Pecs and library friends

Thursday 1st June 2006, Pécs, Hungary
Despite the lure of the circus arriving in Keszthely today, we stood firm to our resolve and left around 11am to make our way to Pécs. We have spent a very enjoyable time at Lake Balaton despite the weather and really hope to return again one day.

We were soon out into the countryside, driving along very pleasant roads where the grass had been scythed at the edges leaving the longer grass with its many flowers a metre back from the road as a sanctuary for wild life. The fields here are enormous, a legacy of co-operative farming during the communist era. It is a pity really as the landscape is so very flat and a few more trees and hedges would add to its interest.

Nevertheless, the countryside was very green and very flowery. I have to acknowledge this as on an earlier visit several years ago I was critical of the grey boredom of the landscape. That was in March when there was still snow on the ground in Budapest. Here the summer season is short but when it arrives it is charming.

Our route has shown us much of rural Hungary, taking us through many little villages with lovely low houses, frequently built end-on to the roads, each spaciously placed in its own garden with a vegetable plot and sometimes a few vines. The streets are tree lined with footpaths behind a deep drainage ditch with grass verges. People seem to have time to stand and chat - when not scything their verges or clearing their ditches. Bikes and motorcycles are a very popular way of travelling in the countryside.

Scything the grass beside the road, Hungary

We stopped at a little village post office where Ian requested stamps for England in his best Hungarian. The lady looked rather bemused but we got what we wanted and left her beaming at us.

Feeling hungry we saw a country csárda (basic inn serving inexpensive food) by the roadside, and turned off up a steep track. Here we sat outside on cushions under a shady reed-covered awning (actually it was a bit too chilly) overlooking a farm with chickens and a donkey, a small market garden and a vineyard. As the menu was only in Hungarian and we had little idea what it was all about the charming waitress, using a mixture of English, German and Hungarian recommended a regional speciality of paprika pork, sausage and bacon with fresh herbs and sour cream served with fresh salad and tiny potato dumplings which we were only too happy to try. It was every bit as delicious as it sounds. Such a meal in such a setting will be remembered as a magic moment of this lovely country.

We do not have information about campsites in Hungary and there are not that many around. On the internet we had discovered there is one on the other side of Pécs but Jill still objects to crossing cities of 200,000+ inhabitants if it can be avoided. Seeing a sign for a small private campsite we turned off to investigate. Parking nearby we entered and Ian explained our requirements – camping car, two people, two nights, electricity required, how much and are hot showers included? As he spoke a bemused smile came over the campsite lady's face as she realised he was actually speaking Hungarian. (Thank you Kati, your lessons have been well learned!) She was delighted and fortunately spoke some German herself, so between them they soon sorted matters out and Jill has had trouble getting a word in edgeways between them. She complained that she'd had to spend fifteen years learning Russian at school and what good had it done her? She'd now taught herself German from a book because nearly all the visitors to her site were German. Later, she lent us a longer extension cable to reach the electrics and brought us glasses of Hungarian white wine to drink so I think Ian has made a hit there!

Meanwhile Modestine was still parked on the road nearby. Returning to collect her we discovered two very animated French people jumping up and down beside her waiting for our return. "Yes", they cried in French. "We knew it had to be you. We camped next to you in Keszthely and recognised Modestine. There cannot be two like her in Hungary!" So we have "friends" on this site. They leave tomorrow for the Ukraine and have told us we must follow them there as there are some wonderful churches to be seen on the Hungarian-Ukrainian border. So this really is an international campsite with us trying to juggle Hungarian, English, German and French! We are getting hopelessly confused.

We took the bus down into the city for the evening. Ian has been here once before representing the Local Studies group of the Library Association (are you reading this Elizabeth?) and he was anxious to make contact with librarians here whom he met then and also as part of a twinning arrangement between Baranya and Devon when they visited Exeter a few years ago. Too late tonight though, as the library was closed when we arrived around 6.30pm, but we will return in the morning. Meanwhile we explored the city centre and enjoyed a music festival taking place in Széchenyi tér, the main square, where a choir sang folk songs arranged by the Hungarian composers Kodály and Bártok and a wind orchestra played the music of Handel and Purcell. Later we found an internet café and spent a good hour sorting out emails, finance, insurance and uploading blogs. It is astonishing how much time we seem to spend with computers when we are supposed to be off playing and having fun!

