Scanning the past – third update

I finished the 150th colour negative film yesterday and the 4650th image.

Although I’ve not finished all the negatives, it seemed time to look back and, as a result, I’ve decided to rescan the first fifteen to twenty films as the quality isn’t as good as the later scans. The main problem was the way the film strip was placed in the holder. I started with the negatives in the conventional way, emulsion-side up, as a scan would give an image the correct way round. However there was a problem. The negative strips all have a slight longitudinal curl. Putting the negatives in the holder emulsion-side up meant the centre of the film was lower in the holder due to the curl. The scanner lamps (the scanner has two, a conventional white lamp for the main scan and an infra-red lamp which is used in the image processing to remove effects of dust) generate quite lot of heat as they are on and off for an hour for set of negative strips. This heat seems to have the effect of softening the film slightly and, as a result the film droops a bit more and pulls slightly at the sides out of the film holder. So quite a few of the earlier scans have a strip of the film edge showing on one or both sides. This also has the result the scanner colour and exposure value software calculation was incorrect due to a white or black side strip or perforations showing and the image quality was degraded.

After those first batches of films, I tried a film with the emulsion side down so the film curved upwards and used a setting in the scanner program to mirror the image automatically when it was processed. That setting was a lot better. Any softening of the film only meant the curve became less pronounced and the film strips all remained well-framed in the holder.

The holder has a height adjustment and I originally tried to compensate for the possible different focus between the lower centre and higher edges of the image by raising the holder. With the film the other way round this was no longer necessary.

I have found some of the strips of film are not cut accurately between the images. The processors must have made the original prints from a continuous film and them cut them to fit in the envelopes/folders, clipping the edge of some images. For important images it should be possible to recover the full image by “stitching” two images together and a little editing. Hopefully there won’t be many.

A new Michelin star

The Atelier du Peintre in Colmar received an étoile (also known as a “macaron“) in the 2011 France Guide, published earlier this week. We have dined there several times in the past few months and it has become a favourite.

A few years ago the chef Loïc Lefebvre and his partner Caroline Cordier were hired, from a restaurant in the south of France, by a Scottish business millionaire to start a new restaurant in Inverness, with the aim of getting a Michelin star. Somewhat unsurprisingly the locals didn’t visit it in any numbers and it lost money. The restaurant got the attention of Gordon Ramsay in his Kitchen Nightmares television series (La Riviera, Inverness 14 June 2005 – after our first visit we found the programme on YouTube). There were several makeovers and a change of style with a more bistro-style lunchtime restaurant and a continuing separate evening restaurant – not really those suggested by Ramsay. With the changes, the bistro style became more successful and another restaurant in the same style, managed by the couple, was opened in Edinburgh. In 2007 there seems to have been a row between the French couple and the businessman and they walked out. They started their own restaurant, the Atelier du Peintre, in Colmar in summer 2009.

Slightly more surprising was the lack of any recognition (or even a mention!) in the new Michelin guide for the Auberge de la Ferme Hueb in Marckolsheim run by the former chef of the Blanche Neige (it has a similar ranking to the Atelier in the Gault Millau guide). But that is probably the ambience not being up to Michelin standards; the quality of the food certainly has been on all our visits. The chef, Mike Gemershausen, has picked up several awards in the last year. It will be interesting to see what happens in the coming year and whether he spreads his talents too quickly and thinly. He has now bought a hotel-restaurant just across the Rhine from Selestat in Germany and also become a partner in another hotel-restaurant across the Rhine from Strasbourg. The Ferme Hueb is rented but there has been no indication it is closing so presumably he will put in another chef.

Photographs of some of our meals at the Atelier du Peintre and the Auberge de la Ferme Hueb

Scanning the past – second update

I scanned the 4000th negative this morning.

Unlike digital camera images, the scanned images do not have any rotation data to allow viewing programs to turn them to the correct landscape or portrait orientation. All the photos in landscape mode on the 35mm negatives need rotating through 90°. Because of the way the film has been cut into strips and the need for a small blank inter-image strip at one end to go under a clip so the whole of the first image is scanned, the negatives might be loaded either way round into the holding frame adding to the possible need to rotate portrait images through 180°. Although Picasa can be used to rotate images in the viewer it does not store the image rotation information so if the image is opened in another program it appears un-rotated (even re-saving in Picasa does not seem to work unless you also edit the individual images in some way). Having looked at several programs which can rotate an image without loss or change to the JPG file, I have chosen a program called EXIFPro. It allows images to be displayed in a wide range of sizes which can be useful when trying to decide which way an image needs to be rotated. It is easy to rotate multiple images at the same time and has several other useful functions.

I also need to add various information to each of the individual JPG files to aid identification of the photo in the future (how I wish all the photos I’ve inherited or even our photos had something written on the back!) and to allow searching of all the photos e.g. for those containing particular individual or of a place. Again, I could have used Picasa to add a “caption” and tags but it does not use a comprehensive set of fields for the data and the fields it uses are not completely compatible with some other programs. So I have opted to use a program called iTag which allows me to add information (title, description, date, author, copyright, and an unlimited number of text tags) to the IPTC section of the JPG file. iTag has a tag manager so allows better control of the tags and it should be possible to label the images in a more standardised manner than is possible with other programs. At present I’m mainly adding text tags (including date, if I know it); again these can be added to multiple images at the same time using iTag.

