Bohemian Rhapsody: Prague to Budapest by Train

“Whoa, this is kinda ballsy, Carly,” I thought to myself. Here I was, alone, striding confidently through the train concourse in a Prague where I knew no one and spoke none of the language, about to board a train to Budapest where, again, I knew not a single soul and spoke maybe three words of the language.

“I mean, whose idea was this!?” Oh, yeah, it was mine I guess.

After Katherine and I had solidified our Prague plans I thought I might just head back to London, but I searched trains to Budapest and found out I could hop on one from Prague city center mid-morning and arrive in Budapest by the evening. I booked it, and my solo trip to Budapest was born.

My grandpa on my mom’s side was full Hungarian, and proud of it (although I’m not sure Hungarians come in any other variety than proud.) I grew up eating chicken paprikash with tarhonya and singing a Hungarian nursery rhyme my grandpa taught me. Well, I grew up singing what I always thought was a Hungarian nursery rhyme, but in fact turned out to be a drinking song about loving red wine. So there’s that. In any case, I’ve been wanting to visit Budapest for as long as I can remember.

Here’s the thing, just because your ancestors are from a certain country, it doesn’t magically enable you to communicate with the people who live there today. To say that I knew three words in Hungarian was a stretch. I knew the words for a couple of traditional foods and (if my grandpa was to be believed) I did know how to say “cheers,” which was two words in Hungarian. So I had a solid three or four words up my sleeve, maybe. I supposed, at the very least, that if someone offered me a beer I’d have my bases covered. Better than nothing, right?

Unfortunately, toasting “to your health!” to the train conductor isn’t super helpful when they come by to check your ticket, so when the passenger cabin door slid open I was overcome with the familiar sense of terror. I swear I almost crap my pants every time I have to do this kind of ticket check in a foreign country. And it turns out it’s even more terrifying when you’re traveling solo. Without looking up from her scanner, the attendant asked to see our tickets. I mean, I assumed she did; remember I don’t speak Hungarian. The two teenage Hungarian boys I was sharing a cabin with handed over their paper tickets and I silently prayed that the e-ticket on my phone would be acceptable. After three excruciating seconds, the handheld scanner beeped and the attendant handed my phone back to me. I let go of the breath I had been holding and settled in for the remainder of the six-hour ride, putting “Google how to say ‘thank you’ in Hungarian” at the top of my list for the next time I got wifi.

I listened to a good chunk of NPR’s Code Switch podcasts as I watched rural Czech Republic whizz by the window. Something about the motion of the train combined with the bare trees dusted in snow gave me the sensation of traveling through my own little snow globe. The train passed through rolling pastures blanketed with snow and sped by plenty of the soviet blocs that I had read about at the Museum of Communism in Prague. In the more rural areas of the country, small villages would appear intermittently along riverbanks, punctuated by church spires and standalone townhouses painted pink, yellow, and orange. A lot of the soviet-era structures were painted like that as well, and it struck me as extremely odd, the juxtaposition of the bright colors with the extremely utilitarian architecture. I’m not sure if they were always that way of course, the paint job could very well be an effort to beautify the leftover structures of the communist era.

As we neared Slovakia, tents and dilapidated shacks started to pop up next to the railroad tracks. Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, struck me as much less affluent than Prague. The structures all seemed dated at best, run-down at worst, marked by precarious antenna perched atop chimneys. The land flattened out considerably after Bratislava and rocky outcroppings started to appear as we joined up with the Danube and approached the Hungarian border. It was golden hour on a clear winter afternoon when the train rolled into the Budapest-Keleti station.

There’s something about ground-based travel that’s, well, grounding. You get a chance to see the topography of the land and the way housing changes as you move from industrial city centers into the countryside. You also get a much better sense of how far you’re actually traveling simply because it takes longer to get from Point A to Point B. In my experience, the experience of traveling through the land rather than over it changes your whole perception of a place.

The train from Prague to Budapest turned out to be one of my favorite parts of this whole Eurotrip. So, friends, if you ever have the chance to take a train in Eastern Europe, or anywhere really, do it. I cannot recommend it enough. And here’s hoping your adrenaline levels are a little more stable than mine when they come around to do ticket checks.