Sződliget: A “Fairytale Village”?

Photo of fishing huts and a lake in black and white
Fishing huts at the Sződligeti Horgásztó (fishing lake), Sződliget, Hungary. 20 February 2016.

…or Sződliget: The Power of Misleading Social Media Flavor Text?

Recently, an article and gorgeous photos crossed my Facebook feed: A Mysterious and Abandoned Fishing Village Outside of Budapest Captured in Perfect Reflection. The photos were stunning and moody, and outside of Budapest? I could go there! Thus began my quest to figure out where this location actually was, hampered at every stage by the incredibly misleading flavor text in the article, which I saw develop even more misleading variations elsewhere.

A few years ago photographer Viktor Egyed accidentally stumbled upon the town Sződliget a few miles outside of Budapest, and to his delight found this small abandoned fishing village filled with clusters of A-frame huts. Deciding the weather was not ideal, Egyed came back a few years later when he was able to capture the town in a hazy fog, the perfect condition to highlight the glasslike reflections of the structures in the lake below.

On Instagram, someone even implied that the photos pictured Sződliget itself, during one of the Danube’s “frequent” floods (Sződliget was affected by the record flooding in 2013, but the majority of the town is not in routine danger of flooding).

I don’t mean to pick on the photographer, Viktor Egyed, who is obviously skilled and creative; I don’t even know how much of the article was journalistic embellishment of what he actually said. But as I searched for this “abandoned fishing village,” I soon found that it was

  1. Not abandoned.
  2. Not a village.
  3. Not somewhere you could just accidentally stumble over.

Elsewhere I’ve also seen Sződliget described as a dying town, and that’s not true, either – in the 1980s it was aging, with fewer farming families (it is not a fishing town – most if not all of the fishing in Sződliget is for sport), but it is now increasingly a bedroom communities for people who work in Budapest and Vác. In my two visits I saw plenty of families out walking, as well as what looked like a local school running team practicing. Sződliget is not a ghost town—it’s just an average small Hungarian town with little to interest foreign tourists. I suspect in summer there is a little domestic tourism for fishing and boating, and it does support a yacht club. Here are some quick cellphone shots I took of the residential streets as I walked the 30–40 minutes from the train station to the nature reserve:

The road from the train stop.
Dunai fasor, the road from the train stop.
A residential neighborhood
A residential neighborhood, which I assume has electricity and running water.

First of all, I really doubt Egyed “stumbled upon” this fishing lake. It’s in an un-signed nature preserve, and there are two ways to reach it, neither of which is obvious. On my first trip to Sződliget, I naturally went to the fishing lakes that were large enough to show on GoogleMaps—which belonged to a fishing club, were entirely fenced in, and were obviously not the same as those in the photos. I ended up going home and asking a local photographer for help, and he very kindly confirmed my suspicions of where the lake really was and explained how to get there, so my second visit was much more successful.

Once I arrived, I immediately saw that it was neither abandoned nor a village. No one has ever lived in these huts or made a living fishing in this lake. The fishing lake was established as a sport fishing lake in 1949—it says so over the gate, along with the sign indicating some connection to a national park. And it’s still in use—the huts and bridges are extremely well-maintained, and there are many signs up explaining the rules of the fishing club. That no one is fishing in the middle of winter is not a surprise, but it’s not abandoned in the general sense. On a chilly but sunny Saturday afternoon in February, I saw one man apparently working on maintenance (if you look closely, you can find him in the next photo) and about a dozen people walking around with family and friends.

Photo of fishing huts and a lake
Fishing huts at the Sződligeti Horgásztó (fishing lake), Sződliget, Hungary. 20 February 2016.

Egyed’s photos are beautiful—some of the best I’ve seen of this location—and speak for themselves. He chose moody, atmospheric weather, they’re well-composed, and he didn’t over-process them. I saw the photos and instantly wanted to go there, which I think is a mark of success.

And the Sződligeti fishing lake isn’t the only location which looks much more mysterious and romantic in photos than it is in real life (the fishing shacks at Bokodi-tó in Hungary are another example)—there’s nothing wrong with that. Photographers pick and choose what to show all the time. But I think it’s important to be honest about what you’re showing people. Those awesome-looking huts at the ends of docks in all the moody, dramatic long exposures of Bokodi-tó are also not people’s homes and never have been—they’re fishing shelters. The actual town of Bokod, like the town of Sződliget, looks pretty normal.

