Monday, 7 November 2016

Eger - venturing beyond Budapest (pt1)

Eger Clock Tower, designed by 'organic architect' Imre Makovecz.

"I have to go to Eger! Since my heart cannot surmount this much sweet temptation!"
- Sandor Petofi

Petofi, one of Hungary's most famous poets had good reason for this urge: Eger is a beautiful city, about 137km east of Budapest, and it combines four of my favourite things: castles, fine dining, thermal baths and wine. Lots and lots of wine... but more on that in pt3.

First: the castle!

The walls that withstood the might of the Ottoman army in 1552.

Whilst relatively small in population, Eger holds a special place in Hungarian national identity as the site of a heroic victory in the 16th century. In 1552, having conquered a huge chunk of Hungary (including Buda), the Ottoman army attempted to take Eger, a key strategic position with valuable mines nearby. The Turks thought it would be an easy target: they merged two armies to create a force of 40,000 troops, with considerable firepower in the form of 16 zarbuzans (giant cannons) and 150 smaller guns. Yet the comparatively tiny group of 2,300 Hungarian defenders managed to repel the invaders. After 39 days, the Ottomans had run out of gunpowder and cannoballs, rations were low, winter had come early, and the leaders of the two armies began to blame each other for their situation. The Turkish army withdrew, humiliated, and the defenders of Eger won a significant victory for Magyar morale. To this day the event is a source of huge patriotic pride to Hungarians, and Egri Csillagok (Stars of Eger) by Géza Gárdonyi is still on the national curriculum in Hungary's schools.

Frieze at the castle entrance, depicting the 1552 siege of Eger.

The defenders, led by István Dobó, had one advantage: a large store of gunpowder. Unfortunately, they only had 6 cannons - which were too small to actually reach the enemy until they attempted to storm the fortress. However, an officer called Gergely Bornemissza innovated with their explosive resources, creating primitive hand grenades and larger powder kegs bombs. He even packed a converted mill wheel with gunpowder and flints, then rolled it into the Turkish ranks where it exploded like a huge nail bomb. Dobó showed further daring when at one point a unit of Janissaries (the Ottoman elite infantry) managed to breach and occupy one of the castle gatehouses. In a risky strategy, Dobó turned his cannons on his own fortress and took out not just his own fortifications but also some of the fiercest and most respected of his enemy's army, another huge blow to the Turkish morale.

What is also impressive is that a proportion of those who fought were not professional soldiers: many were peasants sheltering in the castle, rallied by Dobó into an effective fighting force. The Siege of Eger is also one of the only battles where the role of women as combatants is so clearly celebrated. The female defenders are honoured in a statue in the city's main Dobó square - not tending the wounded as is often the case with historical monuments, but as fierce equals to the male soldiers. They are also celebrated in a famous painting that hangs in the Hungarian National Museum.

Monument to Istvan Dobó (and both male and female fighters) in Eger's main square.

The castle has all the battlements, informative museum and dungeons you would expect, but it also houses one of the city's best restaurants: 1552. This is no cheap and cheerful museum café. The decor is sumptuous, the wine list extensive and the food a superb contemporary twist on Hungarian favourites. I ate garlic pork neck (deliciously succculent) with pearl barley, bacon and ewe cheese (lighter and tastier than expected), washed down with refreshing Napbor (sunwine) from the nearby St Andrea winery. My partner chose an aubergine 'pie' that turned out to be a number of juicy vegetable fritters. This latter choice came from the 'Turkish' section of the menu - proof that 500 years after the siege, there's no hard feelings between the former enemies.

The sumptuous 1552 restaurant inside Eger castle. Photo courtesy of 1552.

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