The city of Eger is set in a valley within reach of the wooded hills of Zemplen and Matra. The slopes of the area within are a wine lovers paradise, with line after line of vines being cultivated here. How better to see them than a roadtrip.
Having spent a night and morning in Eger we turned our attentions to the surroundings. We had driven through Hungary’s Great Plain so it was a refreshing break to find ourselves in lush tree covered hills. The Matra mountains have a high point of 1014 metres which is also the top of Hungary.
We left the Tulipan Garden Panzio behind after breakfast and visited some more sights in Eger. We did have a definite plan for the afternoon though. Nestled in those hills were two particular sights that drew my attention, the cave houses of Noszvaj and the natural springs of Egerszalok. I had also read about the road from Eger for Gyongyos which Lonely Planet had claimed as being the most beautiful road in Hungary. That was motivation enough for me; they don’t get much wrong.
Noszvaj Cave Houses
Having rented an SUV from Rentalcars.com which we had driven from Budapest, we set off at around 12pm for those previously mentioned cave houses. It didn’t take long for us to reach Noszvaj, an otherwise nondescript village. The GPS took us straight to houses, no not cave houses just regular ones. So we give up on GPS and kept an eye out for the word barlang (cave in Hungarian), one of those few words that occupy my vocabulary. After a few minutes searching we find a sign that took us up a small road to their location. We stopped along the side of the dirt road and continued on foot.
The Noszvaj cave houses are a number of houses cut into soft rock, by peasants who were too poor to build proper houses. They were apparently built at the beginning of the 19th century and were resided in until the 60’s when the Hungarian government deemed them unacceptable in a socialist country. However when i was paying the 300 huf admission the employee told me they were there for 400 years and vacated in the 1980’s. Whatever the truth may be it doesn’t detract from the place. Only 2 other people were wandering amongst the houses which it all the more intriguing.
Most of the houses fell into disrepair but now an artistic movement has helped them recover their past selves. A ramble through the houses shows the conditions their occupiers must have lived in. Harsh winter nights here… no thanks. What you do appreciate is the effort made to create these humble domiciles. The gentle walls curve showing the finessed hand that created them. The interiors contain rock slabs that may have function as beds or furniture and cold stone pillars of rock keep the houses from caving in. It all feels so cold even on a warm summers day. The artists that worked to resurrect the site, have created some impressionist pieces behind and they add to the overall intrigue of the interior.
There are probably twenty houses in total and it’s worth a stroll throughout. The site is as yet a little rough around the edges but works are being made by the Hungarian government to tidy it up and expand it to be a more noteworthy attraction. For now it’s a fascinating place to visit for twenty minutes or so to see how poverty lived for two centuries.
Our route took us back through Eger and off in a south-easterly direction. The beautiful rolling countryside here is the perfect place to drive for anyone seeking wine country. Much of what is seen here will end of as Egri Bikaver the famed Eger wine.
When the fields aren’t used for wine here they are set aside for something altogether more beautiful. Sunflowers are popularly grown here. Alas the month of our visit was late for an opportunity to see a field in full bloom. This usually occurs in July and by August I had to contend with finding the last one. It’s always good to have an excuse to come back somewhere isn’t it.
Our next stop was to be perhaps my most anticipated in all of Hungary. I had stumbled upon it by accident and even subsequently found it difficult to find information on. All I had was a few online photos and good old Google Maps. That was enough. Providing GPS didn’t take me to someone’s house again.
Our destination was Egerszalok a natural formation caused by salt and thermal waters. Similar to Pamukkale in Turkey this unusual natural phenomenon is a series of natural terraces called salt hills. Mineral rich water bubbles from the ground at 66 degrees celsius and trickles down into the terraces. The terraces were formed when the minerals solidified on the hill-side and the terraces shaped over time due to the constant water flow. The terraces are formed from a rock known as travertine, which solidifies in ways like concrete and can change to tan or rust colours.
The site is somewhat detracted from by the luxury hotel resort that was built within a few hundred metres of its base. The thermal waters are used in its many swimming pools and by all accounts it’s a fairly luxurious hotel, that goes by the name of Saliris. But, it wasn’t my focus. Alternatively as we did you can pay a fee of 500 huf to park your car, and take the path that runs behind the salt hill. It’s an uphill walk for about 1km but easily managed. The unique feature is seen behind a fence and is inaccessible. I’m guessing that 66 degree water wouldn’t do your skin much good. It’s spectacular to look at though and you can walk the length of them, taking in their beauty. You also take in that wonderful sulphur smell that is associated with most phenomenons like this. That’s the price you have to pay. Those terraces are awesome.
Besides the terraces there are more unusual formations to be found to the rear. Salt mounds have formed here and the salt deposits resemble the branches of a tree in places and a glacier in others. The resort below has viewing areas to see the terraces from another angle
We returned to the car to continue our route. As I mentioned before our plan was to take Route 24 which dissacted the Matra Mountains on its way to Gyongyos. The road started as planned climbing through wooded hills and the occasional village. Our main projected stop on the route was the town of Sirok. Trees lined the side of the road and it switchbacked time and again on its way up to Sirok.
We arrived in Sirok some thirty minutes earlier and the unanimous decision was to stop for food, all of us starving as it was now the middle of the afternoon. Not being spoiled for choice we ate in Hunot Etterem where we opted for Rantott Hus (Hungarian Schnitzel), simply cause you can’t go too wrong. It did the job as we were starving.
Satiated we bundled back into the car to seek out Sirok Castle. This castle sits high above the town perched atop a volcanic rock. From the ground it looks like an awful climb, but surprisingly the path that takes you there is easily navigated in fifteen minutes. The path curves up the hill. The paving has a fairytale like quality, it reminds me of Jack’s route to the castle after climbing the beanstalk. Once there you find the 13th castle lies in ruins like practically all of Hungary’s medieval castles, victims of a past of conquest and defeat.
The caste here is unusual and probably benefits from the ruined state; in its heyday tunnels were built into the volcanic rock and a maze now exists beneath the walls. Different stairs access different levels, dark tunnels meet others, or take you to newly unexplored parts of the castle. I’ll be honest I was like a child, ever more curious to see where I would end up. Rock arches were common throughout and they framed some interesting views.
Efforts are being made to reconstruct the castle with a wooden great hall with exhibition inside. It’s a lacklustre effort so far, with some mannequins in costumes, and some information in Hungarian. So I ducked back outside to enjoy the raw castle.
The castles greatest attribute was the views that were presented. Those stairs led to vantage points with 360 degree vistas overlooking the valley floor and the village of Sirok. I have so much respect for the builders of castles, they really knew how to build a house with a view. Maybe they were thinking of the defensive aspects but now
We continued on our route towards Gyongyos. I’ve become quite accustomed to driving on the right, until this stretch. This road was very challenging. For 35km it was a succession of hair pin turns, one more pronounced than the last. I was happy for the SUV, the extra power helped with the climbs. The promised scenic route never really materialised after Sirok, forests surrounded the road practically all the way. With daylight hours running short we headed homewards, after a good days driving.
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