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-         Gita Viswanath (India)

Nestled in the Bukk Mountains at an altitude of 541 feet, Eger, located in Northern Hungary, is a picturesque little town spread over 92 sq. kms with a population of approximately 55,000. After bustling Budapest, Eger was an ideal spot for us to cool our heels! Anna, our warm and gracious host (a believer in vaastu!) received us at her spacious and tastefully done up apartment on Szent Janos Street.

Eger is famous for its cuvee wine (blend of a minimum of three different types of grapes) and so first on our to-do list was a visit to a wine shop to buy some! During our visit to Hungary and other countries in Eastern and Central Europe, it became apparent to us that people here have a strong sense of the aesthetic. Pubs, restaurants, stores, homes and even streets have so much beauty. The wine shop we went to had the look of a cellar with stone walls. Creepers grew like veins on the walls. Hundreds of bottles were neatly arranged in racks. Customers to the shop could also have a glass of wine there seated on high wooden tables and chairs. After tasting at least half a dozen kinds of wine, we decided on the ones to buy before our spinning heads clouded our judgement. Not that we were oenophiles to begin with! We settled for Eger’s most famous Egri Bikaver (Bull’s Blood) and upon the persistence of the salesgirl, we also picked up a bottle of the newly introduced Egri Csillag (Eger Star).

Wine is central to the economy and socio-cultural life of Eger. Although the world recognises France as the synonym for wine, the history of wine in Eger dates back to the eleventh century. Historical records reveal the evidence of vineyards on clearings of hillsides around Eger. When the Turks moved out of Eger in 1687, the bishop wanted to build a new palace for himself. The hills around were mined for rhyolite tuff used as material for construction. The mining created a huge depression under the ground that was used as a cellar. It was a common practice in those days to pay taxes in the form of wine to the Church. The annual collection of this liquid tax amounted to 12-15 million litres! The cellar used for storing this wine is today converted into an underground museum called Varos a Varos.

Located on the grounds of the imposing Basilica, Varos a Varos (City under the City) is a 4 km long underground tunnel-like system. There are guided tours that last almost an hour taking us through the stone structure with a constant temperature of 12 degrees Celsius. Traces of limestone are also found in the structure. Wine barrels from ancient times, implements and clothing of wine growers are on display here.

To move from Bull’s Blood to Govinda for lunch is a leap of faith indeed! However, curiosity took the better of us and we made our way to Govinda, a restaurant run by ISKCON. It was filled with locals enjoying kheer, dhal, rice and sabzi. We were the only Indians present. The interiors were spartan and on the menu was just a simple buffet. There’s something about eating food that is close to our hearts in the least expected part of the world. Everything was perfectly cooked, with toned-down spices of courseto suit European palettes.

Ah, for the pleasure of being lost! On our way back to the apartment, Google maps didn’t help us and there was no one on the street to ask for directions either. Wandering around, trying to guess the route, we stumbled upon a board which said “Beatles for Sale.” On closer examination, it turned out to be a Beatles Museum. I didn’t know the Beatles had an Eger connection nor could the person managing the admissions explain as he couldn’t speak English. I went around the museum after buying an entrance ticket for 2000 Hungarian Forints, which is the equivalent of Rs 500. The visit began with a short introductory film on the Beatles. The place was so packed with interesting memorabilia that the space seemed inadequate. Records, guitars, letters, fan mail, concert tickets, and posters of the Liverpool legends fill this amazing little two-storeyed museum. There is a room with a guitar and a good sound system where you can sit and play, sing and get delusional too, especially with the wine seeping into corners of the brain you never knew existed!

Rather than rush from museum to castle to cathedral, we chose to savour Eger at a slow, languorous pace. Out forty-eight hours in Eger ended on a humbling note. Each time we came out of our apartment, I noticed a homeless man, perhaps in his fifties, sitting on the street just outside the gate. Dressed in multiple layers, yet shivering in the October cold, he sat with a tumbler in front of him which he rattled when we passed by saying, “Madame, Madame.” He would disappear in the nights, probably to a Church for shelter. In the early mornings when the sun condescended to show up, he would be seen sitting at the fountain in the city square enjoying a smoke with other homeless companions. After chattering cheerfully, they would depart to their self-designated spots to try their luck for the day. Like a wart on a flawless complexion, this man was an embodiment of a flawed society in which an entire population can be left out of the narratives of peace and prosperity. As I got into the taxi to carry on with my travels, I walked up to this man and dropped 400 forints (the equivalent of Rs 100) into his tumbler. Was it generosity? Was it guilt? I’m yet to figure this one out. “Koszonom, Madame,” was his reply.