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The slow way to Slovenia

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I am lucky that I can be a bit of a perfectionist and that I pride myself on my diligence. I like to check things amd then check things again. So the day before I left Hungary I went to the MÁV Hungarian State Railways website and checked the connection times for my trains to Ljubljana, the capital city of Slovenia.

My original plan was to catch the 09:34 local train from Keszthely north to the village of Ukk which is located on the main railway line from Budapest to Slovenia. I was to arrive at Ukk at about 10:30 and catch the daily international express train from Budapest to Ljubljana, the "Citadella", at 11:24, to arrive in Ljubljana at about half past four. Quite a simple trip involving only one change of train and a wait of less than an hour.

I wanted to check the timetables on the MÁV website just in case, and I am bloody lucky I did. The MÁV website told me that I would need to leave Keszthely at six o'clock in the morning to take a train to Ukk, then two trackwork buses, a train and another train to get to Ljubljana. The line to Slovenia was closed between Devecser and Zalaegerszeg and the "Citadella" would start at Zalaegerszeg. The trackwork bus that replaced the "Citadella" was running express from Devecser to Zalaegerszeg and would not stop at Ukk to pick me up.

For bloody hell's sake.

I had bought my ticket to Ljubljana at Déli station in Budapest on Saturday and the rude ignorant cow at the international booking office who sold me my ticket didn't tell me anything about trackwork. Nor was there any indication on my ticket that there was trackwork. My ticket just said "11:24 UKK 16:39 LJUBLJANA". If I had not checked the timetable search function on the MÁV website there is no way I would have known.

I was looking forward to a six o'clock start and shuffling from train to bus to train to bus and back to a train about as much as I would look forward to an Australian Tax Office audit combined with root canal dental surgery. Thankfully I managed to find an alternative on the MÁV website: instead of leaving at 06:13, I could take a lengthy detour via a circuitous southern route via Nagykanizsa leaving Keszthely at 07:34. It would mean having to take five separate trains, some with tight connections, but I would avoid the horrors of having to deal with trackwork buses entirely. After the fiasco last Thursday when a simple one hundred kilometre trip to Gyöngyös blew out from two hours to over four hours because MÁV has no idea how to run trackwork buses or publish accurate timetables, I did not want to risk it.

So I left my apartment in Keszthely in the gloomy dawn at seven o'clock, walked ten minutes down to the station, eagerly looking forward to my five-train extravaganza. Would it work out? Would I have to give up halfway through and try to find a bus to Ljubljana instead? Would I make all the tight connections? I was sort of rubbing my hands with glee at the thought of being able to pull it off.

The first obstacle: the ticket machine at Keszthely station. MÁV ticket machines do have an English option. However, there is one small problem: the Union Jack in the bottom right corner is too far for the touchscreen cursor to reach on the vast majority of machines I have used! It is an abject failure of industrial design.

My Hungarian is not good enough to navigate complex touchscreen menus despite completing the Hungarian course on Duolingo. So I went to the ticket counter and asked in Hungarian for a one-way ticket to Zalaegerszeg via Nagykanizsa.

"No, not possible," she said in Hungarian and turned away.

"No. I need to get to Zalaegerszeg to go to Ljubljana," I said in terrible, stilted Hungarian. I got out my international ticket and pointed to "UKK 11:24". "See here? Ukk - closed! No trains! Only buses! Between Devecser and Zalaeherszeg - closed! No trains! I go to Zalaegerszeg!"

"No," the bitch who looked like an aged version of Miss Piggy said as she folded her arms and turned away again.

I lost it and started shouting at the swine-faced crone in English. It's hard to be angry in a language you don't know well. "Listen! I have bought a ticket to Ljubljana and I need to get to Ljubljana and you will bloody well sell me a ticket so I can get to Ljubljana! I know you can because those stupid ticket machines over there let you specify a 'via' station! It's not hard, so just bloody sell me a ticket via Nagykanizsa!"

At this moment, a beautiful young Hungarian lady and her boyfriend came over and offered to help, she spoke English. When someone offers you help in Hungary - take it and cherish it!

