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20060904_P_0193 diary pic
Lots and lots of sunflowers! (and the fields stretch on for ages)
20060904_P_0219 diary pic
What's Hungarian for "cranberry sauce"?
20060904_P_0242 adj diary pic
Long-horned Hungarian cattle

Despite the hotel’s four stars, the shower must rank as one of the worst we have had anywhere. At breakfast we were the only guests in the large dining room. We drove into “town” to the visitor’s centre. This was clearly very new. We got some useful information about areas we could visit independently as well as contact details for a guide. We had tried to contact one yesterday but the man we spoke with didn’t instill any confidence. We called there and then and made an arrangement with the guide, Szándor (Alexander) for tomorrow morning, for an early start!

This seemed to be the right place to look for a real shepherd’s hat, to add to our (my) growing collection – started unwittingly but now beginning to look rather decent. In the central space there were stands with all sorts of local goods, for the tourists of course: gleaming copper kettles for use over a camp fire, and whips, large horse-whips that, handled correctly, could let off a sharp crack. The female vendor demonstrated deftly and a prospective buyer got increasingly frustrated and flayed the thing more and more wildly trying to extract a crack, but without result other than a painful shoulder. There were only tourist versions of the hats, not the real deal, i.e. not good enough for the collection!

From Hortobágy we drove west along the main road leading through the national park. “National park” here didn’t mean a pristine unpopulated part of nature but refers to a protected area, with some bits which are strictly off-limits to visitors, or less strictly, only if accompanied by a guide, and other areas are simply generally accessible. Yet other parts have farms and houses, probably with restrictions on development and rules on maintaining the traditional character of the region. This makes it more a living environment instead of a museum piece. On either side of the road, north and south, the Puszta stretched off into the distance, a landscape of grasslands, steppe, reeds.

The character did vary from one part to another, with different plants and colours, but was relentlessly flat. There were some stands of trees, some distant farm houses, some nearer by. Long low white buildings with thatched roofs, usually a few set together around, or near, a traditional wooden waterwell, consisting of a wooden arm and pulley on a wooden A-frame, rather like a rural version of an oil derrick. A scenic landscape, but impossible to photograph. All you would see on the photograph would be a lower panel of green and an upper panel of blue sky.

We reached the western end of the protected part – we had gone too far, past the bird hides and walking trail we were trying to find, and turned back. We stopped at the hide, a short walk from the small car park, and met a pair of Dutch tourists en passant – they’re everywhere, my compatriots. At the hide we sat with the binos and camera for a little while, looking at the reed beds in the watery wetland ahead of us, and saw herons, ducks, geese, and various little birds – but I have no idea of which ones. Still, it was great just to watch the environment quietly.

Next we drove to the little puszta zoo just outside Hortobágy. Anywhere else this would have been a relatively straightforward collection of farm animals, from ordinary to rather rare breeds, but here, on the Great Plain of Hungary, evolution and man’s breeding have resulted in some pretty quirky forms of these animals. Most famously, the massive grey cattle with their unnaturally long horns, and the racka sheep, long-haired sheep, almost like Rastafarians, with horns that spiralled around straight axes in a wide V-shape from their heads. We wandered round the little zoo, and then drove across the Nine Hole Bridge, and parked to visit the small shepherds museum, in a large thatched house/building.

It housed a collection of old pictures and farm implements, shepherds outfits such as their very broad-shouldered thick felt coats, characteristic hats and shepherds staff. At the far end of the museum a diaroma showed, against a backdrop of a wall-sized real photo from the period, what the scene would have looked like here, just by the Nine Hole Bridge, in days gone by. The bridge had become a venue for the annual fair, hence its fame and place in Hungarian folklore. The pictures, as in other ethnographic musea we have visited, showed life in a totally different era, capturing people’s expressions, their faces and there was even some video footage from the 1930’s.

From the tourist information we had obtained a name and address of Gyula Mihalkó, a real hat maker, for the traditional shepherds hat. He lived in Balmazújváros, a nearby village, and that’s where we went next. This village was less visited by tourists but still boasted the customary zimmer frei signs and had a much more ordinary, quiet sleepy “rural service centre” atmosphere. With some asking around from locals we found it. It would have been impossible otherwise. The hat maker’s daughter was happy to oblige and showed us the workshop, in the house itself, although the hat maker himself was not there and we could not see him at work. With “hands and feet” communication we managed to buy a real hat (not cheap at €65 though) and left, mission accomplished.

From here we now drove west again, back past Hortobágy and towards the marsh area which was good for bird spotting. By now it was late afternoon so we hoped to see some more birdlife. The marshland here consisted of a series of shallow man-made dyked-off artificial lakes, rather like the tank of Angkor in Cambodia, but dense with reed beds. A tram track ran the length of the marsh area, several kilometres in a straight line away from the road. They were clearly still developing it, with a narrow gauge train track intended for future visitors. We walked a good way along the track, with a narrow canal alongside and with branches off at various points. We stopped at a viewing platform and used our binoculars to try and view stuff. We walked on, and then headed back. All in all it was a pretty decent walk, and it was nice for a change to walk along the flat in a straight line! In the late afternoon light the water looked intensely blue as it reflected the sky, and the grasses and reeds looked intensely green. It’s always a nice part of the day, the late afternoon, with that special “glow” as the sun lights things up at a different angle.

