Imagine you are a Turkish soldier in the year 1552. You and 40,000 of your fellow warriors have been marauding across Europe, gleefully sacking towns and declaring victory for the Ottoman Empire. You reach Eger, Hungary, and are expecting another easy win. You lay siege to a castle defended by a small force of a few thousand men and women, led by Captain István Dobó. The women are especially terrifying, pouring cauldrons of boiling tar and oil over the walls. It is a stout defense the likes of which you’ve never seen. The battle rages on for 39 days and the Hungarians ultimately win the day. Defeated and ashamed, you are convinced some supernatural power is at play. The red-stained beards of the Hungarian fighters can mean only one thing – they drank the blood of bulls to acquire unnatural strength.
Of course we had to see this legendary place, an easy two-hour bus ride from Budapest, for ourselves.
The original 13th century castle was destroyed during the brutal battle, and a new one was immediately built in its place. The Turks ultimately succeeded in taking Eger forty years later and ruled until the Hapsburgs kicked them out in 1687. Other than an impossibly narrow minaret, little evidence of the Turkish takeover remains today.
Visitors can climb 97 steps to a tiny parapet near the top of the minaret, but the structure looked too precarious for my liking. Plus, it was hard to beat the views from Eger Castle.
Eger boasts several historic churches, though with our time limited, we only visited one: Eger Cathedral. We passed the basilica – the second largest in Hungary – on our walk from the bus station to the old town and couldn’t resist taking a peek inside. The cavernous neo-classical structure, built in the 1830s, is a pastel delight. Rose and goldenrod marble columns form a rainbow guard along both sides and the soaring domes are painted with soft-hued celestial scenes. As luck would have it, we’d arrived just in time for the daily noon concert, giving us even more time to enjoy the refreshing interior.
For the rest of the day, we were content to wander the cobblestone streets and admire the quaint architecture of the beautifully preserved old town. Since we visited on a Sunday, many of the shops were closed by early afternoon and other tourists were few and far between.
Options for lunch were plentiful and the patios facing Eger’s main square were blissfully uncrowded for a warm summer day. We settled on Senator-Ház, the restaurant of the historic Senator House hotel in Dobó Square. Still craving Hungarian food, I ordered the veal, which came with cheesy noodles perfect for mopping up the luscious paprika sauce and a refreshingly light cucumber salad. At 2,300 HUF (US$10), it was a little pricey for lunch by Hungarian standards, but the great flavors and scenic setting meant it was money well spent.
And, of course, we had to drink the legendary wine. Egri Bikavér, or Bull’s Blood of Eger, is a vibrant red historically made from Kadarka grapes, though these are slowly being replaced by the easier-to-process Kékfrankos. Blended with several other red-skinned varieties, the flavor is said to be reminiscent of wines from Burgundy, France. While we would have loved to visit a winery where the famous beverage is made, we contented ourselves with several glasses at a shop on Dobó Square. We may also have brought several bottles home to enjoy at a later date. Supernatural strength doesn’t happen overnight!
Have you ever derived super powers from alcohol? What’s the farthest you’ve traveled to sample a local specialty?