Sunday, October 03, 1999

TR Hungary

TRIP REPORT –The BALKANS (10/1 –10/11/99)
Budapest Marathon
Budapest, Hungary

Four countries in nine days. Not what I had planned!

The original plan, that I had spent considerable research and time on, called for two countries and two marathons (Budapest and Bucharest) in ten days. But that plan went out the window about one week before we were to leave when the race director for the Bucharest Marathon sent me a fax stating that the race had been cancelled. I already had nonrefundable air tickets and railway passes for both Hungary and Romania. I actually scrambled to find an alternative marathon for the second week but after several attempts to contact race directors in neighboring countries I finally gave up.
Nicole accompanied me to Budapest for the first weekend since she wanted to visit that city. Budapest is a nice city. It reminds me a lot of Prague but is bigger. The city was established over 1000 years ago but has seen so many wars that most of the old buildings have been destroyed and rebuilt many times. The architecture is not as interesting as Prague except for the Parliament Buildings that were built about two hundred years ago. Of course there is a Royal Palace, a citadel and several old churches.
Budapest actually did not exist until 1873 when the two cities of Buda and Pest merged. The cities are separated by the Danube that runs north-south through the city and most of Hungary. Buda is built into the hills on the west bank and Pest is built on the flat plains on the east bank. Buda contains many of the old historical sites such as the palace and citadel while Pest has the government offices, financial and shopping areas. Most of the international hotel chains are located in Pest right on the Danube. The sections of the city are compact but separated so you have to learn and use the public transportation system (mainly the metro) to get between them.

Hungary and Budapest are relatively inexpensive except for hotels that are completely out of whack with other costs. A room at the large international hotels; e.g. Hilton are $300+ per night. But a metro ticket is 90 forint ($.40) and a four-course meal including wine at a good restaurant runs $30 for two people! A beer is only $.75 at a pub or café.
Nicole and I hired a private tour of the city for $40 that provided a driver and an English-speaking guide that toured us around for three hours. After the tour we knew the city and were able to explore it in more detail using the metro and walking. We also took an evening cruise on the Danube to watch the sun set over Buda and on the return trip the whole city including the seven bridges crossing the Danube were lit up like a Christmas tree! I am now convinced that a Danube Cruise is the way to explore this region and I will address this subject later.

The marathon was held on Sun and unfortunately it turned out to be a very hot day. With the late start the temperature was already 70+ and well into the 80s when we finished. Water stops were only provided every 5K so everyone including myself became dehydrated. The course was flat and scenic as 22 miles were run along the Danube. By 15 miles I knew it was going to be a bad day and at 20 miles I hit the ‘wall’. That last 10K is a long way when you are hurting. The only thing that kept me going was the knowledge that I wouldn’t have to do it again next weekend since Bucharest had been cancelled! I finished in 3:48:30. I only wish the race had gone better for me since it was a very memorable one. It represented the 10th marathon and country that I have completed since moving to England. It also put me on a very exclusive list in the 50 + DC Running Club. There are only three members including myself that have completed marathons in twenty or more countries. And I hope to do at least another 10 to 12 before I leave! But I will never catch the number one guy. He is a retired doctor from Ottawa, Canada who has completed 83 countries and still runs at least 12 marathons each year at age 81! Hell with all the traveling I do, I still haven’t visited 83 countries!

After the race Nicole and I continued our sightseeing and then enjoyed a very nice Hungarian dinner. For evening entertainment I told Nicole that our options were a “Gypsy Folklore Show” or an American sports bar that was playing a live NFL game. Surprisingly she picked the game. But we haven’t seen a game since we moved and we did enjoy watching Dallas beat up on Arizona.

