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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Wine-Lovers Discover Wonders in Hungary




As I settled back in my airline seat and accepted a glass of wine from the stewardess, I was looking for a few days of merciful escape from the gloom of Moscow in autumn.


My destination was Hungary f my favorite country, especially at this time of the year. Its spicy paprika-accented cuisine, washed down with an exquisite domestic wine, makes the perfect reinforcement for the coming Russian winter.


Hungarians will tell you both the paprika and the wine are good for your heart and personally, I see no reason to disbelieve them.


The first-time visitor may find it hard to believe Budapest was once behind the Iron Curtain. Budapest is actually made up of two parts f Buda and Pest f separated by the Danube and united into a single city only in 1873. A turn-of-the-century air still pervades many of its winding streets, and an evening stroll along the Danube embankment conjures up visions of the Austro-Hungarian empire.


One of the best times to take a stroll in Budapest is late in the evening, when the Buda hills and the chain bridge across the Danube are brilliantly lit. Pest, the more plebian district across the river from Buda, offers stores, restaurants, discos, nightclubs and bars to suit all tastes and pockets.


But a trip to Hungary should not be confined to Budapest, which swarms with tourists at the best of times. The country's wine-growing regions are just as beautiful and well off the beaten track. Indeed, a trip through Hungary's regions is best seen through its wines.


Eger


To sample Hungarian history as well as some of the best wine in the country, we set out for the town of Eger, a three-hour drive northwest of Budapest and home to one of the most famous wines to come out of Hungary, the Egri Bikaver, or Bulls' Blood.


Eger is a tiny town located amid purple rolling hills covered with vineyards. The town is overlooked by a towering castle that calls to mind its past glory f this was the site of one of the most famous battles in Hungarian history, the Hungarian-Turkish clash of 1552.


In fact, the Egri Bikaver wine is named in tribute to this six-month siege, in which a small garrison of 2,000 Hungarian men held Eger against an 80,000-strong Turkish army. The baffled Turks decided that the Hungarians derived their strength from the red potion they swigged as they fought, a concoction they took to be made from bulls' blood.


Later, when the Turkish pasha developed a taste for the thick glowing red wine, he conveniently kept up the pretense that he was in fact drinking bulls' blood f as wine was forbidden by his religion.


The Magyars, as the Hungarians call themselves, have been making wines for more than a thousand years now, and they take this aspect of life very seriously. One Hungarian of my acquaintance rushes through all his food shopping before parking his cart near the wine section. He then spends ages looking through the selection, mumbling to himself about good and bad years, vineyards and vintages.


At the moment the Hungarian wine industry is just recovering from the disastrous socialist era, when state-owned vintners bottled anything they could get their hands on.


Now the traditional family-run vineyards are making a comeback, like the Thummerer Pince vineyard (tel. 36-36-463-269), located a few kilometers outside Eger in the village of Noszvaj. For just 2,000 forints ($10 at the exchange rate of 200 forints to the dollar) owner Vilmos Thummerer will give you a tour of his vineyard and cellars, the chance to sample his various wines and lunch as well.


We did not stay in Eger overnight though we had dinner at the White Deer restaurant at the Eger Park Hotel, accompanied by f more wine. (tel. 413-233). Most of us were a little tipsy during the drive back to Budapest. Apart from the fort, Eger cathedral, the only Christian church built during Turkish rule, is also worth a visit. Try to make the 11:45 a.m. organ concert.


Tokaj


Tokaj is the region that grows the best-known Hungarian wines. There are six kinds of Tokaj (pronounced "tok-a-yi") wines, and the history of this fine vintage is, again, entwined with the history of Hungary's wars with Turkey.


After one battle, the Hungarians returned too late to save the harvest. But fortunately, they decided to try making wine from the rotting grapes anyway. The result was a nectar-like concoction that soon gained fame among European royalty as the wine of kings and the king of wines. Tokaj was a favorite of Russia's Catherine the Great, who ordered vast quantities of it every year, driving prices sky-high.


Balaton


Some of the best wines also come from the regions around the Balaton. The northern hilly side in particular is famous for its scenic beauty as well as the wine. A few days' stay at the Balaton is highly recommended f you can take in a thermal spring or two besides swimming in the lake, and it won't break the bank.


