On Places

Bukk National Park

For at least 100 million Poles, Hungarians and Ukranians the word buk, bukk, or бук means beech, as in fagus sylvatica, the European beech tree. There may be other languages with the same or a cognate word referring to the beech tree but I’m not familiar with them. It is a word known to readers of Michener’s Poland featuring people named Buk and Bukowski from the village of Bukovo. And you might have read the inimitable Charles Bukowski, drunk, factotum, poet and novelist of the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles from the 40’s until his death in 1994.

For me, no bukk is dearer than the Bukki Nemzeti Park, the eponymous national park, the heart of which is about 170 kilometers northeast of downtown Budapest, Hungary. Sandwiched between the small but memorable cities of Eger and Miskolc about 40 kilometers still further northeast, the park contains over 800 caves, mountains, streams, forests, and fascinating villages. Spread throughout are traditional inns, guesthouses and restaurants. This is a world where little English is spoken but I didn’t find that to be a serious impediment to enjoying the area. The Lippizaner horse museum is in Szilvasvarad along with the stables where these much loved and unusual animals are kept, pampered and trained. What I discovered in the park turned it into one of the most enjoyable days I have ever spent in Europe.

After the typically satisfying Hungarian hotel breakfast featuring, meats, cheeses, breads, veg, and other elements that turn it from Continental into a full meal, we left our hotel in Eger at about 9am. A note on Hungarian coffee:  along with coffee the Turks left a legacy of bitterness towards the Ottomans and Islam that apparently continues to this day. (We were told that there are no mosques in Hungary. There is the occasional minaret but no muezzin is calling the faithful to prayer.) That bitterness extends to the coffee, strong, blisteringly hot and caffeinated in the extreme, as it should be. It’s as energizing as rocket fuel.

It was a pleasantly sunny morning, warming up with each kilometer. As tour guide, my itinerary included the horses, the small gauge train up a little mountain, the Palota Hotel and lunch. We skipped the horses but in spite of vague and inconclusive directions, weak signage and an infants’ understanding of Hungarian we found the little train. While there are 8-10 trips up and down the mountain a day the four carriages were filling up and I didn’t want them to leave without us so I ran to the ticket window. The engineer saw an old man running and knew we weren’t just going to the gift shop so they gave it a couple of extra minutes as my companions ambled to the little train.  And slowly, with a blast of the whistle we chugged off the platform.

The weather was perfect for our outing, sunny, about 64 degrees, patches of clear blue sky appearing through the branches and leaves of a million trees. The guidebook said both that the train delighted children and that leaves would brush our faces on the ascent. Riding through the woods certainly delighted me but while the leaves were pretty close, they didn’t actually brush our faces. It occurred to me that some employees must periodically cut overhanging branches to prevent them from lacerating someone’s face, or worse, which would most certainly happen if they weren’t occasionally trimmed. It was all so gentle and pleasant. The miniature train moved no faster than necessary to ascend the miniature mountain, giving us the chance to enjoy the air, the woodland scent, and the bucolic scenery. Though small, the train still made the pained metal screeching on turns and had that particular European train whistle that will send a chill down my spine. After about 20 minutes we arrived at the summit and everyone got off the train. Riding the train down is optional but we looked around and stretched and began the easy and gradual descent along the wooded path. We walked alongside a stream that moved in and out of proximity to the pathway. There were small waterfalls here and there. The sound of water cascading into a pool always endears me to a place. It means it hasn’t been bulldozed to make way for a parking lot, strip mall or some other artifact of what I laughingly refer to as civilization.

 

We’d stop periodically to look at plants or trees that seemed especially interesting to Shosh. Some flowers called to us to take a whiff and see if there was a scent, pleasant or otherwise. Where there were benches we sat for a few moments to take it all in. That kind of genuine relaxation is so rare that it can catapult the day into the realm of the greatest days of my life. There are several large natural pools along the path. Those pools are part of a fish hatchery that raises trout for the smoker farther down the hill and for introduction to lakes and streams in Hungary. I didn’t want the walk to end, but when we arrived at a little smokehouse I gasped audibly. This is the kind of surprise that elevates the travel experience to the “exceeds expectations” level.