We returned to the Hortobágy Club hotel and headed for the hotel’s pool. It wasn’t just a little pool but a full-length four lane pool, suitable for competitions and at one end there was a separate large shallow Jacuzzi-type pool. The latter was occupied by a bunch of drunk Russians, so we simply swam lengths in the main pool until the Russians had had enough and they swapped for the big pool and us vice versa. After this we felt very very relaxed! Later, after spending some time in our room, we went out in Eddie and drove to the csarda - a Hungarian inn usually with gypsy musicians – by the Nine Hole Bridge.

We had hoped for an atmospheric, if rather touristy, evening but it was virtually deserted. There were a few diners outside, and no signs of any music, whether live or recorded. By now the mozzies were out so we sat inside. Only a limited menu was available but that didn’t matter. We had some Hungarian nosh: veal paprika and “noodles” for me, and turkey goulash for Ness, and as Ness was driving I had a beer and a barack pálinka, Hungarian apricot schnapps. On the way there and back Ness dodged the many little frogs which were frozen still on the road in the headlights – mostly successfully. Guess what… it has been another great day! Oh, we’re steeling ourselves for an early start tomorrow, to go “birding”.

Out on the wide-open Hungarian "land sea".
Traditional water-well, a typical sight on the flat horizon.
Birding with Szándor, looking for the Great Bustard.
Flocks of birds wheeling and gathering on the wetlands.
At the famous atmospheric roadside village inn.

We managed the early start without too much trouble and were at reception at 6am to pick up our lunch packs and meet Szándor, our guide. Whilst he said he had no problems with early starts he did look tired and not yet 100% awake. We drove off in his Land Rover – of course – and set off along the main road towards the east and then turned off into the field on the south, following the rough tractor paths across the fields and grasslands.

Szándor was only guiding as a byline for his main work as programme manager for the conservation of the great bustards. Over the course of the morning we warmed to each other and it was easy and pleasant to talk with him. He was knowledgeable and full of insights, and had an even-tempered character with an understated sense of humour. I probably had the better overall experience, sat in the front of the Land Rover, with a better view of the various birds we saw. We wandered across the grasslands, following the tracks, which sometimes just disappeared completely. Szándor certainly knew his way around though.

Within only a short time after leaving the main road we had entered a very different world, one without tarmac, without cars (well, except us!), without power lines, shops, and definitely without tourists! We did pass some farmers and shepherds. Szándor knew them of course and greetings were briefly exchanged en passant. We stopped a little longer to speak with a shepherd who waved us over. He told Szándor about recent sheep thefts that had been happening. Szándor seemed to be an integral part of this environment and community here, not an interloping tourist guide. The shepherd was very courteous, shaking hands with all of us before telling Szándor his story. We drove past traditional whitewashed farm buildings and sheds with thatched roofs. Mostly it was just flat wide open grassland though, stretching into the distance in every direction. We saw birds, various species:


but these were, from Szándor’s point of view at least, of lesser interest. We finally reached a spot from where we could observe a couple of great bustards in a field. They were large thick-necked birds. Other birds we saw – well, here’s the full list:


We drove to various other spots on the grasslands. Szándor’s phone kept going off at regular intervals. On this “sea” of land it was impossible for us to orient ourselves. All landmarks had disappeared – and this was in plain daylight! After a couple of hours of very enjoyable spotting we pulled into a little village, presumably on the southern side of the puszta protected area, and made a stop at Szándor’s favourite bakery, a simple village shop with just fresh bread and fresh cakes, and the little cheesy-bread snacks (name?) the Hungarians are so fond of. I dropped our two cakes on the floor but they were immediately exchanged for new ones. A little further we stopped for a coffee at a village café. Finally we made a little break into “real” Hungarian life rather than the tourist-oriented version. I always like these simple occasions when we go into a “normal” shop to buy something, whether it’s food or drink for a picnic, a pen, washing powder, a writing book, toothpaste, whatever as long as it’s a shop that is for the locals first and foremost and you can usually easily tell by the bemused looks.

After the mid-morning breakfast we continued our spotting and the two highlights were the marshy wetlands full of hundreds, thousands, of birds, including spoonbills and many others, and the field where we saw little birds (dotterels?) where a National Park ranger, a friend of Szándor, joined us for a while and they stood on the hay bales with their tripods. Through the scope we had fantastic views of the many birds we saw this day. Oh for a shutter button on these scopes! I’m sure that Tim and Erica would have loved this too. It was around noon by the time we finally made it back to the hotel. A six hour trip, longer than we had bargained on, and fantastic fun. We rushed to get our stuff and checked out, exchanged details with Szándor, and then said bye to him.

