From grand architecture, fine museums, and leafy parks, to thermal baths, fantastic food, and a buzzing nightlife, Hungary’s capital city, Budapest has enough sights and attractions to keep you entertained for at least a week.
But if the bustle of life in a city with nearly 1.8 million inhabitants gets too much for you, then you can hop on a train (they leave Budapest’s Keleti Station every hour) to the picturesque town of Eger, nestled in a fertile valley in the Bükk Hills in northeastern Hungary.
Just a 15-minute walk from the train station will bring you to Eger’s compact pedestrianised centre. Here you’ll find a network of narrow, twisting cobbled streets lined with well-preserved, brightly-painted Baroque architecture.
There are something in the region of 175 historic monuments in Eger, a number only surpassed by Budapest and Sopron – which is pretty impressive considering the town’s diminutive size.
Historically the most important monument in Eger is its castle, as – although the structure itself dates back to the 13th century – it was an event that took place here in 1552 that helped to put Hungary on the map.
Against all odds a small Hungarian army of approximately 2000 soldiers, led by Dobó István, managed to repel an 80,000-strong Turkish attack in a battle that is now known as the Siege of Eger.
Although the Turks finally managed to capture Eger in 1596 (and subsequently ruled the town for almost a century), the beautifully-reconstructed castle still serves as a visual reminder of this incredible victory.
There’s a museum and art gallery on-site, and you can even watch a 3D film documenting the town’s history (although you’ll have to pay for that).
You can enjoy some sweeping views of the town from the terrace of the renovated Dobó Bastion, but the best views of Eger are from the top of its 40-metre high Turkish minaret – one the few reminders of the Ottoman occupation.
There are 97 steps to reach the top (yes, I counted them just to make sure!) but avoid the climb if you’re at all claustrophobic; it’s the narrowest tower I’ve ever squeezed inside!
Whilst its historic castle, colourful Baroque facades, broad squares and towering cathedral are reason enough to pay Eger a visit, the main draw for tourists to this town is located a short 20-minute walk from the centre – in an area known romantically as the Valley of the Beautiful Women.
Indecipherable from its odd name (the origin of which has been lost to legend), the Valley of the Beautiful Women is actually Hungary’s best-known wine growing region.
But this is no ordinary wine-growing region.
Each vineyard here (of which there are over 200) operates its own cellar in the Valley of the Beautiful Women. These cellars have been carved into the several-hundred-metre-thick rhyolitic tuff, a kind of volcanic rock that can permanently maintain wine at a temperature of 10-15 degrees.
Around a quarter of the cellars here are open to the public which means that you can pop in and sample some local specialities for a fraction of the price that you’d pay in a nearby restaurant.
It’s almost like a pub-crawl where you can only drink wine (and primarily red wine, too – which, incidentally, is my favourite).
Obviously it’s impossible to make it around all 50 wine cellars in an afternoon (and to be quite honest I’m not sure why you’d want to; that’s A LOT of wine!), so the best thing to do is to sample a few different wines in a few different cellars. I can’t say that we found any particular cellar that stood out over the others for the quality of its wine, but we were rather keen on the complimentary live music at this one.
The most famous wine that’s produced here in the Valley of the Beautiful Women is a medium to full-bodied red wine called Egri Bikavér (“Bulls Blood”). The origin of its name goes back as far as 1552 and the Hungarian victory at the Siege of Eger.
Legend has it that Dobó István fed barrels of red wine to his troops before battle, in order to boost their morale. After their seemingly miraculous victory, rumours spread around the Turkish ranks that the Hungarians had actually been drinking blood from bulls in order to sustain their improbable strength. This theory would also explain the red-stained beards of Dobó István‘s army.
If you fancy taking any wine home with you make sure you bring a couple of plastic bottles; cellar owners will fill an empty litre bottle with wine for anywhere between 400 and 700 forints (£1.00-£1.73). Considering that wines from the Eger region in Hungary are considered to be some of the best in Europe, that’s a damn good deal!
- Although the journey times are approximately the same, if you want to get a direct train to/from Eger, you’ll need to catch one that leaves on the odd hour. The last direct train back from Eger is 19:04 and the last indirect one is 19:31 (but this doesn’t run at the weekend). The wine cellars at the Valley of the Beautiful Women close at 8pm anyway, so you’ll only be missing an hour of drinking time by forgoing an overnight stay. You can see an up-to-date timetable here.
- Although we didn’t stay overnight and don’t feel that you really need to in order to explore the main sights in the city, if you do decide to do so then check out Booking, which is my go-to site for booking budget accommodation abroad.
- If you’d like to do more research on the area, you can purchase Lonely Planet‘s latest Hungary guide here.
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