Tuesday, July 03, 2007


Finally the plains of the puszta have given way to some hills in the north of the country. In my week in Hungary so far I have learnt the words jo (good), köszönöm (thank you) and igen (yes). Not very good going by any standards. Though yesterday I learnt another word: bor (wine). Now I'm not much of an alcoholic (and certainly not on this trip as I can't afford it) and even less of an oenologue, but a visit to eastern Hungary wouldn't be complete without taking in the famous Tokaj region which produces some of the best sweet white wines in the world. Arriving in the quaint little town of Tokaj the visitor is bor-ed from all sides as every other building seems to be a wine cellar offering wine tastings for the visiting gourmet. Although its reputation became somewhat overshadowed by French and German wines during the Communist years, in the 17th to 19th centuries Tokaj was the wine for discerning nobles. The Russian tsars kept a permanent garrison in town to ensure the safety of their supplies, and none other than Louis XIV the Sun King, declared the sweet Aszu wine to be "Vinum Regum, Rex Vinorum" (Wine of kings, King of wines), no small accolade giving that he had some pretty decent plonk on his own doorstep. Plus this is the very first place, or so it is claimed, to have a specially protected name/trademark dating all the way back to 1730.

Well, being the dedicated traveller and discoverer of strange, exotic customs I decided to sacrifice myself to the advancement of human knowledge and signed myself up for a tasting (as it were). At a normal such tasting you are presented with a half-dozen different wines and some bland buns and water to cleanse your palate between wines. For the more dedicated there is a small sheet with the various vital statistics of each brew (such as alcohol and sugar content, acidity as well as the price, should you wish to make a purchase afterwards and carry on your tasting in private) and a jar to pour out unwanted wine so that one doesn't become too drunk. "Excuse me?" I asked my hostess. "Some people do several tastings in a day and don't want to get drunk," she explained. "That's OK," I assured her, "I won't be wasting any precious alcohol." (Both of us were probably thinking the same thing: crazy foreigners!) Well, I certainly got pleasantly tipsy and learnt a bit about wine making, though personally I couldn't tell the difference between the wine at 30 euros and the one for only 10. A good thing for me that I'm not a gourmet! I did have fun trying to find the most expensive bottle on sale (ever the child) and unearthed a half litre bottle of Eszencia for over 100 euros, and I was assured that there were better years if I asked around.

Even closer to the Slovak border there are the beginnings of smallish mountains, well, hills really. They're not much to look at but they hide a magical world of caves, packed with stalagmites and tites (remember, mites go up and tites go down) underneath. Some of them even straddle the border and so you can legally cross an international border underground, though you need to book in advance for that so of course that was never going to happen. Instead I just tagged along on an ordinary tour, though it was cool nonetheless with some exquisite rock formations. Very cool, now if only they can teach the guides some English...

1 comment:

Inihtar said...

Haha. . . the title of this post was so misleading (in a good way). I LOVE wine! Wish I could have done the wine-tasting thing. Now you've got me looking for wine-tasting events in Tokyo!