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Leaving Bratislava.
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The laptop doctor will see you now.

It was a grey wet day outside, which wasn’t so bad as today was a “bus day” anyway, and I even welcome the odd miserable day now and then. After a five star breakfast we checked out – gulp, the bill! Ness was feeling a bit coldy, maybe also a little tired after a couple of busy days. We drove out of Bratislava and back to Vienna, more or less along the same route – actually, no, in tidy Austria we tried a short cut, avoiding the motorway and instead taking the “normal” road which took us through several little market towns. Very tidy and full of that “life is good here, keep the rest of the world to yourself” feeling.

It was slow progress and we didn’t really save any time by taking the shortcut. Yesterday, or maybe the day before, AVMS (Sony) called to say the laptop had been fixed and we could pick it up. We made it to the service centre before the 2pm closing time. There was a minor disagreement/misunderstanding with the service centre staff (did we really need a completely new a/c adapter?) but then we were on our way again with our laptop. First we gave Eddie a much-needed clean at the service station next door. Hoovered and washed, and then we left Vienna again. To complete the “North American” morning we were having, we had a McDonalds on the outskirts of Vienna and then headed out onto the smooth motorway towards Hungary, our next and “last but one” country.

The border crossing into “number 28” (having added Slovakia as 26, and Austria as 27) was uneventful. There was a bit of a queue, and then we were through. We made sure that we bought a “vignette”, a permit to drive on the motorway, a toll basically, which has to be affixed to the window. Previously we had done the same in Slovakia, and we should have also done so in Austria but played dumb tourist instead. The Hungarian motorway was quick and we reached the outskirts of Budapest without problems. The traffic, predictably, got busier, especially as it was now getting towards 5pm. We followed the flow into the city, and it was clear that Budapest was a big “grown up” city.

We crossed the Danube, from the western Buda side to the Pest side on the eastern bank. Across the river was a vaguely Parisian city, with tall, six storeys, nineteenth century town blocks, most looking grimy and with crumbling plaster revealing exposed brickwork, and a six-lane wide avenue packed with traffic. At least it was flowing into town, the way we were going, but it was pretty clogged heading out of town. With a bit of trial and error, navigating the one-way streets of the grid layout of this part of town, we found our hotel. We had booked ahead and had gone for another smart one, “only” four stars this time, the Best Western Premier Hotel Parliament, in a restored smart white block, contrasting all the more with the grimy ones around it. Elegant and nineteenth century on the outside, and swish and stylishly hyper-modern on the inside. Eddie was parked right in front, on the street for once. We checked in and settled in, completely unpacking our backpacks as we were going to be here for four days, and then had a beer in the hotel bar.

Budapest was clearly going to have a lot going on and we would have to be selective, but for tonight we chose to eat locally and the hotel’s recommendation for a nearby restaurant came up trumps: a few streets away, in a big but convivial basement, a familiar place with decent Hungarian cooking and wine – yes, we’re back in wine country here!

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Looking across the Danube to Buda castle, with the Széchenyi Chain Bridge in the foreground.
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Turrets of the Fishermen's Bastion reflected in the late afternoon glow.
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"Tasting" lots of Hungarian wine in the excellent House of Hungarian Wine. Egészségedre!

We started with another, yes – another, tasty breakfast in the Best Western’s lofty atrium on the lower ground floor, and then we were ready for a day of sightseeing around Budapest. We walked towards the Danube through the atmospheric streets of Pest, with the tall crumbling blocks, some restored, most in desperate need. We came out by the parliament buildings which rivalled, if not outdoing, Westminster for gothic grandeur. We could see the graceful main dome of some chapel or church at the interior, which is a defining element of the Budapest skyline.

The long queue put us off – that we had particularly planned to go in anyway, and we stuck to our plan to visit the Ethnographic Museum, housed opposite the parliament. We bought our tickets from an older man who was getting himself all mixed up, and then went through to the imposing main hall, which was richly decorated with lots of gilt, and was reminiscent of the Natural History Museum in Kensington, but even grander. We visited the series of rooms with exhibitions on Hungarian peasant life and traditions, cabinets full of costumes, implements, and lots of fantastic black and white photographs, blown up to wall size. It was hard to believe that this traditional society, as in the Baltics, used to co-exist with the relatively modern age. Another exhibition focused on musical instruments from around the world, with all sorts of weird and wonderful things, many from Africa and China.

After the visit to the museum we took one of the yellow and white trams along the river and towards the beautiful Chain Bridge across the wide Danube. On the other side, on the western bank, we took the Siklo, the funicular, up to the castle hill. It wasn’t all that high to climb but we like going on funiculars and cable cars just for fun. From a distance we had already been able to enjoy the views of the Royal Palace, another essential part of the Budapest skyline, with its wide front, erm… oh, just take a look at the pictures! We passed through the Corvinus gate which was topped with a statue of a big black raven, symbolising King Mathias Corvinus. The statue looms over the Danube, as if ready to take off in flight and swoop down on passing boats. Before entering the palace we stopped for a drink at the café along the walls, looking out across the Danube and Pest.

