Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Spars of Hungary

from John:

(Due to personal reasons, i.e. I have been very lazy, this posting is now two weeks out of date - but what's two weeks between friends and family?)

Jo napot!
Greetings from Debrecen, Hungary's second but dullest city. This is our stepping point to cross the border into Romania, and we have decided for a change only to stop the one night. Our hotel is a big old run-down communist-era hotel run by very nice people. It's totally empty. The town's saving grace is a Kashmiri Indian restaurant - so we'll be dining out tonight. Hurrah!

We arrived in Hungary just over three weeks ago. Our train journey from Sarajevo started badly - with the conductor explaining to us in German why we had to get off the train in Croatia, before we crossed the border into Hungary. He was very nice about it, but we spoke no Bosnian(/Croatian/Serbian) and he spoke no English, and I was indignant in the knowledge that I held a ticket for the journey all the way to Pécs in Hungary. The conductor smiled and with a "No problem" look, left me fuming in my seat. Gayle meanwhile had a look in the other compartments and found a young Hungarian woman who was able to explain in English that there were track repairs, and so there would be a short transfer by bus. The young woman was called Nora, and she had studied architecture for two years in Edinburgh, and spoke good English. In fact, she didn't shut up for the rest of the journey. She was friendly and helpful and a little excitable, but left us stony-faced when she made a subtle reference to "the Jews" who charge for entry to the big synagogue in Budapest. We got off at Pecs in a rainstorm feeling quite depressed.

It was Saturday afternoon and the town was deserted - the rain had driven everyone indoors. Our cheap hotel in the centre was closed up - but with the aid of my O level German we spotted a sign next door for "Rooms" (in fact we saw "Zimmer Frei" all over Hungary). It turned out to be a great find - a room with private kitchen and bathroom in a lovely old house with a patio (although the dogs put me off using the latter). Did I mention the dogs? A little terrier like Tintin's Snowy, a dreadlocked small Hungarian sheepdog, so shaggy you didn't know if it was coming or going, and something the size of a small pony. The owner was very nice and thankfully her daughter spoke English and we stayed five nights. Pecs is full of museums and galleries and lovely fairy cake buildings and the centre was green, quiet and pedestrianised which made it even better for wandering around. Our days here were spent working on our Hungarian phrases - hard work because even small words seemed to have about four syllables. ("Which platform does the train leave from?" when translated takes about five minutes to ask in Hungarian.) However, Gayle had only to learn "Do you speak English?", which everyone under thirty seemed to, and she was away. As determined self-caterers we were also delighted to find a plentiful supply of supermarkets, including Spar, and even Tesco's - the latter being an out of town affair, too far even for us to wander to in search of Jaffa cakes. We were also delighted to find that the Tourist Office was very helpful and a useful point of enquiry.

Whilst wandering around Pecs we came across an old 'arthouse' cinema - we searched their programme for anything in English and saw they had a season of Indian films. We went in and checked whether a film had English subtitles, and then went back at tea time to watch "1942 - A Love Story". As it turned out, it was as bad as it sounds. We double-checked the subtitles were in English and then tried to buy our tickets. This took about 15 minutes as the young man had to type in all the details - film title, director, category of film etc. into his computer to produce the tickets. Fortunately for him, there only four punters, us and two students who sat next to us in the little cinema. It was all kind of homely, with some reclaimed armchairs along the front row. We all sat and munched sandwiches and cake during the three hour song and dance epic about the insurgency to defeat the imperial British. It began with a Romeo and Juliet storyline and ended with a polite request to stand for the (Indian) National Anthem. Brian Glover starred as the brutal and savage British General. I don't think the phrase "War on Terror" was used (the film was made in 1994), but there were some remarkably topical coincidences, in between the cheesy bits. The Indian Himalayas were the real star - serving as the picturesque backdrop to the comedy, romance, action, dancing and horror - oh, it had it all!!

