With friends in Hungary

Friday 3rd June 2011, Hajduszoboszlo, Hungary
We are now back in Hungary camping in the unpronounceable Hungarian spa town of Hajduszoboszlo. It is reputed to be one of the most important hot spas in the country. The weather has been hot and humid with temperatures into the 30s.

Our Hungarian friends Istvan and Ibolya from nearby Debrecen frequently come to this little town for a spa treatment so we thought we'd investigate to see what all the fuss is about. Certainly the town seems relaxed and friendly with countless eating places and shady parks.

Hungary has always been one of our favourite European countries and we have a happy sense of homecoming, returning to an area we know and recognising all the Hungarian words with which we have become familiar over the years. Here we can at least hold a very basic conversation and exchange the pleasantries of life with people. At times, it has seemed a very long way from home as we travelled up through Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania in order to avoid passing through countries which would have been more direct but which Modestine's insurance prevents us from visiting. Now we are back near Debrecen and Europe no longer seems quite such a huge place. It has been good visiting Romania and Bulgaria but the way of life is so very different from England. Hungary has its differences, which are its charm, but we feel a kinship with the Hungarian people that we have been unable to develop further south and east.

The campsite here is popular with young people who are accommodated in triangular-shaped wooden huts set amongst shady trees. We are the only visitors using our own accommodation. It is an old fashioned site with a dark, heavy shower block obviously left over from before the Change. It is clean though and the hot water works. It's also much cheaper than the other campsite attached to the spa.

Today we left Modestine on the site and explored the little town. It is apparently one of the most visited sites in Hungary and most people come from Poland, German and Romania. Nothing is written in English and most people assume we are German. When Ian tries putting sentences together in Hungarian people nod, smile and say "nagyon jo" – "very good". They are so friendly and encouraging.

It was so nice in the town to see women of my age wearing cool summer clothes and sandals, their heads uncovered or wearing a jolly sunhat. They'd cycle into town to meet up with friends for a beer on one of the terraces. It's all so normal and relaxed and pretty much like the rest of western Europe. Yet just a few miles down the road across the border many, many people of similar age are still living the lives of peasants with few of the conveniences of modern life.

We've worked out there are around 300 forints to the £ and generally prices are very reasonable – though bills of thousands of forints initially seen terrifyingly high. We stopped for coffee and cherry retes outside one of the smarter cake shops near the Calvinist church. The retes with its flakes of pastry covered with icing sugar surrounding sharp-tasting morello cherries epitomises what we adore about Hungary. Even I love the cakes here! The coffee though was horrid despite us asking for it in impeccable Hungarian.

Calvinist Church, Hajduszoboszlo

Ian then wanted to visit museums! I ask you, a baking hot day and he drags me through the back streets seeking out museums when I wanted to go to the spa! When he finally found the folk museum it was full of old pots and broken bells and we were told there were three other museums as well with one ticket price to cover them all! I threw a tantrum. One museum I could cope with but I did not wish to visit the museum of modern art or the other two somewhere across town! Put it down to the heat and several days of dreadful driving but I think I was entitled not to be cultured for a day.

By now the day was heating up fast so we returned to the spa complex with me clutching my swimwear anticipating a good swim such as we'd had at Heviz on one of our previous visits. What a disappointment! The place needed to be seen to be believed. We found ourselves surrounded by acres and acres of really horrid human flesh rolling over swimwear as overweigh elderly people waddled around, lay out to sunbathe or sat around in dark brown water with just their heads showing as jets of water bubbled up around them massaging their bodies. They were shoulder to shoulder and the water was steaming, even in the hot weather! It looked as bizarre and hellish as some of the scenes of the day of judgement we'd seen depicted on the monastery walls in Romania!

