Wednesday, 17 November 2010


5th to 15th November 2010

For over two decades we’ve kept our paprika in a colourful pot, which is covered in Hungarian writing, amongst all our other herbs and spices, refilling it many times over the years. At long last it has travelled back to its homeland, and now contains freshly bought powder of the brightest red and sits in the van emitting its sweet, pungent fragrance. We’ve been here before, you see. In “that” summer of 1989. You know – the one before the Berlin wall came down and communism round here unravelled. It was an interesting time. To be in Hungary in August 1989 was to watch the Soviet empire in Europe disintegrating before your eyes. Hungary had dismantled its border fence with Austria, thereby creating a real hole in the Iron Curtain, and many East Germans, instead of returning home after their holidays here, decided to make a run for it into the west. We met a lot of East Germans that summer on campsites, and we wondered which way they would be heading. So you’d think we might remember more about the towns and the landscape, but time does funny things to memory and for the most part we seem to be coming upon places we know we’ve visited before, but which look more or less new to us. They can’t all have had massive facelifts over the years and we are having to face the unwelcome truths of ageing.

Aggtelek was a case in point. We crossed into Hungary on 5th November at this village, which forms the main visitor centre for a national park of the same name, and immediately passed a campsite that we had stayed on in 1989.  I (Rob) sort of recognised it – we had waited around there for a day while a guy came out from Budapest to replace the flat battery in our hired Lada – but for Lesley there was not a glimmer of familiarity. It was already quite late in the day though, and with our minds set on wild camping we headed for a quiet road across the next set of hills – the Borsod. Just as darkness fell we were rewarded with a leafy carpark in the woods where we had a quiet and comfortable night.
Borsod hills overnight spot by Kelemér-Putnok road and overlooking Kelemér

The next day we continued through more hills to the town of Eger. Much of Hungary is flat, flat, flat, but this northern fringe lies in the foothills of the Carpathians and the landscape is pleasantly hilly and forested, and the road to Eger led us through a steep gorge. We were at Eger too in 1989. One of us remembered the main street and a search for the town’s lone minaret, but not much more, and no prizes for guessing which of us had no recollection of the place at all. It is in fact a fine-looking town with many Baroque churches and historic buildings arranged around quite a large old centre and the minaret, one of the very few remaining relics from Hungary’s hundred years as part of the Ottoman Empire, was easy to find this time round. I’m sure it has made more of an impression on us now than then, and at least we’ll have this blog to remind us of these days of travel when we are in our dotage. At our current rate of returning to countries, we might get back here in 2031!
Views of Eger

With the afternoon temperatures in the mid-teens °C, and little other than cafes open on a Saturday at this time, there was not much else to do after our wander round the town but sit outside on the pedestrianised main street, and drink coffee. While there we reminisced that in 1989, at such places, it was brewed on small hotplates in aluminium expresso pots, rather than in the industrial coffee machines which now hiss away on counters.
Views of Eger

Moving on from Eger, as dusk was falling, we were looking forward to staying on a campsite at out next stop, Bogács. Which just goes to show that you can’t believe everything it says in the ACSI camping guide, as the two campsites it had as being open all year were most definitely not. Still, opposite the thermal baths was a nice big, free, carpark and we spent another undisturbed and comfortable night on tarmac. It gave us the chance to go out for a meal which provided yet another comparison with 1989. Back then the menus were typed on the thinnest of copy paper and most items had no prices beside them because they were not actually available. In addition, despite the description of what you’d ordered, what came up was invariably a type of wafer thin pork schnitzel. Oh boy, have things changed! We ordered the local “speciality” dishes of a type of sauerkraut and a game stew. The portions were massive. We should have been braver and copied the people on tables around us, who had their leftovers put into take-away boxes. We didn’t though and left feeling absolutely stuffed and pretty merry on a nice bottle of young pinot noir from the village.
We can’t think why “English Bazaar” should mean a second hand shop in Hungary. Any ideas?

