Sunday, October 30, 2005

Hungry in Hungary? Not Likely

Yesterday was a school holiday. Both girls have time off around now, but, of course, not the same days. November 1 is All Saints’ Day, so most of Europe has that off.

So we arranged with Baboo’s best friend, J, and her mom, S, to have an outing.

We were going to go to see the chateaux of Lednice and Valtice, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site just over the border in the Czech Republic (, but S determined that they were closed for the season. So we elected to go to Hungary instead to see the Archabbey Pannonhalma ( This is near the city of Györ, which I believe is pronounced “Djer.” Human beings cannot learn Hungarian.

I had been past the abbey twice before. About a year ago, we had driven to Lake Balaton ( and passed by. The abbey is on a hill in visible from quite a distance. I had no idea what it was, but found something about it in my guidebook. Declared we would return and check it out sometime since it is only about 90 minutes from us.

Last January, the Spouse and I had gone to stay in a nice little hotel in Györ ( On the way back, we stopped at the abbey, but it was Sunday morning and there was nothing for the public until after mass. Since we did not want to attend mass, we decided to come back another time.

S picked us up about 10:00 in the morning and we set off for the Hungarian border (oh, that sounds so exotic!). To get there we took the highway to Györ and then a small road to the village of Pannonhalma. The abbey was begun in 996 and sits on a hill called St. Martin’s Hill. Apparently, King Stephen of Hungary believed St. Martin, who eventually became the Bishop of Tours, was born in the area. The Turks were in and out of the area. They occupied the monastery three times, most recently in 1683 when the Turks were assaulting Vienna.

The monastery provided shelter for hundreds of people, primarily children but also racial and political refugees, during the last few months of World War II.

So we arrive in the parking lot a little before noon. The girls thought the parking lot was plenty of fun and ran around, looking for cats. Across the way, we could see a man cutting hay in a meadow with a scythe. It was a gorgeous sunny autumn day with blue skies and colorful leaves.

We went to the ticket office and learned that the next tour in English would be at 1:30, but if we didn’t mind tagging along on a Hungarian tour, we were welcome. They offered us brochures in English, and we thought that was just fine.

We caught up with the guide and the other tourists, and discovered that NO ONE in the group spoke any Hungarian. We had Czechs, other Slovaks, and a German-speaking woman. The guide initially claimed to speak no English, but as we progressed and proved ourselves pleasant people, she warmed up and began to offer information. It will still be useful to go again with an English-speaking guide, however, as she did not offer as much as she probably could have if she had been more comfortable with the language.

The complex is interesting and has many lovely architectural features and archeological remnants. There is a large library with documents dating back hundreds if years, including hand copied Bibles.

It was in the library that the German-speaking woman cornered me. She had cornered the guide in the church crypt. I heard her asking “Who is in charge,” but figured she was complaining about the lack of better material to hand people when they were stuck with the Hungarian Only Tour. Now she starts telling me, with tears in her eyes, about a cat she has found on the grounds here. “She is sick,” she tells me. “I don’t know what to do. I told them they must neuter the cats!”

“Where are you from?” I counter. This is not someone from a formerly Communist country. No, she is from what was West Germany, so she is afflicted with that Germanic love of pets that supercedes concern for one’s fellow human. Note, that this is coming from me: Former Stray Intervention Lady.

I nod sympathetically, but hope I can make a clean escape. “Do you have a tissue for me?” she counters. Alas, I am a bad mom, and I have Kleenex, but it is in the car. I confess and then the girls run over to me asking if I want to see the oldest book in the library. Yes. Yes, I do.

Thankfully, the tour is over, and we are deposited in the gift shop where I buy a small bottle of cherry liqueur. S and I determine that the abbey wine is an unknown, and therefore too great a gamble. We suddenly realize that it is 1:30. We are starving. It’s time to find lunch.

We leave the abbey, and descend to the village where we find a small restaurant. The young man working there does not seem to mind that we are late for lunch. Yes, we can eat. So it is three orders of goulash made with wild boar and served with spaetzle (my favorite) and two schnitzels for my girls. All delicious. Then it is the ubiquitous Central European crepe called palacinky. The girls’ are rolled and filled with chocolate. S and I share an order filled with ground nuts and cherries. Ours are folded. Very filling and very delicious.

Back in the car we vow to stop at a vegetable stand we passed on the way to the abbey. We want to buy strings of garlic and peppers. We can get strings of garlic and peppers in Bratislava, but somehow these Hungarian versions seem more interesting. We find a store that is part of a restaurant that clearly caters to tourists. The clerk is dressed in a charming traditional costume. The shop is filled with local products: honey, poppy seeds, walnuts, wine. We buy acacia honey and a kilo of hulled walnuts to share.

A little farther down the road, we stop again to buy eggs (maybe Hungarian chickens are happier chickens?), a jar of some sort of red pepper concoction, strings of garlic and peppers tied with a green, white, and red ribbon--the color of the Hungarian flag, and a bag of gingerbread cookies that have been dipped in chocolate.

The children attack them in the car, as do the adults. They seem to have some sort of sugar blob in the center. They are the best version of this cookie I have had. I vow that the cookies will go home with S, but somehow the remnants end up in my bag and I discover them as I hunt for my house keys while S peels away from the front of my house like she’s fighting for the pole position at Indy.


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