Earthly pleasure in Eger

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June 11th 2018
Published: July 19th 2018
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Today we were travelling northeast from Budapest to Eger.

We were wide awake at 5am, and because we were leaving Budapest in the late morning, we were feeling a little flat. However, nothing that a glass of champagne for breakfast couldn’t solve. Along with the champagne, I gathered a selection of muesli, yoghurt, toast, cheese, salami, pink grapefruit juice and tea. It was a great start to the day, despite the grumpy breakfast staff. We organised our packs for our train trip to Eger, then headed to the Basilica of St Stephen to see if we could finally, after numerous attempts, get to see St Stephen’s mummified hand.

We walked around the Basilica for about 10 minutes, looking for the mummified hand, but to no avail. It was time to ask, as we had tried to find this relic so many times before. We walked up to an old guy sitting on a chair and asked where we could find St Stephen’s hand. He pointed to a small glass casket about two metres from his chair that we had walked past so many times before, and where there had always been a large crowd. The casket was tiny, but we could make out the Saint’s mummified fingers, which were a little off-putting. We’d finally found the hand, only half an hour before we were due to leave Budapest. 😊

We made our way back to the hotel via a small cafe that we’d noticed on our first day and had always wanted to visit. After a quick coffee we headed back to the hotel, grabbed our bags and walked to a nearby bus stop, jumping on the next bus to the train station. We arrived just before midday, and the station, like most public buildings in Budapest, was an impressive and immense structure. We waited in front of a giant electronic timetable, and when our train finally appeared with all its boarding details, we rushed to the nominated platform, jumped on the train, found a seat and settled in for the two and a half hour trip to Eger.

The train was modern and comfortable, and we hardly felt a bump as we slipped out of Budapest at 12:30pm. Unlike so many other major cities we’ve visited, there were no apparent ghettoes or derelict dwellings around the train station, and it hardly felt any time at all before large architecture gave way to small suburbia in leafy surrounds, and then to lush green countryside with rolling flat agricultural fields stretching to the horizon. We passed through beautiful little villages built around central stone churches, and every so often a power station spewing smoke from vast chimneys would appear on the distant horizon.

As we approached Eger, a menacing rain cloud blackened the sky in the northeast, and it wasn’t long before the train was ploughing headfirst into pouring rain. However, we’d become accustomed to short and wild storms in Hungary, and as quickly as the storm hit, it had passed, leaving a very humid atmosphere for our mid-afternoon arrival into Eger’s tiny railway station. We jumped off the train and walked a short distance to some waiting taxis, which transported us to our accommodation – a sprawling maze of rooms in a converted old house in suburban Eger. This was very local. We ended up with a roomy and comfortable attic, although we were continually bending down to avoid the sloping ceiling.

With our bags safely in our room, we headed out for an orientation walk of this fascinating little place. Our first stop was the Eger Basilica, a monolithic structure visible from most parts of the town. This was an amazing place, and it was full of kids sitting around in groups on the pews, talking and laughing and generally enjoying themselves. It was a fantastic atmosphere, until suddenly the church organ fired up, and the sound level was off the scale. The organist was practicing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, and it was impressive. The Basilica had extraordinarily high ceilings, and it was all stone and wood, so the acoustic echo was booming. The kids quickly dispersed, as they could no longer hear each other – it really was an auditory onslaught. I loved it, and wished I could have stayed longer, but it was late in the afternoon and we wanted to see as much of Eger as possible, because we were leaving the following day. In the grounds outside the Basilica, the kids had found other places to sit and talk, and they were continuing on as if nothing had happened. Judging by their reaction, organ practice must have been a regular occurrence. I loved seeing a gigantic old stone church being used by kids as a gathering place.

We walked past another group of young kids with throw downs, a type of firework that explodes when thrown to the ground with force, and I was immediately taken back to my childhood. A guy had set up a stall in the grounds just outside the Basilica, and he was selling bracelets, pendants and other Basilica-based souvenirs. However, his number one business was fireworks for the kids, and he was making a killing. They were queued up three-deep!

