Drinking Bull’s Blood in Hungary’s Valley of the Beautiful Women

There are no beautiful women in the Valley of the Beautiful Women, located on the outskirts of Eger in northeastern Hungary. A true misnomer. At least from what I could see. Instead, the only humans in sight were old crones pouring potent deep-red vino from long stem-like glass wine pourers and ancient portly men passed out in the corner of subterranean wine cellars. Is this one of those bad marketing ploys? I wondered. It didn’t really matter because I hadn’t actually been lured here to gawk at the aesthetics of the female figure. I’d come to imbibe wine. And, from the looks of it. I was in the right the place.
Eger is, after all, one of the best towns in Central Europe for wine-centric debauchery. Bull’s Blood, a wine that hasn’t exactly taken the international wine market by storm, is the wine blend of choice here, where (in the Valley of the Beautiful Women) nearly 200 wine cellars are carved into the cliffs and thirsty visitors can pop in for a cheap glass before moving on to the next and the next until the evening is just a giant red wine-stained blur.
No one’s really sure where the name came from, but the wine pourer in cellar 16, a wrinkly-faced man with a permanent smile on his face, said it’s probably a reference to a pagan fertility goddess. Then he raised his glass in a toast and slammed his wine (Hungarians never clink glasses–it was the practice of Austrians who occupied the country for hundreds of years).

We do know, though, where Bull’s Blood came from.

It all started, ironically enough, in 1552 when 60,000 non-booze-imbibing Turks–who had managed to besiege their way all the way up to Hungary–decided they wanted to take Eger before conquering the rest of Europe.

In preparation for what seemed like an inevitable defeat, Dobo Istvan and his 2,000 Hungarian warriors did what any smart army in this situation should do: they mixed together all the wine they had, even if it was from a different grape, and commenced drinking. It worked. Thirty-eight days and dozens of barrels of red wine later, the Bacchus-inspired Hungarians stumbled out of their well-protected and now ruined castle and forced the Turks to retreat. Humiliated, shocked and completely sober, the Turks’ only excuse for the defeat was that the Hungarians’ red wine-stained beards were proof they’d been imbibing the blood of bulls for strength.

Though the Turks came back four decades later, and this time stayed for almost a century, the original battle figures prominently in Hungarian national lore. And the wine, Bikaver, or Bull’s Blood, as it was called after the battle, is forever linked with the strength and courage of Hungary’s resistance to foreign powers.

Getting to the valley, the epicenter of Bull’s Blood consumption, is easy. It’s just a pleasant 15-minute trudge out of town, following the signs for Szépasszonyvölgy, which all the wine in Eger will never help you pronounce. Fortunately signs are also translated into English, pointing Bacchanalian visitors to the “Nice Ladies Valley.” When I first arrived, I scanned the cellars, felt the wad of Hungarian forints in my pocket, and gravitated to the nearest open cellar. I was pretty sure a hangover was awaiting me in the morning.

In cellar number 17, a quintet of gypsy musicians played old Hungarian tunes as a large group of German tourists–partying the only way they knew how–swayed their glasses back and forth in front of them. Meanwhile, in cellar 22, pop music blared from the stereo as a dozen or so Hungarian teenaged girls tried to drink as much as possible before their curfew. In addition to the varying atmospheres of the individual cellars, each one offers its own distinct version of Bull’s Blood. While one cellar’s offerings might have subtle hints of fruit, another may scream a smoky oak taste.

Cellar number 2 had a cozy, upbeat atmosphere and a quirky wine pourer, an erratic sexagenarian with wild, disheveled hair. The wine here had hints of spice. As she re-filled my glass, over the raucous clamor of other drinkers (the metaphorical sons and daughter of Dobo Istvan), she said to me, “Polish?”

“No, Turkish,” I said jokingly. She didn’t laugh. Instead, she pointed to the hundreds of coins dotting the rocky cellar walls, saying if the coin sticks, I would return to Eger. If not, “well…,” she said, letting her words trail off. I pulled out a 20-forint coin and pressed it into the gummy dark wall. When I pulled away, it stayed for two long seconds and dropped on the floor.

I picked up the coin, plopped it in the woman’s hand, and she re-filled my glass again. She continued until everyone I saw appeared beautiful.