Budapest might be Hungary’s star attraction, but venture beyond the capital’s borders and you’ll discover a country that remains rural and remarkably untouched. And there’s often a simplicity to the pleasures on offer — whether it’s the beautiful scenery, local history or a generous dining culture.
Take to the waters
Hungarian bathhouses are liberating places, and not just thanks to the relaxing thermal waters. There’s no concept of being ‘beach-body ready’; whatever your shape or size, you won’t be the fattest, thinnest, oldest, youngest or hairiest in the water.
There are 1,300 registered thermal water wells across the country, of which some 300 are used for medical treatments, while around 100 are used for spas. With their high mineral content — calcium, sulphates and fluoride, among others — the waters at Miskolctapolca, in northeastern Hungary, are said to be hugely beneficial to those who take a dip. Some visitors even go with a doctor’s note, seeking relief from circulatory, respiratory or joint problems.
But there are plenty of others, like me, who are just there to splash about in the network of indoor and outdoor pools, baths, caves and tunnels — a tradition that dates back to the 13th century. Although the majority of the facility dates to the mid-20th century, glimpses of Miskolctapolca’s past are still visible, including the remains of a 14th-century monastery just outside the modern bath complex.
While a Sunday morning at Miskolctapolca is more reminiscent of school swimming lessons than a spa day (nothing demonstrates the acoustics of a cave network quite like squealing children), the high spirits are contagious. And, with the waters heated to a balmy 30C, you’ll be happy to stay and soak all day.
Take two: Bathhouses
People have taken to the thermal waters at Budapest’s beautiful Gellért Baths for centuries. The current building is more than 100 years old and was previously the site of hospitals and water cures. The bathing experience here offers a relaxing break from the bustle of the city.
Close to the Austrian border, in the West Transdanubia region, is Bükfürdő, a collection of 34 medicinal, swimming and adventure pools spread across around 14 acres of countryside. The water here was officially classed as medicinal in 1965, and it’s evolved from a local hotspot to a vast, family-friendly spa and wellness complex.
That festival feeling
In Hungary, the period between 6 January and Ash Wednesday is known as Farsang (‘Carnival’) — a traditional time for feasting, masked balls and costume-wearing. Festivals such as Jazzpiknik are less about tradition and more about putting Hungary’s great summer weather to good use. Now approaching its eighth year, this three-day celebration of jazz and funk takes place every August on the shores of Lake Balaton. Previous headliners include Jamie Cullum, Soul II Soul and Incognito. As the name suggests, food and drink play a major part.
Take two: Festivals
A week-long festival of music, arts and culture, Sziget draws a cool crowd from across Europe to the banks of the Danube in northern Budapest. The 2018 event saw the likes of Dua Lipa, Arctic Monkeys, Mumford & Sons, Lana Del Rey and Gorillaz headlining, and Ed Sheeran has already been confirmed for 2019. Aside from the big names, there are surprises to be found in the other performance tents, from cabaret to dance, via magic shows and acrobatics. Should it all get too much, head over to the river beach for a spot of R&R.
Busójárás, which takes place in the town of Mohács over the final six days of Farsang, involves folk music, dancing, parades and masks. It’s said to date back to the days of the Ottoman invasion, when, on a stormy night, locals hiding outside the town scared off the usurpers wearing masks and making a racket.
Eating and drinking — fine dining in Budapest
In Budapest’s Castle District, with views of Matthias Church and a glimpse of the Fisherman’s Bastion, Ramazuri Bistronomy offers a warm welcome and a concise menu. Their goulash (gulyásleves — ‘herdsman’s soup’) is a marvel; silky smooth and full of vegetables, with beef that yields to the spoon. Ditto the chicken paprikash — a comforting, simple stew of chicken in a cream- thickened paprika sauce. Both are gently spiced.
The first restaurant in Hungary to
receive a Michelin star (in 2010), Costes continues to impress. Chef Eszter Palágyi marries her classical French training with Hungarian dishes, ingredients and flavours, offering a series of tasting menus matched to local wines, craft beers or even non-alcoholic cocktails.
As the name suggests, the wine list is undoubtedly the star of the show at this bustling, modern restaurant. And, for a Michelin-starred spot, it’s pleasantly informal. There are around 200 wines on the list, with a Hungarian bias, and, impressively, around 48 available by the glass.
