Keszthely and Lake Balaton

Sunday 28th May 2006, Keszthely, Hungary
As we were preparing to leave Graz and make our way on into Hungary this morning we received a text message from Mike, just across town, warning us of a potential Hungarian culinary hazard. Apparently there are thirty two different types of Goulash to be enjoyed and he felt we needed to be aware of this!

The day was heavy and sultry as we made our way across country along quiet roads, avoiding towns, motorways and major routes. The countryside was very pleasant and mainly given over to cereals. Generally flat there were blue hills rising suddenly at a distance across the plain. Roadsides were a mass of wild grasses and flowers with just the verge mown and the Austrian villages were all very smartly rendered with bright shutters and beautiful rose-filled gardens. Everywhere was green and fresh, with masses of white elderflower hedges near the roadside and fields of wheat with poppies and cornflowers.

We stopped for a picnic lunch a few kilometres short of the Hungarian border. At the checkpoint we had to wait while Romanian vehicles ahead of us were checked and passports stamped. We were just waved through with no formality. After the rigmarole we have had in the past getting into Hungary, before it became part of the EC, it seemed quite strange.

Our first necessity was to acquire some Hungarian currency as they do not yet use the euro. Beside the road were numerous little buildings offering to exchange euros for forints and we have now realised there is still a strong desire to obtain "western" currency as the forint has no value outside of Hungary.

We stopped at Körmend, the first town of any size and went in search of a bank with a cash machine. Here we encountered our first difficulty as several of the banks we tried did not accept our Visa card. Eventually finding one that did, and basing our estimation of the value of the forint entirely on the price for diesel we'd noticed at garages we'd passed, we crossed our fingers and withdrew the enormous sum of 50,000 forints! We estimated this to be around £150. Our next priority was to find a WC. When we did there was a charge of 100 forints and all we had were five notes of 10,000 forints each from the cash machine and it was Sunday with nowhere to get change! So we have suffered somewhat all afternoon and eventually selected our present campsite on the grounds that we couldn't last out any longer!

Austria is probably the cleanest and smartest country we have yet encountered on our travels. Crossing here from such a country does not do Hungary any favours. Although it has made massive advances over the past fifteen years we can see that, certainly in the provincial towns, there still remains a great deal to do. Körmend looked rather grey and shabby by comparison to Austrian towns of similar size and away from the main streets there were many crumbling buildings that had once been quite splendid but were now shabby and dilapidated with peeling paintwork and corroded shutters.

We are making our way south through Hungary with the vague intention of travelling around it in an anticlockwise direction visiting several friends we have made over the years as we travel. Our first official stop will be Pecs in the south of the country.

Many years ago, when Weimar was part of East Germany, we met up with our friend Hubert in Budapest for a holiday together, Hungary being one of the few countries outside Russia where he could travel freely. We managed to borrow a half-built little rustic house with only a pump on the shores of Lake Balaton for a few days. We still have happy memories of the warm sunshine, buying wine in a jug from a nearby farm and swimming at night in the lake. So today we decided we would revisit Balaton on our way south. Our route took us through Sümeg with its hilltop castle visible for miles across the flat fields of wheat. Unfortunately we could not stop as there was a machine-operated parking charge and we only had notes of enormous value and no vocabulary to explain our predicament!

Castle at Sümeg

There are campsites and cycle-routes all along the shores of Lake Balaton which is the country's main holiday area. Nowadays it is far more smart than in communist times and many wealthy people from Budapest own holiday villas here. Everywhere there are signs saying rooms are available for rent and there are very many Austrian and German tourists here. Our experience today has shown that many Hungarian people speak German and generally take it for granted that we are German. Modestine was stopped in the street in this little town of Keszthely and we were asked in German if we were lost or needed help. We were not lost but we were quite touched by such a gesture of goodwill.

A very strong wind blew up and the sky looked black and threatening though it was still very hot. Eventually we opted for this little site near the lake in someone's back garden! It is very simple but pleasant and friendly with all we need at 12 euros a night. Yes. Euros! When we went to pay we were told they didn't know the proper exchange rate and would prefer euros! So we still have out massive pile of forints in a completely unusable form. Unless someone here starts accepting their own currency we will have to move out of the country soon as we are running out of euros! Still, Ian enjoyed a long chat with the family who were puzzled at his English passport when we registered as he'd been speaking to them in German! He even started using some of his Hungarian phrases and they were very encouraging and friendly. Ian is now feeling rather pleased with himself and has returned to his Hungarian phrase book with renewed enthusiasm! It turns out their eldest daughter is away studying in Szombathely to become a librarian and speaks some English. They have given us maps of the town and are encouraging us to stay for a few days. From the moment we arrived however, it has started to rain and although the lake is right nearby, we have had no opportunity to visit it this evening. If the weather improves tomorrow it will be worth staying an extra day. They assure us the weather is even worse on Pecs. We are currently sharing the site with three German vehicles and one French one. Where are all the Hungarian holiday makers?