Taking the waters, Hajduszoboszlo

Taking the waters, Hajduszoboszlo

Nobody seemed in the least embarrassed by their corpulence and rolls of aged flesh. I'd never realised before what stunningly beautiful bodies we have! There were a number of different pools, all at slightly different temperatures and only one deep enough to swim in. That was deserted at the far end of the complex with nowhere to change or leave belongings. In the end I gave up wanting to swim and we just wandered around gawping in wonder at the masochistic way Germans and Poles spend their holidays. There were of course all the pseudo medicines attached to the complex with mud treatments, Thai massage, electric therapy etc. But most people seemed happy to sit in the turgid brown mineral water wearing a sunhat and chatting for an hour or so before climbing out to toddle across to one of the dozens of restaurants serving very nice Hungarian goulash, paprika, noodles and eisbein as well as beers and delicious cakes.

There was a boating lake with pedaloes. We debated taking one out but it looked like hard work on a hot day. It requires a certain mindset to appreciate spas. Generally the British have not been brought up with an understanding of the curative properties of mineral water as have the Germans, Hungarians and Polish people, so after our initial amazement we found it all a bit boring. Having paid to go in I suppose we should have persevered but all I really wanted was to swim a few lengths in water where I dared put my face below the surface. I suppose these spa clients would be equally aghast at the thought of swimming in the sea at Exmouth which I find quite normal.

So we returned to town to a little traditional czarda for a Hungarian lunch of Badacsoni pork cooked with paprika, mushrooms and sour cream, served with tiny noodles and tomato salad. The room was decorated with Hungarian folk weave curtains and table cloths with sheepskins on the benches and cowhides on the wooden walls. It was a very enjoyable experience though it did take a while to decide what to choose as the trilingual menu came only in Hungarian, Romanian and Polish! As I said, they don't get many English visitors to this spa town.

After that we were just so hot and uncomfortable we returned to Modestine and went to sleep for the afternoon. Now at last the evening is cooling down and we are feeling comfortable again. As we sit outside in the cool with our computers we have become very popular with the young Hungarians staying here. Every spare usb socket on our computers has been taken over to recharge their cameras and mobile phones!

Saturday 4th June 2011, Debrecen, Hungary
Tonight we are back at Dorcas camping where we last stayed back in September 2010 to meet up with Peter and Kati before crossing into Transylvania. On that occasion we had but the briefest of meetings with our Hungarian friends Istvan and Ibolya in their home in Debrecen. This time we are meeting them for lunch tomorrow which is why we are back here this evening.

This morning it threatened to be hot again. Modestine was too unbearably hot for sleeping by 7am so we were up early and after breakfast beneath the trees we moved Modestine to a side road near the bus station. As pensioners we are allowed to travel free of charge on Hungarian public transport. It is an amazingly generous offer and one we took advantage of today when an air conditioned bus carried us into the centre of Debrecen in thirty minutes.

Hugging the shady side of the main street of Hungary's second city we admired the many decorative Secessionist buildings with their ornate mouldings, balconies and doorways. Most were formerly banks and commercial buildings. Now they are clothes stores and hotels.

We wrote in considerable detail about the city of Debrecen when we visited in June 2006. Please go to those reports and photos from the links below.

Today it has been so unbearably hot that we have done little except hug the shade, revisit places we discovered in 2006, and sit in the shade with delicious retes – cherry for Ian while I had cream cheese. Cheeky sparrows climbed right inside the empty bags once we'd finished, searching for crumbs.

Ian discovered the book fair and renewed his acquaintance with the German printing press, coming away triumphant with a poster and some freshly printed woodcut initial letters on hand-made paper.

Today I was more than happy to accompany Ian to the museum. Temperatures were in the mid-thirties and rising, so browsing the galleries of the impressive Deri museum was a good way of avoiding the heat. It was not to be however. It was tightly closed to visitors with no indication concerning the reason. We later learned that it was closed for refurbishment.

By 11.30 we could cope with 40 degrees of heat no longer and walked slowly back to the bus station, passing a couple of the town's synagogues along the way. An hour later we were back on the streets of Hajduszoboszlo where waves of heat shimmered over Modestine as she waited in the sunshine.

A short drive across country, passing through well kept, smart little villages bought us to Dorcas camping, where we quickly installed ourselves in the shade and went to sleep until the day cooled down enough to move.

Sunday 5th June 2011, Debrecen, Hungary
Today has been restful and very slightly cooler than yesterday. This afternoon a storm threatened with dark skies and the persistent rumble of thunder a few miles off. It never arrived however so the exhausting close temperature has remained.

