Not a lot happened in Central Europe throughout the centuries without the Magyars of Hungary having some say in the matter. It was probably the fact that the main waterway, the Danube, bisects the country. As part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, It was the main power in the area before WW1. Hungary is also renowned as a wine growing country with 4 main areas scattered around the country. Tokay is probably the best known Hungarian wine.
Hungary is an easy country to visit by car as the road network is pretty good and there are a lot of places to visit that are best accessed by car. Budapest is the capital and is the centre of everything; so you might say that all roads lead to Budapest. The main highway, the M1, certainly does. It connects Vienna in Austria to Budapest, with connecting roads to Bratislava in Slovakia and Gyor in Hungary. Hungarian highways are toll roads and you need to buy an eVignette at the first opportunity. As of 2014, they were 1500 fl. (about $7 AUD). The eVignette is not a sticker like other countries, but a registration of your car number in a tolling database that the Hungarians use with numberplate recognition radars to collect tolls and identify offenders. Drivers in Hungary are not of the manic characteristic prevalent in some of the eastern countries and the legal BAC is zero. Any accident should get a police report as you may have trouble exiting the country with visible damage not covered by said police report.
An alternative to the M1 is the A3 which goes a little out of the way through a town called Sopron (pronounced Shopron). As you get to Sopron you notice a number of large supermarkets and factory outlets. The prices in Hungary are significantly cheaper than Austria, so a lot of Viennese drive the 60 kms for their shopping. Sopron also has a number of cellar doors in the old town representing the surrounding vineyards. There is also a lot of medical tourism into Hungary, especially dentistry, as the expertise is equal to Western Europe, but the prices are significantly lower. Another advantage of the A3 is that it goes through Eisenstadt, the location of Esterhazy Palace (of the late Hapsburg dynasty). Esterhazy is the location for many a musical spectacular, with Andre Rieu and soprano Anna Netrebko performing there regularly.
The M1 takes about 2 hours to get you to Budapest. Tour de Europe uses the 5 star Corinthia Grand Hotel Royal on Elizabeta Korut (Elisabeth Boulevard) when we visit Budapest (www.corinthia.com) . It was voted best hotel in Europe a number of years ago and has one of Budapest’s best restaurants (The Bock) on site. Also good value is the €60 executive upgrade. It gives you an executive room and access to the executive area where you can get free drinks, snacks and breakfast 24/7.Our clients reckon the service is impeccable and parking for your car is onsite. Its only disadvantage is that it is about 10 minutes walk from the river, but much cheaper than the Marriot for example.
Budapest itself is a city of two halves. Buda is the much older part on the west side of the river and contains the palace, and other historic buildings. On the eastern side of the river is Pest, which grew up in the last century or so once the first bridge (the Chain Bridge) was erected over the Danube in 1848. The Pest side is where everything happens. The best way to orient yourself is to take a trip on the Hop-on Hop-off bus. The bus takes you to most of the places in Budapest you’d want to see and you can break your journey anytime to check out something of interest. We found the most interesting places are the Palace district, the Jewish Quarter, the parliament house (still bearing bullet holes from the 1956 revolution in tribute to the martyrs that died there) and the Magyar Vasúttörténeti Park in the Pest part of town, which has a reasonable railway museum with over 100 exhibits.
One place worth checking out is Vaci Ulitsa (Vaci Street). It is a pedestrian mall that runs parallel to the river, one street back. Full of people, cafes and shops. One of the usual tourist scams is prevalent here. This is where pairs of girls patrol the street asking guys for a drink in an adjacent bar. If you go there, you get presented with a bill for many hundreds of Euro’s by two guys that look like they could go 10 rounds with Floyd Mayweather.
The Parliament building in Budapest from the riverside.
You can’t go to Budapest without going on a twilight dinner cruise. The last time Tour de Europe went to Budapest we used Legenda Cruises (www.legenda.hu) for a candlelit dinner cruise. It went for about 1½ – 2 hours and was good value with good food and plenty to see. Legenda also do normal sightseeing cruises as well as lunch and dinner cruises. They leave from Pier 7.
One of the last things to mention about Budapest is the large number of small shops selling Lego. You can even buy individual blocks. Seems that Hungarian kids are hooked on Lego.
The four main wine growing areas are in the west around Sopron, in the northeast around the Slovak border (Tokaj area), in the south around Lake Balaton and in the south east around Szeged and Pecs. Hungarian wines are generally of the red variety with the fortifieds coming from the Northern areas along the border with Slovakia. The Lake Balaton area is an appealing place to visit with the small town of Tihany being the main centre. The town services the many, many holiday homes in the area. On the Tihany peninsula is a historic Benedictine Monastery that accepts visitors if you’re looking for an architectural fix.
Lastly, if you’re going to Hungary, you’ll need to check the current situation regarding the refugee crisis as Hungary has closed borders at times especially on the southern side i.e Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania.