Quite early in our discussions of this trip, E and I had planned to travel through Slovakia to Poland – specifically, to Krakow. I have no doubt that this would have been very fun (and almost certainly very, very silly), but I’m definitely glad that we scrapped that portion of the trip. Quite apart from anything else, I only brought a very small part of my luggage with me to Hungary and left the rest at E’s for the 4 days we were away.
This left us with a problem, though. E had some number of Slovak Crowns that he was keen to spend or exchange before Slovakia adopts the Euro in January of next year. That seemed to require a trip to Slovakia – and Saturday was the appointed day.
We left bright and early (well, relatively) for our train to Esztergom, the Hungarian town twinned with Štúrovo on the Slovakian side. Kind of like Albury-Wodonga but international and with different languages. And in Europe. And with a bigger river … well, you get the idea, anyway. E had done the research and established that there was a train at 10.27 from Nyugati Palyutvar (West station), so we jumped on the Metro and got there with about 5 minutes to spare. Actually, the research had been interesting – like the dinner the previous night, the information was diffferent depending on the language that you looked at train information in. The English site text said that the train was leaving from Margit Hid (Margaret Bridge), the Hungarian and German text said Nyugati Pu. It wasn’t a stretch to figure that the German and Hungarian text was more likely to be correct.
Only problem? In this instance, the English text was the correct one. Oops. Missed our train, and walked to Margit Hid station to catch the next one at 11.27. We stopped at a supermarket, where we contemplated the potential horror that was “Americana Kid” chocolate (actually, the Americana chocolate was not so bad) and bought Essential Provisions for our day – chocolate, biscuits and water bottles.
The train amused E because it was identical – even down to the pattern of the upholstery – to some German trains.
Taking the train from Budapest to Esztergom is not a quick proposition. It takes around an hour and a half to cover the 50km, mostly because the train stops seventeen times on the way. Yawn.
Arriving in Esztergom, we wondered where the town was. Everyone else from the train loaded themselves into the bus or into the toy train that was waiting at the station, but we started to walk. Along the way, excitement was provided by some orange beetles and a yellow ladybird and by some big yellow bins that appeared to be the sugar recycling centre for Hungary. At least, if you don’t speak Hungarian and you take graffiti literally.
To say that Esztergom was deserted is like saying that – um – well, like saying something really obvious. There were 2 other people who seemed to be tourists, who we saw taking photos in several places either just before or just after us, but otherwise there were very few people at all. Even when we got into what appeared to be the potentially bustling city centre, we saw no-one. Kismama (little mother *puke*) maternity wear was closed, as was Boomerang (a clothes shop?). We passed what may be the headquarters of the Knights of Malta, I got a little bit excited that it appeared to be Ladies’ Night at one of the pubs that night, and we both wondered at a variety of street signs that seemed to suggest that Esztergom was home to a massive scavenger hunt. Maybe you had to be there at the time. Trust me, it was hee-larious.
On through Esztergom we went, past what must be the Best Burger Shop in Esztergom. Possibly it was the only burger shop in Esztergom – it was also the only place where we saw any number of people. We were starting to feel hungry (it was well after 1.30), and finally found what looked like a reasonable hotel and restaurant. My chicken breast stuffed with camembert and served on a bed of cranberry salad was OMGYUMMY, but the lemonade was just Sprite, and did not come with a tree. Disappointment reigned.
Having waited for OMGFOREVER to get our meals, we now waited for OMGEVENLONGER to get the bill. Even after we asked for it, it took around 15 minutes to arrive at our table. Ouch.
While we ate, we pondered what to say in our postcards (and on this blog) about the exciting day we were having. Our answer? Lie.
Over lunch, we wove a fantastic tale of the Esztergom Goose festival, celebrating St Istvan and the Sacred Geese. Celebrated only every five years, this is an important event for the church in Hungary. There are balloons and kiosks, as well as special food and souvenir and a host of special goose activities. The Running of the Geese, where the Geese are released to run down the hill from the Basilika (sadly, a dog started to chase the geese. In what to us was quite a shocking incident, the poor dog was shot, then thrown from the top of the stone wall around the basilika to land in the Danube below.) (Based on my nose’s explorations of Budapest, this may not be entirely uncommon – or else they have really major drain problems. There was also a special event where you could stand in a marked square to see whether you would be Blessed by the Sacred Goose. I paid my 200 forints (around 8 Euros or $16) for a chance to be blessed, but the Goose was not interested and – much to the organisers’ consternation – wandered over to the side of the square, where E was standing laughing at me.
It didn’t matter. I won the mocking for saturday, because I wore my special Caylus t-shirt. E is so easy to mock.
Eventually lunch finished and we climbed the hill to the Basilika. This was really an amazing building – my photos don’t show the half of it. I declined to climb up and walk around the cupola, and we both kept our feet firmly on the ground. Outside, the views of the Danube were spectacular, and I even managed to get E to pose for a photo. It really was an incredibly clear day to be up there.
Down the steps to the real world and we made our way towards the bridge. Now I don’t think I have talked about this much here, but I am terrified of heights. As in, climbing a ladder is a problem. As in, cannot look down from a first storey balcony. As in, when I am in a shopping centre, I walk along hugging the shops, not hugging the open atriumy thing to the levels below. As in, refused to go on a school excursion with Biggie’s class even when they were desperate for parent helpers, because it involved the viewing platform on the Rialto building in Melbourne. Google it if you want to know more. I don’t do rollercoasters, I don’t do ferris wheels. I get sweaty just watching high scenes in movies. (I am not quite sure why I am not terrified of flying – sometimes I do get nervous a week or so before I fly, but I clearly have irrational faith in technology). And the bridge was big. And long.
