By Max Hartshorne
Hungary brings many images to mind: forbidden Eastern Europe, coffee houses, and Hapsburg Empire. It has all that yet a hidden side as well. Eco-tourism and adventure. These might not be associated with this rural, beautiful country, but maybe it’s time to change that.
A recent trip to Magyarorszag, (as Hungarians call their country) was a bit like going to visit a friend who’s just bought a new house. He’s busy hanging photos, unpacking boxes and still arranging furniture, but he’s sure glad you’ve taken time to stop by.
We began our trip in what Senior Editor Kent St. John calls ‘sultry Budapest.” This city of 1.7 million on the Danube is indeed sultry, and so steeped in history that a trip into the city center reveals Baroque, classical, and modern building designs. Andrassy Avenue, that ends at Heroes’ Square, is modeled after Paris’ Champs Elysees, with the trees on each side and beautiful buildings such as the Opera House, Drechsler Palace, now the State Ballet Institute.
Also on this tree-lined street is the Terror Museum. Once the headquarters of the Nazis, KGB and Hungary’s repressive secret police. Of all the attractions here, this one had the longest line to get in.
From the Buda side of the Danube, this two sided city’s skyline is marked by the impressive Gothic Parliament building, the world’s third largest parliament, dripping with porticoes and detail and stunning when lit up at night.
This like the St. Stephen’s Cathedral, rises to 96 meters, these two visual high points can be seen from the Buda hills and especially clear from the Citadel here. Having Saint Stephen’s actual right hand enshrined there adds to the mysterious Magyar mix of the place.
Cobblestone streets and more formal dining make the Buda side a little more stiff than the more relaxed Pest side of the city. On the Pest front, the cruising zone for restaurants and shops is Vaci Street. It is a pedestrian area, perfect for strolling and people watching.
No More Lenin Statues
The Millenium Monument at Heroes’ Square is an impressive arc with huge statues of the seven horsemen, leaders of the Magyar tribes who settled in the Carpathian Basin in 896 A.D. On the top of the arc are four dramatic statues, put there to mark the very important 1000 year anniversary of Magyarorszag, in 1896.
Once there was a statue of Lenin a short walk from here, but it was destroyed after ‘the political changes,’ and now the only place you can see Soviet monuments is at the Statue Park, outside of town. Except for the one Russian memorial remaining–directly across from the American embassy.
In Budapest, a city split into two unique halves by the Danube, Buda and Pest, we spent more time on the Pest side, where the flatter terrain allows for many pedestrian friendly tree-lined streets with outdoor cafes and restaurants. We were approached more than once by pretty young ladies who wanted to know where we were from, or if we had a spare cigarette. This is where males will encounter the Budapest Hustle!
Later we heard that the scam is common — these damsels escort the unwitting male traveler to a strip club where drinks cost $500 each and if you can’t pay you are taken by thugs to the nearest ATM to empty your account.
We dined the first night at Maxim on Vaci Street, where after a bit of wait they brought out grilled chile shrimp and monkfish with asparagus risotto. This would prove to be the best meal we had the whole trip. Walking back across the bridge to our hotel on the hilly Buda side, we were again approached by a lady, this time in a more blatant request ‘you want good sex,’ and passed on by.
Our trip’s itinerary would take us to the countryside, in the more rural, hilly northern of the country. The first stop was Holloko, a restored ancient village with a castle and verdant surroundings of rolling fields and foothills. This World Heritage Site is one of many in Hungary, and is perfectly preserved. In Holloko, we toured the village and were greeted with the requisite shot of deadly strong plum brandy, by locals wearing the garb of the olden days.
While Holloko was a bit of a tourist trap, (it was painful watching the locals hold their poses while the shutterbugs among us clicked on and on) but clearly, tourism is the only real work in these remote villages, where wind driven snows often strand the villagers for weeks during the winter.
Hungary is getting ready for tourism in a big way. Many of the attractions we visited had been finished weeks or days before we came. One new thrill that we enjoyed was at the Danube Bend, in the ancient town of Visegrad. We arrived by bike after a 25 km peddle along the mighty brown river.
I had met several Hungarians in the states and they both had brought up the medieval town of Visegrad when I asked for advice about where to go. High up a mountain, here was located the prison where Count Dracula was held as a hostage by by the Turkish sultan for twelve years. He would go on to become known as Vlad the Impaler, the ruler of Romania, famous for taking 3000 Turkish prisoners and fashioning a mass impaling field out of a stand of trees.
Just above the castle ruins, we donned special harnesses and helmets. Then we joined a group of about eight others to climb up the first of about eleven 30-foot towers, each connected to the other by a cable, designed to give a special thrill. Our gear included a rig that hooked us up to the cable, so we could wiz across the stretched cable to the next tower.Canopy FunPark
Below and far in the distance was the Danube, and the big island in the middle. In varying speeds, this cable ride was a fun way to descend the mountain. And after nine rides, we drove back up to the top for a hearty lunch. www.canopy.hu.
The countryside is baffling here, since there are signs everywhere in Hungary’s 44-letter alphabet, a confusing collection of accents, umlauts and double consonants. But most of the people we met were able to speak English, and knowing ‘kasounoum’ (thank you) proved unnecessary as most of the time we were answered in English. Still it is a good word to know, as in ‘please’ — ‘kerem’.