We continued along narrow cobblestone streets until we arrived at Dobo Istvan square. This was a very family-friendly town square, and it emanated an immediate sense of calm. The Minorite Church of St Anthony of Padua towered on one side, with restaurants lining the opposite side. On a small cobblestone street leading out of the square, a minaret stretched 40-metres into the sky, but it was surrounded in scaffolding due to ongoing maintenance, which ruined any attempt to photograph it. It served as a reminder of the Ottoman invasion centuries before, but in a clear sign of defiance, it had been topped with a cross.

The afternoon was growing old and we hadn’t eaten since breakfast, but we had one last task – to climb up to the Castle of Eger. The view from the top was incredible, with clear sight of Eger’s outlying suburbs, including concrete housing blocks jutting into the air with perfect Soviet precision. These pragmatic structures had no sense of design or style, and we had seen so many of them in the outlying suburbs of Budapest. We also saw an approaching rain cloud, so we took shelter in one of the exhibition buildings. The Castle itself was a little twee and touristy, so we didn’t last long. We headed back down into Dobo Istvan square and quickly explored the Minorite Church of St Anthony of Padua before bee-lining for a recommended restaurant (Fo Ter) directly opposite.

I ordered baguette with aubergine and red onion, while Ren ordered nokedli (Hungarian egg noodle dumplings) with sheep cheese and bacon. The food was great, and the view across the square to the church was incredible. This is the very reason we travel. I refreshed with a cold beer, as the late afternoon sun was out after the rain, and it was hot – really hot.

We wandered back through the cobblestone streets and up past the Basilica to our accommodation, where we freshened up before heading out to a wine tasting in the Valley of the Beautiful Women. It was about a twenty minute walk, and the surrounding vineyards were picture-perfect in the soft dusk hues. We were greeted at our wine cellar – Biro Borozo – by an overly gregarious old Hungarian woman, and I could see where the evening was heading. We made our way down a steep flight of stairs until we were well and truly underground, then settled around a table where our Hungarian host and her even older friend served us wine in a variety of styles and manners.

Their favourite pouring style was from a large glass tube, where the wine was stored in a bulb at the top and drained through a long thin tube, which the women would point in the direction of a person’s glass or mouth and control the flow of wine with their finger. It sounds debauched, and it was, but at the time we all found it hilarious. Eight glasses of wine later and we were history. Later in the night a plate of smoky Hungarian cheese was placed on our table, but it was too little, too late. Three Hungarian musicians (two violins and a double bass) came in at one stage and played in the tiny cellar while we drank and laughed.

The first four white wines were fairly ordinary in taste. However, the atmosphere was so good that the taste of the wine was, in a sense, quite secondary. But that all changed when the reds came out. These were fantastic, starting with a rose and then moving to the region’s infamous Bull’s Blood, a renowned red blend with quite a history. It was meant to give Hungarian soldiers incredible strength in battle, and the Turks (apparently) felt at a considerable disadvantage when they saw Hungarian soldiers approaching with what appeared to be blood dripping from their beards. This all sounds fantastic, but I don’t think alcohol and hand-to-hand warfare are the best of bedfellows.

The last of the reds was sweet, much like a Lambrusco, and it was a great way to end the night. The musicians were mumbling about not getting enough tips, having sent their bowl around the table more than once. Had they bothered tuning their instruments, they may have been a little happier with the tip situation!

It was a fantastic evening, and on reflection it was more of a wine drinking than a wine tasting experience – which was fine by us. We picked up a few bottles of their infamous Bull’s Blood red blend and staggered home in the warm night air. These are the travel days we yearn for – exploring local places, experiencing local customs and sampling local food and wine.

Today was a travel day from Budapest to Eger (pronounced egg-air) in Northern Hungary, by train.

We woke at 5am again, which seems to be the new norm… and is more civilised than the previous 4am. We caught up on emails and travel notes until 7:30am. Thankfully the breakfast at Budapest’s Star Inn Hotel was much better than the day before – the stale and limp pastries (we guessed the bakeries had been closed on a Sunday) had been replaced with super fresh ones. And we couldn’t resist having a glass of champagne again. It wasn’t the best quality, but it was certainly drinkable, and provided a decadent start to the day.

