In the foothills of the Alps, not far from the Hungary/Austria border, where deer can leap 100o metres and run at 60 km/hr, lies the old mediaeval town of Kőszeg. It’s been around for a while, and has that ye olde worlde feel to it.

It was here, way back in 1532, that Captain Miklós Jurisics and just 50 of his closest friends managed to hold up some 80,000 – 100,000 Turkish troops (depending on who you listen to) advancing towards Vienna. They held out for 25 days! In the end, they allowed the Turks to run up their flag over the castle in a symbolic declaration of victory provided they left immediately afterwards. They did and they did – at 11am the last of the Turks left the city limits and still today, the church bells ring at 11 o’clock to mark the occasion. I had read somewhere that the church clocks were all stopped at 11am as a constant memorial, but that simply ain’t true.

Miklós made his mark, though. It’s down to him that Vienna didn’t meet the same fate as Buda did some few years later.  The castle is named after him, as is the local secondary school. Jurisics Miklós Gimnázium (JMG) was founded in 1677 and is the oldest operating International School in Hungary. It’s a testing center for the US college boards (SAT, ACT,etc.), as well as the British IGCSE exam and in 2006, the Herald Tribune listed it as one of the top ten international schools in the world. Who’d have thought it, eh?

Remnants of the town walls can still be seen and those houses in the shadow of Jurisics Castle have been preserved in their original form. The town square is dominated by the Jesus Heart Parish Church – I wonder perhaps if something was lost in translation here and if it is supposed to be the Sacred Heart? Fond as I am of making three wishes when I visit a church for the first time, I don’t need much enticing to darken their doors. Usually, the plainer the better for me – but this one is something else, hand painted in the most intricate designs. Truly amazing. I can’t even begin to imagine how long it all took – and this was before ‘colour by numbers’! The guide book, much to my amusement, noted that it was ‘unexceptional’ – what it takes to please some folks! The mind boggles!

Walking through the back streets, stumbling on the cobblestones, you really can feel how old everything is. We’d arrived around mid-morning to find the place thriving. The local market was in full swing and the town was bustling. Three hours later, it was empty. This lack of commercialism was nice to see and further evidenced by the honour system which is still employed ‘after hours’. Punnets of fruit on stood tables, the prices clearly marked. Alongside them a collection box where you pay your money – cash only, no change given.  Admittedly there are one or two shops where India meets Tibet, but there are still places selling local crafts and products.  Other than the world fame of the JMG, you’d be forgiven for questioning what century you were in. The only visible graffeti is that etched into the stucco on what’s now a pub originally built in 1688.

There’s something really lovely about this town. Although it’s known as Hungary’s jewel box and you might be tempted to append the adjectives twee or quaint, they just don’t quite fit. I’m not sure what it is about the place, but if you’re in the vicinity, it’s worth a visit.

You just never know what you’ll find in this city. You think you have it sussed. You think you know your streets. And then, you walk around a corner and literally, there’s a whole new world in front of you.

The sun is  out, the temperatures have risen, the flowers are beginning to bloom, my nose is running and my eyes are itching. Spring is officially here. Next month, I have my second birthday as a home-owner. I signed the contract for my flat on April 15. Tax day in America. I didn’t move in until November so I’ve been in the neighbourhood for a year and some months. The ‘neighbourhood’ is the eighteenth-century suburb, now District VIII, which was originally called Alsó-Külváros (literally ‘Lower Suburb’). It was named after the heir of the Hungarian throne, Emperor Josephn 11 in 1777 – and now goes by the name Józsefváros. I thought I had it pretty much sussed… but I thought wrong.

Yesterday I went to the local garden centre to buy some plants to replace the ones that didn’t survive the winter in my windowboxes. I’d been there before and have vague recollections of MC mentioning botanical gardens. So KG and myself thought we’d stop by to check them out… just for a look-see. What I thought were the Gardens turned out to be the Natural History Museum. The gardens themselves have a rather innocuous-looking entrance marked by a metal plaque. And, to be honest, from the outside looking it, it looks very much like a construction site. But curiosity won out. This is one of the three sites where Ferenc Molnár’s novel, A Pál utcai fiúk (1907)  originally takes place: Füvészkert (botanical garden). (It’s a book worth reading: translated as the The Paul Street Boys.) So we paid our 600 ft  (€2.20, $3.40, £2.00) and wandered around.

