A lasting legacy of the last pandemic

Covid-19 has made us all change our habits.

And whilst most of us have not felt the urge to lick church floors or shrines, the WHO have still found it necessary to issue a list of things that don’t help protect against coronavirus.

So will our new found habits stop when a vaccine becomes available?

By mid 2021, will we all be back to our old ways or will there be a longer legacy?

In the wake of the Spanish Flu epidemic (and First World War…) the Panacea Society was formed and soon started a healing mission.

People could apply for a free pack of muslin squares which had been breathed on by their leader Mabel Barltrop.

Each pack came with instructions for use, which generally involved popping a square into a jug of water to dissolve/transmit some of the ‘healing’ before drinking or applying.

This rather bizarre and, in light of current understanding, somewhat unsanitary practice continued long after Mabel (who was meant to be immortal) had died. In total 130,000 people applied for the cure.

The last squares were sent out in 2013 with a rather sad letter informing them that as all the Panaceans were now departed, they were now on their own.

Maybe in 2113, there will be another letter like this informing the recipients that they too will have to find another cure.

If you would like to learn more about the work of the Panacea Trust, visit their website or read my article.

Top 10 tips for Orban’s empty tourist train

I’d heard about the ailing Vál Valley Light Railway in Felcsút near Budapest. It just isn’t attracting enough tourists. It was built three years ago with EU funding and was due to attract between 2,500 and 7,000 visitors a day. So far, it’s been averaging less than 70, with some days no tourists coming at all.

So while I was travelling through Hungary, I thought I would check it out and offer a tourist’s-eye-view of what may be going wrong.

Here are my top 10 tips for getting things back on track.

Tip 1: If you make a tourist attraction, you need to tell tourists how to get there

The railway’s website is one of the slickest I have seen with some very impressive drone footage and text in both Hungarian and English. Unfortunately, the English pages have only been partially filled in with the most notable omissions being the timetable and how to get there.

It feels like a job started with plenty of enthusiasm which just tailed off when it got to the boring details.

To find out how to get there, I had to switch to the Hungarian text and use Google Translate along with Google Maps.

First I took a train to Bicske which is only half an hour from Budapest and gives a glimpse of the real Hungary, warts and all.

That should have been all I needed to do to get the tourist train. After all, this railway was a reopening of a line that ran from Bicske. So what went wrong? See Tip 2.

Tip 2: Don’t employ football fans to build the railway

I find it really hard to simply walk passed any football match, even Sunday-league in the local park. Before I know it, I’m routing for one of the teams and muttering ‘advice and insight’ from the touchline.

And that is what seems to have happened when they rebuilt this part of the old Székesfehérvár- Bicske line. Instead of going all the way to Bicske, which would then connect to the railway network, they stopped short at the mightily impressive Pancho Arena a few miles away in Felcsút.

Don’t get me wrong, it is a wonder to behold and has a capacity twice as big as the town. If this were in Budapest, the arena would be able to seat 3 million people.

So I was now stuck in Bicske and I had to get a bus to Felcsút.

Asking bus drivers whether they went to Felcsút wasn’t too difficult. Understanding their replies was another matter, especially with a queue of people behind all itching to get on.

The good thing that came out of it was that I was able to sit and talk to a very nice old lady who was also waiting for a bus. No she didn’t know which bus I should catch…

Tip 3: Make the timetable legible

For unswerving enthusiasts like me who still want to go on the little train, publishing a photo of the timetable on your website means it can’t be put it through Google Translate, which is fine if you are only interested in Hungarian visitors.

I tried to catch the train from the top station at the arena, but the train didn’t turn up when I expected, so I filled my time by walking to the middle stop. This took me through the small town, which is incidentally the hometown of Prime Minister Victor Orban. What a coincidence…

The good news about my walk was that I was able to buy an ice cream on the way – I would be grateful for that sustenance later.

Tip 4: Actually open your cafe

I didn’t bring lunch with me as I had read that the middle station has a cafe. It was closed, which I suppose makes good financial sense when you don’t have any passengers.

I had enough time to walk back into Felcsút and past the array of barking dogs whose day I had made by walking past them the first time around. However, I decided instead to wait until the train had actually taken me somewhere and then I’d forage dog-free.

When the train arrived, no-one got off, so I must have been the first passenger of the day on my ride down to the final stop at Alcsút. The train driver and guard were very friendly. They rode in the cab together, presumably for a bit of company until I got on.

I decided to splash out on a ticket that would let me ride the full length of the line up and down. It was the least I could do.

Tip 5: Budget for breakages

Despite the railway being only three years old, it is already showing signs of wear and tear. At the top station, it looks like the wrong type of screws were used for the railings and they are already rusting. The plywood on the accessibility ramp is flaking away and as I later saw, several of the windows in the trains have large cracks in them.

