Villány, a small and prosperous town in the southernmost part of Hungary, is the epicenter of a world class wine region. Aficionados of wine are intimately familiar with the Cabernet Savignons and Merlots that come from the area. I made my own pilgrimage there several years ago to visit one of the many wine cellars that dot the town. Fortunately I arrived by bus rather than rail, this turned out to be a personal paradox for me. Usually I prefer train travel in Hungary over any other mode of transport. I find bus rides to be terribly exhausting, as one experiences every pothole, bump or brake along the way. Even a short bus ride can induce drowsiness. Packed together with strangers, thrown to and fro, suffering through random increases and decreases in speed, the experience is one of shared motion sickness. The majority of bus rides are to be endured rather than enjoyed.
I could say the same about the bus ride that transported me from Mohacs to Villány. The bus stopped at every tiny village, crossroads and obscure siding along the way. A Gypsy fortified by copious amounts of alcohol – it was not even noon yet – entertained and irritated the passengers in turns. Finally he signaled for the bus driver to let him off at a crossroads with no town or home anywhere in sight. After what seemed like an eternity on this bus induced odyssey, it was a relief to arrive at Villány . That portion of the trip had ended, but worse was yet to come at the Villány train station. In the meantime, the neat and prosperous town offered many avenues of exploration into both the history and current state of wine making in the area.
The History Of A Heritage – Defeating The King Of Wines
The Villány-Siklos wine region is well known among experts, but it has yet to achieve the same level of notoriety among the masses of Central and Western Europe. Only about 10% of wine sales are derived from exports abroad. The region is still recovering from being hidden behind the Iron Curtain. The secret is finally getting out so more of the world can soon acquire this taste. Ironically, the Hungarians in Villany also had to acquire this taste. Winemaking heritage in Villány goes all the way back to the Roman Empire, when almost two millennia ago the region became part of the province of Pannonia. The modern era of winemaking began in earnest after the Ottoman Turks were thrown out of Hungary. In the 18th century, the Habsburgs stimulated immigration by Serbs and Swabian Germans to repopulate and develop the area. These ethnic groups planted the seeds that eventually sprouted into the wine industry of Villány. This centuries old tradition has become a way of life now dominated by Hungarians.
The town consists of a mid-sized village. Its central street is lined with wine houses and cellars. Villány has a population of approximately two thousand and my stroll along the main street through the town made it seem like there were at least that many wine cellars as well. The one I visited was home to the noted Gere label. The owners said that they sold some 620,000 bottles per year. Not bad for a year’s work. From what I saw Gere was only one of many brands that brought the town visitors, fame and prestige. The wines cultivated in the immediate area have a full-bodied flavor born from grapes cultivated in a sub-Mediterranean micro climate. Here the summers are hot and dry, while winter is rather mild, a climatic rarity in Central Europe. These conditions have helped to create the rich reds and roses that win more awards than any other wine in Hungary. That is really saying something, considering that Hungary is home to the Tokaj brand, the so called “wine of kings, the king of wines.” Villány’s vintages have managed to outpace even those.
The Future Isn’t What It Used To Be
Leaving Villány turned out to be much more difficult than the bus ride in. The train station was a long walk from the center of town. It was not easy to find, but once there I started to see why this was so. The station was alarmingly awful. Downtrodden, ugly and with no sense of style the building turned out to be the exact opposite of everything else in Villány. No self-respecting person would have dared to sit down inside. An outbreak of tetanus possibly awaited the unsuspecting, comfort challenged passenger. The ticket seller was a female bruiser with a nasty temperament that somehow managed to match the station’s aesthetics. It was a spring afternoon and the place was abandoned.
I have been in this kind of train station before in Eastern Europe, but never in a place as wealthy and prosperous as Villány. I half expected Janos Kadar (Hungary’s Communist leader from 1956 – 88) to come over the intercom system and announce the next five year plan. “Yes comrades the great socialist nation is building a worker’s paradise, a fine example is this lovely train station. Our future prosperity is assured.” It was hard to imagine that only a kilometer away from the station was a true paradise for wine, tastefulness and relaxing village life. With the exception of the train station,Villány turned out to be a throwback to tradition and heritage. Leaving the communist era station I was grateful that for Villány the future isn’t what it used to be.