“ City: Szombathely / Country: Hungary / World Region: Europe „
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Until fairly recently the Hungarian city of Szombathely was, for me, just a name on the map. I've been to Hungary, and to the west in particular, on several occasions but somehow always managed to avoid Szombathely, either by design or accident. Then I chanced upon a brochure produced jointly by the regional tourist offices for Maribor - my part time and soon to be full time home, Varazdin in Croatia and the Hungarian city of Szombathely; the three towns had been 'triplet-ed', for want of a better word, primarily for their similarities - wine, thermal springs, notable commercial and cultural cities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire - under the umbrella 'Via Urbium'. I'd been planning a trip to Varadzin for what feels like ages but the fates had conspired to postpone this time and again; I hadn't expected to visit Szombathely before Varazdin because the Croatian town is much closer to us, but I was looking for somewhere for an overnight stop between Bratislava and Maribor and Szombathely was the ideal place.
Szombathely (pronounced 'Tsom-bat-eye'), might not be a destination on everyone's lips but the city and the surrounding area does have a lot to offer. It has a handsome centre crammed with Baroque buildings with wonderfully detailed facades, grand churches, a magnificent synagogue and all kinds of eye catching Socialist era architectural gems. There are enough attractions like museums - indoors and outside - and galleries to keep you occupied for a week (though, really, a two day visit is sufficient to recognise the city's charms) and the local area boasts castles, vineyards and beautiful countryside.
The city is the tenth largest in Hungary and has all the facilities you'd expect from a large city although budget accommodation isn't easy to find, though it does exist. As well as the university there are numerous specialist schools, many of which have their own accommodation; a good number of students stay in town during the week and go home at weekends and their residences are available to visitors in summer. The problem is that all the websites are in Hungarian only and are difficult to navigate; if you are looking for really cheap accommodation in Szombathely I'd recommend contacting the Tourist Information Centre in advance and asking them to arrange a room for you. As far as hotels are concerned Szombathely isn't exactly teeming with them but there are enough to offer a reasonable choice, including the rather opulent Pelikan which occupies a former palace.
My partner and I consider ourselves pretty resourceful travellers but I can't deny being pleased to have booked our accommodation in advance. Few people speak English and not many more speak German (an ability to understand German is usually an advantage in Hungary but apparently not here) so getting directions can be difficult. The Tourist Information Office closes at lunchtime on Saturday and remains closed until Monday so if you are visiting over a weekend it's a good idea to do a little research in advance to find out what you might want to do, opening hours, etc. Furthermore the various attractions are not well sign-posted; we spent a good thirty minutes looking for the Roman ruins because there were no signs and because we couldn't find anyone who speak enough English or German to help us.
Two main squares are linked by a pleasant pedestrianised shopping street. At the smaller one you'll find the butter-coloured St. Elizabeth church and also the Tourist Information Centre. The church incorporates some of the features of an earlier Gothic church on the site which is also the location of an even earlier hospice for victims of the Plague. Tthe other square (known in Hungarian simply as Szombathely Fo ter - Szombathely Main Square) is much larger and grander with lots of fine buildings and numerous pavement cafes. Szombathely is not so touristy that you pay a lot more for a drink in this location so unless you are travelling with the smallest of budgets you can easily afford to station yourself here for a spot of people-watching.
Szombathely has the distinction of being the oldest town in Hungary and its attractions reflect that. Known to the Romans as Savaria, this was an important outpost and remains of an imperial palace, a bath-house and a customs post can be seen in the 'Garden of Ruins' next to the cathedral. The German name for Szombathely is Steinamanger', a contraction of 'Stein Am Anger' - field of stones.
The Hungarian name means 'Saturday place', referring to the fact that since medieval times the town was well known for its Saturday market. ( A town not far across the Slovenian border is named 'Murska sobota' which refers to the place over the river Mur where the market is held on Saturdays). Does a market still take place on Saturdays there? If it does we didn't see any sign of it; perhaps it was over by the time we arrived.
Lying close to the amber route it's always been a prosperous town and thanks to excellent fortifications, the Ottomans were not able to take Szombathely. Sadly the town suffered in two ways in World War Two. It was targeted for bombing raids because it was an important railway junction and because there was a lot of industry in and around the town, and, second, its Jewish population - some 4228 men, women and children - were picked up between 4th and 6th July 1944 and sent to Auschwitz. The handsome synagogue still exists but is now used for classical music concerts. Even if there's nothing taking place when you visit, it's worth a look because it is a splendid building that makes a brilliant photo opportunity. Before 1840 there were plenty of Jews in this area but they were not allowed to love within the town walls. Then the Emancipation of Jews in Hungary Act made it illegal to treat Jews in this way; by 1910, 10 per cent of Szombathely's population was Jewish and they made a big contribution to commerce in the town, as well as having their own cultural and educational provisions. A Jewish school was one of the first to be set up in the country and a delightful plaque commemorating this can be seen on the wall of a building next to the synagogue.
