#14 Western Hungary
The pedaling conversation on our last day in Austria quickly had us re-experiencing our shock at the previous night’s story from the husband of our B&B host. He had been a long-haul driver who clearly wanted to relive his traveling days by swapping stories with us—at least as best could be done in German. He told of driving into Saudi Arabia in the 1970’s where only 2 headlights were allowed on trucks even though European trucks were required to have 4 headlights. Rules are rules so the Saudi border guards systematically smashed or removed the second pair of lights from every truck, including his. He showed us faded, forbidden photos he took on the sly of a “corrected” truck and a pile of headlights at a guard station. We assume this little problem has been worked out since then but it still astounded us that it ever went on. Along with enjoying the absurdity of it all, his story once again underscored how rapidly the world has changed in the last few decades and how much easier our traveling is because of it.
Talking with him also reinforced a few things that I had been noticing about European long haul drivers. The first is that is seems to be a young man’s profession as most of the drivers we see are in their 20’s and 30’s and he too must have changed to his local driving job in his 30’s. Secondly, the truckers don’t seem to cultivate the rough, gruff and impatient-on-the-road image of which US truckers seem so proud. We never feel like a Euro trucker is “teaching us a lesson” about whose road it is as one can feel from some US truckers, even in an auto. Euro truckers definitely share the road with us and will creep along at our speed, backing up traffic behind them as long as is necessary without a peep out of their horn or any display of aggressiveness.
And this big burly guy who is quick to smile certainly has the “teddy bear” image that seems to be a part of the Euro trucker’s world. Clusters of little teddy bears are a frequent sight on truck dashboards and I recently saw one trucker with an almost people-sized teddy bear grinning from the passenger seat next to him—quite a contrast to the frequently seen mud-flap pin-up girl silhouettes in the States. These guys all have name plates with first name prominently displayed on their windshields. They display award ribbons around their rear view mirrors and a few will have “Truck of the Year for 19xx” on the outside of their cab. They are clearly proud of their profession yet don’t have a need to be bullies. And the drivers we saw taking a lunch break at an Austrian border rest stop looked like they were dressed for a weekend in the backyard in their baggy old shorts, T-shirts and slip-on sandals—not exactly the US truck-stop garb.
The Koszeg, Hungary Area 7/10/03
-First Encounters in Hungary-
Our first road sign listing the rules in Hungary won us over right away as talking on the cell phone while driving is illegal—a law that will make the roads a little safer for us. We always cringe to see that one of the drivers in a tight road situation (passing, construction work, etc) is talking on a cell phone as we know they have less attention to devote to us. (We were also pleased to later learn that Hungary has a zero tolerance for drinking and driving.) And only moments across the border we were riding on a dedicated bike path paralleling the road—a great start in a new country. Before we could wonder how much farther to our turn-off we spotted a bike route sign directing us towards our destination town, which made Map Man look really good. We passed numerous bike route signs our first hours in Hungary with some being dedicated paths and others pointing the way to quieter roads. Our only disappointment was the lack of ATM’s on our route until we rolled into town for the night as we would have loved a little cultural immersion in a village market or café but lacked both the local currency and the needed language skills.
The first little village we rode through was a bit meager, but the homes and grounds were strikingly neat and tidy. Everything looked old and worn: the kid’s clothes, adult and kids bikes, and the homes. And the people certainly lacked the exuberance and contented look of Austrians but they also weren’t fearful and withdrawing like some of the rural Czech’s we encountered when first visiting their country.
Map Man had carefully chosen Koszeg as our first night’s destination as it was a small enough town to be easy to navigate but touristy enough to have a couple of hotels. The prevalent sloughing exterior stucco work was evident as a familiar marker for deferred maintenance but it looked like most of the owners were stabilizing the situation. Many of the sagging tile roofs had recently been patched, a few buildings had been renovated and the town was neat as a pin. There was absolutely no litter and not even the usual amount of dust in the streets. Though we have yet to see a street sweeper with their enormous twig brooms they clearly take their job seriously. Buildings didn’t have window boxes of flowers but there were several splashy flower plantings around the town square
Our first day of riding to Koszeg was a bit of a surprise as we expected the route to be flat as we entered the Great Plains of Hungary but instead we were accumulating elevation gain like a moderate ‘in the mountains’ day. We had frequent ¼ mile stretches of 10-15% grade as we climbed up and over successive valley walls. We picked up 2600’ in elevation gain that day and yet the following day’s gain was less than 200’—even less than the 500’ we consider a flat day on German river routes. Later we saw a topographic map of Hungary and realized our flat day had only been in the Little Plain and our planned route through the country was going to be traversing its hills and not THE plain unless we rode east of Budapest.
