Hungary: slightly more than the Detroit of Europe

Hungarian sunflowers

It definitely has more cops than Detroit. There were cops were everywhere once we hit Hungary, a surprise after seeing them only once in “peaceful” Slovenia.

It started after we crossed the border travelling from Maribor to the Balaton region. We zipped through the typical non-existent EU border and were immediately met with signs saying a vignette is mandatory for the motorway, and that we had entered a “Matrica kontrol” zone. But unlike Slovenia and Austria, there was no place even remotely near the border to buy the stupid thing. We cruised for miles with not a petrol station or vignette booth in sight. Was it even really necessary? Could we manage to sneak through without it?

But then we started to see cops, and we started to become paranoid without that little metallic seal of immunity on our windshield. How stupid would it be to get pulled over, fined, and possibly worse just for avoiding a €15 toll? Miles later when we finally found a petrol station selling the things, it turned out Hungary now uses an e-vignette system that registers our car online instead of giving us a cool sticker. Bummer, but we were legal.

There really were shitloads of cops. At one point we passed a motorway petrol station with about eight vans full of them together with what looked like a bunch of topless dudes–something reminiscent of a London rave bust. In fact, in our seven days in the country I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many cops, collectively, in such a short amount of time, in any place aside from good ol’ Lundun.

Balaton lake

We spent some time near the Balaton lake in Veszprém, where the police saturation level decreased slightly. I suppose German and Hungarian tourists aren’t much of a threat to civilised society for the Hungarian police. The lake was beautiful but the weather was pretty awful. We spent most of our time aiming for the sunshine, driving around looking at abandoned Soviet crap. Urbexers take note, Hungary is the promise land (and the Detroit of Europe).

Derelict power plant

Derelict power plant

Budapest parliament

From there it was off to Budapest, a city of much myth and fanfare. The name Budapest sounds exotic to my foreign ears, and perhaps it was before it got completely overrun by American backpackers and Brits on city breaks and stag dos. Here the cops were back with a vengeance, out to curb the wild antics of those inhibitionless foreigners.

When in Rome…

We drank…. a lot. We first became properly acquainted with the local spirit at the home of our hosts, who had fashioned a number of fantastic ways to get this lovely stuff down our throats. Wherever we went our crowd was admirably international, but every time a glass was raised we all slurred “Egészségedre!” like professional Hungarian alcoholics.

Zwack Unicum

There’s surprisingly little sightseeing to do in Budapest, and our hangovers didn’t really motivate us to go the extra mile. All in all, I’d say it was a pretty proper, traditional weekend in the Hungarian capital.

Budapest

I struggle to see over all the tourists

German stickers

Nope, this ain’t Berlin

World War II monument

Protest against this WWII monument (background) that some say minimises the Hungarian government’s role in the Holocaust

We escaped Budapest finally, on Sunday afternoon. Heading south down to Szeged, Hungary’s “city of sunshine”, we were met by shitloads of rain. It’s a cute little city with loads of free wifi, and despite the weather we made the best of it before heading off to Serbia.

Unicum

Mook’s favourite beverage

Szeged statue

Celebrity spotting: The guy from the Trololo song

Szeged building

Celebrity spotting: One of the Knights Who Say Ni

Szeged museum

Celebrity spotting: King Tut and Celopatra

One thing you’ll notice while driving through Hungary is that an enormous acreage of the country is covered by sunflower plants. Their yellow heads spread over wide rolling hills until they hit the horizon, where I’m sure they continue. There’s really shitloads of them.

Hungarian sunflowers

Turns out that Hungary is one of the top 10 producers of sunflower seeds in the world, cranking out over 1.3 million tons for sunflower oil, delicious breads, animal feed, and obnoxious snacks for old women at bus stops around the world.

Another fun but random fact about Hungary: Hungarians love water polo. So much so that it could be considered as close to a national sport as their hearts might allow. While we were in town they broadcast the world championship games at almost all of the pubs around town, and even had a public viewing for the European Championship, which they lost to Serbia. Despite the loss, the Hungarian men’s national water polo team has historically been considered to be the world’s best.

More random info from our local guides: In 2012 Hungary banned smoking in enclosed public places (similar to the rest of the EU), but extended this ban to include pedestrian underpasses, train platforms, and bus stops. Where is the border of a bus stop? Where does it begin and end? The fine for smoking in a bus stop is HUF 50,000 (about €160). Great for nailing tourists.

Last one to take with you: In Budapest it is a crime to sleep in public places, including underpasses, bridges, playgrounds, the city centre and world heritage sites, as well as the Danube river banks and the Buda Castle area. This is in effect criminalising homelessness, a travesty in a city with between 10,000 and 15,000 people who have no home. On top of that, it’s illegal to remove rubbish from public places, which robs the homeless of opportunities to make even a small living.

Hungary was nice, with a postcard landscape, tastebud-blowing paprika, and a beautiful, easy party capital where we met some great people. But the overbearing police presence, wanna-be-middle-class conservatism, and general tourist madness have (for me) given the place about as much edge as a PG-13 movie. At least there’s still the palinka.



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