If they could do nothing else, the Austrians will score big points in my book for doing a wonderful breakfast. Yes, of course, Austria is known for other things… the skiing, the hospitality, the coffee, the Schnapps… the list goes on. But like the Germans, the breakfast is just wonderful. Delicious breads, sliced meats and cheeses… brie – I’m happy with any breakfast that serves brie – and a beautiful assortment of cereals and fruits. And when I’m traveling, I value a good breakfast – especially one that comes “free” with the room. It means I can absolutely stuff myself in the morning and then go a bit longer before eating a potentially overpriced average meal somewhere else.
So this particular morning, like yesterdays Austrian morning, I had a spectacular breakfast at our gasthaus: Hotel Waldfriede in Bad Tatzmannsdorf, AU.
From there we loaded up our bags and did a slow drive up and around the hill behind the guest house that wound back into the main street of the village below. We saw sheep, emus, strange lanky ducks, apple trees heavily loaded with bright red apples, and fields of dead sunflowers. Roadside monuments of various sorts added to the view every once in a while and as frequently we’d stop, get out, and snap a few photos of what ever caught our fancy.
I was a little nervous about crossing the border, so as much as I wanted to get going, a tourist route wasn’t going to bother me. I got one photo of the WW1 memorial in Bad Tatzmannsdorf – I’d seen them in every village, so I decided I needed to get a photo of at least one. They were all fairly similar… a stone soldier standing downcast with his gun in his hand. Most had moss growing on one side. Just a few feet from this one, I found a beautiful bird nest on the ground and grabbed it to take home. I still have it – one of my favorite souvenirs from Austria.
About 30 minutes later we were crossing the border. We slowed, cranked our necks around to look for someone or something to let us know what to do, then kept driving. Just like a lot of border crossings, the buildings and signs were there. Booths and all. But it looked completely abandoned. No one to check out passports or sell us a highway sticker. That sticker that I knew I was supposed to have but didn’t know how to get ended up haunting us the entire trip. We knew we’d get pulled over without one and fined. But we’d looked and couldn’t figure out where to buy one. Signs along the highways demonstrated that the little stickers were required and we even saw a police van on the side of the road that looked like they may have been checking for them. Still, we got lucky, and never had a problem. I won’t take my changes next time.
It took a while for me to feel completely comfortable there. At first, every thing felt really foreign. At least in Austria, I can read most of the signs and can communicate. It’s somewhat familiar. Hungarian is NOTHING like the languages I know, so all of the sudden signs were completely unpronounceable let alone understandable. The scenery didn’t change too much. It became a bit flatter, I guess. But the signs unknowns threw me a little. My GPS didn’t work. I’d known it wouldn’t, so I printed off a lot of maps and had a good plan. We headed straight into Szombathely, a town where my great-great aunt Hermine lived with her husband and two boys.
The town was a bit worn… buildings that were architecturally stunning, but had a good layer of black filth over most of them, a broken window, facade layers flaking off, statues missing or cracked, streets that were utilitarian, but not showy – not for tourists. Still, even on the outskirts of the city center, there were obvious signs of better times in the past – large ornate structures, huge brick military compounds, statues, tile… details that belie a more affluent past.
With no address to look up – no information other than it had once been Hermine’s home, we just drove around until we could find a place near the centrum to park. Large “I” signs for the information booth taunted us along the way until it was time to turn – Information in 500 meters. Nope. There was nothing there. So we just winged it. Found a place to park, but we didn’t have any Hungarian Forints, so we couldn’t pay for parking, so we went to the bank to get money, but the machine for change was broken, so we couldn’t get change there. So we went to another bank for small change, then took a walk. It was fun to window shop and try the math in my head. $1 = 162 HuF.
We walked up the road into the main pedestrian square, down to a smaller square with a large church, took pictures, looked around, then turned around and came back. Almost all the windows that we passed had double curtains in them – both white lace. One in front, a half curtain only covering the bottom half of the window, and the other in back a full sized curtain pull taut the entire window’s length. The two curtains were always in different lace patterns, but looked beautiful together anyway. In the large square we could have been anywhere. Beautiful architecture, shops and restaurants, people milling about, children with their mommies. It would have been fun to look around more and shop a bit, but we had other places to go.
Getting out of there towards Zalalövö was easier than we thought. Somehow we made it using my tiny yahoo maps and reading strange Hungarian street signs. It was interesting to watch the countryside as we drove south on hwy 86. We’d go through a small village, then out. Lots of dead corn that puzzled us a bit. Just outside of Szombathely, I saw a tiny old lady – looked like she was in her 90’s at least – pushing her bicycle down the hill, the handlebars of her bicycle loaded up with filled bags. She had on a long skirt and layers of tops and a colorful scarf around her head looking like something out of a story rather than real. It was one of those impossible photo moments – the perfect photograph, but impossible to capture.
