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Behind the scenes - researching Hungary 2012

There are times when everyone can doubt the value of what they do. Fortunately, the reverse also happens! I've just had a week of affirmation, researching a tour in Central Europe. Nothing was simple to find, very little was apparent, yet after clocking up a thousand kilometres in a rented car and wearing a pair of shoes out completely I'm proud to say I've put together a killer of an accessible tour taking in the 3 capitals of Budapest, Bratislava & Vienna, together with much in-between.

The idea of this tour germinated from idly browsing a European atlas one winter's night. We're constantly hatching new ideas for tours, and always frustrated by the difficulties in finding accommodation anywhere at all (!) with at least 4 truly accessible rooms. We'd found some possible apartments in a very quiet rural part of Hungary, but given that our approach is all about discovery as opposed to just lounging around, I decided to idealistically pinpoint the perfect base, closer to points of interest.

My eyes descended upon the town of Győr, in the centre of a relatively small triangle formed between the capitals of Hungary and its neighbours Austria & Slovakia. Google soon threw up flattering images of a quietly successful town, with fascinating history & attractive Baroque centre, sitting on a branch of the Danube. Great, but all academic, given the impossibility of finding multiple accessible rooms.

Yet, an hour or two of more intense internet sessions threw up a hotel with a reference to wheelchair access. Experience has taught not to crack open the champagne just yet. Many hotels just have an ordinary bathtub with an extra handrail bolted to the wall rather than the level access showers that we require. And more than 1 or 2 rooms would be a miracle. Well, the Hotel Famulus provided that miracle, email exchanges with photos producing no less than 4 well designed rooms, exactly what we needed.

Our tour of Western Transdanubia was on (with the somewhat more obvious title of “Hungary”!).
Now I could get excited, and really begin to learn more in preparation for our groups.
Central Europe has a shared history, and one of the most significant themes here was the westward expansion of the Ottoman Empire, which famously advanced as far as the gates of Vienna. As a direct consequence, both Bratislava and Győr had spells as capital of Hungary while Budapest was overrun. While Bratislava now has fame as the new capital of Slovakia, Győr remains an unknown to most of us. And I love nothing better than introducing people to places they've never heard of.

So, with dates in June selected, accommodation booked, Makin' Tracks tours advertised, and places sold, the fine detail of day to day touring still required intense research. For this, I've generally found it best to spend a week prior to the groups' arrival “on the ground”, literally tramping around on foot, examining the attractions, searching for accessible toilets, restaurants, appropriate parking places, making plans for each day down to the last detail of which pavements and kerbs to use, while building on my contemporary & historical knowledge. For every street our clients go along, I'll probably have tramped along 10 others.

In this case though, I knew I wasn't going to have enough time just before the groups' arrival, so I spent a week out there in April to pull everything into place. I hired a car from Budapest airport and set off for Győr, an hour and a half to the west. Phones with navigation systems are a phenomenal invention. I used mine for the first time. Amazing, apart from the fact that it ran out of battery halfway there. Not to worry, I belong to the last generation of people who can read a map.

All my days in every town during the week followed a predictable pattern. For the first few hours, everything was frustrating – steps, cobbles, no toilets, no parking, and disinterested tourist information staff. I'd wonder why on earth I'd been foolish enough to attempt a tour here. I'd have a trickle of useful finds, and then, sometime late afternoon, I'd have a breakthrough, finding someone helpful, generous, perhaps even knowledgeable. The person varied – it could be a bus driver, restaurant manager, sometimes even a more enthusiastic tourist info worker. From then everything snowballed, with a whole structure for a day falling into place. Every day things came up trumps, in spite of all the apparent obstacles.

My first day in Győr started well, with the hotel proving to be friendly, and well designed. I discovered that it was a “training hotel”, belonging to the local University's faculty of tourism, which I think may account for the quality of provision for disabled, and perhaps for the exuberant enthusiasm of its staff. I also picked up that most of their foreign clients came in connection with the Audi factory (yes, Győr is where the TT sports car is made, not Germany!), and so we would be a rare group indeed. As the beauty of the town's centre unfolded for me I felt pretty chuffed to be at the forefront of tourism here.

