Lake Balaton to the Austrian border

Friday 1st October 2010, Keszthely, Hungary continued
During the afternoon we drove across country from Kaposvár to Lake Balaton, passing through undulating countryside, woodland, past lakes and through tidy, attractive villages where residents were busy cleaning the communal ditches along the roadside and cutting the grass. Everywhere looks well cared for, though not in the pristine manner found in Austria and Bavaria. Hungary has received considerable support from the EU and seems to have used it wisely. Everywhere is so much smarter than we remember it from our last visit three and a half years ago. People tell us the country is in great financial difficulty so perhaps many of the improvements we have noted have been carried out with borrowed money, as elsewhere in Europe.

Around five this afternoon we reached Keszthely and quickly found the campsite we have used on our two previous visits. To our relief it was still open. Many that we passed had already closed for the season. We were remembered by the owner who is as friendly as ever. Most of his visitors are German so he speaks this well. As he does not speak English and Ian's German is somewhat better than his Hungarian, it is our language of communication.

Soon we were settled and able to leave Modestine for an evening stroll beside Lake Balaton. It is the largest area of water in Hungary and with no sea coast, it is where the nation goes for its ice cream, sunbathing and swimming. It is also extremely popular with German holiday makers. There are agreeable resorts all around the lake but Keszthely, at the western end is particularly favoured by Germans – and us. The lake looked very pale in the evening light. A few swans were hopefully gathered near the boat jetty hoping for titbits, but generally there was very much an end-of-season feel with very few visitors around. We were tired after the day travelling and happy to return to Modestine for supper and to watch a dvd.

Bathing pier, Lake Balaton, Keszthely

Pleasure boat returning to the jetty, Lake Balaton, Keszthely

Feeding the swans on Lake Balaton, Keszthely

Satuday 2nd October 2010, Keszthely, Hungary
As this is the third time we have been lured back to this very pleasant town I am having a holiday and neglecting the blog. Everything we have to say about both Keszthely and the nearby spa resort of Héviz has already been said on 28th May 2006 and 26th May 2007 Both reports are still valid – though prices have increased greatly.

So today we spent the morning pottering around the town and exploring the busy market with its stalls of paprika, honey, second-hand books and lots of cheerful banter. We were constantly addressed in German and have seen no English people here all day. We sought out some of the places we enjoyed on our previous visit but have been shocked to realise just how much more expensive everything is now. Of course the value of the £ has dropped, even while we have been here. When we arrived we were getting 340 forints to the £. Today the rate on the street was 308! Our coffee and sweet quark retes was as delicious as before but at 1360 forints rather than the 960 we paid last time the real price for us has effectively doubled.

Santons for Christmas made out of the sheaths covering ears of maize. Keszthely

We walked up to the spectacular castle and strolled through the beautiful gardens with beds of brightly coloured autumn flowers. It felt quite chilly today, a contrast to our last visit when we climbed into one of the fountains to cool off!

Festetics Castle, Keszthely

Determined to eat fresh fish from the lake at lunchtime we returned to Modestine for Ian to find a warmer jumper before seeking out the lakeside stall selling whole fried freshwater fish served with pickled gerkins, cabbage and peppers. While back at the campsite we bumped in to Zylvia, the daughter of the campsite owner. She has now finished her library studies and is working in an international language library in Budapest. Her English, which we were helping her with on our last visit, is now excellent and she is very happy in her new job. So we feel delighted that there is a new generation of Hungarian librarians eager to fill the gap left by their predecessors – our contemporaries, now retiring, who have done so much to foster professional links with Britain and have given us so much personal pleasure and interest in Hungary over the years. We have promised we will visit Zylvia in her library when we are next in Budapest.

Down by the lake we ordered our fish along with glasses of Balaton red wine. Who fusses about white wine with fish when the red is so delicious? It has to be said Balaton fish is very full of bones and it is something to be eaten slowly and with great care. We sat at long, communal tables in very shabby surroundings beside the lake but it was interesting and comfortable watching local families with children and dogs arriving for quark pancakes and something that resembled Yorkshire puddings filled with cream and cheese. Unsurprisingly, these seemed particularly popular with German holiday makers who know a good, calorie-laden snack when they see one!

I shouldn't poke fun at them however. The ones sitting near us today have done us a great favour. So deep in conversation were we about the progress made in Hungary since our last visit and what might be done to improve living conditions in Romania, that we walked out leaving our bag with all our documents on the chair beside us! It was only when we reached the railway station to check the timetable for a possible ride along the lake that we missed it! When we returned our German neighbours were standing guard over it knowing we would soon miss it and return! Our gratitude can be imagined.