We picked up Eddie and drove on to Kecskemét, on the south-western side of the Great Plain, near Bugacs, for the famous horse show there. The short (30km?) stretch west from Hortobágy was scenic, past the “Open Sea” (aka “Holland minus the busy bits”), again passing some beautiful bright yellow sunflower fields (as we did yesterday – I had already taken pictures of the fields yesterday), not the withered drooping kind but full of life and colour. Past near and distant farm buildings, with the traditional wells, past grasslands, wetlands, bird habitats.

Once outside the small protected area the landscape was more ordinary. Still very flat but with a more limited horizon because of the trees, houses, villages. We drove on to Kecskemét and reached it late on the afternoon. At first sight it just looked rather ordinary, a pleasant little provincial town. It was only the night before we left that we noticed that it had a very pretty town centre, prettier than the “average”. We got rather frustrated in our hotel search and did the rounds before finally striking it lucky with the familial Hotel Apollo on a quiet side street. It was a good find, with a friendly English-speaking young receptionist. He certainly preferred English to German, which seems to be the lingua franca in most parts. He bounded up the three floors of stairs with our heavy packs – “I’m young and strong!” – before coming back down rather puffed! We had a comfortable room on the third floor. Downstairs on the little terrace at the back, overlooking the small parking area and Eddie but pleasantly relaxing with sunshine and flowers and an awning providing relief from the sun, we had a beer, tried to use the internet (T-Com not working though), then retreated inside when the mossies started coming out as it turned to dusk. We ordered a pizza for delivery, which our friendly Anglophile receptionist brought up to us, and munched it while watching dubbed TV (all the channels but with Magyar voice-overs). Pooped, we were in bed early and crashed out after reading our books for a while. Fantastic morning of bird-watching!

At the horse show in Bugacs.
Ness says hello to a friendly horse.
The pièce de resistance, the "five-in-hand", with the rider stands with a leg on each of the two rear horses. Hatásos!
Wrapping up the show with some gypsy music.

Had a great night’s sleep and a great shower, the latter in contrast to the bad one at Hortobágy Club, and a relaxed morning breakfast on the patio, with the obligatory Hungarian paprika shaker, although not as ubiquitous as I had expected to find. We drove the short ride to Bugacs, leaving the town centre via the one-way system and roundabouts (we have navigated many of these over the past few weeks/months!), past some “blocks” – which here in Hungary tend to look less austere, less grey, and rather better built than their equivalents in the Baltics, Poland and Slovakia.

Out of town, into the countryside, at first plain agricultural and then, as we neared Bugacs, it changed back to the typical open puszta. We were very early for the horse show at 1.15pm, but if we hurried up we could catch the additional one at 11am laid on for a tour group. We mentally translated the Hungarian price list and went for tickets with horse-show but without carriage ride, and walked the kilometre or two along the sandy path across the plains towards the trees and stables and museum and showground. As we neared it we could see the Bugacs horsemen warming up for their act, cracking whips and cantering their horses, including the famous five-in-hand (more on this later).

By the time we reached the wooden benches which provided seating facing the performance, the show was already well underway. I started clicking and snapping, with the occasional mutter or grumble when the camera didn’t do what I wanted. The show took place on a very suitably prepared “set” of real puszta landscape, complete with well and reed windshield/field kitchen. It consisted of various displays of horsemanship, whip-cracking and games. For example, one of the games consisted of a race to the centre of the field on command of the central whip-cracker. Another required the riders to trot at speed with full glasses of red liquid. The piece de resistance was the five-in-hand. It was impressive but also over rather quickly and we felt a little, well, short-changed.

We (I) had a quick coffee at the small stand and then sauntered around, all but the only remaining visitors by now. We took a look inside the stables and then went for a walk along one of the trails listed on a panel. We walked into the woods, which were green and pleasant except for the many thin spider-webs strung across the path. Informative panels were placed in many spots, with info about the various flora and fauna, and there were many different kinds of birds nests. We were supposed to reach a wooden viewing platform but the path seemed to come to an end on a low sandy hillock or rise, and we turned back from here. We found out we had actually followed a different trail from the one we though we were on, but never mind.

By now the “park” was slowly beginning to a get a little busier, with visitors arriving for the 1.15pm show. We briefly visited the small shepherds museum with its collection of clothes, tools and displays. The most unusual items were the two tobacco pouches made from sheeps scrotums, euargh. Then we sauntered back, had another coffee and an ice cream, and took seats for the horse show, to get better pictures as much as anything. It was more of the same, a display of … see earlier! The musical accompaniment consisted of the Hungarian classics, including Dvořak’s (or Brahms’?) Hungarian Dance No. 5, and others. Between the shows the bar girl had substituted these for thump-thump rapid-beat chart stuff which was totally out of keeping with the surroundings. We walked back, overtaken by one carriage, but not by the next, and we were “German” enough to bagsy a decent table on the terrace of the csarda, by the entrance and had some nosh (cake, strudel) and applauded the gypsy musicians. The fiddler player at our table, a sample 2,000 forint note stuck in his violin, indicating where you could stick your contribution, in a way the same manner as a lap-dancer makes her money. Of course we had to buy the CD. The we drove back to Kecskemét and chilled out on the patio, had a beer and used the laptop, and I wrote my diary.

