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Saturday March 3, 2012

Never hungry in Hungary

Foodies, culture vultures and adrenalin junkies have a smorgasbord of choices when in Hungary.

EACH time I mentioned to a friend that I was heading to Hungary, the response was almost identical: “Wow! Hungary? Check out the goo-larsh there!”

It soon became obvious to me that the main tourism icon of Hungary to most Malaysians is not a building, a dance or a natural feature, but a dish. France may have its Eiffel Tower, Egypt the Pyramids and Switzerland its Alps; Austria may have the waltz and Argentina the tango, but Hungary is readily recognised for its unique spicy dish, the famous Hungarian goulash.

Pronounced “gee-yash”, this delicious steaming broth is actually a sort of tomato soup filled with chunky cubes of beef and potato, richly seasoned with a variety of spices and herbs, including paprika, parsnip, thyme and bay leaf. Vegetables such as carrots, garlic, green-pepper and peas are added, depending on the location of your meal.

Beautiful danube: Night view of Budapest.

I have sampled goulash at numerous locations across Hungary and the neighbouring countries, and every place serves a slightly different version. Some places produce a thin spicy soup while others dish up a thick starchy stew – and some places even serve a pure vegetarian variety that is savoured by appreciative vegans and their friends who are Muslims, Hindus, Jewish or Buddhist.

But wherever you find it and in whatever form, goulash is invariably filled with tomato and spices – and it is always irresistibly delicious.

However, Hungarian cultural identity goes far beyond this iconic dish. Entirely surrounded by peoples and nations of Germanic and Slav origins, the Magyars of Hungary have fiercely guarded both their culture and their cuisine, so that visitors to their country get a veritable feast of the senses.

To my untrained but appreciative ear, for instance, Hungarian music combines the classical traditions of France, Austria and Germany with the folk songs of Romania, Croatia and Slovakia. It is a vibrant genre of music throbbing with sweeping sophistication and earthy rhythm at the same time.

Urbane violins and unassuming accordions merge harmoniously with stately double-basses and perky mandolins to create music that is as unique as it is evocative.

Hungarian performers keep traditional music alive and well.

For sightseers and shutterbugs with an appetite for architecture, all of old Europe is displayed across Hungary in a style that the country’s citizens proudly describe as “Classical Hungarian Eclectic”. Majestic palaces, soaring cathedrals, elegant museums and even the National Parliament Building all merge classical Roman, Gothic, Baroque and Neo-Renaissance elements.

Buildings erected in the last century, however, offer two sharp contrasts. Earlier ones often feature flamboyant American-styled Art Nouveau gaiety, while those erected during the period of Soviet dominance exhibit sombre Socialist-era Bauhaus simplicity. Slowly but surely, the country is restoring its magnificent old buildings to their original splendour, with spectacular results.

It’s not easy for a grizzled veteran of countless European cities to be impressed, but I must confess I was open-mouthed with awe at my first view of beautiful Budapest at night. Classical buildings on both sides of the Danube River are bathed in warm amber spotlight, and if they look impressive from the outside at night, a daytime visit will reveal even greater glory within.

Leading tourism destinations like London, Paris and Vienna abound with cultural activities, bustling excitement and photogenic monuments, but for physically attractive European cities, my votes go to Stockholm and Budapest.

Stockholm has its unique Scandinavian amalgam of waterways, colourful amber buildings, cobblestone streets and attractive layout, while Budapest combines dramatic scenery, elegant buildings, perfect proportions and an enchanting Old World charm to completely captivate the visitor.

For the Asian tourist, further delights await. For one thing, Hungary can generally be considered quite a “bargain” compared to many other Euro-zone nations like Germany, Austria, France, the Netherlands or even the Czech Republic and Slovakia. I found that the Hungarian forint kept hotel prices about 15% below those in Western European countries, but several Asian travel agents I met during my visits to Hungary told me that they could save as much as 25% on tour costs in this charming country.

This ancient Tihany Benedictine Abbey was rebuilt in 1754.

Another attraction for Malaysians in particular is that Hungarians seem generally to speak better English than their French, Spanish and German counterparts. I, for one, was certainly surprised to discover that the hoteliers and tourist guides I encountered all across Hungary were far more fluent in English than those I met anywhere else in Europe.

Horse-riding and thermal spas are two major Hungarian features that are attracting increasing number of Asian visitors, while adrenalin junkies can choose from motor-racing, watersports, cross-country cycling, hiking and, of course, skiing and ice-skating in winter. From eclectic architecture and evocative music to exhilarating activities and enchanting scenery, there is something to suite every taste in Hungary – and we haven’t really even begun to talk about the food yet!

Emirates flew the writer to Vienna. From there, the trip to Hungary was fully hosted by the Hungarian National Tourist Office and its partners.

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