Tokaji: Wine Of Kings, King Of Wines
200km (125 miles) NE of Budapest
Also in the northern regions of Hungary, you find the world-famous wine called Tokaji. Its fame and reputation transcends centuries of the history of the area, identifying it as a famous wine region of Hungary. Grapes were found growing in a 43km (27 mile) area when the first Hungarian conquerors appeared on the scene. The uniqueness of the wine is attributed to the growing conditions of the grapes. Starting with a volcanic soil, the area is protected by the Carpathian Mountains. They have a southern exposure with the autumn weather promoting the grapes turning to aszu (raisin). Other important grape varieties of the area are the Furmint, Hárslevelu or Linden Leaf, Yellow Muscatel, and Oremus.
Legend has it that a wine grower abandoned his harvest when there was a threat of a Turkish invasion. When it was safe to return to his fields, he feared his harvest had been ruined since the grapes had stayed on the vine too long, but he used them anyway to make wine. The product was Tokaji. The wine has a long history with royalty as well as with poets and writers. As poet Miklós Szemere from the 19th century exemplifies with his short verse:
Blessed Tokaji wine, how good you are,
your mere fragrance is enough to send death running;
for many ill people have been cured by drinking you,
though they were about to be taken away.
Drink of the gods, immortal nectar,
the land is blest where you grow!
The Tokaji wine was well established and popular as early as the 12th century. Admirers of the wine were King Louis XIV, Cromwell, Tsar Alexander the Great, and Tsarina Catherine. The Russians even stationed a small garrison in the surroundings of Tokaj to ensure continuous supply. Believing the wine had curative power, the doctors of Pope Pius I ordered him to drink Tokaj wines regularly to protect his health. The French king Louis XIV called it "the king of wines and the wine of kings."
Getting There -- Tokaj is only accessible by car or by taking a tour to the region. If you're driving, take the M3 motorway from Budapest to Miskolc. From Miskolc take Route 37 to Route 38. Unfortunately, all tourist information is in Hungarian only. I suggest you take a guided tour to the region. If you decide to venture there on your own with a car, then the Tourinform office can be of some assistance. You can contact them at Tokaj 3910, Serház u. 1 (tel. 47/352-259; fax 47/552-070).
Where To Stay -- The Tokaj Hotel and Restaurant at Rákóczi u. 5 (tel. 47/352-344; fax 47/352-759; www.hoteltokaj.hu) is found at the foot of Tokaj Mountain, at the fork of rivers Tisza and Bodrog. The hotel has 30 double rooms with a full bathroom and 12 double rooms with a shower that are modern and comfortable, but as high as the fourth floor in the attic. Rates are 10,900 Ft per person, not per room. Breakfast and taxes are extra.
The Sos Tavern and Pension looks like a large converted barn on Tokaj-Hegyalja Route 37 situated between Szerencs and Tokaj and with no specific address. Surrounded by vineyards, the pension has 11 rooms with showers and a restaurant, a sauna, and a traditional wine cellar for guests. The nearby Mádi Lake and the forests of Hegyalja are rich in game and offer excellent fishing facilities. For more specific driving directions, contact István Novák (tel. 47/369-139; www.sosborhaz.hu).
Where To Dine -- The restaurant at the Tokaj Hotel has many regional specialties and offers special food programs as well. In summertime, the balcony overlooking the river is open and it offers a delightful view. The pension above also has a restaurant for guests.
Aggtelek: An Entrance To The Caves
224km (139 miles) NE of Budapest
Swaddled in the northernmost part of Hungary to the Slovak border, about 80km (50 miles) north of Eger is the Aggtelek National Park (Aggteleki Nemzeti Park) established in 1985 primarily to protect inorganic natural treasures, surface formations, and caves. A deciduous forest covers 75% of the park inhabited by over 220 species of birds, rare plants, and a rich collection of varied insects. Most fascinating to many is that it also has over 200 caves of various sizes, creating Central Europe's largest cave system. The Baradla Cave is the longest with a total length of 25km (16 miles), including side branches. One 5.6km (3.5 mile) section runs into Slovakia and is called by its Slovak name, Domica. The cave is a youthful 2 million years old according to geologists. Water from streams entered through cracks, dissolving and eroding the limestone, eventually widening the water's entry and formed the current passages. The lime content of the dripping water forms stalactites and stalagmites in a range of sizes, colors, and shapes embellishing the passages, inspiring those who discovered them to give them names such as Dragon's Head, Tiger, Mother in Law's Tongue, the Hall of Columns, and the Hall of Giants. Prehistoric people inhabited the caves according to archaeological excavations.
Guided daily tours are available lasting 1 to 2 hours (roved) covering roughly 1km (1/2 mile). The more rigorous 5-hour (közép), or 7-hour (hosszú) tours cover a range of 7km (about 4 1/2 miles) and include scaling, climbing ladders, and crossing water-filled gullies. They are available from the villages of Aggtelek or Jósvafo from April 1 to September 30 between 8am and 5pm and from October 1 to March 31 between 8am and 3pm. First-time cave visitors will be flabbergasted by the miraculous subterranean world of stalactites, stalagmites, and other bizarre formations that Mother Nature has created.
Classical and other music concerts are held in the beautiful Concert Hall of the Baradla Cave because of its superb acoustics; it provides a very special experience for visitors. For more information, call the Aggtelek National Park Jósvafo, Tengerszem oldal 1 (tel. 48/506-000; www.anp.hu, no English) for tour information.
The Hotel Cseppko (tel. 48/343-075), in the village of Aggtelek, is a popular place to crash after a day in the caves. Double rooms start at 15,000 Ft and a triple is 21,000 Ft, breakfast included. Though it's very plain, it is clean and conveniently located. Camping is also popular in the area.
Travelers without cars can get to Aggtelek by bus from Eger. The trip takes 3 hours. From Miskolc, the trip takes 2 hours. Ask about transportation at the local tourist office (such as Eger's Tourinform or Egertourist), where you can also ask for help booking a room at the Hotel Cseppko. Off season there is no need to book in advance.
Cool Caves -- Remember, no matter how hot it is outside, the Baradla caves are always damp and chilly (a constant 50°-52°F/10°-11°C), so take a couple of layers of clothes to add as the temperature decreases.