Ride of Rides

If you count the detours, I probably biked 300 kilometers in all–from Szolnok to Sátoraljaújhely–between Monday and this morning. But that’s not what makes this trip stand out. Or rather, that’s only part of it.

It was a pastel-foggy morning when I set out from Szolnok on Monday. I turned back once, because I realized that, when removing the bike from the storage alcove in my building, I had somehow gotten grease on my sweatpants. I tried to clean them as much as possible and then set out again. On the outskirts of Szolnok, I veered onto a bike lane, and the tires hit a slippery spot. I went flying off of the bicycle and face down onto the ground. Some people walked up to ask if I was all right. A woman drove up and handed me a handful of tissues. But nothing was broken, and after taking a few minutes to collect myself, I headed onward.

The day was uneventful and lovely. I rode the long, familiar stretch through Nagykörű, Tiszasüly, and other towns, and saw many birds of prey circling above, as well as migrating (or semi-migrating) geese. The geese didn’t seem too sure of their direction yet, but they were flocking numerously and loudly.

So I came to Kisköre, found a bridge, and then saw the bike route sign pointing to a meadow. I rode on the dirt road and came to Tisza-tó (Lake Tisza) before long. I went clockwise around the lake to Tiszafüred. (There was a bridge at one point.) I have already mentioned the chess pieces and the swans. That, and biking by a lake on a grey fall day, made for a relaxing, if also long, first stretch of the trip. The guesthouse was a little outside of Tiszafüred, but I found it. The host greeted me with cheer and took me to my room, which was actually a little house behind the main house. I went to sleep promptly.

The second day looked a lot like the first at the outset. A long, quiet bike path; lots of birds, yellow leaves falling. Then, just before Tiszacsege, the bike path came to an end, and there was no sign indicating where bikers should go from there. It met with an L-shaped road: I thought I should go right, toward Tiszacsege, but it seems I was wrong. I liked something about Tiszacsege, though, and regretted passing through it so quickly. I stopped to take a picture of the Roman Catholic church.

I continued on to the town of Polgár, which definitely had no bike route in sight. Someone saw me looking around and asked where I was trying to go. When I said Tokaj, he explained that I needed to get on route 35 and then turn right–and go on the bike path to Tiszadob, where I would need to take a ferry. Then, at the other end of the ferry ride, I would resume the bike journey. Tokaj was about 40 kilometers away.

But first of all, I took the wrong direction on 35, and it took me a while to realize the mistake. I turned back, found the Tisza river and the bike path, biked to Tiszadob, and found the ferry stop, but everything looked deserted, and the gate was closed. I then found out, through a search on my phone, that the ferry wasn’t in operation. So I decided to resort to GPS. I chose the walking option, since there was no bike option–and Google Maps deftly directed me along dirt roads, which would have been fine, except that they were muddy. Now the sun was setting, and I saw a shepherd just ahead with many sheep and a few goats. I wanted to take a picture of the sheep, and he welcomed me to do so. He asked where I was going; when I told him, he said, “Oh, it will get dark before you arrive.” But I told him I would be fine. He said I was doing a beautiful thing, taking a trip like this. And I went onward.

It did get dark. But the moonlight was spilling over the paths, and I thought I was almost there–and would have been almost there, if the dirt roads had been suitable. But I ended up in so much mud that I decided to forsake the dirt roads altogether. I told Google Maps that I was driving. The road took a very long way around, but I reached Tokaj just a little before 8 (and the check-in at the guesthouse was until 8). Now I relied on the GPS for each step, went around and around, went up a little hill, turned back, and saw the Torkolat guesthouse right there in front of me. Not realizing yet that I had arrived, I called the owner, who, as it turned out, was standing several meters away. He jovially welcomed me in, and everything was fine.

In the morning I had breakfast there, at the guesthouse. The owner made me eggs and coffee and laid out an array of spreads. Then we started to talk. He was impressed with my Hungarian (which to me felt stumbling) and asked how I had learned it. When I told him, he told me that he had studied German and Russian. We began speaking in Russian–he told me about a trip he and his university classmates had made to Riga, Moscow, and Leningrad in 1978 or so (the same year I was there). He had saved a book of Russian expressions, which he considered a treasure, since it represented an era. He told me two Soviet Russian jokes.

I saw many wooden mechanical toys around the dining area. I asked him about them. He had made them himself. He had seen models on YouTube and had figured out how they worked and how to make them.

