by Bob Brooke
Hungary is unlike anywhere in Europe. Though it's at the center of the Continent, its extremely long and complicated history ties it more to the east than the west. Whether you explore its cities or its countryside, you'll think you've left Europe because its language, its food, its music, and its people are so very different from anything you have seen and sensed elsewhere. In fact, the Hungarian language bears no relation to those of its neighbors, for its nearest relatives are the tongues of the Finns and the Estonians, far away in Northern Europe.
Hungary is a small, mostly flat country about the size of Ireland. You'll find mountains to the west and north and to the east and south the great Hungarian plain. Its capital, Budapest, is one of Europe's most handsome cities. But beyond it to the west lies Lake Balaton, Europe's largest warm-water inland sea, with its charming baroque towns and sunny vineyards on low hills. Then there's the Great Plain, home of the Magyars, an area of small towns and villages almost lost amid the vast lowlands stretching endlessly to the horizon. Here, you'll discover splendid horses and their riders, the csikos, fiery food, and strong wine.
Hungary's multi-level history, influenced by the cultures of so many different invaders, is what makes this country so interesting. First came the Romans. who built forts and camps for their legions, amphitheaters for their games, and aqueducts for their sumptuous baths. Next came Attila, the Scourge of God, with his Huns, followed by the Avars who were vanquished by Charlemagne.
The Magyars originated from the region of the Ural Mountains. They came to Hungary in the 9th century. Arpad, the first Prince of Hungary, conquered the country and laid the foundation for an Hungarian monarchy which his great-grandson Saint Stephen I established with a crown sent by the Pope from Rome in 1000 A.D. He broke ties with Turkey and the Church of Byzantium and linked his country to the West and the Church of Rome. In the 11th and 12th centuries, the Magyars fought many battles to preserve their independence against attacking Germanic tribes. The 13th century brought the Mongols who laid the land waste. While the nation managed to survive, the monarchy didn't fair as well. In the mid 16th century, the Turks overran the country and after 150 years of Ottoman occupation, the Habsburg family integrated it into their empire. By 1867, the Habsburgs made the country half of an Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy.
During World War I, Hungary marched with Austria and Germany, and after a brief revolution in 1918, it broke away from Austria. A great power until the end of World War I, it lost about 70 percent of its territory, along with one third of its ethnically Hungarian population. Hitler's rise drew Hungary into the German orbit. World War II brought suffering and devastation to the country, followed by occupation by the Red Army and the Communist Bloc. In 1989, Hungary once again opened its border with Austria, toppling the Communist regime.
Hungary is known for its spas and thermal springs, all 1,300 of them. Most offer medical treatments, massages, and such and aren't as luxurious as those found in other European countries. In addition, it has the largest thermal water cave system and the second largest thermal lake, Lake Hévíz, in the world. Because of its abundant lakes, rivers, and streams, Hungary is also popular with fisherman. And if you like birdwatching or horseback riding, you'll find ample opportunities on the Great Plain.
Hungary Resources23 Photos of Budapest - 23 iconic photos of Budapest
Hungary - the online home of Hungarian Tourism
Hungary Festivals - from the Sziget Festival to Budapest Fringe, 2camels has got dozens of Hungarian festivals covered
Lonely Planet Hungary - the popular guidebook's take on Hungary
Sziget Festival - one of the largest music and cultural festivals in Europe held in Budapest each August
Visit Hungary - where to stay, what to see and do in Hungary