We spent a thoroughly pleasant Sunday morning in the hot pools of the Bogács outdoor thermal baths and thereby reduced the average age of their occupants by a few years. Actually, there were all age groups there enjoying the 38°C waters on a sunny November day, but by far the largest numbers were in the older than us age range.  The baths also proved a good place to get the showers we’d been looking forward to having on a campsite - it’s a pity we couldn’t find a way of sneaking our bag of washing in too.

The thermal baths at Bogács

Bogács, being little more than a pleasant village resort for the spa, had nothing else to hold us, so we decided that we would move on in the afternoon by going back on ourselves, to a campsite near Eger which our German stellplatz guide showed as being open all year. This time though, since the owner was down as speaking German, we rang and checked in advance and, with true German efficiency, the stellplatz book had it right. 
Egerszalók village and campsite

‘Mihály Ház’ in Egerszalók was a primarily a small pension with space for a few motorhomes in the yard and an adjacent field. The owner Michael made us feel instantly welcome by taking us across to his neighbour the wine-grower, who kept vats of his red and white varieties in his garage, and we came away with a bottle of the red, a vivid purple colour from a grape we never mastered the pronunciation of, for about 80p a litre. Egerszalók village was surrounded by vineyards, and it looked like it had recently come into prosperity, with newly built hotels, a thermal spa and quite a lot of new houses. We ended up staying for three nights, and liked the edge-of-village setting where we could walk to a shop and generally watch life going on around us. Every yard or garden in most Hungarian villages has a dog in it, which barks at passers-by, and you can track Charlie dog’s walk around a village by these.
One solution to the eternal problem of refilling the fresh water tank

On both days in Egerszalók I (Rob) went out for bike rides, but despite one sunny morning, the weather had turned again and I came back wet and cold, especially on the day I attempted a 100 km tour through the nearby Mátra hills and met the rainclouds when I was only half-way through. The last 40 km in the rain and dark were hard! Mind you, the general temperatures barely dropped, and we were enjoying nights at 8°C or more for most of our time in Hungary.
Views from Egerszólát road

Moving on from Egerszalók on Wednesday 10th November, we left the red wines of Eger and headed towards Hungary’s best-known wine area around Tokaj, famed for its sweet whites. Our route meandered first through the Bükk Hills, taking us upwards through woodlands where the bare-branched trees looked almost black against their background carpet of russet leaves in the heavy rain, which had set in for the day. Our route was well-endowed with carparks and picnic spots, as these hills are popular in the summer. Around 3:15 p.m. we came across a fine spot on a ridge dotted with old lime-kilns, above the village of Répáshuta, which we occasionally glimpsed when the low cloud cleared. We were faced with a dilemma – to stop here so early for the night, or push on out of the hills and trust that we would find something as good later on. It was no contest and we whiled away a slightly longer evening than usual near the top of the Bükk Hills, at nearly 600m above sea-level. The morning views vindicated our choice.
Bükk hills - overnight spot and lime kilns

Our journey onwards the next morning took us down through the genteel spa town of Lillafüred and into the extensive suburbs of Miskolc, so jam-packed with estates of 1960s and 70s blocks of flats that finding that the city has a pleasant, late 19th century centre was quite a surprise. Even more of a surprise was finding that we seemed, by accident, to be driving down a pedestrianised street on the heels, or rather wheels, of a tram – stopping every few yards as passengers alighted at the many raised platforms on its route. Oh well, we got a got view of the centre of Miskolc and were half tempted to park and join the hustle and bustle, but in the end we opted to push on to Tokaj. The very rural villages on these flat plains looked poorer to us than many we had passed through in Hungary. People seemed less well-dressed and the generally darker skin and some of the dress styles pointed to a large Roma population (although to our untrained eyes, there appeared to be more assimilation than in similar parts of Slovakia).
Miskolc tram route

We arrived at Tokaj in the early afternoon and immediately crossed the river to see if the campsite we had stayed on in 1989 was still there. It was one we remembered quite well, where a young East German guy, drunk as a skunk, had tried to get into a woman’s tent in the middle of the night, convinced that it was his, and where Rob had got up to try and persuade the hapless teenager to rejoin his comatose friends. The campsite was still there, along with a couple of others, all closed of course.


