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Baroque beauty of Hungary
Baroque beauty of Hungary

It has to be the most seductively named viticultural spot on the planet. Well, for a man, perhaps.

Studded with vineyards and wine cellars, the Valley of the Beautiful Women sits on the rolling green outskirts of Eger, a picturesque baroque town in northern Hungary just two hours from Budapest by train.

The beautiful women were said to be goddesses of a prehistoric religion, similar to Venus (the goddess of love). Sacrifices were offered to them in a snug spot that today yields a variety of wines, including the speciality, Bull's Blood.

When Eger was under siege by the Turks in 1552, a general gave this full-bodied red wine to his demoralised soldiers. Upon seeing the Hungarians' red-stained beards, the Ottomans believed their foes were drinking bull's blood to stiffen their resolve and subsequently lifted the siege.

On this hot August afternoon, the valley is calm, civilised and family-friendly. Wineries, with cavernous cellars and front terraces, are fringed around a leafy park and people are sipping glasses of red, white and rose (dry, semi-dry, sweet), for 100 forints a pop. That's about 42 Australian cents.

Come with plastic bottles and jerry cans, like the locals, and you can fill them up with your favourite tipple for a few hundred forints more.

As the sun begins to set, a band, dressed in traditional costume, begins playing violins and cellos.

I've been here all afternoon, tasting every type of wine - spending about $3 and mulling over a trip that has exceeded expectations.

For my first foray into Hungary, a few years back, I did as most foreigners do and stuck to Budapest.

The capital's opulent architecture, Viennaesque coffee houses, luxuriant-steam baths and its reasonable prices made a wonderful impression. But I left the country feeling that I'd barely got under its skin.

I vowed it would be different second time around, inspired, in part, by Hungarians I'd met across Europe, who had waxed lyrical about all the great places outside Budapest.

Lake Balaton


Known as Hungary's Sea, Balaton is said to be the continent's largest freshwater lake outside Scandinavia (it's 77km long and 14km wide).

The area was settled in the past by numerous tribes, including the Romans and the Magyars (the first Hungarians), and is famed for its mineral-rich thermal springs, becoming a popular vacationing spot for the Hungarian bourgeois in the 18th and 19th centuries, before assuming even greater national importance following World War I.

The country had been part of the Hapsburg (Austro-Hungarian) Empire, which collapsed after being on the conflict's losing side, and the 1920 Treaty of Trianon stripped Hungary of two-thirds of its territory, cutting it off from the Adriatic coast and leaving it landlocked.

There are several resorts strung along the lake today. Siofok, on the south-eastern side, has been tagged Hungary's Ibiza. There are parties until dawn on the waterfront and a row of bars and clubs ranging from stylish to downright tacky. But by day Siofok is more of a laid-back family resort, with water-based fun - including swimming, sailing, fishing and windsurfing - and a cluster of spas, wellness centres and pleasure cruises.

I take a ferry to Tihany, set on a wooded peninsula and nature reserve on Balaton's northern banks.

Before long the twin-towered 18th-century hilltop church crowning Tihany comes into view. A pretty village with a sprinkling of eateries and souvenir stalls (ceramics, embroidery and folk craft are the specialities), it has shaded walking trails that make for a pleasant afternoon. As I stroll I see quite a few cyclists. Fitness freaks can complete the 200km Balaton trail along biking paths and roads circling the lake in a day.

Prettier still is Keszthely, an historic market town on the lake's north-western tip, home to Balaton's most ostentatious landmark - the 101-room Festetics Palace.

Visitors can peruse the lavishly decorated interior of this baroque gem, a former residence of a prominent aristocratic Hungarian family, and, in summer, savour evening bandstand concerts in its manicured gardens. Slightly more lowbrow but, to some, more amusing are Keszthely's quirky museums, which cover subjects such as erotica, torture, dolls, toys, marzipan, nostalgia and kitsch.

Pecs


Edged by the wooded foothills of the Mecsek mountains and swathes of pastoral countryside, this lively university town (pronounced "Paitch") boasts a beautiful and largely traffic-free centre that was spruced up for its stint as 2010 European Capital of Culture.

Pecs' history dates back to Roman times. It was known as Sopianae and excavation work has uncovered 4th-century chapels and tombs of Cella Septichora, richly decorated with early Christian frescoes.

Pecs' icon is the green-domed Mosque Church, which dominates the main fountain and statue-studded square. It's the most obvious relic of the Ottoman occupation, which saw the city, and most of the country, under Turkish rule from the mid-1500s to the late 1600s.

Now the parish church of the inner city, the building boasts distinctive Islamic arches, inscribed but faded verses of the Koran and a rooftop crescent (capped by a cross). Pecs has a vibrant cultural scene, with open-air events, festivals and street music held regularly between March and September. Ballet and opera performances take place at Pecs' National Theatre, while there are half a dozen decent museums and galleries.

I like the small yet impressive one showcasing the flamboyant works of Tivadar Kosztka Csontvary. Tagged Hungary's van Gogh, this pharmacist- turned-artist hit his peak at the turn of the 20th century, with some epic, mind-bending paintings of Jerusalem and Byblos. He could count Pablo Picasso among his fans and, apparently, the Spaniard once chided Belorussian-French artist Marc Chagall that he couldn't produce a painting "half as good as one of Csontvary's".

My sweet tooth constantly draws me to Oazis, a popular Middle Eastern kebab-shop confectionery on the main drag. Its slices of sticky baklava are divine.

Kiskassa


Food is one of the things I'll fondly remember from my stay at Ecohun, a humble hostel/guest house on a small organic farm in the tiny village of Kiskassa, 17km from Pecs.

It is run by friendly Anglo- Hungarian couple Alan and Eva Durant and guests stay in renovated peasant buildings (with antique furniture and mod-cons, including wi-fi), surrounded by fruit and vegetable patches and a gaggle of geese, goats and hens.

The Durants produce about 80 per cent of what they consume and Eva charges 𔚻 ($4) for a three-course meal - a real bargain. A typical lunch is soup, followed by meatballs (or beef stew), potatoes and vegetables, then dessert of, say, apple strudel. In the evenings, there's a spread of eggs, salad, salami, ham, cheese and fresh bread. The apple juice, made on the premises, is thirst-quenchingly good.

Kiskassa has some great countryside walks and, close by, Villany, one of Hungary's 22 wine-growing regions, but the village is an ideal place to chill out and recharge, especially if you like reading.

The Durants have a superb book collection - ranging from Hungarian history and cultural affairs to modern and ancient English-language gems. The hosts are great conversationalists, too. We discussed, among other things, the vagaries of the Hungarian language, how some Hungarians prefer communism to capitalism and, of course, the country's best tipples.

FACT FILE


• Hungary's major towns and cities are linked by a reasonably efficient rail service, with Budapest the main hub. See www.mav.hu for timetables. Buses fill the gaps where the trains don't go, www.volan.eu .

•Hungary's roads are decent and hiring a car would give you more freedom. The multinational hire chains are represented at Budapest's airport, bud.hu.

·Branches of Tourinform (tourinform.hu/english) can be found in most large towns and cities and can help arrange accommodation. In Kiskassa, Ecohun has bed and breakfast from