When Dreams Turn to Reality
There are days you picture in your mind that you hope to enjoy in life. Desperately.
Whether it be from childhood memories on the farm of a Sunday roast dinner or a scene out of the movies set in the Mediterranean.
The conviviality and camaraderie of big family lunches with home-made food and wine served on long wooden tables on terraces covered with grape vines.
We didn’t know what was in store as the coach made its way through the streets of Budapest early on a Friday morning.
The night before had seen the Sunshine Coast Oriana Choir perform at the Matthias Church on the first leg of their Central Europe tour.
After the performance there was a very memorable dinner at a centuries-old restaurant in the heart of the historic city.
Late nights and early starts meant a subdued drive out through the north-western suburbs, past ancient Roman ruins, and into the countryside.
The destination was Lake Balaton, a holiday centre amid the rural heartland of Hungary.
Before World War One the Austro-Hungarian Empire covered much of central Europe, from the Mediterranean Sea to what is now the Czech Republic as well as parts of Slovakia.
After World War Two the Soviet Union controlled all of those Central European countries – Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Eastern Germany.
The borders were that secure it was regarded as an Iron Curtain that isolated the countries from the West.
Balaton was where the communists holidayed. Rolling countryside and the home of Bolantik Bob … a bobsled park in summer and probably in winter as well.
I am surprised by the level of farming in this country, thinking the communist era would have left a legacy of heavy manufacturing industry.
Yet here, drifting past the bright blue waters of the freshwater lake, the tiled-roofed houses have an Austrian-Bavarian feel.
It’s an excellent wine-growing area. It seems that every house has enough land to grow a few vines so as to make some wine or pahlinka for family celebrations as well as table grapes.
The Romans brought vines to the region in the 5th century AD there are records of extensive vineyards in Hungary.
The Tokaj region became known for dessert wines, harvested late to encourage noble rot and which we know as tokay.
We are told the vineyards were taken over by the state in the communist era but they are now being taken back by the old families and they are using the skills learned over generations.
It’s like stepping back in time as we pass through villages, along roads with modern-day Harley Davidson motor cycles while some small farms still use horse-drawn carts.
It’s like looking through the pages of an old geography book. Everything looks like it should be … or was.
Peaceful, quiet – the people clinging to their nationality.
Their culture tells their story, as does their language.
The lake that dominates the region has a 197km shoreline. The hilly north shore is the wine-growing region, with protected wetlands and hiking trails at Balaton Uplands National Park.
About half way along the northern shore is a peninsula and the village of Tihany.
It’s home to a Benedectine abbey founded in 1055AD, a time when vine-growers, beekeepers, herdsmen and fishermen were just becoming known.
The whole peninsula is a historical district and the village a picturesque tourist centre.
The founding charter of the abbey is the first surviving record of the Hungarian language.
The peninsula is said to be where the Christianity of the east and the west meet each other.
Tihany means peace and quiet, and both need each other to exist.
The abbey rests on the ridge where it greets the sun each day. Just, we are told, as it greets the new son, the new light, in a religious sense.
The church was rebuilt in baroque style in 1754 and has the best view of lake. It also features as a footnote in Habsburg history.
The last of the Habsburg dynasty, Emperor of Austria, Charles I, was briefly held prisoner here following his second attempt to regain the throne of Hungary.
In these glorious surrounds, our choir gave an impromptu performance that was widely applauded.
The choir sang the second and fourth movements from Missa piccola – Gloria and Kyrie. And that was followed by the Irish ballad The Blessing.
There, surrounded by the religious icons and adornments, the sheer wonderment of music and song rings out.
Religion was suppressed in Hungary under communism.
On a trip like this you are reminded of the joys of life but also the everyday struggles everyone must experience. How marginal life can be.
Yet we are then driven up into the hills for lunch at a local winery.
Chestnut trees line the roads as they wind past small villages and through vineyards.
We tumble out and are greeted by the winemaker with nips of pahlinka and calls of “Egeszsegedre!’’
All of this beneath a vine-covered terrace as we make our way into the cave-like stone wine cellar.
And there, at heavy wooden tables, we are served a peasant-style lunch of fresh bread and goulash, ladled into our plates out from large iron cooking pots.
Then we are given a talk and tasting of the wines produced by the family.
No, not a tasting, a glass of each. White wines are a specialty of the region so we start with reisling, traminer, semillon, and a blend of four: pinot blanc, semillon, chardonnay, sauvignon.
“Everyone should be free to choose your type of wine to have with your meal,’’ we are told.
It’s an absolute delight yet then it’s time to move to the reds, including rose.
“Always hold glass on the bottom otherwise not appreciate the colour,’’ our host encourages.
“It’s an art, one you should practise. Every day.’’