Eger is a highly regarded within Hungary as one of its most amazing cities. With a vast number of attractions crammed into its compact centre it’s a city that demands you leave the confines of Budapest’s impressive metropolis.
I have visited Eger twice, the first in 2015 when huge efforts were being made to renovate the city. This visit was tarnished as a result but we returned this year to see it in its prime, with its front foot firmly planted forward. The city is the location of several magnificent churches, a castle overlooking the town, and is the centre of a famed wine region. To see the city a few days are needed and here are my suggestions on what not to miss.
Standing over the town Eger castle is one of those rarities, a castle without any obvious castle. But don’t let that deter you. Built on a rock above the city, it’s a tantalising walk up along the outside till you reach the castles gates. Entrance costs 1400huf giving access to all exhibits. At this time 1 Euro is equal to around 320huf.
The walls and the towering views from them are probably the main attraction here. The castle still has a rough feel with the rock face exposed in many places giving it more an air of authenticity. It was a poor state of repair when it was entrusted to the state. Most of the buildings within are newish constructs, many of them hosting museums. The Istvan Dodo Museum showcases the history of the castle, and don’t miss the Kazamatak (casemates) a series of cellars that run underground, and the dungeon that hosts a morbid torture museum. Most of your time however is best spent looking across those formidable walls to the beautiful city that lies beneath.
The castle was constructed first in the thirteenth century and grew rapidly. It’s fame lies in the repelling of a 40000 strong Turkish army in 1552, by a Hungarian army of 400. Its 300 Spartans told the Magyar way. During the siege the defending soldiers asked that the cellars beneath the castle be cracked open. The wine was savaged and its thick red juices ran down the beards of the soldiers. The Turkish soldiers thought it was mixed with bull’s blood to give the soldier’s strength and were demoralised, and defeat soon followed. More on that wine later. The castle suffered its final loss in 1701, when the Austrians blew it up. And so goes the story of every Hungarian Castle.
It’s the views from the ramparts that will mostly drag you here and it’s exactly where you want to be as the sun sets over the town.
This is where Eger really excels. There are in particular three very different churches that simply amazed me to see.
The Minorite Church
The Minorite Church is the focal point of the Istvan Dobo Square. From the exterior its twin bell towers do draw the eye in the square but it’s upon entering that the church really astounds. The original church that stood here was destroyed by floods and the present one was finished in 1771. The Baroque style was flourishing in Europe at the time with the backing of the catholic church, and the interior here is a fantastic display of baroque art. There are a five sections of vaulting, and each of them are beautiful to inspect. They contain a series of scenes from the life of St Anthony. Also there are three altars each of them as intrinsically decorated as each other, and a couple of hand carved pews that are possibly the churches most beautiful attribute. All the more surprising is that no admission charge is in effect for such an aesthetic church.
That said, the church belonged to the Franciscian Order and they were less than pleased with the extravagance of the church. The architect was a renowned Bohemian architect who worked predominantly in Prague. His name was completely omitted from the plague commemorating those who built the church. The interior vaulting art was by Marton Reindl and the church weren’t happy with his work done, citing its poor quality. Clearly they were looking at something I wasn’t.
The St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Serbian Church lies outside the city centre but is worth the detour. I drove out but its is about a 15 minute walk out. It’s position atop a hill and it’s onion dome gives it distinction. The church is no longer used for religious reason s and now serves as an exhibition centre. Originally built during the 17th century and altered more in the 18th, not much remains of the original interior. But there’s only one real reason to visit this church. Its accessed by a wooden gate from a quiet side street, and the dilapidated headstones give no notice of what lies within. We were met by the curator, whose house lies within the grounds. An entry charge of 400 huf was exchanged and we were led inside.
The interior contains a very unique work known as an iconostasis which separates the nave from the sanctuary. Measuring 10 metres by 12.5 metres, and featuring 60 different panels carved by Nicola Jankovic and painted by Anton Kuchelmeister. It took two years to complete in the 18th century. Made up of gold leaf and braid its a simply stunning piece of art and astoundingly beautiful to look at. The church also contains a very authentic pulpit designed in the same ilk as the iconostasis.
Eger Basilica is probably the lesser of the three churches within the city but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth including in a tour. On my more complete second visit to the city I certainly did. This neo-classical church was completed in the mid 19th century, and the only thing affirming its pious function is the cross atop its roof. The impressive building is reached by a flight of steps and its columns dwarf its entrance. It’s the most expensive of the Eger church set to enter at 800 huf, but there is a large interior space to explore. Its greatest asset is its collection of domes which run along the central nave. The best of these were painted by Istvan Takacs and feature scenes from the apocalypse. The high ceilings of the church are bathed in light from the ceiling level windows, and the illuminated paintings are very attractive. The altar and organ are the churches other worthwhile features.
Walking the streets of Eger
The city itself is a pleasure to stroll through. The small Eger-Patak river calmly weaves past streets and under bridges. The buildings and architecture are a mismatch of colours, all bright yellows and pinks, and it works to perfection. It reminds me of an Italian town, from the laid back cafes to the gelaterias. The streets are mostly pedestrianized, we had to park our car outside the centre and walk in, but it all adds to the atmosphere for this perfect little city.
Valley of the Beautiful Woman- Where to try Bulls Blood Wine
We stayed in the Tulipan Garden Panzio in Eger which was a little outside the city in a very pretty neighbourhood. But better still it was a short walking distance from the Szepasszony-volg, or the Valley of the Beautiful Woman. This is the centre of Eger’s famous wine trade and the area is full of Pince big and small offering their take on the wine. Egri Bikaver or Bull’s Blood, is a blend of five different grapes and besides its battle winning qualities, it is also quite delicious. I found it more to my palate than the sweeter wines of Tokaj.
