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Hungarian Wine Delight: Inside The Rich History of Hungary

  • Written by  George C. Koller
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Some of the sites to see in Eger include old castles. Some of the sites to see in Eger include old castles.


One book I never got tired of reading and re-reading as a child was EgriCsillagok (Stars of Eger) by GézaGárdonyi. This historical novel starts off with two kids, a boy and a girl, bathing together buck-naked in a Hungarian stream. The epic tale follows their lives as they are taken prisoner by the Turks and escape through the boy’s cunning. They are then separated and individually educated, but eventually find each other again, fall in love and marry. The story culminates in the epic battle that took place in 1552 between the Magyars and the Turks. Along with every Hungarian child, I remember first reading this novel and how the detailed, brilliant description of the Turkish armies, the Hungarian prisoners, and the boy and the girl who grow up to become young man and wife grabbed my imagination. I was always fascinated by history, and of course, I identified with Gergely, the boy, and fell in love with Éva, his courageus, beautiful sweetheart.

The fortress of Eger, where the famous battle took place, still stands today and offers itself as an exciting tourist destination off the beaten track in Europe. Built after the Tatar invasion devastated Hungary, it was erected on the ruins of an earlier fort at the end of the 13th century. In addition to the 12,000 cannonballs that fell in the fort during the month-long battle, the guide books on Eger call your attention to the thermal water health spas, fine hotels and restaurants, as well as the Valley of the Beautiful Wife (SzépasszonyVölgye), where hundreds of cool wine cellars—a blessing in the heat of summer—have been dug in the side of a mountain covered in vineyards.

EgriBikavér, or Bull’s Blood of Eger, is the best-known red wine of the region, and it is closely associated with the legendary battle. After conducting a fierce siege of the fortress for thirty days, as part of the Ottoman invasion of Europe, the more than 180,000 Turkish soldiers heard that the 2,000 defenders were drinking real bull’s blood up there on the fifty-foot ramparts. As teetotallers, the Turks got disgusted with this consumption of blood and alcohol, and left. Of course, many historians credit the death of their pasha and the severe losses they suffered as the main reason for their withdrawal. I would also include the incredibly fierce resistance on the part of the Magyar defenders.

They also boiled oil on open fires in huge cauldrons, which they proceeded to pour onto the heads of the Turks.

Historically, Hungarians have stood up against unbelievable odds, such as the mighty Soviet Union in 1956, when young boys armed with Molotov cocktails destroyed countless Russian tanks and actually forced the Red Army to withdraw from Budapest, albeit briefly. I was a young boy during these events and relished being an eye-witness to history. Hungarians celebrate the 55th anniversary of that ill-fated but heroic uprising this October 23rd.

In 1552, the Magyar defenders of the stonewalled Fortress of Eger, fought back with every trick in the book, including huge wooden wheels filled with gunpowder and nails, which turned into fiery infernal weapons as they rolled down from the ramparts, decimating the hordes of attackers below. According to Gàrdonyi’s novel and historical fact, the hero of his book, GergelyBornemisza, was responsible for engineering these explosive contraptions, along with suggesting to dig a counter tunnel, which foiled the Turkish attempts to tunnel under the fortress and blow up the bastions from below.

The women of Eger stood out for their bravery. When their husbands and brothers fell in battle (300 Magyars died, 200 were seriously wounded) the women took up their swords and fought fiercely against the janissaries with their shaved heads who were snaking their way up the ladders. They also boiled oil on open fires in huge cauldrons, which they proceeded to pour onto the heads of the Turks. The bald soldiers probably wished that they wore helmets or turbans!

There are 175 commemorative monuments in Eger, including the famous IstvànDobò statue. Dobò was the heroic captain who inspired the defenders to increase their level of bravery during the long siege. There is also a Fortress Museum, a magnificent Cathedral commemorating the victory, and a Minaret, which is the only one still standing from the Turkish occupation.

As you tour the battlements, the spirit of the determined defenders is not far away.

Yes, the Turks came back in 1596 and were successful in forcing the by then foreign mercenary defenders of the fortress into surrendering. All in all, the Ottoman armies occupied parts of Hungary for close to 150 years. But the victory of 1552 checked the Ottoman expansion into that region for quite a few decades afterwards.

