I set off from Erika’s guesthouse feeling warm and fuzzy after my stay there. I wanted to give her a hug goodbye when I set off but settled for promising to return when I come back to Hungary (for this is a country I must come back to). It’s early in the morning and even the grey skies can’t get me down. In fact, they almost highlight the colours of the landscape.
The clouds soon lift and I am treated to the yellow and blue that will be the image that springs to mind when I think of my time here in Hungary. These cheerful colours surround me and I contemplate the complexities of this country I am traveling. The complexities begin with the history of the people who live here and the many times they have defended their territories, sometimes winning and sometimes losing. It moves on to the complexity of this country’s modern socio-political history and the financial difficulties many people living here face. A people who are strong on the outside but incredibly warm once I push aside my own shyness to find a way to be invited inside. The language is a barrier but a smile and sign language gets you a long way. Say kozonom (thank you) a lot and flash a friendly but embarrassed smile and you can almost always guarantee a warm response or a friendly laugh. Yes, when people speak English it sounds harsh to my Australian ears. But that is my issue not theirs. I need to adapt to the direct way Hungarians speak; their economy of words. Yes. It’s complex and I love it.
Villages come and go all day long. They are all similar in their layout and style. No matter how run down the buildings, the streets are always clean and teams of people even sweep grass clippings from the road. I’ve been told this is Hungary’s version of work for the dole. Unemployed people are paid to do roadside maintenance like cutting grass and sweeping it off the road. There are huge gangs of people everywhere wearing yellow or orange high visibility vests cutting grass with sickles (yes, they cut roadside grass with sickle) and piling it up using pitch forks for collection later by a cart pulled either by a tractor, horse or hand. Most of these roadside workers are gypsies who are easily distinguished by their dark skin and hair, and smaller frames than the more bulky fair skinned Hungarians.
This is Hungary’s highlands and the churches look down on the population. But they do make good landmarks to show me the way.
I am still stopping to enjoy mulberries fresh from the roadside trees. I don’t take any in the villages where someone might be cultivating or relying on the trees. But along the road they drop their berries everywhere so I figure these are fair game. It’s the first cycle tour I’ve done where I’ve eaten this much fruit and I think it is probably good for me.
Rural Hungary dishes up her usual best for today’s ride. There’s a shepherd woman standing so still in the woods that I almost don’t see her when I stop to take a photo of a flock of sheep. She wears traditional dress and looks like she’s been leaning on her staff for decades. Fishermen row square bottomed wooden boats across a lake, the only sound being their oars. And wine cellars dot the roadside as if a secret society was long ago established here (I mean, have you ever heard of Hungarian wine?)
Life here on the land is rugged. Most people farm by hand. I see them walking along pushing bicycles laden with tools like hoes, rakes and shovels. The farmers are not wearing flourescent and usually do not carry sickles. This is what distinguishes them from the many roadside workers I pass every day. In the afternoon the farm workers trudge home obviously exhausted from their labours. The roadside workers, however, look fresh but that’s because they spend a good portion of their days sitting around smoking, chatting and playing cards. Then again, they are working for unemployment benefits rather than a wage so there is probably no incentive to actually put in an effort. I know I wouldn’t.
The one mechanised process is baling hay. And it’s very cool to watch.
After hours of riding through rural agricultural Hungary I reach the forests of Aggtelek. They are beautiful, like all of Hungary’s forests. One thing I’ve noticed here is the plethora of walking trails that criss cross the country. Instead of being named, they are marked by colours and shapes painted on trees and signs. Occasionally there are signs showing what each of the icons means. It’s brilliant and means that anyone can follow a trail regardless of language or level of literacy. It also makes trail marking simple because all you need is a tin of paint, rather than the tools and materials to build signs.
But what Aggtelek is really famous for are the caves. The caves are so important that they are UNESCO World Heritage listed. Apparently, pre-historic man lived in these caves and then the caves were forgotten until many years later. They extend for many kilometers underground, extending across into nearby Slovakia. You must take a tour if you go to the caves and may not explore them alone. But there is a huge selection of tours and caves to chose from. I just take a simple one hour tour and enjoy the experience very much. The caves are different from those I’ve seen in other places because they are kaarst and I’ve never seen kaarst before.
By the time I exit the caves it is raining and I am exhausted. I retire to my bivy to watch some movies on my laptop before eating a solid dinner of fried pork and potatoes in the restaurant at the camping. A Dutch couple camping near me are there too and we walk for a while across teh restaurant (we are the only people there). Then it’s time for an early night. The Outdoor Research Helium bivy proves a good choice because the hoop gives me just enough head room to feel comfortable despite the rain so I sleep soundly without noticing the pitter patter of water outside.