It’s the oldest of the gardens in Hungary, founded sometime between 1771 and 1847, depending on what you read!!! and apparently is home to 7000 plants including 150-year-old orchids. What struck me first was the noise – or rather the absence of noise. All we could here were birds chirping. It’s definitely undergoing some sort of renovation (we later saw a sign that reckons it’ll be finished in August 2010 so by next year perhaps, it should be done!) and parts of it are very decrepit. No matter. It’s an oasis in the heart of the city. The palmház (Palm House) is fascinating, if a little humid. It was built in 1866, renovated in 1966 and is amazingly colourful – right down to the piping!  Other buildings were closed (we got there a little late in the day) and unfortunately, neither of us saw anything that might remotely resemble a café.  A return visit is in the diary for the summer! Maybe next time we might dress differently though as two old dears thought we looked as if we worked there!

Walking back  to the flat through District VIII, we hit upon the Law Faculty buildings of Pázmány Péter Catholic University,  a public university of the Catholic Church, recognized by the State, founded in the seventeenth century, and one of Hungary’s oldest and most prestigious institutions of higher education. And I never knew it was there! Perhaps more importantly, if somewhat mundane, there’s a rather nice-looking supermarket (if supermarkets can look nice) tucked away in the back streets behind my flat… again, one I’d never noticed/seen before. And less attractive are the 4000 0r so flats of the Corvinus development that are going up at an alarming rate. God only knows who is going to buy them. Another year or so and the neighbourhood will have changed, yet again! This city is one of the most vibrant in which I’ve lived –  it’s the constant discovery of new places that makes living here so great.

It’s about 248 km from Budapest to Sárospatak if you take the highways and stay on course, but that’s what trains and bus tours are for. When you have a car (thanks to PM), you can stop and start as often as you like. See a church spire in the distance? An interesting road sign? An oddly named village? Check it out. That’s the beauty of driving. And I love it. We left Budapest by 8am on Saturday morning and met very heavy fog outside the city. It felt as if we were flying through clouds rather than driving on tarmac. We were on our way to see a man about some nutbirds and the man lives in Sárospatak, close enough to the Slovakian border.  Once called ‘the Athens of the River Bodrog’ , it’s in the heart of the Zemplén region of Northern Hungary.

On our way, we decided to visit Tokaj, one of Hungary’s more famous wine regions. I’ve been to Villany and was impressed. I was perhaps expecting a little too much from Tokaj and was a little disappointed to see that like its wine, it’s just a little too sweet for my liking. It’s not as if they’ve haven’t had time to practice. There are records of vineyards in Hungary going as far back as the 5th century. The sweet, white dessert wine from Tokaj is probably the country’s most famous export,  christened by Louis XIV of France as ‘Vinum Regum, Rex Vinorum’ – Wine of Kings, King of Wines. I’m no expert… and as long as I have difficulty getting my head around drinking a wine made from grapes that have been infected by a fungus Botrytis cinera (Noble Rot), I probably never will be.  Mind you, were I ever trapped in the region and unable to escape, I’d live quite happily with its Furmint – a rather nice dry white with a distinct apple flavour. The jury is still out as to whether this grape came from southern Italy or Hungary. Bearing in mind that in the summer the place is most likely overflowing with tourists, on this particular Saturday morning in November it hadn’t yet woken up. Most of the cellars were closed but we still managed to get a taste or three in before actually making a purchase. The town itself is the centre of a much broader wine-growing region and on the road to Sárospatak, we passed many vineyards. To take full advantage, you need to bring a teetotal driver as Hungary is notoriously strict with its zero-tolerance drink driving policy.

