Trail magic seems much more magical when traveling alone. Since you have only yourself to entertain, serendipitous experiences are that much more delightful. And since you have only yourself to look out for, when things work out against whatever odds, you feel that much more triumphant.
I am speaking from my recent experience solo-journeying around Hungary. While it was not my first solitary trip, it was certainly the longest and my first in a country where I don’t know the language. Granted, Hungary is a developed country, so I wasn’t really “roughing it” on my own. But still.
The trip was an all-around success, and I enjoyed the opportunity to do whatever I wanted and to stick to, or break, my own agenda. However, of course, no trip goes perfectly, and I ran into a few road bumps…until trail magic saved the day.
First, my best meal of the trip magically appeared.
Hungary is not exactly renowned for its cuisine. Although I ate a couple tasty meals of wild boar goulash, Hungary doesn’t rank high on my list of international dining experiences. But one meal really made my day.
I had been wandering around Budapest all morning, and by lunch had walked myself into an intense hunger. I happened to be on one of Pest’s pedestrian streets, which is lined with restaurants. Unfortunately, this street also happened to be a tourist trap. All the restaurants lauded their traditional goulashes, but at tourist prices (i.e., high). While only the third day of my trip, I was already weary of the tourist trap, so after a few blocks and no appealing option in sight, I took a desperate, random turn off the street in hopes of finding something off the beaten path. As I continued a couple blocks more, my hunger and desperation only grew.
Then, as though the universe understood, there it was: The Veggy Corner. Perfect. I was craving a vegetarian meal, and there were no tourists in sight. When I entered the restaurant, my eyes lit up brighter–it was an Indian food buffet run by what seemed to be Budapest’s “crunchy” crowd (my kind of people), and it was cheap! Best of all, the food did not disappoint; it was hands-down my best meal in Hungary. (I later found out the restaurant’s owners are Hare Krishnas, which made me wonder if there really was a spiritual force drawing me to it.)
Second, I magically found some drinking buddies.
I took a day trip to a town called Eger, which is known for its Valley of the Beautiful Women, a cluster of wine cellars on its outskirts that sell wine from the region (Hungary is a wine country). Upon arriving in Eger that morning, I met a trio of young Israeli women who had also come for the day. While we found our way from the train station to the city center together, I decided to part from them to wander around alone before heading to the Valley, with the mutually tentative suggestion we meet up there later.
Fast forward to later, I was sipping my first glass of red wine and the women found me. I thought to myself, “Oh good, now I have drinking buddies and I won’t look suspiciously like an alcoholic drinking my way through the cellars alone.” Personal dilemma averted. Thank you trail magic.
My third magical occasion happened in Sopron, a small town at Hungary’s border with Austria that touts a beautifully preserved (albeit a bit desolate) medieval city center. (Amusingly, most of the town’s visitors are Austrians who come for cheap dental work.) It was my last day of the trip, and not only was I a bit trail-weary, the day was dampened by a cold autumn rain. I had planned to just walk about for the day, but the weather rendered that activity unenjoyable. As I meandered the cobbled streets, slowly getting drenched by the drizzle, I passed a sign for an art exhibition. And from what I could tell (it was in Hungarian), it was free. An excellent excuse to get out of the rain, I thought.
The exhibition was indeed free, and the art, paintings and sculptures by local artists, was exquisite (at least, according to my unrefined taste). If I were richer, I would have seriously considered buying a couple of the paintings. While I am no art nut, the exhibition was one of my more enjoyable gallery experiences…although the weather and serendipity of the find may have sweetened it a bit.
Finally, my most magical experience was my successful attempt to ride a horse in Hungary. My Lonely Planet led me to believe Hungarians are horse-crazy people. While horses didn’t seem to be as salient in the Hungarian psyche as the book made them out to be, as a horse-crazy person myself, I had firmly decided I wanted to ride during my trip. (My AirBnB hostess in Budapest suspected Hungary has the horse crazy reputation because of the crazy horsemanship skills of their Magyar ancestors).
The beginning of my horse-riding adventure proved to be adventurous indeed, and had I not been so determined, I might have abandoned the endeavor.
Upon arriving in Sopron, I immediately made my way to the tourist office for information about where I could ride. At first, the woman working there had no idea (despite Lonely Planet‘s assurance the tourist office would know). But gradually, ideas came to her, and she sent me off with a few brochures…all in Hungarian.
After checking into my pension, I recruited the help of the guy at reception. While the task seemed to cause him a little stress (it was possible this was because we could only communicate in German, a second language for us both), he successfully booked me a ride at a farm about six kilometers outside of town. I would have to navigate the bus system to get there. But he meticulously gave me all the details I would need, and with a heart full of hope and trust in the universe, I set out to ride.
Unfortunately I chose to ride the bus at the time when all the high school students were going home from school. It was interesting to observe the behavior of Hungarian teenagers (it’s much like that of American ones), but riding a bus filled to the brim with them was not particularly enjoyable. And as the aisle grew more crowded with subsequent stops, a large and very smelly man was pushed my way and stood right over me. I wondered what the hell I had gotten myself into.
Once I arrived at my stop, the bus driver vaguely pointed me in the right direction of the farm, and I warily proceeded onward. I found my way to something that resembled a farm and asked whomever I could find (by pointing to the name of the farm on a piece of scrap paper) if I was in the right place. It turned out the farm was actually part of some sort of resort where people go to get plastic surgery.
Having confirmed I was in the right place, I just needed to figure out who I had to meet. This took me another ten minutes and required asking five different resort employees, until I found one that led me to where I had to go. I breathed a sigh of relief and thanked the universe–I made it.
And my perseverance was rewarded. I had exactly the riding experience I was hoping for. While my horse and I had a bit of a rocky start, as I was re-assimilating to being in the saddle, and she was assimilating to my rusty horsemanship, we ended up connecting and had a lovely ride together. She was a very alert and curious horse, turning her head left and right throughout the ride to check out what was going on around us. A curious creature myself, I appreciated this about her. My guide, a short man who spoke no English and very little German, seemed to be the stern, but gentle type. I quietly delighted when he lit and smoked two cigarettes during our two hour ride (not because I like smoking, but because I found it amusing).
And then there was the landscape. We rode through rolling fields, vineyards and autumn forests. It was exactly the natural experience I had been craving since arriving in Hungary (thus far, my trip had been an entirely urban adventure). It was an unforgettable, trail-magical experience.