Home from Home in Hungary

I couldn’t get a reservation on the 0710h to Constanta (pronounced Constanza) but the friendly lady in the ticket office suggested I just got on the train and spoke nicely to the guard. It’s a three hour journey to the Black Sea Coast and people seem to shuffle themselves around the seat numbers according to who has what type of reservation in a convivial enough fashion. Although places were clearly in much demand it was heartening to see no hint of money changing hands as it would have done during the old regime. Knowing I would not have time to see the Danube Delta on this trip I made the most of what I could see of the lush, green landscape of the region and the broad intersecting waterways that led down to the sea.

Once I got to the coastal city things were also showing signs of modernisation. An attractive park lined the long boulevard which links the railway station to the seaside; Roman statuary was carefully interspersed with doggy-poop bins, children’s swings and roundabouts were actually maintained and in use and Portaloos had been helpfully provided for the visitor in need. I’m afraid I came close to losing my mobile phone down one of these; the sudden adrenaline burst serving to remind me that I may have been becoming over-confident and had better take more care in future if I was not to find myself well and truly “in the shit”.

The Hotel Voila was a charming little confection of pink plastic flowers, old fashioned purple bedspreads and strawberry tea served with local honey. Some rather exotic tropical fish populated a tank in reception but their significance would only become clear later. I’d found myself with this hotel booking when I’d discovered that there were no hostels available but, at E30 for such a level of comfort and a huge, home-cooked breakfast to come on the following morning, I could hardly complain. The lack of hostels was explained as soon as I ventured out through the almost deserted streets to the broad Elisabeta Promenade and strangely evocative architecture of the sea front. This was not a suitable hangout for backpackers or Lonely Planeteers.

A flat, indigo seascape disappeared into a distant haze and the cool light perfectly accentuated a huge, abandoned building that was once Constanta Casino. Its glamorous, neo-Baroque heyday long gone, it overlooked a light sprinkling of dog-walkers while, stretching back from the sea, were arranged a curious mixture of red brick orthodox churches, simple two storey houses and sections of ancient wall. . This scene was punctuated with haphazard pieces of Roman stonework and a selection of dilapidated hotels, whose spiky, turreted “Romanian”-style architecture could probably best be described as “early Adams Family”. A pervasive ennui suggested that the world has passed this region by but, of course, it may look rather different in the Summer Season.

That evening I managed to find some excellent fish soup in what was to prove my only restaurant meal of the entire trip and the following morning I went down to the seafront again to visit a rather incongruous Aquarium, which, at a cost of approximately fifty pence for a senior ticket, proved to be quite a surprise. Here amongst some huge, mature sturgeon, gobies and other Black Sea specialities was a very impressive collection of multi-coloured mbuna (African rift valley cichlids) and other exotica from all over the world. The vibrant good health of these specimens, located so far from the usual hoards of gawping tourists, suggested a particular, non-profit-making labour of love on someone’s part, even down to the supplying of excess offspring to a local hotel. For the ornamental fish tank in the foyer, not for the kitchen, I hasten to add.

The afternoon train back to Bucharest connected with a the night train to Timisoara and all the way back to the opposite side of the country. Here, on the following morning I met an interesting fellow traveller as we pulled into our destination some forty minutes late to see the onward connection being held with every sign of impatience over on the other side of the station. Rather than stop to help my companion with the massive suitcase that was nearly as big as she was, I shouldered my rucksack and sped through the tunnels to catch the guard and hold the train for her. As we were subsequently catching our breath on the 0730h to Szolnok I got to know my companion a little better.

This tiny woman was in early middle age, as attested by the grey streaks in her long plaited hair and she sported a traditional Romanian scarf of pink roses, a laptop and a briefcase bulging with plastic sleeved documents. If I don’t mention her name, the reason will soon become apparent. She told me she was an academic on her way to take up a teaching post in Bologna, in Italy and we got to chatting about life in different parts of Europe. Of course, I described my own travels and mentioned I would be heading on to the Baltic States. Why? Well, with the exception of Tallinn, I had never visited the region before and I admitted to a certain fascination for Jewish history in Europe and the wish to know more about the Lithuanian diaspora and its influence on our culture.

I could not have been more surprised at what happened next. In a perfectly calm and rational-sounding tone, this woman launched into one of the most extreme anti-Semitic speeches I have ever heard. “They may have been a good influence on our culture once but now all the Jews care about is power, they are mad for power in the world, they want to turn us all into their slaves”. Those were her exact words and that it was said in such a reasoned tone, without the usual frothing and grimacing of full-on hate-speech left me completely stunned. She made her views sound so mainstream I wondered just what type of sub-text the social media was peddling in this part of the world these days. It kind of put the dampeners on conversation until we reached the Hungarian border an hour or so later.

The Romanian Border Guards got onto the train first and, on discovering that Ms Final-Solution was travelling on an expired passport, waited patiently while she fumbled through her considerable stack of paperwork in search of the identity papers which would render this an acceptable document for travel within the Schengen area of the EU. Alas, they were nowhere to be found and, despite all her pleas, she was told to leave the train and return to Bucharest for the necessary authorisations to travel. I watched her stagger off down the platform with her enormous suitcase trailing behind her, facing another arduous and expensive journey back to the capital and almost imagined I could see the ghosts of generations of Jewish refugees who had crossed and re-crossed the continent of Europe following behind in her wake.

I myself crossed the border without incident and one more change of train took me to Nyiregyhaza, the small town in Eastern Hungary where my friends were waiting to greet me. Oh, how lovely it was to enjoy home cooking and laundry, catching up on the family gossip and telling my (somewhat edited) traveller’s tales to a friendly audience. The latter were probably mitigated by Susanna’s extremely limited understanding of English and, even though my Interrail ticket was nearing expiry, I decided to rest here for another night before continuing with my journey. My poor, aching joints were soothed by the world famous mineral springs of the Aquarius Spar and my spirits lifted by a delightful Baroque recital, at which my hostess, once a celebrated Prima Dona in her own right, was an honoured guest.

Continuing a journey of more than a thousand miles through Poland and the Baltic States to the end point in Tallinn, was beginning to look less and less of an inviting prospect.

Categories: Europe

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