In north-west Hungary

Saturday 26th May 2007, Keszthely
It has continued to be unbelievably hot, making it impossible to do anything requiring energy. We read back to our visit here last year which, by sheer coincidence, turns out to have been exactly a year ago. Then it rained continuously and we were cold in Modestine. This year we would welcome back that weather with joy!

We spent the morning comfortably enough, catching up on the blog and moving around Modestine to keep in her shade. A group of Austrian cyclists arrived and stopped to chat, asking us if we could take their photo as they set off to ride the 70 kilometres along the lake to Tihany. They all thought Modestine was wonderful and envied us the freedom to travel in our retirement. We walked down to the lake at lunch time where we ate fresh water fish with bread and a salad of pickled vegetables. Walking slowly up into town we sought the woodland for shade. Seeing a parked police car we considered breaking the window of one of the flamboyant houses that would not look out of place in the coastal resorts of Normandy, simply so we could get a free ride into the town centre in an air conditioned vehicle. Closer inspection however made us realise that we could commit any felony we liked with impunity as the two police officers had eyes only for each other! We presume they were on their lunch break.

Austrian cyclists setting off from the campsite, Keszthely

The tourist office was shut until next Tuesday when we arrived and street maps were available only from there. So later we got hopelessly lost trying to remember the way back to the campsite from our previous visit. The only internet shop too was closed for the weekend so we dragged ourselves along to the castle park which is freely open to the public and provides woodland shade and cool fountains – if you climb into them! On our last visit the park was a quagmire and we had been disappointed not to be able to visit it. Today it was really beautiful, offering impressive views of the castle seen through the trees or across the lake and flower beds.

Festecics Castle, Keszthely

Cooling off, Keszthely

Festecics Castle from the grounds, Keszthely

We accept that we are useless wimps when it comes to hot weather but it has been so frustrating to find ourselves in such a delightful town with so much to see and to be just too exhausted to move. We struggled back into town to the very pleasant coffee shop where last year we warmed ourselves with steaming cups of coffee and plates of cherry retes. Today we asked for chilled water with ice and couldn't do any sort of justice to the array of dreamy cakes.

After getting lost on our way home we finally arrived, feeling utterly drained. There is a small swimming pool here and while Ian rushed for the shower, Jill enjoyed the icy chill of jumping in and swimming around for half an hour after which we both felt so much better. By 6pm shade was beginning to return around Modestine as we sat chatting with Sylvia, the daughter of the campsite owners. She is a charming young person who will soon qualify as a librarian here. Next week she takes her English oral exam so we hope our chat will have been of help to her. It was certainly most enjoyable for us and good to know that there are still young people eager to enter into the profession we have recently left.

Our chat was cut short by a clap of thunder and sudden burst of heavy rain. Since then the storm has hovered around, neither breaking nor moving away. It will be too hot to sleep tonight unless the rain comes.

Sunday 27th May 2007, Köszeg
The rain never fully arrived overnight and this morning dawned as hot and sultry as ever. There was no way we could cycle across the fields in the heat to Hévíz for a swim in the naturally heated spa there. In any case, who wants to swim in water of 33 degrees when that's the air temperature anyway? We were even beginning to feel a bit queasy from the heat and were moving with the speed of arthritic snails. So we decided to move on. At least we'd be creating a breeze as we drove along.

First though we drove to Hévíz as we'd found it a pleasant little place last year and anyway we needed to buy some bread and wine. (Sunday communion in Modestine.)

The spa complex was busy curing Germans while in the town the coffee shops and bars were doing the opposite. The little shops were all open and all selling the usual assortment of holiday essentials – like rubber rings to float in the spa, china ducks with "A present from Hungary" (or its equivalent), strings of dried red paprikas, tiny bottles of palinka or Unicum, and dresses, jeans and tee-shirts so tight no German tourist would ever fit into them - but that didn't stop them trying. As we walked around we realised that absolutely everyone on holiday here was overweight and German. Spas are supposed to be health resorts but one would be hard pressed to find a less healthy population than we saw today! They all looked happy though and were obviously having a great time paid for by their German health insurance.

Away from the eyes of the clinicians at the spa, beneath shady trees, wooden benches and tables had been set up and temporary kitchens were cooking huge quantities of food on the street. There were queues of hungry visitors waiting to be served with plates loaded with blood sausage, Schnitzel, deep fried chicken, Wurst, and enormous knuckles of greasy pork with crackling, accompanied by fried potatoes, chips, bread, pickled gherkins, red cabbage and mustard. All was washed down with litre flagons of beer. No doubt it was all needed to aid the recovery from a morning spent floating in hot spa water and being given a Chinese massage by Dr. Yang. We confess to joining them all. It may not be healthy but it was great food and a good atmosphere. Afterwards of course we felt bloated and wish we'd had one meal between us. You can read more hereabout our time at Hévíz spa last year.

