An asphalt road lined by white stucco houses all with red tile roofs ends abruptly. Seven cyclists, along with leader Gábor Závodie, owner of Vinociped, a Hungarian bike tour company, pedal on a gravel path for about a mile. Heat rises from the ground and the uneven stones on the road sparkle from the sun. Now crunching and grinding sounds overcome the rhythmic whirring of bike wheels. Thick pine groves border the route. Suddenly it is cooler. We’ve entered the Balaton Uplands National Park. At the end of the path, tall pines form a semi circle around two oversized wood picnic tables. We’ve arrived at our lunch destination on the first day of our seven day wine and bike tour of Hungary’s Uplands.
Seven cyclotourists (four Americans and three Australians) depart in a chauffeured van and drive almost two hours to Vesprém, known as the city of Queens. Every Hungarian queen has been crowned here in this city which is a mixture of old and new. Castle grounds make up the old town area but the rest of the city is modern, with overpasses, malls and traffic.
We spend the night at Oliva Pension, a medieval like inn with several small courtyards. In the morning, it’s uphill at the start to get out of town and then we follow an old Roman road in a blazing sun and in high humidity to Lake Balaton, the largest fresh water lake in Central Europe. After pedaling for several hours, it was time for a much needed break. In the middle of a forest, straight out of a fairy tale, a feast awaits. Chef Josep, in a bright red toque, and his wife Eva stand ready to serve. Both smile broadly and nod their heads. They wear long white aprons with their arms crossed in front of themselves. Josep extends his hand in welcome with a handshake that could bring you to your knees.
Black and white speckled bowls with handles on each side rest on square placemats. Wine glasses, water glasses along with bottles of sparkling and still water and pitchers of red and white wine fill the table. Another picnic table holds a portable propane tank used for heating cabbage in a creamy paprika laden sauce, with tennis ball size meatballs. A cardboard box holds small glasses for Josep’s homemade palinka. Palinka is Hungarian’s national drink.
Every self-respecting proprietor makes his own version. Some palinka is made from blueberries or apricots. Josep makes his from honey. Eva’s raisin studded lemony cheesecake finishes the meal. After a two- hour repast and getting to know one another, it’s time to push to on. Groaning as we leave the table, but a downhill ride takes us to Lake Balaton, only twenty minutes away.
We bike along the water’s edge where swans float among dozens of sea birds. It’s tricky to pedal through the crowds that included men prancing around in Speedos and ample size middle age women in bikinis. Nevertheless, we arrive at Anna Grand, our hotel for the night.
Lake Balaton’s mountainous Northern shore is a famous wine region and this is where our biking was concentrated. Throughout the week, we rubbed shoulders with working winemakers, often right in their homes and vineyards.
At Istvándy, one of the wineries, we were ushered down into the mold encrusted cellar. The air was damp and musty. There we tasted dry white wine and saw bottles, centuries-old, thickly coated in black fungus. Following the tasting, we proceeded upstairs to a hall filled with long tables. As soon as we sat down, wood platters loaded with goose liver, ham, salami, bacon, assorted fruit and hunks of bread were served.
Gergely Borhaz, another winery, is owned by Seabo Gergo, one of Gabor’s friends. As with many of the other wineries, this establishment has been family owned for generations. Seabo uses both stainless steel and oak barrels for making wine. The vineyards spill down the hillside and we sip a glass of chardonnay at a picnic table under a huge oak tree.
Delicious smells from an outdoor oven drift by. Lunch was prepared at 5am that morning. Great chunks of ham mixed in with carrots, peas, tomatoes and potatoes stewed in a huge roasting pan are responsible for the wonderful aromas. Seabo, a most accommodating host, spreads blankets on a nearby lawn so we may nap after the meal. No one in our group declines the offer.
When we aren’t eating or drinking we pedal alongside railroad tracks and through towns with names that are unpronounceable to me. We pass tractors on the road and small farm houses surrounded by vines and big oak trees. The roads are lined by poplars. At times we ride close to the shore of Lake Balaton and pass hotels built during the Communist era. These hotels reflect Soviet style architecture, square buildings with grey stucco. Lake Balaton was where Hungarian families spent their state sponsored vacations.
In spite of the 40 year Communist takeover which wiped out many small wineries, Hungary’s wine industry has had a long and rich history. Romans planted vines over 2,000 years ago. Wine making emerged from the shadow of politics and the industry has been growing steadily since the fall of Communism.
Gábor serves as a goodwill ambassador to promote Hungarian wines. He tells us that grapes grown in the Lake Balaton region produce wines with a bright acidity. A measure of complexity, that emanates from the strong minerality of the soil, adds to the flavor. During the week, we taste some fine Rieslings and also sample Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc and other full bodied wines
At week’s end, we’re back where we started from, at the Oliva Pension in Vesprém. We raise our wine glasses once again and share a farewell dinner. Although this dinner can’t compare with the previous meals we ate during the week, this was a time to celebrate new friendships and bask in the trip’s afterglow. We got to know this area of Hungary from two approaches, indoor (all the eating and drinking) and outdoor (pedaling through the country side). So as a result, we leave in the morning for our respective homes and take little bit of the spirit of Hungary with us.