I explained politely to the young woman my dilemma. I showed her my ticket for the "Citadella", I said I couldn't catch the train to Slovenia from Ukk because the line was closed and I would have to go via Nagykanizsa to catch the train to Slovenia from Zalaegerszeg instead. The lass politely and softly explained all this to the ticket bitch.

The bitch snapped and started arguing with the helpful young woman. The young woman patiently put my case to the bitch but the mad cow only got angrier. Eventually the nasty filthy pig relented and with a sigh that was stronger than Cyclone Tracy she punched in some numbers on a keypad and the machine on the counter spat out my ticket.

I paid for my ticket and grabbed it from the counter. "Thank you. And I hope you die of a particularly painful form of cancer that slowly but relentlessly melts your internal organs while you can do nothing but scream in agony every single day until you finally die a lonely, miserable death unloved and unmourned by anybody several years later." Well, I didn't say that. But I wished it anyway.

I thanked the young woman profusely for her help - may she thrive and prosper and go onto greater things. I found on my travels in Hungary that the younger generation was somewhat more open and friendly aund helpful than the older generation. People like this lass give me hope that perhaps one day Hungary might become a thriving liberal Western democracy, citizens of a country that is comfortably part of Europe and which people might feel welcome in when they go there to visit or study or retire or work.

Dealing with the cow at the ticket counter took up too much time for me to grab breakfast from the station café, they only sold burgers and doner kebabs and the like that take time to prepare, so I just grabbed a coffee. I boarded by first train for the day, the 07:34 Budapest express. This was only a short little train that was going to be merged at Balatonszentgyörgy with other carriages from Nagykanizsa to form a single train to Budapest.

At 07:45 I alighted on time at Balatonszentgryörgy at the southwestern corner of Lake Balaton. There was a sixteen minute wait for my next train, the 08:01 to Nagykanizsa. Balatonszentgryörgy was a cute station with hedges and hanging flower pots but it was light on amenities.

At 08:01 Train No. 2 of today's adventure arrived. I boarded the nearly empty train for the forty-minute ride to Nagykanizsa across an appealing dawn landscape of scattered grain fields, scratchy thickets and misty, reedy marshes. I spotted several herds of deer bouncing along in the dewy morning light.

I got to Nagykanizsa three minutes early at 08:38. Train No. 3 wasn't until 09:10. Nagykanizsa is a large important station with a full range of amenities, including a station pub. I went into the pub. It was doing a roaring trade at 08:45, mostly seedy older local men getting drunk, every single eye in the joint watching me. I was tempted to buy a beer or seven after having to deal with that horrible subhuman swamp creature at the Keszthely ticket office, but managed to restrain myself. I settled for a breakfast of a salami, cheese and celery roll with a bottle of Coke Zero.

The half-hour wait seemed to fly because soon enough the 09:10 appeared. This was a cross-country train that traveleld through western Hungary in a long northerly arc from Pécs to Szombathely. I rode on this train from Nagykanizsa to Zalaszentiván. The train was very nice and modern with comfortable seating, two classes and air conditioning. The train was nice but the line wasn't. This relatively minor single-track cross-country line was very neglected, the train crawled through the landscape on the sub-standard track. This part of Hungary was the poorest I have seen - barren threadbare fields, ramshackle villages, crumbling concrete railway stations, crooked power poles and potholed roads.

The train approached a junction just outside Zalaszentiván and came to a complete stop. I got very nervous - at six minutes, my connection at Zalaszentiván was by far the tightest of my five-train extravaganza. I needn't have worried, after a few minutes the train moved again and it arrived at Zalaszentiván on time at 09:58.

I looked at Train No. 4 and laughed. It was a bus on rails! It was a tiny little diesel railcar, painted red and yellow, its engine was already switched on and the sound of the engine idling was just like a bus. Even the interior looked like a bus. As the bus... I mean, the train left Zalaszentiván at 10:04, it even sounded like a bus accelerating. I wish I had looked in the driver's cab, I wouldn't have been surprised to see a steering wheel, gear stick, and accelerator, brake and clutch pedals.