We weren’t leaving for the train station until 11am, so we allowed ourselves a lazy morning until check out at 10am. The only activity we had planned was to walk one last time to St Stephan’s Basilica to see the mummified hand of St Stephen. This was our fifth attempt to see the hand! On our first visit we spent so much time waiting for a raving flood of big group tourists to ease that we totally forgot to look for the hand; on our second attempt the Basilica hadn’t yet opened; on our third attempt it had literally just closed; and on our fourth attempt a Mass started just as we arrived. Andrew and I have a running joke between us about ‘signs’, and Andrew kept telling me that it was a sign we shouldn’t see the hand (disclaimer: neither of us really believe in signs!). With fifth-time luck on our side (I totally just made that up), we finally saw the mummified hand. It was in a small glass box in a side wing, and looked grey and mouldy. The gross and macabre severed hand notwithstanding, we enjoyed our last visit to the Basilica. We’d started our first explorations of Budapest with a visit to the Basilica, and had walked passed it multiple times every day, so it was a fitting way to end our stay in the beautiful city.

With that mission accomplished, we walked back to the hotel via Jokai ter (our previous hotel’s square) to have a coffee. In a big city like Budapest, it’s kind of crazy to bump into someone you know, but there was Mattia (our trip’s group leader) sitting at the bar having a coffee. We figured that he was having his last few minutes of freedom in a coffee shop away from the group, but then we randomly walked in. 😊

After downing an espresso, we picked up our bags from the hotel and caught the #78 Trolley Bus to Keleti Train Station with the group. Keleti (Eastern) Station is an impressive old-world station, and the main one for international and inter-city travel. We were 45 minutes early for our 12:30am train, which was more than enough time to use the bathroom, buy a drink, check out the architecture, and watch the police deal with an abandoned bag… which involved five policemen standing in a circle around it and talking animatedly for a little while, then one of them tentatively rummaging through it, deeming it safe and walking away with it. I don’t wish to tempt fate, but if it had been a bomb, we’d have had zero chance of survival with that level of competency.

After faffing around waiting for the platform number to appear on the information board, with minutes to spare, we finally boarded the comfortable and thankfully air-conditioned train. While we were storing our luggage, a very friendly local offered me her window seat. I can’t be sure of what she said in Hungarian, but I gathered it was something along the line that she caught the train all the time and thought I would enjoy the view more. It was an incredibly lovely gesture, but it took me a few seconds to decipher her intent as the whole interchange was conducted with an indifferent facial expression. It wasn’t until she got off at the station in Pecel, 45 minutes into the trip, that I got a smile out of her when I said goodbye. 😊

I loved watching the outskirts of Budapest roll past the train window, through those typical abandoned and overgrown pieces of land on the edges of most cities. Surprisingly though, I didn’t see any of the usual ugly unplanned urban sprawl that we always tend to see along train tracks of big cities. An hour later and we were well into flat rural countryside filled with back-to-back farms and sporadic little villages, all with red tiled roofs and a prominent church with a steeple. The farms were full of young corn, sunflowers nearly in bloom, and rye. The intermittent lone houses lining the train tracks were small, square and brightly painted. As we neared Eger, we rode through a ferocious looking rainstorm that thankfully ended before we reached the station.

The train trip to Eger took two and a half hours, and given I love train travel, the trip wasn’t nearly long enough! We had travelled to northern Hungary, relatively close to the Slovakian border. And even though we weren’t that far from Budapest, this part of the country felt a world away from the capital. Probably due in part to the fact that 90% of tourists to Hungary don’t leave Budapest.

