The Rough Guide to Hungary

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9781858289175: The Rough Guide to Hungary
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INTRODUCTION

Visitors who refer to Hungary as a Balkan country risk getting a lecture on how this small, landlocked nation of just over ten million people differs from "all those Slavs". Hungary was likened by the poet Ady to a "river ferry, continually travelling between East and West, with always the sensation of not going anywhere but of being on the way back from the other bank"; and its people identify strongly with the West while at the same time displaying a fierce pride in themselves as Magyars – a race that transplanted itself from Central Asia into the heart of Europe.

Any contradiction between nationalism and cosmopolitanism is resolved by what the Scottish expatriate Charlie Coutts called the Hungarian "genius for not taking things to their logical conclusion". Having embarked on reforming state socialism long before Gorbachev, Hungary made the transition to multi-party democracy without a shot being fired, while the removal of the iron curtain along its border set in motion the events leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The end of Communism has hastened the spread of glossy western capitalism, and on arrival in Budapest your first impressions will be of a fast-developing and prosperous nation. However, there is another side to post-Communist Hungary, and beyond the capital and Lake Balaton living standards have fallen sharply amongst many people, for whom the transition to democracy has brought very mixed blessings indeed.

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About the Author:

Charles Hebbert has lived in and around Hungary off and on for seventeen years, researching his PhD before working as a journalist in Budapest. Dan Richardson is one of Rough Guides longest-established authors, and the author or co-author of Rough Guides to Egypt, St Petersburg, Moscow and Bulgaria.

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WHERE TO GO

The capital, Budapest, dominates the country in every sense – administratively, commercially and culturally. Divided into two distinct parts by the River Danube – the historical Buda district on the elevated west bank, and the grittier but more dynamic Pest district on the eastern side – the city boasts a welter of fine museums and churches, coffee houses, Turkish baths and Roman ruins, as well as some splendid architecture and a diversity of entertainment unmatched in any of the cities of the former Eastern bloc.

The most obvious attraction after Budapest is the magnificent Danube Bend, one of the most spectacular stretches of this immense river. Sweeping its way north out of the capital, the river passes through the delightful town of Szentendre on the west bank – a popular day trip from the capital – before moving serenely on through historic Visegrád and up to Esztergom, the centre of Hungarian Catholicism. Southwest of Budapest, Lake Balaton, with its string of brash resorts, styles itself as the "Nation’s Playground," but also contains Europe’s largest thermal bath at Héviz, and some splendid wine regions, notably around the Badacsony Hills and Balatonboglár on the southern shore.

Encircling Balaton and encompassing the area west of the Danube, Transdanubia has the country’s most varied topography, from the flat, rather monotonous landscape of the northern Kisalföld to the verdant, forested Orség in the southwest. The region also claims some of the country’s finest towns and cities, most notably Sopron with its atmospheric Belváros (Inner town), and the vibrant city of Pécs, notable for its superb museums and Islamic architecture. Further south, the vineyards around Villány and Siklós – Hungary’s first wine road – yield some of the country’s finest wines.

The mildly hilly mountain ranges of the Northern Uplands, spreading eastwards from Budapest, offer Hungary’s best opportunities for leisurely pursuits, including hiking, cycling and even skiing. The region is also home to the country’s most fantastic natural wonder, the Aggtelek caves, whilst the more sparsely populated northwestern region, the Zemplén range, will appeal to castle enthusiasts and those seeking to get off the beaten track. The Uplands are also famed for their wine centres, the most renowned being Eger – an enchanting town in its own right, showcasing some marvellous Baroque architecture – and Tokaj.

The area south of the Uplands is dominated by the vast, flat swathe of land known as the Great Plain, bisected in two by Hungary’s other great river, the Tisza. Covering almost fifty percent of the country, the Plain doesn’t have the clear-cut attractions of other regions, but it can be a rewarding place to visit. Szeged, close to the Serbian border, is the area’s most appealing centre, with some delightful architecture and perhaps the country’s most beautiful synagogue. Further east, its rival city Debrecen serves as the jumping-off point for the archaic Erdohát region and the mirage-haunted Hortobágy puszta, home to a fantastic array of wildlife.

WHEN TO GO

Most visitors come in the summer, when nine or ten hours of sunshine can be relied on most days, sometimes interspersed with short, violent storms. The humidity that causes these is really only uncomfortable in Budapest, where the crowds don’t help; elsewhere the climate is agreeable. Budapest, with its spring and autumn festivals, sights and culinary delights, is a standing invitation to come out of season. But other parts of Hungary have little to offer during the winter, and the weather doesn’t become appealing until late spring. May, warm but showery, is the time to see the Danube Bend, Tihany or Sopron before everyone else arrives; June is hotter and drier, a pattern reinforced throughout July, August and September. There’s little variation in temperatures across the country: the Great Plain is drier, and the highlands are wetter, during summer, but that’s about as far as climatic changes go. The number of tourists varies more – popular areas such as Szentendre and Tihany can be mobbed in summer, but rural areas receive few visitors, even during the high season.

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