The next day, our first full day in Hungary, was a good reminder about the wisdom of keeping the initial couple of days in a new country slow-paced. Our frustration was triggered as we walked back and forth too many times looking for the tourist information office only to finally discover that it had moved. Next on the list was to visit 2 very small museums before leaving town in the morning. When we were looking for one museum’s entrance, the gatekeeper’s gestures and Hungarian words lead us out the door and eventually ended up where we began—after doing a complete loop around the castle. Instead, we should have gone in a different door, up the stairs, and then looped around to the cashier’s window. Another person’s directions in German also had us wandering around looking for the museum, tugging on doors that in hindsight were probably private residences.
And then there was the English speaking info person who never did understand that we were asking about holidays in the month of July which would cause museums and markets to close. Instead, she kept telling us that the only special events in her town in July were in Hungarian, not English. (And a day later: we asked about changes in the country due to the impending EU membership and the young woman kept telling us where we could change our Euro’s to their currency.) We had to take more than a few deep breathes and remember not to get discouraged, not to give up on these individual pursuits. Experience tells us that settling into the ways of a new culture takes time and that these strings of events will get shorter as we have more experience with the country.
We had expected to leave our frustrations in Koszeg but later in the morning we discovered that the installer with the truck load of “dead end” road signs didn’t make it out of the shop one day—we tested out several unmarked dead-end roads as Map Man valiantly tried to find the paved road shown on his map. It certainly added a very physical reminder of the barriers we were feeling to ‘getting going’ in Hungary.
And in our destination town for night #2 in Hungary we had some surprises. Our apparently too-outdated guide book had optimistic prices and hours of operation. We missed 2 our 3 late afternoon activities (and had the gate locked behind us on the 1st one) because places were closing 1-2 hours earlier than stated in our guide book. The incredibly cheap museums listed in our book had increased their prices from 3-5 times. And we were disappointed to discover that lodging is no longer a steal in Hungary. Like Slovenia, the accommodation prices are close to that of their EU neighbors but not up to the same standards.
The few young Hungarians we have spoken with in English are clearly proud of their country as we are quickly asked if we find their town or country beautiful. Though our few hours in the country made it too soon for us to spontaneously pronounce such a judgment, other nationals have already conditioned us to quickly and enthusiastically respond “Yes” without much consideration.
But despite our knee jerk response, we can already see that they do have much to be proud of. The Hungarians for the most part appear relatively unscathed after living under the weight of communism for decades. Unlike the rural and small town Czech’s, the Hungarians aren’t fearful of being around us as foreigners. They certainly stare but are quick to respond to our “Hello” and don’t retreat. Like the Poles, they seemed to have survived the ordeal without becoming so deeply scarred as the Czech’s.
And the look of the homes and villages reflects pride and confidence. Deferred maintenance is a problem here as elsewhere in Eastern Block central Europe but it appears that the Hungarians are working hard to arrest the decay. Most buildings haven’t been spiffed up but they look like they have been stabilized. We don’t find ourselves taking a second look to see if occupied buildings are abandoned in as in Czech Republic And our general impression as we roll through a village (or explore its dead-end streets) is that the level of prosperity is on the rise. It looks like they may still be strapped for the cash for home improvement projects but that they have the time and enthusiasm to maintain what they have.
And the Hungarians can be very proud of the litter free environment they have created. As I scan the streets, parking lots and rural roads there is a complete absence of plastic bags decorating wire fences; free-lance roadside dumping of tires, washing machines, and toilets; and even cigarette wrappers and beverage containers. It looks like littering on any level just isn’t done here.