Scanning the past – first update

It took several days to get used to the new Epson V700 scanner, to sort out the best settings for the scanner, and to decide how the scans would be named and saved. I ended up abandoning both the Epson and SilverFast SE software which came with the scanner as they both seemed inflexible and the SilverFast has one of the worst user interfaces I’ve seen. Instead I bought a copy of the well-respected VueScan; something I’d anticipated I’d probably have to do after all my readings of reviews.

I decided to start by scanning the colour negatives. Helen had previously done a good job of labelling many of the envelopes and sorting many into year bundles so identification will be easier than many of the boxes of slides.

One problem I have found is with the plastic tape used by the processors to join the individual films before they pass through the processing machine. In some cases, after many years, the adhesive on the tape has “bled” and, when the film strips were stored together rather than in individual strip wallets, stuck to the next negative strip. I’ve usually managed to unstick the strips and to remove traces of the adhesive with very gentle rubbing but in some cases it is firmly stuck to the image side of the negative strip and I suspect I’d damage the image trying to remove it. I’m now cutting off the plastic strip off all films before the negatives go back into storage.

Another problem has been dust! It seems to appear all the time. I bought several microfibre cloths to wipe the negative strips and the glass plate of the scanner but, even so, there is usually a sprinkling of dust on the glass plate after scanning a set of negatives. I’m not sure whether lint-free gloves would also help. I’ve also dug out my old Zeepa “electronic static eliminator” which I originally bought to eliminate dust-attracting static on LPs.

The scans are being made at 3200dpi which, for a 35mm negative, gives an image of 4473×2960 pixels with the settings I’m using; I’m saving them as JPG files at 96% quality giving a file of 3.5-5.8Mb (equivalent to about a 12Mb digital camera). I have the option of saving as 16-bit TIFF but those files are over 80Mb; As the majority of the photographs are snapshots I decided I could just rescan and save those images with more merit as TIFF files at a later date.

After a month I’ve now scanned over 3400 images (115 films), so I’ve probably done at least a third of our colour negatives. There have been more 36 exposure films than I thought (I’d originally remembered using 20 or 24 exposure films) but there seem to be fewer films per year. Where the original photographs were very sharp, the scans are also very good and show fine detail; it seems the scanner settings I’ve got are working well (click on the images to see larger, but not full scan-size, versions).

For backups I’ve bought a ReadyNAS Duo network storage device with two 1.5Tb disks configured as mirrored RAID disks. The disks are synchronised and store exactly the same data. If one disk fails the other will continue to allow backups; when the failed disk is replaced it will be synchronised automatically with the good disk. I’ll make further backups from the ReadyNAS to external USB disks and keep one in the safe and one elsewhere. Had we had a fast broadband connection I would probably have opted for one of the online storage systems as they seem very cost-effective. I tried one, Diino (because it allowed you to back up multiple computers to the same account without incurring additional per workstation charges), but our internet upload speed is so slow (68kB/s = 0.68Mb/s) it would have taken about six months just to backup all our current data!

I’ve also added a gigabit (1000 Mbit/s) network switch to speed up the Ethernet connections between computers and to improve backup speed. It connects at 100 Mb/s to the broadband router (wired/wireless routers only run at 100 Mbit/s). Without the switch our network ran at 100 Mbits/s as all data went through the router. Now all our local network traffic goes through the gigabit switch and only the internet traffic goes through the router.

It was interesting to look back at how much data I created in the past when I reorganised the backups. I bought my first PC in 1990 and have kept backups ever since. The snapshot for 1990-Sept 2003 period (pre-digital camera) shows my total data backup was about 300Mb. My current backup archive, which is updated daily, is now about 300Gb (excluding program files); the scans are adding 300-500Mb/day.

Scanning the past

I bought my first 35mm camera when I was about sixteen (a Werra 1C) and used B&W film developed both as negatives and as positives. Colour film was rather a luxury but I did use some slide film at university and for holidays. I switched completely to slide film from B&W in the late 1960s. And I started using 35mm colour negative film for the majority of my general snapshot photography rather than colour slide film in the late 1970s although I continued to use slide film for major trips, e.g. to southern Africa, Peru and India.

We don’t really look at the old prints, except those in albums, as they aren’t really accessible, being stored in boxes with only rudimentary labelling. And the slide projector doesn’t come out very often!

A couple of weeks ago, after experiments a few years ago with my Canoscan 3200F scanner to check the feasibility and after reading many reviews, I finally opted to buy a high-resolution Epson V700 flatbed scanner to scan all our negatives and transparencies (and any prints we have where the negatives no longer exist).

Scan of the 6 x 4 faded print from July 1980

Scan of a 6″ x 4″ faded colour print from July 1980

I’ve no definite idea how many images there are to scan. However,  even if I used only one colour negative film a month between 1980 and 2004 (when I got my first digital camera) there could be about three hundred 24 or 36 exposure films equating to 6000-10,000 negatives. I estimate there are possibly over 8000 transparencies. And then there are also my B&W negatives and positives from the early 1960s onwards together with some colour negatives from our parents (we also seem to have the 110 and 35mm negatives from some films taken by Toby and Leila). So I guess the total could be near to 20,000.

