Sightseeing, Splashing, Spelunking

Trip Start Aug 18, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Hungary  ,
Monday, October 9, 2006

As I rode into Pest, in search of a hostel for which I had an address but no directions, I passed the parliament building. I was tempted to stop for a while, as there seemed to be a party of some kind going on. Music was playing and quite a large crowd had gathered. There were people eating pretzels and waving flags, and opportunists selling pretzels and flags around the fringes. It wasn't until I saw the banners of the protesters that I remembered the current political situation in the capitol and decided it would be best to move discreetly on. In case you didn't know (BBC appears to have forgotten about it) the Prime Minister of Hungary was recorded, in a semi-private speech, admitting to lying to the people about the state of the economy in order to win re-election. I told this to a Canadian guy I met in the hostel, to which he replied
-So, why are they protesting, what do they want to do about it?
-They want him to resign
- (incredulous) He hasn't resigned!
It seems that's pretty much how they feel. The banners refer to various other crimes and misdemeaners, the details of which I don't know. I found it interesting that while the protest was in front of their parliament, many of the banners were in English and German, presumably intending the real audience to be the world press.

Over the next week I saw Budapest from all sides. Of course I toured the city on foot, as this seems to be the best way to get a feeling for a place, and Budapest is just small enough for this to be feasible. While the parliament, presidential palace, citadel, castle, basilica, Andrussy avenue and Hero's square are the places where sheer aesthetic majesty make you want to shout, the city as a whole seems to breathe class.

There was an exhibition of etchings by Rembrandt in the main art gallery, which, being temporary and in celebration of an anniversary (400years since birth? death? any art students out there?) seemed to merit a visit. This was educational enough, but ultimately a mistake. I had an hour and a half before the place closed and spent an hour and 25mins looking at the etchings and learning about Rembrandt. All well and good, except that in the last five minutes I discovered that hidden in the basement they had a permanent exhibition of ancient Egyption artefacts, (everyone knows ancient Egypt is cool) and a permanent exhibition of paintings from 1900, which, if I remember correctly, was roughly the time people figured out what painting was for, and before they forgot. I managed to get a quick peek at the sarcophagi and mummified crocs, but even that provoked a fight between curators (one not minding letting me in for a minute, the other minding very much).

The hostel offered, for a mere ten pounds sterling, the opportunity to see Budapest from underneath. The last time I went potholing I was thirteen years old on a school trip, but I remembered it being fun. Memory is a fickle thing, and can deceive, but on this occasion was 100% on the money. Playing in caves, squeezing through small spaces, creeping in the dark, surely everyone's idea of a good time? At one point we had to slide on our backs through a gap too low to fit a head through without looking to the side. The guide, a man who clearly loves his job (he kept diving into a hole we hadn't seen only to reappear moments later behind us, just because he could), also told us the geology and history of the caves. At the time this was very interesting, but I think it's one of those things you need to be trapped in the dark underground to appreciate.

To soothe my wearied muscles I went the next morning with a couple of other hostellers to one of Budapest's famed thermal baths. Despite making a slight strategic error and finding ourselves at a swimming pool at the wrong end of town (which deviation led to the necessary abandonment of one of our number due to having run out of time) we eventually found what we were looking for. Green cave-water at 38degrees Celsius, sauna, steam room, nothing to do but lounge and relax. If you've never been to Budapest, go at once, take Bill Bryson's car.

Nightlife in Budapest seems to be spread throughout the city, rather than concentrated in any particular district, so you tend to find what you're looking for. What you're looking for, however, may not be what you want. I found a place called "Nothin' But The Blues Pub" which was playing pop music, a Tom Waites concert that was in fact a Tom Waites Tribute Band (I had never heard of Tom Waites, but was pursuaded by the enthusiasm of my dorm mates to join them, in the end a bad idea for several reasons), and a Jazz Cafe that was actually a posh restaurant with a jazz band. (The man who directed me to it described it, after looking me up and down, as "quite snobby, I think you won't like it" by which of course he meant "I think they won't like you" so I decided to go at least for a while just to annoy them).

On Saturday I set off around midday. After finally escaping the outskirts (this is always a challenge when leaving a big city) I found what I suppose was another levee, only much further from the river than between Bratislava and Budapest. (The river was at no point visible from the levee). The levee took me due south through open countryside and past rural homes. It seems October is bonfire season all across Europe, and there was always a pleasant hint of smoke on the air. (pleasant so long as it's only a hint, in the next few days I had to ride several times through the cloying fug of green wood being burned at the roadside, with streaming eyes and stinking clothes the inevitable consequence).

It being harvest time, the fields were hives of industry- I became increasingly familiar with different types of combine harvester, ploughs and tractors. In particular I learned that they are all very spiky and scary things to be overtaken by. I covered 80km to a campsite which I suspect had technically closed for the season. This suspician aroused by the following opening conversation:
-Here is camping? (This was supposed to be a redundant question, since I'd just come in through a gate with a big 'Camping Here' sign on it)

A look of horror and despair clouds my face as the sun sinks over the horizon.
-(he, presumably spotting that I'm buggered) OK. 3 euro.

It was a cold night and with only a pastry for breakfast and a packet of crisps for dinner in my belly keeping me warm, I slept fitfully and woke early. I was on the road by 7am, the sun barely up and thick fog reducing visibility to about 10m. Despite the cold and inauspicious start, the sun finally warmed up around 11am and the rest of the ride to Baja, exactly 100km from the campsite, was quite enjoyable. In Baja the campsite I had been planning on staying in was closed, as were both the youth hostels that were my backup plans. October seems to be presenting ever more varied challenges. The hotel attached to the closed campsite eventually gave me a reduced rate for a room, equivalent to about GBP12.50. I had a look around the town, which was another sleepy east-european town with a large square surrounded by some impressive buildings, a few churches and everything closed for Sunday. It was for this reason (Sunday) that I had stopped here, as Baja is the last sizeable town before the Serbian border and I didn't want to cross that border on a Sunday, with little chance of changing money or finding an ATM.
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dynamo on

Re: Causing trouble
That protest has been going on for over a month, and has been reported by the BBC only on the two occasions when there has been violence. If ever I want the world to notice my protest, violence is obviously the answer.

Interestingly, i read the other day that some think the pm deliberately leaked the speech so the people would believe him when he said 'the country's up the creek' and accept his economic reforms. If that's true it's no wonder he's not in a hurry to resign.

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