Hungary: All along the watchtowers

A final frontier marked by Soviet-era observation towers finding new life in nature reserves, West Hungary’s scant population has an identity rooted firmly in its position at the edge of the map .

By Adrian Phillips
photographs by Norbert Horvarth
Published 13 May 2019, 17:32 BST
Lake Fertő, Fertő-Hanság National Park
Lake Fertő in Fertő-Hanság National Park. Three-quarters of the lake's 200sq miles lie in Austria, where it goes by the name of Lake Neusiedl, but the Hungarian title, meaning ‘swamp’, is more fitting.
Photograph by Norbert Horvath

Two barbed wire fences stretch away in parallel from the watchtower, strung tight between concrete posts. They peter out after 100 metres, but in 1948 the barrier preventing people from escaping into Austria was 200 miles long. Those who found a way through faced a minefield crisscrossed with trip wires. 

The watchtower is exactly where a man in a Hegykő hotel bar said it would be. He mentioned it in passing, without fanfare. There are no signposts on the street to point me to it: left through the gate into the farmer’s field, then left again at the fork in the track made by the wheels of the farmer’s tractor. I skirt a hedge and it’s simply there in the cornfield: a tall, olive-green watchtower. 

Flies buzz, a light breeze blows, and life goes on oblivious to this relic of history’s most infamous symbol of oppression and division. Symbol’s not quite the right word, of course. The Iron Curtain wasn’t just the symbol of oppression and division — it was the instrument. A crude, spiky, uncompromising, deadly, very real thing.

Today, the fence and its watchtower are just features of the landscape to be ploughed around or mentioned in passing, if mentioned at all. They’ve been gradually absorbed into the shape of the place, like pieces of silver foil in a magpie’s nest. It’s a short drive to Fertőújlak and another Cold War construction that has become woven into the local fabric. What’s now a nature school and visitor centre was once a barracks from which soldiers were dispatched to deal with anyone trying to defect to the West. “There were 60 men based here,” says Krisztina as we survey the countryside from the hulking concrete watchtower. The land is flat and the view unhindered for miles. It must have been terrifying trying to evade the beady eyes of the guards. 

Now, though, the tower is used for tracking of a different kind. Krisztina is part of the team working in Fertő-Hanság National Park, a UNESCO-listed wetland that supports more than 300 species of bird. Summer is nesting season for greylag geese; they’ve flown here from colder climes in the north, and there are thousands of them on Lake Fertő. “We tag some with neck rings and tracking devices so we can see where they go. We recently discovered one goose was being unfaithful — he left his family here and nipped off to Italy for a few days!”

Unlike Communist times, this is a surveillance project conducted hand in hand with Hungary’s Western neighbours, because Lake Fertő straddles the border. Three-quarters of its 200sq miles lie in Austria, where it goes by the name of Lake Neusiedl. The Hungarian title is more fitting, meaning ‘swamp’: a reference to the sediment carried by currents flowing down the lake. It’s a constant battle to prevent the southern end from silting up and starving the wildlife of oxygen. So, barriers are still set and trenches are still dug, now in the cause of conservation rather than containment. 

We leave the tower and make our way to Borsodi, one of several shallow offshoots along the shore of the main lake. On the air is the gentle honking of countless geese that carpet the surface. It’s rather soothing. But then the honks become animated and urgent, and hundreds of birds lift like smoke above the reeds and fly across the sky ahead before dropping and settling again. “They must have spotted an eagle or fox,” explains Krisztina. She scans the geese with her binoculars. “This is not so many. You should come in winter — last year there were 70,000.”

Grazing a meadow to our right is a flock of Racka sheep, an odd-looking Hungarian breed with sharp, spiralling horns that would do a unicorn proud. We pick our way across the scrubby grassland, over clumps of prickly sea holly and past the fluffy rounded flower heads of sheep’s-bit, grey-blue like gun barrels, until we reach a hole in the sandy soil. A breathy whistle comes from inside. This is the burrow of a European ground squirrel, which lives here at the very western limit of its range. The colony feeds on insects during the day while sentinels stand upright and alert, ready to whistle a warning should a saker falcon pass by on patrol overhead. 