A group of grey-haired Russians were conversing at the table next to us. In the evening we were in the mood just for a quick bite, a simple pizza or something, but we ended up at the smart gourmet silver-service restaurant on the main square. The main square was really more a grouping of pedestrianised tree-lined walkways. We had haute cuisine, with everything presented to impress. Even the square plates were a fancy variety with curves. [“square plates” has become our signal for pretentious places – “uh oh, square plates!”] But it was certainly worth it. The other diners seemed to consist mainly of business people, like the three Dutchmen at the table next to us, who weren’t very posh and asked for bread rolls with their meal. We waddled back feeling very satisfied after having wrapped up our meal with a glass of tasty apricot schnapps, a Hungarian speciality.

Locals at work in the paprika fields.
The red gold of Hungary.
Colourful roadside displays.
No, no, we're not tourists, we're travellers...
Local costumes

Before leaving Kecskemét, we went for a brief look around the centre and to take care of a few errands. Oh, sleep/shower/brek superb again. We met the Hungarian business traveller again, a regional manager for a bank or something. Now and then this other world, the “business world” peaks into our lives as travellers and I am steeling myself for a return to this, as I see it, artificial environment. Anyway, for now we still have a few weeks of travel left and we’re both enjoying it. We’re certainly determined to make the most of it, aware as we are how fragile this little bubble really is.

So, we walked back around the central square, found an internet café, to print some Harburton paperwork out to sign and send to SJD, and then the post office to mail the documents. It was sunny with clear blue skies and green trees contrasting, and everything looked bright and clean, unlike a few days ago (yesterday? day before?) when it had turned grey, rainy and wet. Every now and then we get a little spell of autumnal weather and it reminds me of how much I’m looking forward to a bit of grim weather and Scottish skies, with a good wind off the North Sea and a chill in the air, and a clear head. That’s not to say I’m not enjoying the summery Hungarian weather, with its abundance of sunshine! I digress… So, we had taken care of the errands, had another coffee and then went to find Eddie in the underground garage where we had parked him (it!) and then drove on to our next destination, Lake Balaton, another big open space but this time of the liquid kind.

We took a detour to find the famous Hungarian paprika fields first though. Our detour was to Kalocsa, a quiet, pretty provincial town. We managed to find the tiny Paprika Museum, on the upper floor, more an attic space, above a closed down café. Inside the museum there were panels in Hungarian, various farming tools and implements, and row upon row of strings of dried paprikas, red “chillies”, hung from the ceiling beams, leaving a delicious peppery and pungent (as in chilli) aroma throughout the room. We had a look around. The most interesting things were the black and white old photographs.

Next we went to find the local version of tourist information – the hotel with “information” featuring prominently on their signboard but they weren’t able to tell us where we might find the paprika fields. Actually, no, they were able to tell us – they said five kilometres south, to “Bayta”, but they weren’t too definite with their answer so we tried the girl from the Paprika Museum who … had no idea! Anyway, we drove south. If nothing else we wanted to go this way to catch a little ferry across the Danube (instead of going across a bridge) so it was en route.

A few kilometres out of town we saw the paprikas for sale: strings of dried red and yellow paprikas were on display outside houses with a nearby old person, the vendor. Another aside – the roadside vendors are prolific here too, usually as we pull into a village we see the vendors of melons or other fruit, sat by the side of the road with their produce, rather like the Polish berry vendors. Another variety of roadside vending we have come across are the prostitutes on the outskirts of the larger towns. Digressed again… the paprikas, and further on we saw the paprika fields at last. Not “fields of red gold” but ordinary looking small green plants, which on closer inspection were full of firm ripe red and green paprikas, but hard to see as they were so small.

Yesterday, on the way back from Bugacs we had already seen large pale green (like this) peppers being grown in plastic greenhouses. That reminds me, we also passed a goose farm – I took some pictures. We stopped by the fields to take some pictures, and spotted a row of people harvesting them – perfect for pictures! Mission accomplished, we now tried to find the little ferry, one of several places to cross the Danube. By luck we managed to find it and crossed the wide river on the simple ferry which consisted of a “pontoon” lashed to a little boat alongside.

We left one part of Hungary behind, so it felt, and now drove linea recta to Lake Balaton. Outside Siófok, along route 7, we came across more prostitutes, at which point I decided it would make a good “typical” people picture and made a mental note to myself. Siófok itself looked rather “resorty”. Lonely Planet said it was the brash playground, on the brash playground southern lake shore, and we just made directly for the ferry across to the peninsula of Tihany which juts into the lake from the northern shore.

