Cruising Hungary: The surprising European country fascinated by Australia

 Which country offers the warmest welcome to Australian travellers?

A clue: it's non-English-speaking, it's 14,000km away, it fought against Australia and our allies in both world wars, it's a former bastion of eastern Europe and it has a leader today who trash-talks the kind of multiculturalism that our society champions.

Surprise, surprise … it's Hungary.

For, despite our differences (or perhaps because of them), Australian culture is studied at universities all around the country; there are specialist Australian film and book clubs; there are Australians doing great things in Hungary (and vice versa), and Australia is one of the nations most admired by its young people.

"Australia is just so different to Hungary," Dr Dorottya Hollo, head of the Australian Studies Program at Budapest's Eotvos Lorand University, explains. "For a start, we're a landlocked country, while you're much more about the sea; you have a lot of wide-open spaces and, for a lot of historical reasons, we are very mono-cultural so it's important for us to study countries which are much more multicultural societies," she says.

"So we love to study your literature, films and politics, and also Aboriginal culture. We have a lot of Roma people in Hungary so it's good to see the efforts made in Australia to improve relationships with Aboriginal people. We're just fascinated by Australia."

In turn, more and more Australians are now visiting Hungary, which hosted a record-breaking 31 million guest nights in 2018, more than a million up on 2017.

And a big part of that is the popularity of river cruises, many of which start, or end in Budapest, just named Best European Destination for 2019 in the annual European Best Destinations contest. Sailings travel either westwards to Amsterdam, or eastwards to the Balkans, with calls at other Hungarian towns along the way.

Visitors are discovering that Budapest is simply stunning with an historical magnificence that saw it constantly jostling in the past with Vienna to be capital of Europe. Other centres include Pecs, with its medieval buildings from the Romans, Christians and Ottomans; Puszta and its spectacular shows of incredible horsemanship; and Kalocsa, a thriving centre of folk art, handicrafts and hand-made porcelain.

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Everywhere, the locals are keen to approach and say g'day.

"Hungarians are interested in Australia," says Clare Birgin, the former Australian ambassador to Hungary and Serbia.

"Many of them have great intellectual curiosity and this extends to Australia. It just doesn't matter that it happens to be such a long way away."

Australia's history lacks the prolonged dark periods of Hungary's, she says. The Treaty of Trianon alone, concluded after World War I, deprived Hungary of two-thirds of its territory.

"We have not suffered the same devastating blows and this explains in part why Australians, compared with Hungarians, can look like laid-back, easy-going optimists," she says. "Hungarians like this, and they like our sense of humour."

We have plenty of ties that bind from history, too. Australia has long been home to many Hungarians from different waves of emigres after both world wars, the Nazi period, the communist regime and the failed uprising against the Russians in 1956.

Broadcaster Les Murray, of course, helped put soccer on the sporting map for all Australians; Westfield boss Frank Lowy helped keep it there; Sir Peter Abeles transformed our transport network and artist Judy Cassab carried off the Archibald Prize twice.

Heavyweight boxer "Aussie" Joe Bugner lost only on points to Muhammad Ali for the world championship; financial investor Rodney Adler found himself on the ropes; singer Renee Geyer soared, and architect and sculptor Andor Meszaros struck the commemorative medal for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.

That talent transaction is now being appreciated by a new generation of Australians. Meszaros' son Danny, a Melbourne architect, for instance, was a passenger on an APT Balkans cruise, visiting Budapest to pay homage to the replica of his father's statue of Shakespeare that sits on the Pest side of the river, with the original in Ballarat.

"It's marvellous to celebrate the links between Australia and Hungary," he says. "And Budapest is such a beautiful city."

The talent trade continues with Australian architect Anthony Gall bringing our sense of style to an award-winning hotel in one of Budapest's most treasured heritage areas, the restoration of the city's zoo and the building set to become the biggest biodome in Europe.

Film critic and TV personality Andrew Urban also returns regularly to his homeland. "Budapest is such a spectacular city," he says. "A night cruise on the Danube is an absolute must for all Australians – the lights on the Parliament building and the palace are simply stunning."

Another of Budapest's major attractions is the Hungarian National Gallery of Fine Arts with many of its treasures collected by its first director Karoly Pulszky, father-in-law of ballet great Vaslav Nijinsky.

Pulszky was falsely accused of corruption and misusing public funds and fled to Queensland. A best-selling book, White Stag of Exile, was written by Tom Shapcott about his life, and that incredible collection of art remains the envy of the world.

Another Australian writer Judy Buckrich, born in Budapest before her parents left to settle in Melbourne after the 1956 uprising, returned in the 1980s and became close friends with Arpad Goncz – later the country's first freely elected head of state.

Aboriginal playwright John Harding was invited to visit the university in Debrecen, Hungary's second city and a centre of culture and music. There, he watched students perform one of his plays, and discovered they were familiar with all his work.

"He was absolutely amazed!" says Dr Gabriella Espak, who runs the Australian studies program at that university. "For their thesis, students often say they want to do something about Australia.

"We need to have open minds about the world. Many of our younger generation love travelling and hope to visit Australia one day."

Even in some smaller spots around Hungary, there's an interest in Australia. In the remote small town of Bekescsaba, in the south of Hungary, there's a "Friends of Australia" society. "Maybe there is some sense of the great plains effecting dreams of faraway lands," Espak says.

In Budapest, Cecilia Gall, a lecturer in Australian studies who taught in Queensland's Griffith University before returning to her native Hungary, says: "There's incredible interest here in Australia. I think people are attracted to the sense of freedom it has; it isn't over-crowded and it's exotic and faraway.

"The two countries are so different. Here, you can now change the country's constitution with a two-thirds majority vote. In Australia, it's very, very difficult to change the Constitution. And with migration an issue worldwide, it's interesting to see how Australia is dealing with it."

TOP PLACES TO SEE IN HUNGARY

BUDAPEST

Grand buildings, such as the palace and parliament; stunning art galleries and museums; the Fisherman's Bastion; Buda Castle, Matthias Church, and Gellert Hill, all with magnificent views of the city.

LAKE BALATON

Budapest's Lake Como and summer retreat is the biggest lake in central Europe, lined with ancient fortresses, historic towns, vineyards and lovely resorts.

PUSZTA

An absolute must see is the Magyar cowboys in their wild west show. It sounds cheesy, but it's truly remarkable witnessing the cowboys' age-old bond with their horses.

KALOCSA

A great centre for handicrafts and dance, as well as one of Hungary's most important exports, paprika. See how it's produced in this fascinating factory.

MOHACS

The site of one of Hungary's most famous battles, against the Ottomans led by Suleiman the Magnificent, is today a showcase for one of the country's carnivals, with traditional masks and sheepskin cloaks on display all year round.

TRIP NOTES

Sue Williams travelled to Hungary for a 15-day cruise through the Balkans courtesy of APT and Traveller

MORE

traveller.com.au/hungary

hellohungary.com/en

FLY

Qantas, Qatar Airways and Emirates all fly to Budapest with only one stop, in either Dubai or Doha.

STAY

Hotel Nemzeti, Jozsef Krt 4, 1088 Budapest, Hungary. Phone +36 1 477 4500. See hotel-nemzeti-budapest.hu/en/

CRUISE

The APT 15-day Balkans cruise starts at $7295 a person twin-share with fly free offer on certain dates. Phone 1300 336 932. See aptouring.com.au

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