Hungary - Introduction
When Nobel Prize winner Enrico Fermi [the author of the "Fermi Paradox" that asks "where are they?"] was asked if he believed in extraterrestrials, he replied: "They are among us, but they call themselves Hungarians". The Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard and fellow Hungarian émigré Eugene Wigner persuaded Albert Einstein to write President Franklin D. Roosevelt and request that atomic research receive a high priority. Other leading figures in the early days of the atomic bomb program, to include Princeton mathematician John von Neumann and Edward Teller, were also Hungarian refugees.
This small country is one of the oldest European countries, situated in the middle of the continent in Central Europe. Hungarians speak a language and form a culture unlike any other in the region: this distinctiveness has been both a source of pride and an obstacle for more than 1100 years.
Hungary was on the losing side of both World Wars. At the end of the first, Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory under the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, leaving large numbers of ethnic Hungarians in Romania (c. 1.5 million), Slovakia (c. 550,000), Serbia and Montenegro (c. 350,000) and the Ukraine (c. 150,000). After the Second World War, the Communists gained complete control by 1948, despite the low level of support for Communism in Hungary.
Hungary - Terrain
The vast Hungarian Puszta has become a byword since it has remained largely unchanged by the passing centuries, successfully protected from the dangers of encroaching civilization. The Hortobágy is an 82,000-hectare plain, the largest continuous natural grassland in Europe. For countless millennia the Hortobágy was the Tisza floodplain, regularly washed by successive floods which built up a vast, even layer of alluvial clay deposits across the surface.
A large proportion of the plain then dried leaving alkaline grasslands dotted with lakes, bogs and shallow marshland offering the ideal environment for a rich plant life to break the – to the outsider’s eye – apparent monotony of the area. The Hortobágy is nesting ground to several rare species, and many migratory birds break their long flights in autumn and spring to rest and feed here. During summer the highest temperatures in Hungary are recorded on the plain, and yet the diurnal temperature variation is great. Winters are cold, with bone-chilling winds sweeping unchecked across the Puszta.
Approximately half of the nation’s territory is flatland. The Great Plain occupies the entire eastern half of the country and the Little Plain lies along the northwestern border. The two most important rivers, the Duna (Danube) and the Tisza flow across the country from north to south. The region between the Danube and the Tisza rivers is flat, while the region lying to the west of the Danube, Transdanubia, is a rolling hilly country with the largest and warmest lake in Central Europe - Lake Balaton. A range of mountains of medium height stretches from the southwest to the north central part of the country. To the west of the Danube, the Transdanubian Range is 400-900 meters (1,300-3,000 feet) high, divided into the Sopron, Koszeg, Keszthely, Bakony, Vertes, Gerecse, Pilis and Visegrad mountains. To the east of the Danube the Northern Mountain Range rises to the heights of 500-1,000 meters (1,500-3,300 feet), divided into the Borzsony, Cserhat, Matra, Bukk, Cserhat and Zemplen mountains.
The highest point is Kekes mountain (1,014 meters) in the Matra Mountains, while the lowest point (78 meters) is near the borders of Hungary, Romania and Serbia in the vicinity of the city of Szeged. The Hungarian “puszta” is a favorite tourist destination where the characteristic animals and the ethnographic traditions can be seen in the Hortobagy National Park and in the Kiskunsag National Park on the occasion of the horse shows.
Hungary - Climate
The climate consists of four distinct seasons. The winters are mild (-1°C, 30°F) in the southwest, but can be colder (-5°C, 23°F) in the north and in the mountains. The summers are cooler (16-19°C, 60-65°F) in the mountains and in the west, but the plains can get warmer temperatures (20-23°C, 68-73°F) from June to August. The extremes can go as low as -35°C (-30°F) in winter, and 42C° (107F°) during summer. Indian summer occurs almost every year in October for a week or two. The winter months are drier, while May and June get the highest amount of precipitation on average. The annual average precipitation ranges from 20 inches in the plains to 40 inches in the mountains.
Hungary - Cities
Budapest is probably one of the oldest settlements in Central Europe. Archaeological ruins prove that this area was inhabited by Celtic tribes several hundred years B.C. Later Roman settlers and soldiers arrived and established a colony called Aquincum. Although the settlement was destroyed during the course of the centuries, its remains are still visible throughout the area.