Soon afterward, I said goodbye and headed to the center of Tokaj. You can’t go wrong in Tokaj. Old, gracious buildings with colorful ivy spilling over them; hilly roads, hills up above, wine cellars everywhere. I got some wine for the neighbors taking care of my cats and some more for a special occasion. The wine cellar pictured below is at the Hímesudvar Pincészet (over 500 years old).

Now it was time to head up slowly toward Sárospatak, then Vajdácska. I had no worries about the route, since I had traveled it before. But I did want to try to find the Jewish cemetery in Olaszliszka. It took some doing–it has a big stone wall around it, so you can’t really see it–but I found it. I think it’s opened only on special occasions–for instance, when there’s a Hasidic pilgrimage there.

Sárospatak was bustling–lots of stores open, lots of people walking around. It seemed like a veritable metropolis. My appetite bristling again, I decided to have a late lunch at A Fekete Macska (The Black Cat). They are serious about their name. The place is full of cats. I saw at least five in the terrace dining area. And I had a delicious lunch: vegetable soup followed by chicken with galuska (a kind of homemade pasta). Then headed to Vajdácska, crossing the Bodrog river.

But that lunch was in some ways a bad idea, since it took away from my dinner appetite, and I had been looking forward to the pizza so much. They make scrumptious pizza at the Kisdiófa Panzió és Vendéglő. But I did manage to eat almost all of it (a medium-sized margherita). And it was good to arrive at the final guesthouse of the trip, where I had been four times before. I spoke with the hosts, ate more than my fill, and went to sleep.

The next morning, after breakfast, I went down a side road to see a memorial to a little boy who died. I don’t know who he was or how he died, but last spring I had seen his memorial by the side of the road. There it was.

I then went to see the Vajdácska cemetery, which has a Jewish section, and afterwards the two churches on the hill (one Greek Hungarian Catholic, the other Protestant). The Jewish cemetery is located inside the Christian cemetery, in its own section but with no barriers. The gravestones are old and crumbling, but the grounds are well kept. It was moving to be there.

The two churches are what you can always see when approaching Vajdácska, even on a foggy day. I discovered today that if I stood on the grounds of the one, I could take a good picture of the other.

And now for the final destination before the train ride home: Sátoraljaújhely (shown in the photo at the top). I wanted to go to the Rongkutya bookstore at the very least, since I had never made it there when it was open. But along the way, on the edges of Sárospatak, I passed a woman on a walking path, and she began talking with me. We had a long conversation–and she wanted to convince me to move to Sárospatak. And yes, after Szolnok, Sárospatak would probably be my first choice of a place to live in Hungary. It’s an extraordinary town. Comenius lived and worked there from 1650 to 1654, and it has a renowned university, many historical landmarks, and a sweet and beautiful charm. But I love Szolnok, and I can visit Sárospatak at least once a year.

Sátoraljaújhely was sad to see. It has gone downhill economically since I last visited it in 2019. Or at least I didn’t notice the extent of the problems then. Store after store had gone out of business; the buildings were for sale. There were entire streets of emptied stores. But I got to the bookstore–an inviting place–and bought two books there, and also bought a sweater at a clothing store, since it was getting chilly.

The train ride home contained one of the biggest surprises of all. I first took a train to Szerencs, then transferred to a train that took me all the way to Szolnok–and stopped in Tokaj! I had not realized there was a direct train from Szolnok to Tokaj. Not only that, but the trip takes just over two hours. This means that I could take a day trip to Tokaj–and even to Sárospatak–on a weekend. It’s also by far the easiest way to get to Sárospatak, if I want to combine train and biking. In the past, when taking the train, I have always had to transfer, and the train ride itself took about four hours.

But I wouldn’t trade this bike trip for anything–and this whole description has been no more than a quick sketch. Arriving back in Szolnok was a thrill. And the cats were well cared for and glad that I was home.

Bike Rides and Their Layers

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One thing I love about long bike rides is that they allow me to think without interference. I can sift through many things over those hours. Another thing I love is the discovery: exploring towns and countryside, taking detours here and there. A third is the return: coming to know a place better through visiting it again and again. Then these three things start to play with each other in counterpoint: the thinking, exploring, and return, so that the bike ride becomes a kind of music.

Music! someone might say. What are you doing talking about music? There’s no time for that. You should be out on the streets protesting.

But music is not an escape. It is protest of its own kind. It demands and allows truth.

I stayed in Vajdácska, at the bed-and-breakfast I have visited four times now, in four consecutive years. The owners are welcoming, the food is delicious, and the place is lovely and full of original touches. The photo at the top was the view from my window. Here, below, is a view from about 300 meters away. (The church on the left is Hungarian Greek Catholic; the one on the right, Protestant.)

