Hungary: Wine cellars and thermal baths in Eger and Egerszalók

Eger is wine country in Hungary, and we couldn’t resist stopping by for a couple of days to check out its wine cellars and the thermal baths of Egerszalók. A popular weekend destination for Budapest residents, the journey from Keleti station only takes around two hours and the train we took even had free Wifi.

We didn’t have any set plans for Eger, other than to check out Szépasszony-völgy, or “the valley of beautiful women” – a row of wine cellars renowned for their cheap, delicious wine and friendly atmospheres. However, arriving quite early in the morning, we decided to wander around the town first.

There are a few things to see in Eger – there’s a castle (Egri Vár), an underground town, and several museums – a pharmaceutical one, an art museum, a wine museum and, randomly, a Beatles museum…. because why not! However, in typical Gwynnie and Jeff fashion, we just wandered around and ate random things.

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Above is the Minaret, which was built in 1596 after the Turks’ victory. Apparently the locals tried to destroy it with 400 oxen when imperial forces recaptured the town, but it still stands. You can actually walk up to the top, but it’s 97 high steps and apparently very claustrophobic, so we opted just to look at it instead.

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Above – inside the Minorite church in Dobó István tér, what I believe was the central square.

Also worth checking out is the Marzipan Museum (Kopscik Marcipánia) or at least its accompanying shop – marzipan is a pretty big deal in Hungary, but as well as that, there are some delicious cakes there as well.

As it started to get darker, it was time to check out Szépasszony-völgy, or the “valley of beautiful women” (sometimes also called Nice Woman Valley). A taxi from the centre would probably cost you no more than £2/$3, but we decided, for some reason, to walk. The weather was grey and drizzly, and as we started to walk the rain got heavier and heavier. It took a good 30 minutes to walk, going further and further downhill. I was a little worried that we’d start to slip on the water that had started flowing down after us.

So, Szépasszony is more of an early evening place, it seems. Most of the bars were closing around 8 or 9pm, but we managed to find a few that were still open. The first thing you’ll see, on your left, are what look like doors cut into white caves, but if you continue past them there’s also a looping road with bars all around it. Only around 4-5 of these were open, but the blaring live folk music and lights drew us in. I can’t specifically recommend any because I think different places are open every night.

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There were some very cool bars, all in cellars, all with crazy cheap wine. We managed to find a glass of house red for around 100 HUF, which is perhaps 20p/30 cents? Around us, grown men were falling over themselves (probably after spending the price of one glass of wine back in the UK), the rain was still pelting down, and a jolly man was singing and playing the piano while children, old folk and everybody in between got up and danced – shamelessly, freely, and as if it were the most natural thing in the world. We loved it.

As it approached 10pm, everywhere seemed to be closing up and there were no taxis in sight. We started resigning ourselves to a long, rainy walk home, when we saw Borozo was still open – perhaps the very first bar, in one of the “caves” I mentioned. The sound of a string quartet drew us in, and we were happy to find a small, cramped bar with violinists almost entirely blocking the entrance. As we made our way to the bar, an English man said hello to us, and we decided to sit with him and his Hungarian friends. It turned out he knew some of the same people that we did in the UK, and the evening started to get a little more blurry as the amazing elderly barmaid poured us wine from a special decanter (I can’t even explain it, but it was great) and brought us cheese, the band continued their folk music and the people around us continued to dance.

Egerszalók is a small town just 10 minutes from Eger. We decided to go there because, well, this:

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Sadly, I didn’t take that photo, but this was the kind of thing I’d see when looking up images of Egerszalók. Wikipedia tells me that “Before entering the spa pools, the steaming water runs down a series of cascades backed and lined with travertine; the gleaming mineral has precipitated from the water as it interacts with air at atmospheric temperatures. The travertine is locally called “salt,” and the cascade of water is called “Salt Hill”.”

