I’m Just Asking

Day 8: 25 July 2004

Sunday. Our first day off, and a lie-in till the late hour of 7:25. When we do wake and rise into the day, breakfast feels strangely wrong. Served at a table, in a building – it does not feel right. Where is our field? Where is our hay meadow? We all instinctively feel the loss, and wish fondly for the smell of new-cut grass and the drying dew.

A little after 8 o’clock, Zoë and Ewan climb into the back seats of the Green Monster with Gabor and his girlfriend in the front, and whilst Claire and Francoise join Attila and his girlfriend in the brown micra, the rest of us take to Imre’s small, blue minibus.

We drive south to Eger, first through rolling fields of grassland with storks standing on one leg and feeding, then villages with wagon wheels on the ridges (for the storks), and latterly though bleak, sprawling, industrial subhurbs. We pass a huge out of town Tesco’s before turning up a tree-lined road flanked with metred parking and tall tenement blocks.

From here, we descend down the street, and a narrower alley with views over the terracotta pan tiled roofs, and the forested hills beyond, into one of the main streets. We are given a walking tour of the old medieval town, and through narrower streets to the castle, where some enjoy ice creams; for myself, I am drawn to a stand selling wooden goblets. It’s a festival today and they have a market that ranges from traditional crafts to tourist tat. We ascend broad stairs onto the castle walls from where we are presented with a good view of the changing of the guard. The changing of the guard involves traditional military dress in bright colours, and much marching around the castle grounds and firing of muskets and cannons, and must take some thirty minutes to be completed…

…following which, we walk the walls some more and, upon finding some swings in the shape of horses, and horses and carts, some of us are tempted by a swing. Reaching a disappointing dead end as far as the walls go, we retrace our steps and descend again to push on through the market to the castle proper where there is some kind of re-enactment. Being narrated, in so far as it is narrated at all, in Hungarian, we don’t understand a lot of it, however, whatever the tale, the soldiers do not seem to be doing too well against the revolutionaries…!

In the galleried rooms over-looking the re-enactment there is an art exhibition consisting of a miscellany of Hungarian and Western (mainly religious) painting that was collected over the years by the Bishop of Eger. This is followed, in an odd kind of juxtaposition with a tour of the dungeons complete with an exhibition of the tools of punishment and torture.

Outside again, we enjoy our noonday mid-morning snack – an extension of breakfast – and head back through the fortress to wander the stalls of the market. Many of the stalls are standard tourist tat but there are also some selling very nice plates and goblets fashioned from wood. There is also much in the way of fine ironmongery on display, including swords that gleam and glint in the sun.

Slowly, and in twos and threes we make our way back to the gate to rendezvous with our Hungarian guides. Walking back down the hill, we skirt round the streets beneath the high fortress walls, and stop for a moment to watch as a young ‘novice’ girl beats a guy in his twenties in a climbing competition to reach the top of the sheer walls. Then, to the minaret, where in company with Jessica, Judith, Helen, Ewan, Martin, Steven and Claire, I climb the narrow, and very steep steps. Jessica first, then me, we make our way up the 107 steps through a stairwell tat is only slightly more than shoulder width (and sometimes slightly less).

As the light from the top finally filters down to me, my only concern is how I am to get down these steps again. At the top, the platform is slightly too narrow to stand on, and the railing is a waste height. The length of it is only long enough for the eight of us, and two extras to have joined us, to stand on, and we must shuffle round in sequence to take in the fine view across the roofs of the town. Somewhere far beneath we wave at Leonie and Louise, waving back. The descent is not as frightening as I had feared, moving forwards, step by step, and feeling for each beneath my feet, balancing myself with hands on the steps above me, and taking care not to stand on Jessica’s hands as I go.

We reach the bottom, and take a step back to look up at the perilous height from whence we have come, before returning back to the tree-lined street where we left the motley collection of cars and vans to drive to another part of town, further out from the castle in a valley with restaurants and wine cellars, we have a meal on a restaurant terrace with live, traditional, music drifting through the air.

