After leaving Slovakia, we drove through a corner of Austria on our way to Sopron in Hungary. SOPRON, and the area around it, is surrounded almost completely by Austria. In fact a referendum was held there after WW1 - the break-up of the Austria-Hungarian Empire, to decide which country it would belong to with the residents deciding to stay in Hungary.
These days, since the fall of the iron curtain there is a huge influx of tourists to this town. Most of these tourists, it has to be said, are Austrians on a shopping mission. The town is only 3 miles from the border and on approaching the suburbs you are greeted with the vista of shopping malls, McD's, motels and all the other tasteful reminders of why you are visiting here...NOT. But don't despair. On a hill in the middle distance, just behind the giant industrial complexes with their belching smokestacks, there are row upon row of massive, grey concrete blocks. That's more like it.
So, what have we got in Sopron? Vast areas of souless, mass housing, in-effecient factories and tacky consumerism geared towards the week-end shoppers from Austria.
Well that's not quite the whole story.
SOPRON is situated between Lake Ferto and the Sopron Hills, very close to the Austrian-Hungarian border at the foot of the Alps, 130 miles West of Budapest, 35 miles east of Vienna.
of the Alps.
The Old Town itself was well preserved and very attractive. Most of the shopping, bars and restaurants are located on the inner ring road and although the old town is not closed to traffic it is virtually car-less. This meant that walking around was very peaceful with not many touristy shops and just a few pavement cafes. It gave the impression of being an outdoor museum. There are far too many sites to list here but the website displays them all on a very good interactive map.
One attraction we visited which I have to mention is the Fire Tower, the city's most famous landmark. This building incorporates some Roman remains in the basement and exhibitions on each floor depicting the history of Sopron. As we waited at the ticket booth to pay our admission an elderly man came out of the ticket kiosk. We paid the lady, got our tickets and turned round to find the old man standing at the foot of the stairs. He then took our tickets and threw them in the bin. Overstaffed? Perhaps. On every floor (5) there was an official guide (some old guy) usually sitting reading a newspaper. Overstaffed? I think so.
The panoramic views of the town from the top were pretty amazing and well worth the trudge up all those spiral staircases, but the exhibition was a little disappointing as everything was written in Hungarian.
Because of it's proximity to Austria, you would expect the shopping in Sopron to be good. And you'd be right. Apart from the malls selling the usual luxury goods and also souvenir markets along the outer ring road, every conceivable lane and alleyway around the Old Town was lined with shops and stalls. The inner ring was more upmarket and well provided with quality shopping, designer clothing, art galleries etc.
Prices were embarrassingly low and some of the glassware was particularly good quality and value.
The Inner ring road was also where the majority of cafes, restaurants and bars were situated. There are a lot of cafes in the 'Viennese style' and we partook of some delicious coffee and cake on a couple of occasions in some absolutely magnificent cafes. The choice of food on offer was good too.
Overall, once you get past outskirts with the blatant consumerism of recent years and on through the obsolete remnants of the communist era, you are left with a jewel of an Old Town. Beautifully preserved, tasteful and peaceful, it is a pleasure to spend a day wandering this historic city.
Sopron should be visited between Wednesday to Saturday because on Mondays, museums are closed, on Tuesday Synagogues are closed and on Sunday information offices and many shops are closed.