We had timed it well again – we boarded and the ferry cast off almost immediately. Minutes later we were deposited on the Tihany side. The lake itself looked immense, at least in the east-west direction where the far sides were not visible (certainly in the western direction). But also north-to-south it was still very wide. The waters were calm, smooth, milky and silky, light blue. A Hungarian playground, just as the Mazurian lakes were for the Poles. We drove the short distance along the lake shore, with a green lowland and some vines (I think) to our left as we headed east towards Balatonfüred, a rather more sophisticated and quiet town.

It’s a centre for heart treatments and there was a significant proportion of silver-haired doddery folks about. There was a definite out-of-season atmosphere to the town, and signs of construction of new modern hotel complexes on the outskirts and a clearly brand-new town centre, with newly paved streets, newly redone buildings, etc. We checked into our hotel (booked ahead) which looked the part, but service was rather lacking. Anyway, we settled in – ditched the plastic anti-bed-wetting mattress covers, I “beccie’d” Ness again – our little routine of life on the road, etc.

Later we walked to the gardens by the lake shore and promenade, and gazed at the full moon and lights reflected on the still lake waters. We found a perch by the lake and sat arm-in-arm, a magic moment. Then we went for our longed-for pizza! A simple etterem (café/restaurant) set back a little way from the lake. By ten o’clock, or not even that late, we strolled back, past the closed Irish bar and Chinese restaurant and crashed out. Great day – yes, another one!

Arriving at Balatonfüred, on massive milk-coloured Lake Balaton.
Troublemaker - I was just offering to drive the boat – “I am a sailor, you know".
In relaxed mood at Balaton.
Passing the time of day.

At breakfast, a group of coarse working-class German gannets and various grey-haired doddery folks. Oh, last night we observed briefly the restaurant’s entertainment, a middle-aged bloke with thick specs and a pre-programmed keyboard and sax, and fled the restaurant! Anyway, after a slow start we made it out and walked down to the lakeside. It was a greyish and wet day, and the place had a rather off-season feeling, which combined with the general air of a sanatorium rather than a tourist resort, quiet, peaceful and autumnal.

There was a jetty or small pier into the lake, with some yachts, dinghies, moored on one side, and on the other side and around the platform at the end, there were tour boats for lake rundfahrt's. By the looks of the boards we had missed the few trips which departed at 11am, but we did manage to find one, a convivial looking boat that went at 1pm, “depending on the weather and enough passengers”. Just as we were about to wander off again a guy walked up and booked for a group, so the trip was definitely on and we bought tickets too. We whiled away the time by ambling around, up and down the jetty, bought a Hungarian flag patch (another collection of mine), an ice cream, and then boarded our boat, taking seats on the small top deck, on the roof.

The sun came out later on and brightened the trip. We motored across the milky silky waters of Lake Balaton towards Tihany, and had a coffee and a little picnic – straight versions of the usually crescent-shaped Hungarian rolls, salami, sajt and piquant green paprikas/chillies, delicious! A little bit of a breeze wafted over us. It was a pleasant little trip, and the same on the way back to Balatonfüred. Back at Balatonfüred we walked along the promenade and stopped somewhere for a coffee and a cake. On one side of the promenade was the tall concrete but freshly(ish) painted “big” hotel (name?) with a private beach on the lake across the promenade. Most of the lake shore had been sectioned off here.

We returned to our hotel to pick up Eddie and then drove towards Tihany, avoiding the speed-trap thanks to the light signals from oncoming motorists – phew. At Tihany a peninsula juts into the lake. We parked at the top of the hill, by the church and Benedictine abbey, in the village centre. It was very touristy, with many shops and cafés and plenty of tourists. So this was were all the people were! The whole place reminded us of an English village, with its little landscaped gardens, cottages with thatched roofs, stone walls, and even all the craft shops. You wouldn’t be surprised to walk past “ye olde vicarage” or “ye olde bakery”! In a different way, the lie of the land, it also reminded us of Howth, by Dublin.

We strolled around the little lanes, peeked into some of the craft shops with lots of pottery on offer, and meandered back into the landscaped gardens and picked a bench from where we overlooked the lake, towards Balatonfüred. Groups of teenagers were on some kind of treasure hunt, walking around with white plastic cups. We descended to the village centre where there were many more tourist shops, and lots of signs proclaiming Ungarische Spezialitäten and shops covered in strings of dried red paprikas – not so English now! There wasn’t much else to see/do in Tihany itself, and we weren’t in the mood for a walk/hike through its trails and forest, so we drove back to Balatonfüred.