Unfortunately, many of the colour negative prints from the time Toby and Leila were born now have more of an appearance of orange-sepia prints than colour prints. This must be due to poor processing by one particular processor; prints made by other film processors have negligible fading. But fortunately none of the negatives I have looked at have faded or show significant loss of colour.

Epson V700 3200dpi scan from negative

Low resolution Epson V700 scan from the negative

The Epson film holders take four strips of negatives or twelve slides so, since it takes about 4 minutes for each high definition image scan (at 3200dpi – approximately equivalent to a 12MP digital camera image – although some of the earlier colour print film is rather grainy so the quality isn’t really that good), I can just load a set of images and leave it to process for an hour or so.

As it is not very easy to identify which are good or bad images from the negatives it is not really feasible to be selective in the images to scan. So I have decided to scan them all. And, since disk space is cheap I’ll probably scan all the slides as well, even though the quality is more easy to recognise, and then keep all the scanned images since all the images will only use around 100Gb disk space (I’ll also have multiple backups both here and elsewhere). Using other software it will also be possible to label/index the individual images either in bulk or individually to allow searches.

Hopefully we’ll then have a good digital archive. We, the children, and others will be able to relive their past through full sets of images rather than just the few prints that are stuck in albums.

But scanning could take a while ….. given the winter weather there is little incentive to venture outside so I’m currently managing about 80-100 image scans a day.

An effect of the snow?

When I went out today, after the snow had melted, to top up some of the bird feeders, I happened to glance at the orchard and it looked different. I then realised one of the old, large apple trees had fallen over, roots broken. Possibly due to the weight of the snow? Unfortunately in has landed on a Worcester apple tree we planted about ten years ago which has just started to fruit profusely.

If you click on the image and hold down your left mouse button you can drag the image around in all directions. You can use the Shift and Ctrl keys to zoom in and out

[swfobj src=”” width=”400″ height=”300″ allowfullscreen=”false”]

Click this link Fallen apple tree in the orchard, 12 December 2010 to view in full screen mode. The full-screen panorama file is 3.6Mb in size.

Stained glass and strikes: Everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux, October–November 2010

To download a printable Adobe Acrobat version click on this link E2EYr9Weeks23-29.pdf (four A4 pages)

The single tower of the cathedral still dominates the skyline of Strasbourg, and any sunny stroll along the canals ends up at the riot of Gothic sculpture round its west doors. As did both sets of our October visitors. Inside, the rich colours of the early stained glass are eye-catching. And the way in which earlier windows have been incorporated into the patchwork of larger, later windows, became a good image of how, reunited with old friends or family, our present was enriched by reminiscences, jokes, and events of the past.

We’d started our day in Strasbourg with Toby and Stella at another large Strasbourg building, sporting the distinctive yellow and blue colours of IKEA. The frequently collapsing back of one of our computer chairs testified to years of service, both with us and in John’s former office. So, while Toby and Stella looked round, we tried out the full range of IKEA’s computer chairs, each of us fancying different designs. John’s high backed choice seemed to be currently available only in scarlet, and my more padded one in a white leatherette reminiscent of a Barbara Cartland poodle and sofa. However when we located the right aisles, John’s came in a more sober blue and mine in black (so no inspiration for any historical romances). Satisfied with our purchases, we drove out to a restaurant, with huge glass windows overlooking an ex-gravel pit, which Toby and Stella liked almost as much as their favourite, the Frankenbourg. And it was after lunch that we strolled in the sunshine through the old streets and by the canals to the cathedral. In the late afternoon, a noisy cavalcade of protesters approached over the bridge, many waving scarlet CGT (Confédération générale du travail) flags. The procession seemed endless. And still it advanced. As we walked on, the tail of the procession was approaching a bridge further along the canal. All of Alsace seemed to be out protesting against raising the minimum age for taking a pension to an unthinkable 62 (but up to 67 for a full pension if insufficient contributions have been paid). A sense of injustice no doubt also remains that this still would not apply to many government employees, including teachers and SNCF workers, who get better pensions and at a much earlier age.

Two weeks later the Train-gang and partners were due to make their way, by various means, to Entre-deux-Eaux. Once an assorted group of Simon Langton school-girls, reading comics, learning French verbs, doing last minute homework and appraising the Sir Roger Manwood boys on the daily train journeys between Broadstairs and Canterbury, we have, in recent years, met up annually, though never before in France. Of course, the most appropriate way to have come would have been on Eurostar and the TGV, but Easyjet is a lot cheaper. By now, two weeks into the nation-wide pension strikes and blockades of fuel depots, French news stations were reporting dry petrol stations, airport problems, rail problems and youth violence in the usual deprived urban areas. So we all had concerns, Would the Train-gang make it?

First to arrive was Shelagh who’d travelled by camper-van with her husband and dog. They’d filled up with fuel in Luxembourg, so had no problems – until they arrived here, that is, when the van wheels got stuck parking on the field and sank into the mud. Half an hour of frenzied barking, muttered imprecations, and re-positioning of old bits of wood, brick, plastic ramps and sacking concluded successfully with a small lurch forward onto firmer terrain. Over a reviving drink, we broke the news that Jessica and Mark had also experienced a set-back. Their rucksack containing passports had somehow been left on the luggage rack of the train to Gatwick, and by the time the train had been tracked and the rucksack retrieved, they had missed their plane. The good news was that they were able to re-book on the next morning’s flight. Meanwhile Sue, the third gang member, was travelling a longer way round, with her partner and his choir, via Berlin, Dresden and Leipzig and would join us later in the week.

