The yearly fish soup festival
in 1995 Baja, the city of two rivers, celebrated the 300th anniversary of its establishment as a city with a fish soup cooking festival. The idea, thought up by a Baja-born Hungarian diplomat, was that 300 cauldrons would be lit in the main square for a competition between amateur fish soup cooks. In Hungary, this soup, called “halászlé”, is usually cooked by the men of the family. There was a call out for 300 people to come forward who thought that their fish soup was the best in the city.
However, there were so many prospective applicants that nearly 500 people ended up setting up their cauldrons over an open fire ready to compete with the others for cooking the best fish soup. This festival became a tradition which takes place annually on the second Saturday in July.
Halászlé – “Fisherman Juice”
In 2019, around 5 000 people took part in the fish soup competition and it seemed like every little corner of the city was populated by families and friends cooking together and sitting around long tables eating halászlé. This is a social event and people offer every passerby a taste of their “creation”. Due to Covid, there was a reduced fish soup cooking event in the city square in 2020 and 2021, but families regularly get together around bubbling cauldrons to share the beloved halászlé.
My Baja cousin and I took Mike to a restaurant overlooking the river Sugó, which runs through the centre of the city. We think that is where the fish soup is nearly as good as the one my uncle, my cousin’s father used to cook for the family. Mike liked the fish soup immensely, or he realised how my cousin and I took a second helping making appreciative noises…
Baja’s city-centre beach
In the city centre, there is a sandy beach along the Sugó river and, not only at weekends but also during lunch breaks, people like to refresh themselves with a swim. Baja summers can get very hot, reaching around 38–40 degrees Celsius. After an enjoyable meal, we took my dog Bonnie to the other side of the river, to the beach, where she had a little swim to cool down. Sadly, the water was a bit too cold for me to join her.
Bonnie’s next adventure will amuse dog owners. We felt like eating an ice cream in one of the numerous cafés in the pedestrian zone in Baja. We decided, since Bonnie needs a ramp to climb in and out of our car, to leave her in the car in her comfortable bed. Windows and sunroof were open, and she had a bowl of water to drink from.
When we returned to the car after about half an hour, there was a strong smell. We had asked the restaurant to give us a doggie bag for some of the fish we had not managed to eat. (Portions in restaurants in Hungary are huge.) There are feral cats we thought would enjoy the fish.
The morning of that day, we had also been to a farmers market in Kalocsa and bought some fruit and two large sticks of spicy, homemade Hungarian salami. We had forgotten to ensure that Bonnie could not get to the fish and the salami. Well, she did. The doggie bag was empty, and she had bitten into the spicy salami as well.
I was worried about the fish bones Bonnie had eaten and kept the number of the nearest vet handy. I also awaited the disastrous result of her digestion with trepidation. And it did happen the next day, in the beautifully kept garden of another cousin we visited in Pécs, in the middle of the lawn. Thankfully, she likes dogs and there was a shovel nearby to cover the mishap with sand…
Museum exhibition in Baja
Whenever I visit Baja, my cousin and I go to the local museum which used to be my uncle’s workplace and also his living accommodation. He was curator of the museum and published several successful books on Hungarian fishermen through history. Life on the river, whether you earned your living with fishing, or love water sports like rowing, kayaking, or sculling, is at the centre of community life in Baja.
The current exhibition at the museum displays not just life on the rivers, with some pictures of my late uncle’s research (Dr Solymos Ede), but it also takes one through other interesting local history. It has a collection of various local traditional dresses which show the minority groups, Germans, Serbians, Croatians etc., who lived peacefully together in this area. The villages still display names in several languages apart from Hungarian.
Where the two rivers meet
To finish off our visit to Baja, we walked up a few stairs onto a viewing platform built to give a great view of the spot where Baja’s two rivers the Danube and the above-mentioned Sugó meet. We had a relaxing walk across a park and took lovely photos of life on the waters.