Even though I have been working on the site for almost ten years now, it is still very much work in progress. Here you’ll find what’s new on theonearmedcarb.com (and when I added it).

  • Not having been able to travel long distance for a while, due to Covid rules around the world, I dug into some books I had collected on the Democratic Republic of Congo, and wrote up my never fulfilled dream – or nightmare – of traveling the Congo River. I also included the reading list, and some photos of an amazing art show in Kinshasa: a reason yet to go and visit, one day! (April 2022).
  • I completed the blog of our autumn 2021 trip to Slovakia and Hungary, and I also created a Slovakia page and a Hungary page (December 2021).
  • The follow-up of my East African entries – below – was a trip in 1991 to Southern Africa, which I have now put together in a diary. In the process I also added to the Zimbabwe page, and created the Namibia and the South Africa pages (June 2021).
  • After my years in Tanzania I briefly visited Zimbabwe and Botswana, for which I also put some memories and pictures together. Mostly pictures, really (March 2021).
  • I spent a few weeks sorting out old, now-digitized slides from my years in Tanzania, and wrote up some distant memories, on the East African Memories page. Apart from a, related, Tanzania page, I also created pages for Rwanda and Malawi (Feb. 2021).
  • Having been back to Italy in October 2020, I expanded the Italy page, and also included a Northern Italy page to list the relevant travel blog entries. In the process, and for completeness sake, I decided to add a San Marino country page, which is nothing more that the blog entry (Nov. 2020).
  • Following our trip to the Czech Republic in July 2020, which is described in the Czech Republic blog, I also created a country page Czech Republic, under the SE Europe section (Sept. 2020). The locations on this page link directly to the blog entries of these towns.
  • From the start of this site I have created the attic, with the intention to post items for sale that we have collected over the years, but have no space for anymore in our home. Instead of using theonearmedcrab.com, I have created two satelite sites, the ethnic attic and the artworks attic, where I have uploaded a few pieces already, and to which I will be adding in the – as yet vaguely defined – future.
  • Sorting through my old photos I came across the pictures of a trip we did in 1992 to Egypt and Jordan. Which I turned into an Egypt page and a Jordan page (both May 2020), both mostly photos because the memories are limited after such a long time.
  • And then I also put some reading material for Haiti on the site (April 2020, and an update May 2020).
  • I transfered the Back to Haiti blog, initially published outside this site, to theonearmedcrab, and whilst I was doing that, I also added the experiences and observations from three earlier years in Haiti (2000-2003), as The Haiti Diaries (March 2020).
  • Inspired by friends who went to Guatemala, I added the Guatemala page and filled it with our own experiences, from 2000-2003, when I traveled there frequently for work, and occasionally took some time off. A couple of locations, and also the exciting Semana Santa processions in Antigua Guatemala (Dec 2019).
  • Whilst on the Iran page, I added a Dutch language article I wrote some years back, just after we returned from Iran, about Ashura, the mourning for the profet Hussain (Dec. 2019).
  • I also added locations to the Chile, the Peru, ánd the Iran page, something I had not done earlier. I also added some slider photos to the latter. So now you can directly click through to a specific location we have been to, without first accessing the blog (the locations do refer to the blog entries, though) (Nov./Dec. 2019).
  • After our Caucasus trip of September/October 2019 I rearranged the blog, Travel in the Caucasus, on a dedicated page. I also created pages for the Caucasus, for Azerbaijan and for Georgia, with links to the blog and to the individual locations. And I added a short reading list for the Caucasus. (Nov. 2019)
  • Following our Chile and Peru trip I share a short reading list of the books we read on the way, and afterwards. (July 2019)
  • I wrote an entry on Trento, in Northern Italy, which we visited in August 2018. (June 2019)
  • After our Chile & Peru trip I have rearranged the travelogue for easy old to new reading, and called it Costa Pacifico (April 2019). And I created country pages for Peru and Chile (April 2019) – I still need to add some photos here, though, and the locations.

Although I have never been to the Democratic Republic of Congo, the country has fascinated me for years. I have a collection of books on Congo, many of which I read during the Corona lockdown of 2021. Below are some of my observations on most of those books. Note that many more people have written their experiences travelling the country – my collection is but a small sample.