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In 2017, when I first visited, I biked around the surrounding towns and villages. In 2018 and 2019, I bicycled up to Kassa (Košice) and took a train back; this time, I biked to Tokaj and back. Tokaj is famous for its wines, especially sweet white wine–but it is the dry Furmint that especially appeals to me.  Anyway, I had more than one reason for going to Tokaj: I wanted to stay within Hungary, see Tokaj itself, see what this southbound route was like, and start figuring out a future bike trip–about two and a half days long–from Szolnok to Vajdácska.

But this bike ride took me beyond what I had expected. In Vámosújfalu, I noticed that every house had a well next to it. That is, everyone drew their own water. The next village, Olaszliszka, had something magical about it, but I didn’t start to understand it until the way back. Then in Szegilong there were storks in nests, one after another, all of them feeding their young. (There had been storks before, but this was the first time that I saw them in a row.)

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As I drew closer to Tokaj, I started seeing wineries and vineyards, one after another.

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Then Tokaj itself–a place where you were invited to take a rest and enjoy yourself. A statue of Bacchus, by the sculptor Péter Szanyi, sets the mood in the town square. (Tokaj legends include a cult of Bacchus, thanks in part to the Jesuit teacher and poet Imre Marotti.)

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I had some goulash at the Bacchus Restaurant, then visited a wine cellar (the Borostyán Pince, over 350 years old), where I bought some Furmint and talked for a while with the owner, who showed me the currency he had received from visitors from around the world and asked me many questions about how I ended up coming to Hungary to live and teach. (All the conversations on this trip were in Hungarian.)

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So far, this sounds more or less like a typical tourist trip, or tourist bike trip. But I had been noticing some other things too. When I entered Tokaj, I passed by a large Jewish cemetery, larger than the one in Sátoraljaújhely. It was closed, so I just looked at it for a few minutes. (To take this picture, I passed my hands through the gate.)

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On the way back, I was thinking about how some of the villages were entirely inhabited by Roma people (“Gypsies”), others by white Hungarians, others by both. I thought about how each village had its own history–sometimes a violent history–of ethnic conflict. I didn’t know anything yet about Olaszliszka, but on the way back, I took a little more time to look at it. It seemed to be all Roma–I saw children playing in the streets, parents pushing their babies in strollers, teenagers chatting outside a corner store. I saw medieval ruins overgrown with greenery.

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I saw a sign pointing the way to a Jewish synagogue and cemetery–and biked in that direction but found nothing. Later I learned that this was a famous center of Hungarian Hasidism–where the first Lisker Rebbe, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Friedman, lived. The village apparently still has a memorial synagogue site.

The village was also the site of a murder in 2006, which became part of the subject of a play by Szilárd Borbély. A white Hungarian biology teacher, Lajos Szögi, was driving through with his two daughters when his car hit a little Roma girl, who fell down but was unharmed. The family attacked the man and beat him to death in front of his daughters. The father of the little girl later received a life sentence; all the others involved received stiff punishments. There have been some discussions of why this happened, but for many, the incident confirmed existing prejudice and hatred. (There has been repeated violence against Roma people too.)

A village like this keeps everything secret and tells all. Knowing nothing of this yet, I stopped to listen to the swooping birds. I hope to go back and see more, including the synagogue memorial.

Before and after, I was thinking about the U.S., about police violence, about the protests. I support the protests in that they call out truths and necessities. I do not stand with protesters who shame and debase people who disagree with them even in part (for instance, those who booed and shamed Mayor Jacob Frey of Minneapolis when he said that he did not support abolishing the police force). This leads to no good; it alienates some possible allies and coerces others into false agreement. It makes deliberation impossible.

On the other hand, protests need their fire. Many protesters are understandably tired of moderate arguments; too often moderation has squirmed away from its promises.

The next day, on my way to the Sárospatak train station, I passed by a rose garden. It was beautiful, so I stopped. The gardener saw me and cut a rose for me. I thanked him and headed on. Then I turned back and asked him if he would take a picture. He obliged. (There is much more to say about Sárospatak, and far more to learn.)

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I wondered, throughout the trip, whether my own uncertainty (over politics and many other things) was a sign of strength or weakness. I don’t think I can answer that yet (or maybe ever). But for better or worse, uncertainty is part of what I do, what I have to offer. I know that I don’t know the entirety of another person, a country, myself, or a crumbling building. But I want to come back and learn more.

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I made a few small additions to this piece after posting it.