Difference between revisions of "Hungary"
Revision as of 18:59, 18 October 2007
Hungary (Magyarország)  is a country in Central Europe. Member of the European Union since 1 May 2004. The country offers many diverse destinations: relatively low mountains in the north-west, the Great Plain in the east, lakes and rivers of all sorts (including Balaton - the largest lake in mainland Europe), and many beautiful small villages and hidden gems of cities. Top this off with Hungary's great accessibility in the middle of Europe, a vivid culture and economy, and you get a destination absolutely not worth missing if you're in the region.
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The country is not very different from most other European countries: you can expect to find safe food and water, good safety and generally political stability.
Hungary doesn't attract terrorists and keeps drug and crime levels moderate.
Hungary has been ethnically diverse since its inception, and while over 90% of the population are ethnically Hungarian, pockets of ethnic and cultural Slovaks, Romanians, Germans and others dot the country. Due to the frequent border shifts in Eastern European history, over 2 million ethnic and cultural Hungarians live in bordering countries, as well.
Temperatures in Hungary vary from -28°C to 39°C through the year. Distribution and frequency of rainfall are unpredictable due to the continental clime of the country. Heavy storms are frequent after hot summer days, and so do more days long still rainfalls in the Autumn. The western part of the country usually receives more rain than the eastern part, and severe droughts may occur in summertime. Weather conditions in the Great Plain can be especially harsh, with hot summers, cold winters, and scant rainfall.
Hungary is now a part of the European Union, which means that entering from other member countries (Austria, Slovakia, Slovenia) has become easier, while a rather more thorough check awaits those entering from elsewhere (Ukraine, Serbia). Citizens of Croatia can enter the country by showing their idenitity card. Citizens of the US, Canada, Australia, Venezuela and New Zealand, are free to enter without a visa. The usual length of stay is 90 days without any additional permit.
Hungary's international airports are Budapest Ferihegy Airport in Budapest, Airport Debrecen in Debrecen and FlyBalaton Airport in Sármellék. The Hungarian national carrier is Malév (Hungarian Airlines). There are also several low cost carriers operating to Budapest: for example SkyEurope, Wizzair, Easyjet, Germanwings.
Air Europa operates a daily fly from Madrid and is a good choice from Latin America with stop in Madrid.
There are direct connections to Hungary from:
You can search for international train connections at official schedule site  of MÁV, national train company.
When driving into Hungary, ensure that the border crossing on the route you choose allows the passage of foreigners. Also some smaller crossings close in the afternoon for the night. It is also required to buy a vignette for driving on highways.
Several international bus lines go in or through Hungary. You can find timetables and book tickets on the homepage of Volánbusz, which is the national bus company and also the local Eurolines representation. On the southern border with Serbia you shouldn't be surprised when there in the bus a collection is being held for a donation to the border-guards, to let the bus pass faster.
It is possible to enter Hungary by international shipping lines on Danube (Duna) or Tisza rivers. There is a scheduled hydrofoil service on the Danube to and from Vienna and Bratislava daily between early April and early November operated by Mahart. 
Hungary presently has no regular domestic flights. As Budapest lies in the center of the country and pretty much any point can be reached within three hours by train or bus, there isn't much need for scheduled domestic flights.
However there are many opportunities for people with a valid pilot's license to rent a plane and explore by air.
The train network is star-shaped, fanning out from the centre at Budapest. This is caused by history because half of the once complete train system went to the neighbor countries after World War I. If none of the start or endpoint is Budapest, expect to travel for a long time often with change in Budapest.
Intercity (IC) trains are the fastest, and they're up-to-date, well maintained and cleaned. They link the major cities with Budapest. For these trains usually you pay 550 Forints (= 2 EUR) extra fee independently from the distance which includes a seat reservation (not in international ICs, ECs). In some cases the extra charge can be lower. Compared to the majority of Western European ticket prices, Hungary's IC trains are amongst the cheapest with an excellent record of speed and comfort. In almost all cases they also have a restaurant car. At the weekends many students use these IC trains to commute between Budapest and other cities, so an early advance booking is recommended on Friday afternoons for the trains leaving Budapest and on Sunday evenings for trains towards Budapest. Working with a notebook is generally safe, unless it's heavy overcrowded.
Other train lines usually are not that fast, and not always cleaned up to the high standards (even in the 1st class), and often vandalised (mostly in Budapest region) however quality standards are considerably raising. During summer period trains linking Balaton to Budapest are sometimes overcrowded. Pricing depends only on the distance and on the car class. Cash desks assume 2nd class by default for non-IC trains (at least in Budapest for English speakers), so if you didn't catch your IC, consider asking 1st class, paying small extra for much more comfort. When in the train, keep in mind that there are smoking and non-smoking cars--check a sign over a door inside a car.