 

In “Congo: een Geschiedenis” (2010) (in English: Congo: the Epic History of a People) Belgian historian and writer David van Reybrouck grippingly describes in some 600 pages how Congo, now called the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), was raped by first King Leopold of Belgium personally, then by the Belgian state and, after independence, by a variety of local politicians and war lords. It is an incredible history, of opportunism by the Belgians and later by the western world, led by the Americans, during the Cold War. Of naivety, incompetence and mismanagement in the process of granting the country its independence in 1960, which in a matter of weeks (!!!) led to massive mutiny in the army, secession of almost half of the country, and international military intervention to protect westerners after attacks on some foreign residents – and how their sudden flight led to a country without any administrative skills, because almost none of the Congolese had been formally trained. And of subsequent rise of cruel autocrats like Mobutu, who, in his personal enrichment, was by every comparison far worse than Leopold and the Belgians, and later Kabila father and son, who opportunistically did everything to stay in control for the same reasons, despite their sheer incompetence in leadership. All of this within the larger context of the scramble for Africa, and for Congolese mining commodities, initially by European powers, more recently by the African neighbours of Congo, especially Rwanda and Uganda, and as the latest player, China.

I thought I was rather well versed in contemporary history, but I learned a lot about a part of the world that does not normally receive a lot of attention, reading this book. Which reads as a page turner, actually.

 

Adam Hochschild concentrates on a specific period in Congo’s history in “King Leopold’s Ghost” (1998). After a brief introduction he describes how, thanks to the exploration and the later efforts of Henry Morton Stanley, the Congo became the personal property of the Belgian King – not the Belgian state, but the King, in a time when European powers were actively dividing up the African continent. And how, through forced labour and an incredibly cruel and haphazard system of punishments for the local population, the King managed to extract the riches of his back garden, first ivory and later rubber, for personal account. And how a small group of brave men, led by the Brit Edward Morel, unleashed a worldwide campaign not seen since the anti-slavery campaigns earlier in the 19th Century, to bring an end to this ruthless exploitation.

Hochschild vividly describes the colonial singlemindedness and the associated horrors. But he also demonstrates how difficult it was to get other countries to respond to the allegations, and how the King time and again managed to exonerate himself by claiming the ideological high ground. Hochschild also points out how little the Belgians know about their colonial past, and how defensive they are when confronted. It is only in the last chapter that he remarks that it was easy to single out Belgium at the time, a small and unimportant country, but that exactly the same colonial practices, equally cruel, were committed by all the other powers with colonies in Central Africa.

 

Andre Gide’s travelogue “Voyage au Congo” (1927), of which I read the Dutch translation “Reis naar Congo”, demonstrates the last observation of Hochschild, above. Mr Gide travelled through the French colony Congo, the one with Brazaville as capital, which at the time also included what is now Central African Republic. He travels by boat, by car where possible, and furthermore walking – which in his case is partly walking himself, and partly being carried in a -draagstoel-, helped by a large group of carriers and porters. On the way he mostly observes nature, which is not always very exciting, but he also encounters cases of exploitation and unfair treatment of local people, who often have no other recourse than complaining to him, the white man not immediately associated with the local colonial officers and their henchmen. The various issues – observed in 1925, the year of Mr. Gide’s travel – are not different from what Morel had campaigned against – extortion, forced labour, kidnapping -, except that they occurred in French territory, and not Belgian, and was thus politically a lot more difficult to expose. A book for the die-hard Congo reader, or for someone who wants to know how privileged Westerners travelled, in those days.

 

Like Andre Gide, Redmond O’Hanlon’s “Congo Journey” (1996) also takes place in what is now called The People’s Republic of Congo, after independence from France – for most it is just called Congo Brazaville (as opposed to Congo Kinshasa, the DRC). Some of Mr O’Hanlon’s writing is informative, some of it is mildly funny, but he never manages to engage me really, in his travelogue. I don’t know, maybe he is too occupied with himself, not receptive enough for his environment – or maybe I was just not receptive enough to even more reading about the Congo, the Brazaville version, not the Kinshasa version that I was most interested in. The book just didn’t appeal to me, I didn’t finish it.

 

I have always wanted to travel down the Congo River, from deep in the Congo to the Atlantic coast. But never dared doing so, through a country completely bankrupt and lawless. Tim Butcher did, in 2004, and wrote a fascinating book about it, “Blood River” (2006). Maybe he really wanted to travel the route the explorer Henry Morton Stanley took, in 1877, when he became the first Westerner to travel from the east to the west coast of the continent, and especially, discovered the Congo River, hitherto unknown to Western map makers. Or maybe he wanted to see where his mother travelled in colonial luxury in the 1950. But I think he just had the same obsession as I had, go down that river.

