It conjures images of elderly aunts. Sherry maybe.
Fortunately our love of Spain taught us to enjoy sherry long ago and we were ready to try the sweet nectar of Tokaj.
The Tokaj region spreads across the border and we first visited the Slovakian wine producing village of Mala Trna.
MalaTrna village is all about wine.
There are wineries proudly displaying their awards along the tiny streets.
Deep cellars have been sunk all over. Vines cover the hillsides.
Yet, on a Saturday afternoon in July, nothing was open.
After lunch at the cool watch tower and some serious shed envy we moved on to Hungary.
The town of Tokaj is small, it’s on the confluence of the Tisa and Bodrog rivers, and at the foot of the last hill before the vast expanse of the Hungarian plain.
It really is the last hill. It’s flat for hundreds of miles after here.
We parked up near the railway bridge on the east bank of the Tisa in one of the most perfect wild camping spots we’ve had in a long time.
We could step from the van onto the riverbank and sunbathe on the pontoon.
Polly and I could wander among the pretty little holiday homes built on stilts for flood protection. And there was even a beach (of sorts) complete with bar and dance floor.
Yes the trains rattled our bones, but they were few.
I’d never heard of the River Tisa, yet it’s one of the main rivers of Europe. It full length once flowed only through the Kingdom of Hungary. The river hasn’t changed much, but Hungary is not what is once was. The 966 km river crosses borders to include Ukraine, Slovakia, Serbia and Romania on its way from its source in the Carpathians to joining the Danube in Serbia from where it back tracks to the Black Sea.
From what’s available in the restaurants it would seem that the catfish is the main catch. These ugly scavenger beasts reach monumental size. They have been recorded up to 300 kgs and 4.6 metres long!
Men fish the riverbanks, they fish from bridges and they fish from boats. They’re there when we wake up and they’re there when we go to bed. And every restaurant and café serves fish.
Now I enjoy fish.
And I love trying what the locals eat.
That said, I tried catfish in a paprika stew at a restaurant.
I won’t be trying it again!
It is very fishy. No amount of spice could calm the strong flavour.
And the wine.
Come on, forget the fish, this is all about the wine.
At the bridge over the Tisa there’s a little commercial hub with fast foods, ice cream and a couple of restaurants.
The town is a little further to walk.
On a hot Sunday in July the bit around the bridge was busy, but the crowds soon thinned out.
Even here many of the producers’ outlets were closed.
When we walked up a street with a couple of more prestigious looking wineries, we were the only ones there.
It took a bit of bravery to descend the steep steps into one of the cellars – but we’re glad we did.
The cold, damp and almost dark cellar was a relief from the glaring sunshine outside.
Jozef the manager welcomed us with a few hellos in different languages.
You could sample any of his wares, or buy a 100ml glass from about 50p up to perhaps £1.50 for the absolute best.
Sweet wines come as a bit of a surprise to the uninitiated.
They’re not called that for nothing.
We sampled many, enjoyed four glasses, and I immediately bought a bottle of 2015 Koverszolo.
At just over a fiver it was one of his more expensive offerings, and worth every penny. It’s a rich golden colour and quite magnificent. Like good spirit it’s best taken slowly – I look forward to the occasion when we share this one.
Minty was less taken with the sweeter wines and preferred the semi sweet, where she was also spoilt for choice.
Sweet wines – it’s a whole new world and one we’re glad to have taken the time to acclimatise to.
Decline, awaiting its redux.
Tokaj feels as if it’s in decline, although its future may well be bright.
The new (relative) affluence of the country has probably led to far fewer people camping locally. There were three large campsites around the town that had been abandoned.
Likewise many places were closed at the height of the holiday season.
But as Hungary opens up and interest in great wines at sensible prices increases I’m sure its time will come again. It’s a case of holding on.
Across the plains.
After standing on top of the last hill the only way to go was to descend into the plains.
It’s flat for a very very long way.
The 52,000km2 Alfold plain is bigger than the whole of Slovakia, and indeed encompasses 56% of Hungary. This is cowboy country. A land of Steppe, beautiful horses, huge grey cattle, and water buffalo.
We’re staying for two nights at its cultural heart, the Hortobagy National Park at the immaculate Okotura camp site. There are free flies with everything, but other than that it’s a great place to get clean and charge our own batteries.
We’ve been on the road for 15 months now, and much of what seemed exciting and new has become the everyday.
Everyday perhaps, but far from boring.
It’s still exciting to snuggle down in our perfect space at night.
Still fun cooking up on the little two ring.
And every day is very much an adventure.
It’s a way of life, and very different to a holiday.
What we don’t notice, usually until it’s too late, is that it gets tiring. Every now and then we need a break, even if it’s just a little one.
A campsite where everything is so much easier is all that it takes to recharge. And two nights here should serve us well.
More breakfast of champions. Garlic kick starts the day.
We share the cooking in the evening.
Minty always cooks breakfast.
That’s the rule at home and on the road. And she does a great job time after time.
A day that starts with garlic and onions that retain a little bite is likely to be a good one. I have high hopes for today.
This omelette was close to perfect.
Pusztas Animal Park.
We were lured by the picture of a baby donkey.
This place has seen better days.
A motley collection of chickens, pigs, sheep and a few donkeys. None looking as though they were loving life.
The best bit was the goats’ house. A deeply thatched building that was cool, despite the 28 degrees outside.
Last night in Hungary.
We took Polly to Debrecen, Hungary’s second city, where a lovely vet gave her the fifth of her seven injections.
It was our plan to stay near the centre, but the place we’d chosen had a festival kicking off down the road and we didn’t fancy being in the midst of it later in the evening.
We left in our intended direction of travel and happened upon an excellent lakeside spot with fresh water and toilets. It’ll soon be on Park4Night so that others can enjoy it too.
In the morning a family of little fisherfolk took to the lake with their rods, and just 30 minutes later showed me their haul of 5 carp in a huge bucket. After a few photos they released the fish to swim another day.
Snap Crackle and Pop.
The lake was teeming of life, and thick with weed too.
You couldn’t see the fish among the weed, but you could hear them, and even see hundreds of mouths feeding on the surface. Their mouths create a smacking sound, just like a bowl of rice crispies.
A new impression of Hungary.
I had maligned the country. I have learned my mistake.
Last year I had two brief forays into Hungary, and came away thinking that it was generally bandit country, down on its luck and struggling.
This time I feel differently. Nothing has been scary. The welcome was certainly warmer than Slovakia’s. And while flat can be pretty boring, in Hungary there’s a mix of dense woodland to break up the plains.
It’s not exciting. An hour in Romania brought more excitement than a week in Hungary. But it is pleasant. And its fruit haul was most impressive. I’ll have to save that story for another time.
All stop locations, with photos, are written up in chronological order on Minty’s Our Travels section (you need to click through to show the map).