The city today has a population of some 2 million people. Its architecture is quite unique since it has been preserved over the past centuries. The most important places to see in Budapest are the Parliament, Saint Stephen’s Basilica, Heroes’ Square, Aquincum, the Castle District with the Fishermen’s Bastion, the Matthias Church, the ancient architecture from the Middle Ages, Margit (Margaret) Island, Andrassy ut, Szechenyi and Gellert Furdo (swimming pools), National Museum and the Chain Bridge.
Besides the busy streets and crowded points of interest, the city also offers places to rest and relax. Buda is the hilly part of the city and is full of small parks hidden among the buildings as well as larger preserved forests for hikers and bicyclists. The numerous baths which gave the city its name, “Thermal Capitol of the World”. The city offers street-side café and quaint lunch/dinner many fine restaurants.
The northwestern part of Hungary is rich in historical sites. The old city of Gyor, the Roman ruins in Szombathely, the castle of Fertod and Sarvar, the thermal resorts in Buk, Balf and Zalakaros, the medieval towns of Sopron and Koszeg all offer unforgettable memories.
The communities of Kecskemet, Szarvas, Gyula, Bekescsaba, Hajduszoboszlo are all worth visiting, but the most interesting city is Szeged in the southern part of the plains. Its rich cultural heritage and unrivaled architecture offer a unique experience for the visitors.
Hungary - Attractions
The Danube Bend is one of the most spectacular places along the river. The towering forest-covered hills offer a wonderful panorama of the region. The places to be visited during a vacation are Szentendre, an old preserved historical town and Visegrad with its nice citadel overlooking the region from the top of a hill.
Going further west and southwest are the Vertes and Bakony Mountains. Szekesfehervar (named Alba Regia in Latin) was the capitol of the nation for centuries and it still preserves the ancient ruins of that era. Veszprem, the City of Queens lies in the foothills of Bakony. The whole area is forested and provide many opportunities for hiking. This area is also famous for it’s forts and castles. Some of them can be seen in Nagyvazsony, Csesznek and Sumeg. The world-renowned porcelain factory in Herend and the abbey in Zirc are also in this region.
South from Veszprem is Lake Balaton, Central Europe’s largest freshwater lake. The lake offers countless possibilities to relax. Its shallow and warm water is ideal for families with children. Attractions include: 1. Balatonfured - with its nice promenade. 2. Tihany - the Abbey with the oldest Hungarian written manuscript. 3. Badacsony - famous for its fiery wine. 4. Keszthely - a nice, small town with a elegant castle. 5. Heviz - a small community a few miles from Lake Balaton, which has the second largest thermal lake in the world and is visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists annually. 6. The beaches of Balatonlelle, Balatonboglar, Fonyod and Siofok.
South of Lake Balaton lies probably one of the most unspoiled regions in Hungary. Large forests, hidden villages and beautiful countryside characterize this region. Even though unspoiled, there are still interesting places to visit. The folk arts in Buzsak, Karad and Szenna near Kaposvar fascinate the arts aficionados. The huge forests around Nagyatad offer excellent hunting possibilities. Further south is Pecs, one of the most beautiful cities in Hungary, founded by the Romans some 1,800 years ago. The countryside around Pecs is excellent for wine-production. The big casks are kept in wine cellars, some of them can be seen in the ancient castle of Szigetvar and Siklos. The other wine-growing region, Szekszard, is an excellent place to hang out and visit the nearby River Danube and the huge swampy forests.
Going northeast from Budapest is the most forested and hilly area of Hungary. In these remote mountain areas the visitors can find some very nice historical castles. The castle of Eger saw the most heroic battles against the Turks. The area of Miskolc offers various possibilities for hikers along a path among the most scenic mountains in Hungary. This region is also very rich in thermal baths such as Miskolctapolca, Parad and Mezokovesd, just to mention a few.
To the east and southeast a completely different world opens up. The Great Plain in northern part of the region is very remote and people live as they used to live generations ago. At the real plains the horizon opens up. Hardly any forest can be seen here. Grassland dominates the region the westernmost part of the steppe. The most important places are not very historical since this area was devastated by the Turks, yet they offer nice sights. Debrecen is the “Calvinist Rome” which refers to its Protestant cultural and architectural heritage.
