Tasting the Delights of Eger – Eger, Hungary

Tasting the Delights of Eger
Eger, Hungary, Eastern Europe

Wherever I sense a good wine I drop in for a while. So why shouldn’t I visit a town called Eger famous for its wine. Therefore, if I missed this town, it would be the biggest mistake in my life. - Petõfi Sándor, Hungarian Poet

The travellers’ bible, Lonely Planet, describes it as “The Valley of Beautiful Women”. The local street signs downgrade it slightly directing you to the “Nice Ladies Valley” and the locals refer to it simply as the valley.

However, whatever is lost in translation or interpretation, there is a magnetic quality about the Baroque city of Eger, nestled between the Mátra and the Bükk mountains in Northern Uplands region of Hungary.

It is one of the most historic and revered cities in Hungarian lore. However, it was the lure of the bottle that led me off the main tourist path to this delightful city of 60,000 people.

For this is the home of the famous Bulls Blood wine and my research said the afore mentioned valley was not to be missed.

Bulls Blood or Egri Bikavér is a legendry drop of red - the plonk of choice for London’s students and young travellers from the Antipodes in the 1970s and ’80s as it was cheap, easy on the palate and readily available.

In its town of birth, it is also cheap, easy on the palate and readily available. But the Bulls Blood of Eger is now world-class and there is no better place to taste this wine than in one of the 200-odd caves that now serve as wine cellars of Szépasszony-völgy, or Valley of Beautiful Women.

The Valley is an easy 20 minute walk from the town centre. Get lost and it’s odds on that a local will help you with directions as what happened to us. The difficult part was that he knew no English and our knowledge of the Hungarian language was zilch.

But a good drop of wine is a great communicator and our new friend’s solution to our dilemma was to drag us into a nearby bar and shout us both schooner-size glasses of Bulls Blood. A full round of drinks later and still no wiser which direction to walk but full of Dutch courage we headed west.

Great choice. This was going to be the start of a very long day. Initially we had brazenly declared that we would settle for nothing less than a glass of red in every cellar and here we were with nigh on a full bottle on board and not within cooee of the Valley.

Still it was an interesting walk to the Valley and whatever I had read about this place simply did not do it justice. Books can only go so far in trying to recreate atmosphere.

The sides of the valley are lined with caves, some with brightly coloured entrances and outside tables inviting the tourists while others have only an old weather-beaten wooden door that looked as if it would cave in at the first hint of a solid breeze.

The only thing that all have in common is the number above the cave entrance and it is the cave number that all visitors and locals refer to.

Venturing into our first cellar, No 17, was a memorable experience. It was cold and damp with that musty aroma synonymous with mould. The walls were wet and cold to the touch and covered with coins with sturdy wooden tables aligning the centre. It was hard to imagine that this was going to be the site of our most memorable night in Europe.

The story behind the coins, we were told, is that if one sticks a coin on the wall and it stays that person will return to Eger again and again. If it falls, then the visit will be a one and only.

So for me, as Arnie said so succinctly, ‘I’ll be back’.

With that formality over it was down to the real job in hand. If we hadn’t already realised what was ahead of us ordering the first round of drinks was a real awakener. These glasses cost the equivalent of about 30 Australia cents and the glasses I’m talking about aren’t nip sizes either. They hold more than just a solid slug.

Cellar 17, at the top of the valley, was a quiet enough affair. There were two girls propping up an otherwise deserted bar and as luck would have it they both spoke English and could give us a run down on what to expect.

They said that Australian tourists, while becoming more frequent, were the exception rather than the norm as most visitors were from adjoining countries or Hungarian.

It is also very common for day-trippers from Budapest to stock up their wine cellars with Bikavér or as was the case with these two girls who were in Eger to purchase their wine for a forthcoming wedding. They were filling containers that looked like exactly like the ones you would see at the petrol station on a Saturday morning for mixing two stroke lawn mower petrol.

However, I was assured this was a common practice and they were also available in one and two litre versions. But wine in plastic containers, I’m not so sure.

The girls also explained that the valley comes alive late afternoon and evening when the drink starts to flow and the music and dancing hits top gear and our cave was reputed to be one of the best.

The pouring of the wine is a sight to behold. The vigneron fills his or her pipette - a long glass tube that is placed into the wine barrel and the wine sucked out until the tube is fill. They then skillfully fill your glass or as the night hots up often from up to a meter away with exuberant flourishes. And they never seem to spill a drop!