Inside the Royal Palace we visited the National History Museum. After some faffing with the audioguides we managed ok and took our time to tour the rooms, from Roman and pre-Roman, through the Dark Ages, when Hungary was at the centre of the waves of population migrations across Europe, and through to the Hungarian kingdoms, before the Turkish occupation which lasted 150 years, and then again from 1686 onwards. It was interesting context and revealed another corner of European history we didn’t really know anything about until now. After the Royal Palace we walked further along the castle hill and stopped for a beer and pancakes at Sisi, one of the touristic cafés.

The top of the hill with its cobbled streets and few cars, and with its collection of historic landmarks, and quieter atmosphere – well, plenty of tourists but not busy with Budapestians (?) at work or commuting – it reminded us of Prague, which has the same setup. A bit further along again was the tall Mathias Church, but we didn’t go into it. Along the top of the walls over the Danube was the Fishermen’s Bastion, a mock-medieval construction, providing a fantastic viewing platform. From here we had great views over the river and city, which was you have to pay to get onto the walls, unless you go for the pricey café below. The stretch of the white turrets is another picturesque sight typical of Budapest. We walked along the top, having paid for tickets, and then continued to the next “museum” – the House of Hungarian Wine.

This was in a large wine cellar which acted as a showcase for Hungarian wines, and we spent a long time “tasting”, getting pretty squiffy in the process. We started off with the best intentions, sniffing and quaffing, and reading the many panels along the walls of the cellars. In one alcove a group of Swedes was quite clearly already … well, they had tasted lots and lots and were now just going round picking up bottles to bring back to the alcove. For a single price of 4,000 forint (£10) you got a little packet of crackers, a sampling glass and you could drink all you could “taste” in two hours, and there was lots to taste. The two hour limit wasn’t enforced very rigorously though, and it was a fantastic deal. Halfway through the cellar we met two guys who were also several hours into their tasting and we got talking with them, at which point our attempts at tasting turned into just chatting and drinking. It turned out they were both Deloitties, the Hungarian one of the pair was a partner in the Hungarian practice and his friend, formerly with Deloitte, a South African based in St. Albans. We left as the House closed, with enthusiastic intentions to “let’s meet tomorrow” from our Hungarian friend – “call me tomorrow, ok?” but we never did, phew.

Outside it was now dark. The days have been shortening noticeably over the past few weeks. We passed the very drunk Swedes who were trying to get or share a taxi. We were in the mood to carry on a bit and went for another drink at a café in the Fishermen’s Bastion, which was now a romantic spot overlooking the dark river with the lights of the buildings on the eastern bank reflected picturesquely, and especially those of the gothic Hungarian parliament. It was a postcard picture from here. A gypsy fiddler added to the mood, and played a request for us – we suggested “anything by Liszt”, figuring that would be a good Hungarian choice, but he was expecting more popular choices, like those on his CD, which we ended up buying. We were still looking out for somewhere for dinner. A nearby café was only serving drinks and the castle hill felt like it was closing down for the night. Most tourists had either gone back to their hotels or on to the bars and restaurants in Pest. We took a taxi to our hotel and as that’s what we felt like most we simply went for a pizza, walking into the little basement Don Pepe just up the street and taking it back to our room, noshing on our bed [memories of Arequipa], and wishing we had HBO [a film channel].

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Atmospheric Budapest metro, world's second oldest (no prizes...)
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Elegant Gellért Baths

We had a slow morning to start. I spent some time uploading pictures after breakfast, and by the time were ready to go out it was already well into the morning. First we headed for the Great Synagogue, in Budapest’s Jewish Quarter. Lonely Planet tells us that it is “the largest Jewish house of worship in the world, outside of New York City”. First impressions were more of a Moorish palace. We bought tickets for a tour and waited at a café across the road for the start of the tour. First we visited the large and ornate synagogue. Inside it felt more like a Christian church, with pews and an “altar”. Our guide explained the differences, the main features, the form of worship, and so on. He seemed irritated at the questions from a black middle-aged American man, I’m not sure why, and on the tour around the outside to the back we noticed we was quite angry and upset, but we never found out the full story. At the back of the synagogue there were memorials, Holocaust memorials and tributes to the “righteous gentiles” – non-Jews who rescued Jews from being sent to the concentration camps, including one Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat.

Ness and I were the only ones who had opted for the additional tour of the museum, a small museum upstairs in two parts. The first room was full of Jewish religious objects, and the smaller second room was all about the Nazi history. Our elderly guide delivered his well-rehearsed narrative but was personable with it, and it was the best introduction to Jewish religion we have had, covering religious feast days and all the extensive symbolism. The holocaust memorial room featured black and white photographs and our guide, who had lived through the period and survived thanks to one of the safe houses provided by the “righteous gentiles”, spoke from personal experience.

Next we headed to Andrassy út, the main street running out towards the city park northeast. We visited the Hungarian State Opera House, an ornate “neo-renaissance” affair. We bought tickets for a tour, which didn’t quite wow us, although the opera house itself was certainly everything a traditional opera house should be, with grand staircases, ornate rooms and boxes, but our young guide didn’t quite have the delivery and punch so we left feeling a little underwhelmed. We took the Hungarian underground (first in Europe? first in the world?) which ran below Andrassy, the length of the long avenue to the city park. The oldest underground in continental Europe. It was a little gem, with atmospheric small stations and a Victorian train with little compartments, charming.

