Freed from the iron fist of Soviet rule, newly democratic Hungary is in the midst of full-swing revitalization. Budapest offers breathtaking Old World grandeur and thriving cultural life—a must-stop on any trip to Central Europe. In distinctive smaller cities like Pécs, Szeged, Debrecen, and Kecskemét, cobblestone streets wind among lovely Baroque buildings. In the countryside, gleaming sunflower fields blanket gently swelling hills, and sleepy villages of thatched-roof cottages cluster around carefully tended vineyards. Hearty meals spiced with rich red paprika, the generosity and warmth of the Magyar soul: These and more sustain visitors to this land of vital spirit and beauty.
Hungary sits at the crossroads of Central Europe, having retained its own identity by absorbing countless invasions and foreign occupations. Its industrious, resilient people have a history of brave but unfortunate uprisings: against the Turks in the 17th century, the Hapsburgs in 1848, and the Soviet Union in 1956. Each has resulted in a period of readjustment, a return to politics as the art of the possible.
The 1960s and ’70s saw matters improve politically and materially for the majority of Hungarians. Communist Party leader János Kádár remained relatively popular at home and abroad, allowing Hungary to expand and improve trade and relations with the West. The bubble began to burst during the 1980s, however, when the economy stagnated and inflation escalated. The peaceful transition to democracy began when young reformers in the party shunted aside the aging Kádár in 1988 and began speaking openly about multiparty democracy, a market economy, and a break from Moscow—daring ideas at the time.
Events quickly gathered pace, and by spring 1990, as the Iron Curtain fell, Hungarians went to the polls in the first free elections in 40 years. A center-right government led by Prime Minister József Antal took office, sweeping away the Communists and their renamed successor party, the Socialists, who finished fourth. Ironically, four years later, in the nation’s next elections, Hungarians voted out the ailing center-right party in favor of none other than the Hungarian Socialist Party, which ruled in coalition with the Free Democrats until it was ousted again in the 1998 elections. Voting the center right FIDESZ party, led by 35-year-old Viktor Orbán, into power, the nation has chosen an entirely new generation to take it into the new millennium. Plus ça change…
Because Hungary is a small, agriculturally oriented country, visitors are often surprised by its grandeur and Old World charm, especially in the capital, Budapest, which bustles with life as never before. Hungarians like to complain about their economic problems, but they spare visitors bureaucratic hassles at the border and airport. Entry is easy and quick for Westerners, most of whom no longer need visas. Gone are the days when visitors were forced to make daily currency exchanges and register with local police on arrival.
Two rivers cross the country: The famous Duna (Danube) flows from the west through Budapest on its way to the southern frontier, and the smaller Tisza flows from the northeast across the Nagyalföld (Great Plain). What Hungary lacks in size it makes up for in beauty and charm. Western Hungary is dominated by the largest lake in Central Europe, Lake Balaton. Although some overdevelopment has blighted its splendor, its shores are still lined with Baroque villages, relaxing spas, magnificent vineyards, and shaded garden restaurants serving the catch of the day. In eastern Hungary, the Nagyalföld offers visitors a chance to explore the folklore and customs of the Magyars (the Hungarians’ name for themselves and their language). It is an area of spicy food, strong wine, and the proud csikós (horsemen).
Hungarians are known for their hospitality and love talking to foreigners, although their unusual language can be a problem. Today, however, everyone seems to be learning English, especially young people. But what all Hungarians share is a deep love of music, and the calendar is studded with it, from Budapest’s famous opera to its annual spring music festival. And everywhere Gypsy violinists are likely to serenade you during your evening meal.