Is the grass greener on the other side of the fence?
One of my favourite destinations in Hungary is Sopron, the faithful city that had the choice of belonging to Austria after the First World War but elected to remain in Hungary instead, for which I must say I have always been grateful. I have a favourite hotel, the L?vér on a hill, where centuries ago I had my honeymoon. Well, the attraction has nothing to do with the memories but rather I just feel comfortable in this retro building near the edge of the forest. There are some more modern and more elegant hotels around but I am at home there.
I have to admit that most of the time when I visit I am on my last legs, exhausted, and all I want to do is to relax and sleep. Thanks to nature, silence and the fantastic air I can sleep there like a baby. I love that the forest is literally at my doorstep and on the other side of the hotel there is a bus stop and in 10 minutes I am in Sopron, this enchanting small town with all the amenities I need.
Train of thoughts
As usual I took the train from Budapest and the two-and-a-half-hour trip is always comfortable and enjoyable, giving me just enough time to read a slim book if people don’t talk to me. They usually do but this time I got some useful information. A very friendly Hungarian woman sat near me after abandoning her husband in the overcrowded compartment next to us and coming to this comfortable, empty one.
“He doesn’t like changes even if it is for his benefit,” she explained. Considering that they had moved back to Hungary from South Africa a few years ago and before South Africa had lived in Sweden, I had a feeling that the guy got a bit worn out from all that, but not this energetic lady.
“We moved to the Austrian border, to Fert?rákos, because we can hop in and out of the two countries,” she continued. “Every morning I bike to Austria to buy our breakfast rolls and it takes no more than 15 minutes.”
I didn’t need to hear more and got all excited and could hardly wait to try it myself the very next day. I decided that Sopron could wait a bit, and as far as the forest next to my hotel I had a sunny and luxurious afternoon for it as soon as I arrived. I used my time to pick enough stinging nettles, for herbal tea, to last a month and ate enough sour blackberries not to miss them for another year.
The next morning I took the bus from the centre of Sopron and in 15 minutes I was in the village of Fert?rákos. I started to march right away toward the border but in a couple of minutes I found something I couldn’t resist. A tiny electric car with two seats, open on all sides, and the price was right, only HUF 250, a tad less than a euro.
I tried to persuade the young driver that I would love to drive this little gem. I had no luck and was hesitating for a few moments because I didn’t want to lose the feeling of the adventure of walking to Austria. But we solved the problem because the car was only allowed to go to the border and on my return I could walk all the way. The drive in the mini lasted five to six minutes and at least in the meantime I learned a few important things I hadn’t known. Such as that I was in a national park and the tiny and the large pigs that I saw on the way were the Hungarian mangalica kind and they belonged to a gentleman farmer, otherwise a Sopron dentist who owned that huge and beautiful piece of land.
At the invisible border the driver pointed out a small building and explained that it was the Mithras, the sanctuary of the Sun Goddess from Roman times, and is 1,800 years old. Getting this bit of information assured me that my excursion hadn’t missed out even on the cultural aspect.
After I said goodbye to my driver I walked not more than 10 minutes among the vineyards to Mörbisch, a small Austrian town or village that is clean, sleepy and foreign. My German is limited to 20 words and it would be much better for my own good if I never used it but unfortunately I did. When I asked in a hotel where could I wash my hands and used hund, dog, instead of hande it was more than slightly embarrassing. They were looking for my dog and explained, I guess, that there was no place for a dog bath. No one laughed but me.
I knew that Ruszt, the kingdom of storks, was nearby but as much as I love the small town I still didn’t feel like walking 15 kilometres more. In any case I was there on the last day of March last year, after having been nostalgic about it for many moons. Ruszt is only 20 minutes’ drive from Sopron and the only way to get there is by bike, car or cab. Last spring I got a mercy lift from a kind stranger but I promised myself that I would rent a car next time.
Ruszt in March was a ghost town because there were no tourists yet and the only people I met were the inhabitants, who were repainting their already perfect, pastel houses where the patina, moss, flowers and centuries were happily mingling.
In one of the lovely niches high up on one of the houses, behind a cascading plant, a fat cat slept. It looked like a tiny tiger and it was so lovely that I questioned whether it was part of the décor.
In this picture-perfect place the tidy and charming courtyards, restaurants, pubs and houses were spotless and it was hard to believe that they still kept working on them. Oh, civic pride… How much I would love to buy a few pounds of that and distribute it in Hungary.
My thoughts wondered back to Ruszt but in reality I was in Mörbisch and even though it was not as exciting, pretty or historical as Ruszt, the walk was sheer perfection on my way back through the vineyards and walnut trees.
I admired the azure blue of the lake Fert? on the horizon where the sailboats were patiently sitting and waiting for the wind, and I tasted a few of the grapes and new walnuts that were just shedding their green coats. Unfortunately the tiny pigs I had wanted to see on my way to Mörbisch were hiding somewhere but the large ones were lazily enjoying this lovely Indian summer. It was such a pastoral scene that I had an urge to join them.
Times change in Sopron
Returning to Sopron I had to wait 15 minutes for the bus but it wasn’t wasted time because I chatted with the young lady in the convenience store at the bus stop. She said that she fills up her car on the Austrian side because it is cheaper and better petrol. She buys her cold cuts and cheeses there too for the quality and price.
I must say that what the woman said didn’t make me happy when I remembered that five or six years ago it was the Austrians who used to come over to Hungary to shop for those things because the prices were so much better. Well, those were the days before.
My trip back to Sopron by the local bus took only 10 minutes. Our young and angry driver held his mobile phone in one hand, a cigarette in the other and was speeding at the same time. Obviously he hadn’t heard about the mobile and driving regulations yet. We miraculously survived and I still had time in downtown Sopron to sit on a terrace and drink a cappuccino. Thanks to which I got my second wind and wandered around in the old city among the exquisite buildings from the Middle Ages and Baroque times. I can never get bored by this small-big town that wears its rich past and beauty as casually and modestly as a person who is sure of their own values.
After I got back to my hotel I still had one more day of “rest” and I decided to go the next morning to Wiener Neustadt in Burgenland. It took 25 minutes on the small Austrian train and the ticket cost around four to five euros. This small town, about the size of Sopron, is a shopper’s paradise, full of clothing stores and lovely cafes as well as some nice parks and buildings. I stocked up on my favourite chocolates, cheeses and the quintessential Austrian bread I always have a compulsion to buy. The whole excursion took less than four hours and I still had time in the afternoon to walk in the forest.
On the last day of my stay a friend picked me up and took me to a spa hotel at nearby Bükfürd?. The 40-minute drive from Sopron was spiced with a shortcut through Austria and I really enjoyed the idea of a shortcut through another country. In my previous life in Canada we were very proud that it took a mere two hours drive to get from Toronto to the nearest tourist spot, Niagara on the Lake, my beloved small town in Ontario. Of course one should never compare the distances of the second-biggest country in the world with such a microcosm.
In Bükfürd? I had a whole afternoon to enjoy the waters of the Danubius Hotel and thanks to the warm weather I could jump in and out of different swimming pools outside then sit in the whirlpool and thermal waters inside. The surroundings were nothing to write home about but the retro hotel was still full of visitors from nearby countries, which didn’t surprise me because the spa and the thermal waters make it worthwhile.
My mini-holiday ended when I took the train from Szombathely to Budapest. It gave me plenty of time to compare the two countries and I remembered the years before the Schengen area agreement, when even without the soldiers and the bars there was a huge difference between the two sides.
I asked myself: is the grass still greener on the other side of the fence? And on the positive side I must say it used to be much greener but frankly it is still pretty green even now.