Day 21: Thursday 7th September 2017
Budapest – Esztergom
Tara and I agreed to walk across the Pilis Hills together having met only once, on my final night in Budapest in May 2017. Boarding my flight three months later, I wondered whether I shouldn’t feel a little more nervous at the prospect of walking with someone I barely knew. And yet... everyone I’d encountered on my hike so far had shown the same open-hearted generosity and sense of adventure. Tara was no exception.
The plan for my first morning in Budapest was to head towards the Vár and explore the old streets that Paddy describes so beautifully in the second chapter of Between the Woods and the Water. Then Tara told me about it was the closing day of a sale in a second-hand shop she loved. I didn’t see any landmarks, but I did end up with a belted mac and a high-waisted 1950s skirt in mulberry-coloured wool for 90p apiece. We were having such a good time that we only just made it onto our afternoon train to Esztergom. As we left the city, the track passed the Roman ruins at Aquincum. It turned out I hadn’t completely written off seeing Paddy’s haunts after all.
Tara had never been to Esztergom before so, after dumping our bags at the hostel, I took her on a whistle-stop tour of the tiny cathedral city. It was as beautiful as I remembered, with its faded pastel-coloured buildings and domed cathedral, and I couldn’t resist taking her across the Mária Valéria bridge (pictured) so that she could walk between Slovakia and Hungary over the Danube in the late afternoon light.
‘Perhaps I had made too long a halt on the bridge. The shadows were assembling over the Slovak and Hungarian shores and the Danube, running fast and pale between them, washed the quays of the old town of Esztergom, where a steep hill lifted the basilica into the dusk.’
- Between the Woods and the Water by Patrick Leigh Fermor
*See previous entry*
The little path leading down from the basilica was particularly lovely in the late afternoon light.
Day 22: Friday 8th September 2017
Esztergom – Dobogókő
‘When the climb had let the Danube drop out of sight, hills and woods swallowed the track and sunbeams slanted through young oak branches.’ – Between the Woods and the Water
We set off up a steep track on the outskirts of Esztergom, full of enthusiasm for the day ahead. It took us a little while to crack the tree markings that signalled a vast network of trails. The Pilis hills are covered in pilgrim routes, and consequently we uncovered small chapels and shrines as we headed upwards; often these tiny crosses on the map provided the only clue we were on the right path.
Our route - the Magyar Zarándókut (the Hungarian Pilgrim’s Way) - took us up through oak woods, the paths littered with acorns. Despite my fears about bears, the only signs of wildlife were the small hoof prints left by wild boar. It was fine, Tara told me, as it wasn’t strawberry season. It’s well-known in Hungary, she added, that bears love strawberries. There is a famous cautionary tale of a Hungarian count who adopted a brown bear as a family pet in the 1920s. It had its own bedroom, joined the family for meals and could be frequently be seen on outings in the motorcar. Inevitably, its downfall came when it swiped at a maid carrying a dish of strawberries.
In the afternoon, we stepped out of the dense woodland into a beautiful valley. A gentle path, banked by banked by golden grasses, thistles, autumn crocuses, led down to the village of Pilisszentlélek and – as we got closer to the road – we discovered a row of poplars full of mistletoe. We made a pitstop at the bar, where bemused locals eyed us over their cigarettes and beer. On one whitewashed wall was a painting of a soldier (pictured), a nod perhaps to The Good Soldier Švejk? As we left, we noticed a teeming pigeon coop and looked up to find a flock of birds dipping and wheeling just above our heads.
The sun was starting to dip as we reached Dobogókő, breathless after an almost vertical ascent to the highest point in the hills. We were there just in time to eat stew and dumplings before it got dark, and to toast our arrival with miniature bottles of palinka before crashing out in our yurt.
*See previous entry*
One of the little chapels we passed on our walk up into the hills.
Day 23: Saturday 9th September 2017
Dobogókő – Budapest
‘I was casting about for a sheltered spot when a campfire showed in the dusk at the other end of a clearing where rooks were noisily going to bed. A pen of stakes and brushwood had been set up in a bay of the forest under an enormous oak tree, a swineherd was making it fast with a stake between two twists of withy, and the curly and matted black pigs inside were jostling for space.' - Between the Woods and the Water
I’d failed to find a local swineherd to stay with during our walk over the Pilis hills. However, the little camp of yurts in Dobogókő - perched next to a steep drop which was clearly a ski run during winter - was the next best thing.
Dobogókő sits at the highest point of the hills at 700 feet above sea level, and nearby Ferenczy Rock is believed to be the heart chakra of the world by many, including the Dalai Lama. There was definitely a touch of the Twin Peaks to the place: for one thing, we awoke to the sound of another guest playing a flute. The man in question sat next to a smouldering campfire just down from our yurt, and flashed us a toothless grin as we passed on our way to the village’s panoramic viewpoint. The view - one of the most breath-taking either of us had ever seen - made up for any weirdness. Vast wooded hills rolled down towards the Danube Bend, a silver ribbon in the distance, and across the water lay the tearful-sounding town of Szob.
Unlike Paddy, our path downhill lead towards Pomáz instead of Visegrád. Andras, who we’d met back in May, had promised us dinner at his house in Budapest that evening. The descent was much easier going than our climb the day before, and much busier; we were frequently overtaken by cyclists on the larger tracks and once, paying too much attention to our kakaós csigas (my favourite Hungarian pastry), we lost our way for a bit. Otherwise, the path was remarkably quiet. The forest floor was littered with bright green acorns and what seemed a grim sight - like the intestines of a small animal - but turned out to be regurgitated berries. We weren’t sure who the culprit was, but we were sure we heard some pig-like snuffling from the undergrowth.
