Hungary for more

Tuesday 28thApril 2015, Pápa, Hungary
Our quick trip into Hungary has already lasted several days. Once over the border on a Sunday afternoon the country seemed almost deserted. Passing through one of the little villages we stopped for a picnic lunch at a thoughtfully provided bench under the shade of a tree with ample space to park Modestine nearby. The grass along the side of the road had been sown with wild flowers and all the houses along the village street were single storey, standing end on to the road with long gardens beyond for planting their vegetables and flowers. In front and along beside the road ran a deep drainage ditch, crossed by a little bridge from each house. The ditches were generally covered by a sward of mown grass but presumably served a purpose during the winter months to prevent possible flooding. As we sat beneath our tree it was completely silent until from time to time a car drove past along the empty road.

Arriving in Körmend, our first little town in Hungary, we realised we’d need forints rather than euros here. In the centre, also eerily silent on a Sunday afternoon, the ATM was coated with a thick film of dust and fingerprints which did not inspire confidence. Around us the buildings were shabby and the plaster rendering had fallen from many of the façades leaving crumbling brickwork protruding from beneath. Hungary is still trying to catch up twenty-five years after the Change and small provincial towns are not top of the list of priorities. Not trusting the bankomat we went in search of another which we found down a side street partially covered by the cascading branch of a purple lilac tree. Rather to our surprise everything worked perfectly though we were nervous withdrawing 25,000 forints when we didn’t quite know how much a forint was worth! We guestimated, judging from the price of diesel at the garage opposite, that there were around 300 to the £. In fact there are 417.

Körmend has a baroque castle that has seen better days. The stucco and rendering is being painstakingly removed and hopefully it will one day be restored.

Dilapidated castle, Körmend

Main façade of the castle, Körmend

Public building, Körmend

Our next problem was to find a toilet. Arriving on a Sunday everywhere is either locked or requires forints. All we had were notes from the ATM. We pressed on to Szombathely, a very pleasant town we’ve visited before, What a contrast with Körmend. Here families were out of the main square, all licking large ice cream cornets while the sparrows hopped around pecking up the bits of cornet dropped by the children. Here the toilets were free and soon we’d joined the rest of the Sunday strollers on the square each of us licking a cornet loaded with a couple of balls of ice cream. They were only a third of the price we’d paid in Italy and just as good.

We took a nostalgic stroll around the town, where we rediscovered the bizarre statue of James Joyce walking through the wall of a house. Apparently the main character from Ulysses is supposed to come from Szombathely and a family with a similar name at that time lived in that house. I suppose the book has been translated into Hungarian. Personally I couldn’t understand it in English!

James Joyce, Szombathely

Time to leave Szombathely behind. The nearest campsite was at Bük, one of the many spa towns scattered across Hungary. Germans love coming to Hungary as it is so cheap compared with their country, the food is excellent, ample and cheap and the wine and beer superb. Their health insurance usually contributes towards their spa treatments, physiotherapy and therapeutic massages. They also make full use of the cheap dentistry available in Hungary combining their “Kur” at the spa with a denture venture. So everybody else on the campsite was German and they all had rather large camping cars. They were all very friendly and curious to see inside Modestine. They all agreed we had everything one needed and then went back to adjust their satellite dishes and strobe lighting. To the Hungarian staff we were a curiosity, attempting to speak the most stupid rubbish under the impression it was Hungarian! Actually they usually understood what we wanted but we couldn’t understand what they were saying to us. Lots of words have come flooding back seeing them in context on the streets and together with German we’ve so far had no real problem getting what we need.

We decided to go for the spa experience chilling out on the very pleasant campsite for a couple of nights and using the internet to catch up on email contacts and blogging. We also did all our washing and hung it on the trees to dry, so we are clean once again. It has been a very pleasant experience, eating pork gulyash with noodles, drinking wine and beer, chatting with other German campers in the local vendeglö and enjoying the après therm without bothering with the treatment side of the business. We discovered, hidden away on the edge of the complex, the place people go to sin with Kaffee and Kuchen. Here we indulged in cherry retez and chocolate sponge cake before strolling back for an afternoon doze.

Hungarian spa experience, Bük

We have made contact with Erzsébet and Gabor who live in a pretty, typically Hungarian village near Györ and have arranged to meet them tomorrow. They are even more surprised that we are here than we are! They have made us very welcome on earlier visits and for us it is wonderful to meet up with familiar faces when we are so far from our family and friends in England. So tonight we are camped in Pàpa, about twenty five kilometres from their village and will drive over to see them tomorrow morning.

