It’s hard to believe that the wine tasting trip I spent in the company of the Redoubtable Mrs F, Sister C, the Magnificent László, and assorted devotees of Hungarian wine, was last September. In some ways, it seems much shorter a time than that ago. In others, it seems much longer ago, and I blame that squarely on the Palinka.
Palinka, for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, is the local Hungarian equivalent of what, world wide, humans have been brewing up since the dawn of time when the means to make beer or wine are temporarily unavailable: other varieties include whisky, vodka and raki. In other words, the local spirit, which is almost always best treated with caution (or, in the case of whisky, exported to a gullible rest of the world as some sort of premium product).
Palinka’s immediate effect is a moderate to strong burning sensation. Then, without apparently taking the trouble to go as far as the stomach, the alcohol enters your bloodstream at throat level, producing an entirely pleasant warming feeling through the chest which, if you were up against it on the Eastern Front in the depths of winter, might well be a life-saver.
But enough of Palinka, because the main drink of choice on this tour of north-western Hungary was wine; and especially, red wine. Unfortunately the Hungarians don’t export much; because it’s fantastic stuff, especially when served, as it was on our second night of the tour, in the cellar of a truly magical restaurant with an introduction to each wine by the completely charming winemaker.
Actually, our favourite wine on the night was one which had made it over from Austria: Zweigelt. Of course, the two countries were originally all part of one empire, before all that fuss about Archduke Ferdinand if you remember, and on our first excursion across the border, it became obvious that, economically and culturally, there are still strong links. One fascinating (and non-wine-related) pair of excursions was to two palaces, one on each side of the border, that had been built by the Esterházy family.
Too soon, our time on the Hungarian side of the border was over: it’s a really beautiful part of the world, particularly when the autumn sun is shining. There’s no doubt that László’s presence, and that of his parents, who helped to organise the trips, wine tastings, and other events were crucial in making the whole thing so special.
However, we’d squeezed in an extra couple of nights to take in Vienna – or at least a taste of that ancient, complex city for future reference. Indeed, it was coming across, in the back pocket of a pair of jeans, the ticket to the Leopold Museum that reminded me I’d never finished writing up the trip: the ticket, left, showed the less famous of the Museum’s artists, Egon Schiele. In fact, the Schiele works were almost more interesting than those of Gustav Klimt, the main attraction, although, as so often, we didn’t really leave enough time to take in everything properly.
The other museum visit we squeezed in was to the Freud Museum. A strangely muted affair, set in the flat Freud occupied for most of his Vienna life, it consisted of quite a lot of very static displays which you kind of felt hadn’t changed much for years. However, the place was due a major renovation this year.
The most poignant aspect of the latter visit was, on leaving, learning that, within a month of Freud’s escape from Vienna – first to Paris, then London, the apartment block was used for ‘processing’ those Jewish residents who hadn’t had the resources or connections to get away. It was more than a little chilling.
However, our last day was spent doing something much more funky: a tour of Vienna with a Polaroid camera! How you reacted to this whole thing would depend on your age group: for a baby boomer, using these ancient, cranky machines that produced ‘instant’ photos might well be nostalgic; for millenials, perhaps more like a time travel trip into the digital dark ages.
Our guide, Gilbert, was a somewhat intense young fellow who took great interest – possibly too much for some – in the company history of Polaroid and its intellectual property assets. However, I did find it interesting, especially the Scottish connection (there was a Scottish factory); and once we were off, the main challenge was to use your precious shots – you only had 8 of them – to get the best image you possibly could. I’d love to say the pic of the tram was mine, but actually, as I dithered, Gilbert grabbed the camera and took the shot.
I would definitely, definitely, like to spend more time in Vienna, and definitely will go back to Hungary some day. The language in the latter country would have been a real problem in the upland areas without native speakers to help, whereas in Vienna, of course, perfect English was spoken when my stupidly overconfident forays into German got me into a linguistic dead end. In both places, the locals are friendly, and the Zweigelt is recommended!
Pics: Alison Ferguson