Feeling Young in Hévíz

Hévíz is known worldwide for its lake, the largest biologically active, natural thermal lake in the world. Boasting 4.4 hectares (almost 500 000 sq. ft.) in size and 38 meters in depth, its source is exceptionally powerful, delivering 410 liters per second enabling the entire lake water to be renewed in only three days. Its temperature reaches 38 degrees Celsius in summer, and never drops below 24 degrees Celsius in winter, making it a year-round activity.  During mid-February, we enjoyed the water at 27oC outside and 37 oC inside the pavilion. This magical water is reputed to be good for arthritis, rheumatic, and motor diseases.

Besides the lake, there are many activities we enjoyed during our stay in Hévíz: the quiet provincial city and its colorful churches, the many bicycle tours available (with bicycle paths or not), the beautiful city of Keszthely with its majestic castle only 5km away, and Lake Balaton, to name only a few.

Lake Hévíz
At Hévíz, like many other thermal baths in Hungary such as Gellért or Széchenyi, the menu encompasses several pages,  covering every possibility of timing, age or family size. We arrived within two hours of closing time (3:00-5:00 pm in February), so the fee was only HUF 1,600. We enjoyed the sun casting a soft light upon the lake, the lilies and lotus flowers. As our interest was specifically for the lake and its sulfurous waters, we didn’t need to add the ‘sauna world’ option. Besides, our hotel was fully equipped with sauna and hamam. A complex of several little square houses all intertwined is built on stilts over the lake. From each house, several flights of stairs allow you to access the lake. Since the lake is deep and not everybody comes prepared with ‘noodles’ (foam floating devices) they have installed a few metallic rails that you can hang on to in order to rest. The submerged part of these rails is viscous with algae and when you swim your feet might get tangled in the roots of the lilies. It was wonderful being there off-season, as we felt we had the lake to ourselves.

For warmer water, we swam under the main pavilion, past a half-submerged door of heavy glass and metal, past a plastic curtain. This barrier keeps the source water at almost its original temperature. We were immediately intrigued by some people standing under signs featuring a bell and an arrow, which meant ‘move in this direction when you hear the bell’. So we queued like others to understand why this activity had so much success. They are seven signs and under each sign there is a hot underwater massaging jet. After about three minutes the bell rings softly and everybody moves from one station to the next. The first jet is at calf level, the second jet is at knee level, then thigh, and so on until the last jet reaches your shoulders or neck depending on your height.

The city
Hévíz is a very quiet little city with many pedestrian streets bordered by cafes, restaurants, stores selling swimwear and antiquities. It hosts a farmers market near the lake on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings. Besides the museum and the Roman ruins, there are four main churches which are very different from each other. In the Egregy part of the city (north), in the middle of vineyards and wine cellars, lays the oldest one from the 13th century, or Arpad time. It is a tiny white church surrounded by a large cemetery. The view on the valley is beautiful from there. The Calvinist church has a triangular façade made of brown stones with a small white tower. Then the two newest churches are green and blue. The Heart of Jesus is apple green with a bright orange roof and shiny copper gutters. The Holy Spirit church is blue and boasts seven towers, symbols of the seven gifts to the Holy Spirit. It was recently consecrated in 1999.

church

Bicycling
This area is best discovered on bicycle. The Office of Tourism (OT) in Rákóczi Street can give you a free Hévíz Card. The main advantage of the card for us was to get 4 hours of free bicycle rental for one paid day. So we took our bicycles at 11:00 am one day and had them until 3:00 pm the next day for only HUF 2,200 per person (some hotels rent bikes for HUF 800-1,000 per hour). The card also gives discounts at the lake or in restaurants.

The OT gave us a map with many bike tour routes to choose from, depending on the bike paths, length of tour or incline. We first visited Kis-Balaton, or small Balaton Lake, which was a mere 40km tour! To reach it, we cycled through Alsópáhok and Sármellék, both elongated villages with houses lined up along the main street. For some reason, houses on the east side were more rural (animals, farm equipment) while the ones on the west side were more urban (manicured lawns), yet all were of similar architecture. Just before reaching the small lake we saw a strange church with a single pointy black dome surrounded by wings like shark fins. When we reached the lake the wind was bending the reeds along the shore. Fishermen were trying their luck. From there we took the bike lane along the canal, through the nice landscapes of rolling valleys and vineyards, to finally reach Hévíz.

Keszthely
The next day we rode to Keszthely, which is only 5 km from Hévíz. This is the largest city on Lake Balaton. I particularly like the Helikon Castle also known as the Festetics Palace after the name of the Count who built it. The interior is lavishly decorated with original furniture. In the park there is another building hosting a very large display of old wooden aristocratic coaches and sleds. Other buildings will charm model railway and hunting fans.