As this is an unscheduled visit to Hungary we have been finding our way around without maps. Fortunately the country is small and places well signposted. So far we’ve not got lost. Our Hungarian friend Peter in Exeter has been sending us information about routes, train times and open campsites which has been very helpful and has saved us much unnecessary travelling. Many thanks Peter.

So this morning, travelling along minor roads towards Pàpa, we stopped off for some shopping in Sàrvà. It’s a very attractive little town with pretty 18th century houses surrounding a lovely yellow baroque church. It is surrounded by flower beds filled with bright splashes of colour.

Catholic Church, Sàrvà

Sárvár means "muddy castle” in Hungarian, but the little town of about 16,000 inhabitants does more than live up to its name. Its historic centre is clean and well restored and the castle, dominated by its tower and reached by a brick built bridge, houses a museum accommodated in the state apartments, various exhibition galleries, and the smart public library. A group of children were having some activity in the dry moat as the teachers huddled under umbrellas in the rain.

Castle, housing the museum, Sárvár

We were lured into the museum under false pretences. A poster claimed that we could see the ping pong racket of the Sun King Louis XIV. Apparently Louis created a crack corps called the Elephant Guard after the creature that was presented to him by the King of Portugal in 1668. The corps used a version of table tennis to help them develop quick decision making and accurate aim and the corps presented the racket to the king on his fiftieth birthday.

Ping-pong racket of the Sun King, Louis XIV, Sárvár

We willing paid up our 400 forints each (about £1.00 - the senior reduced rate) and combed the galleries for the object, but in vain. We suspect that it was some kind of hoax but there was plenty else to see in the museum, which belonged to the Nádasdy family who were active in fighting the Turks in the 16th and 17th centuries. Apart from these warlike activities the castle played an important role in Hungarian culture during this period. The first printed book in the Hungarian language, a translation of the New Testament, was printed here in 1541. The state rooms were decorated with historical, religious and mythological scenes in a rather rustic style, including battle scenes of Lord Chief Justice Ferenc Nádasdy, and there were life-size portraits of leading members of the family who sprouted fearsome moustaches. The Castle and estate later became a property of the kings of Bavaria, and the former King Ludwig III died there in 1921, three years after being deposed. During the Second World War, the castle was used as the retreat of Ludwig's grandson Prince Albert of Bavaria. Since then a collection of about 1,000 items from the royal family's collections were discovered walled up in the castle and many of these were also on display.

We moved on to Pápa and having settled Modestine on the campsite we walked back through the woods to find the centre of the old town.

Ironically for a town whose name means "pope", Pápa was an important centre for the Reformed Church. A college was established here as early as 1531 and became one of the most important intellectual centres in western Hungary, rivalling Debrecen in the east.

Reformed Temple, Pápa

The first Hungarian translation of the Catechism of Heidelberg was printed here in 1577. The church on the main square is Catholic but the reformed church occupies a large building at the other end of the town. In the 18th century it fell into the hands of the Esterházy family who built the present mansion, guarded by a pair of splendid lions in the 1780s. From this period date many of the rococo houses in the town centre, many of them unfortunately in a poor state of preservation.

Esterházy mansion, built in the 1780s, Pápa

Fö-Ter, Pápa

Shop fronts, Pápa

Our campsite was on the other side of the Castle Garden, an attractive wooded park in the English style.

Friday 1st May 2015, Klosterneuburg, Austria
On Wednesday we drove over to visit Erzsébet and Gábor. As always we had a very happy time with them with lots of laughter, despite Erzsébet needing to translate so many things back and forth for Gábor and us. We’d intended taking them out for lunch but Erzsébet had prepared a paprika soup of garden peas and fresh vegetables with Hungarian noodles which we ate with tiny cheese scones which she remembered we both adored. Gábor and I had to forgo the wine – there is zero alcohol tolerance for drivers in Hungary – but Ian and Erzsébet enjoyed glasses of her father’s wine produced on his summer garden on the edge of the village. We also ate home-made Hungarian pancakes filled with either chocolate or apricot jam.

After lunch Gábor drove us all into Györ, a very pleasant town on the banks of the Danube filled with impressive baroque buildings and wide sunny squares with fountains and cafes. After strolling around, remembering our way, recognising the library where Erzsébet used to work until retirement, we decided we would like to visit Erzsébet’s lovely parents.

