Hello, hope this finds you all in good heart.
Sorry, very behind on Facebook, but lots to report. Over 4500 miles now clocked and in few days I’ll have been walking for a year!
Even at my plodding pace the time has whizzed by, yet in other ways, striking out from the Pacific coast of America last September seems a lifetime away. It’s been quite a year and I feel so lucky to have hiked nearly two continents now and met no end of fine souls along the way.
Since Vienna, I spent a few quiet days walking through a national park to Bratislava, the pretty and low key capital of Slovakia.
This tiny, young country, where I tramped for only four days before reaching the Hungarian border, was mooted in the bloodless Velvet Revolution of the late 1980s. This led to Czechoslavakia spliting in two – the Czech Republic and Slovakia – on New Year’s Day, 1993.
These last splendid, at times testing weeks, I’ve been walking through Hungary and tomorrow will cross the border into Serbia. Hungary has been a revelation as I hope the loooong posts below show.
For those of you who remember Eva, Mum and Dad’s lovely Hungarian carer, her parents put me up in her hometown, Baja, last night.
Eva was with us when Mum died and was the perfect person to help Dad and all of us cope through her warmth, kindness, humour and by plying us with goulash, cream cakes and Hungarian wine.
One moment sticks in my mind. Mum’s body was briefly left on an inflatable mattress after she died. Eva, while tidying up, accidentally flicked a switch that deflated the mattress. The air whooshed out within seconds, Mum sinking suddenly down, and then quickly up again as we re-inflated. There was a long silence. We whispered ‘sorry Mum’ and then all burst into hysterical laughter, knowing Mum would have been been laughing the hardest. It was a lovely moment, brightening a very sad time.
Eva is now happily settled in West Wittering with her boyfriend, Szon, and remembers her time in Bucks fondly. Her parents, Karoly, a retired farmer, and Eva, a champion cook, were incredibly kind to me. Despite them speaking no English, me no Hungarian, we had lots of laughs, goulash and palinka, a blood warming local moonshine. Salt of the earth, the pair of them.
Ok, here goes:
Day 345 to 348
Stop! Hungarian Police! The first time I’ve been pulled over while walking in Europe.
Officer Gyula appeared on a woodland road looking very stern, then, seeing my unease, roared with laughter, shook my hand Popeye-style, slapped my back (with the force of a sumo champ) and asked if he could take a selfie! He was great fun – all good cop, no bad cop.
Hungary won me over from the start. My first day in Komarom, by the Slovakia border, I dried all my camping kit (soaked in a storm) in a Pension full of local military cadets.
Last night, after walking alongside vineyards and fields of droopy sunflowers, I reached a pilgrim’s hostel at Tarjan, run by a lovely family: Nandy, a miller, his wife, Agnes, a German teacher (German is the first foreign language taught in schools here) and their two boys.
For less than a tenner I had a pilgrim’s bed (Tarjan is on the St Jacob Trail), a shower, a pitcher of Nandy’s homemade wine and great company.
Tonight, after a hot, hilly day, another wonderful local family have let me camp by their ice cream parlour in the village of Paty (more on this next post).
My encounters with Hungarians have been hugely animated, without either party understanding a word. This doesn’t seem to matter here, it’s simply the joy of meeting others that counts.
Another evening, arriving footsore at dusk at Tata, I camped by a lake and met a jovial posse of Germans who had taken part in fortnight long charity hitch-hike race from Germany to Romania.
“Hitch-hiking is the best form of trust,” said Felix, a veteran hitcher. ”We hitch in pairs, one man, one woman. We’ve been picked up by everyone from diplomats to dustmen, farmers to CEOs, one who’d just bought his car two hours before! The kindness shown by drivers, whatever their job, age, car, has been amazing.”
It was great to hear this – I’ve seen so few hitchers during my walk I thought it was a lost art. Clearly not. Good to know trust still exists on the road.
Day 349 to 351
‘Why don’t we give ourselves one last chance…’ howled Freddie Mercury, drapped in a Union Jack, as I trudged into Budapest.
Being on the road for so long, I’m often starved of live music, cinema and being part of a crowd.
But, when it happens, especially by chance, it’s all the sweeter. My hostel was near to Budapest’s towering century-old Basilica, where a Queen gig was being screened at a free open air cinema.
It was lashing with rain but, anoraks on, umbrellas aloft, this was not deterring the swaying, fist pumping locals – or me.
Under Pressure by David Bowie and Queen is one of my all time favourites but the highlight was a heart storming Bohemian Rhapsody, when a nearby tourist couple, swept up in the moment, shrieked with delight after getting engaged. ‘Yes!’ exclaimed the happy bride to be. ‘A thousand times yes!’
Frankly, so overpowering was the communal joy of the crowd, I would have got engaged to anyone standing in proposal range, though the 70 something, beer flushed, explosively bearded fellow to my left might have been a bit surprised.
The road to Budapest continued to be paved with generous Hungarians. When I walked into the village of Paty, 20 kms north of the capital, it was getting dark and I needed a camp spot.
I asked locals Adam and his girlfriend, Hajni, who were closing up an ice cream parlour, if they knew a good place. They both spoke superb English.
