Reflections on Hungary

I had no idea what to expect when I booked my trip to Hungary. I based my decision to travel there on the recommendation of two Hungarian backpackers who I met at Mt Fuji. Before booking the flight I had been seriously considering walking the Camino de Saniago de Compastella. I was ready to book flights but something was stopping me. I guess I realised that I am not looking for a sense of myself. Yes, like all travellers I am searching. But while I was in Hungary I realised that it’s not me I’m trying to find. Rather, I am trying to discover the world and the way I want to live in it. And that’s a very different quest to the one that had previously drawn me to the Camino pilgrimage many years ago when I first started thinking about wanting to do it.

Hungary was an amazing experience. I loved the castles, thermal baths and people. The quiet country roads and plentiful cycle routes made cycling a dream. The plentiful clean, secure and quiet camping grounds with first class facilities made finding a place to sleep simple. And the delicious, cheap and plentiful pastries made eating pleasurable.

My pace of travel in Hungary was different. I rode long mileages but felt more like I was on holidays than an adventure. It was a nice feeling. Though I did miss the adventure too.

The long and short is that I loved Hungary as a country. I am already saving to return next year with Paul to drive around and see some more of Hungary and either Slovakia or Slovenia. But for now, I have been home for a week and am settling back in to life in Oz for the next six weeks before Paul and I travel to Indonesia. My blog might be quiet but I will share some of my adventures while I’m home.

A day in Budafok (Central Hungary)

 photo IMG_7850_zpsy8i8dpl8.jpg

Peter has invited me to join him, the Englishman and the Australian family for a day in Budafolk, the suburb where he and the Englishman live. I am tardy, spending the morning washing my clothes in a washing machine for the first time since I left Australia a month ago. But I arrive on time to enjoy the potato and sausage stew that Peter has cooked up. It’s absolutely delicious.

 photo IMG_7851_zpspt6nyaov.jpg

After lunch we walk down the road to one of the many wine cellars in Budafok. Few people know these cellars exist because there is no obvious vineyard on the surface. You need to organise a group if you want to tour the cellars but it is well worth it. During Budapest’s golden era in the late 19th century, the hill on the Buda side of the Danube was quarried for rock. After the quarrying was completed, there were all these mine tunnels under the mountain. These were then converted to wine cellars because the area was then full of vineyards. The vineyards might be long gone but the cellars still remain.

 photo IMG_7853_zpsjmmcask6.jpg

On entering the cellar that Peter had selected for our trip, we each had to put on these cute capes. They would keep us warm in the 14’C cellar.

 photo IMG_7861_zpsa4nehhoo.jpg

 photo IMG_7865_zpsleiyc5gj.jpg

There are about 100km (65 miles) of cellars under the mountain. The were once all lined with huge oak barrels but also include some huge concrete barrels that could contain thousands of litres of wine. Many of the wood barrels are beautifully carved. They tell the story of the local wine industry. Unfortunately, improvements in wine technology mean that this wood carving skill is being lost as steel vats become more common than oak barrels.

The tour itself is fantastic. The guide tells us about the history of the cellars and wine production. She tells us about the wine making process. We also learn about the hazards of wine cellaring because wine can give off undetectable fumes that suffocate people in the cellars. They used to use candles on top of barrels to monitor the air quality. If the candles started to go out then it was time to evacuate the cellars. Fortunately, this was not a risk for our visit.

 photo IMG_7873_zps504qoqj1.jpg

 photo IMG_7883_zpsy8k2m4tr.jpg

 photo IMG_7885_zpslkbrigmv.jpg

After our adventure in the cellars, we catch a bus over to the Tropicarium. Both the Englishman and the Australians have children so it is an obvious place to entertain them. I enjoy the walk through the huge indoor tropical animal zoo and aquarium. There are all sorts of animals here including some small monkeys, reptiles and an alligator. There are also sharks, colourful fish and strange sea creatures that I’ve never seen before.

 photo IMG_7886_zpscd451ilf.jpg

It’s all a bit of fun.

