Sandwiched between the cities of Vienna and Budapest, the West Hungarian province of Pannonia is not traditionally the sort of place Irish people go for their holidays. Even from a considerable distance the Danube-hugging landscape has a whiff of the manure-scented Midlands about it. The historical terrain is probably not unlike the opening scene of “Gladiator” where that furious forest ogre with the black beard sticks his tongue out at the Roman legions obliging Maximus to unleash Hell in the form of a zillion thundering fireballs. But, like the glorious Irish Midlands, Pannonia is a region one should by no means overlook.
Hungary and Ireland have a lot in common. At the time of my visit in 2005, five years before Viktor Orbán took over the show, the Hungarian spirit certainly seemed to boast a rebellious, anti-authoritarian streak familiar to anyone who remembers Ireland before 1990. They were recovering from 2000 years of back-to-back invasions, culminating with the departure of the last Soviet soldier in 1990, which was also something the Irish could relate to. They have blustery weather, a guttural language nobody else understands, a thriving traditional music scene – boosted by gypsy violinists – and a steadily booming IT infrastructure. Joyce even chose the West Hungarian town of Szombathely to be the birthplace of Leopold Bloom.
But when it comes to national health systems, the similarities with Ireland whistle to a stop. Hungary has got the health thing stitched up. It’s about prevention not cure. At one extreme, annual breast screening is compulsory, visits to the local GP are free and there’s enough hospital beds for everyone. At the other, looking and feeling good is common currency. Having shoulders massaged or toes fondled on an hourly basis is run-of-the-mill behaviour.
21st century Hungary – and Pannonia in particular – reckons you too should come along and enjoy a dollop of good old healthy living. And why not? They’ve much to be proud of.
With 80 on-site masseurs, 35 doctors and 500 staff, Lake Heviz, is Pannonia’s answer to Knock – albeit with the worlds largest swimmable, natural thermal lake instead of a moving statue. Every week, thousands of people from all over Europe lower themselves into these curiously weighty waters, long famed for their ability to cure bad skin conditions, arthritis and other bone pains.
At the nearby Rognor Lotus Hotel, I was coated in hot mud, wrapped in a plastic sheet, zipped into a canvass strait jacket, sunk into a tub of hot water and abandoned for 25 minutes. This is called a Hot Mud-Wrap and I am still to work out its purpose other than to make one feel not unlike frogspawn in a frying pan.
At Szidonia, a restored 18th century manor house outside Rojtokmuzsaj, a portly Magyar woman flexes her finger and sets to work on my much abused body, cajoling knuckle, thumb and forearm to iron out spine and shoulders, persisting with ticklish parts until I stop chewing my wrists.
Got a toothache? Try Sopron. Sopron is not a medical solution but rather a handsome town surrounded by thermal lakes, snow-capped mountains and rolling green fields on the Austro-Hungarian border, 60 miles from Vienna. It became a major stronghold for dentists during the latter years of Communism. Thrifty Austrians would tip-toed across the border to have root canals treated and fillings fitted for a tenth of the price they paid back home. The result was two fold. Firstly, Sopron evolved as one of the weakest links in the Iron Curtain and secondly it became a Mecca for Hungary’s dentists, plastic surgeons, beauticians, hairdressers and laser opticians.
There’s only so much healthy living anyone should have in one holiday. Luckily Pannonia comes up trumps when it comes to fine wine and hearty fodder. Cuisine is typically Central European, gamey dishes of veal and wild boar wedged between brothy soups and stodgy puddings. And the homegrown wines, a tremendous favourite of the Hapsburg kings, are still above par. The heritage town of Pecs has 80,000 bottles stored in its musty cellars while the Polgar Cellar in Vilany by the Croatian border offers award-winning wines together and a first-rate menu.
Pannonia is new to the tourism game. Some will find this as quaint as the Skodas and Trabants scuttling about like they’re auditioning for a Hitchcock movie. Others might find it frustrating; the fact so few people speak English, for instance. But there is a lot to be said for not having to converse with ones masseur and in terms of healthy holidays, Hungary is a country sure to make an ever-increasing impact as the new century rolls on. Besides you can fly there and back for the same price as a 10-minute session with most Irish dentists. And if you’re concerned about standards, bear in mind that aside from Zsa Zsa Gabor, George Soros, Dr Rubic of the Cube and Mr. Biro of the Pen, Hungary has notched up an impressive eighteen Nobel Prizes.
This article originally appeared in Abroad Magazine in September 2005.