John had been faced with a dilemma. His birthday fell in that week. Would the gang want to celebrate at a restaurant? No problems there (and at least there would be other men). But where? Despite the national shortages, fuel seemed readily available in St Dié (being so close to the border with Germany has its advantages), so we decided to drive over to Epinal and the Ducs de Lorraine restaurant. This is in a stylish turn-of-the-century (19th-20th) villa close to the river with very French décor and atmosphere. We were ushered to a circular table next to the window at the panelled end of the dining room. It is always a great relief to find the fastidious Madame absent. She has an irritating way of tweaking the cutlery with reproachful glances at staff. So everyone is far more relaxed on her day off – including the diners! And when the laden dessert trolley arrived, the young waitress was determined we should sample the chefs’ full range, cajoling “just one more?”

While we were enjoying the Ducs‘ desserts, the German railway workers were having a day’s strike, so Sue, who was the only Train-gang member to travel in appropriate style, was worried that some of her trains from Leipzig might not be running the next day (and we also had concerns about some long-term works-on-the-line which were regularly delaying trains by 10 minutes or more). Any missed connections would mean that she’d have to spend the night in Strasbourg, so we decided to spend the day in Strasbourg and meet her whenever she arrived. So another chance to stroll by the canals, through the narrow shopping streets (Jessica found the most exotic and colourful sock shop – sadly, very pricey), and to visit the cathedral. We paused for lunch at Porcus, a small restaurant over a charcuterie. Fortified by the day’s special of lamb gigot and a glass of wine, we devoted the afternoon to the cathedral windows and the associated Notre Dame museum. We got so absorbed in the Gothic and Romanesque glass and sculpture, that we never reached the paintings at the end and even managed to lose Jessica for twenty minutes in the rambling old buildings. Half way up a magnificent staircase, my mobile rang. Sue’s first train had missed the connection by two minutes; the next train was fully booked (perhaps because of the previous day’s strike), but she was booked onto the following one, so would arrive two and a half hours late. There was nothing for it but to find a nearby winstub and eat and drink the evening away in warm, congenial surroundings!

After all this sitting around eating, a healthy walk was on the menu for the next day, and Jessica, Sue and I headed to the mountain ridge that divides Lorraine from Alsace and that at times divided France from Germany. There were some World War One remains that sounded interesting up at the Tête des Faux. Having explored some of the German intermediate camp below the Tête des Faux with the Local History Group, I was keen to walk to the summit from the French side. The plan seemed ill-fated when we reached the col de Calvaire, the starting point of a footpath. The sky had been darkening, and heavy rain began to fall, lashing against the car. No-one was keen to get out! A retreat to the lakeside café and mugs of hot chocolate seemed more attractive, After an hour of looking at maps and watching the direction in which low cloud and rain was driving, we decided to try again from this slightly lower, more sheltered point. A good decision, as the weather improved as we walked, and then the most wonderful panorama opened up in front of us in the weak sunshine. As we focussed, we could even make out the snow-capped Alps in the far distance. We paused again when we reached a dark French military cemetery in the woods. A group of horsemen added to the atmosphere as they picked their way down a steep, rocky path towards us, the riders dressed in long dark capes or coats and black brimmed hats. This track, I later read, was made by the French for their mules to supply the garrison at the top. As we scrambled up it we could see craters, zig-zagging trenches, barbed wire, jagged rails, corrugated iron and the collapsed rubble of shelters on either side. At the rocky summit were memorials to the French troops who died there in December 1914 and July 1916. Further along the ridge were more substantial defences, presumably German, some underground, some protected by the slope on the far side. We had to descend again before we could climb up to the end station of the German cableway at the Roche du Corbeau, which sounded interesting. However, by the time we’d scrambled down, slowed by patches of icy snow, the sun was getting lower in the sky, and it seemed sensible to turn back. It had been a great walk, and we found that John had been busy experimenting with a recipe from one of his birthday cookery books. We sat down that night to roast pork, chestnut and mushrooms, with asparagus and potatoes – a great finish to the day.

After that burst of energy, we spent the next day in Nancy. We’d planned to focus on the Art Nouveau museum and houses, but in fact spent most of the afternoon sitting in the sunshine at tables outside cafés in the splendid Place Stanislaus (what a contrast with yesterday’s weather!), walking round the old town, with its elegant squares, small shops and large palace, and pausing to chat with a friendly grocer. We ended up in the big indoor market with its succulent, colourful displays.

On our last day we headed towards the Alsace villages – though we only managed one village, Turckheim, as we spent so long sampling wine in the cave there and then walking round the deserted lunch-time streets. We had a late and very leisurely last lunch together at the Saint Alexis in the wooded hills above Kaysersberg. Wild boar was on the menu, there being plenty in the surrounding woods at the moment. Looking back, we seemed to have spent an awful lot of our time together on eating and drinking! Fortunately I only had a few sips of wine on that occasion, as there was a routine police check on the way home and, seeing the Turckheim wine in the boot, the policeman got out his breathalyser kit.

