Andy in the (Not So) Far East... Hungary
One short walk across a bridge and I was in Hungary. Once upon a time this was all Hungary, the Czechoslovak border being a few miles north. Alas, the borders shifted and this town was split in two. The clean, peaceful and friendly Slovak town of Komarno and the not so clean, scrappy but just as friendly Hungarian town of Komarom. I walked into the train station and after much pointing at my Lonely Planet map obtained a train ticket to the lakeside town of Keszthely. A had an hour or two to kill so took a look through the town. I’m guessed there must be some strict gambling restrictions in Slovakia because every other building seemed to be a casino. Getting the money to gamble there can’t have been so easy though judging by the queue for what seemed the only cash machine. Worry not though, there’s little else to do in Komarom than to spend 30 minutes queuing for Forints… it was a blessing in disguise really.
As my train came I was glad to leave the freezing cold station onto the well heated train and through a sleepy 2 hour train journey to the most unpronounceable town in the world, Szekesferharvar. A short wait later and the giant intercity train from Budapest arrived. I got on and was helpfully relocated to a different carriage by the ticket inspector. Silly me, not being able to understand the Hungarian announcement that the train was to split in two! Late evening came and I arrived in Keszthely. I had no accommodation but had read it wouldn’t be hard to find a bed for the night. In the summer, this place is the destination for hordes of holiday makers. With Hungary being landlocked, the towns on Lake Balaton are prime locations in the hot summer months but seem to lay deserted to all but the locals in bleak and cold November. I left the train station and just walked. I was struggling to find all these empty guesthouses that the Lonely Planet had promised. I was beginning to panic, as I did so I bumped into an old man riding a bicycle and carrying a bucket of compost. “Hello, do you need a room?” he said. Fantastic! Unfortunately, his grasp of the English language stopped there so we conversed in broken and badly spoken German until I found out that the room was only 2500 forint (around £7) a night. We walked in awkward silence broken only by badly pronounced German statements like “es ist sehr kalt” (it’s very cold) and “Mein Hause ist un die ecke” (my house is around the corner). We eventually arrived at a grand Guesthouse that I can guess charges a hell of a lot more than 2500 forint a night in the summer. I met the old man’s wife and their dog and kitten before being escorted to my comfortable room. I wanted to explore so I promptly dumped my bags and headed out. The phrase “ghost town” kind of summed this place up really. It was 8pm but no bars or restaurants seemed to be open. I walked past a gang of scooter boys who wouldn’t have looked too out of place in South London, past the non-stop 24hour bar (which was closed) and ended up in John’s Australian Bar and Restaurant. I found it a little too ironic that I was the only English speaking person in an Aussie Bar.
The next morning I headed to Heviz, a town a few kilometres away famous for it’s natural thermal spa which has ‘healing powers’. As my transport departed Keszthely, I was the only person on the bus but it soon filled up with a tour group of very old Germans. I’ve never found a group of pensioners so sinister; I couldn’t quite work out why until it dawned on me that they were all around the age of 80. I couldn’t help but ask myself, ‘What was that kindly old lady with her knitting doing during the Holocaust?’ or ‘Where was the old man with the breathing troubles when my grandmother was fleeing Nazi occupied Belgium?’ A terrible thing to think I know. But I was tired, and the things I’d seen at Auschwitz 5 days previously were playing with my mind. I just wanted to be off that bus.
Heviz was beautiful; a rich and colourful lake steaming in the winter air. It’s temperature was 33 centigrade today, 31 centigrade warmer than the atmosphere. After fighting my way through the gangs of pensioners, feeling like I had gate crashed the filming of the next cocoon film, I took a long swim in the beautifully warm waters. This was my time to relax. Over the last week I’d drunk way too much, not got nearly enough sleep and endured two very exhausting journeys. Floating in these exquisite and calming waters I felt entirely at peace and wished I could do this every day. After a brief break for a hot dog (that being the only thing on the café menu I recognised) I swam the afternoon away as well before heading back to Keszthely. On my way out I realised I’d lost my admission ticket. The man on the gate let me out for free instead of making me pay the lost ticket charge. My faith in human nature was running high.
I was back at the guest house by 5pm. After a walk by Lake Balaton, I was at a loose end. What does someone do in a place where there’s nothing to do and nobody to see? I whiled the evening away reading, broken by another meal at John’s Aussie Bar. By 9pm I was asleep and ready for my journey to my final destination, Slovenia. I suppose I was looking forward to leaving as I was bored here and wanted to be in a city with lots of people and lots to do. But I’m glad I came. I first went to Hungary in 2002 and didn’t like it. I stayed in Budapest and did not feel comfortable in the ultra-capitalistic surroundings. I found the people rude and intimidating and the accommodation awful. But I had been in the capital city in mid-summer. My judgement on the accommodation was based solely on the bed bug ridden Yellow Submarine Hostel and the people in Budapest were probably like people in London, Paris or any other large city… just too busy to be polite. I didn’t like the in-your-faceness of Budapest which seemed to embrace Capitalism in the American way rather than the more subtle European way but that was the city’s choice and it only seems to be present in the Pest half of the city. I was foolish for judging the country on half of it’s capital. What I had learned in the past 2 days was that this was a beautiful and friendly country. I don’t think it could even begin to rival Slovakia for fondness I hold but that’s not to take away all that Hungary has to offer. I was pleased, pleased I’d disproven my judgements and found the better side to this county.
I arose bright and early. I’d told the man who owned the guest house I had to leave at 7 and he made sure he was up to give me a wake up call and say goodbye. As I left he offered me some schnapps to keep me warm. I declined but was so touched by his friendliness. We couldn’t even speak more than a few words but I can tell you he was such a fine host. A one hour bus journey later, I was in Zalaegerszeg, the place where I shot myself in the foot. I had arranged my journey and knew that there was a train I could catch in a couple of hours that would get me to the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana, by 3pm. But I was obviously in an adventurous (wreckless) mood so decided to jump on a bus to the border town of Lenti instead, deciding to walk across the border. As I got off the bus, I was not disheartened to find that no international buses left from Lenti so walked out of this rugged market town and headed off on the 4km journey to Slovenia. I assumed that there must be a town just on the other side of the border a similar distance away.
As my heart sank, it seemed that I had forgotten that assumption was the mother of all ***-ups. Looking up at the sign that said “Lendava 15km” I decided to press on realising that I had no alternative. There wasn’t a bus back to Zalaegerszeg that would get me there in time for my train so it seemed that lugging my backpack the whole way seemed the only option. I was half-heartedly poking out a thumb in the hope of hitching a lift but was having no luck. After a while, a clapped out old Lada Riva pulled up. That would have been great had it not been a police car. Two coppers and a guy in army camouflage got out and barked at me in Hungarian. As soon as they saw my British passport their manner chilled a little and they just took a few minutes to question me about what the hell I was doing here. It seemed that this on-foot-route into Slovenia wasn’t exactly a popular one. They left, without offering me a lift, and I walked to the border stopping only to buy a bar of chocolate in the desolate village of Redics.
I finally approached the border post. It was clear that this was not a pedestrian friendly route as I had to duck between lorries then push in front of a queue of cars to see the officer. He spent a good while checking my passport closely and asked a colleague for a second then a third opinion. I must have looked dodgy as hell but he eventually left his kiosk and slammed my passport on the desk of the Slovenian officer. I was pleased to have finally reached Slovenia but my day was about to get worse, a lot worse.
Continued in Slovenia...