‘But you can camp by the cafe,’ said Adam.
Minutes later Adam’s mum let me stick up my tent (pic) and have a wash while Hajni brought out a sandwich and a pot of tea.
I slept like a dead man and early the following day, the lovely morning staff gave me pastries and ice cream for breakfast.
Adam and Hajni are both 18, mature, hard working, thoughtful and fun. I’ve been impressed with so many young people on my walk. The world is in a funk, going through crazy times, but us oldsters should have more faith in this new generation.
I’m now in west Budapest, where, again I’ve been given shelter tonight. More on this next time. Thanks for reading.
Day 352 to 355
When you are camped next to an Aqua Park – it’s time for a cheeky evening swim.
On my world walk it’s been wild swimming in lakes and rivers all the way: this, my first pool swim.
The late, great writer, farmer and champion wild swimmer, Roger Deakin – his book, Waterlog, is a classic – always said the colour of water is ‘green’ not ‘blue’. He asserts we think of blue water only due to chlorinated swimming pools and holiday beaches but most wild water – the deep sea, lakes, rivers, lochs, ponds, even reservoirs – is different shades of green, grey, brown and black.
Deakin found comfort plunging into the ‘cool murk of unknown waters’, ‘sploshing himself into nature’. I’m with him, give me a pond over a pool any day, laps of crawl or butterfly bore me senseless, however aquamarine.
Deakin was a forward thinker but an old school farmer who preferred harvesting his Suffolk hay meadows with a scythe. He even took time to dig out the docks with a spade as his cows didn’t like eating them.
Walking along the Danube, Deakin would have approved the high number of wild swimmers and he’d have enjoyed the community kindness too.
In Budapest, after a night in Pal’s Hostel, I was generously put up at short notice by Otto and Miklos of the Hungarian Bible Society, mates of my Bucks friend, Neil ‘Studge’ Rees.
Otto let me sleep on the floor of his office, with a Jonah and whale picture looking on. Kind souls.
Two nights ago, I turned up at Taksony Camping only to find it had shut, but Gabriella and Nikki, a mum and daughter who ran a nearby motel, sweetly let me pitch in their paddock.
‘You eskimo!’ Gabriella, who spoke little English, kept saying. I was confused.
‘Your tent is like an igloo,’ laughed Nikki, translating. ‘We don’t see many campers here.’
Hungary’s rural roads aren’t the best – and the drivers possibly the worst – but the lovely locals, the landscape and the Blue (make that green) Danube continue to delight as I hike south towards Serbia.
Day 356 to 358
Meet Attila the Hun!
Not the 5th century, Roman-slaying warrior but a much more benign version, also known as Attila the Cowboy.
It’d been a hell of a day, the 24 miles I’d clocked, many of them over stubble fields and mud tracks, had been hard yakka.
At dusk, despite the celestial skyline (pic) I was walking on empty and by the time I reached Attila’s place on the fringes of Kalocsa, I was toast.
It’s amazing how fast the good vibes of another person can lift you. Attila is 80, an ex soldier turned hobby farmer (chickens, ducks, turkeys, rabbits) and the father of a UK based Hungarian friend.
Attila speaks no English and I speak no Hungarian, but his natural warmth and joie de vivre made him easy to understand. When really stumped we used Google, with hilarious results.
After a hearty homemade stew and a toast of fiery local spirit, palinka, (basically petrol with a couple of apricots thrown in), we visited a paprika festival (the area is famed for its peppers) and, with some of Attila’s friends, drank another palinka. Hic, hic.
Early next morning, Attila fed his poultry, his dog, Bobby, and a posse of feral cats and showed me around a bit more of historic Kalocsa.
We ended up at the grave of his wife, Eva, who had died four years earlier. Attila watered the flowers on her grave and we stood in silence. He touched her name.
It was a stirring moment. This big hearted, charismatic man and I had wildly disparate lives but during our short time together, despite no common language, via smiles and gestures and family photos and toasts of palinka, we had somehow shared so much.
In the cemetery, I felt a profound sense of gratitude to have met such a big soul. It was like a moment of grace.
On another grave I saw a sign in English: ‘This too shall pass.’ – the words on King Solomon’s ring, which apply to almost everything (with the possible exception of Brexit!).
Solomon’s wise saying comforted me as I left Kalocsa with a spring in my step. Yes, life is transient, both the good and the bad times, but perhaps all the sweeter for this. Thank you Attila.
If you’ve got this far, thank you and pour yourself a drink. Till next time, all the best and keep on keeping on..
Huge thanks to the generous ‘anonymous’ donor who recently gave 150 Euro to Medical Detection Dogs and to Jo for her kind donation to MDD too.
Also to half of Hungary, so many big hearted souls – to all at Camping Tata; to Nandy and Agnes in Tarjan; to Adam and Hajni and all the team at Caffe Trevi in Paty; to Otto and Miklos and all at the Hungarian Bible Society in Budapest; to Nikki and Gabriella at Taksony; to Attila at Kalocsa and to Karoly and Eva at Baja and to Gyula, sorry we never got a chance to meet. Koszonom to you all! And to ever helpful Neil ‘Studge’ Rees, who seems to have friends all over Eastern Europe.