“An escape tunnel,” says Krisztina, crouching at another hole nearby. “It’s much steeper, like a lift shaft, so the squirrels can take cover quickly.” When they dig a burrow, the animals scatter the earth away from the entrance so it’s less conspicuous to predators. I’m reminded of a scene in the film The Great Escape, when the prisoners of war disperse soil from their own tunnels by dropping it down the inside of their trouser legs as they walk around the exercise yard. “But birds of prey have special vision and can see urine in the soil. When a buzzard hovers, it’s looking for fresh pee, which is a tell-tale sign there’s a squirrel nearby.”

In the distance, spoonbills trawl the edge of the water with their beaks, zigzagging back and forth with heads bent low like a pack of sniffer dogs. Little egrets bayonet frantically in the shallows and herons stand still, staring, waiting for the moment to strike. This is a landscape of air-borne surveillance and tracking systems, sentries and tunnels, strategies for capture and strategies for evasion. The competing claims of the hunted and the hunter run through it like words in a stick of rock. I shall pass. You will not pass. 

Herd of Racka sheep, an odd-looking Hungarian breed with sharp, spiralling horns.
Photograph by FHNP

Edging off the map

That afternoon, we take to the water itself with Norbert, a colleague of Krisztina. He leads ecotours in the park but, with his camouflage cap and dark glasses, he also does a decent impression of a commando on a mission. Reed beds blanket most of the Hungarian end of Lake Fertő, and so, over the centuries, the locals have cut a network of waterways to get around. Thick green stems form a guard of honour, creaking and whispering at the wind as it funnels through the narrow channel. I watch Norbert sitting quiet and chisel-jawed at the wheel of the solar-powered boat and ponder: how un-Norbert-like he looks. 

“Around here, you’ll either hear the wind, the rain or the church bells,” he says, breaking his silence with something altogether more poetic than I’d expected. Half a dozen night herons squat uneasily at the top of an acacia tree as the branches lurch in the air’s currents. “The wind has a big effect, pushing the water around. Sometimes the lake can be 80cm higher at one end than the other.” As we reach open water at the mouth of the channel and get a brief glimpse of the Austrian Alps in the distance, the wind sends a steady stream of khaki-coloured waves towards the boat and whips our coats with spray. We beat a hasty retreat into the reeds.

On the return journey, Norbert nods towards the black silhouette of yet another watchtower, elegant and menacing against the sunset. “We have to control the wild boar population. These days, that tower is used to spot them — and shoot them.” But in days past it was used to spot defectors — and almost certainly to shoot them. “Around 17,000 people died trying to cross the border,” says Norbert, quietly. This was an area at the bleeding edge of history. 

I’ve assumed until now it was a sharp edge, a line between two tectonic plates of 20th-century ideology, precisely dividing one nation from another. I’ve assumed the citizens near the border — whether paid-up party members or Western sympathisers — were just those whose noses were closest to the glass, with uninterrupted geography at their backs. But I’ve assumed wrong. 

“A buffer zone ran along the inside of the border during the communist period,” explains Albert when I meet him next day in Szalafő village, 90 minutes further south in the Őrség region. “It was miles wide, and if you didn’t live there you needed permission to enter, even to visit a relative.” So, the people here were sandwiched between borders west and east; they didn’t exist at the edge, but within it. A hinterland folk. 

In truth, this was a population that had always been set apart. The Őrség — which means ‘guard’ — was settled in the 10th century by Hungary’s bravest fighters, who were posted there to protect the kingdom against invaders from the west. In return, they were granted special privileges and spared from serfdom. Theirs was a unique status. More than 1,000 years on, many of today’s villagers are direct descendants of those settlers, and they’re fiercely proud of their heritage. “They still keep watch,” says Zsófia. “They’ll have noticed there’s a red car here today that they haven’t seen before.”