We caught taxis to the rambling Atrium Apartmanhaz, and Andrew and I scored the very cute but odd attic apartment. It could have held twenty people in the lounge and kitchen area, but I could reach all four walls of the tiny bathroom at once, and we needed the skills of a contortionist to get to the toilet. But the best thing about our accommodation was the resident ginger tabby Sir Charles. He was skittish with us at first, until I realised he was stone deaf and needed to be approached from the front before he could be patted. Our apartment was based in a small residential street two blocks away from the Eger Basilica, and just behind the odd looking Trinitarian Church (which is a gallery now, but it is also called the Bad Church by locals due to its long run of bad luck).

At 3:30pm we started a walking tour that took in the beautifully preserved baroque town, with cobblestone streets and pastel painted houses that are overlooked by a Castle. It’s also surrounded by hills that are supposedly home to some of the most renowned vineyards in Eastern Europe. This was a perfect town to discover by ambling around. Again, as in Budapest, the air was heavy with the gorgeous fragrance from the flowers in the linden trees.

The enormous yellow 19th century neo-classical Eger Basilica is the second biggest Catholic church in Hungary (St Stephan’s Basilica in Budapest is the third biggest), and it was beautiful both in how it looked and how it felt. The vast space is topped by an incredible dome, and it holds beautiful religious art, majestic marble pillars and stunning stained glass windows. It felt very welcoming, and the experience was further enhanced by an organ practice that fortuitously began just as I walked in. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a church organ played at full volume before, and the amazing acoustics made it a full-sensory experience!

We then walked through the town, down quaint streets full of shops and cafes, and into the impressive Dobo Istvan ter. Istvan Dobo is a much loved local hero, honoured with many references in the town, including a statue in the main square. This large square was immediately inviting, full of couples and families enjoying the afternoon summer weather. We walked through the square to the 40m tall medieval Minaret we’d spied over the top of a building, but it was disappointingly covered in shade cloth due to renovations. This is one of the last remnants of the 90 year Ottoman occupation, and would have been the centrepiece of the city in its time. But it now sits forlornly in its surrounds, with no other architecture of its ilk to give it meaning. It almost looked like a stage prop, especially given it’s been incongruously topped with a cross.

As we walked up the many steps to the 13th century Eger Castle on the hill, the humidity started to build and a storm approached us for the second time that day. The Castle was built in response to the Mongol invasion and was later the site of the historic siege that halted the advancement of the Ottoman Empire into Western Europe. The Castle is mostly in ruins, but the ramparts are still impressively intact. It’s a vast area that holds a palace, a gallery, a museum and underground dungeons. We managed to get to the highest point of the Castle complex and take a few panorama photos of the city before sheltering inside the Castle Museum when the rain hit. There was an exhibition with model recreations by various experts that showcased their versions of what the castle complex may have looked like.

I wasn’t that drawn to any aspects of the Castle, and was going to sit out one of the exhibition buildings while Andrew went ahead, but a security guy took exception to this and insisted I go too. He kept repeating ‘very good, very good’ as he shoo-ed me up the stairs. I was amused by his insistence (and no, it wasn’t ‘very good’), but I was even more amused that I had so readily disregarded my own wishes and obeyed his instructions. 😊

We descended back to the town with the intent of further exploring Dobo Istvan ter. We visited the beautiful baroque Minorite Church of St Anthony of Padua on one side of the square, where the frescoes were beautiful and ethereal, but the lone large new-looking glass chandelier provided a sharp and cheesy counterpoint. It was also a bit sad that the church had a dusty and unloved air about it.

By now it was 5:30pm and we still hadn’t had lunch, so we walked around the perimeter of the square before deciding on Fo Ter – mostly for its reviews, but also for its biggest selling point of being directly opposite the beautiful Minorite Church. Narelle and Chris joined us, and it turned out to be a fabulous lunch with a gorgeous view of the square. Andrew’s baguette with eggplant and red onions was tasty, but my nokedli (Hungarian egg noodle dumplings) with goats cheese and bacon was outstanding.

