Szépasszony-völgy sounded promising. Its name in English was Nice Woman Valley and it was a place where you could get wine, by the glass or by the bucket, very cheaply. This was particularly appealing as forking out a quid at a time for bottles of wine at Penny Markets and ABC shops was depleting my Forint fund fast.
A thirty minute stroll out into the sunlit suburbs of Eger brought me to a valley that was nice and it had women there. The first woman up was a bronze statue of a very nice looking woman who had loosened a significant proportion of her clothing to emphasise just how nice she was but this, I felt, was completely unnecessary and made her look a bit brassy.
The second woman, who was fully clothed, was a real human being and also happened to be the waitress at the Kiss Pincészet wine cellar. There were about twenty of these cellars to choose from and I was dithering a bit over which one to go into so a nice welcoming smile from this young lady standing by the entrance made up my mind for me. Using only the medium of hand gestures and laughter I ordered a glass of Bikavér, having already established over the course of the previous three days that this stuff was good swag. She charged me 300 Forint but I gave her 400 because she had been such a laugh.
Feeling more confident about nice women, valleys and wine, I moved on to another pince (wine cellar). It was the name that attracted me this time. It was called Tóth Ferenc and it looked slightly up market from my first port of call. A surly waitress sitting by the door with a slapped arse of a face told me I had to order my drink inside. ‘Fair enough,’ I thought as I walked deep into the icy cold tunnel with rack after rack of bottles of wine adorning the old dark stone walls and, not that I could understand the significance of this, a strong smell in the air of burnt wood. The setting was absolutely perfect but for the surly waitress with a slapped arse of a face. She charged me 400 Forint for what turned out to be a glass of really nice red wine. I gave her 400 Forint because she was surly and had a slapped arse of a face.
By this time the alcohol was beginning to have a moderate effect. I didn’t want to get into a state where I started singing bawdy ballads like I Belong To Eger or Roll Out The Balatonalmádi Barrel, and in the distance thunder rumbled. So I started to make my way back to the town, but not before I had had a wander around the rest of Nice Woman Valley. The bit I had been to consisted of well appointed, well run wine cellars with tables and chairs and plants blooming in blooming plant pots on verandas outside. In addition to these fine hostelries, scattered all over the place there were dozens more which appeared as concrete fronted bunkers and many of which had closed down permanently. Those that were still trading sold cheap wine in bulk to be taken away in just about any receptacle that you could turn up with. The whole site was like a Sunday morning car boot sale that sold only wine. It was sad that so much of it had gone into such decline and I wondered what it must have been like in its heyday.
By late afternoon I was back in my baroque boarding house with a drop of wine in me and having completed a fair old walk in the searing sunshine, so I thought a slight siesta might be in order. I put on a little mellow Hungarian jazz music, lay back on my bed, closed my eyes and thought of Hungary.
After about five minutes of siesta-ing there was a knock at my door and a voice said, ‘I have a little wine’ when I asked who it was. It turned out to be Lajos the Hotelier who seemed to be at a loose end and was looking for a volunteer to help him pursue his pastime. He suggested in a combination of English, Hungarian and Russian that I might want to put a jumper on. The afternoon had been a hot one so I ignored his advice and followed him into his very own pince.
Concrete steps from inside a battered old shed led down to a sixty metre long tunnel carved into the rock beneath the end of his garden. It was freezing down there but there was no way in the world that I was going back to my room for extra layers in case he changed his mind about his invitation.
Lajos didn’t just have a little wine. Lajos had more than thirty full size barrels of wine, plus enormous glass jars of wine and a couple of barrels of palinka (Hungarian schnapps), all of which he had made himself, using grapes he had grown himself and all without the use of chemicals or additives, he emphasised repeatedly.
Lajos’ wine cellar was nothing like the pristine pince tourist traps that I had drunk in earlier that afternoon. His was a chaotic mess strewn with the tools of his winemaking trade, the tools of his garden, car engine parts and religious paintings. Dust and mildew covered the barrels in this dimly lit, murky paradise and the smell of fine wine filled the air.
As well as being a vintner with decades of experience and knowledge handed down from his father and grandfather, he was the perfect host too. I suppose when you have thousands of litres of delicious wine at your disposal you can afford to be generous. I had glasses of rosé, dry white, full red and sweet red before completing the proceedings with a very large shot of palinka, the savouring of which was forbidden. Palinka was for knocking back in one, no matter how much of a lovely taste of apricots it had!
Lajos the Hotelier, Vintner and Marxist.
I was also entertained with Lajos’ life story as we ‘sampled’ his stock together. He was sixty eight years old. He had a wife who didn’t drink, a son who didn’t make wine, a daughter and three grandchildren. He reckoned he didn’t really drink himself because of the medication he took following an operation he had had for his prostate cancer and the stroke he had suffered ten years ago. The wine in his cellar was for his own personal use; drunk mostly by his friends, the people he let his rooms to and he usually had a small glass with his dinner. I don’t know which category I fitted into because there was no sign of abstinence or moderation whilst I was in his company.
When he had worked he had been the manager of a very large, Soviet style agricultural collective all of which had been highly mechanised in accordance with the Marxist dream. He missed the Communists because they gave everyone a job and everyone a chance in life. ‘Today,’ he said, ‘the small man cannot survive.’ Small farmers cannot afford the vast amounts of money required to buy the agricultural machinery they need to compete in modern day Hungary.
When I asked him his opinion of the European Union he pretended to spit on the ground and told me he hated them because they tried to restrict the amount of wine he could produce. More than thirty barrels simply wasn’t sufficient for a man who didn’t really drink.
Those forty minutes that I spent with Lajos were priceless. You can’t plan an experience like that. It’s not in the guide books, you can’t book it on-line and you can’t buy it from a travel agent. This was real off-the-beaten-track stuff and if nothing else had happened during my stay in Eger, every kilometre of the long journey there would still have been totally worthwhile.
Thank you Lajos my friend and egészségedre!