The first, overwhelming impression of Hungary is of flatness. After Slovakia, which is almost unrelentingly hilly and often mountainous, the great Hungarian plain comes as a shocking surprise, even if one knows it's there. The roads are better, the money hard to calculate (we manage to take out close to a thousand Euros from a cashpoint by mistake – all those currencies that don't differ from each other by more than a actor of five make one complacent, now that the likes of Italian lira, Greek Drachma and old Polish zloties are gone).
But it's the language that is the most savagely impossible. Apart from a day in Dubai (where everything seemed to be bilingual and the Arabic was almost invariably complemented by English) I have never before been to a country where I could understand so little – not a street sign, not a billboard ad, not a packet description or a newspaper headline – and it's a strange, discomforting feeling. Hungarian is not an Indo-European language and despite the obvious influence of mostly Slavic but also other European languages, it remained inscrutably different. I keep wondering what influence speaking such a language must have on the Hungarian national identity and psyche. For a foreigner, it's an alienating, discomforting experience.
It needn't be a major drag on a visitor, though, as those employed in the tourist trade do tend to have at least some English, although German is more common, especially outside of Budapest where American organised groups seem to even possibly outnumber the German and Austrian tourists who are naturally (by reasons of history and geography) the most common foreign visitors.
Our first stop in Hungary is for lunch in the lovely Eger, a picture-perfect middle-European townscape of Baroque-influenced buildings, similar in style to what you can see in other parts of what used to be Austro-Hungarian Empire, from Slovenia to southern Poland, Austria itself to Slovakia. A sole minaret tower reminds of the Ottoman occupation of most of what is now Hungary between mid-16th and late 18th century.
We have a lunch in Eger (with the first, though not mind-blowing, goulash soup of this trip) and then visit a wine shop. Eger is a centre of a major Hungarian wine growing region, and Egri Bikaver (Bull's Blood of Eger) is the most famous Hungarian red, made from a blend of three or five grapes, but based on the ancient Kadarka grape variety (now largely replaced by Kefrankos/Blaufrankisch variety that we have already encountered in Slovakian wines). We buy a fairly expensive (for a Hungarian red, anyway) bottle of a superior Bikaver, a good-value but even more expensive half-litre of Tokai Aszu (which we will carry around most of the Balkans to deliver eventually as a birthday present to my mother who is a fan) and trot back to the car for an evening drive to Budapest.