It was a rushed trip back to the hotel to shower and get ready for a wine tasting in the nearby seductively-named Valley of the Beautiful Women. It’s believed the ‘beautiful women’ were goddesses of a prehistoric religion, similar to Venus (the goddess of love), and sacrifices were offered to them for good wine yields. The other legend of the area is about the town’s famous ‘Bull’s Blood’ red wine – apparently the Hungarian army was given wine to raise their flagging spirits during a battle against the Ottoman Empire, and their red stained beards and ‘supernatural’ strength caused a rumour among the Turkish soldiers that the enemy had drunk ‘bull’s blood’.

A 15-20 minute walk to the outskirts of town led us to a small picturesque green valley full of grapevines. In the centre of the valley sat a row of pincek (wine cellars), and we chose Cellar Two Biro Borozo, run by two enterprising and very funny older women. Our group descended the steep stone steps into the damp cellar with gritty clay residue on the walls, and realised that the women who ran the place were real characters. Luckily we were the only ones in the cellar, because things started getting rather raucous quite quickly.

We tasted eight wines… well, I say ‘tasted’ but they were all standard sized drinks or larger. We started with their white wines – from their lightest Egri Leanka (girl of Eger), to a Chardonnay, Riesling and Muscatel. They ranged from ‘oh my god this is hideous’ to ‘err…it’s not too bad’. We then moved to the considerably better red wines – a rose, Egri Bikaver (the signature Bull’s Blood wine), a Fertalymester Bora, and finished with a semi-sweet red cuvee. The women either poured the wine out of bottles, or pipetted it into our glasses from a bulbous glass apparatus (which I guess aerated it). They were very good at it, and even encouraged some of the group to have wine pipetted directly into their mouths! It worked with mixed success.

I loved the Bull’s Blood and the semi-sweet red the best, but Andrew wasn’t a fan of the semi-sweet red, so we decided to buy two bottles of Bull’s Blood wine for our homestay the next night. The Bull’s Blood wine is a blend of the native Balkan Kadarka grape, with what I would say was a lot of Cabernet Sauvignon type flavours.

We were ‘entertained’ by three musicians – two on violins and one on a double base. They started with Gypsy songs, and then moved to songs like When the saints go marching in and Hallelujah that we could recognise. I generally dislike roving musicians who tower over and hold patrons captive at restaurant tables, but it certainly added an extra level of humour to our evening. And the more we drank, the less horrible they sounded.

This was a pivotal bonding moment for the group, and those with a sense of humour stood out from those who lacked one. There were many hilarious tales from the night, some of which I can’t repeat (loss of some memory due to wine haze), and some I probably shouldn’t repeat… like how someone who shall remain nameless wittily answered the question: ‘So are we beautiful yet?’ with ‘There isn’t enough wine in the valley’; or how someone else very nearly lost their partner to the shady gold-toothed musician who tried wooing her with his music, but then he played his violin too hard and popped a string… and the magic was lost! 😄

At some point in the night, plates of smoked cheese with walnuts and red onion appeared on the table. The cheese was lovely, but we probably should have eaten it before we had the bulk of the wine. I was happy I’d had a carb laden late-lunch to absorb at least some of the alcohol. On the other hand, my attempts at wrapping my tongue around Hungarian words got markedly bolder as the night wore on… we were now very confident with saying koszonom (thank you), but our versions of egeszsegedre (cheers) continued to be rather mangled and amused our hosts no end (and it’s quite telling that just 12 hours later, I still can’t remember the proper pronunciation even though it was explained to us countless times that night). The wine tasting was like no other I’ve ever been to, but I appreciated it very much for the charm and genuineness of the experience. 😊

It was a bit challenging walking back uphill to our hotel later that night… on uneven cobblestone streets, while clutching our bottles of wine. A tasting of eight wines doesn’t sound too much, but while we were struggling up the hill, we realised we’d drunk eight full glasses of wine each! Or to put that another way, we’d consumed the equivalent of two bottles of wine each!

Happily, we made it back to our apartment in one piece, and even managed to shower and drink half a litre of water before crawling into bed. I usually have a rule about not making any big decisions when I’m tipsy (read: drunk), but I made an exception here – this definitely won’t be our last trip to Hungary. There is just so much to love about this hugely underrated country.

