Earth : Europe : Central Europe : Hungary : Great Hungarian Plain : Mátészalka
Mátészalka is a small town in Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg county, in north-eastern Hungary. It is the second largest town in the county, after Nyíregyháza. Despite being frequently overlooked by both foreign travellers and Hungarians from other regions, it is a charming place steeped with early 20th century Jewish history, and Eastern European influences from Soviet times.
Modern Mátészalka is a fusion of four smaller settlements, which existed in one form or the other since the Middle Ages. The city contains architecture from various time periods: Late 19th and early 20th century burgeois and Jewish houses in Kossuth Lajos street complete with a famous Synagogue, an East Berlin-esque Stalinist city center from Soviet times, a quiet, suburban area in the outer parts of the town with houses dating from the 1930s to modern times, and the new high-tech railway station, indoor swimming pool, and TESCO supermarket from the Globalized Era.
Hungarian is the official language, spoken by everyone. It doesn't hurt to learn a few phrases, it will be of tremendous help this far away from the cosmopolitan Budapest. Younger people speak either English or German to varying degrees, older people may speak Russian or German.
Priests, doctors and pharmacists may speak some Latin even if they don't know any other living language than Hungarian.
Some old people may know some Yiddish.
Mátészalka has got various cultural connections to France, through one of its schools and its tradition-propagating institutions, so some people may know some French.
From Budapest, Mátészalka can most easily be reached by train. There is a daily InterCity train in the afternoon which goes from Budapest-Nyugati to Mátészalka in about 4 hours, and goes back to Budapest the following day in the early morning. During the day, various InterCity trains go from Budapest to Debrecen. From Debrecen, you can easily catch a regional train to Mátészalka. On the regional train you will have the opportunity to get a taste of "real Hungary" and not the sanitized, artificial version usually put before a traveller.
From Nyíregyháza, the easiest way to go to Mátészalka is by bus. There is a train connection but it's painfully slow.
By car, the easiest way to get to Mátészalka from Budapest is to drive to Nyíregyháza on the M3 freeway, then get to the Rohod-junction on route 41, then turn right and follow route 49 through Vaja, Őr, and Jármi to Mátészalka.
From Debrecen, follow route 471 through various small villages.
If you're not totally new to bicycles it's not that dangerous to ride a bike between Mátészalka and various smaller villages in the region, like Jármi, Ópályi, Kocsord, Nyírmeggyes and Nyírcsaholy. Exercise caution with lorry drivers and youngsters with a fresh driving license in sports cars.
Mátészalka is also connected, mostly to the east and the north, by dirt roads to various villages. These are safer, although watch out for stray dogs that may attack the fast moving bicycle or hares and pheasants which might jump in your path. If you sprain your ankle or knee you may be left there for good. In rainy weather, these dirt roads are mostly unpassable.
The car is the main method of transport in this area with an infrequent bus network and a rail network which only touches a fraction of the settlements. Only some locals can afford a car, the others rely mostly on their car-owning acquaintances to take them to other places. If you try hitchhiking you may get picked up.
Mátészalka is not too big, you can easily get around on foot, or by bicycle.
There is a local bus service mainly consisting of regional buses which also have stops in Mátészalka, but it's pretty irregular.
A free bus service is operated by the TESCO supermarket. It starts from TESCO, goes around in a loop through Southeast, East, East-Central and Northeast Mátészalka, arriving back at TESCO.
If you don't have a problem with long walks, you can reach any point from any other point in the town with a long, healthy walk.
There isn't too much traffic and the paved roads are in good condition. Don't ride a bike on Alkotmány street, and exercise caution on Jármi street, Meggyesi street and Ipari street.
The car is the main method of transport that the locals use. There isn't much traffic, most intersections have traffic lights. It's quite easy and quick to get around by car.
The flea-market is quite a distance away from the city center. If you don't want to take a long walk, ride a bike on a busy road, or try to get here with the infrequent bus connection, try to hitch a ride to the market from the junction of Jármi street and Ipari street.
There are some taxis waiting at the railway station.