Driving the country roads, we passed many Trabants and it really felt as if we had indeed driven back in time. The pace was visibly slower. It might well have been the late 1950s, when the first Trabant came off the line. The fog had burned off by now and the autumnal leaves  were majestic in the sunshine. Scores of fishermen lined the riverbanks and lakeside edges. Flasks of coffee and bottles of hazipalinka littered the picnic tables as they waited patiently to catch their supper. It reminded me a lot of Alaska. The quiet. The beauty. The solitude. KG is getting much better at navigating and we trundled along without anydifficulties at all. There are still river crossings in Hungary where you have to drive onto a large raft and be literally pulled across. What a way to go. The more I see of this slower way of life, the more I dream of upping stakes and moving to that cottage by the sea. There is something quite godlike about it all.

We made it to Sárospatak with plenty of daylight left to make a quick trip out to the National Cemetery in Karos. It’s supposedly the richest cemetery associated with the first Hungarian settlers in the Carpathian Basin. I am struggling to find any information on this in English, so if anyone reading has a comment, please share it. From what I could see and understand, it appears to be a major archeological dig – there are lots of staked signs which I think mark the sites where relics were found. There is a large circle of totem poles, or what look very much like totem poles, but again, I couldn’t make sense of it all.

Back into town then for a last look at Rákóczi Castle and a glimpse of time gone by. The older part of the town is rather lovely; the newer part, rather new. Famous for its Calvinist college, the town has turned out many famous students.  In fact, the education system at the college was organised by János Amos Comenius, a Moravian humanist, late in the seventeeth century. Comenius is probably more famous for writing the world’s first illustrated textbook for children, Orbis Pictus (World in Pictures).  The organic archictect Imre Makovecz has also left his mark on the city (and a little bit of me wishes he hadn’t…I’m not quite sure I get this ‘organic architecture’ in urban areas). The cultural centre on Eotvos utca is a little too much for my liking as is the Hild Udvar shopping centre. But each to her own, I say.

The Hotel Bodrog, reputedly a **** hotel, was fine. Although unlike any **** I’ve ever stayed in (Hungary is quite liberal with her stars), it did the business: it provided a clean bed, a good breakfast, and a steam room/sauna/jacuzzi/pool complex… with the added realism of peeling wallpaper, chipped formica, and cracked walls. We ate in a lovely Italian cellar restaurant, The Collegium, which is well worth a visit, if you’re ever in that part of the world.  Despite being fortified by Furmint, any inclination to paint the town red was dulled by the fact that the town was closing at 10.30pm. mmmm I wonder just how much of the quiet life I could actually take.

Although I’d said before going to bed that wild horses wouldn’t drag me out of it in the morning, my neighbours had other ideas. So we were up and on the road again before 9am. Getting out of Hajdúszoboszló was nearly as hard as finding some place to stay in it. Actually, truth be told, there must be a ‘special’ way of reading signs in this part of the world – they are few and far between and those that do exist don’t make sense. One minute the town you want is just 20km away, then it’s 21km and then 22km!!!! And the milemarkers have these peculiar +2 things that move them from 270 to 269 back to 271… all while travelling in the same direction. I am convinced that it’s time warp country!

IMG_3628So, although we were heading one way, we ended up in Nádudvar, home to the black-pottery cottage industry. I have seen a lot of pottery in my time in Hungary, but this was a first for me and it’s a grower! The town also has a small cemetery with graves of Russian soldiers killed in WWII. Some of them born in WWI only to die in WWII. What a waste. We were aiming for Hortobágy – home of the Hungarian cowboy. Ok, so I was hearing Marty Stuart and Travis Tritt in my head, and was having visions of Clint Eastwood riding into town. And was I ever wrong. Nope, these cowboys were fellas of another cut entirely! The guide book says it’s been milked by the Hungarian Tourism for everything it’s worth… and that’s true. More tat.. .but this time, tat that you could use, if you had a yard where you could cook the goulash and crack the whips! IMG_3638 Still, it was worth the trip. The town itself is in the middle of a huge national park, home to many diffferent types of birds, including the bustard, which can be as tall as 1 meter and weigh as much as 20kg.