The next morning I put Nicole on the airport bus because she had to fly back to Heathrow and catch a connecting flight to Canada for business. Since she was going to be gone for a week and I was stuck there for a week I figured that I might as well use my rail passes to go touring and see how many Balkan countries I could visit. There was a train leaving for Bratislava, Slovakia in 20 minutes so I jumped on. It is only 200Km to Bratislava and I saw some nice scenery as the train followed the Danube around the ‘Danube Bend’. This is a very scenic area where the Danube cuts through the Visegrad and Borzsony Hills and changes direction from east-west to north-south. I saw some of the cruise boats that cruise the Danube and they looked very luxurious. I just looked up a cruise package on the web. For #395 ($650 US) you can fly from London to Budapest and cruise the Danube north to Germany for a week and fly back from Germany. This has got to be the best way to explore this region. Two nights at the Hilton in Budapest or Vienna will cost you $600+.
Back to Bratislava. I didn’t know what to expect but what I found was a small city, about 400K people, that has a lot of history that I didn’t even know. When I first stepped out of the railway station I said ”Oh, Oh”! The area around the station looked dirty and seedy. But I managed to find someone who could speak enough English to tell me which bus to take into center town. I always try to travel and live like the locals because you see and learn more that way. I only back off on that strategy if it doesn’t appear safe! So for a $.15 ticket I rode into the center of town where I was pleased to find a small but clean downtown. I found the tourist information office and received some hotel recommendations and determined that the city was too small for a bus tour but they did offer a guided walking tour around ‘Old town’.
After checking into a nice clean 3-star hotel I took the walking tour. The old town was built in the 14th century and has survived many wars including both world wars unscathed. It is in really good shape and the city council still meets in the 500 year-old town hall. According to our guide and history Bratislava was the seat of the Hungarian/Austrian power for a few hundred years and there was a lot of money in the city at that time and thus a lot of very nice houses/palaces. And of course there is the castle/fortress protecting the city and a 500 year-old church where several kings including Maria Theresa was coronated!
The Danube flows through the city in an east-west direction since the city is west of the bend. The city and country are inexpensive except for out-of-whack hotel prices. But my 3-star hotel only cost $55, which was reasonable. I had a great Slovakian dinner with wine for under $10!

The next day I decided to move on to Zagreb, Croatia. So I had to travel back to Budapest, change trains and travel on to Zagreb. I traveled southwest across Hungary. The only interesting scenery was around Lake Balaton. This is the largest lake in Hungary and the recreational playground for the Hungarians. But the weather had changed drastically the day after the marathon as temperatures dropped thirty degrees and all of the lake resorts were closed. As we approached the border with Croatia I got to experience the wonderful border crossings between the Balkan countries that I forgot to mention before. As you approach a border the train stops and waves of border and custom agents descend upon you. Is this case a Hungarian agent comes first, checks your passport and asks questions. He is followed by a Croatian customs agent who does the same thing. Then finally another Hungarian agent comes and stamps your passport to leave the country. The train moves across the border, stops and you go through the same process all over again except a Croatian agent finally stamps your passport into the country. I never did find out why the process was so complicated and took so many people – maybe a remnant of the Communist system? But I can tell you that it gets really annoying and frustrating after you do it a few times each day!

But I was in Croatia and on my way to Zagreb. Again I did not have any idea what to expect but I was very pleasantly surprised when I stepped out of the station to find a very clean, bustling cosmopolitan city. I walked across the street and booked a very nice 3-star hotel for $55. The city is small and compact so I was able to walk to downtown and find the information center. I got there late so had to buy a tourist guide with a few self-guided walking tours which I did. I really liked Zagreb. It has lots of old buildings and history but has moved aggressively to adopt a capitalist economy. It has built many new modern buildings but blended them well into the old city. And the shops stayed open until 8pm which is very unusual in Europe. At 8pm the city was still bustling!
The city was originally built on two hills Kaptol and Gradec that are now part of the Upper Town. Beyond them the city is built up into a mountain range and is very pretty. I easily could have spent another week exploring the surrounding regions. And the city is inexpensive. I made a mistake and exchanged too much money so decided to go to an elegant restaurant to treat myself and spend the money. I had a great meal with a bottle of wine, etc but it only cost me $20!

Now I figured it was time to visit a few more countries and make my way towards the Black Sea. So back to Budapest since the borders with Yugoslavia were closed and I wouldn’t have crossed them with a US passport anyway. I decided to take an overnight train from Budapest to Bucharest because it is a 14-hour train ride. For a $25 surcharge on my rail pass I purchased a Sleeper compartment. That is half the cost of a hotel room and you sleep while you are getting to your next destination!
I arrived in Budapest at noon and I hadn’t run since the marathon so I decided that I needed to find a place to run, shower, etc. Ah-hah! I’ll go to one of the many hot baths in Budapest, use their facilities to change, run, have a hot bath and massage and then catch the train. So I decided to go to the Gellert Baths, one of the most exclusive baths in the city. This experience was amusing and it shows the type of problem you can encounter. I go to the receptionist first to explain what I want to do and ask if that is possible. She looks at me like I am crazy but says it is OK. Next I buy an entrance ticket which includes the locker facilities and the baths. I also buy a massage ticket for 800 forints ($3.50) for 30 minutes. Then I find my way down into the bowels of the earth and little did I realize than when I left the reception area I left all communications in English behind also! In the locker room I strip and put on my running gear. The attendant looks at me like I am really crazy and tries to tell me that I can’t go into the bath with shoes! I am trying to explain that I am going outside but he doesn’t understand.
I want him to lock my locker and give me the key but he won’t do that until I take my shoes off! An expat Yank happened by and heard the screaming and told me that he had been living in Budapest for six months and trying to do the same thing but they wouldn’t let him. But I was determined. I finally managed to convince the attendant to lock my locker, took the key from him and took off. I had a nice 8-mile run along the Danube, showed my key at reception to get back in and went to the lockers. Now I had to find my way to the baths and observe the protocol so I didn’t upset the locals. The hot baths were 38 degrees Celsius that I found cool since I used to keep my hot tub at 40 degrees. After soaking in the bath I had a lot of trouble trying to find the massage room but eventually presented my chit to a huge Hungarian that looked like Attila the Hun.
I tried to explain that my legs were sore and to concentrate on them. He must have understood because he slapped my naked body on the table and began to knead and prod the leg muscles and then twisted and stretched my legs like pretzels. I think I even heard him chuckle a few times through my screams! But it worked as my legs felt great when I got off the table! I even tipped the guy! Now I leave it up to you to figure out how you tip a masseuse after you have been siting naked in a hot bath for 30 minutes?

