From Croatia into Hungary

Thursday 17th May 2007, Slavonski Brod, Croatia
After the experiences of the past few days, the driving across the harrowing landscape of Bosnia and the work of gathering together all the accumulated thoughts and images for our Bosnia blog, we were quite exhausted. Finding ourselves in this little town with a comfortable room we decided to chill out for a day, relaxing, catching up on emails and swinging a few cats about now we finally had enough space to do so. Modestine was happy in her parking place amongst the vegetables communing with the cabbages so we left her and spent most of the day simply wandering around the town to see what was here. Not a lot really is the answer. There is a Franciscan monastery and the remains of a huge, star-shaped fort built in the 18th century against the Turks, but otherwise the town has little to offer though is pleasant enough with a few shady parks and it is in a far better state of repair than its Bosnian counterpart across the river Saba, Bosnanski Brod. It even has its own attractively designed manhole covers! Throughout the day we have seen queues of lorries on the bridge waiting to cross into Bosnia.

At last, a customised manhole cover, Slavonski Brod

We spent ages at lunch time searching for somewhere to eat. It would seem nobody in the town eats but everyone drinks. All the terraces were occupied but when we asked for something to eat we were told we needed to use a restaurant. Eventually we discovered the only one in town and enjoyed a very nice lunch of Wiener Schnitzel with vegetables and salad plus a couple of huge Slavonski beers. Later in the afternoon our waiter, who'd been practicing his English on us telling us how great Manchester United is, passed us by the river as he peddled home on his bike, calling and waving cheerfully to us. It made us feel quite at home.

We visited the public library but it wasn't very good, being stocked with multiple copies of a few titles that were often out of date and on rather unlikely topics – such as six copies of the life of Elizabeth Taylor translated into Croat. Around the town are a number of statues to the town's worthies - poets and a children's writer. There is also a bust of the country's first President Franjo Tudjman, 1922-1999. Candles and flowers had been placed in front of it.

Statue of Franjo Tudjman, Slavonski Brod

We needed to spend time in the internet shop this afternoon. All the machines were occupied by young boys of twelve or thirteen and we were obliged to wait. It was worrying to see that they were all playing very realistic war games with guns, killings and destruction. In view of the dreadful recent traumas in the country it is astonishing that parents are happy to let their children spend hours each day fighting fantasy battles that are so like the ones they had fought for real while these children were babies.

We hope to be in Hungary tomorrow so spent our last few kunars on a bottle of wine to see us through the evening. The remaining coins we gave to a little girl standing at the check-out with her mum. They must have thought us mad but we didn't have the vocabulary to explain.

Saturday 19th May 2007, Pécs, Hungary
Once out of Slavonski Brod the roads were very rural and empty as we drove north the seventy kilometres or so to Pécs in Hungary. The little villages we passed through in this part of Croatia, known as Slavonia, reminded us of Hungary with wide grass borders to the road along the sides of which the little houses are built, each standing in their own vegetable garden, frequently with chickens scratching at the gate. Most houses had a well in the garden and many also had open-sided wooden storage sheds, often half full of cobs of maize for animal fodder, similar to the horreos we have seen in northern Spain.

Wooden storage shed, Slavonia

The landscape became flatter with woodland and large fields of cereals. Ahead of us on the long, straight, empty road a police car was flashing its light. As we approached we discovered a huge, pink pig lying dead beside a rather dented car. Considering how few animals we have seen in this part of eastern Europe it doesn't say much for the motoring skills of Croatian drivers!

At the Hungarian border we were asked to open up the back of Modestine. They seemed more concerned that we might be smuggling cigarettes than Balkan immigrants. Shortly afterwards we reached the spa town of Harkány where we stopped to get some Hungarian forints and to have lunch. It is so nice to be back in Hungary. It's a friendly, cheerful country with which we are already quite familiar – this is Ian's sixth visit – and one where Ian at least has some basic understanding of the language and even Jill has enough vocabulary to feel a certain confidence.

Hungarian forints

We dare not stay too long in Hungary. There are just too many good restaurants where huge, well prepared and interesting meals are served at prices that are unbelievably cheap compared to Britain. The only fault is that Hungarians love salt to the extent that their meals are sometimes almost unpalatable and we are permanently thirsty.

