The reason why I do not travel around Hungary based on throwing darts at the map is that a) I do not have a wall sized map of the country, and b) even if I had it, the dart would probably land off the map anyways, and after some convoluted calculations I would figure out that it’s time to explore a pine forest somewhere in the proximity of Zakopane, Poland.
The method I use instead is probably just as bad though: I look at MÁV travel times and based on those I assume that something is good for say, a day trip. This is tricky, because two hours might take on a different meaning to MÁV than they do to me. Two hours with an overhead line break and random waiting for suspicious trains to materialize from side routes might suddenly turn into four hours, which is not necessarily fortuitous in any circumstance, and especially not when you have one day to both reach and return from your target point.
I also bravely admit to having had to google felsővezeték szakadás, for I had never ever thought about it in any other language than Hungarian, and whenever I do, I always add to it the sad face of the MÁV employee who has the miserable task of informing infuriated passengers of the reason of their delay, since the overhead line break is arguably among the worst possible situations, as no one ever knows how long it takes to get it fixed.
Mercifully, no such horror story materialized during our outing to Eger, though I must say that for an express train, the thing stopped in an awful lot of places, of which only about a couple looked like legitimate settlements. Upon arrival, I fired up the expert traveler’s companion, Google Maps, to delightedly see that the road from the station to the first sight of interest in Eger, namely the cathedral, is almost straight and leads through a pleasant park, in which, later in the day, we spotted birds and an inquisitive rodent. Adjacent to the park you’ll also find the city’s outdoor spa, which looked well equipped but decidedly less crammed than its Budapest counterparts.
I initially assumed that having an organ concert about to begin in the cathedral (which is Hungary’s second biggest, after the one in Esztergom) would be fortuitous, as I had pleasant memories of having listened to one is Brașov’s Black Church as a child. On this occasion, however, I felt a bit overwhelmed by the sound- they might have been playing some more dramatic pieces, for I kind of had the impression that the Addams family would storm out of the pews any time. I also felt like applauding at the end of each piece-this has always irked me in churches, and I might even have dropped the odd clap every now and then before coming to my senses.
Next on our itinerary was the accidentally discovered Town Under the Town– a tour of the Eger bishopric’s former wine cellar system, of which the entrance lies comfortably to the left of the cathedral’s exit. Admission happens on the hour, but the twelve o’clock slot was sold out to a giant group of Poles- they seem to be the chief foreign visitors of Eger, so much so that most menus and inscriptions will have Polish added to them alongside English, and sometimes German.
We decided that the powers that be were thus telling us to have lunch, and proceeded towards the main square, where we had identified two restaurants with good online reviews: the Först-Ház and the HBH Bajor Sörház. The second was chosen on account of being air conditioned- this might sound like a weak-minded approach, yet it is quite legitimate on a scorching June day. The tasty and plentiful meal also underlined the rightness of our choice, and we later had the opportunity to try the wines in Först-Ház too. Obviously the Egri bikavér, because when touristing you should do them touristy things, and it was obviously delicious- and so was my second choice, the kadarka, which is a pretty typical wine for the Arad region, so I like to test the competition wherever I go.
Returning to the Town Under the Town, we went in with the next available group, and were treated to the rather locally tinted humour of the guide- it’s one of those things which are not bad in themselves, but reveal their true colours only to the initiates. Non-Hungarian speakers might thus lose something from the overall charm of the tour, but it is still quite interesting and there are accompanying brochures in several languages. The temperature hovers around 12 degrees centigrade though, so it’s a wise idea to bring something warm to cover up.
Next up- obviously, the fortress, which plays such an important role in Hungarian national imagery as the place where a small local force, led by Captain István Dobó, withstood an onslaught from a considerably larger Ottoman army (numbers of all involved may vary) in the autumn of 1552. The fortress was ultimately handed over in 1596, and 91 years of Ottoman rule followed, of which a still standing minaret bears witness- the northernmost of its kind left from Ottoman times. In its proximity we bumped into a pleasant looking Oriental tea and coffee house, but we had to pass on its delights this time around, as we’d set our minds on wine. But I harbour this fanciful idea that it’s good to have that one little thing that you have not tried and for which you might return to a place, and the tea house should be it for Eger.
There are several exhibitions in different areas of the castle, mostly about its history and the evolution of its structure, but there is also one dedicated to the book which made it even more famous: Géza Gárdonyi’s Eclipse of the Crescent Moon. The English title is both efficient and slightly poetic, but perhaps not the best translation of the original Hungarian, which should be The Stars of Eger.
The best part of the castle visit was, however, the view- in a nice touch, from one side you can see the minaret aligned with the Serbian church, against the skyline of a Hungarian town. Our histories, especially in this part of the world, might tell of wars, conflicts, the occasional alliance, or grudging cohabitation, but they are shared histories, and histories of which we should learn something. Primarily we should learn that together we are more than apart.
PS: There is a Beatles Museum in Eger. Like, really, a Beatles Museum. In Eger. Make of that whatever you want.