A Travellerspoint blog

Karst the first stone

overcast
View Urban Reverie Late 2019 on urbanreverie's travel map.

I have always liked caves. They both terrify me and intrigue me at the same time. I remember my parents taking me and my brother on a short holiday to Wellington Caves in the Central West of New South Wales when I was four. I recall having the living daylights scared out of me by all the bats - bats still give me the chills - but also being amazed by all the stalactites and stalagmites and columns and all the other bizarre formations. Caves are a glimpse into another world, a world beneath our feet that we human beings rarely give a second thought, a fairytale universe in which monsters are real and rivers disappear into darkness and all the furniture is made of limestone.

Slovenia is the ideal destination for someone who likes caves. To make a cave, you only really need two things - limestone fairly close to the surface and water. Water, being one of the most powerful solvents on earth, reacts with limestone to form calcium carbonate suspended in solution. The limestone is slowly but relentlessly eroded away, forming the cavities that we all know as caves. Water drips through the limestone into the caves, depositing the dissolved calcium carbonate on the ceilings, floors and walls, forming those beautiful spikes and columns and curtains that tourists love to take photos of.

The best landscape for the formation of caves is karst - typically, karsts are highland plateaus where the limestone forms a large relatively flat surface easily accessible to rainwater. Karst is found all over the world, but the granddaddy of all karsts is its namesake, the Karst region of southwestern Slovenia.

So I got up early in the morning and caught a train to the Karst plateau. I walked fifteen minutes to Ljubljana station, bought my ticket from the counter - unusually for a European railway, Slovenske železnice doesn't have ticket machines - then bought a small McDonald's breakfast to take on the train. It wasn't long before my train, the 08:15 local train to Opčine, departed. This small modern two-car electric train, very sleek and smart in its dark red livery, departed on time, the polite conductor stamped my ticket, the train was comfortable and clean and didn't smell of urine at all and it didn't stop halfway through its journey to dump everyone onto trackwork buses that never come. What a change from Hungary!

Another great thing about this train - there were four different bins for recycling. Slovenes would have to be the most fastidious, pedantic recyclers in the world. Wherever you go you see people at street bins carefully sort through their waste to make sure they put the right things in the right bin. Back home, I always nearly have an aneurysm whenever I open the recycling wheelie bins only to find other residents in my apartment building have put unrecyclable waste or unseparated items in garbage bags or dirty nappies in them. Why do people have to be so damn stupid!

The train went through Ljubljana's western suburbs then crossed a green agricultural plain, after which it slowly climbed up into mountains clad with pines and beeches with views across emerald valleys studded with villages of neat two-storey family homes with steep roofs. The line was quite twisty. Slovenian railways remind me a bit of the railways in New South Wales - the track, signal, electrical and the trains themselves are all reasonably modern and well maintained, but they still follow the same antiquated nineteenth century alignments as when they were built, meaning that the trains travel at a snail's pace.

A bit over one and a half hours after leaving Ljubljana, I disembarked at Divača, a few kilometres from the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Škocjan Caves. I and four other visitors didn't have to wait long for the free shuttle bus to the caves, a mere five minutes away by minibus but an hour's walk.

There are two tours available for the Škocjan Caves, and I bought a ticket to both. The first tour was "Following The Reka River Underground", a hike along the Reka River canyon including through natural tunnels where it goes underground for short distances. There was a short while before this tour began so I went on a short walk to a nearby lookout. This lookout gave an excellent overview of the layout of the Skocjan Caves. The Reka River - "Rijeka" in Croatian; the Croatian port city of Rijeka is at the river's mouth - flows across the Karst plateau and has carved out an enormous canyon. The canyon isn't complete though; there are portions where the Reka disappears completely, only to reappear out of a tunnel portal.

At eleven o'clock the first tour began. We followed the tour leader for a hike across nearby farmland then descended very steep stairs into the canyon. The path then followed the gushing Reka river along the canyon and through two large natural tunnels. After the second tunnel we emerged into a giant bowl-shaped cavity, the Big Collapse Doline. What happened is that previosuly, the Reka was completely underground here. But erosion action over time from surface water (e.g., rainfall) permeating the limestone slowly makes the ceiling get thinner and thinner until the ground collapses. Essentially, the Big Collapse Doline is one giant sinkhole. Further erosion has carved out a massive bowl-shaped natural ampitheatre with the river still flowing through the bottom.

We ascended back to the visitor centre on a funicular railway and I had a deeply unsatisfying lunch at a restaurant with the slowest, most indifferent service. I should have learned by now that restaurants at national parks and other natural attractions remote from urban areas is always expensive and horrible, and that I should always bring my own food. These places are effectively monopolies and they damn well know it, and visitors have no choice but to cop it on the chin. I paid €3.50 for a 500mL bottle of Coke Zero (the going rate elsewhere in Slovenia is about €1.50). Even by Australian standards, A$5.60 is outrageous.

At one o'clock the second tour began, "Through The Underground Canyon". This is by far the more popular tour, it goes into the caves proper, not just the tunnels. The friendly and knowledgable guide - yet also quite rightly strict; the rules quite clearly stated no photographs on this tour and she came down hard on the flagrant rule breakers - led us on another hike for a kilometre or so across farmland, down another very steep staircase into the canyon, then through the cave entrance.