-“Cheap to build and impossible to maintain.”-
That great line popped out of Bill’s mouth as we lunched in the neat-as-a-pin but disintegrating-around-us bus shelter. This metal-framed shelter was built with a fibrous press board on the ceiling and lower half of the walls where they contacted the concrete slab. Glass was used in the upper half of the walls. Predictably, the fiber board was not holding up to the outdoor challenges and was fraying and disintegrating around the edges. Many of the glass panes were missing. But aside from being trashy looking, it was quite clean. There was no litter in the corners and no chunks of the sloughing glass or fiberboard—it looked freshly and thoroughly swept. The Soviets were notorious for building and not maintaining (even their submarines), and not building to be maintained. And though the Hungarians inherited the Soviet’s buildings they do not seem to have taken on the disregard for maintenance. Like with the homes, I suspect they are too cash-strapped for major repairs and upgrades but they actively tidy-up what they have.
|A public shelter in eastern Austria.||Our fiberboard wonder in Hungary.|
Every region has pivotal events—events that are intentionally kept alive in the collective memory. Previously we learned that the Thirty Years War in the early 1600’s was remembered as a pivotal event in northern European countries (though for us it was only 1 of many in a long list of European wars.) And THE remembered event in this more central region of Europe is clearly the series of Turkish invasions and occupations from the mid 1400’s until the end of the 1600’s.
We visited the great armory in the eastern Austrian town of Graz that was built specifically for their defense against the Turkish incursions and read that some of their anti-Turk defensive walls weren’t dismantled until the 1880’s, long after that empire ceased to be a threat this far north. When in Vienna more than a year ago a large museum exhibit told the story of the 2 great Turkish sieges they endured (and nearly lost). And in Koszeg, our first overnight stop in Hungary, the Turks were again the center of historical attention. Other events paled in comparison to the fear of the Turks. And Koszeg continues to celebrates their local hero’s achievements in battle against and in negotiation with the Turks every single day with a ringing of the cathedral’s bells at 11 am, the time at which the Turks departed from their city back in 1532—talk about keeping the memory alive!
We assume that the Soviet influence suppressed some expression of regional history as we have already seen several recently done plaques commemorating old events. One was a memento to those lost in WWII. In the European countries that were not under the Soviet sphere the WWII memorials are as prominent as the WWI and usually list the names of all the fallen soldiers from the town or village. But in the former Eastern Block countries the WWII memorials are often missing. In Koszeg we spotted the WWI plaque with the soldier’s names but only an acknowledgement of WWII without the accompanying list. And on the road one day we turned into a driveway to check out a large plaque dated from 2001. It was commemorating the execution of 14 generals involved in a bid for independence back in 1849 (yup, 1849) and included small photos of each general transferred onto a ceramic tile as is common in European memorials.
Like Slovenia, there does seem to be some lingering paranoia about theft in Hungary that we assume is residue from the communist years. The first couple of churches we entered were gated off just inside the door. We have occasionally seen that in Europe, but by far most churches are open many hours a day to wander through.
And our first museum experience in Hungary was like so many in the Czech Republic where we were escorted through and not allowed to visit the exhibits on our own. Our escort offered no information and only watched us. We weren’t even allowed to set down our stack of glossy brochures from the tourist info office but had to keep them with us during our visit.
In Hungary as in Slovenia, people keep the hotel room and hallway windows buttoned-up. In the first minutes in a hotel room I can be found opening up the all the windows I have access to as the rooms and corridors are often still and stuffy. I always thought the German’s and Austrian’s were a little excessive in flinging open all their windows, even in freezing temperatures. But I feel like one of their kin as I urgently bustle about to air out the stale rooms. I assume keeping the windows closed is an extension of the habit of keeping the doors locked and not a concern about drafts as we saw in Turkey even in the wilting heat.
The dogs we see have suddenly gotten bigger as we entered Hungary and we presume it is for greater presence as guard dogs, though there isn’t seemingly a guard dog on every homestead as in parts of Poland. (Fortunately, the dogs are all very well behaved and don’t bother with us.) Yet despite this seeming concern about keeping tight control on property, the honor system is alive and well when it comes to buying home grown flowers by the stem: a can with a slit in the lid is left out on the sidewalk with the flowers for payment of stems taken. And we don’t see evidence of vandalism as we wander about.