Lake Balaton
This lake has the particularity of appearing to be of different colors, depending on the weather and your perspective. I’ve seen it clear kaki green on the south side near Zamárdi, creamy turquoise on the north side near Tihany, and blue-grey in Keszthely. Swans are frequent everywhere and they are hungry!

swan

Lotus Therme Hotel
We chose the Lotus Therme Hotel among the many other spa hotels for a number of reasons:
o   Rooms are equipped with a king size bed with a canopy and you get a kettle to make tea.
o   Five pools: one regular pool indoor, one regular pool outdoor, two thermal pools at 36 oC and one thermal pool at 38 oC; sauna, Turkish bath, salt grotto, etc.
o   Full spa services with massages, facials, mani-pedi, etc.
o   Daily gym program every hour.
o   Isolated in a large quiet park and forest, yet only 10 walking minutes away from Lake Hévíz.
o   Best of all: high quality buffets at breakfast and dinner.

To prepare your trip:

www.heviz.hu
http://www.lakeheviz.com/
http://helikonkastely.hu/en/
http://lotustherme.net/en

Winter Sports in Budapest

Last Saturday 16 degrees Celsius big sunshine, yesterday 3 degrees some rain. This morning I opened my curtains on a big blanket of snow – surprise! It had not been announced. I can already hear some lament that it is too cold here, getting colder, too grey, getting darker so early in the afternoon. This is snow and snow lifts my spirits. It is joyful and playful. When you say snow I think winter sports, ski, snowmen, snow ball battles, sledding, and ice skating. I think hot chocolate and roasted chestnuts. I love the warm fuzzy feeling when your body melts, feet first, once you come home after an hour outside in the snow.

So when I saw the snow this morning I knew it would be part of my day. Part of my dog Venus’ day too. Someone had given me dog booties and although my tiny Italian greyhound had showed adverse disposition with shoes before I thought that with snow on the ground I should try this new model. I had barely finished equipping her fourth paw that she had shaken off the first bootie. Then she looked miserable and refused to move so I took the booties off, put her coat on, and off we went.

Hungary is a flat country but Budapest is a hilly city. Half way up the Martin hill I thought that maybe if it continued snowing a few days there would be enough snow to go sledding. Then I reached Normafa – almost the highest point with asphalt, the hill which leads to János hegy, John’s hill, the ‘summit’ of Budapest at 528 meters. No need to wait for one more day of snow there. Suddenly in a few minutes it was like I had been transported back in the Alps in a winter station. Not only people had sleds, but skis, not only Nordic skis but alpine skis too! Some people even wore their full ski gear with flashy colors.

Multicolored flat plastic sleds and classical wooden sleds where competing on the hill, adults and kids alike were enjoying what could be labelled by many a sad cold grey day. Venus was not the only dog running fast and being all crazy about the snow but she was certainly the smallest and the fastest. I took plenty of photos just in case it would not last like last year when winter came for less than two weeks.

P1090555

After strolling in the woods and meeting a few skiers we started our way back home. The GPS told me that it was at about 4.4 km and that it should take me 46 minutes walking. I chose a road that I didn’t know to avoid the major fare with too much traffic for my taste and Venus’ security. After ten minutes my GPS vanished because my phone was out of battery. Ha! Anywhere in the desert or even in New York if you want to go south, you go south, there will always be a straight way to get from point A to point B. Not in in the Budapest hills. Streets curve and a street which starts going south will then curve east and finally take you north. Some streets lead to dead ends or huge detours that are perhaps feasible with a car but not by foot, not if you wish to be home before dark. So I had to rely on instinct and a few foot prints to dare take snowy dirt ways until I finally reached Agnes, a street I knew.

Once home, the first thing I did was to drink a hot cup of chocolate.

No? You want the truth? Really? OK – the first thing I did was not watch my milk carefully and make a big spill all over the stove.  I did curse a bit but I am still happy I enjoyed the snow today and walked over 12 000 steps!

Logistics: use bus 21 or 21A to reach Normafa or legs or bike or chair lift (Libego) or – last resort – car (on days like this car parks were full). I count my steps with Withings.

Foreign Service – Expect the unexpected!

Life in the Foreign Service brings many unexpected moments and crazy memories and this is the way I like it.