On the way we stopped at the Shell garage where Eddie was given a proper clean by hand, for 1,200 Forint (£3), as he was covered in sticky goo, having been parked below a tree with large leaves and “beans” last night (no idea what it was). We had a coffee inside while waiting, and then drove back in our very clean and shiny Eddie, collected our laundry from the hotel and relaxed for a while. In the evening we walked to the lake, taking with us the loaf of old bread we still had with us and the tripod. Unfortunately it was an overcast night and the full moon didn’t quite have the same magic as last night. Still, I fiddled with the tripod and tried to get some good shots, while Ness fed the ducks. The swans, further out in the lake, hadn’t noticed and didn’t come to butt in. Ness did her best to “blow the clouds away” for the pictures, but without much success! For dinner we went back to the pizza/pasta etterem but had more Hungarian dishes and a bottle of plonk, and the same music, including some Elvis!

We left Balatonfüred a day earlier than planned as it made more sense to make for Hévíz with its thermal lake, at the far western side of the long lake. We had realised that this would be better as an overnight stop rather than a daytrip from Balatonfüred and there wasn’t really anything “essential” to see or do right here. We had been rather underwhelmed by the lacklustre service at the hotel anyway so were quite happy to leave. Balatonfüred felt very much like a town which was now closed for the season, full of new constructions and very pleasant streets which were still readying themselves for the next season. Eddie had been parked in a better spot and had escaped the accumulation of falling leaves and the sticky sap from the trees overhead.

It was a beautiful feel-good sunny day, still a full-on summer with a nice crisp feeling in the air, and it was a pleasure to drive along the lake, with one of our favourite Baltic CD’s playing as we drove west, past the reed beds that lined the lake shore. The long drive along the lake demonstrated how extensive it was, 78km end-to-end. Off to our right as we drove, we passed vineyards, active cultivated ones as well as many now overgrown plots advertised as elado (for sale). We passed through several villages, less touristy at this end but still with zimmer frei signs and campings.

Then, at the far end, we left Balaton behind and quickly thereafter reached Hévíz, a small but intensely touristic spa town, with most visitors of the grey-haired variety. It took us a few attempts to penetrate Hévíz’s town plan but with a bit of perseverance we got there. And with a little searching we came up trumps with the Pannon hotel. On the way into Hévíz we had already noticed that it was a somewhat different place, with tall green trees which neither of us could place (like evergreens but with fern-like leaves, very odd). Along the streets we saw people walking around with rubber rings and “noodles” (the swimming/flotation aids), and many shops selling them.

We navigated our way round the streets and passed the thermal lake and saw many little heads bobbing up and down in the water around the central complex. At the Pannon we dumped our bits, chilled for a few minutes with another half a bread roll with salami, chilli and “shite”, and then went out to the thermal lake. On the way we picked up some noodles, in bright primary colours and with a connecting piece at the end (to turn them into rings). Most of the folks toddling around the streets were older. This is very much a “wellness” place, with “patients” coming here for “treatments” of several weeks. Our hotel had a few plaques advertising the services of the resident doctor for rheuma (arthritis) sufferers, along with various other therapies.

The entrance to the thermal lake complex at first sight appeared traditional and I was expecting another Budapest Gellert-style somewhat old-fashioned centre, but inside it was immediately clear that this place had the most modern and up-to-date facilities, with a modern reception, and wristwatch style passes that could be used to open your lockers, etc. Outside the complex there were rows of colourful flowerbeds. Inside the fenced off area there was a whole complex centred on, and in, the small lake. A long corridor led into the central complex from where you could access the lake, as well as the various platform dotted around the sides. Lots of flabby and wrinkly flesh was on display, mainly old people.

It was hardly a place for the “beautiful people” but a fantastic spot to spend an afternoon, or a lot longer! We changed and then headed for the central bit. Oh no, first I went around to get some pictures and then, the camera stored back in the locker, we ventured into the lake with our brightly coloured noodles. It was lovely and warm, nicely so, a perfect temperature, and the water was buoyant. With our noodles we chilled, floated, bobbed, paddled. The thermal lake itself was a real oddity and a real surprise for us to find this place. Around the edge there were various complexes with changing rooms, sunning platforms, a café and, in the centre the main bit, with various rooms and platforms as well as an enclosed area.

Radiating around the lake at several places there were bars you could hang on to and float, along with a few other underwater bits of seating. Green “lilies” with their pink/purple flowers, on clusters at various points around the lake. The most “picturesque” sight consisted of the many bobbing, floating visitors. Maybe it was my imagination but they looked rather comical, with curious expressions, surprised to find themselves in this floating position. They simply bobbed. No-one swam more than just a few strokes to move around a bit.

The pictures inside showed us the actual spring, located in crevices located more than forty metres down. It looked more like the bottom of the deep ocean. Shallower bits were closer to the lake edges, which we went in the next day, but we stayed in the centre where it was deep. We connected our noodles and floated happily for a couple of hours. Early on we met a British couple, elderly of course, who had spent two weeks here. We had a lovely lazy afternoon in this unique spot, thoroughly enjoying our relaxation.