The area is characterised by the pince, many of which are reminiscent of a cave. We took advice from a random bypasser and ventured into the open number 17. It was cold, it was dank, the proprietor didn’t speak English, and the wine was fantastic. He poured the glasses from a long glass beaker and a tasting glass cost a mere 100 huf. It was a wonderful introduction to the Valley of the Beautiful Woman. We left the confines of the cellar and ventured into the main square of the area, which was surrounded by food stalls and enough cellars to leave one in a very inebriated state. We again followed advice but this time from a Hungarian friend and settled into the more comfortable Molnar Pinceszet, for some more Bikaver and Muskotaly.
You could easily spend the evening here with a wide selection of dining and drinking options, or like us you could make your way into the city. It’s nearly 4km in so unless you fancy the walk there are street trains that run into the Basilica. It’s the only time I felt like I fell into a tourist trap in the city, and at 2000 huf a person it was daylight robbery, but we paid it for the convenience.
Minaret & Marzipan Museum
The Minaret is a leftover from the Ottoman occupation. It was constructed in the 17th century as part of the mosque which once stood here. It’s use was as a call for prayer. It stands 40 metres high and was built from red sandstone. Much of the Ottoman monuments were destroyed after the break from their rule but any attempts to destroy this minaret failed, including that by 400 oxen with ropes. They like the number 400 in Eger.
The Minaret is an incredibly thin tower and anyone with claustrophobia would do well to steer clear. I climbed it on my earlier visit which was fortunate as during the summer of 2018 it was undergoing some restorative works. It only cost 300 huf at the time to enter and both I and Beata paid in to climb it. When we stepped inside she took one look which was followed by a refund. I wasn’t to be so easily put off, and made the 97 step climb to the viewing platform. It is very narrow on those stairs with only space for a single person. But I always feel its worth it for the views and Eger is such a colourful city. The blend of yellow, red, white and green really tantalised the eye.
Just off the bottom of the Minaret is the very niche but beautiful Marzipan Museum. This museum is the brain child of Hungarian pastry chef, Kopcsik Lajos. The chef found fame internationally for his creations and this spurred him to open a museum to showcase them. It’s a very visual museum and its amazing what he was capable of doing with almond and sugar. Amongst the many exhibits include a Russian Family, a full size grandfather clock. a model of the Minaret, and numerous heads, recreations of artworks and ornaments. It’s all done very tastefully. The centerpiece of the museum is a recreation of a baroque room, in honour of Eger’s baroque tradition. All of the exhibits are incredibly made from marzipan, and the handiwork is very admirable. It’s not a huge museum but it is a perfect distraction for those seeking something different.
The Lyceum is one of the more unusual visits I made. It was originally constructed in Baroque grandeur to be a university, but the Hapsburgs put a halt to its opening. So what exists is an enormous building encircling a courtyard, with vast empty halls. Admission was 500 huf each and directional signs take you up grand staircases to the observatory tower. The exhibitions are part science museum, and part gallery of the astronomical equipments that were originally purchased for the university. One final stairs takes you to a roof, for more fine views over the city. It’s best to wait till twenty minutes past the hour, as at this point one is taken up to the camera obscura. At the time this was built it was only the second in Europe after Edinburgh. As the room darkens and the optics move into position, it’s a really intriguing twenty minutes as sights from the city are projected. You have to admire the engineering that constructed it. The tour guide here was multilingual and had excellent English. There was good humour in his presentation and it was also interactive.
We also visited the Archbishops Palace the 18th century home of the head of the church. It has been recently renovated and now hosts the Eger art museum on the first floor. At 1800huf it was the most expensive of the Eger attractions and the most disappointing as well. The identity seems to have been lost in the renovation. The ground floor showcases many vestments and reliquaries from the church. The rooms that maintained their original furnishings, such as the study room with its murals were beautiful. Perhaps the buildings most lavish room is the small chapel located within, but this can only be seen through an elevated viewing platform and glass.
The City under the City attraction is a guided only tour that takes you into the archbishop cellars. The tour takes about 45 minutes but we were a little put off. It’s quite cold down below and we weren’t really dressed for it and all tours are only in Hungarian so unless you are more fluent than I (I can order a drink or food) it detracts from the tour.
Every Hungarian city worth its salt has its own baths and Eger is no exception. Warm thermal waters flow beneath the ground, and several bath complexes are available. The most traditional of these are the Turkish Baths, but also worth seeing is the Bitskey Aladar if for no reason other than the secession architecture of the building. We didn’t have time on either visit to see the baths alas.
Dining on Istvan Dobó Ter
Istvan Dobo Ter is Eger’s main square and plenty of restaurants and cafes are in the surrounding area. With a backdrop of the castle and the Minorite Church it’s an aesthetic way to dine. We had lunch in HBH Bajor Sorhaz, an upmarket restaurant where I had a delicious goose leg and the girls had their Rantott Hus. It’s one of the best places in town to get that delicious breaded pork.
We returned to the square that evening as the last shards of daylight left, and had dinner in Senator-haz Etterem. Here we were content to order the venison goulash, and we were lucky enough to have landed here on 20th September which was the public holiday in honour of St Istvan, the founder of the Hungarian nation. We had prime seats for the firework display that marked this occasion as they lit the sky above us.
Eger is a touristic city, but far from being swamped in tourism. It’s charms have yet to draw in large numbers of visitors and its sights can be easily enjoyed.
As Hungarian city’s go it impressed me the most. The qualities of Budapest are well known, but this little city may just sneak it on charm and charisma.
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