 photo IMG_7887_zps7n0z6gpz.jpg

 photo IMG_7890_zpsk7ntprjn.jpg

But the day isn’t over with the Tropicarium. Budafok has plenty to offer so we take a walk through this quiet suburb. It’s a place of cobblestone streets and cute old buildings.

 photo IMG_7891_zpsddjgmgfm.jpg

Peter organises an impromptu visit to another cellar. This one is used to host dinner parties and celebrations, rather than storing wine. It is also home to this old concrete wine barrel. What is remarkable is the coat of arms on the outside of the barrel. It represents Hungary as it was a long time ago. The National Museum wanted to relocate the coat of arms to the museum but removing it would cause irreparable damage so it remains in this private cellar.

 photo IMG_7897_zpsxgmysx1s.jpg

After walking up to Peter’s home we all return to the Englishman’s home with its incredibly huge front door. We eat pizza and Chinese takeaway for dinner. Pizza is popular in Hungary and is readily available everywhere either by the slice or by the whole pizza. It is cheap, tasty and filling.

 photo IMG_7901_zps8htbuhef.jpg

 photo IMG_7903_zps7jzvkdny.jpg

And then my final day in Hungary is over. I catch a tram back to the city, walk across the Danube and catch the last train back to BikerCamp. The city is beautiful all lit up and I decide to come back to see this country some more.

Wandering Budapest (Central Hungary)

 photo 11692635_1622939711251488_6088200233241915644_n_zpsogdrthsz.jpg

After a late night I sleep in and don’t head into Budapest city until early afternoon. I arrange to meet with a Norwegian who I met at the bar last night. Not a romantic meet up but just a “two guys visiting a foreign city” meet up. I had planned to go to see some of the “sights” like some of Budapest’s museums but I end up hanging out with the Norwegian guy and walking around the city hanging out.

 photo 11666064_1622937341251725_1864943168826146124_n_zpszuuxdcib.jpg

There’s plenty of random things to see in any city. And Budapest is no exception. There’s this cool motorbike chained up to a lamp post that I would love to ride in real life (sorry to the owner … we did not harm).

 photo 10421539_1622935781251881_7628044985797177388_n_zpsusmleo7o.jpg

And there’s this strange tribute to Michael Jackson that we stumble across while walking through a city park. I doubt you’ll find mention of this in any guide book. There was even a lady at the tribute laying fresh flowers. I never knew Michael Jackson was so popular to Hungarians.
 photo 10414853_1622935767918549_1836243775601927174_n_zpsnhymnhlp.jpg
I did go to St Stephens Basilica though. It was amazing! Entry is free but tourists are asked to make a 200HUF ($1) donation to the upkeep of the building. I thought the building looked fantastic from the outside a month ago when I walked through Budapest for the first time. But inside it is even more amazing. The ceiling contains stunning reliefs and frescos. Photos and words cannot do it justice. It’s one of those places you just have to actually visit.

 photo 11350482_1622935834585209_5338037829712478814_n_zpse94dv6t3.jpg

 photo 11701146_1622935891251870_5438053209946772968_n_zpsl2xmqrz9.jpg

But what I like most is just wandering around seeing random sights, like this old building that is being reclaimed by nature and these rusty old gates.

At night I check out some more of the city’s gay nightlife. The Norwegian joins me on this adventure. We find a quiet lounge bar where a few people are drinking relatively cheap drinks before heading next door to a madcap karaoke bar. The karaoke bar is so camp. Some men can actually sing a bit but most probably shouldn’t apply for their respective nation’s Idol singing contests. I refrain from adding my terrible singing voice to the mix but, instead, enjoy the atmosphere. We also check out another bar with another dark cruising area out the back. In a city where a beer costs about 350-500HUF, beers here cost 600HUF and there is a minimum bar spend of 1000HUF. It’s no surprise that there are probably only about 20-25 men here (it being Sunday is probably another reason).

A grown up’s day in Budapest (Central Hungary)

Warning: This post contains adult themes. If you are likely to be offended, please skip this post and wait until the next one. Don’t say you weren’t warned. Cheers.

