Pecs and around

Tuesday 28th September 2010, Pécs, Hungary
We were too weary to finish writing up our account of yesterday when we returned to Modestine last night and no way could Ian face processing the 73 photos he has taken. So this morning we have turned on our fan heater for the first time and are sheltering from the cold, saturated atmosphere of the campsite, busy with our computers, before venturing in to the city centre to visit some of the museums.

Yesterday turned out to be a very interesting day indeed. It is probable though that the following account will be of interest only to library colleagues so the rest will be excused if you skip the next few paragraphs and join us further down.

We had arranged to meet Judit at the library she manages, once the city library but within the next few days due to become the main branch library as the town library, the county library and the university library join forces in the prestigious new building that is to be Pécs's Knowledge Centre. Judit was invited to move to the new building but prefers to remain with the staff and resources she has managed for much of her working career. Her enthusiasm lies with helping the general public within the locality and she has mixed feeling about libraries becoming purely a source for information rather also serving a social and community role. She is very proud of her library and has some delightful and supportive staff.

Public library, Pécs

From discussions we realise many of the public and county library staff have concerns about throwing in their lot with the academic librarians in the new, multi-funtional library, feeling that, as much of the future purchasing and running costs will be from the centrally funded university, they will inevitably make most of the decisions and the locally funded public service will be side-lined. It will certainly be curious to see how university lecturers and students enjoy using the resources alongside school groups, toddlers in prams and computerphobic pensioners wanting to read the newspapers or find a nice romantic novel!

Having been given a tour of her library, admired an excellent exhibition of local watercolours and been served coffee in Judit's office, we joined her and her five professional staff for a bus ride to the new library building, not yet opened to the public. They had all been invited for an official guided tour of the building and Judit had requested that we might join them as the building will not be officially opened for a couple more weeks yet and we will be long gone.

New central library, Pécs

We were made very welcome indeed, Judit and a young English-speaking member of staff acting as interpreters. The group of around a dozen librarians were given a detailed tour of the seven floors of the magnificent new building. The entrance hall is bare and somewhat daunting as it waits for a coffee lounge to be installed and hopefully some potted plants to add patches of colour. There are several bizarre glass sculptures by a Romanian artist, most looking like clusters of gigantic red talons stuck into huge pots. Personally I disliked them and found the sculptures looking like giant spiked specimen flasks no better.

Romanian sculptures on the entrance floor of the new central library, Pécs

Romanian sculptures on the entrance floor of the new central library, Pécs

Areas are controlled by swipe cards, everywhere is pale shining marble. There are or course lifts as well as wide staircases, unfortunately without banisters, sweeping up from floor to floor. There is a huge central light-well the depth of the entire building, attractively lined with thousands of bright, locally produced Zsolnay ceramic tiles, rising up to the sun terrace on the roof. The façade is faced with glass. It allows maximum use of natural light but, as there are, as yet, no blinds fitted it will surely be unbearably hot in summer. Upper floors are carpeted but as the entire building is open-plan it is probable that the activities of the children's and music departments will interfere with the tranquillity of the research and study areas.

Central stair-well lined with Zsolnay ceramic tiles, New central library, Pécs

Entrance level, New central library, Pécs

Everywhere looks stunning, uncluttered as yet by users, with pale Maplewood used throughout for shelves, tables, desks and computer fitments. There are new, suede-covered computer chairs and loungers in attractive shades of pale green, beige and lemon. I'm led to wonder how the covered arms will look in a few years time!

Public library area on the first floor, new central library, Pécs

Main reading room, second floor of the new central library, Pécs

Main reading room, new central library, Pécs

Public library periodicals area of the new central library, Pécs

Main well of the new central library from a couple of floors up, Pécs

Area awaiting installation of computers, new central library, Pécs

European Documentation Centre, new central library, Pécs

Children's library, top floor of the new central library, Pécs

Children's library, new central library, Pécs

Ceramics made by children, top floor of the new central library, Pécs

Staff stock-checking in the music library, top floor of the new central library, Pécs

Roof terrace with light-well, New central library, Pécs

All the staff complained that the building was designed by architects and that they did not fully understand the requirements for libraries, taking scant regard of the experience of library staff. Now where have I heard that complaint before?

