Friday 24th September 2010, Szeged, Hungary (continued)
On our way to Romania, crossing from Austria into Hungary the country looked a little shabby by contrast. Crossing back into Hungary from Romania this morning we were impressed at how clean and cared for Hungary looks. The villages are free of rubbish, grass verges have been cut, there are flowers in the gardens and everybody looks purposeful and better dressed. Headscarves, socks, flowery overalls and aprons have quite disappeared. So too has the hand to mouth existence so evident in the Romanian villages.
It was very welcoming to cross the border and once again see the so familiar but so incomprehensible Hungarian signs up on hoardings everywhere! After some forty kilometres we reached one of Hungary's major cities, Szeged. It straddles the river Tisza, a wide and cantankerous river that has caused serious flooding here on several occasions. We are camped on the riverbank and the ground is still oozing from the recent inundations. It must be said that the campsite is rather basic but in theory provides both a swimming pool and free wifi. Neither are actually useable however but at least it's cheaper than Timosoara and the staff are very cheery and helpful.
Having settled Modestine we walked across the bridge into the centre of the city. It was almost completely destroyed in March 1879 when the river left only 300 houses unscathed by flooding. It seems foolish to me to rebuild a city in exactly the same place and there have been occasional floods since, but what the town planners achieved is a delightful city of attractive buildings, almost all dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There are several areas of lovely parks with extravagant fountains, several museums of note, an attractive, centrally located university building, some wonderful Art Nouveau architecture, two synagogues – the newer one being among the largest in Europe. Most awesome of all though, is the massive Votive Church, constructed after the floods, presumably in the misplaced hope it would prevent anything similar happening again. Both inside and out this church is exceptional. Inside is a riot of brightly coloured frescoes, mainly of a non-religious nature, while outside there is a huge parvis rivalling St. Mark's Square in Venice for size. It is flanked by brick walls with ornate brick columns and covered with plaques and busts of Hungarian worthies. In the square is the octagonal Demetrius tower dating from the 11th century though largely rebuilt in the 19th.
Near the university we discovered a rather bizarre monument showing the butterfly of freedom sheltering students beneath its wings. It commemorates the fortieth anniversary of the Hungarian uprising in 1956. Students from Szeged had been particularly active in the demonstrations.
Of particular interest for us was an exhibition at the modern central library where examples of early printed books with a Hungarian connection were on display in the foyer, taken from the library's own collections. How does it happen that so many public libraries in Europe seem to be richly endowed with such wonderful treasures? Somehow these must have survived the flooding that destroyed so much of the city. We were given a beautifully produced free, illustrated catalogue to the exhibition written in both Hungarian and English.
We have remembered to put our watches back an hour on arriving in Hungary. There will be a couple more changes before we are eventually home again. It takes adjusting to and tonight we are feeling very sleepy. It probably has as much to do with the weather as with the time shift however. Today it has been hovering around 30 degrees!
Saturday 25th September 2010, Baja
This morning we returned into Szeged to use the computers in the library. We lingered in the library cafe for coffee and a sticky cake for Ian before taking a walk around the city to pick up on places we missed last night. These include the neoclassical opera house and several more streets of charming Art Nouveau houses. Along the banks of the Tisza we found the paprika and salami factory offering guided tours. However, although Hungarian paprika provides a rich source of vitamin C and is delicious in their cuisine, we felt that knowing exactly how salami sausage is produced was something best avoided or we'd never touch it again!
So we collected Modestine from the campsite and made our way across an almost deserted, flat countryside to this little town of Baja where we are camped on Petöfi island lying in an arm of the Danube. Apparently it was from this island that the last Habsburg emperor was ignominiously deported in 1921 by a British warship. The town is pleasant enough but rather low on excitement on Saturday afternoons when everything is closed and the people disappear indoors. We are making our way towards Pécs and this is a convenient stop-off point for the night.
We did take a stroll around the attractive cobbled main square, Szentháromsag tér, this afternoon in the vain hope of finding something exciting happening. We discovered several museums – all closed; the baroque Catholic church – closed; the Serbian Orthodox church with its collection of icons – closed; and the Jewish Synagogue – also closed. This last is now used as the town library - closed. The synagogue is a huge, neoclassical building with a monument in the grounds to the town's 5,705 Jews, victims of the holocaust.
Over the years as we have been travelled around Europe, we have reported on eccentric cyclists we have met on campsites. I think that, without exception, they have all been British. Here this evening we have been the only campers, until a young English couple cycled in, followed shortly afterwards by another Englishmen on his bike, completely unconnected with the first two. As it started to rain they made friends, set up their tents and have now gone off into the town in search of food and excitement. I fear they will find it short on both counts.
The young couple have taken a gap year and are cycling from London to South Africa! The other young man is cycling his way to Istanbul to meet his girlfriend and then go back-packing to India! They have all made it cycling to here but can they realise what lies ahead? Cycling along the roads of Romania down into Bulgaria does not bear thinking about, and how will they cope travelling down through the war-torn countries of Africa? Beside their adventures, our must look very tame. We offered them hot drinks - they produced their cans of beer instead. How many of the eager cyclists we have met on our travels have actually completed their adventures we wonder? Their tales would make fascinating reading but those we've met have all been too focused on survival to be particularly interested in keeping a blog.
This morning we received an email that decided us to definitely go to Pécs. Devon used to have twinning links with the library service in the Hungarian county of Baranya and we have retained friendships with several of the librarians there. Judit and Ferenc have written to say they are awaiting our visit! It is so good to be back in a country where we have friends.
Our plans, once we left Romania, were originally to make our way to Budapest and spend a few days in Peter and Kati's flat after they return to England. However, it has been necessary to change those plans and seeing Pécs once more, with friends, will make a delightful alternative, particularly as it is the European Capital of Culture for 2010.