Young people (under 26 years) may travel with 33% reduction at the weekends (Friday afternoon included). Children (under 6 years) and retired (citizens from EU countries over 65 years) can travel free except on InterCity trains where the extra fee (reservation) must be paid.
It is possible to buy Inter Rail pass for Hungary. Check whether buying tickets for each journey is cheaper.
Bus lines often are more complete than train lines, the prices and the speed is quite similar. Buses are normally clean.
There are several companies that provide coach services. Most of them belong to the Volán conglomerate . You can search for connections at http://www.menetrendek.hu/cgi-bin/menetrend/html.cgi (Hungarian only).
There are some ferries on Danube and Tisza but their undetermined working hours make them non-recommended. You can trust the ferry on Lake Balaton, though, for a modest price.
Roads of Hungary are mostly in good shape, but in big cities, and especially in Budapest, prepare for the opposite: cracks and potholes in the street surfaces are common, though they are constantly being repaired. Usually you can travel by using a map and the road signs.
Highways are not free, but there are no other toll roads or tunnels.
Don't count on Western European travel times though: if you travel by normal roads the speed limit is 90 km/h between cities and 50 km/h inside, which slows you to the average around 60km/h. Roads often have high traffic (especially main roads like #8 to the west, #6 to the south and #4 to the east).
When you cross the country from the west to the east (or vice versa), take into account that there are only a few bridges crossing the Danube outside Budapest. There are some ferries available though.
It is a legal requirement to drive with headlights on, even during the day -- a requirement that is becoming more common across the EU.
There is a fast growing highway network in Hungary (1,000 km in total). Each highway starts at Budapest.
A single vignette is required to use all highways, except for M0 and short sections around major cities, which are free. Vignettes can be purchased online with bankcard on http://www.ppo.hu, at filling stations and at ÁAK (State Motorway Management Co.) offices. A 4-day vignette for a passenger car costs HUF 1520 (~EUR 6) during summertime. Vignettes are controlled automatically through a camera system. See http://www.motorway.hu/ or http://www.nart.hu/ for details.
Inspect the change that taxi drivers give you. Cabbies commonly rip off tourists by giving them change in outdated Romanian currency, which looks similar to Hungarian currency, but is worthless and cannot be redeemed.
Hungarians speak Hungarian (Magyar), a language remotely related to Finnish and Estonian and not at all related to any of its neighbors, much less English. It may sound somewhat similar to Russian or other Slavic languages, but there's not any relation with them at all. Pointing out the seeming similarity may upset or even anger locals.
English-speakers tend to find most everything about the language tough going, including a number of unusual sounds like gy and ű, as well as agglutinative grammar that leads to fearsome-looking words like hozzáadottérték-adó (value-added tax) and viszontlátásra (goodbye). On the upside, it's written with the friendly Roman alphabet (if adorned with lots of accents), and - unlike English - it has a phonemic orthography. This means that if you learn how to prononunce the 44 letters of the alphabet, you'll be able to pronounce almost every Hungarian word with near perfection, even if you don't understand a word of it. Attempting anything beyond the very basics will gain you a great deal of respect.
Among foreign languages, German is most popular, widely understood and can be spoken by locals--and is used on public signs and schemes, in restaurant menus, mostly due to the country's historical ties with Austria and --later-- with East Germany. English and Russian are just next to German in chances to be understood and spoken. In Budapest, the basics of Russian are understood by most people, and by staff in the Budapest venues popular among Russians (airports, duty free shops, top hotels, famous restaurants, famous thermal baths). Don't expect the average Hungarian to speak much English nor Russian, especially not if you travel outside of the capital city.
There are also some amazing things to see.
The unit of Hungarian currency is known as the forint (HUF). The Hungarian "cent" (fillér) is long since obsolete. Bills come in 20000, 10000, 5000, 2000, 1000, 500 and 200 HUF denominations, coins are 100 (two colored, similar to €2), 50, 20, 10, 5, 2, 1 HUF.
Euro is now accepted at most hotels and some of the restaurants and shops. Make sure you check the exchange rate though, sometimes even well known places (like McDonald's) will exchange at unrealistic rates. Forint is scheduled to disappear around 2010-2012, but no date is fixed yet.
