Geeking out, thermal baths, and a bowl of gulyás

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Europe » Hungary » Northern Hungary » Eger
August 13th 2009
Published: November 3rd 2009
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It is 3:30 a.m. and I am lying in bed, staring at the ceiling. Kristen has somehow managed to remain asleep beside me, but as the roosters and dogs begin anew their incessant calls, I admit defeat and head out to the kitchen. Jetlag has won again. I find that Klara left the small radio atop the freezer playing before heading to bed, so to a curious Hungarian cover of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” I set up my netbook at the small dining table and type until the sun begins warming my back.

By the time Gabe awakes and blurry-eyed begins brewing a pot of coffee, I already loath Hungarian radio. Europop, most of it in English, reigns on the airwaves, and my skin crawls with every joyfully soulless, generically programmed beat. It is made by Europeans for European consumption. I am not a fan of American pop either, but the more danceable and trance-like European version proves even more irritating to my rock/blues/metal sensibility. I am open to new and varying cultural experiences, but this crime against the arts I cannot abide. I keep listening to the stations for the next song, hoping in vain for some Hungarian music I can really enjoy. Gabe hears the music and shakes his head sorrowfully, joining my plight. We are driving to Eger today, a castle city in the more mountainous northeast. The trip should take about an hour-and-a-half to two hours, and Gabe and I agree that we do not want a Europop soundtrack to spoil the ride. Remembering seeing a cassette player in the car, I ask if perhaps Jozsi, a lifelong fan of American brand rock, still has some tapes in the house from his teenage years. Gabe eagerly searches cabinets and finds a pile of tapes, among them Metallica’s Master of Puppets. We nod to one another. The world has been made right again.

Jozsi, Klara, Edit, and Feri have decided to accompany us to Eger, riding in Jozsi’s car, to check out the area for the day and ensure that we find everything. We will be spending the night at Edit’s vacation home in the resort town of Bogács.

We avoid the highways and instead enjoy the back roads of the Great Plain. We see few other cars on the road as we wind our way through farmlands, which is fortunate because the European method of driving can be a nail-biting experience. To keep up with Jozsi we must go around other cars by swerving into the opposing lane and then drive excessive speeds on each straightaway. Gabe’s nerves were understandably on edge, wanting to avoid an accident at all cost. Remarkably, Jozsi was holding back so that we could keep up. After about an hour we are able to acclimate, relax and truly enjoy the scenery.

Sunflower fields dominate the landscape, interrupted by small villages that each remind me very much of Kengyel. While some are charming, most are fairly bleak and give an air of quiet sorrow. Life is not always easy in this region. We pass an embankment along the side of the road (a rare sight in such a flat region) with graves leading haphazardly to a church. An elderly gentleman is cutting the tall grass among the headstones with a large, heavy sickle.

On one lonely road we see a prostitute awaiting a john. It is the first legal prostitute I have ever seen. My grandfather was a train conductor for the New Haven Railroad and worked the line between Danbury, CT, and Grand Central Terminal. As a child I would often accompany him and spend the day in Manhattan, riding with the engineer both ways. One rainy night the engineer pointed out the window to some women standing on the corner in Harlem, illegally plying their trade. “Women of the night” is what he called them. The situation in Hungary is much different. The world’s oldest profession was legalized here in 1999 in order to raise new taxes (due to rampant tax evasion) and to curb abuses done to sex workers. It is not legal everywhere, as the government designates certain zones based on the area’s economic need, and never near schools or churches. With these restrictions there leaves little room inside small villages for the profession. Hence the prostitute standing beside the sunflower fields out in the middle of nowhere - a somber reminder of a civilization hidden behind miles of crops.

I have also begun to notice a trend in this country. Nearly every town or village has as its architectural center a yellow church, usually around two-hundred years old. From what I will later read, yellow was the preferred color of Hapsburg municipal buildings, and is often referred to as “Maria Theresa Yellow,” as it was the monarch’s favorite. Many of these churches, therefore, were probably built during Hapsburg rule. Between the sunflowers, churches, and terracotta, the Great Plain seems awash in hues of yellow and orange. Indeed, a painter would need few other colors to capture area’s essence.