The Hortobagy National Park is the place people think about when they hear the word ‘puszta’. The ancient types of animals provide a gene pool for genetic preservation.
Hungary - Cuisine
The country offers a nice selection of wines, beers and liquors. Hungary is famous for its fiery wines produced and bottled throughout the nation. The most important wine regions are Tokaj (Aszu), Eger (Bikaver, Leanyka), Sopron (Kekfrankos), Villany (Merlot), Szekszard (Bikaver, Chardonnay), Badacsony (Szurkebarat), and Somlo (Juhfark), but there are a lot more regions, each with its local specialties. Champagne lovers will definitely enjoy the Hungaria and the Torley champagne. The stronger drinks include the Kecskemet apricot and cherry brandy, the Vilmoskorte (William’s pear) brandy, the kosher plum brandy from Szatmar, or the famous Zwack Unicum, a bitter liquor that tastes like medicine since it is full of herbs distilled in alcohol.
Mangalica pork is proving to be a much sought-after delicacy abroad, too. Traditional Hungarian cuisine has long relied on the fat and bacon of the Mangalica in preparing meat dishes, and today this ancient Hungarian breed is back in fashion: increasingly, restaurant owners find they are being asked if they have Mangalica on the menu. The fat and meat of the Mangalica is extremely low in cholesterol, and is particularly delicious when processed to make the famed Hungarian paprika sausage.
Hungary - Plants and Animals
Thanks to the Carpathian Basin’s extremely favorable natural endowments, cultivation and animal husbandry have been practiced in the area of Hungary since the earliest times. Numerous plant and domestic animal species indigenous to this area alone have been employed by Hungarians over the centuries, and indeed are still used to this day. For instance, Grey cattle, immediately recognizable because of their huge, curving horns, represented the single most important agricultural export of Hungary during the Middle Ages.
As an indication of their hardiness, it is sufficient to mention that they were driven from the Puszta to markets in West Europe on journeys lasting days or perhaps weeks, and even after this gruelling trip they still arrived in prime condition having grazed along the way. Grey cattle are a robust breed, living outside summer and winter and withstanding all forms of harsh weather. They are immune to many diseases, and have proven resistance to “mad cow disease” (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy – BSE) so dreaded in many parts of West Europe. This fact has played its role in the constantly increasing demand for Grey cattle meat products. They are fed natural fodder only thus the meat products can, in effect, be classified as organic.
The Mangalica pig is, like Grey cattle, also enjoying something of a renaissance. In fact, this curly-haired, lopeared breed of swine, for many years primarily favoured for its fat, was first bred around 200 years ago. It doesn’t require much tending, and indeed in earlier days it used to be left to forage for itself, being particularly fond of acorns. Many farmers still rear them outside, although naturally they fatten faster when supplied with good quality fodder.
The Hungarian Racka is an unmistakeable breed of sheep characteristic for its long, curly locks of black or white wool, V-form twisted horns and erect stance. This too is a hardy breed, able to survive in the toughest conditions while supplying man with milk, meat and wool. Grazing Hungarian Racka sheep are as much a part of the Hungarian Puszta scene as Grey cattle or thundering herds of horses.
By themselves, however, shepherds simply could not handle the vast flocks they tend on the Puszta. Since time immemorial their work has been assisted by “man’s best friend”, intelligent, faithful and biddable sheepdogs who also have a part to play in relieving the solitude of the Puszta grasslands. Thus speaking of typical Hungarian breeds of dog it is necessary to mention first and foremost three types of sheepdog: the vigilant Puli, ideal for driving flocks, and the watchdog Kuvasz and Komondor breeds.
The Komondor and Kuvasz are ancient Hungarian breeds much valued by shepherds. Both are used to watch over herds of cattle, sheep and horses, keeping them safe from wild animals and rustlers. The Puli is a master sheepdog. When properly trained, the Puli is able to sense exactly what the shepherd requires from just the slightest movements, and will carry out the instructions immediately. Today, this small- to medium-size, highy energetic dog with its tangle of curly black, grey or white hair and sparkling, intelligent eyes makes a very effective watchdog around the house. There is a saying that they understand everything but they just can’t speak.
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