Tuesday, 5 June 2012

The Glorious Danube - Hungary

(With apologies for the slow upload of this episode!)

Continuing our epic Danube River voyage – the Imperial Capitals of Europe – on the River Duchess of Uniworld from Romania to Austria...

Hungary, Part 1

We are now (sadly) past the half-way point of our cruise, having glided through Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Croatia, the very heart of the Balkans, and it is time to move from east to central Europe.

Hungary was our next stop, and we had three contrasting days in store. Our first port of call in Magyar territory was Mohacs (above), a seemingly typical riverside town boasting its own medieval history and traditions – notably the weird and wonderful Buso Festival each March, which celebrates the end of the Lent season in suitably wild, costumed fashion (if you can imagine hordes of sheepskin-festooned, masked and alcohol-fueled men rushing about wielding sticks in comical fashion!).

Our enthusiastic guide for a morning stroll through the town gave us the full Buso story while we visited the high street, main church and town hall in leisurely succession before returning to the Duchess under our own guidance (via a shop or two!).

After another excellent buffet lunch (breakfast and lunch are always served buffet-style, with several specialities each day), including a tempting array of Hungarian dishes, it was time to board our next chariot (in the form of yet another comfortable coach) and head off into the hinterland, destination Villanyi.

After the relatively rural, near-subsistence levels we saw in much of Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Croatia, there was a definite difference in the air of wealth and prosperity in the Hungarian landscape, with the likes of Burger King and British stores Tesco, Spar and even Marks & Spencer all to be seen – signs of a healthy middle class indeed!

Our first stopping point was the village of Villanyi in the heart of Hungary’s famous wine region, seeded with German grapes more than 300 years ago and still thriving today. It is also the very opposite of the big, mass-produced wineries you see in much of Germany, France, California and even Australia – individual family-owned holdings carved out of the hillside and handed down from generation to generation.

The Borozo winery (above) was a classic example, a business that had been in the family for almost 300 years and was still, largely, a husband-and-wife concern. Their own wine cellar – one of several dozen arranged in neat rows along the hillside – was not so much an underground facility as the middle tier of a three-layer series of tunnels bored directly into the side of the hill, with the actual vineyards on top.

We entered via a narrow frontage that looked more like a row of garages but quickly discovered this unprepossessing exterior led into a cellar-cool brick-lined tunnel that took us down and under the hill. Full of barrels and thousands of bottles already laid down, our hosts had lined up three wines and various snacks all set out for tasting – a rosé and two reds, including a surprisingly vibrant and tasty Cabernet.

We sampled the flavourful trio as our Hungarian host relayed a series of tasting notes via our guide/interpreter. The tour finished by going up a level into their little café/wine bar, with the inevitable opportunity to buy some of their produce. But, at just €11 for an excellent Cab, we certainly weren’t short-changed.

Back on the coach, the gloomy weather finally relented as we reached the outskirts of Pecs, Hungary’s fourth-largest city and another major surprise. Here was a wonderful mix of new and old, a typical medieval settlement boasting part of the original city walls and an amazing array of 17th, 18th and 19th century churches, mansions and other buildings, all boasting an eye-catching baroque and neo-Gothic style.

Our tour guide offered a non-stop stream of commentary of Pecs’ long history and introduced us to two highly-regarded museums, including one for the famous local porcelain that now commands a serious price in the big-name stores of Europe.

Not wishing to miss our own exploration of this surprising city, we opted to miss the museums in favour of more time to wander – and what a wander it proved to be.

As well as more – and ever ingenious – fountains than you could shake a Hungarian stick at, the central square (above) was a real wow moment as we rounded a corner to discover this huge open space lined on three sides by more of the classic period architecture and dominated on the upper side by a church-turned-mosque-turned-reconverted-church, testimony to the great push and shove of the Ottoman age, when the powerful Turkish empire covered half of Europe before being fought to a standstill by the Habsburgs and then gradually evicted.

Knowing nothing about Pecs in advance (and precious little about the Ottoman empire either, to be honest), it proved a fascinating couple of hours as we meandered along the mazy streets and admired this overwhelming collection of period architecture (along with a delicious gelato!).

The new face of the city could be seen in a modern indoor shopping centre, along with brands like H&M, C&A and Marks and Spencer, and it was clear Hungary itself is integrating itself into the contemporary European scene much faster than its eastern neighbours.

All too soon, it was time to re-board our coach to return to the ship at Fajsz, with the prospect of Budepest the next day, but our first impressions of Hungary are pretty positive...

This ‘Imperial Capitals of Europe’ voyage can be booked at www.uniworldrivercruises.co.uk, with Titan Travel (in the UK only) at www.titantravel.co.uk or, for more on river-cruising in general, seek out the luxury cruise-agent specialists of The Cruise Line Ltd on this link.