Transdanubia, hidden gem of Hungary

Gyor and Lake Balaton


Gyor City HallWhen someone suggested Hungary as a great short break destination I immediately thought of Budapest, it was the only place I knew in Hungary.  But, no, it was not the capital that was suggested, it was Hungary’s northwest corner known as Transdanubia.  As I was to find out, this is a stunning area with a rich history, sophisticated architecture, wonderful countryside, friendly people and such good value for money.

Transdanubia covers the west of Hungary and boarders Austria, Slovakia, Slovenia and Croatia.  It is much quieter than the capital but is equally rich in history and culture and has the added benefit of beautiful countryside and is one of the main wine producing areas in Hungary.  Transdanubia has been inhabited since the Roman times, was ruled by the Turks for a time and is right in the heart of what was the Austria-Hungarian Empire.  It is in a strategic position where two rivers join the mighty Danube and is well served by road and rail connections to both Budapest and Vienna.  The history of this area has left a great diversity of architecture both in the cities and the countryside and the architecture also reminds us that it is less than 30 years since the Hungarian revolution that once again established Hungary as a democratic country. 

Jedlik Fountain, GyorAs I was on a 4 day short break, I chose to base myself in Gyor, half way between Vienna and Budapest and took a morning flight to Vienna.  I planned to explore the countryside as well as the city of Gyor so I hired a car at the airport and around an hour later I was in Gyor with plenty of time to explore the city and have dinner.   

Gyor is a thriving cosmopolitan city with a rich history and a lively bar and cafe culture was very evident during the hot June evening.  Many of the cafes and bars have outdoor seating and a wide variety of music could be heard as you stroll along the pedestrianised streets.  Outside one of the bars a jazz band was playing and passers-by broke into dance in the street.  Rich aromas of steaks and other grilled meats from restaurants blended with the sweet smell of waffle cones and coffee from some of the many Gelateria.  It was hard not to be hungry and that was just as well as there are many different types of food available.  The meal I had was substantial, very well prepared and exceptional value for money at under £10 all in.

The Old Town, GyorThe rich history of the city was very evident in the many impressive buildings and Gyor is compact enough to be explored on foot, especially the Old Town.  The Cathedral and the Bishops Palace are probably the most spectacular and substantial buildings in the Old Town, but the enormous main square as well as many of the streets radiating from it also contain many other hidden gems including the house where Napoleon stayed and the very unusual Jedlik fountain named after Anyos Jedlik the inventor of the soda making machine who lived in Gyor for most of his life.

Whilst there are other wonderful cities in this region, for me, the more rural areas of Transdanubia reveal some of the real hidden gems.  On the second day I took a drive south of Gyor and in under 30 minutes found myself approaching the small town of Pannonhalma and set high above the plains on a prominent hill was the imposing sight of the World Heritage listed Pannonhalma Monastery.  The monastery is an imposing sight and the views over the surrounding countryside are equally impressive once you reach the Monastery buildings. 

Library at Pannonhalma MonasteryThe Monastery is more extensive than I imagined as, in addition to what you would expect to find in a large Benedictine Monastery, there is a Benedictine Grammar School and the Neo-classical library with over 400,000 volumes.  The Monastery church is both enormous and spectacular, particularly when you consider that there are now only 35 monks in residence.

The Monastery has a visitor centre with a very interesting short orientation film which puts the rest of your visit in context, but to get the best from your visit I suggest you join one of the guided tours.  The guides are very informative, speak excellent English and will take you to areas that you will not find alone.  If you are very lucky you might get the opportunity to join the Monks in prayer, their chanting is hypnotic.  The Monastery has what is reported to be one of the top ten restaurants in Hungary, Viator and its own winery which produces some truly excellent wines both of which combine to offer the required refreshment and nourishment after your tour.  It is easy to spend half a day or more at the monastery.

Fisherman and Ferryman on Lake BalatonOn my third day I again set off south past Pannonhalma into an area known as the Bakony which is a forested volcanic mountain range which in turn leads to the north shores of Lake Balaton, the largest fresh water lake in central Europe.  A gentle drive through the Bakony reveals some more hidden gems such as Zirc with its Cistercian Abbey or Veszprem which has one of the best preserved castles in Hungary.  My destination was Lake Balaton and one of the resorts on the north shore of the lake called Balatonfured. 

Balatonfured was originally developed as a resort for the wealthy of Budapest, it has now grown into a sophisticated modern resort with a blend of old and new buildings and a beautiful promenade along the lake, look out for the twin statues of the fisherman and the ferryman.  There are a number of marinas and a large pier where you can take a boat trip on the lake which is 48 miles long and nearly 9 miles wide, but has an average depth of only 10 feet.  There are a good selection of bars and restaurants and some excellent gelateria. 

Promenade at BalatonfuredIf you have time, take the ferry across the lake and explore the much less developed southern shore with its wineries and fabulous views across the lake to the Bakony, the sunset provided a spectacular ending to another great day.  With a drive of around an hour and a half to get back to Gyor I had to bid farewell to Lake Balaton and head north on the motorway that skirts the Bakony.

Day four provided time for a leisurely breakfast and a last stroll around Gyor before it was time to head back to Vienna airport for an afternoon flight back to London.  A short break only gave me time to scratch the surface of this fascinating area of Hungary, but it has shown me that there is so much more to see and I am going to have to plan a more relaxed visit next time so that I can do justice to this wonderful country with such friendly people.

More about Steve

From an early age, travel has been a big part of my life.  I am not sure if it is down to my Viking heritage or the fact that I travelled extensively with my parents.  My career in the hospitality industry further developed my love of travel and enabled me to combine it with my other great passion, good food and wine.  My wife Margaret shares my interests and we have organised and hosted a number of touring holidays and weekend breaks in Europe and the UK.  When we are not undertaking our travels, we really enjoy planning our next adventures and sharing our experiences with others.

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Steve Williams

Former director of product services at Carnival UK

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