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A Magical Time out of Time in Eger

When my Hungarian partner told her sister she was taking me to Eger, around an hour’s drive north-east of Budapest, her sister laughed and said “What are you going to do?” It was late November and cold, and it snowed and rained. We spent much of each day holed up in our hotel room. But I could happily have stayed until the New Year.

Sunset at Eger. The minaret is at center right.

Ever the intrepid journalist, I interviewed Ádám Sarusi, the fresh-faced manager of Eger’s tourism office. I asked him to recommend five things for us to do.

“You should go up to the castle,” he said. “Also, you have to see the library in the Lyceum. It has a letter from Mozart. There’s a camera obscura, one of just three in the world. You must visit the Turkish baths. There’s the Beatlees museum. And then there’s the cuisine of Eger. You have to try and get to the Valley of the Beautiful Women. Oh, and there’s the Beatlees museum.”

Hungarians pronounce Beatles ‘Beatlees’. I like that. “Why is there a Beatlees museum in Eger?” I asked.

“The guys who started the museum are fans and wanted to show their collection of souvenirs to other people. I don’t think any of the Beatlees have been here.”

“Is there a special type of food that’s associated with Eger?”

“Try an Egrigomb,” Ádám said. “They do them at Falánk Fanny on Széchenyi István utca.”

I thanked him and headed for Falánk Fanny. There was a picture of an Egrigomb on a sign outside the place so you can’t miss it. The correct name is Gözgombóc. It’s a sort of bomb-shaped pancake filled with plum jam, plopped into a lake of vanilla custard and topped with a mixture of poppy seeds and sugar.

Do try an Egrigomb – they’re seriously sweet and central heating for the stomach – but be prepared to be so full that you can’t eat again for several hours.

In the end we didn’t try any of the five things Ádám recommended. But here are my own five reasons, in no particular order, why I love the place and am sure you would too.

One: The Uránia Cinema  

On our second night in Eger we saw “Fantastic Beasts: Crimes of Grindelwald” at the Uránia Cinema in the center of town. The film was in Hungarian. I’m not a fan of the whole Harry Potter thing so I don’t know who anyone is. It was also in 3D so watching it felt like being drunk.

But I think you could probably watch anything in the Urania Cinema and not care. It’s a kitsch joy. There are even tables for you to put your tortilla chips and dips on so you don’t drop them down yourself in the darkness.

Watching the movie, I began to wonder if Grindelwald might be Hungarian. According to the backstory I read on The Harry Potter Compendium website later, his first name is Gellert and he “was born around 1882, probably in Hungary or Central or Eastern Europe”. Makes sense.

Two: fine nouvelle-Hungarian dining

Much as I love Hungarian food, there’s very little variety. So, it was a nice change, and easier on the digestion, to try the 1552 and Macok restaurants. These specialize in nouvelle-Hungarian cuisine: the same thing you’d find in traditional joints but much better prepared with extra ingredients, including in one instance cauliflower dyed purple, and on bigger plates.

My partner is vegetarian, so she usually ends up having to eat fried cheese wherever we go. She rated the Macok’s fried cheese higher than that of 1552. The venison ragout and gnocchi I had at 1552 was more satisfying than the fried pike-perch I had at Macok. I guess that makes both restaurants even.

1552 certainly has the edge when it comes to setting. It’s inside what must have been the castle keep and offers great views over the town, even in the rain.

Three: the market

If you’d like to rub shoulders with the native Egri, this is the place to go. And if you prefer more down to earth Hungarian food, the upstairs market has a corner set aside for cafés. Go early enough in the morning and choose from a freshly fried, crispy, golden array of fried just about anything. The lángos are gigantic, too.

You can also pick up membrillo, or quince jelly, as it is also known. In the United Kingdom, membrillo is expensive because, I guess, there aren’t many quince trees left. But, in Hungary, it’s cheap. I was intimidated into buying three different sorts of membrillo from a trio of little old ladies sat in a row who reminded me of Macbeth’s witches.  

Four: the minaret

Every morning, I found myself drawn to the minaret. Maybe it was the influence of Grindelwald but I imagined it as some sort of ancient Turkish transmitter of magical rays or a mystical space ship. I wouldn’t be surprised if, on certain nights, hooded figures file inside and have cosmic adventures on the astral plane.

Five: just wandering around

You don’t really need to do anything in Eger other than wander. Grindelwald aside, the air is thick with magic. They couldn’t look more different, but the ancient cobbled streets below the castle reminded me strongly of a town I’ve visited in Morocco called Chefchouen where the buildings in the medina are painted blue. Eger is every bit as beautiful and intriguing.

There are also more tanning salons and tattoo parlors.

I’m sure Eger is splendid in the summer. But, if you want to really get in the mood for Christmas, I’d recommend a trip sideways in time. Even if it’s only for a day. 

Read about all the things we didn’t do at www.ieger.com.