Nobody told me I would …

  • Pilot a Cessna over the Sine Saloum Delta in Senegal – I don’t even have a pilot’s license!
  • Glide from baobab to baobab like Tarzan near the reserve of Bandia.
  • Eat ‘yassa’ chicken with my hands, sitting on the floor in a tiny village near Joal.
  • Take West African businessmen and women to a trade show in Las Vegas and be their nanny 24/7.
  • Drive from Dakar to Bamako on the side of the road, in the sand, because it was safer than dealing with the potholes on the road.
  • Meet Madeleine Albright at breakfast during an American Chamber of Commerce event in Mexico City.
  • Take the kids to Acapulco and learn that, just near us, the narco-traffickers had chopped a dozen heads.
  • Meet and kiss Margarita Zavala, a federal deputy, wife of then president of Mexico Felipe Calderón.
  • Welcome musician and singer Seal at the consulate, chitchat and take photos.
  • Enjoy a lucha libre show with its masked warriors. Lucha libre is a very well-choreographed wrestling competition with heroes and villains. The fun was also among the spectators, for example grandmothers gesturing and yelling chinga tu madre and all other kind of nondescript foul language.
  • Meet and kiss vice-president Biden after his speech at the Embassy in Mexico City, and later receive a letter of appreciation in Pakistan, letter forwarded from Mexico even though it had a wrong address for the Embassy in Mexico.
  • Be car-chased by a crazy man in Chiapas where hubby had to remember and apply all his classes of Crash & Bang defensive driving.
  • Eat powdered ants in a wonderful Mexican dish.
  • Participate and rank top 2 in the first ever triathlon of my life in Islamabad at an age when some of us are grandmothers.
  • Climb the full size brass antelope in the Karachi airport on a dare given by my female boss – who did it too!
  • Be called daughter by a toothless Pakistani villager, thankful that via USAID we brought her electricity.
  • Hike the Margalla hills every week and befriend Pakistani girls in the mountains.
  • Become a designer and invent many unique dresses and shirts thanks to the sewing skills of my Pakistani tailor.
  • Plant my own tree to celebrate the end of a successful project. I was a drop in the ocean of that project but as a representative of USAID, I was treated like royalty.
  • Feeling like a rock star or the Queen of England when I entered a classroom and was “showered” in rose petals Pakistani hosts had laid on the blades of the fan.
  • Sleep on the floor of the hut of unknown Thai mountain villagers.
  • Buy a beautiful and unique piece of embroidery in Thailand that the embroiderer consented to sell only because I was married.
  • Eat in bamboo plates from bamboo dishes with bamboo chopsticks that had all been carved in front of my eyes a few minutes before the meal.
  • Taste savory dishes of the curly-haired Mangalica pig during the Mangalica festival in Budapest.
  • Celebrate Valentine’s day in Bosnia (usually more synonym of war than love, unfortunately).
  • Visit an exhibition in total darkness, led by a blind guide and experience like a blind person what life is like, dinner included.
  • Hike to the top of Mount Triglav, the highest mountain of Slovenia at 2864 meters (9,400 feet).
  • Eat foie gras in a special ‘Magyar’ McDonald burger, the libamajjal, where liba means goose, maj liver and the –al suffix with.
  • Climb a Via Ferrata for the first time in my life: the steep via Ferrata Hans-von-Haid-Steig trail to reach Mount Rax in Styria, Austria at 2 000 meters.
  • Learn a few words of Chinese because I am working as a TDYer in Beijing, China, in the middle of the summer – yet the weather is not as hot as in Budapest or Paris.
  • Three years after doing a TDY in Beijing, being assigned to Beijing and invited to model a qipao dress (also called cheongsam) at a fashion and culture show in the Silk Market.

Some friends tell me ‘I didn’t know you were doing these kinds of thing’ and I answer ‘me neither’!

Hotel Rant

Where to sleep in Pécs?

We love travels. We love travelling. We are not difficult. We can sleep in a hut if the type of travel mandates it – for example an eco-trekking we did in Thailand in 2012 (I’ll have to come back on this because it was fantastic).  We slept on the floor, just like our hosts. On a same trip in the same country we can go from hut to high luxury and hut again, it just depends on what is right at that time and what we intend to do: for example, meet local people in villages (Chang Mai region) or visit museums and palaces (Vienna).

Sometimes we find that the best fit for our family, when the four of us travel, is to rent an apartment. Actually sometimes we are five if we count our tiny Italian greyhound and more apartment owners accept dogs than hotels.  Since we like to cook it is also very practical to have your own kitchen. It also helps control the quality of the ingredients and the amount of fat that go in your plate.