Things to look for on the market:
-Fast food vendors offering Lángos, a traditional Hungarian fast-food, Palacsinta, 1980s-style communist hamburgers and hot-dogs which are markedly different from McDonald's, grilled open-face sandwiches made like a pizza, gyros, soft drinks, not just Coca Cola but also Traubisoda, Márka and other Hungarian soft drinks.
-Ukrainian candies and chocolates. Very cheap, good quality and tasty. The kids'll think it's Halloween!
-Beauty care products, soap, diapers, etc... Very cheap.
-Electronic equipment from Eastern Europe, China, sometimes Western products. Interesting items ranging from small portable radios to large home stereos to pirate Nintendos with yellow cartridges.
-Kitchen equipment, dishes, knives, appliances.
-Toys. Eastern European, Chinese or Western. Doesn't matter, all are very cheap. The kids'll think they're in Disneyland!
-More expensive but special items from the East, like pomegranate juice.
-Antique items like old clocks, chess sets, soviet souvenirs, porcelain figures.
-Live animals. Chickens, ducks, turkeys.
-Fruits and vegetables.
If you hear good music through the loudspeakers, start dancing to your heart's content! If someone doesn't like it, it's their problem!
Don't buy gasoline from the Romanian vendors who walk around the place with a jerrycan in their hands. It is mostly poor-quality gasoline heavily mixed with water. While it will run Dacias and Ladas with a somewhat clunky performance, a Western car could be irreperably damaged by it. (Think of Back to the Future part 3)
Most of the shopping unique to this area can be concluded at the Flea Market. There is a TESCO in the Southeast, and smaller stores in the city center.
There is an american-style small local supermarket complete with a small food court called Luca in the west. It tried to bring The West into the town before TESCO arrived. Jármi út 10.
There is another western-style supermarket called Profi, near the TESCO. Alkotmány u. 2/a.
There is Alfi-ker a kind of transition between an East-block grocery store and a western supermarket, established in the late 1990s. Jármi út 6. +36-44-500-591
There are many restaurants in the city center and the streets leading up to the railway station.
Fast food can be obtained in the TESCO and on the flea-market.
You can also try a very cheap and very Eastern concept of "fast food": Go into a store, buy some rolls, cheese and sausage, and eat them! Down it with Hungarian beer!
In the winter, a Disznóvágás (pig-butchering) takes place in some households, which is similar to the Sautanz of Burgenland,Austria but using less advanced technology. Take note though, that here, it is usually a private party of sorts between family and close friends and there are no restaurants and buffets which sell the products of the Disznóvágás to strangers. One reason for this is that nowadays, pig-butcherings are sporadic, except in smaller villages in the region, and because of this, there arent't enough Disznóvágás products available at once to host such eateries.
Another rural and suburban partylike-event connected to eating is Szalonnasütés (literally: bacon-roasting), which is enjoyed by many people. It is similar to the Anglo-American tradition of sitting around the campfire and roasting marshmallows, but here, instead of marshmallows, a thick slab of Hungarian bacon (more fatty than what Westerners might think of when they think of bacon) is roasted over the fire until it starts dripping fat, then it is quickly held over a slice of white bread and the fat drips onto the bread. This is repeated until the bread is well-spread with the dripped fat. After this, the fatty bread is sprinkled with Hungarian paprika, topped with onions and eaten. If the bacon is not burnt too much, it is eaten too. Nowadays, jacket potatoes, slices of meat, sausage, and corn on the cob is also sometimes roasted in the fire, and sometimes even marshmallows, as Hungary becomes more globalized.
Various taverns, clubs, discos. The town is pretty small, dare to explore!
Some people keep small vineyards, from which they can produce a few bottles of homemade wine. Since so little can be produced and the taste is usually very unique, being served homemade wine is considered a generous gesture and receiving a whole bottle of it is a very special gift.
Free Wi-Fi available in many locations in the city center. (Though this might be unintentional)
The telephone area code of the Mátészalka Area is 44. Phone numbers here consist of 6 numbers.
Payphones are widespread, although some might not work because of extreme vandalism. (Someone ripped off the handset, stuffed chewing gum in the coin slot etc...)
Internet access is also available in the library.
Internet access is not as widespread as in the more urbanized areas of the country, so some institutions that have computers connected to the internet, such as schools, might allow you to use the internet there if you ask for it.
