Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Dunaj/Duna: Slovakia and Hungary to Budapest

East of Vienna

Tata, Hungary

Feeling small at Esztergom Basilica

"Triumphant entry", Budapest

Synagogue, Dohanyi Street, Budapest

Parliament Buildings in Pest from the Citadel

Mosaic cupola ceiling in Szechenyi Baths, Budapest

My route to date in pink: Amsterdam-Belgium-France-Swiss Jura & Rhine-Germany-Austria-Hungary to Budapest

My departure from Vienna was more enjoyable than my entry had been a few days earlier. There were two reasons for this. First, I had a more correct understanding of Vienna's location in relation to the Danube. A few things have changed since Johann Strauss composed "Blue Danube: the city fathers had a canal built to manage the Danube's flood waters and as a result Vienna's centre is bordered by a skinny ribbon of water instead of the more inspiring river granddaddy. The second and more important reason is that I now had Trish with me, and a more determined navigator I could not have found. I admit that in the following days I was happy to follow where she led, since she had read and reread the guidebook from cover to cover, she had the map, and she speaks German. My supplementary role was GPS consultant, and this suited me fine. We still missed a turnoff and put in a few extra kilometres, but this was due to absorption in conversation on our way along the Prater, former royal hunting grounds and now Vienna's vast city park.

There was a distinctly different atmosphere east of Vienna, even before we crossed the Austrian-Slovakian border later the same day. The grafitti that covered the bridge underpasses set a tone of desolation that we didn't leave behind with the city. The long path along the dyke had the feeling of a no-man's land, and I was glad of the strong tailwind that powered us along this stretch. The one town of size on our first day was Hainburg. It was once the main eastern outpost of the Roman Empire, and has impressive 13th century gates. One, the Vienna Gate, was paid for partly with the ransom money for the English King Richard the Lion-hearted back in 1193 when he'd been kept in the Durnstein Castle upstream. We stood in the dank shadows of the narrow "Blutgasschen", Blood Alley, where the desperate Hainburgers tried to escape the scimitars of the Turks (advancing on Vienna) on July 12, 1683, but were trapped by a door that wouldn't open. Only 100 people escaped. 8432 died or were taken prisoner. We felt a bit trapped too, but only by the stairs--we had to find another way into the town centre. But once we did, we found a subdued altstadt, faded and peeling or unpainted. This state was more the rule than the exception this side of Vienna. Towns seemed a bit run down, tired; the roads more likely to have potholes and broken pavement. Even the fields were less tidy. The combination of wood smoke and summer heat betrayed a poverty I hadn't encountered since travels in tropical third world countries. The season conspired as well to add to my unease: we rode past vast fields of sunflowers, now with huge blackened, drooping heads. Bratislava had a stately and well maintained Baroque centre befitting the Slovakian capital (and former centre of the Hungarian empire for 200 years until the Turks won the Battle of Mohacs in 1526), but just a few minutes walk brought us to the violence of broken windows and pavements, grafitti, and sad weedy parks with waterless fountains. Other touring cyclists having mostly disappeared from the scene, I was really glad to have Trish along as I made the transition from the Donauradweg, the Austrian portion of which started to look suspiciously Disneyesque in retrospect. Discussing the large numbers of older cyclists on rented bikes I had met, Trish, always a straight talker, said, "because it's so tame! Younger people are doing more adventurous things." I was a teensy bit deflated, but she's absolutely right, as straight talkers often are. The journey henceforth promises more adventure.

We spent two days in Bratislava enjoying the hospitality of friends of Trish and getting a brief introduction to the Slovak language and life; then "a-ahoj!" we pedalled off to Hungary. I remember some petulancy on my part with the paucity of umbrella'd cafes and the small grocery choices in the towns we passed through, but the lowlights have faded as they ought, and the highlights remain.

One of these is the sense of entering a vast stage for big history. The Magyars (Hungarians) first claimed the Hungarian lands for themselves in the 10th century, but before them the Celts, Romans, Huns, Lombards, Avars and Slavs fought it out for dominion. The Magyars were almost entirely wiped out by the Turks during their 200-year occupation, but after the Habsburgs turned them back (1686), Serbs, Dalmatians, Slovakians, Croatians and Swabians (Germans) were brought in to repopulate the decimated areas.

