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Azáleás-völgy, Zalaegerszeg, Hungary

Something magical happens in May in western Hungary. The azalea bushes start to flower. And in western Hungary, near Zalaegerszeg, the county seat of Zala megye, it’s all happening in Azáleás-völgy (Azalea Valley).

Standing stone at the entrance to Azáleás völgy - Azalea Valley - with an inscription in Hungarian making it was one of the seven wonders of Zala, a county in Western Hungary.

A little like the bluebells in Killinthomas Woods, Co. Kildare, Ireland, it’s hard to judge just when to make the trip. On the first weekend of May, with friends visiting, we stumbled across the valley – the hard way. [You don’t want to go where Google tells you to go.] Some of the flowers were out but they were just a hint of what was to come. One of the minders told us that if we had some serious heat (and we have had), the rest could be out in a week or two.

Azalea bushes in bloom - white in the foreground, two yellow behind, and pink to the right - in the Azáleás völgy - Azalea valley in Zalaegerszeg in Western Hungary

We went back again this weekend – just to see. Some of the flowers had already died off but there were a lot more in bloom. Now that we know where to go, it was a doddle to get there early and have the place to ourselves to enjoy.

Orange azalea bush in Azáleás völgy - Azalea valley in Zalaegerszeg in Western Hungary

Four red azalea blossoms in a sea of white blooms with some yellow blooks in the back . Azáleás völgy - Azalea valley in Zalaegerszeg in Western Hungary

Formerly known as Doboskúti völgy and also known as Róka völgy (Fox Valley) és Kígyó völgy (Snake Valley), the valley has been included in the Seven Natural Wonders of Zala since 2010. The azalea bushes were planted from 1973 onwards, which puts my plans for an Azalea garden into perspective.

The valley has its own microclimate that makes it the perfect home for trees such as Colorado fir, Serbian spruce, and European and Japanese larch but the hot dry summers of late have been taking their toll. I was too taken by the flowers to take much notice of the trees. That’s another day’s enjoyment.

A collage of Azalea flowers - Clockwise - Pink, white, yellow, purple, pink among white, and orange in bloom - in the Azáleás völgy - Azalea valley in Zalaegerszeg in Western HungaryZalaegerszeg isn’t the only spot in Hungary where you can see azalea bushes in full bloom, or indeed in Zala. There’s the Budafai Arboretum, too. In neighbouring Vas megye, next to Kám, there’s the Jeli Arboretum and in Szombathely, the county seat, there’s the Kámoni Arboretum.

Part of the Rhodendrum family of flowers, in China the azalea bush is known as Xiang shu (thinking-of-home bush). Chinese poet Du Fu was fond of them

Xiang shu my dear,
You make me think of home.
Of luxurious days spent pondering your beauty.
Of the scent of Spring that lingers around your roots.

I had wondered about all the signs in the valley telling visitors to keep their distance. I thought it a hands-off-don’t-touch thing, but apparently, the azalea bush is toxic. Both its leaves and its nectar contain andromedotoxins. And it’s so beautiful. No matter how lovely the flowers might be in a black vase, back in the day, to give someone a bouquet of azalea in a black vase was akin to a death threat.

The bees were gorging themselves on the nectar. I wondered. And then I read that in Turkey, honey from bees fed on azalea nectar is ‘mind-altering, potentially medicinal, and occasionally lethal’ and known as mad honey. And if you eat it, you can get mad honey disease. The things you learn of a Sunday morning, eh?

PS WhatsApp me if you’d like to see a video – I can’t figure out how to post it here.

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