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.

Letter from Hungary: soaking in the history in the bathhouses of Budapest

For two millennia the citizens of Budapest have nursed a passion for bathing. Far beneath them, in geological fault lines, is a watery cauldron, the source for over 120 thermal springs whose temperatures range from warm to scalding. These waters have produced an obsession. It began as a pursuit of health. It quickly became a pursuit of pleasure.

In Budapest the bathhouse is to the inhabitants what the pub is to the English or the coffee house is to inhabitants of American sitcoms. Stripped off and immersed in communal pools, they come to meet friends, to chat, to read the papers, to play chess, to catch up on the gossip. Rather than a couple of beers or a skinny latte and a blueberry muffin, there are steam chambers, hot pools and a vigorous masseur.

Some people kick-start their day in the bathhouse. Others come after work to unwind. For others still it is the mid-afternoon pick-me-up. I bought a swimming cap, a pair of flip-flops and bath towel, and set off into the city’s waterworld.

In the vaulted entry halls of the Rudas baths at the bottom of Buda hill, I passed through the turnstiles where a white-coated attendant handed me a key and small white apron. The key was for a locker where I left my clothes; the apron was to wear in the bath. It was a fetching garment which just covered one’s privates while leaving the buttocks exposed. Feeling a trifle self-conscious in what could be mistaken for a male stripper’s costume, I proceeded into the main baths, pausing first for the obligatory shower.In the central chamber I seemed to slip through a time warp, perhaps to Rome in the 1st century AD. Clouds of steam parted to reveal men strolling about in their toga-like aprons. An eerie mix of sounds — voices, water dripping and splashing, and flesh being slapped — echoed beneath the dome above us from where pinpoint shafts of light slanted through the steam. In the large central pool I stretched out in water that was blood temperature. It was deliciously soothing.

It was the Romans who began the tradition of medicinal thermal baths in Budapest. Arthritis sufferers from all over the empire came to bathe in Budapest. But the Romans soon realized there was more to bathing than medicinal cures. The slow rituals of hot and cold water, of massage rooms and steam chambers, were a pleasure in themselves, and that pleasure was deemed central to physical and mental well-being. The Romans built eleven bathhouses in the city they called Acquincum.

The Middle Ages was a time when Europeans and soap and water were strangers. Isabella of Castille only bathed twice in her life, once before her wedding night and again before her coronation.

When the Huns invaded they neglected the plumbing, and bathing in Budapest fell into one of its periodic declines. The Middle Ages was generally a time when Europeans and soap and water were strangers. Isabella of Castille was able to boast in her old age that she had only bathed twice in her life, once before her wedding night and again before her coronation.

It was the Turks who reintroduced serious bathing to Budapest. For them cleanliness really was next to godliness. They conquered the city in the 16th century and remained for over 150 years, plenty of time to build elaborate bathhouses and encourage the locals to join them for a hot soak. Three of Budapest’s most important bathhouses are Turkish buildings, and still in use: the Kiraly, the Racs, and the Rudas.

The following day I checked into the Gellert Baths, one of the city’s grandest creations. Opened in 1927, the building — there is an adjoining hotel — is an Art Nouveau masterpiece. The domes, the mosaics, the colored skylights, the statues of nymphs, the fountains trickling, the shafts of light slanting, the strange aqueous acoustics, all conspire to lull you into a kind of watery trance. There is the sense the world has slowed to half speed among the gentle murmur of voices and the soft lap of water. My thoughts drifted with the steam, going nowhere in particular. The Gellert was like one of those congenial cafes where you sit over your half empty cup watching the world go by. Except here the world was in bathing suits.

There were other things to see in Budapest — the Danube, the Royal Palace, the medieval streets of Buda, the crazed drinking habits of the descendants of the Huns — but an hour later, I had hardly stirred. The baths were becoming my drug, and I was becoming addicted.

It helped that the Gellert baths were mixed — the presence of women seemed to lighten the atmosphere — and I was happy to exchange the apron for a normal bathing suit. The next morning I set off for another mixed bathhouse, the Szechenyi Baths, perhaps the most famous, certainly the most photographed, in the city. I emerged from the Metro in the Varosliget, or the City Park. The grand yellow facade of the bathhouse loomed through the autumn trees, a palace of bathing, a multi-domed neo-baroque creation built at the beginning of the 20th century with the overblown architectural aspirations of the 19th.

In the two inside pools shafts of sunlight fell from high windows onto the bathers’ upturned faces. But most people were outside in the courtyard. Szerchenyi’s outdoor pools are to bathing what La Scala is to opera. This is bathing’s grandest setting, an amphitheatre of colonnades and statuary and terraces surrounding a central swimming pool and two large thermal pools. Here, even in the depths of winter, as snow settles in the crevices of the statues, ardent bathers are to be found in the steaming water.