And as we found out, when one is either too tired to lift the glass to one’s lips or too far gone, they will pour the wine straight into one’s mouth! Try cellar No 3 for this experience.

So after spending nearly all the day venturing (staggering) around the various caves it was time to head back to the top of the hill and cellar 17. And party time it was.

From its empty almost eerie atmosphere of early afternoon it had been transformed into jovial grotto with the melody of the accordion mingling with the chatter and laughter of new found friends and old ones. The place was full and wine flowed like the Burdekin River in full flood.

This was as close to the perfect place to party as I had ever seen. There were people from all around Europe as well as a couple of Kiwis and two Australians from Newcastle who had youth on their side but no staying power. But the common thread of laughter, music and dancing bought us all together.

So was the valley full of beautiful women? There were certainly lots of Germans, Austrians, Slovakians and Hungarians but by night’s end they were all bloody beautiful. That’s what Bulls Blood can do for you.

I am sitting here in the warmth of this cellar
surrounded by a lot of good friends,
and pouring into my glass Eger’s good wine.
Good fellows, good wine-
Do I need anything else? When we are having a whale of a time”
- Petõfi Sándor, Hungarian Poet, c1844

All Hungarian school children are taught the history of Eger - a city that encapsulates the patriotism and valor of all Hungarians.

Eger became embedded into the history of Hungary with the defeat of the Turks in 1552 when the legend of Bulls Blood was borne.

Under the heroic leadership of Captain István Dobó a mere 2000 soldiers defended the city against the onslaught of more than 150,000 marauding Turks, thus halting the Ottoman Empire’s western march.

The high esteem women are held in Eger and Hungary also originates from this battle as women of the town fought shoulder to shoulder alongside the men as the Turks launched repeated attacks that lasted nearly 40 days.

The women boiled oil and tar and poured it over the castle walls on the turks below and, probably more importantly, kept a steady supply of red wine for the tired soldiers to recuperate with and foster their courage.

The men’s beards became stained from the red wine, prompting the humbled, decimated and completely sober Turks to attribute the defeat to the strength and courage the Hungarians had gained from drinking the blood of bulls. From hence the wine became known as Bulls Blood.

Eger castle sits atop a hill in the center of the city looking over Dobó Square. The cobblestone stairs to the castle give you the hint of walking back in time. Displayed on the walls of the stairs are brass engravings depicting scenes of the battle with women featured prominently.

Inside the castle walls there are several museums, a picture gallery and dungeons. But the most rewarding way to visit the castle is wander the grounds and enjoy the views.

Because of the height there is an amazing vista of Eger and its beautiful Baroque architecture. Look further and the surrounding hills are covered with vineyards, creating contour lines that hug the valleys and peaks.

There are two landmarks that can’t be missed. One is the 40 neter high minaret, a reminder of almost 100 years of Turkish rule, and the other is the pink Minorite Church on the eastern side of the square.

Built in 1758, the church is reputed to be one of Hungary’s grandest Baroque buildings. It boasts paintings by the Austrian artist J.L. Kracker, whose most notable work was in Prague’s stunning St. Nicholas Cathedral.

Exploring the narrow streets is a delight as the cobbled lanes and squares are decorated with ornate lampposts and hanging baskets of flowers. The center of the city is closed to cars making walking the preferred mode of travel.

There is a colorful produce market that should not be missed. Fresh produce from the region is trucked in daily giving the hall a vibrancy amidst the hanging tails of paprikas, peppers and chillies that is second only to the Great Hall of Food in Budapest.

Everything Eger is within easy walking distance. Most of the accommodation is in a radious of a couple of kilometers of the castle. Pensions or Bed & Breakfasts are highly recommended in Eger. They are cheap, clean and the service is five star.

We stayed in La Casa Panzió at a cost of $A80 for three nights, including an excellent breakfast. The rooms were extremely comfortable and the service was without peer. Owner György Dancs could not have been more helpful in giving us directions around the city and elsewhere in Hungary. Bookings can be made online.

Eger is 124 kilometers east of Budapest. There are daily bus and train services and by car via the M3 motorway it can be reached in about 90 minutes. The M3 is a toll road and the motorway tax must be paid before using it.