Courtyards and Secret Gardens
All the streets I mentioned in the old town had arches and heavy wooden doors at street level. Some of these doors were open, some needed a little push but all revealed their own treasures. Here behind the crumbling outer facades were the functional doors and windows of the actual residents. Each courtyard had a number of apartments around a communal cobbled area, shaded by large trees. Some were very plain and some were exotic but each one had an air of secrecy and mystery about them. I much prefer small secret city gardens to large formal ones so I enjoyed this part of my visit to Sopron very much.
The photos show one or two of these courtyards and their secret gardens.
This square, in the centre of the city, hosts some very beautiful buildings as well as some other things such as
- The Mary's Column (main pic).
- Firewatch Tower and City Hall (second pic).
- Gambrinus House (third pic).
- Goat Church (fourth pic).
The small Hungarian town of Sopron lies in the extreme west of the country (in the western Transdanubia region) just a few kilometers from the Austrian and Slovak borders.
Sopron lies 212km west of the Hungarian capital, Budapest and only 64km east of the Austrian capital, Vienna and 90km south of Slovakia's capital, Bratislava.
How to get there?
Sopron has no airport and the nearest international airport is Wien-Schwechat Flughafen close to Vienna in neighbouring Austria.
Trains and buses connect Sopron with other towns and cities in Hungary, including frequent connections to nearby towns such as Gyor, Mosonmagyarovar and Szombathely, and the capital city, Budapest.
There are also frequent train connections to Wiener Neustadt in Austria and, much more usefully, Vienna's Sudbahnhof.
I arrived in Sopron on a train from Vienna's Sudbahnhof (a journey of 1 hour and 15 minutes at a cost of 10.50 Euros). Sopron's train station is located on the southern edge of the city centre, a 5 minute walk from Szechenyi Ter. The bus terminal, which I never used, is located to the north-west of the city centre, just a few minutes walk from Ogabona Ter.
Arriving at Sopron's train station, you pass through both Austrian and Hungarian passport controls after disembarking the train. Similarly, when leaving Sopron by train you pass through Hungarian and Austrian passport controls before boarding the train.
I left Sopron on a train back to Vienna's Sudbahnhof after 2 days in the town (cost at January 2006: 3000 Ft).
"What is there to see and do?"
A few recommendations of things to see and do based on my 2 days in the town:
In a town that is dubbed "the most historic town in Hungary", with hundreds of listed buildings and monuments, Fo'ter is probably the most impressive sight in the city. This picturesque square is surrounded by impressive buildings, including the Goat Church (apparently funded by a goatherd whose flock happened upon a cache of loot), the Firewatch Tower and impressive mansions such as Storno House, Fabricius House and Lackner House. An impressive Holy Trinity statue, which is said to have upset locals when it was first erected in 1700, stands in the centre of the square. At the time of my visit, a large Christmas tree stood in the square and much of the square was under a cover of snow. Alas, in January 2006 when I visited, many of the museums on the square were closed for the winter.
The Firewatch Tower (Tuztorony in Hungarian) is the symbol of Sopron. This cylindrical tower, standing on the north-east corner of Fo'ter, has a Baroque balcony towards the top of it, which is said to offer excellent views over Fo'ter and the wider inner city area (known as Belvaros). Sadly, it was closed for the winter when I visited, so I was unable to climb to the top to take in these stunning views. There is a gate passing through the tower which is known as the Gate of Loyalty and which was constructed in 1921 to honour the local citizens who rejected the offer of Austrian citizenship. As well as Sopron's coat of arms, the tower bears the latin motto "Civitas Fidelissima" - the most loyal citizens!
Szechenyi Ter is a large square in the south of the town centre. A giant statue of Count Istvan Szechenyi (a famous 19th Century figure) stands in the centre of the square and impressive buildings (which I will need to research to identify) border the square on all sides. Amongst these buildings are a huge post office and a large church.
This is another picturesque little square in the inner city area, at the end of a side street off Templon Utca. A small fountain (the Maria Fountain, or Maria Kut in Hungarian) stands in the centre of the square and the impressive and imposing Church of the Virgin looms above the square.
Cobbled streets and traditional homes
There are many small narrow streets in the Belvaros, such as Templon Utca, Kolostor Utca, Uj Utca and Szent Gyorgy Utca. Traditional houses and old churches line these picturesque streets and many of the buildings have been converted into comfortable cafes or small museums.
Old City Walls
A small section of the Old City Walls still exists, located to the east of the Belvaros off Szent Gyorgy Utca. At the time of my visit the walls were covered in snow and my attempts to climb to the top were akin to climbing a steep ski slope - in trainers!
Other interesting buildings
A few other impressive buildings and sights I saw during my stay are: The House of Two Moors, a mansion whose entrance is guarded by two statues wearing turbans; Golden Lion Pharmacy, a pharmacy building on Varkerulet with a bright yellow tiled facade; St Michael's Church, a large Gothic church to the north east of the town; Sas Ter, another picturesque little square to the north east of the town, looking particularly scenic under a cover of snow; Storno House Museum, one of the few museums open in January - an interesting exhibition inside this old mansion, showing the history of Sopron and the Storno family who occupied this particular property.
The hotel that I stayed in was located a 25 minute walk south of the city centre on the edge of a popular hiking area, the Loverek Hills. A series of hiking trails pass through the hills, forests and countryside of this area, reaching as far as the border with Austria.
A few observations from my 2 days in Sopron:
German as a second language
Thanks to its proximity to Austria, and particularly to Vienna, Sopron attracts a lot of visitors from its more prosperous neighbour. The Viennese visit Sopron in their droves for cheaper shopping, dining and dentist work (see below). Consequently, many of the local population speak German as a second language, particularly the older generations, and most menus have Hungarian and German translations, but not always English. Thankfully, I knew enough German to be able to read the menu and order a meal and a drink and in most cases this was necessary. Among younger generations English is more widely understood and spoken, but don't take it for granted that you'll be understood. If you can't master the difficult Hungarian language, it would be advisable to learn a few basic words of German.
Sopron is largely a summer resort. When I visited in January 2006, there were few other tourists in the town and many of the attractions (particularly museums) displayed signs stating that they would not open again until April. As a result, I was not able to climb the town's Firewatch Tower for its supposedly excellent views. Many of the bars and restaurants had large beer gardens and open terraces - but in January these were hidden under a foot of snow. On the positive side, I paid only 29 Euros for a hotel room that would have cost significantly more in the summer months and I never had any problems getting a table in a pub or restaurant!
Centre of dentistry
I had read before my visit that Sopron is renowned for its large quantity of dentists. "There are dentists everywhere you look", the guidebook said, and neighbouring Austrians are said to commonly cross the border for cheaper dental work. I've no idea why dentists have chosen to converge upon this little Hungarian town, but they certainly have. Along any given street you will see a sign displaying the word "Zahnarzt" (the German for dentist).