At the tourist office we found a free internet machine and a very bored information officer. Nobody came in during the hour we were there. They were having far too good a time enjoying their Eisbein. We phoned Erzsébet in Györ and arranged that we would join her and Gábor tomorrow afternoon and spend the night with them. Tomorrow there is a party in the village of Gyömöre where they live, so we have been told to arrive in time for that. Our attempts to contact another library friend of Ian's, János in Köszeg were unsuccessful but we wanted to see the town anyway so travelled here during the afternoon. First though we stopped at Szombathely, a pleasant enough place with an impressive neo-classical cathedral and a large, well restored square with fountains surrounded by several large stuccoed 18th century buildings.

Cathedral and classical buildings, Szombathely

Our route took us across country on minor roads through typical, peaceful Hungarian villages with the main street lined by cherry trees and grass verges with a deep drainage ditch on either side. The countryside was silent in the afternoon heat and we saw almost no other vehicles until we reached Köszeg, not far from the border with Austria.

Manhole cover, Köszeg

We easily found the campsite in this little old town of 15,000 inhabitants. It lies just outside the centre in the grounds of a small guest house. It's a holiday weekend and most of the rooms are occupied but there is only one other vehicle using the campsite. The owner was intrigued with Modestine and couldn't believe we intended to sleep in her. When he'd peered inside and we'd explained how the bed was made up he decided she was not big enough to charge 1,000 forints as a camping car so he's charging 400 as a car instead! He also says we can have breakfast with the other guests in the house tomorrow if we wish.

Ian visited Köszeg for a couple of days on his library tour of Hungary some years ago and was pleased to recognise so many places around the lovely old streets. It's not a tourist town but is crammed full of 17th to 19th century buildings, generally on a modest scale and in varying states of repair. Some are freshly restored and rendered, others are crumbling slightly with an air of decayed elegance. As we wandered around Ian recognised the home of his librarian friend János in one of the blocks of flats. We rang the bell but there was no reply so we assume he has gone away for the holiday weekend. We left a message in the letterbox saying that by chance we were staying nearby overnight and would try to make contact again tomorrow morning before we move on.

Modest Baroque houses and cafés, Köszeg

By the Heroes' Gate we found the Hungarian equivalent of an Armistice Day ceremony taking place with the town's brass band playing from a covered balcony on the top of a tower while army personnel carried wreaths which were laid outside the church at the war memorial. The Hungarian National Anthem was played and the service attended by young and old alike, each group with wreaths to lay.

Ceremony at Heroes' Gate, Köszeg

Castle, Köszeg

Town Hall, Köszeg

Cooling off in one of the fountains, Köszeg

This afternoon the weather has definitely turned cooler and a breeze has sprung up. It is such a relief and already we feel far more active and alert. The downside though is that the wind has stirred up so much pollen that Ian is sneezing for England and it's driving both of us mad!

Tuesday 29th May 2007, Bratislava, Slovakia
It has only been a couple of days since we last wrote in the blog but it seems so long ago it is already becoming difficult to remember everything that has happened.

Yesterday morning we decided to discover what Hungarians eat for breakfast when staying in nice little guest houses in the provinces, far from the sophistication of Budapest. We were served jugs of hoszu kavé (the essential term we finally discovered to avoid tiny cups of espresso) with a large plate of cold meats – ham, spicy sausage and cured bacon, together with pieces of Hungarian cheese, raw paprika and slices of tomato. We could probably have had an omelette instead but there was a bit of a communication difficulty and our Hungarian wasn't anywhere near up to understanding what the nice lady serving us was offering, so we simply nodded and tried to look as if we understood.

After paying our bill we left Modestine for a couple of hours and went off to finish our exploration of Köszeg which has to rank as one of the nicest little towns we have visited in Hungary - a country that for its size is blessed with far more lovely old towns than might be expected. We tried again to contact János. Someone answered the door and we managed to understand that he no longer lived there. We were given an address across town which we eventually found. His sister, who only spoke a few words of English, answered our knock but managed to explain that János was in Austria for the weekend and would be back tomorrow. She couldn't invite us into the house as her mother was ill but promised to tell János we'd called. She said she remembered Ian from his previous visit and that she now also worked in the library in the town along with her brother.

Renaissance house with sgraffito decoration, Köszeg

Neo-gothic church in the main square, Köszeg

We left Köszeg around midday and drove across the flat countryside towards Györ where we were expected by 2pm. The fields are huge, a legacy from the time of cooperative farming, and several farmers work together to produce a single, massive crop of cereal or flax. We passed through large areas of woodland, travelling along empty roads through long straggling villages along the roadside with their vegetable gardens, vines and chickens behind the houses. Several times we passed horse-drawn carts, piled high with grass, driven by country people who looked from another era. Time in the countryside passes at a very different pace than it does in the cities.