The town of Miskolc isn’t much to look at; a city of about 400,000, many of whom are Roma and living in bleak ugly sprawling apartment buildings dating back to the age of the Soviets. But here we found a treasure. A cave has been hollowed out and thermal pools have been built inside Miskolc’s Gem in the Cave
We swam with the warm current around bends and into tunnels, finally emerging into a center room with a domed ceiling with stars and music. There was also a hotter pool in another room, and more channels to swim. It costs about $8 to get in, bring a towel and a robe.
Our small motor coach traveled up steep and windy mountain roads, up and around to finally get us to the Bukk National Park, where we met a ranger named Attila who would join us on a long hike.
We hiked up an easy trail next to a clear stream, and saw trout ponds where the fish are raised. Attila explained that this area was once a major producer of silica, used in making glass and other products, but that in recent years this business has faded away. Tourism now, he said is the real driving force of the economy. It seems to be happening in a big way.
The next day we met again with Attila who took us to Jewish Meadow, named after the former owners who had donated land to the state for this park. A rolling lush greenscape, this land was lovely and we walked for miles along this cleared area and into a virgin forest. There had been a windstorm that knocked down many of the tall Beech trees, but most of the forest was intact and it was cool there.At the top of the hill, we reached a broad meadow, full of school children playing soccer in the sun and laughing.
A trout barbecue awaited us. The technique for cooking involved two sticks held over a wood fire glowing with embers. One hand holds your fish, a trout impaled on the stick, and in the other, a chunk of fat.The trick was to melt the fat and cook the trout with the hot drippings.
The fish was covered with paprika and the result was delicious, perfectly grilled flesh served with salad on the rustic wooden tables. The fruity white wine, poured from three feet up directly into our glasses, (or optionally, right into our mouths!) paired perfectly.
We continued to the top of the hill and looked out over a vast area of rolling hills. You could see clearcuts in patches, and other areas still untouched. Atilla told us that a pair of wolves had been introduced here and that the clear cutting was something the EU was trying to stop. We can only hope so.
We wound our way down the hill and drove on towards Eger, one of the most beautiful cities we saw in Hungary. It is also one of the country’s oldest wine regions, home to the famous red “bulls blood.”
There were several yellow Baroque style churches and a large central pedestrian area town square. Our guide pointed out a new swimming pool built at great expense by a famous Hungarian architect, that cleverly shrouded an old church steeple with a layer of modernity. Nearby, the locals were filling up their water jugs from a public fountain where the mineral water flows for free.
Outside of Eger, we visited a newly refurbished attraction, one that is shared with Slovakia…a cave walk at Aggtelek. We took a two km walk down 275 steps inside a massive cave.
The way was lit by lamps and the sidewalk was concrete, we viewed huge stalagmites and stalactites, and entered a massive room where they played music using the natural acoustics here to generate huge echoes in the tall chambers. A newly built visitor’s center was just being finished up, and at the end of our cave walk we emerged to another new facility a gorgeous restaurant overlooking a stream.
The Plains, the Plains!
The next day we headed for the great plains, a more remote part of Hungary. Here the economy was stalled, there are few jobs here except for the national parks. Horses are a big part of the culture here, our hotel near the Hortobagy National Park was filled with framed photos and paintings of them.
A horse-drawn carriage took us out into the windy plains, and there we met up with some horsemen. One man rode with a foot on two horses, with three other horses up front.
He cracked his whip and drove them faster and faster in a broad circle, yipping and keeping his balance with feet on each horse’s backside. This acrobatic show is called the ‘puszta-five.’
Then four other horsemen wearing traditional outfits of flowing blue pants and hats with feathers showed their riding prowess, the horses lay down flat in the fields and then sat up just like dogs. Clearly a tourism draw, the men patiently waited while our shutters clicked. While it was corny, watching these athletes perform with their steeds was quite a spectacle.
We were greeted with another round of brandy to fortify us for the journey. On small shallow draft boats, we took a trip on Tisza Lake, and on the shores many bird species like heron and egret could be spotted. After about an hour, we emerged on shore.
A series of long walkways had been just built projecting out into the marsh over the water.We moved on to a river, Tisza, Hungary’s second largest river, after the Danube. Tisza lake was formed naturally from a flood plain, an din the flooded territory of the river Tisza. In between water dams there are sixteen islands and ten water channels.
More than 1500 meters long, this new walkway ended with blinds where you could watch birds. Our guide said they hoped that this would become a place where biology students and tourists would come to view nature.
A guide is indispensable in some areas of Hungary, as the language is very difficult and even the roadsigns hard to navigate. I tried walking using a map to an internet café in Eger, and was baffled. The Travel department (0036-20-943-6766) offers day long or week long guides, we recommend Richard Bogdan as he was very friendly, knowledgeable and helpful for us.
Max Hartshorne has been the editor and publisher of GoNOMAD Travel in South Deerfield Mass since 2002. He worked for newspapers and other sales positions for 23 years until he finally got what he wanted and became the editor at GoNOMAD. He travels regularly, enjoys publishing new writers, and does exactly what he wants to do every day.