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Trip 3 -- Mongolia to Eastern Europe

Part 3: Hungary (6 Oct to 15 Oct 1999)

Exchange rate: US$1 = 235 Hungarian forint (HUF)

6 Oct
Train: #5115, Nyíregyháza to Miskolc
(10:40; 1h 29m; HUF 1180)
In order to get any further into Hungary, I needed to change money. Despite the abundance of newspaper kiosks and fast-food places, there was no place to do this at the train station, so I walked ten minutes into town. The area between the train station and the city center was a residential district, with small, colorful one-story houses and narrow streets arranged in a grid pattern.

It is virtually impossible to understand any Hungarian without knowing the language itself, as it has almost no words related to English. So once I got to a bank, I had no idea where to go. I stopped a young man entering the bank (I figured the youth would be more likely to know some English) and asked him where to go, and he pointed me in the right direction. They didn't change traveler's checks, and I'd used a lot of cash getting my Ukrainian visa, so I changed just a bit. (Later on I could sometimes get by in German, which many Hungarians speak.)

My first stop for sightseeing in Hungary was Eger, so when I returned to the Nyíregyháza train station after changing money, I approached a ticket window and just said the name of the city. There were no direct trains to Eger, but the lady sold me a second-class ticket to Eger anyway; she just entered the name of the city into a computer and it calculated a fare based on the distance. I figured I could use that ticket on however many trains it took to get there.

It was easy to figure out which cars were second-class: they had a large "2" painted on them, whereas first-class cars were marked by "1." The system made the cars rather less attractive than they might have been, but score a point for simplicity.

6 Oct
Bus: Miskolc to Eger
(12:45; 2h 8m; HUF 580)
The next train from Miskolc to Eger was a long way off, so I forfeited the rest of my train ticket (not a huge financial loss) and took the bus instead. Miskolc is a large, dusty city, and it was a long walk-about 20 minutes-from the train station to the bus station. Buses to Eger were much more frequent than trains, and I did not have to wait long.
6 Oct–7 Oct

Exquisite architecture; churches and a castle; the Nice Woman Valley...

Eger is a beautiful city with colorful two-story baroque buildings, attractive churches, a fortress, wine cellars, and cobblestone streets. I changed some more money and then checked in to the labyrinthine Minaret Hotel, so called because of the minaret in the adjacent square, up a narrow street from the center of town. My room (HUF 7160) was small but clean and adequate.

I spent the afternoon visiting the gorgeous baroque Minorite church (on the same square as my hotel), Eger Cathedral (a large, stately 19th-century building with dark paintings), and the outside of the 18th-century Cistercian church (the inside was under renovation). Then I walked 15 minutes west of the city center to Szépasszony-völgy, or "Nice Woman Valley," as it's translated on Eger's street signs. Here, down a steep hill and opposite a stable, are dozens of wine cellars where you can sample locally produced wine-including the Egri Bikavér (bull's blood).

I was the only visitor in the area, as far as I could tell. There were a few dozen cellars, some lavishly inviting, with musicians and outdoor dining; and some nondescript, marked by just a number. I walked to the far end of a field encircled by cellars and entered the nondescript cellar number 48. It was run by an elderly couple who spoke few words-all I could understand was the names of the wines anyway. I sampled the sweet muscat and leányka (two whites), a merlot, and the thick bull's blood, at HUF 30 per glass. The couple was very friendly and invited me to purchase a liter, and while that was tempting, I didn't feel like carrying that around.

I ate a big dinner at Fehérszarvas, a festive place featuring game dishes. I had the Hungarian-sausage sampler (with spicy peppers), bouillon with quail egg and vegetables, deer cooked in wine with frost-nipped cranberries, and, of course, more bull's blood-all for HUF 4700.

The next morning I had a buffet breakfast featuring eggs, juice, sausages, and cheese, and then I admired more of Eger's baroque buildings-particularly on Kossuth Lajos utca, a street with remnants of an old synagogue and the still-intact Franciscan church. This church was the first I'd noticed whose façade's Latin inscription in Latin highlighted the Roman numerals adding up to 1793 (the year of the church's completion). Later on in my travels, I saw many European churches that used that technique.

Then I visited Eger Castle, which dates from the 13th century. Most notable of the items on view were stoves and artifacts from 1552, when Eger was invaded by the Turks. The picture gallery had only a few Hungarian paintings (of battles against the Turks), and the mint-and-coins collection was more like a store, though it was worth the extra HUF 50 to see a 10-million-forint note dating from the days of hyperinflation.

