As we step off the plane and onto the icy tarmac, the cold Eastern European air hits us – a slap in the face for choosing Hungary over the likes of Gran Canaria for some winter training. Undeterred, we pull our collars higher, moving quickly into the small and somewhat desolate terminal to collect our bag. It is 4:30pm and already dark. We don’t speak a word of the language nor have any local currency, but we reason that it’ll work out and convince ourselves that the Eastern Hungarian plains in deep winter won’t be such a bad location for two mountain runners to spend five days.
As our race calendar appeared to hit a dry period, the lure of two cheap flights to Debrecen, the second largest city in Hungary, was too tempting to dismiss. Not the type to object to travel and always the first to register for races in far-flung places, we’re constantly struck by the haphazard nature that running and travel can present. Each race trip offers up the opportunity to explore somewhere new and serve as a reminder that preconceived ideas can be dashed by the kindness of strangers, race organisers and local bakers.
Bags collected, currency in hand, we stand on our transport into town, although we can’t be certain we’re heading in the right direction. As we board and mutely try to hand over a 10,000 HUF note, the bus driver merely shrugs, looking at us like idiots before pointing at the far more minor fee beside his cash machine: 400 HUF. He begrudgingly waves us on, exhaling through pursed lips, acknowledging with regret that he is incapable of breaking such a large note.
Welcome to Hungary: The power of Facebook
Our free ride drops us somewhere that looks unmistakably like a train station, so we duly head along the main boulevard towards our hotel. Once there, we layer up with the aim of an easy run to explore the city. The -8°C temperature and large patches of ice add a new dimension to this road run, so it becomes less of a chore and more exciting as we exclaim over street names and neon shop signs that mean absolutely nothing to us (most probably selling DIY goods and insurance, as well as other such run-of-the-mill products, but who are we to know). We start to get a feel for the place, and love the global sense of camaraderie between us and the other runners we spot as we run along a marked track around the city’s stadium. Our conversation turns to the following day’s plans, musing on how it might be spent; a Hungarian friend of ours had linked us to a Facebook group and a very kind Debrecen local had subsequently offered to guide us.
We rise early and wait outside, catching the drift of the city’s gentle rush-hour, all of which seems wholly unfazed by the fresh snowfall and biting cold temperatures. A car pulls up and our guide, Gergely, signals warmly for us to get in. Working in a local running and hiking store, he clearly knows the scene, regaling us with insider knowledge on where to run.
Moments later, he comes to a halt beside the aptly-named ‘Big Forest.’ It’s still very flat though, we remark, although Gergley soon guides us into the dense trees and sprints up a small mound. The phrase ‘very big hill!’ is shouted, and we realise he isn’t joking. ‘This is Debrecen’s biggest hill,’ he exclaims to us as we continue on the flat. Today he’s planned a 20km route that loops out to some ruins that date back to the time of Attila the Hun. In spite of the flatness, the vast frozen forests have a completely unspoiled natural beauty, while the fresh snow and light bathe the forest in a fairytale-esque glimmer.
Crazy, big dogs and fast footwork
During the run out, we chat about running in Debrecen and Hungary and find out that many head into the Hungarian or Romanian mountains, but Gergley is quick to warn us about Transylvania’s ‘crazy, big dogs, which are very mean.’ Our conversation breaks momentarily when I unwittingly find a piece of solid ice under the snow, but skilfully (think the ungraceful movement of a tall and thin runner) save myself from falling with some fast footwork and a loud yelp of exhilaration. Gergley shouts with laughter in support of this balancing act, ‘YEAH! Now we are running Hungarian style!’
But what is running Hungarian style? For us, after four solid days in Eastern Hungary we would describe it as running long, straight, snow-covered tracks that traverse a seemingly endless forest, with a head so cold it hurts, ice building up on your clothes and the occasional glimpse of a curious fox in the distance – oh, and don’t forget those hidden patches of ice too. These long stretches are purely broken by the odd farmstead, whose dogs have such ferocious barks that they resonate through the forest. Given Gergely’s warnings about Transylvania, we watch them nervously. His reply is a fearless, ‘Not a problem. We are three and we are bigger. And this is not Romania.’
Away from the dogs and back on the forest track, there’s a huddle of men around a fire in the woods. They’re cooking goulash and sausages, explains Gergely, and he’d even stopped to join them just last week, but decides not to encroach this time knowing that we are vegetarians. Looking like a scene from the early 20th Century, this is a timeless view of the region. We’re struck by the absurdity of this act in the middle of winter, wondering whether they’re forest workers or just passing through.
The Big Forest: A place for all
But even though this is the Big Forest, untamed in comparison to the consumer-friendly neon-lit shopping malls and warm cafes of Debrecen, it is a place for all. All day long we found ourselves following bicycle tyre tracks too, running the whole way through the Big Forest, which can only mean that someone’s ridden there before 8am that morning, when the temperature was presumably even lower. The tracks trail off as we leave the forest and the landscape opens up into a tree-free whiteout. The church ruins then appear out of the mist, bordered by yet more straight lines of the local railway track.
In such a foreign and harsh environment, with its straight lines, wrapped-up folk and incomprehensible signs, our chance meeting with Gergely leads us to a host of new experiences – we lunch on lángos (deep-fried bread smothered in sour cream and cheese – a speciality in Hungary); we enter a 10km race in the very same Big Forest where we’d ran with our guide; and we’re led to the city’s best bakery amongst other feats. Who knew Hungary could compete with the French and their patisseries? Who knew it could rival Italy’s focaccia? And the Big Forest? Well, if you’ve got to run flat then why not go Big?