Border towns have always held a deal of fascination for me as two (or sometimes three) countries meet. You’d like to think that this meeting would involve a cultural exchange although these border towns have been perennially fought over instead. Alsace-Lorraine isn’t Germanic-feeling by accident, and Sopron (pronounced Shoo-prunn, apparently) carries the German name Ödenburg, regularly used well into the 20th century.
Austria’s ill-fated empire with Hungary was certainly a cultural exchange alright, largely one-way, as Austria poured money into improving the infrastructure and military of Hungary in return for a sort of cultural capitulation where Hungarians learnt German primarily in schools and were subordinate in many areas of public life, in their own country. As with all ruling Empires, they kept the bits they liked and those elements that kept the oppressed from revolting.
Sopron being on the border of the two countries would make you think of a blend between the two, perhaps a few Austrian style bierhalle and cafés, Hapsburg architecture and even a slightly more prosperous economy. I travelled a very short distance from Sopron to Wiener Neustadt in Austria, which is a bland place with a few notable buildings scattered in between a grey and rather boxy town centre. Despite a short gap in distance and a similar size population the difference between the two was considerable.
Sure, Wiener Neustadt doesn’t really have an ‘old town’ as such anymore, leaving it at a distinct disadvantage at a plain comparison with Sopron, but all things considered, there were far more differences simply in national character than I was expecting.
Sopron has been undergoing a bit of a tourist push as Hungary has been belatedly trying to sell some of its other cities as a destination. When I arrived there was a few bits and pieces as evidence of this, a sparkly and rather large colourful sign that greets you outside the train station, and the fact they were digging up the ring road around the old town and repaving it (I hope they have finished since writing this, but you never know).
Where do I start?
The old town is certainly worth your time. Like a lot of Hungarian buildings, many are beautiful but slightly dog eared and in need of care and attention. At the same time, the odd crumbling facade and faded sign adds a sense of character it would otherwise be without, creating a dichotomy. Do you want an old town to look overly manicured or like it’s seen some wear and tear? That’s a bit of a head scratcher. It depends on the architecture to an extent. In Southern Europe buildings just seem to get better with age, but the chocolate box painted buildings in Eastern Europe require a slightly different approach. Some cities such as Lublin in Poland have managed this perfectly.
In the dead centre of town you’ll find the landmark of Sopron, the ‘firestation tower’, a very worthy emblem of any city of this size, located in the dead centre of town, towering over proceedings (literally) whitewashed facade with a faintly romantic balcony around the mid-level circumference, with a leadlined ‘onion dome’ roof, typical of this area of Europe. Once you’ve arrived and got your bearings I’d advise heading straight there for a climb up the tower. There is a pocket-sized museum which uses the curvature of the tower to good effect – learning and climbing is an odd mixture but breaks up the monotony of the ascent. The information about how the tower was used to signal fires and direct the citizens to which area of the city was effected is certainly different from most of these attractions which for obvious reasons tend to be religious. While up on the balcony front there is a real panorama of the city where you can appreciate the historic centre spreads further than you might think. So grab a few photos and take your time to enjoy it.
I certainly had to take my time on my visit to Sopron after being laid low in Budapest with very painful trapped wind, almost doubled over for 48 hours and barely being able to drink one glass of beer (it was that bad). Suffice to say I read every caption and observed every observable angle to avoid excessive movement.
You’ll also find the remains of the old roman wall at the base which you can happily spend half an hour wandering around, and doing a bit more learning. There is a nice garden area which is tastefully done and certainly passes a bit of time pleasantly.
Along with the firestation tower you have one of my favourite town squares in Europe, Fő tér. Square must be one of the most misused terms geographically speaking, as so many aren’t even close to fitting the shape, but as with here the understood purpose remains the same. Due to the curved nature of the square the central buildings wrap around, obscuring your views to the alleys off the square creating that vital sense of a hub. Many famous cities refer to their old towns as being like a living museum, and this is where Sopron stands up to that challenge. Fortunately there are a couple of passable cafés where you can recline with a drink and enjoy the sights and sounds.
However, there is more to explore in the bullet-shaped old town, as the road ringing the interior acts as the commercial area and for nightlife and contains a series of typically Hungarian buildings staggered in size almost like the lanes on a 400m track, characterful and not marred too much, if at all by brutalist town planning. It is certainly an area that has been mercifully spared from cultural vandalism.
The centre has its quirks and antiquities as with many others. A synagogue, mining museum, preserved Storno house, a few outstandingly different buildings to divert your attention.
Nevertheless, the mainstream sights can be accessed readily as well, with close proximity to the station and the main road dissecting the town. This is a grand boulevard and worth exploring for a number of restaurants and alternative bars, which may not be immediately apparent but will reward your perseverance.
Speaking of which, I’m thirsty!
If you’re looking for any ruin bar, or ‘kert’ drinking experience, Gazfroccs is your best bet in Sopron. Not as ramshackle or ruined, it is an alternative spot nonetheless, with furniture stuck upside-down on the ceiling in a bright and light space, like a heavenly version of that section from Roald Dahl’s ‘The Twits‘. If it’s sunny and/or a weekend there’s a recessed area of the central boulevard that runs a pleasant garden bar and for late night options try the corner bar just on your way through the gate past the tower, or if you’re not feeling too picky, the ‘Croatian’ themed bar on the ring road, a competent town bar that for some baffling reason has decided to make a virtue out of selling Croatian beer. Perhaps only in Hungary could Croatian beer supplant a native country’s offering. Woeful.
Speaking of which, when you’ve been in Budapest enjoying their cheap but awful lager, you may have found yourself drinking Soproni, one of the ‘better’ ones, but far from being halfway near worth praising. Well, as the name suggests, it hails from here, so why not at least try one glass to see if it’s any better? (Or as with Poznan and ‘Lech’, just don’t)
Hang around town at night as well, because the lighting up of the tower makes it turn an eerie turquoise, really something quite different. The square is also worth a night wander as even when it gets quiet there are usually people passing through, either middle aged couples having a stroll or youthful delinquents travelling from somewhere to somewhere in their special way.
It gets better however – you know I mentioned the historic centre was larger than it first appears? Well, if you travel North East of the ring road, no more than 100 metres you reach an extra area of interest, an old neighbourhood with winding cobble streets, homely restaurants you could pick virtually any of and have a great meal, and an equally distinctive character. On my way there and back from my apartment the weather changed a few times, and I saw the neighbourhood cast in a fine mist in the evening, still and fresh air with only the street lights and the odd character milling about. This area, just as much as any other in Sopron made it a visit worth writing home about. Aim for Saint Mihaly Church and you’ll find that a very pleasant and atmospheric walk.
Also, dentists mate! Hungarian dental care is significantly cheaper than Austrian dental care, so people are seriously willing to drive over the border and get it. Most of those town houses you pass with gold plaques screwed into the door are qualified dentists. There you are. Now allow a very mechanical English speaking Hungarian with an American accent to tell you more:
N.B – The refugee crisis of 2015 established Hungary as a transit country for people seeking the asylum on offer in Germany. The well trodden route was from Serbia then from Budapest into Vienna and onto Munich. However, the route to Sopron and into Austria is similarly simple. So if you’re a refugee that’s my tip – take a time out from being persecuted by the authorities and treated like dog shit by all and sundry and have a wander around Sopron in between trains.