The signs are there

A day off for me is one on which I don’t have to make any decisions. Tell me where to go, what to do, when to eat and I’ll thank you for it. Not every day mind you, but every now and then, I will thank you for it. Honestly.

One of the best holidays I’ve been on was to South Africa a number of years ago when I literally went with the flow. No decisions were needed on my part. In fact, I don’t think I had a say in anything for nearly two weeks. Bliss. Add to that I had travel companions who knew where we were going and had the history of everywhere we went down pat. Sure, there’s probably an app for my Android that would have as much information, but it wouldn’t have the personal anecdotes or the ability to filter out what bores me and only do the stuff I’d find interesting.

A couple of weeks ago, I had a mini-vacation. The lovely VO took us to her hometown of Győr and toured us around. She has a program and she knew her stuff. No decisions were required.

I’d been to Győr a few years ago in the middle of winter. I vaguely remember a square with a Christmas market. It didn’t leave much of an impression. But this time was different. The city was established by the Celts back in the fifth century BC. The first King of Hungary built a basilica there in 900 AD. Napoleon occupied the castle in 1809. It sits at the confluence of three rivers: the Danube, the Rába, and the Rábca. It’s been razed and pillaged and rebuilt and destroyed and built again. Currently its oldest buildings are a thirteenth-century dwelling tower and a fifteenth century Gothic Dóczy chapel. But buildings aside (and there are some impressive ones), it was the trade signage that caught my attention.

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They were used in years gone by to identify what each shop sold, tributes to a time when craftsmen were indeed skilled workers, practising a trade passed down from father to son. The golden ship is probably the most famous one in the city, made in 1938 by Schima Bandi. He was one of the metal teachers from a trade school in Bratislava who fled to Hungary when the occupation began.  He also fashioned a bird’s nest sign but that I need to go back and find.

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My particular favourite is this fishmonger’s sign. If anything does what it says on the tin, this does. Given a choice between one of these over my door and a modern neon flash, I know which I’d pick. I think the more miles we travel along the road of modernity, the less classier we get. Or perhaps I’m just living in the wrong century.

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There’s a pharmacy in Győr that’s still as it was way back when but it was closed on this particular Saturday afternoon. The sign outside could do with a little cleaning but is still quite something. And it’s worth going back for.

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Outside what was once a shoemaker’s, there an old tree trunk studded with nails. It’s said that every apprentice who got his papers nailed a stud in the tree on graduation. And it’s still there, testament to the many who learned their trade under the guidance of a man who knew his. I prefer that story to another I’ve read: that every passing craftsman had to hammer a nail in the tree at N°4 of Széchenyi tér. Where the celebration in that? Vastuskós Ház  (house of the iron tree stump) is now home to the collection of  journalist Imre Patkó an includes work by twentieth-century Hungarian artists, that lines the walls beside work by Chagall, Rouault, Braque, and Picasso.

It was bloody freezing – even though it was supposed to be summer. No doubt we’d have found some more had the weather been more cooperative. But then again, it ain’t going anywhere…


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