******

I am exhausted today. I want to sleep in but wake early dreaming of baguettes. Yes, that’s right. I was dreaming about food and lots of it. So it’s just 7am when I am already showered, dressed and walking towards the supermarket to buy some groceries for breakfast. That was the end of my sleep in.

In the mid-morning I head out to find a box to take my bicycle home. This proves challenging and I return to camp with a box that will probably be too small but will have to do in a pinch if I can’t find a better one on Monday. The short 6km return ride leaves me feeling exhausted and wanting sleep. My body feels warm and uncomfortable. Later I try to go out again to ride to the party that The Scientist is hosting. I give in after a few hundred meters again feeling like my body is overheating. The desire to lie down and close my eyes is almost desperate and I message Peter to say that I won’t be able to make the party.

But Peter is not so easily defeated and organises for the Scientist to come pick me up. It proves to be the best thing for me. In the hours that follow I am encouraged to taste some glasses of red wine from some of Hungary’s best wine regions, I eat delicious barbecue food and participate in cheerful conversation. There’s the Scientist and his wife, Peter and the Englishman from the Balaton bike ride. Then there is also an Australian family who are also from Brisbane and their Hungarian friend. It’s a wonderful evening.

When things start to wrap up at about 11pm, the Scientist’s wife offers to drive Peter, the Englishman and me to our respective homes. But the Englishman convinces her to drop them off in Budapest Centrum so she doesn’t have to drive as far and convinces me that I really should go out and experience Budapest’s nightlife on a Saturday, rather than waiting for Sunday. See, I have told him about the gay bars that they have in Budapest and how they are apparently different to those we have at home.

Now is time to block your ears and log off if you don’t like adult content and you didn’t head my first warning. Please do not complain if you read beyond this point. I have left some space so that the text so that you have to scroll a bit to get to the adult material. My story about Budapest would not be complete without telling about the following experiences.

********

Once in Budapest Centrum I walk over to the Action Bar. This is one of Budapest’s three gay venues. Action and Coxx are bars while there is another venue that is a dance party venue. The main bar at Action is relatively small. There’s a steep 1,000HUF cover charge plus a 1,200HUF minimum drinks purchase. This is probably part of the reason why it’s so quiet inside on a Saturday night.

Anyway, as I was saying, the main bar is relatively small. There is space for half a dozen guys to sit at the bar, tall tables for another half dozen guys and then benches along the walls in a corridor just off the main bar. The dozen or so men present represent the usual gay bar scene: a couple of young twinks who barely have enough whiskers to shave, a few guys in their thirties, and the rest are all men for whom the glory days of being muscular and fashionable have long since passed (alas, we will all reach this stage so I mean no disrespect in this description).

I walk into a room behind the bar. A gay porno is playing on a big screen television and some guys are sitting here looking bored. One guy is passed out drunk and another is well on his way to passing out. There’s a door at the back of this room and all is dark behind it. This is where Action Bar departs from the gay bars I am used to at home (though I’ve only been in a gay bar twice in the past decade). In the dark room men cruise along looking to see whether they can get lucky. In a corner I can see a bare backside moving and a few guys watching it. I don’t know whether its seedy, comical or businesslike. The half dozen guys just get on with the business of playing with each other without any display or emotion, desire or pleasure. Only two actually achieve climax and the others leave bored. None of the men over 35 get any action at all … they are totally ignored by the young guys and each other. It seems almost pathetic in a way that they show total disinterest in the other men their age and only have eyes for the twenty-something year old muscle boys who ignore their existence.

At 1am a siren sounds and there is a show on the stage. A semi-muscular man of about forty years old with amazing tattoos starts to dance on stage. His style reminds me of Ramone from the Sandra Bullock movie The Proposal. Slowly but not so smoothly he strips his clothes off. He doesn’t even have the fancy rip off trousers and needs to first awkwardly remove his shoes. Oddly, he is being cheered on from the sidelines by a woman who seems to be his girlfriend, which is kind of odd in a gay bar. After stripping to his g-string, the dancer takes it all off, dancing naked on stage with his excitement on show. This would get the bar owner arrested in Brisbane. After the rather amusing routine is over the dancer leaves the stage and two naked men enter. They are young and slim. The oral performance that follows is the most boring thing I’ve ever seen. The guys obviously don’t want to be there and I take my cue to leave the bar.

