I wrote in an earlier post that we were enroute to the Bukk Hills, the wine-making region of Hungary. There is a lot of narrative to this blog entry, but I don't want to forget this day and am happy to share it with readers. It may even help a future traveler to Hungary.
Approaching the village of Voszvaj, we drove by fields of grapevines. All of the parts of Hungary I had seen thus far were beautiful. But, we had now left the puszta and this area was differently beautiful with rolling hills and vineyards lining the roads. Look at that stunning blue sky with tiny specks of clouds peaking over the hills in the distance!
After seeing White-backed Woodpecker and following our dash from Bukki Nemzeti Park in torrential rain and after our coffee in the village, the whole afternoon stretched before us with gray clouds seeming full of rain still hanging overhead. Gerard asked if I had any interest in visiting one of the local wine cellars. He couldn't promise, but he knew of one where the vintner might be hanging around. Would I be interested in visiting a Hungarian wine cellar? There's an easy answer to this question. Absolutely! The photo above, with Viktor the vintner in red shirt, was taken as we were leaving - blue sky peaking through scattering clouds - but when we drove up the sky was still heavy with rain clouds. Gerard spotted Viktor at the front door and exclaimed, "Ah yes, he's here. Give me a second and I'll just see if he's open." Of course he was open. What else was he doing there.
Viktor invited us into a little cave-like entrance that held a table with some empty bottles atop it. From this anteroom we went down a few steps to a larger cave-like room. A bare bulb hanging from the ceiling provided our light. Barrels lined both sides of the small room.
Earlier Gerard explained to me that the region had a soft rock that was easy to excavate to make these wine cellars and that many were over 100 years old and older. Viktor was 84 years old and he had inherited his cellar from his grandfather.
Which wine would I like to try? White or red? Without hesitation, my reply, "red."
Neither of the gentlemen above look too happy. That's Gerard on the left and Vikor on the right. Viktor unscrewed the cap to one of the kegs on the left side of his cellar and then used the glass contraption that Gerard is holding and placed the long end into the keg and put his mouth at the other end to draw the wine from the keg. Viktor carefully dripped the wine collected in the bubble of this contraption into a juice glass. I think you can get a better idea of this thing in the photo below. That's me with Viktor holding both the contraption and my juice glass with red wine.
Now, here's the thing. This wine was not just good, but very good. Sure enough, I was on vacation in Hungary and in an old wine cellar being served wine from an old Hungarian vintner. But the other side to this is that I'm a wine drinker - think that a good evening meal is missing something without wine. Viktor's red wine was not sweet, nor was it dry - more somewhere in the middle and this made it delightful to drink.
Since I had liked the red so well, would I like to try the white? Viktor's white wine was what he was really proud of. Sure, why not. He went through the same process drawing the white wine from one of the kegs on the opposite wall. The white wine was also very good. This wine would easily be classified as sweet. At home in the summertime, sauvignon blanc - crisp and citrusy - is my favorite white wine. But Viktor's sweet white wine was so pleasing. We stood around and sipped the wine looking at things in the ancient cellar. That black stuff on the wall in the photo above is a fungus called "noble rot."
We moved outdoors and sat on three legged stools so that I could finish my white wine. Gerard and I, realizing that we were drinking wine in the middle of the day without having yet had lunch, opened little packs of almonds that I had brought from home. We gave Viktor an almond packet and he opened it politely and tried one, but he didn't seem too interested. Gerard then wandered off to find a private place and left me, languageless, alone with Viktor. Then I found out something else about Viktor. He was kind of a dirty old man. Nothing terrible of course but I was relieved when I saw Gerard returning.
Viktor charged us what we both thought a paltry sum for our excellent wine tasting so we tripled this and, after a couple more obligatory kisses, were on our way to fill the rest of the afternoon with birding.
Sometime later on the trip, as were were passing people in a village going about their daily activities, out of the blue Gerard happened to comment that Hungarians "are not smiling people." I hadn't paid much attention, but when he mentioned this I could see the truth in it. When I was home again and looking at the photos of our wine-tasting afternoon, I was reminded of Gerard's comment from Viktor's facial expression in the photo above. It is also observable in the unsmiling Gerard and Viktor in the fourth photo. Gerard is British, from Liverpool, and is married to a Hungarian and has two young adult sons. He has lived in Hungary for most years of his adult life. He would be the first to say that he could never return to live in England. He is fluent in Hungarian and has probably also taken on this unsmiling approach to daily living. Then in the fifth photo, look at me - smiling away. I considered how Americans are always going to take it on the chin when traveling abroad - especially in Europe. It's evident in my photo.
But was any of this the dog that bit me? Oh no, no, no, no, no.
