I’d taken a few months off over winter, to spend time with family and also to make some money. Having found another trial to make more cash, the decision was made to fly home from Budapest. There was already no way of getting to all of the countries I’d been intending to before the end of summer, and so taking 6-8 weeks off to make money and start again seemed worth it. Even paying for my flight home, the amount I’d earn would mean I’d end up a fair bit ahead and I could change a bit of gear around.
There’d been some attempts to learn Hungarian, but it is not a language that lends itself to being picked up quickly and so I was glad to see that my German held up a little bit longer. That was easiest to see with how I found my first host. After a quick shop in Aldi, I was putting my food in my bags when a man behind me said something. I apologised in German for not being able to speak Hungarian and it turned out that was no problem as Anton was German. We spoke a little, and upon hearing that I was heading his way that night, I was immediately offered a place to stay. It would be a shorter day than I’d planned, but “why not” prevailed and so a map to his place was drawn and as easy as that I had a place, 20km down the main road. Easy.
On arrival I met Anton’s wife, Suzi, who is Hungarian. She commutes 90 minutes each way, every day, to cross the border into Austria as the salary increase is so significant even though it’s only menial labour. Anton on the other hand is retired, and so gets to spend lots of time at home with only infrequent visits back to Germany. I’m not sure if she was a bit taken back with Anton deciding to invite me, or if it was just the Hungarian way, but her attitude was definitely a contrast to Anton’s cheerfulness. Having said that, thanks to Google Translate, and having photos to share on my laptop the night went smoothly. Even with some German study, I definitely can’t entertain for a night with it.
The next day saw a visit to the historical city of Györ, which mainly seemed to consist of statues, and then riding through fields which is apparently basically most of what makes up Hungary. I took a diversion towards the end to ensure that I found some hills, breaking up the day a bit, and descended into a small town looking as usual for a place to stay. There were few people outside their houses, and it wasn’t until I was just about to leave town when I went past a couple that I could see sat eating dinner in front of what was possibly a restaurant about 30m away from the main gate. I waved to them and they opened the gate remotely to let me in. I tried to explain as always, and they explained that they were just caretakers and there was no way I could stay on the property for the night, but they probably knew somewhere I could put my tent.
The man stood up, and I let him know that I was definitely in no rush and I’d rather he didn’t let his pizza go cold instead. I could wait. He did, and then got his wife to get another plate and glass to share the pizza and wine with me. They had 2 large pizzas, and my plate was repeatedly refilled until I’d eaten more than half of one of them and I was full. At the same time, I was given wine to drink, as well as a Hungarian herbal liquor called Unicum. It basically takes like Jägermeister, but maybe a bit better. By the time that was all done, my host decided he really shouldn’t drive to show me where I could camp, and so instead he walked. You can imagine my surprise when 100m up the road we turned into a farm and I was let into the sleeping areas there. I had a couple of bedrooms, a bathroom and a stuffed head to keep me company.
The ride into Budapest wasn’t much and so before long I was at the house of my Couchsurfing hosts Kathy & Andris who I’d be staying with until I flew home 48 hours later. To make the most of my time, I almost immediately headed out again so I could join the communism-themed free walking tour. I wish I’d made notes, because I don’t remember most of it now that I’m writing this.
I do however remember an anecdote about health care. Hungary has universal health care, but it’s pretty awful and is definitely bribe based. The guide told a story of her friend who had two babies. The first one, she refused to give any bribes and by the time she went into labour she was put in a hospital ward with a huge number of other people and minimal care. The second time, she frequently paid ‘tips’ to both of the medical staff who looked after her during her pregnancy and by the time it came to giving birth she had her own private room, with constant food deliveries and a nurse sat in her room all the time to make sure everything was OK. There was also one about travel, as certain Hungarians were allowed to leave the country, and a friend and her family went to Western Europe. While there they bought a huge bunch of bananas, something that was normally only ever seen at Christmas, but when they got to the border to try to bring them back the customs wouldn’t let them enter and so her family sat down and ate about 60 bananas between 4 people. She has never eaten another one.
The following day I took a general free walking tour, and actually ended up getting to explain things. There was a Japanese business man on the tour, who was on a 10 day tour around 8 countries of Europe. He had arrived that morning and would be leaving to Bratislava the next day. His English was OK, but he had trouble understanding the guide, and so I re-worded some things so he could understand. Out of the group of about 30, I ended up with 7 who consistently asked me for my interpretation of things. Definite madness.
My favourite story was that of St Stephen, the patron saint of Hungary and it’s first king back in the year 1000 when it was founded. The version we were told is that after he had died, people wanted him to be a saint but the only way a sainthood is given is if someone has performed a miracle. He hadn’t, and so his grave was dug up and miraculously his hand was in a very different state of decomposition than the rest of him. This was claimed to be a miracle meaning he was canonised. His whole arm was stolen, and eventually bought back by someone high up in the Habsburg empire who split it in three. Upper arm, forearm and right hand. His right hand is Budapest, and the other two are in Lviv & Warsaw but I don’t remember which way round. There are alternate versions online, and it’s definitely worth a read.
For those who haven’t been, Budapest is definitely worth a visit. It’s a decent-sized city, but still manageable in a few days. My 48 hours was too short, but 4-5 days should let you see most of it. For example, I didn’t go to a Hungarian bath house, where people like to hang out and play chess, or the House of Terror, a fascinating museum about gulags. Both things I’d like to do if I were to go back.