Another interesting plaque can be seen over the entrance to an alleyway just off the main square. It's dedicated to Irish author James Joyce who lived in Szombathely for a short whil; a small statue of the author can also be seen there. The hero of Joyce's 'Ulysses' Leopold Bloom, is an Irishman whose Jewish Hungarian father was born, according to the story, in Szombathely. I seem to follow Joyce in my travels round Europe but I had no idea about his connection with Szombathely so this came as a surprise. In fact Szombathely is full of little treasures and surprises. One of the grandest water towers I have ever seen stands in the town's main park; we spotted the unusual crown section from a distance and knew we had to go to see whatever it was. It's badly neglected now but it's the sort of building crying out to be transformed into an art space or a café or restaurant.
As well as being reputed to be the birthplace of St. Martin of Tours, Szombathely has strong connections with the Catholic church. It's the seat of the Archdiocese and boasts an imposing cathedral and adjoining seminary and diocese offices housed in handsome Baroque houses. At the other end of the town is St. Martin's Churc which has a beautiful graveyard teeming with ornate memorials. A visitor centre dedicated to St. Martin can be found in a house next door to the church. A friendly lady volunteer welcomed us and asked if we would like to go into the visitor centre but I'm (almost) ashamed to say that were actually heading for a beer and made a feeble excuse of not having enough time. I'm personally rather sceptical about the whole saint thing and, if I'm honest, my knowledge of St. Martin is that in Slovenia (and other parts of central Europe) his Saint's Day is celebrated each November in conjunction with the maturing of the young wine, a roast goose and general revelry. If you are at all interested in St. Martin I'd say that Szombathely is a place to indulge that interest.
I could easily have spent longer in Szombathely had I more time to spare. I already have the 'Waterworks Historical Museum' (visits free but by prior arrangement only) marked for a future trip as well as a trip to the nearby arboretum (two people in Szombathely recommended going to see the blooming rhododendron) and the Village Museum, an outdoor museum comprising a display of rebuilt traditional cottages and other rural buildings from the Vas region as well as native breeds and deomstrations of traditional crafts. Visitors travelling with children may be interested in a visit to the Szombathely Historical Theme Park (in the city centre, which I found odd) which is described as 'a unique interactive exhibition of the antique natural sciences': apparently there are lots of hands on exhibits showing how the use and development of different materials and technological design has evolved over the centuries. I thought it was a shame that this attraction is open only Tuesday - Friday; in the UK it is the sort of attraction many families would visit over a weekend.
We ate a main meal at an excellent restaurant near the Bishop's Palace but struggled to find tradtional places in the city centre, though there are lots of places for coffee and cake, or a pizza or meaty snack. The nicest places to eat appear to be in the surrounding villages and I imagine that you could get some recommendations from the Tourist Information Centre if this is what you're looking for.
We really liked Szombathely; it probably helped that the sun was shining making it very easy to enjoy the handsome streets and squares, though there are enough indoor things to do for a couple of days should the weather prove inclement. It might sound like an unrealistic destination but it's only a couple of hours drive from Vienna or Bratislava or even the southern Hungarian city of Pecs, all of which are served by budget airlines, as well as being a reasonable drive from the southern end of the Hungarian tourist centre of Lake Balaton.