There are some post offices in the town. The one near the police station in the city center is the largest.
Mátészalka is a pretty safe town. During the day, areas outside the city center and the flea-market are pretty deserted and at night, Mátészalka is a ghost town.
During the day, avoid troublemakers at the flea-market. At night, you may hear shouting from the taverns. If you hear it, avoid the place until the situation resolves.
Avoid seedy characters at the railway station.
Watch out for stray dogs in suburban areas near the town's outskirts and the Kraszna River area. They are not particulary dangerous, but if you see one, it's best to pretend you didn't notice it, then most likely the dog will walk away and leave you alone.
There are various pharmacies in town, the two biggest are in the city center and near the hospital. As it was mentioned above, if all else fails because of the language barrier, the pharmacist might understand Latin.
If a stray dog bites you, it's best to get a diagnosis for rabies and get a shot, just to be safe. "Rabies" in Hungarian is "Veszettség" (Veh-set-shayg), "stray dog" is "Kóborkutya" (Koh-bohr-koo-tyah) and "it bit me" is "megharapott" (megh-hah-rah-pott)
Local fruits and vegetables can be eaten off the plant (if they aren't sprayed with pesticides of course), and tap water is safe. Unpasteurized milk should be avoided. If you see a fruit tree on the street full of delicious cherries, plums or other fruits, you can safely eat off the tree.
It's best to avoid conversations about politics, both Hungarian and international, and if some local brings the topic up himself/herself maintain a neutral point of view. Political jokes and stereotipizations about the USA, the EU, Jews, Roma, and the surrounding countries are common, don't be offended.
The local Roma, as in everywhere else in Hungary wishes to be called "Roma" and not "Cigány", the traditional Hungarian word for them.
Jokes about being devotedly religious are also common. Don't be offended. Even if some local calls himself/herself religious they most likely profess a pretty liberal form of Christianity. Religion in Hungary, like elsewhere in Europe, isn't taken too seriously.
There is a small police station in the city center, the staff may know English or maybe they can provide an interpreter. You may have better luck using German. József Attila út 1-3.
Various international organizations both secular and religious have bases in Mátészalka, for example Rotary Club, various christian churches (Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic, Reformed) and a Jewish Synagogue.
Visit Túristvándi and it's water mill.
Visit the Bukógát (Spillover) near Tiszakóród. It's an industrial flood gate used to regulate the flowing of the Túr river into the Tisza river at the Ukrainian border, but it's a beautiful artificial waterfall used by locals as a place to swim and have fun in the water. Look for ropes on the trees on the riverbank some distance before the river reaches the spillover. These are there to swing on them, then jump into the water like Tarzan! Don't miss the fun! When the Túr spills into the Tisza, don't swim across to the other bank of the Tisza! That's Ukraine there, and you're crossing an international border without a passport!
Visit Tákos and Csaroda two small villages to the east. Tákos has an interesting reformed church from the 18th century called "The barefoot Notre Dame" and Csaroda has a very old church from the Middle Ages. Carefully inspect the old wooden furniture of the church, there are carvings in the wood made by 19th century vandals!
Visit the Old Swamp of Bátorliget south of Mátészalka, near the Romanian border. There is an interesting museum there about local biology and ecology.
Visit Vaja west of Mátészalka on route 49. It has got an old castle and a popular lake.
Visit the Lake of Terem near Bátorliget and Terem, south of Mátészalka. Another popular lake in the region.
Visit the home-made nuclear fallout shelter in Kocsord, the next village to the east of Mátészalka. A local, Fogarassy Árpád, thought in the 1980s that nuclear war between the USA and USSR is imminent and built a large concrete bunker in his backyard. The bunker is incomplete and the backyard is in ruins, but it's an interesting piece of local Cold War history, nonetheless. In 2009, a tragicomedic Hungarian film, called "Bunkerember" (the Bunker-man) was made, loosely based on this event.
Visit Szatmárcseke northeast of Mátészalka. It has got a very interesting cemetery in which rather than headstones and Christian crosses, upright wooden boats mark the graves, based on Old Hungarian traditions.
Visit Tarpa and it's animal-powered mill.
Visit Nyírbátor southwest of Mátészalka. It has got many interesting sights, recently renovated.