He quickly establishes that his is not adventure travel, no, he calls it ordeal travel. Every part is a major challenge, firstly organising transport in a country where there is none, and then actually moving from one to the next place. The first part is a gruelling couple of days on the back of a motor bike, but he also travels by UN patrol boat, by canoe, by another UN chartered barge. None of the travel is fun, but at least on the road, or the river, he feels slightly safer than in the towns. What he encounters on the way is a country totally lawless, ruled by local strongmen and gangs, vaguely linked to political entities but mostly after their own, immediate and uncontrolled interest, in the process terrorising everybody else. And what he describes is a country going backwards, from a relatively well developed infrastructure under Belgian colonial rule to a place not unlike the one encountered by Stanley: the roads have disappeared again, have been reduced to narrow tracks; the only remnant of the railway is an overgrown sleeper; rusty metal hulls are all that is left of ships that used to sail up and down the river frequently. In the jungle there is nothing that reminds one of what we would consider normal life. One of his most poignant observations is that the older generations have, in fact, been exposed to more modernity that the younger ones – the inverse of what is considered normal in the rest of the world.

Throughout his journey Mr Butcher lives in constant fear. And you wonder what for, in the end. You know, apart from the occasional character he finds – a Belgian priest who arrived in the 1940s, or a British spinster, who has spent her entire life in the Congo, or some extremely helpful aid workers, both expatriate and local – apart from those people, there is really nothing to see, apart from green jungle and muddy river, and the occasional dilapidated town. That he manages to reach the Atlantic coast, alive and in less than two months, is a major achievement, for which I have the utmost respect, never mind that during reading the book I often referred to Mr Butcher as the lunatic. The other thing he achieved is that I don’t need to make that trip anymore, myself.

 

A lot less interesting is Anjan Sundaram’s “Stringer” (2013). Subtitled ‘A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo’, it is at least as much about Mr Sundaram’s own personal journey as it is about the Congo. Written in three parts, the first and longest deals with his arrival and stay in Kinshasa, with a local family rather than in a five star hotel. Quite interesting, the local scene, but not interesting enough for over a hundred pages. The second part is the most interesting one, when he travels upcountry, first by barge and motor canoe on a failed trip to visit a friend’s expropriated piece of land, then by UN aircraft to Bunia, to ‘visit the war’. But here again, it is too much about the author, too little about Congo, let alone about ‘the war’. In the third part, Sundaram is back in Kinshasa, where he lives through the election and the subsequent unrest, consisting of fighting in the streets between several political factions. But it is not that he is ‘reporting from anarchy’ as the book cover wants us to believe; Sundaram is holed up in a factory of an Indian contact, cut off from the outside world, until things calm down again after three days. Uncomfortable, for sure, but we are not talking about a hero, here. Altogether, quite disappointing.

 

Tim Jeal’s biography “Stanley: the Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer” (2007) is of course excellent background literature for anything Congo-related. Sadly, I haven’t had the time to read it yet. Neither have I read Stanley’s own writings, notably Through the Dark Continent, published in 1878, on his east to west crossing which included descending the Congo River.

 

And then there is the fiction section of the list: my favourites are, of course, Joseph Conrad’s classic “Heart of Darkness” (1902), which describes exactly what I find so attractive, the Congo River and its people, but then a hundred years ago, and even more so, “The Poisonwood Bible” (1998), about a missionary and his family in what was still Belgian Congo in the 1950s.

When it comes to African costumes, we mostly have stereotype images in mind, of the tribal dance costumes, made of raffia, feathers, extravagant headdresses and the like; or what about the necklaces of colourful beads, popular amongst the Masai?

But the costumes of the KinAct festival, organised – I think – annually in August, in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, beg to differ. Here the costumes of several street artists, many of them part of an art collective called ‘Ndaku Ya La Vie Est Belle’, are on display.

Arnold Dumbi in his costume named “Réveillez-vous” or ‘wake-up’ made out of cigarette packs.
jerry can man

The artists themselves parade their costumes, made from rubbish found on dumps or in the streets, through the city’s neighbourhoods, trying to make a statement. A creation made from parts of broken radios, by Kalenga Kabangu Jared, is a protest against fake news. Shaka Fumu Kabaka’s costume, made from discarded dolls, refers to a six day bloodbath in Kisangani, in 2000, when Ugandan and Rwandese troops fought a battle. Floryan Sinanduku has made several costumes highlighting the poor medical facilities in the country; his syringes costume actually predates the Corona pandemic by a few years. The originator of this trend, Eddy Ekete, put together his first costume already in 2010, from empty drink cans, to emphasize the increasing amount of garbage accumulating in the city.

