The Hidden Gem of Europe

It was a new day, and we had a new itinery. The previous night we had conceded in Bratislava and despite surviving 30 days on the road, had booked into a hostel. The next morning, while feasting on the plush Slovakian spread, we checked our googlemail and tried to calculate the next week of travel.

We had established contact with the Hungarian Rugby Association through two channels. The new president of the Union, Pal Turi, and through the previous appointment, Lajos. They had both been hard at work to organise our visit, and at the last minute had also suggested meeting with an additional club on our journey to Budapest. It’s not in our nature to turn down a rugby opportunity, but it is not always logistically possible. Firstly, we don’t like to set more than a 110km target per day, and secondly we have to keep an eye on the longer term plan over that country.

Our extended offer was to meet with a further contact, Balasz (the general secretary of HRU) at his club Erstzergom Rugby Club around 60km outside Budapest. My sophisticated calculations showed that the route along the Danube would be around 180km to this club (around 9 thumb widths on our map of Europe). We were still scoffing at 10am and we so concluded that we should arrive the following night, probably enjoying a beautiful night’s camping under the stars on the way. Balasz had said he would be around for the next 2 nights so whenever we arrived we would have a place to stay. Great. Logon to the Hungarian website, find address, put into google maps, and there you go. A little mark in a nearby town of Dorog. So why not in Erstzergom itself? I didn’t know, and while I was enjoying my 2nd plate of scrambled eggs and bacon, I wasn’t interested in questioning it. I would never make the military, I had been given a specific address in a relatively small town, and all I had taken on board was that it was roughly in the south east quadrant. With my compass, I should find it no problems.  Besides, it was the following night, and we could probably look up the address again tomorrow….

We eventually departed around midday with our whole week planned ahead of us, flat river, a wind behind us, and then it happened. We had been quite fortunate with the weather, with only the 28 days of rain in our 33 day travels. Unfortunately for us, we got another 28 days of rain in the 24th day.  Wild camping in such conditions on flat ground by a river is a) not very clever and b) I refer you again to a). We had no choice but to battle on. Despite the torrents, we made good ground. We were soaked, cold and hungry, and only stopped for one meal break under shelter. You had to keep moving or risk getting sick. Late afternoon we arrived at a river crossing, the new border, and crossed into Hungary. We had already covered over 110km and with a few hours of daylight remaining decided to attempt the rugby club and get into the dry. We had a further 65km of thumbwidths remaining (confirmed by a roadsign and arrow nonchalantly pointing between two roads at a junction). If ever a roadsign could “sit on the fence” this was it. It knew Dorog was about 65km away, but it wasn’t sure how to get there. My compass did though, and so Jodie and I made a pact, we would power on at get to this rugby club. We eventually arrived in the dark and heavy rain after 175km of pedalling. It was 9pm and we began our search for the rugby club based on the quadrant theory. The word theory could lose all meaning if I persisted, there were no grounds for logic here, roads leading to nothing, no points of reference, not even a name. We were lost, and we stood no chance of finding it. One man said it was 10km further down the road, but spoke little English and didn’t convince me that he recognised the rugby ball on my bike. With the help of a man in a nearby bar we were taken to some apartments behind the premises, and he explained to the owner that we needed a place to stay. The owner was more than welcoming. He even looked a bit amused at our pitiful state. He showed us to our apartment and brought us towels before bidding us goodnight. We showered, ate, then collapsed into the nice dry bed. We felt defeated, not only had we completed two days cycling in one day, we had failed to find the rugby club, and now would face a successive night of paying for accommodation. With a budget of 5 EUR per day, this is pretty much a disaster.

The next morning we managed to have a conversation with our hosts by babelfish and thanked them for allowing us in so late and then asked to pay the bill before heading off. There was no bill. The man gestured that he had brought us in because of the bad weather and he didn’t want payment! You can’t compare levels of hospitality because we have been kindly treated by everyone on our trip, but this has to rank pretty high. It was his business, he had no other guests that night, and we had used a whole apartment without anything in return.

