The Danube Bend is the area north of Budapest where the Danube River jogs abruptly left making a 90 degree turn as it heads west to Bratislava and Vienna. Most tourists stay on the hilly Buda side of the river electing to knit Szentendre, Visegrad, and Esztergom into a day trip. Each of these towns is unique: the Serbian artist colony of Szentendre; the tiny village beneath the ruined castle of Visegrad; and the basilica dominated Esztergom. My favorite bend town sits on the other side of the Danube. Tracing its roots back more than 1000 years, I like the easy going and authentic charm of Vac (“Vatz”) Every 30 minutes, a train leaves Budapest’s Nyugati station arriving in Vac 40 minutes later. This Budapest to Vac line is the oldest railroad section in Hungary and Vac the oldest station. We left Budapest mid morning and returned home in time to relax before dinner.
In 1764, the Vac patriarchs built a “L’Arc de Triomphe” style monument to welcome the new empress, Maria Theresa, to the town as she ventured from Vienna to Budapest. As luck, fate, and poor planning would have it, the caravan traveled down the other (aka “wrong”) side of the river. Maria Theresa missed the opportunity to parade through the welcome arch. We entered Vac from the decidedly un-empress side of town by walking straight through the train station and down the nondescript road. Don’t lose heart. In a few blocks the road converts to a pedestrian zone before opening into “Marcius 15 ter” – the Vac main square. The square is the focal point of all large and small Central European towns. I always look forward to the first glimpse of these baroque relics of pre-urban planning – heart warming and welcoming and for centuries the heartbeat of the local community.
Vac’s square is larger and and more misshapen than most – resembling the outline of Tennessee rather than Colorado. But the edges retain the typical collection of bright and pastel restaurants, coffee houses and bars. We sat outside drinking a beer before venturing farther. Linger in the square – it is one of the finer examples and the highlight of Vac.In the center of the square, stairs lead down to a pizza parlor. We poked our noses in to admire the vaulted 13th century wine cellar ceilings. The ancient wine cellar is standard in much of this region. As fire and war created a cycle of destruction and rebirth, the 13th century cellars were fortunately reused. In the case of Vac, the town was rebuilt after
being burned by the invading Mogols in 1241 and again after the Turkish destruction of 1686. The baroque city hall stands today over its medieval foundation. In the near left corner (as you enter the square from the train station) the Vig family runs a wine cellar selling wines by the glass or bottles to take away and a kitschy yet fun museum of virtually any bottle of Hungarian wine ever produced. What better reason to seek out the smaller towns than to discovered these lesser known surprises (plus, I happen to work in Vac with the son of the wine merchant).
After dallying on the square; peeking into the church and shooting our fill of photos: we ventured down the side streets towards the Danube – only about 100 meters beyond the main square. Bike trails hug the Danube passing along the tree lined banks. Parks, a gazebo, distant hills, a rushing river, playing children and kissing young couples created a peaceful place to linger. The town is large enough to be interesting yet small enough to permit a leisurely pace.We stopped for lunch along the river and choose the “menu” (in most of these former communist countries, the menu is a week day offering of soup and main course which sells for about 4 dollars). Today’s menu was tomato soup followed by chicken schnitzel with rice and peas. As we sat outdoors eating, the sun peeked through the trees and a warm soft breeze blew off the river. It was one of those first wonderful days of spring after a too long and wet winter. Contented to sit, we watched bicycle tour groups make their way through town. A group of women stopped at our restaurant – further up the river, a group of men pulled into the pub. Eventually, we walked further down the river in order to walk up and back through town from a new direction.
In 1740 the plague struck Vac. A plague monument stands near town – pretty much as common place in these parts as the town square. Just before returning back to the square – behind the church – we peeked in the farmers market. The stalls were packed with vendors hawking flowers, produce, clothes, and every other form of crap and treasure. People lined up at the corner langos stand – the Hungarian “fast food” of fried bread doused in sour cream and cheese. I’ve only tried them once – and they are heart stoppingly good.
A town of some sort has stood in this spot for more than a thousand years. Vac mirrors the history of Hungary: early settlement, Turkish invasion, empire rule, a couple of world wars, communism and resurgence. Unlike the touristy town of Szentendre, the non-existent town of Visegrad, or the basilica perch of Esztergom, Vac is a working town – albeit a lovely one and with a rich history. Bypassing Vac was, in my mind, Maria Theresa’s loss. Visiting Vac on a sunny and warm mid-week day was our gain. We’ll add it to our arsenal of easy day trips from our home in Budapest as friends make their way to visit this summer.
Restaurant: Halaszkert etterem – a lovely setting near the Danube with classic Hungarian food (and a very reasonable lunch menu) made this a perfect lunch option. For dinner, I’d return to Budapest.
Biking to Vac from Budapest: My husband rode his bike from Budapest through Szentendre and onto Vac last week, making the river crossings by ferry (two crossings required, each a bit more than 400 forint – or 2 dollars – including the bike supplement). He rode home from Vac on the Pest side of the river – busier and more confusing than the Buda ride. For a supplement, bikes can also be carried on the train back to Budapest. I often see bikers standing on the train with their bikes just inside the doors.
Other Danube Bend options: You can take an early train from Nyugati to Vac and catch the ferry from Vac to Visegrad after stopping on the square for a coffee (ferry leaves at around 10:30). An afternoon ferry runs from Visegrad back down to Szentendre. The HEV train makes a regular 20 minute return from Szentendre to Budapest at Bethany ter. Check the schedules as the ferries are seasonal.
Categories: Central/Eastern Europe