The next hour - wow. What awe and reverence these caves inspired. The scale of the caves defies belief. In some chambers, the tour leader would shine her torch into the darkness and the beam of light would touch no wall. The Škocjan Caves make the Jenolan Caves west of Sydney look like somebody's basement. The immensity of the caves swallows anybody who visits them and turns them into mere inconsequential atoms.

It was hard work. There were very steep staircases connecting the different chambers, the wet, slippery path didn't help things. The tour guide made it all worthwhile, she was patient and answered everyone's question in turn. I asked a question about why photography was prohibited on this tour and not the other one. She politely explained it was all about safety - when people take photos they take unsafe risks like leaning over the many precipices and crevices, and also about timing - the caves are massive and there is only so much time, and if everyone took photographs it would take up too much time. So I have no photographs of this tour. Just do a Google Images search for "Škocjan Caves". You will see what I am banging on about.

After about ninety minutes we all went back up to the visitor centre on the same funicular railway, then there was a half hour wait for the shuttle bus back to Divača station. I went to the ticket office at the railway station but it was closed, the roller shutter well and truly locked. They don't have railway ticket machines in Slovenia. How on earth was I supposed to buy a ticket? The other caves visitors were scratching their heads too.

It wasn't too long until the train back to Ljubljana appeared, the "Pohorje", an Intercity train that travels the entire length of the country from the port of Koper on the Adriatic coast to Hodoš on the Hungarian border. We boarded this sleek little three-car tilting train but we needn't have worried. In Slovenia, railway conductors sell tickets on board. Such a relief! In New South Wales boarding without a ticket is a $200 fine and I was worried it might be the same here in Slovenia.

After resting for a bit at the Dežnik guesthouse, I went out for dinner. I chose a Bosnian restaurant, Sarajevo '84, that specialises in Bosnian cuisine as well as čevapi, the spiced skinless sausages that are a staple all across ex-Yugoslavia. I must confess that before I came to Slovenia, I imagined that all the former Yugoslav people still hated each other after the toxic hatreds, suppressed for decades by Marshal Tito's slogan of Brotherhood and Unity, were unleashed in the 1990s Yugoslav Wars.

If Slovenia is anything to judge by, this is nonsense.

There is this Bosnian restauarant. The airwaves on Slovenian radio are full of cheesy synth-pop by Croatian and Serbian musicians. (By the way, cheesy synth-pop from the ex-Yugoslav countries is like crack for the ears. It burrows through your eardrums, buries itself in your brain and never, ever leaves. I'm hooked.) Every day I meet people who live in Slovenia but whose origins are in the other ex-Yugoslav republics. The roads are full of cars with Croatian and Serbian plates.

Anyway, I went to Sarajevo '84. Because the place is so popular I was seated with others and I was placed next to a Parisian lady my age or perhaps a little younger, Irene. Irene, a good-eccentric traveller (I don't think I've met a bad-eccentric traveller on this trip yet, thank heavens), is on a personal project to visit as many capital cities as she can. She is starting with all the European countries, has also clinched a few Asian capitals, and will then branch out to the rest of the world.

I talked about my own project of climbing as many national high points that I am capable of climbing and she laughed. We got to talking about our travels, the things we have seen. We swapped tips on what to see in Ljubljana and swapped phone numbers in case I ever visit Paris or she ever visits Canberra.

It was a pleasant end to a pleasant day exploring one of the world's most impressive cave systems.

Train from Ljubljana to Divača

Train from Ljubljana to Divača

Twisty pine at Škocjan Caves

Twisty pine at Škocjan Caves

Reka River at Škocjan Caves

Reka River at Škocjan Caves

Underground Reka River canyon

Underground Reka River canyon

Curtain-style stalactites at Škocjan Caves

Curtain-style stalactites at Škocjan Caves

Natural river tunnel at Škocjan Caves

Natural river tunnel at Škocjan Caves

Reka River tunnel at Škocjan Caves

Reka River tunnel at Škocjan Caves

Reka River waterfall at Škocjan Caves

Reka River waterfall at Škocjan Caves

Reka River canyon

Reka River canyon

Train back to Ljubljana from Divača

Train back to Ljubljana from Divača

Čevapi at Sarajevo ‘84

Čevapi at Sarajevo ‘84

Posted by urbanreverie 15:15 Archived in Slovenia Tagged canyon caves ljubljana karst skocjan Comments (0)

Laibach and think of Slovenia

rain 8 °C

One of the worst things about travelling is the blisters. They are unavoidable; well, at least with my style of travel that includes lots of public transport and walking. I know from experience that the blisters soon become sturdy calluses, but until then, they are excruciatingly uncomfortable.

I was also rather tired from the mammoth five-train extravaganza the day before. So I decided to have a quiet day walking - no, ambling - no no no, dawdling - around the fair city of Ljubljana.

I stepped outside to a cloudy, drizzly day. On my way out I was greeted by Maria, Eva's mother who owns the umbrella repair shop downstairs. She welcomed me to Slovenia, asked if everything was OK, gave me lots of tips of things to do and see, made me feel at home.

It was a cool, gentle European rain that renews the spirit and fills my heart with joy. It wasn't the sticky, clammy rain of Sydney that makes the humidity even worse. I put on my rain jacket and beanie and went for a wander.