This maintenance is all going to have to be funded somehow.

Tip 6: Tourists aren’t interested in seeing dad’s new mansion

Alcsút is the site of an old Hapsburg estate and an arboretum that is open to the public.

Going into the arboretum actually cost more than the little train and after reading about the dubious purchases of these old Hapsburg lands for Győző Orbán, father of the prime minister, Victor, I felt rather put off of going in.

Instead, I made do with wandering down the lanes and nibbling on a packet of sunflower seeds I had found at the bottom of my rucksack.

Tip 7: Give your staff a sense of purpose

When the train returned to pick me up, perhaps unsurprisingly no one got off and I was the only person to get on.

It made me wonder what it must be like to drive the diesel train up and down these tracks day in, day out with hardly anyone using it. However much you like trains, or at least having a job, it must feel pretty pointless.

So, how about giving your staff time off to go and fix the roof at the nearby school in Etyek where it was reported that mould spore counts exceeded WHO safe levels. Parents have had to club together to pay for basic repairs.

Tip 8: Find a rich benefactor

No, the EU isn’t a wealthy uncle. Or even if it is, they will keep poking their nose into other business interests which could become awkward.

Keeping the little train running, means finding someone with deep pockets who has an attachment to the place. If you can’t think of someone in the area who might want to give something back, how about going further afield?

My advice would be to write a polite letter to ex-pat George Soros asking for help.

Tip 9: Don’t turn away passing trade

I got off the train at the Pancho Arena having been, as far as I am aware, the only passenger that day. But on the platform were four people.

They were work colleagues and one of them was from the Ukraine. The other three wanted to show her some of the local sights after work and they were hoping to go for a little ride.

Unfortunately, this was the last scheduled stop. The train was going to back to the depot. No exceptions could be made, even if it would have quintupled their income for that day.

They didn’t seem too disappointed at missing out on the ride.

Tip 10: Leave this sort of thing to the experts

With my trips up and down this little line, something felt like it was missing, apart from passengers, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was.

Then I realised – enthusiasts.

Train lines that had been closed in places like the UK were reopened by volunteers.

All the little trains I had been on had been run by avid enthusiasts who gave up their free time to pursue their rail-based passion. Where was the gift shop manned by staff grudgingly selling Thomas the Tank Engine toys?

Where were the staff who wince at you for confusing a train with a locomotive and who simply have to tell you their gripe with current national transportation policy.

I love these people.

They keep the wheels on track and their questionably placed passion is, of a sort, infectious.

Let’s be clear, tourist attractions like this could be a great idea. Anyone with kids (or work colleagues from the Ukraine) want things to do.

It’s also not surprising that the local boy, who became prime minister would want to give something back to his hometown. Who wouldn’t?

But benefactors usually give their own money.

Links

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/10/07/a-village-fit-for-a-king-how-viktor-orban-had-a-football-stadium/

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/06/19/hungarian-prime-minister-viktor-orban-investigated-over-2m-eu-fu/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2016/03/10/the-scandal-of-viktor-orbans-secret-estate/

https://www.valvolgyikisvasut.hu

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/V%C3%A1l_Valley_Light_Railway

https://blog.atlatszo.hu/2019/08/eddig-17-millios-veszteseget-termelt-a-felcsuti-kisvasut-az-elmult-evben-17-nap-jart-uresen/

https://blog.atlatszo.hu/2017/07/tavasszal-meglodult-a-felcsuti-kisvasut-utasforgalma-friss-adatok-az-utasforgalomrol/

https://444.hu/2019/08/01/felcsuttol-16-kilometerre-penzt-gyujtenek-a-peneszes-tantermek-rendbehozatalara

Finding the lost edges of Transylvania

It was a real pleasure to meet Sandor Molnar the other day.

In his day job, Sandor works on the Via Maria – a cruciform shape of routes which link pilgrimage sites across central Europe. This will go on my to do list, jumping above the Camino de Santiago.

But I was here to talk to him about what he does in his spare time.

Since 2003 Sandor has organised walks along the old borders of what was the edge of a kingdom and an empire.

The Carpathians form a natural defensible boundary which in the east was home to the Székely, who were charged with defending the boundaries of Hungarian lands against the Ottomans.

The First World War and the subsequent Treaty of Trianon, saw Transylvania being ceded to Romania from the Hungarian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The border which had been so important, not just for the Hapsburgs but in earlier times Christendom as a whole, was now an internal border and much of the infrastructure was lost.

So Sandor has been leading expeditions along where the border would have been to see what they could find. In doing so, they have been following in the footsteps of the surveyors who during 1883-4 helped formalise where the border should go between what was then the Kingdoms of Hungary and Romania.