I made poor E sit for a few minutes before we crossed the bridge. This was in fact because my feet were sore rather than because I was terrified, but I was not entirely happy. Ah well, as he said, it’s only HALF A KILOMETRE LONG. And who knows how high above the river. Sigh.
Took some photos of a kiosky thing selling chimney cakes (I didn’t get to try a single chimney cake the whole time we were in Hungary … admittedly, we had better food instead …) to support the Goose Festival plan. Photos from two different angles could conceivably have been photos of two different kiosky things. We thought of everything.
So over we went. I was pretty okay and proud of myself – walked along the inside of the footpath, admittedly, but it wasn’t exactly a wide bridge – footpath either side and one lane either way. My family were – well, surprised – to see that I’d walked over it. I don’t have the exact quote handy, but it was something like “YOU walked over THAT? I am impressed!”
On the way over, we noticed two things. One, a lot of people were walking from Štúrovo to Esztergom. Two, many of them were carrying helium-filled foil balloons. Conclusion: Everyone in Esztergom goes to Štúrovo on Saturdays to buy pink balloons shaped like unicorns.
Turns out, we were half right.
First impressions of Štúrovo: not nearly as pretty as the Esztergom side.
Second impressions of Štúrovo: OMG, there is our friend the toy train again. I got a photo with the URL of the company on the back, just in case I am ever stuck in Hungary and need a road vehicle. You never know.
Third impressions of Štúrovo: OMG the POLICE supervise the pedestrian crossings!
Fourth impressions of Štúrovo: OMG it is PARTY DAY … and it was. The whole of the Štúrovo town centre had been taken over by a festival of some kind – stalls selling sweets, coats, wooden goods, those tacky gingerbread hearts with pink icing and “Princess” written on them in Slovakian. There was even a fairground area in the distance with rides, including floating swans. OMG the Goose Festival was PROPHETIC.
Possibly we had not chosen the best day to evaluate whether there was anything to do in Esztergom – we seemed to hear more Hungarian spoken than anything else in Slovakia.
We found a couple of shops that sold games – E had been threatening to go to Novy Zamke, 50 km away, because he knew they had a game shop somewhere – but there was nothing really exciting. We noticed that shops in Štúrovo are open all Saturday afternoon and often on Sundays too, where the shops in Esztergom (and even some of the regular non-tourist shops in Budapest) closed around midday. (Note: actually, E had been threatening to go to lots of different places, including Poland and Bulgaria. I will not put him in charge of tickets again.)
And we noticed that there was NO MAP TO THE STATION.
Eventually, we made our way through the crowd and found a map. E was complaining that he hadn’t found anything to spend his Slovakian Crowns on. I suggested that maybe he was just too picky, and that I was sure there was a place in his life for some of the dross – errm, special fair souvenirs – that we could see. I failed. We looked for postcards, but we found precisely none of them. Such a shame.
The map was interesting and kind of half-way useful. It showed the Štúrovo town centre, and it showed – well, not the station. There was a road, heading out the top left corner, with arrows showing it was the way to Novy Zamke … and arrows showing that it was also the way to the Station. With no indication of how far the Station actually was.
By now, it was after 6 and getting dark, so we decided to cut our losses and aim for the 7.35 train to Budapest (arriving about 2 hours later). We could have cut 10 minutes off the trip by taking a later train, but would have had to wait till after 9 and frankly we were not keen. So off we went.
We thought we were probably on the right road, but when we saw a security guard directing traffic we decided to check. “Stancia?” I asked, with my non-existent Mad Slovakian Skills. He was not fooled. “Two kilometre,” he said, pointing down the road in the direction we were heading.
A bus went past at one point, but we kept plodding along the footpath … until there was no more footpath, only overgrown grass. We kept going – across the street, because a street sign suggested that there might be a turn-off on the side we were on, past the bowling club, into a group of slightly drunken young people clearly on a big night out.
“We are Hungarian. English? Deutsch?”
“The station is that way.” (still pointing in the direction we were going).
We waved them on their way, crossed a road, and picked our way through the undergrowth. Up ahead, there were lights – I had been optimistic, but they now looked more like streetlights than the welcoming lights of a station. Yes, that’s right – we had been walking IN THE DARK.
E was excited because we appeared to be on Railway Street, but in Slovakian. That had to be a good sign, right?
Trudge, trudge … eventually we saw a petrol station, and crossed the road to find it. A map outside showed the station on Railway Street, with a bus station not far before it. Whee! We were going the right way.
Into the petrol station: “Stancia?” The attendant waved in the direction we were headed.
Eventually, the lights ahead crystallised into something rather more station-like. We bought our tickets, looked in the station bistro for postcards (nope), then took ourselves to the platform to wait for our train.
About 10 minutes before our train was due to depart, a train pulled in to the platform. The carriages were labelled “Budapest-Nyugaty” which looked right, but it was early. What to do, what to do?
Eventually we got on the train, made our way past the ubiquitous stinky cabins, and found somewhere to sit. E was less convinced than I that we were actually on the right train.
“The problem with catching a train,” he said, “is that if you walk somewhere you have the sense of achievement from walking. So even if you go to the wrong place, you have done something good. But that does not apply to a train.”
I confirmed with the guard that the train was going to Budapest-Nyugati, and that was that. E snoozed and I listened to my iPod. First outing all holiday.
Back in Budapest, we took the metro to our apartment, stopping at a 24-hour food shop for fruit juice and amazing Hungarian cheese that apparently tasted like limp cardboard. Neither of us felt like going out that night.