Yes, even comparisons with Greece pop into my ever-busy mind. The almost Slavic-looking Hungarian language that is really a branch of Finnish is almost as unpronounceable to us as Greek. Using the familiar Latin alphabet of course is a big help in reading though doesn’t get us far at this stage of stumbling to speak as we seem to be arrested at “Hello”.
But as we stood in the shade at a crossroads and I carefully read off the endless jumble of letters to Bill to compare with the town names on his map we were thrilled to again get a perfect match. I instantly remembered that such agreement would never happen to us in Greece with its couple of alphabets and 2-3 different spellings of many proper nouns. In Greece, we would often settle for anything close, in Hungary it looks like we’ll be operating with a higher standard. And it was only a couple of hours later that that observation mattered as we ran into a series of towns that all had the same first 8 letters but were differentiated by the last 4-5 letters in their names.
And of course, the litter that was so notorious in Greece and central and southern Italy is absent here in Hungary. It’s refreshing to see that a consciousness about the visible environment doesn’t necessarily come after attaining a high level of affluence.
Work animals aren’t as evident on the streets of Hungary as they were in Greece, but we did encounter a draft horse pulling a partially loaded wagon and 2 men as we crossed a town intersection. And we see plenty of signs banning them and tractors from certain roads.
The Lake Balaton Region
Our guide book dutifully lists museums and sights to see along our circuitous route to Budapest and we have been picking out what looks like the best of fairly meager offerings. Not surprisingly, these haven’t been sterling sights but have added little bits and pieces to our emerging sense of Hungary. We’ve taken in several town museums; a couple of ‘skansens’ of relocated traditional farm buildings; but missed the shoe museum because of a noon closing on Saturday’s. Our visit to the Oil Museum is by far the most memorable.
Our guide book and brochure didn’t give us a clue as what to expect but the Oil Museum turned out to be a large outdoor display of out-of-service oil drilling equipment used by Hungary since the 1930’s. There were oil well caps; dozens of gear-headed rock boring bits; stacks of long, large diameter pipes; pumps of all sorts; platforms and other rigs all placed about like pieces in a sculpture garden. Some were thickly coated with brightly colored paint and others were suffering from varying degrees of rust and decay. Maybe it was the end of the day fatigue, but we were both soon in giggles as we struggled to understand why this exhibition even existed. In our travels we’ve been to some museums smaller than some people’s bathrooms, seen some with precious little on display, and been in some that made us wish we had used our time another way but this is the first that left us asking “Why did they do this?”
The exhibit certainly had a ‘display’ and not an ‘educate’ focus. There were several indoor, coin-operated moving models of equipment but in or out there was little explanation of how the equipment was used or why it was significant. Most pieces were labeled in Hungarian and German or English but few had dates on them--it seemed mostly to be a memorial garden of drilling equipment. My struggle to make sense of it lead me down the nationalist path: perhaps it was to inspire young communist students to study hard or inspire them to be good workers or perhaps to publicly display the physically massive accomplishments of the society. Bill’s best take was that the big equipment and bright colors would dazzle 8 year olds but his theory lacked support as there were none to be seen on this Saturday afternoon. But driven by being compulsive, high-performance museum goers we couldn’t just turn our backs and walk away—we had to wander through the entire exhibit, albeit with our mouths agape and our heads shaking in disbelief at the whole affair.
Skansens are outdoor museums of relocated traditional European farm homes, mostly from the 1800’s, and they are one of the tourist sights we always take-in if available. After you’ve been to a few they do start to look alike but we always learn something new and the regional variations are interesting to watch for. One of the lessons that has really hit home from our most recent Hungarian skansen visits is what low-yield activities most people have survived on up until the 20th century.
The idea of raising pigeons for food when they are so small and require so much preparation for so little meat is one of many examples that makes me cringe. And the next time you look at a flax seed (the size of sesame seeds) imagine banging away on a pile of them with a crude wooden mallet in a wooden bowl as the first of several steps for pressing oil out of them. My mind is boggled by the thought of how many hundreds or thousands of seeds it takes just to wet-down all of the various working surfaces before you can even start collecting a perceivable amount of oil.
In the Dolomite region it was common for each farm or homestead to have its own water-powered grinding mill, instead of enjoying the efficiencies of sharing a larger, community mill. And until early in the 20th century, most of the farmers in this part of Europe were still raising flax and weaving their own cloth.