Sandor told me that in the first couple of years they didn’t come across anything – they only had a vague idea of what to look for. But with persistence, they started to uncover evidence, such as the following:

It shouldn’t be forgotten that Trianon is still a sensitive issue for many and some people would rather let sleeping dogs lie, but the artifacts Sandor has found give clues to the past and so have value to all of us, wherever we are from.

For those who want to know more Sandor has produced two guide books. One describes a trail along part of the eastern border from Valea Uzului through to Gyimes. The other follows a route in the south over the stunning Fagaras Mountains. A third is due out soon covering this year’s expedition.

Here are some photos of a recent expedition:

If you would like to get in contact with Sandor about the Via Maria or his border walks, visit http://hatarjarok.ro or contact Sandor at molnar.sandor@mariaut.ro

Things that could have avoided Brexit #47 – wiener schnitzels

My revelation came to me in a cafe in Vienna.

I was passing through Austria by train and had enough time to get some lunch. So, I went to a cafe on Keplerplatz and (when in Rome) ordered a wiener schnitzel.

I had been thinking about my previous day’s visit to the Parliamentarium, the EU Parliament’s visitor centre. Going there had been something of a pilgrimage, having found myself on the Remainer side of the Brexit chasm. But even without that, surely finding out how democracy works is a noble and worthwhile exercise. The trouble is, it’s all rather…dull.

So while I was in the cafe with a brace of schnitzels, working out how and where to start tucking in, I realised what is missing from the Parliamentarium.

When visiting Cadbury World at Bournville, you get given a handful of chocolate bars to scoff as you walk around. This doesn’t just bribe you into going round the exhibits, it engages your most susceptible senses in an immersive experience that will make you fall in love with Cadbury’s forever.

Every visitor to the Parliamentarium should be given a massive wiener schnitzel on entry.

Why?

Bear with me on this.

The Parliamentarium currently starts with an exhibit on the ruins of Europe in 1945. It might at first seem like a reasonable place to start. After all. isn’t that where the EU story starts?

No.

That just shows the motivation for creating the EU.

It would be like Cadbury World starting in 1824 with John Cadbury, but they don’t. They start with the Aztecs and the mighty Montezuma on his throne demanding his upteenth cup of cocoa.

So, while you are working out whether to continue nibbling your Fruit’n’Nut or switch to a Curly Wurly, you have more empathy with the Aztec guys who had no idea that their civilisation was about to come to a devastating end.

At the turn of the 20th Century, the Austro-Hungarian Empire couldn’t sate its appetite for schnitzels and sausages and was a big importer of pork from Serbia.

Being the big-boys of MittelEuropa, Austria-Hungary didn’t like little Serbia attempted to get out of stifling trade agreements and the Pig War ensued in 1906. By 1908 other big-boys like Russia got involved leading to a grudging peace.

The lack of an adequate resolution meant there was constant tension in which it only took one anarchist and a vain archduke who wouldn’t use buttons to provide a pretext for war in 1914.

If we learned all of this while munching our flesh frisbees, perhaps we might get a better feel for why the Hapsburgs would gamble prosperous MittelEuropa in a quest for even more power and control.

We’d also, as with Cadbury World, develop a deep subliminal attachment to Brussels, equating EU directives with porky treats.

Transylvanian clothes shopping and Brexit

I’m nearing the end of my visit to the Transylvanian town of Miercurea Ciuc. I’ve run out of clean clothes and it’s also time for that rather deflating hunt for souvenirs. I can’t come home empty handed, but do I really need to bring back another armful of tat?

So when I come across a clothes shop with a sign saying ‘Second Hand’ and a big Union Jack painted alongside, I have a brainwave. 

How about I get myself some clean clothes and some pressies from here. 

I’m doing the eco-friendly reuse thing, I get a chance to moralise about waste and I get a big tick in the ironic present buying box. 

I take a peek inside. The retail space consists of a series of wooden bins. The things in each one look vaguely sorted into how you’d get dressed. First underwear, then t-shirts, shirts, blouses, trousers, skirts and jumpers with boots & shoes thrown into the final bin.

But no prices anywhere, so what does it all cost?

I was directed to a sign. 

Monday: 18 Lei per kilo – about £3, Tuesday: 16 Lei, Wednesday: 13 Lei, all the way down to Saturday when clothes can be bought for a bargain 5 Lei – just £1 per kilo. That’s about the same price as a bag of spuds.

Alas, it’s Monday. I seem to have come on the wrong day and I’ll be paying top whack.

But no! A fellow shopper explains how it all works. New(ish) clothes come over from the UK every Sunday. Monday shoppers get first pick and pay a premium for the privilege. 