By now it was already late in the afternoon and time to visit the famous baths for a soak and whatever else. The park had seen better days. Despite still having the trappings of a big city park it was also dirty with litter and quite a few down-and-out characters occupied the benches or were rifling through the overflowing litter bins. The massive Széchenyi baths complex, erm… well, we took a look inside and we were able to see the open-air baths which were very busy with weekend bathers, too busy to be fun it looked like to us. The thermal baths part was just closing, so we just made do with a couple of pictures, and walked round to the main entrance hall for the swimming pools, trying to decipher the Hungarian price lists, with an arcane system of refunds and additional payments. A group of Brits on a stag weekend sauntered out and one of them clarified the system for us. We left it for now and went for a drink at the café by the little park lake, from where we could observe the folksy atmosphere in the park. A Lonely Planet-recommended restaurant, Gundel, was across the road but looked far too plush and pricey. We queued for the trolley bus – our Budapest cards have us free rides on all public transport. Ness had been itching to go on one of these for a while now.

We took the bus back to our hotel and from there walked several, actually quite a few, blocks north to find the Firkasz restaurant, another LP- and hotel recommendation. It was on a quiet, almost dark, street, a little beacon of light and convivial atmosphere. It looked good. Inside the clientele was mostly tourists but that didn’t really matter, and it still felt atmospheric and genuine. We enjoyed the tasty Hungarian food and vino, and then strolled back, making a detour to stick to the brighter main roads, avoiding the dark quiet streets lined with the tall crumbling once-smart blocks. A great day of sightseeing!

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Colonnaded interior pool in the Gellért Baths
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Ornamental ceiling in the Gellért Baths
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Tram trundling across the Széchenyi Chain Bridge

Comfy bed, tasty breakfast, another lazy (great!) start. I uploaded a few more pictures and then we went out for another day of city sightseeing around Budapest. Our first stop was the parliament, but we were too late for the 10am tour and the queue was too long for the noon tour, so we left it, for now, and instead we went for an amble towards the centre of Pest. At the large Vértanúk tere, Martyr’s Square, we stopped to take a look at a curious statue on a little bridge of a former PM, reformist communist Imre Nagy. Behind this was the large open square surrounded by tall fin de siècle blocks occupied by banks and offices.

We strolled through the surrounding streets to arrive at the St. Stephens cathedral. We looked around inside and took the lift (!) up to the top of the dome, a two-stage process. This brought us to the top inside the dome, in the cavity between the outer layer – we were surprised to find it was made out of wood – and the stone inner layer. We walked out and around the top of the dome, which made me feel a little vertiginous, as usual, and Ness of course loving it. From here we had great views over the city. We met an elderly Australian couple now living in Vancouver and talked about our problems getting Morty sold (yes – he was still at True North).

From here we ambled on, towards the river, where we had lunch, tasty goulash and “gnocchi”, at one of the cafés. These, along the promenade, were rather more elegant than the usual tourist jobs. Between the promenade and the riverfront was a busy road, out of view below us, and the more picturesque tram tracks running alongside at the same level as the promenade. From here we continued to follow the LP walk, not a tour, just taking us past some main sights. We walked up a busy pedestrian street full of shops, mostly aimed at tourists, and this brought us out by another one of Budapest’s beautiful bridges.

On this side of the river, Pest, we first took a look in the market hall, a large station-sized hall in the manner of London Victoria. Inside it there were plenty of market stalls, some with colourful fresh fruit and veggies, big melons, others aimed more at tourists than locals with strings of dried red chillies (paprikas) and garlic all over the stall’s front, and selling the famous Hungarian schnapps, Zwack Unicum. There were still some remnants of a genuine market activity though. We crossed the Szabadsághíd, the Independence Bridge, and headed for the Gellért fürdő (baths), located behind the once-grand Gellért hotel. These baths, accessed through an entrance on the side of the hotel (there’s a separate one for hotel guests no doubt), were much less folksy than the Széchenyi.

The baths were a large complex of open-air pools and indoor thermal baths. The entrance hall was in grand Art Nouveau style, and beyond it was a warren of corridors and rooms. We navigated the system, from a private changing room where we could leave our stuff, and then into the indoor pool and separate semi-circular warm pool. There were a quite a few people but it wasn’t crowded, and it we just enjoyed swimming up and down, the length of the indoor pool, and soaking in the warm pool. Oh, before going in we had been able to wander round a bit to take pictures. The thermal baths were divided into separate sections for men and women and we split up to visit our respective sides. Suddenly it was like entering a Turkish or Roman bath atmosphere. There was an ornate tiled hall with two warm pools - 36° and 38° respectively – with a statue of angels with pouring amphorae as a fountain you could sit under. The locals were going about with a loincloth, a mini-apron, and the tourists were wearing swimsuits.

On either side of the hall there were further chambers: a three-stage sauna, a steam room – in which I could only manage a couple of minutes as it was so incredibly hot – and a cold pool – aah, super – and various other kinds of showers and rooms. Massages required a separate ticket, which I didn’t go for. We met up again a bit later in the semi-circular pool. Ness had not tried the steam room and sauna on her side. First we went outside to try the outside pools. There was a bubbling bath on the side, and a main central pool which turned out to be a wave pool. We had timed it just right as they only switched on the wave generator at certain times. It instantly transformed everyone into kids, playing and jumping and riding the waves. Great fun! Ness then headed back into the thermal baths to find the bits she had missed earlier, and I went to get our wallets from the changing room and bought a couple of beers and two cheesy pastries and scoffed both (I had intended to keep one for Ness), sat on a lounger outside, waiting for Ness to come back.

