John M. Edwards finds post-communist Sopron now to be less about Habsburgian opulence and more about ubiquitous “discount dentistry.” Get a load of the new set of gleaming white chompers! During a week-long road trip from Budapest to Salzburg, I somehow convinced my driver and friend Erik D’Amato, an American expat, financial writer, and editor of the popular Magyar web site Pestiside (www.pestiside.hu), to make a stopover in one of my favorite foreign finds: Sopron.
“Wow, I’m impressed!” Erik bruited, as we blundered down the historic Inner Town’s worn cobblestone streets, resembling uneven rows of bad overbites. These architectural oddities (usually a sign of an historic district or gentrifying pretender), flanked with brightly painted Baroque and Gothic buildings and Neo-Classical statuary, led us to the awesome square known as Fo Ter.
Here, close to the 13th-century “Goat Church” and Trinity Plague Column, was the city’s most memorable structure: the Firewatch Tower, whose 200 steps lead up to a 60-meter-high observation deck where once swarms of Medieval trumpeters brayed warnings of incestuous blazes. “I had no idea anything like this was here.” Erik even made a quick call on his cellphone to his wife Janet, who works for Hungarian billionaire philanthropist George Soros, to rave about it.
I couldn’t believe Erik had never heard of it. Revisiting Sopron (German: Odenburg), caused memories of my first visit to resurface. This real “Austro-Hungarian Empire” border city still looked the same, albeit now with new bars and flash cafes and ATM machines plugged into the new Eurozone economy. But outward appearances are often illusory: I was interested in the imperceptible “changes” creeping up in a city famed for its fine food and drink: not only ghoulash and paprikash (Hungary’s dual national dishes), but the wonder wine “Soprani Kekfrancos,” a strong vampiric elixir far superior to the better-known plonk Egri Bikavier (Bull’s Blood), available nationwide. Even the “Transylvanian” prince Vlad Tepes, the historical Count Dracula (claimed by both Hungary and Romania) and known for dining among impaled Turks on sharpened sticks who tried to invade his country, would trade in his fangs for dentures for a vintage bottle of the stuff.
Although Sopron was a long way to go to get my teeth fixed, I decided maybe it was worth it. Business was booming for, of all things, “discount dentistry”– and there was a steady stream of wincing Austrians with toothaches crisscrossing the border to undergo the ubiquitous dentists’ drills. English signs everywhere advertised cheap checkups: “Cleaning, Fillings, Crowns, and Bridges!” New EU and NATO membership, I guess, had its privileges. Anyway, I felt frigging fantastic walking around with a new set of gleaming white chompers!
Here history is worth repeating. I first found myself in Sopron, by happy accident, in 1989, during the so-called Cold War—unaware that my opportune visit would nearly coincide (short by a month) the democratic demonstrations that would pull and extract Communism for good out of Central Europe. Sopron, which nearly left its Hungarian homeland to annex itself to Austria before World War II, was always an unusual anomaly and special case, its high standard of living the envy of every commie factotum trapped in the industrial wastelands of the periphery. As a freewheeling capitalist tourist, I found Sopronis back then to be helpful and friendly. Even the local “secret police” introduced themselves and wished me a pleasant trip! A rare Western tourist traveling independently, I privileged myself by walking around alone along the deserted streets at night, lit up like a movie set. Apparently, on most nights, I had the place to myself!
One of my favorite experiences during communist times was finding an al fresco eatery (that’s Italian for “outdoors”) in a stately square presided over by a stern statue. The Sevruga caviar (imported from the Soviet Union) was so cheap with the artificial exchange rate that I literally pigged out, letting the eggs dissolve on my tongue like Pop Rocks ™. “You are American?” an excited Soproni with fabulous Prussian moustaches asked me one day in disbelief. “Is it true in America that you can buy anything you like?” Yep. Now that this once secret-sharer borderline dream has been discovered (some now call it Hungary’s new little “Prague,” even though the architectural legacy is different). I felt a little bit miffed about who had replaced the Soviets as the occupying force: fragrant hippies clutching Lonely Planet guides and acting up in the revivified bar and café scene. The popular “Generalis Corvinus Café” on Fo Ter looked as if a Phish concert had exploded there. I couldn’t help but think that something “Grand Siecle” had been lost or mistranslated during democratization and commercialization. Why, for example, was I staying at a “Best Western” (albeit one with a luxury pool and spa)?
While Erik retired early to prep himself for the drudgery of the next day’s drive, I went out on the town and ended up getting egregiously lost. At a British-style pub with no name, but serving Czech and Polish pivo (pilsener) and German Heffewiezen (wheat beer), I asked the muscle-bound bartender, in the language of the Holy Roman Emporers, for “Das Best Western Hotel, bitte.”
(The “secret” Finno-Ugric language of Hungarian, related only to Finnish, Estonian, and possibly Turkish, and not much else, is almost impossible for non-natives to master). Pointing vaguely towards the street, the bartender directed, with rapid-fire Teutonic efficiency and in a booming Terminator Two voice: “Linx, rechts, linx, rechts, linx, rechts, linx, linx, rechts. . . .”