Monday 29th May 2006, Keszthely, Hungary
We are still here and it is still raining. It has pattered away relentlessly all day and looks set to continue for the rest of the week! We have decided to stay here anyway as it seems a pleasant area and the people at the site are very friendly. We have also naively hoped all day that the weather would improve.

So firstly we did a pile of essential washing in one of the sinks. The site owner produced a spin dryer for our use proudly telling us that it dated from before the change-over in 1989. As parts were no longer available, once the lid broke it became useless until it occurred to him that his daughter's frisbee was exactly the right size! It works a treat and our washing came out half dry already! Because of the weather we unfortunately have to live with Modestine's interior festooned in damp shirts, tea-towels and socks as well as an umbrella, cagoules and wet shoes. (Aren't you all glad you are well away from here? To add to the fragrant atmosphere Ian is currently cooking us up a can of Bábgulyás - goulash stew with beans!)

We walked up into the town through the rain. In this area the houses are mainly pre-WW2 and generally very pleasant indeed, having large gardens with vegetables, flowers and even vines. They are set along quiet tree-lined roads and most offer rooms for holiday letting. It is obviously a very popular place with German people, almost all signs being in both Hungarian and German. Surprisingly we have found that most visitors seem to have come from Germany rather than Austria. Certainly tonight at the campsite there are nine German vehicles, one Dutch and us. Around town people always speak to us in German.

Ian has been trying very hard to use his embryonic Hungarian and it has caused a little amusement amongst the people we have met who seem to find it strange that we even attempt to try to speak their language. Ian has succeeded in buying a phone card, a couple of coffees, a loaf of brown bread and a session on the internet entirely in Hungarian so we are making some progress. It's so much easier to just pretend we are German however. Even the beggars speak to us in German! And everyone, even the beggars, want euros rather than forints! Can we spare a euro for a loaf of bread? Not that there are many beggars here. Far less than on the streets of Graz and really they are just opportunists trying their luck.

This is a very attractive town, even in the rain. The buildings are beautiful and on a far more ordinary scale than in the Austrian towns we visited. Generally they are well maintained although the roads are full of potholes and damaged tarmac which fill with water and spew up all over pedestrians whenever a car passes.

Main square, Keszthely

Oh yes, and there are so many little Trabbies here! Trabant cars are the tiny fibreglass boxes that were produced in the 1970s and 80s by the state controlled motor industry in East Germany. They have 2 stroke engines and run on really low-grade fuel churning out filth behind them. Since the fall of communism they have almost completely disappeared from the streets of the DDR. Many of them crossed with their owners into Hungary in 1989 as part of the mass exodus to the west and were presumably abandoned or sold here. Now they seem to be some sort of status symbol as they pop and splutter their way around town. It is quite a nostalgic sight.

We sheltered from the rain in a very nice café on the main street where we managed to change one of our 10,000 forint notes and with the aid of the menu, conveniently priced in forints and euros, worked out a rough scale to help us understand how much things were costing us. So far we have been very agreeably surprised. Our £s seem to go a lot further here than they did anywhere except perhaps Portugal which already has the euro. Hungary intends changing to the euro in 2010 and is already well prepared. Prices though will probably rise once the change takes place.

The tourist office directed us to the only internet café in Keszthely where we whiled away a wet hour putting a new page onto the internet and answering emails. Back in the rain we made our way through the ever-widening puddles to the beautiful 18th century baroque Festetics Castle which apparently houses the Helikon library said to be the most wonderful historic library in Hungary with over 52,000 volumes in decorative cases. Unfortunately, today the only way we could have seen the castle interior was with a group taking a guided visit in Hungarian. We decided we would get little out of it and be unable to linger in the library so we will go tomorrow instead by ourselves. The formal gardens in front of the castle though were delightful with statues and colourful flowerbeds. From here we looked across the town to the more recent housing developments, a legacy from the communist era with soulless blocks of ugly flats built with inferior materials. They are a complete contrast to the lovely buildings near the lake where we are staying.

