Balaton and Budapest

Tuesday 22nd May 2007, Székesfehérvár
We have not heard from Kati and Peter from Exeter to arrange a meeting in Budapest, so decided to give it one more day before moving westwards along the northern shore of Lake Balaton. We were interested to visit again the town of Székesfehérvár which we last visited about ten years ago, so we are camped on the municipal site next to the sports complex and walking distance from the town centre and the bus station from where we can reach Budapest within an hour if and when we receive the summons to do so. It is airless and very hot here at the moment so Budapest seems a bit daunting. This evening outside Modestine it was 30 degrees at 9pm and inside we are running our electric fan to keep cool.

This morning we passed a wayside vendéglö (a sort of bar-cum-café-cum restaurant) which provided us with an opportunity to check our email messages. One from István and Ibolya in Debrecen suggested we may care to visit them again. We are so touched by their kindness but on this occasion they are too far east for our travels. What was really frustrating though is that the message was sent yesterday from Balatonfüred where István is attending a medical epidemiology conference. We were only a mile from there ourselves yesterday. If only we had known!

On our last visit to Székesfehérvár we travelled here by bus from Budapest. We were shocked at the dilapidated state of the bus station and the drab blocks of graffiti-ridden flats around it. This time everything is very different. The bus station has only been open three weeks and is polished marble with blissful air conditioning and comfortable seats. The waste land has been turned into parkland and all the flats restored and painted in pastel colours. Everywhere is clean, bright, open and friendly.

Within the old town it has always been beautiful, the streets lined with yellow rendered baroque buildings, frequently with elaborate mouldings picked out in white, and lots of shady squares with seats beneath the trees. As usual in Hungarian towns there are flamboyant statues, some of historical figures like St. Stephen, assorted Belas, Gezas and other Hungarian kings. There are also many more that are recent and obviously placed where they are for fun. They are lively and add amusement and colour to the streets.

Statue of St Stephen, Székesfehérvár

We struggled through the heat up to St Stephen's Basilica where we gasped with relief as we went inside and were wrapped in the chill half-light. Such a contrast to the street outside.

St Stephen's Basilica, Székesfehérvár

For lunch we found a little csárda in a side street where down at basement level a fan cooled is as we ordered the dish of the day. We were served large bowls of spicy sausage soup followed by chicken livers braised with paprika and onions, served with pasta and pickled gherkins. It was the first meal we've had here that was not too salty. Together with chilled mineral water our bill was about £4 for both of us!

The tourist information office was very helpful, suggesting places we could visit in the town and directing us to this campsite where, as so often happens, we are the only people staying. We suppose an industrial town famed for its aluminium works is not likely to be high on a tourist's itinerary, but they would be missing so much. Historically it is very important. It is one of the first cities to be founded by the Hungarians, in the tenth century. Many Hungarian kings were crowned here and several are buried here. Originally it preceded Budapest as the country's capital.

During our last visit we overheard a snatch of conversation in English that has always intrigued us. As we walked through the beautiful old town with its cobbled streets we passed a young couple and heard the phrase "then we could come back here to Székesfehérvár and get married." We have always wondered whether they did and if they are living a happy life together. We do hope so.

We had left Modestine on the outskirts of the town in a side road by one of the high-rise blocks of flats thrown up during the communist era. It is something we don't really like to do if it can be avoided, though we have never yet been bothered by thieves or vandals. We collected her and found the campsite. As we were unloading our bikes we were approached by a lovely girl of twenty one who asked us in delightful English if her dad could take some photos of Modestine as he was besotted by camping cars and was dreaming of owning one when he retired. They were charming, friendly people and we spent some time chatting in a mixture of French, Hungarian, German and English. Katalin works as a French interpreter for the local aluminium company while her dad lectures on disaster management at the University of Pécs and works for the emergency services here in Székesfehérvár. The family were also keen hot air balloonists and promised us a flight if we were in Székesfehérvár next weekend. We do seem to get quite involved with local people wherever we go which is a great bonus.

