Warm Showers in Szeged (Southern Great Plains)

I have organised a Warm Showers host tonight in Szeged so pack camp, do a few hours work, chat with my new friend and head out to explore the city. I am meeting Donat (my Warm Showers host) at 2pm so have a couple of hours to kill in town.

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Szeged has some cool statues and I walk around admiring them. There are beautiful ladies, handsome men, fierce warriors and (I think) inspirational leaders. I am quite a fan of city statues so enjoy checking them out. I won’t bore you with photos of all of them though. Just the ones I like the best (does anyone else wish they had a body like the guy with the flag?).

I go to the museum because it is showing a WWI exhibition. Now I will be honest, I don’t know what side Hungary took in that conflict but I have learned that Hungary was right in the thick of the battles with it being the main link between the East and the West. Thought I did have a read on Wikipedia and see that Hungary was on the losing side, which makes sense given the country’s history as I have been told it by Hungarians while here. Anyway, the exhibition is small but excellent. While there are no English language translations for the stories, I can feel a deep sense of loss and sadness in the display; just as I have in all the war exhibitions I’ve visited. It shows that human life is human life no matter what flag is sewn on the soldier’s arm. Within the display there is a dark room with sandbags lining the walkway. A “man” with a machine gun holds the highest position and “heads” are popping up from trenches around the room. As I walk past the machine gun it starts to “fire” and a video display shows bombs going off and flashes from gun fire. It’s the best interactive WWI exhibit I’ve seen and, thankfully, the closest I have been to a trench. I leave deeply moved by the experience.

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Back outside I visit the Heroes’ Gate, which was erected for the men who fought in WWI. The paintings inside the gate are amazing.

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I have a craving for beef and know that this meat is almost impossible to buy in Hungary at a reasonable price. But there is a McDonalds in the city centre and it has free fast wifi. So I buy lunch and call home (the wonders of Viber mean I can call home for free when I have wifi and the time difference allows). There is a group of men sitting at a table across the street drinking beer. They are dressed in super hero and Star Wars costumes. After finishing a round of beer they stand up, walk into the square and take positions. I first think they are just posing but then they capture an unsuspecting pair of girls. The girls don’t seem scared … they seem to be laughing along. A battle of good versus evil ensues with Superman the last hero standing and the other characters all laying on the ground after many “thuds” and “biffs” and “bams” are thrown their way (it’s all pulled punches not real violence). I reckon this sort of laugh should occur more often. The men then return to their table, order another round, drink it and repeat the display further down the street.

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I meet Donat outside the city hall. He’s a young guy just 19 years old and I can’t help but feel like an old man. He’s oozes cool and confidence. I met him through Warm Showers and he offered to host me for the night. Donat has just completed a month long cycle tour through Europe so he understands exactly what a cyclist needs.

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After taking me to his family’s home so I can dump my bike he takes me out to see Szeged. We walk through the main street, check out his university campus, eat cake and ice cream, and visit the big cathedral. The exterior is being renovated so it doesn’t make a pretty photo just now but inside it is fabulous.

We return to Donat’s home and meet his parents. His mother doesn’t speak English but has a way about her that means it doesn’t matter. She’s friendly, smiling and thoughtful. Donat translates as she asks me about my trip, my life and my plans. Donat’s father speaks English. He seems shy with speaking English at first but soon warms up. Later I will also meet Donat’s sister but she is at work right now.

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Donat’s mother suggests that we go to the nearby thermal baths. They are in a grand old building. Donat and I spend a few hours soaking in baths of different temperatures. This is definitely the way to go. I wish we had baths like this at home. But then again, I’d never get anything done because I’d always be there soaking in the warm water.

We end the night by eating pizza for dinner and watching a movie at Donat’s house. It’s so relaxing. I am grateful to them for their hospitality. I see a different side of Hungary than the one I have learned about from those who are struggling. This is the generous, more comfortable and confident side of the country. One that ought not be ignored or forgotten.

I fall asleep in my own private room feeling relaxed, welcomed and content.

Rest day in Szeged (Southern Great Plain)

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After days of extreme dry heat, the weather gods have decided it’s time to give us a break. It’s a about 23’C and overcast as I slide out of my bivy. Annoyingly, I am still awake too early and can’t get back to sleep. But the view of Szeged on the other side of the river is fantastic and it’s really no hardship to be up.

I jump on my bike and start to ride out of the camping to buy some bread and bananas for breakfast when the Belgian couple camping nearby call out to me. I spoke with them yesterday and they know I understand their Flemish words. I am invited to join them for breakfast. They have only two chairs but a step ladder will suffice. They share their food and I enjoy some bread, bananas and yoghurt washed down with a very delicious herbal tea. By the time I leave their camp it is 11:30am … four hours after I sat down.

I hang out at the camping ground using the wifi to knock out some work. The guy from the camping comes over with some pork and cabbage that his mother made me for lunch. It’s delicious. We talk for a few hours about his life in Hungary and his experiences of where his country has been and is going. He explains that the average wage in Hungary for an educated person is about 250-300 euros a month and that the people who mow lawns or are working to renovate the camping ground swimming pool might make 150 euros a month if they are lucky. Most young Hungarian people stay living at home for a long time (he’s in his early thirties but cannot afford to move in with his girlfriend due to financial hardship). I hear about how in 2008 the housing market crashed in Hungary. Not like in Australia where the market dropped about 10% but crashed to the extent that people like his family lost their homes and lost all their equity too. This is why there are so many houses either abandoned or for sale. Because the owners cannot afford the repayments and no one can afford to buy the houses. He has a degree in philosophy from a German university; speaks Hungarian, English and German fluently; is gregarious and generous. Yet it’s a struggle. He tells me personalities and behaviours, and how it will take 3-4 generations to overcome these effects but that the global world expects Hungary (and other former Soviet nations) to change within 1-2 generations. (I should mention that my mother told me something similar). It’s interesting and I am grateful to him for being so open about his experiences. He tells me that he is a patriot and missed Hungary while he was studying abroad. He wants a better future for his country and his countrymen. And he has decided that he will do his part by being friendly, outgoing and welcoming to foreigners so that they enjoy his country and share positive stories about their experiences. He doesn’t resent the West for being wealthy. Rather, he knows that the money we spend in his country will eventually help and that our ideas and happiness might be infectious.