Concert on Széchenyi tér in front of the mosque, Pécs

After our huge lunch we were not hungry this evening. Certainly we had no wish to frequent either of the two Macdonalds establishments in the city centre, so we bought a selection of mystery goodies from a delicatessen and took the bus back to Modestine where we have discovered that the sausage rolls are actually filled with sweet poppy seeds and something else we thought was sweet is actually paprika cheese straws! What a wonderful way to spend our retirement!

Friday 2nd June 2006, Pécs, Hungary
It just had to be too good to last. We woke this morning to a soaking world and the rain has not ceased for a moment all day. We are cold and damp in Modestine and the rain is drumming continuously on her roof. Outside we find ourselves completely surrounded by water and our door mat is quite literally floating. Pécs is supposed to be the sunniest place in Hungary, famed for its warmth and Mediterranean climate. We have become stoical and resigned to the rain, an unwanted travelling companion who has followed us relentlessly around Europe over the past 10 months but sometimes it can get a bit too much when we are so very wet, crowded into Modestine with umbrellas, soaking shoes and dripping rain macs, knowing we will have to cross the campsite woodland in the darkness, with its huge puddles and muddy tyre tracks, to use the facilities before we go to sleep later.

Okay, moan over. If anyone is thinking of following our example it's as well to know that there can be a few negative things as well as the many positive ones and they just have to be faced when they arrive.

We left Modestine at the site this morning and took the bus down into the town centre. The driver couldn't be bothered to sell us tickets and waved us down the bus. Fellow travellers made it clear to us that we shouldn't worry. So we had a free ride. Tickets are a flat rate of around 50pence. We never saw anyone else buy tickets so suspect they don't bother and just pay the fine if they are caught. It probably breaks about even, and as it saves the driver work, everyone is happy.

Much of the next few paragraphs is of interest to us and to our professional library friends and colleagues following our travels. The rest of you may care to skim over this bit.

Baranya has one of the largest county libraries in Hungary but is amongst the poorest funded. Pécs is the county capital and the library headquarters are based here. There is also a separately funded town library nearby. Some years ago Ian visited the town whilst undertaking a study tour of Hungarian libraries. He has warm memories of the wonderful hospitality he received from librarians around the country and friendships formed then have continued. In addition, Devon is twinned with Baranya and although the links have been inactive in recent years, delegates from libraries here have visited Exeter in the past. Happy memories of these visits, professional and personal at the same time, have remained on both sides.

Our chief reason for being here in Pécs was to see again Katalin Kalányos, director of Baranya County Library, and Judit Kohlmanné, now responsible for the main City Library. We received such wonderful warm welcomes from them both despite arriving unexpectedly when their working day was already full. It made no difference that our visit was not an official one. Katalin speaks no English but over coffee in her office, a member of her staff, Timo, acted as interpreter. She also showed us around the library, pointing out problems they are facing and plans for the future when the County Library and the City Library will join together to occupy a wonderful new building in 2010 when Pécs will share the accolade of European capital of culture. We visited the county local history department which, along with other departments in the library has had staffing cut dramatically since "the Change" in 1989. Thus many projects are on hold and development is stifled. There is here a legal deposit system at regional level whereby one copy of every item produced in Baranya is deposited in the library. In principal this is excellent but it can well mean the library is clogged-up with endless technical bulletins that are not of general interest but occupy valuable space.

18th century building housing part of Baranya County Library, Pécs

Together with Katalin Kalányos, director of Baranya County Library and her interpreter Timo, Pécs

Katalin phoned her teenage son Bálint, a student of English, and he joined us to help interpret and to seize the opportunity of speaking English with the natives. We were very impressed with the standard of English spoken by both Bálint and Timo, particularly as neither of them have ever visited England or America.

