Friday 28 September 2012

In a Monastery Garden

The sky was bluer than blue. The motor car was whiter than white, polished within an inch of its life. Picnic packed, 'Sat Nav' set, membership cards in hand and we were off!

'Olga from the Volga', as we fondly think of the disembodied, throaty voice which barks directions from our friend's smartphone, proved essential as she navigated us deep into a wooded wilderness. And then, miraculously, a clearing in front of an impressive stone portal emerged. The Camaldolese Monastery at Majk was our destination and we had arrived.

statue of Saint Romuald outside of the main gate of the Camaldolese Monastery, Majk

the bell tower is now all that remains of the original church at the Camaldolese Monastery 

Founded in 1733, the Monastery's short life was dissolved by Hapsburg order in 1781 when it became an Esterházy residence. The Camaldoli hermits were an austere and reclusive order following the teachings of Saint Romuald, an offshoot of the Benedictines. Shrouded by woodland the Monastery buildings today remain remarkably intact and do, to some degree, retain their 'otherwordly' atmosphere that must have been evident when bearded monks dressed in long white robes walked silently in the grounds.

an interior view of one of the private chapels to be found in each monk's dwelling place

an example of a coat of arms affixed to the gable end of each one of the several cottages

Patronised by a number of noble families, a grandiose church, Baroque cloisters, a library, refectory and seventeen monks' cottages were built on this site. Each cottage, bearing a bas relief of the coat of arms of its patron, consists of four rooms including a private chapel. There monks could be isolated in prayer, except for when sharing meals under the vaulted ceiling of the refectory with its frescoed depiction of The Last Supper and scenes from the long life of Saint Romuald.

the refectory currently undergoing restoration and closed to 'Foreigners' - discrimination?!!

European Union money is in evidence here and restoration activity intense but, strangely, we found it all rather soulless. A bell tower, the surviving monument of the church, emitted piped music on the quarter hour and, as it struck 12.30pm, we made our escape.

monks'cottages, blandly restored with painted cement, line a path within the gardens

Perhaps its remote location saved the Monastery from the worst ravages of foreign occupation and nationalisation. And, remarkably, an Esterházy, the grandmother of the celebrated contemporary writer, Peter Esterházy, was permitted to live in cottage number 13 until the mid 1950s.

Wednesday 19 September 2012

Saturday Night Fever

a Saturday night fashion extravaganza outside the Opera House, Budapest

Translated from the Hungarian, The Palace of Arts has something of a Stalinesque ring to its name. And although firmly cemented in the twenty-first century, for it was opened in 2005, its architectural style does, to our eyes at least, draw heavily on the Socialist Realism of the past. But that is by the way.

Gergó Teleki plays Liszt at The Palace of Arts on a September late afternoon

So it was that last weekend saw us at The Palace of Arts, as we so often are, this time for a piano recital given in the Glass Hall by our friend, and concert pianist, Gergó Teleki. The recipient of numerous international awards, and having given his first major concert at the early age of just thirteen, Gergó delighted his audience on this September afternoon with a programme of Liszt to include two of the Hungarian Rhapsodies, No. 2 and No. 6, both played with passion and enormous technical virtuosity, as well as the wonderfully atmospheric and startling Mephisto Waltz No. 1.

dancing here as Jack o' Lantern to the music of Liszt is Richárd Gábor Szakács

But we were to be surprised further. For the Transcendental Étude No. 5, notoriously difficult to play, was interpreted in dance by the young graduate of The Hungarian Dance Academy, Richárd Gábor Szakács. We were entranced. As were we all as Richárd, now the Will o' the Wisp, moved to the music with an authority, a confidence and control which left us spellbound and in awe of such agility and grace. Afterwards we were introduced to this Jack o' Lantern; he will come to drinks this week.

self portrait by Robert Mapplethorpe 

self portrait by Robert Mapplethorpe

From the concert hall to the exhibition rooms where we had promised ourselves to revisit the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, the iconic and controversial photographer of the 1970s and 1980s. And whilst we were not disappointed we felt that, on balance, this large show was, somehow, less successful than the smaller exhibition which we saw at The Towner Gallery, Eastbourne last year. Here were the two very distinct sides to this artist, here the portraits, the flower studies, the homoerotic works but, perhaps too full of Liszt's music, we left strangely unmoved.

interior of 'M', a favourite Budapest restaurant of ours 

Dinner at a favourite bistro type restaurant was, as always, deliciously satisfying and, since we are known, there is always the pleasure of a personal greeting. The wall coverings, drawn by a Serbian artist, never cease to fascinate and amuse us with their instances of humour and the absurd.

the exterior of the Budapest State Opera House on Saturday night

But night's candles were not yet burnt out. For before the Opera House an extravaganza of light, music and fashion had drawn the crowds to an outside stage where, interspersed with arias, models, men and women, strutted the catwalk wearing the latest of Hungarian design. A fantasy of the fantastic!

N.B. Images, with the exception of that of the interior of the restaurant, are taken from a variety of internet sources. We shall be pleased to credit them.

