Hiking and biking in the Bükk Mountains
Dense beeck forest, brightly colored songbirds,
shy squirrels and wild orchids
Dense beech forest where shy squirrels bolt away, flower fields with wild orchids and wild aconitum, songbirds between the green foliage and buzzards high in the sky. The Bükk Mountains in Hungary are fortunately protected. Hikers and bikers will find a paradise here.
Local trains in Hungary are extremely local: this I found out when I took a train (with my bike and all) from Budapest to Miskolc to explore the Bükk Mountains, which are for the most part a nature reserve and a paradise for bikers and hikers who like taxing routes. It's a little hard to get out of - boring and polluted - Miskolc, but I am relieved to see that as soon as you've cleared the city limits, the surroundings immediately get prettier.
Just before Lillafüred the road all of a sudden gets very steep on a densely wooded incline. I curse myself for wanting to have enough to read on my vacation. Lillafüred, a well-known spa in Hungary, turns out to be a diminutive town on a fairy-tale-like, beautiful lake.
The steep incline continues to Hollostetö, so I have to walk the largest part up, because at the start of this hiking and biking vacation I am not yet in great shape. Hollostetö is in the middle of the woods and has three farmhouses, a camping site and a so-called Turistahaz, a very simple kind of guest house.
A wood-burning boiler
Buzzards wheel high in the sky
After a terrible night in the Turistahaz I decide to bicycle to the next village, Bükkszentkereszt, three kilometers further into the Bükk Mountains. That was a great idea: the village is located perfectly in a wide valley and there is not a tourist in sight.
When I don't see a Zimmer frei sign anywhere during a walk through the village with its partly unpaved streets, I decide to ask a woman who passes by. She gives me an address that has rooms for rent. Meanwhile, a second woman has joined the conversation and she gesticulates that I should follow her.
She takes me to a house at the end of the street. It is a beautiful, large house with a balcony on the second floor, where you should have a great view of the valley. Well, I think, I'm not going to get that room. But Hilda, the lady of the house, immediately takes me there. For only five euros a night I can use this spacious room, which has spectacular views of the surroundings.
Hilda only speaks Hungarian, but she owns a Hungarian-German dictionary, so we'll manage. And this way I will learn a little Hungarian, too. During the first hour of my stay, I just stare at the view: the valley, the edge of the woods. I enjoy the silence and try to remember a dream in which I have seen this view before.
That night I take a bath, for the first time in my life with water that is heated in a wood-burning boiler, which roars next to the tub. My hostess, who is a warm-hearted and kind woman, and her daughter who speaks some English, keep apologizing for the lack of luxury. I just stare at them in disbelief: they have a big house, with a huge garden in which they grow their own vegetables and it is located in one of the most beautiful spots anyone could dream up. To hell with luxury.
The next day I take a long walk, via Hollostetö to Répashuta and back, up and down the mountains, which are heavily wooded with both deciduous trees and conifers. There are many beeches: 'bükk' is Hungarian for beech. I see and hear birds everywhere between the foliage. Birds of prey, among which buzzards, wheel high in the sky. In the open spots in the forest and in the valleys grow dozens of different kinds of flowers, there are many whose names I don't even know.
Broiled bacon fat dripped on bread
I am invited for a "Hungarian barbecue" in the garden. The neighbors are there, too, a cardiologist and his wife. They live in Budapest, but have a second home here. He's fluent in French, German and English, and after a few glasses of wine in all three of them at the same time...
The "barbecue" is a campfire over which pieces of bacon fat are broiled on home-made wooden skewers until they begin to drip. You are supposed to let the fat drip on a piece of bread, on which you first put thin slices of onion. It is eaten with kolbasz (spicy sausage), radish, tomato and bell pepper. For dessert Hilda made enormous amounts of shortbread cakes, filled with a home-made preserve of mixed fruit, topped with red currants.