During our travels we have got to know a number of people over the internet who have picked up on our blogs and follow our travels. One such couple, Sandra and Larry from America, wrote some time ago to say they were selling up their home in America and moving to live in Budapest as it was a central location for exploring Europe. They had already purchased their flat and should have moved in early September. The plan was for us to meet up to explore Budapest together on our way back from Romania. However, back in July Larry slipped and fell, badly injuring himself and breaking his leg. Since then he has been in plaster and his American doctor and physio' will not hear of him moving to Hungary for another month or more. So all our well-laid plans have come to nothing. By the time they arrive we will be back in England. Meanwhile, they are both "sofa surfing" with family and friends as their American home has been sold and all their belongings will by now have arrived in Budapest.
Monday 27th September 2010, Pécs, Hungary
We have had continuous rain now since Saturday evening. The young cyclists at the campsite moved their tents into the toilet block overnight for shelter and did not seem very eager to set off in the rain for the next 100 kilometres of their journey down the banks of the Danube.
We drove through a flat, deserted countryside of sodden, muddy fields, some with disconsolate cattle squelching through the hazy mist until we reached the town of Mohács. Nearby stands the impressive memorial to the battle of Mohács where the Hungarians were totally defeated in a badly co-ordinated battle against the Turks in 1526. It is a date as decisive in the history of Hungary as 1066 is for Britain. We did not visit the memorial this time having already seen and described it on 4th June 2006 Instead we stopped in the little town, deserted on a wet Sunday morning, and explored the main square. The most interesting feature is the town hall, built in the 1920s in a very Turkish style, quite unlike anything we have seen before. It was built at the same time as the ugly votive church on the same square, on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the battle, so it is somewhat bizarre that such a style was adopted.
Down on the Danube a small car ferry was plying back and forth across the swollen river while a huge cruise ship carrying passengers from Vienna to the Black Sea was moored to the bank. The sun loungers on deck were sodden wet but the passengers were all enjoying a luxurious lunch in the on-board restaurant, unperturbed by the weather.
Chugging upriver was what looked rather like a raft full of boat people. Completely square with a canvas awning to hold off the worst of the sun and rain, it made slow progress, crammed tight with passengers standing shoulder to shoulder. As it struggled past us we could hear the sound of vibrant gypsy music playing on board and have concluded this must be a Romanian cruise ship taking passengers up the Danube from the Black Sea for a weekend in Vienna – or more probably a campsite in Mohács as a cheaper alternative!
Nearby we found exactly what we fancied for lunch with the menu written in English. However it was probably just as well the restaurant was closed! We have seen some bizarre translations of menus but none quite as appetising as these! Ian was positively wiping away the tears of laughter!
With nowhere open in the town for lunch we drove on towards Pécs. On the edge of Mohács we discovered one of the many 24 hour Tesco stores that have sprung up all over Hungary in recent years. This is a sign of just how much more westernised Hungary has become and how far behind Romania remains. Here there is major investment by western companies and Hungary, despite its financial problems, is now firmly part of Western Europe. Every town of any size has its own Tesco, Spar, Billa, Carrefour, Lidl and Aldi. The supermarkets are falling over themselves for a share of the lucrative market. In Romania there is almost nothing. With luck you may chance on a Penny Markt, and we saw a sign to Carrefour in Timisoara, but that is it really. Otherwise there are only street corner type grocery shops and in the villages it's a complete mystery where they purchase household essentials. It's a clear sign the West is not eager to invest in Romania.
None of this stopped us parking near the entrance to Tesco and running through the rain to discover clean loos and a restaurant serving an excellent cheap lunch. We then continued to Pécs to the same campsite that we have visited twice before and always in the rain. On our last visit we translated and updated the official campsite guide for the owner and became quite friendly with her. We were disappointed to discover she was away, leaving the running of the site in the hands of the guests! All were German, importantly telling us where to park, sweeping away the fallen leaves and replenishing the paper in the loos! They were loving it!
We rang Judit and Ferenc to discover they were expecting us for supper! Dropping everything we hurried down to the main road and caught the bus across town to arrive at their home a mere 40 minutes later! We have discovered that as pensioners we can travel free on all transport in Hungary by simply waving a photocopy of our passport at the bus driver. We can even travel on trains right across the country if we wish!
We were made as welcome as ever at the home of our friends. Judit speaks English and Hungarian but not German while Ferenc speaks German and Hungarian but not English, so we had our usual amusing, tri-lingual conversation which worked fantastically well. After welcome drinks we enjoyed Judit's stuffed paprikas in tomato sauce and her home-made rétes with sweet wine.
Darkness had long fallen when they decided we had to see the newly refurbished Széchenyi Tér. It has been given a complete face-lift since our last visit as part of the massive improvements to the town carried out under its "European Capital of Culture" programme. Additionally EU funding has been made available for the building of a new "Knowledge Centre" combining the libraries of the town, the county and the university. There is a new concert hall and several of the museums have been revamped and relocated. From what we saw last night the whole city has been renovated since we were here three years ago and looks sparkling and vibrant. However, despite the multi-coloured fountains and inviting pavement cafes, on a chilly wet evening there were few people on Széchenyi Tér. During the daytime and on summer evening we are assured the square is crowded and lively.
Next we drove to look at the outside of the new Knowledge Centre. (How glad I am to have left all these buzzwords behind on retirement!) The building is in the shape of an open book. Not yet open to the general public, only the university students are currently allowed access though the books are in place and once the entrance road has been finished it will open to the public.
We have written a full account of the city of Pecs, its bid to become European Capital of Culture in 2010 and the pleasure of re-finding friends here, in June 2006 We will try to avoid repeating in our next blog what has already been well documented and hope anyone interested will refer back to the above mentioned report.