I may be digging deep into my pockets today, but at least I get the finest pre-loved threads Britain has to offer.

It occurs to me that, whatever the actual quality of the stuff here, the fact that the shop owners are proudly displaying that the clothes are from Britain says something. Bringing clothes from Blighty means travelling through France, Belgium, Germany, Austria and Hungary. What’s so great about the clothes coming from the UK?

Despite the political bickering with our ‘European Friends’ over the last three years, being British still counts for something. 

Today, back in Westminster, politicians are arguing over the hows, whens and ifs of Brexit and it’s with that in mind I realise there is, as yet, one unemployed argument for a ‘clean break’ .

If the ports get snarled up with customs checks, the weekly clothes vans into Transylvania may get delayed by a few days and local shoppers will be able to get their hands on the good stuff on the cheap days.

Boom!

Hmm, there’s a flaw in this argument somewhere… 

But before that thought finishes, I realise that my clean clothes/souvenir hunting will have to take place somewhere else.

A closer inspection of the bins reveals a problem. 

If there’s one thing the clothes here could really do with, it’s a good wash.

Demystifying your tech (with a bit of help from Confucius and Tolstoy)

There must be a word for that simultaneous feeling of awe, helplessness, bafflement and frustration we feel with the technology we rely on, or at least there should be.

Don’t get me wrong, technology is great. There’s an affordable gadget or app for almost anything and most of the time, they just work.

Until they don’t.

Take smartphones: I have a drawer of old phones which haven’t broken, but are now too slow doing the same things they used to do in a flash. The apps need a newer operating system, which can’t be updated and so they go in the drawer. Not to mention all the little gadgets – fitness trackers, satnavs, wireless routers…

This isn’t a new phenomenon. Farmers in the Indus Valley 5,000 years ago must have been flummoxed (perhaps that’s the right word…) when their ploughs broke. They probably couldn’t fix them by themselves either and would need to start being nice to the local blacksmith, but at least they had an idea of what was wrong.

I bet they didn’t get broken-tech deja vu. My phone stopped working when I dropped it in a rock pool, so I opened the cover only to find another cover underneath. It replayed that feeling of opening the bonnet of my broken car, only to find another cover underneath.

And let’s not get started on data – the information being gathered by all our technology and sent who knows where. Of course I’ve consented to it – who wants to read all the terms and conditions?

However, Confucius can help us:

Give someone a fish and feed them for a day, but teach them to fish…

Technology is the post-industrial fish that we should learn to catch, even if we would prefer to go to the supermarket.

So, I wanted to go ‘fishing’, but what type of metaphorical fish should I catch and what tackle should I use?

For my ‘fish’, I decided I wanted to make something that could help me improve at fencing. I took it up after visiting the Engarde fencing school in Haapsalu, Estonia and I am rubbish. Maybe a bit of tech could help me.

At this point, it’s worth noting that I can write code, so I have a bit of a headstart. Nevertheless, I tried to approach this from the point of view of someone who might know nothing.

For the ‘tackle’, I picked out three different prototyping platforms.
– Arduino
– Raspberry Pi
– BBC Micro:bit

Arduino

Arduino was originally made to help students at the Interaction Design Institute in Ivrea, Italy to produce their own electronics. The hardware is inexpensive and there is plenty of help to get you writing your own software.

Because they made everything freely open for others to copy, there are a number of companies who offer Arduino compatible components.

I bought a Bluefruit Feather from Adafruit to provide the brains and communication and a Propmaker to measure my movement.

The two bits needed soldering together, which I made a complete pig’s ear of. But despite the ugliness, the board did work.

Adafruit provided instructions on how to get your devices up and running along with some examples. After running the sample code I decided to get cracking on my own thing which is when I realised the problem.

My gadget needs to be able to talk to other things. All the samples were for the device but there weren’t simple examples for the thing it needs to talk to, like a smartphone. This device would do that using Bluetooth, in much the same way a fitness tracker would.

Eventually I got there but it took a lot of digging around and trawling not just through Adafruit documentation but also that of the manufacturer, Nordic, who make the chip that sits on the Bluefruit board. I also read up about Bluetooth standards.

By then end, I felt like a Bluetooth ninja and it had one unexpected outcome.

The next time my partner’s fitness tracker failed to sync with the app on her smartphone, I felt myself taking the side of the little device. Now I had learned how heart monitors and fitness trackers talk to smartphones and was seeing its point of view. I empathised and sympathised with it.

Or as Teo Tolstoy put it:

Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner. (Understanding everything is forgiving everything)

Then, just as things were fitting into place, the accelerometer stopped working. I guessed it was because of the abuse it received at the end of my soldering iron – again, I was taking its side.

Conclusion:
This platform is best suited for people who really want to dive deep into electronics, have some coding knowledge and have the skills to write that software that will talk to it as well.

