Debrecen, which comes from the Slovakian phrase for ‘good soil’, is Hungary’s second largest city (pop. 211,000) and has enjoyed a culturally rich, relatively docile history since the Magyars arrived late 9th century
. The city today is generally a university town and therefore pretty quiet in the summer - we discovered this first hand when we arrived and found the streets deserted. Part of this could have been because of the pending thunderstorm, part of it because it was Saturday in Eastern Europe but seriously, you could have seen a tumbleweed roll down the street. Once off the train, we realised we had a serious problem: Shane had a stomach issue that needed tending to straight away – turns out the coffee he bought from a trackside vending machine in Cluj was toxic in some sort of way. As with most places in Europe, it costs money to use a public washroom in Hungary but as this was our first stop in the country, we didn’t yet have any Hungarian forint. With no bank machines in sight, Shane was left with begging the elderly lady guarding entrance to the washroom to let him in. She didn’t budge. After considering pushing her aside and making a bee line for the stalls, Shane decided maybe he shouldn’t go there. So we hit the deserted streets of Debrecen with rain coming down on us in search of any place that might have a washroom. After one of the most painful, touch-and-go kilometres of Shane’s life, we finally located an open MacDonald’s on Debrecen’s main street. Disaster averted. Another lesson learned, no more coffee from vending machines!
Once settled, we found Debrecen to be a city relatively untouched by Western tourists (hooray!)
. For two days we wandered the beautifully restored/maintained city centre and found ourselves surrounded by people going about their daily lives, uninterrupted by tourist traps and displays – they were simply living. Much of the downtown area is by pedestrian access only and the main square centres around Hungary’s largest Protestant church (accommodating 3000 people) – its image is apparently synonymous with Debrecen. It was in front of this church we stumbled across the weekend’s main attraction, Debrecen’s Heritage Festival. What a find! During our two night-stay we were treated to musical and theatrical displays of Hungarian heritage, including operatic-like singing and story-telling dance. The heritage festival brought people of all ages out in droves, both natives of Debrecen and tourists from around Hungary... it felt much like a massive block party. It was a very cool experience being immersed in such a warm crowd, all gathered to celebrate their roots, and one we will likely never forget. After a bit of a rocky start, Debrecen turned out to be an incredible introduction to Hungary. Next stop, the city of Eger to sample some Hungarian wine.
We almost didn't make it to Debrecen... at least not on the day we had planned. But before you go and think the worst, the reason is simply this: on our way from Cluj, Romania to Debrecen, we needed to change trains once in Hungary at a tiny place called Puspokladany and when we stepped down from the first train we thought, 'this place looks like it would be a cool, off-the-wall stop. We wonder if they have a hotel?’. Unfortunately, the language barrier (absolutely no one spoke English) combined with our lack of a map or any knowledge of the area, including the location of a bank machine to get money for transport into the town, steered us back to our original plan and we were back on a train bound for Debrecen. Our quest for raw cultural experience would have to wait...