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15 March 2019

Sopron – A Travel Essay


First we heard what sounded like gunfire, then came a shrieking sound like a festive rocket being launched. Only then did we see rising in the sky above the vines a great murmuration of starlings, circling and swirling in great arcs, coming together, coming apart, reforming. Thousands of starlings in a fast- moving cloud of their own making. For ten minutes we watched the spectacle as afternoon turned to evening and the rain set in and the hailstones began to fall.

We do have problems with hail, and with the ‘frozen saints’ late frosts in mid-May. But the starlings are a bigger problem.” A flock of starlings can strip a vineyard of its ripe grapes in a very short space of time. We sat indoors at the Taschner Winery, a modern building that houses an expanding enterprise, on the road out of Sopron that leads to Balf. Kurt Taschner opened a bottle of 2018 Irsai Olivér – a white grape developed (from Pozsonyi and Pearl of Csaba grapes ) in Hungary in the 1920s. It was 3 September 2018. I looked again at the bottle. It really did read “2018”. This year the grape harvest began on 30 July for white grapes, and the first delightfully fresh fragrant white wine was ready to drink now in early September. Only twice before, in 1945 and in 1868, has the harvest begun here so early. The blue grapes, though, were still on the vine, waiting for the rain to pass and the mud left behind to dry out so the harvesting machinery could get in. Of all the Hungarian wine regions, Sopron has the highest rainfall, though adjacent to Austria’s driest. “For the past two years the harvest has been done by machines. New vines are planted to be picked by machine now.”

Sopron has a long tradition of wine making. As long ago as the times of the Celts, who lived here before the Romans came, vineyards have been cultivated in the area. Geography, as always, is key; and here it is the sheltering presence of the mountains – the last hills of the Alps – to the west, and of the shallow body of water, known in Hungarian as Fertő tó and in German as Neusiedler See, to the north-east that make for conditions ideal for wine.

Lake Fertő is a “steppe” lake, the farthest west steppe lake in the Eurasian land mass, without outflow. It is the lowest point in the Little Hungarian Plain, the Kisalföld, and the water it loses is by evaporation. It is on average only one metre deep. Until the late 18th century, when a dyke was built, the area to the south- east of Lake Fertő known as Hanság formed an intermittent part of the lake. Until 1909 when the Main Regulation Channel was opened, the lake’s water levels could vary considerably. Some years it was completely dry, in others it flooded.

The reed beds that cover 178 km² of the lake, including almost all of it in Hungary, date only from this time of stabilising the water levels. They have also added to the rich biodiversity of the lake and the areas bordering it. The flora and fauna here are a mix of Alpine, Pannonian, Asiatic, Mediterranean and Nordic, and, because the lake and the flat lands around it are slightly salty, salt-tolerant plants normally associated with sea coasts thrive. Migrating birds use Lake Fertő as an autumn stopover point en route to the warmer climes to the south.

From an agricultural, and indeed viticultural, standpoint, the lake gives warmth to provide a longer growing season. 250 growing days a year is the norm.

 

***

 

For forty years until 1989 Sopron was relatively isolated by its position hard against the Iron Curtain. But two thousand years ago it sat astride one of Europe’s major trade routes. For several millennia amber has been mined on the Baltic coasts and traded south to the Mediterranean. In Roman times, the main north–south trade route passed to the west of Lake Fertő. The Amber Road crossed the Danube at Carnuntum, where the Stoic philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius spent three years during the Marcomannic Wars (169–175), and made its way southwards through Savaria (Szombathely) to Aquileia at the head of the Adriatic.

Along the Amber Road, midway between Carnuntum and Savaria, the Romans founded the town of Scarbantia. Sopron today sits immediately on top of this Roman town and its remains keep being discovered beneath the 21st-century surface. The Fire Tower stands on the site of one of the main Roman gates into the town. The paving stones of the Amber Road lie four metres below today’s main square, Fő tér, in Sopron’s old Inner Town. Immediately adjacent was the Roman forum. In the basement of the Fabricius House, now a museum, is a Roman bathhouse. Remnants of the Mithras cult are on display here. A shrine to the Egyptian goddess Isis was found during renovations of the cloisters adjacent to the “Goat Church”. A Roman gravestone has been built into a wall of the courtyard of the Hotel Wollner since the 18th century. Much of the stone that the Romans used to build Scarbantia came from the massive calcareous sandstone quarry at St Margarethen (Szentmargitbánya) to the north of Sopron. And, of course, those who settled here, many of them ex-soldiers from other parts of the Empire, cultivated vines and made wine.

