Hungary - Background information

Natural history
People and climate


Abridged from the History section in Hungary: the Bradt Guide

The 1848–9 War of Independence and the 1867 Compromise

The catalyst for change came during the revolutions that erupted in Europe in March 1848. The liberals grabbed their chance and the Diet passed a raft of Acts that became known as the April Laws. These extended the franchise, made the ministry responsible to Parliament alone, reunited Transylvania with the rest of Hungary and abolished the legal distinctions between citizens (including tax exemptions and the right of nobles to peasant services) – in effect laying the foundations for a constitutional monarchy and the consequent curtailment of royal power. The weak Ferdinand V (1835–48) wavered but eventually gave his royal assent and Count Lajos Batthyány was appointed as prime minister. However, the poet Sándor Petofi and other young radicals gathered on the streets of Pest to demand that reforms go
further, urging Hungarians to rise up in revolution.

In September the Habsburg forces responded by attacking Hungary, and a national defence committee was organised with Kossuth – ‘the Moses of the Hungarians’ – at its head. Initially the independence government – which in April 1849 declared the country free from the rule of Habsburg monarchy – was successful in pushing back the imperial armies. However, the new Emperor Ferenc József (1848–1916) enlisted reinforcements from the Russian Tsar Nicholas I, and the revolution was over by August. Petofi had died in battle and Kossuth went into exile. The notorious Austrian Field Marshall Haynau – the ‘Hyena of Brescia’ – was tasked with putting on a show of Habsburg might. Batthyány was executed, together with 13 generals in Transylvania (the ‘Martyrs of Arad’); thousands were imprisoned and thousands more fled abroad to escape reprisals.

However, renewed hope came more swiftly than expected. The Austrians suffered several defeats to Italian, French and Prussian armies, and – anxious to shore up the Habsburg empire – acceded to an agreement drawn up by the liberal politician Ferenc Deák. The Compromise (Ausgleich or Kiegyezés) of 1867 established a dual monarchy, whereby Hungary had its own government, parliament and even small army, but operated jointly with Austria in matters of foreign policy and defence. Hungarians were buoyant, the economy boomed and there was a flurry of cultural and creative activity most evident during the millennial celebrations of 1896 commemorating the Magyar conquest. A mighty exhibition showcased Hungarian technology and achievement in Budapest’s City Park, and ambitious building programmes were undertaken in the capital and beyond. Not all was rosy though. Minorities in particular felt oppressed by nationalist domestic policies of ‘Magyarisation’; these stemmed from the urge to re-establish a firm sense of national identity, for so long suppressed under the occupation of foreign powers, and demanded full cultural assimilation from non-Magyars. By the early 20th century, there were also discontented stirrings from society’s disenfranchised lower echelons.

Natural history

Abridged from the Natural history section in Hungary: the Bradt Guide

With a temperate climate and a lack of topographical extremes like high-altitude mountain ranges or scorching deserts, Hungary has – at least since the end of the 18th century – been largely settled, cultivated and grazed. Arable land now covers 50% of its area. Even so, thanks to a relatively low population density and extensive agriculture, the country is surprisingly rich in rare species of plant and animal.


Hungary has a very diverse flora. Its geographic location means it harbours plants that originate from Asia, western Europe and the Adriatic and Mediterranean regions. There are over 3,000 flowering plant species, including many near-endemics which are not found outside the Carpathian Basin. Although much of the countryside is given over to agriculture, farming methods are often less intensive than in western Europe; as a consequence, wild flowers are attractive and plentiful, particularly on roadside verges and along the edges of arable fields.

Lake Balaton Hungary by pgaborphotos ShutterstockLavendar at Lake Balaton © pgaborphotos, Shutterstock

Roadside crop fields take on the glorious hues of plants like the red poppy, blue cornflower, pink/mauve corn cockle, white mayweed, yellow corn marigold and purple larkspur, a canvas of colour found even alongside the major motorways. The greatest variety of wild flowers, however, is found on rocky limestone hillsides such as at Aggtelek in the northeast. Woodlands are home to several species of orchid, among them the very rare ghost orchid, as well as red helleborine, violet helleborine and greater butterfly orchid. Grasslands on limestone can have an impressive range of colourful flowers, including some endemic species. Some of the showiest are the blue/purple knapweeds and thistles, which tower above the lower-growing herbs. Several tall yellow-flowered mulleins are widespread within this habitat, and the purple mullein is often particularly striking.



