The Hungary: The Rough Guideby Dan Richardson, Charles Hebbert
Visitors who refer to Hungary as a Balkan country risk getting a lecture on how this small, landlocked nation of eleven 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… See more details below
Visitors who refer to Hungary as a Balkan country risk getting a lecture on how this small, landlocked nation of eleven 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.
Hungary's capital, Budapest, inspires a feeling of dj vu. It's not just the vast Gothic parliament and other monuments of a bygone imperial era that seem familiar, but the latest fashions on the streets, or a poster advertising something that was all the rage back home a year before. In coffee houses, Turkish baths, and the fad for Habsburg bric--brac, there's a strong whiff of Mitteleuropa - that ambient culture that welcomed Beethoven in Budapest and Hungarian-born Liszt in Vienna. Meanwhile a wave of new clubs and restaurants and a burgeoning sex industry reflects the advent of nouveau riche entrepreneurs, and a massive influx of tourists and foreign investment.
After Budapest, Lake Balaton and the Danube Bend vie for popularity. The Balaton, with its string of brash resorts, styles itself as the "Nation's Playground," and enjoys a fortuitous proximity to the Badacsony wine-producing region. The Danube Bend has more to offer in terms of scenery and historic architecture, as do the Northern Uplands and Transdanubia. The beautiful old parts of Sopron, Gy,r and Pcs are, rightfully, the main attractions in Transdanubia, though for castle enthusiasts the Zemplni range and the lowlands of southern Transdanubia also have several treats in store; while in the Uplands the famous wine centres of Tokaj and Eger are the chief draw. On the Great Plain Szeged hosts a major festival, and its rival city, Debrecen, serves as the jumping-off point for the archaic Erd,ht region and the mirage-haunted Hortobgy puszta. See the chapter introductions for more details about each region.
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 - the popular areas can be mobbed in summer, but rural areas receive few visitors, even during the high season.
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