Batonyterenye to Budapest (Central Hungary)

The less said about my final day on the bike the better. I woke up wanting to stay in bed and couldn’t get motivated all day. So I’m just going to post some of the pics I took to show you the beautiful countryside that I will think about long after the memory of physical fatigue wears off.

 photo IMG_7809_zps60villry.jpg

 photo IMG_7811_zpsymrniypp.jpg

 photo IMG_7812_zpsjlk0dne2.jpg

 photo IMG_7814_zpsdrekpzgp.jpg

 photo IMG_7824_zpshrlrsmbv.jpg

The scenery was stunning.

 photo IMG_7815_zpsxsfxtduh.jpg

I had some sanity savers today when I was feeling low: Paul (thank you wonders of modern telephone communication), Coca Cola and Bounty bars.

 photo IMG_7823_zpsajeagvzm.jpg

I walked up all the steep hills today. It was as though Hungary was saving them for last. I had about four hills of 10 per cent and one of 15 per cent.

 photo IMG_7827_zpsmwklehmp.jpg

But then I reached the ferry across the Danube from Vac and saw lots of cycle tourers and my spirits lifted. I said hello but got no responses so they must all have been on shorter tours or not recognised me as a tourer due to my strange load.

 photo IMG_7832_zpsyuc2xztl.jpg

Riding along the Danube was lovely, as it has been every time I’ve come across it. I noticed how much I have become used to Hungary during this section of the ride. Twenty-four days ago when I left Budapest on this section of the Euro Velo 6 everything was new and odd. Now it is all familiar.

 photo IMG_7844_zpsa3ceepm2.jpg

With 8km to go I reach an area with lots of eateries and bufes. It’s a good time to stop for ice cream and a slushie on the Danube. Goodness knows it is my last day and this chance will not arise again too soon. I finally feel happy after 152km. Someone should have had a slushie machine and ice cream shop earlier. Haha

 photo IMG_7846_zpsfxnw6xup.jpg

The statues with the umbrellas are still there like they were a month ago. And I still like them a lot.

 photo IMG_7848_zpsdkhswsvp.jpg

And then the triumphant moment when I reach Parliament here in Budapest. All the stresses and frustrations of the day are gone. All the whining will soon be forgotten and the tired muscles will recover. What I will be left with are wonderful memories, amazing images and this moment standing with my bike in front of one of the world’s grandest structures.

Aggtelek to Batonterenye (Northern Hungary)

 photo IMG_7777_zpsny9gcuiq.jpg

I wake refreshed from my early night. It’s cold and the world is damp. The bivy bag did it’s job though and I am dry. As is everything that I left under the groundsheet, which I draped between the bivy and my bike as a small sort of awning. I am going to miss waking up outside when I go back home. It’s so refreshing to be out in the world from the moment I open my eyes.

 photo IMG_7780_zpsde5ye4ut.jpg

 photo IMG_7784_zpszth1jzzs.jpg

I ride out into that damp cool world taking in the views of the villages and farms. It’s a continuation of yesterday’s landscape and scenery but with more low mountains.

 photo IMG_7788_zps50hw1gfn.jpg

I reach Ozd after about 45km and am thrown from the peaceful rural atmosphere into an heavy industrial city. It’s discombobulating at first but that is eased by the shapes of the industry. I like industrial buildings. They are interesting and creepy all at once. When I was younger I wanted to work in a factory like the one in the photo above. I thought it would be really exciting. I think it also represented to me a type of strong masculinity that I longed to embody. Time has taught me otherwise though. My ex-partner worked in a factory and I learned from her that it’s just as dull as any other job with less pay and higher risks of injury. I have also come to accept that I am not a man’s man and would never truly fit into the rough and tumble of heavy industry. I’m not too refined to wear the same clothes for weeks on end but I am not tough enough for the drinking and ribbing that comes with the blokey bloke workplace.