This morning we sought shelter from the heat in the air conditioned office of the campsite where we used the wifi for "admin" work, caching up on blogs, emails and bank accounts.

At exactly midday our friends Istvan and Ibolya arrived. They live in Debrecen though we met in Exeter. Earlier accounts of visits to this area and their hospitality can be read from the links below. On those occasions Istvan showed us around Debrecen and also took us out onto the Hortobagy plain that covers much of this wide, flat area of eastern Hungary.

Today they had arranged for us to join them for a family lunch with their daughter – also called Ibolya, an English teacher – and their thirteen year old grandson Marti. The restaurant was local, set in a delightful country csarda deep in green woodland with attractive rural walks. There were also horses available for riding and children were receiving lessons, trotting around a schooling ring mounted on white horses.

The csarda was amazing! Why is this place called Hungary? It has better food than the rest of Europe put together! Everything is just so delicious. Ignoring the tables in the stifling heat outside, we went into the cool, dark wooden csarda with its long bench tables. From the rafters were suspended strings of dried red paprikas, garlic, dried flowers and assorted herbs. The food though was where our attention was riveted! Massive tables groaned with buffet food on an industrial scale, where we could help ourselves to as much as we could eat and come back as many times as we liked for refills. The first table had cauldrons of soup – even in weather like today. We selected chilled water melon soup with nutmeg. It was cool and refreshing. Ibolya though went for a hearty meat soup with vegetables while Istvan preferred bableves or bean soup.

For the main meal we decided we'd have to ignore the dishes composed of rice, polenta, potato or pasta simply to be able to taste most of the dishes on offer. Taking tiny samples of everything we worked our way along the table until there was no room on the plate for more. Back at our table we sampled liver dumplings, blood sausage, wild boar, chicken with asparagus, paprika pork and traditional Hungarian gnocchi in a tomato and paprika sauce with mushrooms. Then back to the buffet to continue down the table with stuffed cabbage leaves, chicken thighs, mixed vegetables baked with cheese and many other dishes we cannot recall. Already overfull we discovered the other side of the table! This had a massive variety of salads, cold meats, schnitzels, battered cutlets and a massive selection of dips and sauces! We could only stare with regret. No way, however much we jumped up and down, could we sample all that as well! Marti though, a healthy, growing lad, gave it his best effort but even he needed to keep some space for the deserts! Meanwhile Ibolya was worried we'd not sampled the basket of breads on our table.

Marti shows us how it's done, csada near Debrecen

Lunch table with friends, csada near Debrecen

Poor Ian, never had his eyes feasted on so many delicious cakes and he only has space for four! He returned to the table with a plate loaded with creamy chocolate cake, a chocolate brownie, iced walnut cake and something that seemed to be alternate layers of orange jelly and chocolate. Personally I had cold rice pudding with seasonal fruits of strawberries, cherries, black currants and red currants accompanied by a chocolate cake and some retes filled with cream cheese.

After that we didn't really have room for anything else and spent much of the rest of the afternoon chatting and catching up on each other's news. I first met Istvan when he worked at the hospital in Exeter some ten years ago when he was a regular user of the Medical Library. Retirement age in Hungary is 67 so he is still busy working here, both in family practice and also teaching at the medical school. Work obviously suits him as he looked well and happy and is very involved in examinations and chairing medical committees. Meanwhile Ibolya, who is retired, is also fully occupied with her own interests and does not mind that Istvan is away at conferences so frequently. It was a delight to see them so happy, relaxed and well. Thank you both so much for your hospitality.

Eventually we staggered slowly away from the restaurant and after the briefest of strolls in the surrounding woods, Istvan drove us back to the campsite before returning to take his daughter and grandson back to Debrecen. With both Istvan and young Ibolya to translate, conversation has not been a problem. We have been spoilt but have greatly enjoyed the experience – particularly after our travels through Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania where we knew nobody and sometimes, particularly when I was ill, felt a very long way from family and friends. We were even given a bottle of the special local wine from Tokaj as a gift to take with us when we leave here tomorrow.

