Intoxicating Eger – Eger, Hungary

Intoxicating Eger
Eger, Hungary

As the train from Vienna finally hit Budapest’s outer suburbs, some college students from Arizona asked me where I was staying in town. “I’m just passing through,” I said. “I’m actually headed to Eger.” I wasn’t exactly surprised by the blank stare that followed. After all, relatively few tourists are aroused by the idea of venturing past the post-communist shining stars of Prague and Budapest. Then again, not many of them know about Eger, a small town two hours by train northeast of Hungary’s capital that boasts winding medieval streets, a castle on a hill, and an intoxicating history to boot.

Foreign interest in Eger reached a climax in 1552 when 60,000 Turks, having just stomped through the Balkans, decided to besiege the city on their way to western Europe. In preparation for what seemed like an inevitable defeat, Dobo Istvan and his 2,000 Hungarian warriors did what any smart army in this situation should do: start drinking the local wine. It worked. Thirty-eight days and dozens of barrels of red wine later, the Bacchus-inspired Hungarians stumbled out of their well-protected and now ruined castle having forced the Turks to retreat. Humiliated, shocked and completely sober, the Turks’ only excuse for the defeat was that the Hungarians’ red wine-stained beards were proof they’d been imbibing the blood of bulls for strength.

Though the Turks came back 44 years later, and this time stayed for almost a century, the original battle figures prominently in Hungarian national lore. And the wine, Bikaver, or Bull’s Blood, as it was called after the battle, is forever linked with the strength and courage of Hungary’s resistance to foreign powers.

Fortunately, today you don’t have to be a bloodthirsty warrior to enjoy Eger’s vino, just a wine-parched tourist with a small pocket full of Hungarian florints. Which is exactly what I was when I stepped off the train in Eger in the late afternoon. After visiting the tourist office and getting a room in a private, centrally located apartment (for the agreeable sum of 3000 florints, about $12 per night), I ventured up to the castle. This is where I met Maria, a lifetime Eger resident and English language tour guide. She gave me an hour-long tour of the castle (400 florints, or $1.50), taking me through its labyrinthine cellars and walkways and showing me how the cunning sixteenth century Hungarian defenders used the fortress’s cannon chambers and underground passageways to fend off invaders.

Afterward, I found myself in the castle’s wine cellar where Dobo Istvan, the captain of Eger’s fiercely intoxicated resistance fighters, first concocted Bull’s Blood. As the castle was under siege and the all-important wine stock was drying up, Istvan ordered the various wines, in this case blue Franconian, merlot and cabernet, to be mixed together, creating a robust, ruby-colored wine. Bull’s Blood was born. Keeping with the tradition of mixing alcohol consumption and battle preparation, the wine cellar now shares its space with an archery room. As arrows from twenty-something wine-sipping archers whizzed past my head, I quickly finished off a glass. I’d tried Bull’s Blood once before, after spotting a $3 bottle at Trader Joe’s in San Francisco. It was the first bottle of wine I’d ever poured down the drain. Much to my delight, the Bull’s Blood from the source, in Eger, was delicious. Though the first glass only left me wanting another, I thought it best to duck out of the cellar while I still had a head.

View of the City

View of the City

I wandered through Eger’s cobble-stoned streets, where reminders of the relatively short Turkish occupation seemed ubiquitous. The most obvious is the gorgeous Islamic minaret, a remnant of a now-destroyed mosque that reaches heavenward, competing for attention with the town’s many Baroque and neo-Classical church spires. For 100 florints (about $0.40) I went up the minaret’s steep twirling staircase, only to get a case of claustrophobia halfway up. The 17th century stairway is hardly wide enough for a 20th century human, making ascending and descending visitors play an impromptu game of vertical Twister while passing each other.

The fortunately spacious peach-colored baroque Minorite Church dominates the town’s main square, Dobo Ter. Built in 1758, the church boasts an elaborate carved wooded interior, including work by the Austrian painter JL Kracker, whose most notable work was in Prague’s superlative St. Nicholas Cathedral. In the crypt, remnants of an earlier church, which was transformed into a mosque during the Turkish occupation, can still be seen. To the left of the church, on the square, a dramatic statue depicts a sword-wielding Turk slicing a Hungarian across the chest.

From there, I strolled down the town’s main pedestrian street, Szechenyu Utca, which all the wine in Eger could not help me pronounce. Busy townspeople hurried down the street with shopping bags while bored-looking teenagers occupied benches. Restaurant signs in German and English tried to beckon me in. Tempted, I kept going, knowing I was headed for the epicenter of Eger wine: the Valley of Beautiful Women. A 15-minute walk from the center of town, the “Nice Ladies Valley,” as the signs which guided me there read, is home to nearly 200 small tasting cellars, carved into the side of a mountain, where tourists and locals flock to sample the reasonably priced wine in large quantities. No one’s really sure where the name came from, but the wine pourer in cellar 16, a wrinkly-faced man who smiled a lot, said it probably is a reference to a pagan fertility goddess. Then he raised his glass in a toast and slammed his wine (Hungarians never clink glasses. It was the practice of Austrians who occupied the country for hundreds of years).

Next door, in cellar number 17, a quintet of gypsy musicians played old Hungarian tunes as a large group of German tourists, partying the only way they knew how, swayed their glasses back and forth in front of them. Meanwhile, in cellar 22, pop music blasted from the stereo as a dozen or so Hungarian teenaged girls tried to drink as much as possible before their curfew. In addition to the varying atmospheres of the individual cellars, each one offers its own distinct version of Bull’s Blood. While one cellar’s offerings might have subtle hints of fruit, another may scream a smoky oak taste.

Cellar Number 2 Owner

Cellar Number 2 Owner

Cellar number 2, my favorite because of its festive ambience and quirky wine pourer, offered wine with hints of spice. The long, narrow cellar was crammed with local wine lovers, guzzling as much Blood as the owner, an erratic yet friendly woman with disheveled hair, could serve. “Polish?” she said trying to guess my nationality, as she poured me some wine through a long narrow glass tube. “No, Turkish,” I said jokingly. She didn’t laugh. Instead, she pointed to the hundreds of coins dotting the rocky cellar walls, saying if the coin sticks, I would return to Eger. If not, “well…,” she said, cocking her head to the side and looking up. Then she walked away. I pulled out a 20-florint coin, rubbed it on my shirt, blew on it, and pressed it into the slightly gummy dark wall. When I pulled away, it stayed for two long seconds and dropped on the floor.

The following day, I boarded the train back to Budapest with the slight sting of a wine hangover and the knowledge that, if the prophesy of my falling coin is accurate, I wouldn’t be returning to Eger. When such customs don’t work out in my favor, I tend to dismiss them. But just for good measure, I brought back two cases of Bull’s Blood and many fond memories of my vacation in northeastern Hungary.