Nine minutes later I arrived at Zalaegerszeg at 10:13. The "Citadella" wasn't due to leave until 12:12. Two hours is a lot of time to kill, so I decided to go last-minute souvenir shopping. There was a Coop supermarket across the road from the station and a Magyar Posta post office a couple of buildings down from the station.

My mother loves wine, so I went into the Coop and bought a bottle of Tokaji wine - the famous sweet dessert white wine from northeastern Hungary. I then went to the post office. I didn't think it was possible to find a more depressing post office than the one in Vámosgyörk. It is possible. The Zalaegerszeg post office was dimly lit, the walls were painted in a dark green colour that brought to mind diarrhoea, the counters were battered and scratched, the air was stuffy and so lacking in oxygen I was surprised the employees were still alive.

I waited my turn and then explained to the post office lady that I wanted to send the bottle of wine in my hand to Australia. The woman and her colleague sitting at the next window both snapped at me with an aggression that was both unnecessary and unjustifiable. No! It is not possible! You must provide your own box!

"Do you sell boxes here?" I asked in Hungarian.

"No! You must bring your own box!"

"Where do I buy a box?" I asked.

They both shrugged their shoulders dismissively. "I don't know."

Jesus H. Christ on a Paddle Pop stick! Even Sri Lankan post offices sell packing material. I thought the whole point of post offices was to enable people to send crap to other people. Obviously not in Hungary. I swear that Hungary is a country where every customer service employee graduated from the Gulag Archipelago School of Customer Service. I would have thought that thirty years of capitalism would have taught these people about the importance of being nice to customers.

There was little to do but go back to the railway station. The only other people in the large, airy waiting hall were three Gypsy men, two young men and one a little bit older than me. Soon enough the older one comes up to me and speaks to me in Hungarian. He said that his daughter died.

"Bocsánat," I said. (Sorry.)

Then he asked for money.

"Nem. Nem adok pénzet," I said. (No. I don't give money.)

I moved away to another seat and he followed me. He asked me again. I said no again. And again. And again. Eventually he gave up.

I got out my Lonely Planet for Slovenia to read up on Ljubljana and learn a few Slovene phrases from the tiny phrasebook at the back. Every time I looked up from my book, the three Gypsies were staring at me. This was creepy. I tried ignoring them while being aware of their movements. Eventually one of the young ones sits right next to me and tries to strike up a conversation. I said I didn't speak Hungarian. He asked for money anyway. I refused. I moved away. The third Gypsy then sits down next to me way too close.

This was getting beyond a joke. I looked around for a CCTV camera, I didn't see any. I weighed up whether it would be safer waiting in the station hall or going outside. At least in the waiting hall there was the ticket lady sitting at the counter. But she was spending her entire time reading trashy women's magazines. She looked about as dedicated to her job and the safety and well-being of passengers as every single other MÁV employee I have met: that is to say, not in the slightest. The Gypsies could rob me of every possession and slit my throat and she still wouldn't look up from her magazine.

I decided to escape. I put my backpack back on and went out onto the platform. I made sure I wasn't being followed and then went through a side exit down the platform onto the street. I decided to go into the Coop supermarket to buy some food and drinks. The "Citadella" has no buffet car and so I decided to buy food to take on board for lunch. As I was about to cross the road I heard footsteps behind me. One of the Gypsies was following me. Damn.

I stopped and made as if I was adjusting the straps on my backpack to let him pass. He passed and then went into the supermarket. I decided to go in too. It was OK, he just went in to buy some alcohol and left quickly. I took my sweet time selecting my purchases and then bought them about fifteen minutes before the train was due to leave.

I went back into the station using a different side entrance avoiding the ticket hall and was greeted by a magnificent sight: the "Citadella"! The train wasn't that magnificent, just an ancient electric locomotive and three carriages, two Slovenske železnice cars at the front and a MÁV car at the rear, but I was about to escape this hole called Zalaegerszeg!