Zalalövö is a tiny little town at the crossroads of two small highways in the Zala region of Hungary near a large national forest. We drove in and then out again quite on accident just because it was so tiny. At the crossroads lies a large yellow onion domed church and a series of uninteresting square buildings spread out to the left and opposite it. We parked the car and walked. By then we both needed a bathroom more than anything, but this wasn’t a town with tourists let alone public toilets, so we went into a little diner. Other than the language and the huge ceramic stove in the corner, it could have been sitting in a small rural US town. We each ordered a scoop of ice cream – just so we could sit a moment and justifiably use the WC. There was not one word of English spoken there and all eyes were on us. I felt very conspicuous. I’m still not sure what flavour I ordered… nothing was recognizable to me. But it was ok tasting.
We began to turn to the left upon leaving the cafe, but I’d thought I’d seen something just a block down, so we turned back to the right and walked another block to the edge of town. There was a WW2 memorial wall standing there at the back of a grassy area. On half were Hungarian names. On the other half I saw a separate list of names under Hebrew letters.
Zalalövö wasn’t a random stop for us. My great-great grandparents had lived there in a large home that impressed my grandfather as a child when he visited. They had 3 guest rooms, a restaurant, and two butcher shops – one kosher. I only knew that their last names were Maschanzker. Now I know their first names as well. Just like my grandfather’s name on the exhibit in Oberwart… these names too are bittersweet. Sadness for the loss, but comfort to see that they are not forgotten in their home.
I think that Aunt Gizi got married in Öriszentpéter. Grandpa mentioned a car ride there in his memoirs. So, we saw the sign and took another detour. The drive wasn’t long and it was worth it – absolutely beautiful countryside. The people in this area love terra cotta pots and geraniums. I literally saw porches with at least 30 potted geraneums sitting on stairs, decks, balconies, railings, and hanging anywhere they could put them. Even the cement telephone poles had a pot attached to either side with flowers spilling out of them. Windows were filled with bright red blooms and in contrast, strings of dried yellow corn hung on houses, fences and clotheslines.
In town we parked by an old church with a hand punched metal clock. It was working, so I took pictures of it, so I would remember the time I walked by. Grapes were everywhere in people’s yards hanging ripe and full ready to be picked. Most of the little yards had nice gardens and almost all had old wells with wooden slats around them to keep anything from falling in. This is where we saw the first of many stork nests in this area. We didn’t see any once we got to the lake, but here, in the Zala area, we saw enormous stork nests sitting atop of chimneys and telephone poles. I’d only heard of them before. It was unbelievable to see them in person – so huge. And storks really aren’t that big.
When I planned this trip, I really didn’t know much about this area. All I knew were the small list of towns that Grandpa had mentioned. Now I wish I would have had a little more time. If nothing else, the area was gorgeous, but after finding the memorial in Zalalövö, I think I could find more with more time and more information… more digging.
Still, this was the day we were supposed to arrive in Budapest. And while only a 2 hour drive direct from Vienna, we were not exactly taking the quick route and the heavy rains from Vienna had followed us even today. The narrow road towards Bagod and Zalaegerszeg wound around through hilly country in and out of tiny towns. Every few kilometers we’d see an enormous white cross standing on the side of the road. And, as often, the sky would be black with rain or we’d be blinded by the bright light shining through a gap in the clouds.
The villages were quaint. We saw more stork nests and an occasional shabby wooden stand on the side of the road selling produce and strings of bright red paprika peppers. We kept driving steadily to the far north western corner of Lake Balaton then followed the road through little resort villages all the way to the town of Tihany. Tiny vineyards lined the way all along the lake.
Tihany is this amazing little town sitting high on a hill in an inlet on Lake Balaton that seems to almost touch the other side of the lake. Three sides are surrounded by water and the inlet itself has a tiny lake in the middle. Up on top is the church with a view of Lake Balaton and the smaller lake below. Picture perfect. We drove out of the town to the ferry, then turned around and drove back up the hill parking in a tiny lot just below the church. We didn’t see any signs about parking, but a young guy in the parking lot was collecting money per hour. I tried to pay for 2 hours, but he would only take money for one and then recommended a good restaurant, Gulyásudvar. Dad had stuffed cabbage which was nothing like any stuffed cabbage I’d ever seen. It wasn’t stuffed. The bowl full of cabbage was topped with thick slabs of fatty meat. I had a tough leg of lamb with onions and potatoes and probably one of the best glasses of wine I’d had in a long time. Here’s how strange the Hungarian languages looks… or at least how strange it looked to me at first:
After dinner we did a quick walk around the village, stopped in the paprika shop where the entire facade was covered in paprika, then walked up the steps to the church to get photos and see the view. The sun was going down and we were losing the light, so it was time to go, but we were glad to have stopped.
