However, the "eternal pearl" of Esztergom (as the promotion people like to call it), once the capital of Hungary from the 10th to 13th centuries, remarkably lives up to its truisms. Before stepping on board the passenger ferries from downtown Pest, it's intriguing listening to the street vendors as they "propose", but not necessarily guarantee, one will be "gracefully serenaded" (or words to this effect) along the "Dreamy Blue Danube" to any of the appropriate riverside spots. As well as on to Vienna, if you wish. It makes me wonder what spin-offs they will come up with next time.

Despite these extravagant claims, it's always a pleasure, by whatever means, to go to Esztergom. This birth and coronation place of St. Stephen, the first Hungarian king, is roughly just over an hour by car, bus or train. Or a half-day bike ride following the river all the way northwards from Budapest.

Regardless of whichever way you may take, the unmissable sky-rise domed Basilica becomes an assuring pinpoint guideline that one is reasonably near. When spotted, put the map away. Continue in the general direction towards this grand spectacle until completion of journey. If you are still unsure what to expect, refer to the back of a HUF 10,000 note or ask at a souvenir shop for an approximating postcard. You will get there eventually.


On arrival, the first and foremost thing to do is to position oneself close to the main feature, which is the largest church in Hungary. As well as wondrous panoramic views, the Basilica grounds hold the monumental St. Stephen's statue that can also be seen from afar. From this point around, it's easy access to all general sites of interest nearby.

When inside the Basilica, take in the overall wonder, the spiritual overture and general grandness of this ecclesiastic masterpiece, built between 1822 to 1869. The Classicist and echoey church is immense with its inner area of 5600 square metres. The dome height is 71.5 metres and the overall length is 118 metres. There are giant overwhelming arches and an enormous altarpiece painted by Italy's Michelangelo Grigoletti‎ (1801-1870).

For the best view of this area, and a deep look into Slovakia, take further admission to walk the perimeter around the dome. Now it's easy to see why Esztergom is supreme and prevails with a strong religious heritage. Pope John Paul II visited the town in August 1991.

The high-profile Basilica is also known as the Primatial Basilica of the Blessed Virgin Mary Assumed Into Heaven and St. Adalbert. Clearly though, it is better referred to as the Esztergom Basilica and is the seat of the Primate of the Roman Catholic Church in Hungary, as well as the former seat of the Constitutional Court.

Although more is on offer in the town, most visitors tend to go no further than here and the Castle Museum close by. This then leads to lesser known Esztergom. Its host of other churches, palaces and

museums puts it in similar vein to the more overrun Szentendre. Beyond the tourist trails comes the intriguing neighbourhood of Víziváros/Water Town with a touch of Ottoman influence. For instance, there is the Balassa Bálint Museum, a Baroque mansion that became Esztergom's first county hall after the town was liberated from the invaders.

The commendable Museum of Christian Art, at Mindszenty tér directly below the Basilica, abounds with liturgical sculptures and decorative arts from the 12th century onwards. There is a variety of Dutch and Italian Renaissance art and later Baroque Hungarian, Austrian and German paintings. The museum also boasts an impressive range of tapestries, ceramics, goldsmithery, clocks, stained glass and medieval oriental carpets. I also recommend the Danube Museum, which speaks for itself and is great for children.

For those with stamina and who fancy a mini but hearty trek, make your way up to the enchanting Szenttamás/St. Thomas Church upon a distinct hill. It is easily sighted from almost anywhere in the town centre. Should you yearn for wide open spaces and calm, take to the shady riverside promenade and bicycle lanes alongside the tranquil shoreline. You will find real rest and sanctuary there.

Then to round off via the teashops, take a pleasant stroll around Széchényi tér. This central plaza is made up of Baroque, Rococo and Neoclassical buildings. The Town Hall has been fully operating since 1723, making this the oldest in Hungary. There is plenty more to see. For further tourist information, try

Beyond the realms of sightseeing, forthcoming local events are shown at Throughout the year a variety of cultural programmes ranges from classical and popular music shows to children and family events plus specialist arts, crafts and gastronomy fayres.


Esztergom is on the Slovakia border and the Mária Valéria Bridge crosses the Danube to Stúrovo, also known as Párkány by Hungarians. This open border crossing is accessible by cars, bicycles and pedestrians alike. For the best photograph of the Basilica, do so either from the bridge or from anywhere on the immediate Slovak side.

My preferred way to reach Esztergom without traffic is to go in part by train from Nyugati station to Szob, a lesser known border town in Pest county, just south and east of the Slovak border on the north bank of the Danube. Take the delightful ferry crossing from there to Pilismarót village, then cycle the remaining 15 kilometres west along the blissful riverside route until arrival.

Duna-Ipoly National Park

For those who yearn for the great outdoors, I recommend taking to the wild greenery of the Duna-Ipoly National Park. This land mass filled with unadulterated nature must be the most impressive biodiverse natural tract of land in Hungary. The park encompasses more than 60,000 hectares with the Pilis peaks on one side of the scenic Danube Bend and the Börzsöny mountain range on the other. This makes great outings for families and professional hikers alike.

Although near Esztergom, this is another itinerary for another time. Careful preparation is required. A detailed up-to-date map, good quality hiking boots, food and drink are very much required. From this point onwards, you're on your own with the hills. Please consider the environment when there. See The Budapest Times editorial:

Everyone I know is in full agreement that this whole is a unique experience. To see for yourself how "blue" the Danube really is, take the 70-kilometre journey from the capital and then make your own conclusions, regardless of clichés. You will be wonderfully surprised and will want to return.


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