I hurriedly boarded the train and settled in. The carriages were clean and relatively modern with air conditioning. They were also nearly empty. The only other passengers in my car were two parents and a toddler of Indian origin, and an elderly American couple. The Yanks looked thoroughly frazzled. I struck up a conversation with them. They were complaining about what they had to go through just to get this train to Ljubljana. They turned up to Déli station in Budapest on time only to find that the "Citadella" wasn't there. They tried asking for help from MÁV employees with no success, then other passengers directed them onto a whole series of local trains to get to Devecser, where they were bundled onto a bus, dropped off halfway where they had to take another bus but they didn't know which bus to take because nobody would tell them, and by pure luck made it to Zalaegerszeg just in time.

I am trying to figure out which is the more hopeless and incompetent railway - MÁV or the Sri Lankan Railways. I think MÁV are far worse. At least the Sri Lankan Railways have the excuse of being in an underdeveloped country recovering from a three-decade civil war. Hungary is a European Union member with a stable, generally effective government, an advanced economy based on heavy manufacturing and a medium-high GDP per capita of US $16,000 a year.

MÁV actually stands for "Must ÁVoid". MÁV is a disgrace to Hungary, pure and simple.

At 12:12 the mighty "Citadella" glided out of the station. Good bye, Zalaegerszeg, and good riddance! I understand that some members of oppressed or persecuted minorities may engage in antisocial behaviour due to the discrimination and the alienation they experience. That doesn't mean that I have to like that behaviour, or refrain from breathing a huge sigh of relief as I escape that behaviour.

Zalaegerszeg is not far from the Slovenian border. Soon the scenery became gradually more Slovenian and alpine: more and more conifers, fewer and fewer deciduous trees. It wasn't long until we reached the border and the train had a lengthy stop at the border station at Hodoš while the Hungarian crew and locomotive were swapped for Slovenian ones.

While stopped at Hodoš two Slovenian policemen boarded the train to check passports. They saw me and didn't even give me a second look, I wasn't asked for my passport at all, while they went through the family of Indian origin with a fine tooth comb.

After about fifteen minutes the train took off again. Soon, a Slovenske železnice conductor came to check my ticket. She was fat and jolly and smiling, she greeted me with a beaming grin, she taught me a couple of Slovene words, she farewelled me and wished me a pleasant stay and she bloody well meant it. After a week in a country where it is a capital offence to wear any facial expression other than a permanent scowl, this was just too marvellous.

Those expecting magnificent alpine scenery immediately upon entering Slovenia will be disappointed. This far eastern region, Prekmurje, is the only part of Slovenia that is flat. After about an hour the vast plains became wide valleys between distant mountains. The wide valleys became narrow valleys and soon enough the train slowed to a crawl as it negotiated twisting mountain lines.

After the major town of Celje the train crossed into the Sava drainage basin. The line followed a major tributary of the Sava, the Savinja, a rushing narrow river in a steep green gorge. At the town of Zidani Most there was a gorgeous old stone arch bridge across the Savinja straight out of an Asterix comic book and the line then followed the mighty Sava upstream to Ljubljana. This beautiful river with torrential rapids and whirling eddies was lined with precipitous slopes covered in pine trees and fiery autumn colours studded with limestone outcrops. It was one of the most beautiful railway lines I have ever travelled on.

As the "Citadella" approached the end of its journey the valley opened up into the plains of Ljubljana, the train went through the industrial eastern suburbs and I arrived at Ljubljana station on time at about half past four. Ljubljana is a stupid station: the building where you buy tickets, go to the toilet, buy food, et cetera is at the far western end of the station, but the foot tunnel from which you access the platforms is at the eastern end. It's the most illogical station layout I have seen. I had to go to the station building to exchange Hungarian forints for euros.

Eva, one of the members of the family who own the Dežnik guesthouse where I had booked my stay in Ljubljana, had asked me to call her when I arrived in Ljubljana to give her notice so she could meet me at the property to give me my key. I looked everywhere for a public payphone and eventually found one at the bus station outside the railway station. I went to put some euro coins into the slot, but there was no coin slot, only a card slot. I went to put my credit card in the slot but it wouldn't fit.

Next to the payphones was a little kiosk selling tobacco, lottery tickets and the like. I asked the lady there how to use the public telephones. She said I needed to buy a special card. I asked if she sold them. "No! Telekom," she said as she pointed down the street behind her.