How did the vineyards fare in the period when this part of the Roman Empire was overrun by barbarian tribes? We do not know. Sopron is roughly on what was in the 8th century the boundary between the East Franks to the west and the mysterious Avars in the Carpathian Basin to the east. The Roman town of Scarbantia was deserted. Sopron’s German name, Ödenburg, derives from the German öde meaning deserted, desolate and abandoned. The new town, Sopron/ Ödenburg, grew up among these ruins.

By the early 10th century Sopron and the surrounding region had become part of the Kingdom of Hungary, and Sopron was refortified as a border castle in time of King Stephen. In 1277, Sopron was given Free Royal City status, in honour of its loyalty to the Hungarian Crown when attacked and occupied by Ottokar II Přemyslid, King of Bohemia and Duke of Austria. In 1529 it was sacked, but not occupied, by the Turks. During the Turkish Wars of the 16thcentury, many Hungarians fleeing areas devastated by the Ottomans settled in and around Sopron. This was the time when communities of Croats, also fleeing Turkish encroachment, settled in the area. In 1676, the city was largely destroyed by fire. Among the few Gothic-style buildings that survived are the Goat Church and the old Jewish synagogue in Új Street. The Sopron which arose again after the fire was built in the Baroque style of the times, and it is that architecture that characterises the lovely old centre of the city today – at least on the surface. Remains of the older Gothic buildings, like those of the even earlier Roman ones, lie beneath, often incorporated into wine cellars.

One of the earliest descriptions we have in English of Hungarian wine was written by Sylvester Douglas. His 1809 On the Tokay and other Wines of Hungary reported in The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London is focused on the wines of Tokaj, but it also states “there is not, Mr D. believes, in Europe any country which produces a greater variety of wines than Hungary”. The first two wines that it goes on to list, after Tokaj, were from the region of “Presburg” (Pozsony, Bratislava). Sopron is not mentioned by name, but in the 19th century the western Hungarian wine region was known as Sopron–Ruszt–Pozsony and produced similar (almost entirely white) wines throughout the region. The territorial integrity of this wine region came to an end following the First World War when it was divided among three countries – Austria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary.

Among the “treaties” that redrew the map of Europe at the end of the First World War, Hungarians are most familiar with the Treaty of Trianon that saw Hungary lose 72 per cent of its pre-war land area and 64 per cent of its pre-war population, and left 3.3 million ethnic Hungarians outside the boundaries of post-war Hungary. But it was the 1919 Treaty of Saint-Germain (between the Allies and Austria) that first lopped off a slice of the Kingdom of Hungary and awarded it to Austria. In this particular case, the Wilsonian principle of countries based on ethnic divisions seems to have been reasonably well applied, as shown in a map of Sopron County with nationalities, according to the 1910 census, superimposed on it.1 The principle gave way elsewhere, of course, to the territorial demands of the victors. Italy was granted the German-speaking southern parts of Tyrol up to the Brenner Pass. In the last weeks of the war the Czecho-Slovak National Council was recognised as a de facto belligerent Government”, and, at the insistence of Tomáš Masaryk, who had an American wife and who had spent some of the war years in the United States, the new Czechoslovak Republic was given the borders of the old Kingdom of Bohemia in the west and a southern frontier on the Danube. It meant that the new Czechoslovakia contained more Germans than Slovaks. At the time of the 1910 census, the population of Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, had been 42 per cent German, 41 per cent Hungarian and 15 per cent Slovak.

Only in a very few places in Europe were plebiscites held to determine to which post-war country the population wanted to belong. As a result of severe local discontent with the territorial dispositions of Saint-Germain, Sopron and its immediately surrounding area was one of the areas where a plebiscite was held. Despite the 1910 census showing a majority of German-speakers, Sopron voted 65 per cent to remain part of Hungary. For this act of loyalty, Sopron became civitas fidelissima – the most loyal city. The Fire Tower’s Loyalty Gate was built in commemoration, and the bell in the Lutheran church, which was the first to ring out the result of the 1921 plebiscite, is known still as the “Loyalty Bell”. But it did mean that an international border came to separate Sopron from much of its traditional hinterland, a border that was, after the Second World War, to become the Iron Curtain.

