Sopron is a mere two hours drive from Budapest but world’s apart. The streets are calmer and cleaner, the buildings are a lot less ostentatious and…….the people speak nary a word of English, as we found the moment we heaved our kids and bags past the sign that reads Pannonia Hotel, Anno 1893 and into the empty, marble-clad lobby of Sopron’s oldest hotel.
A handsome Magyar – Asian-looking with a dash of European – shuffled out from the reception office, looking like he hasn’t met a guest in the past 10 years.
“Igen?” he says.
“We’d like to check in please,” I replied, but his face remained blank and passive.
“Oh @^%$!,” I cursed under my breath, disappointed that we weren’t about to engage in witty banter about why else I was standing there with two noisy children and a ton of bags if I wasn’t checking in. “Manager?”
Realizing that my language was as foreign to him as Klingon, he hurried back into the office and reappeared with his colleague who, thankfully, spoke minimal English.
“Sign this,” said the less handsome – but more enlightened – colleague, handing me a sheaf of papers that required me to disclose my date of birth, place of birth, favorite foods and everything else in between.
I was annoyed. I haven’t done so much paperwork since…..well, since.
After scrawling down the answers as quickly as possible whilst rolling my eyes in between, we were finally shown the lift. Our (haunted-looking) suite – which was down a long, deserted hallway reminiscent of The Shining – had strange choice of artworks…
…and one very odd-looking toilet bowl.
I would’ve looked under the bed for corpses had we not spent a good few minutes marveling over the porcelain throne and wondering how it worked. (Little did we realize that many toilet bowls in Hungary looked just like this one).
After this little toilet fiasco, we skipped across the main road to the Old Town, which is still surrounded by ancient Roman walls. All was quiet, except for the tinkling of piano keys that streamed out from an open window at the Franz Liszt Cultural Centre. Composer Franz Liszt, who was born and raised in a nearby village, performed his first concert here at the age of 9, and the centre is now a top venue for major events and performances. Joseph Haydn also made regular stopovers here.
The country’s ‘most faithful city’ may have opted to stay with Hungary rather than be absorbed into Austria in 1921, but we could see that its architecture is still distinctly Austrian as we bounced across its cobblestone lanes in the Sopron tourist train.
The most elegant of these buildings can be found on the main square, where pigeons outnumbered tourists and the boys were ecstatic to find that these birds were theirs – and theirs alone – to chase.
We shuffled up the spiral staircase of the Fire Tower to admire the city’s red-tiled roofs from above. The most touristed monument in Sopron is built in the 13th century so that guards could watch for devastating fires and alert the locals from here.
Given its small size, Sopron is subdued even in the day. The fashion boutiques here are questionable…
…and judging from the number of dental clinics scattered around town, most people made periodontal pilgrimages here. Even our hotel has its own in-house dentist specializing in cosmetic procedures, hidden amongst its maze-like corridors.
But dental work and gaudy wedding dresses aren’t the only thing that comes at bargain prices here.
The food in Sopron is cheap by European standards. And when I say cheap, I mean that we paid a mere SGD25 for lunch at a pizza and pasta joint. Buoyed by the affordable price tags, we chose to have dinner at Erhardt, a charming Hungarian restaurant which served traditional favorites like grilled goose liver with baked apples and catfish paprika. The meal cost us less than a streetwalker on Chow Kit Road and would’ve been a success if it weren’t for the smokers at the next table.
Our next stop was Holloko, a small remote village set in the bucolic Hungarian countryside. Along the way, we stopped at Medveotthon, a sanctuary for brown bears which were rescued from circus and zoos as well as a handful of wolves and reindeers. It was raining when we pulled up into the parking lot and came face-to-face with teddy doing what he does best: tearing open a rabbit with his paws.
We pulled on our warmest jackets, gritted our teeth and hopped out of the toasty confines of our car to feed the bears. It was chilly and wet, but on the flipside, the rain has emptied the park of crowds and pesky wasps.
There were bottles of honey that you could purchase from the counters – all you need to do is squeeze several dollops onto some long wooden spoons and the bears will start lumbering towards you, tongues hanging out. It reminded me of the randy women at my last Chippendales concert.
We also dropped by Lazar Lovaspark, an equestrian show featuring whip-cracking Magyar cowboys. After being welcomed with palinka, a traditional fruit brandy, we explored the well-manicured grounds and ranch, where we encountered the Hungarian woolly pig – not in sausage form this time – and some of his farm friends.
