We hit the “restart button” and made our way to Dulles Airport where we caught a flight to Brussels and then another flight that took us to Budapest, Hungary. This time things went smooth, flights were on time, and we arrived safely at our beautiful hotel, the Palace Hilton, in “Old Buda.”
At the same time, refugees were making their way, mostly by foot, from Serbia into Hungary where they hoped to catch a train from Budapest to Austria or Germany. Most had just the clothes on their backs, some currency, and perhaps a cell phone to help navigate their situation.
After we got to our hotel, we learned that we had missed the city tour, and that our best option to see Budapest was to hire a car and driver for an informal tour. Soon we were on our way, crossing from Old Buda into Pest on the other side of the Danube River. One of the first sites we saw was the main international train station, with a crowd of refugees standing outside, shouting demands to open the train station. From what we saw, the demonstrations were peaceful. There were also media trucks and television crews covering the situation along with what appeared to be a limited number of non-confrontational police or military personnel who were there to keep order.
The protesters had been stunned to learn that the Hungarian Government had closed the main international train station that day. It meant that there would be no trains entering or leaving the city or country until further notice. Most assumed that the closing was going to be temporary, for maybe only a day or two, on the eve of a scheduled European Union Meeting to discuss the refugee situation. Reporters said that Hungary wanted to make a statement about the necessity of having border controls. Hundreds of thousands had been entering the European Union through Eastern Europe, and many came without any documentation. The EU countries had a long standing policy of welcoming refugees, but the current situation was stretching their resources to the breaking point. Government officials were starting to think that the EU was incapable of absorbing the anticipated millions of people who were looking to Europe as their only hope of escaping the terror of war back home.
As soon as we connected with the internet, we started receiving messages from family and friends asking us if we were ok…and were we in the middle of the protests…and what did we think about it all. Fortunately, our Viking representatives and local guides were very open about the situation. They welcomed our questions and gave us honest answers. The next day, as we were leaving Budapest, we learned that refugees who had been trapped at the train station had decided to start walking to the border…and that Hungary was going to provide some buses to help them get there safely.
It was difficult, at first, to grasp what was going on. While we were planning to make our way down the Danube River to visit several Eastern European countries, thousands of refugees were moving the other way trying to reach Central and Western Europe.
For the next week and a half, we continued to cross paths with the refugees as we moved from Hungary to Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania. Each country had strong feelings based on their history, culture, and ties to both Europe to the West and Russia to the East. We were suddenly caught up in the center of a crisis that we didn’t understand nor did we get the sense that the European Countries were going to work together to solve this problem.
Tomorrow’s blog: The Refugee Crisis: A Test of Whether New European Unity Will Prevail or if Europe Will Break Apart Into Old Historical Alliances