Updated: Nov 14
I’ve been enjoying a rather unique tour of Hungary, courtesy of my Hungarian girlfriend and her family. Starting with a night-time drive through the beautifully-lit capital city of Budapest to my first destination, the idyllic town of Szentendre.
Szentendre is the perfect European town to such an extent that it’s often used in films to portray the perfect French town. From the beautiful buildings to the Danube beach, this is a top destination for both international and Hungarian tourists. Having said that, perhaps due to the time of my visit, it’s not overcrowded in the slightest, and the prices hardly reflect that of a tourist trap.
Leányfalu sits next to Szentendre and retains comparatively more of its village-ness, perhaps thanks in part to being farther from being swallowed by Buda-Pest and remaining less developed. Cycling around both towns is a joy, with dedicated paths following the twists and turns of the Danube.
A few days later, I caught my first glimpse of the Balaton, the largest lake in central Europe and a Hungarian national treasure. Under occupation by Soviet Russia, when Hungarians were prevented from leaving, they holidayed at The Balaton. This holiday home situation of the Balaton reminds me very much of Russian Dachas
as, in both instances, people have a ‘summer house’ they visit to get away from city life for a while; something we could really do with in England!
The Balaton almost defies description, unless you stick to the strictly geographical - big, wet, and surprisingly long. I’ve written a small poetic piece you’ll find at the bottom of the article; I’m unsure how it will compare to the efforts of the many great Hungarian poets. Even in the off-season, when it’s too cold for most to swim, the shore is still lined with people who have come just to sit and look out over the water. They stay for hours, no mobile phones, no books, with the occasional fishing rod, but mainly just looking out of their heads and receiving what the Balaton is giving.
In a less geographical sense, it’s an ocean of peace and tranquillity, of colour and life; a place of retreat from which to recharge one’s mind, body, and spirit.
Returning to Budapest, we managed to see much of what the centre has to offer within a few days. Hungarians seem to enjoy placing their top destinations in groups, meaning if you travel to see 1, you’ll likely find another 5-10 in the near vicinity. There’s a great view from the citadel where you can see many of the major landmarks of the city from one location, in addition to multiple viewing platforms on the bridges spanning the Danube.
My only possible gripe would be the building work - almost everything seems to be undergoing renovations at the same time. Don't get me wrong, it's great they're improving everything and they very kindly draw the image of the building on the covering sheets, but a picture isn’t quite the same as the real thing, even if it is life-size. In this one small area at least, it seems the timing of my visit was not quite so perfect.
I’m not a big fan of massive cities, but Budapest is one of the best I’ve ever stayed in. There’s a lot to see and lots of history on display, with the Danube separating the hilly Buda from the flat Pest via a series of impressive bridges. My favourite spot has to be Margit-Sziget (Margaret Island) which sits within the Danube and accessed from either end. It’s a slice of peace and nature in the heart of the city and I certainly never expected to stumble upon a hedgehog going about his business late on a Saturday night.
We then travelled via train to another Balaton-village which would be our base for about a week. I got the chance to see some folk music and a puppet show at a market in the small town of Vaszoly, something my Hungarian chaperones were rather embarrassed about, and to visit the extraordinary half-island town of Tihany.
I’d like to quickly give a big shout-out to Hungarian transport and just how amazing it is (compared to the UK). In Budapest, we used BuBis (Budapest Bikes) to get everywhere - you pay around £2 per month and can access them at sites all over the city. You can ride them for up to 30 minutes before being required to momentarily dock them or pay a fee to keep riding.
The trains and trams go everywhere and they’re all far cheaper and reliable than anything in the UK. For £20/month you can use any transport as much as you want in Budapest, for £40 this covers all of Hungary. Comparatively, I can barely travel from Sheffield to Manchester and back for that price.
The supermarkets just about beat English prices for daily shopping, with certain items like bread and alcohol being far cheaper. Alcohol is perhaps the biggest difference, with a pint costing £2-3 compared with £5-6 in the UK, and a similar price comparison for bottles of wine in stores. Something seems wrong when you can buy a bottle of champagne for less than a bottle of orange juice.