We dried out on the solar terrace and had a bite – a szendvic and a burger and coffee. I nearly forgot to mention the strong eggy smell, which we soon stopped to notice. But when we finally left the thermal lake we did still smell eggy for a long time afterwards. A coffee, cake and cards on the way, and then we returned to our hotel. For dinner we stuck to Lonely Planet’s recommendation and went across the road from our hotel to a cosy informal eatery, and waddled back later, with tummies full of tasty fish, nosh, beer, wine and schnapps, and that essential end-of-the-evening bonus, a short waddle across the road to our room! We were very glad that we had decided to spend the night here and really enjoyed the soak and noodles (and we’re going for another tomorrow morning!)

We felt relaxed after our session in the lake yesterday. Before we moved on we went back for more! We checked out of the hotel but it was ok to leave Eddie in the hotel car park while we walked to the lake with our brightly coloured noodles. Even though it was still early-ish, there were already plenty of people, mostly grey wrinkly ones, on their way to the lake and in it.

We bought three-hour sessions and put on the blue wristwatch tags. To get some decent pictures across the lake we walked round to the platform on the far side. Ness went to hire some towels while I took pictures of the lilies along the shore of the lake. At the far end we changed and plonked our towels and stuff on sun loungers and, after having done the “shoot”, went for more bobbing in the lake. It was a bit more shallow at this end and sometimes your feet just touched some underwater plants, and further in the lake bottom fell away completely.

We “noodled”, bobbed and floated – what a wonderful way to spend the morning! After about an hour or two, but it felt like it had been much longer, we dried off and went for a drink and an ice cream at the open-air café at the other end. There was something very “eastern European” about all this, it just felt as if … well, there was no way I could imagine this type of set-up, scene or mood in “the west”, with that combination of people, setting, general mood. I could, however, imagine this same environment with a bunch of exuberant Poles at play, rather than the relatively subdued Hungarians, or probably mostly elderly Austrians and Germans, “ost-Deutscher” I would imagine. We did spot and hear some younger English-speaking people though – more backpackers like us?

Back to the hotel, with a stop for coffee and post cards (same place) on the way back, and then we headed out of Hévíz and on to Sopron, our last stop in Hungary. En route we made two stops for a bit of sightseeing. The first was at Sümeg, where we made an impromptu stop to see the frescoes in the church. It was shut, so we missed out on “arguably” (RG & LP stock expression) the finest frescoes in Hungary, the “Sistine chapel of Rococo”, or something, all in a very ordinary little provincial church, an unlikely setting. The castle on a hill dominated the town and did make for a scenic sight though.

Leaving Sümeg we spotted two roadside prostitutes, and a police car which had just pulled up to speak to one of them. We did a u-ey for the picture but it was a little too hurried to get a perfect shot. They did really look like the stereotype tart image though, very gypsy-looking dark-skinned women, and one of them did pose for the camera (unfortunately I missed the shot), the other one dressed in a bright orange clingy thing.

We drove on to Sárvár, which we had planned as an overnight stop originally until we heard about Sopron, just a little further on. We were glad that we didn’t make Sárvár an overnight stop as there was very little to see here and the only reason to stop at all was to take a peek in the Nádasdy castle and its stuffy museum. By reputation Sárvár was a very unusual place as it was here where insane countess Elizabeth Báthory got up to all sorts of deranged behaviour, or so goes the legend. The “Blood Countess”, as she became known, was Sárvár’s most infamous resident. A boxed text in Lonely Planet summarised the story but here, at Nádasdy castle itself, there was absolutely no reference to her, other than a standard portrait along with other Báthorys in the stairway up to the first floor of the castle, with no hint of her personality.

We briefly visited the museum, a stuffy but nonetheless interesting collection of Hussar history with uniforms, maps and so on, but only in dense boring Hungarian and German and we just walked through. It was clear though that Sárvár had an important part in the history of the famous Hussar regiments. There was a small but exquisite collection of old maps of Hungary, the gift from an American Hungarian. There were beautiful frescoes in another part of the castle – château would be more apt and it did remind us of the Loire in a way. Frescoes in the main hall, some were badly damaged, and beyond this was a series of rooms, with displays of cutlery and some furniture, i.e. nothing amazing.

We left Sárvár after our brief stop, glad that we had changed our plans. So, we pushed on the short distance to Sopron, in an area of land that on the map looks like it juts out of Hungary and would more logically fit into Austria. After WWII the inhabitants got to choose which country they would like to belong to and they chose Hungary. Driving into Sopron, it felt like a pretty but unspectacular provincial town with a pleasant laid-back atmosphere. Quiet streets and a somewhat Mediterranean feel.

We had booked ahead again, for a change picking a cheaper hotel, not far from the enclosed old town. The Wieden Panzió was a rather simple affair but welcoming. We met some French people in the reception – they hadn’t booked and were turned away but when we explained to the receptionist that we only needed one double room, not two separate rooms, he called them back and everyone was happy. The French had been touring through Romania. Our room was basic but adequate, even cosy. Ness washed our swimming togs which still had the eggy Hévíz smell and we chilled out for a while.