There is probably no better city in Europe to do so. Ljubljana is a compact little city where motor traffic is strictly controlled. There is a wide long main street, Slovenske cesta, that is a bus mall which is also pedestrian friendly. The walker bounces from square to cosy square, lane to cobblestone lane, and finds something to catch their eye at every corner.

After a hearty breakfast platter of pršut (like Italian prosciutto ham but even better), olives, pickled tomatoes, cheese and bread, I decided to attend to practical matters first. There was that bottle of Hungarian wine I wanted to send my mother. I entered Ljubljana's general post office, a marvellous little building in the same fin de siècle style you often see in Vienna, with a rounded corner facade and a cute cupola. I went into the post office, all polished marble and brass, and was served by a competent, courteous and efficient employee who provided me with the required box, bubble wrap and postage I required to send a bottle of wine to Australia. See, Magyar Posta, it isn't that hard, you bunch of utter morons!

I walled around Kongresni Trg, the largest square - more like a park, really - in Ljubljana, and then checked out the National Museum of Slovenia nearby. This isn't one of the world's most notable museums. It only occupied one and a half floors of a modest building, and concentrates solely upon the ethnographic history of Slovenia only as late as the Middle Ages - a fairly esoteric niche subject. That being said, it is one of the most fantastic museums I have visited.

Why? Because unlike most museums, the National Museum of Slovenia takes the trouble to explain everything! Every single artifact on display, no matter how small, came with explanatory text in simple layperson's language informing the visitor about the significance of that necklace or this sickle blade. There was also an entire gallery full of Roman monuments - tombstones and public building inscriptions and statue plinths and the like - and every single bit of Latin text was translated into Slovene and English. Would that all museums did this! Being able to see a two thousand year old tombstone from the days when Ljubljana was a Roman provincial capital called Emona and read that the inscription says it was dedicated to a seventeen-year-old girl mourned by her parents - well, I could easily see in my mind's eye those parents in their best togas sobbing, convulsive with grief, and the assembled mourners praying to Roman gods and goddesses for the safety of the girl's soul in the afterlife. Great explanatory text makes all the difference.

There were other interesting items too - a wooden deer trap from the early Middle Ages that still looked like it could snag Bambi, Celtic swords from the pre-Roman times bent in an S shape (a common Celtic habit was to so bend swords and bury them with the dead warrior who owned the sword), a three thousand year old situla, a bucket decorated with friezes depicting the life of a Celtic ruler, and the world's oldest musical instrument (unfortunately only a replica was shown due to renovations): a fifty thousand year old Neanderthal flute. Slovenia also has the world's oldest wheel. It's safe to say that Slovenes are innovative people.

Near the museum was Slovenia's parliament building, a bland grey 1950s office block, but nevertheless it surely wins the prize for gratuitous nudity. The friezes beside and above the front doors were full of naked people, virile men and full-bosomed women, in various poses, and I am at a complete loss to explain how these nude figures are even remotely relevant to the legislative process.

I dawdled across the river to Old Town on the other side. I then took my only rail transport for the day - a funicular railway up to Ljubljana Castle. There has been a castle on this hill overlooking the town and the Ljubljanica River for a thousand years, but after various fires and reconstructions, much of it now dates from the fifteenth century or later.

There are some interesting little museums in the castle, one with a whole bunch of mediaeval armour and weapons, and another excellent little museum about Slovenia's history from the pre-Roman era until the modern post-Yugoslav independence period. There is a watchtower with a very steep and narrow spiral staircase with excellent views over Ljubljana in all directions from the top. There's a small church, St George's Chapel, with beauitful frescoes on the ceiling depicting various coat-of-arms of duchies in this part of the Habsburg empire in the days when this city was known by its German name, Laibach. There are casements and parapets and old prison cells to explore too.

It was early evening when I took the funicular back down the hill to the Old Town. I splashed out on a three-course meal at the excellent Druga Violina restaurant which serves traditional Slovenian fare. I started off with another platter of pršut, olives and dried fruit; had buckwheat and mushroom porridge for the main course (much nicer than it sounds), and finished off with gibanica, Slovenia's most famous dessert - a moist layer cake with ground walnuts and cottage cheese and poppy seeds and raisins. Slovenian cuisine is great and deserves to be better known. It is a perfectly balanced amalgam of German/Austrian, Italian, Hungarian and Balkan/Ottoman traditions as well as Slovenia's own innovations. I should start a Slovenian restaurant in Sydney and make a fortune.

Ljubljana general post office

Ljubljana general post office

Nude friezes on the Slovenian Parliament

Nude friezes on the Slovenian Parliament

Roman municipal boundary marker for municipality of Emona

Roman municipal boundary marker for municipality of Emona

Vači situla at National Museum of Slovenia

Vači situla at National Museum of Slovenia

Bronze statue of young politician from Roman town of Emona

Bronze statue of young politician from Roman town of Emona

Mediaeval deer trap at National Museum of Slovenia

Mediaeval deer trap at National Museum of Slovenia

Ljubljanica River

Ljubljanica River

Ljubljana Castle

Ljubljana Castle

Ljubljana Castle

Ljubljana Castle

View of the city from Ljubljana Castle

View of the city from Ljubljana Castle

St George’s Chapel in Ljubljana Castle

St George’s Chapel in Ljubljana Castle

Ljubljana Castle at night

Ljubljana Castle at night

View of the city from Ljubljana Castle at night

View of the city from Ljubljana Castle at night

Posted by urbanreverie 14:25 Archived in Slovenia Tagged museum castle ljubljana post_office Comments (0)

The slow way to Slovenia

overcast
View Urban Reverie Late 2019 on urbanreverie's travel map.