IMG_3655We took a trip on a railway into the park… half an hour in, half an hour to look around, half an hour back. It was a rackety old thing and had it managed to build up any speed at all, it would have been postively orgasmic. There were some serious twitchers in our midst (they actually have a uniform of sorts), but for the most part, it was just something to do. I can’t say it was high on my list but then I’d already gotten all those churches, and fair’s fair. Once in there though, it was gorgeous. So quiet. High reeds and rushes and acres and acres of yellow lily pads. A great place for a cyling trip… if you’re into that sort of thing!

Moving on and closer to home, we went looking for food  into Tiszafüred. Maybe it was because we were tired and it was hot and we were hungry, but things started to take on a little surrealness. Credit card swiped, taken away, forgotten; food ordered, billed for and never received; and what I thought were pickled apples turned out to be apple pickles… and yes, there’s huge difference. It was time to unwind and preferably away from the tourists. After lunch, we headed to Poroszló, parked the car and went for a dip in the Tisza.  It has been years and years and years since Hungary has had a coastline but it certainly knows how to make the most of the water it has. This spot was lovely. IMG_3679Mind you, even the strongest Hungarian sun can’t seem to make a dint on these whiter-than-white legs of mine…no matter how long I spend in it, or how hard I try.

Totally refreshed and ready to brave the city again, we headed back to Budapest. We had travelled over 900km since 6.15 on Thursday and had seen so much of the country. It was nice though, to sit, finally, and have a very large, cold beer at Pot Kulcs having dropped that car back at PM’s.

City trips are great. Weekends away are lovely. But you can’t beat a road trip for the freedom to stop wherever you like, whenever  you like. Next time though, we need to rethink the music!!!

Up at the crack of dawn, we joined the procession of cars wending their way towards the flea market. According to the guide book (?) we could look forward to ‘a motley crowd consisting of Hungarians, Romanians, Poles, Ukrainians and Roma selling the usual diamonds-to-rust mixture of goods’. In my mind, I’d already found the csillár (chandelier) for my living room, complete with four complementary wall lights, not to mention an eight-place Herend dinnerservice in muted greens. What I found was the usual tacky tat (mostly from China) and lots of vegetables. As we left, the queue of cars to come in was about two miles long! I would have been gutted, had I queued for hours only to leave empty-handed. It wasn’t a complete waste of time though – the chocolate palacsinta (crepe) made a great breakfast!

The plan was to drive to Beregdarác for the village fair and then take it from there. Simple really. The previous couple of days, both the church in Parádsasvár and the one in Mezőkövesd had been closed and as churches (open churches, ones where I can have three wishes and light a candle) are high on my list of things to see, we followed the signs for Máriapócs, home to the weeping Black Madonna (I have a fascination with the Black Madonnas). This particular one though has been removed to Vienna and what remains in Máriapócs is a nineteenth-century copy. This gave us some solace when, after driving around the country for sport (neither of us are great navigators: in fact, when I say I couldn’t find my way out of a paper bag at the best of times, KG is only marginally better, but better she is!) we arrived to find the chuch under renovation. And yes, it was closed. What do the faithful do for sanctuary in this part of the world? An open church is as difficult to find as a glass of wine in Parádsasvár after 9pm!

IMG_3483Our luck was in, though, when we got to Nyírbátor. The Calvinist church there is reputed to be one of the most beautiful Gothic churches in Hungary and it was open! Now, I’m a tad rusty on my architectural periods but this certainly isn’t what comes to mind when I think ‘Gothic’. Nice ceiling though. Am sure PJF will have a comment or two on this! From there it was on to Mátészalka for some Hortobágyi húsos palacsinta (meat pancakes – what can I say, I’d been in pancake mood since breakfast!). Having eaten our fill, we mosied on to Fehérgyarmat, where the chuch was also closed. Honestly, I was beginning to despair at this stage. Mind you, it did have some rather lovely carvings in the grounds: once again, we were on the outside looking in! IMG_3495From there is was on to Tivador, a little town with the most gorgeous carved wooden street signs and then on to Tarpa, home to yet another Calvinist church, also closed! IMG_3497 Apparently, the Reformation brought Calvinism to Hungary and the Thirty-Years War (1618–1648) established Debrecen as a fortress of the Reformed faith, which explains the number of Calvinist churches in the area.

