1. Heading to Budapest
3. Across the mountains
4. Eger and Mezőkövesd
5. Borsodi National Park
8. Once upon a time a Greater Hungary”
Right after crossing the Danube to Hungary, the weather became rainy and dull. No more sparkling white cherry blossom trees by the road, it is time for greyish clouds! Sitting by the Danube with my friend Vookie, we eat bread and sardines to recover a bit of strength. We still have to cycle 60 kilometres before reaching Budapest. I have heard of a cycling path following the Danube all the way to Budapest but we cannot find it. Is it on the other side? I don’t know, but for now we decide to leave the road and follow a forest path. Soon the path becomes too small and too bumpy to cycle. After we awkwardly carried our bikes couple of times over the slippery trunk of fallen trees, we decide to head back to the main road. It seems to be the only way to get to Budapest.
A moment later, two policemen with moustaches and stern faces wave us to stop by the road. They ask for our passports and tell us in Hungarian that it is illegal to cycle on the road without any security jacket! Are we crazy to cycle on this road without any fluorescent jacket? I would say yes if I consider the reckless drivers overtaking us. However, I would find more logical if these drivers were the ones getting arrested for driving dangerously!
Not only this road is dangerous, but it is also pretty boring under the rain. Before night, we stop for a beer in Szentendre, a lovely town on the Danube. An hour later, we are cycling like mad men in Budapest, trying to escape the traffic of big avenues as fast as we can. We have to cross the whole city in order to reach the flat of our friend Kriszta. While cycling along the Danube in the centre of Budapest, I am once more astonished by the magic atmosphere of Budapest by night. When we finally arrived, I realised that we cycled today more than 135 kilometres.
My first day in Budapest is also my last day with Vookie. We spend the morning outside in the sun, drying our tent which was still soaked from the rainy days we endured in Slovakia. Later we head to Szechenyi thermal bath, relax in the saunas and bubbling pools and finally go back to Kriszta’s place and drink some wine together. I’m really glad I could share a bit of my journey with Vookie. Travelling with a friend is very different from travelling alone. It leaves you less time to think but it feels great to share the best and worst moments with someone. I’m thinking that I might cycle to Krakow and visit Vookie after Slovakia. I never imagined to cycle to Poland but actually why not?
Budapest is a city where I always felt good. I could write long paragraphs about the amazing architecture, the hills of Buda which offer a breathtaking panorama on the city, the wonderful thermal baths where tourists take photos of Hungarian men playing chess in the pools, but I don’t watch anymore Budapest with tourist’s eyes. I rather feel a kind of nostalgia here. The whole city remembers me of the great moments I spent here with my friends.
However, this time is a bit different and there are moments when my feelings are turned upside down. I feel unsure about my convictions, my motivation is weak and my strength is falling into pieces… I know that I should force myself to be once more alone in the nature so I would feel again the simple beauty of my travel. Since I left Brno, I kept on thinking of these moments I spent with Tina and my appetite for the road is somehow spoilt by the feeling of getting further. I keep on wondering if this is really what I want. I find the journey so unfair because right after it helps you meeting extraordinary people with whom you feel such strong connection, it then leads you further with nothing left but memories…
I also feel pretty miserable that I was so unfair with Vookie. He is my friend and he saw me sometimes grumpy and selfish, tormented by my own feelings. I acted like a spoiled kid and I’m ashamed…
Spending these few days with Kriszta moves me much more than I had imagined. I’ve spent four years living together with Kriszta and I didn’t meet her since we decided to split up. We know each other so well and yet we both know that this time it is better not to open to each other. Before leaving, I would like to tell her once more how important she is to me but that just feels stupid right now and this situation makes me understand the extent of my loneliness. I know she can see in my eyes that I still love her, but she also sees that I’m not exactly the one I use to be. I would like to tell her how I feel inside but I know it would be just useless… I’m afraid of words, they can hurt so much and for now I can’t find any word to help us. Now I should leave, go far, switch off my feelings for a moment, shut up and be alone… Yes, I should accept to follow the way I decided for myself and on the road I will smile again to life.
