Our Thoughts on Hungary (Magyarország)

I have finally managed to get round to writing a little bit about what we experienced in Hungary. After a few changes to our initial plan, we are glad that we started in Hungary. The weather was fantastic and it was different enough from Ireland to feel like you are actually travelling but not so different for it to feel like we had landed on a different planet. Budapest was as expected. It had lots of culture, period architecture and buildings, mixed with some communist style calamities. The Parliament, the Castle, the Danube and the bridges across the river stole the show, especially at night.

If you are visiting Hungary – you will get away with English in Budapest, the but moment you move away from Budapest, no-one will speak English. German is spoken to some degree by everyone.

In most towns we visited there are ample cycle lanes and in the more touristy areas like Lake Velence and Lake Balaton, there are hundreds of kilometers of cycle lanes that take you pretty much everywhere you wish to go in the area.

The drivers are very considerate towards cyclists. In some circumstances, it appeared to us that, they would rather have an accident with another car than injure a cyclist! We felt safe at all time – not just on the roads – but in towns and villages. Crime doesn’t seem to be a major issue, public drunkenness and general loutish behaviour was non-existent where we visited. In general, everyone we had dealings with were very friendly.

Most importantly, for cyclists at the start of their tour, the countryside is flat – hardly a hill of note to be found anywhere. The scenery is mostly flat farmland – which was very pleasant for us to cycle through.

The Hungarian people seem very proud of their country. The streets were clean, the grass verges were largely free of litter. We would frequently see teams of people (both paid and volunteers) cleaning up any stray litter and pulling up weeds in the footpaths and verges.

The infrastructure is excellent. There are plenty of motorways and A roads for cars and trucks to get from A to B as fast as possible, but also plenty of small roads for us cyclists who want to enjoy remoteness and the scenery.

Prices for accommodation and food is reasonable (even for us) if you don’t mind hunting around a bit for the cheaper places, rather than going to the first place that you see. Prices for accommodation can always be negotiated – off peak season at least!

All in all, we had a great experience in our first country on our trip and would definitely recommend it to other travellers.

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Our First CouchSurfing Experience

A few days ago we had a relaxing day at the thermal spa at Hevis. We spent three hours swimming around a naturally heated lake. Even though the air temperature was around 30C it was still much warmer in the lake than out of it, so you can imagine how hot the lake was. Apparently they have to add cold water to the lake to prevent their customers turning into human lobsters.

Feeling fully revitalised and refreshed, we headed off from Lake Balaton the next day, toward Nagykanizsa. There wasn’t anything particularly special about this town it was just a good distance for us to cycle to and to get a bed for the night.

Well that was the plan anyway! We arrived at the town and spent a full two hours hunting for accommodation. All the ‘Pansio’ seemed to be closed or massively expensive for us, so we eventually gave up on the town and followed some road signs for a campsite. As with most road signs in Hungary, the signs start a few kilometres before the actual service itself but then never reappear no matter how many junctions and roundabouts you come to. So despite loads of cycling and asking questions, the campsite did not materialise. And so back to town it was. We recruited the help of two young boys, who spoke zero English – to help us find somewhere to stay for the night, but unfortunately after following them around town they kept bringing us to places that we had already tried. Despite being unsuccessful, they were extremely kind, eager to help and funny too!

After cycling around a bit more ourselves, we were about to give up and splash out on one of the more expensive places – then we spotted somewhere that was open and reasonably priced, especially after getting the price knocked down a bit.

Our food hunt in Nagykanzsia, similar to that of our accommodation hunt, took a long time but was ultimately successful.

We virtually had a day off the next day. We had arranged to stay at a couchsurfers home in a nearby hamlet of Belezna about 25km away. Phil is an English guy who moved to Hungary just over a year ago. He was a good host and had plenty of interesting stories to tell. The village in which he lives is way off the beaten track, but if you are a either going to Hungary or coming from the opposite direction and are a member of the couchsurfing fraternity, he is definitely worth getting in touch with.

Homer Gets a Puncture

Homer got his first puncture today! We were up extra early today, made breakfast and prepared ourselves for departure from Balatonelle. When I went round the back of the apartment to retrieve our bikes, I noticed Homer’s front tyre was completely flat. I was tempted just to pump it up and continue, but I knew that would be doomed to failure. Once I had disassembled the front wheel and removed the tube, I attempted to find the hole.