 

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The second bottle of wine that Kurt Taschner opened for us was a 2016 Chardonnay, lightly oaked in second-filling French barrels. Renowned though the Chardonnay grape is around the world, Chardonnays do not enjoy a ready market in Hungary. Hungarian wine drinkers prefer to stick with wines made from the well-known traditional Hungarian grape varieties, but nonetheless Kurt Taschner is increasing the extent of his Chardonnay vines from ½ hectare to 3 hectares. As I tasted the wine, it seemed to me to be a good decision. This is a nicely made pleasant Chardonnay. I hope that the local market gets a taste for it.

The next wine was an unusual one, a 2016 Pinot Meunier – or Petit Pinot, as it has to be labelled in Hungary until the 2018 vintage. Pinot Meunier is, with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, one of the three traditional grape varieties that go into making Champagne. Kurt Taschner does make sparkling wine using the classic grapes and the méthode champenoise – but it is rare to find anywhere a bottle of still red wine that is pure Pinot Meunier. Pinot Meunier is not a recognised grape variety in Hungary and Kurt Taschner, who planted the first of these vines (Schwarzriesling, bought in Germany) in 2015, has to grow it under an experimental licence. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, its taste was rather like a decent aromatic Pinot Noir.

Finally, we came to a bottle of the best-known wine of Sopron, a Soproni Kékfrankos Classic. Kékfrankos Blaufränkisch in German and grown in the United States as Lemberger – is not normally regarded as one of the great grape varieties, but here it makes a good, solid rich wine that is very easy to drink. Most of Sopron’s vineyards grow Kékfrankos, and it represents half the wine acreage in Mittelburgenland immediately to the south of Sopron. Kurt Taschner has 7 hectares of Kékfrankos vines and has to buy in more grapes to meet demand.

There is a charming story told as to how the Kékfrankos/Blaufränkisch wine came by its name. Soldiers in Napoleon’s armies quartered in Sopron, it is said, were taken by the wine and used to pay for it in blue franc notes. Unfortunately the tale is fiction. At the time the French soldiers in Napoleon’s armies were in Sopron the wines of the Sopron–Ruszt–Pozsony wine region were almost entirely white – and there was no such currency as blue francs. It was only when the vines were replanted after the phylloxera devastation in the late 19th century that Sopron went over to red wine as its chief product. The market was better.

The traditional wine growers of Sopron were smallholders with a reputation for being canny. They were known as Poncichters (German: Ponzichter, derived from Bohnenzüchter – “bean growers”) because, between the rows of vines, in the shade of the vine leaves, they grew beans. Not only did beans provide food (much of traditional Sopron cuisine was based on beans), they also fixed nitrogen into the vineyards’ soil to the benefit of the vines.

From the Loyalty Gate and the Fire Tower we walked to the area outside the old walls of Sopron where many of the Poncichters used to live and work. Here they brought the grapes they grew in the countryside around, here they made wine, here they ran their Buschenschänke taverns where they sold their wine and food to go with it. In 1946, much of this came to an end. At the end of the Second World War most of Sopron’s German-heritage population was forcibly sent to Germany, leaving the streets where we walked between the low-fronted Poncichter houses deserted. In Germany many of those evicted from Sopron settled in the Bavarian town of Kempten, where my son-in-law’s grandparents also settled after fleeing westward from Moravia and Silesia in front of the Red Army’s 1945 advance. Today Kempten is one of Sopron’s twin cities. Beside Sopron’s Lutheran Church is a sober monument remembering those citizens expelled in 1946.

The expulsion dealt a significant blow to Sopron’s wine industry. Most of the Poncichters were of German heritage. Still today, more than 70 years after the evictions, 90 per cent of the names of the fields where vines grow are of German origin. Much of Sopron’s winemaking knowledge was thus lost in 1946. Kurt Taschner, who is of German heritage, told us that his grandfather was allowed to stay in Hungary in 1946 only because he had served in the Hungarian Army throughout the entire War.

When Communism arrived in Hungary, most of the vineyards were nationalised and became part of large agricultural enterprises. But within the Eastern Bloc, Soproni Kékfrankos had a large and stable market. Many new vineyards were planted and exports to the USSR boomed. Quantity rather than quality was what mattered. Kurt Taschner’s father worked in one of the state cooperatives, but was also able to sell a few barrels of wine he made from grapes grown on the small plot that remained his.

After 1989, Kurt Taschner’s father regained possession of 11 hectares of vineyards. While he made a success of his enterprise, many smallholders were unable, or uninterested, to do so. From 2,300 hectares vines in Communist times, there are now only 1,400 hectares. Much good vine-growing land awaits rehabilitation.

