Hungary

Sopron, Hungary

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.

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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)

Extra-curricular?

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.

Szeged, Hungary

Budapest is such a draw for tourists, and with good reason. There are several weeks worth of activities, let alone the general appeal of being in such a vibrant place, especially one so unusual and yet also familiar feeling. It is also Hungary’s largest city by far and the cultural focal point. As a consequence very few tourists venture elsewhere, precious as their time is. On the face of it, this amounts to a quite logical choice.

Hungary’s tourist board isn’t especially interested in advertising the rest of the country, apparently, which is an amusing extension of their historical attitude, pouring all their energy into making their capital worthy of rivaling any in Europe, at the expense of everything else. It has been an interesting use of their resources, but this isn’t to say everything else isn’t worth exploring! I have written previously about Lake Balaton, and spent a night in the atmospheric old town of area Sopron on the Austrian border. Both these visits suggested an underlying depth to the country that big bulky Budapest is distracting people from. There are vital elements to this country not entirely visible from the capital.

A few years back I found myself on a train heading south from Budapest en route to Szeged (Seg-ed), Hungary’s third largest city, for what was a fleeting but nevertheless interesting visit.

Why for heaven’s sake would I go there?

Provincial Hungary is about as unglamourous as it gets, so it may be worth considering your personal needs before suddenly deciding to visit. The people veer towards short, sunbaked and paunchy by virtue of the tremendous summer weather and one of the heartiest and not necessarily the most nutritious cuisines going. There are few airs and graces to be found in normal Hungary. It is one of the more matter-of-fact places, and out in the provinces there is still an unbroken chain spanning centuries of peasantry and serfdom.

Szeged is somewhere to visit if you want to experience a flavour of this, and regardless of your preconceptions I think it really is worth experiencing. The city lies on the periphery of what you could call the old Austrian sphere of influence, being deep in the south of Hungary, located on the banks of the Tisza river, very close to the Serbian border. Budapest is always somewhat in love with Western Europe and doing its best to keep up with the latest trends, but Szeged’s concessions to western culture still seem rooted in a kind of out-of-time, mistranslated understanding of what it actually is to begin with, bizarre considering it’s only a couple of hours away from the world’s most happening bar scene and a basic understanding of English everywhere in the capital. But people invest in what they need to invest in, and you may find Szeged not as well catered for the English tourist, and a little rough around the edges as a result. There can be great deal of charm in ill-maintained things, especially when their design and form remains appealing, however ill-maintained 80s office blocks and shopping precincts tend to be less remarkable unless they take on some otherwordly brutalist form or feature in abandoned cities such as Pripyat. Szeged isn’t a brutalist city by any means but there are a few downtrodden precincts and office blocks that don’t look like they will be replaced any time soon. However, it is not all like this – there are some far grander areas (albeit some with peeling and aged facades), and there are some grand baroque buildings and landmark buildings of note, especially the enormous twin-spired Dom that is as striking in the day as it is at night, when legions of bats swoop around the cathedral towers. The cleanest maintained area is the Austrian baroque central square and surrounding streets which are the cities attempt to present a more classical face to the wider world.

One of the hallmarks of Eastern Europe’s frequent inability to market itself (or just to recognise its own natural assets) is the prevailing attitude towards rivers. The Tisza river, when it reaches Szeged widens to become a grand artery, at least 100 metres across. With this there are perfect opportunities to do something with it – walkways, benches, rowing lanes, cafes, restaurants etc. Unfortunately, like so many others, it seems to still be regarded as an irritating obstacle, neglected, vandalised and occasionally used as a dumping ground. It rarely fails to irritate me.

You’re really selling this.

A lot of blogs concentrate on Old Towns and preserved areas, quite rightly. This can give way to an unrealistically competitive element, and this isn’t a competition Szeged is ever going to win, to be realistic. Szeged has pleasant enough areas but the main reason to visit is it is somewhere to go to feel far away from corporate fast food chains, New York style coffee shops and Apple stores – the sort of hegemony bleeding into all aspects of cultural life as a negative by-product of consumer capitalism. It has its own chains, naturally, but the existence out near the Serbian border is hanging onto Western Europe by a thread, really.