In Pécs we found the same campsite as last year. It is deserted and Modestine nosed her way onto the same familiar pitch! The campsite lady got chatty with Ian when we were last here and she remembered we have friends who work in the town and county libraries. She asked us if we could write a comprehensible English translation of the campsite guide as the old one is out of date and in very peculiar English. She runs the site by herself and doesn't understand computers so this morning we typed out the guide on our laptop and took it into town where we got several copies printed for her to photocopy. The skills she lacks with computers are compensated for by her skills in jam making and fruit bottling as Modestine's fridge now testifies. She is so thrilled with her new English guide, which she cannot read but trusts us to have done a decent job for her, that she has given us a huge bottle of apricots and a jar of jam as well as a big bag of walnuts. All come from her garden.

Yesterday afternoon we took the bus into the city and went in search of friends at the County Library. Unfortunately we've been unable to make contact and the emails we sent from Croatia had not been replied to. We rang another friend, Judit, at home. She works for the City Library and immediately asked us to come to her house. It wasn't until we arrived that we realised she'd not received our warning email but she showed us real warmth and friendship. She speaks excellent English and her husband, Ferenc, excellent German. They are a very cheerful, friendly couple and insisted we stay to eat with them. It turned into a delightful, happy evening filled with laughter. We mentioned about our travels north to Hungary through Bosnia and Croatia. They told us that at the time of the Balkans war they could quite clearly hear the bombing in Pecs, at least eighty kilometres north of the war zone! We left at 10pm to catch the bus back to the camp site. Unfortunately Ferenc and Ian were enjoying their chat and palinka (Hungarian brandy) so much we left it a bit late leaving their house and missed the bus. It was a long dark walk back into the city centre before we could find another bus that passed near the campsite, only to find everywhere in total darkness and the gate locked when we arrived. Fortunately Ian remembered from last year where the lady hid the key and around 11.30 we were safely back in Modestine where we slept with the sound of rain pattering on the roof.

Today we have spent happily around Pécs, exploring shops, visiting the newly opened complex of Roman burial chambers in front of the cathedral – an EU funded initiative in preparation for Pécs becoming the European capital of culture in 2010. It has been lavishly presented and placed under cover for protection from the weather. It all looks very smart but there were so many groups crowded into a confined space, all eager to see the new attraction, that it felt claustrophobic and hot, and it was difficult to understand the complex layout of the different structures. The murals are considered to be the best Roman examples north of Italy, so have received a UNESCO listing.

Cella Septichora, Pécs

Mural in the wine pitcher burial chamber, Pécs

Outside on the main square things were much more lively, with free concerts offered by several youth bands of very high quality from Pécs, Denmark and elsewhere as part of an international youth festival of music. The youngsters of the town were crowded around, cheering, dancing and leading a conga around the streets. There was a delightful, happy atmosphere and after watching for a while we went off in search of coffee and delicious cherry rétes (a sort of strudel).

Percussion in front of the Cathedral, Pécs

Singing in Széchenyi Square, Pécs

Conga around Széchenyi Square, Pécs

This evening the rain has returned so we have been watching a DVD with a bottle of wine in Modestine. We have not written in detail about Pécs this time as we covered it in last year's blog. This link will take you to that account.

Sunday 20th May 2007, near Siofok, Lake Balaton, Hungary
This morning as we were about to leave the campsite in Pécs the campsite lady presented us with a bottle of Hungarian wine made from her own grapes on the slopes of Villány! We felt quite guilty to see how incredibly grateful she is for our English translation of her guide. We accepted with exchanges of hugs, kissed and thanks in Hungarian. (We are getting pretty good at thanking people here as there have been so many incidents of kindness for us to show appreciation for!)

During the day we have travelled north to reach Lake Balaton, the largest lake in central Europe. We were here too last year but at the westernmost end at Keszthely. This time we are about midway along the southern shore. It's not as nice as on the other side but we have deliberately camped near the little ferry that takes cars across the lake to the little peninsula of Tihany which juts out from the northern shore. From there we will be able to drive along to the popular resort of Balatonfüred. One reason we have chosen this route is because we have just received an email from our Hungarian friends in Exeter, Kati and Peter, who by chance have flown in to Budapest this weekend for a few days and wondered whether we could all meet up while they are here. We have no idea yet whether we will be able to arrange anything but are trying to find somewhere to leave Modestine in safety near a train or bus route into Budapest.