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 Comments (0)

Gloomy Sunday

semi-overcast
View Urban Reverie Late 2019 on urbanreverie's travel map.

I woke early in the morning feeling well, my stomach had settled down, but I felt very drained and fatigued. As I get older I notice that I'm getting better at interpreting the signs that my body is trying to communicate to me. So I decided to have a slow, easy day today.

It was nearly ten when I ambled down the street to the bus interchange next to the railway station. Everything was shrouded in dense fog, a fog so thick that even sounds were muffled. Not a single bird was singing, there was barely a car on the street, only the peals of distant church bells full of impending doom broke the silence. It truly was a Gloomy Sunday. I whistled "Gloomy Sunday" just to break the oppressive silence, and even started singing it ("Szomorú vasárnap szaz fehér virággal ...")

I didn't have to wait long for a bus to Hévíz about seven kilometres northwest of Keszthely. After ten minutes on empty roads I got off. Hévíz is a town whose sole reason of existence is the town's namesake, an enormous hot spring, a veritable lake several hundred metres across, the largest thermal bath in the world. (Lake Rotorua in New Zealand is larger but Hévíz claims Rotorua can't be used for bathing. I invite Kiwis to comment if I need to be corrected. I look forward to a Kwi vs Magyar flame war!)

The town of Hévíz is a collection of surprusingly large high-rise hotels, spa and massage treatment centres, expensive antique and bric-a-brac stores, ice cream parlours and other places whose primary purpose is to suck the money out of the wallets of visitors. I tried to find breakfast but except for ice cream parlours and a couple of bakeries nothing was open. So I just had a couple of pastries and a tiny cup of scalding hot, bitter Hungarian coffee for breakfast. Coffee in Hungary normally consists of just a shot of boiling espresso. If you order "kávé tejjel" (coffee with milk), you just get a shot of espresso with a teaspoon of milk added. For what Australians would consider a white coffee, you need to specify "latté", but that doesn't appear on every coffee shop's menu.

I waited twenty-five minutes in the queue to get into Hévíz. I couldn't believe how difficult most people found purchasing admission. In their defence, there was a wide range of admission products for sale: two-hour, four-hour, daily, multi-day passes, with sauna, without sauna, and all sorts of beauty and massage treatment supplements. I ended up buying a four-hour pass with sauna for five thousand forints.

I changed into my swimmers and thongs, walked out along a long, enclosed pier to a pavillion in the centre of the lake, and went down into the water under the pavillion. The water directly underneath the pavillion is the warmest in the entire lake. After a short while I went back into the pavillion and swam outside in the fresh air where the water was less crowded. The water was still warm, had a mild sulphuric smell that wasn't unpleasant, and left my skin and hair feeling silky. The bottom of the lake was surprisingly slimy - there's a species of seaweed that thrives on sulphur that grows thickly on the bed of the lake.

I went for a nice big swim around the lake, it was good to engage in a form of exercise that wasn't walking everywhere or carrying fifteen kilograms on my back. The weather was mostly sunny, partly cloudy, low twenties. Perfect.

The only criticism I have of Hévíz is that it wasn't very social. I remember going to hot springs at Wulai in Taiwan and the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, and how at those thermal baths there was something in the water that gave every single visitor an instant feeling of contentment and belonging. It was like one big party of brotherhood, sisterhood and innocent love. Everyone at Wulai and the Blue Lagoon were best friends with each other, and had been since the dawn of time, and will be until the end of days. There was none of that convivial bomhomie at Hévíz. I am not sure if it was because of the chemical composition of the water, or because they were Hungarian. Probably the latter. Not even the warm, soothing waters of Hévíz could melt that Hungarian ice.

As I was swiming to the far side of the lake, my hand hit a small hard object in the grey-green murky water. I felt around and discovered what I hit - a shell, maybe an inch and a half long, shaped like an ice cream cone, with the most delicate swirling pink and cream colours. Molluscs can survive in these hot sulphuric waters! I was amazed. Nearby was a middle-aged couple talking in German. I introduced myself in German and they introduced themselves back. I showed the woman the shell and she was amazed too, so I gave the couple the shell. I sort of regret not keeping it, but I doubt Australian quarantine would let me keep an animal product like that.

After swimming around the lake I walked across another enclosed pier to the sauna setion. There are four different saunas - an "infrasauna" (only 45C), an ordinary sauna (83C), an extremely hot sauna where nudity was mandatory and everyone had to sit on wrappers provided for the purpose (95C), and a steam room lined with tiles instead of wood. There was a cold water plunge pool which you were supposed to go into after using the sauna. I did this and instantly jumped out, the thermal shock was too great to withstand.

The sauna section also had a shallow pool full of small, rounded stones which you walked on to massage your feet, and two separate jacuzzis. Every jacuzzi I have ever been in has been a happy, social place, but not here.