Wednesday 12 September 2012

Companion of Honour

accompanied by Hugh, Lance Hattatt contemplates a quiet, hidden corner of Venice

We never travel to Venice without Hugh. Intelligent, observant of the finest details, insightful, if not a little precious, comprehensive and compact, Hugh has been a faithful travelling companion for more than forty years. And what Hugh may lack in contemporary advice on the latest Venetian fads and fashions, he surely compensates for most royally in his knowledge of Renaissance art, Venetian Gothic architecture, and the many hidden nooks and crannies of Venice that continue to delight and surprise the discerning traveller.

some of the many colour washed houses of the Campo Maddalena, a quiet Venetian square

the Pensione Calcina , overlooking the Giudecca Canal, where, in 1877, John Ruskin stayed

here at the Squero di San Trovaso gondolas have been built and repaired for centuries

Without Hugh we should never have discovered the Campo Maddalena with its huddle of brightly colour washed houses, the Pensione Calcina where Ruskin lodged in 1877 or the Squero di San Trovaso, one of the few remaining yards in Venice where gondolas are built and repaired by traditional methods which have hardly changed through the centuries.

the window of Segni Nel Tempo in the Dorsoduro district of Venice - a hidden gem

surrounded by his interesting and eclectic stock, Federico Bucci patiently answers our enquiry

a strategically placed chair is an invitation to book and print lovers to while away the hours

Enticed by Hugh into a narrow calle in Dorsoduro, we happily encountered Federico Bucci buried deeply amongst his antiquarian books and etchings. Allowed to peruse the tightly packed shelves at our leisure, we happened upon all manner of literary and artistic delights. An hour or so later, and purchases had been made. Sadly, a 'Country Life' edition of 'Gardens of Italy' had to be left behind, not able to be accommodated within the suitcase. But a hand coloured etching of the Ca' d'Oro, Palazzo Santa Sofia, 'Saunterings in Florence' by Elvira Grifi, and a most unexpected but very much appreciated gift of a limited edition print of Venetian bridges were then ours.

newly returned from our framer, etching of the Ca' d'Oro purchased in Segni Nel Tempo

"a new artistic and practical hand book for English and American tourists" (!!) 1930-31

Opened earlier in the year, Federico Bucci's shop, Segni Nel Tempo, was far too new an addition to the Venice scene for Hugh to have made mention of him. Charming, knowledgeable and deliciously Italian, we wished him well in his new enterprise and extended an open invitation to visit us in Budapest. Meanwhile, Elvira will be our companion to Florence, our next planned Italian destination, something we trust that Hugh will not mind too much.

published in the 1960s, Hugh Honour's admirable book is our constant companion in Venice

Wednesday 5 September 2012

A Superior Double Room and a Table for Two

If one wishes to feel like a guest in the house of an aristocratic Venetian rather than an anonymous tourist in a chain hotel, then a stay at the Pensione Accademia in Venice is a must. Formerly a patrician family residence, the seventeenth century Villa Marageve, or Villa of Wonders, became the Russian Embassy between the World Wars before establishing itself as an hotel in the 1950s. We have now known it for over forty years.

water front entrance to the Pensione Accademia where we first stayed some forty years ago

the main entrance to the Hotel Accademia which continues, to this day, to be called Pensione

Quietly positioned at the end of the Fondamenta Bollani, its leafy garden, a treasure in itself in Venice, is flanked by two small canals which flow busily on into the Grand Canal. Old fashioned and elegant, the 29 rooms are well appointed and comfortable and the most delicious of breakfasts are served outdoors in the summer months under vast sun umbrellas in the Pensione's courtyard.

front facade of the Pensione Accademia - our room is to be seen top right, shutters closed

the view from our open window overlooking the garden and towards the Grand Canal

It is hard to believe when one is enjoying the secluded peace of the Wisteria covered arbour in the Pensione Accademia garden that one is literally moments away from the bustling Accademia Bridge, the seething masses of St. Mark's Square, the crowded Vaporetto, and the heaving shops selling Carnival masks, Murano glass, Burano lace and 'I Love Venice' hats. And yet, in this green oasis, one is transported back to days of the Grand Tour when the delights of this most magical of cities could be savoured at a more refined and gentler pace.

the piano nobile, bathed in sunshine, situated on the first floor of the Pensione Accademia

looking down onto the front garden of the Pensione, the arbour seen in the top left corner

'No Fish, No Sundays' are the watchwords of Ristorante La Bitta, one of our favourite places to eat in Venice. Defiantly, and rather strangely we think, carniverous, and moderately priced, this unassuming restaurant delivers flavour in every course of its limited menu. Directed by the formidable Debora, a small flotilla of black-clad waiters navigate the narrow aisles with precision and panache. The daily menu, 'Antipasti, Primi and Secondi Piatti', appears on a miniature artist's easel. Stewed rabbit, carpaccio of beef, proscuitto with melon, chicken with lemon and basil, and veal with a mixed pepper sauce were all delicious. And the 'dolci' pannacotta with caramel sauce, tiramisu, and pear cake with hot chocolate sauce did not disappoint.

tucked away in a narrow side street, Ristorante La Bitta is one of our favourite eating places 
Proximity to one's dining neighbours at La Bitta makes overhearing conversations unavoidably intriguing. Italian gossip left us largely in the dark but a discussion on the relative merits of psychotherapy and a debate about whether or not to inform parents about a secret engagement did amuse and add interest.

it would be very easy to walk straight past La Bitta, hidden away as it is off the tourist trail

On one particular late night, we were asked by a young couple at the next table if we could recommend a bar as they were planning on 'going on'. We replied that we knew of one run by a certain 'Harry', but were unsure if it was still as good as it had once been, and as we remembered it some forty years ago....