Life has finally settled down after returning from Con of the Rings and holding our Austin Fellowship event, and days have resumed more familiar rhythms. The time has allowed me to sort through vacation photos and gather my thoughts about our recent trip to Central Europe. Travel influences us in subtle ways, and it is interesting to see how my perspective on life in Austin (and America at large) has changed since my return. While the external trappings of culture can be obvious, it also informs us in subtle ways – many of which are invisible to our consciousness.
These subtle differences are just one of the reasons why travel is so interesting. We are in a very literal sense, re-contextualizing our cultural existence when we spend time in countries far from home. A good example of these changes is in our daily routine. Everywhere along our trip, I tried to establish the same morning pattern: walk to a cafe, order a cappuccino and a fresh baked bread or pastry of whatever sort is popular in that region or city. As simple as this might sound, it differs from the morning routine that I have in Austin.
America does not prioritize having bakeries and cafes within walking distance of residences. For that matter, Austin specifically does not prioritize walkability, so the prospect of walking to these activities from my house is highly impractical. It’s funny how such a seemingly minor change in habit can have a noticeable impact on one’s outlook to start the day. I found that by starting my day in this way, something which was easily facilitated by the cities we visited, it put me in the perfect frame of mind for new experiences.
For those who are interested in reading about Lord of the Rings, the book or the card game, you will find this article light on such content. As my interactions with the community continue to remind me, the world is filled with friendly, intelligent, and interesting people, who just so happen to be fans of Tolkien’s books and this game. I suspect that many with a sense of adventure and an interest in other cultures will find something worthwhile in my travel tales.
My knowledge of Hungary before visiting was limited to vague impressions and half-remembered stories from the first World War. A good friend visited Budapest several years ago and gave it a glowing recommendation. The Pearl of the Danube exceeded my expectations. It is far and away one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever visited.
For me, travel is about curiosity. I want to understand what is unique about a place, the heart that gives it life. While the most iconic aspects of a city are not always my favorite parts, they make for a good starting point for getting to know a city. Now I understand why the baths of Budapest are world famous. The architecture in Budapest is magnificent.
Pairing such magnificent structures with crystal clear water, fed from natural springs, makes the baths of Budapest a singular beauty. After so many hours of stuck on an airplane with coughing people and screaming children, a nice long soak was just what we needed.
The buildings of Hungary are a constant reminder of an older empire, when the Magyar were at the center of European politics and Budapest was known as “The Heart of Europe”. Seeing all of this grandeur, along with ample evidence of the passage of time, I could not help but think of Minas Tirith in the Third Age. The city is still a sight to behold, but one inevitably wonders what it must have looked line in its youth.
No trip to Hungary would be complete without a taste of their signature dish: Goulash. A savory stew of meat, paprika, and other spices, Goulash is popular throughout Central Europe. Each region has its own take on this traditional dish, and in any form it is one of my favorite meals. Visiting in the Fall was perfect, as delicious hot stews are the perfect meal for the weather. While I enjoyed the Goulash, it was a different dish which surprised and impressed me: a traditional Hungarian meal known as Paprika Beef. Hungarian food is a must for anyone who likes savory meals, particularly stews and soups.
At the end of our sojourn through Central Europe, we had the pleasure of returning to Budapest for a few days, just before returning home. On one of our last full days there, we took the train from Budapest to the city of Veresegyház, and had what I would describe as a true adventure.
There’s nothing quite like getting lost in a foreign country, particularly when you don’t speak the native language. I say this without pride, as learning to speak some of the native tongue is something I prefer to do, but Magyar is a notoriously difficult language to learn. Having already been to Estonia some years ago, I had an inkling of the difficulty of this esoteric language family. In any case, after a few wrong trains and help from generous and friendly locals – which mostly involved the language of universally applicable gestures and nods – we finally found the Bear and Wolf Sanctuary on the outskirts of Budapest.
As a bear, and giant troll killing machine, seeing my ursine brethren was one of the highlights of the trip. I was initially worried that this would be like some trips to the zoo, where bored and agitated animals leave me feeling a profound sense of loss – of nature being subverted by man’s will. Fortunately, this sanctuary gave the the Bears and Wolves ample room to roam and hunt, and they were obviously happy and in their natural element.
It brought joy to my ursine heart, seeing these majestic animals – many of them rescued from circuses – happy and healthy. Many of the bears and wolves live in the same enclosures, which makes sense as they are not natural enemies. All the same, it was amusing to see just how little mind the full grown bears gave to packs of wolves – even circling around them. For anyone who has a chance to see these beautiful animals in that natural environments (ore as close to such as is practical), you should definitely do so.
As a bonus for those wanting more Lord of the Rings-related content, here is a deck that I designed based on Hungary’s signature dish: Hungarian Goulash.