IT WAS 1982 WHEN THE ‘IRON CURTAIN’ still divided Soviet-controlled Europe from Western Europe most effectively. I was heading off towards Budapest from England in order to meet my friend and budding author the late Michael Jacobs, who was becoming a renowned travel writer.
Before setting out on this trip, I had noticed that there was a railway line that began in Austria, crossed over the Iron Curtain into Western Hungary, and after running a short distance through Hungary, it crossed back into Austria. Intrigued, I checked whether it carried passengers, and found that it did. This, I decided would be the way that I would try to enter Hungary.
On reaching Vienna’s Westbahnhof, I travelled through the city to the Südbahnhof, where I caught a train that took me to Wiener Neustadt. When I disembarked, I noticed a diesel powered passenger rail bus standing on a siding. It was painted in a livery that I did not recognise. It was not the livery of OB (the Austrian State Railway), or of MAV (the Hungarian State Railway). Two men wearing black leather jackets were standing next to it. I asked them in German whether this was the train to Sopron (just over the border in Hungary). With hand gestures, they motioned me on board. Soon, the two men boarded the train. One was its driver. We set off. I was the only passenger as the train drifted through vineyards and fields. After a short time we stopped at a small village called Wulkaprodersdorf.
The driver and his assistant disembarked, and so did I. From where I stood next to the ‘train’, I could see men in blue overalls working in a distant field. The two train men stood smoking and chatting to each other in Hungarian. An old steam engine with the logo ‘GySEV’ stood on a plinth, a memorial to times gone by. The rustic scene reminded me of lines from the poem ‘Adlestrop’ by Edward Thomas:
“The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop — only the name
And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.
And for that minute a blackbird sang…”
Just change Adlestrop for Wulkaprodersdorf, and you will know how I felt waiting there.
After a while, all of the workers in the field converged on the train and boarded it. I joined them in the now full train, and we set off towards Hungary. To my surprise, we sailed past the rows of barbed wire fences, the sandy tracks, the watchtowers, the military men with dogs, without stopping. I had crossed the ‘Iron Curtain’ and entered Hungary without showing my passport. This was quite unlike any other time that I had travelled to Hungary by train.
The single carriage train pulled into Sopron’s station alongside a platform that had a barbed wire fence running along it. When I stepped out onto the platform, two uniformed guards came to meet me. How they knew that I was on the train was a mystery to me. They took me to an office, where their superior examined me and my visa, before stamping my passport. As the officials seemed friendly, I decided to ask them where I could find a private room to stay. Instead of directing me to the state tourist office, which usually arranged accommodation for foreigners, the official told me to come with him. He drove me to a house on the edge of Sopron, and told me to wait in its garage.
After a few minutes, he returned with a lady, who then took me to her house. Somehow, she managed to explain to me that I could rent a room from her, but I had to leave at 8 am in the morning. I rented her room for two nights.
On the following morning, I decided to try to ring Michael Jacobs at the number he had given me where he was staying in Budapest. I found a coin-box public telephone, but was completely flummoxed by the instructions which were only written in Hungarian. Undaunted, I entered Sopron’s fin-de-siècle central post-office. The large public hall was surrounded by desks each with signs above them in Hungarian. I looked for a desk with a sign that resembled ‘telephone’ or even ‘telefon’, but saw nothing remotely similar. While I was looking, a man in a suit and tie came up to me and announced in passable English:
“Today is my day for helping foreigners. How may I help you?”
I told him that I was trying to ring a number in Budapest, and he took me to a desk where I parted with a not inconsiderable amount of cash, only to discover that the call could not be made.
After that disappointment, my ‘helper’ asked:
“You like wine?”
I replied that I did.
“Come with me then,” he said, leading me to a group of well-dressed middle-aged men.
“Visitors from Austria,” he said, leading me and his visitors to a minibus bearing the livery of OB, Austrian Railways. We drove through Sopron, and my new friend explained that he was hosting some Austrian railway officials who were visiting for the day.
We arrived at a wine cellar in a historic building in the heart of Sopron, and sat at wooden tables in a cellar with a vaulted ceiling. By now, I was getting quite hungry. My new friend sat me beside him, and for the rest of the time ignored his Austrian guests. In front of us there wooden platters with salami slices and what looked grated cheese. Greedily, I put a handful of this grated matter in my mouth, and sharp needles shot up towards my eyeballs. The ‘cheese’ was in fact freshly grated horse-radish! Wine was served, and all of us partook of it liberally.
During our drinking session, my friend said to me:
“It is Vunderful. So Vunderful. You could have visited Paris; you could have visited Rome; you could have visited New York. But you have come to our little Sopron. That is so Vunderful. So Vunderf…”
Eventually, it was time for the Austrians to return home. They piled into their minibus, and we waved farewell to them. Then, my Hungarian friend led me to a rather tatty looking faded green minibus, an East European model, and we entered. My host, an official of GySEV (Győr-Sopron-Ebenfurti Vasút) – the mainly Hungarian-owned railway company which had brought me into Hungary – drove me to a shabby hotel.
“Hotel Lokomotiv,” he announced proudly, “now we drink more.”
By now, I had had enough wine, but insufficient food. I drank Coca Cola or its Hungarian equivalent whilst my friend continued drinking wine – all afternoon. After the sun had set, I decided that I should return to my room.
“I will take you there,” he said slurring.
As we began walking through the town, I had to support my staggering friend, and also guide him through his own town. When we had nearly reached where I was staying, he said:
“Next time you are in Sopron, you will stay in my house. I will put wife in another room. You will sleep in my bed.”
With that, we parted company.
I never took up his offer because the next time I visited Sopron, I was already married.