There was the customary group of Swedish men knocking back the cans of beer. We had had a great couple of hours chilling and bathing in great surroundings, and can definitely recommend it! We crossed back to Pest, across the Independence Bridge and took the tram along the riverbank up to our neck of the woods, not bothering to get a ticket as we weren’t sure where to get one. We headed for the self-service Turkish restaurant we had seen yesterday, on our way to Firkasz, figuring it might be the sort of place Budapestians would head for, and yes, it was busy with locals, young and studenty as well as office workers, but the nosh was rather disappointing – Ness had a rather better choice than my slivers of kebab meat on a bed of bread. Still, it was food, quick and cheap. Back to our hotel and Ness curled up in bed (“B, B and B”) while I spent time on the laptop, taking care of more pictures. An excellent day in Budapest.

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Chilling out in style at the Danube Bend

Another slow start. Whilst it’s nice to take it easy, it’s also a little frustrating that we find it so hard to get going in the mornings. Not that we’re in a rush to go out and “sightsee”, but we’re feeling a little low on energy, and that together with the small accumulation of a few errands (emails to send, pictures, diary – I’m permanently catching up, laundry, etc.) mean that we’re in need of a “down day”.

Rather than have it here, staying in an expensive hotel and with no “space” around us, we decided instead to drive the short distance north to the Danube bend and to stop there. The original plan had been to simply take a look at this part of the country and then continue on to Eger.

It was a good call. By now we both knew well enough when it was time take a break like this and recharge the batteries. So, we had breakfast and then headed out of Budapest, north, and drove to the little place of Visegrád. The hotel made a booking for us at the Silvanus hotel which had nice views over the Danube. It took a while to leave the built-up city area of Budapest behind, and even then you didn’t really get into countryside as such, just slightly rural/provincial parts, but it was still too close to the capital, which I hadn’t realised is actually one of the biggest cities in Europe (6th I think).

It only took us about an hour to reach Visegrád, a tiny little sleepy village on the southern/western bank of the Danube, situated at the “elbow” of the river, i.e. Danube bend, in super-scenic surroundings, with tall tree-covered hills on either side of the wide river. We stopped at a small mini-market to stock up on some supplies for an afternoon in: juice, biscuits, cheese, salami, etc. There were a few locals and that seemed to be it – no hordes of day trippers, and barely a few tourists. We had the place to ourselves. Our hotel was a bit out of town, on the hill behind it, poised at the best place for views over the Danube bend from high above. The Silvanus, as the name implied, was set among the trees. It was a modern-looking resort style hotel. Well, modern… On closer inspection it was actually quite dated, in that same category as the Cracovia but not so grand, and some of the hotels we have stayed at in Uruguay, Argentina and Chile. In other words, in a little time-warp. Bukit Fraser is another one that springs to mind. But it had started to be modernised and works were being carried out on the grounds.

From our room we had a stunning view of the Danube. A balcony with deck chairs and a table and chairs, an orange awning and flower boxes. The room was small, like the boxes at the Cracovia, and had a “sealed” bathroom, plastic panelling, but it was perfect for us. It was pretty windy up here, and the weather was variable, cloudy, the sun trying to poke through. We did exactly what we had promised ourselves earlier and chilled for the afternoon, reading, writing and just generally relaxing. The trip and sights were on hold for a little while. Later we headed downstairs for more relaxation at the “wellness” centre which was beckoning. There were several rooms arranged round an ornate marble-tiled oval room: a steam room, nice and hot, and we also tried the aromatherapy room, with walls hung thickly with herbs, and the salt room, its walls covered with flecks of salt. And a soak in the pool and Jacuzzi of course. After a prolonged session we felt super and toddled back to our room, wearing our hotel bathrobes, which were rather smaller than the ones from the Bratislava Crowne Plaza!

In the evening we came downstairs for the buffet-style dinner. There were a few people around but on the whole it just felt very empty and off-season. Anyway, we had a tasty dinner and then headed back to our room, and enjoyed the fantastic views from our balcony – and stars, stars, stars! Below us the Danube shimmered. It was a magical spot. The couple in the room next to us had brought their duvets out and were cuddled up on their deck chairs. What a great day. Despite having planned to have “nothing” day we somehow have still seen lots, and had a relaxing time doing it. Great!

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Last look at the Danube Bend
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"Fast lane? What would we want one of those for?"

The breakfast buffet seemed a little lost, spread out along the walls of the large hall. We checked out, managing to coax a trace of a smile from the female receptionist whose face seemed set in a permanent sneer. Then we left the Silvanus and Visegrád behind, a lovely little find, and we were both glad to have made an overnight stop here.

We drove south again, a short distance, and then turned east, across a bridge over a side river of the Danube, and then across the broad Danube itself on a short ferry ride to Vac. From then it was motorway and major roads for most of the way to Eger, an uneventful drive. We did see more extensive sunflower fields but it was either too late in the season, or something else, because their heads were drooping and many looked withered or dried out. I’m not sure, but I think we stopped at a McDonald’s en route – if not today it was on a different “bus day” at any rate – and had cheeseburgers. The reason it stuck in my mind was because in Hungarian they’re called “sajtburgers” and the “s” is pronound like “sh”.