Farming people on the roads of Hungaray

Soon the roads became familiar and we found ourselves back in Gyömöre where Erzsébet and Gábor welcomed us into their sunny garden with chilled water and a bowl of cherries from their own trees. It was a delight to see them again and it seemed more like a couple of months since we were last together rather than a year. Gábor understands quite a lot of English but is shy to use it, whereas Erzsébet is happy to chatter and hold the conversation together for all of us. Her English is excellent though she says she has not used it at all since our last visit. Unfortunately her parents, who live in the village and grow all their own fruit, vegetables and flowers as well as making their own wine, could not be with us like last year as her mother is unwell.

The party we'd been told to expect turned out to be for the village folk song group, held at the community centre. Erzsébet's father runs the choir, mainly older residents of the village and they meet regularly to sing, chat and swap village gossip. As Erzsébet's guests we were invited along. So, packing mugs, knives and wooden plates into a bag with a huge box of tiny savoury scones (called pogácsak) baked by Erzsébet, we sent Gábor on ahead with them on his new bike while the rest of us walked down through the lovely old village where everyone knows each other.

At the community centre the thirty or so members of the folk group made us feel instantly at ease despite our being unable to speak more than the odd phrase of Hungarian. Most people were retired and one lady in particular befriended us, telling us that at eighty she is the oldest member of the choir. In the kitchen baskets were being unwrapped and huge pans of meat, bacon, sausages and leeks were frying. We helped set up tables and chairs in the garden and carry out plates of food and drink. Wine from the village was poured into our plastic beakers and there was a great deal of toasting and goodwill. Just as we were about to eat, the rain started and we had to carry all the food, tables and chairs into the hall. Nobody minded much and soon we were all tucking into piles of meat, pickled paprika and cabbage, large plates of home-made bread, Erzsébet's pogácsak and lots more wine. As the afternoon wore on and the food and drink disappeared, the desire to sing got too much for every one and soon we were sitting in the midst of these lovely friendly people, listening as they sang us unaccompanied Hungarian folk songs! They are very distinctive, powerful and rather strident but very attractive. Of course we cannot understand the words or the meaning but the obvious pleasure it gave the singers was a sheer delight for us. We felt so privileged to be there as their guests. It was an experience very few English visitors could expect to enjoy in a remote village setting. The nearest would be a specially arranged concert for tourists in Budapest which, while more spectacular, would lack the joy and community spirit that is the very essence of folk singing.

Village Hall, Gyömöre

Gábor supervises the cooking, Gyömöre

Party time, Gyömöre

Eventually it was time to pack up our dirty wooden plates into the now empty pogácsa box and say farewell to our delightful hosts. They looked set to continue singing well into the evening. We made the round of the table thanking everyone individually and exchanging kisses. We are proud to say we managed to achieve it in Hungarian! As we finally left the room we turned to say our final goodbye which paradoxically is "hallo" in Hungarian!

The oldest member of the folk song choir with Jill, Gyömöre

Back at the house we chatted with Gábor and Erzsébet, catching up on family news and enjoying a bottle of her dad's red wine. It was interesting to learn that the Hungarian population in Transylvania arouses some resentment within Hungary. The financial and political situation here is currently unstable; many people are losing their jobs, pensions are very low and those in employment cannot afford to retire. Meanwhile, Hungarian communities living in Romania have the right to move to Hungary and it is widely felt that they are given preferential treatment over the resident population with regard to benefits, housing and employment. It sounded very like the misgivings in West Germany after reunification with regard to East Germany.

We were intrigued to learn that a lot of Hungarian doctors reputedly fly to Britain for the weekend to work in British hospitals where they can earn more in two days than they can all week working in Hungary. Presumably this has happened since the "new deal" for British doctors whereby it is no longer compulsory for them to work at weekends.

Too soon it was time to leave our friends and return to Modestine to sleep in the garden with the family dog. We declined their invitation to join them for breakfast at 5am this morning before they set off for work. They do work very hard indeed here and they are both at their desks by 6am, Gábor in the Györ regional authority offices and Erzsébet in the county library. Lovely as their home is in the summer months, they said during the winter they only ever see it in daylight at the weekends as they are rarely home before 6pm.

This morning we locked up the house after breakfast and drove north out of Hungary and into Slovakia. As always it was with a sense of regret that we left Hungary behind. It is a small, warm, welcoming, friendly country, very individual, right in the centre of Europe. Once a huge empire the country has shrunk and is now surrounded by mainly Slav speaking countries that were once part of Hungary. As we travelled along the quiet roads across the fields of Slovakia it was obviously very like Hungary in the style of its architecture and villages. We had noticed the similarity too in Croatia south of Pécs, also once part of Hungary.