Hungary is not rich in large mammals, although wolf and lynx exist in small numbers. The European beaver has been reintroduced into the Gemenc Forest (in the Danube-Drava National Park) and other areas, and is doing well. Golden jackal has crept in from the Balkans and brown bear occasionally wanders over the border from Slovakia, but these, along with wolf and lynx, are all very secretive and the chances of seeing them slim (which disappoints naturalists, but rather cheers the average lay hiker!). Hungary’s red deer are more famous than they probably wish they were among the hunting fraternity, and world-record trophies have been shot in the country. Zala, Somogy, and the area of Tamási and the Gemenc in Tolna – the largest areas of lowland forest – are just some of the places where these deer thrive. Roe deer are very common and the introduced fallow deer are concentrated in a few hunting areas such as Lábod (in Somogy), Gyulaj and Tamási (in Tolna) and Pusztavacsi (on the border of Pest and Bács-Kiskun).


Great spotted woodpecker Hungary by Vetapi Shutterstock

Hungary is a great country for birds and birdwatchers – indeed, for a land-locked European country the avifauna is remarkably rich and varied. Around 400 species have been recorded nationwide and a remarkable 250-plus have been seen in and around Budapest. By way of comparison, Hungary’s woodlands are home to eight resident species of woodpecker – of which Budapest has seven – whereas there are just three species in Britain. All this is partly due to Hungary lying at a sort of ornithological crossroads between east and west, with the warm Mediterranean zone to the south and the colder boreal Europe to the north. The fact that the Communist era resulted in large areas of countryside lying untouched (often by accident rather than design), or exploited in a less-than-efficient manner, also means that birds have done well. In addition, Hungarians are not ‘trigger-happy’ in the way that some other populations are in Mediterranean countries: only gamebirds are shot for food, and people are pleased when white storks nest in their villages. Many towns have birdwatching clubs or branches of the MME (Hungarian Ornithological Society). It’s therefore unsurprising that Hungary is now regarded among Europe’s best birding destinations by travelling twitchers.

(Photo: Hungary is home to eight species of woodpecker © Vetapi, Shutterstock)

People and culture


Hungarians are no grinning Cheshire cats. They are a rare and intriguing breed that looks on the gloomier side of life, that notices the cloud from afar but develops myopia when it comes to its lining. They acknowledge this trait, although typically describing it as ‘realism’. They are more Eeyore than Tigger, and hooray for that.

We can look to history to make sense of this tendency towards pessimism. Foreign nations (Ottomans, Habsburgs, Germans and Soviets) have conspired to subject the people and destroy their precious monuments. The Treaty of Trianon stripped the country of two-thirds of its territory. Borders have buckled through the ages, and five million ethnic Hungarians are now ‘exiles’, dividing families and isolating pockets of the populace. The upshot is a social psyche that expects to be dealt the rough cards in any hand. On an individual level, this melancholy can manifest itself in tragic ways. It is estimated that alcoholism is a problem for ten per cent, and Hungary used to top the ‘suicide league table’. It’s no coincidence that Gloomy Sunday – a song that has been blamed for provoking over 100 suicides and was banned in the UK until 2002 – was written by a Hungarian...

It is therefore surprising that Hungarians are neither lethargic nor submissive; on the contrary, they are fiercely patriotic and take deep pride in their past heroic struggles against oppression. Countless towns and villages are pieces of standing proof of a willingness to rebuild – repeatedly – from conflict’s rubble. They have been resourceful, energetic and inventive, claiming a clutch of Nobel prizes and making a bigger splash in the spheres of science, music and medicine than their
population size entitles them. As the proverb states, ‘only a Hungarian can enter a revolving door behind you and come out in front’. Such nationhood and high achievement stem from a desperate urge to resist forces that might snuff them out.



If Hungary needs a cultural ambassador, it surely has one in its exotic music. The famous big hitters were of course Ferenc Liszt, Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály, each an established name in the canon of European composers. To try to isolate and define Hungarian music would be to overlook the fact that its diversity is intrinsic to understanding this corner of the world. The musical landscape in central Europe reflects a tangled web of historical relationships and influences. The base layer is closely related to the folk music of Turkic and Finno-Ugric peoples from the Urals and Siberia (as uncovered by Kodály and his colleagues in the early 20th century). There has also been mutual borrowing from regional traditions – Slavonic, Romany, Jewish and more. It’s certainly rich territory for the ethno-musicologist.


Where some cultural output can be inspired and concentrated by conflict – just ask Pet´o´fi – architecture is the physical body destined to suffer in the front line. For much of its history, Hungary was forced to pick up the pieces; the country’s structural heritage is one of a canvas repeatedly re-painted. The earliest significant remains are those left from the Roman province of Pannonia, evident at Aquincum and in Transdanubian centres like Pécs. Romanesque ecclesiastical architecture of the 11th–13th centuries – including the first reaching cathedrals of István’s Christian kingdom – was obliterated by the Mongols in 1240–41, and generally survives as recycled features in later churches or as subterranean crypts. Both the Romanesque and the Gothic buildings that followed them were generally westward-looking (in the cultural sense), frequently showing the hands of immigrant craftsmen from Italy and Germany.

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