After our Slavonice road trip in May we were inspired to seek out more Cold War artifacts along the borders with the former Eastern Bloc countries, and in doing our research we learned that the Iron Curtain fell first in the little border town of Sopron, Hungary in August 1989, three months before the Berlin Wall fell.
I won’t bore you with the details that we find endlessly fascinating about this period in history. The short story is that Otto von Habsburg, no longer having an empire to run, kick-started a discussion in June 1989 with Hungarian leaders of what Europe might look like without borders. The Hungarians agreed that a brief opening of the gate at Sopron (“just a few hours” was the plan), to allow Austrians and Hungarians to picnic together, would be a good demonstration of the ridiculousness of the borders in general.
One thing led to another, and in August 1989 Austrians, Hungarians, and many, many, many East Germans flocked to Sopron (and, ultimately, to West Germany). This brief opening of the gate was one of the sparks that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, but the events in Berlin captured the media better.
The border area of this Pan-European picnic is now a park. At the border are remnants of the Iron Curtain, an old watchtower, and the ceremonial gate through which the Austrian and Hungarian leaders passed that August.
The view from Hungary toward Austria.
We took this opportunity to pause for our own international-flavored picnic in the shaded gazebo of the park. Around us, Austrian and Hungarian dads barbecued, moms chatted, and the little ones played soccer and ran around the fields. Happiness.
Back on the road we drove through small towns, some of which have clearly benefitted from EU membership, with beautiful homes, window boxes filled with bright flowers and welcoming streets; and some which still need a little more time to clear out the Communist cobwebs.
We also stopped for cash, having left a pocketful of Forints from the children’s sports travels to Budapest at home. 10.000Ft is approximately €34 ($44). More than enough for refreshments at an Imbiss near Esterhazy Palace in Fertöd, with plenty remaining for a buttery saffron-colored small messenger bag for me from a roadside leather craftsman.
Esterhazy Palace, the “Hungarian Versailles,” and part of the Kingdom of Hungary and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Josef Haydn lived here for a bit, and this was a preferred stopover for Empress Maria Theresa as she moved about the Empire toward Budapest.
Cutting through Austria to Hungary (better roads), we paused in the pretty town of Frauenkirchen and drove through fields of windmills before crossing into Hungary again.
The towns of Bezenye and Rajka were next, both situated at the confluence of Austria, Hungary, and Slovakia and allegedly containing cultural sights of “multinational character.” Believe me when I say that we drove every street in each of the towns and if anything, two Americans in a late model vehicle with foreign diplomat tags constituted the only multinational character sights to be found.
Next up, the panelaks of Petrzalka, Slovakia.