Hungary is probably the last place you’d expect to find a relative of Charles Dickens, Britain’s famed 19th-century novelist. In this way, Catherine Dickens is a delightful surprise, as we find her sitting in one of the charming cottages she and her late husband bought and remodelled in Csákberény, just an hour outside Budapest.

“There are 160 of us,” says Catherine, referring to the family tree which stems from Dickens. “I recognise myself in his energy style, and I’ll always be a Dickens. But you do want to make your own mark on the world,” she adds.

And indeed she has – she and her husband of 13 years started buying and constructing houses in the village in 2004, turning it into a thriving holiday rental business. Now, she sits in a little creative empire of her own.

Catherine explains that she felt a calling to move to Hungary while sitting on a horse in Kecskemét. “I had just spent ten years living in the Caribbean, and I was taking a ‘gap year’ of sorts. I was visiting my mum, who is Hungarian, and it was like I heard a voice in my head saying, ‘Move to Hungary’”.

And that’s exactly what she did. “I came back for good in January 2001,” she says. “The first thing I did was enrol in a language school, because I spoke no Hungarian. I remember thinking, ‘This is the most exciting thing ever’”.

One day, while browsing idly in a corner shop, she bumped into a man named Christopher, and the two hit it off. They discovered they lived opposite each other, and three months later they were engaged. “He ran an insurance business, and he wanted a place in the countryside,” says Catherine. “One day we just came down here to see if anything was for sale – we found this sad-looking, one-million forint cottage, but we thought it had potential.”

After that, the couple were hooked. “Every eight months we bought another plot, and we were commuting back and forth between Csákberény and Budapest. Eventually we decided to make this place home, permanently.”

The business turned commercial in 2010, with the couple initially renting to some friends. By word of mouth, their reputation grew. Catherine’s background in the Caribbean was in hospitality, and it’s clear the painstaking level of care and attention that she has invested in the properties.

The couches are plump and clean, their pillows artfully arranged in a manner that feels totally casual, while simultaneously meticulous. Even the mugs on the shelf have been precisely placed so that each handle faces the same direction. Yet nothing about the cabins are clinical or cold in their faultlessness – each property elicits a cosy, comforting feeling of home, like stepping over the threshold at grandma’s, ready to be handed a cup of cocoa.

“Most of our guests are repeats,” says Catherine. “They come back and want the same cottage. We just leave the key in the door – they know their way around. This is very much a place for the local Hungarians, or the expats who live here.”

Catherine’s Cottages number at eight now, and Catherine employs a small team of full-time and part-time staff to keep everything running. “We probably would have kept expanding if Christopher were still alive,” she adds, “but now I’m focused on really improving and maintaining the cottages”. Recent efforts have included adding air conditioning, and building a new swimming pool.

Catherine is a fascinating individual, whose hilarious stories of Caribbean living – chasing after expensive, runaway flamingos, for example – make it easy to spend hours chatting. Just as her great forbear had a talent for spinning stories, so does Catherine in recounting the incredible life she has lived to this point.

But for all the adventure, there’s no place else she’d rather be. She says of Hungary: “I love the village, I love the people in the village, and I think this is what I was meant to do. It’s a wonderful way of life”.

For more information on Catherine’s Cottages, head to the website. Rentals remain open during the coronavirus, and the rolling countryside provides a safe and soothing escape from epidemiological woes.