Festetics Castle gateway, Keszthely

Festetics Castle, Keszthely

Eating lunch seemed a good way to shelter from the weather. We found somewhere that looked nice with wooden tables and benches arranged in cosy corners. However the menu was in Hungarian and we were not clear what we were ordering. The amused waiter translated things into German for us and we ended up with a very pleasant meal of thick onion soup, paprika chicken with rice and marmalade pancakes. This cost us 1360 forints each - about £4.

The rain did not bother to take a lunch break and was patiently waiting outside to accompany us to the marzipan museum. Neither of us like marzipan so it is an indication of our state of desperation that we were actually looking forward to this warm, dry treat. But it is Monday and all museums are shut on Mondays! Nearby we found a large, rather severe 19th century church dedicated to St. Theresa of Lisieux in Normandy. We have seen several churches dedicated to her in Austria as well. Why there should be such a cult in this area we have no idea but find it intriguing. The only other place we have noticed photos of her in a church is at the basilica in Liseux.

Inside the church we found a couple of cleaners sweeping and polishing the confessional. We speculated that they were sweeping out all the sins that had been left there by penitents, so we gave the confessional a wide berth in case our soles accidentally picked up any stray sins.

Next we visited a supermarket to see what national peculiarities we could discover in the deep freezer. Rather disappointing really. After the Change western companies moved in, shut down the local industries and produced western products under licence. So almost nothing on the shelves seemed of Hungarian origin. German, French, Dutch, British, Italian and American trade names were everywhere and the shelf contents looked rather like Lidls. There were a few things that appeared to be Hungarian, such as tinned tomatoes and packets of paprika. The tinned goulash Ian has just served was also produced locally.

Hungarian brown bread with sunflower seeds is the best bread we've tasted anywhere in Europe. It's delicious and looks as if it will keep well - if we can only stop having just one more slice!

We returned to Modestine with our small bag of shopping. It was cold and damp inside her. We left our heater in Exeter in March but necessity is the mother of invention. In a space as confined as Modestine even a hairdryer will produce warmth after a few minutes! So we made coffee and steamed gently with the washing.

Feeling bored without us to annoy the rain gave up and went away. Its back being turned we popped out for a look at the lake - grey, wet and deserted. There are pleasant walks beside the water on a nice day but this evening there were just a couple of pleasure boats moored to the jetty. It cannot rain forever and there are so many lovely things to do here if only the sun would come out. There is even a hot water spa just five kilometres down the cycle track.

Lake Balaton with the hills behind, from Keszthely

Deserted jetty on Lake Balaton at Keszthely

The rain caught sight of us and came rushing boisterously back oblivious to the fact that it obviously wasn't welcome. So we have returned "home" and shut it outside where it continues to show off, pattering on the roof and occasionally attracting our attention with a roar of thunder.

Tuesday 30th May 2006, Keszthely, Hungary
This morning it was still raining heavily and continuously and the streets of Keszthely were waterlogged. If we move on we will only encounter the same situation in Pecs and we do not have any details of Hungarian campsites so we have decided to stay here until we feel happy about leaving. At least we have hot water and electricity here even if we are damp and uncomfortable in Modestine with all our wet belongings.

Even in the rain it is a agreeable town to be stranded in. Nearby there is an airport, which was once a Russian military installation. The owner of the Gartenhof campsite, a mine of information, told us that the Russians left it in a terrible condition, stripped of its equipment, the windows broken and the kerosene tanks leaking contaminating substances into the surrounding wells. Now it has become a civil airport with flights three times a week from London. Attractive country houses are on sale in the quiet tree-lined roads near the lake for 100,000€ (£70,000) - yes, the prices are quoted in euros first, and they may not even bother with forints. So if you want a second home and fancy goulash every day there is an alternative to France and pâté de foie gras. And until 2010, if you have £3,000 in the bank, you can be a forint millionaire.

It has actually been a very pleasant and happy day. Today the castle was open so this morning we have spent as long as possible investigating its interior wearing big felt slippers over our wet shoes to protect the beautiful inlaid parquet flooring throughout the castle. A rather expensive permit was required for taking photographs so regrettably we cannot show any of the gilded rooms, painting or furnishings but they were quite splendid. The most important member of the family was Gyorgy Festetics who was an enlightened aristocrat similar to Széchenyi, who founded the first agriculatural college in Hungary (and possibly Europe) as well as endowing several public libraries. Like so many progressive thinkers in this period the family were freemasons and this is reflected in the library. They were even more obsessed with horses and racing and to an extent with hunting. The collections reflect this as do the paintings and the library, which contains at least two copies of the fascinating work Men and horses I have known. It holds possibly the most complete collection of the British Racing calendar anywhere, complete back to the 1730s!

