Monday, 15 March 2010

All along the watchtowers

Today, March 15, was a national holiday here in Hungary. Called Revolution Day, it commemorates the day when the Hungarian people rose up against their Austrian rulers in 1848. The uprising was brutally suppressed, but the memory lives on as a key moment in Hungarian history, hence the holiday.

However, the celebration of Hungarian nationalism has been hijacked rather by far right groups in the country, who like to hold marches and demonstrations in the city, which, of course, attract far left groups who disagree with their views, and often, apparently, violence ensues. So my local colleagues had advised me to either stay in my apartment or to leave the city, as the Parliament buildings right next to where I live are one of the centres for disturbances.

As it was a dry and sunny, albeit cold and windy, day I decided to go out on my bike again, and caught an early morning train to the not picturesquely named town of Szob, which is on the north bank of the river right up against the Slovakian border. I set off following the road which runs along the Hungarian side of the river that marks the border, unfortunately going into the teeth of the cold, strong north easterly wind. So the first part of the journey was pretty hard going, especially as the gear indexing on my bike seemed to have slipped and the chain kept slipping. Fortunately, after about 15 miles the road turned sharply to the east and I suddenly found I had something of a tail wind.

As I had progressed slowly along this road I realised that there was another feature of the Hungarian landscape that seemed unusual to my eyes, the watchtowers. Along one stretch of the road, which ran parallel and about a quarter of a mile from the river border, was a long line of watchtowers in the middle of fields, looking as if they ought to be electricity pylons.

They looked rather sad, with peeling paint, broken windows and flapping doors, but made me think about what they represented from the recent past, where ordinary people were unable to travel from one country to another, even though, as here, the border was no more than a small river.

Eventually I reached a village where I needed to turn off. I was grateful for the GPS in my mobile phone, as the turning had no signpost and the road I needed would be crossing about 15 miles of empty countryside, and I really wanted to make sure that I took the right turning.

This whole part of Hungary seemed extremely empty and quiet, and the first part of the road took me through what looked like a very traditional village, long lines of single-storey buildings, many of which had gardens in which dogs and chickens ran around, almost like smallholdings. A weatherbeaten old lady with the usual scarf around her head stopped and looked at me as if I was a visiting alien.

Anyway, I pushed on along what the cycling guidebook had said was a paved road, but which turned out to be a formerly paved road, and I negotiated several miles of tarmac, concrete, potholes and enormous puddles. However, I was pushing up along a wooded valley and the wind had disappeared so that in the sun it was warm and pleasant. After a while I stopped for my sandwiches at the side of a clearing, where some deer stood and watched me suspiciously while a buzzard screeched as it circled overhead. It felt very remote.

It felt even more remote when I realised that I had a puncture. Swearing extensively, I realised that I did not have any puncture adhesive but fortunately had a spare inner tube so put that in, pumped the tyre up and set off.

I pushed on up through the valley, feeling slightly anxious when the first snow appeared on the road, and the quality of the surface deteriorated considerably. However, to my surprise as I climbed up through the ever thicker snow the tarmac reappeared and by the time I climbed to the top of the pass it was a good quality road, if under several inches of snow. I stopped to admire the great view over the valley from which I had just emerged.

There followed several miles of steady descent, which was wonderful, and I eventually emerged from my wilderness road just where the guidebook said I would. I had planned to cycle on down to the river to catch a train back, but realised that with the puncture and the poor quality road I had taken a lot more time than I thought and that I could in fact catch a train from an intermediate station right where I had emerged. So I cycled up to Nagyoroszi station and tried to work out whether or not a train would be calling soon. The station itself was shut and was in a somewhat decrepit state which made me wonder whether any trains ever called there, but suddenly an old chap appeared and started talking to me.

Initially I understood absolutely nothing and trotted out my usual "I don't understand Hungarian" line, but then realised he was telling me the time of the next train, which was in about 30 minutes, so we stood in the sun and out of the wind to wait. My lack of Hungarian did not deter him from talking, and I suddenly remembered that I had my Hungarian phrasebook with me, so I pulled it out and we managed to have an amusing if limited conversation: today is a holiday, the wind is cold, I live in Budapest, I am English, it is cold in England, I cannot give him 300 forints and my postillion has been struck by lightning. I wanted to ask him if he had seen the Monty Python Hungarian phrasebook sketch, but somehow he didn't seem like part of the YouTube generation.

Then, bang on time, the train appeared. It was a little three-car unit, with something rather like an observation area at the back, a bench seat with a large window looking backwards at the receding track. So I sat there feeling comfortably warm and satisfied.

The ticket collector came along and, of course, spoke no English, but I managed to understand and explain what I wanted to do. The biggest sticking point was that she wanted to know my age, as I think over-60s get cheap tickets. Fortunately, once I twigged this I enjoyed our laughter about the mutual incomprehension sufficiently to avoid getting miffed about being seen as a potential over 60. Not that I have anything against over-60s, it's just that I still can't quite believe I look a day over 40.

The train rattled on down through a winding hillside and lovely wild countryside until we reached the large town of Vac, where we changed onto a fast electric train that took us into Budapest.

I groaned when I realised that my back tyre was almost flat again, but at least I was able to get home safely without encountering any crazy political activities.

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