And now our drive got interesting. And not in the fun way. At this point my GPS finally thought it knew where we were, but not entirely. It would seem lucid and then lose the signal. Half the roads were new and not on the maps. All the signs were, of course, fairly unreadable for us and I couldn’t see directionals on them to know which of 5-6 exits to take on major roundabouts. Highways that seemed like “major roads” had these signs on them showing that bicycles, horsedrawn carriages, and tractors also used those roads. And though we were on a stretch of road that led to Budapest, no signs actually said Budapest for quite a while, so we’d come to a roundabout in the dark, the GPS wouldn’t know where we were, I didn’t see any recognizable city name on the signs, so I was looking frantically on the little map printouts for the name of a town in the right directions to tell dad which turn to take. It was nuts. At one point I think we ended up going in the complete opposite direction. A stop for gas (which was another stresser at that point… not knowing how frequently or it we’d find a gas station) fortunately finally got us going in the right direction.
I’d planned on arriving in Budapest around 6 at the latest. We didn’t leave Tihany until 6. Thought we’d be in Budapest no later than 8. We arrived after 10. Budapest itself was another crazy driving adventure. It was dark, but there was a lot of traffic, one way streets, bridges and lanes that force you across the river and back. Crazy turns. And FAST traffic. People drive insanely in Budapest. They make Parisians look quite docile. (Trust me, that’s quite crazy.)
It took us a few crazy U-turns to get to the apartment. Then we started to look for parking. The landlord told us that there should be plenty of parking on the street. Tired and worn out from the day, we thought we’d find it, but turned onto our street to find cars parked bumper to bumper on the sidewalks on both sides. No place to park anyway. We drove all over the place around in circles. Looked for garages.
My dad seemed pretty calm or at least I remember him calm while I was getting a bit panicked. Tired, long day, traffic, speed, no parking… it just got later and later. Didn’t speak the language, didn’t know our way around… too much construction and detours. We finally pulled over by a gas station/parking garage structure – the first one we’d seen. I asked the attendant in my slowest simplest English about parking… is there a garage near our apartment address, is this one available for parking… he told me to go talk into the speaker by the locked glass door. So I stood walked over, pushed the button, and spoke very slowly in a mix of English and German (when one didn’t work, I’d switch and just kinda went back and forth) to the voice on the other end. He said it was a private parking garage, but he must have hear the tired desperation in my voice because he finally offered for us to park on the top floor. 3 days would cost about $50. Not bad. And truly, at this point, we would’ve paid more.
But I didn’t understand how to get in. It was confusing. He wanted me to go to another door to talk to the intercom there for him to open the gate, but I didn’t get it, so I went back to the car frustrated. Dad walked over, looked around, and heard the guy talking, so I went back, talked to him again, finally figured it out, and then we started the drive up to the top floor – driving the smallest compact our rental car company had – small – yet still squeezing by the walls as we rounded each corner up another ramp. All the walls in those places had thick layers of paint streaks from other cars. It was very slow going.
We finally got to the top and a man there directed us to our spot. I think I started breathing again then. I’d been so nervous. He was friendly. Told us about a relative in Florida. Helped us with our luggage. So, after a few minutes to relax, breathe, and gather our things, we began our kilometer walk with our luggage through this unknown city, through unknown streets, at around 10:30pm. I had my GPS on with our apartment programmed in nestled into my purse with my purse just slightly open, so I could try to look down and see it. Still, I had to stop at brightly lit corners here and there and take it out and look again. Walking directions are different than driving ones. I felt scared and conspicuous. We walked briskly as if we knew where we were going having a sense at least which direction to go. I watched people as much as they probably noticed us. I did stop once as we got closer at a restaurant and asked the waiters outside for directions. They spoke English very well and were very helpful. That was reassuring. We had to get our keys first, so we went to Ferenciek tere 2. An old man stood at the door smoking and knew immediately who we were. After all, how many people would be walking around Budapest at night with large pieces of luggage. He opened the large iron gate to the building and we walked into the tall dark corridor. His small room with a narrow bed, desk, a tv, and a few odds and ends was on the right. He handed us the keys and directed us to the back of the building. It was an old building with a large closed courtyard inside. I’m pretty sure it was closed, but it was also garbage day the next morning, so there were stacks of garbage and huddles of garbage cans everywhere and the floor was wet and with puddles like they’d hosed it down. The back door went out to a narrow alley also crowded with parked cars and garbage cans – not at all consoling for a tourist at night, but we didn’t stand there long and got to our apartment just a couple minutes later. We used one key to get into the door to the building. Walked straight to the end of the hallway, through a set of doors where there was a small open topped courtyard in front of us, then went to the right through another set of doors to the stairs which we used most of trip and the tiny, tiny lift that we used this evening. I’m still not sure how we actually fit inside with our luggage or how it lifted us. It was old, slow, creaky, and had the little swinging doors that you opened and shut yourself.
From there we found our apartment at the end of another dark hallway, got inside and found a moment to breath again. I think that’s probably one of those points when dad and I just started laughing. It had been a great day, but the last few hours were a bit more harrowing than we’d expected. Our original plan included arriving early, having dinner somewhere, and walking around the town. Now it was later than late and the last thing either of us wanted to do was leave the comfort and security of our little apartment. That was it. We were in Budapest and the adventure would have to wait until morning.