Tag Archives: Hungary

Impressions of Central/Eastern Europe’s Former Communist Countries

I’ve now traveled through 8 of the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe – Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Romania, and Bulgaria.  Although I’ve written about most of them individually, I’ve recognized some things they share that I think are interesting:

  • Capitalism has been enthusiastically adopted in these countries.  Foreign companies are welcome.  There is advertising everywhere.  There are lots of small entrepreneurs working hard.
  • There is a lost generation of older people who grew up during the 45 years of communism.  Many have had a very hard time adapting to capitalism.  They lack the necessary skills or work ethic, and as a result, are a drag on the economy.  This has results in a huge generation gap, as younger people are driving the economy that supports the older ones.
  • Some people still look fondly to the Communist days.  They liked that everyone was provided with free, though basic, social services such as health care, welfare, pensions, etc. Now the people have to pay for these services.  They also didn’t have to work as hard or be responsible for themselves to the same degree that they do now.
  • Under communism, there was no personal property.  People were assigned housing by the government, with Communist party members normally receiving the better accommodations.  After the fall of communism, people had to apply to gain ownership of their existing homes.  They did not have to pay for them.  Communist party members generally retained their superior housing.  Citizens also had the opportunity to buy other state-owned assets like land and businesses, but most didn’t have the money, so many of these became the property of former communist leaders, who had amassed wealth under communism or who pilfered state funds, or of thugs (mafia, gangs, etc.)
  • There is still a problem with corruption in some of these countries at many levels.  The EU continues to reprimand those members with corruption problems.  A campground owner that I spoke with in Bulgaria told me of his ongoing challenges with local authorities seeking bribes for things like building permits, erecting street signs, etc.
  • Almost all of these countries are now members of the European Union, although some don’t use the Euro yet.  With the recent Euro problems, it might seem like they wouldn’t be anxious to switch.  In reality, some of their governments continue to spend wildly, and therefore don’t meet the fiscal criteria to switch to the Euro (criteria that are only likely to be tightened given the recent problems in Greece, Ireland, etc.).
  • As poorer members, countries like Romania and Bulgaria are recipients of considerable funding from the EU.  It is used to migrate to EU standards in many areas of government, business, and society (e.g. health care, military, signage, etc.) and to upgrade infrastructure.
  • With the fall of communism, many people’s communist era pensions lost value, so many seniors now exist on a small amount of income.  As prices rise towards the levels of Western Europe, inflation is making it very difficult for those who live on fixed incomes.
  • With inflation, those who own property are seeing significant increases in its value.  Those who don’t are becoming locked out of the real estate market due to the high prices (kind of like Vancouver).
  • Throughout these countries we’ve noticed a lot of abandoned buildings.  Many are government facilities no longer required (e.g. border crossings between Schengen countries that now share a common customs and immigration boundary), businesses found to be unsustainable in a free market economy, or homes abandoned as people moved to take advantage of new opportunities).
  • Despite the daily rain showers which remind us of Vancouver, we enjoyed our travels through the formerly communist countries of Central/Eastern Europe.  In most places (except for a few popular cities like Prague and Budapest) the prices are lower and there are fewer tourists.  The roads, facilities, and services are more variable, but definitely adequate, and these countries all have rich and interesting histories that most Westerners know little about.

Drinking Bull’s Blood in the Valley of the Beautiful Women

This is not a joke.  We really did drink it.  Read on…

On the outskirts of the baroque town of Eger in North-Eastern Hungary lies The Valley of the Beautiful Women (Szépasszony-völgy in Hungarian).  Skirting both sides of this valley are the cellars of many small Hungarian wine producers.  The cellars are built into the hillside, mostly underground, with the name of each winery displayed out front.  Inside each there is a bar for tasting and there are tables inside and out for drinking.

Looking over the valley from the hillside, small houses and trees visible

The Valley of the Beautiful Women

Hungary is better known for its wines than its beer.  The Eger wine region produces many types of wine but is primarily known for its Bikaver wine, which translates as ‘Bull’s Blood’.  It is a robust blended wine which varies considerably from cellar to cellar.  Officially it must contain at least 3 of the 11 traditional grapes varieties from the region.  Eger was the first Districtus Hungaricus Controllatus (DHC) in Hungary, an appellation control concept similar to France’s Appellation d’Originelée (AOC).

