Szombathely (pronounced ‘Tsom-bat-eye’), might not be a destination on everyone’s lips but the city and the surrounding area does have a lot to offer. It has a handsome centre crammed with Baroque buildings with wonderfully detailed facades, grand churches, a magnificent synagogue and all kinds of eye catching Socialist era architectural gems. There are enough attractions like museums – indoors and outside – and galleries to keep you occupied for a week (though, really, a two day visit is sufficient to recognise the city’s charms) and the local area boasts castles, vineyards and beautiful countryside.
The city is the tenth largest in Hungary and has all the facilities you’d expect from a large city although budget accommodation isn’t easy to find, though it does exist. As well as the university there are numerous specialist schools, many of which have their own accommodation; a good number of students stay in town during the week and go home at weekends and their residences are available to visitors in summer. The problem is that all the websites are in Hungarian only and are difficult to navigate; if you are looking for really cheap accommodation in Szombathely I’d recommend contacting the Tourist Information Centre in advance and asking them to arrange a room for you. As far as hotels are concerned Szombathely isn’t exactly teeming with them but there are enough to offer a reasonable choice, including the rather opulent Pelikan which occupies a former palace.
I can’t deny being pleased to have booked our accommodation in advance. Few people speak English and not many more speak German (an ability to understand German is usually an advantage in Hungary but apparently not here) so getting directions can be difficult. The Tourist Information Office closes at lunchtime on Saturday and remains closed until Monday so if you are visiting over a weekend it’s a good idea to do a little research in advance to find out what you might want to do, opening hours, etc. Furthermore the various attractions are not well sign-posted; we spent a good thirty minutes looking for the Roman ruins because there were no signs and because we couldn’t find anyone who speak enough English or German to help us.
Two main squares are linked by a pleasant pedestrianised shopping street. At the smaller one you’ll find the butter-coloured St. Elizabeth church and also the Tourist Information Centre. The church incorporates some of the features of an earlier Gothic church on the site which is also the location of an even earlier hospice for victims of the Plague. Tthe other square (known in Hungarian simply as Szombathely Fo ter - Szombathely Main Square) is much larger and grander with lots of fine buildings and numerous pavement cafes. Szombathely is not so touristy that you pay a lot more for a drink in this location so unless you are travelling with the smallest of budgets you can easily afford to station yourself here for a spot of people-watching.
Szombathely has the distinction of being the oldest town in Hungary and its attractions reflect that. Known to the Romans as Savaria, this was an important outpost and remains of an imperial palace, a bath-house and a customs post can be seen in the ‘Garden of Ruins’ next to the cathedral. The German name for Szombathely is Steinamanger’, a contraction of ‘Stein Am Anger’ – field of stones.
The Hungarian name means ‘Saturday place’, referring to the fact that since medieval times the town was well known for its Saturday market. Does a market still take place on Saturdays there? If it does we didn’t see any sign of it; perhaps it was over by the time we arrived.
Lying close to the amber route it’s always been a prosperous town and thanks to excellent fortifications, the Ottomans were not able to take Szombathely. Sadly the town suffered in two ways in World War Two. It was targeted for bombing raids because it was an important railway junction and because there was a lot of industry in and around the town, and, second, its Jewish population – some 4228 men, women and children – were picked up between 4th and 6th July 1944 and sent to Auschwitz. The handsome synagogue still exists but is now used for classical music concerts. Even if there’s nothing taking place when you visit, it’s worth a look because it is a splendid building that makes a brilliant photo opportunity. Before 1840 there were plenty of Jews in this area but they were not allowed to love within the town walls. Then the Emancipation of Jews in Hungary Act made it illegal to treat Jews in this way; by 1910, 10 per cent of Szombathely’s population was Jewish and they made a big contribution to commerce in the town, as well as having their own cultural and educational provisions. A Jewish school was one of the first to be set up in the country and a delightful plaque commemorating this can be seen on the wall of a building next to the synagogue.
Another interesting plaque can be seen over the entrance to an alleyway just off the main square. It’s dedicated to Irish author James Joyce who lived in Szombathely for a short whil; a small statue of the author can also be seen there. The hero of Joyce's 'Ulysses' Leopold Bloom, is an Irishman whose Jewish Hungarian father was born, according to the story, in Szombathely. I seem to follow Joyce in my travels round Europe but I had no idea about his connection with Szombathely so this came as a surprise. In fact Szombathely is full of little treasures and surprises. One of the grandest water towers I have ever seen stands in the town’s main park; we spotted the unusual crown section from a distance and knew we had to go to see whatever it was. It’s badly neglected now but it’s the sort of building crying out to be transformed into an art space or a café or restaurant.
As well as being reputed to be the birthplace of St. Martin of Tours, Szombathely has strong connections with the Catholic church. It’s the seat of the Archdiocese and boasts an imposing cathedral and adjoining seminary and diocese offices housed in handsome Baroque houses. At the other end of the town is St. Martin's Church which has a beautiful graveyard teeming with ornate memorials. A visitor centre dedicated to St. Martin can be found in a house next door to the church.
I could easily have spent longer in Szombathely had I more time to spare. I already have the 'Waterworks Historical Museum' (visits free but by prior arrangement only) marked for a future trip as well as a trip to the nearby arboretum (two people in Szombathely recommended going to see the blooming rhododendron) and the Village Museum, an outdoor museum comprising a display of rebuilt traditional cottages and other rural buildings from the Vas region as well as native breeds and demostrations of traditional crafts. Visitors travelling with children may be interested in a visit to the Szombathely Historical Theme Park (in the city centre, which I found odd) which is described as 'a unique interactive exhibition of the antique natural sciences': apparently there are lots of hands on exhibits showing how the use and development of different materials and technological design has evolved over the centuries. I thought it was a shame that this attraction is open only Tuesday - Friday; in the UK it is the sort of attraction many families would visit over a weekend.
We ate a main meal at an excellent restaurant near the Bishop's Palace but struggled to find traditional places in the city centre, though there are lots of places for coffee and cake, or a pizza or meaty snack. The nicest places to eat appear to be in the surrounding villages and I imagine that you could get some recommendations from the Tourist Information Centre if this is what you're looking for.
We really liked Szombathely; it probably helped that the sun was shining making it very easy to enjoy the handsome streets and squares, though there are enough indoor things to do for a couple of days should the weather prove inclement. It might sound like an unrealistic destination but it's only a couple of hours drive from Vienna or Bratislava or even the southern Hungarian city of Pecs, all of which are served by budget airlines, as well as being a reasonable drive from the southern end of the Hungarian tourist centre of Lake Balaton.