“Where is everybody?” Rich asked, staring around, mystified.
We were wandering through the silent, nearly deserted Hungarian city of Pécs. Allegedly it held a population of 146,000, but at the moment it was doing a pretty good imitation of a ghost town; nothing was moving except for a few scattered pedestrians and a dog rolling over to settle more comfortably into a nap. After a week in vibrant, bustling Lviv, Ukraine, it was like finding ourselves in a sensory deprivation tank. Had we really worked so hard to get to Pécs, only to find there wasn’t much here here?
We’d left Ukraine via the southern route, which was good news (we didn’t have to travel by night, as we did going in) and bad (it took two days and five trains). Instead of three hours of pre-dawn traffic jams at two border control stations, all we had to get through was a midmorning passport check and an exhaustive search of our luggage to make sure we weren’t smuggling pharmaceuticals. (I was so glad I’d remembered to carry my prescription medications in their original packaging with my name on the label.) I’ll never forget the moment when the customs inspector was rummaging through my undergarments and discovered the gas mask I’d been given at the Atomic Bunker in Kaunas, Lithuania. Her expression quickly morphed from what the hell? to hey, lady, whatever turns you on. She carefully avoided looking at me as she shoved the gas mask back to the bottom of the bag and signaled I was free to go. I zipped up my suitcase and ran for the train, catching it with minutes to spare.
After 72 days of adventure on the road, Rich and I figured it might be prudent to seek a little rest. And as we soon learned, nobody does restful like Pécs. Lonely Planet (and countless others) describe it as “one of the most pleasant and interesting cities to visit in Hungary.” Thanks to an agreeably mild climate and highly strategic location, over the millennia Pecs has attracted Celts, Romans, Pannonians, early Christians, Turks, Transylvanians, the Republic of Serbian-Hungarian Baranya-Baja, Croats, Nazis, and Russians, to name but a few. Many came as conquerors and stayed to put their architectural stamp on the community, leaving behind a wealth of spectacular old buildings and a deep desire on the part of the community to avoid any more political upheavals. Pécs was officially nicknamed The Borderless City for managing to maintain harmony among such diverse ethnic groups as the Hungarians, Croatians, Swabians, Greeks, and now Serbian refugees. In 1998 its tolerant attitude earned it the UNESCO Cities of Peace prize.
“You have to admit,” I said to Rich, “Pécs is peaceful.”
“In a crazy-making way,” he agreed.
We were back at the train station attempting to change our outgoing tickets, and the relaxed pace of the transaction was stupefying, even for hardened veterans of Spanish bureaucracy, which until now had been my benchmark for human inefficiency. To forestall any difficulties, we’d armed ourselves with written instructions in Hungarian (penned by Gabrielle, our Airbnb hostess) explaining the simple change we wanted to make. The clerk, a kindly middle-aged woman, grew flustered, then concerned, and finally worried that maybe this ought to be kicked upstairs. Ten minutes and three phone calls later, she announced that yes, it could be done, but unfortunately we’d each have to pay the equivalent of $8 more. It took us ages to convince her we were willing to spend the money. And then she began to fill out the necessary forms by hand, carefully adding the appropriate stamps, staples and signatures. The entire transaction took upwards of half an hour, and I really wished I knew enough Hungarian to apologize to the people behind us waiting their turn.
Delays are always maddening, of course, but there is also something curiously soothing about being in a place where time doesn’t seem to have the same urgency it does elsewhere. When Rich and I visited the Local History Museum, the attendant appeared delighted — almost stunned — to see actual customers. After laboriously re-installing the adding machine tape so she could print out our tickets, she locked up the building and spent forty minutes guiding us through the exhibits with pantomime and smiles. When she unlocked the front door to let us out, there was — what are the odds? — another customer. He nodded amiably, seemingly not at all put out by having to wait on the doorstep while we had our leisurely private tour. If this was the USA, I could only imagine the impatience and complaints, if not actual lawsuits, that would ensue.
That night our Airbnb hosts invited us for dinner in the garden, and we lingered past dark over a hearty, delicious tomato, paprika, and sausage stew. That's when it occurred to me that I was finally learning to appreciate Pécs. At first, after more than ten weeks of vigorous forward momentum, the abrupt change of pace caused me acute mental whiplash. But I now realized how lucky I was. How often do you find yourself in a place where time isn’t of the essence, and taking proper care of a stranger is the most important thing on the agenda?
Days on the road: 76
Distance covered: 4508 km / 2801 miles
Highlights have included zany Amsterdam, the German city of Lübeck on the edge of the Baltic Sea, the Stockholm disaster, the new foodie mecca of Helsinki, Finland, futuristic Estonia, and a kookie visit to Riga, Latvia. We headed south to Šiauliai, Lithuania, where history — and great chocolate — were made. Vilnius — and the tiny Republic of Užupis— taught me about miracles; I learned about devils in southern Lithuania and northern Poland. In Warsaw, we learned that nothing is what it seems. We rode the midnight bus Lviv, Ukraine, and after many adventures there, we moved on to Hungary, with a brief stopover in Budapest and a rest in Pécs. We're on the move again, having just arrived in Zagreb, Croatia.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
As we journey through the pandemic together, my blog provides a regular supply of survival tips, comfort food recipes, and the wry humor we all need to lighten our hearts on dark days.
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