Monday, October 29, 2012

Hungary to Switzerland - Riding the Rails

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Interior of Budapest's eastern railway station. Photo credit: BudapestZIN
10 miles  –  Thursday, September 15

After periodic showers we packed and left for a slow ride, taking in the sights before the late afternoon departure by train.

We coasted by the grand Parliament Building. Sentries guarded all entry points. Later we pull up in front of another elaborate structure because policemen and news station equipment captured our attention. Consulting the pocket dictionary we decipher the building as a courthouse. After yesterday’s debacle, we imagine political scams, officials on the take­ – whatever might garner news coverage. Without time constraints, I enjoy stumbling upon interesting scenes.

At the train station, police aimlessly walked the platforms, overlooking the money changers and accommodation pushers that are a constant nuisance. Andy wonders if they are on the take.

I watch the bicycles, a bit nervous, while my husband sets off to figure out what to do with our bikes. It would take little to wrest control of our gear. I cling to my can of mace. Andy comes and goes. He is frustrated. There is no communication between Information and Baggage. Fortunately, a man in line behind him overhears our predicament, and speaks English. He discovers we’re supposed to load our own bikes. Finding the platform number is different than what is printed on our tickets, we hustle to another area. It’s a few minutes before departure.

We head towards the train, but an attendant halts us, waving his arms and gesturing for us to remove the panniers. The front bags are easy to detach, but the rear panniers require a tool to release the cinch strap and push the O-rings off the rack struts. Andy patiently tries to explain that it’ll take a few minute and pulls out his tool pouch. The official spouts an angry barrage of Magyar. Andy turns red-faced. He waves a wrench, and – if I didn’t know my husband well – it looked like he was ready to club the guy. Andy points at the rear rack. Only then did the employee rescind and thrust his arms at the open rail car. We took the hint. Under his leering gaze, we lug bikes and bags onto the train.

Andy and I plop down in seats in a compartment with another man. It takes us a while to stop fuming, but gradually we succumb to the realization that we are lucky – despite the ordeal – to be on our way back to Vienna. When dusk arrives and lights do not work, our car mate offers to speak with someone about the problem. He returns, explaining the electric snag was fixed by wedging a match in the wires. Andy and I shake our heads. We are delighted he speaks English, though. During the three hour journey, he explains how the Hungarians are dissatisfied with the newly elected government. High taxes of 45% and rising have led some people to black market schemes – thus the hustlers on Vaci Utca street. The gentleman explains how his family left Hungary for Germany when he was a boy. He finished school in Germany and still lives there, but his job frequently takes him to Budapest. He shared some of his frustrations and the country’s refusal to accept tourism. It’s an interesting concept as we thoroughly enjoyed our visit, we explain, except for the train hassle. But the streets were often dirty; the locals disrespected bicycle travelers; signage was poor, often only understood by Hungarians. The business man confirms our observations.

Three hours later we disembarked in Vienna at 9:30 p.m. It’s late. Rather than dealing with accommodation and darkness, we decide to continue the overnight journey to Innsbruck, expecting to catch a few winks in the process. This time ticketing takes less than 5 minutes and they load our bikes.  For 1,400 Schilling (120.00 USD) we travel three times the distance compared with 80.00 USD in Budapest.

Friday, September 16

We arrive at 6 a.m. in Innsbruck for a 6 hour layover. It’s a chilly 50F, yet we refuse to bundle up like the locals. I walk, hands sunk deep into my pockets, head tilted skyward. Low clouds cling halfway up the valley walls, teasing us with glimpses of the snow-covered mountains. Visiting the Alps had been a dream of mine for many years, and Andy and I catch our first views.

We head to the famed ski jump, amazed at the stadium of seating lining the grassy slope. Two torches and Olympic rings are stark against the cloudy sky. We follow the winding pathway to the monument.  Medal winners of the 1964 and 1976 Winter Games are engraved on dark plaques. We scan the list for names. I’m awestruck, picturing the region covered in snow, torch flames licking the sky, cheering crowds. I recall the year when I was fourteen and glued to the television, watching ski legend Franz Klammer, U.S. skater Dorothy Hamel with her signature hair style, and fellow Vermonter, cross country ski racer, Bill Koch.

Later we buy groceries, stay warm at two bakeries, consuming coffee and apple strudel. We withdraw Swiss Francs and it’s noon. The temperature remains the same. I break down and put on black fuzzy pants and we head back to the train station. Moments of sunshine enhance our picnic of Camembert and Tuscan bread.

Photo credit: The Living Room
A sleek green and gold trimmed train quietly enters the station and comes to a halt. We marvel and stand because it’s the London to Venice Orient Express. Lacy curtains adorn the dining car with individual lamps at each table. There are no passengers exiting, but men trot to the side of the train, hooking up hoses. We presume it’s a necessary stop to refuel and expel refuse. A bit chilled still, we gawk and wonder what it’s be like to spend a week in comfort and style, riding the rails. Not likely, with our bicycle budget. I stand, still grinning, as The Orient Express, after only a few minutes, disappears down the track.

We hop on our train. The weather clears as the cars bullets up a long valley, eventually crossing the Swiss border. Border patrol men pass through, checking passports. Then it’s a pleasant ride through picture perfect Switzerland. Brown and white chalets cluster around an onion-like domed church; the steeple is always darker than church walls. Pink and red flowers spill from flower boxes. It’s green, green everywhere we look. Houses checker above village centers, contrasting, yet complimenting steep hills. The effect is cleanliness and cohesiveness. We stop at rail stations every 15 minutes; the cement platforms are freshly painted, swept clean. It’s a refreshing change. I think I’m going to like this country. Even the farmer’s haystacks are organized. Instead of one massive building-sized pile, the Swiss version is a 5 foot mushroom-like proper thing.

We arrive in Zurich, and initially have trouble locating the bikes, but eventually we head out at 7 p.m. In light rain, we roll into the nearest campground. We are cold and tired and pay the 20 Franc fee (25.00 USD.) Immaculate Switzerland will come at a cost.

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