Flavor text is nice, but I wish photographers and media writers kept it short and factual (unless there really is a story to tell) and let the photos speak for themselves, rather than contributing to the creation of romanticized mythic places that exist only in imagination and pixels.

I think this is also a fine illustration of the importance of weather for the landscape photographer—in this case, how fog and mist can turn a lovely but ordinary location into something mystical and magical. I hope I’ll get a chance to go back in more interesting weather, but until then, these photos will have to do.

Photo of fishing huts and a lake
Fishing huts at the Sződligeti Horgásztó (fishing lake), Sződliget, Hungary. 20 February 2016.

The End of Autumn in the Börzsöny Mountains

A slightly foggy autumn forest landscape
A late autumn day in the Börzsöny Mountains of Hungary. November 23, 2014.

Late last November I finally got outside of Budapest for a weekend hike to the Börzsöny Mountains, led by Gábor Marx, who has been organizing hikes around Hungary (and sometimes outside) for many years. The Börzsöny Mountains are in northern Hungary, near the Slovakian border—only about an hour and a half from Budapest by car, something I confess I’m still not used to.

The end of November was definitely on the cusp between autumn and winter (albeit a very mild one, as it turned out). The trees had lost all their leaves at last, and it was chilly when we stopped moving—but still no snow, and beautiful when the sun broke through the light fog.

Coming from Colorado, Hungary’s mountains are hills, but beautiful ones, with a kind of open-understoried oak-beech forest I haven’t spent much time in. I am hoping to be able to go hiking more once spring arrives, because I am sure the forests which are lovely in winter are gorgeous in spring.

November’s hike was along the Magas-Tax – Nagy Hideg-hegy route, but I couldn’t say more about where we were exactly, as it was a bit of an adventure and dark by the time we returned.

A few photos from the hike…

A forest landscape with a stream running through it

A forest landscape with a stream running through it

There wasn’t much wildlife out, at least not that was willing to be seen by a large group (we did spook a deer), but we found a few of these huge galls on dead oak leaves. I assume they’re probably made by wasps, but if anyone knows what species they might be, I’d love to know!

A dead oak leaf with a large gall on it

A few details of flora and fungi:

Flora and fungi of Börzsöny

The view from Nagy Hideg-hegy (“Big Cold Mountain”) before we headed back down.

View of distant mountains wrapped with fog

University of Oslo Zoological Museum

Photo of a museum diorama with fish
An underwater diorama at the University of Oslo’s Zoological Museum, Oslo, Norway. January 6, 2014.

I spent most of my winter break visiting friends in Sweden and Norway, although due to weather and other factors, I didn’t get to do either as much nature experiencing or photography as I hoped. After visiting a friend in Bergen, I spent a day and a half in Oslo before heading home. Since the weather was gray and drizzly and I was recovering from a cold, I opted for the indoor experience of the University of Oslo’s Natural History Museum (Naturhistorisk Museum) and the greenhouses in the botanical garden. I didn’t feel like dealing with the DSLR, so these are all cell phone photos, as with my review of the Hungarian Natural History Museum last year.

The museum itself is divided into the Zoological Museum (Robert Colletts hus) and Geological Museum (W.C. Brøggers hus), and like many museums, both are a mixture of modern exhibits and more old-fashioned fare like dioramas and cases full of minerals.

The entrance of the Zoological Museum currently has a display of gorgeous white-background studio photographs of insects of Norway by Karsten Sund, some of which you can see in this article (in Norwegian). Unfortunately, while there were English summaries for the photograph captions, the introduction was not translated, so the overall theme of the exhibit was a little mysterious to me. This became a theme throughout—while I very much appreciate that there were English summaries for some exhibits and labels, the decision to translate or not translate seemed haphazard.

The best-translated exhibit was a temporary exhibit on sexual selection and differences in nature. While it contained many interesting objects, it was quite text-heavy, and I’m sorry to say, but after earning a degree in museum studies my patience for reading exhibit labels has gone way down, so I didn’t spend much time there.

I continued on to what their website tells me was the Norwegian Hall, a series of taxidermy dioramas proceeding through various Norwegian habitats from sea level to the mountains. This was definitely my favorite part of the museum—I really love the art of dioramas, and particularly naturalistic dioramas that try to present a scene that could actually occur. These reminded me a great deal of the outstanding dioramas at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, although the backdrop painting was not quite as realistic and as far as I can tell they did not necessarily represent exact physical locations. However, they had some of the best taxidermy I’ve seen in museums and were really beautifully done—definitely a teaser for all the Norwegian nature I’d love to see in better weather!

