By train and bus to rural northern Hungary; Getting to the campground with some help; Potential food difficulties; A campfire at last; Baradla Cave; Kicking rocks; Fire again; Hungarian wine; Baradla Cave again; Aggtelek to Eger

Tired of stalling in Budapest, and a bit tired of cities in general, we decided to head north, into the sticks. There’s a very good cave system in northern Hungary near the Slovakian border - it’s so big, in fact, that it extends into the Slovak Republic, and was blocked by a grate as part of the Iron Curtain, back in the day. It took a change of train at Miskolc to a rattly old rural second-class-only rustbucket, with outside doors wedged open and a hole in the floor for a toilet, but we got under way easily enough. There were a few moments of tension when we noticed that not all of the rural stops were named - in fact, some of them were only stops in the middle of an anonymous expanse of fields! - but our stop did have a name, happily. For the last two stops before it we were hanging out the side of the train, though the door that wouldn’t close, trying to spot the name of each upcoming station.

On the way up we’d passed through fields of wheat and sunflowers. In many of the wheat fields, the farmers were harvesting the crop and burning off the stubble. I don’t know anything about agriculture, but this struck me as awfully early in the year to be harvesting - it’s only the beginning of August. Maybe there’s a second crop coming. I did notice a lot of green shoots in the harvested fields.

We arrived at the metropolis of Jósvafő-Aggtelek at around 2:30. It was no more than a train station and half a dozen houses. This made me laugh a lot, because Sheryl, trying to find an alternative to camping, had suggested we stay there and make day trips to the caves. Clearly that wasn’t an option. There wasn’t even a little store where we could buy food - which was an issue. We had a little food, and we wouldn’t starve to death over two days, but we’d be hungry. There were two hours until the bus arrived for Aggtelek, but they passed quickly enough. We’ve gotten good at amusing ourselves and killing time. At one point an old man and his wife arrived to wait for the bus as well, and he was jabbering away at us in Hungarian for ages, even though he knew we didn’t speak it. He was clearly chiding us in a friendly fashion for travelling in a country when we didn’t speak the language, though, since the word Magyar kept popping up. He kept up a steady stream of one-sided conversation, and his wife never spoke a word, only smiling with a face like an old wrinkled apple whenever something amused her, which was often. A nice young Hungarian couple came over to help distract the old man - they had trouble understanding him too, they said later - I asked if it was because he had a thick rural accent or something, and they said no, it was because he didn’t have any teeth.

The younger couple, who’d been hiking in Slovakia just across the border, were a lot of help with the bus, too. It finally came, but didn’t leave for ages. The driver had no English, so we couldn’t ask what the delay was, but Sábor, the male half of the couple, found out and told us it was because the bus normally waited for the train after ours, and that train had broken down. Eventually the driver decided it wasn’t coming, and we were off for a 40-minute tour of village after village. The countryside was nice, though as we progressed and the villages didn’t get any bigger, my hopes of food began to fade.

Finally we arrived in the village of Aggtelek, at the campground. Gábor and Fruzsina stopped us from getting off a stop too early, which saved us a half-kilometer walk. The campground itself was lovely and green, and right beside the cave entrance. The woman at the desk had no English, but did have German, so we were able to work out accommodations. The rate was 2000 forints (about CAD$18) per night, which included the annoyingly inescapable IFA “tourism tax” - a cash-grab surcharge for accommodations which can range from 100 to 500HUF.

Setting up the tent was a breeze in the soft ground. Unlike the hard-packed dirt of Spain and Portugal, which I think have scarred me for life, I just stepped on the tent pegs and they sank right in. Enchanted by the concept, I pulled them all out and did it again, just because I could. The other beautiful feature of the campground was a bunch of mortared stone firepits. I hadn’t realized how much I’d been missing a campfire and how much a part of camping it was to me, so I was very happy to see them. The third happy feature was a strip of little fast-food places on the road by the campground. I wasn’t looking forward to eating pizza and falafel for two days, but it was reassuring to know they were there. As we were checking them out, Fruzsina told us that there was a little shop in the village that was still open. We hustled out there and bought what we could - beer, tuna, sardines - things that don’t require cooking. The campground had a kitchen, but we had no pot to cook in. I picked up a package of weiners to cook over the fire, in a fit of Canadian summer camping fever. I’d have bought ingredients for s’mores if I could, but Hungary has never heard of graham crackers or marshmallows, so I was spared eating the hideous things.

I’d scrounged the leftover wood from the other firepits around, and we’d collected a big pile of dry grass to help with lighting, so I prepared to give it a go. As I was starting, though, Fru told me there was a big woodpile behind the washroom building, free for the taking. This was very good news, and made the place better than any provincial park campground in Ontario, as far as I was concerned. The wood was nice dry cedar, and there was a big heap of twigs and dry leaves for lighting. There were some short sections of thick cardboard tube as well, and I snagged one on impulse and it proved to be the key to getting the fire going. Soon we had a nice big fire. Fru and Gábor came to join us and cook their dinner, and brought a bottle of Hungarian palinka (brandy - plum, in this case). We had a few hours of good conversation, interrupted periodically to play with the campground’s dog. He was a good dog, and friendly, and didn’t make more than a token effort for the food.