Around Eger the landscape was a little different, hilly, and with vineyards and slopes covered in vines. Close to Eger we drove past a few estates, looking rather grand, not too dissimilar from those in South Africa, but on the whole the scene consisted of mostly smaller and more modest farms, and the atmosphere was rural and laid-back. In Lonely Planet we had read about a planned new resort, with thermal baths, which had been due to open. Driving around we found it, or rather, the building site. By the looks of it they were a very long way from finishing it! Instead we found the smart Villa Völgy hotel, a little to the south-west of town, ideally placed to visit the wine cellars of the evocatively named Valley of the Beautiful Women, a short walk away, and also only a short walk (twenty minutes) into town from here. It felt a bit like our honeymoon all over again.

We settled into our hotel, in a smart comfortable room with a little balcony, in the “4*” section – the building across the path was “only” 3*, and then went for a bite of lunch in the restaurant, a wooden affair next to the main hotel building. There was some confusion over which dish I had ordered (number “13” vs “30”, the latter was a supersize plate of mixed grilled meat for two). We were still very much in chill-out mode, still needing some down time, and so spent the afternoon at the pleasant hotel, in a very scenic setting outside town, with vineyards and fields of sunflowers visible from our room, a camping next door. When lunch had settled we went to the “wellness” centre and got hot and steamy in the steam room, breathed in more aromas, and soaked in the warm Jacuzzi and cooled down in the pool. A wonderful way to unwind. Dinner at the hotel and an early night, with “B, B & B", super!

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Stained glass window in basilica in Eger.
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The camera obscura in Eger. The copper rods are the controls and the "display" is shown on the white table surface.
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Statues commemorating the 1552 siege against the Turks.
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In the Valley of the Beautiful Women - they weren't joking! :-)

Like yesterday, the weather looked rather grey, wet even, bordering on the autumnal. Is our summer drawing to a premature end? I hope not. Anyway, it was quite nice too in a way, to have a slightly cooler if greyer day. We walked from the hotel into the centre of Eger for a morning of mooching around, with wine tasting planned for later.

Eger itself was a small charming provincial town, easy to like, with a somewhat Mediterranean feeling as well as a sense of history and fantastic renaissance and baroque architecture. We wandered along the normal streets. Well, they were normal except for all the impenetrable signs in Hungarian! It does seem to be a particularly impenetrable language. This brought us out by the large yellow basilica, an imposing church with an ornate interior, wonderful stained glass windows and so on. A beautiful church inside and outside. From here we continued into the town, with its many pedestrianised streets which made it pleasant to just stroll around. Oh yes, across the road from the basilica, or not far from it, we visited the astronomy museum, housed in a large 17th-18th century building, the former academy or university or something.

The central tower in one of the sections around the courtyard housed a number of small attractions, all related to astronomy and science. From the top of the tower a long Foucault pendulum hung the length of the stairwell. We visited the fascinating camera obscura first, right at the top, after waiting for a school group to leave. On a flat white panel in a darkened room we could see in fantastic detail what was going on in the town all around us, by employing the fantastic contraption of lenses and mirrors which reflected the light onto the table. From the terraces at the top of the tower we had great views over the town. Lower down we had fun in the small science exhibition with hands-on exhibits and listened to the recording describing the various astronomical instruments and the meridian running through the room, marked out with a channel.

After the fun museum we had a coffee at a café on the pedestrianised street and then strolled around the rest of the town centre, roughly following Lonely Planet. We the saw the narrow minaret, the only remaining bit of the mosque built by the Turks during their occupation. Eger had held out against them for a long time in a siege (1552), and the local wine is known as “Bull’s Blood” as the Turks thought that that was what the locals were drinking to fortify themselves, seeing their red wine-stained beards. The walked passed along the bottom of the ruined castle walls and then towards the main square, which had a beautiful baroque church and statues related to the city’s history, especially the defence against, and occupation by, the Turks.

By now it was well into the afternoon and time for us to head for the wine tasting! For a bit of fun, and out of a little laziness?, we waited for the dotto train. This took us first in a loop round the town centre, more or less the way we had already walked, and then out towards the south-west of town. Szépasszonyvölgy, “Valley of the Beautiful Women”, was basically a U-shaped area lined with small wine cellars set into the rocks, a central area of green parkland, and a crescent road around it. Some cellars were clearly out of service/business, whereas others were fully set up for the tourist trade. The first one we came to had a gypsy band playing inside and several benches full of tourists. We visited a few different cellars, more or less following Lonely Planet round. Actually, we just went into every single one starting from the top along one side of the square.

They ranged from the basic, no frills, where you just bought a glass and sat outside (or inside) to drink it, to the more sophisticated ones, but they were all friendly, convivial and a wonderful and very different drinking environment. No chi-chi “tasting” here. You just buy a glass of whatever choice the cellar had, or could do as the locals do and bring along your plastic bottles to be filled with your choice of plonk, straight from the source so to speak. We kept bumping into the same people who, like us, were doing a little crawl of the cellars. We finished with one of the low numbered smaller cellars at the bottom and then went for dinner at one of the eateries that have been set up, à la Mikołajki, at the back of the houses. By the end of the day we both felt pretty squiffy. The wines were allright, gluggable but nothing remarkable, just good honest plonk. We returned to the hotel, a short walk, and crashed out, feeling very satisfied and relaxed, again!

