Taken together, the names of Vienna and Budapest invoke hazy memories of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, one of the many imperial projects that clashed and conflagrated in World War I. But beyond that temporary association, Austria and Hungary have very different histories, languages and national myths.
These differences are carved into the statues and monuments that decorate the two capital cities. In Vienna, brass and stone effigies depict urbane figures clad in expensive fabric, studying books or playing music. In Budapest, in contrast, men in scant armour ride galloping horses and lithe boys in loincloths chase deer past a torrential waterfall. Viennese rulers and artists have chosen to emphasise their city’s intellectual and cultural heritage, most prominently as a cradle of classical music through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Budapest’s statuary recalls instead the distant origins of the Hungarian people: nomads from the central Asian steppes who crossed meadows and mountains to settle in the area that became Hungary, bringing their Uralic language with them.
[Also see our "Travel Guide to Vienna and its Cultural Attractions"]
This road trip between Vienna and Budapest takes travelers on a journey between these two unexpectedly contrasting capitals. En route, it illuminates the wildlife, terrain and history of this slab of land at the center of Europe.
[Also see our travel article "Cycling from Vienna to Budapest via Bratislava"]
Lake Neusiedl, Austria
Begin by driving south from Vienna, down Route 15 and into the humid tranquillity of Neusiedlersee National Park. Lake Neusiedl, Neusiedlersee in German, is the westernmost of the saline lakes that speckle central Eurasia. This links Neusiedl to the vast salt lakes of southern Russia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia, making it an appropriate starting point for a voyage into Hungary, a country with roots in the central Asian steppes.
As you drive into the park, green pastureland merges into marsh and a succession of reed-fringed ponds, opening out into the body of the lake itself. The water, relatively warm in summer due to the lake’s saline shallowness, is ideal for water sports. Lessons and equipment hire are available for sailing, windsurfing and kite surfing. Five hundred kilometers of cycle paths lace the marshland, and a 133km route rings the entire lake, darting briefly into Hungary. Bike hire is available in pretty much every town near the lake.
Neusiedl and the wetland area surrounding it – known as the Seewinkle – is also a world-renowned bird habitat. The meadows, pastures and marshes make an ideal breeding ground, while the Seewinkle’s sheltered location in the centre of Europe casts it as a prime resting point for passing migrants. Over 300 species reside here at some point in the year, including herons, egrets, storks, terns, and bitterns.
From the western edge of Lake Neusiedl, drive south along Route 50 towards the Hungarian border. Wine enthusiasts can make a brief stop-off in the town of Rust, beside the lake, which has a long tradition of winemaking. Then cross the border on Route 16 and pull into the unexpectedly beautiful town of Sopron in Hungary.
Sopron has a long history and has been extensively excavated by archaeologists. It stands on the site of a great ancient trade route, the Amber Road, which evolved through several centuries to become a key commercial artery in the Roman Empire.
Thousands of years later, Sopron found itself brushed by the hem of the Iron Curtain, and became embroiled in the events of 1989. In August, a ‘PanEuropean picnic’ was held just outside the town, bringing together Hungarians and Austrians and symbolising the process by which the cast-iron divisions were rapidly melting. The border was opened for three summer afternoon hours, and to the surprise of the organisers hundreds of East Germans seized the opportunity to flee west through Hungary. A monument entitled ‘Breakthrough’ has been erected at the site of the picnic, beside the village of Fertorakos; there is also a watchtower, stretches of barbed wire and a small photographic exhibition.
Earlier history can be explored in Sopron’s medieval Old Town, which is composed of cobbled streets, gothic churches and grand pastel-coloured buildings. At its center is the site of the Roman Forum – under Roman rule the town bore the fabulous name Scarbantia – which today hosts an exhibition of life under the Romans. And, again somewhat surprisingly, the small town has some decent opportunities for nightlife as well as history.