But now I was invigorated and relaxed and it was time to move on to Bucharest and Romania. And it was time to go to my full European dress disguise!
My pre-trip research had revealed both health and crime warnings from the US and UK embassies for Romania and Bulgaria. The health warnings were the typical “don’t drink the water or eat food from street vendors, etc.” The crime warnings were mostly theft and robbery. As a precaution and preventative measure I had decided to get rid of my American uniform- jeans, running shoes and a T-shirt and dress like a European. That means dark slacks, black shoes and a cheap dress shirt. I even had to go to a flea market in Stortford and buy some cheap dress shirts. And of course I left my Rolex and other valuables at home! I also purchased a money pouch or belt that strapped around my waist so that my pockets could not be picked. I was ready!
My rail passes were for first class travel because that was all that was offered. At first I was disappointed because I prefer to travel in second class because you meet and interact with more locals. But when I traveled in Romania I was very glad that I was in 1st Class!
When I saw the condition of the 2nd class cars and what the passengers were carrying on with them –animals, cookstoves, etc; 1st class looked real good! And besides since nobody could afford 1st class, I had a compartment all to myself most of the time! I even ended up with a 1st class sleeper compartment to myself for both night trips to and from Romania.
The next morning as the train was nearing Bucharest I already knew that this part of the trip was going to be much different. The typical signs of poverty: shacks made of tin, wood, cardboard, etc lined both sides of the tracks. The standard mode of transport appeared to be carts pulled by horse or donkey (I hadn’t seen that many carts since Nicaragua). And there was garbage and trash everywhere!
As soon as I exited the train in Bucharest I looked for a tourist/information office. There were none! But I did find an independent travel agency that helped me book my sleeper car for the return leg back to Budapest. But the agent spoke so little English that she could not answer or help me with any questions on hotels or what Bulgaria or the Black Sea were like.
My next shock came when I exited the train station. My immediate reaction was “I hope the rest of the city is not as bad as this section”. I was not getting on any public transportation at this point especially when I had no idea where I was going! So I found a taxi driver that spoke a little English and negotiated a price to take me into the center of town.
He dropped me off in one of the main squares where I tried to find a tourist/information office. It didn’t exist because they don’t have tourists in Romania! But I did find a bookstore and discovered a small city guide written by a local expat. This turned out to be my bible. It had all the relevant information needed in very frank language and much of it was not flattering to the city. But it directed me to a hotel nearby that had been very eloquent fifty years ago and was situated opposite the military HQ. For the mere price of 1,000,000 (One Million) Lei I got a room for the night. It’s the first time that I ever spent a Million of anything on one item! But I could have walked one block down the street and got a room at a brand new, modern Hilton for 5,000.000 lei/night!
Of course the money was a joke! It was worse than monopoly money! 16,000 lei per $US. My bible also indicated that cash was a necessity in Romania since most places did not accept credit cards. So I walked to one of the five ATMs in the city and withdrew 1,500,000 lei. Even in 10 and 50,000 lei notes it is a big wad. But heh, I’m now a millionaire and not only that I am walking around with over a million in my pocket!
Actually except for hotels and imported goods a million lei would buy you a lot of local goods and services. E.g. a .5 liter beer-8,000 lei ($.50), .5 liter coke-6,000 lei, 1 liter bottled water- 4,000 lei ($.25). I had dinner in the formal dining room at the hotel with music, etc; chateaubriand-$4, bottle of Romanian Cabernet-$3!
Unfortunately it was raining and I mean pouring and it did that continuously for the twenty-four hours I was in Bucharest. But I had already decided that I was moving on to the Black Sea so I took my umbrella and walked around in the rain for a day and got thoroughly soaked while I toured the various highlights listed in my bible. The positive side was that there were few other people crazy enough to walk in that rain so there was nobody to bother me.
I had to go to the local offices of the Romanian Railway Company (CFR) to reserve a seat to Constanta on the Black Sea because my bible told me that was how it was done. What a delightful experience that was as they shifted me from one clerk to another until I finally blew my top and insisted that I wasn’t moving again and somebody had better give me the damn ticket!
In the morning I negotiated a 50% reduction in my taxi ride back to the train station and I was on my way to Constanta. I crossed the Danube again about 100 miles east of the city as the Danube was now flowing north to its delta located on the border of Romania and Ukraine. On the train I continued reading my bible (greatest book I ever bought for 16,000 lei) to learn that Moldavia and Ukraine had the same stringent visa requirements as Russia so a visit to them was definitely out. Bulgaria had no restrictions but was very similar to Romania and it was a minimum three-hour train ride from Bucharest to the border. It was beginning to lose interest to me. I was hoping that I would find a nice comfortable hotel or resort on the Black Sea and just relax until it was time to leave.
I arrived in Constanta at noon but the prospects were not looking much better – the same shacks and modes of transportation were apparent. Nobody, absolutely nobody at the station spoke English. So I found a taxi driver who spoke some broken English and negotiated a price for him to drive me into the town to look at hotels. The second hotel was OK. It was clean, one block from the main street and situated right on the Black Sea – all for 308,000 lei ($19)!
I decided to go for a walk to explore. Within an hour I decided that I was leaving early and returning to Hungary the next day. So now I had to find the local CFR offices again to reserve a seat back to Bucharest. After that was completed I was on my way back to the hotel when a couple of street thugs approached me and started to jostle me all the while they were deftly and expertly frisking me to determine where my money was. The second time one of the thugs poked my money belt hidden underneath my jacket I knew what their intentions were and I gave them a stare that said “yep, you found it but you will have to come through me to get to it!” Apparently that was not their style because they departed as quickly as they had appeared.
Shortly after I was having a beer at a sidewalk café and reflecting on what had just happened. How were they able to spot me so quickly and single me out on a busy street? Then it hit me. I was the only man walking around that town with light hair –everyone in Romania has the darkest, blackest hair I have ever seen. Damn, I might as well walk around with a neon sign on. It was definitely time to get my fair skinned, light-haired butt out of town and out of the country! I also resolved that unless someone pulled a gun on me that I was not giving up my money or passport and getting stranded in this dump!
So I stuck close to the hotel and the next morning took a taxi straight to the station and left.