From Pecs we travelled straight to Budapest, which warranted half the pages in our guidebook. We camped in an expensive and dump of a campground, which thankfully was very quiet. One night we had two separate visits from the resident hedgehog. Or were there two? Made me jump in the dark, either way. The weather has been very hot, with occasional brief rainstorms clearing the air and we tried to not overdo it in the Big City. But the public transport system was efficient and easy to get around and the streets seemed remarkably uncrowded in the centre. We met up with Isabell and Bill here and stayed in a spacious appartment overlooking the Danube. There was a handy Spar in the basement of the building. What more did we need?

Budapest offers plenty of sights and we sampled a few - the Holocaust Memorial Centre unsurprisingly being the most memorable. In a detailed and fascinating exhibition it describes the lives of Jews and Roma in Hungary before and during the war, and the frighteningly efficient removal of 440,00 to Aushwitz in the space of 3 months in 1944. The combination of personal stories and the enormity of the statistics is horrifying. It made clear that the Germans could not have achieved this crime without the assistance of thousands of Hungarian officials and transport workers. In fact, Hungary's post First World War history has remarkable similarities with Germany's. The peace treaty removed huge areas of their territory and in 1919 there was a Communist takeover (Bela Lugosi was Minister of Culture), followed quickly by a right-wing backlash and a de facto dictatorship, which led to the Hungarians joining the Axis powers. There are some Jews still living in Hungary, and Budapest has the second largest synagogue in the world, but its the Roma who still live here in large numbers and appear to have become second-class citizens, lacking education, missing out on employment, living in poverty, victimised and ostracisied, a depressing vicious circle. The Roma are thought to have originated in India, and there were several occasions when we did a double-take, thinking we had seen an Indian family on the streets of Budapest (for a large European city, it is remarkably uncosmopolitan). Isabell and Bill's visit seemed to pass very quickly, and we think we tired them out with a busy schedule.

After they returned to Blighty, we headed west to Lake Balaton, the largest fresh water lake in Europe and with possibly the largest mosquitoes too (think Black & Decker drill with wings). We camped here and met two very friendly Americans, Lyn and Jeannie, travelling the world in 6 months, with whom we passed a couple of pleasant evenings. Here we also visited the thermal baths of Heviz. Hungary is famous for its spas - thanks to a geological fault and those pesky Turks there are hot baths and swimming pools everywhere - you really have to look where you're going. Heviz is a huge natural open air pool where you can float around on rubber rings or just hang off rails and let the hot mineral waters do their stuff. Apparently people come from all over to seek cures to various ailments - but I confess they did nothing for my piles. We spent a few more lazy days by the lake before coming east to Eger.

Eger is famed for Bull's Blood red wine and (but probably only in Hungary) a defiant resistance against those aggressive furniture salesmen from Turkey in 1552. The story is the stuff of legends: 2,000 locals stuck in the fortress and fighting off 50,000 infidels, women pouring pitchers of boiling oil over the walls, the men fighting with all their courage and skill. And they won, improbably. The Ottoman Turks retreated but came back forty years later and tonked them. And now the Kebab is King. There are some gaps in this history of Eger, but judging from the guff produced by the local Tourist Board I guess you would not be that interested.........

We were lucky to find a nice appartment to stay in the old centre with its fairy cake buildings. On the Pentecost holiday we headed into the forested hills along with half of Hungary for a walk. We followed waymarkers up through thick woods and left the crowds behind, to reach the highest summit in the range, about 950m. After a tough sweaty climb we were rewarded with fantastic views of, er, more trees. We met someone with a map and took digital photos of it, so we could navigate another way down - quite a bizarre way to walk. The next day was spent relaxing at the thermal baths and swimming pools along with, I am convinced of this, half of Hungary - again.

On reflection we have found Hungary rather dull - despite the best efforts of our guidebook authors to convince us that there is plenty to see - Budapest is definitely the highlight for me. However, it has also been one of the easiest countries to visit because the public transport has been excellent and it's easy to get information about things. Once again, we have been helped by a well-educated population, many of whom speak English. Phew. Oh, and such marvellous weather!

Viszontlatasra for now!