It is the largest aristocratic library in Hungary and the only one to have survived the war intact. It has significant collections on agriculture, including several of the Board of Agriculture surveys of English counties. There is much travel literature including the magnificent multi-volume description of Egypt produced after Napoleon's expedition. We also noted many works in French, German and English, including Burke's Peerage and the letters of Queen Victoria. A very wide range of interests maintained over several generations from the mid 18th to the mid 20th centuries.

Helikon Library, Festetics Castle, Keszthely

The British scientist and physician Richard Bright (possibly connected with Bright's disease?) was resident in the castle towards the end of the 18th century as he made his researches and observations concerning Lake Balaton.

There is a large armoury with an impressive collection of weapons including beautifully crafted hand guns inlaid with mother of pearl and elaborately forged and decorated swords, daggers, pikes and bayonets. Jill found it distasteful that so much skill and beauty went into creating something intended to kill fellow humans and complained to Ian that she couldn't see the point. He explained that it was the sharp bit on the end of the sword.

Another experience that would hopefully be impossible in Britain today was a visit round the hunting trophies gathered over four continents, some as recently as the 1990s. Lions, leopards, crocodiles, oryx, warthogs, wildebeest, zebras, springbok, gazelles, moose, mouflons, buffalos, rhinos, bears, lynx, jackals, every "game" creature you can think of were abundantly represented in the collection. Apparently there still exists a world-wide hunting fraternity that awards trophy prizes for the most outstanding specimens of wild creatures killed! There were a great number in the collection we saw ranked between 1 and 10 in the world! Many of the exhibits today serve an educational role, placing stuffed animals in natural settings allowing us to see just how large, dignified and beautiful all of these wonderful creatures are, but the original purpose was simply to blast away and enjoy killing them. Magnificent lions, tigers and Russian brown bears were ignominiously displayed as rugs with their heads snarling up as you pass. There was even a stuffed polar bear! Elephants' feet and huge ivory tusks were all that remained of these massive creatures and worst of all were the hundreds of heads and skulls mounted on plinths and hung from the walls. Each one represented the unnecessary death of an animal and a good afternoon's fun for its persecutor. One room displayed the enormous head and horns of the white rhinoceros! How many of these creatures are now endangered species we wondered. Public attitudes to such activities have mercifully changed but it is difficult to understand how such behaviour could ever have been acceptable.

Distasteful rugs in the trophy collection, Festetics Castle, Keszthely

White rhino and gazelles in the trophy collection, Festetics Castle, Keszthely

Outside, the rain continued, making a walk around the beautiful gardens impossible. It was already well after 2pm so we found a very nice little restaurant with red table cloths where we ordered Gulyàsleves with bread and paprika in Ian's best Hungarian - and got it! Soon the restaurant filled up with at least 15 people deciding the best way to pass a cold wet afternoon was to sit in a warm café eating hot spicy soup! Our request for retes proved too much. Pancakes were okay but they were fresh out of retes - if we understood correctly. So we took our custom to the coffee shop on the main street where we had huge portions of cherry retes (very fine flaky pastry) sprinkled with icing sugar and cups of dark coffee served on individual silver trays for the enormous sum of 980 forints for us both (less than £3)!

Further down the main street we called in for more shelter at Forint-stretcher Hungary's answer to our cheap bargain shops. Here Ian bought some trainers for 3,499 forints (about £8.99) to replace the £-stretcher ones he'd brought from Exeter that have decided to split across the sole and are therefore totally unsuited to the wet state of the streets here.

So that's today. Not much fun taking photos in the rain so rather a lot of text this time. It has been a very nice day though, but generally the last few days have caused us more inconvenience and unpleasantness in Modestine than we have experienced at any time since we set out on our travels last August.

Wednesday 31st May 2006, Keszthely, Hungary
We are still here! This morning the rain had given up, chased away by a blustery wind. As we'd seen so little of the lake we decided to go for a boat ride before moving on. This was very enjoyable but chilly and windy. There were a couple of pleasure craft leaving at the same time, one an old motor boat, the other an even older sailing boat. Both were shining brass and gleaming old wood fittings. We opted for the motor boat with its wooden benches as it was larger and we feared feeling queasy on choppy water in a small sailing boat.