After nearly an hour-and-a-half we think we see the northern mountains rising in the distance, but discover them to simply be a rare cluster of tall pines. We stop at a gas station and buy snacks (“World”-flavored Fanta and paprikás-seasoned chips), allowing me to further practice paying with forints and speaking Hungarian. I have learned two new words: igen, yes, and nem, no. My progress is slow-going, mainly due to the nature of the Hungarian language. It descends from neither German (as does English) nor Latin, and therefore has no direct relation to Western European languages. It is instead a product of Finno-Ugric of the Uralic language family, shared by Finnish and Estonian but still dissimilar from both. Therefore, the ability to guess based on Germanic or Romantic language similarities, which I am usually very good at, is effectively void.

Eventually the landscape begins to roll and buckle, steadily inclining into a scenic hill-country. We arrive in Bogács and I can instantly tell that it is a vacation town. Souvenir vendors selling inflatable toys are present, and people are walking along the streets in bathing suits, carrying swim supplies. At this point, however, I have yet to see what the attraction is that draws people here. We pull into the gated entrance of Edit’s summer community home. It reminds me of a camp lodge, with simple apartment interiors (a bathroom and two bedrooms), devoid of decoration and equipped with the simplest of amenities, and a communal kitchen/dining room in a separate building to the side. It appears to be an affordable way to get away for a few days.

We continue driving on through Eger’s wine country. Vineyards sprawl atop green hills that rise on both sides of the quiet back road, which snakes its way through the valleys. As the car navigates turns and dips and ascends, it is amazing how comforting it feels, reminding me of the Appalachian foothills of western Connecticut.

Eger, the most visited city in northeastern Hungary, appears abruptly from this scenic landscape, resting within a bowl of the earth between the Matra and Bükk mountains. We find free parking behind the castle and walk down a steep street, following Edit and Klara as they search for lunch. They decide on Chinese food, and I am pleased to see that Chinese takeout, while affordable in the States, is a steal in Hungary. For less than $5 I am able to buy a large serving of lo mein, sesame chicken, and a bottle of Coke.

We have decided to focus on the castle today and return tomorrow to see the rest of the city. We climb the long stone ramp that hugs the side of the hill, through the formidable gate, past cannons that point ominously toward the city, and finally to the reconstructed ruins that crown the peak. We continue to climb the fortifications walls and look out to a beautiful view of Eger. Church spires puncture the low terracotta roofs that line crooked, medieval streets. Gone are the orderly grid-patterns of later communists planning. Eger proudly wears is rich history on its sleeve.

Eger castle was ground zero for the greatest military victory in Hungarian history. The fortification dates back to the 13th century, when the castle location was moved to this rocky incline after a previous castle was destroyed by the Mongols. Eger was a town of ecclesiastical importance, and the walls were erected around a Romanesque cathedral, later to be replaced by high- and late-Gothic examples. The town saw a golden age in the 1400s, but soon came to ruin during the Turkish invasion of the 16th century. In 1540 Buda had fallen to the invaders, and in 1552 they turned their efforts to taking this region. For five weeks 80,000 Turks laid siege to the fortress, which was defended by a Hungarian force that was barely two-thousand strong, many of whom were women and children. The women, especially, would become famous for their bravery and vigor in helping to repel the enemy. Indeed, against impossible odds, Eger was victorious, killing nearly 8,000 of the enemy and driving them away. The tale was immortalized by the historical novel, The Stars of Eger, written by Géza Gárdonyi, whose grave rests in the castle’s courtyard. The event also helped to coin the name of one the region’s still greatest commodities - a ruby red wine known as the Bull’s Blood of Eger, so called because the defenders were said to have drunk it in rich quantities, staining their beards, the Turks mistaking it for bull’s blood.

Eventually, however, the Turks would return and would this time take the city. For a century, Hungary would be ruled by the Ottoman Empire. A Muslim minaret still stands as a reminder of this period, and can be seen from the castle walls stretching above rooftops. The Austrian Hapsburgs would replace the Turks, having driven them out, and Eger would have an active role in the 1848 revolution which unsuccessfully tried to throw off that monarchy’s reign.

Kristen, Gabe and I walked along the ramparts, enjoying the view, and studying the general layout. In the open square vendors’ booths sell souvenirs, postcards, and delicious fried bread coated in coconut. While walking to castle grounds is free, admission is charged for the permanent and periodic exhibitions. Additionally, photography in the exhibitions is an extra charge, and being that Gabe has the most camera experience we pay the fee and make him our designated photographer. We tour the art gallery and the dungeon, which has display descriptions both in Hungarian and German, and so with my limited knowledge of the latter I am able to interpret some of the uses for the otherwise enigmatic contraptions. Luckily I have a large threshold for the gory, as some devices are sometimes best left unexplained to those on a full stomach.

