Back on New Year’s day, we made an attempt to check out the ruins of an old church on the outskirts of the village of Zalavár, not far from the site of an old Benedictine Abbey. But the fields were wet and we hadn’t brought the wellies. Last week, more suitably attired, we made a second attempt. And this time, succeeded.

Zalavár Récéskút bazilika

There’s something very therapeutic about sloshing through puddles in wellies. It was cold. Very cold. But nothing had iced over. It was just wet. Very wet. What would appear to be the makings of a natural tree tunnel marked our way. The trees, bare in winter, will be quite something to see when they’re leafed up and budding. I had thought there was a fancier word for a tree tunnel but it escapes me. In googling it, though, I found mention of a famous one in Northern Ireland that features in Game of Thrones.  Who knew!

Zalavár Récéskút bazilika

It was all a little enchanted-forest like. At around 4pm, the light was failing but the sun was hanging on for dear life. The silence was loud enough to lose a whisper. And the place had a sense of holiness going on that might well have been a figment of my imagination but nonetheless real. At the end of the tunnel stands a cross – a basic wooden post and steel crossbar. To say I was disappointed doesn’t even come close. This was it? This was all there was to see?

Zalavár Récéskút bazilika

Zalavár Récéskút bazilika

That the sign at the base of the cross was translated into German and not English is testament to the connection Zala county, and Zalavár, has with Germany. More often than not, when hearing my pathetic attempt at speaking Hungarian, the locals figure out that I’m a foreigner and launch in to German. It’s their second language. I had enough Hungarian to get that the original church dates back to 840 AD and on that same site, another basilica was built in the sixteenth century. But what? Where?

Zalavár Récéskút bazilika

I turned right and there it was. As usual when confronted with old ruins of times gone by, I’m gobsmacked that they’ve survived. Further research tells me that the church itself was built on the remains of a burned-out Slavic settlement and that’s what dates back to 840 Zalavár. And in total, three churches were built at various times. And, apparently, that last one is similar in shape to temples built on the coasts of North Africa or Italy – depending on what you read 🙂 I was quite taken by what looked for all the world like a big stone barrel laying on its side.

Zalavár Récéskút bazilika

Zalavár Récéskút bazilika

We had our three wishes – a church is a church is a church when it comes to the three wishes for a first-time visit rule – and stood for a while in silent contemplation. Discovered back in the 1940s, it really is a lovely spot. Zalavár and its surrounds are rich in history; back in their heyday they must have been quite the hub of activity. With renewed government focus on the Kis-Balaton (as evidenced by the tourist banners and ads in the airport arrivals) perhaps the church will see more by way of visitors this summer.

If you’re visiting Hungary, remember, there’s far more to the country that just Budapest.

Zalavár Récéskút bazilika

 
 

 

Where has the summer gone? Is it my imagination or is time flying by ever so quickly, much quicker than years ago when it seemed as if we’d all the time in the world to do whatever it was we had to do. Perhaps it’s a side-effect of the aging process. Or perhaps it’s because many of us don’t have weekends any more. With growing expectations from employers that we be online and available nearly 24/7, the days blur into weeks and the weeks into months and the months into years. Read more

Walking down the village yesterday evening, lost in my own little world, I spied a vision ahead that had me wondering if the nip of házi vad körte pálinka (homemade wild pear brandy) I’d just had was doing something to my eyes. I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing on main street Balatonmaygaród. Come to think of it, there are only two streets – Petőfi Sándor  and Dózsa György – and they intersect at a T-junction just by the church. That it’s not exactly a bustling metropolis is just one of the many charming things about it. Anyway, Petőfi  is the main street – the main road – the one that goes straight through the village. I was headed over to the neighbours for a game of croquet and smoked salmon sarnies. I know. It’s some life. But hey, someone has to live it. And it’d been a long day. And it was Friday.