It was also a pleasure to eat and drink out more often than I usually would in the UK. My sister was recently charged ~£7 for a latte variant in a Costa Coffee in England, a far cry from the £2 I paid to sit and drink coffee next to the Országház. There were a few problems I encountered regarding eating out, however, as my dietary choices are somewhat less known and catered for...
Contemporary Hungarian cuisine seems to be a mix of all the surrounding countries, with influences from Russia, Turkey, and the Mediterranean. This could be completely wrong of course - being vegan meant I couldn’t really indulge in the cuisine. In fact, I couldn’t even consume their local bread, Kifli, their pizza dough (milk), or their pasta (egg). Their dishes centre around meat and sour cream, with most using at least one or the other and often both. So, in all honesty, I was doomed as a vegan from the very start.
Back to the Balaton… I’ve started to refer to this whole region as Hungarian-Tuscany, for the striking resemblance. There are vineyards everywhere and I’ve been told there’s even a legal requirement in certain areas for land-owners to grow grapes. There’s rolling hills and forests, wild boars and deer, and the whole place is a forager’s heaven.
More trips to Balaton villages including Balaton-Fured, where new meets old with fancy yachts and beautiful old buildings. The hospital here was built next to a natural spring with an abnormally high iron content, great if you enjoy the sharp tang of metal in your water or your diet ever gets referred to as non-heme.
We’ve been truly fortunate to get 4 weeks of summer across late September and early October, and I’m making the most of it before heading back to cold, wet Sheffield to hibernate for the coming 6 months of winter. Swimming twice a day in the Balaton is a joy, especially when I seem to have the whole Balaton Ocean to myself. Just me and a half-asleep swan drifting listlessly in the breeze.
Another day of work, swimming, dancing, and star-gazing, making one incredibly envious of the truly remote worker. Alas, soon we’re heading back to Budapest via a brief stop at Szentendre, before flying home. This time in Szentendre was a full-on tourist visit, buying souvenirs for the family and sitting down for a drink in the main square.
There’re a great many thermal baths in Hungary, thanks to the presence of natural hot springs throughout the country. I had a few days left and couldn’t possibly leave before trying at least one of them, choosing the Lukasc baths adjoining a hospital. Any hospital which includes frequent visit to thermal baths as part of their treatment plans gets both my respect and envy in equal measure. 5 hours spent going between the various pools and saunas left us feeling refreshed and revitalized, albeit desperately in need of a long sleep.
Hungarians have a truly beautiful and intriguing country here, albeit one a fair bit smaller than they had before. They seem to have been getting a poor deal for a very long time (based on my rudimentary knowledge of a thousand years of history) and it maybe shows - their national anthem even goes so far as to say ‘this nation has suffered for all sins of the past and of the future’.
As I was enjoying the irony of being barred entry to the Freedom Statues by fences and barbed wire, I learned a little more Hungarian history. These statues were erected by the Russians following WW2 to symbolise liberating Budapest from the Germans... they also symbolise the following 40 years of Soviet occupation. As part of an ongoing effort to de-Russia the city of Budapest, the Russian writing has now been entirely removed. The Citadella really does stand as a great symbol, that is one of both liberation and oppression.
I tend to smile at everyone as a matter of course and I noticed it was generally harder to get one returned in Hungary than in most places I’ve visited. Having said that, once you got through, people were very friendly, helpful, and great fun to be around. There’s a creativity and playfulness which seems to run through their veins, as evinced by their art and culture. I know I’ll enjoy delving into everything in the Hungarian language, just as soon as I spend half a lifetime learning it.
All in all, I really can’t recommend Hungary enough and I thoroughly enjoyed my time there. Just remember to use that ‘Hungary/hungry’ joke as often as you can - they really can’t get enough of it.
Balaton Origin of fire and violence Mighty Sea of tranquil peace Instils oneself with the sense Suffering will always cease A thousand stars guard the shore The heavens hues of deepest blue Cleansing mind and soul restore Reminds us what we answer to Susurrating earthly breath Roaming subjects of the night Engaging in delight and death Hold no fear of taking flight Obscured by fog and moonlight mist This life could be no other way True love’s first and final kiss Held in hearts beside Erdély