Bull’s Blood, Beautiful Women and a Milk Float

The first and best news, summer has arrived in Hungary, every day this week its been getting warmer. The days are lengthening too so at last we have been able to start eating outside of an evening – although it did get a little confusing when I cooked dinner an hour early on Monday as we lost an hour between Romania and Hungary!

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A meeting of capitalist advertising with socialist concrete at Tiszafured

Our stay in Tiszafured was all about the thermals, river and Lake Tisza, pretty much everything revolves around them and the tourists they bring in. The main claim to fame of the River Tisza is supposedly Attila the Hun is buried somewhere along it! Lake Balaton has always been “The” place to go in Hungary for lake based breaks and is popular with the richer Budapest residents. When the river Tisza was dammed 25 years ago, to stop flooding to the plains, a new lake was formed in the North, Tisza, which  has become the alternative for the poorer man as everything is cheaper here than in the South.

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Lake Tisza

All around the lake there are dwellings of every shape and size from regular houses to sheds to chalets and pretty much everything in between. Out on the lake there are sheds and caravans moored up – they pop them on a pontoon and float them out to the reed beds, tether them there for the summer and use them for weekends and fishing trips. The lake has several water parks, slides and even imported sand in places. There must have been 30 Camping Parks around the lake, most of the chalet variety but it looks like a growing trade with caravans both of the more modern variety and the not so modern.

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Caravans Hungarian style

The bike path around the lake is pretty spectacular, on an embankment so great views right the way round. We decided a 15 miles ride out then same back to keep us in our comfort level, but you know how it is, another mile or so, then another, then we got to the 20 mile part where going back would have been as far as continuing so on we went. Thank the Lord for the little coffee shack we found because without a shot of pure caffeine not sure I would have made the last 10 miles. It was actually 70 km which meant we had cycled 43 miles, as we haven’t been on our bikes for 2 months it was without doubt a bum killer of a ride.

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Brilliant bike path – all 43 miles of it!

Three days at the spa was enough (Iain will disagree, is there a word for thermal spa addict? if so he is one) so we were looking for somewhere to go for the weekend. Our choice was a Hungarian rodeo and riding campsite or one at the city of Eger. As Hungary had been such a rural experience we decided to visit Eger, less than 50 km away and in keeping with each of our moves in Hungary of less than an hours drive. We were packed up and there before lunch, still not used a motorway and hence still not used our vignette, no need the main roads are brilliant and even though they run through the centre of each village we find them quick and easy to use. The campsite is right on the edge of the city, green fields one side and less than 1 km walk into the old town on the other.

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Wine cellar entrances outside the campsite

Literally outside the campsite gates is the Szepasszony – “Valley of the Beautiful Women” – famous for wine production, mainly the Bull’s Blood variety. There are over 200 tunnel shaped caves and cellars dug deep into the hills some are sealed off but in the village square type area 30 or 40 have bars and cafes built outside and you can wander through to the caves and have a sample or buy a few bottles. People wander from cellar to cellar tasting, as the afternoon wore on bus-loads began to arrive so we guessed it becomes a bit like a pub crawl. Outside in the square there was a Hungarian Gypsy band playing, all very atmospheric except they were playing songs from the Godfather films!

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Szepasszony wine caves

If we are going to visit a city we tend to try and find a small one, Eger is just that as its only the 19th largest city in Hungary.  It has in it’s time been attacked, occupied or owned by the Ottomans, Mongols, Hasburgs and a few others, the Turks left a 40 metre tall minaret as a reminder of their 91 year occupation. Many of the buildings in the centre are Baroque and Rococo styles, including the cathedral and the palace and county hall, everything is beautifully preserved and the cobbled streets and pavement cafes look like something from a history book. There is of course a castle on top of the hill but to be honest we were a bit too warm to bother climbing up the hill to see it. Just wandering the city there are more building that need photographing than we had time to devote to so for a change we ignored the fortifications.

Whilst we aren’t connoisseurs of cities by any means we would bet our last few thousand Forint this one would be very difficult to better. All the history and culture you could need in a small area, two thermal spas in the centre and restaurants and pavement cafes by the hundred. A lucky find right in the middle of our route.

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Eger Basilica

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Baroque in the city

In the central park we came across a market, very much for tourists but none the worse for that. Mostly local handy crafts and sellers demonstrating their arts with looms, leather work and some pretty stinking meat curing; several people dressed in traditional Hungarian dress wandering around and a traditional folk group playing on a stage by the fountain.

There was even a traditionally dressed local goat herder playing (badly) what appeared to be goat bagpipes, for a few coins he was happy to have his photo taken, we thinks he was a smart cookie student making his weekly wage. Whilst you knew it was a set up for visitors it was ace – maybe it was the sunshine but it was well done enough to make you feel you were at an authentic market.

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they be Hungarians for sure

To finish our day off we couldn’t resist a ride on a milk float, known here as the electric bus to the Valley of the Beautiful Women. For under £2 each the driver said we could stay on and go around the whole circuit, we made do with a lift back to the campsite – philistines we might be but it was the best part of the day, sat on the back facing seat waving to the local Eger-ians 🙂

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And that was Hungary! Whilst the visit was brief we have managed to fit in rural, city and lake. Unfortunately for Hungary it’s not quite on our route but we have found this little corner we have scurried around to be well worth visiting – we believe it’s better to have visited briefly than driven straight through (which was an option as we have only driven 3 hours in the week we have been here). A more calm, laid back, green and organised country we have yet to visit.

Tomorrow it’s Monday so we must be due another border – yes we are Slovakia awaits.