Eventually we made it to Beregdaróc – the reason for the road trip in the first place. The place was deserted. What could we do but laugh – all this way for nothing. Not a sound from anywhere. And then we turned a corner and met the crowds – the cars, the buses, the villagers, and a Canadian! It was good, down-home fun with lots of music, dancing and crafts. KG had arranged to meet a cross-stitcher (who has won the Kis Janos Bóri prize in her day) so we hooked up with her and went to see her exhibit at the school and then back to her house to sample some hazi palinka. I couldn’t drink, of course. Those damned laws! But I did get a little bottle to take home with me. The Greek Catholic chuch was open and although there were no candles to light, I did get my three wishes!  With all the fun at the fair, it was past five when we left. And, as neither of us can make a decision to save our lives, we just drove on down the road to see where it would take us.

IMG_3608The road led to Csaroda , where a lovely little old woman took a massive key from her pocket and opened the church for us. The cross-stitching in this part of the world is everywhere – and is recognised as a true craft with women gaining folkartist status if good  enough. The church here was full of it. And the painted woodwork was something else. I think that after this trip, plain and simple is the way to fo for a house of worship… forget the marble and the gold. As I child, I remember Fr Jim, a relative of my mother’s, coming home from the missions. When he’d visit a church, he’d pop inside the confessionals and tap the wood; walk up on the altar and check out the tabernacle; he’d even check out the altar cloths! I was horrified that someone, anyone, could be so bold. If he were alive today and visited Hungary, he’d get plenty of ideas of simple houses of worship, where you can simply be, without distraction.

Then it was on to the almost Sussex-like village of Takos for a much-needed coffee and some decision-making. There again, the church (known as the barefooted Notre Dame) was bloody closed  but the café was open. The woman of the house was sitting by the window, cross-stitching. To be female in these parts and not to be able to wield a needle and thread must be akin to being Irish and not knowing how to cook a potato! We decided to head south to Debrecen and make up our mind where to stay along the way. Through an inability to decide, an uncooperative hotelier in Hortobágy, and a wedding en route, we ended up driving to Hajdúszoboszló. The guide book calls it a cross between Blackpool, Bondi Beach and Coney Island. I’ve spent a lovely day in Blackpool watching the bikers take their dancing shoes from the saddlebags and twirling around the dance floor. I’ve never been to Bondi and  I honestly can’t remember Coney Island but truth be told, all I wanted was a bed and it was supposed to have accomodation aplenty! It was like driving through a time warp. Flat land everywhere. Fields of sunflowers and corn. Lights in the distance but nothing to suggest the sheer size of the place. Known as the ‘poor man’s Balaton’ the thermal springs were discovered when some plonker was drilling for oil. The place is surreal. Packed to the gills with the young and the trendy; sidewalk bars and restaurants; amusement parks; stalls selling touristy tat and candyfloss… it was incredible and it was buzzing. So much for those who think this is where the frail and the elderly come to be cured! There wasn’t a zimmerframe in sight. I was stuck to the seat of the car, in danger of hallucinating for want of a beer on what was still a very hot day. I’d driven nearly 275 km, so KG had to go find a room – we drove around and must have checked 12 or more places, none of which would take us in, before we found the Lila Hotel. Now, it’s seen better days, but it was clean. And so what if there were no towels and the wallpaper was peeling off the walls, and the clientele looked liked the bailmen could be coming a callin’, it was a bed. And was I grateful! The beer could wait.

