The Storks return to Tokaj (Eastern Hungary)

I found my way to Budapest airport for my meeting with Grahame without any difficulties and even had time to stock up on picnic food for our four hour road trip out East to our next destination: Nyireggyhaza, not far from the Romanian border. Even such simple fare as bread, cheese and fruit was very well received by someone who had just completed a peak season, budget flight from Gatwick on which they take a substantial payment from your credit card just to allow you a cup of coffee.

A hire car was waiting and we managed to navigate the journey without mishap. This venture was considerably assisted by the way in which Grahame is able to wrap his pronunciation around fragments of new languages whenever we travel. Hungarian is reckoned to be the most difficult language in Europe but at least the strange noises issuing from the computer a couple of weeks ago have given us some chance of interpreting the road signs. I’m not sure whether this facility comes from his musical inclinations or is simply due to the fact that he makes so much more of an effort than I do.

Well, I may not have learned more than “please” and “thank you” in all of the three years Zoltan was lodging with me but at least I gave him the chance to further his career by learning British accented English which, apparently, has a great deal more cache out here than the Americanised version. He is still living with his Mum, Suzanna the retired music teacher, and of course she had a magnificent meal waiting for us. Zoltan translated and, when she fussed about how much weight I’d lost, I was able to tell her how I’d been looking forward to her cooking for the last thousand miles.

After a comfortable night in a nearby hotel run by a slightly eccentric Irishman from New York we collected our hosts and set off for for the gorgeous wine growing region of Tokaj. A small area of rich volcanic soil intrudes into the picturesque landscape producing some of the finest wines in Eastern Europe. I may not have picked up much knowledge of viniculture for my French heritage but at least I can appreciate the amount of skillful nurturing that goes into this type of small-scale production where every basket of grapes is cherished and every sip is savoured.

The region’s reputation for fecundity was further enhanced by the way in which storks have been allowed to nest on almost every telegraph pole and, as this is obviously peak breeding season, careful parents could be seen tending to one, two and sometimes three gaping little beaks. No one seems to mind the way in which the huge, ungainly adults sometimes interrupt the traffic as they make their spectacular swoops down along the village streets. I’m sure that there are a few who complain but the first arrival from Winter feeding grounds as far away as Southern Africa is greeted as a herald of Spring and some of the birds even have their own websites.

Before being allowed to sample the legendary nectar we had to take in another quintessentially Hungarian pastime – visiting castles and reflecting on the greatness of Hungary’s past. This part of Europe, close to the modern borders of Ukraine, Slovakia and Romania, is dotted with so many medieval fortifications dating from the defence against the incursions of the Ottoman Empire that it is difficult to remember many of their names – and downright impossible to pronounce them. Zoltan had chosen the nearby Sarospatek Castle, magnificent home in the 17th Century to the powerful Rakoczis, whose status as the wealthiest family in all of Hungary emboldened them to challenge the might of the Hapsburg Empire. This, predictably enough, precipitated their rapid downfall but it was still pretty thrilling to visit the actual “Sob Rosa” chamber where the plotters held their secretive meetings.

In contrast to the reconstructed bastions and well appointed chambers of Sarospatek, Regak Castle is just another picturesque hilltop ruin but we made it to the top nonetheless. Suzanna and I negotiated an overgrown path to a precarious wooden shack whose composting toilets overhung a steep drop down to the valley below. A few moments later, we found our male companions awaiting us with a certain amount of hilarity around the twisty path on the other side of the castle where modern facilities had recently been installed beside the ticket office. Then, of course, it was back to Tokaj for to small libation before dinner.

Hungary’s proud heritage has been something of a rallying cry to the right wing political parties which have held onto power in this country of late, reminding people of how much their borders shrank after chosing the losing side during the First World War. Aside from the Jews, who kept mostly to well defined urban districts, and the gypsies, who were at best tolerated and at worse despised, ethnic diversity has played little part in traditional Hungarian culture. There are obviously deep seated resentments here amongst a population only recently freed from the Communist propaganda machine and probably unaware of the full implications of EU membership. Party-goers from the rest of Europe may be allowed to turn the centre of capital into a toilet every night of the week but genuine refugees cannot expect much of a welcome here.

Before leaving Hungary we should make the acquaintance of one Elizabeth Bathory, born in Nyirbator, only a few miles from Nyireggyhaza, into the highest aristocracy in 1560 and infamous to this day as one of the the most prolific serial killers of all time. Of either gender. This last is only true of a death count which is estimated at somewhere between 80 and 500 if you confine your definition of “serial killer” to someone who murders individuals for sadistic pleasure alone: the more traditionally, manly pastime of mass killings for military or political motives have, of course, a far higher body count.

Legends abound of how the “Tigress of Czejte” would bathe in her victims’ blood in order to preserve her youth and beauty but a surprisingly detailed historical account remains to tell us that the real woman continued to get away with abducting young peasant girls for her gruesome purposes for more than twenty years. The fact that it was only when better born young ladies started disappearing and body parts were found floating from the castle drains that she was apprehended tells us more about the relationship between rich and poor in medieval Hungary than any socio-historical treatise could. So protective were the aristocracy of their position in those days that the “Countess of Blood” wasn’t even put on trial, just quietly walled up in a corner tower. Czejte, where she died, now lies in Slovakia, once called “Upper Hungary” but that hardly excuses Zoltan for having lived as my lodger for more than three years and failing to mention she was such a near neighbour of his back home.

Categories: Europe


  • Chris says:

    The storks were highly appropriate, weren’t they?

  • nicola ainsworth says:

    Yes, I got home to the wonderful news that a new grand-baby is on the way.

  • nicola ainsworth says:

    And later to find that the Jobbik party is not “right wing” enough for conservative Hungarians any more. A more extreme “Force and Determination” party has just been launched with openly racist language and Nazi ideology. This is in spite of the fact that Hungary continues to practice mass detention of migrants at its southern borders and accept some of the smallest numbers of asylum applications in the whole of Europe.

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