Beyond budapest


Daytrips and longer...

Many people are tempted to schedule excursions to other parts of Hungary if they plan to stay in Budapest for more than a few days.  The subtext seems to be that after a few days of intensive sightseeing, Budapest will be squeezed dry, that it will become boring or repetitive.  We’ve all grown up in a world in which two weeks in London or Paris seems an extended stay, where tours guide us through five countries in ten days.  But it’s a big mistake to impose that world on Budapest.

It takes at least 4-5 days to begin to fall into the rhythm of the city, and its rhythm is its most alluring feature.  Give it the elbow room to seduce you with its spirit.  Hazard the risk of boredom by giving the city some downtime.  And discover whether you don’t relish those moments as the most precious part of your trip.

Having said that, here are some quick thoughts on a range of places that can be easily reached by car or train:

Szentendre -- Evokes the same reaction in me that Epcot Center's plainly a tourist artifact, there is no back lot, no place where the authentic Szentendre denizens seem to go to unwind or have a beer.  It's all facade, all sizzle. And, like Epcot, it's done well enough for that not to matter more than peripherally.  It may be culture-on-a-stick, folk art for the masses, but corners of the place take itself sufficiently seriously -- artists' studios, museums, shops that the kitsch can recede long enough to stop mattering, and then to return with tongue in cheek in a less off-putting manner. 

That gingerbread house of a marcipan shop really is the best marcipan shop (and the most historic one) in Hungary.  The knife maker in the mock-old-fashioned shop is a serious cutler.  The churches and architecture are authentic and older than almost anything you will find in Pest...and so on around the town.

Do try to avoid the weekend crowds; on a nice day, take one of the river boats to Szentendre and then a train back into the city from the suburban train station just a short walk out of town.  If you get off at the Margaret Bridge stop in Budapest, you can grab a wonderful dinner at the Trofea restaurant right there on the opposite corner.

And there's quite a good little guidebook: Budapest Walks in the City -- an Excursion to Szentendre by Peter Buza; probably only available in Budapest and you may have to dog a bit even there.

Eger -- Neither my favorite wine, nor my favorite town, but like Szentendre you can't write it off just because it's a tourist magnet.  If you are serious about Hungarian wine tastings, you will pass through Eger or spend some time there.  It's a very easy drive from Budapest, and there are pleasant walks and a handful of sights and a characteristic town square filled with tourist pubs and cafes.

Tokaj and its environs --  Perhaps it is my fondness for the wines of the Tokaj region, or for the warmth and hospitality of one of its premiere winemakers and students of its terroir -- Janos Arvay, whose restored grand building just off the town center was once the meeting place of the town elders  Or possibly it's the storks that nest on every available chimney and telephone pole, or the intriguing and massive restored synagogue (now serving the town's solitary Jewish resident, and, more regularly, as a social and cultural center)...a building whose scope invites reflection on the role of assimilated Jews in Hungarian rural life in the 19th Century.

Perhaps it's the extraordinary hotel in the countryside run by the Degenfeld vineyard or the excellent food they serve in an environment of tranquility and luxury  Or the pleasant day's drive to the small towns nearby like Sarospatak (with its castle and an excellent restaurant guesthouse just across the river...the restaurant is not much to look at, but from the restaurant the view of the castle is great).

Whatever it is, Tokaj has an authenticity and allure of a sort that Eger and Szentendre do not.

Miskolc -- And Miskolctapolca (a bath/spa community just outside of town) -- lies on the way to Tokaj from Budapest by car, and is a sprawling, thriving, modern city with some modest delusions of grandeur.  The spa is known for its thermal baths in what are touted as natural caves but seem mostly to be manmade latterday additions.  If viewed as a water park with slides and pools and major crowds in midsummer, it's a pleasant family detour, but as thermal baths go it doesn't displace those in Budapest or Debrecen, at least for me.  There is, however, a marvelous palace hotel in a beautiful setting just outside of Miskolctapolca:

Lake Balaton -- When it comes to Lake Balaton, I am a curmudgeon.  Everyone I know loves it.  Everyone has a favorite spot.  People love the gradual shallow descent into the water on the Siofok side of the lake, and the summer resort life where no one seems to have a care in the world.  But to me it seems crowded and costly for Hungary and hard to distinguish from other countries' over-utilized under-protected beaches (with the possible exception that the Hungarians, landlocked since the Treaty of Trianon, have invested Balaton with the frenzy and trappings of a populous ocean beach).

Debrecen -- A lovely, large, sheltered university town, with a spa hotel at its center.  Like university towns the world over it captures the best of both worlds -- a pleasant milieu, a vital cultural life, good food, thoughtful and progressive people.  Its university hosts the most successful and serious Hungarian language school in the world, with intensive summer sessions in a pleasant setting (they also have a Budapest branch).

Szeged -- Another university town, but this one is at the center of Hungary's paprika production, and therefore has an extra kick.  It is also the home of British expat and antiquarian bookseller (and Beckett scholar) Dr. Jeremy Parrott:

Pecs -- I have not been there, but a virtual friend has lived and taught there and she writes:

Pécs, a beautiful, mid-sized city in the south of Hungary, is one of the country’s many unsung treasures.  From Budapest, a train trip of about 3 hours brings the visitor through the small villages and lush landscape into the region known as Southern Trans-Danubia.  Pécs, the fifth largest city in Hungary, serves as an excellent jumping-off point for exploration of the region’s primeval forest, The Zengő, or a day trip to Harkany, the nearby medicinal spa, famous to Hungarians and Croatians alike.