The builders had arrived as usual, about 7.36 am. Eight of them. And by 7.50 am they were all at work. I’ll say one thing for the tradesmen who have worked or are working on the house – they know how to work. None of this breastfeeding shovel stuff or lolling around discussing what they might eventually get around to doing. Each man has his job and is busy doing it.  They even take lunch breaks in split shifts, choreographing their work so that not a minute is wasted. And all in good humour, too.

The eight were there to start for a couple of hours of blitz-like doing. Then they whittled down to four, only one of whom was a regular; the other three were new. And just when I’d gotten the hang of who took how many sugars in what, too.

They hung a plastic tarp to block the archway, more to keep the dust in than to keep me out (I hope) so I couldn’t really see what they were up to. I snuck a peek at one stage and saw the two plasterers waltzing around on their ladders, stepping to it, one in full voice, belting out rockabilly folk songs – in Hungarian. And what a voice. By mid-afternoon, he was starting in on his light opera repertoire. Carnegie Hall doesn’t know what it’s been missing. I was vaguely tempted to capture it on video but I thought better of it. Maybe his wife doesn’t know he sings and he’s been dodging the church choir for years. I couldn’t take the risk.

Friday, being Friday, we cracked open a few beers when they’d wrapped up for the day and were hanging around waiting on their lift. The gaffer arrived and doled out the pay packets and then produced the offending bottle of pálinka. I’d had a run-in with said beverage some time ago at a pig killing down in Békéscsaba and we’re only recently back on drinking terms. Some of this homemade stuff is at rotgut level, but this was lovely. Really smooth. As I’ve learned to my cost, it’s rude to refuse it, if offered. Just about the only acceptable excuse is that you’re driving or that you’re a teetotaler. But as I so obviously wasn’t either, with my grapefruit beer in hand (don’t I live the high life), I had to be polite. Propriety is my middle name.

So, having had a sip or two of the deadly pear, I took off down the street to keep my appointment at the Kánya Ház. It would be my croquet debut. After we’d had a nagyfröccs (2 dl white wine + 1 dl soda water) or two, to go with the Irish smoked salmon and cucumber sandwiches (neat little crustless triangular works of culinary art that just begged to eaten  with one’s little finger cocked), we set up to play. I can’t say I got the style down. I was holding the mallet like I would a putter and eyeing up the ball (is it called a ball in croquet?) like I was on the 18th green playing for glory. I got the hang of the roquets and the croquets and I won. Both games. Not that I’m bragging. But I think I’ve found my calling.

But anyway, that’s not what I started to say. Back to my vision. The neighbour lady (I think she’s German) from a few doors up was out mowing her grass – the patch between the path and the road outside the house that each of us is responsible for. Now, remember those cheeky postcards from Brighton and Blackpool from the 1940s? She could have modelled for them. And there she was in all her glory, mowing the grass in her swimsuit and her floppy hat and not a bother on her.

You gotta love it. Especially when I think of how the old néni next door was berating me for letting myself go. I used to make an effort when I first arrived apparently – and now look at me. My wardrobe has shrunk to two pairs of shorts, a pair of crops, and seven t-shirts (two styles, different colours). Village life certainly has a way of stripping it all back to what matters. The basics.

And for those of you following the renovation , all is going to plan. András is here today finishing off the insulation and sheetrock. The place is looking bright and airy. And the open archway is making a massive difference to how it all looks.

 

 

I mentioned before that our new garden is full of surprises. As the trees, plants, and bushes bloom, we’re gradually getting to know what we’re living with. We’re still undecided whether we have apricots or peaches, but time will tell.

Our new domain, the Kis Balaton, has its own surprises. I’m not great at naming the various crops planted and unless they’re potatoes flowering or are already in bloom (like oil seed rape), I’m wrong more times than I’m right. And that, my friends, is taking some getting used to.

Right outside the village, I’ve watched a field of somethings grow taller and tried though I might, I was unable to put a name to what was growing there. This week, the mystery was solved. And I’m delira and excira to see a field of glorious sunflowers.