We chose ice-cream over wine

Hungary is all about the thermals

Another test of that old chestnut as to whether there is much difference in the countries either side of a border crossing. From Romania to Hungary its a massive yes. The roads are long, straight and tarmac, houses are larger but in smaller plots, and lastly its flat as a proverbial pancake compared to the mountains of Transylvania. Border crossing was easy and over in nano-seconds, guard asked where we have been and are going – as we reeled it off he took on a glazed look and waved us through. Vignette purchased, we feel robbed though as you don’t get a sticker for the windscreen and we changed our Leu to Forint, sadly they gave us most of it in 10,000 notes so the wallets aren’t bulging. the hour we ‘sprung’ forward last week came straight back and caused confusion all day until we realised why the Sat Nav had us arriving in places 5 minutes before we left.

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First impression of Hungary for us then, are we in Holland? It’s exceptionally flat, very clean, cycle paths everywhere and tulips a plenty in the gardens. Even the town names seem a bit Dutch to us, everything is orderly and well thought out and they have space and are not afraid to leave it as just open space.  Suddenly it  feels a bit more like 21st century Northern Europe and yet 20 miles ago we were on unpaved roads and overtaking horses and carts. We both agree this feels very relaxed, its all way too organised to worry about anything here.

The plan now is always to be heading in a fairly Northern direction so after the border we drove up to Debrecen and straight through the city centre (Sunday, so quiet and easily done). Plenty of huge concrete apartment blocks as we travelled through the city, an old fashioned tramway and an electric bus type tram, despite both of these the roads were wide and reasonably easy to negotiate – we probably wouldn’t try it on a weekday though. More evidence of being further North as we drove through the city was Tesco, closely followed by MacDonalds (which we haven’t seen since Italy).

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From there it was out onto the Great Plains of Hungary. Not usually our ideal scenery but its been mountains for months now so this is actually a refreshing change. Mile after mile of grasslands, big sky and the odd village dotted along the roads, akin to Norfolk with lots of Trabant and Skoda on the roads.  Hortobagy was chosen as the place to stay purely because there was a campsite open. We rolled up, its closed! Tourist Info office said campsites open in Hungary May 1st (but advertise April 1st!), lucky for us a small pension / guest house just down the road opened last week and had camping in the grounds. The pension was a square concrete block with windows but the people and the welcome were warm, as was the sun so we pitched up for a few days, it goes without saying no one else was there but the motorhome facilities were top notch so no complaints from us.

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Horotbagy’s ‘Nine Holed Bridge’

The reason there was a Tourist Info was we had stumbled into the UNESCO site of Hortobagy National Park, the largest grassland area in Europe. The village is the centre of 800 km square park, known as the Puszta. It contains a bird sanctuary, rare breeds farm, horse stud, a couple of very big lakes and grassland further than the eye can see. In the main square there are museums to the herdsmen and also a large market area where you can buy pretty much anything related to horses or cows, sheepskin, saddlery, you name it. The area is awash with Hungarian cowboys and rodeos, plenty of the people keep horses in the back gardens, whip-cracking is big and the favoured head-wear is more your stetson than your cossack.

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Slow down for all sorts 🙂

At the end of the village the bridge the famous Nine Holed Bridge leads to the the site of remembrance for the forced labour camps that were in the area in the early 1950’s. Over ten thousand people were detained in the fenced camps around the village and were only released after the death of Stalin. Complete families were then left to fend for themselves after release with no help from the state. It was only in 1995 that official confirmation was released that the Hungarian gulag had actually ever existed here, at that time an iron cross was erected which has since become a place of pilgrimage for the survivors of the camps. Despite the magnitude of the camps all trace of them have been destroyed with the exception of a few ruins deep in the park.

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In memory of the those who were in the forced labour camps

Just when we thought we had probably discovered all we could about a village of less than 200 houses we came across the tank memorial, this commemorates the six day tank battle in October 1944 which took place in the puszta with over 1000 tanks and 1 million soldiers taking part. For somewhere we stopped at purely because we thought it might have a good campsite there was certainly a fair bit to do and see. We spent two days walking, good flat tracks which suit us down to the ground and plenty of bird spotting on route.

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Puszta tank memorial

As with every country we try to come up with something we both want to do, see or experience as our main reason for being there. For Hungary we have agreed its goulash and a thermal spa as they seem to be the two things the country is most famous for (we are ignoring Budapest in that summary). With this is mind we took a hop and a spit up the road to Tiszafured which is a spa resort town. Again, not a spa in the way we might think of one, more like a fun park at the edge of town with chalets and camping (think Kellerman’s) with loads of different pools. A last we have company! There are three German units on site and the owner tells us he has another couple due in. So its positively buzzing compared to what we have been used to for the last month 🙂

The campsite is attached to the thermal spa which means its free for us to use, so its just 20 seconds from the van and into the various spa pools which range from 29 C in the swimming pool to an indoor thermal pool at 38 C and what they term the ‘big, round, bubbly outside pool’ which is 34 C. According to the literature this thermal water can and will cure pretty much every ailment known to man and then some! The list of minerals it contains falls off the bottom of the page and onto another. With this in mind we have spent the afternoon wallowing – not a pretty word but accurately describing our movements. We tried the indoor pool which was the hottest but it was a little like God’s waiting room, we gave that up and had the outdoor pool to ourselves for a couple of hours.


Midway through a very long wallow

The village of Tiszafured is on the edge of Tisa Lake and has a 70 km cycle path right around, not aiming to go that mad but we will be seeing how far we can go (there is a ferry midway if we need a short-cut) – then its back to the “Termal Kemping’ as our lovely Hungarian host calls it for at least the rest of the week.