Next we travel south-east to Debrecen in the Northern Great Plain, on our way to the Romanian border.


19th July 2018

What a great last day!
You paint such a vivid picture of Northern Hungary! I wish I hade gone there as well, I was just in Hungary and a side trip to Vienna when I was there. The comment at the drinking table about there not being enough wine in the valley made me laugh out loud! Glad you finally found the hand of St. Stephen also!
19th July 2018

Re: What a great last day!
Thanks Per-Olof! Hopefully our next visit will allow us more time in Northern Hungary. It was a seriously fun night at the cellars, and there were many witty comments made... I just wish I could remember them all ;)
19th July 2018

At last!
So you finally got to see the hand of St Stephen! Did someone put in a coin to make the little casket light up? It certainly helped to see the 'thing' when I was there in 2014. Last St Stephen's Day, when I visited with my daughter, they took it for walkies in a grand parade from the Basilica! Ren, thanks for the explanation about the Valley of the Beautiful Women. Andrew's description of the 'overly gregarious old Hungarian woman' made me think she was one of them!
19th July 2018

Re: At last!
Hi Mike, yes unfortunately the box was lit up, which made the sight of the mouldy fingers even worse! We are in stitches now because we hadn’t realised that Andrew’s words were somewhat suggestive :D I wonder if the Valley of Beautiful Women attracted any people who were greatly disappointed at the lack of any other ‘beautiful’ services provided :)
20th July 2018
valley of the beautiful women

I love the countryside in central Europe
In central Europe sometimes the countryside can look like something straight out of a fairytale or a movie. You have one right there. I really love when I find those places. /Ake
20th July 2018
valley of the beautiful women

Re: I love the countryside in central Europe
You are absolutely spot on Ake. I think I used the phrase 'like something out of a fairy tale' countless times on this trip! These were new landscapes to us, and we really loved it :)
20th July 2018
cellar two biro borozo

Music in our soul
We love musical performances when we travel. Did Andrew buy a new instrument?
21st July 2018
cellar two biro borozo

Re: Music in our soul
No Andrew didn't buy an instrument this time. I wouldn't necessarily classify this trio as a 'musical performance', it was more like general entertainment :)
20th July 2018

Back to Hungary
Yes, it does sound like you jammed a lot into a short period of time and a return trip is the right thing to do. Sorry the hand was disappointing. It sounds like the wine softened the blow. ha ha. Beautiful architecture and happy to see the cat. This continues on your tradition to make friends with the 4 legged ones on your trip.
21st July 2018

Re: Back to Hungary
We always thought of the Hungary component of the trip as a taster... and it has certainly inspired us. When we looked for 'the hand', I assumed it would be hidden or covered in some way (similar to other religious relics we've seen), we definitely weren't expecting to see mouldy digits! :)
21st July 2018

That holy right hand!
It's not surprising that it appears to be mouldy - it's almost a thousand years old. Or is it? Is it even St Stephen's hand? I've just read an interesting blog on the subject - just in case you can ever bear to see that 'thing' again!! Not sure if URLs are allowed here - if not, just type The Holy Right Hand of St. Stephen, King of Hungary into Google and you should find the Hungarian Spectrum blog. If URL is okay, the link is:
22nd July 2018

Re: That holy right hand!
Thanks for the link Mike, an interesting read. It's quite telling that I never actually believe that any religious relics I've seen are actually what they claim to be... but for believers of miracles, I suppose it doesn't really matter (the Shroud of Turin is a classic case in point). I laughed out loud when the blog mentioned '...Stephen’s body parts wandering around in central Europe and the Balkan'; I often wonder about the many relics of Buddha's body parts around the world too :)
24th July 2018

Wine Drinking
Your description of the wine (drinking not tasting) was great! Definitely a bonding experience for the group. Hopefully you felt ok the next morning, 8 glasses seems like rather a lot :) So, no beautiful women?
25th July 2018

Re: Wine Drinking
It was a hilarious experience, but not one my liver would like repeated! Sadly Lori, no beautiful women...but apparently, beauty is in the eye of the beholder? :D

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