Ian has some crazy ideas and thought a three kilometre stroll to Héviz would be nice. It's actually nearer seven from the lake. Once we reached the far side of town and realised this he thankfully dropped the idea, promising we'd go by bus tomorrow. However, our plans have changed as we realise we need to be in England by November 2nd and at the speed we are travelling we won't make it. We also hoped to visit Vienna but that will have to await another visit. Tomorrow we move on towards the Austrian border with Hungary. Most campsites are now closed so our route depends on where we can find shelter at night.

Sunday 3rd October 2010, Köszeg, Hungary
We find ourselves this evening back at a campsite we visited in 2007. It stands on the edge of the pretty, unspoilt town of Köszeg full of small baroque houses. It is right on the border with Austria and there is something of the feel of Austria in the town. It is also one of the shabbiest towns we have seen in Hungary, although this is in some ways a part of its charm. Gradually the houses are being restored and the roads improved but in the meantime the town suffers seriously from fallen plaster and broken pavements. Last time we were here it was on a hot May evening. Tonight it has been chilly and gloomy so we have not seen it at its best. Today people throughout Hungary are voting in the local election and around the town there are posters advertising the merits of the different party candidates. We have written about Köszeg on 27th May 2007

Main square, Köszeg

Before leaving the surroundings of Keszthley we drove to the nearby spa town of Héviz. It was a chilly morning but already the German visitors were heading for the lake clutching their rubber rings that enabled them to bob around in the hot water until lunchtime. The lake is slightly sulphurous, slightly radioactive and is at a steady 33 degrees for most of the year. Today there were plenty of people in the water, pleasant enough until you want to come out! It is claimed to be the largest peat-based natural biologically active thermal lake on earth. I swam in it on a former visit and lived to tell the tale. Unfortunately we are beginning to run out of time and decided that we couldn't wait until lunchtime to watch the curists enjoying their forbidden lunches of Eisbein and Pflaumentorte, out of sight of the doctors at the spa.

Entrance to the hot baths, Hévis

On our way to Köszeg we stopped for lunch in Szombathely. Although we passed through the town in 2007 we could remember nothing about it. A second visit really confirmed my impression that it is one of Hungary's least interesting towns. It suffered serious bombing from the Americans during the Second World War and much has been rebuilt. There are though some pleasant 18th and 19th century buildings surrounding the huge central square, there are Roman remains set in a public garden and a synagogue now used as a concert hall. At present there is much reconstruction work being undertaken and a Temple to Isis in gleaming new marble rises in the centre of the town.

Temple of Isis, Szombathely

Former synagogue, Szombathely

Roman remains, Szombathely

So huge and uninteresting is the main square that a statue of the writer James Joyce has been placed against the wall of one of the houses there! The tenuous link with Szombathely is that Leopold Bloom, the main character in Joyce's work Ulysses was supposed to have come from the town. By chance, a family with the name of Blum was living in Szombathely at that time. It is almost certainly pure coincidence but with little else to help sell the town, the council are enthusiastically promoting the link.

Main square, Szombathely

Statue of James Joyce, Szombathely

The neo-classic Cathedral has been rebuilt after being badly damaged in the American bombardments. It has been beautifully done and the pink marble used throughout is quite lovely. Unfortunately the roof frescos have proved too expensive to restore.

Cathedral interior, Szombathely

Exterior view, Cathedral, Szombathely

As we looked around we were accosted by an enthusiastic Hungarian man whom we presumed at the time was an official cathedral guide. What is it about Ian that gets him into so many odd situations here? All he did was explain that we didn't speak Hungarian. Unfortunately he did it in Hungarian. Our guide started to talk to us as if we were six years old using extravagant gestures as we stood immediately in front of the altar. Generally, having read our guidebook, we understood his explanation. Then it got complicated. We still have no idea what was going on but our guide was on the floor rolling up the leg of Ian's trouser, rolling up his own and pressing their calves together as he bent down before the altar still talking to us continuously! Amusement turned to doubt and then to concern. All we wanted to do was to escape! Weird or what? Maybe he was a Freemason, or maybe he was explaining about a piece of masonry going through somebody's leg during the bombardments, or maybe the man was just completely bonkers. We headed out of the Cathedral as fast as we could and disappeared into the centre of the town. On the way we passed the Bishop's palace and the statue of Szombathely's first bishop, Szily Janos. (Not as Szily as our guide though!)