I spend the following days wandering the streets of Budapest and thinking. Few days ago, I received a package from France with some summer clothes and a lot of books. God knows how will I carry all this? On my last day in Budapest, I write to some couchsurfers in Eastern Hungary, and next morning at dawn, after giving a big hug to Kriszta, I leave again. For the first time this year, it is warm enough to wear my summer stuff, sandals and shorts, and I enjoy this freedom which reminds me of my hitchhiking journey, when I walked every day and whatever the weather in shorts and flip-flops. I keep on cycling in Budapest for a while, along the Danube, then uphill to the castle. Around noon, I stop by the road to talk with an architecture student who’s drawing in the street. The lightness of her smile makes me realize once more that I should forget about how I feel, continue on the road, only time will cure…
After Mulhouse, Glarus and Munich, Budapest was the very last city where I planned to stay with some friends. When I leave to continue my journey to the East, I am very excited to head to a region I never visited. Just two days ago I felt nostalgic but today the road makes me feel free, it is like music to my eyes and I keep these eyes wide open. I am crossing the world with the strange feeling that I sometimes don’t belong to it anymore. Being in movement, I feel once more in harmony with myself.
When night comes, I find a clearing in the forest by the road, pitch my tent, light on my headlamp and prepare diner in the darkness. It was so hot this afternoon that I emptied all my bottles, and as I couldn’t find any fountain by the road, I decided to buy some bottled water for the night. I didn’t know then that I mistakenly bought carbonated water. If I made a list of the most awful food I ever cooked, I would for sure add tonight dinner: an unlikely bubbling soup of dehydrated beetroots! Sitting in the darkness of the forest, I wonder how the animals walking around me can possibly be attracted by the dreadful smell of my cooking…
The following day, I am already cycling in the most mountainous region of this pancake flat country. From their gardens, gypsies shout some words I can’t understand and wave their hands. Once in the nature, the butterflies dance around me, the verge is full of colourful flowers and the air is pure until a van overtakes me and later switches off its engine because the road is slightly going downhill. It reminds me of the drivers in the Balkans …
It is so hot today that the tarmac is melting under my wheels. I rest in the shadow of a village kiosk and eat a snack. I somehow manage to split the tube of red paprika sauce all over my clothes! A moment later I am sitting by a fountain in a boxer, washing my clothes, and a grandpa comes over and starts talking to me. My Hungarian is too poor to have a real conversation but I know few words so I tell him that his country is beautiful and that I love Hungary. This is so little but I see in his eyes that it makes him very happy. People seem to appreciate a lot my efforts to say few words in Hungarian. By the end of the afternoon, as soon as the sun hides behind the hills, it is much colder. Tonight I sleep once more in the forest and prepare a couscous!
I start the next day with a 15 kilometres climb and when I reach the top of the highest road in Hungary, I finally have my breakfast in front of the panorama: Arany Aszok, bread and paprika! The road is then going downhill in the forest, I ride fast, enjoying at last the heaviness my bike. Later I cycle in a beautiful valley in direction of Eger. I stop at a village shop to buy some food. I find the people here to be very nice, smiling and willing to talk to me. They honk me when they find me later on the road. In front of the shop, a toothless grandpa stares at my map for at least five minutes, I was about to check if he’s still fine when he finally advises me for a road. This is where I was going anyway! Getting closer to Eger, I see more and more vineyards on the hills. This area is very famous for its red wine: Egri Bikavér. Many times in villages I have seen very beautiful girls. I don’t know if it’s because the sun shines today, or because of spring, or simply because this is Hungary, but I am really happy that I am not only meeting hairy village men 😉
In Eger, I cycle by the river until the small town centre. I really enjoy the atmosphere of this small city. The streets are beautiful in the low light characteristic of the end of a sunny afternoon. The buildings are very colourful; there are a lot of young people in the parks and a surprising stone minaret remaining from the ottoman invasion.
In the evening, I continue my way to Mezőkövesd, a small town south of Eger, where I am warmly welcomed by Zsuzska and her family. Zoli, the father, cooked a delicious soup. Encouraged by Zsuzska, I refill my plate trice before tasting the dessert. We talk a lot about the current situation in Hungary. Here is at least something funny I learned tonight: Dreher is a Hungarian beer company founded by Anton Dreher. They also sell beers in Southern Italy. Because the name of “Anton Dreher” doesn’t much sound Italian, the company decided to rename Anton as Antonio and display on every Italian can the signature of “Antonio Dreher”. Most Italians believe they are drinking an Italian beer so Dreher became quite popular in Italy!
After saying goodbye to Zsuzska, I leave Mezőkövesd and head south in direction of the Borsodi National Park. The park is renowned for the large variety of birds you can observe there. I’m cycling on an earthy path, whistling under the sun, riding across vivid yellow rape fields.
While the sun plays hide and seek with the clouds, the birds twirl in the sky or twitter in the bushes by the road. I am falling in love with this small paradise out of civilisation and I decide to spend the night here.
Unfortunately, not only birds seem to like my paradise. There are also tons of mosquitoes and frogs! Sitting on my bag and surrounded by my new friends, I am watching a wonderful sunset and drinking Borsodi beer before falling asleep in a bird cacophony.
At dawn, I cook noodles, then swiftly pack my stuff and continue my way across the national park. From time to time I encounter some shepherds with their flock of sheep or some cows, and when nothing attracts my attention I learn Hungarian. I’ve got a small book with couple of useful sentences in Hungarian and I try to memorize them and use them when asking for water to some grandma in her garden. In the afternoon, I come across the first village where only Romani people live. There is high unemployment in the Roma community. Their houses aren’t much looked after. In their muddy and messy courtyards, the lines of colourful clothes are waving in the wind. Most of the people hang out in the streets and the atmosphere is truly lively. There are shouts, laughs, tears but overall there is life. Despite the obvious poverty I can sense here, I feel in Gypsies an authentic appetite for life, their presence is shining. While watching them, I suddenly realise how sadly transparent some people became in places we like to call “civilized”. Seeing how lively this village is, I am suddenly angry for all narrow minded comments I heard about gypsies. I would like to tell these people that the cultural diversity is our richness, we should preserve it and we have a lot to learn from each other.
After the blast of nature I lived in the national park, it is quite a contrast to arrive in Miskolc. As usual in Hungary, it is not allowed to ride bicycle on any of the big roads and I can’t carry my bike in the stairs for pedestrians so I’m just blocked. I finally decide to carry my bike over the railways. I wonder if it is better to be smashed by a car or by a train…
Tamás, the guy who’s supposed to host me in Miskolc sent me yesterday a message which says: “you can stay at my place couple of days, I can give you a massage”. While the prospect of being given a massage by a lovely Hungarian girl is pretty appealing to me, I wonder for a moment if I should go to Tamás. A massage?!
Former mechanical engineer, Tamás is today a masseur. Spiritual, calm and sensitive personality, Tamás is like a shining soul radiating positive energy. He tells me about what he has learned when he walked alone to Santiago de Compostela, how he could find the strength to get through the disease of those he loved the most, and his desire to change his life to something better… I should admit I am sometimes puzzled when meeting very spiritual people. Their unshakable convictions about life and their perfect peacefulness tend to disturb my sceptical nature. But when I am talking with Tamás, I feel that we understand each other. His story moves me and I admire his determination to be a good person.
We also discuss about Europe. While Frenchs tend to complain about the cheap workforce coming from the East, Hungary suffers of the buyout of their companies by bigger foreign companies. In Miskolc suburb, I could see Auchan, Cora, Tesco and Decathlon. Most of the Hungarian food factories were bought by Netslé or Kraft. Danone bought also lot factories, sometimes in order to close them pretending the factory is not profitable anymore. This strategy to eradicate their competitors has direct consequences on the market, firstly it reduces the diversity of products available, and then the prices tend to go up once the company controls most of the market. Another sad example if the one of the Hungarian sugar factories which were bought and then closed by foreign companies. Nowadays the workers are unemployed and Hungary is forced to import sugar from abroad because they don’t produce any sugar anymore.
After these two days of intensive talking and cooking, I leave the greyish industrial town of Miskolc and head east for the Tokaj region, the region where is produced the prestigious Tokaj wine. I spend the first night in a field near Bocs and then continue my way from village to village near the Tisza river.
The front wind is slowing me down. In villages, many gypsies are shouting “Hallo Hallo!” and the storks stand still on the lampposts. A Roma family comes to me while I refill my bottles from the pump in front of their house. They speak to me with an amused smile but I don’t understand a single word. One by one, they all come to shake my hand and they laugh when I tell them: “Francia, Magyarország, Istanbul!”
The town of Tokaj is also pretty lovely. I buy there a litre of cheap Tokaj wine which I place directly on my bike.
Further north, in a village, a man stops his car by me and asks if there is anything he can do to help me. With a smile I thank him and tell him that I planned to cycle some more today. When he leaves I almost regret not to have accepted. I have nowhere to sleep tonight and I already cycled 90 kilometres today.
Before dusk, I turn off the road to some path and search for a place to camp above the vineyards. While going uphill on a bumpy earthy path, I fall off the bike and see that the rear wheel is moving out of its axis! How the hell is this possible? When I finish a necessary mechanical session, with my hands full of dirty grease, I push the bike uphill to a hidden spot. After eating what remained of this morning’s noodles, I sit down in the grass and contemplate the valley slowly falling into darkness. I am drinking the Tokaj wine, alone, thinking of all the wonderful people I met since I left… I love to travel alone but there are few moments like tonight that I would like to share with someone.
What a pleasure to wake up every morning, breath fresh air while eating breakfast in the sun and think that today again will be full of surprises. On the side of the road, a grandma, wrapped in her shawl, is holding a traditional milk drum. The gypsies are again shouting and waving when I cycle in their villages. Between the villages, swarms of petals swirl around me carried away by the wind. I spend my last Hungarian coins in the small shop by the road, and then sit in a field to eat something. A gypsy man comes to me for a talk and when I told him about my travel, he firmly shakes my hand, wishes me a good journey and leaves. A bit later, I meet another gypsy man who is much less friendly. He asks me for money because I took a picture of his cart. I don’t want to give him anything and I try to tell him I don’t understand what he want but he seems annoyed and his fat friend doesn’t seem much pleased either, so I just ignore them and leave.
I am close to the Slovak border now. On my map, there is no way to cross the border around here, but the wine I drunk on the road making me even more optimistic, I decide that I will manage to cross in a forest or in a field.
Some of the Hungarians I’ve met in villages seem hopeless and disheartened, as if they had lost a part of themselves in the torments of the last century, as if it was their own soul had been torn off when Hungary was divided by the treaty of Trianon after WWI. The wounds of the past are healing slowly because, in their hearts, most of the Hungarians are convinced that the history was unfair with them, that the separation of the country is a tragedy which was too quickly forgotten by other countries and especially by their neighbours. Out of Hungary, who remembers the treaty of Trianon? Except Hungarians, nobody seems to care and this is why I feel that the dismantlement of their country is nowadays something which unites Hungarians, a common feeling towards their unfair past. Looking at today’s media, Hungarians have many reasons to think that their neighbours don’t like them. Of course, I can understand that some people feel bad about the past they judge unfair, it might lead them to think their country is now in ruins compared to what it used to be. I often heard people saying that “here the roads are the worst in Europe” or that “life is so hard here”. Though, when I pronounce a couple of words in Hungarian, it is all the love and pride of a nation that shines in their eyes.
Since the fall of communism, left wing values aren’t very popular in Hungary and the Hungarian left is especially destroyed since they failed to bring the country out of the crisis. The situation seems ideal for the nationalist anti-Trianon propaganda of the Jobbik, the Hungarian extreme right. Of course, most of the Hungarians accept quietly the past as it is, but more and more people are feeling comforted by the speeches of some politicians who try to play with their feelings towards history. I’ve seen too many flags of the so called Greater Hungary on mailboxes, on cars, in garden, on houses and even on road signs. This dream of a bigger Hungary makes leaves me perplex… Yes, after the treaty of Trianon, about 3 millions of ethnic Hungarians lived in there neighbouring countries and today, there are still some areas where ethnics Hungarians are the majority (especially in Transylvania and in Slovakia along the Hungarian border), but the territory that the supporters of the Greater Hungary claim is much bigger, and nowadays Hungarians are a minority there. The Greater Hungary as depicted on the maps is actually the territory which was conquered in the 10th century when the Magyar tribes arrived in the Carpathian basin! What if the Turks wanted so bad to get back the former territory of the Ottoman Empire? And if the Italians to rebuild the Roman Empire? And the Greeks? Persians? Macedonians? Many nations had a glorious (and bloody) past but I hope so much people will soon start working together to build a better future instead of looking behind at the past…
If you want to know more about the Greater Hungary, you can read the article in Wikipedia.
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