 photo IMG_7789_zpsycouhydy.jpg

Ozd is a rough looking town too. There are lots of rectangular apartment buildings with washing hanging on balconies to dry. People look serious and tough. There are few smiles on faces. Unlike the gypsy villages, it looks like people here work but that they have to work very hard to stay above water.

 photo IMG_7790_zpshamtl3kv.jpg

But beyond Ozd the landscape becomes magical. I am riding just inside the Hungarian side of the Slovakian border. The mountains lie either side of me as the road threads from valley to valley. I had expected a lot of climbing here but am treated to miles of lonely country roads that roll smoothly.

 photo IMG_7792_zpshiocwfvk.jpg

At the end of the valleys come the inevitable climbs. As always they are long and steady. I find what might be the steepest gazetted road in Hungary at 15%. Fortunately, I get to go down this. What a contrast to my tour of Korea where 15% climbs and descents were a daily occurrence.

 photo IMG_7796_zpsh9imjj36.jpg

The climbing is beautiful though and takes me far above the “farm line”. I have huge views over the mountains and valleys across which I have spent the past week riding. Birds twitter in the forest and foxes slink across the road. I even see a huge wild boar.

 photo IMG_7801_zpshsp4jvvx.jpg

A lovely long descent takes me to a village with some old industrial buildings at its end. I don’t know what they were but I love the creepy feeling they give off. Someone could make a good horror movie here. I love the shapes and industrial contrast against the forest, which is starting to take over the industrial buildings.

 photo IMG_7805_zpsl2z1pchr.jpg

Just before my destination I ride past a lake lined with ramshackle fishing cottages. It’s like the last bastion of freedom before I reach Batonterenye, which is dominated by horrible rundown blocks of flats. Flaking render, chipped concrete, glassless windows and pot-holed streets are my main impression of this town. Again, I feel like I have made a mistake booking a room here. But I needn’t have worried. The hotel is at the end of town. It’s an old building that harks back to grander days. There’s a huge restaurant with beautifully set tables that include candles, folded napkins and wooden booths. Later I eat dinner here and enjoy huge portions of tasty food. The room is large and the bed comfortable. After my shower I wait for Paul to message and say he is free to talk but in the mean time I fall asleep for an hour. I must have been tired. There is no wifi in my room but the restaurant is comfortable and has power points near the tables. So I sit there, eat, write, work and talk with Paul.

I must say this about Hungarian people. One things they do better than almost any other culture I’ve experienced so far (except the South Koreans) is hospitality. If they work in or run a guesthouse, camping ground or restaurant they seem to take great pride in making the guest feel welcome and comfortable. It’s not fake courtesy like the US or Japan. They genuinely seem to want to be involved in this industry like the South Koreans do. I really like this. It’s no problem for me to sit in the restaurant and use the wifi. I get just enough attention to know that I will not go hungry or thirsty but not so much that I feel like I am being pushed. That’s a real art.

Tomorrow is my final day on the bike. I am both excited and sad about ending this leg of Looking for 42.

Abaujzsanto to Aggtelek (Northern Hungary)

 photo IMG_7700_zpsvz7xsapx.jpg

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.

 photo IMG_7703_zpslprlyzj6.jpg

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.

 photo IMG_7724_zpsszskdbw7.jpg

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.

 photo IMG_7707_zps0kwfd2kt.jpg

This is Hungary’s highlands and the churches look down on the population. But they do make good landmarks to show me the way.

 photo IMG_7709_zpsyedsm8md.jpg

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.

 photo IMG_7712_zps9waf12mi.jpg

 photo IMG_7717_zpsk6zy5l5j.jpg

 photo IMG_7726_zpszqwkujbs.jpg

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?)

 photo IMG_7731_zpspylobwjr.jpg

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.

 photo IMG_7734_zpswrgiotjy.jpg

The one mechanised process is baling hay. And it’s very cool to watch.

 photo IMG_7738_zpscabt6zwc.jpg

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.

 photo IMG_7755_zps7cj1cdaz.jpg

 photo IMG_7765_zpspvp5aue6.jpg

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.