Jill with Young Ibolya, Marti, Istvan and Ibolya near Debrecen

Monday 6th June 2011, Eger, Hungary
Today we have moved on from Debrecen, making our way towards northern Hungary and the border with Slovakia. Debrecen lies on a vast, flat plain that stretches right across the border into Romania. Our route today carried us across the pancake flat region known as the Hortobagy plains, an area rich in wildlife with waterways and reedbeds. It is a region where traditionally sheep rearing, cattle ranching and horse management have been the main occupations. The area, particularly around the Tisza river, is wetland, liable to flooding and rich in birdlife. We noted egrets, many storks, water fowl and large birds of prey. Long, low thatched farmsteads stand isolated, out on the endless plain while shadoufs are used to pump away the water. As we drove we passed a huge snake that had been run-over, and swerved to avoid a terrapin that had left the shelter of the reed beds in a bid to reach the far side of the road.

At Tiszafüred we took a break. The tiny town was not particularly inspiring but we made use of the post office, the market and one of the shady cafes for coffee and an Esterhazy chocolate cake for Ian. We never actually discovered the spa but Hungary has so many they have lost their novelty for us.

For lunch we followed a shady track down beside the wide, majestic, tree-lined Tisza river where we parked Modestine in the shade and made use of an unoccupied floating boat jetty to set up our picnic table on the water. Around us the river teemed with tiny fishes. It was a very pleasant interlude.

Picnic lunch on the river Tisza

Mid afternoon we reached Eger and walked down into the town. It has been hot and very humid with thunder rolling around the nearby, vine clad hillsides. Of course we ended up getting wet but it was actually a relief and quite fun sheltering beneath a cherry tree where we could pick and eat the fruit as we waited for the rain to pass.

We have recently had a series of rapid exchanges of internet messages with some American friends living in Budapest whom we have never actually met! We have now arranged to rectify this as we all converge on Eger for lunch together tomorrow.

We first encountered Sandra and Larry a couple of years ago when they chanced upon our blogs on the internet. They are dedicated travellers with an approach that is in many ways the opposite of ours, making the most of their shorter annual holidays by planning everything in minute detail and reading up thoroughly before they travel. We on the other hand, tend to have a vague idea of the direction we will take, book a ferry at the last moment and see how things work out. They have frequently given us useful hints about places not to miss.

At the time our paths first crossed Sandra and Larry were living in the US. Once they retired they bravely decided to sell up and have recently moved to Europe, selecting Budapest as a central location for visiting all parts of the continent while Larry took it upon himself to learn Hungarian. Originally we all intended meeting up in Budapest in October on our way back from Transylvania but Larry managed to seriously injure his leg on a trip to South America and was repatriated to California to recover. So tomorrow we are all making a particular effort to meet up. Because of my illness we are now short of time so cannot get to Budapest. Instead, they will take the bus here and spend the night, giving us time to meet each other face to face and to explore the lovely baroque city of Eger together. We are quite excited about it. Such events are the rewards of maintaining our travel blog.

We last visited Eger in 2006 on our first year of European travels. We found it a delightful place then and from what we have seen this afternoon it is a very picturesque city with many beautiful baroque buildings, open squares, an old castle and winding cobbled streets. It has a thermal spa, the remains of Turkish baths and the most northerly original minaret in Europe. These last two result from 91 years of Turkish occupation following the city's capture in 1596.

Minorite Church, Dobo ter, Eger

Monument to the siege of 1552, Dobo ter, Eger

For us, one of the main attractions of Eger is that it is at the very heart of the wine producing region in the Bűkk foothills. Both red and white wines are produced, the most famous being the Egri Bikaver or Bulls Blood. At its best this is an inexpensive, deep red, full bodied wine that is readily available throughout Europe. Near this campsite is the "Valley of the Fair Women" where wine cellars are cut into the rock face and it is possible to taste the wines of a range of local producers. Sometimes at weekends, there are gipsy orchestras playing lively violin music to add to the cheerful, summer atmosphere.