So far, Budapest’s only two-starred restaurant, Onyx follows a similar path to Costes and Borkonyha, with a philosophy of tradition and innovation. Under chef Ádám Mészáros’ guidance, there are two menus: Within Our Borders, which makes the most of the abundance of local ingredients; and Beyond Our Borders, a celebration of the chef’s creativity.
Fricska Gastropub could be more accurately named Fricska Bistro. While its website promises, intruigingly, a ‘bit of an Italian and French twist, plus Hungarian nouvelle cuisine’ — prepared by ‘evergreen hippies’ no less — the results are much better than that might sound, and straightforwardly tasty (particularly the housemade pasta).
This charming little place is the holder of a Bib Gourmand — a Michelin award given for ‘exceptionally good food at moderate prices’, and you can’t fault the decision: this rustic spot offers big flavours and relatively small bills. The Michelin Guide describes it as ‘a friendly neighbourhood bistro where Budapest meets Paris’. Should you fancy it, you can even dine in a vintage Citroën 2CV.
Five dishes not to miss
When asked if I’d tried any local stews, I said I’d tried goulash. “Goulash is not a stew — goulash is a soup!” came the reply. Lesson learned. It is a very hearty soup, paprika-laced and with generous quantities of vegetables and tender beef.
This classic chicken dish usually combines five key Hungarian ingredients: onions, green peppers, tomatoes, paprika and sour cream, though recipes vary from region to region.
Halászlé (fisherman’s soup) is a staple of menus across the country. The key ingredients are fish stock and chunks of river fish, such as catfish, perch, pike or carp. Paprika plays its part once again, giving the soup its heat and reddish-orange colour.
This layered dessert of sponge, alcohol, cream and chocolate is rather like tiramisu. Walnuts and rum add texture and richness. Pretty much everybody you ask will have a favourite version but it’s said to have originated in Budapest restaurant Gundel.
A deep-fried, crunchy flatbread, lángos is traditionally topped with cheese, sour cream and garlic, and less traditionally with pretty much anything you want, from sausages to sugar and jam.
Once upon a time
With its glistening white towers, there’s a hint of fairytale about Füzér Castle, although my immediate thoughts upon spotting it are less Brothers Grimm and more Bear Grylls: in order to visit the castle, you appear to have to climb up to it.
As it happens, this isn’t as challenging as it first appears, thanks to ‘natural’ staircases — some mud, some rock — carved into the hillside, and, thanks to an ongoing renovation programme, some new steps and solid handrails. While it’s a relatively easy ascent today, you have to admire the dedication of those who originally built the castle (and those who took part in the modern renovation, carrying around 26,000 tonnes of material up the hill in the process).
Jenő Horvath has been the mayor of Füzer since 2002. During my visit, he tells me the renovation is using as much of the old stonework as possible, pointing out the darker original stones — many of which were found in the wells — now supported by newer, whiter ones. “We wanted visitors to be able to tell,” Jenő says of the contrast, which is particularly striking in the outer walls, some of which are over nine feet thick.
Although the castle dates back to 1235, the mountain has been inhabited for much longer. “Over the years, we’ve found relics from the Bronze Age, the Romans — even though the Romans were never here — and coins from the Celts, dating back to 200 BC,” says Jenő. He’s keen, however, to stress that the castle “is not
a museum. It is living”.
Today, the castle is thriving. It’s a popular wedding venue — remarkable, given the hill-climbing trial you’d be putting your suited, booted and high-heeled guests through, though presumably worth it for the photos; as well as hosting activities such as vinegar-making workshops. There’s even a vegetable and herb garden, which must be among the most scenic allotments in the world.
As we reach the Lower Bastion, Jeno stops, smiles and, with a sweep of his hand, gestures to the view. “There were 14 villages under the castle owners,” he tells me. “And from here you can see it all.” The forests are just turning to autumn, in a view that rivals New England at its red-and-gold-leafed peak, while the sun-kissed valleys, hills and fields bring to mind Napa at its best. “Worth the climb then?” asks Jenő, with a laugh.
Take two: Royal residences
Not to be confused with Vienna’s Esterházy Palace, Esterházy Castle was built by the same family and is similarly grand, often described as the ‘Hungarian Versailles’. Located in Fertőd, close to the Austrian border, it started out as a hunting lodge and evolved into the remarkable building it is today.
The baroque Festetics Palace is in Keszthely, Zala, in south west Hungary. It’s now one of Hungary’s three biggest country houses. Kristof Festetics started building the palace on the foundations of a ruined castle in 1745 and the project tripled in size during two subsequent building projects.
