Cycling, Neusiedl & Ráspi

Biking 80 kilometers to find yourself straddling the Austria and Hungary border is rewarded by a glorious, gentle freedom

Bikers ride past the quaint Hungarian restaurant and vinarium in the small village of Fertőrákos, on the border of Hungary | Photo courtesy of Ráspi Restaurant

If there are still some sunny days in September or October, if Summer manages to stretch itself into Fall and Autumn doesn’t pretend to be Winter, there may still be a chance to enjoy a bicycle ride down the length of the Neusiedler See in Burgenland, across the Hungarian border and to one of the best restaurants I have enjoyed in years: Ráspi Restaurant and Vinarium in Fertőrákos.

My bicycle is nothing to brag about – only one pair of gears runs smoothly and the brakes are maybe good enough to slow me down. It has two big, clumsy baskets to carry whatever needs to be carried, and it makes me sit upright, so upright that I can wear a straw hat to shade my eyes. It’s not slick, it’s not clean and it’s not well oiled, but the light does work.

And it gets me where I am going, this time the town just past Mörbisch am See at the Hungarian end of the lake.

It is simple: Take some sun cream, a water bottle (actually I forgot this myself, but in retrospect would recommend it), a couple of apples and a water-proof poncho – Austria is infamous for sudden rain storms. Ride to the Südbahnhof (South Train Station) and catch a train to Neusiedl am See. They leave once an hour and the ride takes about forty minutes. When you arrive, go to the bike shop right next to the platform. Here you can pump some air into your tires (or rent a bike if you need one) and buy a map (€1) of the Neusiedler See bicycle paths: There are 11 different routes with a total of 500 kilometers.

Never fear: today’s route is only about 30 kilometers down the east side of the lake. The shopkeeper points out the first 50 meters, which are slightly downhill through some corn fields, and we are on our way. What glorious, gentle freedom!

Neusiedler See is dramatic, broad and muddy, with an area of 315 square kilometers and an average depth of only 1.8 meters. It is home to an incredible amount of wildlife, especially birds, with national parks on either side of the border. Together they have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its bicycle paths are generally well marked, paved and well separated from cars. And flat. This is good if your gears are, shall we say, limited.

We set out towards Illmitz on Bicycle Path B10, the route that circles the lake, and we are soon floating along between sky and vineyards. The wind is at our back like an Irish blessing, and along the way are small places to have a bite or drink a Gespritzter.

After about two and a half hours we manage to find the ferry landing in Illmitz, where we can cross the sea to Mörbisch am See (Gangl Bicycle Ferry: in September daily every half hour from 9:30 am to 5:30 pm; from October 1 to 11, only four times a day: 10:00 am, and 12:00, 2:00 and 4:00 pm). This is a brief respite from the pedals; it is refreshing and exhilarating to feel the spray of the grey water.

In Mörbisch we follow the signs to the border, which consists of a little locked building on the Austrian side, another locked building on the Hungarian side, and a sign that reads: “Border crossing for bicycles, pedestrians and horse carriages only.” Indeed, the cars stay parked in Austria and the Iron Curtain is long forgotten.

The area around Neusiedler See has been populated since before Roman times. The Hungarian name for the sea is Fertő, a word that also means something awful or dangerous, and this might reflect the dangers that such a flat, dirty swamp must have held at that time. Just across the border is a third century AD Mithraeum, a small grotto-temple with a relief of the sun and Mithras slaying the sacred bull. Mithraism was a mystery religion popular among Roman legionnaires. And directly in Fertőrákos there is a huge stone quarry that has been in use since Roman times.

In Hungry there is a subtle change of mood. Something special, close to the earth is beckoning. We are on the way to our destination, the restaurant Ráspi.

The chef cooks linguini to the T; and, the presentation is colorful, exquisite, yet retains simplicity. | Photo courtesy of Ráspi Restaurant

Ráspi’s owner, József Horváth, is one of the best winemakers of the area and his wines are slowly becoming known internationally. He opened his restaurant a little more than twenty years ago. His motto is “to create and enchant,” and even upon stepping through the door, I know that here I will linger, captivated. The tables are covered with hand-crocheted white tablecloths, the silver is heavy and has been used with reverence by more than one generation. As he describes it, everything on the menu is made in harmony with nature, preserving its flavors and beauty as honestly as possible. Perhaps this is most clearly seen in the twenty different fruit and flower juices that are offered: a veritable cottage garden, from roses to violets.

Each dish on the menu has its own suggested wine, which can be had by the bottle but also by the glass. Of course, passionate wine drinkers who have their own preferences may avail themselves to Ráspi’s large wine cellar, which is stocked not only with his own wines, but the best of both sides of the border. For us, though, it was a simple delight to follow the chef’s choice: lovely red wines, a Zweigelt and a Mágnus Cuvée, not too old (2007) and not too expensive (€2.50 a glass), but both rich (the round smoothness giving the impression they were older) and attracting attention with the first sip.

The porcini mushroom soup (€3.30) was so delicious, I promptly ordered a second bowl. The fish soup was made from fresh fish from the nearby waters, with a light paprika broth (€3.30) to remind us that we were in Hungary. The main dishes, lamb shank with polenta (€13.00) and a pangasius filet with nasturtiums and peppered cabbage (€5.60), were both quietly clear in their flavors and beautiful in their presentation.

Our dinner was not the most expensive on the menu, that being a five-course meal, (€100 including a different wine for each course), its main dish beef with truffles accompanied by a glass of Horváth’s prize-winning Maté Cuvée 2004, but it was light and perfect.

If you would like to spend the night in Fertőrákos, the team at Ráspi is happy to recommend a private pension nearby. We stayed two doors down the road, in a room facing a lush narrow garden with a view of the sea, quiet and clean and €34 for two with breakfast.

Returning the next day up the west side of Neusiedler See, we admired the rose bushes at the ends of the grapevine rows and the storks sitting on their chimney tops in Rust, but soon grew weary and hopped on a train back to Neusiedl am See. Back in Vienna in less than an hour, it feels like we have traveled somewhere very far away, to another world where there is time to savor food and wine, and also the water, air and earth they spring from.

 

Ráspi Restaurant and Vinarium
8421 Fertőrákos, Hungary
Főutca 78
+36 99 355 146
www.raspi.hu
Open daily in Sept., 11:00-23:00
Oct. 1 to Mar. 1, closed Mon. and Tues.
By car via Sopron, 80 km from Vienna

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