IMG_3412For once in my hotel life, I was ready for breakfast before it was ready for me. Parádsasvár goes to bed early and wakes up late! Breakfast didn’t start until 9.15! Fully fortified and laden with crystal, we set off on the road to Nyíregyháza…a journey of about 190km, without detours! One of the best things about roadtrips is being able to stop whenever and wherever you fancy. My shout was for the National Memorial Park at Recsk. It was here, between 1950 and 1953, that the Bolshevik dictatorship’s death-labour camp operated, far from public eye. When Stalin died, Nagy Imre closed the camp (he, himself, was later executed by the Communist government). It’s a strange place. Very simple. You can clearly see the foundations of the barracks and the kitchens,  and some of the original barbed-wire fence still exists. There is one barracks standing (I think it’s a replica, as from what I gather, the original camp was completely destroyed – the physical evidence disposed of). Athough the exhibit is in Hungarian, you don’t need to understand the language to imagine what must have gone on there. Wolf Pangloss has some interesting stuff to say about it on his blog. And it all went on, just 5km outside the town. Robbie Burns had it right when he spoke about man’s inhumanity to man.

Duly chastened, we continued on to Mezőkövesd, home to Bóri Kis Jankó, IMG_3442Hungary’s answer to Grandma Moses. For nearly 80 years, she stitched her famous ‘100 roses’ patterns and now, in the Hudas district of the town, other artisans display their work and demonstrate their crafts. Legend has it that, one winter, the devil kidnapped a Mátyó lad. When his girlfriend begged the devil to send her boy back, he agreed but only on condition that she swapped him for her apron and a flower (mmmm….interesting…the going rate for a man in those days!) The devil thought he was being clever as flowers are in pretty short supply in this area in winter. But the girl was smart; she embroidered a rose on her apron and got her man back.  The traditional costume of the region still includes an apron with a rose (for both lads and lasses). Why doesn’t this sort of stuff still happen?

Anyway, this collection of thatched and whitewashed cottages houses the best of traditional craftwork in the Mátyó region. The thatch is different to what we have in Ireland – more of a hollowed-out reed. Interesting. The detail is really something, though, in everything…even down to the carved wooden gates! I was particularly taken with Tibor Fehér’s ceramic bells and have added one to my travel tree. KG was in her element, her being in the business and it was impressive watching her talk with the embroiderers in Hungarian. We were half-expecting to see some old dears sitting outside, cross-stitching in the sun but we were out of luck. One reason to go back – another would be the pizza! If you ever find yourself there, and hungry… go to Pizza 6  on Szomolyai u. 3. Am salivating at the thought of it.

After all that lovely traditional culture, we ran slap bang into another sort of culture as we drove into Nyíregyháza. Me being a rugby fan, KG having little obvious interest in sport, and the region’s expert on all things soccer was in India, the chances of our knowing that Ferencváros were playing Nyíregyháza (soccer) that evening were non-existent. We were circumnavigating the city (the seventh-largest city in Hungary) trying to find our  panzió when we ran into two busloads of FV supporters being ‘escorted off the premises’ by riot police…scary-looking chaps in kevlar vests, helmetes, brandishing semi-automatics! At least, given the state of them, I hope they were being taken away from the match rather than being escorted to the stadium. The convoy crossed in front of us and it was like watching a particularly nasty movie. Some (?) FV fans are ultra-right-wing, violent racists – young kids and grown adults, boys and girls, men and women – whom you wouldn’t want to meet in daylight, let alone in a dark alley. (I met the lovely Kriza Bóri recently, who directed Dübörög a nemzeti rock, a documentary that scared me shitless. Her interviews with the FV fans made my blood run cold. How such mindless hatred can exist is beyond me.) Once the convoy passed, we motored on and again, ended up in the middle of it – this time nearer the stadium (The signposting in Nyíregyháza is woeful.) Driving slowly up a crowded street, a couple of opposing fans were doing a Siege of Ennis  advance/retire across the road in front of our car. At one retire, we passed through. In the rearview mirror, I saw a chap guy take off his belt, wrap it around his fist so that the buckle swung free and then launch himself across the road. All hell broke loose. These lads were old enough to know better. The car behind us had a front-row seat.

