There and Back Again: Day Trip to Zebegény

I really didn’t want to begin yet another piece with MÁV related adventures, but I must. I will blame it on the weather. Just as we’d made up our minds to visit Zebegény, one of the Danube bend villages that had until now eluded our explorations, I discovered that heavy rain had damaged the rails between Nagymaros and Szob, and traffic had been stopped indefinitely on the line.  That is obviously where Zebegény is, so our only public transportation option remained the infamous ‘vonatpótló’, the train replacement bus, the unpleasantness of which I would place somewhere between a real rough visit to the dentist and being attacked by a swarm of killer bees. The regular ferry from Pilismarót was not yet in operation, due to coronavirus related restrictions, but is now back on track, for those interested in vonatpótló-free travel.

Luckily, a short inspection of the map made it evident that our best option was to simply walk across the peninsula-shaped slab of land created by the river’s bend. The trail from the Nagymaros-Visegrád train station is basically a direct route, the sign marking it is a blue cross on a white background. The first bit, uphill on Nagymaros’s streets, which on a warm Sunday morning were heavily populated with children and dogs frantically playing around and cats frantically doing nothing, is fairly steep, so I felt very smug that this time around we were prepared for tough exploration, with the proper shoes and essential amenities, namely water and beer. Naturally, the slope soon evened out and instead of mountaineering, we were more into Victorian walk in the woods territory. As such, this is one of the best trails we’ve discovered so far: comfortable to walk on and isolated enough to be tranquil and feel undisturbed, with only birds tweeting and butterflies lazily gliding around flowers I assumed were bluebells but aren’t. Yes, I am considering writing a hiking guide named How to Survive in the Wilderness If You’re an Idiot.

The trail is just about the right length too, and with an even pace we made it through to the other side in roughly one hour. There we were greeted by three things: a sight of Zebegény itself, the Kós Károly viewing tower (it’s basically a glorified wooden shed with two floors, but has scenic views nevertheless), and a monument to the aching pain of Trianon, which is a bit rich in a village that has traditionally been the shared home of Hungarians, Germans and Slovaks, who seem to have generally liked each other.

The monument’s best feature is that once you are standing with your back to it, you do not see it anymore but have excellent views of the Danube bend, the river languidly flowing on, the crests of its waves glimmering in the hot afternoon sun, like the backs of tiny silver dragons. The sky was soon invaded by ill-boding clouds, so we decided to seek refuge in the Mókus Kocsma, which comes furnished with squirrel themed knick-knacks and the group of tipsy and philosophically inclined locals that are a staple in any proper village bar. It was from eavesdropping on these locals that we found out about the Pilismarót ferry, spiced up with an account of a rough evening one of them had on the boat after a number of drinks ‘on the other side’, an experience the others acknowledged with appreciative nods.

While the rain lasted, I finally investigated the village’s name, which had intrigued me in the first place, and discovered that it’s probably a re-spelling of Szöbegény, the Benedictine monastery in the Pécs area from which monks relocated here in the 13th Century. Another, mostly anecdotal origin story is that German settlers, seeing the Danube widening considerably around the bend, exclaimed ‘See beginnt’, here begins the sea/lake, which later became Sebegen. There are a couple of other sights to take in, such as the Dőry castle, which we skipped, and the so-called Sunflower houses, which we didn’t. The whitewashed houses with matching blue woodwork were originally Swabian and Slovak peasant houses, bought in the 30s by Countess Károlyi, for a charity helping poor children, named the Flower Union.

Other than that, Zebegény is mostly about jaded Budapesters flocking to their country houses for the weekend, plus a few guest houses catering to holidaymakers from further away. The reasons for the attraction are evident: the river is scenic, life is tranquil, and the landscape has that lush, buoyant feel of thriving plant life fed by a fertile river soil. Restaurants are clustered around the currently idle train station and the ferry terminal, and since there’s not too many of them, several had pretty busy terraces around lunch time. Craving some social distancing, we went for the most unassuming one, Kulacs, teetering on an uncertain line between decrepit village dump and hidden gem. Having tasted their unfussy but excellent cigánypecsenye (pork steak with bacon on top), we are strongly inclined to believe it’s the latter.

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