I arrived in Bucharest at noon and had six hours to kill before my night train left. So I took a taxi into the city to revisit some of the sights I had visited in the rain. The weather was sunny and nice so there were thousands of locals and even foreigners walking around so I was not too concerned about safety. This visit was more enjoyable except for one final negative experience. My bible stated that Bucharest was called Dog Town by the locals because of the approximately 100,000 stray dogs that roam the city in packs. The Communist government razed an old section of the city in the 80s and destroyed over 50,000 homes. Those families threw their pets, mostly dogs into the streets because they had no place to keep them. During the last decade the problem has multiplied. They tried to sterilize the dogs but the do-gooders including Bridget Bardot pressured the government and made them stop the program. There are over 300 dog bites reported each month. I hadn’t seen that many dogs the previous day because of the rain but they were out in packs the second day! The other thing I noticed was that the vast majority of dogs were on the verge of death from starvation and disease. I literally watched dogs staggering down the streets and collapsing in the street. I counted over two dozen dead dogs in the streets, even one on the front lawn of the National Theatre. I suppose there must be a dead dog collection truck but I didn’t see it in action?
That was it! I had my fill of Bucharest and Romania. As far as I am concerned the whole country is a dump and cesspool (I had to think awhile to come up with a nice politically-correct term for SHIT-HOLE!) But it also made me understand that I truly can’t imagine the miserable existence the people of neighboring Yugoslavia must have with their infrastructure destroyed by NATO bombs and their economy in shambles.
I was glad when the train pulled out of the station. I was even glad when the border guards almost broke the door down to my sleeper compartment at 3am to go through the customs process for the last time! And I was really happy to watch the Hungarian customs agent stamp my passport into Hungary!

I arrived in Budapest at 8am the next day. I decided to go directly to the airport to see if I could convince Malev, the Hungarian Airline, to let me return early. Thankfully they agreed and put me on the morning flight to Heathrow. When I got off the train four hours later in Bishops Stortford, the sleepy little village had never looked so good to me!

But now I am back home, rested and relaxed and looking forward to the next adventure because hopefully just like the last trip the number of good experiences will outnumber the bad ones. Stay tuned!

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