Many years ago, on one of my first forays out of Budapest, I saw fields and fields of these yellow beauties in all their glory. No matter how bad my mood, they’re guaranteed to make me smile. With temperatures soaring, and storms turning the power feed into a staccato-like chorus of on-again, off-again, bad humor is not infrequent, but not nearly as long-lasting as it might be in the city. I think I may becoming a nicer person. #lovinglifeinthevillage 🙂

I went in search of  a poem by William Blake that I vaguely remembered, and it says it all for me…

Ah! Sunflower

Ah! sunflower, weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the sun,
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller’s journey is done;

Where the youth pined away with desire,
And the pale virgin shrouded in snow,
Arise from their graves and aspire;
Where my sunflower wishes to go.

Like Blake, I, too, am a little tired of the if onlys, and wish that more people (of all ages) would seize life by the petals and feel it, and live it, and be it. Sunflowers are planted, striving to reach a place they’ll never get to. Humans are not. We can move. We can follow the sun. We can turn our faces sunward and be positive. If we are fortunate enough to have a choice and not live under regimes who make our choices for us, we can choose where we go, what we do, and how we want to spend the short time we have on this Earth. By all means sunflower it – look at the sun and aspire to where and what you might want to be. But for Blake’s sake – move!

 

I’m a great fan of Oscar Wilde and one of my favourite plays is The Importance of Being Earnest. I’ve been known to bet on a horse just because its name reminds me of something or someone I like to remember. I’ve been known to drive miles out of my way to see what is behind a curious place name. So when I discovered that the neighbouring village of Zalavár was once known as Moosburg, I laughed aloud. The Alaska me had come full circle.

Driving around the lake recently, we went in search of the museum signposted on the road to Sármellék. We had passed it once before and I’d noted the funny-looking church that I’d mentally added to my Lake-Church photo project. Not quite sure what to expect, what we did find was remarkable.

The history of Zalavár dates back to about 840 AD. At the turn of the twelfth century, it became the county seat, long since relinquished to Zalaegerszeg. Around that time, the Benedictines built an abbey and monastery there and over the centuries other private estates grew in the area. The history reads like a saintly Who’s Who with the likes of Adrian,  Cyril, Methodius, and Benedict all getting an honorable mention. Various churches and chapels were built and dedicated and then razed in the battles and wars that ensued: The martyr Adrian’s Church, the Chapel of St Stephen, the Church of the Blessed Virgin, and a church with no patron at all.

Looking out over the fields at the remnants of the foundations, it doesn’t take much to imagine Zalavár as a thriving metropolis, a far cry from the sleepy village it is today. That so much has survived the ages is a miracle. Excavations over the last 60 years or so have yield a treasure of antiquities that flesh out the history of what was once a very important place indeed. So whether it was Moosburg or Mosuburg or Mosaburg (depending on what you read), Zalavár is worth a second visit when the museum opens at the end of this month.

It’s hard to go back, they say. Things never quite live up to how you remember them. If they were great, they’ll be not so great. If the place was gorgeous, it’ll be a little less gorgeous. If your time there was miserable, it’ll be even more miserable.

Sure, I’ve gone to places and loved them and then gone back years later to find it had all changed, or it was smaller, grubbier, not nearly as nice as I remembered it. It could well have been, of course, that the company was different, or my mood had changed, and the place was still exactly the same. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it; I simply move on.

That said, when I go back somewhere and it’s even better than I remember, that’s bonus. Something to be grateful for.

A number of years and a lifetime ago, I was driving down by the Balaton on a Sunday morning and happened across an outdoor market in the village of Káptalantóti called Liliomkert. I remember being impressed at the time and thought that if I were down that way again, I’d definitely drop by.