You can use major credit cards (EuroCard, Visa) in major shops and larger restaurants, but never expect that without checking first. Small places cannot afford to handle cards. ATMs are available even in small cities, the coverage is good.
There are 198.88 forints to the USD and 256.64 forints to the EUR (28 January 2007).
Exchange rates for EUR and USD are roughly the same within downtown (at least in Budapest and Eger). Rates may be much worse in airports and large train stations - so change exactly what you need to reach downtown. Official exchange offices always give a receipt and normally have a large glass between client and a cashier making all steps transparent for client.
Travellers report that unofficial money changers operating nearby an official money changing booth offer unfavourable rates--and recommend to use official exchange offices.
If you arrive to Budapest at late nights it is quite likely you won't be able to find any working bank or exchange office. In this case you may attempt to exchange your money with any random taxi driver. They will rip you off by 100-200 forints (around 1 EUR), but it's better than nothing. There is an ATM in the arrival hall at Budapest Ferihegy, and the rates for using ATMs with a card are often better than the bureau de change
Adventurous locals in Budapest report they change EUR unofficially with arabs on a train station, but they don't recommend it to unaccompanied travellers.
What to buy?
Apart from classical tourist souvenirs like postcards and trinkets, here are some things unique to Hungary or just hard to find elsewhere.
In restaurants, a service charge is frequently included into bill, 10% or even 12%, but this has to be clearly pointed out on the menu. If it'n not, the place has no right to include a service charge in the bill.
Even if there's no service charge, unless the service was preposterous most Hungarians tend to leave a generous tip (10% minimum). Unlike in most western countries, tip is usually not left on the table, but rather the amount is specified to the waiting staff when you pay.
There were some places (mainly in downtown Pest) that tried to rip off drunk tourists at night by charging ridiculously high prices for drinks. Most of these places are closed now, but it's still a good idea to always check the prices on the menu before ordering.
In major cities and next to the highways you can find restaurants of the major international chains such as KFC, McDonald's, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Subway and TGI Friday's.
Hungarians are quite proud of their cuisine (Magyar konyha), and most of the time not without a reason. Food are usually spicy (but not hot by general standards), and it's tasty rather than healthy — many dishes are prepared with lard or deep-fried. The national spice is paprika, made from ground sweet bell peppers and which actually has some flavor when fresh. The national dish is, of course, goulash, but Hungarians call the thick paprika-laden stew known as goulash elsewhere by the term pörkölt and reserve the term gulyás for a lighter paprika-flavored soup.
Less well known in the rest of the world are paprikás csirke, chicken in paprika sauce, and halászlé, paprika fish soup often made from carp.
Goose is also quite popular in Hungary. While tourists gorge on goose liver (libamáj), still cheap by Western standards, probably the most common dish is sült libacomb, roast goose leg. Stuffed (töltött) vegetables of all kinds are also popular, and Hungarian pancakes (palacsinta), both savoury and sweet, are a treat. Common snacks include kolbász, a Hungarianized version of the Polish kielbasa sausage, and lángos, deep-fried dough with a variety of toppings.
A Hungarian meal is almost always — even at breakfast — accompanied by Hungarian pickles called savanyúság, literally "sourness". These are often dubbed saláta on menus, so order a vitamin saláta if you want fresh veggies. Starch is most often served as potatoes, rice or dumplings (galuska' or nokedli), the primary Hungarian contribution in this field is an unusual type of small couscous-like pasta called tarhonya.
Vegetarians will have a tough time in Hungary and strict vegans will starve to death. Budapest is not a problem, as there is a wide variety of restaurants to choose from, but in an ordinary Hungarian restaurant the non-meat mains on the menu are pretty much limited to rántott sajt (fried cheese) and gombafejek rántva (fried mushrooms).
However, in recent years, Italian food has become a lot more popular, so as long as you don't mind a pasta heavy diet as a vegetarian you will find a wider choice.
If one self-caters from supermarkets or local shops and markets, however, the selection of fruits and vegetables is quite good, especially in summer.
If new to Hungarian wine, be aware that both champagne ("pezsgő") and wine, red or white, are quite likely to be sweet ("Édes"). If dry wine is your preference, look for the word "Száraz" on the label.
In Hungarian, pálinka denotes strong brandy-like liquor distilled from fruit. Pálinka is a very social drink: just as the English drink tea, the Hungarians, especially in rural areas, will offer pálinka to guests upon arrival. The best-known varieties are barackpálinka, made from apricots, körtepálinka from pears, and szilvapálinka made from plums. Factory-made pálinka is widely available, but keep an eye out for homemade házipálinka. Pálinkas usually contain around or above 40% of alcohol, often more for the homemade ones. Pálinka bottles marked mézes will be heavily sweetened with honey.