I have collected a number of pictures from Internet (see sources below) to show you some examples of this incredible art form, also as a positive counterpart for my rather depressing entry of traveling the Congo River. I believe many photos have been taken by Belgian photographer Kris Pannecoucke. I hope he doesn’t object to me reproducing some of my favourites here. Others come from the KinAct Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/kinact1). And let’s hope, with Anna Battista, author of the irenebrination site hereunder, that these costumes at one stage can be admired at exhibitions around the world. Otherwise, I may have to travel to Kinshasa, one day, after all.

https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/aug/20/they-call-us-bewitched-the-drc-performers-turning-trash-into-art-photo-essay

https://www.volkskrant.nl/kijkverder/v/2021/kinshasas-artistieke-vuilnismannen~v455544/

https://www.irenebrination.com/irenebrination_notes_on_a/2021/08/kinshasa-collective-kinact.html

a costume called “MATSHOZI 6 jours” (‘6 days of TEARS’), made by artist Shaka from bloodied dolls, honouring the victims of a 6 days war in Kisangani in 2000
a costume made of discarded syringes
another, more predictable, subject, a costume from condoms (from the KinAct Facebook page)
costume made out of medicine strips
Patrick Kitete in a costume made of flip-flops he recovered from the streets of Kinshasa.
another obvious subject matter, the empty tins as costume material
a young artist with his costume “Capsule, Congo est Malade” or ‘Congo is sick’.
Shaka again, now in his costume ‘Covid 19’, named after children in Kinshasa shouted “corona, corona” at him.
a costume made of human hair collected from hairdressers in Kinshasa.
street art performer ‘Sarah’ in Kinshasa posing with her costume ‘‘Kiadi Kibeni’’ or ‘Poor me’.
and, of course, mobile phones form another obvious target
and the last one – for now, until after I return from Kinshasa with my own pictures!!

mini-paprikas

The trip to Slovakia and Hungary is one steeped in history, full of art and architecture. And travelling here is exceedingly comfortable.

As the Corona pandemic is still with us, we opted once more for being in control of our travel arrangements; not being dependent on airplanes, with the risk of being stranded somewhere if governments decide to close their country, but taking our car, instead, so that we can turn around and drive home whenever we start to feel uncomfortable. After our similarly opportunity-driven Czech Republic experience of last year, Slovakia and Hungary were sort of a natural continuation.

wooden church in the Erdohat, Eastern Hungary

And like the Czech Republic, travel here is exceedingly easy, lots of lovely towns within driving distance, no need for long days – although we did some, by choice, like exploring the many villages in the Erdohat in Hungary. Plentiful hotels and restaurants, or supermarkets, for the catering. Really European, for all intents and purposes, just like home.

the message we got time and again

Except that we seem to have been suffering from an awful lot of closures. Restaurants that close early, museums that were closed, churches, castles. Some of that was no doubt caused by us traveling out of season. Wine bars that cater for tourists, or guided tours that had ceased to operate. Other occasions were just due to bad luck, being there at the wrong day, or the wrong hour – and not wanting to wait, or come back some other day, of course. But it did become a bit of a repetitive issue, or at least that was our impression. Culminating in driving home through Germany and not being able to eat anymore along the motorway in the evening, because of Corona limitations!

the mine in Banska Stiavnica

including haphazard mine tourist

Anyhow, there was enough open to have had a wonderful and varied journey, from the most fabulous museums, like Danubiana, to the mines and the monuments, and the Memento Park. Budapest was most definitely a highlight, with its spectacular architecture, but so were the many small, wooden churches, in Slovakia and in Hungary, with their frescoes. The old communist-era factories, often along the road, where we couldn’t stop for photos, and the equally dated monoblocks, the palatis, in the outskirts of almost every town – and sometimes in the middle. Overall, compared to the Czech Republic and its pretty, Medieval cobbled and pastel-coloured town centres, both Slovakia and Hungary showed more traces of neglect, like peeling paint, or stucco falling off. Yet, some towns were better organised on maintenance, Bardejov comes to mind, or Kosice, or Debrecen.

the mirror room in the Esterhazy Palace near Sopron, Western Hungary

castles everywhere, in these history-laden countries, this one in Orava in Northern Slovakia

and Soviet-era factories, of course, like this one in Slovakia

a miniature reminder of the 1956 revolution in Hungary

Part of the charm of those towns, and of the variety of buildings and sites, maintained or not, is their history. It stimulates to read more about the Ottoman occupation, the Habsburg domination, the Austro-Hungarian dual-monarchy. And the more recent developments, from ultra-right-wing interbellum to post-war communist take-over, complete with its gruesome Soviet repression, culminating in the failed 1956 revolution. An extraordinary complex history, of an area so close to my own country, with so many critical outcomes that have shaped the Old Continent one way rather than the other, of which I actually knew so little. How different Europe would have been, had the Ottomans captured Vienna? Or if the ‘the West’ had supported the first real challenge to Soviet dominance in Easter Europe?

