The next morning we got up early and enjoyed a hearty homemade breakfast at the guesthouse. French toast, scrambled eggs and a cup of invigorating green tea was exactly what we needed before starting our hike in Telkibánya, a village surrounded by the Zemplén Mountains, close to the Slovakian border.
During medieval times Telkibánya was one of the most important mining towns of Hungary, in an era when one third of the world's gold was mined in Hungary. (Mine translates into bánya in Hungarian, hence the name of the village.)
There used to be about 30 gold and silver mines here, but almost all of them collapsed or got blown up on purpose, to make sure unwanted treasure hunters do not get into trouble. Luckily the Mária-mine can be visited even today, with a professional local guide. Our guide, Bartók József was waiting for us in the village center, then navigated us through the forest to the start of a hiking trail. From there we started an uphill hike, enjoying fall foliage and searching for mushrooms.
We stopped once in a while to catch our breath and to listen to József, who is quite a character. Not only does he know all the trees, flowers and mushrooms in the forest, he also shares his philosophic thoughts with us. After growing up in Telkibánya he worked as a carpenter in the nearby town, but after a few years he moved back home to live a free life, close to nature. Since his return he has been working as a local hiking guide around Telkibánya and his tour is a must if you are in the area. As he is small, fragile and spends his days in the forest, he is also known as Telkimanó, the Elf of Telki.
We entered the Mária-mine with our torchlights, stopping for a moment and saying the traditional miners' greeting: Jó szerencsét! (Good luck!) It's completely dark inside, wet, temperature around 10C and quite narrow. What a tough life it must have been for the people who spent their entire workday underground. You could still find some gold here, but it's not worth the effort, so the place is for visitors only. And bats. They were sleeping, hanging upside down from the rocks. They were quite cute this way, but I was happy they were not flying around.
After saying goodbye to Telkimanó we walked up to the famous cemetery with the specially carved wooden headboards and visited one of the nice accommodations of the village. We also stopped at the local kocsma (bar) for a hot chocolate. If you are travelling in the Hungarian countryside visiting smaller villages, stop at the kocsma, it's always very authentic. They might not speak English, but you'll surely meet local people and this will be a real life experience.
From Telkibánya we drove to a tiny village embraced by the Zemplén Mountains. The village is so small it only has about 60 inhabitants, and despite having done several excursions in this area, I have never heard of it. Our hosts, Erzsike and Sándor, moved here from the Alföld (the Great Plain of Hungary), where they lived on a farm. They enjoyed their farm-life, but Erzsike was always dreaming of living in the mountains. Then one day they arrived here with their friends, totally fell in love with the place and decided to buy land.
Later, while building their new house they realized that the earth here was not suitable for making mud bricks, so they brought earth from their old land, thus bringing a little piece of the Great Plains to the Zemplén Mountains. This is not a farm made for tourists, they welcome you to their home, which is nice and cosy.
They greeted us with pálinka, then put fresh homemade bread and flat bread on the table, straight from the oven. They are running a self sustainable farm, and we got to try some of their products: goat cheese, lard (yes, fresh bread with lard spread and purple onion on top is the best), pesto (unlike the Ligurian version, this is made of wild onions) and zakuszka (a traditional Transylvanian spread made with eggplant and tomatoes). For dessert we put their amazing strawberry jam on top of another slice of bread. Then we just sat around talking to our hosts, who are wonderful, modest people. They are working hard on their land to maintain a self sustainable lifestyle, as Sándor says: A passive house with an active wife.
We walked around their court and found some cute animals, kids would especially love this. The sheep were hiding inside, but the goat was very friendly, having fun with us. There is no perfectly maintained lawn here, it's a working farm. So when we said goodbye to the family, their hardworking day did not end there. There were animals to be fed, quince to be turned into jam and walnuts to be broken. Erzsike packed a bag of flat bread for us, which we ate at a petrol station somewhere on the road, halfway between the Zemplén Mountains and Budapest.