Hungary really has a delightful countryside. The roads outside the towns are straight, quiet and rural, passing through pretty villages that sometimes stretch for kilometres along the roadsides. The countryside tends to be flat with huge fields of vegetables or cereals, or undulating and covered in woodland. The roadsides have trees, bushes and bright flowers providing both shade and beauty for the passing motorists.

We stopped to visit Szekszárd, an agreeable, dignified little town of about 38,000 inhabitants. The tree-lined streets were empty this Sunday morning and we wandered through the parks and side roads enjoying the pretty yellow-rendered baroque churches with their onion domes, the town hall and the many statues - Hungarians are brilliant at statues! There is a certain verve about them, making them lively and attractive.

Statue of King Bela I, Szekszárd

Don't know who he is, but he's very jolly, Szekszárd

Plague column and Secessionist style town hall, Szekszárd

As we were about to rejoin Modestine we discovered a park around a tiny lake and it seemed all the town were there this Sunday morning. There was a special fête organised to celebrate 125 years of the Hungarian Red Cross. It centred around activities for the town's children but their parents were enjoying it all enormously too. Red Cross staff were creating horrific wounds on the heads and arms of the children with marzipan and strawberry jam. There were bouncy castles, abseiling, huge inflatable slides, a Formula 1 race track for five year olds who were not allowed to use it unless they could answer Hungarian highway code questions, and all kinds of craft activities.

Learning the highway code, Szekszárd

Learning how to carve up English campervans, Szekszárd

There were also stalls selling sausages, bread and paprika sauce, green candy floss, ice creams and lurid coloured sweets. For a snack we bought kürtös kalács, a typical Hungarian speciality. Dough is wrapped smoothly around a wooden rolling pin and is then baked so it becomes crisp on the outside. It is slid from the roller and dipped in sugar. Sold hot as it came from the oven it was deliciously soft and crispy at the same time, burning our fingers as we sat on benches with everyone else to eat our "lunch".

Kürtös kalács, Szekszárd

Our very own kürtös kalács being prepared, Szekszárd

We pottered on until we reached Siófok which is rather a disappointment being just a pleasant but straggling tourist resort on the side of the lake with hotels, restaurants, tennis courts and swimming pools. There doesn't seem much to do though we could probably have an enjoyable bike ride beside the lake.

Heading for the ferry to cross the lake we found this campsite which is very well appointed and right on the lakeside. From here we can see the ferries crossing. Apart from ourselves there is a French motorhome – the only one we've seen since the Dutch travellers on the site in Sarajevo! We took our gift of Hungarian wine down to the lakeside with a candle and some glasses and watched the sun set over Tihany as we drank. Suitably lubricated we wandered off in search of a telephone and stopped for a complicated chat with the person in charge of the site who speaks a few words of German and voluble amounts of Hungarian. Somehow, with lots of laughing, we held a comprehensible if not highly intellectual conversation, the outcome of which is that he is impressed with Ian's Hungarian which, he informs us, is much better than his English. This is true but doesn't necessarily mean Ian's Hungarian is any good!

Tihany Abbey from our campsite in Szántod

Monday 21st May 2007, near Siófok, Lake Balaton, Hungary
This morning we took over two of the campsite's washing machines to clear the backlog of laundry that has accumulated. Leaving Modestine in charge of our pitch, festooned with drying duvet covers, tea towels and assorted socks, we took Hinge and Bracket for a ride along to the ferry and across the lake to the little peninsula of Tihany. They've not really earned their keep so far this trip so all their pent up energy was called into use as they struggled up the steep hillside to the Benedictine abbey at the top. At one stage we were obliged to get off and push them, they were so exhausted. Once in the little, touristy village beneath the abbey we left them to recover under one of the many shady cherry trees while we visited the abbey and the village.

