McHaggis seems to have got a penchant for travelling, because this time when Julia headed off to Hungary he needed no prompting to jump in the suitcase for a free ride. Preoccupied as I was with Graeme’s departure (he has a new job in Bristol; who’s going to be my photographer now??) I forgot to remind McHaggis to look out for mathematical objects, so I’m afraid there won’t be any in this blog post.
First stop on the tourist trail (which is only going to consist of two places!) was Esztergom, the ancient capital city of Hungary. That is, it was the capital city up until the 13th century, when King Béla IV took a trip down the Danube and decided he liked Buda more. Esztergom has a special place in the hearts of the Hungarian people, since it is here that their first king, Saint Stephen, was born and crowned. As you would expect from such an old capital city, there is a big palace (built on the remains of the old castle) and a big church (actually the largest in all of Hungary), but the town itself is small and quiet.
While the humans were busy gaping at golden treasures in the museum and climbing to the roof of the basilica, McHaggis was sitting up on a rock and gazing at the land on the other side of the Danube.
It’s true, the grass was greener on this side of the water. But McHaggis knew something that most of you readers probably don’t know. He knew why the other side was so wildy different from this side. He knew why he would risk his sheepy life to get across that bridge. He knew…that the other side was Slovakia! Yes, a chance to increase his country count once again! It was an opportunity he could not bear to miss out on.
And so it was, with the humans weary from their climbings and explorings, that McHaggis persuaded them to carry him over the Mária Valéria bridge, over the border into another world. You probably want some proof that he was really there, right? He figured you might say that, so he got Julia to risk her life by walking into the middle of the road for some photos.
One interesting thing that McHaggis spotted on the bridge was the insignias of the two countries. On the Hungarian side there was an image of a pearly white castle with turrets and spires. On the Slovakian side there was an image of…a chicken. He knew which country he was glad to be sleeping in that night!
The next day it was time for a journey eastwards to a town called Eger: home of Eger Castle and Egri Bikavér (“Bulls’ blood” wine). It’s there that Julia’s Hungarian family lives, and she was there to celebrate the marriage of one of her favourite cousins. McHaggis was quite happy to tag along, since Eger is a beautiful little city: full of history, impressive churches, tasty ice cream, and most of all, cheap wine! It is a happy bustling place, especially at the beginning of summer when it is a tourist destination for many Hungarians, as well as alcohol-seeking westerners.
The reason that Eger, as well as Esztergom, has a place in the hearts of Hungarians is because it was the scene of a famous siege. Turks had invaded Hungary in the early part of the 16th century and quickly managed to secure most of the big cities, including Budapest. When they got to Eger, they figured that taking the castle would be a breeze: they had 150,000 men, compared with a measly 2,000 defending the city. However, they hadn’t counted on the military skills of Captain István Dobó and the patriotic fervour of the defenders. Even the women pitched in to help, pouring boiling tar onto the heads of anyone who was foolish enough to try scaling the castle walls. After 39 days the Turks gave in, although they were to return for another (successful) try in 40 years’ time. The story of the Eger siege was immortalised in a book called Egri csillagok (“The stars of Eger”) by Géza Gárdonyi, written in 1899 and now compulsory reading material for every Hungarian schoolchild.
Of course, no visit to Eger would be complete without a foray into the Szépasszonyvölgy (“The Valley of the Beautiful Woman”), where the local wine is brewed and sold. The red wine is called “Bulls’ Blood”, because the castle defenders were drinking it during the siege and it stained their beards and armour red, leading the Turks to believe that the Hungarians were drinking the blood of bulls. In the wine valley today, the tradition is that first you should eat zsíros kényér (literally “greasy bread”), which is made by heating a piece of meat over a fire and letting the fat drip into the bread. Unfortunately, McHaggis got a little too close to some shady characters and was in danger of being roasted himself!
However, the day ended happily for all concerned. Well…all except for our sheepy hero, who had quite a hangover to contend with in the morning!