Street scene with Episcopal See, Székesfehérvár

Main street with monument to Mátyás Corvinus, Székesfehérvár

Wednesday 23rd May 2007, Székesfehérvár
Ian has gone off to find a phone box to arrange where to meet with Kati and Peter tomorrow. We found an email with their address and phone number this morning so it's looking hopeful.

We have spent the day around Székesfehérvár seeking shelter from the heat. We've developed a great enthusiasm for church interiors where we wallow in the chill silence. We've even started grading them according to the cool relief they offer. So far the Carmelites have a slight lead over the Benedictines.

This morning we visited the medieval garden of ruins housing the sad remains of the Royal Basilica of the Virgin Mary established by St. Stephen (Istvan) king of Hungary in the 11th century. Almost all Hungary's kings were crowned there and fifteen of them have been buried in the church until Székesfehérvár was overthrown by the Turks who used it as a mosque, destroying the rich tombs of the "evil idolators". There is little remaining other than the tomb of St. Stephen which was converted from an early Roman sarcophagus in the 11th century, as the Turks later used the church as an arsenal which exploded in 1601, destroying the entire building.

St Stephen's tomb, Székesfehérvár

Remains of the Royal Basilica, Székesfehérvár

We returned to the same place as yesterday for lunch. Today we worked out that the menu was lentil soup followed by ham, mushrooms and pasta. The second choice we guessed wrongly was vegetables in a quark dressing. It turned out to be a sweet mixture of vermicelli and quark wrapped in flaky pastry and covered in icing sugar. So we shared both of them making a large and heavy three course meal which we couldn't finish. It was really nice if rather too substantial in such hot weather and together with two large Hungarian beers still cost less than £5 for both of us.

It cannot be that we always strike it lucky when we arrive in Hungarian towns and discover festivals in full swing, so we can only assume the Hungarians are a cheerful lot who are always celebrating things. Today there were stalls in the main square selling crafts, wines and spirits, children's toys, ice cream, cold drinks, sausages with mustard and all sorts of cakes. There was also a platform outside the church of St. Imre where ladies were folk dancing, men singing stirring patriotic sounding songs, a lady singing "Don't cry for me Argentina" in Hungarian and lots of young people using unbelievable amounts of energy in 35 degrees of heat, salsa dancing. They looked very professional.

Folk dancing, Székesfehérvár

Male voice choir, Székesfehérvár

Around 5pm the sun suddenly disappeared and we felt the odd blob of blessed rain. We gradually returned across the town to the campsite and as we did so thunder rumbled ominously. Just as we reached Modestine, still standing alone on the campsite, lightening flashed and the storm finally broke. Within a few minutes we found ourselves surrounded by water. It's only the second time we've had rain since we left England two months ago. We even had large hailstones hammering on the roof despite the suffocating heat of the day!

Friday 25th May 2007, Keszthely, Lake Balaton
Yesterday we managed to meet up in Budapest with Kati and Peter despite the odds! We left Modestine at the campsite and walked down to the bus station through the parks. Already the day was threatening to be unpleasantly hot and the puddles from Wednesday's rain were drying up.

By 9.30 we were in Budapest, the journey from Székesfehérvár taking an hour along the motorway. It was certainly easier than trying to drive in and park. We spent the morning revisiting Buda on the west bank of the Danube. This is the older and more touristy part of the city with the Fishermen's Bastion, the Mátyás Templom, the castle and spectacular views across the river to Pest and the Parliament building.

Introducing Budapest

Mátyás Templon with decorated tiled roof, seen from the Fishermen's Bastion, Buda

Across the Danube towards the Parliament building and St. Margaret's Island seen from the Castle in Buda

Széchenyi Bridge linking Buda to Pest with Gresham Palace and St. Stephen's Basilica behind

Mediaeval castle with Gellert's Hill behind, Buda

We will not describe the city here as we did so in some detail during our previous visit last year. This link will take you there. We discovered that the hill on which Buda is built has an underground labyrinth of caves which were used during the Second World War when the city was under siege by the Nazis.