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Fun spotting shapes in the caves of Aggtelek

Today we moved on to Aggtelek, a short hop. No long drives are required in this part of the country. I started off driving but before long asked Ness if she could take over as a delayed-reaction wine hangover was catching up with me and I felt pretty queasy and yuck. Oh, I think I first spent a bit of time writing my diary in the cosyish breakfast room, trying to block out the conversation of the moaning pompous Brits at the other end of the room, before we set off from Eger.

The countryside around here was beautiful and rural. We drove past rolling fields, with colourful wild flowers – the corn blue ones we had already seen elsewhere (Baltics?), the yellows and whites, and lots of big fields of sunflowers, drooping or looking dried out, except where you saw them in small stands, obviously able to grow better without all the intense competition in the densely planted fields. I wasn’t too “with it” and semi-dozed. The road was too twisty to nod off, and the drive for me had a dream-like quality.

As so often on drives, we passed sights in a flash and afterwards it is hard to recall them. One that springs to mind was of three men stood talking by their two Trabants, one white, the other that unmistakable “Trabant blue”, on the crest of a low hill, with the colourful fields as the backdrop. We made a couple of wrong turns but soon we reached the little village of Aggtelek, tucked right up against the border with Slovakia, in high countryside, rocks and “karsts”, limestone rocks covered only by a thin layer of greenery. We opted for Lonely Planet’s recommended Hotel Cseppkő, close to one of the entrances to the massive underground caves, which were the main reason for coming here.

As we got to the hotel another little car pulled up and we were both “German” enough to make sure we got first to the reception counter! We needn’t have worried though as the hotel seemed almost empty. The Cseppkő was another remnant of the communist era, and now languishing a little. It was still fully operational and in business, but you could just tell that it was in need of a proper overhaul, aka “the treatment”. Hard to put your finger on it – the dated furniture, the skeleton staff, the atmosphere, and also the fact that the main building itself was a concrete box. Inside it was in some ways reminiscent of Uruguay, stuck in a little time-warp. Runners were missing on the stair carpets, and so on. I loved it! Our room was suitably dated, but perfectly acceptable and clean.

First things first though – we cuddled up and we had an hours kip, and woke up feeling much refreshed and ready to go out and play. We had read in Lonely Planet about the different options to visit the caves. We headed out again, to the nearbyish Vörös-tó (Red Lake) entrance to the caves. A brand new smart visitors centre built of stone sat nestled in a semicircle against the wooded hillside. No crowds here, in fact hardly a soul. We were early for the next visit, at 4pm, but hung around and I managed to get a coffee. The cafeteria was shut but the cashier took pity and came out with a tray with two espresso coffees, for free.

Our guide arrived on time, and the only other visitors were a large Dutchman with two small Malaysian ladies, one presumably his wife, the other her sister or a relative of some kind. It turned out they were from Penang. Over the course of the tour we chatted a bit, inevitably about the delicious Malaysian food! The caves were stunning, with fantastic stalagmites (g=ground), stalactites (c=ceiling), corridors and chambers. Our guide spoke very limited English but managed quite well to point out curious formations and explain various features. Ness helped to translate English into English. The Dutch guy’s questions were worded too difficultly (?) for our guide to interpret. With the ISO setting on maximum I managed to take pictures without using the flash.

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Sunflowers in full bloom

The tour took an hour and a half, walking deep underground. The tunnels and passages had clearly been repaved and lit to modern standards. The pièce de resistance was a large chamber, a cavernous cave where a short music and light show was played, something by Vangelis and something by Enya, followed by a demonstration of how it looked “naturally”, in the total pitch-dark – you couldn’t see your hand in front of your eyes, not a sausage, total utter darkness. A minibus took us back to the Vörös-tó entrance where we said bye to the camping Dutch-Malaysians and returned to our hotel. In the reception at the little bar area to one side we met the elderly Brits again and fell into conversation with them. It was a shame for them that their abiding memory of visiting Romania would be that they had been robbed, by a guy threatening them with a brick. We exchanged the usual conversation and despite not wanting to we kept coming back to our own extensive travel references. After they headed off we went to sit outside and played cards for a bit. There was no-one else besides us, but it felt like the sort of terrace that a few weeks ago, if it had been in Poland, we would have seen full of lively Poles with a shaslick or lody stand and lights – here they weren’t turned on even when it got darker. Inside the girl at reception had her baby close by in a pram/buggy by the counter.

We had dinner in the hotel restaurant. It was a fantastic and absurd experience. The decorations were bad enough and the atmosphere was, well, a little odd, but it was the evening’s entertainment at the far end of the room that really made it for us: a middle-aged podgy brown man with twinkly eyes, sat behind a large Yamaha keyboard, hammered out a succession of “classics” in his special style. “Like a Rhinestone cowboy” (see Chennai, India diaries) would have fitted right in! He donned his red captain’s hat and Ness was having trouble keeping a straight face (at least I was sat with my back to him and didn’t have to). We were his two most enthusiastic fans, clapping after some tunes and when he came round later we shook hands and said “Hungary number one!” What a fantastic evening and a lovely day!