autumn colours in the Hungarian vine yards

and no colours at all, in the fog-covered High Tatras in Slovakia

There is enough natural beauty in Slovakia and Hungary, without immediately being stunning. We have seen the autumn colours develop, increasingly spectacular, not in the least in the wine growing areas. The views from the mountain tops weren’t always equally satisfying, but then, you cannot win them all, can you? As soon as the weather does cooperate, Slovakia and large parts of Hungary are quite pretty. Although for those used to Argentina, the famous Hungarian puszta was a bit of a joke, really.

or electric trams, also Budapest

yet, plenty of traces of modern Europe, like a food delivery in Budapest

The biggest challenge? The language. Although in the cities and the larger towns English is quite widely spoken, further east communication becomes a challenge. Sometimes we manage with a bit of German, but more often than not, there is only local language. Fair enough, and with Slovak you can still make out some of the words, reading a menu or traffic directions. With Hungarian, we are both lost, completely. None of the words look like anything known. We quickly learn that a restaurant is an etterem, and that reserved is foglalt – we see that sign on the tables in those etterems. But outside the day-to-day practicalities, we don’t manage to communicate much. Which is a pity, because being able to communicate makes a journey so much more interesting. Now I don’t come further than establishing that people were mostly friendly, and helpful, but who knows, maybe they just insulted us with a big smile – nah, probably not. What is remarkable, is their politeness, but perhaps this is just respect for old age, whether I like that observation or not.

pavement signs on how to behave as a pedestrian – where on earth?

Oh, and what about Corona? Hmm, at the beginning, in Bratislava, some hotels and restaurants still wanted to see a Corona QR-code, but the further east we went, the less interested people were. However much my travel companion enthusiastically waved with her mobile phone, to show our fully-vaccinated status, nobody really cared. In Hungary even less, it really looked as if Corona didn’t exist, no social distancing, no face masks. Which was kind of nice, for a little while. Never mind that now, a few months later, this country also went back into lock-down.

We survived. Comfortably. Whenever the situation allows it again, go there, and enjoy a friendly, polite, perhaps a little old-fashioned, Europe, brimming with history. And that all at a good day’s drive from anywhere in Western Europe. Piece of cake, really.

often enough, colourful scenes during our trip

the Fire Tower, defining building in Sopron

Right next to the Austrian border is Sopron, another nice town, with vine yards, a limestone quarry and a real palace in its neighbourhood.

Unlike so many other towns we have seen in the last few weeks, Sopron, like Koszeg, has never been affected by the Ottoman occupation, which is visible in its architecture: the centre of Sopron, with its cobbled streets and relatively small houses, is much more a medieval town. It lacks the relative grandeur of late 19th/early 20th Century multi-storey architecture, instead it has more humble, pastel-coloured low-rise buildings, and narrower streets.

the view from the tower

another intricate pest column

the restored city wall

courtyard in Sopron, one of many

exit from the old town is – in this case – through a series of arches

The defining building is the Fire Tower. It dates from 1676, built after a town fire, and was subsequently manned by guards, who were supposed to warn for a fire, anywhere in town, from the balcony high up the tower. Which you can climb, today, of course, mostly along fairly comfortable stairs, for a view over town – not that impressive, after all, because the tower is actually not very high, nothing compared to the cathedral in Budapest, or even the church in Bardejov.

And for the rest it is just fun to wander through the old town, of which in places the old walls are still in existence, nicely restored. There are several churches, and synagogues. Many of the houses have large, attractive courtyards. And others have stairs to the basement, to – guess what? – wine bars, serving some of the quite acceptable local wines, accompanied by extensive plates with cheese and cold cuts. Of which we sampled some, of course.

one of the narrow, colourful, cobbled streets in Sopron

vine yards in an explosion of autumn colours

neat rows of vines, some still green

and others already red and yellow

the lime stone quarry, also in autumn colours

another example of the colour spectrum in front of grey

internally, man-made cave system, where limestone has been mined

Outside Sopron, towards the Lake Ferto, are the grapes, extensive fields with neat row upon row of vines. Harvested by now, but spectacularly coloured in autumn. We drive through, on our way to the village of Fertoragos, home of an impressive limestone quarry which has been exploited since the 14th Century. Apparently, even Vienna cathedrals have been built from the blocks extracted here, and what is left is a man-made cave system, turned into a museum and a theatre. No concerts, during our visit, but there is an extensive exhibition on the Miocene origins of the limestone and its perceived fauna at the time, quite nicely done.

the front view of the entire palace, ostentatious to say the least

the Esterhazy Palace, favourite for wedding pictures

a window of the palace, and the Esterhazy shield (I suppose)

stairs to the balcony

the mirror room – with mirrors

the music room, this section for the audience

The real gem, however, is the Esterhazy Palace, in the nearby town of Fertod (I know, it sounds very similar, these placenames). Perhaps best known for the fact that this is where Joseph Haydn spent 30 years of his life as resident composer. The palace was built by Count Nicholas Esterhazy in the late 18th Century, to rival Versailles. Nicholas, nicknamed ‘the Ostentatious’ – and you can see why -, built it as a summer palace, it was not even his primary residence. And when he died, in 1790, none of his successors were ever remotely interested in living here. Which is, I suppose, from when the neglect started; nowadays the palace is slowly being restored – apparently, one of Nicholas’ descendants has returned to live here -, but you can see that there is still a long way to go.