7 Oct
Train: #5525, Eger to Füzesabony
(11:08; 21m; HUF 112)

7 Oct
Train: #595, Füzesabony to Budapest
(12:16; 1h 42; HUF 920; arrived 7m late)

Eger is not on a main railway line, so I had to take a connecting train to Füzesabony before getting on the main line to Budapest. The countryside was exquisite, with lush, rolling hills and vineyards.

7 Oct-11 Oct

Györgyné; Andi; visiting a school; museums of composers...

I was immediately enchanted by Budapest: grand buildings, wide boulevards, narrow pedestrian streets, bustling squares, trams, and the beautiful Danube River. The Pest (eastern) side is more built-up and is densely populated; the Buda (western) side is greener and has attractive hills and Buda Castle. The train left me off on the Pest side.

I walked down the busy Rákóczi út from Keleti Station almost until I reached the Danube; then I walked up the pedestrian Váci utca and had some punch-flavored ice cream (HUF 150) at Gerbeaud. I went to the Ibusz agency and arranged a home stay, which was much cheaper than a hotel; I was assigned to the home of Farkas Györgyné (that's the family name first). I also bought a Budapest Card, which allowed me unlimited transportation and free entry to many museums for three days for HUF 2950.

Györgyné was an elderly lady who lived on Markó utca, next to Parliament and the Danube, in the northern part of the city center. She spoke German, so we could communicate. My room faced the front of the building and cost me HUF 3296 per night.

I crossed the Chain Bridge to the Buda (western) side. I had a dinner of fruit soup, gypsy steak, and apricot pálinka (brandy) at the Merleg Vendéglő, a small, friendly restaurant in the city center. Then I walked through the central pedestrian area and up the wide Andrássy út, which passes through a cultural area containing the opera house, theatres, and cafés. I had a dessert of sherbet and an Apenta (a Hungarian soft drink) at the Müvész Café.

I'd met a Hungarian named Andi in 1995 while working at a summer camp in western Massachusetts, and I'd vaguely kept in touch with her by mail since then. I had tried to call her before leaving the United States, and I'd reached her mother, but as I spoke no Hungarian and hadn't thought to try German or Russian, I hadn't made any progress. So, at the Müvész Café, I asked my waitress a small favor-to call the phone number I had and try to reach Andi. She reached her mother, who explained that Andi now lived with her boyfriend; the waitress tried that number and got Andi on the phone. Andi was an English teacher of elementary-school students, and she invited me to come to her school the next morning, meet her students, and attend a music class.

So the next day I made my way to Andi's school, which is attended by students from elementary- through high-school grades. Andi had also been a student there. I waited for her in the teachers' lounge, and then she introduced me to the vice principal and to her former music teacher, who allowed me to watch his high-school class. I couldn't understand the conversation, but I got the point: They were listening to The Marriage of Figaro and writing and discussing their thoughts on what the music evoked.

Then I attended one of Andi's English classes, and I was amazed how much they had learned by the fifth grade. They warmed up with Simon Says, and then they got into a discussion of animal species and tourist attractions in Budapest. Of course they had a few questions for me as well, and they all wanted my autograph. And it was clear they all adored Andi.

Later on I visited the National Museum, whose most noteworthy attraction is the crown of St. Stephen, which dates from the 12th century. The museum also details the history of Hungary from the 12th century to 1990. I met Andi for lunch after school, and we dined at Fatál, a large, bustling place on Váci utca: bean soup with mushrooms and sausage, dumplings and goose leg, and flaming chocolate. She insisted on paying.

That night I saw My Fair Lady-it was rather amusing to watch Henry Higgins try to teach Eliza Doolittle to speak the equivalent of haute Hungarian. The performance was excellent, and it was a bargain at HUF 860. Then I met Andi and her boyfriend, István, and two of their friends. István drove us around looking for a suitable bar while Andi, an ardently patriotic Hungarian, read to us from a book in which someone explained how everyone in the world is Hungarian. We went to one excessively crowded bar and then sat upstairs at a more mellow place, where Andi taught me a word game (called Hudgy-Pudgy or some such thing) that, fortunately, can be played in English: People take turns making up two-word rhyming phrases (such as "junk skunk") and giving clues (such as "smelly animal that no longer works") so that the others can try to guess.