Raspberry Pi

The Raspberry Pi Foundation is a charity based in the UK to make computing and electronics accessible. The devices they make are small cheap Linux (an alternative to Windows or Mac) machines with plenty of accessories for electronics projects. There are also lots of examples to work on.

This was perfect for me, I have regularly worked with Linux machines over the years and so starting this up and communicating with it was like talking to an old friend.

However, again, I struggled with Bluetooth. Things became easier when I changed libraries but I found the process a bit tricky and again, the key was making something (in my case on an Android phone) for the Raspberry Pi to talk to.

Conclusion:
This is a great platform for software engineers who already know Linux. There’s a lot of help for beginners but a project like mine would probably put most newbies off.

BBC Micro:bit

Micro:bit started as an initiative to make sure every Year 7 school kid in the UK could have a go at programming and electronics.
Plug it into a computer and get started using blocks. Then when you feel more confident (or frustrated with blocks) move on to writing JavaScript or Python.

There are plenty of starter projects to get familiar with the features. Crucially, work has also been done to provide simple connectivity to other devices such as Android. A programme is provided by MIT to make it easy to write code for your Android device using blocks.

Having both parts of the puzzle was the game changer. Rather than needing to dig deep to understand Bluetooth, the examples just work and you can get on with what to do with the information once it’s on your phone.

There are working examples on how to show the information on screen or upload it to a spreadsheet in the Cloud. I decided to use my existing knowledge to make a nice Android app with some pretty graphs.

I also made something to hold the Micro:bit while I’m practising. In entrepreneurial fashion, I have named it the smartSock(™) (I made it from an old thickSock).

Now I have no excuses for not being a fencing champ. Touche!

Conclusion:
Pretty much anyone should be able to get started making their own things and learning how technology works. How far you take it is up to you.

It’s nice to know that the next generation, at least in the UK, will grow up learning how to make their own tech, even if they do end up buying most of it. And it’s not too late for any of us to have a go.

We may not end up making anything that useful (I doubt my fencing will really improve), but at least we will learn how these things work. And by doing so, perhaps be more at one with our tech.

Meanwhile, it’s time for me to get practising my fencing moves.

The body chemistry of the best road in the world

I’ve never been into cars. Correction, I’ve never been into fast cars. 

I live life in the slow lane, especially now I have an electric car. Battery anxiety means never accelerating faster than a three-legged donkey.

So what would I make of what Jeremy Clarkson called the best road in the world?

I went to Romania’s Transfăgărășan to find out.

My first glimpse of it appeared whilst still deep in the Carpathian Basin. I turned a corner and then caught my first sight of the mountains marking the edge of Transylvania.

In the flutter of anticipation, I felt like I should be providing a Clarkson-esque commentary on the relative merits of my hire car. I also wondered if I should have splashed out and hired something a bit sportier than a VW Polo.

That flutter dissipated as the miles passed – driving through village after village, past horse drawn carts, over train tracks and dams with the mountains only seeming to grow inch by inch. I realised that when I first saw the mountains, I wasn’t close, they were just very big.

But eventually, I did get to the start of the Transfagarasan.

I soon passed a performance car going in the opposite direction and felt the roar as he puts his foot down.

Then more cars came and I started to pass parked cars on either side stopping to take a picture, have a pee or buy little roast chickens.

A kilometre from the summit, the traffic came to a standstill. Tour buses turned the narrow path between the lines of parked cars into a single lane road and we all crawled to the top.

For the first time in my life, I felt sorry for the drivers of performance cars especially the ones with foreign number plates. How far had they come to sit in the sort of jam they could have had back home?

At least they could stop trying to drive fast and instead look at the nice scenery, which then begs the question. What’s the point of driving in dramatic places if you can’t take your eyes off the tarmac? Is driving on high bendy roads without falling off really that much fun?

But then I suppose it’s about chemistry. The search for the ultimate adreneline rush. I realised that the first performance car driver I came across had floored it out of pure fustration, after finally getting to an open, albeit flat and straight road. But even frustration produces adreneline, so he got what he came for.

This is where being a natural slow driver helps. By not getting riled by traffic the body is free to release a nice dose of seratonin brought on by being in such a special place.

My fellow traffic jammers spend the time trying to work out what’s missing.

The road had been ordered by the paranoid president Nicolae Ceaușescu in response to the invasion of Czechoslovakia 1968. Ceaușescu felt vulnerable and wanted to be able to move armed forces into Transylvania quickly. Building it was hard and dangerous. Offically, 40 people died building the road, but accounts of those who built the road have subsequently been pieced together and the true count of lives lost is into the hundreds.

So given the monumental achievement, where is the monument or memorial – the physical thank you?

