I've had the incredible good fortune to be selected for the Hungarian Writers Residency, and am partway through a journey that's taken me from Dunedin to Budapest and now Pécs, which is in the South Transdanubian region of Southwest Hungary.
We spent three days in Budapest before coming to Pécs and in both cities we have been amazed by the history, the culture, and the evident importance of the arts in Hungarian culture.
In Budapest we stayed in Callas Hotel opposite the newly-renovated Opera House. We visited the National Gallery where I loved the work of József Borsos and Róbert Berény. We went to the cheeky, modern Pygmalion Effect ballet, and I went to Cafe New York, once the hub of the Hungarian literary scene, where I sampled strawberry coffee and raspberry ganache beneath gilded frescoes.
We went on a walking tour that included Magyar Tudományos Akadémia - The Hungarian Academy of Sciences - founded in the 1880s to develop the Hungarian language, sciences and arts. A group of writers led the reform that added ten thousand words to the language. We also visited Parliament, the Castle District in Buda, and got caught in a thunderstorm after a night cruise on the Danube.
Here in Pécs we are staying in the vibrant Zsolnay Cultural Quarter. Formerly the residence and ceramics factory of the Zsolnay family, the quarter features a planetarium, museums, an excellent chocolate shop, a puppet theatre, and works from the Zsolnay factory. One of the lovely things about Pécs is the music. We can often hear beautiful music being played here in the quarter, and musicians play around Széchenyi Square, too. The square has been used as a marketplace since the Middle Ages.
The town centre is a short, pleasant walk from our accommodation. On the way are the remaining ruins of the Budai gate of the old city wall, now featuring the city seal of Pecs from 1445. Once in town there are all sorts of indulgences to enjoy. The Dubai shop sells baklava, dolmades and feta, and there are plenty of ice-cream and cake shops. I have been on the hunt for fruit soup. I would really like to try sour cherry soup and strawberry soup. (I've tried apple soup so far.)
Pécs appealed to me because it is similar in some ways to Dunedin. It’s about the same size in terms of population, it’s also a university town, and it's also very pretty.
On the other hand, there are also some pretty big differences. New Zealand is a young country, whereas people have lived in the Pécs region for around 80 thousand years, originally in the caves of the nearby mountain range. Though it might sound strange, the clouds are different here - familiar to me though from artworks set in Europe. And of course, coming from winter in Dunedin, it's a lot warmer here. It's amazing how hard it is to do the simplest things once the temperature nudges the mid-30s!
Before coming to Hungary I read Embers by Sándor Márai and The Door and Katalin Street by Magda Szabo - all excellent books. I particularly enjoyed The Door. As part of my preparations I also met with a Hungarian lecturer from the University of Otago. He gave me some information about Hungary, and also said: "Have you heard about the wolf?"
I had not heard about the wolf... but now I'm on a hunt that might take me from Pécs in the south up to the Zemplén mountains in the north.
Thanks to the Hungarian Writers Residency and also to the Winston Churchill McNeish Fellowship.
2023 Burns fellow Kathryn van Beek has an MA from Victoria University Wellington - Te Herenga Waka’s International Institute of Modern Letters. She is a winner of the Mindfood Short Story Competition and the Headland Prize. Her collection of short stories, Pet, is available as a podcast, and her work has also appeared in Overland, takahē, Newsroom, and the Sunday Star-Times. She lives in UNESCO City of Literature Ōtepoti Dunedin with her two rescue cats.