By Australian standards I am very introverted. I live by myself, and while I enjoy the company of my friends reasonably often I am often just as happy doing tasks by myself - going on long bike rides or bushwalks, for instance. I will go to a pub for a couple of beers and friendly conversation with a mate but sometimes I will go to a pub by myself just to chill out for a bit. In Australia, a country of forcibly cheerful hyper-social extroverts, this makes me a weirdo loner. It is only since I came to Hungary that I realise how much I depend on social contact and maybe I'm not such an introvert after all.

In the sauna section there was also a salt room. Salt rooms are all the rage nowadays, there's even one in the Mid North Coast town where my mother lives. I thought they were a load of bull, just quackery to get money from gullible people. I entered the salt room at Hévíz skeptically. The dim room consisted of plastic outdoor chairs in a room where the walls were built of rock salt bricks. I sat down and thought to myself "this is a load of rot! This is just a boring room full of idiot oldies who think this crap really will cure their arthritis or blood pressure!" But after five minutes sitting in that silent room, something happened. This feeling of perfect well-being, relaxation and contentment overtook every atom of my body. All the niggling little pains that come from travelling independently - the joint pains, the calluses and blisters, the muscle aches that come from walking incredible distances every day and lugging a backpack from city to city on public transport - disappeared. My skin, wet from swimming in the lake, dried very quickly and became very smooth and taut. My lungs became less asthmatic and breathing became pure and effortless.

Hévíz recommends that you spend no more than thirty minutes in the salt room so I reluctantly left and went back outside. There was a mud pool outside the pavillion where you could smear mud from the bottom of the lake all over yourself. I can't say this gave me a sense of well-being. I showered the mud off, went swimming around the lake again, and had to leave because I ws about to reach my four-hour limit.

I caught the bus back to Keszthely. There were two more attractions I wanted to visit in Keszthely - the Festetics Palace and the Hungarian Model Railway Museum which was in the same complex as Festetics Palace. My trusty Lonely Planet said both closed at six. It was shortly after four when I got back to Kesthely.

First, I was starving. There was a small bar at the palace which sold toasted sandwiches and other snacks. I bought a grilled cheese and salami toastie, paid my bill then went into the palace, only to find that the ticket office was shut. In the off season, the palace closes at five and the ticket office closes at four.

Damn. It was half past four. I ran across the road to the model railway museum hoping that hadn't shut early too. I bolted up the driveway to the front door open to see a security guard come out and tell me that it was closed.

Double damn. At least the Festetics Palace grounds were still open. The palace is a magnificent baroque residence built in the eighteenth century by a local noble family, the Festetics clan, who were notable patrons of science and agriculture. They founded an agricultural college in Keszthely that is still Hungary's main institute of higher learning for agricultural science. There are perfectly symmetrical gardens, a sinuous pond with a footbridge over it, groves of trees with autumn leaves, a coach house that is five times as large as most people's own houses, amd a great view over the town of Keszthely. It was pleasant enough just to walk through the grounds in the twilight.

I went off to find dinner. Keszthely was closed. I walked down the main street and into the town square and the only businesses open at half past five on a Sunday afternoon were two cafés serving coffee and cakes. I needed something more substantial. There was a Coop supermarket but it was shut. This was worse than Sundays in Australia when I was a kid before they liberalised trading hours restrictions in the 1990s.

Eventually I found a nice little restaurant on a side street in a residential neighbourhood, the Park Restaurant, a family-owned affair that served traditional Hungarian fare. Creamy garlic soup was the entrée folowed by a main course of pörkölt with nokedli washed down with a tantalising local red wine the name of which I forget. In Hungary, goulash is actually a soup. The thick stew that Australians call "goulash" is closer to what Hungarians call "pörkölt", though pörkölt doesn't necessarily have the vegetables like potatoes and carrots that goulash has. It was a great meal, the size of the portions was enormous and even though I was starving I had trouble finishing it. Dessert was strictly out of the question! It was certainly a fitting last meal - well, last proper meal - for my visit to Hungary.

Gloomy Sunday in Keszthely

Gloomy Sunday in Keszthely

Gloomy Sunday in Keszthely

Gloomy Sunday in Keszthely

Town of Hévíz

Town of Hévíz

Hévíz thermal lake

Hévíz thermal lake

Hévíz thermal lake

Hévíz thermal lake

Festetics Palace

Festetics Palace

Festetics Palace gardens

Festetics Palace gardens

Keszthely’s main square

Keszthely’s main square

Pörkölt with nokedli

Pörkölt with nokedli

Posted by urbanreverie 15:20 Archived in Hungary Comments (0)

Balaton blues

sunny
View Urban Reverie Late 2019 on urbanreverie's travel map.

I had a few hours to kill before my intended train from Budapest to my next destination, Keszthely on Lake Balaton in western Hungary. I grabbed another breakfast from the Penny Market supermarket across the road. Hungarian groceries are so cheap; two pieces of fruit, two pastries and a small chunk of cheese comes to less than three Australian dollars. The owner of the guesthouse let me keep my luggage in the apartment while I visited my last Budapest tourist attraction, the House of Terror, two blocks away.