The only way to get inside the palace, inside some of the 126 rooms, is to sign up for a tour. In Hungarian, of course. But we are the only ones, so our guide explains in passable English, instead. VIP treatment, once again. In fact, there is very little open to the public: the tiny chapel, a garden room downstairs and the extravagant concert and banqueting halls on the first floor. But it is a nice enough experience, glancing a glimpse of what Nicholas the Ostentatious was up to. Those times. Long gone, except for the symphonies of Haydn.

Tome to look back at our trip.

church window in Koszeg

One of our last stops is Koszeg, a picturesque town right against the Austrian border.

We are heading home again, driving west. On our way to Sopron, we finally reach Hungary’s prime tourist attraction, the Balaton Lake, a warm water lake where it is pleasant swimming. No doubt, but not in October anymore. We skip the lake. We cannot even be bothered to walk up to its shore – we are winding down, more interested in eating fresh lake fish and drinking the local Olasrizling white wine, produced in the neighbourhood of Keszthely, where we spent the night.

the main square in Koszeg, pastel-coloured houses turned restaurants

where is was indeed pleasant staying… but, what is that, water????

But we do get to Koszeg, billed as one of the loveliest Hungarian medieval towns. Pretty square, with pastel-coloured houses, many of which are home to restaurants to cater for the tourists. A castle reconstructed several times over, in the name of Miklos Jurisics, the local hero who held out against the Ottomans – in 1532, according to legend with fewer than 500 men against 100,000 Turks. And pseudo-medieval Hero’s Gate, which not even pretends to be old, having been constructed in 1932. Makes you wonder how much of this loveliest of Hungarian towns is actually original at all.

street leading to the restored castle

entrance to the castle

the castle’s court yard

with the inevitable statue of hero Miklos Jurisics

the Heroes’ Tower, hsitorical building from 1932

Lunch was good, though, sitting at one of those terraces, in a single shirt in the afternoon sun. And that at the end of October. Did I mention winding down, somewhere?

Funnily, the quickest way from Koszeg to Sopron, our last destination, is through Austria. That is, if you exclude the time it takes to buy a vignette for Austrian roads, of course. Where the dumb hostility of the service station shop attendant is in stark contrast to the friendliness of the Hungarians, just across the border. Amazing!

Next: our last stop, Sopron.

and then we encounter this, a black smith sign

dormer, avant la lettre

another nice house, decorated with sgraffito

grapes ready for harvest, outside Villany

We visit Villany, Hungary’s prime wine areas, and do the things you do in such areas.

Although we have not been very impressed by Hungarian wine so far, we cannot leave this country without having visited its most promising wine area – for us, at least, appreciating the dry wine varieties over the sweet wines like those from Tokaj. So we head for Villany, with ample time for some serious tasting, as well.

Driving up to Villany from Pecs, we kept on wondering where the raw material is; normally a wine centre is surrounded by grape vines. Not so here, the grapes are all on the far end of town, between Villany and Siklos. But grapes there are! Most of them have already been harvested, but we encounter enough vine yards with lots of full-grown grapes, spectacularly contrasting with the leaves in autumn colours. Thanks to the bright sunshine and the time of the year, probably one of the nicest walks through a wine area we have ever done.

the vine yards in autumn colours

grapes, and contrasting leave colours

more grapes, more colours

and what about this for red?

more grapes in the sun

But we have seen grapes before. The real thing is the tasting, of course. Villany is a lovely village, with one main road, Baros Gabor ucta, running in such a way that the south side of the road is almost the entire day in the sun. Which makes it an ideal place for the many wineries to have their tasting rooms, on that side, and on the pavement. Where even so late in the season still quite a few people were trying wine – or just drinking it, probably locals, who spent almost the entire afternoon in the same place.