Later that same night, while sitting in the chair just behind the family dog, Gerard and I joined Gabor and Clara, the hotel family's patriarch and matriarch for conversation after dinner. Gerard has brought many groups to the Nomad Hotel and is well-known to their family. Their friendship was charming and it was easy to see how fond Gabor and Clara were of him. I thought they treated him like a son who was home for a visit.
Out of nowhere came the word palinka. Mild sounding word. Innocent enough. With many words in between, Clara exited the table and a few minutes later returned with a gallon jug of clear liquid and three aperitif glasses. Mind you, not four glasses because, as I quickly realized, she had no intention of staying. This should have been my first clue. She handed the jug to Gabor, said a few more words and left. The jug was half-full with Gabor's home-brewed apple palinka.
"Ah ga shey ga dra" - phonetic Hungarian for to your health was said all around and we sipped Gabor's apple palinka. Again, ah ga shey ga dra and the three glasses were tipped off. Gabor was impressed that I could pronounce this bit of Hungarian. I thought, oh good I'm finally learning some Hungarian. Then Gabor disappeared inside the house and returned a few minutes later with a bottle of clear liquid with an attractive label and presented this to me. It was his homemade pear palinka. I was surprised and a little overwhelmed. We may have had another tip off or not, I can't remember. But when I stood to go, I was unsteady. Oh no. I clutched my bottle of pear palinka and carefully stepped up the one stair into the hotel. I wobbled up the stairs to my room. I managed to enter my room and change for bed. This is all I remember of those kind of details.
I may have been drunk, my hangover may have started early, but what I remember most is being sick. Really sick!
The next morning Gerard and I were meeting for our last chance to see perched Grey-headed Woodpecker. I was too embarrassed not to show up and got out early to sit on the outdoor patio furniture. I thought fresh air might help. He didn't say anything, but I thought Gerard was surprised to see me. We arrived at our woodpecker spot and stayed only a couple of minutes before I told him I was going back. I returned to bed for another blessed hour. I was a few minutes late meeting Gerard in the breakfast room. I poured myself a cup of coffee. When Gerard got up for seconds, I asked him to make me some dry toast and I nibbled at this. Somehow that morning I managed to finish packing, pay my bill, take some photos for memory and say goodbye to everyone. We got on the road at a reasonable time despite the delay my condition caused.
We approached a small town with a pharmacy and Gerard mentioned a medication he said his wife swore by and offered to stop for some. I was feeling very peaked and agreed. He ran into the pharmacy and returned with a box of - wait for it - alka-seltzer. Just like the old television commercial, I plopped two tablets into a small cup of water and watched them fizz. Truth be told, I don't recall ever having had alka-seltzer before. I drank slowly. By god, it worked! By late morning I told Gerard that I was feeling better and that I would be okay. I thanked him for his quick thinking. Lunch was light, and that evening I ate a normal dinner of catfish and drank coke at the fish restaurant attached to our hotel along the Tiszla river.
You read it here first. If in Hungary, no matter how many ah ga shey ga dra invitations you receive, beware of the palinka. There is no American equivalent to this alcoholic beverage. Later when I spoke with friends and family about this event, I was reminded that the palinka was home-brewed and that its alcohol content could not be measured accurately. For all I knew, it could have been 100% alcohol. It seems clear now that my illness was acute alcohol toxicity. I can advise, with some authority, when you hear the word palinka run for your life.
In the next twenty-four hours I had a couple more alka-seltzer tablets which I found soothing and thought I was fully mended. Then, on our final night at the Tiszla river hotel and after seeing the female black woodpecker, I ordered another fish meal. I realized with the first bite that I would not be able to eat. I tried another bite and knew it was not going to go down. Not it or anything else either. The kind waiter was concerned and offered to bring me something else - anything I wished. With a little head shake, I politely refused. "No, there is nothing." "Dessert?" "No, thank you." As Gerard finished his dinner, the restaurant manager walked by and commented to Gerard that I was not eating. Gerard said something about still not being up to snuff after the palinka. The manager replied that I should then have a little more palinka and Gerard translated for me. "You know, the hair of the dog ..." Oh right, we have that saying too.
I packed that night to be ready early for our last birding walk of the trip. This I surely did not want to miss. I left Gabor's pear palinka out on the table. When I went down for breakfast in the morning I carried the bottle of palinka. The restaurant manager arrived and I went to him and gave the bottle of palinka with its beautiful label to him saying, "the dog that bit me." Gerard translated this and the manager laughed and happily accepted the palinka. Of course, he's Hungarian. He can drink the stuff.
"To your health" is really this in Hungarian: Az egészségre.