Over the border, down Hungary way - Jimmy Carter thinks I'm a sinner - CycleBlaze

May 5, 2007

Over the border, down Hungary way

I felt guilty it was such a short stay in Slovakia. As much as you can in an afternoon, I had developed an affection for the place.

There was complete satisfaction on reaching Hungary that we crossed the border at a post that dated from the heavy days of communism. The main control was on the adjoining motorway and was doubtless spick and span. On our byroad, the barrier had been left as it was and, better, been left to rust. The old red and white barrier poles with their hanging apron rods were faded and peeling, the offices were drab and cheerless, electricity cables sprouted at random from poles, and abandoned watchtowers and other installations rotted in the damp morning air.

If I make this sound like a John Carré novel, I'm barely exaggerating. But why renovate all your border controls when you know that in a few years they'll be torn down anyway? That must have been

Welcome to Hungary
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the view of the border guard. He strolled out of his sentry box and waved us through without a halt. It is easier to get into a former communist country these days than it is to enter Britain and, certainly, America.

It's a strange country, Hungary. I haven't had long enough here yet to attempt to understand it but I have several first impressions. The most immediate is that houses in the strings of villages are almost all one-storey, the sort of net-curtained bungalows you see occupied by pensioners in English seaside resorts. The second is that Hungarians don't smile. When you cross on a pavement or on a bike, a flicker of the eyes shows you've been registered. But any attempt to smile, to nod or say "Seeya", which is the phonetic rendering of both "hallo" and "Goodbye", gets you nowhere.

Another impression is one that I knew I'd have: that the language is incomprehensible. I think only it and Finnish have any link with each other. I suspect nobody knows why such geographically remote tongues should be linked but nobody could doubt that both are far, far removed from anything you've ever tried to understand elsewhere.

We have had a rest day in Györ, pronounced Jyeur. We are camping behind the house of a gentle guy who speaks to us in German, a language I am astonished to find I have acquired a useful if limited vocabulary on our travels across Switzerland, Germany and Austria. I have to talk like a pirate, of course, always in the present tense and I have repeatedly been put down on camp site forms as Dutch because I growl the letter G in the Dutch rather than the German style, but if it's that or Hungarian then mangled German it will be.

Györ is our first Hungarian town and the eastern influence is apparent. The architecture is vaguely Moorish, the buildings narrow and shallow. There are no shutters on the windows. Colours lean to orange and dark green. Shops have single narrow doors right on the street and the interiors are dark. You have the feeling you'll be invited inside, as in Arabic countries, to drink mint tea before getting down to business.

Gyor: a flirtation with the east
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The churches, which for weeks have been in baroque style with onion-shaped spires, have kept a hint of that shape but the onions have been squashed into flattened cushions. As for the countryside, all we have seen so far is what a friend used to call "good tank country". In other words, it is flat, open, agricultural and often free of trees. You can imagine the

The rain in Hungary doesn't fall only on the plain: it lashes down in the towns as well.
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hordes of baggy-panted, sword-waving horsemen who have ridden that way over the centuries.All this will change. There are hills in Hungary and the map suggests we'll be tackling them as well as grinding across the Hungarian plain. I'm looking forward to hills. It has been weeks since I have dropped out of my middle ring and weeks since I have had a day when I haven't felt both brain and bottom-dead by mid-afternoon.

As the old witch used to say in stories I was read as a child: "We shall see what we shall see."

AFTERNOTE: The Moorish feel to Györ proved an exception. Arab culture is strong in Hungarian history but never outside Györ did we feel it with the same intensity. A shame, really, because I was getting to enjoy it.

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