Kurt Taschner on the other hand, after studying winemaking in Budapest, has expanded his vineyards from his father’s 11 hectares to the 29 hectares he owns today. In 2004 he consolidated three winemaking and bottling locations into the one we visited on the Balf Road, and having done everything himself until 1997 he now has seven employees, plus more at harvest time.

Kurt Taschner makes a wide variety of wines, including a late harvest sweet wine when conditions are right. Rust (Ruszt), on the Neusiedler See just to the north of Sopron has long been as famous for its sweet wines as it is for the storks that nest on the town’s chimneys. Its Ruster Ausbruch and the trademark “R” have long been well known, going back to a time before Rust was made a Royal Free City by the Hungarian Crown in 1681. In recent years, however, the reputation of sweet wines from the other side of the lake, around Ilmitz (Ilmic) and Apetlon (Mosonbánfalva), has been growing. In contrast to the vineyards of Sopron and Rust which are planted on slopes, the east side of the lake is a flat sandy land. It more regularly sees the autumnal mists moving in from the lake encouraging the botrytis, the noble rot, needed for making late-harvest sweet wines. For the present, such wines seem to come mostly from the Austrian side of the border. Hungary has, perhaps, sufficient wonderful sweet wine in Tokaj to merit planting competing vineyards on its flat lands to the east of Lake Fertő.

As we visited the wine cellars in Rust, we were struck by just how many wines each one makes. We had the same impression at the modern and, perhaps not unexpectedly grand, Esterházy Winery on the outskirts of the village of Trausdorf (Darázsfalu, Trajštof in Croatian). Indeed, the Austrian Wine Leithaberg website boasts that “there is scarcely any other wine-producing region that permits such a diversity of wine types as does the 3,097-hectare Leithaberg on the western shores of Lake Neusiedl”. To one more accustomed to the wine-producing regions of France, and despite the dominance of Kékfrankos/Blaufränkisch, it seemed that while Sopron and the areas of Austria immediately to its north and south were natural wine-growing areas, they are still experimenting with their true vocation.

 

***

 

From the Esterházy Winery we drove into Eisenstadt (Kismarton) to visit the Esterházy Palace in the centre of the town. The Esterházy family was one of the great landowning families of the Kingdom of Hungary from the 17th century onwards. While owning property throughout Hungary and beyond, their landholdings were particularly concentrated in the old County of Sopron. They maintained a house just off the Main Square in Sopron, held the ancient castle of Fraknó (Forchtenstein), redeveloped the medieval castle in Eisenstadt into a palace that became their main residence, and built the grandest of their many residences at Eszterháza (now Fertőd), 25 km east of Sopron. While the Esterházy palaces in Hungary are now in the possession of the State those in Austria remain with the family (through the Esterházy Foundation).

Protestant, like most of Hungary in the wake of the Reformation, the Esterházys converted to Catholicism in the early 17th century and allied themselves closely with the Habsburgs. They played a prominent role in the Counter-Reformation and the Turkish Wars, and fought against the Hungarian uprisings led by Gábor Bethlen and Ferenc Rákóczi. Territory reconquered from the Turks and land confiscated from Protestants, as well as good marriages, laid foundations for the family’s wealth. Pope Innocent XI held Prince Pál I Esterházy (1635–1713) in such esteem that he presented him with a prestigious relic the body of St Constantine, a Roman legionnaire who became a Christian and was subsequently martyred.

The centrepiece of the Esterházy Palace in Eisenstadt is the Haydnsaal, designed and built in the time of the same Pál I. The murals and ceilings of the extravagantly decorated Haydnsaal depict classical themes as well as the Kings of Hungary, the (rather extensive) lands of the Crown of St Stephen and, of course, the armorial bearings of the Esterházy family. The Haydnsaal, originally an opulent banqueting hall, has superb acoustics that suit it well to its reincarnation as a lavish concert hall.

The Haydnsaal takes its name, of course, from Joseph Haydn. Haydn, reckoned by contemporaries as the greatest composer of his generation, was employed as Kappelmeister by the Esterházy family for much of his career. We had the pleasure of attending the opening night of the 2018 Haydn Festival here. The resident Haydn Philharmonic, founded in 1987 as the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Philharmonic, with the express intention of making musical breaches in the Iron Curtain, played Haydn’s Military Symphony (No. 100), Elgar’s Cello Concerto, and Beethoven’s 5th. It was a splendid evening.

The Esterházy Palace in Eisenstadt came through the Second World War lightly, with much of its contents hidden at Forchtenstein before the Red Army arrived in 1945. The same unfortunately cannot be said for the Palace at Fertőd.

The Rococo Esterházy Palace at Fertőd was built under Prince Miklós József (“The Magnificent”) Esterházy (1714–1790) and became his main residence. It was built on a grand scale and set in a 300 hectares park filled with statues, fountains and imitation classical temples, leading to it being called the “Hungarian Versailles”. In its 18th-century heyday, the palace boasted two opera houses and a full opera season. It was here in this grand but isolated location that Haydn spent most of his time between 1766 and 1790, and as such the Esterházy Palace is “probably the most important extant building associated with Haydn”.2

After the death of Miklós the Magnificent, the Esterházy Palace went into decline. Its fortunes revived when Miklós IV Esterházy moved back to Fertőd in 1900. But in the Second World War, it was occupied first by the German military and then became a Russian military hospital. As with almost all of the grand houses of Hungary, this was a time of enormous devastation and loss. Almost none of the original furnishings remained. Restoration began in 1957.

We toured the Esterházy Palace with a delightful group of French tourists. They came from all over France and were touring Hungary in 17 motor homes (“camping-cars”), meeting up at key locations on their itinerary. They were clearly proud of the comparisons with Versailles and the influence of 18th-century French culture, but equally appalled by the thought of what could have happened to their own treasured cultural monuments.

When we were leaving Fertőd a group of cyclists arrived. This is popular cycling country. There is a 133 km cycling route around Lake Fertő – 95 km in Austria and 38 km in Hungary. Another cycling route, named after the Roman Amber Road (B47 – Römische Bernsteinstrasse Radweg), goes south from Sopron. After some 14 km cycling from the border through the vineyards of Mittelburgenland you would reach the village of Raiding (Doborján, Rajnof in Croatian). With torrential rain falling when we reached Raiding we were glad to have come by car. Here Ferenc (Franz) Liszt was born in 1811. His father was the bookkeeper in the sheep farm on the Esterházy estate.

Liszt did not stay long in Raiding. By the age of five his prodigious musical talents had become apparent. His father gave total support to his son and soon afterwards he benefitted from Esterházy support as well. He composed music from the age of eight, and at nine gave a public concert in Sopron. In 1822 he moved to Vienna to pursue his music, and the following year to Paris. In the museum devoted to Liszt in the Raiding house where he was born, there are traces of a tussle from a former time as to whether Liszt was Hungarian or German. But French became his main language and he spent an itinerant life performing to rave reviews all across Europe, commanding the highest pay for any musician of his day. Heinrich Heine coined the term “Lisztomania” to describe the unprecedented hysteria and devotion of his fans. For many he remains the greatest pianist of all time.

 

***

 

The Loyalty Fountain in Sopron dates from 2003. It bears three dates – 1277, 1921 and 1989. In 1277 Sopron was made a Free Royal City. In 1921 the city and its surrounding villages voted to remain part of Hungary. In 1989 it played a starring role in the end of Communism in Europe and the dismantling of the Iron Curtain – which had surrounded Sopron for more than forty years.

On 19 August 1989 the Pan-European Picnic was held on the border between Austria and Hungary just to the north of Sopron. The idea, hatched in Debrecen which was then trying to manage an influx of refugees from Romania, was that the border would be open for three hours allowing people on either side of it to spend time together. East Germans, overstaying their holidays in campsites around Lake Balaton and potentially adding to the country’s refugee difficulties, heard about the planned event and came to Sopron. Some 600 of them rushed through the afternoon breach in the Iron Curtain. The Hungarian Government had given orders to the border guards not to stop them. On 11 September Hungary opened its western border and over the coming weeks some 70,000 more East Germans made the crossing into Austria. On 9 November the East German Government bowed to the inevitable and announced the end of travel restrictions on its citizens. Over the next few days, the Berlin Wall – the most potent symbol of a divided Europe – was pulled down. Helmut Kohl later said, “Hungary removed the Wall’s first stone”.

We drove back to Sopron from the Pan-European picnic site and had supper that night in one of the town’s wine cellars, goulash accompanied by a jug of Soproni Kékfrankos. I asked what drink had been served at the Pan-European Picnic in 1989. Nobody seemed to know. I like to imagine that it was a rich red Soproni Kékfrankos, playing a subtle role in the reunification of Europe.


 

Notes:


1 Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sopron_ethnic_map.png.

2 Michael Yonan, Enfilade On Haydn’s Trail: Esterházy Palace, Hungary. 2007. https://enfilade18thc. com/2009/07/27/on-haydns-trail-eszterhaza-palace-hungary/.




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