I walked down the street and tried looking for a Telekom office but I couldn't see one; in any case, it was now five o'clock and most likely would be shut. I tried a different approach. I went into the bus station and sat down and got my mobile phone out. It still had my Magyar Telekom SIM card from Hungary. I know I had used up all my data, but perhaps I still had call time left. I turned off airplane mode on my iPhone, and within a minute I got an SMS from Magyar Telekom in Hungarian which said something like I didn't have roaming activated on my prepaid SIM and I would need to go to a Magyar Telekom office to activate roaming.

I was about to tear my hair out. I removed the Hungarian SIM card from my phone and looked for my Australian SIM card. I turned my backpack upside down looking for it. I eventually found it in the little cardboard pouch the Hungarian SIM card came in.

I put my Australian SIM card from Optus in my phone and turned roaming on. I received the roaming confirmation text message from Optus. I dialled Eva's number and got a recorded message in Slovenian playing on a loop; I guessed it was a "this number is not available" message. I tried texting the number and got a "message failed to send" error.

"For f@#&'s sake!" I shouted, to the distress of everyone around me. How on earth was I meant to contact Eva so I could get my key?

I opened my Booking.com app and found another phone number on my reservation and tried calling that. Someone answered, it was Eva's brother. He promised me that he wold contact Eva for me.

I walked to the guesthouse, it was fifteen mimutes away from the station. When I got there Eva was waiting. She had made an innocent mistake when giving me her number for me to call! Eva was extremely apologetic and sympathetic. What an amazing change from Hungary!

Eva showed me up to my room and showed me how to use everything, and then I started exploring. As far as capitals go, Ljubljana is not very large; about three hundred thousand people. It has a compact city centre centred on a narrow, gently arcing river, the Ljubljanica, with a castle on top of a hill overlooking the centre. The city centre is almost completely pedestrianised; cars are prohibited from most streets and the cobbled roads are reserved for pedestrians, cyclists and the odd skater.

There are promenades along both sides of the river with lots of outdoor dining, cute little bridges cross the river at frequent intervals, the most interesting being the Triple Bridge - three stone bridges next to each other that fan out across the river in a triangle. There are a series of squares with more cobbled streets radiating out from them; the most prominent square being Prešeren Square on the north side of the Triple Bridge.

I grabbed dinner and a craft beer at a fancy burger joint. The burger, chips and beer came to twenty euros - about what I would pay in Sydney, if not a little more. I had gotten used to bargain basement Hungarian prices! Economically speaking, I was back in the West.

I soon came across that dry, sarcastic, deadpan Slovenian sense of humour that I would soon come to love. I had ordered my dinner from the waiter in English. Except for flicking through the tiny phrasebook at the back of my Lonely Planet, I had not studied Slovene. The waiter remarked "You must feel like you're still at home, huh? Being able to order in English in our country, right?"

"I'm sorry, but they don't teach Slovene in Australian high schools," I rejoindered.

"Well, you should have learned by now. It's not that hard."

"I arrived in Slovenia at half past four this afternoon."

"Tut, tut. Excuses, excuses."

From what little I saw of Ljubljana and Slovenia today, I knew I was going to like it. How much more was I going to like it when I really started to explore it from tomorrow?

Train No. 1

Train No. 1

Train No. 2

Train No. 2

Train No. 3

Train No. 3

Prešeren Square

Prešeren Square

Train No. 4

Train No. 4

Train No. 5 - the “Citadella” to Ljubljana

Train No. 5 - the “Citadella” to Ljubljana

The long way to Zalaegerszeg

The long way to Zalaegerszeg

Slovenian scenery near Celje

Slovenian scenery near Celje

Bridge at Zidani Most

Bridge at Zidani Most

Sava River from the Citadella train

Sava River from the Citadella train

Sava River from the Citadella train

Sava River from the Citadella train

Ljubljanica River and the Triple Bridge

Ljubljanica River and the Triple Bridge

Ljubljana Castle from the Triple Bridge

Ljubljana Castle from the Triple Bridge

Posted by urbanreverie 13:37 Archived in Slovenia Tagged hungary slovenia ljubljana railways customer_service citadella

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