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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!