SOPRON, Hungary — Once a major Roman settlement and later a trading crossroad for Byzantine merchants, this architecturally intriguing town on the Austrian border features more than 350 medieval, Gothic and baroque buildings in its old quarter.
Sopron is surrounded by vineyards that produce a dry red, and each house has its own wine cellar. Residents say that if you wish to sample a local bottle, just look for a church steeple. The women will be inside the church saying their prayers, while men will have gathered at a nearby cellar.
Lilac grows wild throughout the town. Storks arrive on their chimney nests in April. For those who want a small taste of Hungary at its finest, Sopron is only an hour's drive from Vienna.
Getting here: Fly Pan Am, TWA, KLM, British Airways or a number of other foreign carriers to Vienna, all with changes. A 30-day advance-purchase, round-trip ticket from Los Angeles to Vienna will cost between $956 and $1,032, depending on month and day of week flown. A train, bus or rental car will get you on to Sopron.
How long/how much? There is much to see, so give the town and its surroundings at least two full days. Lodging and dining costs are moderate.
A few fast facts: Hungary's forint recently traded at about 63 to the U.S. dollar, or 1.5 cents each. Come any time from late spring through October. The winters are frigid. And don't forget to purchase your visa in the United States since it will cost you double at the border or the Budapest airport.
Getting settled in: Hotel Palatinus (Uj utca 23; $40 B&B double, suites $49) is in the center of the old town, a marvelous little place crammed between ancient buildings, yet very contemporary in its decor and amenities.
The dining room is highly regarded by locals and by Austrians who drive two miles from the border just to eat here. There is also a charming outdoor terrace in the rear for dining in summer.
Hotel Lover (Varisi ut 4; $56 B&B double) sits in a wooded parkland about two miles from the city center, with many of the rooms' balconies within feet of the stately forest trees. Hotel public areas and bedrooms are modern in style, though the latter are rather small.
Lover has just completed a top-floor complex of spa treatment and workout rooms, said to be one of Hungary's most advanced. There is also an indoor pool, and breakfasts are from a generous buffet of Hungarian specialties.
Kastely Szallo (Nagycenk village, eight miles from town; $67 B&B double, suites $89) is in a castle that traces its roots to 1603 as the fortress and "storied farmhouse" of a Hungarian king. It is still a magnificent estate set in formal gardens and woodlands, known to horsemen around the world for its breeding farm and marvelous riding facilities.
Public areas of the castle are indeed regal, with beautiful antiques and gilded porcelain stoves at every turn. Bedrooms are medium size and tastefully decorated, while the spacious suites are baronial in size and furnishings.
The castle has perhaps the area's finest restaurant, a typical Central European coffeehouse. Some international guests adopt one of the hotel's horses for an extended stay of riding the countryside.
Regional food and drink: Pork is to Hungarians what veal is to Austrians, and is the basis of a variety of tempting dishes. Goulash, although it can also be made with beef or veal, is a good place to start, followed by innumerable pork roasts, grills, stews, sausages and salamis.
Hungary, like France, has long been known as the breadbasket of Europe, so expect the finest vegetables, breads and pastries. Soups are also a staple, particularly those made with freshwater fish.
A big specialty here are dishes made with beans of the area: salads, soups, meat dishes and the tempting soproner pogatscherl, a scone-like small cake eaten as an hors d'oeuvre or with a glass of wine.
Sopron's red wines are drier than those of the Lake Balaton region and share the pinnacle with the Eger variety.
On your own: Start your stroll through the old town from Foter (main square) and its 1676 fire tower, the town's symbol with a truly impressive Renaissance loggia. Nearby on the square is the 14th-Century Benedictine Goat Church, so called because it was said to be financed by a goat herd whose flock uncovered fields of gold.
Seeing many of the old homes, palaces, synagogues and museums in Sopron can be rather daunting without a guide. Dr. Magda Balogh (Zrinyi utca 25), a retired language teacher who knows the city and its history, is a delightful person and is recommended.
Take time for a visit to Fertod Esterhazy Castle (16 miles), a baroque-rococo extravaganza on the order of Versailles, where Joseph Haydn was court musician to the royal Esterhazy family for three decades. Concerts are performed at the castle during summer, and Sopron has a noted opera season at the same time.
For more information: Call Hungar Hotels at (213) 649-5960, or write (6033 W. Century Blvd., Los Angeles 90045) for a brochure on Sopron, another on travel throughout Hungary, a map of the country and information on obtaining visas. Ask for the Sopron package.