The next day, after breakfast, we waved off the Train-gang. The house seemed very quiet, until we heard shouts and barks getting closer. Standing on the balcony, we could see the dogs trying to pick up scents on the other bank of the stream. Then suddenly shots, and a young buck came streaking on a swerving course up the side of the orchard and across our road. Happy as we are to eat game, we almost cheered to see him escape safely. A little later we heard that Jessica had a problem at the airport, having absent-mindedly put her bottles of wine in her hand luggage. The security checkers had other ideas and confiscated them. What a sad end to the Train-gang visit.

Since then, November has been very typical. The season for bonfires, composting leaves, making pumpkin soup, stewing apples, rounding up garden furniture, planting bulbs and protecting plants before the first snows. On Armistice Day I strolled down to the war memorial for 11 o’clock, but it was deserted. The Entre-deux-Eaux commemoration had started at 9.45. according to a notice outside the mairie. I guess everyone was in the village café by the time the church bells tolled. Later in the month, the cows, which had been grazing on the north field, disconcertingly almost at eye level when we were using our loo, were taken into the big hangar for winter. We also acquired a new satellite box for our television, following the switchover to digital and removal of the small relay transmitter on the hill between us and Mandray. We can now get a bigger range of Francophone channels. It was rather fun to watch Arsenal v Braga on a Mali channel, with analysis from a Mali perspective! Small autumnal pleasures.

And now, on December 1st,  it is definitely wintery, with snow falling outside, covering yesterday’s many deer and other animal tracks across the white fields. The postman has already brought round his selection of 2011 almanacs. (I chose one with a cover featuring steam engines, hoping it is a promise of interesting journeys in 2011). It feels a good day to start on Christmas cards.

1992 Christmas card: The old village cross

One final village update: the village cross which featured on a long-ago Christmas card has, after several missing years, been re-instated at the end of our road with a new wooden cross and its re-polished bronze figure of Christ. But our neighbour Gerard hasn’t yet left his bicycle leaning picturesquely against it, as he did on the day of the photograph.

So, swivelling in our new computer chairs (I can’t even see John behind the high back of his), looking out over the white tracery of the orchard branches, we send greetings and our recent news before the December rush.

Time out from Entre-deux-Eaux: Hungarian Interlude

To download a printable Adobe Acrobat version click on this link E2EYr9Weeks18-22.pdf (seven A4 pages)

Clicking on the underlined links in the text will take you to a selection of photographs. There is a comprehensive list of photographs and 360° panoramas

There is also an approximate map of our route around Hungary

Although it was a fairly impulsive decision to spend some of September seeing Romanesque churches and art nouveau architecture in Hungary, we were better prepared for this car journey than on our earlier trip to Portugal. We had enough time to update our European road maps (discovering in the process, the Michelin Europe didn’t include most of Hungary), get a more detailed folding map of Hungary, and rent a month’s Hungarian download for Gladys, the sat-navigator. Following old habits, we also stocked up on Lonely Planet guides to Hungary and Germany (more recent editions than the relevant Rough Guides), though during the journey we began to wonder if we’d reached the sad age of no longer being Lonely Planet people, as we wanted better information on art, architecture and parking (rather than tips on best bars and breast-feeding).

September can bring rain or glorious sunshine, and we got a mixture. We were fortunate to have some lovely sunny days, for also we got our share of rain and saw maize crops devastated by a summer of the heavy rain which probably also played a part in the current disaster of overflowing toxic red sludge at Ajka.



We spent a day and a half driving through Germany (wet) and across Austria (sunny). When we reached Hungary we had a rough itinerary, which included the eleven Romanesque churches which looked the most interesting on the internet, – especially those with fresco fragments. Many sounded as if they were in small villages or had formed part of remote hillside monasteries, and only three were mentioned in the Lonely Planet. So we wondered how easy it would be to locate and communicate with the keyholders. The Lonely Planet’s “conversation and essentials” section equipped us to state in Hungarian “I’m allergic to contraceptives” or “I need disposable nappies” but not to ask how we could see inside the beautiful church. However we soon found that the keyholders were the most delightful people, keen to communicate with the most oafish non-Hungarian speakers, and others helped through mime or a few shared words of German. These are three samples of our Romanesque quest:

Picture a small former mining (gold, copper, sulphur, and iron) village, Nagybörzsöny, in the north, hard against the border with Slovakia, on a wet third day. We spot the walled church at the entrance to the village, and pull in under a dripping tree. Despite the rain, we can see plenty of people with baskets, packages and bicycles further down the road. The locked gate is festooned with sodden red and white flowers, ivy and ribbons. There is a notice with a phone number, but we fail to get through on our mobiles. As we peer through the metal bars, a row of stone heads round the apse grins back at us. This is too good to miss. We walk towards the centre of the village to ask about keys. However, two buses have come and gone while we were trying to phone, and now the street is deserted. Some of the smallest thatched cottages are also empty, or just being used for storage. We pause as John spots a huge snail on a gatepost, and a man who has just got out of a car (but is unfortunately not from the village) engages in a rather surreal conversation in German about snails, the size at which they should be eaten, and how all Hungary’s get sent to France. We try doorbells, but nobody answers. We spot a lady pushing her bike up a hill and catch up with her. She does not appear to understand our questions and points to her bicycle basket. She has been out collecting walnut windfalls.