Perhaps the road in itself is the monument.

After crawling to the summit and through the Bâlea Tunnel, the road cleared as I passed from Transyvania into Wallachia.

At the bottom, is the lake created by the Vidraru dam.

As well as the shameless Dracula tourist stuff.

I got some sweetcorn, coffee and breadstick rings called covrigi.

It was while I was munching on the covrigi that I had a nagging feeling. I had been on the ‘best road in the world’ but had I really experienced it? If the UK’s M25 was traffic free, wouldn’t become the best circuit in the world?

I looked at the satnav for a route back to where I was staying in Transyvania. There were two recommended routes. They involved going round either side of the Southern Carpathians and in both cases it would be quicker than going back over the top. If only Ceausescu had had Google Maps, he could have chanelled that effort into things that might have stopped him getting lynched.

I decided to let the crowds on each side of the mountains go home and then I might just get a clear run.

I went to refuel the car for my second go.

As the sun dipped behind the hills, I set off again this time heading north.

In the foothills, I got stuck behind a Dacia Logan weighed down by a roof box which slowed to a snail pace on each incline. There were hardly any places to overtake and I didn’t want to risk meeting a frustrated driver the other way.

Then we were joined by an Audi, who judging by the distance between him and my bumper, really wanted to get past. Overtaking both of us was near impossible.

This was great. Three of us in a pack, just like Top Gear. All we needed were walkie talkies, bad haircuts and some guitar-based rock on the stereo.

And then the magic was broken.

We came to a straight bit of road. The Audi changed down and left the two of us in a plume of oil smoke or was it frustration-fueled adreneline? I also overtook Captain Slow and made my way back up alone.

The traffic had all but gone. There were no queues and I was at the summit in no time. Now was my chance to do this iconic route properly.

Then I got back in my car and prepared to leave my comfort zone with the adreneline pump primed.

However, after a couple of bends I got stuck behind another slow driver. Then BMW joined behind. We were back in a pack of three and as I looked at the lower hairpins bends, I could see another pack of three. A pattern emerged. One slow driver followed by a cautious driver with an impatient petrol-head stuck fuming behind the two of them.

I pulled over to leave my pack and waited for some space to develop. After a while I knew I would have a clear run and set off. 

But even with this chance of a lifetime, I knew couldn’t go really fast. Who knows who would be coming the other way. I value living too much so I followed the pattern of my life and went at a sensible speed.

How lucky I did.

As I got to the tree line, a wild bear felt free to lollop across the road in front of me.

And so instead of adrenaline, I made do with a little dose of nature-induced serotonin.

The literary oasis of Massolit

Cities aren’t the most pleasant places during heatwaves and Budapest is no exception. So it was a relief to wander into the cafe/bookshop Massolit a spend a couple of hours in its shaded garden.

Massolit (the name of the literary society in Bulganov’s classic The Master and Margarita) is stacked high with books in English, French, German – all seem like gems.

With books everywhere, there’s just enough room for a counter which is filled with cakes and a coffee machine. The #IstandWithCEU sticker in the window shows where the people here fit on the political spectrum. The Central European University was recently hounded out of Hungary by the government.

I picked up a book on the politics of Transylvania which is where I was heading next and made for the garden round the back.

Judit, who looks after cafe, came out with some gardening gear and looked at the rampant herb patch.

‘I need to sort this all out today’ she sighed.

She saw the book I had bought and asked me what I thought of it so far. We then talked about the Transylvanian problem.

After the First World War, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was carved up into a series of new countries and formalised in the Treaty of Trianon in 1920. Over a million Hungarians who lived in Transylvania found themselves now living in Romania.

99 years later, with both Hungary and Romania being part of the EU and their citizens having the freedoms that go with it, surely this should all be water under the bridge?

Apparently not. As prime minister Victor Orban put it at a recent rally to commemorate Trianon: ‘while time heals wounds it does not heal an amputation’.

On Alkotmány Street, which leads up to the beautiful Hungarian Parliament, preparation is underway to build a 100 meter long memorial etched with the names of the 12,000 municipalities that had been in the Hungarian part of the Empire and, to quote one journalist, ‘torn from the motherland’. The monument will contain an eternal flame which will be sunken below ground so that it always burns below the surface. Whatever the metaphor, I’m sure the homeless will be particularly grateful for it in winter.

Parliament also voted to make 2020 a year of national cohesion, meaning cohesion with the parts of the former Empire. Votes like this have become particularly easy to win as the ruling Fidesz party was able to change the constitution which was in part helped by giving citizenship to Hungarian speakers who live in other countries.

Whilst some may have applied to get a Schengen passport and the easy US visa that comes attached, others do want to be part of a greater Hungary.

