Coronavirus times notwithstanding, Déli station was aflutter with activity on the morning of a bank holiday Friday which promised undisturbed summer sun. Many in the crowd were setting off on university freshmen camps, broken down into the mandated, colour coded, smaller groups, yet still converging into a rather sizeable gathering that clogged access to the ticket vending machines and platforms and felt a bit questionable from a social distancing point of view.
Déli is of course the main station for Balaton access as well, but the lake-bound crowd seemed thinner than in other years. Many had probably already gone south on the first day of the bank holiday, or opted for alternative means of transport, either out of fear of the virus, or more likely, fear of the MÁV. Hungary’s rail company is one of the few constants of its life. It never disappoints, or better put, it never disappoints you by being metronomically disappointing all the time. The vending machine we ended up with would only respond to aggressive pounding when making your selections, so anyone using it looked like a boxer unraveling in a career ending bout.
Our destination was the sedate town of Rácalmás, chosen randomly on account of a small natural reserve lying right next to it, in the lush Danube basin. Our train was a composite zónázó (regional train), half of which would be disconnected at Pusztaszabolcs and sent towards Dombóvar, while our half would continue its excruciatingly slow progress towards Dunaújváros, Rácalmás being the last stop before the final destination. As any good, decent, MÁV zónazó, it stops everywhere and is always late for absolutely mysterious reasons. The ticket inspectors, hardened by a life of cohabitation with MÁV, eye you with the calm resignation of a stoic philosopher: valahol történt valami, something happened somewhere, hence we are late, it could be anything from the repercussions of Hungary losing to the Turks at Mohács in the year of our Lord 1687 to an actual technical fault of the engine. MÁV is the very proof that the butterfly effect exists.
The fact that a conscious coupling and uncoupling, as Gwyneth Paltrow would put it, of two trains happens at Pusztaszabolcs is the kind of variable that sends everything into further tilt. By the time we arrived to Rácalmás, time was but an abstraction. We were the only ones to descend onto the gravel platform, suddenly embraced by a heat about a couple of degrees from becoming murderous. We were then eyed by a matronly station master and two men performing a mysterious task on a stranded carriage parked close to the exit. They registered us as you register tiny specks of dirt on your windshield and proceeded with their daily routine.
I was happy to discover wild apple trees on the abandoned looking road that takes you from the station to the town centre- ‘almás’ means something which is made with apples, or an apple orchard, in Hungarian. The prefix of ‘rác’, Serbian, was added when Serbs fleeing the Turkish occupation moved northwards along the Danube and got the rights to settle in an area which goes beyond Budapest, to Szentendre. Their numbers have dwindled, but their memory is preserved by several toponyms prefixed with ‘Rác’, some churches, Slavic sounding names on doorbells and in graveyards, and, in Rácalmás, a couple of ‘Beware of the dog’ signs which have the Serbian ‘opasan pas’ added to the Hungarian ‘a kutya harap’.
The main street, unsurprisingly called Fő utca, is lined with generally prosperous looking houses that come accompanied by sleepy but ill-tempered cats, and mutts of various shapes and sizes, united by a penchant for hysterical if useless barking. A town on paper only, Rácalmás is the typical village where everyone greets each other on the street, and we could clearly feel the surprise of the locals at our unexpected presence. Scenic enough to inspire some Budapesters to invest in summer houses, Rácalmás is however irrevocably bound to industrial Dunaújváros, founded during communist times with the tell-tale moniker of Sztálinváros. Its existence brought prosperity to Rácalmás and jobs for the locals, and it is perhaps the nostalgia for perceived better times that inspires a lot of people to keep the old street signs on their houses on Fő utca: alongside the new name, many kept the old, Népfront (People’s Front) signs as well. Today, the town’s main employer is the Korean Hankook factory, which you can see looming over the horizon to the south.
On our way to the river, we came across the only buildings which could qualify for the dubious title of tourist attraction: the villa complex which used to belong to the Jankovich noble family of Croatian issue. Nicely if a bit stereotypically renovated, it has been reinvented as a centre for events, mostly weddings, as attested by the random silken flower decorations. The entrance to the Rácalmás Islands Natural Reserve is about ten minutes on foot from villa and, as we approached it, we felt like this was a good day, and we were on top of things.
Of course, we weren’t. We’d graduated from being completely clueless explorers to having better shoes, sunscreen, and water. What we did not consider was that we were entering what is, by its best definition, a marsh. Something like the Everglades, but smaller, without gators or Florida men. This bit is good, the worse part is that it has a lot of giant, aggressive, bloodthirsty mosquitos. So, if you learn one thing from this piece, it’s to never go to Rácalmás without insect repellent. Minus the bloody onslaught, the walk would have been pleasant enough: the nature is pristine and there is pleasant shade even on the hottest of days; trails are mostly easy to find and follow, except short portions close to the water, where it can get a bit uneven and slippery. There are no amenities to speak of, so do go prepared with food and drinks if you want to spend longer time on the island- a full hike with some rest stops should last for the better part of a day if you’re not trying to beat some ultramarathoning record.
Speaking of amenities, Rácalmás stays true to its village nature, and has only the bare essentials: a supermarket and some smaller stores, catering to such typical local needs as pet food, fishing and gardening. At the crossroads of Állomás (station) street with Fő street, there is a pleasant café, going by the smile inducing name of Szélesszájú Kisbéka (Wide Mouthed Little Frog), serving pastries, ice cream and decent Italian coffee. Next to the pond in the town centre (they eschewed calling it Főtér, main square, and ended up with Széchényi, who probably has something named after him in every Hungarian city, town, village and hamlet) you can find the Fapuma (Wooden Puma) büfé, which is a glorified wooden shack serving sweets and refreshments,. When it comes to food, we went for the Beugró restaurant, strategically placed next to the motorway linking Dunaújváros to Budapest. As such, it caters to a mix of locals and travelers, and serves enjoyable if unsophisticated food, mostly Hungarian staples, but also some Italian or Mexican inspired dishes.
On our way back, we were the only people waiting for the evening connection to Budapest. Behind the station building, an apple tree was both bearing fruit, and blooming. The two gentleman were still at their mysterious task in the carriage while the ginger tomcat who seemed to be the station’s feline in residence inspected us with disdain then proceeded to vomit what looked like several full meals onto the pavement. A job well done, he retreated into the dusk. In return, our train emerged from the dusk, already late over the four kilometres it had covered from Dunaújváros. At Pusztaszabolcs, the delay grew exponentially. The ticket inspector, mask covering her already Sphynx-like expression, hurried through the train. I did not ask her what had happened, I already knew that valami történt valahol.