A Mix of Anxiety and Freedom – Riding the Trains of Central Europe

Our trips almost always start here

Our trips almost always start here

Our trips across Central Europe always start with a train. As we head out from the Keleti station in Budapest, we move into a world where very few speak English – young and old alike. To make matters worse, there are no illuminated billboards matching destinations to times and tracks – none of the support system of a Penn Station or Gare du Nord or even Keleti. Usually, there are no signs at all, anywhere. Just a Roman numeral over each track. It’s a place where English speakers, apparently, are assumed not to tread.

Train Schedule Board at Keleti in Budapest Hungary

If you have one of these, you are home free – but don’t count on it!!

An announcer calls out the trains as they arrive, in Hungarian, of course. I pick off a town name or two, but can’t discern the origin from the destination or the track number. They include all the major stops, the ones already passed and those yet to come, which creates another whole layer of confusion.

Consequently, I travel in a hyper vigilant state.

Last weekend, we set off for Eger. I purchased the ticket online, choosing the route of shortest duration which required a change in Füzesabony. We had passed through this station before, and it seemed small enough to navigate.

In the miracle of Hungarian train travel, we left Budapest Keleti right on time and arrived 20 minutes late to Füzesabony. As it became increasingly apparent we would miss our connection, I began to share my concerns with Pat.

“We are going to miss our connection. It’s only a 15 minute train trip. There’s got to be other options, right? We could walk that far, don’t you think? Take a bus?”

Pat never worries (worrying is my job). The more I spiral, the more zen he becomes. I have no idea how he does it. When things start to go off kilter, I just go nuts – which I guess is how he does it.

red hat train platform attendant

These friendly people are not Shriners – and they will help you – kind of

In Füzesabony, I ran up to the conductor. In Hungary this is the person in a red hat who looks like they just came from a Shriner’s convention.

“Eger?”

He held up five fingers.

“Oh Pat, thank goodness. The train to Eger is late also. We still have five minutes. No. Wait. That’s not the word for minutes. Maybe platform? Platform 5?”

We ran down the stairs into the underground corridor, and up to platform 5 just as a train chugged into the station with an “Eger” sign on the door.

“Quick Pat, get on. This is it.”

“I think we ought to ask the conductor.” One accidental train to Moscow and Pat becomes cautious.

“Eger?”

“Nem. Nem. Budapest”

Just then another train pulled into the station and I pointed, “Eger?”

“Nem. Budapest.”

Seriously, two trains in the station both bound for Budapest? I nearly jumped on the first train convinced the conductor just misunderstood (I later realized this train originated in Eger – hence the sign on the door). Pat refused to board, so I stayed behind too.

“Let’s go back in the basement and see if I can figure something out.”

On the wall we found a poster which listed every train into and out of the station. The best I could discern, a train left every hour for Eger – and from platform 5. A good omen.

“Maybe we can sit on that bench in the shade and try again in a half hour.”

Ten minutes before the scheduled departure, a train pulled onto platform 5. I asked the conductor, “Eger?” He seemed confused, and then smiled, “Igen.”

As Pat settled in, I started to ask every single passenger if this is the train to Eger. I raised me voice to gain the attention of the family next to us, “Excuse me…. Excuse me. Eger?” But they didn’t acknowledge me. They had no idea what I was saying and no realization I was talking to them.

“Julie, it’s OK. Relax.”

Of course, the train did stop at Eger. We found our way to the hotel. I sat on the bed relieved.

“Man wouldn’t it have been funny if we had taken that train all the way back to Budapest?”

“Hysterical.”

But we didn’t return to Budapest, and that’s all that counts.

Train Sign near Eger

If this is your destination, you might want to write it down.

The next day we decided to venture even further – a train ride to Szilvásvárad. I wrote the station name down so I could buy a ticket on board. I have learned the various props which make our lives easier. We made it there too and back again. Of course I showed the name to five different people on the train platform, and each nodded an affirmation we were in the right place.

Sometimes, I feel like I am reenacting the Dr. Seuss classic, Are you my mother?. But I can’t stop myself.

In April, we talked to a couple in a restaurant in Italy. They wondered if we were ever afraid. “A bit, I guess. Then I realize, at the end of the day, no one dies.”

They laughed, but that realization sustains me. No matter how many mistakes we make, we live to talk about them. When we arrive at our destination, I feel a prickle of pride, a realization that I can do this. And with that belief, we jump on the next train and the next – anxious but also completely and utterly free.

 

If you elect to ride the trains of Central Europe congratulations. Here are some of my neurotic tricks which help me figure things out and relax.

Research the best route online. See the links on my site.