Part of how Szeged manages its distant feel lies in the difficult-to-place culture of Hungary itself, such a strange land with an odd language, neither overly Russian influenced, Jewish influenced, Mediterranean influenced or Northern European influenced. Once you take yourself away from Budapest the cultural ties to your own land and references have been cut and you are thrust into a different world. Not alien exactly, but distinct.

Yeah, okay, that sounds good.

I thought you would agree. Here are some pictures:

 

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What’s there to do?

As with everywhere in Hungary thermal spas and bathing account for a great deal of leisure activity and Szeged is no different. There’s a huge outdoor waterpark near the river and state of the art swimming pool nearby that I considered going to before realising the tiny window of time existing between getting back to the hotel at 3 in the morning and leaving at 10 for Serbia with a raging hangover. There are two bona fide thermal baths, neither of which I visited but I can highly recommend as an activity itself, both for the extraordinary calming, cleansing feeling that stays all evening and into the following day and the fact it is a social activity for many Hungarians, meaning you get to see local life in all its shapes and sizes – sometimes beautiful, sometimes grotesque. All part of the fun.

Szeged is famous for its salami – which is always worth a try – and Fisherman’s Soup, which is famous enough to be on most menus in Budapest too. The amount of smoked paprika in there is unreal and the almost fluorescent red colour is at once inviting and yet vaguely off-putting at the same time. There are some nice restaurants near the river where these can be enjoyed. I recommend Sortato-Halaszcsarda which has a nice terrace, good service and enormous portions for 3-4 pounds. I ordered a dish called “Pista Danko’s Violin” which was the most almighty upturned hollowed out violinful of roast potatoes layered with 6 different fillets of breaded fish. Impossible to finish but well worth trying to. Everyone else’s food looked, smelled, tasted great.

Along with all this Szeged happens to home to a gigantic synagogue which appears to be somewhat of a pilgrimage site, albeit an incredibly niche one. I laughed at the amusingly out of date website above, I must admit, as it strikes such a parallel to Szeged’s position in the modern world. As with a lot of Jewish sites it is not exactly welcoming of visitors, rather protective and conservative, but if you walk in they will allow you to rubberneck – from behind an iron gate – at the awesome dome and artwork of such detail and intricacy to rival even the most baroque cathedrals.

Nightlife?

Szeged has a large student population so it would be better to visit during term time. We visited a week before term started found it rather quiet overall and without any specific cluster of places. British tourists will be amused and appalled to visit John Bull Pub which is an outrageously lavish attempt to recreate a British pub, right down to the carpets, framed portraits and beveled banisters. I’ve never seen such a waste of time and money personally, and it is also very expensive to boot. Judging by the reviews online it appears to be very popular. Wikitravel goes as far as saying it represents an ideal choice for a romantic dinner! Laughable. The Hungarians have a love affair with the British though, and you’ll see a great deal of them wearing union jack t shirts.

My favourite part of the trip to Szeged was finding a locally famous Jazz club called Kocsma where we finally discovered the sort of decaying decrepit and badly lit drinking hole we hold dear. Firstly, wandering around the backstreets at night was eerily quiet and it was one of those occasions where you wonder how you ended up there, and whether you’ll ever return. The bar looked to be all shut up but, nothing ventured-nothing gained. A swing of the door revealed a candle lit basement and although the bar staff and patrons looked vaguely surprised to see us, they were all far too cool to make a big show of it. We gathered around a table and took in the deeply brooding atmosphere over a glass of appalling, appalling lager.

Ah yes, the beer in Hungary. Their beer is not very good. “Give me a pint of that Hungarian lager”, said no-one ever. The distance to Sopron means it is quite difficult even to find Soproni, one of their more palatable lagers. The constant offering down in Szeged seemed to be Borsodi, a lager so lacking in flavour that all you can taste are some faintly unpleasant mineraly metallic remnants. Lamentable.

Why Szeged?

Don’t visit make a special visit to Szeged, or because it’ll be another page turned. It’s not a bucket list destination unless you really are determined to taste the Fisherman’s Soup. I would recommend joining Szeged along with part of a wider tour of Hungary, or as a stopping point on your way to Vojvodina in Serbia, and on to Belgrade perhaps from there, alternatively as my friend did, taking a train to Timisoara in Romania. Szeged is a sizeable, interesting place with a small classic central European centre of some beauty, some eye-popping grand buildings, and admittedly a portion of unloved tatty streets with cheap billboards. Hungary is still quite a poor country in places. All the same, another fascinating undiscovered spot that will widen your horizons and make you appreciate the great diversity of nationhood and culture in Europe in comparison with anywhere else in the world!

