Maps reflect what becomes apparent to people visiting the region, that there are no neatly defined towns here: most have a crescent shape which twist and turn with the rivers, or follow the contours of foothills they developed along. In this region well positioned hillsides rarely have houses on them, rather these choice lands are reserved for grapes and wineries.
There are, however, triangular entrances to wine cellars even within the towns, and houses which serve a particular purpose: processing grapes and storing wine.
Indeed one could write volumes about this subterranean world. Not only about why the narrow, irregular shaped, moldy passages make such a deep impression on everyone, or the legends of the spy and escape tunnels running between castles, but also about how the cellars formed a virtual labyrinth after they were connected, and how the bottles of fermenting Aszú magnify the smallest flicker of light to the brightness of daylight. Or one could write about the two famed regional cellars – in Szegi and in Bodrogkeresztúr – which are so broad as to allow a horse-drawn cart to turn around in.
In the footsteps of the wonder working rabbi of Keresztúr
In the 16th-17th centuries Jewish families arrived in the region and became part of its magical, yet demanding daily life as they took over the wine trade from local Greek merchants. They played an instrumental role in modernizing wine-growing and wine making, and in the distribution of the kosher wines they produced.
The same process then took place here which was becoming familiar in other towns of the Hegyalja region: as the Jewish congregation of the 18th-19th century grew stronger, synagogues, baths, prayer houses and schools were built. However following the Holocaust, Jewish culture could not be revived, and in many cases even the very buildings they had built were lost. There are, however, some exceptions. In Tokaj, after decades of struggle, the synagogue was able to retain its original identity and became a cultural center; in Tarcal the new owner preserved, renovated and reopened the synagogue to the public as a gallery; and, in Bodrogkeresztúr while only the structure remains, the synagogue is used today to protect nature. The only synagogue that is active in the Hegyalja region today operates in Tokaj, in the former prayer house.
The graves of renowned rabbis are preserved in four well-maintained Jewish cemeteries: two in Tokaj; one in Tarcal; and, one in Bodrogkeresztúr each. The latter is, without doubt, the most famous to which many pilgrims come to pay their respect to the wonder rabbi Jesája Steiner, or "reb Sájele", at his ohel-covered grave at the top of the Dereszla hill. His former house has reopened to visitors, where it is told that traditionally food for 50 people was always prepared so that nobody visiting the rabbi would ever leave hungry.
You will need comfortable shoes!
When visiting the Tokaj-Hegyalja region, you will do plenty of walking during your sightseeing. If you want get to know not only the cheerful Bacchus fountain, the statues of Prince Ferenc Rákóczi II. and King Saint Stephen, the historical building and the different exhibitions of the museum but the town's atmosphere as well, you will only have to have to wander around Tokaj's center. You have to cross the Tisza bridge to see where the region's two main rivers - the Bodrog and the Tisza - meet, and to take a look at the wild river banks.
You have to hike up from Tarcal to Nagykopasz to the TV tower, from which one has a view for the same distance from the tower, as the distance it is visible from. And you have to walk up the Dereszla Hill to the panorama lookout to behold the breathtaking view. While both hills allow motor traffic to the summit, if you really want to see the local sights as well as the views, walking is the way to go. Europe's largest Christ the Redeemer statue can also be reached by walking the panoramic path in Tarcal.
Make an excursion to the areas open to visitors in the protected Bodrogzug and explore its colorful fauna. Take part in vineyard tours and wander around the grape vines, among wine barrels and cellars. Without doubt, the five kilometer long, two-story cellar system in Szegi – created by connecting four, several hundred year old grit mines – is the largest one in Central-Eastern Europe.
This, of course, does not mean that the only thing to do here is to go sightseeing on foot. Adventurous visitors can paraglide on the Nagykopasz Hill or raft on the Bodrog. Bodrogkisfalud offers everything for water sport enthusiasts from 12 person rafts, to mountain bikes that can be used on water, and to even 3-seated jet skis. And those who desire more relaxing but an equally enjoyable way to pass time are encouraged to go on a river cruise through Tokaj. The area can also be explored by bicycle: The hills and mountains offer wonderful cycle paths for both families and serious riders. Bicycles can be rented to tour both the independent Tokaj cycle paths, and the section EuroVelo route 11 which passes through Szegi, Bodrogkeresztúr, and Tokaj.
Also weary travelers can replenish their strength either with excellent wines and local cuisine, or relax in the wellness sections of hotels, or spend time in the anglers paradise along the banks of the Tisza.
The local cuisine deserves a special mention. Most of the local cellars serve excellent dishes that complement their wines and reflect the cuisine of the Hegyalja region. But one should also devote some time to tasting some of the delicacies produced in the many different local manufactories: they produce cheese, special homemade marmalades and syrups, one can even taste coffee made from locally roasted mixed coffee beans and experience the fantastic and unique taste of wine vinegars. A visit to the manufactory in Bodrogkeresztúri is an excellent family excursion as their small museum feeds visitors information in a creative fashion - much the same way that their internationally acclaimed products are made.
There is one more local particular "flavor" one should pay special attention to: the vineyards as both old and new ones are within the core area of the world heritage designation. Long before they were declared part of the world heritage site, the lands belonged to wealthy aristocrats – indeed the King as well - who erected extravagant buildings here. Even today everything is done to attempt to retain the vineyards’s opulent past. For example, the Füleky wine cellar in Bodrogkeresztúr renovated not only the 18th century Baroque style curia that used to be the center of the property, but added a modern grape processing facility that was voted "Commercial Building of the Year 2011" on the world's most popular architecture website.
It is well worth taking a look at the vineyards that have been voted the most beautiful vineyards in Hungary and browsing the lists of wine makers that were awarded the Winemaker of the Year or the Winemaker of the Year in the Tokaj-Hegyalja titles. Those who only stay for a few days will not have the time to visit all the vineyards so they can attend the numerous events to help to get to know some of them. The month of September and October are abundant in such events, as every town celebrates the start and the end of the harvest with traditional parades, open cellars, modern music and, of course, plenty of wine. Since 1932 one of the highlights of the Tokaj region is the start of the harvest celebration organized by the local community during the first weekend in October. In turn, the separate Tokaj Wine Festival marks the beginning of the summer season. The Wine Bus, however, operates all year round and offers participants an opportunity to get to know the provincial wine culture.
Must see attractions:
– Rabbi Steiner Jesája's grave in the Jewish cemetery of Bodrogkeresztúr;
– The Wine Museum in Tokaj, which is part of the world heritage site;
– Europe's tallest Christ the Redeemer statue in Tarcal;
– Central-Eastern Europe's most extensive wine cellar system in Szegi;
– The building and exhibits of the Tokaj Museum; and,
– The unique, protected flora and fauna of Bodrogzug
– The Catholic church from the Middle Ages in Bodrogkeresztúr;
– Unforgettable view from the hills Nagykopasz and Dereszla; and,
– The museum of the Tokaj Wine Vinegar Manufactory in Bodrogkeresztúr.
And if time permits:
– get to know Hungarian motorcycles in the museum Bodrogkeresztúr;
– try the water sports in Bodrogkisfalud; and,
– take a river cruise!