Tuesday 7th June 2011, Eger, Hungary
Today has been delightful. It has been slightly less hot with the odd breath of wind which has helped enormously. This morning we returned to the centre of the town where we continued exploring, interrupted by a welcome break for coffee and retes on a shady terrace.

Jesuit College, Eger

Lyceum, Eger

Decorative wrought iron gateway, County Hall, Eger

Chronogram giving the date of dedication - 1793, Franciscan Church, Eger

Just before midday we made our way to the hotel where Sandra and Larry were due to arrive. They were already waiting and from the beginning conversation was easy and friendly. Lunch was at a pancake house recommended in Sandra's Rough Guide. We've never used published recommendations before but this was certainly excellent. Hungarian pancakes are nothing like the lacy delicacies to be found in France. These are huge, heavy and stuffed full of goulash or chicken's livers or smoked sausage and shredded cabbage. They are topped with sour cream and paprika and served with a substantial salad garnish. It was all a little daunting in the heat and Larry and I both threw in the towel, unable to finish. None of us even bothered to look at the sweet pancake menu.

Savoury pancakes, Eger

Lunch was a lengthy affair getting to know each other, exchanging ideas and opinions, learning something of each other's background and discovering that while we do share many common interests, there are essential differences. These mainly revolve around me sharing absolutely no interest in German opera, my taste being more for Pirates of the Caribbean than the Flying Dutchman!

Eventually we left the shade of the restaurant terrace and made our way up to the castle overlooking the town, offering splendid views of the city and some of its seventeen churches – mainly baroque and painted orange or yellow. The castle is important to the citizens of Eger, holding out against overwhelming numbers of Turks in 1552 when even the women of the town did their bit by pouring hot soup onto the infidel from the castle battlements. (Yes, I agree, boiling water would have done the job just as well.)

Castle walls, Eger

Relief of the siege of Eger, 1552. Note the women with their soup cauldron, Eger

Gothic arcade within the castle – the mediaeval Bishop's Palace, Eger

Returning to the town we found the Serbian Orthodox Church with its onion dome and stunning wooden iconostasis of rather naively painted saints, set in an elaborate rococo framework using of lots of gold paint. It was deliciously cool inside the church, used nowadays more as a museum though services are still occasionally held. It seems an unlikely place to set up a Serbian church in Hungary and we never discovered why so many Serbs would have ended up in Eger during the 18th century.

Serbian Orthodox Church seen from the castle battlements, Eger

Iconostasis in the Serbian Orthodox Church, Eger

Interior of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Eger

Our walk up to the church had left us thirsty and as conversation was still flowing freely we stopped for beers back in the town near the Archbishop's Palace.

Ian with Sandra and Larry, Eger

Archbishop's Palace, Eger

Larry was determined to see Modestine – she is after all part of the team. So we made our way to where we'd parked her, calling off to peep inside the cathedral on the way. It is a ponderous building for a small town and was apparently a trial version by the architect József Hild for the massive basilica he later built at Esztergom - Hungary's equivalent of Canterbury Cathedral. Eger's basilica however has painted columns rather than real marble and the paintings on the walls, ceilings and inside the cupola are not the highest of religious art, but the building is very impressive, approached by climbing a very imposing flight of steps up to its entrance dominated by six columns.

Cathedral, Eger

By the time Modestine had been introduced dusk was falling. We'd all enjoyed our day so much we were loath to go our separate ways. Tucking our guests into the back we drove up to the wine cellars in the cliffs in the Valley of the Beautiful Women. Here we bought a couple of pizzas to share and sat in the warm twilight at a wooden table at one of the pinces or wine cellars with a bottle of Egri Bikaver, the locally produced wine. It was the perfect way to end a very enjoyable day and to celebrate the transition of internet friends to personal friends. We've had an excellent day meeting you Sandra and Larry and thank you both for travelling to Eger to meet us. We look forward to seeing you when we next find ourselves in Budapest.

Sandra and Larry discover Egri Bikaver, Eger

We have photographed and written about Eger on our previous visit. Please do follow the link below to read about this so very pleasant city.

Related links:
Heviz 1, Heviz 2, Debrecen, Hortobagy, Eger