There were two small stands. One offered refrigerated smoked fish, while the other had it warm from the smoker and available for immediate consumption at the picnic benches with paper plates and plastic cutlery. The young woman behind the counter had bread available too. She only spoke 8 words of English but it was sufficient for me to be understood. I wanted a whole fish, skinned, filleted and slapped on bread. Could she do it? We walked over to the smoker itself, she opened the door and indicated I should pick one out. As Shosh raised her camera, the woman told her “no pictures.” But Shosh is pretty crafty, and when the woman wasn’t paying attention, she got a picture. I picked out a fish and payed for it. It was so hot coming out of the smoker that the counterwoman asked me to do the work of prepping it for my sandwich, a task I was fully prepared to take on. Like any serious cook I’m ready to get cut or burned in the course of creating something good to eat. She gave me a cutting board and a knife with the Hungarian equivalent of “have at it” and I took off the head and skin and filleted it as well as any fishmonger this side of Fulton Market, a heartwarming moment. Smooth of texture, smoky, and rich tasting, nearly boneless, this was the finest piece of smoked fish I have ever eaten in my life. While the fish was large enough for four people to have a significant helping I pretty much ate it alone. Shosh had a couple of bites and pronounced it the best she’d ever tasted as well. Our friends passed on it which is another example of my inability to understand my fellow human beings.

The others were ready to continue, but I, done eating, stuffed to catatonia, with little left on the plate but skin, bones and a few flakes of fish that simply couldn’t be forced down, I sat there, like a turtle on a warm stone, ready to sleep for four hours. Eventually, I rose, watched the stream gurgling into the pool by the benches, looked at my face in the water, and reflected on the perfection of a moment, however fleeting, that one might be fortunate enough to encounter in this existence. If I could have been the smokehouse master with a small cottage adjacent to the water, I could have stayed there indefinitely. But we had to continue and my companions merciless entreaties finally roused me.

Once on the road we headed towards the little village of Lillefured. The twenty kilometers or so were easily driven through hilly and wooded terrain punctuated by dwellings, streams, tiny hamlets and other assorted markers of human life. And then on our right appeared the Hamori-to, a paint swatch in a dozen varying blues of a tree lined highland lake. My eyes drifted to the lake, largely ignoring the road. We made a slight turn to the right and suddenly the Palota Hotel jumped out of the mountain at us. Built in 1930, the Palota, or Palace Hotel, more than lives up to its name. Built in a Renaissance style between 1927-1930, the hotel’s public spaces are lush, old fashioned and inviting. There are large, comfortable chairs arranged around low tables and a large fireplace. The latter has bas-relief decoration directly above it holding several candelabra. Directly above that is a painted mural in the historical fashion of many of the paintings and stained glass windows visible around the hotel. As a final touch, the beautiful blue and gold carpets lend warmth and comfort to the room. Overall, the feeling is one of a genuine, old fashioned club for the aristocracy. Have a drink there and feel like you’re part of that.

We went downstairs to the Matyas Restaurant. With dark wood, low light, clean white tablecloths the restaurant has a warm Mitteleurope feeling. I ate goulash soup, goose liver and duck nearly every day in Hungary and never tired of it. Matyas was no exception. The captioned, leaded stained glass windows give you a brief rundown of Hungarian history. The nearest thing I’ve seen to it in the States is Mader’s in Milwaukee. During our time in Hungary I was reading Budapest Noir, an exciting historical mystery of the first order. The protagonist visits the Palota and I felt the thrill one gets on being at a site, well described in literature.

After lunch we wandered around the hotel, inside and out, for a while. The grounds were beautiful, filled with plants and greenery, and we walked down a short but steep incline to a narrow rushing stream. We briefly checked out the sauna, steam, pool, whirlpool, the gym and bowling alleys. The hotel would make an ideal 3-day stay in the national park with plenty of activity, by day, and as much or as little as you might want in the evening. This is one of the most naturally beautiful and relaxing areas I’ve been to in many years.

We reluctantly left the Palota with the goal of taking a leisurely drive back to our hotel in Eger. The hilly terrain, with a number of genuine hairpin turns is alternately leisurely and hair raising.

I had hoped to stop at the Vadasz Bistro in Repashuta and we stumbled on it very much by accident. All of us needed a restroom break by then so we took advantage of the opportunity. The guidebook described it as “a good place for meeting Hungarian farmers. Guaranteed you will feel far from home.” And they weren’t kidding. It was the very picture of a Hungarian hunting lodge with skins and horns hanging on the walls. The lengthy menu seemed to have everything that I might want a Hungarian hunting lodge to have, including game. But, you know, after eating a pound of smoked trout and a full lunch at Matyas I just had no appetite left. The others weren’t up to the task either, so while it’s high on my list of places to eat, I haven’t done it yet. There are times, and this was such a one, that I wish I had a troupe of professional eaters accompanying me.

The drive back to our inn was a gentle descent, through the forest hills. There were more streams, and beautiful vistas for another ten kilometers, until we arrived at a T intersection in a valley. Turning left took us at a more rapid clip to Eger, and our inn by the Valley of the Beautiful Women.

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