So on to Esztergom, the intended rugby club.  A formality really, we had only left ourselves 15km to travel and our appointment with Balasz wasn’t until 3pm. Balasz was the recently appointed General Secretary to the Hungarian Rugby Association. The whole board, infact, were young and fresh faced, showing real intent for the future of the national and domestic sides. The scheduled meeting place was a fantastic spa facility, just minutes from the rugby ground. Inside, a selection of saunas, swimming pools, and other hot/cold watery treatments. In the communal showers, myself and Jodie were introduced to many naked players from the local side. We sat in one of the saunas and chatted with the guys for as long as the heat would allow us, the conversation mainly ridiculing our decision to travel through Romania. It emerged that a couple of players and coaches were Romanian. Relaxing in the heated outside pool, we met with their prop, Zoltan. This is unarguably a great name. He sounds like the kind of guy you could rely on to lead your troops in the front line, and he certainly lived up to this expectation. It emerged that he was the most capped player for his national side with over 50 caps, and still playing. He had a very creditable playing cv, having played 1st XV at Portsmouth, Canterbury Rugby Club and then being invited to play a season for Abu Dhabi. It appeared that there was further connection with Canterbury. The town of Esztergom was actually twinned with Canterbury since Thomas A Becket had lived in both locations. There is actually a mountain in Esztergom named after Thomas A Becket and so I will write to the Canterbury board and inquire if there are any spare hills we could put Zoltan’s name on. This town was once the capital of Hungary, and until 1000AD the country had no religion, the pope had written a letter to the country suggesting quite politely that they adopt Christianity or die. Their King, Istvran, chose correctly and has therefore became a very prominent historic figure. The thing I like best about this story is his name, Istvran, which in English is….. Steve.
Steve the King J

Wilkinson bar

Zoltan happened to own a local bar, the Wilkinson bar, named after the hero of 2003 Rugby World Cup, Johnny Wilkinson. He had spoken with Johnny about going home and starting a bar in his name, but never managed to meet him in person. We sat and spent the remainder of the night chatting about Hungarian history, rugby and the future of the sport here. The difficulty is always trying to embed rugby into a culture that already has passions. Asides from football, the public interest is in sports such as  waterpolo and canoeing. Having said this, there is good quality rugby available to watch on domestic television. They have access to the Heineken Cup matches, the Guiness Premiership and the French top flight too.

The following morning we set off for Budapest and saw the after effects of the rainfall. Record levels of rain in May had caused the Danube to rise and flood many of the roads and fields. This ruled out our bike path which was surely the first to have gone. Instead we took the roads through the hills to Budapest. We arrived in the North West, and so naturally our club house was situated in the South East. This didn’t appear a problem until we realised just how vast Budapest was. It took a further 2.5 hours to follow the scattered bike paths across the City and complete the last 25km, but eventually we found our hosts Exiles Rugby Club and finally met with our contact Pal Turi.

Exiles Rugby Club, as the name suggests, were comprised mostly (if not entirely) of players from all over the world.  They even had an English coach. The standards varied from season to season depending on what players were available or living in Budapest at that given time. We watched the juniors train, and then walked to the local ice rink to eat, drink and chat with our hosts.

Pal Turi is the newly appointed President of the Hungarian Rugby Union. Between Pal and the previous president Lajos, we had been able to schedule our whole Hungarian visit before crossing the border. Pal is only 35 years old, and we think, may be the youngest President of Rugby. I will look into this, but either way, he is still playing 1st XV at his club Kecskemet and despite retiring from national team rugby 3 years before, had recently received an urgent call up. Pal is a great guy, and I must say a fantastic appointment for President. He is passionate about the sport, but has a calm understanding of what needs to be organised and implemented to take the country to the next step. Hungary currently rank around 62nd in the IRB world rankings. Their aim over coming seasons is to close the gap between themselves and Czech Republic , who with them same size pool of players, sit around 42nd in the IRB rankings. Domestically, their clubs can compete with the clubs from Czech Republic, but have recently suffered a national set back, losing a vital final game to Austria by 2 points. This saw Hungary slip from the promotion spot in the final fixture. European rugby, operated by FIRA, is a difficult system to progress through. The leagues are small, comprising of around 8 sides, and often only the champions are promoted. Not only this, but each season takes 2 years to complete. It feels painfully slow, but all teams are amateur, so financially and logistically it takes this time to complete home and away fixtures.  

In any sport, the best players are the ones who appear to have the most time and space. They dictate the pace of the match and others around them. Pal has this same affect on people. He embodies Hungarian charm, speaking softly and radiating calm that makes being in his company a genuine pleasure. Like many European rugby presidents, he performs this function without pay, balancing his life of project management, with his rugby commitments, wife and young son. The qualities required to be successful in these capacities are rare, but Pal is the perfect appointment and I am looking forward to following Hungarian rugby over the coming years.