Tokaj is really not much more than a large village. Its heart is pretty, with some interesting old buildings and a large synagogue, but mostly it was deserted in the weak November sunshine. We wandered up and down, bought two litres of a lovely dry white wine from the harslevelű grape, for 900 FT (£3), but avoided the bottles of sweet Tokaj Aszú at upwards of £18 for 50cl on the basis that we haven’t got the room to cart it about for six months. We had a lovely lunch of goulash soup/fish soup followed by bread lángos – a sort of pizza affair with the topping made of garlicky cream cheese, bacon, onion and grated cheese (the classic lángos may have the same topping but is a slab of deep-fried dough).
Tokaj – views from the Kopász hill and over the bridge

We finished off a very pleasant day with a fruitless and temper-fraying drive in a 40 mile circle, in search of a good spot to overnight. We tried the viewpoint up Kopász hill, behind Tokaj, but were put off by the manned TV transmitter station. We then tried a likely-looking side track on our way down the hill, but had a real fright as we slipped and slid backwards, nearly getting stuck in a ditch. In the end we returned to Tokaj, and ended up in a little carpark by the dental surgery, where we had a very peaceful night, aided by rather too much of our newly acquired two litres of wine! 
Tokaj – Finally an overnight spot and good cheer, courtesy of the vine

Heading further east across the plain the next day, we stopped at Máriapócs, a small town and pilgrimage centre dominated by a tall double-towered church, built in the 1750s to house a ‘miraculous’ icon that had been seen to weep tears a few years before. The icon is a small and rather crude painting of the virgin and child, commissioned originally by a villager who had escaped from Turkish captivity in the 17th century. It had wept three times according to church records, the last one in 1905, which was even more miraculous because by this time the picture was only a copy of the original. Her face remained dry during our visit.
Iconostasis in Máriapócs church

We spent our last few days in Hungary in the far east of the country, in a region called Erdőhát that lies hemmed in by the Ukrainian and Romanian borders. Its name can be translated as ‘Behind the Forest’ or ‘Behind Transylvania’, and it is historically a rump section of the latter land, cut off from the rest when new borders were drawn up in 1919 that put most of Transylvania in Romania. It is a remote area of woods and marshes around the meandering Tisza and Szamos rivers on the edge of the Great Plain, where its isolation has left it as one of the least-developed areas of Hungary. Here a lot of folk-art styles and ways of life survive that have much in common with neighbouring areas across the border. We saw more working horses around here than anywhere else yet on our trip.

Now the trees are bare we’ve noticed just how much mistletoe there is in these parts. Eddie Grundy would make a killing (The Archers for anyone who’s not a Radio 4 listener).

Tourism has arrived here in recent years, and the various churches, mills and nature reserves that make up its attractions are now well signposted, and many villages sport a welter of (mainly summer-only) visitor accommodation. It was on the strength of an internet recommendation that we headed for a campsite in the village of Túristvándi (the ‘túrist’ in the name is just coincidence), apparently open all year, and we arrived in the dark to find it firmly closed. Not to be defeated this time round, we rang the owner, who quickly agreed we could stay, and sent her woman in the village down with the keys to let us in. Thus for three days we parked up, alone, on a closed campsite with electricity and hot showers, coming and going as we pleased.

