April 30, 2023

Escape from Hungary

My family and I were at a lovely retirement dinner on Thursday, which is a tale for another day, and we were talking about some of the interesting experiences that Melanie and I have had as a result of my travelling for the company.

One of the most interesting experiences is what we affectionally call our “Escape from Hungary”.

I had had some work scheduled for the Mediterranean in late August of 2015. So Melanie and I decided that she would meet me in Vienna, and we would have a short tour around Eastern Europe.

Our plan was to start in Vienna, spend a couple of days, catch a train to Prague, spend a couple of days there and then wrap up in Budapest. The whole thing was scheduled to be about 9 days and ultimately we would fly out of Vienna once we departed from Hungary.

I had booked a room at what is now the Moxy hotel near the airport for the first night as both of us were expected to get into Vienna fairly late in the day. Neither one of us was going to want to travel into town after getting off the flight.

Melanie was asleep when I got in the room about 4 in the afternoon. She doesn’t sleep on planes, so I thought I would let her be while I went and got a shower. We got dressed and went to eat, but there isn’t much availability of restaurants in the area in the evening, and we wound up just getting some appetizers from the bar if I remember correctly.

We got up in the morning, had breakfast and then caught the commuter train into town. We had booked a room for the night before our departure at the airport hotel, so I got round trip tickets on the commuter train as I knew we were coming back.

Melanie had booked us a room in a very nice hotel in the center of town. It was extremely hot in Vienna, and thank goodness our room was air conditioned. We spent a lovely couple of days in Vienna. It’s a wonderful city, which I can heartily recommend.

While in Vienna, I booked a room in Prague, for our next segment and we caught the train and headed there. The room was a bit of a distance from the train station we arrived at and it took us some time to find it. Luckily I came across a cab who gave us very succinct directions.

Our hotel was in the newer part of town, but the real Prague was on display a short distance away at the metro station nearest the hotel. I’m talking about Communist Prague, in all it’s glory. All very interesting.

Prague was fascinating, and I’ll tell that story another day, but when I started looking for a room in Budapest I was finding very little availability. Evidently there was some sort of convention in town, and the normal stuff was all booked. I didn’t get too worried, and by the end of our stay in Prague had found a room on one of the less prominent room booking sites and we were good to go.

The day we are scheduled to depart, I get a message from the guy with the room telling us that he will meet us at the side entrance to the hotel. Don’t come out the front was the instruction. We didn’t think much of it at the time, but later on it would come back to us exactly why he did this.

We met the inn keeper and he whisked us away in his car to the room. It’s on the Pest side of town (Buda is on the west side of the Danube, Pest on the East) not to far from “The Ruins”. We had no knowledge of this at the time, though. Getting out the car the entrance is the enormous door with a circular top leading through a tunnel of sorts. This is what it looks like from the inside:

Entering into the atrium, this is what greets us:

The atrium was probably 80 feet on a side with 4 floors of apartments above the ground. Connecting this all was a free standing elevator to take you to the rooms:

You can see Melanie standing on the balcony, which is none-too wide. We scootched our way around the balcony following the inn keeper to get to our room. As you can see, our room was on the top floor.

We get to the door, and he is unlocking it and Melanie and I are looking at each other with the same “whisky tango foxtrot” look in our eyes. The door opens, and the apartment is a palace. It’s spectacular. Its three bedrooms, with three baths and a large living space. Absolutely amazing. Who knew?

So the guy gives me the keys and says it’s some number of Forints, the Hungarian currency. I don’t take credit cards he says. H’mmm. So, we go out and find an ATM and I withdraw the maximum amount possible which is a little more than half of the room bill. He tells me just get the rest and leave it on the kitchen table when we leave. Ok.

We spent a couple of nice days in Budapest, but to be honest, by this juncture we were tired and just ready to come home. It’s an interesting place though, “The Ruins” are very cool. Rick Steves has an interesting piece about his experience at “The Ruins”. Worth looking up.

I book the train tickets back to Vienna online, but you have to go to the train station to pick them up. So we take the metro to the train station, this time arriving in the front.

Oh, my. Now I know why the inn keeper told us to meet him at the side. The front of the train station was inundated with Syrian refugees. Wall-to-wall. The interesting part is the women and children were all in the lower level in make shift huts and such while the men and boys were upstairs “shuckin’ and jivin'” as I like to say. There are police at the entrance to the staircase headed upstairs, but as we approached, they stepped aside and allowed us to traverse the stairs.

It took us about 20 minutes of wandering through the hordes of Syrian men to find that we needed to get our tickets out of one of the free standing kiosks on the the platform. Once done, we headed out the side door to escape the throngs of refugees. Getting back to the apartment, we look at the map and decide that we will catch the train at Kelenfold to avoid the crowds.

Melanie wasn’t feeling good the next day, so we packed up early and took a cab to Kelenfold. Like Prague, this was Communist Hungary in all it’s glory. Decay and rot were proudly on display. There was a lot of hubbub going at the ticket window, but unfortunately in this part of town, English was not commonplace, so I never got the gist of the conversation, but we would be privy to it all too soon.

