Sept 17-21, The Hungarian Puszta
Standing between Budapest and Romania is the Hungarian Puszta, the largest prairie in Europe. My route across the puszta will take me through Hungary’s oldest and possibly largest National Park, Hortobagyi. After feeling quite constrained by the Danube Cycle Path, I was particularly excited to be crafting my own route, in no small part to the Hungarian road atlas geared for cyclists I had bought in Budapest.
Budapest to Jaszbereny
It took about 10 minutes to cycle from the hostel to the train station, 20 minutes to find the right ticket booth and get my ticket to Isazeg, and then the scary 40 minutes of trying to ensure I found the right platform and train before it left. I never did figure out the signage system. Guessed wrong twice, even getting help hefting my bike onto the train headed for Munich. I just stumbled on the right train, on platform 12 but never did figure out where the signs said so.
Once on, the train felt just like Germany. Very modern, pulled out precisely at 9:35 as scheduled with in car signage for each station along the way. I was only on for 30 minutes, just to get me out of Budapest onto my chosen bike route. Isazeg was much smaller than I had imagined. It was spattering when I got off the car, I guessed which way to go, finding a coffee shop, which I now realize was real lucky on this Sunday. It was the last one I found on that day. It was 10:30 before I had my coffee and two different pastries and got my load arranged for possible wet riding. It was still just spattering and so I headed off. The big test was now how good my new cycle road atlas was going to be at picking out a good route and then helping me stick to it.
It started to rain immediately, but I just kept going. The road was a little hilly but pretty quiet. I was kind of expecting, from my atlas legend, either a shoulder or a marked bike lane; neither. It was 13 km to the first town and it rained all the way, but I was on my way and going well and well rested. I had a turn at the first town and it happened exactly as the atlas indicated, and the rain stopped. At each town I passed I was on the lookout for a coffee or pastry shop, nothing. The cycling was really enjoyable and my confidence in my atlas grew as I got on to ever smaller roads. The puszta was ever in evidence but usually I was buffered by trees and bush, and with it frequent bird song to add to my enjoyment, not that any were known to me.
Approaching Jaszberney, the largest town on this day, it started to rain again. I was just under 60 km, and had thoughts of continuing but the rain cleared that thought. Once again, no restaurants, no coffee shops no hotels as I rode towards the centre. Not even sure where the town centre was I stopped at a crowd of people taking tents down, obviously some event, maybe shutting down early. I asked for panzio, hotel, bed, all my terms. In the rain the communication was tough and so one guy just indicated I should follow him. About ten blocks later he stopped outside a fairly big hotel, but the price, no registration, was good. But the restaurant was fully involved in a wedding.
I walked back into what I perceived to be the town and again with help from a friendly soul I was able to get a couple of beer, a goulash, coffee and more sweets and to kill a few hours before going back to an early night.
Jaszbereny to Tiszafured
It cleared overnight, now sunny and cold, I headed off after a good hotel breakfast. Never on busy roads, my route took me zig-zagging across the puszta again accompanied primarily by birds. It was Monday so the towns were a bit busier and so I could have found a place if I had needed one but I just kept trucking, greatly enjoying quiet road riding compared to the busy often convoluted bike route riding of the Danube. One or two of the roads were rough and pot-holed but only dropped my speed to 20-22 range. There was no appreciable wind on this sunny soon to be warm day.
Around about the 55 km point I did run onto the Tisza river and with it EV11, I think the Euro-Velo route that connects the former Iron curtain countries. My time on EV11 lasted most of the rest of the day, about 50 kms and it was always on a paved trail on top of the berm along the Tisza. A reward on this leg was riding along but unable to photograph some buzzards. Lunch during this segment was another nice soup and a citroen/beer drink that was thirst quenching.
At the point I was to leave the Tisza, still only about 2:30, but over 100km so I stopped at a campground with a likely looking hotel/restaurant close by. I will camp when it looks sunny and is not too cold. The campground was also a boating concession. By the time I set up camp, had my beer and early supper it was cold and dark and so I crawled into my tent at about 7:00. One downside of camping at this time of year.
Tiszafured to Hortobagy
After a number of night calls, when I had to get up at 5:00 I convinced myself that the heavy wind that had hit was going to bring rain. Still dark out I broke camp. By 6:00 the sunrise showed no rain, I rode into town where I found coffee and yoghurt. So I was on the road early and only had 40 km to Hortobagyi, where I hoped to see some birds. Luckily it was to be a short day as the wind that woke me was straight out of the east. I rarely got above 20 kph and was pretty spent when I pulled into Hortotbagyi. The hotel that I found was 2 km down the road but I was able to get in early and was back by 10:30 looking for birds. The big destination turned out to be 7 kms back down the way I came by a gravel bike path. I saw a big eagle sized bird and lots of crows and sparrow like birds but never did find the area where the birds are. After riding around for another 20 kms I was tired of fighting the wind. Back in town I signed up for a $4 wild animal safari which turned out to be a bus ride out to a seedy zoo. I did see one of the big Hungarian cattle that this area was built on.
