Pat ran ahead to take photos, so I wasn’t surprised to learn the raucous laughter emanated from a troupe of women aping for his camera. All wore matching, blue, calico smocks over bleached white blouses which perfectly matched their frothy hairdos. They handed over their phones in turn to have Pat snap a keepsake. The ring leader, a bosomy woman with long, gray hair pulled back into a loose knot, reminded me of an aging hippie, though I doubted hippies existed in 1960s, communist Hungary. Today, she works a wine cellar in The Valley of the Beautiful Women outside Eger. As I rounded the corner she yelled, “Booja booja!” and shook her hips like Charo. Was this a dance club? Some type of singing sisterhood? Waitresses from a local tourist trap? No one spoke English, so we never learned who they were, but that did not stop us from hugging each one as they returned to their outdoor table to resume sipping their wine. As I grabbed the ringleader, she screamed “Booja, booja”, threw her head back, and once again howled.
Valley might be a misnomer, implying something more expansive than this gully on the outskirts of Eger a 20 minute walk from the main square. Although known in tourist books as “The Valley of the Beautiful Women”, the sign in town pointed us to the “Valley of the Very Pretty Women”. I laughed, unsure if this is a translation snafu or a form of editorial critique. But the signs sufficed, and we followed them until we arrived at the first of the wine huts – nothing more than a series of garages each padlocked shut. We continued down to where the road cut right and ended at a square. Here we found more than 50 cellars dug into the verdant hills. Some of the them appeared formal, others downright decrepit, and the very first housed the most irreverent keeper.
Pat and I waived goodbye and set off to find the vineyard our waiter recommended, a bit more posh establishment on the far side of the square. Nothing outside disclosed the polished oak bar or the vast selection of gleaming stemware found within. We ordered two glasses and exited the cave to sit outside. At the neighboring cellar, locals gathered around a few picnic tables while traditionally dressed cello and violin players serenaded them. But then, a rogue fiddler infringed on the party. We watched on as he coursed through folk songs to classics. The crowd laughed and clapped as he dropped to one knee and mimicked Al Jolson singing Mammy to a man at the end of the table who giggled in appreciation. The fiddler moved onto a traditional song which caused everyone to stand and sing. I assumed this must be the Hungarian National Anthem until someone corrected me. Each region or town, it turns out, has a ballad which resonates just as deeply with the local population as the national song. The song of Eger brought the crowd to their feet.
Eventually, a woman came out clearly not entertained and with her hands on hips chastised the man. Then she pointed, once, and then again more aggressively a second time. Even I could translate her message; “Leave” or “Get out” or something equivalent. He lowered his head and scuffed his feet before shuffling off. In spite of his apparent local trouble maker reputation, he was the best entertainment on the square that night. Pat and I slipped him a few hundred forints as he skulked by which elicited a dramatic bow and tip of the cap, obviously as much to taunt his tormentor as to thank us. With the fiddler gone, the paid musicians resumed their play. We finished our wine and left, the best entertainment apparently now behind us.
As we continued around the square, the wine bars became nicer and English more prevalent. “Pat, let’s get out of here. I want to return to booja,booja and buy some wine,” I suggested. As we walked towards her much smaller cellar, she was waiting outside and greeting everyone who passed. I had no sense that she was trying to entice tourists to buy, but rather enjoyed the show of the evening – and the role she played in it. We entered and followed her to the back counter. Sticking her fingers behind her ears to imitate a bull, she explained the wine in broken English, “Wine bull’s blood,” and then she snorted. “Egan.” I replied, “Yes.”
I understood the traditional blood wine which harkens back to the Turkish attack on Eger. Legend has it the Hungarian warriors convinced the marauders that their deeply burgundy stained beards originated from drinking the blood of slaughtered bulls. I held up one finger and pointed to a pile of liter soda bottles scattered across the dusty, concrete floor. She held up six fingers. Once again, I shook my head yes. She riffled thru the bottles and Pat started to whisper in my ear, ‘Please, pick a clean one. Pick a clean one.” This reuse of bottles is standard across Central Europe. Most people bring their own to be filled. Others, like me, rely on the hope that some level of cursory cleansing occurred prior to stuffing a hefty sack full and then scattering them into the dirt.
She filled a jug filled with a deep red liquid and handed me a glass to taste. Once again, she put up her finger horns and snorted like a bull. “Booja, booja” I said, and we both laughed. She began to pour the wine into the recommissioned soda bottle. For the first time her face creased in concentration. Pat asked if I agreed to pay 6,000 forint for this. “I doubt it. But we’re about to find out,” I shrugged. Mentally I had already conceded that any price – even a rip off tourist charge – was worth the evening’s entertainment. As she screwed on the plastic top, I grabbed an assortment of bills which she carefully poked through before selecting a 500 forint note plus a 100 forint coin. Six hundred forint. A bit more than two dollars. We hugged and laughed and made a few more guttural sounds before Pat and I started the climb back up to the city. Pat nodded to the bottle and asked, “Julie, what are you going to do with that? Pour it out?” “Hey Pat, it’s wine, I’m going to drink it.”
Categories: Central/Eastern Europe