Diary of a Student Backpacker

If you are lucky enough to fly into Budapest Liszt Ferenc International Airport on a fine clear day, as you peer out the cabin window, your eyes will be drawn to the distinct sight of the Buda Castle keeping guard over the city. But as much as I enjoy the delights that Budapest and its sights has to offer its constant influx of tourists, my trip was set to take me to the less known and less travelled parts of Hungary.

The intention for this weekend trip was to visit a friend who had relocated from Dublin to the city of Esztergom, 29 miles northwest of Budapest. Situated on the banks of the Danube with Slovakia waving at them from across the river, Esztergom was the capital of Hungary from the 10th till the mid-13th century when King Béla IV of Hungary moved the royal seat to Buda.

My introduction to Esztergom was on a Friday night, arriving by bus, as I uncurled myself from the numerous blankets given to me by a kind fellow passenger. Soviet Union made public buses come without heating, maybe thought to have been an unnecessary luxury for the passengers. I happened to look up and spotted the Esztergom Basilica perched on top of the cliff face, looking down on the town; all lit up like a Christmas tree. The Basilica is the largest church in Hungary. All one has to do is travel at least twenty miles along the river, each way, and they will come across a tower, castle, church or fort that perches above a village, town or city that was built for defenses purposes during the Ottoman wars between 1526 and 1699.

We were up like larks the next morning to go explore the city and beyond. The Mária Valéria bridge connects Esztergom in Hungary and Štúrovo in Slovakia, across the River Danube. First built in 1895, it has been destroyed and rebuilt over five times in Hungary’s long history. It is named after Archduchess Marie Valerie of Austria, (1868–1924), the fourth child of Emperor Franz Josef, and Elisabeth. Since it’s opening on 28 September 1895, the bridge has been destroyed twice. On 22 July 1919 the bridge was destroyed by a detonation at its first pier on its western side but the bridge was renovated in 1922 and completely reconstructed in 1926.

During World War II, retreating German troops blew up the bridge on 26 December 1944 along with other bridges near Esztergom. Decades of intransigence between the Communist governments of Hungary and Czechoslovakia meant that the bridge was not rebuilt until the new millennium, finally reopening on 11 October 2001. Because Slovakia and Hungary are part of the Schengen Area there are no border controls on the bridge.

The weekend of my stay coincided with the Slovakian, famous and infamous in equal measure, street market in Štúrovo. To gain an understanding what this event has to offer the bargain hunter, that covers six miles, with various stalls lined down either side of the street, imagine walking through a vintage fair with stalls, jugglers, fire eaters, vendors offering you tasty treats and smells, a lady offering you a snake to stroke, native Indians dancing to tribal songs and people chatting, eating and laughing all around you. Silk, spices, jewelry, handcrafted wooden furniture; hand-made soaps and AK-47s are on offer for the hawk eyed.

Slovakia has very relaxed gun laws compared to other EU countries. Unfortunately as I seem to invite searches of my cabin bag by security when following the rules, I thought the better of it and decided not to push my luck if I was carrying a range of small hand grenades. Albeit that some grenades came in pink, fitted with small false diamonds. What every Slovakian girl has in her purse when she goes shopping, dancing or a day out at the spa.

Ezstergom itself is a sleepy town during the day but at night it comes alive. Restaurants prepare and serve food outdoors on industrial BBQs all the year round. For the winter months it is advised to layer up or a case of hypothermia comes as a side order. My friend bought me to one of the oldest Inns in the city. It dates back to the Roman Empire, which conquered the territory west of the Danube between 35 and 9 BC. The state of Pannonia was located over the territory of the present-day western Hungary, eastern Austria, northern Croatia, north-western Serbia, Slovenia, western Slovakia and northern Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The waiters are dressed as roman slaves and speak in what is perceived to be a form of roman speech. Depending on how you are dressed when you enter or the waiter’s mood you can be treated as a noble man/woman, a layperson or a free slave. If selected as a free slave you will be eating scraps from the BBQ while on the floor for the rest of the night. Noble people are treated as VIPs with cushions for their chairs. We claimed the title of layperson so where mostly ignored for the night, sharing a 6ft table with twelve other people and given whatever part of the hog the chef decided to crave for us. All done in the name of fun and the honey mead was on the house for the night just in case someone had a lapse in their sense of humor.

Next morning dawned and we headed for Visegrád. The name Visegrád is of Slavic origin meaning “the upper castle” or “the upper settlement/town/fortification”, situated north of Budapest. Visegrád is famous for the remains of the Early Renaissance summer palace of King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary and the medieval citadel. We toured the castle but found that as west Hungary is only starting to be discovered by us westerners most of the information is in Eastern European languages. Not a word of English in sight! So we abandon our original plan to visit the other two castles and signed up for a French, (my friend being the linguist), guided walking tour through the forest.

Walking through the forest I found my mind turning to Bram Stoker’s Dracula as we saw far off castles turrets peeping through the foliage at us. My friend mentions this to our guide and was informed that Transylvania was under Hungarian rule in 1893, when Stoker wrote his novel. With Hungary’s rich and long history this trip has succeeded in whetting the appetite in discovering more of this country and off the beaten tourist track places. As I write my mind is made up to plan my next trip without delay.