photo of Tokaj

Countryside in Tokaj, Hungary. (www.tokaj.hu)

What to do in Tokaj

In summer, rows of leafy green vines lace the rolling hills of Tokaj in northeastern Hungary's Zemplén Hills. The region gains fame for its sweet white wines pressed from Aszú grapes, a product of the area's unique combination of volcanic soil, October harvest, and proximity to two rivers. Devotees go back centuries and include Cromwell and Voltaire, as well as Czar Alexander the Great. France's King Louis IV is said to have proclaimed that Tokaj produces "the wine of kings, the king of wines."

On a winery tour you enter the cool, oak-barreled cellars—some of them hundreds of years old—to learn about the delicate art of wine-making. Even teens not yet old enough to sample the varieties find the process interesting and the mould-lined cellars atmospheric. Good companies to tour are Rákóczi, Degenfeld, and Royal Tokaji.

Those same hills and rivers that produce the noted grapes also make for special family getaways. You can kayak or canoe on the Bodrog or Tisza rivers that run through the region.

Hike through the vineyards or bicycle the back roads like many locals. Either way, the undulating terrain makes for a moderately challenging outing. While hiking through the vineyards on the northern edge of the nearby town Mád, you come upon a locked Jewish cemetery. The weathered gray tombstones attest to the fact that before World War II the region had a significant Jewish community.

East of Tokaj, the Bükk Range, named for its abundance of beech trees, has a national park with well-marked trails. Lillafüred, a popular getaway for Hungarians, known for its woods and caves, is a good base. You could also stay in Miskolc, a former industrial city. Aggtelek National Park near the Slovakian border is a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its spectacular caves, an underground realm of stalactites, lakes, and waterfalls. Above ground, enjoy the woodland hiking trails.

For castles, visit Egri vár (Eger Castle) southwest of Miskolc. In 1552 the castle withstood a Turkish siege. The town's women aided Eger's battling soldiers by pouring boiling oil (and in some versions hot soup) on the invaders. A century later the Turks did succeed in sacking the castle. There are ruins to see as well as the Bishop's Palace. From the hill there's a broad view of the lively city with its Baroque buildings. The Eger region also produces wine, Egri Bikavér, known also as Bull's Blood.

Tip: The Gróf Degenfeld Castle Hotel, a former baronial manor house, has spacious rooms, beautiful grounds, a winery, and an outdoor pool.

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