We phoned the city library before we left Katalin to warn Judit of our arrival. By the time we'd crossed town in the rain she had trays of fruit juice and hot Hungarian coffee waiting for us in her office. Judit speaks excellent English and was very enthusiastic about her library, the developments that are taking place and the European funding that is helping to finance the proposed new library as part of the plans for Pécs year as culture capital of Europe. She showed us around the library, explained about the online catalogue linking the resources of the County, the University and the City Libraries. Unfortunately libraries here have only recently undertaken computerised cataloguing and everywhere we have seen walls of wooden filing cabinets representing the collections prior to 2004. It will be a huge undertaking to get these items retrospectively catalogued. Judit is a positive thinking librarian who is very happy in her work and it was a pleasure to see her enthusiasm. She has invited us to her home for supper tomorrow evening and we are greatly looking forward to it.

Both Katalin and Judit are disappointed that the twinning link with Devon has been neglected in recent years and are enthusiastic that it should be revived. Katalin is in the process of selecting a new mobile library for the county and was impressed by what she had seen in Devon. She is wondering whether Devon would be in a position to offer advice concerning specifications to help her work up her proposal for an international tender. Here then is your chance, Devon Libraries, to pick up the links to a professional twinning arrangement that has great value to all parties and in addition is a wonderfully rewarding and pleasurable opportunity, as witness our experience today resulting from exchange visits several years ago.

Judit gave us an English copy of the successful bid by Pécs to be European Capital of Culture. Lavishly produced, it made the interesting point that, while the city was in the centre of Europe it was also on the periphery of several regions – of Hungary itself, the European community and the Balkans. It also had many ethnic minorities, Germans, Croatians, Serbs, Roma – and it hoped to draw these together in an ambitious programme of cultural activities in which the library would play an important role.

Eventually we left the city library and made our way back along the wet, windy streets, awash with rivers and lakes of water where cars spewed out cascades over the broken pavements as they passed. It has to be said that Hungarian city streets are terrible places in torrential rain as there are few underground drainage channels so water collects in gutters and low lying areas of the streets. Where there are drains the covers are frequently missing – perhaps they are to be found in the Italian manhole museum in Comacchio!

One of the manhole covers still in place, Pécs

We were hungry again and willing to go anywhere just to get off the streets and dry out. Actually the place we found was really good, being huge, warm and friendly with lots of young people, bare floorboards scattered with straw, some massive gerbils in a glass cage and huge dishes of unshelled peanuts on all the tables for customers to help themselves, scattering the shucks on the floor with the straw. From the menu we worked out a general idea of what we might be served and selected potatoes, salt beef and mushrooms baked with a sour cream and paprika topping for Jill and pork with melted cheese and pumpkin seeds served with roast potatoes, rice and salad for Ian. Our guide book says there is no point in even considering a diet whilst in Hungary and we are taking it at its word! One dish would have been quite adequate for us to share.

Eventually we had to return to the streets where we made our way to the cathedral. This is a huge 19th century neo-Romanesque structure with enormous decorated bronze doors. Inside everywhere is decorated - columns, ceiling and walls, in the heavy, dark, flowery style of the 1880s and 90s with considerable use of gold. Jill liked it and even Ian found it acceptable.

The Cathedral, Pécs

It was a day for museums rather than outside photography so we visited the ceramics collections of the Zsolnay dynasty active in the town from 1857. In 1948 it was forcibly nationalised but seems to continue today, its products on sale in the town. The museum had displays of the company's more beautiful pieces representing a selection of the different styles and techniques. They were beautifully designed and decorated with lavish use of gold glaze and particularly fine, bright colours due to a glazing process developed by the Zsolnay family known as eosin. There are many examples of the work of the company around Pécs – on a fountain, at the main post office, the County Hall and glazed and patterned roofing tiles on other buildings.

Zsolnay Fountain, Pécs

County Hall, Pécs

What else was there to do in such dreadful weather? Warned that a bank holiday is approaching and everywhere will be shut, we bought three bottles of Hungarian wine and some tea bags before taking the bus back to the campsite. Our lunch was so warm and filling that we have not bothered to eat tonight back in Modestine, instead spending the evening watching DVDs on our computer as the rain continues outside in the darkness.

