216km (134 miles) NW of Budapest

The gem of the northwestern border of Hungary is the city of Sopron. At the base of the Austrian Alps, it is only 60km (37 miles) from Vienna, 80km (49 miles) from Bratislava, and 220km (136 miles) from Budapest. It is filled with history and is the link between Hungary and its neighbors to the west.

At one time it was another province of those ubiquitous Romans; they called the city Scarbantia. Hungarians claimed the land during the 9th century after the Romans had abandoned the territory. The city walls were fortified and a castle was built. It wasn't until the 11th century that the city received its Hungarian name, after a castle steward named Suprun.

During the Ottoman invasion in 1529, the Turks ravaged the city, but did not settle here. This caused those from other parts of the country to flee here away from where the Turks did settle, thereby increasing the importance and population of Sopron. Jumping ahead to 1676, fire ruined the city destroying all of the medieval buildings only to be replaced over decades with the baroque buildings you see today.

Good times did not last for long for the good people of Sopron. In 1703, when they refused to be part of the revolt planned by Francis II Rákócz, the Hungarian aristocrat who wanted to break from Habsburg rule, the armies of István Bocskai infiltrated and ruined the city.

During World War II the city was bombed a few times, but after the war, with the demise of the Austro-Hungarian empire, four western counties that were part of Hungary were awarded to Austria through the Treaties of St. Germain (1919) and Trianon (1920). Due to local unrest, Sopron and eight other villages surrounding it, held a public election in 1921 and decided to be part of Hungary instead of Austria. Due to this, Sopron is referred to as "The most faithful city of Hungary." Memorializing this decision, found on the south side of the Firewatch Tower stands the "Gate of Faith." Once being part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the German name of the city is Ödenburg. This is also the reason you may be surprised to find that the street signs are bilingual: Hungarian on top and German underneath.

Sopron is a city to savor at a slow pace, not one to try to rush through. Like a fine wine, you need to let it sit on your tongue to allow all of the senses to appreciate it. Walking the narrow streets within the city, you will find not only pleasant architecture, but often whimsical wall art popping out from the side of businesses.

Sopron has a long history, but in more modern times, it played a pivotal role in ripping a hole in the Iron Curtain. Just outside of Sopron in a countryside meadow that held little significance, there was a barbed-wire fence erected in 1948 barring entry into Austria. It was at this spot on August 19, 1989 that the "Pan-European Picnic" was organized. Flyers were spread by Hungarian organizers stating that on this date, a picnic was going to form, during which time a hole would be made in the barbed wire fence. Droves of people arrived from East German to Sopron; Hungary was an acceptable vacation destination for them during communist times. Dressed as peace demonstrators, they congregated.

Hungarian Prime Minister Miklós Nemeth received word of what was planned, but made the decision to allow the East Germans the ability to reach freedom through this area of Hungary. Arpad Bella was the Hungarian guard in charge at the border on this day. He too received a word that something was afoot, but complete details were not available at the time, nor was he instructed as to what action he and the other guards were to take. Prime Minister Nemeth later stated that he intentionally did not give instructions in the hopes that Bella would do the right thing. Bella suddenly found he and the other guards were faced with hundreds of people, including a number of women and children. With only seconds to implement a plan, his choice was to let the people through the hole in the fence, which was being held open by the Austrian guards on the other side of the border. Those who made it through, were warmly greeted and welcomed to Austria and their freedom. Exhausted with emotions, some people continued running well beyond the border not yet comprehending that they were now safe. Others fell on the Austrian soil for a cathartic cry, followed by the realization that they had been liberated. One popular story is that a student did not believe this simple movement through the wire was all it took, so he crept through the fence repeatedly simulating a more dangerous getaway.

On the Austro-Hungarian border, a small section of the famed barbed-wire fence celebrating the event is in evidence. Hungary's western border finally opened on September 11, 1989, allowing about 50,000 East German refugees to have a free access way to Austria. This lasted until October 7, without any Soviet intervention. West Germany and its communist East were border free by November 1989 when the Berlin Wall that segregated them came falling down.

Commemorating the 20th anniversary, on August 19, 2009, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Hungarian President Laszlo Solyom and former Prime Minister Miklós Nemeth assembled with hundreds of survivors of this escape along with their families. They dedicated a statue as a marker to remember this historical event. The open-air exhibition is open all year. Tours can be arranged in Sopron or through the hotels.

Wine lovers should be aware that Sopron is a significant wine-producing region in Hungary and is amongst the few to make both red and white wines. Red wines use the Kékfrankos (Blue Frankos) grapes, a late-ripening, and dark-skinned grape rich in tannin, yet with a spicy quality. Traminer or Gewürztraminer grapes are used for the white varieties. These grapes are pink to red in skin color, usually producing a semi-dry wine. There are only a couple of wineries that offer tours, but this often changes, so it is best to check with Tourinform for the latest tour information at the time of your visit.

Just as all of Hungary is well known for its thermal baths with much of the country sitting on natural springs with differing water compositions lending themselves to healing properties, Sopron is no exception. There are two thermal baths famous for their water's chemical make-up.