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Two Hungarian gems: Eger and Hollókő

Two Hungarian gems: Eger and Hollókő

Emmanuel Tresmontant - 2009-09-01

Once you have visited the Tokay region with its wine cellars that house the world’s greatest sweet white wines, you absolutely have to discover Eger, which, after Budapest is perhaps Hungary’s most beautiful town and also the village of Hollókö which is classed as a UNESCO world heritage site.

Situated respectively at 142 and 99km north east of Budapest, Eger and Hollókő are two unmissable stages of the journey that will enable you to immerse yourself in the most precious things that Hungary possesses: the hospitality of its people, the beauty of its monuments and its well preserved and gentle natural environment.
The town of Eger is a little gem of baroque architecture nestling in a hollow of the mountainous Bükk and Mátra massifs. The town’s hero is none other than the captain István Dobó who fended off the assault of 100,000 Turks in 1552. According to the legend, the 2000 Hungarian soldiers who defended Eger were assisted by their wives who threw boiling oil on the assailants. In particular István Dobó gave his men the full-bodied Eger wine to drink giving a red hue to their beards and faces. This made the Sultan's men think the Hungarians were drawing their strength from drinking bull’s blood! So the name “Bull’s Blood”, egri bikavér in Hungarian, has remained and Eger’s wine still carries the name to this very day.  
The first thing to do upon arriving in Eger is to visit the relics of the castle (Vár) which towers above the town. Built by István Dobó in 1549, this fortified castle was destroyed in the beginning of the c.18th by the Habsburg Emperor Leopold 1st who feared that Eger would become a hot bed of resistance for Hungarian independence. It is accessible via the pedestrian walkway of Dózsa György tér which has very pretty handicraft boutiques and a pastry shop which is reputed to make the best strudels in Hungary. The circular wall walkway offers superb view points over the town.  Other special sights you will notice are a few relics from the Turkish occupation (1596 to 1687) such as the 40 metre high minaret and the baths.
Located opposite the old Bishop’s Palace (Eger was in fact established as a diocese by King Steven in the c.11th), Eger’s other emblematic building is its university known as Líceum which houses an extraordinary library made from sculpted oak in the c.18th that houses 130,000 magnificent volumes. Here the job of librarian is handed down from father to son and the man who greets you will be more than happy to show you the portrait of his ancestor who holds pride of place next to the Bishop Charles Esterházy. The ceiling is painted with a trompe-l’œil and depicts the Council of Trent which took place in Italy from 1545 to 1563. It is one of the most famous frescoes in Hungary.
On the 9th floor you will find one of Eger’s most unusual curios – the camera obscura or periscope, a dark room in the centre of which an ingenious c.18th  system of mirrors enables you to see the town via magnified images which are projected onto a round table. A terrace at the building’s summit gives a 360 degrees panoramic view over the town and its surrounding Bükk and Máttra mountains. This is the place for the perfect photo snapping session!
With its baroque cathedral, its magnificent forged iron gates and the large Dobó István tér Square in the centre of which a statue of Hungary’s national hero is erected, Eger is a town that knows how to enjoy life.  You can also discover several traditional restaurants where you can sample the famous "Bull’s Blood" accompanied by typical dishes such as stuffed pike, goose liver fried with late harvested wines, fish soup with paprika etc.
At a distance of 124km from Eger and 99km from Budapest in the heart of the Cserhát massif this little mythical village classed as a UNESCO world heritage site takes you back to the deeply rural Hungary which still existed not so long ago. It is important to clarify that this is neither a "reconstructed village" nor an open air museum! No, this is a real village with real inhabitants (of Slovakian origin) even if the women have taken it upon themselves to wear the traditional costume normally reserved for festivals.
In the 1930s Hollókő was still relatively inaccessible. The traditional country houses have been superbly restored as has the church crowned with a wooden bell tower. In this village you can take a meal as a paying guest and discover the local handicrafts of which the most notable are the wooden objects, the hand painted furniture, the embroideries and the very beautiful traditionally hand-woven tablecloths.
A pretty footpath (signposted Vár) will take you up to the ruins of a c.13th castle which overhangs the village. This is a place far removed from the bustle of civilisation where it is good to recharge your batteries for a day or two. Several guesthouses are available and you can find information on them at the Tourist Office.
Hungarian Tourist Board

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