The plane landed, the orchestra started playing and the locals got out of their cars and clapped.
That is when I realised the real significance of being on the first flight from Luton to Debrecen, Hungary’s second city.
As a glass of champagne was thrust into my hand it was explained that this new low-cost route from Wizz Air was going to run twice a day, three days a week. While the Hungarian community was obviously thrilled, I was eager to find out what it all meant for us Brits.
Debrecen is a gateway to the east of the country, the northern Great Plain region, 120 miles east of Budapest, and is known for its natural spas with medicinal properties and is also a haven for birdwatchers. Add to that, good local wine, delicious, cheap food and lots of Jewish history.
The city has just 200,000 inhabitants and is famous for its International University, specialising in science. There are over 25,000 students, including 300 Israelis, studying medicine — and it has an attractive main building at Nagyerd and the largest university library in Hungary, with over six million titles. Debrecen is known for its Calvinist heritage and the celebrated church, Nagytemplom, is impressive, although in keeping with tradition, decoration is kept to a minimum. I do recommend going up the 61m tall tower to see the Rákóczi bell, the largest in Hungary, and to sample the excellent views over the plain. From there it is possible to see the main street, Piac utca, below with its numerous good eateries. These include Pergö Palinkázó — modern food beautifully presented and excellent value. There are also some small museums devoted to folklore traditions and national artists. To the north is Nagyerdö Park — meaning great forest — where the country’s oldest nature conservation area can be found, as well as a zoo, skating rink and the Aquaticum — a water park, pool, hotel, and restaurant, all based on the beneficial effect of the city’s spa water.
I stayed in the new and comfortable Hotel Divinus, at the side of the forest, with its large bedrooms and own attractive spa.
The city is also known for its many celebrations including the five-day flower festival starting on August 15. A Jewish presence in Debrecen began in 1840 and as the city grew, so did the community, at one time reaching 12,000 as the city became one of the major political, financial and cultural centres of eastern Hungary. Many leaders in commerce and industry were Jewish and they also comprised 80 per cent of the professional classes.
Yet just 4,000 survived the Second World War of whom 10 per cent made Aliyah. Others moved to the west, and only 1,200 stayed.
There are now just two Orthodox synagogues remaining. The first, built on the Pasti Street in 1894, close to the historical city centre, has recently been beautifully restored. Rabbi Dr Asher Ehrenfeld showed me around and told me that the following weekend he was officiating at the marriage of a local girl and an Israeli medical student.
He explained that almost half of his congregants are from the university. Every morning and evening there is a minyan. There is also mikva, and a kosher restaurant and he has an attendance of about 300 Kol Nidre. The second synagogue at Kapolnas Street was officially opened in 1910 and is now mainly used for community events. Just south of Debrecen, Hungarospa is Europe’s largest bath complex. The warm waters are full of natural minerals, including iodine, bromide, calcium and magnesium, known to help rheumatism.
Talking to some of the people in the baths, it turned out that they were there free, their treatment paid for by their own countries’ health services. This medical tourism to Hungary is expanding as its success rate rises.
It’s not all serious though; Hungarospa is dotted with geysers, fountains and swimming complexes, and as I tried out the different pools I thought what a far cry it was from the days of Hungary’s communist austerity. I was quite unprepared for my visit to Hortobágy. The largest protected area of the country, which became Hungary’s first national park and as the only vast, grassland in central Europe has been an UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999.
The unique flora and fauna, the living shepherd’s traditions, the cowboys with their amazing equestrian skills and the folk art are considered as something unrivalled in Europe. The native grey cattle look enormous and extremely healthy and I found out were exempt from mad cow disease. The great fishponds are the largest resting place for migrating birds in central Europe and it was a real experience to see them flying overhead as we toured the area in its own special train. It was a real European safari.
The famous Tokaj wine region is based around the village of Mád, and right in the centre I had my biggest surprise: a little baroque building built in the 1790s turned out to be a beautifully restored synagogue that has won a European Prize for Cultural Heritage from the pan-European Federation for Heritage based in The Hague.
The prominent position of the building in relation to the two Christian churches shows the way that once the various faiths co-existed here in peace. Inside, the Budapest-based architects Peter Wirth, and his wife, Agnes Benko, have sought to recreate the way the synagogue looked in its heyday.
Although one wall plaque features a poignant list of 800 local Jews who were deported to their deaths during the Holocaust.
A small exhibit tells the story of the local Jewish vintners and wine merchants in Mád and other nearby villages, who bought, sold, produced and transported wine to much of central Europe.
The community was utterly destroyed in the Holocaust, and the synagogue today belongs to the Hungarian state, which financed 90 per cent of the $800,000 restoration.
It is a state that is not free of hostility towards Jews even in this day; the third biggest party at the last election, Jobbik, gained a sixth of the vote, on a platform that includes anti-Semitism.
Much later, overlooking the vineyards and sampling the delicious different varieties of wine, from dry to sweet, I couldn’t help thinking of this moving reminder of Hungary’s history.
GETTING THERE: FLY Wizz Air Flights are from £110 per person return from London Luton to Debrecen. Wizz Air is the only airline to fly direct to Debrecen from the UK. www.wizzair.com STAY Hotel Divinus Rooms are available from €132 per double room for two people, including buffet breakfast www.hoteldivinus.hu/en, Tel: +36 52 510 900 MORE INFO www.visit-hungary.com