During the first week I take several biking trips in the surroundings, a few to Jávorkút, which lies on a kind of small plateau at the center of the nature reserve. Surrounded by a sea of flowers I lie in the sun for hours, reading every now and then. There is a small café that serves a delicious bableves (bean soup) and mineral water.
In the next week, Hilda's children take me along on a real hiking expedition in the mountains. Gyuri, nineteen and the oldest son, is in charge. They wake me at six and then spend an hour arguing about which route to take. Gyuri takes us to the other side of the village, where we walk into a hilly area, first on grass fields, later into the beech forest.
The trees are still shrouded in early morning haze when suddenly I seem to have entered a Dostoyevski novel: a black silhouette of a horse and wagon appears out of nowhere. Two silent men sit on the coach-box and - as if they belong in another world - then disappear again between the grey tree trunks. When the morning haze lifts, great views are unveiled and dozens of flower species I've never seen before, countless butterflies and shy squirrels that bolt away.
Wine and Baroque city Eger
The city of Egri Bikaver, "bull's blood of Eger"
In the third week I finally find the courage (and am in good enough shape) to take a biking trip to Eger, a beautiful city on the other side of the Bükk Mountains. The trip - 90 km, including the way back - takes me over the mountains and through the heart of the nature reserve. An incredibly beautiful trip and actually not all that taxing.
Except for a wonderfully restored city center in Hungarian Baroque style, Eger has an 11th century stronghold with casemates and a museum you shouldn't miss, palaces, a minaret (left over from the Turkish occupation of Hungary) and several worthwhile churches - among which the Conventual Franciscan one with a splendid triangular courtyard - and museums.
Everywhere in the city center you find incredibly beautiful and sophisticatedly beaten cast-iron fences and barred windows from the Turkish era. And of course it is the city of Hungary's most famous wine: Egri Bikaver, "bull's blood of Eger".
To the highest peak
Through open fields and beech woods
A few days later I take a long mountain hike to Tar-kö, with its 949 m the third highest peak of the Bükk Mountains, with Gyuri and his little brother Gergö, the ten-year-old late arrival in the family. The highest peak - only ten meters taller - is Istállós-kö.
The walk takes us through open fields and beech woods, here and there the path is steep. On Tar-kö we have a panoramic view, but it is a little hazy, so the mountains in the distance look grey and farther even black - it looks like a Japanese print. To my right I see Felsötarkany and behind it, a little vaguer, Eger. Straight ahead I see the last rows of hill of the Bükk Mountains and behind them, very vaguely, the great lowlands: the puszta. To the left I see Répashuta and, with the binoculars Gyuri brought, even some roofs of higher-lying houses in our own village of Bükkszentkereszt.
We stay on Tar-kö for one and a half hours. Its white rocks make a sheer drop on one side. Nice for real climbers, among which I don't count myself. The rocks are overgrown with blooming succulents and other pretty flowers. I even find an orchid. From Tar-kö we walk to the lower peak of Harom-kö (over 900 m) and from there through beech woods and fields with blossoming wild aconitum.
Waterfall in the greenery
Dozens of brightly colored songbirds
When the desire to make a long bike trip hits me again, Szilvásvárad is the destination. It is traditionally a popular vacation resort for Hungarians with, among other attractions, a Lippizaner-horsebreeding farm, which has daily dressage shows during the summer season. On the way, there are beautiful views, thanks to the clear weather. I pass a forest museum which is really worth a visit.
The surroundings of Szilvásvárad are stunning, as long as you stay away from the village itself. Around the entrance of the nature reserve on this side of the mountains is a tourist fair with souvenir booths, gross food, a train that takes you through part of the park and a deer park.
But a little farther there is almost absolute quiet. You won't meet anyone, just trees, flowers, butterflies and dozens of different kinds of brightly-colored songbirds. I even find several species of wild orchid. The only reason to get a little closer to Szilvásvárad is the wonderful, stepped waterfall between the green of the trees and ferns.