Trip dates: 2017, 30 March to 1 April
One of my friends in school earned her bachelor’s degree in Eger, Hungary, and a while back she recommended it as a family-friendly vacation destination.
Lately, we’ve been in need of exactly such a thing. The routine of life, the noise of the boys, the dread of the increasing spring heat in the city ― it all combined to make a short jaunt to the countryside more and more appealing.
Things to do in Eger
Eger is primarily famous for two things: its castle and its red wine.
The wine, which can be found throughout Hungary in bottles labeled Egri Bikavér (Eger Bull’s Blood), is a red blend that by law can be produced only in the region and with certain percentages of various grapes. With a history of more than 500 years, it’s considered one of the world’s oldest wines.
Beneath the streets of Eger lies an extensive series of wine cellars that visitors can tour for a fee. We chose not to partake this trip, but we hear the “City Under the City” tour is fascinating. Next time.
The castle is the site of one of Hungary’s best-loved stories. It’s where 2,000 Hungarians ― including women and children ― held off an advancing horde of 40,000 Ottoman Turks in 1552. That, at least, is the story told by the book “Eclipse of the Crescent Moon,” written in 1899 by Géza Gárdonyi and translated to English by B.J. Harrison. One website dedicated to Eger strongly recommends it for reading before a visit to the castle. We didn’t know about the book before our trip, but I’ve added it to my list of must-reads.
Despite having not read the book, we thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the castle. Walking along the remnants of the high walls and other fortifications, it was easy to imagine peering through arrow slits at advancing hordes, periodically ducking for cover from cannon fire. The castle was originally constructed beginning in 1248, and much has crumbled or been demolished over the years. Much also remains, however, including many of the high castle walls, which offer astounding views of the city of Eger down below.
The entry ticket gives visitors access to the castle grounds, which are quite extensive and offer lovely views of the city. Visitors also get access to the on-site museum, which covers the history of Eger and its castle, and a separate exhibition space in which are displayed many artifacts dug up from the area over the years.
*The age of 6 (school-age, basically) seems to be the major cutoff for children in Hungary. We’re dreading the older boys’ next birthdays, on which they will suddenly become much more expensive.
If we have one vacation motto as a family, it’s that the best way to experience a new place is to walk it. Only by walking can we move slow enough* to adequately imbibe the flavor and character of a place.
So, as we do, we walked Eger, from one end to the other and from side to side.
*We have a 1-year-old boy who absolutely must, like his older brothers, walk everywhere. “Slow” occasionally means “glacial.”
We were fortunate to have warm spring days in Eger, and the town ― frequented by Hungarian tourists, it seemed ― was bustling. The sidewalk cafes were full of people enjoying lunch in the sun, and the main town square ― as seen from our lovely Airbnb flat, which sat right on the square’s edge ― was crisscrossed by people from morning to night.
The downtown area of Eger is not that big, and it’s easy to traverse in just half an hour or so (the aforementioned slow pace of the stubborn toddler notwithstanding).
In the section of town that lies between the main square and the castle grounds, we found an amazing (and amazingly cheap) pizza place that was so good we ate there twice, the second time buying enough pizza for a meal of leftovers the next day. While we waited for the pizza to cook, we wandered up the creek to a nearby playground to let the boys clamber over each other in a less embarrassing setting.
We had a wonderful time in Eger, and we enjoyed the much slower pace of life it afforded, if only for a couple of days.
We booked a train online traveling from Keleti Station direct to Eger, our first intra-Hungarian trip. The MÁV (Magyar Államvasutak Zrt, or Hungarian State Railways Ltd.) website has an English version, but the translations aren’t perfect, and that (coupled with our MÁV neophyte status) led to a few head-scratching, back-tracking moments. But in the end, we figured it out, printed the tickets and were on our way. If you do get stuck, pay close attention to this how-to page on the MÁV website. It should answer most of your questions.
The trip was just under two hours, with four or five stops along the route. The train left Budapest and arrived in Eger exactly on time. (The return trip took about 40 minutes longer; on its way to the big city, the train made a number of additional stops.) The trains themselves were clean and modern, with most seats arranged in groups of four (great for our family) and lots of empty seats (really great), and restrooms on board.
Anna, our Airbnb hostess, met us at the train station and walked with us to the flat, about 15 or 20 minutes away. It was a lovely walk, through the massive Érsekkert (Bishop’s Garden) park (with an expansive, multi-zone playground, by the way), and on into town. If you’re staying anywhere near the city center, there’s no need to hire transportation from the train station; the walking is pleasant.
Various tips for successful travel
If I’m being honest, we had a reason for travel beside just getting out of the city: to try out our new travel backpacks and packing cubes. Honestly! We bought them for our trip to Venice in February, but they didn’t come in time, and we’ve been itching to use them ever since.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that they were amazing.
Each of the boys got one packing cube, and it was easy to keep everything sorted and contained in a larger bag. We highly recommend them. The ones we bought were from AmazonBasics, but there are a number of different options out there.
As I mentioned above, using the MÁV system can be pretty tricky the first time. So, to make things simpler, here are a few extra notes about the system:
- You can buy the tickets online, but you’ll have to print the tickets at a ticket vending machine. There are several at Keleti, so I printed ours there.
- The train tickets we purchased came with required 205-Ft supplementary tickets. When we printed the tickets, we got 12 total: two round-trip tickets for Brittany and me, and five supplementary tickets (one for each of us) for each direction of the journey. The boys rode free because of their age, but they did need these supplementary tickets. (It was unclear what purpose the supplementary tickets served; there were no assigned seats on these trains.)
- Like I said, the main tickets were round-trip tickets, so we had to keep them for the trip back to Budapest. Look for the word “menettérti” (“round-trip”) on the ticket.
- To ride, you just get on the right train and find an empty seat. Once it’s in motion, a conductor will come around and check your tickets. No queues, no baggage checks, no security ― oh, the bliss of train travel.