Strange Days

There will, inevitably, be the odd day where nothing goes to plan. Sometimes, days like these are annoying. Sometimes, they are just funny. Despite the fact that your correspondents have been fortunate enough to travel to many different countries in Central and Eastern Europe, nothing too serious has happened. There has been the odd brush with authority – for example, the young German policemen who delivered a stern lecture on the dangers of crossing a completely empty road early on a Sunday morning – but nothing to cause the blood pressure to rise unduly.

Things can go wrong. Take the example of an acquaintance who boarded a train in Hamburg with the intent of making a local, ten-minute journey, but instead found himself on the non-stop express to Berlin. This, of course, is down to stupidity and nothing else. One of his excuses was that all the signs were in German. How terribly unreasonable of the Germans to display signage in their own language. Besides which, ‘Berlin’ in German is, er, ‘Berlin’. One might even add the improbability of a large, twelve-carriage train providing a local stopping service, but there is no need to labour the point.

Thankfully the Duck Holiday team has never encountered a problem as big as this (nor, indeed, an idiot as big). There have, though, been moments of surrealism and a selection is presented below.

Tirana – Photographers Beware

Some years ago, the Duck Holiday team (though not on holiday) were ambling along the sea-front in Accra. Ahead was a rather pretty little lighthouse that demanded a photo. The photo was duly taken. It was only some minutes later that we were able to see the sign that informed us of grievous penalties for anyone taking a photograph of the lighthouse.

Thus it was with the railway station in Tirana. As might be imagined, Tirana’s railway station is not large. There are no international services and what services there are tend to be something of of trial of patience for travellers. Even the most eager train buff would find it hard going.

Illicit photo of Tirana station

Illicit photo of Tirana station

The station was there, though, and there seemed no reason not to take a photo of it, if only for the sake of novelty. Little seemed to be happening, with no imminent departures or arrivals and not a passenger in sight. A couple of men lounged around, chatting over a cup of coffee and a cigarette.

It soon became apparent, however, that there was, indeed, a very good reason not to take photographs. One of the men, who may or may not have been the station-master, leapt to his feet and began to shout and wave his arms around. Not being conversant with the Albanian language, we shall never know what he was shouting, but it seemed unlikely that he was saying, “Welcome, take as many pictures as you like.”

Beware of Men in Blue Shirts

Beware of Men in Blue Shirts

Later that day, and considerably wiser, we strolled around the area known as Blloku (‘the Block’), the part of town that was sealed off to ordinary Albanians during the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha. Even now, it seemed, the area of the former president’s house was something of a no-go area. Men in black suits and dark glasses wandered menacingly. Even light inspection suggested that this was not a remake of The Blues Brothers. The Duck Holiday team kept their cameras firmly hidden away.

Lake Balaton – Dog Days

The hotel on the shores of Lake Balaton provided some of the finest views one could wish for. The hotel itself was perfectly pleasant and comfortable. Unfortunately, it also catered for dogs as well as humans.

The room next door to that occupied by the Duck Holiday team contained an Austrian family, who seemed to be perfectly affable people. It also contained a large Alsatian, who did not appear to be quite so amiable, especially when left to its own devices.

Nice view (shame about the dog)

Nice view (shame about the dog)

The Austrians (human, that is) were evidently early risers and would depart for breakfast at the earliest possible opportunity. The Duck Holiday team, while happy to start quite early in the day, prefer to linger in bed just a little longer than such enthusiasts. The problem was that the dog took considerable umbrage at being deserted and proceeded to bark its head off while its owners were absent.

Even nicer with the sun out

Even nicer with the sun out

Such behaviour does not help those that wish to have an extra half hour’s sleep. There was little that one could do except copy the regime of our neighbours and rise somewhat earlier than was truly desirable.

One morning, during the by-now familiar barking session, one of the Duck Holiday team lost all patience. Standing directly outside the door behind which the monster lurked, she yelled, “SCHWEINHUND!”. There was silence. The dog, possibly surprised at being addressed in its own language, shut up. Naturally, the silence did not last long, but the momentary quiet was most welcome.

Vilnius – Mystery Restaurant

The guide book was very in-depth and contained an extensive list of eating establishments in the Lithuanian capital. One of these was an Indian restaurant that appeared to be of good quality. While one always seeks out something local by way of food, Duck Holiday is very partial to Indian food (one of our few boasts is that we have dined at the world’s most northerly Indian restaurant, in Reykjavik). It seemed worth a visit.

While the book did not give the precise address, it informed us that the restaurant in question was in a street named Jogailos. This street, centrally located, was not by any means long, so it appeared to be fairly straightforward. We walked up the street and failed to spot the target. We walked back down the street with much the same result. We tried up on the opposite side, then down again on that side. Nothing doing.

Spot the restaurant (no, we couldn't)

Spot the restaurant (no, we couldn’t)

A café was open and while we took a cup of coffee, we enquired of the waitress whether she knew where the restaurant was. She spoke excellent English, so there were no communication problems, but she had never heard of it. This was not encouraging. She asked a few people in the café, but it seemed that this particular restaurant was completely unknown.

Nope, still can't see it

Nope, still can’t see it

A quick check of the map revealed that there was a tourist information office not far away. The results there were similar to what we had experienced in the café. Vilnius, it, appeared, had a ghost restaurant. Ultimately, we came to the conclusion that there must, once, have been an Indian restaurant on Jogailos, but that it had closed down.