On my last visit I stayed on the southern shore, but there are definitely more places of tourist interest on the northern shore f Kesthely with its 17th century castle, the natural hot lake at Heviz and Tihany's 10th century Szent Andras cathedral, which is one of the first Christian churches in Hungary.


But my favorite is Badacsony f the curiously table-shaped mountain, or what has been left behind of it by the volcanic explosion that blasted it apart millions of years ago.


You can take a ride up Badacsony, but it is much more fun to walk because of the amazing panoramas along the way. In summer the path is lined with borozos, or winestubes, and with locals selling tankards of wine from their own cellars. The reward for the long climb is an excellent restaurant, Kisfaludy Haz, precariously perched on the brow of the mountain. Try their voros borban fottkacsa (goose cooked in red wine).


By the time we reached the restaurant this time, it was drizzling rain, so sitting on the terrace was out. But the vista from the top is breathtaking f vineyards slope all the way down to the shore and the other side is visible in a hazy mist across the blue expanse of the lake.


The Balaton region, thanks to its volcanic soil, is home to some great wines f the red Tihany Merlot and Zweigelt varieties and the Balatonboglari Kekfrankos red. Badacsony also offers a heavenly white wine, Badacsony Szurkebarat.


To get to the Balaton, take the M7 highway from Budapest or take a train from the Deli south railway station. The journey takes a little more than two hours. All Balaton towns are linked with each other by road and train. Ferries also connect lakeside towns in summer.


Szentendre


One of the most beautiful places in Hungary is Szentendre, just 20 kilometers outside Budapest f a village situated at the Danube Bend, the point where the river turns.


The road to Szentendre goes through the ancient settlement of Obuda, the third part of the city, and is lined with remarkably well-preserved Roman remains. Szentendre itself is like a page out of medieval history f with cobbled streets, narrow winding lanes, churches and centuries-old stone buildings.The village is now a tourist haven by day, with souvenir shops and cafes sprouting from every corner. But toward evening as it empties out, a walk along the Danube bank drives home the brooding charm of Szentendre. The stone marketplace on the other side of the village offers a view over ancient red-roofed houses of surrounding villages.


You can drive to Szentendre or take the local train HEV from the Buda side of the Margaret bridge. There are also ferry trips along the Danube. Inquire at the Hungarian Tourist Information office (tel. 36-1-375-3819, or e-mail to htbudapest@hungarytourism.hu).


Food


During a visit to Budapest a couple of years ago, Prince Philip of Britain offended the Hungarians by remarking after a traditional meal that he had come to understand why there were so many potbellied men waddling around the country.


While the prince certainly exaggerated, there is no denying that the Magyars love their grub and can put away vast quantities of food effortlessly. The food is on the greasy side and restaurant servings are enormous, so it is not ideal to visit if you are on a diet.


Hungary's exotic fiery cuisine owes its existence to paprika, which they liberally sprinkle over everything edible, citing its wealth of vitamin C.


The most famous Hungarian dish is, of course, goulash. But I personally prefer the letcho, a spicy concoction of tomato and paprika. Langos f fried bread topped with garlic paste and halaszle, a fiery fish stew f are also worth trying.


Restaurants abound and seem ridiculously cheap after Moscow. A meal for two with wine can cost as little as $20 in a downtown restaurant.


On the more expensive side, there is Fortuna (tel. 375-6857) and Gerbeaud, the famous 100-year-old confisserie of Austria-Hungary (tel. 318-1311).


Tips for Travelers


Hungarian is a devilishly difficult language and few locals speak English, though German is widely understood. A handbook of basic phrases can be useful. In Budapest, invest in a Budapest Card, which allows free travel on public transport for a week and discounts at museums and restaurants.


We stayed on the Pest side of Budapest at the Hotel Mercure Duna (tel. 36-1-455-8300) where double rooms go for 150 Deutsche marks a night. But hotels of all price ranges abound and in the countryside many houses offer bed and breakfast lodgings.


A useful institution is the Hungarian Tourist Information office, which can provide guides, maps, hotel and transportation information to suit all pockets. They also now are promoting their wine tours.


Getting there


Aeroflot flies daily to Budapest. Tickets cost $320. Hungarian Airlines (tel. 956-4657) flies Western planes daily and a round-trip ticket costs $370.


The Hungarian Embassy is located at 62 Mosfilmovskaya Ulitsa (tel. 143-6057).


Russian visitors require tourist vouchers or invitations.