I settled into the 100-degree pool, beneath the statue of a naked woman getting carried away with a swan, and felt the tension in my limbs uncoil. All around the pool other bathers lounged like hippos, only their head and shoulders protruding from the steaming water. Some read newspapers. One man was deep in a Russian novel. Another was smoking a pipe. A young couple lay entwined while at the far end an older couple seemed to be discussing their divorce. A group of men had gathered round two fellows playing chess on a floating board.

For the rest of us we gazed dreamily into the middle distance in the warm embrace of the waters. We might be strangers but we had found a curious communality. We were having a bath together, and it had come to seem the most natural thing in the world.

Travel Notes

Where to Stay: For location it is difficult to beat K+K Opera Hotel (+36 1 269 0222) — next to the opera house and one block from Andrassy utca, the centre of the best restaurant, bar and cafes district of Budapest. Two nights from $230. Or rent an apartment from $40 a night from one of many agencies; try www.budapestapartmentsincenter.com or call +36 30 830 6506.

Where to Eat: The best restaurant in town is Klassz almost opposite the opera house on 41 Andrassy utca. Try the duck breast with grilled foie gras, caramelised apple served with a delicate risotto at just over $10. They don’t take reservations.

Where to Drink: Budapest is full of grand central European coffee houses, all mirrors and gilt and aproned waiters. The Central (235 0599) in Karoly Mihaly utca and the Gerloczy (253 0953) in Gerloczy uta are both atmospheric places for a coffee and a pastry, or for a full meal. At the other end of the scale are the funky bars like Ellato at 2 Klauzal ter or the Siraly (957 2291) at 50 Kiraly utca, where the clientele is bohemian, friendly and young.

Getting Around: To rent a bike contact Budapest Bike at + 36 30 944 5533. You can also find them at the Szda cafe at 18 Wesselenyi Street. Standard bikes are about $15 a day. They also offer guided pub crawls, lasting about 4 hours, from about $30.

Further Information: Budapest, Eyewitness Travel (Dorling Kindersley, $25) is very good as is Budapest (Time Out Guides, $19.95)

The Bathhouses: Admission prices vary but are rarely more than $8. At most baths your ticket is usually checked as you leave and you are given a small refund if you have stayed less than a certain length of time. All offer a range of extra treatments, from massage to pedicure, for an extra fee. Visit www.spasbudapest.com for prices, hours and other info.

Stanley Stewart has written three award-winning travel books – Old Serpent Nile, Frontiers of Heaven, and In the Empire of Genghis Khan. He is also the recipient of numerous awards for his magazine and newspaper articles. He was born in Ireland, grew up in Canada, and now divides his time between Rome and Dorset.

[Photos: Flickr | Omar A.; schepop; schepop; awluter; Yuen-Ping aka YP]

Browse 70 gigapixels of panoramic Budapest in the world’s largest photograph

Last year, we showed you an 18 gigapixel photo of Prague, followed by a 26 gigapixel photo of Paris, and a 45 gigapixel photo of Dubai. The world of gigapixel photography has a new winner – a whopping 70 gigapixel photo of Budapest. The photo is claimed to be the largest photo on earth, but of course, at this rate, the record will be broken by the end of summer.

Head on over to the photo site, and use the controls on the left to browse around and zoom in on any location. Under the photo are highlights of the city, which should save you the effort of trying to find things yourself. For the best effect, click the top button on the control bar to move the panorama to full screen mode.

(Thanks Nick!)

Courtyard by Marriott opens 2 new properties in Europe

The Courtyard by Marriott chain of hotels is in the middle of a major revamp – but at the same time, the chain is working hard to expand across Europe.

The chain already has 40 properties and over 7,000 rooms in Europe, and today, they announced the two newest additions to their lineup – Budapest and St. Petersburg.

The 235-room Courtyard Budapest City Center is located on Blaha Luiza Square in the Pest section of Budapest. The hotel is located in close proximity to both the airport and public transportation lines.

The new 273-room Courtyard St. Petersburg Center West/Pushkin Hotel is located in central St. Petersburg within a 10-minute walk of the Marinsky Theater and St. Nicholas Cathedral and the State Hermitage. It is Marriott’s second Courtyard-branded hotel in St. Petersburg.

Both properties feature everything that makes a Courtyard such a great pick – high speed Internet, the Grab & Go snack market, flat screen TV’s and a well designed work area.

The two new properties are open and ready for guests – to learn more about them, and the 848 other locations in the chain, check out the Courtyard by Marriott site.