Bill turned up his nose at the small Hungarian nectarines in the market as being too puny, but I am sure that the large, plump fruit that we take as the norm is historically the exception. It is only in our life time that hybridization has given us such large fruits of so many varieties. And we see these bulging grains ready for harvest in the fields we ride by and imagine that such robust crops are very new in the thousands of year’s history of cereal cultivation.
The book that probably doesn’t exist that I’d love to read is one that compares life on the farms both in the valleys and in the hills of Europe versus life on the valley farms and in the hill farms of the US. Unconsciously we have used our understanding of the settling of the American West as a foundation for learning about European farm life and rural settlements, but we are now questioning the appropriateness of that American model for Europe.
I suspect that a higher percentage of European farmers were much more isolated and had less access to purchased goods than American farmers at any given point in time. Early in the development of the US there was a huge, sustained effort in developing the infrastructure with things like the Pony Express for mail, the railroads, telephone and eventually electrical lines which all served to link people together. In contrast, even in the late 1800’s some European governments were still using the strategy of NOT building roads as a very deliberate means of suppressing and controlling their populations. And tiny farm homes with dirt floors, no electricity and no running water were the norm here at least until WWII.
The musings about the Oil Museum and skansen exhibitions dramatically shifted as we approached Lake Balaton. Balaton is the largest and warmest lake in Central Europe and it has been a resort area since the mid-1700’s. In addition to the lake there are many thermal springs in the area, each with its own list of the healing properties, so the district draws a broad group of vacationers. And though we entered Hungary with our key destination, Budapest, almost due east of us, Map Man took us south first to visit Lake Balaton and to see a little more of the countryside along the way.
When we turned the corner onto a more major road the immediate change in the license plates told us we were heading for a very touristy area that was not just for Hungarians as we thought. The German license plates quickly outnumbered the Hungarians and they often appeared to be traveling in groups of a half dozen to a dozen cars. We also spotted a few plates from nearby Austria and representatives from Italy, the Czech Republic, Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden. It was by far the most diverse crowd on the roadways that we have experienced. Map Man sighed as he felt a route change coming to give us a more Hungarian experience and less of a standardized tourist experience. We also worried about highly inflated lodging prices with all of these wealthy western and northern Europeans arriving in droves.
We decided to press on to the Lake despite our new concerns. The look at the western end of the lake area is like that of the spa district we visited in the Czech Republic—all of a sudden the large old buildings speak of a loftier history than those in the surrounding towns. Fine old estate-like mansions though past their prime still radiate their grandeur with spacious grounds, higher wrought iron fences and more decorative stone or plaster work on their facades. And the bustle of people around these historic spa districts always has a more prosperous and international flair than the neighboring villages.
As we traveled a little farther east along the northern shore of Lake Balaton the ambiance quickly shifted from haughty treatment-springs spas, to family vacationers. The 50 mile-long lake and its environs seemed to easily absorb the crowds of Hungarian and international tourists. Instead of being strip-cities of 4 & 5 star hotels as I had feared, the area was sprinkled with villages plump with family-oriented B&B’s. The village sidewalks were always littered with swimsuit-wearing beach goers with inflated air mattresses and beach mats under their arms.
And instead of the swarm of international tourists making our lives miserable, they enhanced our experience. There are so many German speaking guests to the area that many of the signs are in German, making it easier for us to navigate and the B&B owners also speak at least some German. Being able to chit-chat a bit in German made it easier for us to engage with our Hungarian hosts--much more so than we had been able to elsewhere. And amazingly, the lodging prices in this resort district were lower, not higher, than our previous nights in Hungary.
A thatched roof on a commercial building.
At one of our $26/night Lake Balaton rooms, our B&B host’s were raising a few chickens (with a mute rooster); were very proud of their charming and ribbon-winning Australian sheep dog; had several loaded fruit trees and grape vines and a nursery’s worth of beautiful outdoor plants. This was all on a small but intensely used urban lot. Their biggest house plants—really trees—summered on their porch and spent the winters in a nearby hotel’s lobby. The towels in our room were scrawny as they often are in Eastern Europe; they didn’t provide a bar of soap in the room and wanted to be paid in Euro’s and not the local currency. All of these carefully crafted decisions and high-yield hobbies reminded us a bit of the Croatian urban dwellers industriously supplementing their quality of life and income from their home activities. It was a fascinating mix of frugality and indulgence and I suspect that by living in a resort area that they had learned how to maneuver to have more luxuries than the other Hungarians at their income level, especially during the communist years.