The train wasn’t for another hour or to, so we bought some food from one of the kiosks in the train station and waited. The train arrived around 1 p.m. and we embarked, finding an empty chamber in the rear of one of the cars. After departing the station, the conductor comes and looks at our tickets. He comes into the chamber, closes the door and tells us that we need to get off the train at the next station as the government closed the border this morning and nothing is coming or going. This was all in response to the Syrian refugee situation.

We sat there for a minute in silence, and I told Melanie that I was going to go listen to him again to make certain of what we heard. He was going through the discussion with two ladies in open seats near the center of the train. They were obviously American and I listened carefully to what the conductor told them and in response to their questions. I had sat in the seat opposite to them to listen, and after the conductor left, they were discussing the situation and what to do. One of them commented that they had an International drivers license so they would just rent a car and drive to Vienna. At this point, I introduced myself and offered to pay for the car rental if my wife and I could join them.

They introduced themselves in return. They were from Salt Lake City and were on their way to Krakow via Vienna. They accepted my proposal, so I went and got Melanie and we all sat and got to know each other on the train.

We got to the next station and exited the train. We caught the next train back to Kelenfold.

On the train back, one of the ladies got into a conversation with a local young man who had good awareness of the situation. He said the borders were closed to road traffic as well, so driving across was a non-starter. The only crossing still open was at Sopron. We could catch the train through Sopron and get to Vienna. His mother lived in Sopron and had herself crossed over that morning so he knew it was open.

The challenge was in getting a ticket to Sopron as it wasn’t on the regular ticketing system, but he could show us how to enter the information in manually and get our tickets. We exited the train, and followed him to one of the kiosks and he showed us how to book the tickets.

The train to Sopron wasn’t for another hour or so. We sat on the platform, and I bought a bunch of candy and stuff to eat just in case we got stranded in who knows where.

Embarking on the train to Sopron, one thing jumped out at us. The immigrants weren’t the “women and children” as had been widely discussed on all the media covering the event. The train was chock-a-block full of young Syrian men, not a one of them over 30 years old. H’mmm.

We had traveled about an hour when the train stopped in Gyor. The announcement came that everyone was to disembark the train. Getting our luggage, we exited the train to be greeted by the Gendarmes’ who were shoulder to shoulder on the platform. They would not allow us through, but were letting all the Syrian young men through. Once the Syrians were all filtered through, they directed us back on the train.

We were sitting there and there was some discussion that the train split in half, with one side going south and one side going West, which is what we wanted. There was a woman there about our age, in an immaculate lace dress, who was the only one there that spoke English (other than us of course). We explained our situation, which she relayed to the conductor, and just as the train starts moving, she tells us that we are on the wrong half of the train.

We are told to get off the train at the next stop and catch the return train. We do so, and once we step off the train, we realize we are in the middle of NO WHERE. And I mean NO WHERE.

Here is the sign opposite the train station:

The train station is about the size of a portable toilet and is of course, not manned. I go to see if there is a schedule, and as best I can tell the train back is in about an hour. Ok. So we sit their kinda goofing around:

Waiting for the train, a woman with a cart pulled by an ox goes by on the road on the other side of the tracks. Middle of NO WHERE.

About 15 minutes before the scheduled train arrival, we see a car pull up and a couple of young people get out with luggage. Ok, that’s a good sign. The train arrives and we get on, this being around 4 in the afternoon. Sitting there, the conductor comes by and we give him our tickets and explain the situation. He says, “oh, we heard about you. Unfortunately by the time you get to the station to catch the next train to Sopron, the last train will have left….”

He walks off, and we are crest fallen. A few minutes later, he comes back, gives us our tickets back and says, “They are going to hold the train for you. When you get there, you must run to catch the other train.” We get to the appointed stop, and a quick check confirms that our train is on the opposite side of the station. So we run, as best, we can to the other train and get on, and it departs literally when the last of us was on the train.

So, finally, after 6 trains, we arrive in Sopron. It’s about 6 in the evening, we haven’t eaten much all day, and we have no idea how to get to Vienna. We go to the ticket counter, show our tickets and the agent rattles off a bunch of instructions. Whoa. Can you please write this down for us? She grabs one of the maps and draws the route for us. We must change trains twice to get to Vienna. The next train is in about an hour we are told.

So we grab a table, and I get out all the candy and stuff I had bought earlier and we shared what I had. I’ve got an energy cell, so the two ladies charge up their phones while waiting. Getting on the train, there was an Asian couple doing the same thing, so we sat near them and talked. I could track our progress on Google Maps on my phone and all six of us sat there watching the icon move until finally it was on the Austria side of the border. We all cheered like we had won the lottery.

The next two trains were a bit of a blur at that juncture, but we got to Vienna city center at 10:45 p.m. We separated from our wonderful traveling companions and caught the last train back to the airport and the hotel. The 1 1/2 hour train ride from Budapest to Hungary had taken us over 12 hours and on 9 different trains.

The only place open to eat in the airport/train station was McDonalds, so that’s what we ate. We got in the room around midnight, and as we had an early flight the next day, we fell into bed, exhausted,

So that’s it.

Next time, I’ll (most likely) talk about what I’m going to do when I grow up.

written by Chris - Posted in Yapping