Of course, being at the vanguard brings its own difficulties, especially when hoping for accessibility. Up until late afternoon I had my doubts, compounded by the ignorance & pessimism of the tourist information staff. A conversation with the owner of a fairly modern ice cream parlour confirmed the lack of accessible toilets in the town, yet a minute later my keen eye alerted me to a newly refurbished nearby café, with level entrance, and sure enough they were properly kitted out. Hurray!

A stroll up the hill, unevenly cobbled and closed to traffic just as the info office had warned, led to the stepless cathedral. A quick chat with the receptionist of a swanky Soviet era hotel went well, with an offer from her to open a barrier for our bus to drive up. Things were looking up. Hours more strolling, entering pretty much every inaccessible restaurant in the town, and I found a friendly & knowledgeable manager who was able to direct me to no less than 3 appropriately appointed establishments, all with excellent reputations for food. By now it was 11pm, and the last one was perhaps the most challenging, as the security staff for the associated casino were adamant that the restaurant was closed and the waiters had gone home. Not being one to take no for an answer, I did indeed eventually work my way in via other people, and took great pleasure in being given a VIP send off in front of the security. Yes, I know, I shouldn't let ego affect me, but I have to say it was a pleasing way to finish the day.

More leads to follow up when I return just before the first group's arrival – the nearby monastery of Pannonhalma, and Hungary's favourite summer holiday spot, Lake Balaton.

You may wonder whether it's wise to dive into the unknown and presume everything will work out, but in 25 years of doing this kind of thing, I've worked out pretty much every angle on making a trip work for wheelchair users, be it “A list” accessible Barcelona or friendly but basic Sri Lanka. There's no way I'm going to be beaten by a bit of a post Soviet hangover, and at the end of the day, I can confirm that Győr is attractive, fascinating, and accessible, once you've worked it out! It doesn't have the tired & cynical feel that plagues more well trafficked destinations, and I'm very happy to be basing ourselves there.

After a minor electrical repair to the car, onwards the next day to Vienna. Being a wealthier country, I was optimistic, but I have to say it's intimidating to arrive in such a big city and hope to build up a feel for the place in less than 3 months. A couple of days could be considered plain stupid. But then this is what I've done most of my life, and my brain seems to absorb such detail at an enviable rate (at the cost of perpetually wondering where I last put my car keys or what on earth I went upstairs for!). My first afternoon was spent charging around the extensive grounds of the Schönbrunn Palace, working out a way to get to the top of the large hill with minimum effort (the answer for us centring on roads & parking place for our bus, but for Joe Public it could be the €7 little train), wondering whether the waiter at the stunning Café Gloriette was having me on when he insisted the accessible toilet was in the woods (sure enough, it really is true), and yet again trying to win over the security staff after the ticket office was closed (these ones were super helpful, and our tour will be no problem).

On in my hired car for a 3 hour spiral drive around Vienna, working out which way would present us with the best views – the majority of our clients sit on the right of our bus, and don't have the ability to turn their necks 105 degrees (as most “professional” tour guides presume), so I plan my routes more carefully than the average driver. Yes, I'm pedantic, but I also think about the tour as an unfolding story, which influences the order in which I like to present things.

I was pretty excited to see the famous “Third Man” ferris wheel appear, and homed in on it. My last visit to Vienna was nearly 20 years ago and I was surprised at how tatty the “cars” looked by day, without the night-time neon (later I was even more surprised to hear that they're wheelchair accessible). Although the coach drop point was reasonably respectable, further on the perimeter road turns into a sea of prostitutes. I'm pretty liberal minded, but any novelty & vague titillation evaporated in seconds as I tuned into the ugly side of the East European pimps in control of it all. As I turned round to make my getaway in front of a police car, I pondered on how I must have appeared with my car's Hungarian plates, and was glad to get on with my night unhassled.