*See previous entry*
The famous kakaós csigas (chocolate snails). Worth getting lost for.
Day 24: Sunday 10th September 2017
Budapest – Zánka
‘The house in the Uri utca was full of helpful books.’ - Between the Woods and the Water
We only just made it to Andras’ house on Bartok Bela utca in time for dinner on Saturday evening. Arriving in Pomáz earlier that afternoon after the walk down from Dobogókő, we’d tried to order a taxi back to Budapest through a local pizzeria. Over an hour later it still hadn’t arrived, so Gabor – the pizza delivery man – took pity on us and gave us a lift back Budapest in his old banger. The car was lacking in suspension, seatbelts and back seats, but it was a fast-moving, and we were desperate. We arrived at Tara’s flat in Pest just in time to bathe and change for dinner.
Andras had promised us a dinner with other ‘romantic souls’, who in the end comprised our friendly PLF enthusiast Michael O’Sullivan, the writer Norman Stone, a young Hungarian opera singer, Andras’ wife Nora and a beautiful young woman who, as far as I could make out, Andras and Nora had taken in as a girl. She was from the Roma community, and it transpired that Andras was a leading campaigner for the protection of Roma children in Hungary, and had set up a foundation to do just that. Whilst Andras barbecued dinner, Nora showed me and Tara their library, and I was delighted to spot some Jilly Cooper amongst the more literary English translations. We discovered that in Hungary, book worms and known as book moths, and before the end of the evening I’d been leant a copy of Joanna Rakoff’s My Salinger Year to take on the next bit of my trip.
Being the generous soul that he was, and keen to carry on our conversation about books, Andras insisted on driving me the two hours or so to Zánka on the north shore of Lake Balaton the following day (where I would be spending the remainder of my trip). We caught a ferry over the lake and stopped in the pretty but very touristy village of Tihany before eating lunch at one of Andras’ favourite restaurants. He shook his head in disapproval when I said I’d been urged to read The Transylvanian Trilogy by Miklós Bánffy (the ‘Hungarian Tolstoy’), telling me that he would send me something better. A few months later, this battered translation of Géza Ottlik’s School at the Frontier arrived at my office. We plan to swap notes when I return to Hungary.
*See previous entry*
Andras on the car ferry over to Tihany, where I ran in to look at the abbey quickly whilst Andras waited in the shade. It was a hot day; sadly, the last of the good weather. The rest of my trip was very grey and wet.
Days 24 & 25: Monday 11th – Tuesday 12th September 2017
Zánka – Köveskál
“I don’t think any day is worth living without thinking about what you’re going to eat next at all times.” – Nora Ephron
For the final two days of my trip, I deferred not to Paddy but to that other great bastion of cultural influence, Vogue. I needed a couple of days to wind down before returning to London and was curious to visit Lake Balaton after an online travel piece in Vogue sold it to me as an ‘off-season paradise’.
At 50 miles in length, Lake Balaton is so vast it’s nicknamed the Hungarian Sea. During the summer months it’s a heaving holiday destination, but it was September and, once Andras and I drove away from Tihany, the tourist sightings dwindled.
I was swapping hostels and yurts for a far more luxurious hotel in the Kál Basin. This protected area on Lake Balaton’s northern shore is often likened to Provence and Tuscany thanks to its proliferation of vineyards. I was staying in Köveskál, a village home to not one but three renowned eateries. Ildiko, one half of the husband-and-wife team who founded the Káli Art Inn, picked me up from Zánka. As we drove away from the lake and into the uplands, she told me how they sourced all their produce locally, growing all the fruit and veg in their garden and making their own jam. Their attention to detail has not gone unnoticed; Káli Art Inn was voted of on the 100 best hotels in Europe by The Sunday Times in 2010. It felt like The Pig, without the London crowd.
On my first day, I took myself off for lunch at Kovirag, where I had three delicious plates including the glorious pudding, túrógombóc, pictured above: airy dumplings of a ricotta-like cheese, rolled in toasted breadcrumbs and served warm with a dusting of sugar and sour cream marbled with apricot marmalade).
Dinner at Káli Art Inn was no less impressive – no menu, just several courses of home-grown, locally-sourced food, including a stand-out pudding of choux pastry filled with plum and blackberry fool, all served in the dining room of what used to be an officers' mess at the turn of the century, under the watchful eye of an oil-painted hussar.
But it was the breakfast that stays in my memory. Anyone unconvinced by Hungarian cooking has to try the breakfast of kings at Káli Art Inn: local hams, sausages and cheeses, zakuska (a Transylvanian spread of roasted onion, aubergine and red pepper), homemade strawberry and rosehip jams (the former honestly the best I have ever eaten) and a slice of plum tart to finish. I tried to cycle it off in the afternoon, but the heavy showers meant I was more inclined to lie down and read. Fittingly, I was reading Nora Ephron’s Heartburn.
Day 26: Wednesday 13th September 2017
Köveskál - London
And then it was all over for another year. I left early, a jar of the hotel’s apricot jam tucked into my bag as a gift from Ildiko. It was Roald Dahl Day, and a quote from The Minpins felt appropriate as I took one last look out from my bedroom window before closing the door.
“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” - The Minpins