Canadian John Herbert is a frequent contributor to Gemütlichkeit. With Canada's dollar able to buy even less in Europe than our own, he has, out of necessity, become an authority on budget travel.
Hungarian Border Towns
There aren't many places in Europe where you can spend a relaxing day or two in the delightful setting of an ancient town, with prices that remind you of the 60s instead of the 90s. Hungary has a couple of such cities, both of which are just across the border from Austria. Sopron (40 miles from Vienna) and Köszeg (50 miles) are each worth a day's exploration.
Sopron is the larger (60,000 people) and more interesting of the two towns. It has a marvelous old-town center with winding cobblestone streets and 14th century buildings. The centerpiece is the town square with churches, outdoor cafés and an old bell tower. If Sopron were located in Austria or Switzerland it would be a well-known tourist attraction.
Try to avoid arriving from Austria on Saturday morning. We found ourselves in a mile-long line of cars that took an hour to reach the border. Most Austrians were coming over to shop, as just about everything is cheaper than at home.
We decided to stay in a Zimmer (bed, no breakfast) arranged through the helpful office of Locomotiv Tourist which is just a few steps away from the town square at Uj Utca 1. There were six or seven rooms available even on this busy weekend. Our place was in the home of the Nemeth family at 27 Gazda St. It consisted of a bedroom and attached living room, with a private bath and sink. The toilet, however, was down the hall and shared with the family. The house was on a typical residential street, a six or seven minute walk from the main street. The price was 1800 forints or about $13 a day.
If you prefer more upscale accommodations, try the three-star Palatinus Hotel, one of ten hotels in the town. It is located in the center of the old-town at 23 Uj Utca St. Though the exterior looks ancient the interior has been modernized. A double room will be about $60-$70.
Köszeg is only 35 miles from Sopron. Though much smaller, it is perhaps of greater historical interest because of a major defeat inflicted by the local population on the Turks in 1532. Köszeg is a picturesque place, especially the old-town center. Much of the original wall that surrounded the town is still in place. It is pleasant on a sunny day to stroll around and inspect the hodgepodge of architectural styles found in the old buildings. Prices are similar to Sopron. A meal for two in one of the town's better restaurants runs about $10-$15.
A couple of points about Hungarian travel:
• Currency exchange - There are a number of banks and private exchange offices in every tourist town, but here we find the post office offers a better rate than most.
• Driving - Hungary is one of the most pleasant countries in Europe in which to drive. Roads are in good condition, there are few cars, many of which are the awful East German-made Trabants that won't go over 60 m.p.h., thus reducing the number of drivers cruising at the usual European speed of 90-plus m.p.h.. Gas prices are similar to Austria.
• It may have been good luck but we ran in to a number of English-speaking employees at the restaurants, tourist offices, etc., certainly more than the guidebooks had led us to expect.
• Hungary has been discovered. Last year it had the fourth highest number of foreign visitors in all of Europe. Only France, Spain and Italy had more.
Last fall we made a short return visit to one of the most pleasant, but least known (at least to North Americans) regions of Austria, the Klopeiner See area about 20 miles southeast of Klagenfurt. We cut short a rain-plagued stay in Graz and headed for this area, known for its warm temperatures and sunny days. We weren't disappointed.
There is much to see in a three or four-day stay. The upscale resorts of Pörtschach and Velden on the Wörther See are 25 miles to the west and the Slovenian border is less than 20 miles to the south. At the moment Slovenia is the only easily visited part of the former Yugoslavian Republic. (Skip Ljubljana, the dull, traffic-clogged capital city and head for a day-trip to Bled, a pleasant resort just south of the Austrian border.)
We arrived about 4 p.m. in the village of St. Kanzian, on the north side of the small Klopeiner See and headed for the local tourist bureau on the main street for help in finding accommodations. You realize there are plenty of places to sleep in this small region - approximately five square-miles - when you are handed a 95-page accommodation's guide which lists over 300 apartments and bungalows. There is possibly more of this sort of accommodation here than in any other part of Austria.
The helpful English-speaking clerk in the tourist office explained we were now in the low season (after Sept. 15) and there were many vacancies. After describing our needs - a one-bedroom apartment - she recommended several places in our price range. At our request she made several phone calls to inquire about availability. There was no answer to the first three calls. Perhaps it was because it was at a time of day when the stores were open. (In Austria you want to take advantage of open stores, it doesn't seem to happen too often.)
The fourth call, to a house only three blocks away (but in the neighboring village of Seelach), paid off. It was arranged for us to visit the 12-unit apartment and meet the owner.
The building was only a few years old and had a variety of accommodations for from two to eight persons. About half the units were vacant. We chose a top (third-floor) apartment with one bedroom, a bathroom and a large room combining a compact kitchen, a dining area and a living room area. We also had a large south-facing balcony with a pleasant view. Everything was very up to date including the satellite TV which carried CNN and Sky TV.
A welcoming gift of a bottle of wine (choice of red or white) soon arrived. There was no pool but the building had a washing machine.
For our three-night stay the charge was 471 schillings ($46) per day including taxes and cleaning. A longer stay would reduce the daily cost. Prices in the accommodation's book showed this to be typical for the region. Most apartments are in private homes, but there are a number of small apartment buildings such as the one we stayed in.
By far the best time to visit is during the low season, April and May, and September 15 to October 15. Prices double in the busy summer months and many places close from mid-October to April.
For more details on apartment rental in Austria see the February, 1995, edition of Gemütlichkeit.
Our apartment owner's address: Familie Prasenc, Hubertshof, Seenweg 52, A-9122 Seelach am Klopeinersee Austria, phone 04239/2269, fax 04225/2822
For a copy of the accommodations guide contact:
Tourismusverband Klopeiner See Klopeiner Str. 5, A-9122 St. Kanzian Austria, phone 04239/22 22, fax 04239/30 65