We were up early to run to the information office for the caves and find out if there had been any cancellations for any of the longer tours - the four-, five- or seven-hour tours. They were all “extreme” tours, mostly requiring rubber boots for the river sections - which we didn’t have, but for a four-hour cave tour we’d have figured something out. Unlike at the Punkevní Cave in the Czech Republic, though, we didn’t get lucky. Not only were there no cancellations, and not only should we have booked two weeks in advance, but the tours only ran on Saturdays anyway! This was a Thursday, and we weren’t going to stuck around until Saturday on the chance of a cancellation, no matter how cool the tour would have been.

All morning I felt like hell, though. My eyes were swollen and hurting, and my head was killing me. It felt like a hangover, but I hadn’t really had anything to drink. The only thing we could think of was the smoke from the campfire - maybe that had caused it. Whatever the reason, I was useless for the whole morning, and had to lie down for a couple of hours. It must have been a pathetic sight - me flaked out on one side of the tent and Fred the Dog flaked out on the other.

Come noon, we set out for Vörös-tó and the entrance to the Baradla Cave system there, where there was a two-hour tour available. It was an hour’s walk away, though we thought it was more and were surprised on reaching it early. We bought tickets, scamming a student discount (half-price!). Sheryl presented her IATA card and I my OHIP card as proof of our student status. One of these days someone is going to call us on it, but it worked this time, anyway. We had some time before the tour and went for a walk in the scrubby hillside forest, finding some good mushrooms. The cave itself was spectacular - lots of dripstone and good colour, with huge caverns. I’ve never seen a cave so damaged, though. Nearly all the stalactites in the first half-kilometer or so were snapped off. Apparently in the second half of the nineteenth century visitors to the cave were allowed to break off and take the speleotherms home as souvenirs - a horrifying thought to me. There was one formation those tourists of an earlier age couldn’t touch, though - a magnificent 17-meter stalagmite towering nearly to the ceiling of a gigantic cavern, topped with a white flower of calcium. I’ve never seen a cave formation of any size to rival it, not even close.

The walk back to Aggtelek village was boring. I’d wanted to take one of the scenic hiking trails back instead of the road, but it was Sheryl’s turn to feel flat and she vetoed the idea in favour of getting back to camp and food as quickly as possible. To alleviate the tedium I started a rock-kicking game. The rules were simple: I kicked the rock down the road, and then Sheryl kicked it further down the road - repeat as necessary. It had to be the same rock, though, and you could only touch it with your feet. Eventually I introduced a racing variation where we each had our own rock. We got all the way back to the village that way, kicking our rocks the whole time, and then my rock committed suicide by jumping into a sewer grate. I was crushed, but Sheryl graciously allowed me to share the first rock again, and we reverted to the original game all the way through the village to the campground, along the path, across the field and to our tent. We collected a few odd looks, but that’s hardly anything different. And we weren’t bored, which was all that mattered.

As we were chilling out at the picnic table, a Dutch family came over and chatted for awhile, and the father, Peter, offered us some home-made red wine he’d gotten as a gift from a farmer earlier that day. They were very nice, and came to share our fire with Gábor and Fruzsina later in the evening. The conversation was good, though there was one sour note when Peter began to make jokes about the Canadian armed forces. I despise this sort of behaviour. It sickens me when it comes from another Canadian, because it’s nothing but penis envy caused by over-exposure to images of the United States’ disproportionately large military. I roll my eyes when it comes from an American, because it’s only the corresponding penis-length bragging. When it comes from almost anyone else, I tend to politely inform them that we have armed forces appropriate in size to a country of forty million, and let them draw their own conclusions. I will not suffer that sort of humour from a Dutchman, though - not under any circumstances. Too many of my countrymen lost their lives liberating the Netherlands during the Second World War, and I’m afraid I was rather sharp with Peter as a result. Fru and Gábor adeptly changed the subject to the shortcomings of the Hungarian armed forces instead, the conversation moved on to the historical bastardry of the Hapsburgs, and all was well.

In the morning we were up and at the cave information desk before nine, buying tickets for the tour which ran from the Aggtelek entrance. The tour was only an hour, and this part of the cave was a lot more finished than the part we’d seen the day before, but it was still worthwhile. The colours in the cave were stunning - lots of rich reds, oranges and yellows - but I began to lose interest a bit when the guide showed us the concert hall, complete with chairs and portable toilets. I like wild caves best, electrified show caves a distant second, and something as tame as this doesn’t even place.

After a quick visit to the Domica Cave across the border in Slovakia, time was running short, so we rushed back across the border, showered and packed up, and caught the bus back to Jósvafő-Aggtelek. We’d decided that there was no way we were getting to our next destination, Cluj-Napoca in Romania, so we took the train to Miskolc, changed for a train to Füzesabony, and then changed again for a fifteen-minute ride to the university town of Eger.


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One Comment on this Dispatch:

August 20th, 2008

Hungarian (magyar nyelv listen (help·info)) is a Uralic language (more specifically a Ugric language) unrelated to most other languages in Europe. It is spoken in Hungary and by the Hungarian minorities in seven neighbouring countries. The Hungarian name for the language is magyar (IPA: [?m???r?]).

Sounds like your toothless friend was trying to get you to speak MAGYAR or Hungarian???

¬ Bill
August 21st, 2008

That’s definitely the impression I got from our half-conversation. Or I suppose he could have been talking about Hungary itself, since the word is the same.

¬ Chris
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