Bishop Szily, Sombathely

The town was rather boring and almost deserted. Nowhere was open for lunch except Macdonalds. So that's where we went. At least it was warm and the staff friendly. They immediately understood Ian's request for kettö dupla sajtburger (two double cheeseburgers) and one large portion of fries with ketchup, and they never batted an eyelid at his Hungarian. I feel really proud of him. How did he know to say nagy burgonya for a large bag of chips? As you see, it's not exactly an intuitive language.

Afraid of Ian having his leg fondled again if we were recognised passing the cathedral we made a wide detour around the town to rejoin Modestine. We left Szombathely with relief and a determination never to visit it again. Despite some pleasant buildings around the cathedral it has an atmosphere that is far from welcoming.

Monday 4th October 2010, Köszeg, Hungary
We are still here on the campsite. Modestine is sick and was quite unable to get going this morning! We packed everything up, paid our bill, checked our maps and turned the key in the ignition. Groans, wheezes and splutters were all she could muster. It was the same symptoms she had in Corsica so we were fairly confident we knew what the problem was. Explaining it to a Hungarian mechanic is another matter! Nobody around the campsite spoke either English or German. The public library - our usual source of help for everything when we are travelling – is closed on Mondays. Eventually a lady with a gleaming halo in the tourist information office was able to help us in German. Once we'd explained our predicament she phoned the only garage in the town and translated for us between Hungarian and English using German. By the time we'd returned to Modestine two friendly mechanics were waiting to prod at Modestine's intestines. Ian now has a burgeoning Hungarian vocabulary that includes terms such as "The glowplugs are new" "we think it's the air/diesel mixture" "Have you checked the battery?" "We squeezed that bit there because we thought it would prime the pump but nothing happened". [She does exaggerate my Hungarian capabilities!]

They had no more luck than us and disappeared back to their garage for some useful bits of resuscitation equipment. After spraying a thick haze of water repellent into the engine Modestine coughed herself into life. The mechanics are now convinced the glow plugs have gone and will return in the morning with some replacements. I still have doubts that the diagnosis is correct but hope I'm proved wrong.

Although they assured us we could drive Modestine we preferred to leave her on the campsite rather than risk her breaking down again somewhere less convenient. So after explaining our predicament to the campsite lady we set off to explore the footpaths through the dense woodland above the town. We called off on the way at the information office to thank the helpful German speaking angel. She provided us with a map of the local footpaths that even Ian couldn't understand and before long we were hopelessly lost in a forest of sweet chestnut trees scrambling up steep, broken paths and realising how unfit we have become recently.

Köszeg seen from the woodland on the Austrian border

We estimate we have walked about eleven kilometres but about half of it was up through steep woodland and the other half was winding down equally steep paths. By the time we got back I was aching and my toes swollen and sore. However, we feel virtuous and it was a very enjoyable walk. We discovered the old Hungarian/Austrian border post, now completely abandoned in thick woodland, and nearby a pool where seven springs converge. This has long been a favourite destination for the people of Köszeg and was rebuilt in its present form in 1896 to mark Hungary's millennium. Each spring was named after a Hungarian chieftain with a little nameplate. We were delighted to discover one is called Huba, like our friends' camper van!

Seven springs flowing into an open pool in the woodland above Köszeg

Fearful of getting lost forever in the eerie green woods, where the trunks of the trees reminded us of columns in a cathedral, we retraced our steps up the steep track to the hilltop and then followed the narrow road steeply downhill for five kilometres back to Köszeg. On the way we collected fat, shiny sweet chestnuts to roast in Remoska. There were dozens of different kinds of mushrooms profusely scattered beneath the trees but we are too ignorant to risk gathering them.

Steep woodland above Köszeg

Back at the campsite we had been joined by a French campervan. They had no such fears and had large boxes of wild mushrooms laid out around their van as they sorted them all, cleaned them and then dried them in a special contraption they seem to have brought with them all the way from Nice expressly for the purpose! Soon another French camper arrived. It's good to be able to chat in French again. Both vehicles had intended going through to Romania but it appears it would be unwise to go there at present in a French vehicle. President Sarkozi has caused such a furore with his policy of fingerprinting Romanian Gypsies and sending them back from France that there are major demonstrations in Bucharest and across Romania. So our fellow campers will explore something of Hungary before heading over to Croatia and Slovenia.

Tuesday 5th October 2010, Langenwang, Austria
Well before 9am our two friendly mechanics arrived clutching a box of spanners and some glow plugs. They disappeared beneath Modestine's bonnet for half an hour and she was well again! Assuming she starts okay tomorrow they will have proved the specialist Citroën agents in England and Corsica to have been wrong when they assured us the trouble could not possibly be the glow plugs.