Unicum is a strong digestif made from a secret mix of over 40 herbs. It comes in striking black bottles emblazoned with a red and white cross, and has a very strong and unusual taste. Unicum Next has a lighter, citrusy flavor, and is rather more palatable.
Hungarian beer is quite average compared to other Central European countries like Germany and the Czech Republic as it has long been a wine culture. The most common beers are Dreher, Borsodi, Soproni Ászok and Arany Ászok, available in the styles világos (lager) and barna (brown). They cost about 150-200 Forints at a store and 300-500 at a bar.
Imported beers like Pilsner Urquell, Staropramen and Budweiser (the Czech variety) are widely available in bars and markets for not much more than the ubiquitous Hungarian brands.
Cafe culture is alive and well in Hungary, although it may never recover the romance of its turn-of-the-century intellectual heyday. Unless asked, it's a good idea to specify what kind of coffee you prefer. The word kávé means the strong, espresso like coffee to most Hungarians, although American-style coffee (known as hosszú kávé in Hungarian, usually translated as "long coffee") is now also available at most places.
Hungarians usually do not drink much tea and most of them use tea bags for making it. They will probably drink it with sugar and lemon juice. In restaurants and cafes, lemon juice is frequently served in a small bottle.
The situation is getting better and there are already several tea houses, mainly in Budapest and some bigger cities where people can buy several types of loose tea. As it is quite fashionable to spend time in a tea house, more and more people will be able to serve good tea even at home. The best teas to go for are the herbal and fruit varieties.
In a restaurant, cafe or confectionery however, good teas are hard to find; even in in Budapest Newby looks the best you can have.
When you ask for a black tea in a budget cafe, frequently Earl Grey is served instead--remember to specify if that does matter for you.
Most mineralized (and hard to find, judging by Budapest):
It should be noted though that as it is the case of most European countries, in Hungary, it is possible to drink tap water.
Prices vary greatly. For the cheapest room in a youth hostel in Budapest expect to pay between €10 and €12, but the normal rate in a hostel is €20-22 per person.
Hungarian universities are open to all foreign students. Many European exchange students come through the EU's Erasmus program. There are quite a lot students from Asia and the Middle East as well, particularly because despite the high standard of education, fees are still considerably lower than in the more developed Western European countries. Interested should visit Study in Hungary website.
It would be very inadvisable for an individual to seek (legal) employment in Hungary because of the complexity, cost and time involved. Most foreign workers in Hungary have received their visas and other necessary documents through the company they are employed by. It is hoped, however, that since the joining of Hungary to the EU a reduction will follow in the amount of red tape involved.
Many students (usually on a gap year) work as second language teachers at one of Budapest's many language schools. Be advised that a qualification is required (ESL/TEFL/TESOL)and that experience is preferred.
An excellent option is to teach through the Central European Teaching Program . For a reasonable placement fee they will take care of all your paperwork and set you up in a school in Hungary teaching English. Contracts are for one semester or a whole school year.
See also Work section in Budapest article.
Watch your baggage and pockets, especially when you are traveling by public transports. In large cities (especially Budapest) avoid walking in the night outside main, well-lit roads. There is the danger of pickpockets, and some even slash bags on crowded buses and trains.
Food and water is almost always safe.
Private health care providers are good quality but limited in scope. Dentistry is cheaper here than in Western Europe (8-10000 HUF for an appointment and x-ray), and physiotherapy also (3000HUF for a half hour treatment), but check the price with the provider before you confirm the appointment. Outside Budapest you will need to speak Hungarian to communicate your needs clearly as fewer doctors will have good English or German.
Public health care is free for qualifying (insured) people but cheap in quality, inefficient and often corrupt.
The country joined the EU, so basic coverage is present for EU citizens, but check before entering the country how far are you insured and what you have to pay for. Do not expect that the local doctor knows the EU rules, prepare to provide info.
The European Health Insurance Card is required from EU citizens applying for free treatment under this regulation. European health card for 1 June 2004
Pharmacies are everywhere, you may expect high prices (compared to local incomes) but good pharmaceutical coverage. The only problem might be communicating with the pharmacist as most of them speak only Hungarian outside the downtown of Budapest. Even some rusty Latin might come handy quite unexpectedly. For travellers from Eastern Europe, note that due to limited or abandoned trade of Hungary with Romania (as of Dec 2006), some of familiar medications are unavailable--so be prepared to find a substitute in advance.