Photo: Alexander Stemp

Veszprém getting ready to be a European Capital of Culture 2023

My brief visit to Veszprém took me to one of the oldest cities in Hungary, dating as far back as the Chieftain Árpád dynasty of the 10th century. According to local legend, this historical reference point was founded on seven distinct hills, which are named as Várhegy (Castle Hill), Benedek-hegy (St. Benedict Hill), Jeruzsálem-hegy (Jerusalem Hill), Temetőhegy (Cemetery Hill), Gulyadomb (Herd Hill), Kálvária-domb (Calvary Hill) and Cserhát (a mountain range). Veszprém was also among the first Hungarian cities to have a university.

This famed and illustrious locale was the favoured place of the iconic Queen Gisela, the wife of St. Stephen who was known for loving Veszprém and the general area. For centuries onwards, various queens of Hungary were also crowned by bishops of Veszprém. Therefore, without too much surprise the ancient city is also known informally as the “City of Queens”.

Veszprém is situated 100 kilometres west of Budapest with nearby Lake Balaton to the south and the Bakony Mountains in line of sight in the north. A visit to the royal city, which will join with Balaton as joint hosts one of the European Capitals of Culture next year, will bring an illuminating understanding to ancient Hungarian culture and is definitely worth a visit.

If time is short, as was the case with me, the best way to start with an introduction to sightseeing and getting orientated is to take to the enchanting 1000-years-old castle peak with its impressive promenade. This is achieved by proceeding in an upwardly direction towards “Heroes’ Gate” and taking a stroll along the array of windy streets, cosy corners and colourful spots relating to centuries-old buildings, before arriving (*if still possible) at the most impressive St. Michael’s Cathedral, the nearby Archbishop’s Palace and the all-important and most fitting St. Stephen and Queen Gisela monument that overlooks this immediate area. Whilst listening to the church bells and perched at the eventual edge of this symbolic peak, come the outstanding views of rich green valleys and general urban scenery.

I mention the characteristic bells with reason as Veszprém is also the renowned place for its winds and bells. The legend claims that if the wind is not blowing, the church bells are theoretically, in turn, ringing out over the city, as they do periodically from within the midst of this overwhelming 11th-century district. But when they aren’t pealing out, it’s the sweeping winds that frequently take control, as they come in from the Bakony peaks and, at times, blow another kind of tune with distinctive howling vibes over the city.

(*Due to what’s mandatory for 2023, getting to this essential landmark may be tricky because of ongoing construction works. One must overlook the shadows of cranes and the unsightly restorations, while understanding the requirements of the local authorities at this crucial time as preparations are made for the year in the spotlight as a European Capital of Culture. But it’s still possible to look around much of Veszprém and the imperial old town area and be generally impressed, as many local amenities remain open. After seeing what one can at time of writing, one realises there will be a greater reason to return to Veszprém with its timeless beauty when work is complete and when next year’s festivities are in full swing. Then to return to this particular cobblestoned promenade and to see St. Michael’s Cathedral and all else will be more rewarding. But until then, step around the obstacles. As one must appreciate, some work is needed to be carried out before then.)

Photo: Alexander Stemp

Different and unique to all else I have seen in Hungary, all-year-round Veszprém has plenty to see and do. The grand neo-Renaissance city hall with its sedate and calm surroundings, near the Fire Tower, is another quaint old-world walkway that does very nicely for coffees and ice-creams before proceeding elsewhere.

Setting off from central Szabadság (Freedom) Square, very nearby is the grandiose Kapuváry House. The Rococo-style building truly dominates the surroundings and, like much else I saw, left me with the feeling there is so much more to discover for another time.

From the square comes a procession of shops, and this immediate hub is in unexpected contrast to all else. These stores are aesthetically decked out with mainly unfitting socialist architecture and are topped by the bombastic cubist Mikolás Tibor Willis Tower. For those familiar with such sights, need I say anything more? These mundane blocks from former times, still in living memory for some, require no further explanation and act as points of convenience rather than compelling sightseeing.

I was fortunate to be invited to Veszprém during the Gisela Days Festival from May 2-8, a cultural event that delivers a medley of arts and music in venues throughout the city. My newfound friends and I were ushered to a rowdy late-afternoon Parno Grast concert at the outdoor central city Cserhát stage. Then, into the evening, we listened to the splendid Gisela Women’s Choir, whose performance of church music and Gregorian chants was a most gracious and calming event.

Finally, to round off this big day there was a rumour a “Rolling Stone” was in town. Although hard to believe at first, it was still worth investigating. We were finally led to the atmospheric late-night Papírkutya music venue bistro and bar where all became clear. It wasn’t Mick, Keith or Ronnie present but Rolling Stones backing musician Tim Ries, who came on board with the world-famous band roughly 20 years ago. He is an outstanding saxophonist and clarinet player who, with a local jazz band, delivered a terrific show.

Next day there was the choice of additional walks leading to the steep, rugged valleys. A short distance away are delightful parks, forests, creeks and a zoo. For a quick getaway from the city I recommend venturing to the nearby Queen Gisela lookout tower. It’s a fair hike up a steep hill in very rugged terrain, so good walking shoes are required. But the reward awaits with excelling bird’s-eye views, which I am sure Queen Gisela herself would have approved.
A little further on among steep dolomite walls is another local symbol, the St. Stephen’s Valley Bridge, built in 1938 with impressive ingenuity and vast height and scale to join Jeruzsálem-hegy and Temetőhegy.

Photo: Alexander Stemp

Although my time in Veszprém was all too brief, it was most memorable. I knew there was going to be plenty to follow on for another time. For one, this summer’s music festival from July 11-16, featuring as one of the international headliners The Gypsy Kings. See VeszprémFest ( Until then further historical and geographical research is required.

For excursions outside Veszprém, there is the Herend porcelain factory and exhibition. See Herendi Porcelain Manufactory . Plus, if one wants to go on a spiritual retreat I recommend a blissful day out at nearby Balonybél. Then there is the momentous Lake Balaton, also within easy reach, but that’s another story in itself.

To get to Veszprém, take the M7 from the capital then the E66 main road. Or choose the frequent buses and trains. Time required is roughly one and a half hours’ travel.

For this and more about tourism in Veszprém, see Tourinform Veszprém.

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