Suburban Waterworlds-A Walk by the Danube on Csepel Island

About a couple of weeks ago I stumbled upon an article describing the wild charms of the Kolonics György walkway, nestled away in lush solitude on the eastern shore of Csepel Island. What a lovely proposition, I cried out. Alright, I didn’t, everything happened at a mental level only, but I felt like dramatizing this thing a little. My second thought, as everyone who has seen Top Gear and/or Grand Tour very well knows, was a dangerous one: how hard can this be. Bloody damn hard, of course.

First and foremost, we don’t own either a car or a bike, and in the current context, we also try to avoid public transportation. Walking from the 6th district to Csepel seemed a bit of a stretch even for the seasoned urban walkers that we have become during the pandemic, so we decided to go for the enclosed device in which we’d have to spend the least time: the regional train to Kunszentmiklós-Tass, which calls at the Pesterzsébet station. The ticket costs just under 300 forints, so it’s cheaper than a single bus or tram ticket as well. We’d gotten acquainted with the Pesterzsébet station during our last pre-pandemic spa outing and can confirm that it is the absolute definition of its Google maps rating of 3.6: not great, not terrible, and close enough to the Csepel passage for our purposes.

Once across the passage, I’d imagined, based on the article, that all we had to do was follow the walkway, which would, in turn, follow the river. I was, as alas ever so often, very much mistaken. The first hundreds of metres are peppered with manifold obstacles. First up, it’s the Kolonics György rowing centre, followed by the fabulously named Csep-Gol football team’s establishments, which include a Hekkező: a small restaurant serving mostly fish dishes, of which the absolute star is hake deep fried in breadcrumbs. I can’t resist the temptation of offering ‘hakery’ as the possible English translation of the concept and must also mention that the love of Hungarians for chunks of fried hake in summer is quite similar to the British passion for fish and chips. I am sadly averse to both, but the Hekkező still proved a godsend, because we figured out that going behind it, we would find our way back to the main walkway.

Which we did, and were again a bit disappointed, as the next kilometre or so is a recently renewed stone path that has very little shade, and yes, we were out and about on a scorching summer afternoon. So, in case you want to repeat our adventure, be smarter than us- frankly it’s not hard- and do it with hats. Though at least we had sunscreen. I was thus about to conclude that we had been maliciously duped when we finally hit the entrance of the Kis-Duna nature trail and everything started to make sense again.

Kis-Duna, or Little Danube, is a nickname given to the artificial smaller branch of the river, running to the east of Csepel, which is officially called Ráckevei (Soroksári) Duna, often quite unpoetically abridged to RSD. Until the end of the 19th Century, the Danube widened suddenly after it reached Gellért Hill, an unfortunate phenomenon which lead to frequent floods and general misery. This conundrum was addressed with several projects in the early 20th Century, and today the Ráckeve Danube runs for about 57 kilometres and is regulated with two locks at both ends.

While to the visitor’s eye the leafy shores of this tamed little river can feel like a sleepy suburban paradise, the factories of Csepel have often wreaked havoc in its wildlife in the past. The current downsizing of industrial activity on the island does have the advantage of reducing pollution, beneficial both to the flora and fauna of the area and of course humans. Our zoological ineptitude (sample quotes: is that a duck or a pigeon that looks like a duck?) makes us unable to competently describe the birds we’ve seen, but we fare better at describing the human populace: mostly middle aged, loves fishing/sunbathing/kayaking-possibly all at the same time-, often wears tiny speedos if male, drinks either local mainstream beers or white wine straight from the bottle and listens to comedy shows and/or local hits on the radio.

As the above described species, let’s call it Homo csepelus, is fundamentally self-catering, the trail has fairly few bars and restaurants, which is ultimately a blessing. For long stretches all you see is vegetation and all you hear is the peaceful lapping of the river. Then there’s the rumble of someone’s lawn mower from one of the summer houses on the opposing Soroksár side and the illusion of secluded bliss is broken, but it was beautiful until it lasted. Since we ourselves are only self-catering to the extent of being able to buy Radlers at the corner shop, we did however end up at the Nádfedeles Csárda, a pleasantly unfussy establishment that serves reasonably priced local staples.

If at any moment during this piece you wondered who György Kolonics was, you are most probably not Hungarian. I myself, as often proved, am a partial and broken one, I was therefore not sure whether he was a kayaker or a canoer. Generally, I struggle with kayak and canoe as it is, it’s like my mother’s two drawers, one for plastic bags to be reused for food, and another for plastic bags to be reused for other purposes: I know they exist, but can never tell them apart. Wikipedia jumped to my aid, and confirmed that Kolonics was a sprint canoer (that’s the one where they kneel as opposed to sit in the boat), winner of two Olympic golds and a record fifteen World Championship gold medals. He trained most of his life with the Csepel SE club, up to his untimely death at the age of 36, due to a cardiac arrest while training for his fifth Olympics. Given his relentless series of successes, in a country enamoured with water sports of all sorts, he had achieved cult hero status even in life, which only grew, and took on a tragic note, after his death. As such, the walkway occasionally feels like an extended shrine, complete with a statue and a memorial at the pier where his teammates tried to save his life. It also doubles as a glimpse into a nation’s soul, the way it is still, a century after the end of WWI and the loss of many of its former territories, trying to build an identity around being a small country with large achievements- though when it comes to sports, Hungary is truly an overachiever, being second only to Finland in the ranking of Olympic medals per capita.

Having decided to return on a different route, we meandered briefly into Szigetszentmiklós and then crossed the bridge back to Dunaharaszti- it was quite strange to crisscross among three different settlements within minutes, but such are the joys of life in suburbia. As a final addendum to the how hard can it be project, you cannot find HÉV tickets at the Dunaharaszti-felső station (incidentally also rated 3.6 on Google), so much as we tried to be law abiding citizens, our first trip on a BKK vehicle since March was for free. I did religiously wear my mask though. And so should you.

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