Suddenly she smiles triumphantly, opens her large handbag and flourishes a heavy key. It is hard to believe that the only person that we meet on the streets (apart from the snail-fancying outsider) just happens to have the church key in her handbag! She cycles ahead of us to open up. The church is tiny, with a single apse, white walls, simple wooden benches, a small gallery at the back and spotless white cloths on the altar and tables. There is no hint of damp and it feels loved and used. To the left of the altar is an imposing bust of St Stephen of Hungary, and to the right a replica of his crown and a Hungarian flag, for this is St Stephen’s Church and it was he who established Christianity in Hungary and ordered the building of a church in one of every ten villages. As John wanders round taking photos, the lady chats in Hungarian to me, not minding that I don’t understand much. She says that they celebrated a wedding recently (hence the flowers), and as we leave, she points at the sculpted heads outside. “Tartars”, she says. The rain still falls.

Ócsa frescoes

Ócsa frescoes

By afternoon, it feels as if we are in another land as we approach Ócsa, south of Budapest. The sun is shining, the sky is blue and ladies in hot pants and spangled bras stand by the road, unbuttoning their blouses provocatively at passing cars and lorries. The church here is much loftier, with three aisles and two towers, and was built as a Premonstrian monastery on a sand-dune in the marshes, using stone brought down the river from Buda. Outside, the stone glows lemon-gold in the afternoon light, and inside faint reds and yellows on the choir walls take the shape of mediaeval figures – Jesus crowning Mary, the disciples, fragment of the last judgement, St Ladislaus I of Hungary on his white horse, St Nicholas and St. George (look, no dragon). When the Turks occupied the area, they whitewashed over the murals and used the church without destroying it (apart from sharpening their weapons on the stone by the doorway). Unlike this morning, the telephone number on the door worked and Judit is a mine of information, which she is anxious to communicate. She has clearly looked up all the technical and architectural terms in English, but finds the verbs and joining words harder. As John takes photographs, she confides that the church has become very important to her, although she is not a Catholic or Reformed (which the church became after the Turks left and new people repopulated the area) but a Baptist (with an uncle who is a Baptist in the USA and knows Billy Graham). The church has a congregation of 300, 100 of whom are young people, and the choir has produced a CD. We continue to feel a world away from St Stephen’s this morning, as we thank Judit profusely for our informative guided tour.



Two days later we realise that the easiest time to see the lovely old churches is at the weekend, where local guides are on hand to instruct coachloads of Hungarians with a half hour lecture before they are allowed to look round. It is Saturday, and sunny and we have reached the Bereg region in the north east corner of Hungary (close to the borders with Ukraine and with Romania), where the Lonely Planet promises village life “steeped in folk culture, replete with dirt roads, horse-drawn carts and little old churches … where some women still eke out a living embroidering pillowcases in age-old patterns and men work the land.” This sounds to us like the scenes we glimpsed from the train as we travelled north in Romania, and we are looking forward to staying in the area, and exploring in a leisurely fashion. We stop first at Tákos to see the small white wattle and daub Reformed church, dating from 1766, and find that it is not only open but its pews are crammed with visitors listening to an old lady in a black headscarf holding forth authoritatively and at length. As we wait outside we are amused to see the embroiderers rush out as soon as coaches are heard to drape themselves and their cross-stitch embroideries picturesquely over plastic garden benches. After the second coach-load has left, we have a few minutes in which to revel in the painted wooden ceilings, pews, gallery, pulpit and huge high-backed seat and the red, white and blue embroidered cloths. It reminiscent in its painted simplicity of some of the old wooden Swedish churches. The old lady, takes one look at us, decides her words will be of no use, and waits patiently for proper visitors. When we go outside the embroideries and plastic chairs have disappeared.



At the next village of Csaroda we are back to Romanesque, this time in a beautifully tended garden. Here too, the church doors are open and another shrill, but more elegant church guide is holding forth. The inside is lovely, with its fourteenth century frescoes uncovered from beneath flamboyant seventeenth century red tulips and leaf patterns. St Peter and St Paul smile on the north wall below the tulips, together with Job, two Byzantine “doctor holies” (as the useful English printed summary describes them) and a “woman holy.” At the front are the 12 disciples and the suffering Christ, and on each side of the window recess a crowned figure. Together with the embroidered cloth and the rugs, the effect is colourful and exotic.

