Vintage Villány – Bus, Wine, Train: Secrets to Be Shared With the World

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.

Villány wine cellars directional sign

In Villány wine cellars can be found in every direction

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.

In the Gere wine cellar

In the Gere wine cellar

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 train station in Villány

Villány’s train station – big, empty and dreadful

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.

A Small Corner in Szentendre – Serbia & The Power of Belief

North of Budapest, on the west bank of the Danube sits the astonishingly charming town of Szentendre.
Due to its proximity to the capital, it has pretty much become the number one day trip destination for visitors and locals alike. The town can be easily reached via the city’s suburban railway. On arrival, visitors find a colorful array of historic buildings, quaint, cobble stoned streets and an artistic colony, second to none in Hungary. Szentendre has a feeling of prosperity and wealth, as it has become a refuge for those looking to flee the noise, clamor and bustle of Budapest. It has also become a refuge for artists looking to glean inspiration from its Mediterranean like vibe.

Szerb utca (Serb street) - one of the main streets in Szentendre and for good reason.

Szerb utca (Serb street) – one of the main streets in Szentendre and for good reason.

History & Memory on a Street Corner in Szentendre
Szentendre’s history as a refuge extends much deeper into the past than might be expected. For those who look beyond the curiosity shops, patisseries and stylish restaurants there is a multi-ethnic history waiting to be discovered. On the corner of Lazar car ter (square) in Szentendre there is a monument topped with a cross. It is placed in a rather inconspicuous setting, beside a restaurant. The throngs of tourists that come to visit this historic town often overlook it. Nonetheless, this monument and where it stands represent the importance of Szentendre to the memory and history of Serbia during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Strategically located at the beginning of the Danube River’s bend north of Buda, Szentendre became a home to South Slavic refugees during the Middle Ages. The town’s history as a refuge began in the 14th and 15th centuries when groups of Bulgarians and Dalmatians made their way to the banks of this Hungarian stretch of the Danube while fleeing the Ottoman Turkish hordes ravaging their homelands. This wave of immigration was later followed by Serbs who settled in the area after fleeing the same group of invaders.  By the mid-16th century, the Turks had managed to occupy most of Hungary including the area that was Szentendre. The village was soon depopulated. It was only after the ouster of the Ottoman Turks in Hungary by Habsburg forces in the latter part of the 17th century that the region was safe once again for settlement.

Monument to Tsar Lazar of Serbia in Szentendre - in the place where a church once stood that held his bones

Monument to Tsar Lazar of Serbia in Szentendre – in the place where a church once stood that held his bones

The Life Force Of A Nation
Meanwhile the Serbs were able to reoccupy their ancestral homeland. It was not long though before they were uprooted again by Ottoman counter advances. As a reward for their bravery and courage in fighting the Ottomans, the Habsburgs allowed some 6,000 Serbs to resettle in Szentendre. Their leader, Arsenije III Čarnojević, also brought the relics (bones) of Tsar Lazar, the Serbian nation’s last pre-Ottoman leader who had been killed on the field of blackbirds at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. The relics had been given the greatest protection for the past three hundred years. Centuries long efforts of monks kept these relics from being defiled by the marauding Turks.

The relics allowed for the veneration of Lazar as physical and spiritual evidence of the Serbian nation’s will to exist no matter the historical circumstances. The relics were brought to Szentendre in 1690 where they were placed in a newly constructed wooden Serbian Orthodox church. They were housed there for seven years before eventually being returned to Serbia. The spot where the church was located is today marked by the memorial at the corner of the square. It seems almost impossible to believe that in this spot, the life force of a nation was once safeguarded.

Serbian Orthodox Church in Szentendre - Credit: upsalatty

Serbian Orthodox Church in Szentendre – Credit: upsalatty

Symbols Matter – The Veneration of An Idea
To modern visitors this might seem like no big deal. In the present age where “enlightened” beliefs are pervasive, relics fail to receive accolades or veneration. It is commonly thought, especially in westernized cultures, that such traditions are based on antiquated beliefs, the superstitions of an unscientific age. Yet it is instructive to remember that people act on what they believe. If that belief is powerful enough to motivate the actions and activities of a group of people then it is certainly a worthy part of the historic record. The Serbian people believed in the greatness of their leader Tsar Lazar and the independence of the Serbian kingdom. He was the living embodiment of a people and culture at its zenith. Despite the centuries of Turkish occupation and oppression that followed Lazar’s reign, the idea of Serbia lived on.

In death Lazar may well have been more important to the idea of Serbia than he was in life. The veneration of his relics is as much the veneration of an idea as it is of a man. It is not so much who he was, as to what he symbolizes: a Serbian people ruling themselves, leading all the South Slavs, free and independent of foreign control. Did the relics assist this belief in Serbia? The answer is almost certainly yes. They were as much a part of the fight for that kingdom as any soldier or sword. The monument where that wooden church was once located, now stands improbably in another nation, Hungary, in a town that has only a handful of Serbs still living there. Nevertheless, it deserves not only to be noticed, but also to be read and remembered.