seemed to fluctuate), but the decadence of the pause.

It’s been two years since I’ve got my hands on a real, paper copy of The Age. Not because I have an aversion to newsprint, or paying for my reading material, it’s just that I live on the other side of the world now. And sadly, I no longer read newspapers at all. I’ve picked up the habit of watching the TV news during the siesta, partly to improve my Spanish, and partly cos it seems such an indulgence to watch TV in the middle of the work day. To keep up with Australian news, I occasionally scan The Age online, but in general I’ve found this to be an un-gratifying, fluff-ridden, pop-up plagued waste of time. When I do occasionally stumble upon a good, meaty article, the truth is that my online reading time threshold is much lower than its paper equivalent, and I rarely make it to the end of the story. I’ve heard of the existence of other, more balanced and less revenue-driven alternative online news sources, but have yet to take the time to investigate and form a bond with any of them. So I maintain a tenuous (very tenuous) handle on Aussie current affairs by word of mouth, and the hope that if anything truly newsworthy happens in Australia, they will mention it in the Spanish press (ha!).

So how did this rare and exciting copy of Good Weekend find its way into my Segovian attic ‘living room’, and get itself to be so endearingly tea-stained?

It was the feature (at least I took it to be the feature) of a delightful ‘for-no-reason-in-particular’ surprise parcel, sent to me by my parents. Possibly the most beautiful and unexpected present I’ve ever received. (perhaps even more wonderful due to the fact that I picked it up from the Post Office during a serendipitous class cancellation, and it was one of those sunny Autumn days that warms right through the skin, so I guess I was primed to be rapt with just about anything that lead me on such a lovely afternoon stroll)

So what else was in the parcel? Well it was kinda like a Mary Poppin’s bag of treats, and each item was tagged with a post-it note on which Mum had written a little anecdote about where she’d come across it or why she’d included it. I’ve no idea how so many treasures fit into the cooler picnic bag they put everything in (possibly Dad’s tetris-like boot packing skills?)…but amongst them there was Vegemite and Tim Tams, good quality linen tea towels with Australian flora and fauna, hipster writing paper, some (real! printed!) photos, a puzzle book, a short Penguin Classic (‘the perfect length for an overnight bus trip’), artsy postcards, and an ideal recipe for my limited cooking facilities (already tested, big success). By the time I finally finished unpacking it all, I was so excited that I forgot the time difference and called home at 4am to say thank you, oops! (But better to be woken for a happy thank you call, than anything more serious, right?).

Anyway, the parcel had the curious dual effect of making me want to go home and/or giving me the strength ‘to go on’ (ok, this isn’t exactly the kokoda trail, but I’m sure you get my drift). Perhaps with better communication and the occasional copy of Melbourne papers, I could stay abroad for a number of years…(I shouldn’t say that, there’ll be no more parcels!). But sometimes I really do just want more than anything to sit around at home in Melbourne on a Sunday arvo, in my dressing gown, with a proper brunch, the Good Weekend quiz, and people who know what ‘arvo’ means and who Shaun Tan is.

It comes and it goes.

But what did I learn from this weekend’s light reading?

  • An extended trip home is definitely overdue.
  • My favourite illustrator has released a new book.
  • 45 million photos are uploaded to Instagram daily.
  • Some random Australian mining magnate’s family is squabbling over an inheritance, boo hoo
  • The winner of The Voice (which I’ve never heard of, but can guess) was a kid called Harrison Craig, who dreams of becoming a ‘global recording artist’ (good luck to him). He says that “if you have a Plan B then you’re not really serious” (which did make me stop and think for a bit)
  • There is such a profession as a ‘Crime Scene cleaner’, and it really stinks, but it’s okay if your workmate is also your spouse and together you can do anything
  • Australian comedian Tim Ferguson has MS, never picked it, wow
  • Some coins from ancient East Africa were discovered on an island off the North West coast of Australia, which has got archaeologists thinking…hmmm
  • Chronic pain is an ever increasing issue amongst war veterans, due to increased survival rates but poor pain management in the early stages of injury recovery. However, the combination of new medications (which target different sites in pain pathways), meditation, and cognitive behavioural therapy (which adapts the brain to manage pain), is proving to be very effective. (This gave me a bit of flashback to my uni days, as neuropathic pain management was actually the topic of my final year pharm essay, ah yes, it’s all coming back to me…but it wasn’t until after uni that I read The Brain That Changes Itself, now I remember… NEUROPLASTICITY IS THE ANSWER (to almost all your woes)).
  • The dating game is particularly complicated for Jewish Australian girls (but apparantly not for Jewish Australian boys)
  • By the time I get back to Melbourne, the nightlife will have changed completely, no basement or loft space will be left un-converted, and a glass of wine will probably cost a week’s wages
  • Able and Game (a friend of a friend’s quirky stationery company) seems to be doing well, now sells through etsy.com, and now makes funny hand printed linen tea towels. Linen tea towels are the best.
  • Samurai sudokus are still beyond me
  • It’s time to reinstate the Sunday pause… perhaps with a local publication

THANKS MUM AND DAD :-)

The Red Tree, by Shaun Tan


1 Comment

Paris – always a good idea

Said Audrey Hepburn. And who am I to argue with one so dainty and sophisticated?