Just across the road was an eatery rated highly in Lonely Planet, which listed it as one of the top five eating experiences/venues in Hungary, renowned for its massive portions of tasty Hungarian fare, and this raised our expectations. We went across the road and took a table along the wall in the courtyard. It was very clearly set up to cater for large numbers of noshers, although at first when we got there it was rather empty and there were only a few other tables occupied. We just wanted some time to have a few drinks first and I caught up a bit on my diary.

Our waiter seemed to have given up on us ordering food and service was lackadaisical, three different waiters reluctantly dealing with us. A large Austrian group, mostly young men, occupied a long table in the courtyard. In that typical German fashion they were serious and earnest with each other, and looked like the stereotype “boring Germans”. Our meals were, well, underwhelming, neither very big (which was fine by us), nor very tasty and in fact bordering on the plain. Nothing like the tasty Hungarian nosh we had hoped for and combined with the bad service we left rather unsatisfied. Still, we were glad to be here and crashed out on our beds, a spring poking through on Nessie’s side.

Across the street from our room was a söröző/borozó, a beer (sör) and wine (bor) joint, “usually a dive” as Lonely Planet explained. It was just a basic locals bar, a working men’s café. Last night it stayed open until late, and the sounds of Hungarian drinkers voices carried into our room. It re-opened early in the morning when it still felt like it was the middle of the night and the noise resumed as did the traffic.

Not the worst night of sleep of our trip, not the best either, but we still felt refreshed. We popped down for breakfast and then back up to shower and get ready, our usual routine. Before leaving the hotel we swapped rooms (the receptionist had told us about this last night) for one on the inside, by the tiny courtyard and this was better from our point of view.

Then we walked into the town centre, across the main road that encircles the oval-shaped old town area of Sopron. Inside the walls we found a little gem of an old town, picturesque, colourful, a world apart. There were cobbled streets, colourful old buildings, Fő tér – the main square – with the old Goat Church and a stunning plague column as its centrepiece, and elaborate baroque mansions such as the Storno House and the Fabricius House.

The bright sunlight lit up the whole place and it was a pleasure just to look around and take in the scene. There were just a few cafés and we went for a morning coffee at one while we sat and looked at the square. Sopron’s old town was very small and it would not take us long to walk around it, and we were in no hurry. We walked up and down the three main streets that ran the length of the oval.

First we visited the Roman forum, now found in the basement of a bank. We went through the office and down into the cellar where, four or five metres below the level of the square, the old forum of ancient Scarbantia, as the town that was here before Sopron was known, was partially uncovered. There were old pedestals for statues of horsemen and the old gutters and a part of the square, and drawings of how it would have looked in Roman times. Time Team stuff. Afterwards we continued to stroll lazily through the old town’s streets, peeked inside a church and then “up” to the main square along the long middle street, en passant some old people and their big Alsatian.

Parts of the town’s buildings have had “the treatment”, others not (yet), but it did not feel dilapidated or neglected, just old. It was also clear that it had not yet been transformed into a “museum piece” old town and that real people still lived here. It felt like a place where time has stood still. We cut across to the third street and head back “down”, away from Fő tér and ended at the southern end, at Széchenyi tér, a wide square with the main post office. On a corner we stopped at Dömötöri Cukrászda (café/patisserie), a café in the Viennese fashion, next to the “English pub” which did look the part. I went off to get a much-needed haircut at the herren friseur across the street, where I had to wait for my turn after two silver-haired old boys (who had more hair than me!), while Ness waited at the café.

From here we strolled back to the northern end of the old town by following the main road around its edge, in the busier world of shops and hotels and the twentieth century, erm… twenty-first by now! Lonely Planet informed us that the inner or old town is properly known as the belváros.

We carried on round the top, picking up some of the tasty Hungarian cheesy buns. I’m not sure what they’re called, but tasty South American bus food sprang to mind! We cut through into the main square and took a look inside the Goat Church. Its small interior was half-filled with scaffolding though. On the main square we now went for a couple of beers at another café, with wooden benches rather than Viennese this time, played cards and later picked up a gyros from a wall stand on our way back to the hotel.

It was still early but we decided to head back to our room for a while first before going out for the evening. Later we returned to the main square – it is hard to avoid in such a small town – and for dinner we went to the Corvinus restaurant/café, eating inside and we were the only diners. The inner town seemed virtually deserted now with only a few passers-by now and then. Dinner was better than last night, with a reliable veal paprika (beef stew) and so-so wine. Afterwards we walked “all the way” across the inner town and went to try out the English pub. This was actually as close to the real thing as could expect to get and we enjoyed a couple of drinks and games of cribbage for old times’ sake. And then we went back to our room and into bed. It had been a nice day of mooching around a small town, and we were both glad to have had a day of “lazy sightseeing”. Sopron has been a little gem to finish our tour of Hungary.