With all the intrigue of an eclectic border town, Pécs architecture bears the influence of all of its forbearers.   Most notably, the Christian burial chamber, or, Roman Necropolis from the 3rd century BC, remains intact from the Roman Empire’s rule over the large region, “Pannonia,” when the city was called “Sopianae.”  Though renovations are in progress near the site of the necropolis near the great cathedral, the underground museum that allows surprising accessibly to the burial chambers is open to visitors.  Preparations are under way for 2010, the year the city will assume the title of a European Council nominated “Cultural Capital of Europe.”

From the city’s Turkish occupiers of the 16th century, a mosque, converted into a Christian church, is the focal point of the main square, Szecheny Square.  The central downtown, with a striking view of the hills sweeping up behind the city, is characterized by a Baroque style.  The main walking street, Kiraly Utca (King Street) is a testament to successful restoration efforts that invoke Pécs’ Golden Period at the end of the 19th century.  The National Theatre, the Synagogue, Jokai square and the main post office are also well renovated.

A small detour into the surrounding network of streets, however, gives visitors a better picture of the last century’s heavy impact where buildings rest in their original, unrestored state. 

During the Golden period, the city's Zsolnay ceramic factory gained international acclaim for its ceramic art for building use and large-scale ceramic fountains and sculptures.  A fountain in the main square is unmistakably Zsolnay, as are the roof tiles of the main post office.  The Zsolnay factory and its enchanting sculpture garden are open to visitors, though it is located outside the center to the south of the city.  The Zsolnay museum is on Káptalan Street in the center. 

Káptalan Street houses many of the city’s museums including the mining museum which provides an important context for understanding the impact of coal and Uranium mining on the region.  Coal mining helped finance the city’s rapid industrial and fine arts’ development at the end of the 19th century and, under the Soviets, the Uranium mine was one of the biggest employers in the city.   Most of the miners lived with their families in Uranvaros, or, Uranium Town, a suburb of apartment buildings in the Socialist Realism on the outskirts of the city.  Uranium Town, worth a visit, is accessible by buses 2, 4 and 27. 

The Champagne Factory, probably the most elegant restaurant in Pecs, is located in a restored wine cellar in nearby Szent Istvan Square in front of the cathedral.  Viticulture, because of the region’s Mediterranean-like microclimate, is a rich tradition.  Visitors should request a wine from nearby Villany, or better yet, come to Pécs during the annual wine festival in autumn.  The Dante Café on Janus Pannonius Street is an excellent venue for a local Pécs beer in its courtyard in the summer or a mulled wine in the winter.  Upstairs, the Csontvary museum houses the collection of one of Hungary’s most famous painters.

For a classic Hungarian restaurant experience visit the classic Csillog Etterem (Star Resturaunt) at 27 Hungaria Utca where the menu is also in English and the kind owner greets his regular customers by name.  Here, like at most restaurants in the country, lunchtime diners usually ask for the “Mai Menu,” meal of the day - a soup and main course for around $2.50 USD or 550 Hungarian Forints.  The food is excellent but the bread’s not free.  Expect a surcharge if you eat from the bread or any other extras set out on the table at restaurants.

The art theatre, Apollo Mozi on Perczel Street often shows English-language films and the adjoining lounge is a popular nightspot for local hipsters and Pécs’ large population of foreign students, either part of the Erasmus program or studying medicine at the Pécs medical school.    

The last small open-air market, or “piac” in Hungarian, in the city center is located on Felsőmalom Street – its biggest mornings are on Wednesdays and Saturdays.  The Big Market (Nagy Piac, pronounced “Nadj Pee-ahts”, in Hungarian), draws thousands of shoppers and vendors each week from as far away as Austria and Romania to buy and sell everything from cars to antiques. It is on Megyeri utca on Sunday mornings, with the biggest market on the first Sunday of the month.  Take bus number 3 from the train station and ask someone for directions from there. The indoor Market Hall, located near the bus station, is a critical space for local farmers and is open from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day. 

Markets like these are increasingly harder to find as regional governments sell off once-public spaces, including hospitals and marketplaces, in valuable real-estate locations, perhaps in an effort to offset the losses of a weak economy and endemic systemic corruption.  Local officials say the small Pécs market on Felsomalom Street will be closed in one year (the property was sold to a private contractor), so visit it while you can.    

To get a real sense of the city and sense just a hint of the rhythm of daily life, a three-day stay is recommended.  Accommodation in the historic center ranges from elegant and luxurious, Secessionist-period “Palatinus Hotel,” Kiraly Utca 5, $80-100 USD per night, to homey and affordable, “Centrum Kishotel”, Szepesy Ignac utca 4, $25-35 USD per night.  For more information about accommodation visitors can stop by the friendly visitors center in Szecheny Square.  Those who prefer a different option can arrange a room at a private home, ranging in price from $15 to $20 USD, or an apartment in a house from $30 USD, at the Ibusz office at 11 Kiraly utca.



At first, I used to fear that there just wouldn't be enough things to do in Budapest to fill an entire three-day visit...Now, a week feels unbearably short.  The more you allow yourself to relax into its rhythm, the longer you need before you even should consider venturing further afield in Hungary.  And yet, there is the Wine Country (especially Tokaj), the artist's colony at Szentendre (and the Danhube Bend), Balaton, the Puszta (Hungary's Wild West), and more...