As much as we look for practicality I always have an eye on aesthetics. I don’t like ugly, especially if the prices don’t match ugly. When we were on ‘home leave’– a specificity of the Foreign Service describing the extended ‘re-learning Americana holiday’ we take between two missions overseas – I was trying to get across the country for as cheap as possible. Every FS family will tell you that it can be costly to be in the U.S. for two months = 60 (even 61) days with no roof of your own. With a cheap hotel like $100 a night for four, this is already a whopping $6,000 – on only one salary. Not every FS employee has a house available, either because they are too young to have purchased one, or it is rented. Not every FS employee has parents with a mansion that can accommodate a long stay. Home leave can be nine weeks you know since the employee gains three weeks per year abroad. Some colleagues would argue that ‘yeah, but it’s impossible to take that long’. You can do it. We did it. Just negotiate!

Back on the notion of ‘acceptable ugly’. If I choose Motel 6 and Super 8 because I want to travel to major cities to show our kids the United States in all its grandeur, from Maine to California (Home leave 2013), and I don’t want to break the bank, I accept savorless hotels where we will barely spend a night. But when a hotel pretends to be ‘charming’ or ‘boutique’ with higher pricing associated with such adjectives, I really don’t appreciate that they look like having supplied their rooms with IKEA-like furniture (and at least this would have a clean feel to it), or worse that they are using old cheap 1950s furniture with a carpet so worn that you can’t tell which color it is, much less which color it was. The bed cover can also be repulsive and it is a much cheaper investment to make to improve a room.

So why am I all excited about this topic today? Well, I am planning for a trip to Pécs which is supposed to be the most beautiful city in Hungary after Budapest. I’ve asked my Hungarian colleagues and teacher about which cities not to miss and they all agree. Pécs comes first. Then there is a tie between Debrecen and Sopron. While I am dutifully making my research on Booking.com and Tripadvisor to cross-reference opinions I could only find abominable hotels in the loveliest city of the country!!! Some hotels might look good from the façade to the reception desk and dining hall, the rooms are still very mediocre. The one that dares call itself ‘boutique’ is among the ugliest one. At this point I looked for Bed & Breakfasts and they were all ugly as well.

My conclusion is if you are an entrepreneur: go open a real boutique hotel in Pécs because lovely city means romantic and romantic needs a proper nest!

Introduction about my new homeland: Hungary

In August 2013 we set sail to new horizons. After living in France, Virginia, Senegal, Mexico and Pakistan we came back to Europe, thinking we were coming back to a more familiar land. Except this land is Hungary and this country could be a continent on its own it is so different from its neighbors. This is at first sight because the Hungarian language resembles no other, not even Finnish people say it is associated with … over a 1000 years ago. In the end, once you learn some rudiments of the language, Hungarian are charming people with great food, culturally rich cities and cute villages. So it feels like home. Again.

A minute of geographical background on my new ‘home’ country. The Republic of Hungary is situated in the Carpathian Basin and is home to only ten million inhabitants, less than Paris-Ile de France where I lived for several decades. They may think it is a lot compared to neighbors such as Slovakia, Slovenia or Serbia but we just came from Pakistan … 200 million inhabitants. Hungary is a flat country with only 2% of the land exceeding 300 meters. We lived at the foothills of the Himalaya. The highest summit is Mount Kékes at 1014 meters. In Mexico City we lived at 2400 meters. It may be head spinning to always compare this to that but this is our new life (more on this later): we move every year or two so we can’t help thinking about the differences between home number 17 and home number 21!

Note to self: Count exact number of physical addresses I have lived in so far.
Second note to self: Explain in a further post why I wrote physical address and not just address, why each time we move we are actually juggling with about six snail-mail addresses. And having to update many vendors and having to remember which address is given to who …

A minute of historical background. The Romans called the current Hungary Pannonia and settled north of the current Budapest in Aquincum now known as Óbuda. Then Attila the Hun came in 409 BC. Then Nomadic Magyar tribes, led by Prince Arpad from the Ural Mountains, arrived in 896. In 1000, their leader István (Stephen in English and Etienne in French) embraced Christianity and the pope crowned him as first Christian king. From 1541 to 1699 the Ottomans ruled the Transylvanian part of Hungary (now mostly in Romania). The northern part of Hungary is taken by the Habsburgs who ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918 – period including rebellion against the Habsburgs in 1848. In 1919 the Bolsheviks took power and the Treaty of Trianon in 1920 gave parts of Hungary to Romania, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia (modern days Croatia and Serbia). Hungary shrunk to about one third of its original size! Then, except for a brief period in 1944-1945 when the Nazis took over, the Russians ruled Hungary via some Hungarian communists until 1989 – including a quelled revolution in 1956.  Finally, in 1989, Hungary was the first central-eastern European country to put an end to the Soviet rule. In 1999 it joined NATO and in 2004 the European Union. Hungary calls itself Magyarország which means the “land of the Magyars.”

And this was my second day of over 500 words of the 31-day challenge!