It was very pleasant wandering the pretty streets of this part of the city, and satisfying to see how the baroque façades are gradually being restored. It was unbearably hot on the top and having been too mean to pay the extortionate fare for the funicular railway to the summit we decided to spend the money on chilled mineral water with ice at the Budapest Hilton! It was a very pleasant experience indeed. We relaxed in the air conditioned lounge overlooking the mediaeval church ruins that are actually within the Hilton complex. Two very different styles and periods of architecture within the same building! The water came with free nibbles, monogrammed serviettes and a free luxury wash room to freshen up, so we reckoned it was excellent value on such an unbearable day.

Relaxing at the Budapest Hilton

Medieval Abbey seen from the Hilton lounge, Budapest

A meeting with the Hungarian composer Kodaly, Buda

We lunched in somewhat less auspicious surroundings on herring rolls and a shared beer before making our way down and courageously crossing the famous Széchenyi Bridge in the searing heat to the Pest side of the Danube. There are some wonderful buildings fronting onto the river on this side, including the secessionist style Gresham Palace built in 1907 by the London based Gresham Assurance Company. It is now a luxury hotel. Also nearby is the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Further back from the river is the smart shopping area of Váci ut. Raise your eyes from the level of Marks and Spencer and above are the most wonderfully ornate façades of buildings from the Belle Époque with glazed tiles, decorated windows, moulded carvings and statues.

Gresham Palace, Pest

Interior of Gresham Palace, Pest

We had arranged to meet Peter and Kati at the Café Gerbeaud where we met up with Hungarian friends of theirs last year when they so kindly welcomed us to the city. After two months of travelling around alone, it is a very happy experience to find yourself with friends again, far from home! We experienced it last year in Graz with our Exeter Library friends Mike and Vicki. Kati is also a work colleague from Devon Library Service and is responsible for Ian's interest in Hungarian, having helped him learn the basics. She and Peter are spending a few days at their flat in the city before returning to Exeter after participating in a ceramics exhibition in Holland.

Peter decided, very sensibly, that we all needed ice creams to start off the afternoon and led us through the streets to his favourite ice cream and cake shop. First we chose ices and later selected an assortment of chocolate and cream cakes which we carried back through the city and across the river again to their flat which turned out to be just below the Fishermen's Bastion in old Buda. On the way we were shown where Kati studied Russian at University and where Peter still has links as an external mathematics lecturer at the University.

Peter becomes a manhole cover enthusiast

We were all exhausted by the time we'd crossed the bridge again and climbed the hill to their flat, but inside the 19th century building, the high ceilings meant the flat was deliciously cool. Over the cakes and coffee we caught up on news from Exeter and told of our travels through Bosnia. All too soon it was time to catch the underground across the city to the bus station for the return journey to Székesfehérvár where Modestine was waiting for us.

Kati, Peter and Ian back in the flat

At last, a photo of both of us. As you see, all is fine

This morning, Friday, we drove to Veszprém, a picturesque little town of around 65,000 people. It was severely damaged during the Second World War but has been very well restored. The castle was built by King Stephen in about 1,000. He also built a palace there for his queen, Gisela, and decreed that all queens of Hungary should be crowned there. The town was destroyed by the Turks and rebuilt in the 18th century in the Baroque and Rococo style. The street on the Castle Hill is lined with historic buildings, including the Bishop's Palace, the Neo-Romanesque Cathedral, the 13th century Queen Gisela's Chapel and the 19th century Fire Tower. Inside the cool Baroque Piarist Church we discovered an excellent small exhibition of Hungarian religious life as depicted in folk art.

Bishop's Palace, Piarist Church and Plague column, Veszprém

Fire Tower, Veszprém

Óváros Tér from the Fire Tower, Veszprém

Christening scene, Piarist Church, Veszprém

Funeral scene, Piarist Church, Veszprém

King Stephen and Queen Gisela with friends, Veszprém

Ian last visited Veszprém forty years ago when he was a student, with his friend Hubert. Then Hungary was under Socialist rule and the town was still suffering from the aftermath of the war. They had been befriended by several students from Veszprém University who let them stay in their rooms for a few days on condition they attended a basket ball match and cheered for the local team. On their last day one of the students gave Ian an LP of Hungarian gypsy music which we still have and play from time to time back in Exeter. Ian has very happy memories of his time in Veszprém but confessed that there is almost nothing he can remember about the town now.