Fast forward three years or so, and the same market came up in conversation with a friend whose mum lives in the village. Down by the Kis Balaton, this time, on a Sunday, we decided to take as spin over and check it out. It was a bank holiday weekend, so all the vendor stalls were taken. The place was heaving. The weather was cooperating and the sun was shining. It was a glorious day.

I came, I saw, and I spent my money. Three times, I got so carried away with being able to hold a semblance of a conversation in Hungarian, that I walked away without paying. Three times they called be back, looking for money. But such is life in the countryside that no one was all that bothered. They’d have caught up with me sooner or later.

I’m going through a phase at the minute, a painted phase. I’m quite taken with painted wood, something I wouldn’t have thanked you for eight years ago when I was doing up the flat in Budapest.  I was quite chuffed with this bench, a market find for the upstairs balcony. Come summer, I plan on taking my morning coffee sitting on it while looking down over the fields to the lake I know is behind the trees. Right now, it’s too bloody cold, although with the leaves gone, we can actually see the lake.

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And ever since I came across the idea of vertical bookshelves on a trip to San Francisco, I can’t get enough plant stands. As this is the only part of the house that has a wealth vibe (in Feng Shui terms), I needed something that would take a lot of very specific colours and a money plant to channel that chi. And ya gotta love the whole shabby chic thing… a great excuse not to sand and paint – just leave it. Peeling paint is all the rage.

Not quite sure what to do with a large white wall in a big kitchen space that will be redone (once the plant stand in the wealth corner starts producing money), I had a root through some carpets and kilims. And I scored this pair – hand-woven in Poland, with the original labels still attached. It adds some warmth, reduces the echo, and ties in nicely with some pieces I want to work on.

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There are few things I like more than a good market. Add the open air, some sunshine, and a little patience, and I am guaranteed a great day out. There was food, music, wine, coffee, pálinka, and lots to laugh about. Lots to be thankful for there. A must, if you’re in the neighbourhood.

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One of the many joys of living in Budapest is the huge amount of activity in the city. There’s always something going on. Places to visit. Exhibitions to see. Concerts to attend. So much so that there is a danger that life in Hungary revolves around the capital and we don’t take or make the time to venture further afield.

The Hungarian countryside is just as active. Quirkiness reigns. The road to the Balaton is well travelled, with the lakeside villages and towns offering plenty by way of distraction. But off the M7 between here and there are other delights just waiting to be discovered, ones that you stumble across when you take a wrong turn or are travelling between one place and the next.

I’d passed the sign for a buffalo reservation on my way to Balatonmaygaród a number of times but only recently took the time to stop and explore. When I think of Hungary, I think of grey cattle and mangalica pigs. I think of birds of prey and wild boar. Buffalo don’t usually come to mind.

And when I think of buffalo, I think of the bison of North America. The wood bison, the largest animal on the continent, can weigh up to 900 kg. It differs from the plains bison (seen in Alaska) in that its tallest point is in front of its front legs, giving it that distinctive leaning-forward look. It’s woollier, too.  I also think of the African buffalo, with its fabulous curly horns. But the buffalo in Hungary look more like shortlegged, humpbacked cows. So much so that when we saw them, we had to look not twice, but three or four times to be sure they were buffalo.

bt-2016-42These relations of the Asian water buffalo roam the reserve at Kápolnapuszta, part of the Balaton-felvidéki National Park. Not quite as big as their North American counterparts, they can weigh up to 700 kg and have more angular faces and straighter horns. The 1.5 km interactive walking trail is very educational, teaching everything about their eating habits and how they breed as well as how they behave in general.

They’re very fond of water and given the choice between working and playing in the water, there’s no contest. They can amuse themselves for hours wallowing in the mud, so much so that you’d wonder what is going on in their heads.

A small museum has an exhibition of the flora and fauna in the area. It also includes the history of the buffalo in Hungary. Picnic tables abound and there are telescopes and a lookout tower from which to view the animals if they’re not cooperating and hanging out close the trails.

