Come on an adventure across mammoth lakes, through luscious national parks and around the medieval castles of one of Europe’s most exciting capitals.
Hungary, or as they call it in their own language, Magyarország (quite the mouthful), but certainly never ‘hungry’. Hungary has that lovely whistling language which belongs to the Ugro-Finnish group, to which only two languages belong: Finnish and Hungarian. As there are no similarities between these two languages and the other languages in Europe, this makes it a very difficult language to learn.
So what can you do in a country that is home to one of the largest European music festivals, the largest lake in Europe and numerous other sights to attach superlatives to, and is a bustling, vibrant, cosmopolitan capital city?
After a few empires (notably the Romans and the Huns) ploughed their way through Europe leaving traces of their civilizations behind, the country was formed in 895AD, made up of the tribes who inhabited the land. During the 10th Century, Hungary adopted the Latin language, a monarchy, and Christianity, and continued to evolve. Three hundred years later the Mongols came to wreak havoc, smashing the place up and indulging in a bit of mass-murder before making a swift exit. Consequently, numerous stone castles and fortifications were built just in case those pesky Mongols came back for a second invasion, which they did. The fortifications worked. Hungary broke up and reformed over the years finally forming the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which dissolved with the end of World War I. The aftermath of war resulted in chaos, whereby Hungary lost a lot of its land before slowly gaining some back with the help of the Axis powers in the run up to World War II. This war devastated the country all over again, which eventually became absorbed as a state of the Soviet Union. The later transition from communism to democracy was a peaceful one and more or less formed the Hungary we know and love today.
Elizabeth Bathory was born into nobility in the 16th Century, and her family owned land which spanned across modern day Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia. She did all the things you’d expect from a rich noblewoman; married young, learned a few languages, profited from the work of peasants and so on. There are reports saying that she stepped in to help poor women suffering from hard times, husbands being captured by their enemies for example. Sounds like a fairly nice woman. Then stories of brutally murdered women and torture equipment started to emerge, which intensified after the death of her husband. Young peasant women were beaten, mutilated, and killed in their hundreds according to some sources, and she allegedly – and famously – bathed in their blood in order to maintain to maintain her youth. Eventually Elizabeth was found guilty after apparently having been caught in the act, and spent the three remaining years of her life bricked into a room with no windows.
The story is contested and has no doubt been embellished by the hand of fiction writers and those looking to profit from it. She was a rich woman, and the Habsburg palace wanted her wealth. She was also educated in many sciences, which could explain the ‘torture’ equipment, which may simply have been for medical purposes. In any case, although Elizabeth is frequently described as Hungarian, she is more likely to be from what is now Slovakia, so this is a bit of a tangent.
The River Danube flows through the city from north to south. To the west lies the historic city of Buda, where you’ll find Buda Castle on top of the aptly named Castle Hill. The area was home to a great siege, though thing didn’t turn out quite the same as the Great Siege of Gibraltar, with Buda’s population shrivelling from eight thousand down to around three hundred people. The castle itself has been through its own hard times, being attacked, damaged, and rebuilt throughout history as is the nature of most castles. Since World War II, a pretty decent job of restoring parts of the castle to its late Gothic state has been achieved, along with other parts being modernised by the ruling communist government, making an interesting architectural mix, and a pretty lovely sight.
Walking around the outside of the castle, you’ll see the various statues recreated from throughout the ages. Nip into the Lion’s Courtyard, undeterred by the four lion statues fiercely warning you not to enter, and go inside for a wander around the Budapest History Museum and the Hungarian National Gallery. Savoyai Terrace is a spacious square within Buda castle that also serves as a vantage point for views of where the Danube splits the city into two. From here you can see the city’s bridges, the parliament building, and other sites across the river into Pest. Ask the local engineering students about the statue of Hussar General András Hadik on horseback, and your focus will be directed towards the horses’ gentlemanly orbs, which gleam a different colour to the rest of the statue due to students polishing them before difficult exams or tourists for luck.
For those interested in military history, on the next hill from the castle is the Citadella, which, like many other buildings in Budapest, was built during the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. From here you can have another elevated look at the river and its bridges, or wander round the old fortification looking at big, old-fashioned guns. Once you’ve had your fill, stroll across the nearest bridge to Pest to find a huge covered market built in the 19th Century, where you can pick up all your obligatory holiday souvenirs.
Ambling into Pest you’ll find many more sights and buildings to explore. The Hungarian Parliament Building on the banks of the Danube (which had to be reinforced due to the weight of the thing) is inspired by the UK’s Houses of Parliament, although for a slice of the bragging rights, the Hungarian version is supposedly a foot wider. You can enter this building only in the form of a 30 minute guided tour, providing you’ve booked tickets in advance. Further from the river is a place used as headquarters by the Nazis and the communist State Security Police. The basement housed a maze of prison cells where inmates were routinely beaten and starved. It has since been turned into a museum and aptly been given the name ‘House of Terror’.
Hősök tere (or Heroes Square in English) is a large plaza boasting the Seven Chieftains of the Magyars monument to represent the leaders of the seven tribes of the Hungarians back in 895AD. Various places of worship are sprawled throughout the city, notable Matthias Church with its eclectic architectural style, or the Great Synagogue – the largest of its kind outside New York City. To the north stands the Holocaust Tree of Life Memorial over the mass graves of those killed by the Nazi’s in World War II. The leaves of the trees bears inscriptions of some of the family names of the victims.