The shelves are already fully stocked. Judit's library seems to be the only one operating across the city at present as everything else has been integrated into the Knowledge Centre. Moving stock from so many different libraries and leaving enough space to integrate them must have been a nightmare but that aspect seems to have run like clockwork – it took three weeks to move more than one million documents! Less successful has been attempts to integrate the different computer catalogues using a multiplicity of systems. Of course we have been down that road ourselves and are well aware of the problems. Somehow though we imagined there had been more progress in such matters in the five years since we retired. Neither integration nor front end software seem to have worked on their sample trials. (Judit is now in a panic having just been informed that access to all computer catalogues will be closing down next week as they attempt to combine them. This in the middle of Hungary's National Library Week! Public library staff cite this as an example of the problems they will face with co-ordinating services. It is the university sector that has decided on the timing without consultation. They do not take part in NLW and did not appreciate the problems it will cause for the many public library events planned throughout the city.)

There are though many positive things about the integrated service. Far more resources will be available for the public and there will be additional funding. There will be economies of purchase with no need to duplicate resources. There is an excellent European Documentation Centre and only one set of government papers and official documents will need to be purchased in future. There will be far more online resources and all staff will become more adaptable with new opportunities for career progression. There is a vast music library available with scores and recordings, a floor for children's resources and activities, acres of space for general lending material, hundreds of printed journals covering topics of both general and academic interest, separate floors for the various academic disciplines – economics, social sciences, law, theology, philosophy and various applied sciences. (Other specialised academic areas such as pure and applied arts, will be accommodated elsewhere in the city.) There will be 400 computer terminals and wifi for personal computers will be available throughout the building.

I have to confess, that seeing around this stunning building, I felt the first real enthusiasm since retirement to once again be actively involved in libraries. Having always thought combining the resources of a city the most sensible and economic means of providing an equitable service to everybody, seeing it actually starting to happen here in Pécs, made me itch to be a part of it.

Of course Pécs is half as large again as pleasant but culturally limited Exeter. With its dozen museums, Roman remains, stunningly impressive multi-cultural resources – second only to Budapest in Hungary- Pécs is an obvious candidate for European funding. Such a library would not have been possible were it not for the money the city received as one of Europe's Capitals of Culture for 2010. Obviously some money came from the city, county and university, but the bulk of the 4.5 milliards of forints required came from the EU. (I cannot envisage that sum written in numbers but divide it by 340 to find out how many £s.) Will there be future funding available within Pécs to sustain it? It will be interesting to return in a few years to see how everything settles down.

After an invitation for coffee in the librarian's office, where we each had our own interpreter, we left to explore the town and to find a snack for a very late lunch indeed. Considering we are retired we have been bowled over by the willingness of the staff to discuss the library with us, answer our questions and treat us with such deferential charm. Thank you Judit for making it all possible.

OKAY NON-LIBRARIANS, back you come!

On Mondays all museums are closed. This is another area where co-operation would be of practical benefit. Why not have a selection of the many museums around the city closed on different days so that there would always be at least one open every day? The sun had come out so it didn't matter and we thoroughly enjoyed strolling the streets and squares of this delightful city. The money it has received has been put to excellent use. Buildings have been cleaned and restored, squares renovated, graffiti removed, statues erected and gardens planted up with beautiful, old-fashioned flowers. Today Széchenyi Tér was crowded as people stopped to listen and watch the music and dancing taking place. We have never really seen the square when some free activity is not taking place. Judit says it is one of the town's greatest assets.