I had no idea that buffalos were once popular domestic animals in this country, raised for their meat, their milk, and their might. Many were put to work pulling carts. And while I’m quite fond of a good piece of buffalo mozzarella, I had thought it got its name from its shape rather than from its origins. But yes, it’s made from the milk of the buffalo cow.

Domestic buffalo in Hungary almost disappeared in the 1950s but they were saved from extinction and today, some 300 animals roam freely on the reserve in Zala county. We had the good fortune to see them on the march, one following the other as they made their way across the plain.  The old John Denver song came to mind:

Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam
Where the deer and the antelope play
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day

And that just about sums up what I’ve learned of Zala county.

The reserve is open daily in October from 9:00 to 17:00 and from 1 November to 31 March it closes at 16:00. All are welcome.

First published in the Budapest Times 21 October 2016

I parked Ime on the grass inside the gate. I was basking in the glory of having off-street parking when my neighbour dropped by to warn me about the weavils. From what I gathered, they climb into the car, up into the engine, and do untold damage to the wiring. Sometimes, they even nest. A home from home, of sorts. At least this is how I translated the steady flow of Hungarian with the accompanying hand gestures.

careng4Her remedy appeared to involve water. I thought I understood but didn’t quite believe that she was suggesting putting two bowls of water in front of the car as this would magically deter them from moving in.

I googled weavils – they’re insects. So I revised my understanding and my translation to read weasels. That made more sense. I could see those furry animals looking for a warm place out of the cold (even though it was a lovely, sunny, 25 degrees in late September).

The next day, I awoke to find that she’d been a tad impatient or perhaps sensed that I (a) didn’t fully understand or (b) didn’t quite believe her remedy. Two 1.5-litre plastic bottles of water stood sentry in front of the car. Each to their own, I thought. I could humour her in the interests of good neighbourly relations.

Then, walking up the village later that day, I spotted another car parked in a garden, facing out to the street. It, too, had two bottles of water standing guard. And then I saw a third. It would seem that Hungarian weasels (into which I also read mice and other furry rodents) are afraid of bottled water. Interestingly, all bottles were the same brand. Perhaps the rodents can read.

I googled some more and there’s loads of stuff on the Net about home cures for wire-gnawing rodents. Everything from spraying the grass you park on with rat pee (and yes, you can buy this … in Germany anyway) to spraying the wires with hot pepper spray.

Another site suggested stretching chicken wire tightly over a frame and laying this under your car as apparently squirrels (and presumably other such animals) don’t like walking on mesh.

In the area of Southern Germany where I live the culprits are usual members of the marten family. Here some people solve the problem by placing a wooden frame covered in stretched chicken wire under the motor compartment of the car when its parked. Apparently the beast don’t like to walk on the chicken wire and so don’t climb into the engine compartment.

Marders are a particular problem in Switzerland apparently. There you can insure your car against marder damage. One contributor to a forum swears it works:

You can also insure your car against Marder damage. Since I have insured my car the Marder has never come back.

careng3Now, I’ve been driving for years. I’ve lived in some wild and wonderful places teeming with all sorts of wildlife and never once have I even heard of this phenomenon. But as sure as shinola, now that I know about it, it’ll happen. I’ve heard tell of devices you can fit to the front grid that emit a high-pitched noise that scares them away. But what if it drives all the dogs in the ‘hood mad? There’s another that has a strobe light. But that might scare away the fox and the deer. For the minute, I think I’ll stick to the water bottles. Unless anyone has any other bright ideas?

When you go to Sunday mass in a small village where everyone knows everyone, you’re bound to stick out if you’re not a local. When you don’t plan ahead and pack your Sunday best, it’s difficult to adhere to the dress code. The men, for the most part, were all suited and booted with collars and ties. The women were all pressed and dressed giving their best handbags an airing. Dark, sombre colours were the order of the day.