At my table; Judy, Martin, Helen, Louise and Jessica, we have soup for starters, followed by a meat goulash served with the customary rice and potatoes. As our only vegetarian, Jessica finds herself less than impressed with her fried cheese and vegetables.

Our meal is interspersed with the serenading of Zoë and Claire by the gypsy musicians in traditional dress. On two violins, a piano/harpiscord kind of instrument and a double bass, the music helps to aid the digestion. We all tip them 200 florints in one of the bread baskets.

Lunch drifts into the afternoon, and a plan emerges – a plan to stay around the valley. The time, Attila informs us, is free, he thinks, as you wish. There are many wine cellars for the tasting of wine. It’s good, he thinks. Helen is concerned though, that the Hungarians (as we wander up and round a park) want time alone with their girlfriends and we decide to do our own thing.

Not as planned. We wander up to the left, they up to the right, and as we decide to start at the top of the hill and enter one cellar and then work back down the hill towards the restaurant. As we decide upon our first cellar, Atilla and crew arrive and decide to join us.

Inside the cellar, refreshingly cool beneath the vaulted stone, we stumble hap-harzardly onto the system. Free taster’s are followed by buying a jug of wine. Then, exploring both Martin’s Rough Guide and my Berlitz phrase book, leads to our challenging of the Hungarians with phrases to see if they understand. We even try one out on the bemused but friendly, elderly landlady.

Bad gypsy buskers come begging for money, but we ignore them and they go again; another plot is hatched. We will try wine in each cellar down the hill, and each of us will buy a bottle of wine of our favourite from each to go with our remaining meals. The wine from our first cellar is Hungary’s finest Bull’s Blood Merlot and is delivered in two 2 litre Pepsi bottles.

In the second cellar, we know the system. Here we opt for a dry white, but it is something of nothing and we settle in the end on sweet. The phrasebook challenge, now a fixture in the afternoon’s entertainment, moves on in theme: making friends; and illnesses. The Gypsy musicians follow us in but we igure them again, and again they leave us, disgruntled.

By the time we reach our third cellar, the day has cooled down and we decide to sit down here. Again we settle for dry Bull’s Blood Hungarian wine, and here to, I decide to purchase my contribution a 2 litre bottle that comes sealed, for about three quid (or 900 HUF).

We head back to the restaurant, and on the way, realising a shortage of fresh fruit in the holiday I buy a kilo of peaches for 200 HUF (70p). They are good, if very, very juicy.

Dinner is to be had at the same restaurant, and our tables are the same ones; indeed we even stick to similar seating arrangements, although on my table we do swap Helen for Steven. Jessica meanwhile prays for no fried cheese…

Soup, with meat and lentils is followed by cake, and Jessica gets here fried cheese and mushrooms! All she really wants is a salad!

A comment that I make about Icelandic children’s songs leads to a table-wide rendition of ‘She’ll be coming round the mountain’ which in turn lead to Louise singing for us the Danish version and then all of us singing an English translation of the Danish version…

She’ll be coming round the mountain…

Danish Version

Du han fu min sofacykel
Nar jey der

Du han fau min gaunle moster
Nar jey der

English Translation

You can have my sofabike
When I die

You can have my ancient aunt
When I die

And then to Helen’s game of Two Truths and a Lie; it takes a while to get going but soon we are coming up with truths, that, to Martin’s disbelief, mainly revolve around tales of teacher’s misdoings and name dropping of celebrities and pop stars.

Arriving back at Gömörszőlős ahead of the Green Monster, we discover that Ewan – one of its occupants – as the key to the boy’s room. After about half an hour, Attila drives his brown car into the yard, and reveals that the office has a spare key. We let ourselves in, sit up and write on the verandah, and bring out the peppermint tea. As if summoned by it’s distinctive fragrance, right on cue, Gabor, Zoë and Ewan arrive back.

Day Nine: Rolling in the hay, honey cake, and thunderstorms…