One benefit of exploring a city by car at night is that the roads are comparatively empty, so you can try your routes again & again with minor tweaks without getting frustrated at losing half an hour in the process. I worked out the best way to take advantage of the one way systems, and baulked at the city's €160 per day bus parking fee. I view our vehicle as a large minibus, but tolls & parking rates usually treat us the same as a large coach, even though we're a fraction of the size (and they ignore our EU standard “blue badge”). Do I find this frustrating? Frankly, very much so when I lose, but fabulously satisfying when I “beat the system” by finding some alternative. In the case of Vienna I eventually sorted out permission to park free of charge in the Hofburg Palace - just about as prime a spot as you could hope for – so I felt perfectly content!
Back to my hotel for an intense cramming session from my guide books, burning the candle way into the night.

Parking was just one thing to investigate the following day. Toilets, or rather lack of accessible ones, always loom disappointingly large in my agenda, in addition to the more obvious matter of access into attractions. Much shoe leather later, and with the assistance of an unusually co-operative & well-informed tourist information employee who managed to unearth just about every document published on toilet & step height, door widths & turning circles in the city, I think I've got it well & truly sussed. Apparently, there even exists a wheelchair accessible horse-drawn carriage. Not that the city is anywhere near perfect – I'm not quite sure why the official city website lists Charles' Church as accessible while the staff working there can see no alternative to carrying people up 13 stairs, and looking for a toilet en-spec after a relaxing drink in St Stephen's square could be disappointing without knowing about the U-bahn station. Oh, and no, you can't rely on McDonalds, though Starbucks three blocks south does have the necessary facilities.

Back in the car heading for Slovakia. Austria progressively lost its chocolate box perfection as I drove east, and I crossed the border on minor roads, thinking about how uneasy the people of the last Austrian village must feel now that the Schengen agreement allows such easy access. There always seem to be dodgy looking people just hanging around near open borders, or is that just my imagination? And why were all those smart cars parked randomly on rough ground with their bonnets up? Apart from the road surface, the Slovakian side appeared surprisingly wealthy. My last drive through was 10 years ago, and since then it's had an incredible surge of economic growth, one of the highest in the EU, gaining the nickname the “Tatra Tiger”. I shouldn't be surprised by such change, but always am.

I stopped in a hotel a little to the south of the capital. Cheap, cheerful, yet slightly eerie as I seemed to be completely on my own there once the staff zoomed off in their hot hatch. Just a wobbly neighbour across the yard, steeped in strong spirits. I settled down for another cramming session to prepare for Bratislava.

I cruised under the famous UFO of the “New Bridge” in the morning, a panoramic restaurant that has wheelchair access via lift (by chance rather than design, I suspect, as it's a Soviet era showpiece).

Up to the castle, and a mixed experience. The interior is under renovation, and consequently closed for now, though it's promising that they do have a small wheelchair users' lift to a temporary exhibition. Right now, it's not really worth the effort to get up to, with its steep approaches, and a wall high enough to obstruct any interesting views over the city. The closest, somewhat ostentatious restaurant was having a spring makeover, but had steps and staff who were too busy to be concerned with my issues. The Parlamentka restaurant (by the Parliament building – no surprise there) did have an accessible toilet, and provided one gives them a few hours notice, they claim to be reasonably happy to move all the tables & chairs stored in it. So much for solving architectural barriers....

Down to Bratislava's centre, certainly very attractive & characterful, just as advertised. Probably the least well appointed of all the places I'll be taking wheelchair users to on this tour, a point confirmed by the tourist info staff who declared themselves to be ashamed of the poor provision for disabled in their city. I would say though that their eagerness to come up with ideas did lift my impression of the place, and much tramping around in circles produced a gradually descending old town stroll for my groups, complemented by a handful of accessible toilets (one is signposted from the main square) and a couple of interesting 'barrier free' buildings. On balance, though the city is becoming popular with mainstream visitors, it's got a way to go before I could recommend it as a trouble-free destination for wheelchair users.

Perhaps one of the less exotic aspects of my preparations is the endless search for accessible toilets. It must seem strange to restaurateurs that I'm much more interested in toilets than their kitchens. Especially when our mutual language is too limited for me to adequately explain the purpose of my visit!