Jetty at Keszthely, Lake Balaton

Ian with wooden fittings, Lake Balaton

Lake Balaton is the largest lake in central Europe with a circumference of 210 kilometres. We are right at the most westerly end. From here the northern shore has low wooded hills speckled with little red-roofed settlements. Along the waterline are camping and holiday locations with sailing boats and fishing possibilities. Slightly further east there are volcanic hills and hot thermal springs, very popular with German tourists. On the opposite shore, to the south, the land is completely flat and wooded - a green strip between the paler colours of the sky and the lake. There were no villages visible and it is obviously less interesting as a holiday location.

Villages along the northern shore, Lake Balaton

Badacsony, a basalt outcrop on the northern shore of Lake Balaton

Sailing boat Sissy against the southern shore of Lake Balaton

The trip lasted an hour and we had the deck almost to ourselves as almost everyone else discovered the warmth of the bar below deck and, despite being able to see nothing of the scenery, spent the trip down there to emerge at the finish red cheeked and glowing. We on the other hand were frozen through, wind-blown and runny-eyed from the wind.

The warmth in sheltered sunlight back on land was wonderful and we basked like lizards for a while before discovering we were really hungry. Near the jetty we found a little open-air café with bench tables, served from a wooden kiosk. It certainly lacked charm but had plenty of character. It was also well frequented by local Hungarians rather than holiday makers. Here we had whole fried fish from the lake with a dish of pickled salad and thick slices of dry bread. As we had to decipher the menu first - impossible to be intuitive in Hungarian - we needed to point rather a lot, but did manage to get what we wanted.

By now we were beginning to really enjoy ourselves. Why move on when the sun had finally put in an appearance? Returning to Modestine we let Hinge and Bracket out of their bags and cycled to Hévíz, a small spa town six kilometres from our campsite along a wonderfully smooth, flat cycle way through fields of cereals sprinkled with poppies, mixed woodland of pines, beeches and blooming elderflower, and along a specially constructed causeway that crossed a swamp of bulrushes and yellow irises. Here there was a cacophony of birdsong on our way there and swarms of mosquitoes on our way back.

Cycling through marshland to Hévíz

The cycle route took us right to the entrance of the spa and we were determined to try it. The buildings are constructed on stilts linked by wooden walkways in the centre of Europe's largest hot-water lake (47,500 sq. metres). It has been popular as a health resort since the first wooden bathing house was erected there in 1795. There are supposed to be all kinds of health benefits to bathing there where the water is a comfortable 33 degrees.

Older wooden bathing huts, Hévíz

More modern facilities, Hévíz

Even Ian was prepared to have a brief swim in such comfortable waters but we were amazed how few people were actually swimming. Jill was advised to take off her silver necklace as it would discolour in the sulphurous water and questioned as to whether she needed to borrow a float! It was only when we were swimming around we realised almost everyone else had floats and many did not seem able to swim!

The majority of visitors were German of our age or older and those who were in the water tended to just stand there or slowly move around supported by floats. It occurs to us that most of the German visitors are probably from the former DDR when Balaton was a favourite holiday resort and perhaps, living so far from the sea, many have never learnt to swim.

View of part of the hot water lake, Hévíz

The lake was not as clear and pleasant as the ones in the Jura but it was certainly warmer. A few fish live there so the sulphur content cannot be particularly high. To give the place the feel of a health resort staff wore white tunics and had brass nameplates on doors where for 6,900 forints you could have a Chinese massage with Dr. Yang! There were also solariums and "wellness" advice clinics. However, there were also sun-loungers, a bar, and a cafeteria selling huge creamy cakes so how beneficial it really is for one's health is questionable!

Although she resembles a dog rather than an otter in water, swimming is something Jill has missed greatly during our travels. It was wonderful to swim around the lake and under the buildings. Nowhere is the water particularly deep but the campsite owner here has since told us that many people die in the lake each year, mainly German and mainly from heart attacks! There certainly didn't appear to be any obvious safety measures in place and no lifeguards on duty.

Unidentified swimming object, Hévíz

There she blows! Hévíz

Finishing off with a clean hot shower, we left the spa to explore the delightful little town. Stopping at a bakers for bread, amusement was caused as usual by Ian asking in Hungarian. People really do seem to appreciate that we try. All that swimming and cycling had made us hungry and they had a tiny teashop attached to the bakery where we tried one of their delicious apple retes with coffees. We didn't notice at the time but have since wondered whether there may have been a mistake with the bill as we were charged around 300 forints for these - less than a pound!

Buying a bottle of Bull's Blood (a deep red, fruity Hungarian wine) we cycled leisurely back to Modestine across the fields.

Paprika and garlic on sale, Hévíz