His bright turquoise hoodie over a shirt and grey jeans glowed like a neon light on the approach and got the heads turning from a distance. As we walked to the door, three ladies standing sentry looked me up and down with the practiced eyes of mothers who’d sent an army of kids to school after a hands and nails check. My Hungarian isn’t what it should be but I know enough to know that my cropped pants were worthy of a comment and three sets of raised eyebrows as was the fact that I was wearing no socks. I had no argument. My mother would have said exactly the same in a look that would have creased the trousers, too. Okay for a weekday mass but definitely not what to wear on a Sunday.

But it wasn’t the clothes that did me in. ‘Twas the lipstick. Bright red. To match my scarf. I like a little colour. But it screamed HARLOT!!! I took solace in the fact that the village would have something to talk about for the week ahead.

Kneeling is part and parcel of the Sunday aerobics class that many non-Catholics view as mass. But in this particular church, the kneelers were so low that it I went into freefall when I took the plunge. Assuming (incorrectly) that mass the world over has the same kneeling points, I didn’t check what everyone else was doing before I sank to my knees, dropping from a height onto uncushioned slats. I managed to stifle my curse before it escaped and bounced off the walls. I looked around to see everyone else bending forward but not kneeling. Things are different in the countryside.

I usually leave mass then the priest leaves the altar. But having learned my lesson, I stopped and waited to see what everyone else did. No one moved. One old néni (auntie) pulled out her rosary beads as the choir sang on. To my shame, I thought ‘Oh no, not the rosary. We’ll be here till lunchtime.’ I looked around in something approaching a mild panic and thankfully hers was the only purse to open. But not until the last note had been sung did anyone make a move. The priest had vacated his spot a good three minutes earlier. No one was in a rush. Things are different in the countryside.

We were out in under 45 minutes. Budapest mass is closer to an hour or more (depending on where you go). My father is a firm believer in the 3-minute sermon and will just about tolerate a 40-minute mass. He’d have done okay. With years of research under my belt, I’ve come to the conclusion that Hungarian seminaries teach their seminarians that the minimum length of their sermons should be 10 minutes. And most oblige. As a minimum.

szodavizOutside, there were lots of friendly good mornings and plenty of interested looks but no approaches. We must have screamed NOT HUNGARIAN. We decided to walk up the village to the local bar/shop/tabac/café to check it out and get a bottle of szódaviz (soda water). You put a deposit on the spouted bottle and bring it back to be refilled. They’re hard to find in Budapest so I had been quite excited when I’d spotted a man leaving the premises the previous day with a box of six. I’m easily pleased.

In we went for a coffee. It was just coming up to 9am. One chap was happily sipping on his pálinka (Hungarian fruit brandy) and another two were enjoying a beer outside.

Pálinka in small amounts is a medicine, in large amounts a remedy, so Hungarians say.. Our grandfathers liked to start the day with a small glass of good pálinka and were convinced that they owed their health to the benevolent effects of the distillate.

A fourth came in as we were there and ordered a bottle of Törley pezsgő (Hungarian sparkling wine). He was celebrating (a new grandchild, I think). He asked for four glasses and they all had their toast. A couple more turfed up. All on bikes. We moved outside to one of two tables to have a second espresso (great coffee am happy to say) and I noticed that I was on display: the sockless harlot in the red lipstick, a lone woman among all these men. Things are different in the countryside.

Next time I go to mass, I’ll wear socks and tone down the lippie. The hoodie will be replaced by a jacket but the suit and tie won’t be happening any time soon. It’s the earliest I’ve been up on a Sunday for a while. Been to mass. Been to the pub. And still home by 10 am.

As a new chapter unfolds, life is promising all sorts of interesting experiences. This week, I’m grateful for the nudge from JFW. I’m already going through the calendar to see when I can come back and for how long I can stay. Sunny days in late September, falling asleep to the sounds of ducks on water and waking at cock crow to the baa’ing of sheep. Restorative. Good for the soul. Practically a religious experience in itself.