The former home of Hungarian composer Franz Liszt has been turned into a museum, so the next morning I got to see his two pianos and plenty of handwritten scores. Then I toured Castle Hill, a walled castle area on the Buda side with lots of museums. The Music History Museum contained an exhibit featuring scores of Béla Bartók and a collection of instruments from all over, though it wasn't as impressive as the museum in Moscow. The Museum of Commerce and Catering was an interesting, unusual place, and Matthias Church contained pretty paintings and colorful stained-glass windows.

I lunched at Fekete Holló (game ragout soup) and then took the cog-wheel railway and the children's railway (the conductors and ticket sellers are all kids) for 40 minutes through a forest. There wasn't much to do at the end of the line, but it was a beautiful ride through the Buda Hills. I returned to the city by bus and then went to the Kalamajka Táncház (dance house), where for HUF 300 I joined a mix of locals and tourists for a lesson in Hungarian folk dancing, accompanied by a live band. Not terribly hungry, I had a small snack at the Anna Café before returning to Györgyné's.

I took a pretty walk through Margaret Island-in the Danube between Buda and Pest-the next morning; it contains some pretty pathways, gardens, Roman ruins, and churches. Then I walked across the bridge to Flórián tér, in Óbuda-an area of more Roman ruins. The remains of an old synagogue were also nearby.

A more impressive synagogue, aptly named the Great Synagogue, is in central Pest; it also contains the small Jewish Museum. There's also a museum devoted to composer Zoltán Kodály, in his former home near the city park. Kodály composed my favorite opera, Háry János-it's a brilliant introduction to Hungarian folk music. After visiting these, I walked up to the park, fronted by a square and monument dedicated to the country's heroes.

After lunch (hortobágyi palacsinta, or meat pancakes) and some meat dish called Alibaba, I visited the Underground Museum, which explains the construction of the three subway lines. Most interesting was the description of the first subway line; the trains on this line are small, cute yellow trains. Transportation in Budapest, interestingly, is on the honor system-you're supposed to validate tickets before boarding trains and after boarding trams and buses. I was never checked for a ticket my whole time in Budapest, and Andi agreed that the system didn't really encourage honesty: She was still using her September pass, and here we were almost halfway through October.

Later on, I met Andi and István and we went to Andi's parents' apartment, in the southeastern reaches of Budapest. They served us duck, chicken paprikás, and wine, and Andi gave me a book on Kodály. Andi, István, and I attended a concert of Schubert, de Falla, and Tchaikovsky (HUF 800) and then to a restaurant on the Danube for dessert (I had some kind of cake with poppy seeds).

11 Oct
Train: #800, Budapest to Pécs
(6:54; 2h 48m; HUF 1530)
After leaving a note for Györgyné to explain why I was leaving so early in the morning, I made my way to Déli Station, in Buda, where I'd bought my ticket for Pécs a day earlier. I slept for most of the ride to Pécs.
11 Oct

Impressive churches; reminders of the Turks...

I didn't have much time in the youthful city of Pécs-I was there mainly to transfer to the train for Villány, a vast region of vineyards. But I did explore the richly decorated Basilica of St. Peter and its adjoining chapels and gardens, including the Jug Mausoleum (so called because of a painting of a jug found there). I also spent some time visiting the buildings of Széchenyi tér, the central square-notably the Mosque Church, which contains evidence that the building was a mosque during the Turkish occupation in the 16th century. At a small restaurant on a pedestrian street, I had game soup and breaded turkey with cheese.
11 Oct
Train: #813, Pécs to Dombóvár
(13:35; 1h 17m; HUF 218)

11 Oct
Train #8046: Dombóvár to Pécs
(15:35; 1h 17m; HUF 424; left 10m late)

Headed for what I thought was Villány, I had a very pleasant ride for just over an hour, until I realized that we were at Dombóvár-which I had remembered being in the opposite direction. I realized what had happened: Two trains had left Pécs at the same time, from the same platform, going in opposite directions! I had simply looked at the schedule and boarded a train on the correct platform, not thinking (who would?) to ask whether there might be another train on the same track waiting to depart. So I had some time to kill at Dombóvár until the next train went back to Pécs, and I learned when I bought my ticket in Dombóvár that I'd overstayed my welcome on the first train: The fare between Pécs and Villány was only HUF 218, but the fare between Pécs and Dombóvár was HUF 424. When you get on a train, the conductor just checks the station of origin and cancels the ticket; it's up to you to get off at the appropriate time.
11 Oct
Train: #826, Pécs to Villány
(17:00; 45m; HUF 218)
The train returning to Pécs was late, and it arrived in Pécs just before the next train left for Villány. I raced to buy a ticket, and, gasping as I ran for the train, I made sure to ask the attendant whether this was indeed the train for Villány!
It was an exceptionally beautiful ride through the vineyards. I had to ask where to get off, as I couldn't see the signs on the stations (many of the stations didn't even have signs). We were truly in the middle of nowhere, one of my favorite places. Stations consisted of just a shack, and between them was nothing but green.
11 Oct–12 Oct

Finding a pension; more wine cellars...