IMG_3474We eventually found our hotel… a small 26-room affair billed as a ‘former communist retreat’ – Ózon – near to Sóstófürdo. It was rather lovely. In a country where customer service hasn’t really caught on, this place has it in spades. They couldn’t have been nicer and the food… my God, the dinner I had is up there on the top 10 meals in Hungary… and high up there… No. 3 spot!!!! Before dinner though, we headed up the road to Sóstófürdo to the salt lake, which wasn’t really salty. But the thermal baths were a peculiar shade of green though… a nice way to start the evening after a long, hard day on the road! And yes, there is a soccer God…. FV were beaten 3-1 by the home crowd. Nice one!

It was another early night. Hungary has a zero-tolerance approach to drinking and driving so not as much as a chocolate liquer or a spoonful of sherry trifle is advised. We could have left the car at home and walked, but then we thought it prudent not to wander the streets that particular night. Anyway, I was knackered: I remember as a child asking my dad why he was tired – all he had done was drive all day!

IMG_3404I love to drive. When I lived in Valdez, Alaska, I would drive 306 miles to play two rounds of golf and then drive home again. My perspective on distance changed immeasurably. Alaska does that to you. Now that I’m Budapest-based, I miss driving. There’s no need for me to have a car in the city as public transport is great (and yes, I’d be hard-pushed to find a Hungarian who would agree with me, but compared to Dublin or London…it’s great). So when the ever-generous PM offered me the use of his trusty steed, and the adventurous KG mentioned a village fair in North Eastern Hungary, 2+2 quickly added to ‘when are we leaving?’

We left Budapest shortly after 6pm on Thursday.  I was a tad nervous navigating the city – Budapest’s drivers are short on patience and it’s  been a while since I’ve driven on the wrong side of the road.  But we managed. We stopped to buy the requisite matrica vignette (the toll ticket) and tank up. We got the ‘all clear’ from the petrol pump guy who kindly checked the oil and water (and yes, they’re in the same place as in Irish and American cars – there’s globalisation for ya!). While KG was in paying, a very bubbly Alexandra came over to beg a lift to the next petrol station. She and her French-Canadian boyfriend Pascal had left Budapest that morning (hours ago) heading  to a Rainbow festival in the Ukraine (peace, love, harmony, show your disgust at materialism etc) and were still trapped inside the Outer Ring Road. No worries, says I, after due consultation with KG. Happy to oblige. I could cope with youth and optimism and bubbliness and keep my cynicism in check for ten minutes!

IMG_3403KG and I were heading to Parádsasvár, a town about 105km north of Budapest, to St Hubertus Panzió – the first leg of a journey that would take us close to the Ukraine border in the north-east.  The town itself is mostly famous for the late-nineteenth-century Kastélyhotel (the Palace Hotel) and although the budget didn’t permit a night there, we had planned to pop over for a nightcap…being neighbourly, like. We hadn’t bargained for the gated grounds and reservations-only policy. The guide book had mentioned the ‘Secret-serice style security’ but who believes guide books? We could only peep in through the bars from our vantage point at St Hubertus Panzió (pictured). 

IMG_3390It was easy to believe that the ugly sisters were having a ball across the road in the Palace. The hotel lights up on the hour in the hours of darkness and the lights flash on and off to music for about two minutes. I wonder if Ybl Miklós, the architect responsible for this ‘restored hunting lodge’ and also the State Opera House in BP is turning in his grave or laughing at the good of it? On the other hand, SHP had a certain Cinderella feel to it anyway! We had to eat on arrival as the restaurant closed at 9pm and the ‘bar’ with it! The airconditioning control in the room was under lock and key (shame on those of you who took advantage of it and have made the rest of us suffer!). And it wasn’t until we returned from our ‘late-night’ recce of the village (at 10.21pm!!!) that we realised the gates shut at 10pm. I reckon that had the intrepid KG been American, she’d have been the model for  Nancy Drew. Having tried every door and doorbell we could find to no avail, KG climbed over the gate and managed to attract the attention of a man with a cardkey, who kindly came down and let me in. (I’m not near as nimble and her 32s are longer than my 28s.)