Write down the departure time, route name and number, final stop name (not your stop – the very last stop), and the stop just before your destination. Keep in mind, if you are getting off at a smaller destination, it may not be one of the listed destinations on the train door or on the station sign (if there is a station sign). That’s why you need to know the number, route name, and termination point. From this perspective, it is just like a subway or metro system. Routes often have names here. Example, we took the IC 566 Rózsa to Tokaj. IC stands for Inter City – those trains which make few stops. The route number is 566 and the route name is Rózsa.

If you buy the ticket in the domestic station (I buy mine online) write down the date, departure time and destination you wish to book. Assume English will be spotty or non-existent. The teller will appreciate a clearly written card with the destination and time – and the return information if a return ticket is needed. The lines may be long, and the domestic trains may sell out. I learned to buy my ticket a few days in advance of the day I want to travel.

A note on buying tickets: Buying domestic tickets from the Hungarian train website is quite easy. You must create an account. After you select the route and make the purchase, you will receive a 10 digit confirmation code. Go to any Budapest train station and find one of the handful of blue machines and enter this 10 digit code on the touch panel. The machine will spit out your tickets. These booths are much harder to locate than the blue ubiquitous machines which sell tickets. The web site contains a map of where the ticket pick up boxes are in each station. You can collect the tickets days before your trip and at any station – not just the one you will be traveling from. Simple.

I tend to buy international tickets at the station. These are easy to buy and international agents will speak English.

Keep questions simple. “Eger?” Is much more effective than, “Is this the train to Eger?” Better yet, write the name down. Pronunciation may be drastically different. (My pronunciation of Eger “egg-air”, was harder for Hungarians to understand than my pronunciation of Szilvásvárad – go figure).

When in doubt, ask again (and again and again). Hungarians are very helpful – especially if you have the town name written down and you keep your English as simple as possible.

Notice the time your train actually departs the station. Recalculate the arrival time if you are delayed. If you know approximately when you will arrive, you can relax for a chunk of the trip.

As you near the arrival time, look for the station just before your stop (this is less important on IC trains or international which have very few stops paced far apart). Station names probably will not be called on the train and signs are not always clearly visible in the station. Sometimes, I do not see the station name until we are pulling away. I like to be warned that my stop is next.

A new one for my list, know the time of the next train if you are making a connection. This would have substantially helped in Eger.

Lastly, relax. This is Hungary not the moon. And remember, nobody dies.



Categories: Central/Eastern Europe

Tags: , , , , , ,

13 replies

  1. You are right Julie. Taking a train in Hungary requires quite a huge entrepreneur spirit… I’m Hungarian and it’s true even for myself. Just one correction to your article: Hungarian is a pretty complicated language… So we can pronounce everything, but we can understand names of places as well even if you think that your pronounciation is far from perfect. Example… Dick station is Deak station… Etc… We got it. The big problem is that people are shy and want to walk away usually. So to solve the problem I like your idea of asking just with one word… It means less trouble, so the guys will most probably help you 🙂 and I think your advices are GREAT and really battlefield tested and quite fail-proof 🙂

    • Thx Peter… You who speak English PERFECTLY are fantastic. It deflates my ego when my perfectly executed “eger” doesn’t find it’s match!

      The minute I speak English, most Hungarians flee. But I grab their arm and laugh and say “ok ok” (which most every one DOES understand) and I say the town name as a question, and shrug my shoulders. If they do not understand, I pull out my paper. “Igen, igen” … And they point. And when I thank them in Hungarian, they laugh!

      Next weekend, Lake Balaton!

  2. Great post! I love train travel in Europe.
    With some German and Russian I thought I would be set, but Hungarian? Isn’t it a language group in itself? My hat goes off to you, the brave traveler (not a tourist, a traveler!).

  3. Julie, great tips about writing everything down to show to ticket agents. Thanks for the info you provided on the Rick Steves discussion board regarding purchasing tickets in Budapest. Where in Colorado is your life stored? We lived in Crested Butte for 35+ years and now live outside of Paonia on the West Slope.

    • No worries, Mary. I had just written this and thought it could help. The key to travel in rural Hungary is preparedness!

      Our storage unit is in Evergreen – west of Denver. We used to go to Crested Butte for free skiing at Thanksgiving. Talk about a beautiful place! We have friends who bought a small farm in Paonia for their retirement. They love it.

      Email me directly if I can help… You will have a great time…. Julie

  4. Thanks for the warning – and the advice for coping. Love your sense of humor about it all!

  5. Hopefully, our travel INTO Budapest from Bratislava will be seamless!

  6. Great post, Julie… I hear you on the travel in a hyper vigilant state… I was the same in Budapest recently… and I do speak and understand Magyar… still, a train station anywhere in the world seems to be a crazy place if you ask me, especially if you are unaccustomed to them, as my partner and I are… we don’t have such good public transport system where we live… In Stockholm recently, we caught buses and trains to the wrong destination… more than once! Great advice, glad you made it eventually.

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