Shepherd & flock by banks of Tisza and typical Hungarian water tower

We were treated to glorious sunny weather during our stay here, with temperatures again in the mid-teens. On Saturday 13th November we spent a day touring some of the local villages and seeing the sights.
These old Trabants just keep on going

In Szatmárcseke there is a cemetery which is unique in Hungary. The graves there are marked, almost without exception, by tall wooden posts with a particular design of notch-and-groove decorative carving and a tapering top that is reminiscent of upturned boats. They make a strange, very foreign impression. Various theories were once proposed that these represented ancient Hungarian customs lost elsewhere, but it seems more likely that this is merely a stylistic adaptation that became popular in this one village in comparatively recent times.
Szatmárseke cemetery

At Tarpa the 16th century church had been adapted in the Reformation according to Calvinist thinking, with a simple altar and pulpit sitting sideways about half way down the building rather than at the chancel end of the church, and with all the pews facing the altar from both ends. We found the plain and rustic style quite striking. All the wooden furniture was simply painted and the linen had been handsomely embroidered with cross-stitch work, something the area is known for. On a small area of wall the Reformation-era white plaster had been removed to reveal a three-part mural which included a boy-faced St. George slaying the dragon, his familiar red-on-white cross looking odd to us with its extra bar, the crucifixion and the Last day of Judgement, where St. Michael weighs good and evil on a pair of scales . Also in Tarpa, was a restored ‘dry mill’ in the main street, that would have been operated by horses drawing a huge horizontal wheel to turn the millstone.
Tarpa Reformed Church & Judgement Day fresco

We passed briefly through Márokpapi, where the small Calvinist chapel had an interesting decorated exterior and a separate, wooden bell tower. In the 17th century the whole outside of these chapels would have been richly decorated with colourful paintings in a simple folk style of entwining leaves, hearts and flowers. Mostly they have all been lost, but on a few churches, as in this case, you get a glimpse of their former glory. We did not go inside this church, as we wanted to push on to our next stop at Csaroda, but the keyholder’s address is generally clearly displayed at most of these churches and it seemed relatively easy to get someone to open up at each one we visited.
Márokpapi church with wooden bell cage and outside decoration detail

Although the outside of Csaroda’s Reformist chapel also has traces of earlier decoration, it was on walking through the door into the tiny church that we both gasped in wonder. What struck us initially were the vivid colours and intricate designs of post-Reformation folk painting which covered the walls, the wooden board ceiling and wooden furniture, and it was a few moments before we noticed that among the luxurious foliage were much earlier religious frescoes. On the north wall, facing you as you enter, were Byzantine images of the Apostles Peter, Paul and John standing beside Kozma and Damján, who are described as “doctor-holies”. In the corner between the north wall and the chancel, the church’s founding family, the Csarnvodai, have been immortalised in paint on either side of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child. More of the local women’s cross-stitch features in the embroidered linen used to decorate the furniture, giving the whole interior a feeling of colourful abundance.
Csaroda Church

The final church we visited was at Tákos. At the first glimpse of our van, the ancient caretaker, who had been sweeping up leaves and was looking very Babushka in her headscarf and apron, instantly whipped out her mobile phone to arrange for a great grandson to cycle down with the enormous key. Our arrival also brought another enterprising grandma scurrying from her cottage to sell us some of that famed cross-stitch work. We sort of felt obliged to buy a bookmark, at the cost of 400 forints (£1.30).
Tákos Church

Tákos church was first mentioned in 1700, and is unusual in that its walls are of wattle and daub, which accounts for the relatively low height of the panelled ceiling, which is handsomely painted in a folk art style from the late eighteenth century - apparently no two panels have the same design. It also has decorated wooden pews and pulpit, draped in beautiful embroidery – cross-stitch, of course! Outside the church stands another of the separate church towers that are quite usual in this area. This tower dates from 1757, and was restored in 1986 after war damage.
The horse and cart are still very much in use in Erdőhát, even if Túristvándi water mill is now a museum

It was a short way from Túristvándi to the Romanian border crossing on the road to Satu Mare, and we drove it in more warm sunshine on the morning of Monday 15th November reflecting on how much we liked Hungary. We liked it in 1989, and both agreed that, like a fine Tokaj wine, it has managed to improve over the years, particularly in the area of food. Shopping for food, cooking it and, of course, eating it has been great and being in the land of paprika has been a real joy.
We were impressed with the range and choice of fresh food available in Hungary

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