The main show featured enough whip-cracking stunts to excite a BDSM fan. Mister Ed was strangely compliant throughout and could even sit and lie down at his master’s command (I guess I would be too with a whip like that). While this performance did not exactly have us at the edge of our seats, it gave us an insight into a Magyar’s strong bond with his horses.
After that came my favorite bit: we were all ushered into a big dining hall where we wined and dined like it was our last day on earth. The meal – which consisted of goulash, roast meats, spiced rice, pickles, and whatnot – was over-the-top and spectacular, even though my arteries and liver were probably screaming in agony from it all and we were a captive audience to an adorable folk band whose entertainment routine included waving their CDs in our faces. (Of course I bought it.)
We finally made it to Holloko, this cute little Paloc village frozen in time – or the 17th century, to be exact. The Paloc people, while ethnic Hungarian, were not Magyars but Slovaks. This remote village has retained its authenticity due to its remote location – the first roads here was constructed only several decades ago.
“Oh, I suppose a lot of inbreeding happens here then,” my dear uncle remarked when I mentioned this fact.
We didn’t see any deformed babies / adults on our walk around the one-street village, but plenty of cheerful shopkeepers selling homemade crafts. Many of the half-timbered houses clustered around the main street, you see, has been converted into tiny shops and even tinier museums that are made for browsing. The main Village Museum is a small two-bedroom affair, but gives visitors a glimpse into rural life before the agricultural revolution.
I thought Sopron was quiet, but that was before I came to Holloko. The village comes alive every Easter but on other days, it is as quiet as a graveyard. Hardly anyone speaks English here, so much of our communication was done through a series of hand gestures and neanderthal-like grunts.
But hey, we managed to order lunch at Muskatli Vendeglo, the only restaurant open at the time of our visit. The chill in our hearts were instantly warmed by the hearty soups and rustic surroundings. The food – simple and maybe a tad salty – was just like how a chain-smoking nagymama would’ve cooked it for her 20 grandchildren.
The ruins of Holloko Var, a 13th century castle, sits at a top of a hill overlooking the village. It was constructed as a means of defense after a Mongol invasion, but these days it sits empty and forgotten, waiting to be discovered by the occasional tourist traipsing by.
The real reason we went to Holloko, however, was for what many locals consider as the best hotel in Hungary. It was not until I tried to check into Castellum Hotel Holloko and were given another dozen forms to fill up that I realized that this might be a bit of an overstatement.
But we did spend most of our time relaxing in the hotel – the rooms were excessively comfortable and there was a wellness centre with its many whirlpools and jacuzzis that we could spend all day and become wrinkly prunes in. Of course, the relaxation bit was somewhat marred by our two overexcited boys but we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Pruney skin and all, we adjourned to the hotel’s in-house restaurant for our buffet dinner, which comes included in the price. That was the first time I had sous-vide steak and, as I felt my tongue being anointed by the most lyrical and tender piece of meat known to mankind, I changed my mind.
Thank God for Holloko. Thank God for Hungary’s best hotel.
Pannonia Hotel Located a stone’s throw away from the old town, Sopron’s oldest hotel might be in need of some renovation works but is convenient and works for a short stay. Facilities include a well-equipped children’s play area, an indoor swimming pool and even a clinic specializing in cosmetic dentistry, if you are so inclined. It’s also nice to start your day off in the hotel’s grand, old-world dining hall, where (basic) breakfast is served. $
Castellum Hotel Holloko A sleek, new establishment just a five to ten minute walk uphill from town. It comes with all the mod-cons including a small play area for kids and a sprawling wellness centre that hotel guests can use for free. Price includes half-board, which means that apart from breakfast, you get to have a lovely dinner at the hotel’s excellent in-house restaurant. $$
- Sopron and Holloko are located in opposite directions of Budapest but both are easily doable as day trips and offer visitors a chance to experience Hungarian life outside of the big city, provided that you have your own car. But staying overnight is only recommended if you have extra vacation time as both towns are small.
- Many people in these towns do not speak English, so an English-Hungarian phrase book might be useful.
- If you are staying in Sopron, check http://www.prokultura.hu for any concerts or events at the Franz Liszt Cultural Centre. You can also combine it with a trip to Bratislava in Slovakia, which is just over an hour away.
- Lazar Lovaspark has programs running every day at about 12.30pm, but it needs to be booked in advance at http://www.lazarlovaspark.hu. A trip to Lazar and Medveotthon can be combined with Holloko for a full and rewarding day out.
- Holloko comes alive on Easter and other festival days, but do not be put off by regular days. This quiet little town offers plenty of opportunities for R&R, and the kids will appreciate the fabulous playground close by.