Photograph of a bird cliff diorama

Photograph of puffins in a bird cliff diorama

Photograph of a fox in a rural diorama

Eurasian Eagle-owls (Bubo bubo):

Photograph of Eurasian Eagle-owls in a diorama

I particularly liked the split-level underwater/shoreline dioramas, something I haven’t often seen before.

Photograph of a seashore diorama

Many of the dioramas also included insect life, which of course made me very happy, as well as amphibians. The amphibians were probably the weakest part of the dioramas, as they appeared to be taxidermy and amphibians simply don’t taxidermy very well—in this case I think realistic models would have been more engaging.

The second floor opens with one of those glorious and unphotographable cases full of 19th century natural history memorabilia. There wasn’t much interpretation (and it was all in Norwegian), but I always enjoy just looking at these, and I think it’s nice to have a nod to the history of science.

Image of a museum case full of old natural history memorabilia

The second floor held the geographic and systematic halls, although I think I managed to miss the systematic hall somehow. The geographic hall’s dioramas seemed to be older, the taxidermy less convincing, and were done in the style of “pick a region and cram all the animals you could possibly see there into one case,” an approach I personally like a lot less. For example, here’s the Galápagos Islands case (although to be fair, the animal density is less unrealistic than for most regions…):

Museum diorama showing Galapagos flora and fauna

Labeling in the diorama exhibits was haphazard: some dioramas were not labeled at all, others were labeled in Norwegian and English, and others only in Norwegian. Sometimes Latin names were included, but more often they were not. There was little interpretation besides the names of animals, so this wasn’t a huge problem—I think the appeal of this kind of exhibit is more in the immersive feel of it than the text—but I would have appreciated consistent use of scientific names.

And since this post is a bit long, I shall save the Geological Museum and the greenhouses for another post or two.

Hungarian Natural History Museum

A dinosaur diorama at the Hungarian Natural History Museum
A dinosaur diorama at the Hungarian Natural History Museum, Budapest, Hungary. January 29, 2014.

Most of my trip to Budapest was (unusually for me) focused on things other than nature and museums, but I did make it to the Hungarian Natural History Museum (Magyar Természettudományi Múzeum), which turned out to be one of the nicest natural history museums I’ve been to.

The museum is located in a historic building near a large park, which was apparently in 2011 under threat of being converted to a military university. I haven’t been able to find anything more about that, so hopefully those plans changed—the building has been extensively renovated for the museum, and it’s a beautiful interior space. ETA March 6, 2014: Per the comment below and some other articles I found, apparently plans are still underway to use at least part of the building as a school, and the museum’s future is uncertain. I haven’t been able to find any really detailed explanations in English of what’s going on, unfortunately.

Of course, all good natural history museums need a giant whale skeleton:

Whale skeleton at Hungarian Natural History Museum

Many of the exhibits are fairly text-heavy, in part because everything is bilingual (Hungarian and English), more than I normally approve of in exhibits, but the exhibits are so beautifully designed from an aesthetic point of view that I felt they could be enjoyed on other levels as well. However, not everything was text-heavy, and there were some interesting aspects to the museums that I felt were counter to recent exhibit-design trends, at least in the U.S.

In fact, my favorite exhibit was the first one we passed through, a realistic coral reef diorama that surrounded you as you passed through the room, with the exhibit under glass floor tiles, extended up pillars and into the walls. A few tanks of live fish completed the experience. I don’t remember seeing any text here: it was just a beautiful, immersive display of biodiversity, the kind of exhibit I would have returned to over and over as a kid to look for new treasures.

Coral reef diorama/exhibit at Hungarian Natural History Museum

Coral reef diorama/exhibit at Hungarian Natural History Museum

They also had a temporary traveling exhibit on Argentinian dinosaurs, which was a bit more typical, including some interactive activities for kids.

The remaining exhibits for me nicely balanced informative with a more modern cabinet of curiosities approach, so they could be enjoyed on an aesthetic level or you could read the labels for more information.

Rocks and minerals

Rocks and minerals

Many Colors of Life exhibit on biodiversity

Many Colors of Life exhibit on biodiversity

Hungarian Natural History Museum

We finished up the trip with a quick walk through the outdoor Dinosaur Garden in the snow:

Dinosaur Garden

More photos on Flickr.

