Our first taste of eastern Europe

After leaving Austria, the next country we went through was Slovakia.  We approached the Slovakian border with our passports ready, as our guidebook said that we would have to get in line with the cars and go through a checkpoint.  When we arrived at the border, however, we saw cars driving right past the abandoned border patrol building, and the bike path continued without interruption.  Since Slovakia is part of the European Union, you no longer have to get your passport stamped.  Another bonus: Slovakia uses the Euro just like Germany and Austria, so we didn’t have to switch to a new currency.

We spent a night in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, and then over the next few days we criss-crossed the border between Slovakia and Hungary a couple times, since the Danube forms the country border at that point.  Finally the Danube makes a sharp turn south (this is called the “knee” of the Danube) and continues in that direction through Hungary.  Here are a few highlights from that time:

  • Gyor, Hungary – Actually, the highlight of this city was our experience with trying to get out of it.  Our map of Gyor seemed to be out of date, as the roads on the map weren’t matching up with the roads we were riding on.  At one point we were standing by the road studying our map, and a tow truck driver pulled over, beeped his horn, and said something to us in Hungarian.  We shrugged our shoulders and he got out of the truck and came over to give us directions.  We couldn’t understand a word he was saying, but he described the route to us in Hungarian anyway.  He finally resorted to drawing three circles on the ground to represent the traffic circles we were supposed to go through, and then he pointed in the direction we were supposed to go.  Shortly thereafter, we passed a girl on a bike who stopped us and asked which direction she was going.  It turned out she is from Germany, and she’s riding the same route we are, but without a map. (That’s a whole lot easier in Germany and Austria, where the routes are well marked with signs, but once you get into Eastern Europe it gets harder.)  We decided to ride together, and between our map and her ability to speak enough Hungarian to ask for directions, we were able to find our way out of the city.  We rode for most of the day together, and it was refreshing to be able to connect with someone on a deeper level than just buying a Coke or asking for a hotel room.
  • Esztergom, Hungary – In this town we happened upon a cultural festival in the main square.  On the stage, the program alternated between a group performing traditional Hungarian dances and a musical group playing traditional Hungarian songs.  There were also some food vendors around the square, and we indulged in a taste of home with some “American hot dogs.”  Even that turned out to be a bit exotic though, as our language barrier resulted in some spicy ketchup on our hot dogs. As we sat and enjoyed the program on stage, we noticed a poster for a Hungarian gospel choir that was supposed to perform that evening.  We thought it would be interesting to see the choir perform, but we couldn’t understand the information on the poster to know where the concert was supposed to take place.  As it turned out, they were the next act in the cultural festival!  Many of the songs they sang were in English, and we got a kick out of being the only people in the crowd who could sing along as the choir performed DCTalk’s song “Free at Last.”
  • Mohacs, Hungary – This was the last town we stayed in before crossing the border into Croatia.  We couch surfed (www.couchsurfing.org) with a girl and her family, and this was one of our favorite experiences in Hungary.  Her mom made Hungarian goulash and crepes for supper, and the next day we went out with our host and her friend to find some cultural sites in the town.  Among our stops was the workshop of Englert Antal, a man who makes the traditional wooden Buso masks used during Carnaval celebrations in Hungary.  (www.englertantal.hu). He explained the history and meaning of the masks and even let David try out some carving techniques!
  • Condition of roads/paths – Sometimes the bike route is just a path worn into the grass on top of the dike that runs along the Danube.  Sometimes it is a gravel path (one of our least favorite surfaces), and sometimes the path looks like it was paved about 30 years ago and has since crumbled. Once in a while we actually get a nice smooth bike path.  And sometimes we have to just ride on the road.
  • Communicating with people – Hungarian is one of the few European languages that is essentially unrelated to any other language.  English therefore, has almost no words or even roots of words in common with Hungarian.  Whereas in German, you might be able to get the gist of a sentence like “Was ist der nächste Halt?” (“What is the next stop?”), the Hungarian “Mi a következő megálló?” offers no linguistic clues to the English speaker.  With that said, some of the Hungarians we talk with do speak some English or German.  (German is a very helpful language to know here!)  Some people say they speak a little English, but they never actually say anything in English; they just listen to us talk and then they respond in Hungarian.  If we are talking with an older person, sometimes they will bring over a younger person to talk to us in English.  Some people only speak Hungarian and there’s no one around who speaks English, so we just communicate with gestures and pointing, and we complete the transaction while speaking two different languages to each other and not understanding what the other person is saying.  Fortunately the process of buying a Coke is pretty universal, and the words “Coca-cola” and “Pizza Hawaii” are the same in every language we’ve encountered so far.  Pepperoni pizza is not what you’d think, though.  We ordered that once and got a pizza with spicy green peppers on top.  We are learning a few Hungarian words, like thank you and hello/goodbye.  In Hungarian you can actually say “Hello” (sounds just like the English word hello) to mean hello or goodbye.  It feels really funny to leave a store and say “hello”!

A traditional Hungarian dance at the cultural festival in Esztergom

In Hungary there are still some thatched-roof houses...notice the satellite dish

Englert Antal, a local artisan, demonstrates how to carve a Buso mask

A typical bike path along the dike next to the Danube in southern Hungary


2 Responses to “Our first taste of eastern Europe”

  1. Joanna Says:

    You have had such an amazing summer! WOW! All of these wonderful memories to last a lifetime! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Nancy Martin Says:

    David and Linsay– I enjoy reading of your travels- Glad you could make this trip andwill glad to hear more about it when you get home

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