Fields of Freedom

Tiny battered Trabant cars were abandoned in the trees and on the side of the road. Their owners had left them forever to go off and find a new life. The tears of joy shed that day marked the end of the old Europe and the start of a new era. It was at 3.20pm, August 17 1989, that hundreds of East Germans left the Pan-European picnic near Sopron in Western Hungary and crossed the border into Austria. They were exuberant and felt they were free at last. It was a prophetic moment and a defining one in modern history.

My guide remembers a time when you needed special permits to go to Sopron and movements were restricted. He was a teenager then. It was a time when everyone was constantly watched by vigilant and suspicious armed guards. The day of the picnic is engrained in his memory. Much of the rest of Europe has forgotten.

Each August they play Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s ninth symphony for the ensembled tourists in the field to mark the day. There could be no more apt choice seen as it is the EU anthem and Hungary has just joined.

Hungary has played such a pivotal role in modern European history that we oft forget. Those events in a field just next to the Austrian border marked the beginning of the end of Communism in Europe. The Hungarians were brave enough to take the first step and become no longer just a colony of Communist Russia. The Iron Curtain was dismantled with the Berlin Wall collapse a couple of months later.

It is just an empty field that marks the spot. Its emptiness seems more poignant. There is a line of some faded black and white photos taken on the day of faces filled with elation. The border that was iron is now used as a path by local cyclists. Austrian border guards languish in the sun with nothing to do. The decaying watchtower in the distance is a chilling reminder.

All has changed in Hungary since then and it is much easier to travel about. Budapest has justifiably become one of the most popular European city destinations, but not much is known about Hungary outside the environs of the capital. Western Transdanubania is not instantly recognizable as a tourist destination. More often than not it is confused with Transylvania of the vampires. It used to be one of the most inaccessible and undiscovered corners of the country. Now the border between Hungary and Austria is now just a formality and a relic of the old regime.

Sopron was the Roman town of Scarbantia and on the amber trading route. You can still see some of the ancient Roman walls. The town could so easily be part of Austria now and it was at one stage. After World War I with the break up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire the citizens of Sopron (then called Odenburg) voted in a referendum to be part of Hungary. The town has since been christened “most favoured city in Hungary”.

In times past, the town avoided the destructive invasions of the Turks and Mongols, so the medieval centre remains intact. The dramatic 15th century Firetower is the most dramatic edifice and has the best views of the environs. You walk through an ancient tunnel under the Firetower to get to the compact main square. The narrow streets that radiate off the square are a pleasant place to wander. One of these is the Jewish street, but there are not many Jews living in Sopron now. Under the Nazis a ghetto was created and a chain used to separate the street from the rest of the town. Most of the Jews of Western Hungary were sent to their deaths at the Auschwitz concentration camp.

The brilliant pianist and composer Franz Liszt was born near Sopron. He was a child prodigy and first performed in the town at nine years of age. He went on to be a musical superstar and a notorious philanderer. Just as he was about to play and bring his hands down to the keys women would swoon in the audience. So I guess he had sex appeal. In later days he became more pious and considered giving it all up to join the priesthood. Liszt was fascinated by gypsy music and his Hungarian Rhapsodies pay particular tribute to this genre of music.

Nearby the town of Fertod is the home of Prince Esterhazy’s palace with its ornate garden’s modeled on those at Versailles in France. Joseph Haydn conducted the Prince’s orchestra for thirty years and there is a festival held in his honour each year.

Lake Ferto does not have the amenities of the famous Lake Balaton nor is it as pretty or deep. The Austrian side is used more as an amenity for sailing and swimming. The nearby quarry at Fertorakos is really worth a visit. The quarry is now closed and it has been converted into a magnificent underground theatre with unbelievable acoustics and seating for 450 people. You feel that if you were lucky enough to catch an operatic performance in this space that it would be a magical experience. The prisoners from the nearby prison used to mine the quarry limestone. They now make footballs for FIFA.

The divine Roman Emperor Claudius founded Szombathely and it was an important empire town. The city was built from the profits of the amber trading route. It is also the birthplace of St Martin of Tours who went on to become one of the most revered French saints.

There is a curious James Joyce connection with Szombathely and you will find it quite strange to see his statue near the central square. He seems to be emerging from a wall in a comical way. The building he is coming out of used to be the home of the Blum family. They were Jewish merchants and allegedly Joyce met with one of them in Trieste and used him as the basis for his hero Leopold Bloom. The fictional character Bloom did have a Hungarian Jewish father but his name was Virag, which is a play on words as it means flower in Hungarian. So the link seems tentative at best, but it is enough to celebrate Bloomsday each year and sure there is no harm.

The border town of Koszeg is perhaps the prettiest town in the region. The picturesque Jurisics Square in the town centre is surrounded by brightly painted yellow and red buildings. Miklos Jurisics, a Hungarian soldier, and his small band of men held off the Turkish hordes in the castle with his name when the town was sieged. The church bells are tolled at 11am each day in memory of him.

At Pannonhalma, there is an ancient monastery that was founded in 1001 by St Stephen, the first king of Hungary. This is the seat of the Benedictine order and nowadays a boarding school. The abbey library has a valuable collection of old manuscripts and bibles, including the oldest example of written Hungarian. The monks run guided tours of the monastery, which are unfortunately only in Hungarian. You can get a leaflet in English that basically covers what the guide says in the tour, but you will have no way of authenticating whether or not he adlibs with witty asides. Although the Hungarians on the tour did issue the odd wry smile to themselves, the guide seemed pretty sombre to me, and rightly so I suppose.

The city of Gyor is at the confluence of three rivers the Danube, Raba and Rabca. Napoleon won a battle here in 1809 and stayed one night. It has an attractive pedestrian area with some colourful baroque and neoclassical buildings. Gyor has a famous ballet troupe.

In the basilica on the hill there is the famous picture of the Weeping Madonna brought from Ireland by an Irish bishop fleeing the wrath of Oliver Cromwell. According to legend the Lady of Gyor shed tears of blood on St Patrick’s Day in 1697.

Hungary is famous for its wellness industry and the most famous spa resorts in the region include those at Sarvar and Buk.

Goulash is Hungary’s emblematic dish. In its most traditional form it is a hearty beef soup with lots of spicy paprika. Vitamin C was isolated first from the red powdery spice. For vegetarians the choices are not as limited as you might think. Paprikash potatoes (without the sausage) and cabbage strudel are particularly tasty options.

For dessert, you get the usual delicious pastry and strudel offerings typical of anywhere in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The local Gundel pancake (like a crepe) with nuts, raisins and a chocolate sauce is a particularly mouthwatering specialty.

With your meal it is good to drink some locally produced wine. Although the Romans brought wine production to Hungary, it is only since the iron curtain was dismantled that it is achieving international acclaim and the techniques are being refined and modernized. The Sopron region is famous for its fruity white Kekfrankos (Blue Frankish) wine. In the early 18th century, Napoleon captured the town and the Blue Frankish name for the local red wine comes from the French currency.

Apart from the wine, Hungary is also famous for Unicum, a strong liquor concoction. This herby tipple is an acquired taste and the locals say you need to drink two, as the first tastes so awful. Like most liquors it has medicinal properties (and a medicinal taste too!) and you will oft see Hungarian men drinking it in the morning. For as well as settling that morning upset stomach you might have, it cures cerebral throbbing caused by having imbibed too much the night before.


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