Travel Europe: Where the Iron Curtain fluttered

Although Sopron voted to be part of Eastern Europe, it hasn't been spoilt. Sam Margolis explores its Hungarian splendour
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The Independent Culture
In recent years, it appears that several central European towns have employed the same publicity agency which in turn has offered them all the same advice, to wit: bill yourself as "The Baroque Town".

For many towns, though, this claim is unfortunately hampered by the presence of Soviet-style architecture that looms over the once Baroque, and often dilapidated, quarters. One clear exception happens to be one of the first towns the traveller hits after heading east from the Austrian border.

Barely 30 miles from Vienna, Sopron offers a real taste of the Baroque central Europe that was sequestered behind the Iron Curtain for several decades. Indeed, it was on the fringes of the town that the Soviet bloc sprang a leak in 1989, triggering the collapse of communism. Some things are still the same, though: the city is full of Austrians who flock across the border to take advantage of goods and medical services, offered at a fraction of the cost they'd pay at home.

However, to label Sopron a border town in the pejorative sense would be a grand injustice to this small place surrounded by what used to be the land of the Hussars. Sopron boasts more historical monuments than any other Hungarian city, apart from Budapest.

Every resident of Sopron will tell you about the 1921 vote, in which the citizens were given the mandate of which direction to turn - East or West. They chose the former by a 75 per cent majority and thus the town has remained a part of Hungary. But it is a part of Hungary that resembles, to a great extent, its western neighbour.

The hills on the outskirts of town (where many of the city's fine and, of course, reasonably priced hotels are situated) give the western-bound traveller a precursor of what lies further ahead over the Austrian border. For those coming the other way, Sopron offers an splendid opportunity to recover from Viennese prices without getting the feeling that you are slumming it.

A small smattering of German, such as "Danke", or "Ein Glas Wein Bitte", might prove helpful in Sopron as many Hungarian shop owners tend to perceive fluency in an Anglo-Saxon dialect to translate into a clear understanding of German. A recent visit, though, showed that hotel workers have improved their English ability considerably in recent years.

Although the inner town is small on a geographical scale, you could easily spend a couple of days weaving your way along the winding streets, peering in at several of the town's treasures and then treating yourself to a hearty stew (porkolt) or a chicken paprika.

Gourmands will rejoice at the bountiful supply of splendid Hungarian fare that can be found as soon as you hit the central square of the town. Several pastry shops (cukrazda) are teamed together along the main walking streets. The Domortori Coffeehouse (next to the John Bull pub) in the centre of town will easily sate a mid-morning craving for coffee and cake. A sure winner is the Dobos Torta, or layered cake, which, when served with a cappuccino, comes to the equivalent in Hungarian currency (the forint) of less than pounds 1.

If you need something more hearty later in the day, then there's no need to fear going hungry. The city is renowned for its wild game. Wild boar stews in a red wine sauce can be found at several locations, the restaurant in the Lover Hotel offering one of the quietest and most enjoyable surroundings.

The handsome main square is full of Hungarian wine cellars . Sopron is one of the top wine growing regions in the country. The Gyogygodor (literally Health Pit) is not a spot to be missed for those who could do with a spot of a dry red (Kekfrankos) after a full day of trekking about the town. Furthermore, at less than pounds 1 a litre, you can soak up some of the vintage and schmooze with the locals without having to fret about the price.

Don't drink too much, though, if you want to enjoy the glories of the town. A tour should start with the Fire Tower (which also serves as a landmark to get your bearings). This is way in front as the the toughest part of the day, a hike up a couple of hundred steps. And the reward (besides the aforementioned wine cellar on the way down) is a clear view of the surrounding area, the town and the hills which stretch on into Austria. The tower itself shows many styles; Romanesque, Renaissance and Baroque.

Descending the stairs and walking into the main square, you find the Storno House, which was built in the 15th century, and which saw as its guests such national heroes as Franz Liszt. Storno House is home to several Hungarian art treasures, stored by the Storno family.

Nearby lies an the old synagogue of the town, a building still standing from the time the Jews were expelled from the city in the early 16th century. The location later became a private residence, and it was only after the end of the Second World War that the original purpose of the building was discovered.

Lastly, the Franz Liszt Museum is one of the finest museums to be found in Hungary outside of Budapest. It boasts a rich collection of regional artworks, and the building itself is a work of art situated in the middle of a beautiful park.

Another idea to keep in mind while in Sopron is a drive to the nearby town of Fertod, where an impressive Esterhazy castle, that was often the working home of Joseph Haydn, can be found.

Fact File

Getting there: fly to Vienna, on British Airways (from Gatwick and Heathrow, 0345 222111) Austrian Airlines (from Heathrow, 0171-434 7300) and Lauda Air (from Gatwick and Manchester, 0171-630 5824). Target fare at this time of year is around pounds 175 return, more from Manchester. From Vienna airport, take a train into the city, another to Wiener Neustadt, where you may need to change again.

Train: from Waterloo, change at Brussels and Vienna. The fare is around pounds 330 and the journey time 20 hours.

Accommodation: the Hotel Sopron (00 36 99 314 254), near the city centre, costs pounds 30-pounds 70 per person per night. The Hotel Pannonia (00 36 99 312 180) is a small, fashionable and central hotel for pounds 35 single, pounds 48 double. Information: Hungarian National Tourist Office: 0891 171200 (costs 50p per minute).