We were last at Tihany almost forty years ago and our memories are very hazy. We came then with our East German friend Hubert as we had all met up in Budapest to spend our holiday together - in those days Hubert was not free to travel to the west but could visit other socialist countries such as Hungary. In Budapest Hubert had a friend who owned a very basic, partially built holiday home set amidst vineyards beside Lake Balaton, within walking distance of Tihany across the fields. Back in the early 1970s it was far from being the tourist Mecca we found there today with dozens of street vendors selling Hungarian lace table runners, embroidered cloths and ceramics. Compared with the lovely, genuine folk art things we saw then, many of these are not very attractive and we found them easy to resist. There were also lots of restaurants, ice cream vendors and little souvenir shops decorated with strings of dried tomatoes and tiny red paprikas, selling honey and wine. Despite this obvious commercialism the village was still an attractive place with thatched roofs, pretty gardens and sunny corners. The abbey itself, built on the highest point of what we suspect is the remains of a volcano, overlooks the lovely green lake with hazy views of the blue distant hills along the far side and the spa town of Balatonfüred a little further along.

Tihany Abbey

View from Tihany Abbey towards Balatonfüred

The abbey is justifiably one of the major tourist sites in Hungary. Apart from its wonderful setting, it also has almost a millennium of chequered history. It was founded as a Benedictine monastery by King Andrew I in 1055 and its charter, which we saw in Pannonhalma a few years ago, includes the earliest examples of the Hungarian language. At the time of the Turkish invasions its prominent site on the north side of Lake Balaton meant that it was fortified against the Turks and for a couple of centuries monastic life was in decline. After the defeat of the Turks the fortress was demolished and in the 1740s the present elegant baroque building was constructed with its two towers topped by cupolas and a splendour of ornament and gold inside. All that remains of the earlier buildings are the Romanesque crypt where King Andrew lies buried and a few fragments of masonry and sculpture in the excellent exhibition that tells the story of the abbey. Monastic houses were suppressed in the 1790s but revived soon after, and in the 19th century the extensive estates were run on modern lines, and the abbey even had a hand in developing the nearby spa of Balatonfüred.

High altar, Tihany Abbey

Pulpit, Tihany Abbey

Tomb of Andrew I, Tihany Abbey

In 1921 the last King of Hungary, Károly IV and his Queen Zita took refuge at the abbey for a few days during their last, unsuccessful attempt to regain the throne of Hungary. There is a room dedicated to their memory which, intriguingly, mentions that he was beatified in 2005 – what miracles had he performed, we wonder. In the 1950s the communists confiscated the estates, turned the abbey into a museum and scattered the important library, but since 1990, after "The Change" monastic life has revived.

Memorial to Károly IV and Queen Zita, Tihany Abbey

After our active morning we were hungry by the time we left the abbey. Away from the popular main street of the village we found a restaurant with shady wooden tables covered with traditional indigo-dyed blue cloths in a tiny courtyard where we were served Hungarian meals of paprika beef stew with tiny noodle dumplings accompanied by a mixed salad that included pickled gherkins and very spicy fresh paprikas. Poor Ian couldn't drink water fast enough to cool his tongue! With our meal we were served glasses of chilled white wine from the locality. Regrettably here too so much salt was used in the cooking that we were left thirsty all afternoon.

Hinge and Bracket had fully recovered by the time we found them again so we took them for a ride around the peninsula. This was most enjoyable being downhill whichever direction we chose. We skimmed through the pretty countryside of lavender fields, vegetable patches and elderflower bushes in full bloom. Even in this rural setting we never saw any animals and it is a mystery where they are all kept.

Eventually our map told us we needed to turn right and follow the lakeside if we were to return to the ferry rather than end up in Balatonfüred. Along the lakeside, under shady trees, people were picnicking, swimming or fishing. Shortly before we reached the ferry the road climbed steeply before dropping down to the level of the lake again. While we were busy coaxing the bikes up the slope the ferry hooted and decided to leave five minutes early as it already had its full quota of cars. There was no more than a yard of water between us and the ferry when we arrived and ample space for us on board but we had to wait an hour while it crossed the lake and returned for us.

By the time we finally returned to Modestine and sorted our clean, dry washing, the sun was beginning to sink behind the hill of Tihany. We took the remainder of our free wine from Pécs the few yards down to the water's edge where we enjoyed the sunset and watched the fish jumping, with nothing but the sound of the water gently lapping against the bank as the waves created by the wake of the last ferry of the day finally reached the shore.

Last ferry to Tihany seen from our campsite in Szántod