Not knowing how much the bill would be, and knowing we would be leaving Hungary today, we did not have enough forints to pay the bill. Presumably for tax reasons the mechanics were adamant they wanted cash not a card payment, so Ian was bundled into their car and taken to the cash machine to withdraw the perfectly reasonable sum of 12,000 forints. (About £35). They even brought him back to the campsite afterwards but strangely failed to give him a receipt! Who cares? They did a good job and were very friendly and helpful. Indeed, everyone has been so sympathetic and concerned. The lady at the campsite halved our bill for last night because of our predicament and because Ian's funny Hungarian made her laugh.

Soon we were on our way to Sopron, a beautiful, historical little town in the far north-west corner of Hungary. It is practically encircled by Austria and back around 1920 it had a referendum to decide whether it wished to be part of Austria or part of Hungary. Given what happened to Hungary after the Second World War its citizens must have wished they had chosen differently.

Lying to the south of Vienna the town is much frequented by Austrians for its atmosphere, restaurants, cheaper prices and particularly for its dentists where treatment is far less expensive than in Austria or Germany. There seem to be dozens of them around the town advertising themselves in German.

It was cold today and nowhere is quite as attractive when the sun is not shining. We visited the town on a hot summer's day on Sunday 25th June 2006 and described it with great pleasure so will leave you to reread that account. The compact town centre escaped the worst ravages of the Turkish invaders and its attractive mix of baroque and gothic buildings remain much as they were back in the middle ages through to the 18th century. They are a little shabby in places it's true, with crumbling plaster and peeling paintwork, but the synthesis of architectural styles and decaying grandeur is quite charming.

Baroque Holy Trinity statue erected in 1700, incrusted with cherubs, in Fö Tér, Sopron, Hungary

Street in centre of old Sopron, Hungary

Maria Fountain, 1780, Orsolya Tér, Sopron, Hungary

Attractive gateway, Sopron, Hungary

Baroque house discovered in the suburb across the bridge, Sopron, Hungary

Sopron was founded by the Romans as Scarbantia and became an important centre as it lay on the amber route from the Baltic to the Adriatic just south of the point where it entered the Roman Empire after crossing the Danube.

Roman remains of Scarbantia with the amber road passing between the buildings, Sopron, Hungary

Bastions of the old Roman city, Sopron, Hungary

We browsed the streets, remembering odd corners and discovering different ones. At lunch time we found a small cafe serving the old fashioned foods Hungarians grew up with, rather than the pizzas that are now becoming far too prevalent in all the towns across Hungary. We had no idea what most of the dishes were but selected a thick paprika pork and tomato gulyash with rice for Ian and pork stuffed with mushrooms served with a mildly curried vegetable rice for me. We seemed to have two portions on each plate, but noticed everyone else also seemed hidden behind plates piled high with creamed spinach, boiled potatoes and hard-boiled eggs, or paprika sausage with pasta and pickled gherkins. It was our last meal in Hungary and probably just as well. We are eating far too much!

On the way back to Modestine we found a money exchange where we surrendered our remaining forints in exchange for twenty Euros.

A short drive brought us into Austria where we stopped at a garage to buy a vignette permitting us to use the motorways and main trunk roads across Austria. It only cost 7.5 Euros for 10 days and the roads are fantastically smooth after poor old Romania and even much improved Hungary. Today they were not particularly busy either. Soon we'd passed south of Vienna and were climbing up into the mountains, wreathed in a cold, clammy mist that made motorway driving very unpleasant. Visibility became really bad and it was with relief that we sped into a series of motorway tunnels. At least they kept the fog out! It's worth a few Euros to use the motorways and avoid having to climb up and over all the passes in such weather! Eventually we emerged from a particularly long tunnel to discover we'd left the mist behind. Back on ordinary roads again we made our way through spick and span villages of attractive houses and wooden chalets with scarlet geraniums on the balconies. Roadside verges were freshly mown and everywhere looked attractive, clean and cared for.

Actually it can be carried to extremes. When we arrived at this campsite, set amidst the misty peaks of the surrounding hills, the owner insisted we walk with her around the site to select our pitch. Our criteria are level ground so we don't roll out of bed, and near the loo in case we need to scamper across in the rain during the night. Hers was whether there were any fallen leaves on the the grass that might tread in to Modestine! She was really worried because she'd not swept the pitch we selected and did her utmost to persuade us to take the one she'd just cleared.