Some highlights on this historical stage were the towns of royal residences, such as Tata and Visegrad. One early morning we rode right around the Old Lake in Tata, where the castle looked back at itself in the lake. This was owned by one family, the Esterhazys, from 1727 to 1945. The same day we approached the magnificent basilica of Esztergom, rising on its pillars on a cliff ahead of us and visible while we were still many kilometres off and struggling through dusty rutted roads towards it. In Visegrad we rode under the castle high above the Duna (Danube) on a treed hill. And then we were in the "Danube Bend," and taking ferries back and forth between Szentendre Sziget (Island), and the mainland. The island was a calm and lovely rural refuge. It is known for its strawberries, but like our Canadian Gulf islands, many Hungarian writers and artists have congregated there and in the town of Szentendre.

And thence to Budapest. This we could classify as a "triumphant entry" (borrowed words). Part of the reason for our triumph is the same as the reason for my difficulty finding Vienna. Unlike Vienna, Budapest straddles both banks of the Danube in magnificent style. Hence, it was easy to find. We entered on the Buda side, so we passed under the castle without being able to see it; but instead the glorious parliament buildings, doubly lit by direct and reflected sunlight came into view on the Pest side.

We ensconced ourselves in a comfortable and central youth hostel in Pest, and here I am, ten days later, finding it hard to leave. For one thing, this is a city of sights around every corner. The architecture is grand and gracious, the kind that makes you want to walk around with your head tilted upward a lot of the time. There are cafes and teahouses everywhere, ensuring frequent breaks to cool off, reflect and read Hungarian poetry. (If you're depressed, you know you've got fellow travellers amongst Hungarian poets: "The heart freezes if it doesn't love;/But when it does, it gets burnt/Both are bad. Which malady is better?/Only God knows." Sándor Petöfi, 1846.). And there are baths. We had enjoyed the pleasures of a thermal bath and swimming pools at campsites on our way (Lipót, Tata and Esztergom), but those were backyard affairs compared to the Gellert and Szechenyi Baths, only two of many bath houses in Budapest. These had been built and renovated in their own fashion by the Romans and the Turks after them; extensive mosaics are one legacy. We strolled from bath to bath, trying different temperatures, and also sunbathing at the edge of the outdoor pools, with the occasional dip or body surf in the wave pool (likely not a feature of either the Roman or Turkish baths).

Also, of course, there are the major sights, some of which I've managed to see. Our hostel is on the edge of the Jewish Quarter, so visiting the great synagogue nearby was imperative: it's the biggest in Europe. We heard some moving personal stories by the guide about the horrors and heroism of the war years; there is a holocaust memorial adjacent. A plain plaque honours the names of non-Jews who hid or protected Jews, headed by Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish ambassador. Many of these were taken to the edge of the Danube, shot and thrown in. They were ordered to leave their shoes behind. "Shoes on the Danube" is an unlabelled sculpture on the promenade: a long line of shoes permanently looking as if their owners just stepped out of them. We also stumbled on a photographic exhibit in the dank and dripping underground bunker in the citadel, mostly of the horrors of 1944 and directly after: dead soldiers, blood, gore, heaps of skeletal corpses from the Jewish ghetto, many of them children. How could anyone forget.

I wrote much of this post sitting on a bench with a direct view of the pillared and domed Buda castle on the opposite bank (I visited the Hungarian National Gallery inside several days ago). I was sad to see Trish off at the station yesterday, and it's time for me to move on myself.

The next stage of the journey promises adventure. I'll spare you the need to read between the lines. It means life is about to get rougher; I can expect lower lows but also, I hope, higher highs. I've had to weigh what I've heard--"it's like the middle ages there," "I sure as hell wouldn't want to camp in Romania," and "Romania is a shithole." I overheard a man on Citadel Hill telling someone on his cellphone, alone in the crowd of tourists, "I don't have a dream right now, I have a decision!" His bearing was like that of the Liberty statue holding her palm frond aloft above us, exhilarated. I don't know what his momentous decision was, but mine is to continue east on the Danube route, heading for the Black Sea. My ultimate goal is Turkey. I feel scared of my own courage again, but I'm ready for the adventure, within reason.

Still in Budapest, 4503 km

1 comment:

Kris said...

Great picture of you and Trish with the parliament in Budapest in the background!