Sopron (AZso)
Article Words : Robin Ashenden | 01 July

A medieval weekend in Sopron, Hungary

If King Arthur needed a good dentist, the charming Camelot-esque city of Sopron would do nicely, although he might struggle to find a bar open after 11pm

Of course, you realise this hotel is ex-communist military, don’t you?” said Attila the Hungarian, as we sipped pálinka (fruit brandy) under the firs at the Moha Erdei forest guesthouse. “The top brass would have stayed here, living the high life.”

My fellow guest in Hungary’s Lovér Hills was right – and it was difficult to fault the Magyar colonels on their good taste. The Moha was exactly what it said: a large and well-appointed place sunk pleasingly in the depths of the Lovér forests, where conifers swung down almost to the bedroom windows and you could eat on the terrace as the stars glimmered down through their outstretched branches.

Salami and bright smiles

The Moha was a good place for a journey’s end, a journey that had started 48 hours earlier in Vienna, a mere hour away by train. I’d passed seamlessly from Austria to Hungary’s north-west, through the damp, bottle-green foothills of the Alps, bound for Sopron. This medieval city surrounded by trekking routes provokes superlatives in guidebook writers (‘the closest thing that Hungary has to Prague’) and a fond smile in many Magyars.

The country’s ‘most loyal city’, Sopron famously voted in 1921 to remain Hungarian rather than be incorporated into its illustrious Western neighbour, unwittingly abandoning itself to a future 40 years of communism in the process.

It also has an eccentric reputation as both Hungary’s centre of dental tourism and excellent (and affordable) salami. Thus Sopron’s high street – a pleasing, pastel-coloured huddle of lived-in-looking neoclassical houses, endlessly receding archways and needle-like spires – sandwiches the town’s sausage emporia between hotels with names such as Dental Korona.

The living was elegant in Sopron – wine festivals take place in its splendid cobbled square, a host of terrace cafés serve excellent coffee, restaurants offer affordably sumptuous paprika-and cream-laden dishes. Yet after all the guidebook hype it seemed a rather muted place. Besides, it does a city of 60,000 inhabitants no favours comparing it to Prague, particularly when it’s a wild Hungarian goose chase to find an open bar at 11pm on a weeknight.

The allure of Lovér Hills

No matter. Next morning, I headed for the forest, where I would trek for the day and stay for the night. The charmingly named Lovér Hills border the city to the south, laced with well-marked hiking trails from 6km to 25km.

Given the near-certainty of getting lost, I went for a shorter route, which turned out to be wise. At the weekends the forests are popular with Sopron’s residents, who can simply walk through their suburbs and into the pines. But on this Tuesday I was unsure of meeting anyone, and had read too many Central European fairytales to risk being there after dark.

Forests seem to provide their own instant enclosure and, once inside, the town was forgotten: part of the Lovér Hills’ allure. The sun dappled its way through the branches, forming pools of golden light on the forest floor and throwing into relief the bluish depths of its thickets. Yet I realised quickly – how do such things happen? – that my eye had taken in the phrase ‘forested hills’ without calculating that there would actually be uphill climbs. Soon I was puffing my way up and down slopes, beneath pines, elms and oaks, with just the occasional hoo-hoo of a dove or busy clack of a woodpecker serenading my efforts.

I was, for the most part, quite alone. Trekking along the Lovér’s paths I passed gnarly trees, stacks of logs, clearings full of (empty) wooden chairs and tables. In one clearing I found a local couple – he older, she tackily glammed up – canoodling on a rough oak bench, perhaps enjoying an adulterous sylvan tryst, of which the Lovér Hills must have witnessed an abundance over the centuries.

From the lookout

Naturally, I got lost. Forests, after all, are for getting lost in. Heading for the centre of the trail map along a route named the ‘Klastrom-nyiladek’, I ended up at its south-eastern corner. So, after finding my way back to the narrow car-tracks, I stuck grimly to them, a wimpish compromise. Luckily, these winding asphalt paths felt just as atmospheric, overgrown by pines and with only the occasional Trabant puttering past to break the silence.

It was dusk now, and an almost living greenish light – the Russians have a word for it: glookhoman – was filling the glades and copses like pondwater. I made my way up past log cottages to the Burgstall Varhely, one of the wooden lookout towers, like medieval war-machines, that dot the forest. From its creakingly high top I saw the woods spread out down to the city in great undulating swathes. Beyond them, Sopron’s terracotta roofs and spires glowed in the evening sun, vaguely Arthurian. There it was: not the new Prague, perhaps, but at least a Hungarian Camelot. Just with better dentists.