Gabe and I then hit pay-dirt. Our inner history geeks are aflutter when we find a temporary exhibit down a spiral staircase of a castle turret. The historical arms and armor exhibit allows visitors to try on period-accurate helms. We put on gloves and a woman helps us put on the helms and take them off. She seems both amused and taken aback by the unabashed glee we have in modeling the pieces and posing for photos. Our brows crinkle and our teeth clench in barbaric expressions, or we give the confused look of an historic warrior peering into the camera for the first time. Children come and go while we remain, determined to try on each one. We finally tear ourselves from the fun continue on, studying the armor, swords, and axes that lay behind the protective glass. Kristen patiently lets us amuse ourselves and drool at the pitted, excavated pieces, knowing the element we are in.

After hours of walking the castle grounds our legs are sore and our feet ache. Gabe’s family is probably half-way back to Kengyel by the time we return to the car by the only way we know, up the long, steep street that punishes our calves with each step. Having borrowed Edit’s GPS, we drive back to Bogács and decide to see what makes the town so popular. We get into our swimsuits and first head to a pond at the edge of town, hoping to take a dip, only to find it is for fishing only. Walking the streets we find the entrance to some thermal baths. The exterior promises little; however, within we are pleased to find a well kept and enjoyable water park. Outdoor thermal baths of varying temperatures are lined to one side, and a chlorinated pool and fountain shower are on the other. At the far end is a snack bar and beyond that, a campground that seems filled to capacity.

Hungary is famous for its natural thermal hot springs, and thermal baths are a big draw for towns needing tourist income - they are also a cultural remnant of Turkish occupation. There have even been talks in Kengyel about reopening their thermal pipes and creating baths. While some bathhouses, like those that can be found in Budapest, are reminiscent of opulent palaces, others are the basic outdoor, concrete variety of Bogács. I have never been in one, and as I take my first step into the steaming, cloudy, mineral-rich water, I feel the pricks like tiny pins on my feet. I verify with Kristen and Gabe that they are feeling the same sensation. Fully submerging the body in these soothing baths is said to have medically beneficial properties, and it is easy to believe as one floats along feeling both rejuvenated and relaxed. Gabe notices that he is hearing almost no Hungarian being spoken by the bathers around us, as most of them appear to be Polish tourists. An American quickly gets over the incredible amount of Speedos on display in the park, clinging to every body shape and type, and sometimes hidden altogether by a fleshy gut. This remains a cultural difference between the U.S. and Europe. If an American were shown a picture of a populated beach scene, Speedos would be a dead give-away to them that the photo was not taken in the U.S. While it is my opinion that Speedos are unflattering regardless of body definition, I am quick to admire the confidence in self-image that these swimmers have. However, we do notice that those closer to our age are wearing trunks like ours, and it therefore seems that the stereotypically European “banana hammock” may be slowly going out of fashion.

It is during this time, though, that I truly begin to feel wonderfully disconnected. Without Gabe’s family to fall back on, and surrounded by tourists in a foreign land, I realize that it has been days since I have heard an American accent from a stranger. We are the only Americans in this small, thermal Mecca, and I assume few others have been here before us. Aside from Gabe and Kristen, none of us can understand those around us.

The park closes and we change into dry clothes and walk the streets in the warm evening in search of dinner. There are many options in the town, among them a buffet and a Flintstone-themed restaurant. We walk beneath streetlights as laughing, excited tourists ride by in pedal cars with headlights, waving at us and calling, “szia!” or “guten Abend!” as they pass. After examining several menus we decide on a restaurant attached to an inn. A solitary couple shares a table in the dining room as we pass through to our table on the back, covered porch built with wooden, Doric columns. Once again, Hungarian and German make up the menu, and Gabe helps me translate the items I cannot identify (such as the appetizer of frog’s legs). I decide on a bowl of beef gulyás (a beef soup prepared with paprika - often mispronounced “goulash”) and a turkey dinner with cream sauce and fried potatoes. While it’s more expensive than Chinese takeout, the food is excellent. We take our time eating, prolonging the tastes and enjoying the night air.

While the town looks average and unassuming during the day, as we wander the dark streets back to our apartment I feel that I finally understand why Edit chooses to return to Bogács again and again.

Note: Some photos were taken by Gabor J. Szabo

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12th November 2009

Nice story - much appreciated. Thanks. I'm in Budapest now myself-stunning view from the Marriott of the Danube, Buda Castle, and the Liberty Monument.

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