Hungarian Countryside Features Colorful Garb, Cabbage Cuisine
Within minutes of my arrival at my friend Balint's farm in eastern Hungary, his mother set before us an enormous bowl of stuffed cabbage. His father began wolfing some down, periodically pulling down clusters of grapes from the arbor over our heads on the patio.
''This is a cabbage farm -- so here is the cabbage,'' said Balint as he pointed to the bowl. Over the next three days, I tried several of Mrs. Nagy's 20 cabbage-based dishes and found them all delicious, especially ''kettle goulash'' cooked over an open fire and chicken in a tomato and paprika sauce. I ate lots of corn on the cob and watermelon.
My childhood playgrounds were on the roofs of school buildings; in my urban mind-set, food is grown on supermarket shelves. Here, though, the only time spent inside the one-story, oblong cottage was for sleeping. When Mrs. Nagy wanted some fruit for stuffing strudel, we'd go pick some cherries from a row of trees down the road (and try not to eat them all on the way back). Then we'd replay that famous Hungarian scene in which the housewife stretches pastry dough over the table to parchment thinness.
My hosts live in Hungary's easternmost county, Szabolcs-Szatmar-Bereg. Balint is well versed in the local sites, and we visited them on bicycles over the flat terrain. Given the area's location between East and West (at some points Ukraine and then Romania were in view), each religious site we visited belonged to a different group: Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Calvinist, Jewish.
Everywhere, flowers were a motif: on boldly colored frescoes and woodcarvings in the area's medieval peasant churches; stenciled on the walls of the Nagy home as a traditional, painted substitute for wallpaper; and even in the roadside ditches that become neck-high gardens in June. Draped all over the furniture are embroideries whose flower patterns vary according to region. (In one area known for paprika production, little red peppers form part of the pattern.)
Picturesque as a village visit is, the economy in rural Hungary has been in decline as a result of the post-Communist transition. And while I appreciate Hungary's relative stability, I've found its countryside bland compared with the mountains and medieval architecture in neighboring Romania and Slovakia. Yet it is these problems that prompt a closer exploration of village or farm life in Hungary. The tourist industry here has fledgling ''village tourism'' programs all over the country to give foreigners and urban Hungarians the chance to experience a weekend -- or weeks -- similar to mine.
IF it weren't for tourism, some village traditions would soon die out. The ultimate case in point is Holloko, a village in the hilly north inhabited by a Hungarian ethnic group called the Paloc. I arrived on a Sunday morning in time to watch a stream of mostly women pour out of a church so tiny that the scene invited comparison with 50 clowns getting out of a circus Volkswagen. The building's wood-and-whitewash simplicity set off their colorful Sunday garb -- beribboned vests and bonnets and several layers of petticoats, giving their waists a wide girth. The women dress this way as much for tourist revenues as for tradition.
Holloko is the only village on the UNESCO World Heritage List and is thus ranked with the Great Wall of China and the Acropolis. The village's 19th-century appearance was actually preserved because of a disaster. In the aftermath of a fire in 1907, the Paloc houses were rebuilt in the old style and therefore remain in good condition, while the older houses in other Paloc villages gave way to the usual modern style in Hungary -- boxy and stucco.
Despite its tourist status, Holloko has an indisputable charm. It's an ideal place to learn folk crafts, and in good weather one can picnic by the ruined fortress that overlooks the village.
Every region of Hungary offers village tourism options, and some are less than an hour from Budapest. Be specific in your request: a traditional farm-house lodging, a vegetarian diet, interests in pottery, or horseback riding.
Most agencies specializing in village tourism lack English-speaking staff, and few hosts speak it. Other tourist networks can help you wade through the language barrier, particularly Tourinform in Budapest, which provides detailed information but does not make arrangements. For addresses, call Tourinform from the United States at 011-(36) (1) 117 9800.