The delay did me in. I wanted to stay at the Gere pension, in the center of town (such as it were-there was basically only one main street) a kilometer or two from the train station, but the Gere was all booked up. The friendly receptionist (also the bartender, and perhaps also the chef) said to try around and perhaps come back a little later, as there was a chance that one party wouldn't make it. It was hard to determine where the pensions were, as any restaurant or bar could, theoretically, be a pension. I walked into a couple of places and was given strange looks when I asked whether they were pensions. The few places I did find were also full, and when I returned to the Gere, the receptionist said the other party had phoned and was indeed coming. But she offered to call another pension a few blocks away, the Bock pension.

It was hard to find, it was dark, and there were few street lights or street signs and lots of barking dogs (all fenced in, fortunately). It was worth the search, though: The place had just been built, and I got an immaculate room for about $25 a night. The place was also a wine-making facility, as were most buildings in Villány.

I had seen a nice-looking restaurant on the other side of the train station, but after walking the long way back to the station, I realized it was still quite a ways away, and the road was dark and eerie. So I walked back to the center of Villány, where I dined at the Oportó. I had pork stuffed with sausage and some kind of plum-in-dough dessert, and I sampled the kekoportó wine (all for HUF 1380).

I found my way back to the Bock, but I found the gate locked and there wasn't anyone around. My room was in a building at the back, so I climbed over the fence, hoping they didn't have any dogs.

The room rate included a small buffet breakfast, and then I went to the Wine Museum, which contained lots of wine-making tools and an 1895 bottle of Muscat. Then I took a bus through the vineyards (10:20; 18 minutes) to Villánykövesd, one train stop back toward Pécs. Reminiscent of Eger, Villánykövesd had two streets lined with wine cellars. The only one I could find open at this hour was Tiffan (and it wasn't really open-someone was working there and I asked whether I could sample the stuff). I had kekfrankos and Olaszriszling.

12 Oct
Train: Villány to Pécs
(12:13; 46m; HUF 218)
Before heading to the wine cellars, I had checked the schedule at the train station, so I knew to be back for the 12:13 train back to Pécs. The station in Villánykövesd was staffed by one elderly woman in a small hut, and when I tried to buy a ticket, she didn't have enough change for my bill. Another man was waiting for the train, so he bought my ticket and I reimbursed him in Pécs, after I was able to get change.
12 Oct
Train: Pécs to Nagykanizsa
(13:09; 3h 7m; HUF 1050; 7m late)
It struck me, midway through the ride to Nagykanizsa, that we were so close to Hungary's southern border; in a couple of places I could see across the river into Croatia. At one point a group of kids about 14 years old boarded the train. I remember one in particular: He was the one taking charge, showing off for the girls, mooching food from a friend, trying a cigarette, lying down on the train. There is one in every group.
12 Oct
Bus: Nagykanizsa to Hévîz
(18:20; 1h 25m; HUF 408)
It was a hefty walk into town, about 15 minutes, from the train station, and then I went straight to the bus station to catch the next bus to Hévíz. It wasn't for an hour or so, but there wasn't much to do in Nagykanizsa, so I waited it out.
12 Oct–13 Oct

A thermal lake...

In Hévíz I checked in to the Panorama Hotel, an enormous place with two buildings connected by a long corridor; the cheaper rooms were in the back building. The place was OK, even though they had the gall to charge HUF 3500 for Hungarians but HUF 4679 for me. They also couldn't get my credit card to work. I might have searched longer, but it was late and dark and I was tired and hungry-the next day I found several decent-looking places just a block or two away. I had a dinner of goose liver, fish soup, and wine at the Rózsakert.