Our attention quickly shifted from the little peek into the home life of our enterprising B&B hosts to admiring the celebration of the past in the new or newly remodeled homes around Lake Balaton. So often when the old is cast-off it has to suffer a long period of rejection before it can enjoy a revival but we found that is not true of thatched roofs on the Lake. We rode by villages with a scruffy, old and partially moss-covered thatched roof building here and there and also along large hillside homes boasting a beautiful new thatched roof. We loved watching for them as we rode the rolling hillsides. The thatcher’s are clearly strutting their stuff as these roofs had complex curves flowing around dormer windows and are beautifully done. I imagine they still pose a fire hazard but these foot-thick, slightly glistening roofs are a feast for the eyes and we enjoy their owner’s ability to celebrate their heritage.
In addition to the luscious thatched roofs, I’ll remember this part of western Hungary for the storks. We were feeling smug for seeing a stork or stork’s nest almost every day since leaving Austria and entering Hungary and had seen our first juveniles this year. Then one day we happened across 4-5 nests, each with 2 or more juveniles puttering around. It was a pushing the 100˚F mark and several sets of them had their backs to the sun and beaks apart, presumably to cool off.
Young storks apparently hang-out with their folks until migration time in the fall and they look like they are under stern orders not to leave the nest alone. They have that “all dressed up but no where to go” look about them as they patiently hang out in the nest.
We enjoyed watching ‘a day in the life of a stork’ as the kids paced around and poked at each other now and then, an adult regurgitated and fed the eager teen-agers, and saw one youngster carefully back-up with his rear-end over the end of the nest to poop (which gives new meaning to ‘poop deck’ as an urban platform had a large disk under a nest). And one parent flew off and sat on a nearby roof and watched from afar—seemingly having had enough of the juveniles fussing about in the crowded nest.
|Cooling-off their way.||Cooling-off our way (we ate a whole watermelon).|
Our First Hungarian City: Veszprem
-A New Region-
It only took the few minutes that I spent standing at an intersection near Veszprem’s town center (while Bill located us on our small map) to recognize that we were now in our 3rd region of Hungary. I could now understand that the first region had been the small towns and villages from the Austrian border to the Lake Balaton region. The western villages were a bit meager and had only a subtle sense overlay of their former way of life under communism but gave us a sense of rural and small-town life in Hungary.
Our second region, the Lake Balaton area, was quite different as it is both an historic and a currently very popular tourist area. The infusion of hundreds of years of tourism money into the region shows. The residents are used to having more, to having nicer things and enjoy the prosperity that foreign tourists bring them.
Veszprem on the other hand is a city: it has the bustle and sense of self-importance that we hadn’t noticed elsewhere in Hungary. I definitely felt like I had arrived from the countryside and that I was going to need to step-up the pace here. Even though it is only a city of about 80,000, there was more to gawk at as the buildings were noticeable bigger and better restored and we’d have to pay more attention crossing the streets on foot.
Though Veszprem has some stunning baroque and neoclassical buildings, like most of Hungary it has no medieval era forts or buildings. Most of the older buildings in the country were destroyed either during the Turkish invasions in the 1400-1600’s or from the blowing-up of anything defensive by the Hapsburgs in 1849 in retaliation for the Hungarian’s bid for independence. So Veszprem’s old buildings all date from the 1700’s or later and is a little thin when it comes to tourist attractions. We quickly learned how inconsequential their treasures were to us—things like “the oldest fragment of a marble Renaissance alter in Hungary” and “the best Italian Renaissance workmanship in Hungary” don’t make it on anybody’s “Top 10” list.
-Sense of Well-Being-
After setting aside our sightseeing disappointments we did realize that being in the different ambiance of Veszprem underscored that we have had absolutely no concerns about our personal safety or the security of our belongings while in Hungary. The pick pocketing and car theft issues aren’t a problem for us and we haven’t seen anything to make us concerned about crime.