And meanwhile, how were we getting on with finding accommodation? On our first night we’d realised that the Lonely Planet’s selection of hotels and pensions in pretty mediaeval towns didn’t work for us if the area is pedestrianised and all parking occupied (besides, we hadn’t worked out meters or parking permits) and we followed a sign to a more conventional business type hotel. Our second night was in a huge room in a family hotel near the Slovak border. On our third night, after the glories of Nagybörzsöny and Ócsa churches, we headed east towards the mountains and chose the Panorama Pension and a room with a wonderful view. It is also an activity centre complete with a summer bob-sleigh-on-tracks run. The staff spoke no English or German, but were determined to be helpful. It transpired that we were their only guests. Yes, we could have dinner, but the chef finishes at 6pm. We drove down a winding road to the small town for dinner (deer casserole served by a caricature waiter, – fat, boozy and cross-eyed). We felt very solitary as we returned to our dark mountain retreat as the rain set in. By morning the view had disappeared completely under low cloud, which was a shame. As we approached Tokai on our fourth night, it was obvious that the main tourist season was over and we were a rarity. A sign outside a neat house offered rooms, and though Angie and her husband were in Germany, her daughter made us welcome us and laid on a wonderful breakfast in the family kitchen (by contrast we dined and sampled Tokai wine in an elegantly gloomy four star hotel). So all relatively simple and varied so far. But unfortunately, after the wonderful churches (and embroideries!) of rural Csaroda we run into problems, as the only lodging house, opposite the church, is closed. We find a rather sleazy hotel in a nearby village, but there is something unsavoury about the unshaven young man who emerges from the bar, and it can provide neither evening or morning meals. And in the nearest town, there is a big fair and all hotels are fully booked. We drive south, as the light fades and the rain starts to pour down. For miles we find no signs for rooms, let alone pensions or hotels. By now we are out of the pretty “peasant” area and on the edge of a town, with hotels with flashing night club signs. My memories of the Hubertus will be of a chain-smoking, but very kind, manageress (who fits my stereotype of a brothel madame as she leads the way up the dark panelled staircase with its worn red carpet), a bathroom with a peach suite and a turquoise shower curtain plus red velvet curtain to draw in front of the loo, and the most disgusting deep-fried wiener schnitzel and chips (Little-Chef style). So much for the LP’s “The pleasures of far, far north-eastern Hungary are simple and rural ones.”

Gyula cake shop

Gyula cake shop

However, the LP is very good on highlighting two things, – art nouveau buildings and good cake shops. When we reach the south, we intend to focus on the towns of Kecskemét, Szeged and Pécs with their art nouveau palaces, cinemas and synagogues. And en route John is keen to experience the Great Plains. Having abandoned the embroideries and horse-drawn carts of the north-east a bit earlier than planned, we throw in a couple of extras in the south-east: the “burial” mounds at Vésztö and the town of Gyula, home to Hungary’s second oldest cake shop. Vésztö is pretty deserted in the rain apart from us, one other couple and the birds from the nature reserve. The layers of archaeology from Neolithic to bronze age to Romanesque monastery are amazingly intact but a little confusing. Afterwards, the cakes and the elegance of the Biedermier furniture and mirrors in the Gyula teashop turn the wet Sunday afternoon into an agreeable detour.

Kecskemét Ornamental Palace

Kecskemét Ornamental Palace

The road from Gyula to Kecskemét is lined with water-melon stalls, which look as if they’ve fared much better in gardens than the fields of maize and blackened sunflowers. After reaching Kecskemét, we are seduced into staying a second day by the returning sunshine, pavement cafés, fountains, museums, good food and abundance of art nouveau (or Austro-Hungarian secessionist style) architecture. We also relish our pension with its verdant courtyard garden, great breakfast, friendly owner and immaculate rooms (pink and tiny in our case, as the larger garden rooms are taken – it feels a bit like sleeping in a Barbie house). So after simply strolling round on the first afternoon and having a splendid dinner (in an art-nouveau brasserie style setting, of course) we are more earnest on our second day. We visit the big morning market (colourful flowers and vegetables outside, and meat, cheese and pickled vegetables inside), then the ornate Council Chamber. We admire the art nouveau architecture (despite the strange roof ornaments which have a distinctly Disneyland look), 20th century paintings, old photographs and gold grave goods in the Ornamental Palace. After a pause for the best-ever Sachertorte and coffee at Vincent’s, we proceed to the museums of naïve art and of Hungarian crafts. Dinner in the evening is at a more traditional restaurant/bar, very filling and jolly too with men are playing (for money) with huge cards with Roman numerals.

Next we head for the university town and home of paprika, Szeged. On the way we stop at a large memorial/heritage park. The part that interests us most contains re-constructed houses from the area, which from the outside look like the houses we have driven past, so it is fun to see inside. Not only are “inhabitants” on hand to chat about their lifestyle (the miller’s wife is also busy whitewashing the big mill), but the gardens are full of typical produce, there are pigs in the sties, chickens pecking around, peppers strung up to dry, and the loos outside the school are much as I remember from junior school.

Szeged Old Synagogue

Szeged Old Synagogue

The first place we head for in Szeged is the old synagogue. The synagogues in Tokai and Kecskemét had seemed large, but this domed, yellow brick edifice in gloomy overgrown shrubbery is even larger (and would look at home on the Cromwell Road). Inside the walls and dome are an opulent cream and blue starred with gold, and the windows are colourful but the atmosphere is dusty and sad. The long, long lists of those who perished in the last war are engraved round the entrance hall, – a thriving community martyred. John replaces his borrowed yarmulke (it suited him) in the box, and we continue past an unexpected Indian/Pakistan restaurant to look at the art nouveau architecture (especially the flamboyant mauve irises over the walls of the Reök Palace) and the river Tisza. The streets and squares are very busy, with trikes, scooters, hoppers and stilts being packed away in one square as children leave with balloons, people queuing with large containers at one of the fountains, and trams and cyclists everywhere.

