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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!