In Hungary – Debrecen

Situated in the east of the country, about thirty miles from the border with Romania, is Hungary’s second city, Debrecen.¬†Established around the middle of the 13th century, Debrecen is a fascinating place to visit, with a rich and varied history. Accommodation, food and drink are also very cheap in UK terms, and as flights to the city’s airport have recently started from the UK it’s now a realistic spot from which to start further exploration of Hungary.

Life in the city centres around the pretty main square. There are pavement cafes aplenty, and during the summer months the square hosts evening concerts – when we visited there were nightly demonstrations of folk dance and music. Here you’ll also discover what appears to be the city’s main obsession – fountains. They are everywhere, each even more impressive than the last. Many are surrounded by shady trees and benches, so you’ll often discover the city’s citizens sitting around them – they’re an ideal spot to shelter from the city’s oppressive summer heat (35C+ during our stay).

Debrecen also has several impressive religious buildings – the largest being the bright yellow Great Church which dominates the central square. Just a street away is the Csokonai Theatre, known for its regular staging of grand opera, and take a few turns off the square on the other side and you’ll discover the impressive Deri Museum, surrounded by nude statues (and even more fountains!). Jump onto a tram heading north out of the city centre and you’ll soon find yourself in the Great Forest Culture Park. Amongst the quiet tree-lined avenues and wooded paths are the city’s swimming pools and thermal baths, a boating lake, the botanical gardens, a large amusement park and the city zoo. The University campus can also be found here, with the main building fronted by Debrecen’s finest and most massive series of fountains. Breathtaking!

In terms of food and drink, I can definitely recommend Csokonai Sorozo on Kossuth St. A cellar restaurant with a funky disco-styled eating area in the upstairs courtyard, its full of trendy people befitting the trendy decor, and serves lovely Hungarian food prepared with a modern twist. There’s even a ‘show table’ that the chef wheels into the centre of the restaurant to demonstrate his superior food preparation skills – very nice. Towards the bottom of the main square is the Bohem Belgian Beer Cafe which is another good find. There’s no Hungarian food here however – it’s typical bistro-style fare, which you can wash down with a frightening number of Belgian beers – ¬†they even have a ‘kriek’ (sour cherry beer) on tap! I have to warn you, however, about eating at one of the restaurants which many of the tourist guides seem to favour – Flaska, on Miklos St. Another cellar restaurant, this one is decorated in a quaint rustic style with a menu of typical Hungarian peasant dishes. Unfortunately, on our visit the service was extremely perfunctory (main courses arriving 30 seconds after finishing our starter!) and the quality of the food was decidedly middling. They do have an English version of the menu but it doesn’t spell out all of the ingredients in each dish – knowing that steak served ‘hunter style’ also includes liver and brains might have been useful… In terms of drinking spots, a visit to Debrecen wouldn’t be complete without spending an hour or two in the evening at the huge beer garden off Csapo St, situated through an archway behind the three large ‘mounds’. There’s an open-air BBQ, seating inside spliced Trabant motor cars and a big screen for football and films. This is *the* place in Debrecen to discover exactly how beautiful Hungarians can be…

When it comes to accommodation, there are an increasing number of decent hotels to be found in the city centre – all very reasonably priced, so its difficult to go wrong. We stayed at the Hotel Centrum right on the north-eastern corner of the main square. Clearly it had its last major refurbishment sometime during the late 1980s, but personally I’m quite fond of that period – whatever your feelings about the decor, the rooms are very large and very clean with all the mod cons (including complimentary and surprisingly fast wifi) and each room also has a shaded balcony – not bad for a price that would just about get you into a hostel in London…

You can easily while away a day or two sight-seeing in Debrecen and it makes for an extremely affordable break – over the next day or so I’ll also update you on some of the other places you can visit in the area. Here’s the photo gallery of my visit.

A quick note for gay travellers. In common with other smaller European countries, the vast majority of Hungary’s population are crammed into the capital Budapest. Even though it is the second city, Debrecen is less than a twelfth of the capital’s size – about the same size as, say, Watford or Rotherham. Even though the city has quite a buzzing nightlife there are no dedicated bars or clubs for gays and lesbians, except for a monthly event on a Thursday night in one of the city’s smaller nightclubs…