Eger and Bull’s Blood – Off the Beaten Track in Hungary

Egri Bikavér is an internationally recognised red wine, and many people know that bikavér translates as bull’s blood. But few people know of the city of Eger that gives it’s name to the wine or the reason the wine is described as bull’s blood.

Eger Castle overlooking Istvan Dobo Square
Eger Castle overlooking István Dobó Square

Hungary has many fine historic cities in addition to Budapest and of these, for me, Eger is the most attractive and interesting. Situated about 80 miles NE of Budapest, it nestles below the Bükk Mountains and has been surrounded by vineyards for over a thousand years.

I had visited Eger briefly five years previously, but was delighted when the opportunity arose to return. October proved a good time to visit; it was warm and sunny and there were relatively few tourists around.

Siege of Eger

Egri BikaverEvents of five hundred years ago are key to understanding the significance of the city of Eger. The Ottoman Empire had been pushing north through Europe following its decisive victory in 1526 at Mohács on the Danube. Eger came under siege in 1552, but a small force of Hungarians holed up in Eger Castle defeated a much larger Ottoman army.

During the siege, the defenders apparently drank large amounts of the local red wine. The Turkish soldiers believed bull’s blood was mixed with the wine as that explained their opponent’s firm resistance. Hence Egri Bikavér.

My Highlights of Eger

• Any visit to Eger should start from István Dobó Square, named after the Captain who led the Hungarian forces in 1552 and containing his statue. The square is dominated by the magnificent 18th Century Minorite Church with its unusual curved Baroque façade.

Minorite Church and István Dobó Statue
Minorite Church and István Dobó Statue

• The Líceum (Lyceum – Centre of Learning) is a short walk away and well worth visiting early in any tour of Eger. In addition to a fascinating Astronomical Museum, there is a camera obscura which helps you orientate yourself within the city; you can see all the main sights in a 10 minute display.

Senior travellers should note that the camera obscura is on the 9th floor and there is no lift!

• Across the road from the Líceum is the 19th Century Bazilika (Cathedral), the only neoclassical building in this city of Baroque masterpieces. Fortuitously I arrived just before noon and was treated to a 30 minute organ recital (daily May to October) whilst straining my neck to see the beautiful ceiling frescoes.

Astronomical Museum
Astronomical Museum

• Rather than retrace my footsteps back through István Dobó Square, I headed west to Eger Stream and followed it along beneath golden autumnal trees until I came to the short, steep road up to Eger Castle.

The castle itself has much intact from its illustrious past and offers great views back over the city. However allow plenty of time for a visit, as the castle site contains various museums and has a small cinema showing 3D films illustrating local history. A combined ticket to visit the castle and all the additional features has a discounted price of about £4 for 62-70 year olds and is free for those 70+.

Bazilika from the Liceum
Neoclassical Style Bazilika

• From the castle ramparts, the Minaret is clearly visible. This 16th Century 14-sided structure is the northernmost Turkish minaret in Europe.

Senior travellers should note that there are 97 steps to the minaret balcony up a narrow spiral staircase, but if you can make it, the views from the top make it all worthwhile. Entry charge is less than £1.

• Of course when in Eger it is essential that you check out the fortifying properties of Egri Bikavér and maybe sample some of the other fine red wines from the Eger region. There are a few wine-tasting cellars within central Eger, but a better option is to take the 20 min walk or shuttle bus (summer only) to the Valley of the Beautiful Woman. Here there are a couple of hundred wine-tasting ‘caves’ lined up along the sides of the valley.

Minaret from the Castle
Minaret from the Castle Ramparts

Why ‘Beautiful Woman’? There are few possible explanations, but in truth nobody really knows.

Where to Eat

I was very impressed with the Főtér Cafe Restaurant. The food was well prepared and tasty, whether a simple Goulash soup or Strudel with curd cheese or a main course such as Chicken breast in bacon stuffed with asparagus and mozzarella. The service was excellent and prices were low even by Hungarian standards.

But what made this restaurant special for me was its prime position in István Dobó Square just opposite the Minorite Church – very atmospheric in the evening.

Within the castle grounds, the 1552 Restaurant provides excellent light refreshments.

Where to Stay

 Főtér Cafe Restaurant
Főtér Cafe Restaurant in the Evening

I’ve stayed at two small hotels in Eger: the Szent János and the Offi Ház, both booked through the trivago hotel comparison website. The former scores far better with TripAdvisor, but I prefer the Offi Ház because of its prime position by the Eger Stream overlooking István Dobó Square.

How to Get There

Several budget airlines fly from the UK to Budapest – see Skyscanner. A two hour train journey from Keleti Station then takes you to Eger; this is free of charge for EU citizens 65+.