Oldest public library building in Pécs, 1324

Same building as above with night-time illumination, Pécs

Synagogue, Pécs

Approaching Széchenyi Tér, Town Hall on the right, Pécs

We walked up to find the city bastions, an area we have not discovered before, returning through the public gardens, past the huge cathedral and down past the mosque to the modern shopping arcade where we caught the bus out the far side of town to spend the evening with Judit and Ferenc and their daughter Rita, who had again invited us for supper.

Cathedral seen from the bastion, Pécs

Ian improves on some local sculpture, Pécs

Tower on the city bastion, Pécs

Cathedral, Pécs

Once again we spent a very happy evening speaking our jumbled mix of languages. Ferenc and Ian experimented with different methods of drinking tequila while the ladies contented themselves with cointreau. Too soon the time for the last bus back arrived and we had to bid our good friends farewell. Közönöm szépen / vielen Dank for making us so very welcome. We will leave with warm memories of our stay here.

Supper with Judit and Ferencs, Pécs

Supper with Judit and Ferencs, Pécs

Tuesday 28th September 2010, Pécs, Hungary
We've not done a great deal today. Once the chill went from the morning we took the bus into the centre of town and found a student café for a bowl of paprika bean soup. Later we visited the Csontváry museum on the recommendation of Kati. Csontváry (1853-1919) was born in Slovakia the same year as Van Gogh. Like him, he suffered from hallucinations and eventually went mad. He was an artist of merit though most of his work was produced only in the late 1890s and early 1900s. From 1910 his psychosis reduced his work to schizoid scribbles, at which stage, Picasso apparently referred to him as "the other great artist of the century besides me". In fact, pencil portraits done in the mid 1890s were excellent while his canvases were enormous, vividly coloured works in a naive style depicting images of Jerusalem, Mostar in Bosnia, and the Hortobágy plains of Hungary. We rather liked them but felt slightly cheated as we had been led to expect a rapid progression to madness in his displayed works. The canvases were few and the entry price rather high.

We looked around the nearby mosque on Széchenyi Tér, now used as a Catholic church – a rather strange experience. The extension behind is in the Bauhaus style which gives the church an even more curious feel.

Mosque and statue of Janos Hunyadi, Széchenyi Tér, Pécs

We were both incredibly weary so after the usual stop for coffee and Ian's cake – cherry crumble today – we took the bus back to Modestine where we are planning our onward route. It is the end of the month and campsites are rapidly closing down for the winter all across Europe.

Wednesday 29th September 2010, Pécs, Hungary
We have returned to the same campsite this evening though we left this morning fully intending to move on. Our trouble has always been not being sufficiently focused and easily getting side-tracked. As it invariably leads to something enjoyable though, it's a habit we are not particularly anxious to break.

About twenty kilometres south of Pécs stands the pleasant little spa town of Harkány. We passed through it in 2007 on our way up through Bosnia and Croatia from the Adriatic coast. On that occasion we were anxious to reach Pécs so just stopped briefly for lunch. Today we pottered down along pleasant rural roads running through fields of maize and gentle tree-clad hills. Harkány is a quiet little town of a few shops and flat, green parkland with paths running beneath avenues of chestnut trees. Today the ground was littered with shining conkers. In the heart of the park is the spa complex, the only real reason for visiting the little town. Signs everywhere are in both German and Hungarian. The bookstall is full of German magazines and the main visitors are from Germany. Nobody we met today spoke English though almost everybody spoke German. We gave up even trying to use Hungarian and went with the flow.

Zsolnay fountain, Harkány

Germans are frequently sent for a Kur by their doctors, paid for by their health care insurance. Hungary is so much cheaper than Germany they can afford the board and lodging here as well as the treatment. They are happy and Hungary is happy. Whether the Kur does them any good is another matter but there are a lot of Germans who are convinced it does.