The House of Terror is an ornate Baroque Revival building on a corner of Andrassy Avenue, one of the world's greatest boulevards, a broad, late nineteenth-century thoroughfare lined with trees and chic apartments which leads from the city centre to City Park in the northeastern suburbs. The House of Terror didn't look too terrifying, except for this huge metal bracket placed over the eaves with the words "TERROR", the Arrow Cross symbol and the communist star stencilled out of the metal. The sun shone through the stencils in the metal casting the words "TERROR" and the totalitarian symbols across the building.

The House of Terror was used as a location of torture and repression by two dictatorships: it was the headquarters of the Arrow Cross party which formed a German Nazi puppet government in Hungary for the last few months of the Second World War, and it was also the headquarters of the ÁVH, the dreaded secret police of the post-war communist regime for many years.

You aren't allowed to take photos inside the House of Terror, so please let me summarise: Stalin was a right bastard. That's all you really need to know.

There was a bit more to it than that. You enter the building, become slightly distraught by the creepy, sinister Alfred Hitchcock-style suspense music playing in every room, pay the admission fee, start from the top floor and work your way down to the basement. The top floors are devoted to the history of oppression in Hungary, starting with the Arrow Cross regime then swiftly segueing to brutal Soviet occupation and communist hegemony. I regret not paying a bit extra for an English audio guide because every information display was only in Hungarian. information. Some rooms had A4 printed sheets with English explanations, but not all of them. There were videos of interviews with Hungarians who were victims of oppression - grown men, proud men, reduced to convulsive sobbing as they recalled how the ÁVH tortured them decades ago, how they were cut off from their families who thought they were dead, how they were beaten into submission and had the most unmentionable indignities happen to them.

The creepiest bit of the House of Terror is the basement which used to hold the punishment cells and the secret execution rooms. There was a cell used for extra punishment, a cell big enough only to stand in where people were kept for weeks at a time unable to sleep or go to the toilet properly.

I know that the House of Terror has a propaganda bent, that it is the project of a right-wing Hungarian government that wants to discredit communism and the left in general. But screw communism. Screw dictatorships no matter what they call themselves. Screw terror.

There has to be a better way than both communism and capitalism. Capitalism as it currently stands is literally cooking the planet to death because burning fossil fuels is terribly profitable for energy and mining companies. Capitalism results in unjustifiable inequality that surely must twinge the conscience of every human being of goodwill and empathy. Capitalism reduces human beings from proud citizens of a community into mere atomised consumers in an economy, their mortal souls reduced to their PayPal balances. Capitalism is riding roughshod over worker's rights all across the world, has turned democratic institutions into mere playthings for wealthy, well-connected corporate donors. Capitalism can't continue as it is. We can't keep living like this.

So here's an idea. How about we combine the very best elements of socialism with the very best elements of capitalism? Let us have a strong, adequate welfare state that protects everyone from poverty and the causes of poverty - old age, illness, disability, sheer rotten bad luck. Let us have widespread public ownership or public control of (at the very least) infrastructure, banking and energy to prevent greedy capitalist oligopolies ripping us all off blind. Let us have free or easily affordable education, health care and public transport, and let us build enough housing so that the entire population has access to a place that meets their needs. Let us have progressive taxation that prevents unjust and excessive accumulation of wealth, and redistribute that wealth via the welfare state to ensure nobody gets left behind or has to live on the street. Let us have strong unions that protect workplace rights and guarantee everyone a decent wage that is enough for a life of dignity.

But let us borrow from the very best of capitalism. Let companies, whether publicly owned or privately owned, set the prices of most of their goods and services according to market demand in order to minimise shortages and wasted surpluses. Let people earn more money if they want to work longer hours, take on extra responsibilities, choose a difficult or dangerous profession. If people want to aspire to more than what the welfare state provides - a nice two-storey house by the beach, say, or an expensive German car, or trips every year to Europe (cough, cough) - let them aspire to that, as long as they don't accumulate so much wealth that inequality returns to unconscionable levels. Let people start their own businesses if they have an innovative idea they think people will want. Let us have democracy with parties competing against each other with the best policies to win our votes.

And because this system which I invented while walking back to my guesthouse from the House of Terror combines the best features of socialism with the democratic values that have made Western civilisation so awesome, I reckon we should call it "social democracy". Wow! I am such a genius!

I went back to the guesthouse and said goodbye to Gergely. Gergely is a builder a couple of years older than me who grew up in this apartment. He lived in Canada for fifteen years as an adult and another five years in the United Kingdom. His father died last year and he inherited the apartment. He spent a year converting the large three-bedroom family apartment into a five-room guesthouse with a small private studio apartment for himself with his own hands, and now lets out the five rooms to paying guests and makes his living full-time from that. Good on him for having a go and I wished him every success with his endeavours.

As I was leaving, I met my first Australian of this trip, a delightfully dotty English teacher from the Sunshine Coast named Geraldine, who had arrived in Budapest the day before. Geraldine is now based in Indonesia where she teaches English privately, but she spends several months a year travelling the world. She takes her own pillow everywhere with her because she doesn't trust European pillows, and is a loveable eccentric. Remember what I have written on previous trips how travellers can either be good-eccentric or bad-eccentric? Geraldine is definitely the former. It is such a shame that I needed to go and catch my train to Keszthely because I would have loved to talk to her more abour our travels and swap even more tips.

