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Sopron, a town in north west Hungary, is famous for its past loyalty and now its great gelato and relaxed café lifestyle, as Andrew L. Urban discovered.

Trumpet players in medieval Sopron must have been pretty fit; the duty trumpet outlook would have to climb what seems like a hundred steep steps (I lost count as I lost breath) many of them inside a narrow spiral staircase, to the top of the 12th century Fire Tower in the Main Square. The town, close to the Austrian border in north west Hungary, has a long, fascinating history of trade and war. The trumpet player would use different musical codes to send the musical messages from the lookout, 50 metres high.

The main square in the old town, looking up at the tower

These lookouts would provide advance notice of strangers, wine caravans (I am told) or foreign soldiers approaching, as well as warning of the location of fires in the town. Every quarter hour they would be 'watchmen' - before the large clock was installed at the top. They grow and make their own wines now, sick of all that expensive, caravan imported nonsense ...

The views from the baroque gallery, just before the last ascent to the ultimate top, are sweeping as they say. Those last few stone steps have been removed and access is now by a steel ladder ... But not for visitors. The town can’t buy insurance to cover that.

That towering experience was the ... ahem .... highlight of my half day in Sopron, two and a half hours by train from Budapest Keleti station (the one made infamous by thousands of refugees from Syria and elsewhere not long after my trip). It was curiosity that got me there, Sopron having a notable place in Hungarian history both as a defender of territory and as a place of loyalty. Their residents had a choice of staying within Hungary's borders or joining those snooty Hapsburgs as part of Austria. They stayed.

New Street ... new in the 16th Century, that is

The old town around Main Square is like a living museum, now boasting three restaurants and a souvenir shop, around the perimeter, and narrow streets running in four directions. Down one of these is perhaps Europe's oldest synagogue, a small, two-chamber (1 for men, 1 for women) stone cottage, dating from 1526. It's in New Street ... well, it was new THEN.

The most remarkable feature is the old ritual cleansing well, the dark, still water 12 metres deep, reached via a steel ladder. Well, no longer reached as its not in use, but it’s the most amazing thing I saw in Sopron.

Away from the old castle region, Sopron is busy and has a good vibe. One trendy garden cafe in Deak Square, the Deak Cafe, is indicative of its contempo touches, with smart young women and men sharing lunch.

Oh, the other thing of note is the fabulous fagyi - Hungarian slang for gelato - available at the cafe a couple of blocks from the Deak. The first one I had was dark chocolate and peach, then I sneaked a single scoop of refreshing green apple on the way back to the train station. (cost about $1 per generous scoop, same as Budapest)

It was a fine, sunny spring day. There were no fires to report.

The Deak Cafe at lunchtime

Published October 22, 2015

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View from the tower - what the trumpeting watchmen saw

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