The Panorama's buffet breakfast almost made up for its annoying policies-among all the usual breakfast goodies were pork knuckles. I took a short walk up the hill from the hotel and visited a brightly lit, recently built church, and then I hit the thermal bath (Gyógy-tó), Hévíz's major attraction. Heated naturally by a spring in a crater, the lake draws Hungarian and Austrian visitors year-round. The day I visited, the air temperature was 12 degrees Celsius, and the water temperature was 31 degrees. I don't usually take to swimming, but I stayed there a couple of hours.

13 Oct
Bus: Hévíz to Sopron
(12:30; 2h 57m; 1h 5m late)

13 Oct
Bus: Sopron to Fertőd
(16:35; 53m)

The bus to Sopron was late, so I immediately caught a bus to Fertőd, where I hoped to spend the night at the Esterházy palace, where Haydn was composer-in-residence in the late 1700s. The location of the palace wasn't immediately apparent; I thought we had reached it, but many of the buildings in the area looked rather grand. I did stay on the bus a bit too long, so I had to retrace my journey on foot for 10 minutes.
13 Oct–14 Oct

A night in the Esterházy palace...

It took a while to find the receptionist on the third floor of the castle, but I was able to spend the night, for just HUF 3300-not bad for a night in a castle. And that night there was a choral concert (HUF 900) in the palace: What better place to hear Hungarian folk songs, especially "Esti dal," which I sang in college? There wasn't much open after the concert for dinner, but I found a place to get goulash and deer.

The next morning I took a walk through the attractively laid-out, well-kept gardens, and then I toured the palace; it was ornately decorated but had undergone damage by the Russians. I tried to visit a nearby Haydn museum, but it was closed for restoration.

14 Oct
Bus: Fertőd to Sopron
(11:42; 40m; HUF 246; 3m late)

14 Oct
Bus: Sopron to Nagycenk
(12:40; 6m late)

Nagycenk is midway between Fertőd and Sopron, so there might have been a way to take just one bus from Fertőd to Nagycenk, but not knowing how to do that, I figured it would be easier to go all the way back to Sopron first. The bus from Sopron to Nagycenk was quite slow, however.
14 Oct

A palace and a train museum...

Nagycenk, a small town, had two main attractions: the Széchenyi mansion and the train museum. The mansion was once the home of the Széchenyi family; Count István Széchenyi was an important political and social figure in the early 19th century-some of his more noteworthy accomplishments included developments to Hungary's transportation system. Inside the mansion, now a museum, I viewed articles related to Széchenyi's contributions; outside, I walked along a long, straight path lined with linden trees.

Most of the train museum was outdoors; the indoor portions were closed. There were still plenty of locomotives on display, though.

14 Oct
Bus: Nagycenk to Sopron
Having visited the museum, I just missed a bus back to Sopron, so I had an hour to wait for the next one. I walked up and down the main residential street of Nagycenk and then bought some sausage, indicating how much I wanted by pressing down on the scale until the pointer showed the desired amount. Then I stood at the bus stop and snacked.
14 Oct-15 Oct

A most bizarre pension room; a fascinating old city; Chicago...

And so I entered Sopron for the third time-I'd been there twice but spent no more than 15 minutes. This time I was there to tour.

I wanted to leave early the next morning for Vienna, so I wanted to stay near the train station. I found the Panzio Bianco, very close to the station; there was only one room available, and for only HUF 900! It was, by far, the most bizarre place I've ever spent a night. The room was in the attic and reached by a ladder; the walls sloped; the toilet was not in a separate room but rather behind a curtain; the bed was simply a futon on the floor; the light switch was a piece of string; and various odds and ends filled the room.

Then I explored some of the attractions in this very attractive, artsy city. I started at the Fabricius House, a museum whose rooms are laid out as they were in the 17th and 18th centuries. Most interesting was the kitchen, with antique utensils and cookery. There were attendants in each room; one of them took a break from her crossword puzzle to give me a flower. I also visited the Goat Church and wandered the streets of the old inner city, admiring the ancient buildings. I checked out a wine cellar (take 'em in while you can), sampling the vegyes Tramini and Riesling and having a snack, and then I walked to the Petöfi Theatre for a performance of Chicago. When I approached the ticket window to buy my HUF 800 ticket, I was shocked to be asked to buy instead from a patron in the lobby who had an extra ticket. Chicago was well-performed, with a good orchestra; I noted that "razzle-dazzle" translated into Hungarian as "hocus-pocus." I had dinner in a nearby downstairs restaurant and then retired to my attic lodging. Go on to part 4