To the east of Sopron is Ferto-Hansag National Park, the Hungarian name for the Lake Neusiedl region. The southern, Hungarian section of the park has more marsh and pasture enclosing the open water of the lake, making it especially good for birdwatching. It is also more peaceful than the Austrian section of the lake, less swamped by day-trippers from Vienna. South of the town, the Lővérek district offers an alternative hiking terrain of cool, pine-forested hills.
Continue from Sopron past the southern fringe of Ferto-Hansag and onto Route 85, which cuts across the Little Hungarian Plain. After 50 leisurely miles you’ll reach your next stop-off, Győr, a pretty city defined by water and religion.
Like Sopron, Győr is an old settlement with a violent and eventful history and a beautiful baroque center that has somehow survived the carnage. Among the most striking examples of this architecture is the Apátúr-Haz (Abbot’s House), which contains the Janos Xanthus museum, a mixed bag of archaeological and artisanal exhibits. Perhaps more interesting is the nearby Imre Patkó Collection: Patkó was a journalist and art historian, and his collection is an unpredictable farrago of 20th-century art and broadly anthropological objects gathered during his travels.
Beside these museums is a commanding basilica. An amalgam of architectural styles on the outside, this Catholic Church shelters some real treasures which draw pilgrims from as far away as Ireland. The collection focuses on the reliquary of St. Ladislaus the First, an eleventh Century King of Hungary, and includes a beautiful goldwork bust of the Saint. You can also see the miraculous Weeping Icon of Mary, an altarpiece brought to Győr in the seventeenth century by an Irish Priest fleeing the English Puritans. A few decades later, on St Patrick’s Day, Mary shed tears of blood.
Győr is situated at the meeting-point of three rivers: the Danube, the Rába and the Rábca. A spa and aquapark, the Rába Quelle, combines thermal waters with views over the medieval Old Town. Follow any of the rivers out of the city for pretty riverside walks, or explore the waterways by boat. A little further afield, the Szigetköz is an island in the Danube with a host of walking trails through its meadows and woodland.
Continuing east through the Little Hungarian Plain, follow the E60 before turning left onto Route 117 as it curves north to reach the town of Esztergom. Esztergom is the ideal place to get a sense of the mingled history and mythology on which Hungarian nationhood rests.
The protagonist of this national mythology is King Stephen I. Born in Esztergom, Stephen unified Hungary through a series of clashes with tribal leaders and the forces of the Holy Roman Empire. Esztergom served as the capital and royal residence of the new kingdom of Hungary until the Mongols blazed through the city in 1241. Aside from these secular achievements, Stephen was canonized in 1083 for enforcing Christian worship among his subjects, encouraging the establishment of a Roman Catholic culture which continues to predominate today.
Stephen was (probably) baptised in Esztergom’s Basilica. That building was destroyed by marauding Turks a couple of centuries later, but in the nineteenth century it was replaced with what is now Hungary’s largest and most magnificent church. A colossal chunk of neo-classical architecture, easily visible from the fields and farmland surrounding Esztergom, this church’s Grecian columns are 22m high and the peak of its great dome stands at 72-meters tall. A Renaissance red marble chapel, a treasury with more remarkable early-medieval artwork, a deep and winding crypt, and terrific views from the dome’s cupola are all worth experiencing.
The Basilica dominates Esztergom, but there are other places to while away a few hours. The Castle Museum, built on the site of the former Royal Palace (largely destroyed by those pesky Turks), displays archaeological finds and further illuminates the early history of the Kingdom of Hungary. On the banks of the Danube there is a pretty and colourful district of pastel-coloured buildings known as Víziváros, or ‘Watertown’. And close by Víziváros are outdoor thermal pools, where you can lie back, bathed in warmth, and daydream of old Hungarian Kings bedecked in the exquisite finery of Roman Catholicism at the height of its power.
Upon leaving Esztergom it’s a one-hour or 50-kilometer drive southeast into Budapest, where many more adventures await.