I took the tram along Erszébet körút to Széll Kálmán tér and then another tram one stop to Déli (Southern) Station, one of Budapest's three main railway terminals and the main station for destinations in western Hungary. Unlike the other two stations (Keleti and Nyugati), Déli is an architectural disaster, a crumbling communist edifice of stained concrete and dim corridors and barren, windswept platforms.

I bought my ticket to Keszthely and as Déli has a dedicated international booking office I also decided to book my next ticket for two days' time to my next country. I boarded my train, five old carriages with a 431 class electric locomotive at each end. The train was going to Nagykanizsa but the two rear cars were going to Keszthely, they were to be detached at the junction station at Balatonszentgyörgy.

I boarded the two rear cars. There were fifteen minutes before departure but they were packed. Both carriages smelled like the train had just carried a full load of passengers to the 52nd Annual International Incontinence Convention. Both carriages were also full of young children. I accept that for the human race to survive, some people will need to procreate and generate new children. That does not mean that I am under any obligation to enjoy travelling with them. Judging by this train, right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's plan to increase the population by bribing mothers to have children rather than accept immigrants into Hungary seems to be working.

The train left Budapest on time at 13:35, slowly at first then after Kelenföld at quite a speed, topping out at 120 kilometres an hour on the flat, boring plains around Székesfehérvár. The train journey was not becoming any more enjoyable. The stench of urine was only getting worse and the kids were only getting louder. One four-year-old girl was watching a children's programme on her iPad at full volume without headphones. I know that Hungary isn't as rich as Australia, but surely if you can afford an iPad you can afford the headphones to go with it?

Even without the stink and the annoying brats, it would have been an unpleasant journey. There was a large cigarette burn in my seat cushion. Every seat also had a weird bulge under the cushion that pushed right into my tailbone. Readers with good memories may recall that only two days before, I had slipped on autumn leaves at Kékestető and my tailbone landed straight onto a jagged rock hidden in the leaves. It wasn't a hot day but it was very sunny, the windows only opened a small way far above the passengers' heads way up near the luggage racks, so there was no ventilation at all and the carriage became as hot and stuffy as a greenhouse. Making things even worse is that every window seat had a small garbage bin affixed to the wall exactly at thigh height. I needed to sit at a window seat so i could take photos and videos of the passing scenery. I will now have the outline of a Hungarian garbage bin imprinted onto my thigh for the rest of my life.

I had to go to the toilet. I opened the toilet door and I found the problem - the toilet was blocked, the bowl was full to overflowing and every time the train banked around a curve, the bowl would spill, the contents seeping out under the door into the carriage vestibule. Ewwww.

Not too long after Székésfehérvár the train reached Siófok, the first town along the southern shore of Lake Balaton. The train then followed the southern shore of Lake Balaton for its entire length. Lake Balaton is one of the largest lakes in Europe, the Eastern Bloc's Mediterranean. Cut off from the flesh pots of the Meditteranean coastal resorts by a wide band of NATO members and non-aligned countries, the unfortunate citizens of the Warsaw Pact were forced to spend their summer holidays at Lake Balaton instead. Indeed, Lake Balaton played a pivotal part in the fall of the Berlin Wall. When Hungary relaxed its border controls with Austria in the late summer of 1989, tens of thousands of East Germans just happened to be holidaying at Lake Balaton at the time. They all instantly got into their Trabants and drove to the Austrian border at Sopron; the long lines of Trabis emitting blue smoke from their exhaust pipes while waiting to cross the border is one of the defining images of the 1989 revolutions.

Lake Balaton is impressive. It is very long but not very wide. The southern shore is relatively flat but the northern side is an extinct volcanic province. There are oodles of impressive mountains on the north shore, the most impreseive of which is Badacsony, a flat-topped cone that wouldn't look out of place in Iceland.

I comtinued along the southern shore of Lake Balaton. The southern shore was an uninterrupted string of holiday towns, marinas, camping grounds and expensive summer homes owned by rich Hungarians. The train divided at Balatonszentgyörgy and I disembarked at Keszthely, literally breathing a huge sigh of relief - the first breath in three hours that didn't make me want to vomit. I walked about a kilometre to the Tarr Apartments where I checked in, sticking to Hungarian the whole time. The hosts congratulated me on how well I spoke Hungarian. This is the first time this has happened.

I have studied, either seriously or desultorily, many languages and without a doubt Hungarian is the most difficult language I have encountered. Even Chinese and Korean are easier. Hungarian is not an Indo-European language; it is a Finno-Ugric language with obscure origins somewhere in Siberia. Its grammar is complex and difficult; I find that my thoughts have to perform Nadia Comaneci-like contortions to be able to fit into the bizarre structures of Hungarian grammar.

Take something as simple as "I have something". There is no verb for "have" in Hungarian. Instead of saying "the boy has the ball", you have to say something that translates word for word to "to the boy his ball there is". Then there are all the cases. Instead of saying "in my houses", you have to add case suffixes to the end of the word and connect them all together like Lego blocks so you end up with something like "house-s-my-in".