We have selected one of the better known brands, Gere Tamas, for our first selection of Villany wines, a standard set of six glasses, mostly red, which were served on the terrace of the winery. What can I say, better than the average wines we have tried so far, but not – as far as we were concerned – take-home-the-boxes types.

the main street in Villany, bathing in autmun sun light for most of the day

professional tasting ongoing

an ideal spot for tasting, I would say

lots of oak barrels

specifically, Hungarian oak

the cellars of Bock Winery

The best known winery in town, Bock, we have kept for the late afternoon and evening, starting with a tour through their impressive cellars. In Hungarian, unfortunately, but we have done these type of tours often enough to not miss too much of the details, without actually understanding a word of it – Hungarian is really a language without any recognisable words, to us, completely unintelligible. Luckily, during the tasting we were helped by an English speaking waiter, whose enthusiasm encourages us to taste perhaps a little more than was good for us. One of the problems in Villany is that they grow so many different grapes, from the hardier Portugieser and Blaufrankische to Pinot Noir and Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and even Malbec. We had a selection of some of the local varieties, like Kadarka, and internationally known grapes, and between them they definitely constituted the best wines we tried during this trip.

And then we topped it with a wonderful dinner, some of the best food we have had here, too. An evening not to forget lightly. Never mind that the morning after was one to forget quickly.

Next: Koszeg, almost on the way home.

and long corridors lines with more barrels

and a collection of old bottles

some of them locked away!

a few more autumn colours

the former Gazi Kasim Pasha mosque in Pecs

One more Hungarian town, Pecs, with architectural and artist attractions.

We have arrived in what is described Hungary’s second-finest town, Pecs. A relatively recent development, because the earlier version suffered under Ottoman occupation and was badly damaged at its liberation. But the recovery, from the 17th century onwards, has turned Pecs into a town with a lovely old centre, elegant yet never imposing buildings and a flourishing art scene.

The Ottoman heritage is recognisable in what is now a catholic church, but used to be, unmistakably,  the Gazi Kasim Pasha mosque. The rest of the square is lined with impressive, 18th to 19th Century buildings, nicely restored and well-maintained. And just off the square is the Art Nouveau-style Grand Hotel Palatinus, where we have installed ourselves. So that we also get a good look inside this fabulous building.

the old centre of Pecs

one of the buildings on the square

and another one, stylish corner building

the pest column on the main square

the restored gable

and some outside wall decorations

the Grand Hotel Palatinus

with its Art Nouveau decorations

and equally Art Nouveau hall inside

the hotel’s breakfast room

the large Saint Peter and Saint Paul basilica

The biggest building in town is a church again, the Saint Peter and Saint Paul Basilica, apparently rebuilt several times since the 11th Century. The latest restoration is not a great success, it has not created a very attractive building. We can’t get inside, because there is a wedding going on, but there is no reason to believe that inside is better then outside.

the main square at night

an artist impression of Franz Liszt, one of the better known Hungarians

part of the fountain, in the town centre

admittedly, not every piece of metal is art

‘Storm over the Great Hortobagy’ (1903), one of the local pantains of Csontvary

And then there is the art scene, represented by lots of modern sculptures in town, by lots of art galleries, but most impressively by the museum dedicated to Slovakian artist Kosztka Csontvary, who lived in the second half 19th and beginning 20th Century. Apparently. it was always humble Picasso who said, after having seen Csontvary’s work, that he ‘did not know that there was another great painter in this century, besides me’. And indeed, this small museum is reason alone to come to visit Pecs.

Which is just as well, because we are getting a bit of an overkill of lovely Hungarian town centres, not unlike our Czech experience last year.

Next: Villany, the wine region.

Csontvary’s wall-size painting ‘Baalbek’ (1906)

and a detail of the painting, of the ruins

and of the camels, in the right bottom corner

one of the grave-mark totems at the Mohacs memorial

The memorial in Mohacs, to the defining battle in 1526, is a rather underwhelming affair.

We not really here for the town of Mohacs, a small and not very exciting affair on the Danube River, close to where the river flows into Croatia. We are here to visit the Mohacs battle field, or rather, the memorial erected on the battle field, where the Ottoman forces thrashed the Hungarian army in 1526. A defeat that led to a traumatic subdivision of Hungary, and 150 years of Ottoman occupation of the southern half of the country – and perhaps also the first instalment of the Transylvanian question, about whether Transylvania belongs to Hungary or Romania.

entrance to the Mohacs memorial: each of the metal pieces represents a person killed near Mohacs, the opening at the apex symbolizes the trauma suffered as a result of the lost battle. Really!

appraoching the memorial field, the sunken buildings “recalling the atmosphere of monastries that persihed under Turkish rule”. Really!

the centre of the field

some of the sculptures annex grave-marks

and a few more

this one even has a couple of arms

horses, too, died in large numbers

the cross was added later

The battle itself was over in a few hours. The Hungarians, led by their 18-year old king, decided not to wait for reinforcements, and were subsequently routed by a superior Ottoman force, which killed perhaps 20,000-25,000 Hungarians, including the King and a large group of nobles. Thus nobody left to rebuilt the defences.