So, populism aside, why is Triannon still a burning issue in Hungary when Germany (or at least West Germany) and Austria came to terms with their losses?

Judit puts it succinctly: ‘People here didn’t get time to grieve. The regime just required them to just forget.’

In the recently spruced up little park which adjoins the garden, an old couple pick figs from the low hanging branches. They had been planted a few years back by a neighbour. Judit, looking a bit agitated – she still hadn’t set to work on the herb patch. Nevertheless, she took the time to talk to the old couple.

Amongst the figs there were also some new bird boxes. Judit sighs, ‘They look good but they are no use’.

‘The local government put them up but birds don’t just need a place to nest. They need things to eat, other places to fly to.’

She has a point, Pest, the eastern part of Budapest is densely populated and there is little greenery.

I wonder if that also isn’t the problem with Massolit. Like the nice little park that’s too isolated for the birds, isn’t this little liberal oasis too isolated from the rest of Hungary.

Shouldn’t the people here be out in the rural heartlands, like the old missionaries who went out on a cart with a bible. Shouldn’t these guys be out persuading the disgruntled masses to discard Victor Orban’s so called ‘illiberal state‘?

Perhaps they could take along a few enlightening books. Better still, take some coffee and cake. George Orwell found out on the Aragon Front in the Spanish Civil War the best recruiting tool was buttered toast. But I stow that thought and instead ask Judit what she has learned about the people who come to the cafe. 

‘You know the first thing most people ask me? Do you have a charging point for my phone and my laptop. When we started eight years ago, people used to come in and talk to each other. Now they just stare at their devices. They are in their own bubbles.’

Bubbles within a bubble?

It must be a bit annoying creating such a nice place and then see everyone who comes in just glued to their screens. But maybe her annoyance that people aren’t chatting to each other in the cafe and my annoyance that they aren’t preaching to the masses are both misplaced.

Who knows what these guys are doing and who they are chatting to.

Meanwhile, I can sit here, enjoy the shade and learn more about where I am heading by reading a good book, with a nice slice of cake and coffee.

If only I had somewhere to charge my phone. 

London to Transylvania – cultivating the art of travel

As Greta Thunberg pointed out earlier this year, we need to use planes less and trains more. So how would I get on going to Transylvania by train instead of plane?

Booking:

Booking was actually a bit of a pain.

Sites like loco2 and thetrainline may have clever algorythms to show cheap or quick routes, but when travelling this far, the quality of the journey matters and that requires human judgement. This is where the Man in Seat 61 comes into his own. Based on one of his suggested routes, I split my journey into three parts.

Part 1: London to Munich – the pleasures of first class travel

For the first part I caught the Eurostar to Brussels and then German ICE to Munich changing at Stuttgart. With a price difference of £30 between first and second class, it was a no-brainer to go first class and sit with the other half spending the journey eating well, sipping chilled wine and watching Europe pass by in a bit of style.

Arriving into Munich at 9pm, I had a couple of hours to wander down Neuhauser Strasse and mix with the crowds enjoying a sultry evening out.

It had taken all day to get here and if I was on business, I would have been able to work productively for the whole journey. As for the price, I paid £169 which is a lot more than a budget airline early flight. But when you start looking to set off at a civilised hour, the prices are similar.

I can’t imagining flying this distance again – it will be the train every time.

Part 2: Munich to Budapest – a squash and a squeeze

Eager to push on further towards the Balkans, I caught the sleeper train to Budapest. After a day of first-class travel, it was now time for me to have a second-class sleep, literally and metaphorically.

I was the first to get in to the €79 couchette – a little compartment with four benches that had been flipped down to become beds. Then in came a middle-aged man. We grunted acknowledgement before doing our bedtime prep – in my case, delving to the bottom of my bag for a toothbrush.

Then the door opened and in came the biggest suitcase I had ever seen. After some puffing and panting, in popped a head followed by the rest of the body. The young guy who owned the mega-case looked around and unsurprisingly, realised it was far too big to go anywhere. Undeterred, he gave the case another shove and the room was now full. Then in came the pram, carrycot with a freshly-born baby in it and last, but by no means least, the haggard new mum.

It was at this point I realised the value of literature. The tome in question, A Squash and a Squeeze by Julia Donaldson tells the tale of an old woman who complained that her house was too small. A wise man told her to bring in all her farmyard animals and then she realised how big it had been in the first place.

I had now resigned myself to sleep deprivation and just putting this journey down to experience.

However the other middle-aged man, who we’ll now call Mr Grumpy was a man of action and complained to the Hungarian train guard. He tried to explain what was wrong in German. The wife then chatted to the guard in Hungarian. He look at Mr Grumpy, shrugged and walked away.

