The Hungarian village of Felcsút is located 50km outside of Budapest and a 1 hour bus ride from the capital. It isn’t featured in any guide books and besides, with the abundance of things that Hungary’s seductive capital has to offer, why would anyone want to sacrifice a day in some one horse village in the middle of nowhere? But Felcsút isn’t just any other village. It is where the current Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán grew up. Since he became prime minister in 2010, a lot of money has been pumped into this sleepy settlement, mainly in the shape of a football stadium and a 6km long railway line.
Orbán is a controversial figure both at home and abroad. Opinion in Hungary on him is intensely polarized where people either love him or hate him. The latter accuse him of being a dangerous demagogue and a threat to the country’s democracy and free speech. Even though Hungary is a member of the European Union he has been very critical of it and has often come to blows with Brussels for not abiding by the rules as a member country. One example is his refusal to take in more migrants during the 2015 Refugee Crisis. Instead he constructed a razor fence around parts of the country’s borders much to the ire of Brussels. His supporters though see Orbán as a no-nonsense leader who isn’t afraid to speak his mind regardless of the consequences and also as someone who isn’t a pushover and is willing to put their country first. He is viewed by some as Europe’s answer to Donald Trump.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán
From Nepligot bus station in Budapest, I board a knackered white bus destined for this village. As the bus leaves behind the final surrounding districts of the city we are in rural Hungary proper. Lots of open fields and not much else. Nobody on the bus or even at the ticket desk of the bus station in the capital spoke any English. Without the internet data on my phone and the Google Maps app, I would have most likely missed my destination and probably would have resorted to scrambling for a way to desperately return back to Budapest. Once out of Hungary’s cosmopolitan capital or any of the country’s major towns, the chances of finding someone who speaks English drops dramatically. For the record I don’t know a word of Hungarian. Its an impenetrable language which doesn’t stick easily to my poor little brain. I even find it a challenge to remember the word for ‘thank you’. This is not a country you would want to get arrested in.
I know we are approaching Felcsut the minute I see the blue dot on Google Maps edge closer to the name of the village on the digital map. We stop at a small roadside bus stop, but in my ignorance I assume this is not THE bus stop for my destination. The bus carries on and turns onto a road moving away from the location of the village on my map. Its going now at some speed and the blue dot on the map is moving away from Felcsut at an alarming rate. I have no choice but to interrupt the driver. I walk down the bus ailse and as I approach the driver I blurt out the name of my destination. He slams the brakes and the bus screeches to a halt. Thankfully I latch myself to a nearby railing to avoid being catapulted towards the driver’s window. With haste I grab my bag and jump out of the bus.
Arriving in Felcsút
As I walk closer to the village I see a sign indicating the infamous Pancho Arena football stadium being only a kilometre away. The stadium is big with a seating capacity of 3,500. That is more than double the population of the village itself which has a population of just 1,200. For this reason it is seen by many Hungarians as a sensitive subject often dismissing the stadium as an Orbán vanity project. Many argue that the money should have been allocated instead towards the healthcare or education system of the country and not a football stadium. Orbán is a football fanatic and often tries to watch as many important matches as he can in between his busy schedule. In fact it is not an uncommon sight to see him at some games at the local stadium during weekend matches.
When I approach the stadium it is empty with the next game scheduled until the weekend. Yet the entrance to the stadium is open and so I enter. In the enclosure of the stadium there are photographs, trophies and other assorted bits of football related memorabilia. As I walk into the seating area the most striking feature of the stadium is not the football pitch but the wooden beams around the stadium. They are truly a work of art and give the arena the air of a religious place of worship and not solely a place to watch football. The beams and general design of the stadium were taken from designs by the noted local Hungarian architect Imre Makovecz.
Pancho Arena football stadium
The unique wooden beams of the stadium
A long path by the stadium leads all the way to small railway station, Puskas Akademia, named after the local football team. This station is part of the 6km long Val-Valley railway line. This project is more controversial than the football stadium since it has been stated that 80% of the investment towards it came from EU funds. I am the only person on the platform. There is no ticket office at this station just a small wooden hut with a time table of the daily train times on the side of the hut. All the information is in Hungarian yet I soon make out via a combination of Google Translate and raw guesswork that the next train should arrive in half an hour.
Puskas Akademia station stop as part of the Val-Valley 6km long light railway line
Twenty minutes later I am joined by two elderly ladies. I timidly ask them whether they speak English? To my amazement one of the ladies, Zsuzsi, speaks perfect English. She lived in London for one year in 1976 and reminisces fondly about her time in the city. A vintage style train soon approaches. When we board the train we are the only people in the carriage. I do wonder sometimes, unlike the football stadium, what really is the point of this railway line especially if so few people on average use it? Yet the hot potato aspect of this project aside, I am reminded of the countryside tourist railway train I once took last year in the breath-taking region of Mokra Gora in the neighbouring country of Serbia. That was a truly unforgettable memory.
One of the trains
Once inside the deserted carriage we all pose for photos. There is also a stove-like heater inside. A lady conductor enters our carriage to issue our tickets. I soon learn that there are about four stops in total on this line. However since my time is limited I buy a ticket for just until the next stop. I stay on the train for 25 minutes as it slowly chugs until the next stop. During this time we pass through the wild autumnal fields of the surrounding countryside. It is a beautiful sight with a rich kaleidoscope of colours. These are the kind of fields Vincent Van Gogh would have painted in all their glory.
Inside the train carriage with its own stove heater
Yours truly inside the train
The surrounding countryside
At the next stop, Felscut station, I disembark and say goodbye to the ladies. I have 40 minutes until the next bus to Budapest leaves from the northern end of the village. I briskly walk the few kilometres on the side of the main village road. Most of the places I pass along the way, save for the football stadium, are private residences and the odd church, school and grocery shop. Thankfully I make it to the bus stop on time. The bus arrives five minutes later to take me back to Nepligot bus station.
By Nicholas Peart
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