Right in the heart of Europe, Hungary and its capital Budapest are split in two by the River Danube. The verdant north-east is home to wine towns like baroque Eger and tranquil Tokaj, and you might spot wild boar or red deer in its forested hills. To the south the vast and fertile Great Plain takes in the steppes of the Hortobágy national park – the biggest area of natural grassland in Europe. Szeged is a miniature version of Budapest, with grand imperial buildings but on a more manageable scale. To the west of the Danube, Lake Balaton’s cheery resorts make up for Hungary’s lack of coast.
A holiday in Hungary might start in cultural epicentre Budapest. Lap up classical music at the Art Nouveau Ferenc Liszt Music Academy, or get down on the A38 Ship floating nightclub. Pécs, European City of Culture 2010, retains Ottoman traces with a former mosque the centrepiece of its town square. Debrecen has shed its provincial image with its cutting-edge modem art museum, while the táncház movement is keeping Hungarian folk dancing very much alive and kicking.
Hungary may be landlocked, but Hungarians still have Lake Balaton, Central Europe’s largest lake, where Budapesters head to cool down. Hévíz, the world’s second largest thermal lake, is just 6km away. Before the Danube hits Budapest, it snakes through the scenic Danube Bend and past the hilltop castle at Visegrád. The capital itself is a hotbed of thermal baths, from gorgeous Art Nouveau to atmospheric Ottoman.
Rántott hús, cutlets of meat deep fried in breadcrumbs, are as ubiquitous as winter-warming gulyás (goulash) soup. Szeged is famed for szalámi and for piquant, paprika-infused fish soup, washed down with spicy red Kadarka wine. The fatty but flavoursome native mangalica pig is the meat of the moment but game is always abundant. Hungarian libamáj (foie gras) is highly sought by the French. Wash it down with the sumptuously sweet wine Tokaji Aszú. Pálinka fruit brandy can kick-start any evening.
Hungary has been blessed and pummelled by history, and a Hungary hotel can be part of the magical melting pot of architectural styles. Engagingly eclectic Budapest is enhanced by dreamy Art Nouveau from Lechner, the Hungarian Gaudí. Eger preserves its pure baroque beauty after being completely rebuilt in the wake of its entanglement with the Turks in 1687. Haydn was once resident conductor at the resplendent rococo ‘Hungarian Versailles’ – Esterházy Palace – in Fertőd.