Aside from the Palace, Parádsasvár is also famous for its Takacs crystal. And, as de wimmen are coming over in October en masse and I only have six place settings, I thought it prudent to invest in a set of eight wine glasses and, sure while I was there, why not eight dessert wine glasses. I know that Messes Macker and McCabe are rather partial to a sweet wine with cheese after dinner! Lovely, lovely stuff. And guess what? Their Christmas tree ornaments also light up… no music though! Parádsasvár does seem to have a thing about lights!

August 6, 2008, I partied hard and remember going to 6am mass on my way home on the 7th after dancing myself through the night. August 6, 2009, I was in bed, asleep, before midnight, having managed to contain my child-like excitement at the thoughts of three more days of driving to places unknown. I had driven with the best Hungarian roads had to offer; witnessed the surreal musical light show at the Palace; and practically aided and abetted a B&E. All on 4dl of a rather decent dry white from Egér. Am I getting older and wiser, or just older?

IMG_2772Well, I finally made it to the Hungarian Sea. To Balaton (or to ‘the Balaton’) as is said here. The typical Friday afternoon crawl of cars heading down to to Balaton is a sight to behold in itself. Anyone who is prepared to spend hours in traffic just to reach the lake has to really appreciate it for what it is. Apart from being the largest lake in Central Europe, with a surface covering 592 km², it’s a respite from the heat-laden capital. And it’s big:  77 km from north to south with widths varying from 4 to 14 km. It can get to 12.2 m deep but averages about 3.2 m. Water temperatures in the summer get to about 25 cm so it’s perfect for swimming. Back in the old days, it was where East met West – literally. Families from East Germany could travel to Hungary freely, and those from West Germany could get visas to visit; so it was at the Balaton that they met over the summer.

JFW brought the Elizabeth Jane over from England and she’s now happily moored at Tihany marina. The present owners bought the marina about seven years ago. It’s run for profit, to finance its not-for-profit sailing school. A lovely spot with a tiny private beach. We took the ferry across to Tihany after driving about 90 minutes from Budapest. After I had my morning sun and ‘sea’, we headed in to Balatonfüred for lunch. The town is famous for its water. People used to mix water from Whey spring, in front of the Heart Clinic, with sheep’s cottage cheese as a cure for lung disease.  Today, the medicinal waters are used to heal heart and circulatory diseases and for treating general exhaustion.   This last bit is a little ironic, considering that the lakeside was packed with tourists, local and foreign, and was far from relaxing. I so resent my water space being populated. Honestly, when I win the lottery, I’d like to buy an island so that I could read by the water in silence. Am I too young to be so crotchety? IMG_2806

 The ‘nightingale of the nation’ Blaha Lujza had her summer residence here, about 300 m from the lake. Must have been nice! She got this nickname after asking the emperor  Francis Joseph to pardon 13 Hungarian hussars who were sentenced to death.

KG and MI headed off to Tihany later that afternoon, but too much sun and the prospect of a couple of hours in the water took me back to the marina. I really, really, really want to live beside the sea. Or at least beside some water.  I could happily fall asleep every evening to the sound of water breaking on rocks or seagulls singing for their supper.

Tihany is another lovely town best seen in late evening when the daytrippers have gone home. Famous for its monastery and lavender fields, it straddles that fine line IMG_2834between kitsch and quaint. The Benedictine Monastery was founded in 1055 and the foundation charter is the earliest written record extant of the Hungarian language. Like a number of other Hungarian towns and villages, Tihany also has its ‘Calvary’ – huge, outdoor stations of the cross leading up a hill to the three crosses on Calvary. Very moving.

We had dinner there before heading back to the city and I tried the famous fish soup. I’m glad I did. Now that I’ve done it once, there’s no need for me to ever do that again!