During the afternoon we drove on to Balatonfüred, a spa town on the northern side of Lake Balaton next to Tihany and almost opposite the campsite we were using a few days back at Siófok. We both have memories of our last visit to Balatonfüred with Hubert so long ago. Then we had hitched a lift on a lorry loaded with empty bottles to get to the town from our isolated half built summer house on the lake. The driver was stopped by the police and fined for having us on the back of an open lorry and Hubert paid his fine. The police then let him continue to drive us along the lakeside to the town! We tasted the spa water that ran from a fountain in the park by the lake. It was foul! We found the fountain again today and it is every bit as unpleasant now. The rest of the town though has changed beyond recognition since "The Change". It's now a large complex of health clinics and hotels with people standing around drinking the waters from plastic mugs or strolling along the shady tree-lined parade beside the lake. Everything is expensive and developments are proceeding apace with half finished streets lined with new shops. We were charged by the minute to park and it's the first time we have ever needed to use a bank note to pay to use the toilet! (It was actually about 50 pence but it sounds good!)

Shady promenade, Balatonfüred

Original medicinal fountain, Balatonfüred

Unfortunately not the fountain of eternal youth, Balatonfüred

We left Balatonfüred with no regret and will almost certainly not return. Just outside the town we recognised the road we'd ridden the other day with Hinge and Bracket when we crossed to Tihany with the ferry, so our route has linked up. We continued along the northern shore, turning off at Badacsony, an area of volcanoes covered in forests and vineyards. We were searching for what our map referred to as basalt organ pipes - a geological curiosity. We saw a few bits of rock sticking up amongst the forested hillside but nothing very curious. We did discover a lovely Hungarian village though, Hegymagas, with chickens on the roadside, pretty little yellow painted houses with healthy vegetable gardens, roses over the front fences and vines shading the little wooden terraces. We walked around, stopping to buy an ice cream from the village bar. We helped ourselves from the freezer outside and pushed open a curtain to enter the dark, cool bar. Nobody was around and our ices were already melting so we started licking while we waited to pay. In the corner of the room the television was showing a rerun of Hercule Poirot dubbed into Hungarian! How surreal can things get? We were wondering what "Non, non, mon ami, it all depends on the little grey cells n'est ce pas?" would sound like, when someone finally appeared from the back room to take our money.

Badacsony seen across fields of corn and poppies

Basalt rocks, Hegymagas

As we strolled along to the little yellow baroque church we discovered a cottage for sale with a thatched roof, yellow walls and masses of red and pink roses. If we were ever likely to impulse buy a property this would be it! It was just so pretty and peaceful set in a lovely village amongst vineyards not far from the banks of the lake.

Pretty property for sale, Hegymagas

A little girl zoomed up the lane on her bike and called "csokalom" to us. We knew this word, (even if we are uncertain of the spelling) it means hello in a very friendly manner – "I kiss your hand." We cheerfully called "csokalom" back to her whereupon she stopped and chatted away happily to us imparting something of great importance, before waving and riding off. We've no idea what she said.

Last year we discovered Keszthely on Lake Balaton and spent four very enjoyable if very wet days here. (See last year's blog)We never expected to come again but deciding you cannot have too much of a good thing we headed here and found the same campsite as last time. This is the third time during this trip we have returned to sites we discovered last time. Venice and Pécs were the others. At all three sites we have been immediately recognised, and not because of Modestine! It's a lovely feeling. As soon as we arrived here the owner met us saying "It's the German speaking English librarians back from last year." He is Hungarian but needs to speak German all the time as almost every visitor comes from Germany. After a chat his wife joined us and Ian asked after their daughter's studies. (She is studying librarianship in Szombathely.) It seems she has an English oral exam next week and is home for the weekend so we've been asked to give her some conversation practice tomorrow! It would seem we are very useful people to campsite owners around Hungary either for writing out translations of campsite publicity or giving English lessons! Not your average way of retirement!

Once settled, we strolled down to the lake where it was still 33 degrees this evening. So far Keszthely is living up to our expectations and we are delighted to have returned here in somewhat dryer weather than last time.