Help! Not only are we confined to Modestine because of the unceasing rain, Ian has discovered a Hungarian tongue twister which he is practising reciting. Devon Libraries, please can you take him back again – NOW!

Sunday 4th June 2006, Pécs, Hungary
Yesterday was a very full day and as we didn't arrive back at the campsite until gone 11pm. As we were soaking wet we didn't feel inclined to start blogging. Despite still being considerably damp we are catching up on yesterday before we pack up and move on from Pécs towards Debrecen.

The rain had ceased temporarily when we woke yesterday but the overhanging trees and remaining quagmire ensured we got wetter and dirtier returning from the showers than we were before we went!

Saturday was the start of the long weekend holiday in Hungary and the town was in a festive mood despite the grey weather. The streets seemed to have drained well from yesterday's floods – one advantage perhaps of having so many missing drain covers in the middle of the pavements – and a little craft and sweet market occupied the top of the Szécheny tér in front of the mosque. Amongst the stalls was a woodcarver cutting traditional Hungarian folk designs into a baby's crib. Here too were long tables and benches where school children spent the day learning handicrafts – making leather bead necklaces, decorating gingerbread biscuits and making felt toys and balls.

Of course we had to try some of the sweets - slabs of chocolate and vanilla fudge coated in cocoa powder, honeycomb, spicy biscuits and candied fruits including pineapple, pears, strawberries and cherries.

Nearby, chairs had been set out and a couple of clowns were amusing the children with a mime show accompanied by grunts and squeaks. Such things are so international that Jill was quite captivated by them and Ian got rather bored waiting for her to tear herself away.

Wood carver on Szécheny tér, Pécs

Clowns on Szécheny tér, Pécs

Itinerant flowerseller on Szécheny tér, Pécs

During the afternoon we passed through the square again and were just in time to see hundreds of school children perform traditional country dances dressed in national costume. Many of the girls had plaits and brightly patterned dresses with full skirts edged with red, green or purple ribbons. The boys wore baggy white trousers and blouses with black waistcoats and boots. They were very colourful and extremely lively youngsters and we found it all great fun.

Children dancing on Szécheny tér, Pécs

Around the town without the rain we could linger to look at the facades of the buildings. Many are very decorative and ornate, frequently dating from the 18th and early 19th centuries in classical and baroque style. Particularly ornate were the Town Hall and Macdonalds! Yes, inside it is all big Macs and Coca Cola but the outside must be one of the most beautiful Macdonalds anywhere in Europe!

Macdonalds shares premises with the town hall, Pécs

The town has two thousand years of history. In Roman times as Sopianiae it was the capital of the province of Valeria and around the cathedral there are remain of early Christian burial chambers complete with wall paintings which are the most complete north of Italy and recently declared a UNESCO world heritage site. Unfortunately most of them were closed for restoration prior to the 2010 European Capital of Culture bonanza. In medieval times the city was surrounded by walls, extensive traces of which remain. The Turks, who occupied the city between 1543 and 1686, have left their mark too, the remains of a bath-house and two mosques, the Mosque of Pasha Jakovali Hassan complete with its minaret serving now as an Islamic refuge and the other, the Mosque of Pasha Ghazi Khasim, dating from the 16th century, which is now the parish church on Szécheny ter which has been extensively rebuilt inside but still preserves traces of Islamic decoration and inscriptions. A range of museums, libraries galleries, theatres and churches complete the city's potential for its year as Cultural Capital. Hungary's first university was founded here in 1367 and today it is one of the largest in Hungary with over 35,000 students.

