Taking an Off-season Trip Down to Hungary’s South

In Hungary

Some of the little wine bars lining Baross Gábor utca in Villány.

Photo by berni0004 / Shutterstock.com

While Hungary’s big cities have plenty of amenities to offer all year round, it can be harder to find a more rural setting during the off-season where one can leave urban life behind without running the risk of running out of programs to follow or places to visit by the time the night falls. Villány is an exception.

With its hilly landscape, excellent wines, and quality gastronomical offerings, Villány, which gives its name to one of the country’s most significant (predominately red) wine regions, is a two-hour, 225 km drive south of Budapest.

Thankfully, the M6 is perhaps one of the least traffic-dense motorways in the country, where the main risk is posed not by other drivers but by the temptation to shave a few minutes of travel time off by putting your foot to the floor, seeing the empty road.

The small town of Villány is a special place near the Croatian border with its own warm, sub-Mediterranean microclimate that makes it possible to successfully grow figs, for example, as well as all those grapes. The settlement itself boasts little more than 2,000 inhabitants, but it is a lot livelier, even at night, than a typical Hungarian village of this size.

Prominent Hungarian winemakers such as Gere, Günczer, and Bock have guesthouses where you can try wine specialties, not to mention the smaller, local vintners. Baross Gábor utca, acting as the main arterial vein of Villány, is lined with several establishments offering rooms, wine-tasting programs, as well as food. Very few of them close before 10 p.m., even in February.

Fine Dining and Local Specialties

There are many different kinds of restaurants in the vicinity, with some oriented towards fine dining, such as Sauska 48, mentioned in the Michelin Guide. But it is also worth trying some local specialties inspired by the region’s Danube-Swabian traditions.

One popular local item on most menus is “Stifolder,” a kind of sausage named for the group of Germans who settled in the area around Mohács and Pécs in the 18th century. Most of those people who arrived in Baranya County called themselves “Stiffoller,” as they came from Hesse, specifically the region of the Abbey of Fulda (Stiftsfuldaer in German).

The original seasoning of the sausage has changed over time, and with the addition of Magyar paprika, it became an interesting, cold-smoked delicacy combining German and Hungarian characteristics. It is excellent with freshly-baked bread and does a stellar job of mopping up the alcohol in the local, full-bodied red wines.

The surrounding region is excellent for hiking. Without even having to leave the town, tourists can gain access to a panoramic sight by climbing Templom Hill and checking out the lookout tower. The supporting columns and terraces of the wooden building, inaugurated in 2011, are decorated with carvings by woodcarver and sculptor Győző Szatyor.

Below the tower is an abandoned quarry pit, through which the Ammonites nature trail leads. The former quarry has been protected since 1989, and in it, you can find a unique collection of ammonite specimens from the Jurassic period and Pliocene-Pleistocene vertebrate remains.

The nearby rustic town of Villánykövesd is just a 40-minute walk and offers an opportunity to discover smaller local vintners and take a look at the old rows of cellars. In the other direction, but still near Villány, there is a unique sculpture park to intrigue art lovers.

Free From Ideology

In the abandoned quarry on Szársomlyó Hill, artists whose experimental ideas were unusually creative for the time began to work in 1967. The pieces here are free of the ideology of the socialist system of art direction. They deal exclusively with aesthetic and artistic questions, giving a picture of the real art of the period.

In the early years, purely domestic artists worked here, but later foreign artists from Norway, Italy, and Japan joined them. Most of the sculptures are made of local grey limestone from Nagyharsány and Beremend.

After a long hike, few things are more pleasurable than submerging one’s aching limbs in hot thermal water. Roughly a 20 minute drive away, the small town of Harkány offers an opportunity to do so with its thermal baths.

The water of the Harkány Thermal Spa, which offers a range of open-air and covered pools, saunas, and more, is quite unique, even on the global scale, as it contains dissolved sulfide ions, which has a healing effect on joint problems, rheumatic diseases, and even skin problems like psoriasis. According to the spa’s website, there are only two other natural sources in the world that can be visited by people suffering from psoriasis; the nearest one is the Dead Sea.

The bath is open even during the winter, and thanks to the hot thermal water, you barely feel the cold even when bathing in the open-air section. The complex is also home to an aquapark for the kids, and a variety of massage treatments are on offer.

Villány and its surroundings might not be the first destination that comes to mind for people visiting Hungary, but it can offer a very different experience to a city break. Its uniqueness lies not only in the quality of its wines and the picturesque views but also in the fact that it can be visited any month of the year without facing closed restaurants and bars or empty streets.

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of February 24, 2023.

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