17 great destinations for romance

Some say that romance is a lost art – but it’s not. It’s just hiding, waiting to be uncovered in some of the most beautiful places around the globe. Whether you are trying to show that special someone that they truly are special, making a proposal, or rekindling the flame you once had with your spouse, setting the stage is your first step to success. Whether you are searching for the perfect romantic spot close to home or halfway around the world, the following 17 destinations are sure to bring out the romantic in each of us.

Paris, France
Who could leave Paris off a list of romantic places? You simply can’t. Montmartre is the most romantic neighborhood in “the most romantic city in the world.” Begin your tour of this hilly district with a ride up the Montmartre funicular as it glides along on its heavenly ascent to the Basilica of Sacre-Cœur at the summit of the highest point in the city. From here a dazzling view of Paris unfolds before you. Amble slowly, hand in hand, and wind your way along romantic back alleys and cobblestone streets, taking in the magic of the artist’s corner of Place du Tertre, descending the stairs of Rue Foyatier. and concluding at 15 rue Lepic where Amelie Poulain immortalized romantic conjuring at Cafe des Deux Moulin.Rome, Italy
With more than 280 resplendent fountains, a “Rome-antic” tour of this city must undoubtedly center on a day of gastronomy. Enjoy a cafe latte near the Fountain of Triton followed by a tour of Palazzo Barberini. View the Barcaccia Fountain and make your way up (and down) the Spanish Steps for fantastic vistas of Rome and savour a calzone from an authentic Roman trattoria.

At Piazza Navona, view the Fountain of the Four Rivers and the Fountain of the Moor followed by an alfresco dinner and soak up the sights and smells. A bewitching time to enjoy the Trevi Fountain is late at night when mystical illumination cast spells and shadows. Before the effects of a day filled with romance takes over drop in to Il Gelato di San Crispino, reported to be the best in Rome.

Florence, Italy

In E.M Forster’s novel “A Room with a View,” Lucy Honeychurch found romance (and the view) in the orange and rose-scented hills of Fiesole overlooking Florence. Grab a table and soak up local flavor as art and culture surrounds you. Book your own room with a view at Hotel degli Orafi.

London, England

Place the sights of London at you feet aboard the London Eye, the largest ferris wheel in Europe rising 443 majestic feet above regal London. Pop the question in a private capsule kitted out with a bottle of Pommery champagne and decadent truffles. The 30 minute rotation of the capsule allows plenty of time to overcome any objections.

San Francisco, California

The “City by the Bay” is as photogenic as Grace Kelly. There’s something almost transcendental about Golden Gate Bridge, the cable cars, Coit Tower, Alamo Square, and Lombard Street that naturally stirs up salacious appetite. We’ve been smitten for years and the affair hasn’t seemed to ebb. The bar on the top floor of the Mark Hopkins Hotel offers stunning, 360-degree panoramic views.

Venice, Italy
A gondola ride in Venice has a heavenly price tag, but is a memory to last forever. There is simply nothing quite as romantic as settling into a red velvet-cushioned gondola as your gondolier paddles slowly through quiet canals and under historic bridges as you drift back into the 16th and 17th centuries. A bottle of Valpolicella beforehand at the Piazza San Marco and your gondolier could sound like Pavarotti.

Budapest, Hungary
Once considered the Paris of Central Europe, Budapest offers a heady blend of Eastern and Western European culture. Stroll over the Danube at Chain Bridge and take the funicular up to the Gothic Quarter with resplendent views over the city. Revel in centuries-old architecture and reasonably priced, hearty food and wine. Budapest is the only large city in the world with 118 natural thermal springs supplying nearly 20 million gallons of healing water every day. One of the most impressive is Gellert Spa.

Bruges, Belgium

Think Venice without the crowds. Medieval Bruges abounds with Gothic churches, 17th-century mansions, sparkling canals and flower markets. Most other European cities you’re looked at with disdain for eating on the street. Bruges responds with pedestrian-friendly pommes frites (fries in the US), stuffed into a paper cone, dusted with salt and slathered with mayonnaise. Go to the Louvre for art. Go to Bruges for chocolate. Consider the possibilities at the town’s official website.

San Diego, California
Can’t splurge on a romantic weekend in Paris? Budget-conscious Americans can retreat to a “staycation” in La Jolla, an affluent suburb of San Diego. San Diego can be your affordable base to tour this romantic getaway blessed with 366 days of warm sunshine, trendy boutiques, swanky restaurants and an active arts and cultural community. Toss in a few sumptous stretches of beach, ranging from quiet coves to heady surf, and you have a place that most closely resembles the French or Italian Riviera. Accommodation ranges from a Best Western to the opulent La Valencia, known as La Vie. La Dolce Vita, stateside.

Buenos Aires, Argentina
The South American capital of Buenos Aires breathes sensuality. Voyeuristic spectators can observe on city streets as couples maneuver between emotions of love and hate, contempt and passion, repulsion and desire, all within a 3 minute dance known as tango. Ditch the marriage counselor back home and take lessons at La Catedral in the microcentro.