We stayed at the Csillag Szálló, which you can find on Airbnb through this link. I can only say good things – they picked us up from Eger, drove us to their winery, and offered to let us taste all 12 of the wines that they made themselves for no extra charge. The owner, Istvan, had studied vinology for years and I have to say that all their wines were excellent. If you’re wondering how I managed to drink more wine after the previous night, I didn’t – I’m skipping the day where I avoided all alcohol to ease the story along. But, long story short – they have wines, they are really really good, and something like £4 for a litre. The accommodation was nice, clean and everything we needed – they even let us use their washing machine to do laundry.

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The winery (above)

Egerszalók itself is a small town, which you can more or less see in a couple of hours. There are two or three shops, all of them tiny, and there are a couple of cafés. The most popular restaurant there, as recommended by our hosts, was Piroska. Perhaps more expensive than you’d want to go to on a budget backpacking trip, main courses were around £5($8) but we’re talking amazing, gourmet dishes of epic proportion size. Check out my wild boar goulash served in bread for the aforementioned price:

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Yes, I am pretty sure those are saffron strands generously thrown on top of that massive dish. Those alone should be worth more than the price I paid for the meal. It was really good, and way more food than one person can handle, but I’d definitely recommend it.

Pizza Egerszalók is also a great place to go. As well as cheap pizza, they serve up more live music and impromptu dancing at 7pm! I just love how keen people in this part of Hungary seemed to be to get up and dance. They all looked so happy, too. It’s such a shame that in the UK, all too often we seem to feel the need to be blind drunk before we’re willing to start throwing shapes (meaning “dancing”). I like people who’ll just get up and let their souls take over – don’t we all feel better when we can dance and sing in a group?

Getting to the “Salt Hill”, which is located by a complex of thermal baths and pools, is possible but slightly tricky. You can either walk from the main road (where the restaurant Piroska is – go east) or take a bus. There are two bus stops in Egerszalók that I found that take you there – one is right in the centre, around the corner from one of the shops, and the other is on the road as you start to walk out of the town to the east. Bus times are listed on the bus stop, but be warned – they go perhaps once every two hours. We were lucky enough to get to one around 10 minutes before the next one was scheduled, so we hopped on the bus and it was – I think – around 300 HUF (80p/$1.20) to get to the baths, which were actually the next stop. However, walking would take you 30-40 minutes and it’s not an ideal road for walking.

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Our picture of the salt hill is not quite as impressive as the one I showed you earlier. It’s actually pretty small compared to what you expect, as is dwarfed by the Hotel Saliris (on the left). You get here, though, by walking up the path to the left when the bus drops you off – it’s a 5-10 minute walk. The spa is inside the Hotel Saliris.

For around 3000 HUF (£7/$10) you can enjoy up to three hours in the spa. It’s really cool – you get a kind of wristwatch when you enter, which you then have to touch up to a machine when you get into the changing room. This machine will tell you the number of your locker, so you get changed, put things in your assigned locker, and only your watch will open it. As you walk around the spa area, anything extra you want to buy – like access to the Sauna Village or a coffee – is paid for by swiping your watch. You pay for everything at the end when they scan to see how much you spent.

Inside the spa complex there are loads of pools, ranging from tiny cold “plunge” pools to warm jacuzzis, with some longer swimming pools and a slide and kids area if you’re bringing children. A good chunk of the pools are inside, and a lot of them feel like private rooms – down steps, surrounded by walls, there are some pretty cool little enclaves. There’s also the outside area, where you can sit in hot, sulphuric water in the shade of the Salt Hill. They say that thermal spas can cure whatever ails you, and my hangover certainly did melt away by being there.

Aside the thermal spa, Egerszalók has a couple of other things to do. There’s Barganlakások, an open air museum of old cave dwellings, complete with furniture and items. We wandered up to it quite by accident, but it was pretty interesting:

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I found a random video on Youtube of someone showing the caves, in case you’re interested.

As well as that, it’s just a really nice town to walk around, and there were some nice kittens along the way..

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High five! Allergies be damned.

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