30 years ago today … experiencing Sopron, Hungary.


Previously: On June 3, 1987, from Sofia to Belgrade (and Budapest) by rail.

I’d arrived in Budapest from Sofia on the morning of Thursday, June 4, following 24 grueling hours of rail travel, apart from a brief respite in Belgrade. I was dirty, tired and hungry — and Hungary quickly confirmed its stellar reputation for inexpensive tourist-friendliness and fascinating things to see.

Later, at the end of three weeks in Hungary, much of it spent in relatively expensive Budapest, I calculated my expenses: Approximately $17 per day, including a train ticket to Moscow. I didn’t go hungry or thirsty. There’ll probably never be anything to match this.

Finding an official IBUSZ official state travel agency office after debarking in Budapest, I was quickly and efficiently booked a private room downtown for three recuperative evenings. The subway and bus network cost about 25 cents per trip. After being shown my room by a pleasant host and taking a hot bath, a neighborhood restaurant was found just down the street.

There’ll be more to say about Budapest in the days to come. In fact, I took only two photos staying there on my first go-around.

The first shows a dilapidated, war-damaged structure on Castle Hill, which was slowly restored during subsequent years. Each time I’d visit Budapest, I’d head up Castle Hill to see how it was coming. If memory serves, by 2002, it was entirely refurbished. It’s probably time to start again.

Budapest may have been Commie at the time, but the Renaissance buskers were doing well at the Fisherman’s Bastion.

On June 7 (Sunday) I took the train to Sopron, a city of 60,000 (2012) on the border with Austria.

Sopron’s core of Baroque buildings came into being after a 17th-century fire destroyed the medieval city. When the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy was created in 1867, bilingual Sopron was officially Hungarian, a decision later ratified in a post-WWI plebiscite.

Of special interest to me is a momentous event in Sopron, one I could not have foreseen in 1987.

On August 19, 1989, at the instigation of the Austrian Euro MP Otto von Habsburg (a name of some resonance in these parts) and the reformist Hungarian Minister of State Imre Pozsgay, it was agreed to hold a “Pan-European Picnic” just outside the Hungarian town of Sopron, right on the border with Austria.

The idea was to open the border for about three hours and allow participants to cross unchecked into Austria, taking a step further a process started two months earlier when the foreign ministers of Hungary and Austria, Gyula Horn and Alois Mock, had picked up some clippers and symbolically cut through the barbed wire.

The picnic organisers reckoned on a crowd of several thousand (it was over 10,000) who would come to enjoy a bite to eat and the removal, albeit temporarily, of the once impregnable Iron Curtain.

What they hadn’t reckoned on was the presence of about 600 canny East Germans who, hearing what was planned, thought they would seize the moment to escape to the West.

The Hungarian border guards turned a blind eye and let the East Germans through. Although the border was subsequently resealed, a chain of events had been set in motion that led, less than three months later, to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Bizarrely, after the fall of Communism the city of Sopron became a center of Hungarian dental tourism, with one of the highest per capita concentration of dentists in the world. As example, in the early 2000s a crown in Sopron cost 25% that of neighboring Austria, leaving more discretionary income for visiting patients to indulge with food and drink.

In 1987, I arrived in town and went looking for a hostel, which was full. For some reason, the tourist bureau had no private rooms for Sunday, so I spent the night in a hotel and returned Monday morning, when I was able to return to my preferred “cheapskate” price range.

The receipt in my scrapbook is indecipherable, but I can remember the room, in a an old house inhabited by a family with several young children. They spoke not one world of English, and barely acknowledged me, but every morning politely motioned me to the breakfast table. Something good would be waiting.

The early summer weather was stunning, the windows in my room always open, and the curtains billowing. I slept like a log. Puff balls from the trees were in the air, floating in the room, sticking to everything.

I’d love to know what a Fitbit would have registered for the walks I took. Looking at a map today, it might have been ten miles or more in total when I hiked through the woods toward the border and climbed the Károly Lookout Tower.

On the way back, there was a World War I monument.

At least three of my four evenings were spent at the pizzeria (to the left under the umbrellas) with a view of the Firewatch Tower. It had cheap draft beer and passable pie.

It’s a Sopron churchyard with an unwelcome red-starred guest. The Cyrillic lettering gives away the game; it’s a Soviet war memorial.

I’ll let the remainder of the photos evoke the 1980s.

The building in the last photo is a 19th-century synagogue, which to the present day has not been restored, although two historic older ones in Sopron have, and are museums.

Finally, the next to last photo shows a few of the hundreds of graves of World War I soldiers. Evidently I went on a second walk outside of town, to the Carmelite Monastery at Sopronbanfalva, then cut across a ridge to complete the loop back into town.

I’ve previously written about it here at the blog. My 1987 notes say I had goulash and stuffed peppers afterward.

It’s all coming back to me now.

In 1987, I found myself in Sopron, Hungary, choosing a beautiful early summer’s day to go for a hike in the hills. I came upon a large, older cemetery, and decided to walk through it, ascending a gentle, wooded slope past contemporary gravestones of the still-extant Communist era.

Like rings on a tree stump, history’s reverse chronology rotated as I continued uphill. Nearing the top, rows of Great War graves finally commenced. These were the soldiers who fought and died for the ruling family of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – the losers, as it were, who died as readily as the “winners” on the other side.

The first death dates were more recent: 1918, and then somewhat more from 1917, and as I scanned their names, the majority Hungarian, but also some Germanic and Slavic owing to the mutli-ethnic, polyglot nature of the Habsburg domain – as I contemplated how ridiculously, stupidly youthful so many of them were – I reached the lip of the hill, rather puzzled that there seemed to be no graves from earlier war years.

The answer to my befuddlement was just on the other side. Dipping into a valley studded with older, larger hardwoods, row after row of markers told the lethal tale: Died in 1916, 1915 and 1914.

Next: 30 years ago today: Four days in Kőszeg, a small Hungarian town.