Though not concerned for our safety, we do notice that we have a slight edginess here. Not edgy enough to be aware of it moment to moment but only when the literal and figurative noise level around me drops do I realize that it is there. Bill said he was noticing the same thing in himself. In the Czech Republic the guardedness of the people and the shabbiness of the towns triggered that reaction in us in a big way, though it is much more subtle in Hungary so far.
It’s a small feeling that is hard to describe. When one is in a room that is decorated in a pleasing way and the temperature and sounds and the commotion level suits you in the moment, there can be a deep sense of well being and ease—the habitual tensions in your mind and body let go and you feel very calm. Being on the streets of many of the small towns in Austria has an analogous ambience that makes us happy and at ease just being there. In contrast, being in the Czech Republic creates an edginess that is like being in a room where the music is too loud, there is too much clutter and the colors clash—your body tenses instead of relaxing. Hungary is in between—the effect on us is just enough that we don’t quite relax and yet aren’t really aware of it at the moment. It will be interesting to see if that bit of uneasiness or tension in us drops away as we become more accustomed to the look and feel of Hungary or if it lingers on as it did in parts of the Czech Republic.
-Biking in Hungary-
Though being in Hungary has triggered a little tension in us, the biking in western Hungary is very pleasant. It is mostly gently rolling countryside with occasional flat stretches and occasional but short grades. Our daily mileage has almost doubled because of the easier terrain. River riding can be boring as we are often riding in a narrow corridor without any expansive views but Hungary definitely isn’t river riding and we get plenty of broad sweeps of the countryside. Much of the land is agricultural with thirsty, droopy-headed sunflowers, short stalks of corn, and huge fields of grain being our constant companions. We enjoy the always-changing scenery and the up-close look at the small towns and villages. The occasional miles and miles long bike lanes and existence of some bike routes makes the riding easy. The drivers aren’t as kind to us on the road as in other countries but fortunately we haven’t spent much time on busy roads (thanks Map Man).
“Be Like Lance”
In 2001, we saw several stages of the Tour de France in person but concluded that it was actually better seen on TV. In person, you wait all day to see the guys fly by in a flash and get none of the commentary about the all-important, unfolding race strategies. So, in 2002 we didn’t bother going to see the Tour de France, but unfortunately never saw any of it on TV either. 2003 is only a little better as we saw our first TV coverage with very snowy reception in black & white with Hungarian commentary.
Bill tweaked the TV controls enough put a little a color onto the screen and we were finally able to spot the familiar US Postal jersey’s through the fuzz. By chance, we happened to see one of the race-defining events which was the multiple-fracture crash of one of Lance Armstrong’s new rivals Beloki. We later learned that Beloki’s rear tire blew on the sun-melting tarmac as the duo was flying down a steep, switch-backed mountain road.
Lance managed to stay upright and not trash his light-weight wheels or tires as he negotiated overland across the hairpin turn that took Beloki down. Lance was lucky and again shone like the star that he is with his skillful maneuvering under heroic conditions. Now when we hit a rough, unpaved spot, we giggle and encourage the other to “Be like Lance” and take the literal lumps like a champion. Though cyclotouring is nothing like road racing it is fun to have a vivid image of such a skilled athlete in our minds as we take-on our much less daunting version of the challenges of riding in the heat, the hills, and occasionally unpaved surfaces.
8/5 Where We Are Now
Like Lance did, we have been sizzling in the record-setting heat wave in Europe—often in the 90’s during the day and close to that in our attic B&B rooms in the evening. As we had ample opportunities to explore the lessons to be learned in the Dolomites about weeks of climbing, we are learning more about our edge when biking in the heat. Amazingly, if we are riding in fairly flat terrain it is actually cooler to be pedaling in 90˚F temperatures than standing around because of the delicious 10-15 mph wind we create on ourselves. Of course, our core body temperatures can sky-rocket when we encounter steep grades and my body especially demands frequent cool-down breaks.
We can tell you from personal experience that there isn’t much air conditioning in Budapest or anywhere else in Hungary. And without any relief in the heat in sight, we now are wrapping up our tour of northern Hungary. We’ll be in Slovakia for the first time in a few days. After a couple of weeks there, we’ll head to Poland and look forward to visiting some young cyclotourists we met on the road last year in Austria.