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All set for an underground performance

I had a crap night’s sleep, despite a comfortable bed, as a fly or some bug kept landing on my head or arm or somewhere every time as I was just about to drop off properly. Fried eggs for breakfast compensated. Before leaving for Tokaj we went for another cave visit. Sort of having our cake and eating it – seeing the caves and managing to “save” a day so to speak, by getting to Tokaj a day earlier than we had planned. The Brits were sat at the far end of the dining room again, and I felt a little sorry for them. They seemed to have enough spirit for adventure to go out and make this trip, but – largely due to the Romanian experience I imagine – now looked a little fearful and huddled together for safety.

We checked out. We had not managed to make use of the bowling lane/court below the hotel (on the other side it looks out over the slopes), although I suspect that it was out of order or in a pretty poor state anyway. There were certainly no lights or sounds coming from that direction when I looked in last night. We parked Eddie at the nearby car park for the main cave entrance. Stalls selling “sheep skins” and other tourist tat were opening up. This was clearly a more popular cave visitors centre than Vörös-tó.

We bought tickets and waited for the start of our tour, along with another twenty to thirty people, some of whom we recognised from the hotel. The entrance here was more dramatic. Well, there was a steep section of rocks rising up and in a cleft at the bottom there were steps leading into the caves. We were given leaflets containing a description, in English, of the main caves and features. Our guide, who looked more like an electrician or plumber in his overalls, only provided narrative in Hungarian, a totally impenetrable stream of “ur’s” and “ey’s”. The caves were beautiful, with impressive stalagmites and stalactites and formations, though not quite as impressive as yesterday, possibly due to company of the larger group. Still, it was a fantastic sight, a long walk underground through passages and caves, and with a Great Hall (bigger than yesterday’s) and a pre-recorded sound and light show. Rows of gleaming red plastic chairs had been set up for more elaborate performances.

We emerged from the caves into the bright sunlight, on the side of the green hills. You wouldn’t know the caves or limestone rocks were there at all, except for a few little tell-tale exposed bits of grey rock below the thin layer of topsoil and greenery. We “resisted” the temptation of the tourist tat stalls by the car park and walked to the visitors centre, where we had a coffee on the terrace. A Belgo-Hungarian family sat at the table next to us and I could hear the flat Belgian peasant accent, aargh! Across the green lawn with some play things we could see our concrete hotel – a lovely little memory. “Do you remember our old room” I joked (again… I do tend to be a little repetitive with my attempts at humour).

We left tiny Aggtelek and drove further east, towards the wine country around Tokaj, home of the famous sweet wines. To begin with we drove through peaceful and scenic rural countryside, with strips of crops of various colours, browns and greens, stretching over the undulating hills. We passed through a couple of “typical” villages, with the long and comfortable houses all lined up in the same way, at an angle to the street, with little vegetable patches and apples trees, and usually a couple of old folks talking, walking along slowly with a bag of vegetables.

After the scenic stretch we passed through an area with not-so-scenic cement factories. Later we again reached wine country at last, with hillsides covered in rows of vines soaking up the sunshine. The signs of more “cultured”, more sophisticated viticulture were in evidence, but it still looked very much on a small scale, and nothing like the operations in the South African wine lands.

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Driving through rural villages where the pace of life is slow and unhurried.
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Wine cellars of Tokaj, "the king of wines and the wine of kings".

We reached the little town of Tokaj, a mixture of a charming picturesque village along with some bits and pieces of concrete here and there, but on the whole a very small, sleepy, and not the touristic hub we had anticipated. We navigated the little streets and tried the smart looking Degenfeld, a restaurant first and foremost, with comfortable rooms above. We were in luck – rooms were available, smack bang in the tiny centre, on the triangular pedestrian square.

The Degenfeld was a smart place, one of Hungary’s best provincial restaurants according to Lonely Planet. Sitting outside, we had a drink and a tasty goose liver salad. Next to us was a tour group of mostly Americans. Then we went for a walk around. First to tourist information, from where we left with a couple of leaflets as well as some suggestions for cellars in the town centre. A few other tourists, no more than a handful, were also strolling around, but it was very quiet. We thought it would be funny to first go for a drink at the “Irish pub” but it was just another café so we deffed it. We returned to the pretty little main triangular square – well, it had a pretty church and town houses along two sides, but an ugly shopping complex, mostly shut or closed down, on the other side.

We headed for the most celebrated wine cellar, the six hundred year old Rákóczi (an old Hungarian name) cellar. We had to wait a little before our “tour” at 5pm and walked along the adjoining streets. Back at the wine cellar we were our own “group” with a private guide. The main room was a long wide corridor lined with bottles and a central line of thick wooden tables and atmospheric lights and benches. Narrow corridors and tunnels led off this central cavern, and were filled with vats – no longer used now – and with the accumulated fungi along the ceilings and walls. Back to the central room, where there was now a separate group of Germans, I think, but we basically had our own private tasting.

Our friendly hostess took us through a series of six wines in the recommended order. We started with a “basic” Furmint, a pleasant dry white. Next came the dry Szamorodni, the sweet Szamorodni, and finishing with the sweet Aszú wines. Not the sorts of wines we would choose to drink regularly, too sweet for “glugging”, but definitely very well made wines in which you could taste the superior quality. The tasting was accompanied by some tasty cheesy bread nibbles. It was a great setting for tasting and we certainly got into it! Afterwards we carried on to the Hímesudvar cellar, up the road from the square. This was a more informal affair. The setting was on the lawns of the house. We attracted looks from the table of Hungarians who were tasting. As foreigners we do get quite a few stares in Hungary, more so than in Poland. We went for another tasting of six wines here. The procedure here was that they brought one wine at a time. Having tasted and drunk one wine, we had to wait for the next one to be brought, by our buxom waitress, who couldn’t offer much in the way of commentary or tasting notes, other than “sweet” and the name of the wine and a few notes, although she did try her best. Anyway, I found it hard to concentrate on the comments as the wines were presented.