My guidebook – 15 years old – had warned that there was not much to see, except for the memorial, but out of historical interest, I wanted to see it anyhow. Besides, it is really close to Pecs, our next destination. I am glad we didn’t make a massive detour. It seems that, in the past 15 years, the Hungarians have patched up the site somewhat, in order to turn it into a commercial venture. After having paid a for Hungarian standards steep entrance fee, we were led into a kind of an arena, with apparently randomly placed wooden statures, or totems – no explanation as to what they signify, except that some of them are being repaired. Some are rather abstract, others do have some recognizable images carved – not necessarily always uplifting. Altogether incomprehensible, although I later read in a pamphlet that the totems are supposed to represent grave marks to the memory of the killed soldiers. There is a lot more I only realise afterwards, from the wedge of black pines symbolizing the Turkish counter-attack to the concentric paths ‘suggesting that the problem and the conclusions encourage people to circle around them, with no solution of absolution offered’. Right!

Back near the entrance we enter a kind of an UFO-shaped cupola, which houses the museum: an equally underwhelming experience. A film in Hungarian, a couple of rusty knives and swords, and a chainmail. And the next floor of the museum? No, that is all, the next floor is reserved for a restaurant on site. Which is closed, of course.

Next: to nearby Pecs.

this leaves little to imagination

neither does this one

and the upturned UFO contains the museum

with a ratrher humble collection of dug-up artefacts

a concrete soldier guarding Hero’s Gate in Segzed

Szeged, once again, has some interesting, and less interesting, architecture, and it has the Hero’s Gate, controversial testimony to Admiral Horty.

We are back in the Great Plains, the Puszta. Segzed is all the way south, close to the Serbian border, there where the Tisza River – which we have already encountered several times, like in the Erdohat and in Tokaj – leaves the country to join up with the Danube in Serbia.

the Votive Church, a huge brick building

with lots of little niches, and 12 apostles on the outside

some of the apostles in mosaic

and the supposedly 11th Century Demetrius tower, of which not much seems original

the large square in front of the church

with bustes and plaques in each of the arches

Szeged has had a problem. It suffered a very bad flood, from that same Tisza, in 1879, which means that almost everything is town post-dates this. The dominant building is the Votive Church, after a pledge of the town’s citizens, after the floods, to build a cathedral. Coincidentally or not, the square in front of the church is exactly the size of the San Marcos square in Venice – even though the church is nothing like the San Marcos. But the square itself is impressive, nevertheless, lined by arched buildings belonging to the church, with busts and plagues in every arch. On the same square is also the oldest Szeged building, probably originally 11th Century: the eight-sided Demetrius tower, which obviously must have survived the floods, and was restored in 1926.

Hero’s Gate, built to honour Admiral Horty

and the other soldier, also concrete

the arch on the inside has been painted

and I am not sure what it all means

this is not the most uplifting scene, I would say

and neither is this one, more soldiers, some with gas masks

Not far from the Dom square is Hero’s Gate, a rather controversial issue. It was built to honour Admiral Horty and his fascist henchmen, who gathered in this place to take over Hungary after the early Bela Kun Communist republic was thrashed by Romanian forces, in 1919. The murals inside the gate were painted over during the post-war communist times, but recently have been restored, even including the figure of Horty himself, who remains a controversial figure in Hungary – I haven’t been able to identify him in the murals. The collection of paintings amount to a strange combination of religious and militaristic images, artistically not very good, but confrontational they are.

attacking forces, perhaps protected by the saints?

in another part of town, more sculptures, these ones peacefully observing everything below

Ungar-Mayer Palota, or palace, one of the more remarkable buildings in Segzed

its central cupola

and in some more detail

Reok Palota is in Hansl-and-Gretchen style, if that is an architectural term

with balconies everywhere

round corners

and pink flowers

the main pedestrian street in Segzed, full of atmosphere

some are keeping away from it all, fishing on the Tisza River

And for the rest Szeged is like to many other Hungarian towns, a relatively small centre with a variety of architectural styles – in this case definitely all end 19th to beginning of the 20th Century. Which provides for an entertaining collection, from Hansel-and-Gretchen like Art Nouveau not dissimilar to the Cifra Place is Kecskemet, to a slightly more classical style, but invariably excessively decorated. Just the thing we like to see, like to admire – without any judgement on its artistic value.

Next: the Mohacs battle field memorial.

and full of inviting terraces