But I could not find it for love nor money! I had to resort to the old trick of using a bowl of water. The hole turned out to be miniscule. It was one of those cases where a new tube would have needed to be fitted to fix it, if I hadn’t had a bowl of water handy, so I guess it’s a good job it happened when it did. But anyways, it is probably the first of many, so I might as well get used to it.

Apart from that it, was a very relaxing day. We spent 50km drifting along a cycle track to our next destination, Keszthely, on the very western tip of the lake.

Here are a few pictures of the lovely town we are currently staying at:

Tomorrow we are planning a trip to some natural spa in a neighbouring town of Heviz, which dates back to the time of the East Roman Emperor, Flavius Theodosius, who was supposedly an invalid as a child, but was cured by a natural spring.  The minerals in the water are meant to cure all sorts of diseases, ailments and rejuvenate physical strength. Just in case the spring doesn’t work, the town has a doctor, surgeon and a dentist on standby…

The Great Emptiness

We are at the Southern side of Lake Balaton, which is virtually a whole series of towns linked together along its 100km coastline. The lake is beautiful, particularly at sunset, and there is every amenity tourists and travellers might need. There are thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands of hotels, camping grounds, guest houses, restaurants, bars, ice cream cafes, boat rental facilities, tennis courts, kids playgrounds etcetera. The only problem is that they are all closed and there is hardly a person to be found anywhere.

We cycled 40km today from Siofok to Balatonelle and the place was completely and utterly deserted. The temperature was 34 degrees from 10am to around 3pm and you couldn’t buy an ice cream or a bottle of water. We had to knock on doors, ring buzzers and bells and even walk around unlocked properties shouting “hello?” before we were able to find ourselves somewhere to stay. I have never experienced anything like it. The scale of the emptiness is immense. It’s like residents, employees, business owners and tourists all received a memo to lock up and evacuate immediately. There are no cars, no lights on in the houses, no anything. Just endless lines of hotels and other tourism related business locked up. It is very surreal and if I’m honest, quite unsettling. In most tourist locations, life goes on after the main tourist season is over, but here life has gone – including the people. We were able to quite happily walk in the middle of the road or tramp over roundabouts as there isn’t a car anywhere. The trains that rumble by, don’t stop, there isn’t even a sound of a dog barking.

One thing that does seem to be happening, however, is construction. There are new guest houses and hotels going up all over the place, so clearly there is money in the tourist season to make it worthwhile. I can only imagine this place must be madness during summer, but for now it’s just empty and eerie.

Yes all this means that you are free to enjoy the views and walk along the shore without hoards of people around. You are able to sit on a rock and contemplate with some kids running around screaming at the tops of their lungs, but this is too quiet. We all need to know that we aren’t the last people left on Earth!

We will be heading off tomorrow to the very west of the lake and hopefully back to some sense of normalness…

The Big Storm

It’s been a crazy couple of days for us. A few days ago we were on a rest day at Lake Velence. On that day the wind picked up a lot in the afternoon and got to a point where we had to move the tent away from the lakeside to behind some bushes. Later that night, around midnight, a big storm whipped up, fuelled by the heat of the day. The storm started with flashes of lightning followed by the thunder claps a good few seconds later. The flashes of lightning made the inside of the tent light up like day every three or four seconds. Very eerie. I was attempting to count the number of seconds between the lightning and the thunder, trying to ascertain if the storm was coming closer or moving away from us. In my sleep induced stupor, I figured that it was moving further away and coupled with the fact that it wasn’t even raining, this seemed probable. However, about twenty minutes later, we were awoken by a massive thunder burst right overhead and raindrops, that seemed to be the size of golf balls immediately began falling onto our tent. The wind seemed to pick up instantaneously and was now battering our poor house. At one stage the wind blew a peg out the ground leaving some of the tent flapping around wildly – but there wasn’t much we could do about it now. Strangely enough, all I was thinking of was the fact that we didn’t have the saddle covers on our bikes! That should have been the least of my worries at the time, especially as we had our panniers outside the main compartment not fully closed as if expecting rain. After about an hour of madness it stopped almost as suddenly as it started. I was able to quickly run out in my boxer shorts and shoes to fix the tent. It continued to blow hard and pour for the rest of the night until the sunrise came and chased it all away. We were just very glad that we moved the tent earlier that day, otherwise we would still be searching for our stuff around the campsite!

