If you look at a map of Hungary, in the north-west you’ll notice a peninsula in the drawn border jutting into Austria’s Burgenland. In a referendum in 1921, the town voted to remain inside Hungary than be absorbed into Austria, earning its reputation for its loyalty. Yet, while Sopron is proud of it’s Hungarian spirit, it embraces its dual nature, being a bilingual town perched on the border of two countries. If you wander through its cobbled streets and roads climbing away from the town centre, and you’ll hear Hungarian and German spoken in the background in more or less equal measure, mostly by Austrians visiting, but you’ll find many denizens replying confidently in fluent German.
“I go to Vienna when I need something from the city,” our taxi driver says as we drive from the station into the town, “It’s a 45 minute drive. Budapest is over two hours away.”
At the end of November, the city feels like it’s shut down for the season, before the
Christmas Market kicks off. The historic Pannonia Hotel feels more or less empty, until I go to pick up my dressing gown at the entrance to the wellness centre, where crowds of Austrian tourists pour in and out of sauna cabins set around the turquoise-toned pool. Sopron is popular with Austrian visitors, and not only day trippers from Vienna. You’ll find dental clinics on par in terms of numbers with wine bars and cafés. Hungary has always been a destination for dental tourism, only Sopron provides the Viennese with nearby clinics just over the border.
But there is more to Sopron than dental work. The city surrounds an old castle wall that encloses the main part of the old town crowned by the intricate Fire Tower. Its entrance takes you over excavated Roman ruins, where you’ll find stones inscribed in Latin in the basement, before turning into the tower itself and climbing up and up a narrow stone staircase suitable for one – just hope that the traffic is only one way – up 116 steps.
At the top, the turret enclosed with columns overlooks the city from a 360º panorama towards the mist covered hills beyond. The legend of the tower goes back to Sopron’s flame-licked history when an unconfined fire spread across and destroyed the town in the 17th century. The 60m high tower warned against fire, marking the location with a flag pointing in the direction of the fire, or denoted with a lantern by night. It also spied on smugglers bringing in wine from outside the city.
Wine embeds itself into Sopron’s history just like the Roman ruins that lie under the cobbled streets and baroque houses. Vines have been cultivated in the area since the Romans, where its vineyards cluster along the banks of Lake Fertő (Lake Neusiedl, to use the Austrian name). Kékfrankos (Blaufränkisch), a late ripening red grape with a spicy character, dominates the area, but you’ll find whites made from Zöldveltelini (Grüner Veltliner), among other varietals. Fortunately, after the first day with winter sun, the following days shrouded Sopron in a cloak of fog, making it the perfect time to try the local wine. From Taschner’s perfumed Irsai Olivér to Pfneiszl’s Kékfrankos, and Iváncsics’s Quartett Cuvée, a spicy red blend of Kékfrankos, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz.
Sopron has plenty of history, but its museums seem to shut up shop off season, from the subterranean forum once belonging to the Roman city of Scarbantia to the 16th century Synagogue on Új utca and the Pharmacy Museum. The Fire Tower fortunately was open, and I had made the right decision to ascend on the morning of the only sunny day. The hike left me panting at the top, but it was the view that took my breath away.