Research & Studies

Travelling in the Times of Covid-19 Pandemic

By Ivana Stepanovic (iASK researcher)

Ivana Stepanovic (iASK researcher)
Ivana Stepanovic (iASK researcher)

Travelling from Serbia to Hungary has always been an easy journey until the Covid-19 pandemic. In the past, I would have just taken my passport and had a peaceful ride to Kőszeg either via Vienna or via Budapest with occasional st

ops to indulge either a delicious goulash or a Wiener schnitzel at some restaurant. But in February 2021, I needed a visa and a permit from the police to cross the border, I had to wear a mask throughout my journey and all the restaurants in the country were closed.

Planning the Journey

I was supposed to begin my research at iASK on February 1st, and I started getting ready for the most complicated journey of my life in December 2020. I soon realized that there was no single person or institution to give me full guidance on how to get to Hungary. I had to make a lot of telephone calls (I even called the border police in Horgoš and Röszke) and send many emails to complete the puzzle: I needed to apply for a visa and a residency permit at the embassy in Belgrade and then request a permit to enter the country from the Hungarian police. And to be able to do all that, I had to organise everything from invitation letters to signed statements by my accommodation providers to the whole plan of my journey because I had to inform the police exactly where and when I will be crossing the Hungarian border. Instead of travelling on January 19th, I managed to start my journey on February 22nd because it took a lot of time to get a visa.

My best tip for anyone travelling to a foreign country during Covid-19? Contact all the relevant institutions and call border police for the most up-to-date information on current restrictions! 

I was lucky enough to get vaccinated in Serbia. This has given me peace of mind ahead of the trip which involved six stages and a mix of transport methods. Kőszeg is a bit remote and hard to get to in normal circumstances, but Covid-19 made the whole escapade even more intricate. Travelling from Serbia to Hungary by public transport wasn’t an option. As a non-EU country, Serbia seemed even more isolated from the rest of the world, and there were no busses, trains or flights to Hungary.

I spent weeks trying to make a plan. There were so many questions I didn’t have answers to! If I travel to the border by a Serbian taxi, where do I find a bus or a Hungarian taxi that would get me to Szeged? When I get to Budapest, how can I get from one train station to another? If I ever get to Szombathely, should I take a train, bus or taxi to Kőszeg? When do I even need to start my journey to get to my final destination before the curfew? What happens if I get stuck somewhere? How will I communicate with people if I’m only able to ask questions in Hungarian but my knowledge is not good enough to understand the answers?

Finally, I came up with a six-step plan:

  • A car journey from Belgrade to Szeged
  • A train from Szeged to Kőbánya-Kispest
  • A metro from Kőbánya-Kispest to Deak Ferenc Ter
  • A metro from Deak Ferenc Ter to Keleti
  • A train from Keleti to Szombathely
  • A bus from Szombathely to Koszeg

From Belgrade to Kőszeg in Six Steps

Thanks to the special agreement signed by the two countries, any Serbian citizen was allowed to cross the border and move around Hungary within 30 kilometres for no longer than 24 hours without the test, quarantine, visa or permission issued by the police. That made it easy for me to organise a car journey from Belgrade to Szeged with my brother. I woke up at 2 am and we left Belgrade an hour later.

At about 6 am, we have reached the Hungarian border which looked eerily deserted, and we crossed it in five minutes. No questions asked. I have been nervously clutching a big plastic envelope full of documents (including the invitation letter from iASK, health insurance and the permit from Hungarian police), but I didn’t need to show any of that because the visa was convenient replacement for all other documents.

At 7 am, I found myself at the depressingly empty train station in Szeged. I wasn’t the only passenger, but I did get to be at a safe distance from everyone else on the train. It was a pleasant 4-hour journey to Budapest which I spent worrying about how to get from one train station to another. I was supposed to arrive at Kőbánya-Kispest train station and then find my way to Keleti station. Everything was neatly written in my notebook: where to take the metro, where to change from M3 to M2 line and how to find a taxi in case I don’t feel I have enough strength for the underground journey. I was peaceful because I thought I have the perfect plan…

It was a great plan indeed, but it didn’t work. The Kőbánya-Kispest station seemed sealed off from the city like there was no way out. I purchased the metro card but then I realised that a part of the M3 line was out of service. The whole plan I’ve been working on for days went to tatters. I was already exhausted from carrying the suitcase, I couldn’t work out an alternative route and nobody at the station could speak English or German. I was desperate to launch plan B and catch a cab, but there was no exit in sight. Every city has its quirks and didn’t know Budapest had secret exits and entrances at metro stations.

Half an hour later, I was still wandering around trying to find a way out of Kőbánya-Kispest. I took the M3 train just to get out of there and prayed to get to a station that has a visible exit route. I emerged from the underground at some roundabout where I could have boarded a tram that goes to Keleti. One more time I had to carry the suitcase up the staircase, and when I finally saw the daylight, I had to stop to rest for a moment. I sat at a bench while emergency cars were storming around me with the sirens on. Budapest was entering the third way of the pandemic and those sirens were the barometer that indicated just how bad it was. When I saw overcrowded trams in front of me, I threw the unused ticked in the dustbin and hailed a cab.

At Keleti station, I finally felt the excitement of travelling after a full year of being deprived of that simple pleasure. However, the impressive architectural wonder built 135 years ago was half-empty. What used to be a busy hub brimming with tourists, backpackers and business travellers turned into a sombre place. There was no buzz and cafes and restaurants were open only for takeaway. The sound of sirens was a reminder that people are dying everywhere around me. Suddenly, an old woman approached me with a deck of tarot cards. They were multilingual so I could understand the German version. She picked out the cards for me by herself trying to dig out only the happy and positive ones I would surely like. Then she asked me to give her money for a hamburger. Since I already spent hundreds and thousands of forints on useless tickets, I thought I should spend a bit more on this old lady. She made me think of how privileged I am because I was healthy, vaccinated against Covid-19, well-educated and lucky enough to travel during the pandemic.

The train journey from Keleti to Szombathely made me think about the physical distance. When there is not enough room to sit 1.5 meters away from each other, distance is simply unattainable. It is yet another privilege for those of us who can afford the private bubble in our home, in our car or in the first class of a train.

The distance has further narrowed in a bus that connects Szombathely and Kőszeg. As I was lucky enough to catch one of the last buses that day and successfully end my journey before the curfew, I had to sit very close to other people in a small enclosed space with no fresh air. The thought that I was fully vaccinated kept me calm, but there was a shadow of a doubt because I didn’t know whether I actually developed antibodies and whether they would work against every possible mutation that circulates in Hungary.

After a long 14-hour journey, I finally reached Kőszeg right before the sunset. Without the disturbing sound of ambulance cars and with endless greenery that surrounds it, this quaint town seemed light years away from Covid-19. And yet the virus was quietly spreading even there.