Within a few minutes of the lights going out, I heard an odd rustling and then a thin bluish of light emanated from the opposite bunk. It was the light of a computer screen. The dad had decided to start watching a film on his laptop, while eating the remains of a Burger King meal and using a pack of Pampers as a pillow. Incredibly, the others were already asleep and Mr Grumpy was even snoring.

In the nicest possible way I told the dad that there were some seats further down the train he could go and sit in if he didn’t want to go to sleep. He shut the lid, stashed the remnants of his meal by his pampers pillow and perhaps we could all now get some sleep.

I must have dozed off but woke up feeling like I was in an airless sauna. We had stopped at Salzburg for a two hour wait and all power was off, which meant the ‘aircon’ was off. When it had been on, the baby stuff piled on top of it had limited it to a waft of not-so-hot air. Even that now would have been wonderful.

I got up and spent the two hour stop looking out of the window at a rather boring station.

At 7 o’clock Mr Grumpy left and with all hope of sleep gone, the family and I spend the rest of the journey talking about stuff.

Stuff, in their case meant talking about baby and dad meeting the grandparents/in-laws for the first time.

In my case, it meant talking about how nice it is when kids are grown up and you can leave them at home.

As the train’s brakes squeeled and we pulled into Budapest, I realised that this had been travelling. Being thrown together with other people in a smaller space than you would choose for a bit longer than you would like – and loving it? Well, at least not hating it.

One of the pleasures of train travel is being able to stop off at places on the way. I wanted to go and see Budapest’s Seventh District and and also get a good night’s sleep. So, I checked into a boat-hotel on the Danube that was moored up opposite the Parliament.

Being in Budapest also gave me a chance to learn more about Transylvania, my ultimate desination. How so?

In 1920, Hungary was carved up under the Treaty of Triannon and Transylvania was award to Romania. The complex history of this area still hits raw nerves so I used my train-free day to learn more from the other side of the border by visting a good bookshop and talking to the very nice people working there.

Part 3: Budapest to Sibiu – meeting like-minded souls

After my day in Budapest, I spent the evening sipping Tokej and watching a firework display from the boat’s deck.

Then, it was time to think about actually getting to Romania. I booked myself on to sleeper to Sibiu in Transylvania for €49.

This time, I was sharing with two other middle-aged blokes, one Swiss, the other Canadian and both teachers. They were using the free time that summer holidays (and understanding families) provide to do some exploring by themselves.

The Swiss guy had tried taking his two sons interrailing the previous year, but they preferred being at home with their friends and smartphones. So with an accommodating wife and two relieved kids at home, he was free to do some wandering through the Carpathians.

The Canadian guy was due to travel round Spain with some friends in a couple of weeks but before that he wanted to do the ‘Orient Express’ and travel to Istanbul by himself.

After a decent night’s sleep in a cool and comfortable bed, I got up and watched Transylvania slowly trundle past the window with my two new pals.

‘You know’ said the Swiss guy, ‘I had some walking routes planned, but seeing this – perhaps I’ll just set off from the station and see where I end up.’

The art of arrival?

Stepping onto the platform at Sibiu, it felt like I had come a long way, which at a Romanian train’s pace, I suppose I had. But as I walked up Strada General Magheru, I had little flashbacks of the places I had been and the people I had met.

If I had come by plane, I would have saved time and money, so why did I feel richer?

Train vs plane

Flying me to Transylvania would have put about 160 KG of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. By taking the train I consumed about 30 KG. That saving had come at a quite a price.

I had spent nearly £300 as opposed to around £50 to catch a plane. Airlines are subsidised as they don’t pay tax on fuel and won’t have to pay for the environmental damage caused by the additional CO2 in the atmosphere.

But it had taken me days to get here and it wasn’t easy to plan. For all the efforts of sites like loco2, organising train travel is harder than by plane. This is in part because so many places are connected directly by plane, but also because algorithms that try to plan multi-stage journeys are good at time and cost but lousy at quality of the experience.

While tech struggles to produce high quality routes, it can help with your time on the train. Train travel to places that are several days away could be filled with films and things to pass the time but why ‘pass’ it when the journey could be one of the best bits of your time away. Technology can help with this. Eurostar’s Odyssey shows that journey’s can be contexualised. Perhaps the next big thing will be apps that guide us through rather than to places.

What train travel really offered was the ability to stop. In my case, it was seeing something in Budapest, but there were plenty of alternatives and in each case, the train would have pulled up into the heart of the town or city and not some out of the way airport.

What the train also offered was the opportunity to spend time a lot of time with other people. This could be a great experience or an ‘experience’…

But my enjoyment was in large measure down to my attitute to what fate had delivered. Poor Mr Grumpy.

In any event, I learned that travelling well is an art, and one that’s worth practising.