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Later he invites me to dinner with his girlfriend. They take me to a fish soup restaurant. The meal is absolutely delicious and the company even more so. I just wish it wasn’t so prohibitively expensive for them to come to Australia because I’d love to show them around my country too. I can only hope to come to Hungary again to catc

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.

Orfu to Harkany (Southern Transdanubia)

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A cycle trail leads me away from Orfu and up a long climb towards Pecs. There aren’t many climbs to be ridden in Hungary but when there are, the Hungarians like to make them slow and long. They tend to start at end of the furthest slope from the summit and just follow it steadily up hill. It’s almost as though they don’t want to cut into the mountain but are trying to build a road up the cheapest way possible with the least machinery involved: just a bitumen layer no diggers. It’s quite different to the climbs in South Korea (where they obviously tried to use as little bitumen as possible by taking the steepest route uphill) and Japan (where they seemed to try to be refined by making long gentle and endless twisting ascents). The climbing is pleasant though with forest lining the road, birds singing and plenty of plant life to look at.

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Pecs comes highly recommended by Peter from Budapest. And I am in total agreement with him that this city is a delight.

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I sit in a square eating a delicious breakfast of cheese on bread rolls while watching a youth basketball competition. A man comes over to talk to me, thinking that I must be one of the other fathers. He speaks excellent English so we talk a while. I have to say this about Hungarians: when they speak English they speak it well. We talk about the basketball competition and he asks me why I chose to come to Hungary of all places for my cycle tour. I explain the story about the Hungarian backpackers in Japan and he seems satisfied. This is a common theme here among the locals: why would anyone come all the way from Australia just to see Hungary. There is a sense of incredulity about it. But I think the delays I am experiencing in posting to my blog probably show that I am thoroughly enchanted by this country and too busy experiencing it (or wearing myself out from overdoing the experiencing) to keep up to date with my writing. And that’s a good sign on a tour.

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Around the corner from the basketball games a man busks with a guitar. He plays well but keeps stopping to chat to his friends who are passing by and then changing song without actually finishing the first. It’s interesting to me because I am a huge fan of buskers and believe they (like all artists) play an important role in our society. But I am more used to professional buskers who play sets and don’t stop for social interruptions. I enjoy the few half songs he plays, throw him some coin and continue (had he played full songs I might have thrown some notes but there has to be a discount applied here … haha). I should mention that later I see another busker and he has the same distracted style (including chatting at length to the guitar player who has by now completed his work for the morning)

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The main square of Pecs is superb. Words will not do it justice. It is such an important cultural site that the local council have erected a special sign that people who have a vision impairment can use to appreciate the space. It contains 3D images of the main buildings with braille writing imposed on them. As someone who works in instructional design, I think this is a brilliant example of inclusion and communication. I spend ages in the square … partly because I am geocaching and partly because I just enjoy the experience of being there.

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Pecs was a walled city in its heyday many years ago and much of the northern wall still stands. There are turrets, tall walls and bolt holes where archers could protect the city. It’s free to walk around the castle and climb some of the turrets. We are fortunate that this castle still remains because many here in Hungary have been destroyed both through war, accident and intentional means. In some periods of Hungary’s troubled history the rulers were worried that the castles would be used by rebels as bastions so they destroyed them to protect their governance. But Pecs was largely spared or has been well restored.

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Geocaching takes me to a secret walled garden tucked in behind a section of the old city wall. Had I not known there was a geocache there I would have expected it to be private land and missed this lovely excursion.

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And these delicious mulberries.

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This sculpture in the garden speaks to me. I think it’s about balance and how delicate it is to maintain. This is one of the big lessons that I am learning in my life right now … how to feel balanced, maintain balance and have a balanced perspective of the world. I could get all philosophical but am sure you would all stop reading at that point so will restrain myself.

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Physically cycling out of Pecs is not as easy as I had hoped. I need to backtrack on a road where cyclists are prohibited but that also has no cycle path. Fortunately, there is a Decathlon outdoor and sports shop part-way along so I have some distraction (but manage to keep my wallet in my pocket – just). But once out of town the going gets more pleasant. I take in the flowers along the road and the way they move in the breeze.

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And of course there are loads of fields that create a sense of space for my mind to wander or remain still; as the case may be. Actually, this is one thing I love about Hungary: the space. There is an almost endless horizon but pleasant towns every 5-15km (3-10 miles). It’s like a metaphore for the life I find myself leading. I have long periods of solitude and space for contemplation dotted with equally wonderful periods of company and social life. The plains are when I travel. The towns when I come home. It’s a fairly perfect mix really.

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And so I pass my afternoon cycling through the fields to Harkany. Originally I came here to use the thermal baths but it turns out that the camping area is too pretty to leave (though I do duck out to buy groceries because tomorrow is Sunday and the shops will be closed). And so I enjoy an afternoon nap followed by a simple dinner cooked in the camp kitchen and a restful sleep under the stars.