I'll let you into a secret if you promise to keep it to yourself. This location is magnificent. Here's the script. Savaria -- Szombathely's Best Kept Secret The Scene: Hotel Savaria, Szombathely -- a glamorous reminder of a former age; a tranquil respite from the world of today. The Cast: A lady of the former Hungarian aristocracy and an English peasant on the eve of his 38th birthday..... with plans for a few too many glasses of lager; as usual. The aristocrat's family title is: Kemenes Szentmartony Káldos of Budapest and Vas.... issued to the family bloodline in 1479, by Kaiser Ferdinand III of Hapsburg. They lost their birthright when the Communists came to power, in 1956. Also starring...... an unobtrusive waiter in black tuxedo and matching bow-tie; classically topped with similar colour of hair. Supporting Cast: A young couple..... only with eyes for each other, their plate of cheese, and bottle of Hungarian red. The camera pulls away from the tables, the wide-angle lens shows the long, marble-topped bar.... the brass beer pumps are just for show and no-one shares a joke with the barman.... there is no barman. The director orders the next shot to be taken from the balcony above the bar, where the dining-room orchestra used to play... some 25 years ago. We zoom into the tables again. The young couple talk quietly, almost in whispers... the language is foreign to our viewers, so the focus is on the Englishman and his glamorous partner. The choice of food is simple, for a 1st class restaurant, but it is Hungarian... with the menu written in English, German and Italian to help the foreign guests who find their way to the capital of Hungary's Vas county. Examining The Menu: Goose liver will be on all well to do Hungarian cartes... although a little over-priced, as always. Beef tartar is not for the Englishman..... he prefers his cow
cooked; in a bun with plenty of onions, mustard and ketchup. Caviar or smoked ox-tongue with horseradish are also on offer, but you can get them almost anywhere too. It was a warm Spring day, the couple had colour in their cheeks..... so the selection of soups were briefly skimmed over..... You can get Hortobagy pancakes of fried cheese with tartar sauce in any Hungarian restaurant, but Italian Cauliflower (broccoli) in battered white wine, flour and egg-yolk (briefly fried).... should be tried. Fish, poultry and pork dishes are all available..... as is the traditional Hungarian Beef Stew. The leading characters choose the Stroganoff -- tenderloin strips in a brandy flambé, with large sliced mushrooms and gherkins... and a touch of sour cream. Take it with the Mixed Vitamin Salad.... although the lady chose the Cucumber Salad; admitting later that the peasant was wiser. The young couple leave.... the main characters are on their coffee and cognac.... and the very professional waiter, with little to do, closes the doors and waits patiently for the Englishman to re-read his notes. Treat Yourself! Make your way to Szombathely (pronounced Tsom-bat-eye), near the border with Austria's Burgenland, and enjoy a very romantic tête à tête. If you're lucky, the young couple may not be there and the camera crew most definitely will not.... unless a producer picked up on this script..... in which case we may be there overseeing the film-making process of Savaria -- Szombathely's Best Kept Secret. The Hotel: Reservations shouldn't be needed for this central location, as most of the rooms are vacant most of the time. The rooms on the front have small balconies, but the condition of the comfortable rooms is a little shabby. Some of the rooms have been renovated, but they didn't have enough money to do them all. Because of this, the hotel is only given a two-star rating, but it is the preferred choice of the H
ungarian President when he is in town.... and I most definitely recommend this Art Nouveau establishment above the three-star, Communist-style, Hotel Claudius (in the green area of Szombathely). The Hotel Savaria is located at Mártírok tere 4 (although the restaurant fronts onto Király utca). Apart from its glorious style and sense of occasion, you are also within walking distance of the major attractions. If you feel that you need to call ahead, the number is (36-94) 311-440. The number to fax is (36-94) 324-532. Szombathely Sightseeing: Szombathely literally means Saturday Place -- the town was known for it's weekend fairs in the Middle Ages. Today, it's a quiet place at weekends and you may well wonder where all the people are. A short walk from the Hotel Savaria, is the Berzsenyi tér.... once the Market Place of the Castle. The Cathedral -- the third biggest church in Hungary -- is the major landmark here. It was hit by a bomb in 1945 and renovation was completed two years later. To the right of the Cathedral is an iron gate that leads into the Romkert (Ruin Garden)..... where you can see remains of the Roman Amber Road (not open at weekends, or Mondays). A seated statue of bishop János Szily faces the Cathedral. In the late 1700s, János Szily was responsible for the building of the Baroque-style Bishop's Palace and Seminary on either side of him, and Eölbei-House behind him. More life can be found around Fö tér.... the main square, with its friendly little bar and renovated shops. The pedestrian-only square also has some small areas of green and public seating areas.... although there is no shade over these white benches. After you've recharged yourself with a cappuccino and a spot of people watching, walk towards the taxis at the southern end of the square.... No need to get into one just yet, it's only a short walk past the Town Hall and across Thököly Imre utca to th
e Iseum. In front of the ugly looking Szombathely Art Gallery, the Iseum is a single standing ruin... once a temple complex to the Egyptian Isis goddess. Karnak it is not, but they still hold open-air cultural programmes in the summer. The nearby Synagogue was built in 1881, and since 1971 functions as a concert hall. 4228 Jews were deported to Auschwitz from here, on 4th July, 1944. If you like looking at churches, the Franciscan St. Elizabeth Church and Dominican St. Martin Church are also within walking distance. For collections of Roman stone works from the former Savaria (the Roman name for Szombathely)..... be sure to visit the Savaria Museum. If you don't have a car, you may want to take a taxi out to the boating lake and visit the Vas Village Museum. There's an interesting collection of old traditional houses and farm buildings from the region here, complete with furnishings and clothes from yesteryear. The old rural atmosphere is re-enacted with special programmes: St. George-day handicraft fair, Whit Monday Entertainment, Holiday of the New Bread, and the national fair of St. Martin-day.
"Szombathely (German: Steinamanger, Croatian: Sambotel, Slovenian: Sombotel, Slovak: Kamenec, Serbian: Сомбатхељ) is a city in Hungary. It is the administrative center of the Vas county in the west of the country, located near the border with Austria."