National theatre, Pécs

Statue of Kossuth with the synagogue behind, Pécs

Statue of Hunyadi on Szécheny tér with the tower of the Town Hall behind, Pécs

Remains of Turkish bathhouse, Pécs

Mosque of Pasha Jakovali Hassan, Pécs

The mosque, now the parish church, Pécs

Interior of the mosque, Pécs

The Barbican on the mediaeval city walls, Pécs

Unfortunately nothing is ever perfect and we have been saddened to see so much ugly and widespread graffiti on the facades of otherwise attractive buildings. Unlike Portugal, there is not even any artistic merit in the Hungarian scribblings we have seen here. Even the county library has not escaped unscathed. It is perhaps a sad reflection of disenchanted youth and large scale problems of unemployment. It struck us forcibly in Budapest some years ago but we had hoped such unsightly vandalism had disappeared since then. It would seem not.

Unsightly graffiti spoil an otherwise pleasant modern building, Pécs

But Pécs is not alone with this problem. Most European cities suffer to some extent, including those in Britain. And Pécs can leave many British cities standing when it comes to modern shopping facilities. Would you believe there is even a Mega-size Tesco here as well as an ordinary one and Tesco Metros are opening up across the city! There are also several shopping malls and we explored Árkád in the town centre, a gleaning marble and glass palace on several levels, spotlessly clean and providing exciting restaurants and coffee shops on each floor. Here there is C&A, Spar, Adidas and a range of shops selling products from Next, Marks and Spencer and Debenham to name a few.

Our day in town was punctuated first with a lunch of bone soup with vermicelli, pork cutlet with rice and huge pickled gherkins followed by jam pancakes, and later by coffee and retes in a lovely old fashioned pastry shop with dark wooden panels and a huge, ornate ceramic stove. It offered a range of delicious cakes and ice creams that would have had Mike in a state of complete ecstasy!

Time to find our way out to the suburbs on the other side of town for our supper invitation with our librarian friend Judit and her husband Ferenc. It turned out to be a longer walk than we had imagined and we found Judit at the corner of the road looking out for us. We spent a really wonderful evening with them, an evening filled with happiness and laughter. Judit speaks excellent English and her husband excellent German so we all managed pretty well. They had prepared a special Hungarian supper of paprika chicken in a creamy sauce with galuska (tiny dough dumplings) and salad. Accompanied by a dry white Tokai wine and followed by a traditional sticky, chocolate cake (don't know what it was called) with palinka (Hungarian fruit brandy, 46% proof) we were jolly glad we'd left Modestine back on the campsite and could catch the bus back later!

They showed us around their very pleasant home in a tree-lined road within walking distance of the library where Judit works. They have a long green garden with vegetables and vines – enough to make their own wine. From the dining room balcony there are extensive views over the suburbs and the countryside beyond. The house was designed by Ferenc's sister who lives next door and much of the construction work on their homes they have undertaken between them all.

It adds so much to the pleasure of visiting a country if you know somebody and have the opportunity to observe the way people live in their own homes rather than being confined to a campsite. It has been a joy to us to see the cheerful, positive lifestyle of our friends here. Thank you both so very much.

Ian is delighted to renew library contacts in Pécs

Judit, Ian and Jill, Pécs

A record of a really happy evening, Pécs

Too soon it was time for us to leave for the last bus back across town. It started to rain as we waited at the bus stop and by the time we got off near the campsite it was pouring again. We'd had the foresight to take our torch, essential for avoiding waterlogged potholes in the total darkness of the track to the site and for finding the hidden key to open the padlocked gates. Fortunately we were so warmed from palinka we went immediately to bed and sleep, unconcerned that it was so cold and damp everywhere!

There is a porcelain shop in town specialising in hand painted dinner services and vases. They are beautifully done with considerable use of gold glaze. They are also a tad on the expensive side. Here though, we are including some photos we took especially for our French friend Danielle in Brittany, always on the lookout for new designs and ideas for her own work.

Alors, exprès pour toi Danielle, quelques images que nous avons pris dans un faïencerie ici à Pécs en Hongrie. Tu remarques que la peinture est toute faite à la main. C'est très soigné et on emploie beaucoup d'or . Cela peut te donner des idées. Tu peux voir aussi que ça coûte assez cher - 33500 forints = environ 150 euros et le plus grand 50,300 forints = environ 200 euros (plus ou moins).

Herend ceramics, Pécs

Herend ceramics, Pécs

Herend ceramics, Pécs