Baja to Szeged (Southern Great Plain)

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One of the wonderful things about sleeping in a bivy bag is waking up to views like this. I don’t even have to open the tent door. All I have to do is flip the waterproof cover off my head (it drizzled last night) and open my eyes. This is sunrise over the Danube in Baja. What a special moment.

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I am the first of the cyclists awake and roll out of camp just as the Germans and Frenchman start moving around. As I leave camp a cute dog wanders in front of my bike so I stop to pat it. The dog is obviously a stray because my kindness results in it following me out of the camping ground and into the streets of Baja. Every time I stop it cocks its head at me, wagging its tail and coming for a pat. If I move towards it, though, it drops down into a submissive pose with its tail between its legs. I worry that the poor mutt will follow me all day long so, when I reach the road out of town, I stop and ignore the poor thing until it finds another cyclist to follow. And given that people here cycle for transport, it doesn’t take long for it to find a new master for the moment.

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Today I will cross a vast expanse of farmland. The distance between the villages will stretch beyond the usual 5-10km to a more distant 15-20km. This isn’t far by Australian standards but doubles the distance, which is significant. It gives me time to contemplate life. It also gives me space to acknowledge that I have been experiencing my usual second week in a country culture shock for the past couple of days. Here in Hungary the clincher was when I discovered they do not yet have ring pull tins here and that the only tin opener for sale was so cheap it did not actually work to open tins. It’s funny the things that tip you over the edge into this culture struggle. It’s normal, natural and anyone who says they’ve never experienced it has not spent enough time in a totally foreign country. I have experienced it every time I’ve traveled and love the way the world looks after pushing through these few tough days. The rose coloured glasses come off and you can truly appreciate where you are, warts and all.

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After 20km I stop for breakfast in a small village. The shop here (like the other shops I will pass today) has no fruit or vegetables for sale. It only sells bread, deli items and non-perishables. This is what I will experience for the rest of today. Perhaps the lack of fruit and vegetables is due to most homes here having vegetable gardens and fruit trees. Maybe there is a fruit and vegetable shop somewhere in the villages that I have missed. Or, maybe, the fruit and vegetable stock hasn’t been delivered yet for the week because it is only Monday.

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I could take the main road 101km all the way to Szeged but have decided, instead, to follow the smaller roads on my map. It pays off when I come to this gorgeous Gothic-inspired chuch. It is in the middle of nowhere with not even a village around it. There are lots of elderly women in a garden between the church and it’s neighbouring building. Perhaps they are old nuns because I doubt an old people’s home would only have female residents. The church is spectacular. The entry gates to the actual chapel area are locked but I can see the stained glass windows through the grill gate. It reminds me of the huge cathedral of the same style in Budapest near Budapest castle. I took a photo of that while I was in Budapest and wonder whether this smaller church was a practice run for that larger cathedral or whether this church was inspired by the cathedral. It has the same Gothic spire and colourful roof tiles.

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The small country lanes also lead me past lots of these wells. They look like they are still in use. It’s obviously a tough area this one with farmers tilling the soil by hand with hoes and rakes. I don’t see any farm machinery all day, just people toiling in the beating sun.

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This visual story is coupled with an amazing floral scent. I discover that it is coming from these flowers. The scent is sweet like gardenia and vanilla blended together. I sniff the air like a beagle looking for a trail. It’s delicious and inspiring. If this scent was bottled as a perfume I doubt I’d be able to resist anyone wearing it. Haha.

115km after leaving camp I arrive in Szeged. It’s late afternoon and I decide to stay in the camping ground across the river from the city centre. At first I am unsure as to whether it’s a good place to stay because there is renovation work occurring on the pools, giving a slightly unfinished look to the place. But this is an important lesson to learn too: don’t judge a book by its cover. The security guard at the camping is lovely and tries to talk with me. I feel bad for not speaking any Hungarian but he calls over a cool young guy who speaks Hungarian, English and German. The young guy translates and then he and I start talking. I am so glad I came to this camping because he and I just hit it off and I can tell we will be friends.

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I set up camp, have a rest in the shade to cool down and head across the river into Szeged to have some dinner. The sun is setting over the Tizsa River as locals swim on a sandy beach enjoying the summer warmth. The city is young and vibrant. I will learn later that there are 35,000 university students living here in a city with a total population of about 160,000 people, so this is why it is so vibrant. I struggle to find a restaurant. Most of the places I walk past are cafes that only sell coffees, ice creams and cakes. Just as I am about to settle on eating Burger King for dinner (it’s already 9pm and I haven’t eaten since lunch nor eaten enough to fuel me for today’s mileage) I stumble upon a tiny little bar and grill tucked away near a park. It’s wonderful with brightly coloured tables, a couple of hammock seats, white pebble flooring and a bar that sells more varieties of beer than I’ve ever seen in one place. I order a gyros platter (salad, potato wedges and spiced chicken meat) and a cold beer. It’s the perfect way to celebrate my pushing through the culture shock period and to welcome in that beautiful part of every journey where I find myself fully relaxing and going with the flow of the land I am in.