There are no crack of dawn starts when you're traveling with Hungary's Vinociped's nine-day Wine and Bike tour. The name says it all - cycling comes second.
Traveling north of Europe's largest body of freshwater, Lake Balaton, there is no emphasis on speed. However…there are a couple of things you should consider. Let's start with the two staples of a decent day in Hungary. Naturally, it should involve pork and Palinka.
Palinka is a way to fortify yourself before breakfast, lovely for lunch, a great start to dinner and does double-duty as a nightcap. Palinka, at 40 - 50% alcohol, is a uniquely Hungarian plum or apricot-based brandy..
To be fair, we weren't served Palinka at breakfast on this trip. However, we met Hungarians, young and old, who swore it was the only way to start the day.
Which brings us to the other Hungarian specialty. Pork, or piggy, as in… I felt like one. As we'd already discovered by spending a few days in Budapest, Hungary is a carnivore's dream…or an arterial nightmare. There's nothing like a big plate of sausages served up with a side of ham. You can worry about your heart health when you get home, because while you're here, your name is Porkahontas.
By the fifth day, we'd left behind the beautiful meandering bike path near the lake to head into the Balaton Uplands; 'up' is the operative word. Because there are twenty of us, it takes awhile to corral everyone and get things happening but it's nice to have a slow start and the breath to be able to idle along and chat.
We cruise through villages made up of families with tractors in their driveways, past fields of golden corn and tree-filled gardens stuffed with fat pears and pudgy figs. Women still wear aprons here. One could only wish they could convince their Speedo-wearing ditch-shoveling husbands to don the odd one too. And frankly, older gentlemen wearing only a Speedo whilst cycling is a memory I'd like to delete. No. I take that back. It makes me smile to even write it.
Riding on quiet roads lined with shimmering poplars we hear the birds and distant dogs. The end of August feels like the perfect time for this ride. We're getting the last blast of summer's heat, with temperatures ranging from 29 to 35 C, while also enjoying the first turning of the leaves. There's time to stop and take photos of the endless fields of corn, the yards ringed with hollyhocks, oleander, roses and black-eyed susans and the endless pots of geraniums. Not to mention that the wide, smooth cycling path is dedicated to - wait for it - cyclists. Considering it's been only twenty years since the end of the communist regime, things have progressed very quickly.
Still, it's not all wine and roses. There is no doubt that we have officially left the rolling countryside behind us. These are not extreme hills by any stretch, but the heat adds a new dimension. I amuse myself up the last slow grind by trying to count my body's various salty tidelines. The road changes to a dusty track and we enter Gergeley Winecellar.
Rows of grapevines plunge down from our feet towards the vista of the shimmering expanse of Lake Balaton far, far below. There is a giant's outdoor oven redolent with smoky smells. Courtyard tables sit next to a small sloping area in deep shade from old apple trees. I want to throw myself under the dappled light of the orchard. But first? Wines await.
The sweat chills on my back as we head into the dusty cool smell of rock and the yeasty aroma of fermenting grapes. The tastings are an elixir.
Back in the dazzle of the day, we gather around the outdoor oven as the lid comes off the huge trough-like roasting dish. It reveals whacks of wild pig, gargantuan ham hocks, potatoes, red peppers, carrots, onions and peas basting and mingling to create a savory blend of pork fat heaven.
With greasy chins and rounded bellies, some of us step around the old dog snoozing between the tables. Blankets are handed out. I can't quite believe it...a bike trip with a naptime.
The breeze rustles through the apple leaves. The air is a bouquet. There is the suggestion of apple, a hint of porky smoke, a redolent bottom note of earth; like a wine the gods would make of their finest August day.
If You Go:
Photos by Colleen Friesen
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