In The Valley of the Beautiful Woman

molnarWhile the name may sound like a corny 70s sexploitation movie, The Valley of the Beautiful Woman (Szépasszony Völgy) is one of the top sights in the small town of Eger.  The town itself is a two-hour bus ride from Budapest and offers a wonderfully quaint pedestrian road in the center of town, lined with shops and restaurants, and plenty of sights—there is a castle, a cathedral, a Beatles museum (for some reason), and, most importantly, plenty of wine.

A 20 or so minute walk from Eger lies The Valley of the Beautiful Woman, a small cul-de-sac lined with wine caves carved into the mountains.  If you’re not up to the walk, there are also street trains or taxis that can take you.  The walk isn’t incredibly scenic, but walking back can certainly help work off all the drinking you’re about to do.  There are more than 40 wineries represented here, with each offering their own wines for sample or sale.  There is a wide variety of wines, and many offer the local specialty, the dark red Egri Bikavér, or “Bull’s Blood.”

valley

We must have gone down on an off day, or at an off time.  There were very few others around, which gave the valley a quiet lull, and made the experience more quaint and personal.  On our walk down we stopped at Kulács Csarda for some quality Hungarian fare, making sure to get some food in our stomach before we started drinking.  Thank god we did.

bulls bloodMany of the caves are numbered, which is the easiest way to tell them apart, and we started at the beginning and moved around the loop.  We, of course, did not stop at all the wineries—to do so would have been a sure recipe for a lot of vomiting.  We had read about a few good ones and made sure to stop at those, as well as any that looked especially interesting.  The quaint cellars are all cut into the soft volcanic rock of the surrounding hillside.  Moss is allowed to grow, which keeps the cellars at a constant 10-15 C year round.

For the most part, we wandered in and out of the various cellars, trying a wine here and a wine there.  If one place had a wine we particularly enjoyed, we’d try another from them.  If not, we’d move on.  The only real downside to the valley is that there’s no way you can test all the wines—with over 40 cellars, and some having up to 30 varietals, you wouldn’t have a chance.  But to spend an afternoon wandering and tasting is a great time.

Especially at cave #2, tucked back into a corner right at the start.  You go down a set of stairs into a dark, musty cellar that is somewhat damp, where you are served by a wonderful older Hungarian woman.  She didn’t know much English, but we communicated with a series of charades, and she poured wine out of a long glass tube that she held about two feet away from the glass to aerate it.  We had such a good time hanging out with her, right at the end of our time in the valley, and we had some extra drinks we probably shouldn’t have had.  But we had a 25-minute uphill walk back to Eger to work off the extra alcohol (spoiler alert: it didn’t work).

The Valley, which has multiple explanations for its name (the easiest of which being there were sacrifices made to an ancient religion’s version of Aphrodite), is well worth the trip, regardless of how you decide to get there.  Be sure to stop to eat before you start drinking, though, and don’t be afraid to skip any wineries (you’ll have to in order to survive).  Hopefully, your visit will be as quaint and quiet as ours was.

Misty Mountain Hop: Two Days in Ha Long Bay

Being an avid fan of jigsaw puzzles, I had been familiar with Ha Long Bay and its incredible scenery for a long time.  And while I am not a fan of boats or deep water, putting this on our list of things to do in Vietnam was a no-brainer.  I would suck up my fears in order to see what I imagine to be one of the most beautiful areas in the world.

Based on friends’ recommendations, we signed on with Indochina Junk (don’t worry, it’s because they use junk boats, which is a kind of ancient Chinese style of ship) on their two day, one night Dragon Legend cruise.  This would take us to the less-traveled Bai Tu Long Bay which would be less crowded, but just as beautiful as Ha Long or Cat Ba Bays.

karst

The company had us picked up in a van to get from Hanoi to Ha Long, which we shared with another family and took turns imploring the driver to keep the air conditioning on.  They made us stop at a souvenir rest area for a bit, so the ride took about four hours altogether.  Once at Indochina Junk’s HQ, we checked in, gave them our bags, and grabbed a beer while we waited.  When it was finally our turn, we were all put on a small boat to get us to the larger junk boat.  We went through a small presentation, were given our room keys, and found our bags already in our room.

IMG_2680Having spent the previous few days trekking in Sapa with limited facilities, and taking two overnight trains, the absolute first thing we did on the ship was take a shower.  As we began our journey into the bay, just sitting in the room (which was much larger and nicer than you would expect, even on a “luxury” ship) and watching the karsts go by out the window was incredible.

We had lunch – a nine-course affair of small plates – sitting on the front deck of the ship and watching the scenery.  Thus far, it was the most calming, beautiful thing we had seen—and we had just been in Sapa.  With only the murmur of our shipmates and the quiet noise of the boat’s engine, we could not have been more relaxed.  Especially with a surprisingly delicious meal and a few beers (note: meals are provided, alcohol must be paid for separately).

After lunch, we were presented with some optional excursions: we could either go on a small boat tour of the area, or take a group kayak tour.  We opted for the boat (I’m no fan of kayaks), which included checking out the local floating village of people who actually lived in the bay.  We were told due to the dangers of living there, the government had offered money to the people to get them to move to the mainland and learn new jobs, but they were not interested in leaving their way of life.

village

After the tour, we had some downtime.  However, with the previous overnight train being bumpy, and not being able to sleep much in the van, even the scenery couldn’t keep us awake long and we took a quick nap.  We were awoken with a phone call when they had noticed we were absent from dinner.

breakfastThe next day we awoke to grab breakfast (pho and Vietnamese coffee, you can’t go wrong), after which there was another excursion to explore the well-hidden Thien Canh Son Cave.  It wasn’t super adventurous—there were lights all throughout the cave and about three boats’ worth of people, but it was still nice to see.

After the excursion, we checked out of our rooms and met in the dining room for a buffet lunch as we made our way back to the harbor at Ha Long, where we disembarked, grabbed our bags, and once again spent time in a van on the way back to Hanoi trying to get the driver to leave the air conditioner on.

IMG_2674

Our time on the boat still ranks as one of the most relaxing parts of any vacation we’ve ever taken, mostly due to the fact that we had no choice but to go with the flow of the ship (no pun intended).  There wasn’t a restaurant to run off to or a hike to take in—we just sat around and watched the world go by, which turned out to be a pretty excellent way to spend two days, especially after navigating the streets of Hanoi, trekking in Sapa, and hustling around to catch overnight trains.

The cool breeze on the ship would also be the last we got for a while, as afterwards we began our trip south and into the incredible heat of Hue and Ho Chi Minh City.  But for now, we would enjoy the ride.