The pool was crowded with no room to do other than stand around in the naturally heated spring water chatting with your neighbour. After a while you climb out, wrap yourself in a towelling robe and toddle along to the restaurant for some refreshment. Then you go for a mud bath, drink a little spa water and wander around the streets, still wearing your dressing gown and slippers! Not having the regulation white bath robes we felt very conspicuous wearing our fleece jackets and jeans in the supermarket and the bakers and felt people were staring at us.

We discovered a large open market selling absolutely anything you may require. There were dozens of stalls selling bathrobes and slippers so we could have easily mingled undetected in the crowds. One stall holder tried to sell Ian an old English penny for two euros but best of all was the man who cheerily offered us his jars of home pickled vegetables – garlic, red peppers, cauliflower and gherkins. Addressing us in German he told us they were all bottled at home by his wife. Amazing they were, didn't know how she did it but they were a genuine Hungarian Viagra. His wife's gherkins were guaranteed to give you five orgasms a night or your money back!

Hungarian viagra

A few kilometres beyond Harkány is the little town of Siklós, a very agreeable place clustered around the base of a small hill topped by a castle, currently closed for restoration. It is the birthplace of George Mikes who later lived in England and in the 1960s wrote How to be an alien in which he took a humorous, gentle jibe at the British and our mannerisms seen from the viewpoint of a foreign resident.

Castle defences, Siklós

Plaque commemorating the birthplace of Mikes György, Siklós

Siklós also boasts a Serbian church and a Turkish mosque. The latter is now a museum of Turkish artefacts, the floors strewn with colourful rugs while around the walls are small dark wooden tables inlaid with mother of pearl and silver wire. There are copper bowls, hookah pipes, perfume bottles, and eastern bags, garments, footwear and ceramics.

Turkish mosque, Siklós

Turkish mosque interior, Siklós

Siklós, like Harkány also has a large daily market. Both towns are near the frontier with Croatia and do brisk business with Croatians crossing to buy clothes, shoes and household goods which are apparently more expensive across the border. There are frequent signs in Croat.

A twenty minute drive through vineyards heavy with black grapes brought us to Villány. It is at the heart of the Hungarian quality wine trade. Almost every building in the town is involved. The main street is a cheery place with customers tasting the wines at little tables outside the pinces or cellars lining both sides of the street. It was no use to me though with the zero tolerance policy here regarding alcohol and driving, and Ian didn't fancy drinking alone.

We did though visit the wine museum giving a history of the Hungarian trade, the various cépages and the developments made here in the 19th century to produce phylloxera-resistant grape varieties. Hungarian wines are generally excellent, the reds being fruity and dry. The museum also runs a wine shop. So we took a gamble and bought a five litre plastic canister of red wine to keep us happy of an evening as we continue our travels.

Cellars of the wine museum, Villány

By this time it was late afternoon and we were some twenty kilometres south of Pécs. Our intended onward route was to the north. It was not worth rushing so we simply pottered our way across a very pleasant countryside of woodland and low hills back towards Pécs for another night. On the way we passed through several little villages, suburbs really to Villány. Here the roadsides were lined with the cellars of the wine producers. Rows of tiny storehouses that led into dark, cool wine cellars cut back into the hillside behind. In one village three parallel streets of cellars ran along the hillside, the cellar of the lower street extending beneath the floor of the cellars in the street above. In the top street, there were just air vents protruding up into the fields behind the cellars. Throughout the pretty village was the smell of fermenting grapes and the roadside was littered with heaped stalks of recently harvested grapes and the pressed lees of new wines that had just finished their first fermentation. As the wine was strained from the lees, the roadside gutters ran red with the yeasty remains of the wine!

Wine pinces, Villánykövesd

Cleaning the wine equipment outside the cellars, Villánykövesd

Gutter running with wine from the first raking, Villánykövesd

Preparing the barrel, Villánykövesd

As we returned to the city the hills around Pécs were bright with the colours of autumn. Back at the campsite we are disturbed by the odd thump of a falling walnut from the surrounding trees and yellow leaves pile up on our roof overnight. Summer is fast disappearing.