A long hiatus, and a cave

Pál-völgyi Cave
Dripstone formations in Pál-völgyi Cave, Budapest, Hungary. January 28, 2014.

It’s been a long time since I posted—during that time I made some pretty huge life changes, including moving from Colorado to Oregon and applying to graduate school (again)—and I haven’t had a lot of chances to get outdoors or do much photography. But I’m back now, with some not very good camera-phone photos of Pál-völgyi Cave outside Budapest in Hungary, and hopefully I’ll get back into the habit of posting—and finish that Iceland travelogue eventually….

For various reasons, my trip to Budapest was a strange one for me. Although I took my SLR and a point-and-shoot, I mostly used my phone camera, and I can’t say I took any stunning photos—but I had a great time, and they’re certainly good enough for memories.

Most of the trip I spent in the city itself, where pretty much the only wildlife I saw in a rather chilly January was pigeons, but one day a friend and I went to Pál-völgyi Cave (more information in English) at 1025 Budapest, Szépvölgyi út 162, one of the easiest caves to get to from the city, and also the largest in Budapest. It’s part of Duna-Ipoly National Park, one of the most diverse national parks in Hungary. The cave itself stretches over 29 kilometers, and many of the chambers are actually underneath the residential districts of Budapest. The cave is open from 10 a.m. – 4.15 p.m. every day except on Monday, and later in summer. Regular tours start quarter past. Full price tickets cost 1300 forint (~$6 US) per person.

After a short metro and bus ride from the city center, we stopped briefly to warm up and buy tickets for the ~1 hour guided tour through the developed part of the cave, which is relatively easy aside from a bit in the middle involving a ladder and some very steep stairs. This is not a wheelchair-accessible tour, and I’d think twice if you have knee problems.

Outside Pálvölgyi Cave, Budapest, Hungary

On the bright side, the temperature in the cave stays about 10 ºC year-round, so in January it was actually an improvement over outside! However, if you want to do the longer, crawling tour through the non-developed part of the cave, I’d probably do it in warmer weather to avoid getting chilled when you emerge.

Pálvölgyi Cave, Budapest, Hungary

The cave complex is large and labyrinthine, mostly full of dripstone from the thermal waters which formed parts of it, as well as Budapest’s famous thermal baths. It was discovered in 1904 by a farmer looking for a lost sheep, which had fallen into a cave-in. Exploration followed, with some passages opened up with dynamite, and during World War II, the cave was used as an air raid shelter, resulting in damage to many of the formations.

Over 13 kilometers of the cave have been surveyed, and it hosts a population of bats, which were hibernating deeper in the cave when we visited.

Many of the cave formations had been given names, for example a “scorpion” and a “crocodile”:

Pálvölgyi Cave, Budapest, Hungary

This was the first limestone cave I’ve been in—I had never seen stalactites or stalagmites before!

Pálvölgyi Cave, Budapest, Hungary

Peeking into a narrow crevice:

Pálvölgyi Cave, Budapest, Hungary

I have to confess I paid less attention to the very knowledgeable guide than I should have because I was too busy gawking, but I think these large dents represented gas bubbles of some kind:

Pálvölgyi Cave, Budapest, Hungary

Aragonite crystals, I think:

Pálvölgyi Cave, Budapest, Hungary

Looking up some of the steep stairs midway through:

Pálvölgyi Cave, Budapest, Hungary

And down…

Pálvölgyi Cave, Budapest, Hungary

But the 500 meters of the short tour is quite developed and artificially lit:

Pálvölgyi Cave, Budapest, Hungary

Many parts of the cave are wet, and dripstone is still forming. It’s important not to touch the walls, as this can interfere with the process.

Pálvölgyi Cave, Budapest, Hungary

And as a lovely bonus, there are fossils, including clams and a sea urchin which I think the guide said was 40 million years old:

Fossil clams

Fossil sea urchin

Of course, I couldn’t leave without petting the adorable cat in the little coffee stand attached to the ticket office:

A cafe cat at Pálvölgyi Cave, Budapest, Hungary

The rest of my photos are up on Flickr, and I’d definitely like to go back someday with a better camera, as well as go back and do the longer tour (probably not at the same time).

Next, I’ll post some photos from the Hungarian Natural History Museum, one of the nicest natural history museums I’ve been to, and then I can say I have if not finished a travelogue for once, at least finished the natural-history-related part of one!