MTV (Hungarian National Television)

Sadly I wasn’t promoting the Travelling Wilburys on the world’s biggest music broadcaster, instead Jodie and I had been invited onto the Hungarian National Breakfast show for a brief interview with the host. It was a bizarre experience. Our strict instructions were to be at the studio for 8:30 and to bring our bikes. We left the club at 6:30am to be sure, but Budapest is a crazy place to cycle and the 25km cycle cross town still took us until 8:25am. We arrived barely in time to throw our bikes up against some props inside the studio, meet with our interpreter in person, and then await our slot. It was a very formal affair, the presenter, elegantly dressed in suit seated on white leather chair, me sadly wearing swimming shorts with part of the crotch perished.  We were mic’d up with the translator speaking into our earpiece at the same time as the presenter spoke to us in Hungarian, believe me, this is a strange experience. You don’t really hear the whole sentence because you are trying to maintain eye contact with someone who makes no sense and you are hearing 2 people talk to you simultaneously. Even worse is the expectancy of an answer once the question has finished in Hungarian, even though the translation is still continuing. Despite all of this we had no prepration for what would occur. We had been advised by a producer to be very concise about what we wanted to say about our trip, we only had air time of around 4.5 minutes. This made sense, but what was it that they wanted to know? How long will this trip last? How far will you travel? Why did you decide to do this? Etc etc. We discussed quickly what our shared responses would be. We were on. The presenter spoke to the camera and introduced us, the translation started. He said we were cycling from London to New Zealand for the Rugby World Cup, he turned back to us and commented about seeing 2 bicycles and many water bottles and then just summed up all his thoughts at once………. “and what is good about this?” We were pretty much floored from the start J

The weekend arrived, and with it, the sun.  Out of nowhere, the clouds had dispersed and the temperature soared to 30 degrees. It was the day of the Central European EDF Cup Final. Balasz had organised us tickets and so we made our way on the 15km tram journey to the stadium to enjoy the day. There were 3 matches that day featuring teams from Czech Rep, Hungary, Romania, and our hosts from Austria, Donai. Our Austrian signatory Rudi was there playing too, it was great to catch up with a familiar face. I would like to talk more about this competition but will have to write this separately. The final was being contested by 2 Romanian sides, who had won all their matches convincingly, the eventual winners (predictably) had been last year’s champions Boia Mare. They were only playing they second string side too as most around 12 of their squad are also in the national side. There was a distinguishable gap in levels between the finals, which gave me my first insight to the standards of the various European leagues.

Sunday morning we headed off to Kecskemet to meet with Pal Turi’s team and to watch some women’s and youth rugby. It was getting hotter and we arrived in time for the last 2 matches at 2pm. After, the coach of the U19s “Vicentiu” from Romania and his father “Gica” came and introduced themselves and took us to their clubhouse to be fed. They were both experienced rugby players and coaches and so we discussed their opinions on Eastern European rugby and all the politics and influences around it. Later some of the senior players and Pal arrived to join us, drink some cold beers and enjoy a BBQ in the sun. It was a great end to our stay in Hungary, Jodie poetically described the country as “the hidden gem of Europe”, I’d say she was spot on.

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One Response

  1. I am really sorry that I was not able to be part of your Hungarian trip physically, only in spirit 🙂
    Your adjective is a real compliment for our society. I am still sure you will find a load of unhidden gems on your very long route, of what you are only in the very pre-warming up part. And you will also possess all kind of knowledge from the history and culture of the people on your way, in a load you would have never dreamt of. at all.
    Let me add one unnecessary (may confuse your fresh knowledge) comment to one of the paragraphs which says that we got Christianity in a forced feeding method. Actually around 1000 AD Hungarians had been Christians for at least 600-700 years. There are plenty of excavations where they found the necklace (pectoral) crosses on the corps from the 10th and 9th century. Actually the bargain was about reinforcing this Christianity and confirming the real power of Hungary as the only apostolical kingdom. Certainly history was more compound biz than just a letter. In spite communication was far slower, the elite know each other very well, they had intensive relations and diplomatic affairs at almost daily level.

    Anyway, I am eager to read your further reports!!

    Take care: Lajos

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