Sometimes when you travel by the seat of your pants, things work out wonderfully. Other times, they don’t.
I usually have a pretty good idea of the places I plan to visit on any given journey. But as my Balkan Odyssey was winding down, my girlfriend and I found ourselves in Split, Croatia wondering how we were going to get to Vienna where she had to do some business and I had to catch my flight home. I had some rough itineraries in my head, but as is often the case while traveling, we were woefully short of time.
So, we decided to fly part way to save some time and then take the train onwards, stopping somewhere along the route.
It seemed like a good plan, and a convenient one. We woke at 9:30, walked to the Croatian Airlines bus stop just down the street from our hotel, rode the bus to the airport, grabbed our 12:05 flight ($83 each), landed in Zagreb at 1 p.m., took the Croatian Airlines bus to the center of town, and grabbed a taxi to the train station where we immediately met two Irish girls who had left Split on the early morning train and had beaten us there. Damn!
Since we were heading north towards Austria, and my guidebooks only covered the Balkan countries, I asked to borrow their Lonely Planet Europe. After a quick perusal of the cities that lay between Zagreb and Vienna we settled on Koszeg, a small Hungarian town of 12,000 that promised to have a very nice, medieval town center (above photo).
Our first indication of trouble occurred at the train station in Szombathely where we made our final connection. The train onwards to Koszeg wasn’t located on one of the main lines, but Track A, just off to the side. It was a rickety old train all nasty and stained and full of flies. The provincial line moved very slowly, dropping people off at various small villages along the way.
Koszeg was the end of the line. Literally. By the time we reached our destination, only a couple of people were left on board and they quickly disappeared. The train station itself was tiny, vacant and very weathered. It had a small waiting room with an ancient, ceramic stove which served as a heater. I could just picture a couple of World War II soldiers wrapped in blankets warming themselves next to that stove; nothing had changed here in the last fifty years.
Before stepping out of the station, we paused for a moment to check out the train schedule so that we’d know when to leave the next day. As we were looking it over, the only person in the whole station wandered over and asked us in very poor German if he could help. After chatting a few moments about the trains, he eventually asked us what were doing there. He seemed a bit surprised to see a couple of tourists in his home town.
After stepping out of the train station, we asked ourselves the same question.
We were somewhere on the outskirts of town. There was almost nothing around except a pub across the street and a road which stretched off in both directions. There were no taxis, buses, or even any people for that matter. A bit puzzled, we walked across to the bar where I asked the barman to call us a taxi. After dialing a couple of times, he shrugged his shoulders and shook his head no.
So, we decided to stand on the side of the road, just outside the bar and wait to see if a taxi happened to drive by. The only problem was that there was hardly any traffic at all. One of the first cars to roll past us was an old Russian Lada with a mattress tied to the roof. Inside were two gypsy men who stared at us an uncomfortably long time, and then swung by a few minutes later to do it again.
A short while later, a car stopped about a hundred yards away. I had been looking in the opposite direction and when I turned back, I was a bit alarmed to see a man and a bicycle lying on the ground just in front of the car. At first I thought the car had hit him, but when the driver stepped out, helped the man up and then drove off, I realized I was wrong; he had crashed on his own. I watched as the man climbed back on his bike and then slowly weaved his way down the road towards us until he peddled by, bleary-eyed and piss-drunk on what was obviously a girl’s bike with large, high rise handlebars.
It was at about this time that another drunk came reeling out of the bar. He was young, perhaps in his mid twenties. He tried striking up a conversation but unfortunately all he spoke was Hungarian. This didn’t stop him from trying to speak with us, however, with the muddled, drunken belief that if he repeated something enough times, we’d miraculously start understanding Hungarian.
He did make one attempt at English. “Red. Hot. Chili. Peppers,” he said proudly, and thrust a grubby finger at my girlfriend’s red shirt to show us that he understood at least one of the words in the band’s name.
It didn’t take long for Friendly Drunk to become Irritating Drunk. He wouldn’t shut up and he wouldn’t leave us alone. And, he grew uncomfortably more leering.
Even worse, dusk was quickly approaching; the 45 minutes we’d already spent in Koszeg was more than enough time to realize that this was not a place we’d want to be stranded in the dark with all of our luggage and no place to go. So, we did the only logical thing left to do; we turned around, crossed the street, and caught the last train out of town.
The train took us back to Szombathely where we grabbed a taxi and asked to be taken to the nearest hotel. It was dark by this time and we saw almost none of the town as the taxi driver weaved his way through the tree-lined Hungarian streets. We knew nothing about Szombathely and were a bit worried about the type of dive he’d take us to. But, when we finally pulled up to the hotel, it turned out to be the four-star Hotel Claudius–a very welcome respite with an extraordinarily friendly, English speaking staff.
We dropped our bags off in a beautiful, clean room ($60) that seemed so much farther away than a mere hour train ride from Koszeg, and then popped downstairs to the hotel’s swanky restaurant where we inhaled some excellent food and wine.
Early the next morning, we caught the first train to Vienna, having seen nothing of Koszeg or Szombathely other than some provincial drunks and a four-star hotel.
The joys of Hungary will have to wait until another trip.