The secret behind Tokaji Aszú — the sweet Hungarian wines that currently have sommeliers and wine writers waxing lyrical — is Tokaj, the region that produces them. Sprawled across around 27,000 acres of north-eastern Hungary, dotted with hills (actually extinct volcanoes), lakes, rivers, woods and those celebrated vineyards, Tokaj is a beautiful part of the country; so beautiful, in fact, that UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Cultural Historic Landscape in 2002. The region enjoys a continental climate and stony soil, which allows vine roots to grow metres deep. It’s this that encourages botrytis, the all-important ‘noble rot’ that produces these legendary wines.
Take two: Wine regions
Eger is the home of Egri Bikavér, the wine known in English as Bull’s Blood. As the name suggests, this northeastern region specialises in red wines, although some whites are also produced.
This is one of Hungary’s smallest appelations, where grapes have been cultivated since Roman times. The mild climate here favours fragrant whites such as Olaszrizling.
Winemaker, Demetervin Winery, Mád, Tokaj
Who started the business?
My grandfather started the vineyard in 1921. It’s the stoniest, the oldest and it has the deepest roots — around nine metres. My father bought vineyards as a hobby, but then had more wine than he could drink with friends — so it became his profession.
Why is the region so suited to late-harvested sweet wines?
Because of the two rivers, the Tisza and the Bodrog, we always have humidity during the harvest, around November. That’s what is responsible for the botrytis. Furmint, the grape used for this wine, is challenging to grow, but the older vineyards can almost look after themselves. They’re used to being left alone, and we take the same attitude to wine-making, using hand cultivation and hand pressing (the simplest method). We leave them alone, we don’t measure the wines during fermentation. My grandfather used to say you shouldn’t even go into the cellar until February.
Are there challenges with such a late harvest?
It’s a risk letting the grapes shrink on the vine in the vineyard; one frost, one rain, and that’s it, the last day of your harvest. The deer, the birds, the burglars… Everyone is eating your grapes!
Lake Tisza is a man-made lake off the Tisza River, created when a dam was built to control the flooding of the Tisza River. Having had over four decades to bed in, you’d be hard-pressed to tell it’s artificial; 17 miles in length and, at up to 56ft deep, it’s dotted with islands, many of which have become havens for wildlife.
Hungarians have flocked to this region since it was built — birdwatchers love it. To best spot the varied species, particularly the shy kingfishers, the ideal way to explore is by kayak, or alternatively, you can cycle. On the lake’s shore you’ll find the Tiszafüred Cycling Centre — a striking building with elevated cycle tracks, the whole thing reminiscent of New York’s Guggenheim Museum. So if you’ve ever wondered how it would feel to free-wheel down that landmark, this is the place for you. Bike hire starts at around £9 a day — which should be enough time to travel around the smooth 40-mile lakeside bike path.
The lake is also very near Debrecen, Hungary’s second-largest city, with its international airport.
For visitors keen to relax, boats can be hired — as can house boats, should you want a longer stay — or you can swim in the water. There are plenty of opportunities to disappear and enjoy nature, your own company and some spectacular scenery.
Take two: Active days out
Rowing in Tokaj
Tokaj is, according to local kayaking instructor and guide Balázs Éliás, the “ideal location for river travel and hiking”. There are even villages in the region that are inaccessible except by boat.
Horse-Riding in SzilvÁsvÁrad
The Lipica Equestrian Centre in Szilvásvárad offers riding lessons, as well as coach driving instruction, plus there’s a museum and stud farm.
Getting there and around
There are multiple direct flights to Budapest from the UK, from airlines including British Airways, EasyJet, Ryanair and Wizz Air; the latter serves Budapest four times a day via Luton.
Average flight time: 2h 25m
Car hire is simple in Hungary and roads are generally excellent and relatively quiet. There’s also a very good railway system, serving most key cities and tourist centres. Local services can be slow, but the intercity service is fast, comfortable and good value. Budapest is often the hub, so you may have to detour via the capital on longer cross-country journeys.
When to go
Hungary enjoys hot summers and mild springs and autumns. Unless you’re keen on the cold, it’s best to avoid winter, when temperatures can fall to -10C.
Fuzer Castle. fuzerivar.hu
Esterhaza Castle. eszterhaza.hu
Festetics Palace. helikonkastely.hu/en/festetics-palace
Tisza-tavi Kerékpáros Centrum. bringato.hu
Produced in association with the Hungarian Tourism Agency. hellohungary.com