LOST IN EGER
Famous for its castles, cathedrals, red wine, Baroque palaces and Turkish remains, including the northernmost minaret in Europe – Eger is a beautiful historical town in Northern Hungary
Standing on the ramparts of the Eger Castle, I am listening to the story of how one of Hungary's famous wines, Egri Bikaver came to be known. Let's rewind back a bit. It is the mid-16th century in medieval Europe and the Ottoman Turkish army has been run ragged by the Austro-Hungarian forces. Multiple attempts to breach the castle have resulted in mountain losses. So, the Turkish decide to send over an envoy to spy upon those holed in the fort. The spy arrives in the morning as the bleary-eyed Hungarian were getting to work.
He reports back the situation, especially pressing upon their dishevelled hair and bloodshot eyes. He also tells them about a mysterious blood-coloured local wine that the Hungarians drink quite frequently. Thus, the legend of Egri Bikaver was born. The Ottomans believed that Hungarians drink the blood of bulls and thus headed back after forty days of siege with their spirit broken.
Although Hungarian wines proliferated during the late medieval age, multiple wars and iron clad rule of the Soviet Union made sure that this wine never became as famous as it's Western European counterparts. But the last decade has witnessed a resurgence in the popularity of Eastern European wines. Just like their Western cousins, the vineyards here look picture perfect, straight out of a travel postcard. But what sets these small towns apart is the medieval era touch that still lingers.
Eger is located in the northern part of Hungary and about a couple of hours drive away from the capital city of Budapest. As soon as I head to the oldest part of town, I come face-to-face with the hero of the Ottoman War, Istvan Dobo, whose gigantic statue adorns the Dobo Square framed by the beautiful Eger Castle. The Eger Castle still stands proud today almost four centuries later and is testament to one of the most interesting periods in the history of Eastern Europe. Although the ramparts are a fair representation of Baroque architecture and offers stunning rooftop views of the town, the interiors have been converted into a museum which houses artefacts from an era gone by. A combine offers you the chance to see quite a few paintings from the Renaissance era along with a Ruin Garden which showcases remnants of a Gothic Cathedral.
Enough of the history, let's get onto the wine now. The Kedves Winery is one of the largest producers of Eger's flagship wine and, along with St. Andrea's Eatery, provides a place where you can experience the best of Hungarian wine and food. The Egri Bikaver is a blend, pretty similar to what you would find in Bordeaux in France. Although a plethora of grapes are used for preparing it, the Kekfrankios has become one of the prominent ones. The eatery combines the medieval era styled building made dominantly with wood with the modern day tasting experience complete with food. The Aldas '16 is one wine that must be tried at this winery. The wine in itself is dry with fruity overtones and prominent flavours of red berries along with a bouquet of moderately smooth tannins that impress upon the palate. The wine combines pretty easily with some of the classic Hungarian dishes including a Beef Curry with Nokedli or even a rare done Duck Meat. Other wines that you should definitely try include the Igazan'14, Nagy-Eged-Hegy'12 and the Hangacs'12. All of these Egri Bikaver Grand Superiore start off with complex notes of red and black stone fruits including cherries, raspberries and even plums with a good amount of mature tannins and some spice to balance it all out. These heavy bodied red wines combine well with red meat dishes like venison, lamb and even beef.
But wines aren't the only thing that makes Eger so famous. Just outside the castle, the Minaret of Eger is a remembrance to the Ottoman Turks who later won. The 97 steps in this marble minaret track up to the top where the rooftops of the city become amply clear. Eger's multicultural influence is amply visible in the nearby Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Apostle also known as Eger Basilica. This neo-classical styled 19th Cathedral is a yellow stoned structure offset with white marble Corinthian columns while statues of the various apostles adorn the façade. The interiors of this Church are even more striking, with some more columns and richly painted frescoes which can be found in the domes, altars and chapels. The Turkish also left behind one of their legacies, the Thermal Baths which offer a perfect way to relax after all the wine and roaming about. The Egerszalok Spa offers one of the most out of the world Bath experiences. With Salt hills bordering all around, the water here is rich in minerals and soaking in it for a few hours washes all of your tiredness away.
The town of Eger offers a superlative Medieval Europe experience that includes a little bit of history, a lot of wine and thermal baths to wash off all the tiredness.
Best time to visit: February to April