Lake Balaton – Duck Heaven

There’s nothing that Duck Holiday likes more than a nice lake (unless it’s high quality wholemeal bread and a glass of oatmeal stout, of course) and Lake Balaton is quite palpably a nice lake. It’s a pretty big one, too, in fact the biggest in Central Europe.

How nice a view do you want from a hotel room?

How nice a view do you want from a hotel room?

Naturally enough, it’s a tourist magnet, but don’t let that put you off. Going at the height of the summer might not be the best idea, but a visit in May or September is likely to be considerably quieter and you’d be a bit unlucky if you didn’t get some decent weather.

The biggest town around the lake is Keszthely, situated at the western end of Balaton. The town is not far from the border with Croatia; Keszthely is roughly half way between Budapest and Zagreb. It’s also in grape growing country, so a glass of decent wine is never too far away, either.

The idea – and someone suggested this in all seriousness – that there is nothing to do is absurd. Clearly, it depends on what you like doing, but there should never be a shortage of options. You don’t have to spend the time sitting around or hanging about in Keszthely (though both are pleasant enough options for a short time). There are places to visit and things to see.

A trip to Budapest isn’t too difficult. There are both bus and railway stations at Keszthely, but the bus is probably a better bet. Times vary, but there are quick buses that will get you to Budapest in less than three hours. Unless you’re planning to stay in Budapest, you will only have the opportunity for a fairly quick look around the capital from a day trip, but for a first-time visitor, it provides a nice little taster and will leave you eager for more at a later date. Neither the bus nor the train will cost you a fortune.

Keszthely bus station is a haven for House Martins during the summer and the whole area is a magnet for birds. Anyone staying near the lake can hardly fairly to notice the weird chirring and reeling bird sounds in the early morning. Closer investigation reveals warblers. Not just any warbler; these are Great Reed Warblers, warblers with both size and attitude. They are the biggest European warbler, not far off the size of a Song Thrush. At the risk of stating the obvious, they nest in the many reed beds around the lake and they’re not difficult to spot, often clinging to the tops of reeds to unleash their distinctive song.

House Martin apartments

House Martin apartments

Even a short walk around the margins of the lake should reveal plenty of birds. This part of Europe attracts lots of bird, as well as human, visitors, so migrant warblers, flycatchers and many other species can be seen. Herons and egrets lurk around the edges and it’s not too difficult to encounter relatively exotic species like Purple Herons and Great White Egrets. If you’re lucky, you might also spot an osprey fishing on the lake.

Lurking egret

Lurking egret

There is one bird that it’s easy to overlook because a superficial glance will probably suggest that you’ve just seen a robin. Not necessarily; it might just be a Red-breasted Flycatcher. A good way to tell the difference is in the behaviour. Flycatchers will hunt from a favourite perch, speeding off to catch their prey before returning to the perch time and again.

There are plenty of ways to get around. In addition to the buses and trains, there are regular boat services to lakeside towns. There’s a pleasant day to be had by taking a boat trip, visiting a couple of places by bus and catching a train back to Keszthely. Since all of the towns and villages are postcard pretty, any trip of this sort is unlikely to be aesthetically disappointing.

Out on the lake

Out on the lake

The prettiest of the towns on the northern shore is probably Balatonfüred, or simply Füred. Although it’s the third largest town by the lake, it’s a small place of stunning Baroque beauty. It’s also renowned for its spa waters and wine. Those looking for a bit more action should head to the other side of the lake and the town of Siófok. This is the place for the 24-hour party people, which rules out Duck Holiday, who favours a much more sedate existence.

Public transport is cheap and it’s worth having a trip on the train as there are stations at almost every little town or village by the lake and thankfully Dr Beeching had no Hungarian equivalent. If you’re planning to do quite a bit of travelling, you can buy a combined ticket for trains and boats. A seven-day ticket costs about £15, so it’s good value if you intend to make a few trips.

Keszthely has attractions of its own, however. Situated in a large and rather lovely park, there’s the splendidly Baroque Festetics Palace, for a start, which houses the Helikon Castle Museum, notable for its substantial and extensive library. There are several other museums in the town, including the Marzipan Museum for those with understanding dentists.

Festetics Palace

Festetics Palace

The town also has a decent variety of restaurants, including vegetarian. This being a tourist area, they’re not the cheapest around, but you shouldn’t have to pay a fortune for a decent meal. They are certainly cheaper than hotels, and that applies to having a drink as well. One nice way to spend an evening, assuming the weather is nice, is to sit at one of the little bars by the lake, where you can watch both the sun and the beer go down. For a pleasing snack to accompany your drinks, try a potato pancake, or lángos in Hungarian (a personal preference involves plenty of garlic). Civilisation doesn’t come much better than this.

One can, of course, indulge in the local wine and there is plenty of it. There are five wine regions around Lake Balaton. Balatonboglár, on the south side of the lake is the centre of Balaton’s wine trade, but there are vineyards all along the northern shore as well. Many of the wine cellars can be visited by the public, though it’s safer to make a booking in advance.

Those who prefer to treat holidays as exercise camps have plenty of options, from water sports to cycling and hiking. There are myriad cycle routes around Keszthely and lots of countryside to tramp around in. If you’re high enough in the hills on a clear day, you can see a long way. As The Carpenters almost sang, you’ll be on top of the world, looking down on Croatia.

A Duck Holidayer relaxes

A Duck Holidayer relaxes

Even in the busier parts of the tourist season, there’s no need to be swamped by the crowds. There is plenty of space and there are plenty of places to find some peace and quiet. Several thousand ducks cannot be wrong.