I had a second meal at the 200 plus year old Hortobagyi Csarda, from the years when the Inns were spaced about a day’s travel apart. What I missed in not finding birds I gained in finding about the Hungarian “cowboy” history. Hortobagyi seems to be an immense grassland reserve amidst the crops that surround it. I believe a large part of the park is preserve the ages old cattle environment that has been in place for the hundreds of years since the Magyar came. The Csardas, cattle and big cattle farms are part of this history. Next day, on my way I saw some real examples of the cattle, a modern cattle man, the farms and every 15 km an old Csarda still in use.
Sculpture & Hortobagyi Csarda
As I wander across the Puszta (we need a similar term for our prairie), spending about 4-5 hours spinning away and 19 hours eating, sleeping, or filling time, it occurs to me to wonder what I am doing out here. There is no doubt that the exercise is beneficial above and beyond what I do when at home. But I could get the equivalent value in a rigorous hour or two not even every day. The planning and plotting is also of value, but a good chess game every day could fill in that need. I meet some new people, but particularly away from the tourist stream there is little scintillating dialogue. Perhaps, as I experienced last year in Hanoi, I should find a bar in Calgary where travellers congregate and appear open to conversation. That one is a little tough to visualize. I am seeing a new place, feeling a small part of the pulse of that place. Here on the ground, I think that the research that has gone into the trip, this trip in this case is an essential part of what I am doing. There is no way that I would have or could have read with retention what has happened in this part of the world without having the trip ahead of me. Solitary cycling is an activity for solitary people. It sounds trite to say, but what it means as the kms click by, as I sit alone in a nice restaurant enjoying my beer and meal, as I sit writing to myself is that I feel an empathy for place and people not possible if I was to stay in Calgary working out in the gym and reading. Confirming and clarifying my feeling of a place and people as I have gleaned from the historians and travellers who have gone ahead fills me as I trudge on. As I cycle on down the road onto the next place I leave with a satisfaction of having been and felt maybe superficially but for a solitary soul it is good.
So, leaving Hortobagyi my birding experience sucked but my feeling for the history and soul of the puszta is great.
Hortobagyi to Nyirbator
Another misty day as I headed on down the road. As I finished riding out of the grasslands of Hortobagyi back into cropland I was particularly happy to get some shots of the cattle life now more significant than before my visit.
I headed on into Debrecen, Hungary’s third city, with no real interest in stopping. I got through town with no trouble only to have my rack fail. With the larger tires I am glad to have on this trip Kham, at Bow cycle installed some extenders. One side failed near Budapest, now the other side failed. It took 45 minutes to bend and jigger things so I had about ½ cm of tire clearance. Still close to Debrecen I had a chance to head back in to buy a new rack or smaller tires. I chose to carry on. Things seemed ok and as if to sign that I was doing the right thing probably the nicest roadside eatery of my trip so far appeared.
Not only that, but the crumby road side bike trail that had moved me onto the moderately busy road all of a sudden became a modern two lane separate bike road. This treat disappeared in the towns but then picked up again out of town. I followed this pattern most of the way to Romania.
Nyirbator to Satu Mare, Romania
I had negotiated breakfast at my panzio and so at 7:30 I came down to a 67 year old man who had made me an omelet and who proceeded to have a conversation with me through his smart phone. He would speak into it in Hungarian and written English would appear. I would reply in English and written Hungarian would appear. Along the way we had tea, a special Tokay wine, and a final expresso. Some of the conversation was a little mysterious. In response to my estimate that my bike trip would be between 3 and 4000 kms he said that he was going on a bike (motorcycle?) trip of 18,000 kms to celebrate Satanism. He was particularly emphatic that I understand what he meant. I lied.
My cycle atlas lead me onto a backroads route towards Satu Mare, which is a large city very near the Hungarian border. I did not want to ride the busy highway. So I had a pleasant ride, early in the mist along some quiet roads. Unfortunately the wind was fighting me again and it was draining my energy faster than normal. On one section of berm riding I watched a buzzard souring in the wind. Somehow I lost my way and ended up beside the main road, only to find the separate bike road system which took me into Csenger a border town where I spent the last of my Hungarian Florints on a nice lunch.
The road into Csenger took me away from the highway into Romania, and not wanting to backtrack I found what my atlas seemed to indicate as a bike crossing. I found my way up onto a nice berm with paved road. There were no others around but I carried on. Now granted that there were quite a few signs in languages that didn’t communicate to me, and at one point there was a dead end sign on the road. Dead end signs though don’t always apply to bikes. 15 or 20 minutes along the berm there were some bars across the berm which were not very hard to get around. At this point I hoped to be in Romania and distant church steeples indicated there were some towns that I could possibly find my way into from the berm.
Illegal Berm Riding in Romania
And then there was a small white car with uniformed people waiting for me. The woman started very sternly speaking in one of those languages that I am not conversant in. I replied by smiling and saying hello, usually very persuasive strategies. The man asked for my papers. We had a nice 15 minute conversation during which I was prompted to reveal my whole trip plan and why an old Canadian was entering Romania illegally. They explained that the borderless EU world didn’t really apply to Romania. The man had a conversation with someone on his car phone. The very nice young woman finally shook her head and pointed on down the berm and told me to have a nice visit.
So I continued on down the berm, ultimately into the centre of Satu Mare where I flailed around for an hour to find the place I had booked. The tough long day convinced me that I needed a day’s break in Satu Mare to get my act together for Romania. Hungary had been great, hopefully Romania will be as fulfilling.