Final note to readers:

Do not ever stay at the Tisza Sport hotel, which is a dreadful shithole.

 

 

Keszthely, Lake Balaton, Hungary

Lake Balaton itself could count itself as very well known, internationally famous even, even if it has been barely discovered by British tourists. The ‘inland sea’, Lake Balaton is the nearest thing Hungarians have to a seaside resort, but being a sizeable and easily accessible freshwater lake pushes its significance nationally to further boundaries than that.

On the South-west tip of Balaton is the old aristocratic town and resort of Keszthely, a charming and completely Brit-free zone.

What’s the appeal?

If you’ve had enough of British people for a while then rest assured, you won’t be meeting any here. To be less glib, it has the only remaining open-air baths on the lake (which indicated to me there must be a concerning/logical reason why). Hungarians are obsessive bathers and will happily strip to their undies into anything that looks like hip-height warm water. The buildings at the baths are Victorian era and quaint. The baths themselves are really a cordoned off shallow area of the lake. On a Sunny day in warm weather it would have been ideal. Unfortunately this was a cool, wet day, so it wasn’t.

Keszthely seemed to offer the largest number of museums I’d ever seen in a small town- at least 10 by our count, mainly revolving around embroidery, animatronics, vintage motor cars, and many other old-world pursuits. Festetics Palace, is one of these,

 

Reformed from a toff’s residence (and ludicrous show of wealth) the palace has been transformed into a museum itself. The curator Mr. Gyorgy Festetics seemingly hadn’t decided quite what the museum was for and therefore it was full of everything and nothing- an aquarium, an old time clothing exhibition and collections of this and that, more or less a Victorian ‘How Clean Is Your House’, except lacking a couple of stern matronly women to throw all the junk out.

Regardless of the contents, the exterior and building itself was very impressive- stately, palatial etc and although it was not pristine, the signs of wear and tear actually lent the palace some authenticity, while from a distance it still retained a grand enough appearance to go ‘hmm, cor, what about that then eh?’.

Beer?! Keszthely is near Austria, fellows, and this means German beer and good stuff at that. If you want to remain native I would suggest Soproni, the nearest thing in Hungary to a palatable standard lager. It’s cheap at least. The nightlife in Keszthely takes a bit of digging but if you’re committed there are bars to be had. John’s Pub is busy, full of locals and unpretentious without being hostile.

Food? The experience of Keszthely improved in the evening as we went to Restaurant Bacchus, which was in the basement of an olive museum. The restaurant itself seemed to have no link to the museum and it now amuses to think of how it completely disregarded wine as a point of interest. It was also rather nice. Keszthely’s proximity to Austria, and the Austro-Hungary connection meant at this part of western Hungary, the main tourism was Austrian, German-speaking and the food on offer rather Germanic culturally. The restaurant itself was cosy with big chunks of blackened wood, rather like an Inn. The food on offer was a series of superb meat dishes with genuinely huge plates. Out of the 12-15 options on the main menu, I would have happily chosen any, but settled on duck leg just for the sake of variety. It was delicious, and Mark’s chicken looked similarly fantastic. I haven’t yet devised a good enough reason to return to Keszthely and spend a solid 10 days methodically working my way through the menu, but fingers crossed, there’s time.

Generally Hungarian food comprises river fish and red meat with gnocchi or rice with a paprikas sauce. This is a reductive description, but also fairly helpful, because it is not difficult to go wrong if you stick to these dishes. Pickled pepper is sometimes offered as a side dish and helps add a little bit of flavour and variety. The salad is usually tiny or non-existant. The lack of greens, while not a problem for a carnivore like myself, does gradually become wearing. On the whole though, flavours of the main dishes are usually too delicious to cause a major worry for a few days.

Getting there?

Budapest Kelenfold to Keszthely by train in a couple of hours. You may wish to stop at the larger resort Siofok halfway there. I would recommend staying in Keszthely only 1 day unless you want to do some serious bathing, the nearby hiking interests you, or the local white wine producing vinyards. If that’s your aim you may find it is a delightful and very low key base.