Back in my car for a blast down the motorway, past Győr, to Budapest, where I settled in for a good read into the early hours again. All the places I stayed during this trip were budget but comfortable (no, not accessible), and here I slept on a characterful old boat. Quite a novelty. In the morning I threw the sun-drenched windows wide open, to enjoy the river view. It was a bit of a Life of Brian moment, as I just had my birthday suit to present to a gathering of half-pickled anglers watching me from the other bank.

One of the best tools I've found to research a city centre at speed is a bike (I've toyed with a micro scooter, too). They both have the benefit of ensuring I don't make the faux-pas of being too distracted to notice a few steps. Anyway, in Budapest it was back to plates of meat, still pretty quick when I sense a deadline. First the flat side of the Danube, known as Pest.

I did a couple of tours based here about a dozen years ago, so had a pretty good idea of what to squeeze in. It was just a question of working out the best surfaced & most interesting trail through the streets, vehicular access to good drop off points, and of course the proverbial toilets.
I found them all in the end, but without any help from the tourist info office, who exhibited a particularly fine display of shoulder shrugging accompanied by the well rehearsed line, “Sorry, we don't have that information”, in response to pretty much any question I fired at them. At this point of the morning the streets seemed to contain more hawkers trying to sell tours than tourists themselves, so I wasn't really enjoying the atmosphere. I hit a particularly low point with another shoulder shrugging demonstration, this time from a priest at St Stephen's Cathedral, when I tried to ascertain how many years ago their rusted & padlocked stairlift had last functioned. He was far too busy mugging tourists for a highly pressured “voluntary” donation to be truly interested, but he told me (with a grin) that it last worked a few years ago.
The worst aspects of honeypot tourism all in the space of a few minutes – fortunately things improved from here onwards!

I headed for the river, catching a kindly minibus driver who took the time to educate me thoroughly regarding bus access & parking in the city. Then over the Danube via the famous Chain Bridge, to Buda. There's a funicular which takes wheelchair users to the top of Castle Hill. We'll use it to descend, but my plan is to ascend in our bus. Be warned that whichever way you climb, Buda is full of unpleasant cobbles. There are routes that can bypass the worst, but if you use a chair you're bound to have to deal with some tricky stretches. If you can get to the National Gallery, then it's accessible (by the first door visible on the left). The Fisherman's Bastion is on every tour group's itinerary, and a surprising degree of “privatisation” has replaced free access to this former public area with a couple of fancy restaurants & a turnstile. Fortunately, there are still a couple of cramped sections that are accessible and offer a fine view over the river, and Pest. The church of St Matyas is currently undergoing restoration, but the ground floor is accessible.

It was up the hill that my fortunes really turned. There's a small Tourist information office, which I nearly passed by, given the useless nature of their colleagues across the river. But I did give them a try, and was astonished by the eagerness to help from Eszter. What a difference one person can make!
She immediately offered to arrange free access for my bus to enter & park in the restricted historic area, promised to find out more about wheelchair access in general around the city, and produced an accessible toilet for us in the adjoining café. Hallelujah!

Back down to Pest, and a good session working out the best wheelie routes to get to the main shopping street of Vaci Utca, plus several of those precious accessible toilets. I now have a full stock, I'm happy to say. Note that Vaci Utca is cut in half by a stepped subway. It's possible to make a diversion down a block and back up, but probably not worth it, as everything turns more drab down the second half.
The Citadella is arguably worth a stop for the view, and Heroes Square, with its adjacent park, is an interesting diversion.

Anyway, back on a tram & a train to pick up my car in time to return it to the airport and fly home.

Between now and the tours, I'll read more books, confirm as much as possible by internet, and take a few days just prior to the group's arrival to finalise everything on location.

And there you have it! The purpose of all this research is of course to produce a well presented tour where our clients find themselves unhindered by accessibility disappointments and therefore justify their exceptional loyalty to us.


A footnote

3rd June - We are now in Hungary, doing the final planning.
Today we took our time strolling around
Győr, on a warm & sunny Sunday.
It felt lovely, with beautiful characterful streets, excellent restaurants, and yet not a trace of mass tourism.
A rare find indeed....