Erzsébet in front of the library where she used to work, Györ

Erzsébet, Gabor and Jill at the fountain commemorating the man who invented the Hungarian soda water siphon, Györ

We have seen them on every visit we have made to our friends but the years have passed and they are now well into their eighties. They no longer move back to the village to tend their crops over the summer months. Rather they stay in Györ and live in their winter flat all year round. Now it is Erzsébet and Gabor who grow the crops and make the wine for her father.

Her parents were as warm and friendly as ever, welcoming us with genuine affection. Language has always meant that poor Erzsébet has to translate everything for all of us. She must end the day exhausted! However, the warmth of the welcome we received transcended language. A pat on the arm, a kiss on the cheek and a happy smile said all that was needed. Erzsébet’s father speaks a little German but it has gone rusty over the years. As he said, he learnt it in 1945 and hasn’t really used it since!

Erzsébet and Jill together with her parents, Györ

Erzsébet and Gabor together with her mother, Györ

We did not stay very long as we must be tiring for them. When we left we were warmly embraced and told that this may be the last time we all meet. I do so hope they are wrong. We are so unbelievably lucky to receive such a welcome from friends as we pass by. Thank you all very much for the wonderful day we spent with you. It will be in our memories for ever.

When we finally left Erzsébet and Gabor to return to our campsite we were given a huge bottle of her father’s deep red wine and a bag filled with all the remaining tiny cheese scones. We also had the remaining pancakes wrapped up for us to take back for supper! Thank you both for a delightful day.

Yesterday, Thursday, we packed up and drove to Sopron, the last town before leaving Hungary behind and crossing back into Austria. First though we parked Modestine in the car park of a church and walked into the centre of the old town along cobbled side roads of small baroque houses fronting directly onto the streets and dating mainly from the 18th century, though some were from the 17th and even the 16th century.

Passing a church we found the little square crowded with proud parents and the siblings of students just finishing their school education. A service was held for them in the church and they emerged to be greeted by their families holding armfuls of balloons and congratulatory bouquets of flowers.

Parents waiting for their children as they graduate from school, Sopron

In the centre of the town we recalled earlier visits. The central square, Szechenyi Ter is named for the enlightened Hungarian aristocrat who was influential during the 19th century, founding the National Library of Hungary, making agricultural reforms, improving the lives of the people, and bringing in engineers to modernise industry. Behind the long and impressive square surrounded by administrative offices, parts of the road that rings the old town seem hardly changed since soviet times, the buildings decayed and rotting, their once pleasant colour-rendered façades grimed with dirt and crumbling, with rotting frames to the windows and doorways that have lost every scrap of paint they may once have had.

Plaque commemorating Bela Bartok the composer who was resident on the edge of the old town, Sopron

We reflected that much as we love this country and its friendly people, it lags very far behind its Austrian neighbours, with which historically it was once so closely allied. The contrast between the two is so very marked. It cannot be easy for the young Hungarian people, born since the the late 1980s to see how fortunate their neighbours across the border are compared with the ever diminishing value of the Hungarian forint and the poorly performing Hungarian economy.

We found a pleasant little restaurant for lunch where for around £2.50 each we were served with bowls of bean soup with heavy white bread. Bean soup, or Bableves, is a meal. It is spicy with paprika, dried sausage, mutton, beans and bacon. Unfortunately though, like so much of the food, it is generally too salt for our liking.

Bableves, Sopron

Realising we would be arriving in Vienna in the rush hour unless we got a move on we returned to Modestine and headed for the border and the motorway to Vienna. Just before we left we called at a garage where we used most of our remaining money on diesel. What was left we gave to the smiling pump attendant in exchange for him polishing off the squashed flies from our windscreen.

Vienna is only about forty-five kilometres from Sopron and soon we were being swept through the city on the motorway. Ian was brilliant. Back with a map again he guided me on a white knuckle ride as we moved from lane to lane endeavouring not to get swept off into the heart of the city or sent along the turn-offs to Prague, Bratislava or Budapest. Somehow we reached the banks of the Danube and turned off to follow it for fourteen kilometres until we reached this campsite in Klosterneuburg. I felt exhausted! I no longer have the energy to cope with such stressful driving. Once here I went to sleep for an hour to recover before Ian dragged me off to discover the town.

Related links:
Sopron 2006;
Szombathely 2007;
Szombathely and Sopron 2010;