Every August, a week-long festival is held on Old Buda Island in the Danube. Since its humble beginnings as a student event in 1993, the music and cultural festival now expects around half a million visitors. Sziget hosts an eclectic mix of genres attracting people from around the globe. It’s becoming increasingly fashionable to the festival world as the Burning Man festival in Europe. There are even dedicated party trains complete with DJ’s to transport people from various European cities. If you’re planning on going to Sziget Festival, try not to forget that you’re in Budapest and go see some sights too. You crazy party animal.
One of my favourite European getaways is only a short train ride from Budapest. Lake Balaton holds the title of Europe’s largest freshwater lake and, touristy though it is, it’s very beautiful. Flanking the shores of the lake are plenty of guest houses, hotels, camping sites, and other lodgings to suit your needs. By day, you can sit on the banks and contemplate the natural beauty. If it’s warm enough, you can even jump in for a little swim. The silt bed squelches beneath your feet as you try to keep your distance from the oncoming swans (apparently they can break your arm). Also be wary of the eels. Or perhaps just retire to the safety of the banks and read a book.
By night, sit outside and sample some of the goulash your guesthouse is most likely preparing. You’re outside because it’s cooked traditionally in a massive hanging cauldron over an open fire. So very tasty, so very cheap. In Hungary they grow an incredible variety of peppers, from the teeny tiny red ones, to the yellow squashy ones. One of them, whose name I only know in Polish (bizarrely), Czuszka, is really spicy, and may find its way into your goulash.
Other things to do here include hiking the northern hills or your usual array of water activities: sailing, kite surfing and the likes. There’s also a nice little wine trail up Badacsony Hill, with an abundance of small vineyard owners offering their hit-or-miss wines by the glass or bottle. It’s a little bit like Bertie Bott’s every flavoured beans (for the Harry Potter fans among our readership), but it’s a fun afternoon not to be missed nonetheless. Incidentally, the most typical Hungarian wine is Tokaji, which you can get dry, but is traditionally sweet. If you have the palate for it, it’s very fruity, very aromatic, and has a slight musty aftertaste. For those who don’t have the palate, it’s white wine.
For a taste of traditional Hungary, head to Holloko. In 1783, Hungary decided that wood was too flammable to use for building and prohibited the use of it. The residents of Holloko took no notice of this decree, so the village has been periodically plagued with fires. Nevertheless, the village has been deliberately preserved in its traditional state and paints a picture of the Hungarian subgroup, Palóc, and their life in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Walk down the only road taking in the beautiful old houses and walk into every single craft shop and museum you find. Follow the road and hike up the hill for twenty minutes and you’ll find a medieval castle, and a picturesque view of the village and surrounds vineyards, orchards, and general loveliness. Easter hosts the best festival of the year; think colourfully decorated costumes, folk crafts and customs, and men throwing buckets of water over women, for some reason.
The great thing about Europe is that you can step into any town on the map and the chances are it’s got some history behind it. Pécs is no different. Founded two thousand years ago by the Romans, it’s now exists as a small (although large in Hungarian terms) university town. Hungary has been a Christian state for a long time and Pécs has the Early Christian Necropolis to back that up, built in the 4th Century. But Pécs is better known as being a multicultural melting pot. The values of people from different backgrounds have all blended together over the city’s history and its inhabitants still live in harmony together. Pécs has won awards for peace, tolerance, and just being a ruddy good, liveable city.
Go and see the 11th Century cathedral, the 4th Century necropolis, or the the Mosque of Pasha Quasim, built when the Ottomans came to take over. There are a few museums to get stuck into, with two of them focusing on local artists Tivadar Kosztka Csontváry and Victor Vasarely. Nearby is the town of Villány, famous for its red wine. Nip over and take a tour of any of the wineries for your obligatory holiday-wine-day-out.
Aggtelek is a national park is for those who think geology ‘rocks’ (apologies). With 280 caves spread across 200 square kilometres and stretching into Slovakia, Aggtelek is bound to sate your cavernous desires. Its limestone landscape, stalactites and stalagmites (I can never remember which is which) may seem familiar, but unlike Gibraltar these caves are a little larger in size, one of which is known to be the largest stalactite cave in Europe!
Őrség is the the place Hungarians go to relax. Tucked away in the west by the border of Slovenia, this place is renowned for its luscious meadows, marshland, and a forest that covers the region with a smattering of quaint little towns and villages for good measure. The region’s directorate have been working hard to preserve the natural and historical surroundings, which is why it seems as if nothing here has changed for a few hundred years. Tranquillity awaits you.
Hortobágy is a national park rich with folklore and cultural history. Wild horses have been grazing this steppe for over ten thousand years and have been joined more recently by other beasts such as oxen and cattle. The main attraction here is Nine Hole Bridge, 167 metres of stone road with entrances broader than the rest of the bridge to make life easier for herdsmen to cross the river by funnelling their animals in an orderly manner. There are also around 350 different types of birds, which combined with the open horizon, attracts birdwatchers and sunset admirers alike. Keep an eye out for the shadoofs (sightly, early irrigation tools) jutting into the air across the landscape.
The land of Hungary is blanketed with natural beauty, compelling history, and charming towns. Cross over to Budapest over a long weekend for a city break with a difference, or take your time exploring the countryside, towns, and villages for a relaxing cultural holiday. All that’s left for you to do is visit this captivating country, and that’s left for me to do is refrain for a few more sentences from making any drab ‘hungry’ puns.
So save up those pennies and make a new entry on your bucket list; this really is a travel destination that will leave you hungry for more. (Sorry.)