The day after the storm we set off for Lake Balaton – a massive 100km long lake in Western Hungary, which is a very popular holiday destination for Eastern Europeans, Germans and Austrians. The heat was insane on the way to Lake Balaton. It was usually around 28-29 degrees for the whole day. I was pretty much burnt to a crisp at the end of the day – despite a few suncream stops. Even my scalp was burnt through the vent in my helmet!

About 30km from Lake Balaton we met a lycra cyclist (you know the type I mean), who was also heading towards the lake. He spoke in Hungarian and I said “English”, then he spoke in German to which I said “Nein” so finally he resorted to English and said “your bike no good, you need one like mine” while pointing to his lightweight carbon fibre speed machine. How could I argue? Truth be told, I envied his bike and his load which couldn’t have held more than a spare sock! Anyways, we chatted for a couple of minutes about our route and other such things, before he zipped into the distance leaving us to drag our worldly possessions up the hill. About three hours and 30km later we met him again (which was rather amazing since we took about eight wrong turns. This time he was coming towards us. He pulled over to assist directions and chatted a bit more. Very friendly chap he was. Unfortunately we couldn’t find the first campsite we had planned to get to. The second one, about 10km down the road was closed and deserted, the third was chained up and shut. Hmmm. It was getting dark at this point and we were both fed up coming across closed campsites. We didn’t have any options left. We had to start knocking on doors (only doors that had a sign outside saying ‘Apartman Frei’). After a couple of attempts someone took us in and we had a nice room for the night.

What a long day it was – time for some food. The whole town was deserted, hardly a person or a light to be found. We came across a cafe by the railway station and tried to order something familiar off the menu only to be told in Hungarian that only certain items of the menu (the bits that weren’t translated into English) were available at this time. After a bit of chatter backwards and forwards the waitress asked a customer to order something for us – at least that what we assumed happened – because two plates of food appeared! It turned out to be very tasty indeed. I suppose it’s a good way to taste new local dishes – get some random strangers to order us a surprise meal!

Waking Up In Budapest

Today was just about doing a little bit of sight-seeing and taking in our new surroundings. Within a few minutes of leaving the hostel and snapping our first couple of photographs, we saw our first car crash. Some guy was driving up behind stationary traffic and not paying the slightest bit of attention. He swerved to the left, just in time, to avoid the car in front. Unfortunately, for him, to his left was a two foot high curb which demolished his wheel and axle and of course the underside of his car. Note to self – “watch out for sleepy drivers”.

Did you know that Monika has been spending some time in Jedi Knight school recently? Below is a video of here showing off her skills:

The rest of the day was spent walking from here to there and then from there to over there and then from over there back to there and so on. Monika had her ‘photographers eye’ again and spied a great vantage point from which to take a few pictures of the famous Hungarian Parliament Building. Unfortunately this vantage point was on the other side of the Danube and involved much walking and the climbing of around 500 steps! When we got there, we had to wait until dusk – as apparently this puts the building in the best light. The total walking distance for this day was around 20km. The sooner we get on the bikes the better!

Now this topic came up after dinner today and is probably best broached when we have travelled more and have more people following our blog. But here goes anyway. Tonight we had dinner at a cafe and the total bill came to 4,560Ft, so I gave the waitress a 5,000Ft note and waited for my change. I did not get my change! The waitress had decided that this was her tip. To say I was unimpressed is an understatement to say the least. We choose virtually the cheapest items on the menu and decided against the desserts, just to try and save money. Her 440Ft tip was more than we had spent on lunch! This 440Ft works out at about €1.60, but it’s the principle. I personally think that it’s a bit cheeky to assume you are getting a tip and don’t even bother to bring the change back to the table. Was it our fault for going to a place that expects a tip? Should I have gone up and asked for my change? Do other backpackers/travellers who have no job and are travelling off their savings leave tips in developed countries? From now on, we will be eating in less fancy places (not that this was fancy!) or we will be paying with massively inappropriate denominations so that there will be doubt that I want my change back!

That was lesson number two for our trip. Lesson number one was ‘wear your helmet at all times, even if you are just opening your curtains’.