“In the distance, spoonbills trawl the edge of the water with their beaks, zigzagging back and forth with heads bent low like a pack of sniffer dogs”

Husband and wife, Albert and Zsófia are showing me around Pityerszer, one of seven tiny hamlets that together make up the village of Szalafő. “Each village was built across several hilltops so the residents could use smoke signals to alert each other if enemies were approaching,” says Zsófia. Pityerszer is now an open-air museum, but there were families occupying its handful of dwellings as recently as the 1970s. We stoop through a door into the most rudimentary of living spaces, with mud walls and a chair crudely fashioned from scraps of wood. There’s no running water, electric lighting or gas for cooking. There’s no chimney either: smoke from the fire had to escape through a hole above the door the size of a letterbox. This was medieval living in the 20th century. 

No one lives quite like this anymore, of course, but the Őrség remains a step removed, a link between modern Hungary and a disappearing yesteryear. “Sometimes people from Budapest move here because they like the idea of a simpler life,” says Albert. “But they soon return home.” They tire of silence and the night’s darkness, of chopping their own kindling and waiting, waiting for the wood-fire oven to warm. And waiting too for the locals to warm to them, for this is a close-knit community with their own words for things and their own folk tales of ancestral derring-do. They’ve no interest in the bright lights of the capital just two-and-a-half hours away — indeed, as many as 90% of them have never even been there. 

Albert and Zsófia are rare outsiders who have been embraced as honorary Őrség people. They relocated around a decade ago from Lake Balaton, which is 70 miles to the east, and work for the national park. “It takes time for the locals to accept newcomers — but once they do, they’ll look out for you forever,” says Zsófia. 

And this is a forever sort of place. I’d driven through one-street villages, past sunflower fields that rolled like yellow tides towards roadsides where storks nested messily on telegraph poles. Albert loves the meadows and its butterflies. “There’s dew on the grass in August. You don’t get that anywhere else in Hungary,” he says.

But there’s no guarantee this forever place will last forever. Young people are leaving for city jobs and comforts — “They’re lazy!” grumbles a friendly old lady who’s come to see what we’re up to, presumably after spotting my car — and ancient skills are slipping away. “We needed to repair a roof in Pityerszer, but it took ages to find someone who knew how to thatch the authentic Őrség way,” says Albert. “We couldn’t even get the right sort of rye,” adds Zsófia. “Modern rye is much shorter than it used to be.” The 21st-century challenge for these hinterland people, it seems, is to protect the traditions that tie them to their ancestors. To ensure they will not pass. 

Reedbeds at Lake Ferto.
Photograph by FHNP Archive

Weaving stories

Today’s guardians aren’t on hilltops or in watchtowers, but behind net curtains, armed with needle and thread. The following morning, I drive 20 miles south and knock on the door of a house in the village of Lenti. It’s answered by Zsuzsa, who shows me into a front room, which is dominated by what looks like a four-poster bed hung with a mad array of handles, pullies and paddles.

It’s a domestic handloom, 140 years old, eight feet tall and eight feet across. Zsuzsa takes her place at the end like a pianist at a grand piano, and launches into a vigorous demonstration, pulling on strings, working pedals and throwing the shuttle back and forth across 1,400 strands of cotton that have taken two days to thread into the loom. Draped all about the room are white shawls and cushion covers, each delicately woven with crimson motifs. “The patterns are inspired by nature — stars, birds, flowers,” Zsuzsa tells me. She sells her wares at markets and festivals, and even takes orders online. “The designs are simple, which fits with current tastes. People like things made by hand.” I watch as the loom rocks and shakes and thwacks, just as it would have done in generations past.

“Young people love it. They’re tired of artificial stuff,” Margit explains, when I call into her stone-walled workshop, set in a garden a few streets away. Roses trail through trellises and a cat sleeps on a chair beneath a cherry tree. The chair is handmade of wicker, of course; it couldn’t be anything else. “When I was a girl, I worked in the fields,” Margit tells me, as she selects some willow twigs from a bundle. “It was tough and hot. One day, I saw some people making baskets in the shade. ‘Sod the fields,’ I thought. That was about 50 years ago and I’ve been basket weaving ever since.”

