Europe | Hungary – Wings and wheels
There are no cheap flights to anywhere east of Austria. I decided a 28 hour bus trip to Budapest was going to be unbearable, so booked a Ryan Air flight to Klagenfurt, not knowing exactly where that was.
Fortunately Klagenfurt airport is a quick 20 minute bus ride from the train station and the rest of Europe. With no hassle we were on the train to Budapest, via Vienna, due to arrive the same evening at 22:33.
The first train was unbearably hot. The windows did not open and the teenagers in our compartment smoked constantly. It was deathly still and quiet apart from the tinny beatings of my husband’s walkman and the occasional flick of a lighter. We passed identical little railway stations, all much the same, with flowers in hanging baskets. There were occasional ruins on precipices but most buildings were clean and new with windows that looked like they were painted on.
One of our fellow passengers was a young guy with an Oasis hairstyle, trendy white sunglasses on his head, an orange long sleeved shirt and not quite clean white trousers. He was drinking a can of beer that said ‘Hell’ on it, which I remembered means ‘light.’ He seemed to be giving himself acupuncture. He would bend forward with a tiny needle pressed into his eyebrow, stay very still for a length of time and then sit back, put the needle away, light a cigarette and take a swig of his beer.
I looked out of the window and decided a quote from my Lermontov book was appropriate: ‘I won’t burden you with descriptions of mountains of scenery which convey nothing, least of all to anyone who has never been there.’ I was reading ‘A Hero of our time’ as it is based in the Caucasus in the time my great grandfather was born there. The Caucasus mountains are something I probably won’t see for some time as passage there is unsafe, so for now I’m settling for tracing possible routes my great grandfather Jules might have taken when he went to Austria in the 1850s.
It is most likely Jules took the Danube all the way from the Black Sea to Vienna, although there were a few railways already in existence by 1855. You could go from Vienna to Bruck, but the railway stopped there, though you could get to Budapest (then two cities called ‘Ofen’ and ‘Pest’) via Presburg (now Bratislava).
With some advice from the Oasis Acupuncture guy, the change of stations in Vienna went smoothly and we soon found ourselves on a very different train, sharing a compartment with a Hungarian and two Israelis. The Israelis were staying in Budapest and had gone to Vienna for a day. ‘Budapest is only two and half hours [flying] from Tel Aviv,’ they said. One tends to forget that even when a country is at war people still go on holiday. In modern times anyway. They supplied some information about vegetarian eating in Budapest.
The Hungarian had very obviously dyed blonde hair. He complained about the state of the Eastern European train – ashtrays falling out of the wall, windows warped and either not opening or not closing depending on where they started, and a general state of filth and disrepair. There was Cyrillic writing everywhere; our companion was not interested in where the train came from and only said ‘I hope I never have to take this train again.’ He also hated Americans. He worked a sous chef on a boat on the Danube, travelling between Amsterdam and Vienna. The cost of a two week cruise was $4000 US. If people who can afford that were the only Americans he met no wonder he hated them. Before railways, the Danube was the most popular route of travel. Now it is a trip now reserved only for the rich.
Though his English was good he talked very fast and I found him difficult to understand. Soon I was dozing, listing to the chugga chugga of the wheels on the tracks and the sad whistle blowing. It reminded me of the distant freight trains I’d heard when I was growing up. We had no passenger trains in Ohio, only endless boxcars that we’d sit and watch from the car as we waited for the train to pass. And that sad sigh I’d hear from my bed at night. My aunt is buried near a railroad track – how appropriate as she loved to travel. And my dad is buried near a highway. It’s all about roads and tracks and wheels.
By the time we crossed the border it was dark, but I still I felt the thrill of arriving in a new country, one I’d never been to: Hungary.
Budapest Keleti station had a ceiling made of wood across iron, with glass at the top. The light was dusty and yellow like an old postcard. Even the backpackers piling on and off trains had a dusty wash over them. The air was thick and heavy. I glimpsed the three tier sleeper compartments on one of the trains – packed to the gills, like in India, with scraps of material hanging down all over the place like some kind of refugee camp in a train carriage. I shuddered to think thats where we’d be in a few days’ time.
Men stood around the money change booth making offers. The queues of backpackers dutifully ignored them. We also ignored taxi touts and caught an official looking cab outside.
Our first impressions of Budapest was that it looked like East Berlin. City streets empty at night, old grey buildings slowly being modernised and decorated with new posters.
We couldnt believe our eyes when we arrived at the botel. The awning on the gangway had 3 stars on it. Our tiny budget berths, however, were on the lower deck. There was no room to stand between 2 narrow beds. A tiny porthole looked out onto dull green water. Several spiders were already settled in but travel is no time for phobias. Luckily they soon vanished. After a cooling shower I put the reading light on and the cabin became bearable, even cosy. The only bummer was we wanted a beer and the bar had shut at 11.Still, we slept like babies in the womb, on the gently rocking Danube.