Gradually the sunlight disappeared as it turned to dusk, some mozzies made their unwelcome appearance, and we toddled back to Degenfeld, rather tipsy by now having had a dozen glasses each (only little ones but even so). We had booked for dinner at the restaurant and 7.30pm was the latest they could do as they were expecting a group at 8pm. We had a romantic little table pour deux at the back of the smart restaurant, and at the front a couple of musicians were playing guitar and violin, dressed in wedding-style smart outfits. We expected a wedding party to turn up. The name cards said “Weidenfeld and Nicholson” or something, but it turned out to be a tour goup, a posh one, or maybe it was a company thing. Dinner was superb, a real top-notch five-star chef but in his private restaurant, and it was topped off with a schnapps and coffee. (Menu: broccoli soufflé for Ness, followed by Gypsy something, and I had rabbit …erm, something). We toddled up to our room feeling very satisfied, full, and a little wobbly. Excellent, again!

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Roadside stalls selling fresh tasty fruit and vegetables - private enterprise that would not have been possible not long ago, and now Tesco is moving in.

Continuing in the same vein, we had a fancy breakfast at nine o’clock (earlier not possible) which was served, rather than a buffet, with fresh juice and linen napkins, and perfectly fried eggs (one of those topics I could write a book about…). Having visited the wine cellars yesterday, today we were quite happy to continue on to our next destination, Hortobágy, “saving” another day.

We checked out, loaded up trusty Eddie, who had been parked below our room in the narrow street along the side, and we left tiny Tokaj behind. The surrounding wine countryside wasn’t exactly extensive but it certainly was scenic. It disappeared behind us as we drove south, passing into more ordinary agricultural countryside, less hilly, flatter, and eventually just flat. Not that I can really recall any part of the drive, at least not until we finally got into the Great Plain. Oh no, I tell a lie – heading south towards Debrecen, we passed some very colourful sunflower fields, with the flowers in full bloom, yellow leaves and black centres, their heads standing up and facing the sun, and very tall – well over two metres. And not just one or two fields, but long rows of extensive fields. It was hard to stop though and I figured we would see more so didn’t get a picture. It was a contrast with the drooping and wilted fields we had mostly seen.

Debrecen itself was a large town and we effectively bypassed it and turned west again, on a smaller road now and heading into the Alföld, the Hungarian Great Plain, described as “the open sea” by Hungarian poet Sándor Petőfi (although in Hungarian he would be called Petőfi Sándor, reversing the order of the name). It was put less poetically by me as “Holland minus the traffic and towns”. Flat, completely flat, grasslands and fields on both sides of the road, although still with plenty of signs of human habitation: farms and houses dotted on the horizon, and traffic too. Still, it was a very different side of Hungary all of a sudden, a contrast with what we had seen so far.

After a while we reached Hortobágy. It was not exactly a village, more a collection of newish houses which now lined the main road and the “centre” which consisted of a visitors centre/tourist info and a large wayside inn, the famous Hortobágy Csárda, just before the – also famous – Kilenclyukú híd (Nine Hole Bridge). Accommodation options were limited and we settled for the Hortobágy Club, a 4* job just out of the village, a resort with all the facilities and forming part of the large horse riding centre. We managed to get a room – well, they were virtually empty. The large low-rise (two storeys) hotel sprawled in a big U shape with long corridors but no people, apart from us and a couple of Japanese bird watchers, and one or two others. It was a luxurious affair, although with signs of having seen better days.

We checked in and then went out to see if we could go on the two o’clock horse and cart ride into the national park. There was a mix-up and the ride turned out to be full: we found five or six carts, wagons, full of tourists, and in hindsight it was a relief that it was full! We rebooked for four o’clock and went back to our room, chilled, and had a snack and played cards for a bit. Ness had dodgy guts, just as we went out again to go on the four o’clock ride, so we ended up deffing the four o’clock one too. Instead Ness had a kip and I went for a beer at the hotel’s “Drinks Bar”. First I sat outside, overlooking the grounds, later moved inside when the laptop battery ran low and uploaded pictures and did some site updates. Quite nice to just have some non-sightseeing time. The lights in the bar stayed off, while the barmaid watched a Hungarian soap, or a US dubbed one, on the set that had been plonked on the bar, not so 4*.

It was quite late by the time I came back to the room, and Ness was feeling better by now, and we went for dinner in the hotel restaurant. It was reminiscent of the Cracovia, though different. A very large high-ceilinged dining room, in which the diners seemed to drown in the space, and only half of the large room’s lights had been switched on, but it was atmospheric and pleasantly absurd in its own way. It reminded me also of the dining room at Hardap Dam, in Namibia. Tasty dinner of veal paprika with “gnocchi” (don’t know the Hungarian name) for me – not sure what Ness had. It took our waiter by surprise as we hadn’t gone for the halb pension. Glad to be somewhere new again!