Szeged Reök Palace

Szeged Reök Palace

Later in the evening the traffic comes to a standstill as a whistling and shouting procession of cyclists with torches encircles one of the squares. Students? But there are children and older people too. Two policemen say they don’t know what it is about. Later still, in the cathedral there is a concert of modern, haunting music. And as we stand under the Heroes’ gateway in the dark, trying to make out its murals, the car headlights flash past. We don’t get to the salami and paprika museum, but we have our most memorable meal here, no not Ind/Pak curry, but chicken stuffed with asparagus with a pesto sauce and parmesan or chicken with roasted vegetables and cheese and leek sauce, followed by a chestnut soufflé. The chef has just been lured to Szeged from Budapest.

Pécs - Zsolnay Porcelain Museum

Pécs – Zsolnay Porcelain Museum

Pécs, the last of our southern cities, is equally enjoyable. We reach it via small scraggy vineyards, fields of scarlet pimentos being harvested, and a single track forest railway line which seems to have packed up for the year. Pécs is in the middle of a music and dance festival, so most small accommodation is full and we don’t like the big communist era chain hotel (no wonder it still has a room) that grudgingly offers a single night. So we cram as much as possible into our curtailed stay. The highlights for us are the six fourth century Christian burial sites linked by modern tunnels and galleries beneath the cathedral precincts, the resplendent Zsolnay Porcelain Museum (including its art nouveau and art deco designs and with very informative text), the Turkish mosque (built with the stones of a Gothic church, and once more a Catholic church with a semi-circular add-on with dramatic murals) and a solitary Scot extracting the most beautiful music we’ve ever heard from a bagpipe outside Murphy’s Bar. Instead of a second night in a grotty Pécs hotel, we turn north-west to Kaposvar and an agreeable art nouveau hotel. Here we make the most of the last sunny evening, enjoying the statues, fountains, pedestrian street and art nouveau café.

And then, after driving round one end of Lake Balaton (where we might have stayed, but for the approaching rain), we are back, almost full circle, to Romanesque churches near the western border with Austria and the problems of finding the keyholder. So here are three last scenes.

The buildings round the gloomy looking church at Türje must once have been monastic but have the sad air of a former residence for delinquent boys or lunatics. However the shabby young man loafing outside is most keen to help us and does a vivid mime of an ageing keyholder who has gone home for his lunch but will return on his motorcycle (noisy revs) soon after two o’clock. As we wait, John takes photos of Bluto ignoring the old Trabant outside and of the crumbling farm buildings, and then we hear the approaching motorcycle and get a thumbs up from our helper. Inside the church is equally gloomy, with baroque flourishes, but a wonderful fragment of mediaeval mural on the south wall showing St Ladislaus on horseback in battle (in a scene reminiscent of the Bayeux tapestry), has survived the Turks and rebuilding. The mural is lovely and it’s sad the church feels neglected.

Nagycenk Railway Museum and Kastély-Fertöboz narrow-gauge railway

Nagycenk Railway Museum and Kastély-Fertöboz narrow-gauge railway

Next day, on our last afternoon in Hungary, we indulge in a ride on a narrow gauge train, followed by and a search for another keyholder. A train is just about to leave as we reach the tiny station (staffed by older children) next to the outdoor locomotive museum at Nagycenk, so we hastily buy tickets. The two wooden-seated carriages, drawn today by a small diesel engine (steam on some weekends), lurch off along the track through fields and over level crossings till the we reach the “big” (main line) station and more old rolling stock. The return journey involves a flag-waving guard leaning out of our carriage door, as the engine is now at the rear and the driver doesn’t have a clear view. This nostalgia for the old farm and forest railways has been rather fun.

Hidegség parochial church

Hidegség parochial church

Getting into the Romanesque church two km away at Hidegség proves more complicated as the key holder, Jozsef, is not at home, though his little dog makes a lot of noise. Finally the bar owner gives us his mobile number. It sounds as if he and his wife are picking apples somewhere, but in a quarter of an hour he arrives, as promised, and opens up the eastern section of the church. At first we are just stunned by the frescoes round the east window, and only later start to piece together the history of this church, built on the site of a circular Roman watchtower. Inside the church is a rotunda, but it has strong, square outside walls around it. A later baroque altar has been taken down and the more recent extensions have been separated off by a wall. With its low stone altar and old font (still in use for baptisms), it must look closer to its original shape than most churches we’ve seen so far. Jozsef lights the candles as John takes photographs of the thirteenth century central figure of Christ in majesty surrounded by the symbols of the evangelists and below them nine disciples (sadly three vanished when an enclosing wall was removed at some stage). There are also some sixteenth century disciples, in a more flowing style, round the main dome. The Turks removed the features from the faces and the Protestants whitewashed the lot. Now the church is Catholic again, and the preservation work has been thorough. As Jozsef returns to his apples, we stop for a long, warming coffee in the bar that helped us, and the rain starts again.

Sadly we have reached the end of our two-week journey round Hungary. All that remains is to spend our last Hungarian forints on a bed, dinner, some apricot and cherry brandy and a few bottles of wine, before crossing back into euro-land and returning to Entre-deux-Eaux via Lake Constance and the Black Forest. It has been a good holiday.