Iceland 2012, Day 3: Searching for Puffins

Island in Faxaflói Bay
Island in Faxaflói Bay, Reykjavík, Iceland. August 14, 2012.

My biggest disappointment from my first trip to Iceland in 2006 was that I only saw puffins at a great distance, out at sea–they generally leave by August 20 or so, but that year had been a bad puffin year. When I visited the Westmann Islands, they were pretty much gone, although normally that would have been a great time of year to see them heading out to see.

This trip we started a bit more than a week earlier, which I think helped, but it was also a better year–our best look at puffins was actually at the end of the trip. But we decided to try to see puffins early on, so on the third day we took one of the puffin-watching boats out into Faxaflói Bay, where a number of small islands host large puffin colonies. The puffin boats are usually a little smaller than the whale-watching boats, but we still weren’t able to get terribly close to the islands. Still, the sheer number of puffins even late in the season was impressive, and there were many other seabirds out and about.

As we headed out into the bay we passed Harpa, the spectacularly modern concert hall.

Harpa, Reykjavík

Here’s a typical island in Faxaflói Bay–I’m not sure which one this is, but it might be Viðey, the largest of the islands:

Puffin island, Reykjavík Harbor

You can see how columnar basalt comprises a lot of it. Columnar basalt is very common in Iceland, and I’ll talk more about it in a later post.

Flocks of Atlantic Puffins (Fratercula arctica) scattered in front of the boat:

Atlantic Puffins (Fratercula arctica)

The bird cliffs were also home to large numbers of Kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla), as well as Arctic Fulmars (Fulmarus glacialis) like this one:

Arctic Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis)

Despite it being fairly late in the season (puffins spend the winter far out at sea), there were still quite a few puffins hanging around the nesting areas on the cliffs:

Atlantic Puffins (Fratercula arctica)

I was happy: we saw puffins, and they were close enough to be recognizable. But later in the trip, we got even luckier…

Iceland 2012, Day 2: Þingvellir National Park

Lake Thingvallavatn
Lake Þhingvallavatn, Thingvellir National Park, Iceland. August 13, 2012.

I think my biggest regret from the trip was not planning a day to spend just at Lake Þhingvallavatn in Þhingvellir National Park. Þhingvallavatn is the largest natural lake in Iceland, located at the spreading zone of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates–as a geology nerd, it’s pretty amazing to be essentially standing on the mid-Atlantic Ridge, one of the few places in the world you can do that. It’s also a spectacularly beautiful place, even on a day that was at that point rapidly becoming more and more overcast.

Iceland is mostly composed of basalt, which is common for islands situated above oceanic hotspots. Basaltic lava can erupt either violently or more gently, and the slower types of basaltic flows can produce some fantastic structures–basalt is probably my favorite igneous rock. Here’s a pretty ropey-looking flow, which is probably pāhoehoe:

Þingvellir, Iceland

The area around the lake exhibits a great deal of faulting, due to the spreading zone of the plates, creating fantastic weathered ridges:

Þingvellir, Iceland

This is one of my favorite pictures from that day, again creating a staggeringly misleading impression of how nice the weather actually was, but nicely capturing the feeling of being there. Iceland has truly magical scenery, but the tourist brochures showing clear, sunny weather are probably the product of a handful of Icelandic photographers chasing sun during a two-month period in summer.

Þingvellir, Iceland

There was the usual tundra vegetation; we also saw a few flocks of Greylag Geese (Anser anser) out on the lake, and I am sure it would be a great area for birding if you get down around the shores away from the heavily touristed areas.

Þingvellir, Iceland

And of course it wouldn’t be Iceland without some dramatic waterfalls:

Þingvellir, Iceland

This is me. Did I mention I’m STANDING IN THE FAULTING ZONE OF THE MID-ATLANTIC RIDGE? Yeah, that was an awesome feeling. (I think this may even have been in or at least near Almannagjá, the largest rift fissure, but I’m not completely sure.)

Me at Þingvellir National Park, Iceland

Aside from the geology and scenery, Þhingvellir is historically important as the site where the Icelandic Parliament (AlÞhingi) was established in 930, and where it met until 1789. During these centuries, Þhingvellir was a key center of Icelandic culture, hosting a huge annual gathering during the meeting of the AlÞhingi.

So if I ever make it back a third time (unlikely as that is), I will definitely plan on renting a car and exploring Þhingvellir for a day or so.