Monday, 18 October 2010

Once upon a time in the west

On Sunday, for reasons too complicated to explain, I travelled out to Szombathely on the western border of Hungary to cycle 70 miles north to get to a McDonald's in Neusiedl in Austria.

After weeks of beautiful autumnal weather with clear blue skies and lingering warmth, I chose the first day of winter for my ride. As I left Szombathely a cold northerly wind blew out of a thick grey sky, not encouraging as I struggled northwards along roads running in straight lines through fields of dead cornstalks or that were freshly ploughed. Many trees were now very yellow thinning out in preparation for the coming Hungarian winter.

Fo ter, the centre of Szombathely
The cathedral
After about 30 miles the rain started: cold, drifting drizzle that nipped at my face. I cheered myself by thinking that by lunchtime I would be in Sopron, apparently a pretty, touristy town stuck on a little peninsula of Hungary that jutted into Austria. Coffee and cakes would raise my spirits. Sadly, Sopron had decided that the tourist season had ended and that there was no reason for any type of cafe to be open on a Sunday, so I cycled wearily round the town centre until I found the road north.

Battlefields are popular places with people interested in history. They provide a specific place on the map where something significant happened, and I often find that by standing quietly I can imagine the excitement, noise and terror of what came to pass many years previously.

Picnic sites are generally not known in the same way. However, the site of the 1989 Pan-European Picnic a few miles north of Sopron, is different. By the summer of that year people all around the Eastern bloc countries realised that things were changing and that their governments were no longer completely in control of events. An invitation went out to East Germans to come to Hungary and celebrate freedom in this little corner of Hungary. Thousands turned up in the hope that it might be an opportunity to escape to the West. And so it turned out. When people started cutting holes in the fence the Hungarian border guards just let them and about 2000 crossed into Austria.

The news about the Picnic spread around the world, and it became obvious to everyone that the regime would not last much longer. The collapse of Communism is often associated with photographs of people sitting on top of the Berlin Wall, but it may be the case that the Pan-European Picnic was actually a more significant historical event. 

Freedom and a reminder of its absence
The site is now marked by a rather beautiful, peaceful open space. A white marble statue representing people struggling for freedom stands in the middle of the field, and in the distance on the hillside stands a solitary watchtower. 

BTW, if anyone is interested, Victor Sebestyen's "Revolution 1989: The fall of the Soviet Empire" is a great read on this period.

21 years too late for the Picnic, Bryan on his bike
It felt very moving to be at such a place that had witnessed such a significant moment in modern history.

What was the Iron Curtain
20 years on there were no border guards, and I simply climbed back onto my bicycle and pedalled on into Austria. 

The first houses appeared a few miles later, a row of identical, precisely aligned buildings showing me that I was in a different country.

Austrian precision and conformity - a surprise to my eyes
This corner of Austria is marked by the Neusiedler See, a large but very shallow lake, apparently averaging about 1 m in depth. An excellent cycle path has been built around its perimeter, wide, smooth and, most importantly after 60 miles, flat.

Starlings, starlings, starlings
Although the cold rain continued to drive into my face I was excited by seeing one of nature's great sights, starlings swarming: at one moment a dense black cloud and the next spreading out and becoming almost invisible in the sky. Then, as if being ordered to do so, all settling on a power cable running along the edge of a field.

That kept me going and as my cycle computer hit 71 miles I arrived at my destination, the Neusiedl branch of McDonald's, where, 20 minutes later, Helen also arrived, en route from Sheffield to Budapest.

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