Verse IV — Channeling My Inner Simba, Part Two — Püspökladány, Hungary

Püspökladány is a town of 16,126 people, according to the 2011 census. That number will have changed in the last eight years unless magic is at play, but it is unlikely to have doubled or anything like that. I was heading to the town on a train from Miskolc on a Sunday morning, happy to spend a day milling around a small Hungarian town before getting an early train to Cluj on the coming Monday. All was good in the travelling world.

I say ‘all was good’, what I mean is ‘all was fine other than a few general inconveniences’. It was early, not train to Miskolc early but still earlier than I wanted it to be. It was a Saturday, a fine state of affairs generally, but I was on my way to spend a Saturday in a regional Hungarian town. I didn’t expect too much to be going on.

More importantly and most inconveniently, it was bloody hot. Now, the early 30s aren’t hot in an international sense, and you’ve got to jump at least 25 degrees ahead of what it was on this Hungarian morning to get the world record, a rather depressing 56.7c, recorded in Death Valley (California) way back in 1913. It wasn’t world record hot, but it was still bloody hot, we all know that saying after all — jumping from a 20 storey building will still kill you, even if someone has jumped from the 21st before you. Expect that in your Christmas crackers this year.

Christmas and winter felt like a myth as I stepped off the train at the station in Püspökladány. Surely cold weather didn’t exist? Maybe there was something to this global warming stuff, maybe I should have listened? I was sweaty but I wasn’t too worried, Püspökladány was a small town, and the map I consulted before jumping on the train at Miskolc showed a short walk from the train station to the €10 apartment I was staying at. 10 minutes maybe? 15, at a push. Not far, that’s the point.

40 minutes later, I found myself trudging down yet another concrete-laden street in the middle of nowhere, not a smidgen of shade in sight. I was doing quite a good impression of Simba once again, wandering through the desert after escaping the hyenas. I was losing steam, struggling in the face of the humidity. Were those vultures circling above me? Did I spy an awkward meerkat up ahead? Was he wandering around with a rotund warthog? No, my eyes were deceiving me. It must have been the sweat. Meerkats and warthogs aren’t friends, and there aren’t any vultures in Hungary.

Wait, do they have vultures in Hungary? One of the symbols of the country is the mythical Turul, a falcon-like bird of prey that protected little-baby Álmos, allowing the nipper to grow up and become the first leader of those disparate tribes that eventually became Hungarians. The Turul was also the bird that dropped its sword on the land that eventually became Budapest, essentially cat-pissing on a piece of land for the Hungarians to eventually take over. It took a while to come to fruition, but Budapest came into being and Budapest became the capital of Hungary.

But I wasn’t in Budapest, I was in Püspökladány. I wasn’t surrounded by effortlessly Bohemian cafes, beautiful people and oodles of history. I was surrounded by walled houses, parked cars and the crushing realisation that I had no idea where I was going and wasn’t getting there anywhere fast. I was wandering back streets, taking lefts and rights and right and lefts in the hope that I’d find the residential street of my dreams, the one on which I was staying. I retained a certain sense of hope, safe in the knowledge that this was Püspökladány, not Beijing.

I found my street and subsequently found my apartment. One usually leads to the other after all. My search was over and I was ready to rest before exploring the city, although the advancing hours of the day meant my time in the respite of the shade was shortened. I needed to eat too, although finding somewhere to eat is one of the great joys of travel. I checked in to the apartment, asked the host for a few recommendations, took a shower and threw on a new outfit. It was time to explore Püspökladány.

It was at this point I ran into a new problem, namely that there isn’t anything in Püspökladány worth discovering. I don’t mean that as an insult to the town, although I suppose it can’t be taken any other way, there didn’t seem to be anyone or anything to see. This was a town of 16,000 people on a Saturday afternoon, yet if you’d told me it was a village of 17 old women on death row I wouldn’t have been surprised. The only thing more sparse than the population was the shade. I was burning up and burning up fast.

Püspökladány taught me that life isn’t always going to go your way, that fairytales do not exist. If this was a dream, my seemingly eternal search for absolutely anything at all would have come to an end with the bar of my dreams, with gorgeous beer and free snacks for all, complete with layers of history and the stories of some old Hungarian. This isn’t a dream, so my search came to an end with a run-down hotel restaurant, a disappointing schnitzel and some extremely mediocre Hungarian lager. I finished both, stopped by a supermarket, and made my way back to the apartment for an early night.

Püspökladány also taught me that Welshpool is pretty brilliant. I was in a town of 16,000 or so people but couldn’t find anything, anywhere worth paying attention to, not a bar, not a cafe, not an attraction and not a restaurant. Welshpool is a town of 6,000 people, yet you are never more than 50 feet from at least a hairdressers or a pub. My home town has lots of supermarkets, a few decent places to eat, a really incredible sandwich shop.

This is almost definitely harsh on Püspökladány. The town was on a hiding to nothing from the get-go, fighting a losing battle before I even got off the train. My lack of preparation meant that I wasted an hour trying to find where I was staying, and further lack of preparation left me burning in the streets in search of things that were around the corner. I made it back to the apartment and sat in the garden, happy to enjoy a beer or two with just the mosquitoes for company. Romania awaited.

John Bills writes books about Eastern Europe, tomes covering history, travel, booze and the rest. These magical pieces of literary competency can be purchased at this link, so get yourself over there and do the right thing. Pay attention to the discounts.

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