Visitors who refer to Hungary as a Balkan country risk getting a lecture on how this small, landlocked nation of eleven million people differs from "all those Slavs". Hungary was likened by the poet Ady to a "river ferry, continually travelling between East and West, with always the sensation of not going anywhere but of being on the way back from the other bank"; and its people identify strongly with the West while at the same time displaying a fierce pride in themselves as Magyars - a race that transplanted itself from Central Asia into the heart of Europe. Any contradiction between nationalism and cosmopolitanism is resolved by what the Scottish expatriate Charlie Coutts called the Hungarian "genius for not taking things to their logical conclusion". Having embarked on reforming state socialism long before Gorbachev, Hungary made the transition to multi-party democracy without a shot being fired, while the removal of the iron curtain along its border set in motion the events leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The end of communism has hastened the spread of glossy western capitalism, and on arrival in Budapest your first impressions will be of a fast-developing and prosperous nation. However, there is another side to post-communist Hungary, and beyond the capital and Lake Balaton living standards have fallen sharply amongst many people, for whom the transition to democracy has brought very mixed blessings indeed.
Hungary's capital, Budapest, inspires a feeling of déjà vu. It's not just the vast Gothic parliament and other monuments of a bygone imperial era that seem familiar, but the latest fashions on the streets, or a poster advertising something that was all the rage back home a year before. In coffee houses, Turkish baths, and the fad for Habsburg bric-a-brac, there's a strong whiff of Mitteleuropa - that ambient culture that welcomed Beethoven in Budapest and Hungarian-born Liszt in Vienna. Meanwhile a wave of new clubs and restaurants and a burgeoning sex industry reflects the advent of nouveau riche entrepreneurs, and a massive influx of tourists and foreign investment.
After Budapest, Lake Balaton and the Danube Bend vie for popularity. The Balaton, with its string of brash resorts, styles itself as the "Nation's Playground," and enjoys a fortuitous proximity to the Badacsony wine-producing region. The Danube Bend has more to offer in terms of scenery and historic architecture, as do the Northern Uplands and Transdanubia. The beautiful old parts of Sopron, Gyor and Pecs are, rightfully, the main attractions in Transdanubia, though for castle enthusiasts the Zempleni range and the lowlands of southern Transdanubia also have several treats in store; while in the Uplands the famous wine centres of Tokaj and Eger are the chief draw. On the Great Plain Szeged hosts a major festival, and its rival city, Debrecen, serves as the jumping-off point for the archaic Erd,hat region and the mirage-haunted Hortobagy puszta. See the chapter introductions for more details about each region....Continua