Country Profile: Hungary

On The Road Travel Essays

back to index

Country Profile: Hungary

(COURIER: Use either on the road coming into Hungary, or at various times during the main itinerary.)

The Hungarians Are Unique (and know it!)  Hungarians are an Asiatic people who settled in Europe. Surrounded by Slavs, Germans, Turks, and related to none of them. Their language is not Indo-European, but distantly related to Finnish and Estonia. (So your other languages will not help you in Hungary, e.g. milk = milch, melk, lait, latta, leche, moloko (Russian), but in Hungarian: tej! N.B. "Foldalatti" is the Underground, not a milk bar.)

The result of this is tremendous national pride. Hungarians are fervently Catholic, but traditionally address God as "The God of the Magyars."

A Sketch of History  Hungary used to be a huge sea, which left behind it a great fertile plain, fringed by hills to the east, west, and south, through which flows the River Danube (Hungarian: Duna).

The first inhabitants were the Celts, who called their settlement (new present-day Budapest) Ak-ink, meaning "plentiful water" (lots of excellent springs, even today).

The Romans arrived under Emperor Tiberius (12 B.C.), and called their village of Budapest Aquincum. It was a large city: up to 30,000 people, and two amphitheaters. The place thrived because successful Romans were sent here to enjoy their retirement due to the spring water, pleasant climate, and lovely surroundings.

The Barbarians poured in after the fall of Rome. The Huns came in under Attila, whom the Hungarians have adopted as a national hero! The Huns were followed by the Avars (tribes of nomads from the steppes of Central Asia).

Arrival of the Magyars  The Magyars probably came from beyond the Ural Mountains. Countless centuries of nomadic wanderings in search of better pastures. Towards the end of the 9th century, seven tribes of Magyars, led by the great chieftain Arpad (whom you'll meet on Horsokter - Heroes Square in Budapest), arrived in Hungary, guided by a legendary eagle, Tureul, (you'll see it on a cliff above the road to the left above Tatabanya).

The Magyars would have moved farther east, but were halted in 955 at the Battle of Lechfeld.

Conversion to Christianity  Christianity came in 1000 A.D. when Pope Silvester crowned St. Stephen (Istvan) King of Hungary with a famous crown, a symbol of nationhood (recently returned to Hungary by the United States, which obtained it at the end of World War II). The return of the crown signaled Hungary's entry into established nationhood. (The first residence of kings: Esztergom on a bend in the Danube; Budapest began to grow under Bela IV, a few centuries later.)

Invasions  A constant problem to the Hungarians, in spite of their courage. Hungary has no natural defenses, and lies on everyone's route to the East.

The Golden Age  The Golden Age took place under the Kings Nagy Lajos (Louis the Great, 1342-1382), Zsigmond (Sigismund, 1387-1437), and Matyas Corvinus (1458-1490). The latter was the son of the Turk-conqueror Hunyadi Janos who inherited his father's courage and intelligence, and also had the cultural gifts of a Renaissance king. He even conquered Vienna in 1485, and sat on the Austrian throne for a short time. He was considered one of Hungary's great national heroes. (N.B. Statues of all these kings and heroes will be shown to you in Horsokter.)

The Turks  The scourge of Eastern Europe. The Turks had been advancing north and west for some time, sweeping all before them. They threatened Venice, and invaded Southern Russia and Poland in the Battle of Mohacs (1526). They destroyed the flower of Hungarian nobility, killed the king, Lajos II, and occupied suffering Hungary for 150 years. (Through the death of Lajos II, the crown of Hungary fell by marriage to the Austrian Habsburgs, hence the incorpora- tion of Hungary into the Austrian Empire after the final defeat of the Turks.) You can still see signs of Turkish occupation in Budapest: look out for the Turkish domed bath-houses. All the villages between Budapest and the western fringe of Burgenland are Baroque, because the original buildings were destroyed by Turks.

Examples of Hungarian Courage  This is the story of the tiny fortress, Sziget, which means "island." In 1566, it was besieged by massive Turkish forces which had defeated everyone under Suleiman the Magnificent, the greatest Turkish conqueror. Hungarians in the fortress held out for months and months with no hope of relief. Then when the Turks finally broke in, the handful of defenders blew themselves, the fortress, and the Turkish vanguard into smithereens rather than surrender. Suleiman died of apoplexy, Europe gained another respite, the Grand Army withdrew into Turkey for the time being.

Bull's Blood and the Siege of Eger: The defenders of Eger had been sensible enough to provide themselves with large supplies of their local wine, Egri Bikaver (Bull's blood of Eger), with which they kept their spirits up during one of the massive Turkish sieges. When one of them was captured, the Turks asked him to explain the phenomenal courage of the Hungarians. "We drink bull's blood!" he replied. The Turks took this literally, decided that if the inhabitants of Eger were that strong, it would be sensible to leave them alone, and they called off the siege for that year, retreating at high speed to less dangerous regions.

The Story of the Two Ilonas: A Hungarian town had been captured by the Turks. The Turkish commander — a repulsive old man — said he would spare the townspeople if the most beautiful girl in it, Ilona, would visit him at his camp. She refused, and she and most of her fellow citizens went proudly to their deaths. The survivors put up a statue to the lovely Ilona, a symbol of Hungarian courage.

Some 50 years later, another Turkish army attacked the town, and the Turkish commander — a splendid young man — promised to spare the inhabitants if the most beautiful girl among them, another Ilona, would visit him. She agreed, and the townspeople put up a statue to the second lovely Ilona, a symbol of Hungarian self-sacrifice.

1683, an important date. The Turks besieged Vienna, and were thrown back. Hungary was liberated by the armies of Prince Eugene, assisted by the Poles and by the Austrians and, of course, native Hungarians.

Austrians  The Hungarians exchanged Turks for Austrian rulers. The Hungarians were always the most restive of the many peoples in the Austrian Empire. (A huge revolution in 1848, was put down with the help of Russian troops.) The Rebellions were led by Rakoczy Ferenc, prince of Transylvania, among others. (N.B. The Hungarians put surnames first, followed by first names, e.g. Brown, John; or Jones, Mary.)

In 1867, the Ausgleich proclaimed by Franz Joseph of Austria: gave equal rights to Hungary, declared the Dual Monarchy. This put Romanians, Croatians, Transylvanians, Ruthenes (eastern peoples) under Hungarian rule. The arrangement appeared to be good for Hungary, but actually it was a disaster that hastened collapse of the Austrian monarchy. The Hungarians are glorious and gallant in defeat; ghastly as rulers. The Hungarians oppressed and Magyarized their subject peoples ruthlessly. This alienated some of the most loyal of people in the monarchy. Their actions were still remembered in 1956 during the Hungarian uprising. No help came from potentially sympathetic Yugoslavia. (Eastern Europeans have extremely long memories.)

After World War I  The Austrian Empire was dismembered. Hungary, too, lost much land, to which the Hungarians felt deeply attached after so many centuries of fighting for it. 75% of hereditary Hungarian lands was lost.

Hungary fell first to Communist Kun Bela, then to the Fascist, Admiral Horthy, who dragged the country into World War II on the side of Germany.

Post 1945  Hungary has been under the domination of the Russians. There was dreadful oppression under Rakosi Matyas, with secret police, called Avo (150,000 were imprisoned, 2,000 were executed).

1956 Revolution  This popular uprising was crushed by the Russians. There were extraordinary scenes of typical Hungarian desperate courage — all in vain. There were stories of tanks being driven off by a handful of students, men and women, with nothing by Molotov cocktails. A garage was held for 3 days by one man with tin cans and a kitchen knife against tanks. A tram conductor defended the Corvina cinema successfully with one hand gun.

However, there are also stories that put some of the Russians in a better light. Many Russian soldiers had been told they were going on exercises to the Ukraine, and could not understand why they were being stoned by people speaking a strange language in a strange city. Some Russians risked their lives by refusing to shoot the Hungarians; or else by telling them to shelter themselves behind their tanks, many of whom (Russians) were themselves shot by the secret police, the A.V.O., for these acts of humaneness.

Hungary Today  One of the most liberal and prosperous of East-bloc states. There are waiting lines at shops, but generally there is enough and of good quality. People increasingly are allowed to travel to Western Europe — love of Hungary tends to bring them back. Hungarians receive letters, buy newspapers, and hear Western broadcasts freely. The political cabaret (biting political satire) is a flourishing cultural institution. Favorite places for seditious conversations are the crowded cafes on the banks of the Danube and the Halaszbastya (Fisherman's Bastion) on the Varmegy (Castle Hill) — there being safety in numbers!

Services: Women have a two-year maternity leave on full pay and no loss of promotion. Schools generally are good. Books, theater, opera, concerts (remember Kodalyi, Bartok) are massively subsidized, cheap to attend, and always packed.

Basics of life: Public transport is widely used. (Get kids to take a trip on the Metro: it's cheap, and will give them a chance to see Hungarians in real life.) Accommodations and food are all cheap. Only a tiny portion of the population belongs to the Communist party. Churches are packed and not visibly oppressed. Children, however, are taught Russian in school, but most won't speak it! German is more widely spoken; English less so.

Food and drink: First rate. Extensive use of paprika in goulash (gulyas). Hungarians are also good at puddings and cakes, including pancakes (palacsinta) filled with cream cheese. Strudel (retes), which Hungarians invented. Dobostorta is excellent layer cake. Old-style cafes flourish (Vorosmarty on Vorosmarty Ter is the best known). Old habits like hand kissing and addressing women as "gracious lady" persist. All your guides will probably be noble. The reason for this is that in Hungary, all the children in a family inherit the family's title. Hence the nobility is large, and people demonstrate that nobility by showing great courtesy. Hungarian drink is excellent: Bull's Blood (Egri Bikaver) is the national drink: a red wine, with a history of involvement in Turkish wars. Also, Barack, a fiery apricot schnapps. Coffee is generally very strong and black. You have to ask for cream specifically, or it won't come.

Things to Buy  Salami: magnificent. Check U.S. customs rules about bringing some back. Embroideries, pottery, books, etc. All can be found easily, all first class. Don't be frightened of shops which accept only Western currency; it's a harmless device to get hard currency, and you're not likely to be taken advantage.

Currency: The Forint, divided into 100 Filler.

General Hints: Hungarians are proud, cultivated, and have a tremendous sense of tradition. Hospitable and emotional; they'll be your friends for life if you take the trouble to learn about their country, and can manage a few phrases of the language. Hungary will be well worth the effort you put into it.


passports educational travel logo

passports Educational Group Travel partners with teachers across the United States to provide high-quality educational travel experiences to their students. Educational tours visit destinations around the world - primarily France, Italy, England, Spain and Costa Rica - at low, guaranteed prices.

Passports, Inc., ToursOperators & Promoters, Spencer, MA


Facebook icon   Twitter icon   Pinterest icon   Blog icon

For updates on educational travel tips, ideas and news, subscribe to our newsletter:


51 Union Street Suite 106
Worcester, MA 01608

Email Us

© Copyright 1992-2022 Passports Educational Travel | All Rights Reserved | Privacy Policy