It was a very cold day, and I was woefully unprepared for it. The weather forecast before leaving Shanghai had been in the optimistic high 50s and low 60s, without much rain. Instead, I got high 30s and low 40s and many days of expected rain. Eger, once the sunshine had fled, was in the mid-40s and heavy with rain. It wanted to rain, and if it wasn’t going to rain, it was going to be very brisk and very cold.
After muddling through the castle and its exhibits, I thought it should be time for lunch. My hands and face were going numb, and it honestly looked like the sky could let loose at any moment. I stopped first at a highly-rated restaurant just below the castle, intending on trying the expensive but worth-it tasting menu. However, since I looked a bit scrubby and probably just wanting a coffee, I was told there was no table available (all reserved), and that I couldn’t be accommodated in a nearly empty restaurant. Oh well. As Julia Roberts would say, “Big mistake. Huge.”
I walked back into town, wandering along the tight, narrow lanes of boutique shops and into Dobo Istvan ter, the large town square flanked by the beautiful St. Anthony of Padua Cathedral. I found a relatively quiet restaurant off the square – Foter Cafe – and settled into a window seat to people-watch in the square and stare at the beautiful church across the way. I really just wanted to be warm again!
For lunch, I chose a starter of cream of garlic soup with cheese toasts (I really wanted vampires to stay away from me, apparently) and started to write in my journal to keep track of my trip so far. The soup was hot, delicious, and absolutely what I needed to bring my cold body back to life. I thought of how I’d like to try to make this soup at home, maybe with fresh rosemary blended in with the garlic. Hmm.
I sprang for a large class of Eger Bikaver (the red Bull’s Blood wine I had heard so much about) and started in on my main course – roasted goose leg with chunky onion and sweet potato mash, roasted, gooey apple, and tart, vinegary red cabbage. It was heavy, roasted to perfection, and delicious. I mean, really. It was perfect for an icy cold day – most Eastern European food is meant to help a person last through endlessly cold winter months!
Since I was in no hurry to go after lunch, I ordered a cappuccino and rested in the warm restaurant. I decided, based on the weather, that I would not take the bus/tram out to the Valley of Beautiful Women to the wine cellars. A bit of a bummer, but I didn’t want to get stuck out there, miss my train, and end up frosted through. I felt like I could go back some day – it wasn’t entirely good-bye, never-see-you-again anyway.
Instead, I finally braved the cold again, finding a local wine shop to supply me with a bottle of good Bull’s Blood, and went back to Eger Basilica to venture inside. I wandered around in the cold, quiet interior, one of only two people in there, and marveled at the gorgeous marble and the frescos on the ceiling. I had not seen a properly huge basilica (before going to Budapest) since St. Peter’s in Rome nearly ten years ago. I often wondered if the architects thought that the bigger, the more God would like you?
Since I still had two hours until my train departed, I decided on a tour in the aptly named City Below the City, the tiny, gated entrance just being off the side stairs of the Basilica. The tour guide came up promptly at 2 PM to open the gate, and he gestured for me to walk down the stairs, speaking in Hungarian. I nodded and went down to wait for others to join us.
When I got downstairs, he kept speaking, and I just said, “English?” He laughed and said, “I thought you understood Hungarian! You knew what I was telling you!” Nope, don’t know anything but “coffee.”
I suppose the advantage of living in a country where your native language is secondary, you learn to pay attention to gestures and body language, along with tone and inflection. You become a more aware person of not just words (because you can’t understand them) but instead look for context clues as to what the person is trying to tell you.
Otherwise, I’ve gotten really good at charades.
While the tour would be in Hungarian, they have a really good guide in English to follow along with, and the guide spoke excellent English. He was able to answer any questions I had, as this was really an interesting tour. Just like the Hospital in the Rock tour I’d taken in Budapest, this turned out to be a “gem in the rough” sort of thing. I learned a great deal of things from the tour, including the following:
The Archbishop’s Wine Cellar housed wine which people in the district used to give to the church for payment of taxes. Wine kept longer than wheat did, so wine was the preferred payment option (think of it as the Mastercard of the Medieval era). 1/5 of Hungary at the time paid their taxes to this particular church!
In turn, the church would store the wine in the cellars and used it to pay for social services for the people – schools, poor alms, and hospitals. So, not only was it the Mastercard, it was also Social Security payments.
Wine was stored in barrels in this cellar until 1947, until the Soviets took it all away. With the wine gone, the symbiotic relationship with the special mold that kept the wine good ended, and the mold disappeared from the cellars with the constant trickle of groundwater. Also, the chalk dissolved off the walls, constantly wearing down the stone.
The cellars thus weakened, and they were closed. Many sections are still closed to the public, but the concrete-reinforced ones are okay to walk through. Little wooden bridges connect parts of the tunnels now, as a natural spring cuts through them. The current caretakers are looking for a way to divert the water away so they can still use the cellars.
Other fun facts: 13 million litres of wine would be collected in a good year.
There were 643 wine cellars in total, about 147 km long, which all closed in 1947.
They are about 10 m underground, and the wide channels were built for the large wine barrels. Now, they’re mostly concrete-reinforced for strength.
After the informative tour, I started my trek back to the Eger train station. I had plenty of time to wander up and down residential streets, earning a few odd looks from locals wondering why I was just roaming around the sidewalks.
Once at the station, I cracked open a small latte and sat, happy that I’d managed to see so much in one day.
Now for the return train ride to Budapest…