Then there is the word order. In English word order is fairly fixed and constant except for adverbs which can move around a bit. It is always "the boy kicks the ball", never "kicks the ball the boy" or "the boy the ball kicks". In contrast, Hungarian word order is flexible, but there are still rules, and those rules are arbitrary and opaque. Every day for four months before leaving Australia I studied Hungarian via Duolingo on my mobile phome while travelling on the bus to and from work. I would do a lesson. It would ask me to translate a sentence. I would use a particular word order. I would receive a correct mark. A few questions later I would get a similar question. I would use the same word order. I would be marked incorrect. I would repeat that question, use a different word order, and get the green tick. The next question, the same style of sentence. I would use the same word order as the one that got me the green tick on the previous question, only to get the dreaded red cross.

"For crying out loud! I am using the same bloody word order as the previous question! What the hell am I doing wrong! What are the bloody rules I'm supposed to follow! Tell me, Duolingo!" I would shout out loud, to the disturbance of all the other passengers on the bus. Then I would do what any sane person would do. I would switch to the Italian course which is a piece of cake. It's such a relief.

Hungarian is so difficult and so few tourists bother to learn it before coming to Hungary that I sort of expected to be showered with rose petals by grateful Hungarians who were so amazed that I had taken the effort of learning their diabolical mother tongue. But no. Until I came to Keszthely and checked into my apartment, nothing. I would struggle through sentences, obvioisly flailing around to remember the right case or possessive ending, and I would get no assistance or encouragement. "But I am using an obscure noun case that exists in no other language! I am using complex verb conjugations that a PhD in linguistics would struggle to comprehend! Please give me credit for that!" But Hungarians aren't the kind of people to give credit even when credit is more than due. That is, until I checked into my apartment in Keszthely.

I was given the keys to my apartment and I settled in. The sun soon set and I decided to go for a stroll. Keszthely (pronounced like kest-hay) is a town of about nineteen thousand people located at the far northwestern corner of Lake Balaton. It is a holiday town, and being the autumn shoulder season, Keszthely had that despondent, closed-up feel you find in waterfront resort towns all over the world in the off season. I have family who live on the Mid North Coast of New South Wales and the towns they live in feel exactly the same in late autumn as Keszthely did. There were the same ice cream parlours and seafood restaurants closed for the season, the same sports bars that were nearly empty, the same bored unemployed teenagers loitering on the waterfront gossiping and horsing around, the same feeling that the life of the place has been sealed in a vacuum bag with mothballs until next summer begins.

I strolled around the waterfront. There was a nice pier, a large park which acted as a buffer between the town and the waterfront, a large bathing enclosure. There was a row of open-air restaurants and pubs in the park near the shoreline, most were closed but a few were still open. I went to a restaurant in which the only other patrons were a group of older men watching a soccer match on a large screen television, amd ordered pork neck and bean stew with nokedli (like gnocchi but made with dough instead of potatoes). It was very nice. Hungarian food is amazing and considering how many Hungarians moved to Australia after the 1956 revolution, it's surprising that I know of only two Hungarian restaurants in Sydney. Hungarian cuisine deserves to be better known, and not just for goulash.

I ambled out onto the pier. The lights of the towns along the southern shore twinkled on the horizon. I looked up and saw the stars. It struck me that this was my third time in Europe but that I had never bothered to look at the stars. It was disorienting, I could not recognise a single constellation. My familiar celestial companions - the Southern Cross, the Pointers, the Keel - were nowhere to be seen. Of course this is because I am in a different hemisphere. I looked along where I thought the celestial equator would be but still couldn't recognise any constellation because they were all upside down. I looked north. I tried to recognise some of the constellations I've only read about in books - the Big Dipper, the Bear, the Pole Star - but couldn't pick them out. I wonder if my British ancestors were just as confused when they migrated to Australia and couldn't recognise a single star.

I then continued east along the lake, there is a wide and well-lit promenade all along the shore. There were plenty of amateur fishermen with their rods, lines and reels. I noticed that many of them had placed their rods on these stands, the fishermen would sit well away from their rods and do other things like play with their phones or cook meat on a barbecue, and attached to the rods were sensors that would alert them to a bite. It seems like a lazy way to fish.

After about fifteen minutes, I started to feel violently ill. The pork neck and bean stew did not agree with me. I walked back to my apartment as quickly as I could, hoping to high heaven that I could hold on. I got back to my room in time and then spent the rest of the evening in bed recuperating. I was hoping to catch up on my travel blogging in a nice quiet lakeside town but there was no chance of that tonight. Best to stay in bed and hope that it was just a temporary bug that was now out of my system.

House of Terror

House of Terror

A literal Iron Curtain outside the House of Terror

A literal Iron Curtain outside the House of Terror

Déli Station

Déli Station

Stinky train from Budapest to Keszthely

Stinky train from Budapest to Keszthely

Badacsony mountain on Lake Balaton

Badacsony mountain on Lake Balaton

Pork neck stew and nokedli

Pork neck stew and nokedli

Keszthely sign on the Lake Balaton waterfront

Keszthely sign on the Lake Balaton waterfront

Swans on Lake Balaton

Swans on Lake Balaton

Posted by urbanreverie 13:53 Archived in Hungary Comments (0)

(Entries 16 - 20 of 55) « Page 1 2 3 [4] 5 6 7 8 9 10 .. »