— The above was written by BriBuenosAires, Seed contributor

Bora Bora, French Polynesia
Nestled amongst the Leeward group of the Society Islands of French Polynesia in the South Pacific, Bora Bora is still somewhat of a hidden gem. Many have heard of it, but few have actually experienced its beauty. The island itself is surrounded by a lagoon and a barrier reef and is home to an extinct volcano. The lagoon holds some of the most truly breathtaking water you will ever see.

With average water temperatures in the 80’s year around, there is never a lack of water activities available for couples to partake in. For the more adventurous at heart, take a trip inland to the massive peaks of Mount Pahia and Mount Otemanu. Bora Bora may take a little longer to get to, but if you are looking for a not so well trodden path to romance, then it is well worth the trip.

San Juan, Puerto Rico
San Juan is the second oldest European-settled city in the Americas, giving it a rich cultural and archaeological history. With average daily temperatures in the 80’s all year around, the weather is perfect for strolling downtown along the old streets that are covered in cobblestones or lounging on the white sandy beach with the ocean breeze blowing by.

San Juan has somehow managed to blend a modern metropolitan city with the antiquities of the past in a way that offers something for everyone. The pace is slow in keeping with its Latin roots, but vibrant nonetheless. The island of Puerto Rico is only 100 miles wide and 40 miles across making day trips to the tropical rainforests that cover the interior or the less crowded beaches of Ponce an easy drive. Beautiful beaches, stunning history and warm tropical nights filled with the sounds of Latin music – a definite recipe for romance.

Savannah, Georgia
Savannah is for the hopeless romantic. Take a step back in time to an era where romance was still alive and well. Savannah sits along the Savannah River and is only about 20 minutes from the Atlantic. Some of America’s most treasured eighteenth and nineteenth century architecture can be found in Savannah’s large historic districts.

With warm summers and cool winters, the weather in Savannah is usually agreeable. It’s almost impossible to walk down the streets of old Savannah and not envision ladies in antebellum gowns riding alongside their beau in a horse-drawn carriage. If old fashioned romance is what you are looking for, then Savannah is your city.

Bali, Indonesia
The island paradise of Bali covers about 2,000 square miles and is located at the westernmost tip of the Lesser Sunda Islands. With a history that dates back to at least 2000 B.C., the Balinese people are an interesting mix of Chinese, Arab and Indian. While you can find modern conveniences on Bali, you may also encounter pockets of native people that are forbidden to have contact with outsiders. If seclusion and privacy are your ingredients for romance, then Bali is the spot for you.

With temperatures in the 80’s year around, you will definitely want to find your own slice of beach paradise while you are there. Bali has gorgeous white sand over much of its beaches, but if you want to see something unusual, check out the black sand found on the west coast. Bali is one of the few places left where you can still find a secluded little cove along the beach to make your own little romantic hideaway for the day.

Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Puerto Vallarta can be found along the Pacific Coast of Mexico, in some of the most crystal clear water on the planet. The city itself somehow manages to blend modern restaurants and shops with centuries old architecture and culture. With perfect weather year around and breathtaking sunsets daily, you are bound to feel romance in the air here.

While you will find American tourists in Puerto Vallarta, you will find a more sophisticated class of tourists – this is not Cancun’s party central. Just a short drive to the north or south and you will find lovely little towns for shopping or more private walks along the beach. Mayan ruins and tropical rainforest canopy trips are also perfect day trips from Puerto Vallarta. Grab a margarita, pull up a rock and watch the sun set over the Pacific Ocean.

New Orleans, Louisiana
The Big Easy. If you like music, culture or people then this is the romantic city for you. The French Quarter in New Orleans is a world unto itself. Definitely skip Mardi Gras, but any other time of the year it feels as though you have been transported to another time and place where music and love are perpetually in the air. The people (or more appropriately – characters) that you will encounter in the French Quarter just seem to exude fun, happiness and romance. If you want to spend some time alone, follow the ocean along Interstate 10 for a day trip and soak up some of the most beautiful scenery the south has to offer. If you aren’t in love when you get to New Orleans, you will be when you leave.

Santorini, Greek Islands
Imagine watching a breathtaking sunset from your Santorini villa perched on the side of a volcano overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. It’s like being inside a Hallmark card. The views are like nothing found elsewhere on the planet. Black sand beaches cover most of the island but a gorgeous and unique red sand beach can also be found on Santorini. If you are feeling adventurous, there a number of islands close by, all within an easy day trip and just waiting to be explored. Romance seems to be carried on the wind in the Mediterranean and Santorini is a perfect example

— The above was written by Leigia Rosales, Seed contributor

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