Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel

Most visitors to Hungary focus on the popular tourist destinations like Budapest and Lake Balaton, but with the help of my Hungarian friend, Zsuzsa Mehesz, I’ve had the great good fortune to see untouched parts of the country. On my most recent visit, she packed me into the car and headed for the Zemplen Protected Landscape in the northeast corner of Hungary. We began with lunch in the Tokaj Wine Region, a small plateau of volcanic soils near the Carpathian Mountains, so famous for its sweet wines that it has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Even under dingy skies, the view of vineyard-covered rolling hills from the Yellow Wine House Restaurant was stunning.

Lunch at Yellow Wine House Restaurant included gorgeous views over Hungary's Tokaj Wine Region

Lunch at Yellow Wine House Restaurant included gorgeous views over Hungary’s Tokaj Wine Region

Before getting back on the road we strolled through the vineyards, our shoes sinking deep into the loamy brown soil as we parted the leaves on the undersides of the vines, searching for clusters of fruit. We didn’t have to look hard; bunches of chartreuse grapes hung heavy on the undersides, promising an abundant harvest. Read More

Jewish Shoes sculpture on the banks of the Danube in Budapest memorialize thousands of Hungarian Jews who were shot and dumped in the river by Nazis during World War II

Click on above photo to view it in large format: Jewish Shoes sculpture on the banks of the Danube memorializes Jews in Budapest, Hungary who were shot and dumped in the river by Nazis during World War II

My friend, Ambrus, pointed out the black flag hanging just outside the church door. Someone has died in Panyola. Later, I mentioned this to his wife, Zsuzsa. “Yes, I know, they rang the bells,” she said. Curious, I asked if the bells had been rung once for each year of age of the deceased, as they used to do in some smaller parishes in England. “No, here the bells tell us if it was a man, woman, or child.”

This tiny village in Hungary’s far eastern Szatmar County has changed little since I last visited, nearly two years ago. It’s half-dozen streets are home to about 500 people, and aside from a small grocery store the only other commercial enterprise is the Panyolai Palinka Distillery, which produces some of the country’s finest fruit brandies from the Nemtudom (“I don’t know”) plums that grow only in this part of Hungary. The trees are heavy laden this year. “Even trees that have never produced are full,” Ambrus says. No one knows why. It is not related to rainfall or cold or heat; it’s just the natural cycle of things.

Residents of Panyola gather at the town hall for a wedding

Residents of Panyola gather at the town hall for a wedding

This is good news for the new owners of the distillery, who recently purchased it from the three local men who brought it back to life after it was abandoned following the collapse of the Soviet Union. According to Zsuzsa, the three men had a vision but lacked the necessary management skills. Sadly, the plant is not a source of employment for the town, as the new owner has brought in outside workers, with the exception of the brewmaster. Read More

Interior of the newly restored, gorgeous Vigado Palace in Budapest, Hungary

Click on above photo to view it in large format: Interior of the newly restored, gorgeous Vigado Palace in Budapest, Hungary. The venue is used for government meetings, conferences, and cultural events.

Budapest Castle on the Buda side of the city, seen through a window of the newly restored Vigado Palace on the Pest side

Click on above photo to view it in large format: Budapest Castle on the Buda side of the city, seen through a window of the newly restored Vigado Palace on the Pest side of Budapest, Hungary

Perhaps it was the fairytale I’d heard earlier in the day that put me in mind of ogres. Approaching Holloko Castle I felt like Jack, the steep path to the top of the hill serving as my beanstalk. The crenelated walls seemed more prison than castle and inside, as I descended into the bowels of the castle, I conjured a giant lying in wait around every turn, sharp teeth poised to make a meal of me.

Legend of Holloko Castle says that a beautiful young maiden from the neighboring village was once imprisoned within its cold, stone walls

Legend of Holloko Castle says that a beautiful young maiden from the neighboring village was once imprisoned within its cold, stone walls

My vivid imagination aside, it is said that while the castle was still being constructed a member of the Kacsics noble family kidnapped a beautiful maiden from a neighboring village and imprisoned her within one of its cold stone cells. Unfortunately for the nobleman, the girl’s nanny was a witch, and she made a pact with the devil to free her mistress. The devil commanded his sons to assume the form of ravens each night and steal stones from the castle until the girl was set free. Today the town of Holloko echoes this fairy tale; its Hungarian name translates to “raven stone” and the road leading to the village is marked with a bronze statue of a raven perched on a rock outcropping. Read More