GézaGàrdonyi’s house has also been turned into a Museum and many visitors enjoy seeing the desk on which he created his famous novel that brought the Turkish invasion and the heroism of the Magyars to life for every reader. In a memorable scene, prisoners held by the Turks are forced to cook a meal for their captors. The crafty Magyars throw in a whole bunch of very hot paprika on top of the lamb and vegetables stewing over an open fire. When the Turks taste the concoction, they spit it out and curse the Hungarians. Later, the prisoners enjoy a delicious meal, perfectly tailored to their taste buds!

The two naked kids of the first few pages grow up to become Gergely, the ingenious engineer who designs the fiery weapons that help win the battle, and Éva, the Queen’s handmaiden, whose heart burns for Gergely all through the story. They marry at a young age, have a son, and the story comes full circle as their son is kidnapped by the same Turk, who captured the couple when they were kids. Éva dresses as a man to gain entry into the besieged fortress and help liberate her child.
As you tour the battlements, the spirit of the determined defenders is not far away. Their remains were buried underneath the ramparts where they’re still on guard against any invaders who might want to harm the Hungarian nation.

Other Hungarian Delights

The town of Eger was settled over one thousand years ago in the hilly area between the thickly wooded Mátra and Bϋkk Mountains. Today, it is situated 127 km by road and 142 km by rail northeast of Budapest, the capital of Hungary. There are some outstanding baroque buildings worth checking out, some of them built by Italian architects in the 18th century. The Turkish Baths and other thermal spas feature medicinal waters that have been renowned for centuries for their therapeutic properties.

Other places for your itinerary while visiting Hungary should include Lake Balaton, dubbed “the Hungarian Sea,” a large inland lake in country’s west, that is a favorite vacation spot of Germans and Austrians, as well as other tourists from the European Union. All signs and menus are in Magyar, German and English, and most people speak enough English so that you can make yourself understood. Hint: bring plenty of mosquito repellent. Hungarians have yet to discover the effectiveness of screening their windows and doors.

The Hortobágy is the Magyar name for the Great Hungarian Plains, located east of the Danube River on the banks of the Tisza, which is the other great river flowing through Hungary. The Plains are famous for the large horse and cow herds and the csikósok, or Hungarian cowboys, wear very distinctive outfits—white, ruffled, almost skirt-like very wide pants, black, sometimes embroidered vests, and black boots. They periodically put on shows for tourists, showing off their herding and riding skills, and especially their expertise with three meter-long bullwhips.

The Royal Palace on Buda Hill is now an impressive art museum, and the view from the Fisherman’s Bastion as you sip your espresso is breathtaking.

Speaking of embroidery, the most colorful folk costumes are oddly enough found in one of the poorest regions, in the town of Mezőkövesd. The wide sleeved shirts of the men and the blouses, coats, and skirts of the women, not to mention their tablecloths and pillow cases, are embroidered with ancient Magyar motifs in blazing colors. If enough tourist buses show up, the local folkdancers put on a mock peasant wedding celebration, where all this multicolored splendor is proudly displayed.

You must, of course, start and end your visit in the city of Budapest, one of the true jewels of Europe, built on either side of the majestic Danube River. Multiple historical bridges span the river, connecting Buda on the western side, with Pest on the eastern banks. The magnificent Parliament buildings are worth a visit, especially since they removed the red star from the top of it in 1989. The Royal Palace on Buda Hill is now an impressive art museum, and the view from the Fisherman’s Bastion as you sip your espresso is breathtaking. Stay at the Hilton, why don’t you. It’s a modern building built around the ruins of a monastery, whose courtyard features classical music concerts in the summer, with the ancient walls adding a historical depth to the event.

You can fly to Budapest through Frankfurt or Vienna, connecting with Malév, the Hungarian airlines. Or you can take a boat from Vienna to Budapest down the Danube, where you will enjoy a gourmet meal on board, accompanied by wonderful gypsy music, while the scenery unfolds. You’ll pass through Bratislava, as well as Esztergom, where the Hungarian kings were crowned. Entering Budapest by boat with all its bridges at sunset is a truly memorable experience.

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A nice slideshow of Eger set to Hungarian music.
Last modified on Thursday, 18 October 2012 17:47

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