Wine and Train-Car Lullabys

Trip Start Aug 14, 2001
Trip End Nov 07, 2002

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Flag of Hungary  ,
Sunday, September 30, 2001

Our train barrels down it's tracks like a mad bull, past endless fields of baked dry, dark-brown sunflowers basking under a blue sky. They look like an army of strange creatures bowed in an endless prayer of silence, frozen by the face of their golden-god to the south. Moments ago, we made our last stop in Slovakia and are blasting across another border, back into Hungary...

After several weeks of traveling this way, we've become rather comfortable with train-car life and are right at home in our little cubicle as we shoot past the landscape around us. I'm sitting with my mandolin trying to figure out something new and Katrinka is reading 'The Living' by Annie Dillard when the train begins to slow for the next station and behind the glass door of our compartment appear the Customs Agents...

The Slovak agent takes a quick look through our passports and hands them back to us, no problem and walks on to the next car, leaving us to the Hungarian. The first thing that this agent is interested in is my mandolin which is now lying on the seat next to me. He points to it and smiling, he asks, 'banjo?' I hate it when I get mistaken for a banjo or a ukulele player but I politely reply, 'No, Mandolin...mandolino' as I carefully hand him our passports. He takes the passports but again gestures to the mandolin, he wants me to play him something on it!

Hmmmm, his smile isn't quite a smile but then again, it's not a frown either. But I cannot help but think that this is some kind of a test and if I screw this up, then maybe he won't let us into Hungary and he'll throw us off the train in a rage or something... I thought for a second about what might be appropriate to play when it hits me, and I strike into 'Russian Lullaby.' (Which in retrospect seems a bit cheeky of me.) But, he seemed to approve and even whistled along for part of it like it was an old favorite of his.

The lullaby must have worked because he handed back our passports and left.(Though he had forgotten to put one of his little blue-stamps in them!!) He came running back a few minutes later, out of breath and seeming very embarrassed. He mumbled something in Hungarian while he quickly took our passports, stamped them, handed them back and jumped off the train as it pulled away... (Phew!)

In Eger Hungary, they are famous for their wines. In particular, one red wine called Egri Bikaver,(Bull's Blood.) We went in search for it to the place where it's made, 'The Valley of The Beautiful Women.' (The only beautiful woman to be found was my wife...unless you find a crabby old woman selling little bags of sunflower seeds for a small fortune beautiful!) In the valley, there are almost a hundred old cellars carved into the hills and many of them are open to tastings. It was a great time to visit as the whole valley was alive with workers bringing in the grapes and cart loads were being shoveled into large grinders and the juice pumped into the cellars for further preparation. Katrinka was so happy when one old man handed her a large bunch of juicy purple grapes as he continued work with his three-pronged pitch-fork.

On to Budapest...the bustling capital city of Hungary. Our visit was three sunny long days, but there was lots to see. The city is actually divided into two sections, 'Buda' and 'Pest'. In Buda are all the old castles and churches while Pest is the heart of the city life. We explored everything and walked for miles... St. Matthias Church, in the heart of Buda's castle district, was quite different for a gothic cathedral as it was intricately hand-painted from floor to ceiling during the Turkish occupation (1500's)when it was transformed into a mosque. After occupation the paint was left on, though it was once again a Christian church, and the effect is quite stunning. Budapest was so amazing and there was just so much to see. We took in a show at the mammoth Neo-Renaissance State Opera House. The building was a show all in it's self.

Statue Park is a place where all the Communist-statues and busts were put after liberation. Stalin, Lenin and all their 'brass buddies'. The effect is a small park filled with harmless giants! Interesting souvenirs available too!

We finished off Budapest with visits to the old Turkish Baths. We had to go to a separate baths as they are either men only or women only. Both baths were circa 1500's and the old Turkish atmosphere was very cool. Natural lighting, pools of mineral water of varied temp to soak in, and me...clothed in only a waist 'bib?' (I don't know quite what they call them) Katrinka's experience was a tad bit more naked! It was all followed with a Turkish-massage leaving one feeling very 'dang clean' and kinda sleepy...

In Koszeg, our next stop in Northwest Transdanubia was made particularly interesting by one old man and his friends in a cool old hole-in-the-wall wine cellar. The deep cellar was built all in red brick with high vaulted ceilings and decorated with deer-skins, antlers and dried gourds... It was so cool. The super smooth, tasty red wine (that's all they had) was served right out of the oak barrel and laddeled into your cup for what was mere pocket-change. Katrinka was up to her usual tricks, drawing and sketching a local character and pretty soon the whole place became curious and they saw what she was up to and then we had a giant handful of friends. The crazy looking old dude wanted to keep her sketch, but Katrinka wouldn't sell at any price. He settled for a handshake and a smile and at closing he rode away on his bicycle drunk as could be.

Since then, we've swam in the most amazing lake ever! (Excuse the mass crowds of fellow tourists) In a small place called Heviz on the edge of the 'Sea of Hungary', Lake Balaton, is a small crater filled with milky blue-green, thermal mineral-water which holds a steady 32 C year round! The mildly radioactive water is full of flowering water lilies and said to have healing properties. It was a toasty warm giant bath-tub!
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