So when I spotted a flight Madrid to Paris for 40 euro, at approximately holiday time, I snapped it up without a moments thought. Never mind the official dates of my Christmas break, they could be negotiated (or recuperated) later. Never mind that I already spent a good chunk of time in Paris last year, and it’s an expensive place to revisit just to ‘hang out and kill time’. Never mind that the only people I knew who lived in Paris weren’t going to be there…

Because plan or no plan, I knew it would be a great idea, and either way, it was en route to the rest of my Christmas vacation.

As it turned out, both of my ‘Parisian’ friends (well, Australian/French/Spanish semi nomads who’ve been there for some time) did end up being there, just. We managed to catch up, by the skin of my (their? our?) teeth. One left Paris (for Oz) the same day as me, and the other set off the day after. Lucky.

And how wonderful it was to properly talk, face to face, with old (and semi old) friends. To see each other after a period of time has elapsed, and then fill in all the gaps. Or at least attempt to. Inevitably conversation digressed with the pressure to cover so much in such a limited time. I’m still  a little hazy about some ‘essential’ details of which crucial things are happening in whose lives. But the important part was the laughs.

The only other vague plan I had in mind for Paris was to revisit what is possibly* my favourite bookstore in the world (*I’m still in the process of conducting research…it’s quite a task). Last year, the hunt for an English edition of Les Miserables led me on a wild and fantastic goose chase in search of English language bookstores all over Paris. It was a great way to explore the city, and I came across some real gems. Tea and Tattered Pages definitely scored points for it’s fantastic name (and salon de Té), but it was Shakespeare & Co. that ultimately won my heart.

This time I just couldn’t wait to spend more time there. The bookstore is an institution in Paris, and has been a popular hangout for writers, intellectuals, bohemians, and artists since the 1950s. Of course these days it’s swarming with hipsters and tourists. Call me either, I was more than happy to squeeze in and add one more to the crowd. (Compared to this thriving little joint, the Louvre is a haven of serenity).

Shakespeare & Co. is a quintessential antiquarian bookstore, with a maze of rooms and winding passages. Every square centimeter of wall (and sometime floor and ceiling) space is overflowing with books and eccentric decor. The ambiance is haphazard and cosy, and the windows are decked year-round with fairy lights. I’ve no idea how long I was in there for, probably a good couple of hours, as Paris drizzled away outside, another world away.  Inside the bookstore, there was a guy singing and playing the piano upstairs, whilst amateur theater took place in an adjacent room. And all the corners, couches, old rocking chairs, and cubby house were filled with people curled up reading.


Not long ago my friend and fellow blogger Bronwyn lamented on Facebook that ever time she enters a bookstore she’s “forced to confront the fact that as a mere mortal [she] will never be able to read ALL THE BOOKS.” Which perfectly sums up my own sentiments. Never have I so keenly been aware of the sheer, frightening volume of literature that is waiting me, than this past Sunday in Shakespeare & Co. It’s as if they’d had a sneak peak of my (barely dinted) 2012 reading wish list, and then artfully laid each of these books out for me in a row, in a cruel visual reminder that not this year, not any year, will I ever, ever have the time… and that’s just for the books that I’m aware of wanting to read. My list virtually doubled with curious new possibilities whilst I was in the shop… My 2013 diary is definitely going to need more pages.

And speaking of diaries. (what a convenient link). To check out the beautiful Christmas markets, I wandered into Bon Marché, one of Paris’ luxury departments stores. Like Shakespeare & Co., it had a similarly overwhelming effect on me. So many exquisitely beautiful, cleverly designed, clearly high-quality, frighteningly expensive things. I picked up one very nice leather bound agenda, thinking “well, I am in the market for something like this…”, and actually dropped it in fright when I saw the 200euro price tag. Lucky I wasn’t holding one of the gold dipped ceramic birds that had also taken my eye…..

Then, after a little more roaming, some beautiful Christmas lights and markets, randomly finding myself part of a peaceful upbeat pro-gay marriage rally,stumbling into (and staying to listen to) a concert rehearsal in an ancient church in St. Germain, eating delicious crepes from steert vendors and even better hearty home cooked food (thanks Sylvie), and taking a second squiz at Notre Dame (she’s still beautiful)… just like that,  my time in Paris was up.

That was a week ago… I wrote in Luxembourg and am posting from Antwerp. I think I might wait until I’m off the road to write about the rest of my trip, these crazy keyboards are driving me insane! (but at least the Dutch have exclamation marks…those Luxembourgers were way too serious folk).

In other news? Well I didn’t win El Gordo. But am still travelling happy, with Christmas markets and Glühwein galore.

Felices Fiestas

until the new year xxxx