We were an hour outside of Budapest without having seen the first thing of interest when the train broke down. Initially, we assumed it was a planned stop perhaps a bit longer than usual. Our hopes evaporated when a woman looked out the window and wondered, “Why does that man have a tool?” The only respite from the record breaking heat had been the wind blowing through the window. Now, the air and the train languished while we baked in the sweltering car. I mopped my face with the end of my shirt. Passengers jumped down onto the platform to smoke in the mid day sun. One man wore a white tank top – what I grew up calling a “wife beater” – his face dark brown and wrinkled, smiling, clearly at home in this inferno. With a new engine attached, we chugged on 90 minutes delayed. A train ride I thought couldn’t get any worse, just had.
I jotted a few lines in my journal struggling to find something noteworthy: “sunflower fields not yet in bloom, corn, wheat, charmless commercial farming, beaten down buildings, a graveyard of graffiti covered train stations – windows broken.” The land gradually became more swampy – fields of cattails and an occasional pond foreshadowed the imminent arrival of Lake Balaton. Ask any Hungarian where they are going on vacation, and more often than not they will reply, “Balaton”.
The lake is reminiscent of northern Michigan or Vermont – any place where densely built cabins roll down the slopping bank towards the water. The lakeside is forested with a predominance of towering pine trees standing ramrod straight and topped with the smallest bit of deep green. The distant shore appears less developed and certainly more hilly. A golden metallic glow reflects off the water’s surface. Heads bob up and down while sailboats glide along in the breeze.
The homes are a mix. Some are stately – the second homes of wealthy Budapesters. Others are clearly rentals – housing groups of 20 somethings drinking beer on the front stoop. A few are cabins – pastel with geranium filled window boxes and manicured jade green lawns. Every now and again a house stands in disrepair – peeling paint, weeds where flowers should be, a lawn not cut this season and the “Elado” sign hanging from the window.
Like any water side resort, there is a mix of upscale towns with rambling old world hotels strewn amongst villages overrun with arcade games, beer tents and coke stands. People walk down the streets bouncing inner tubes. And everyone, no matter their size or shape, wears the beach uniform of Europe – big bellied men in speedos and bleach blond woman in bikinis all tanned to a nut brown. Balaton is a long lake – some 48 miles. It seems to stay by our side forever – well over an hour – as the train stops at every little village along the way.
Not long after leaving Balaton our ride ends in the Hungarian town of Nagykanizsa. A fleet of buses awaits to cart us to the border town of Gyekenyes. This isn’t normal, I believe the tracks have been damaged by the spring floods. A man yells, “Zagreb, bus 5.” We scurry searching for bus number 5. Another man senses our confusion and clarifies, “all 5 buses for Zagreb.” We scramble onto the nearest bus relieved when the driver flicks on the air conditioning. The Hungarian train is already a fading memory. Thirty minutes later we pile into the next train – one with the more standard six person compartments. We join a couple and relax in the comfortably air conditioned car. Our seat mates are Americans traveling to Zagreb from Pecs, Hungary. They have been waiting four hours for our arrival.
For an hour, Hungarian and Croatian passport control perform their checks as do Croatian customs. Finally, we start moving. A small group of young American students remain behind clustered on the platform surrounded by officials. They dig through their packs under beaming flashlights. I imagine their panic at being abandoned in what appears the middle of no where, thousands of miles from home, about to call their soon to be concerned parents.
The next hour and a half to Zagreb we chat with our compartment mates. They are two American professors – one specializing in Eastern European politics and the other art. Our conversation races over our joint interests – his work in Russia as a journalist, their travels across Eastern Europe, our life in Slovakia and Hungary. In a blink, we are pulling into Zagreb at 11 PM… 3 hours late.
We exchange business cards and agree to meet in three weeks when they return to Budapest. Then we break off and vanish into the darkness to seek our apartment. The city is quiet, intimidating in a uniquely post communist way. Two years since moving here, we are used to the depressed areas sprinkled throughout the city’s core: dirty and crumbling buildings; young men in baggie shorts and inappropriately sloganed T-shirts smoking cigarettes under a street lamp. I am not sure I would have been comfortable walking these streets so late two years ago.
At one point today, I had told my husband Central Europe train travel was “not for me”. But as I look back at the entirety of the day I gain perspective: I arrived in Zagreb at a cost of just over 30 dollars; I saw the Hungarian countryside and their famous lake; and we met two interesting new friends. I realize we’ll do this again. I’m hooked.
- Information: There is one 6+ hour train from Budapest, Deli to Zagreb, Croatia per day leaving, as of this writing, at 1:25 PM. No reservations are available. We bought the tickets two days in advance but same day would have been fine. Half the train will depart – in the summer – at Lake Balaton. With Croatia shortly joining the EU, perhaps the one hour border crossing stop will no longer be required. One might hope with the inclusion of Croatia, a faster and higher quality train is planned. The Hungarian train is miserable. The Croatian train perfectly fine.
Categories: Central/Eastern Europe