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Hungary

 

 

16 October

 Hungary is so far, yet another surprise.

Clean modern towns and cities with the same degree of almost sterile neatness that characterises Swiss and Austrian towns. As the favoured next contender for EU membership, Hungary is a 'good thing'.

 Gyor is a small industrial city in the north near the Austrian border. It boasts a finely preserved medieval city heart, which, unfortunately, we may never know! Having struggled in the now accustomed fashion to find a suitable parking space, we locked up and jumped out, only to discover that somehow we had locked ourselves out!

 

Vehicle security in Eastern Europe is a paranoia that is generally accepted as normal (if there can be such a thing?). We have a chain that secures the front cabin, in addition to the normal door locks. The back van door then becomes the only access. Somehow we managed to close the door with an inside lock set. Having keys in hand was of no answer - remember the chained front doors...because we have never had a key to that lock ...it was probably buggered by somebody else at some other time.

 

The decision was quickly made to break-in through the back door - all that was missing was the appropriate 'jemmy bar' - Now try explaining to an auto-parts dealer that you want to borrow a tyre lever to force open your van door - in Hungarian! 

Two hours later, two very pleasant Hungarian gents happily wandered away from our van with a bottle of good wine each and we had the door open - the intervening tale is best reserved for dinner conversation! 

Tonight we are again with the 'knights of the road' in a truck stop about 30kms outside Budapest. Having had a few beers and dinner at the attached restaurant (A$29! - we love Eastern Europe!) we are confident of not being asked to move on...

 Tomorrow MUST be a better day

 

17 October

 Ever driven into a strange, very large, city in mid-morning peak hour? Add incomprehensible direction signs and  bloody cobblestones! - Never mind. We again saw more of the great city of Budapest than most of the locals have ever seen. We've crossed bridges and been on roads never designed for a campervan. Just goes to show what enterprising Australians can achieve when panic-stricken and desperate! 

Budapest again surprised us. Where did all the negative 'press' about places like this come from? Heavy pollution however spoilt yet another clear day to some extent. But not even poor conditions can diminish the wonder we feel at seeing for the first time another previously hidden gem of Eastern Europe, kept from us by the Cold War. 

We only saw the Buda part today - that is the medieval part of the city - interesting squares and the Matthias church - like that of Krakow -decorated to within an inch of its life - so different to what you expect to see in a church that sometimes you forget where you are and just wander around with your mouth agape and piety goes out the window. 

While we thought the view  from the Fishermen's Bastion over the Danube and Pest  was good, although limited by the smog - after we'd climbed 140m to the Citadella - up hundreds of steps and very steep paths - we found a view even more spectacular -  the whole of Budapest spread out before us - but STILL veiled in grey smog! If it's clear tomorrow, a return trip is in order!

(Weather wise this is our 30th day without rain during the day and probably our 28th day of sunshine! Temperatures have not fallen below 15C during the day and have mostly been well above 20C - sometimes as high as 29C! - is this October?) Why didn't we bring T-shirts and shorts suitable for “doing the town”  instead of just our old “tatties” designated for “in-van” use only?

 The countryside between Budapest and Gyor more closely approximates what we might call 'bush' than anything else we have seen. Mile after mile of heavily wooded hills. Eastern Hungary - to be seen later! - is reportedly even more akin to 'wilderness' (if such a thing exists in Europe).

 On a totally different tack, public transport in most cities, even those of the East is very easy to use. We could learn a lot from the simplicity and uniformity of their systems. Buy a ticket (finding the ticket seller is the hardest bit) find a bus/tram/metro and get on. More difficult than it sounds, but the enforced contact with the locals is what it is all about!

 Hungary is supposedly 90% ethnic Hungarian - whatever that means - given the ebb and flow of migrations and invasions through this part of the world over the last 2000 years. Our observations lead us to believe that it simply means no Asians! And what happened to the Gypsies? In fact, after a month we have not spotted a single Gypsy camp. Twelve years ago they marked the fringes of most European cities.

 People are no more distinguishable from the heterogeneous crowds one might expect to find in any Australian city - except that the lack of people of Asian descent becomes more noticeable as we go further east. At home it is now not uncommon for Asians to be Australian born and to speak and (sometimes) act much like the rest of us. Here, that form of racial integration does not seem to exist. People of African origin or those of other non-European origin are few and far between.

 Perhaps multi-culturalism is more than a glib political catch cry?

 18/19 October 

Budapest is a VERY big city. Even though the population is only somewhere around 1.6M the centre of the city (zentrum) must have developed to some extent as two cities - Buda & Pest. We must have walked 20 + kms both yesterday and the day before.

  

Yesterday we jumped a suburban train for a 20-25 km trip to the small town of Szentendre. The distance from the city diminished the haze enough to expose blue sky. The town was charming but a bit of a 'tourist trap' - stall after stall. Even this late in the season, tour groups were everywhere including the Japanese lady with the funny hat who pops up wherever we go. What must these places be like in July?

 

On the way back we saw (conveniently beside the railway track) the ancient Roman ruins of Aquincum, a garrison in Roman times - and Obuda - the old Buda, about 5 km from the current city, but there is no explanation as to why everybody moved down-river!!!. 

Margit sziget (Margaret Island) in the centre of the Danube between the two cities was a chance find as we walked back into the centre of the city. Flowers were still in full bloom, the sun bathers were out in force and we "walked the walk!"

 As we are - mostly - on foot, we are constantly confronted by beggars. All the guide books warn against giving to beggars. It's very difficult sometimes. Although we are highly suspicious of some of the more dramatic performances, there are others that make you feel guilty. The archetypal beggar is an old lady hunched on the ground, dressed in dark, tattered clothes - her face is never visible, her constantly shaking hand holds out a small plastic cup. As heartless as it sounds - they must have a dress code and a union. From London to Budapest they could be the same person!  

Contrasting with beggars, ancient Roman ruins and centuries of history is the "Hipermarket" (sic) the ubiquitous just-out-of-town experience - picture Garden City or Carindale and you have it. Handy for people like us, though.

A 'reconstructed Eastern Europe' tourist rating for Budapest? Up there, not to be missed, but not in the same league as Warsaw, Krakow or Dresden.

 Lake Balaton is the largest fresh water lake in Europe, outside Scandanavia. Two hundred kilometers around. Given the thirty day run of fine weather, we thought we were safe for an out of season visit to this "beach" resort. Wrong. Leaving Budapest, the pollution haze was the worst we have seen. Mid morning, the unthinkable. Rain.

 Our view of the lake was somewhat disappointing. However as you might expect, the sun broke through later in the afternoon, soon after we had decided to return rather than make the total, round-the-lake trip.

 What we have discovered - through sad experience - is that  European towns , which appear "small" on the map, turn into mini-Brisbanes, complete with shocking directions. Therefore, we have seen the "Zentrums" of most of the cities and towns we only intended to drive around.

 The Romanian border crossing awaits us tomorrow. We can only hope that our relatively carefree crossings to this point will be repeated at this, reputedly difficult border.

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