According to legend the name Bull’s Blood originates from the siege of Eger castle around 1552.  The small group of soldier’s manning the castle were given red wine to boost their spirits.  Among the Turks who laid siege to the castle it was rumoured that bull’s blood was mixed in to their wine, because the strength and resistance of the garrison and townspeople could not be explained.  Believing they could not win, the Turks gave up.

There is a large cellar and cave system beneath the town of Eger, where many of the wines are produced.  The Valley of the Beautiful Women appears to be more of a marketing spot for tasting and drinking and not so much a place for wine production or storage.

Cellar fronts with tables and people drinking

Some cellars of The Valley of the Beautiful Women

Even still, the Valley of the Beautiful Women is a phenomenon.  People come from far and wide to taste the wines, or to sit inside or outside the cellars and drink.  We were there in the early afternoon on a Monday, so things were pretty quiet.  We were cautiously enjoying our first tasting (not that good) when we met a Czech businessman and his Hungarian wife.  They were very friendly and recommended two cellars for us to visit.  It turned out that they had been there ‘tasting’ since 10 AM and had purchased several cases of Bikaver to take with them.  He admitted developing a strong taste for it during previous trips to the region.  We visited the two cellars they suggested, tasted, and bought a nice bottle of Bikaver at each.

One of the best things about the Valley of the Beautiful Women is that, in addition to the better wines, they provide an option to purchase basic wine very cheaply.  If you bring your own bottles, they will fill them for less than $2.  The minimum purchase is 2 Litres, so people literally bring their used pop (‘soda’ for any Americans reading) bottles and fill ‘em up.  To be part of the fun, we bought a 2 litre green glass bottle for about $2 and had it filled with red wine for less than the cost of the bottle!

Diane standing with 2 Litre green jug of wine in front of Wanda's wine cellar

Diane with her purchase in front of Wanda’s Wine Cellar

We couldn’t resist going to this cellar because it shared the same name as our friend Wanda!  We asked and ‘Wanda’ was the name of the owner.

I tried but couldn’t figure out why it is called ‘The Valley of the Beautiful Women’.  Is it because the women hired to serve the wine and conduct tastings in the cellars are all beautiful?  Perhaps.  Or is it because, after an extended visit to the valley, every woman looks beautiful?

Impressions of Hungary

  • The Hungarian language is very different from those of its neighbouring countries which speak Slavic languages.  Hungarian is more closely related to Estonian and Finnish which share a common history from when the Huns invaded the region in around 500 CE.
  • The Kingdom of Hungary existed for 950 years before being absorbed into the Habsburg empire which later became the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867-1918).
  • World War I was triggered when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne and his wife Sophie were shot in Sarajevo by a Bosnian Serb assassin.
  • Hungary was on the losing side with Germany in both World Wars.  After World War I it lost two-thirds of its territory, including its only sea port and most of its population, to other countries.
  • After World War II the Soviet Union controlled Hungary, but not as strictly as in other Warsaw Pact countries.  Hungary’s soft ‘goulash-communism’ lasted until the fall of communism in 1989.
White building with many spires and a large dome beside the Danube River

Hungarian Parliament Building beside the Danube River

  • Hungary is better known for its wine than its beer.  The wine is of higher quality and is more popular.  When in Rome…
  • Hungary has some of the best food in Central/Eastern Europe.  It is famous for paprika (which is also the Hungarian word for pepper, pronounced here as ‘paw-prick-kaw) which infuses most of their food.  It is often classified as édes (sweet) or csípős (hot), but there are actually 8 different grades.  Hungarian specialties include stews, braised dishes, and soups including the famous gulyás (goulash).
  • Hungary is very good at water polo, winning gold in the last 3 Olympic games, and also in swimming (they are 4th in the all-time Olympic medal count).
  • Hungary has hundreds of small lakes and hot springs.  There are hot springs all over the capital of Budapest (pronounced ‘Boo-dah-pesht’).
  • Budapest is a beautiful conglomerate of 2 cities on opposite sides of the Danube river – Buda and Pest.  Buda is the hilly and more historic part, and Pest is flat and more modern.
Hill covered in many old buildings with church spire on top

Castle Hill in Buda