Margit sits in front of a basket she’s already started. Twigs splay upwards in a ring from the base, and she bends new ones in and out between them, karate chopping them snug down against the layer beneath. She’s in her 70s, but her fingers move like lightning. “Skip two and weave around. Skip two and weave around,” she says as I have a go, my fingers moving slowly and clumsily, as if they were sausages. We’re surrounded by baskets big and small, round and square. I’ve never considered the aesthetics of a basket before, but these are beautiful, the willow glossy and ranging in shade from chocolate to caramel. You almost want to lick them. “There’s no paint or staining — it’s all natural wood.”

If anything serves as a statement of defiance in the face of the disposable nature of the modern world, it’s the Őrség Fair in the village of Őriszentpéter. This is the annual smoke signal to rally tradition’s guardians, and it happens to coincide with the final day of my trip. I cross a bridge over a creek to a field packed with stalls selling handmade products. Tables of golden honey give way to tables of pressed oils — pumpkin seed, grape seed, poppy seed and more. A man insists I try his fruit brandy, and I move on with heat in my chest, to charcoal pits where sausages sizzle in pans and chimney cakes turn on spits. Beyond, craftspeople are ranged along the village high street, displaying everything from lace and pottery to blown glass. 

But it’s 2pm and there’s something I don’t want to miss. I take a seat in front of a raised stage just as the performers appear. A paunchy man in a black waistcoat and a pork pie hat is joined by six ladies, who line up and take a bow. I look out for Zsófia and there she is, very different from two days ago in a long green skirt and frilly white blouse, her hair plaited and tied with a red ribbon. The music starts, a jaunty tune, and the dancers are off. They link arms and wheel in circles, flicking their heels, stepping daintily and high-kneed in time to the violin. This is a csárdás, a traditional folk dance that tells of village life and courtship. 

Zsófia had told me that the Őrség Fair was a watershed moment when she and Albert arrived here: “Before, we were outsiders. After we’d taken part, I was a real Őrség lady.” The music speeds up, and the dancers chant and whoop, their skirts whirling around them. The paunchy gent performs a slightly comical solo, clicking his heels and raising his arms aloft, and Zsófia is pink-cheeked and laughing. “I came to the Őrség for the freedom of it,” she’d said, and I didn’t really understand. But now I do. It’s liberating to be tied to the past, comradely to float free as a group from the rest. This hinterland space in the shadow of the watchtowers is somewhere worth fiercely guarding.  

A northern alpwing in Fertő-Hanság National Park, which supports more than 300 species of bird.
Photograph by FHNP Archive


Getting there & around

British Airways, EasyJet and Wizz Air all fly direct to Budapest from various UK airports. You can also drive from Austria into western Hungary; Vienna is about an hour by road.  

Average flight time: 2hr 45min.

Car rental is available from FOX Autorent, which has outlets in Budapest, Lake Balaton and Vienna. 

When to go

Geese gather in large numbers on Lake Fertő in spring and autumn, when temperatures average around 16C. The Őrség Fair takes  at the end of June. 

Where to stay

Ritz-Carlton, Budapest

Hotel Moments, Budapest

Hotel Parlament, Budapest

More info

Hungary (Bradt Travel Guides).
RRP: £15.99

How to do it

Probirder offers a one-week trip, with two nights in Budapest and four nights in the Fertő-Hanság and Őrség regions, including accommodation, from £880 per person. Excludes flights.

Published in the June 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

Follow us on social media 


Explore Nat Geo

  • Animals
  • Environment
  • History & Culture
  • Science
  • Travel
  • Photography
  • Space
  • Adventure
  • Video

About us


  • Magazines
  • Disney+

Follow us

Copyright © 1996-2015 National Geographic Society. Copyright © 2015-2023 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved