Eger - a pearl must be discovered

A hotel in EgerIn 1009, it was in the gently undulating countryside between the Mátra and the Bükk in the valley along which the Eger runs that King Stephen decided to found a bishopric. Some believe the settlement got its name from the stream flowing down the valley or the alders (éger) which grow there. Documents relating to the early history of the town have not survived. The diocesan archives were in fact destroyed during the Tatar invasion (1241).
The Tatar warriors had no problem taking the town, and it was this which prompted Béla IV. to build a stone fortress in Eger in 1248. It could be argued that Eger’s golden era came during the reign of Matthias Corvinus, in the second half of the 15th century, at a time when the humanist Bishops of Eger invested enormous amounts of money in the development of the cathedral town.

It was in 1552 that Eger earned its very special place in the annals of Hungary history, at a time when István Dobó was the castellan. On 10th September 1552, the Turks lay siege to Eger Castle, 40-50,000 Turkish soldiers surrounding a castle occupied by a garrison of about 2,000 soldiers. Dobó and his troops, however, swore that they would fight to the very end. On 18th October, after a siege lasting 40 days the Turks retreated, having failed in their attempt to take the castle. The events surrounding the siege were immortalised in Géza Gárdonyi’s novel The Stars of Eger. The castle eventually fell in 1596 by which time the castle was being defended by mercenaries. During the Turkish occupation Eger became the centre of its own Turkish administrative area (vilajet). Whilst the mosques which the Turks built out of the town’s medieval churches have all but disappeared (we still have one minaret), some Turkish baths still survive, as does a Turkish variety of grape, the kadarka. It was following the retreat of the Turks that the Jesuits arrived in the town, to be followed soon after by the return of the Cistercians, the Franciscans, Servites and the Trinitarians who then threw themselves into a series of major building projects.

In 1828, during the Age of Reform the first Hungarian language teacher training college was opened in Eger. It was at that time also that the new classical-style cathedral was built, to the plans of József Hild. It was in the courtyard of the Bishop’s Palacet that Louis Kossuth proclaimed „here a love for one’s country can be taught, not merely proclaimed.” Eger now likes to promote itself as „the baroque wine town”, and indeed, baroque doorways, elegant statues and the fine pieces of wrought ironwork lurk around every corner.

Fazola gate in EgerEven the poet Sándor Petőfi had his views on Eger, as seen in his poem „Near Eger” „If I sense good wine, I enter; Should I not then enter Eger? If I should avoid this town, Even God would beat me soon.” To get to the entrance of the castle you have to take the steep road up from Dózsa György tér. Once through the main bottom gate you follow the main wall, past Gergely Bastion up to the inner gate. Between Dobó Bastion on your left and the Picture Gallery you will find the medieval Great Cellar which now houses the exhibition: Execution, Torture and Humiliation in Old Hungary. It was on the highest point of the south-eastern corner of the present castle that Géza Gárdonyi lies buried. The great writer’s gravestone is inscribed simply with the words „Csak a teste!” (Only his body). Next to the mote with the crucifixes you can see the ruins of the medieval cathedral, dedicated to Saint John. Rising above it you can see a statue of Saint Stephen on the top of one of the reconstituted chancel piers. Around the courtyard immediately to the west of the cathedral ruins you can find the Eger Picture Gallery, and the Bishop’s Palace. Now much restored, the palace was built in around 1470 in the Gothic style. The western end of the arcade is original whilst the eastern bays are re-constructions. Having made your way all the way up to the castle it is worthwhile continuing on to Géza Gárdonyi’s house (Gárdonyi u. 20.) whose three rooms have been left the way they were when the author lived there. In the shady and well-kept garden you will find a statue of Géza Gárdonyi by Árpád Somogyi.
Kossuth Lajos utca which leads down from the castle down to the cathedral is the street richest in baroque buildings. It is here also that you will see the locals queuing up for their daily portion of homemade ice cream. One of the oldest buildings in the street is the currently rather depressing spectacle of Buttler House which stands next to a stream. This top end of the street was once the spiritual centre of the thriving Jewish community. You can still make out the Stars of David on the old Orthodox Synagogue (1893).Lipot Baumhorn’s status quo synagogue which stood on the site of the Panorama Hotel was demolished in the 1960s, whilst the oldest synagogue in the town , which has just been beautifully restored, is just down to the right in Dr. Hibay Károly utca. Crossing the stream you pass the Grand Prevost’s Residence built between 1774 and 1776 to the designs of Jakab Fellner. A building outstanding for its ironwork is the County Library. The palatial building opposite is the baroque County Hall (1748-1756, Mátyás Gerl) whose wrought iron gates by Henrik Fazola (1758-1761) deserve close inspection. If you go into the courtyard inside County Hall on the right-hand side you will find the clean architectural lines of the county prison, in front of which public executions were carried out. Back on Kossuth Lajos utca there is the Franciscan Church (1736-1755) followed a little further up by the 18th century Sancta Maria Girls Grammar School (Kossuth u. 8.). Next to the Canon’s House stands the most beautiful house in the street the rococo Lesser Prevost’s Residence built in 1758. János Lukács Kracker’s Wine of EgerVictory of Virtue (1774) decorates the ceiling of the banqueting hall on the first floor. The interior decoration was by Lukács Huetter, and the ironwork probably by Henrik Fazola. At the end of the road you will find the Lyceum, currently being used by the Károly Eszterházy College. The Lyceum (1765-1785, József Gerl, Jakab Fellner) is set around a courtyard. Apart from the chapel and the library there also is a ceremonial hall covered by a huge fresco by Franz Sigrist representing the institution’s four faculties (law, philosophy, medicine and theology). The approach to the Cathedral (1831-1836, József Hild) is made all the more impressive by the statues of Saint Stephen and Saint Ladislaus, Saint Peter and Saint Paul, by Marco Casagrande. Walking along the main pedestrian thoroughfare, Széchenyi utca, you come first to the Bishop’s Palace (18th century). The palace is not open to the public but you can find a number of exhibitions, for example the Ecclesiastical Museum, in the palace’s old service buildings. The Chemist’s Museum has the oldest surviving furniture of its type in the town, and opposite Spetz House (now an arts centre) you can find the Cistercian Church (1731-1733, Giovanni Battista Carlone). At the end of the street, perched up on a hill, you will find the old Serbian community’s Greek Orthodox Church (1784-1799, János Povolny). The town’s famous Turkish minaret (Knézich K. u.) is 40metres high, and has 14 sides. The stone carving has fortunately survived in excellent condition. Dobó tér is the heart of the town. The sculpture of István Dobó is by Alajos Stróbl (1907). The outdoor swimming complex stands next to the Bishop’s Garden, a park laid out in the French tradition. Also in the vicinity you can find the new Aladár Bitskey indoor swimming pool (Imre Makovecz) with its rather puzzling tower. (Frank Tivadar u.5.). We couldn’t leave Eger of course without mentioning Eger Bull’s Blood. One thing perhaps that you didn’t know was that apart from being enjoyable to drink Bull’s Blood is said to have medicinal properties.

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