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Hungary: Get there before the rush
It may not be the first country that springs to mind for a golfing holiday because it represents an untold story - so keep it to yourself

Let's get the bad news over with first. If you were drawing up a list of the world's greatest golfing destinations, Hungary would not necessarily figure too prominently. But this former soviet-bloc country is waking up fast to the benefits of tourism in general and golf tourism in particular so now is a perfect time to try something a wee bit different.

The country's courses are not numerous but those that do exist are well-designed, maintained in excellent condition, not expensive and under-played. The Hungarian climate is typical of a country in the middle of a continental landmass - cold in winter and hot in summer (during the second week of May we experienced clear blue skies and temperatures ranging from 28-32C), so meteorologically it's excellent for early or late season golf.

But that's only a small part of the story. The capital, Budapest, is only just over two hours' flying time from Heathrow airport, the pound and US dollar are strong against Hungarian currency (at the time of writing it's 342 Forints to the pound), the people are friendly, goods and services seem cheap for the visitor and, for those who recognise that man cannot live by golf alone (or for those with non-golfing partners or family) there's plenty else to do. Health spas are a major tourist attraction and after a round of golf a therapeutic massage is almost literally what the doctor ordered.

Oh, and Hungary is a major producer of wines.

So, to recap - good weather, good golf, good people, good wine and good value. Good grief, why haven't we discovered this place before?

But for the readers of ScottishGolf it is the golf in which you will presumably be most interested. Hungary has no great history in the game - the first 18-hole 'championship' course didn't open until a decade ago and no Hungarian players of significance have yet emerged to threaten the record books - but it has learned valuable lessons by watching the rest of the world. Among those lessons is that golfers tend to be older, have more disposable income and seem not too keen on drinking until 4am and throwing-up outside your hotel window. This is a generalisation, of course but it nevertheless makes golfers an attractive proposition to any host country looking to boost its tourist revenue.

And so to the golf itself. Pannonia G&CC (pictured above and over) is less than an hour's drive west of Budapest and serves as an accurate barometer of Hungary's golf in general. It's new (opened in '97) and in places looks it, with young trees and fairly wide-open spaces but, unusually in ScottishGolf's experience, it plays considerably better than it looks. Many of the tees are elevated, offering excellent sight of the hole you're about to play so that you get a real chance to consider what the architect (Austrian G. Erhardt), was trying to achieve and he has succeeded in creating a good challenge that does not rely solely on length to test your game. From the men's regular tees (yellow, as in the UK) the course is just under 6,000 metres, about 6,600 yards and it is presented in excellent condition. The greens are fast, true and big but contain many subtle borrows.

Whether because labour costs in Hungary are particularly low or Pannonia simply wants to keep its verdant acres in tip-top condition, greenkeeping staff were much in evidence and their efforts are visible throughout the course. Hungarian courses also pride themselves on their friendliness and customer service and an excellent example is the kindergarten at Pannonia that will look after your little darlings while you play a round. Of course, no sooner will you get to the furthest part of the course (and no doubt be playing superbly) than a message will be sent from the clubhouse to say that Attila and Genghis, your beloved offspring, are throwing a tantrum and can you please return immediately but that won't be Pannonia's fault.

The two outstanding holes are the ninth, a pretty but dangerous par five that requires a bit of judicious threading of the ball between trees to find the water-protected green, and the par three 17th, which is clearly modelled on the same number at Sawgrass, containing as it does an island green. And although you'll probably only have in the region of a 9-iron in your hand (it's 129 metres), from the tee the water looks very big and the green quite small.

Green fees at Pannonia seemed fairly representative of those in Hungary as a whole and they work out to around £32 a round during the week (£44 at weekends) with a buggy costing a further £17.

Further west and heading south (in fact within a few kilometres of the Austrian border) you reach Birdland G&CC, the first 18-hole course of championship standard to open in the country ('93) and a potential base for a few days stay. A brand new hotel is being built, due to open in autumn 2003, that will incorporate the pro shop and clubhouse and, in addition to the golf, it will strongly feature spas, massage and the sort of health facilities for which this region in particular (Bukfurdo, or Buk), and Hungary in general, are renowned. A great deal of the country has natural underground spas and at Buk the Danubius thermal and sport hotel can consequently resemble a cross between a long-term hospital and old people's home.

The hotel has established a reputation as the perfect place for a week's pampering and boasts two full-time doctors among its staff, who carry out a full health assessment before recommending which of their many therapies would be most appropriate for your particular needs. Unsurprisingly therefore, many of the hotel guests are a long way removed from the first flush of youth and the hotel corridors can resemble God's waiting room, with an apparently endless procession of bathrobed wrinklies making their way to the various massage, Jacuzzi and other facilities.

But before dismissing the hotel as not the place for you, try a massage after a round of golf - it's exhilarating and relaxing at the same time and might just make you revise your opinion. For myself, I like the idea of a hotel where the loudest noise after 10pm is the shuffle of slippered feet making yet another trip to the bathroom.

The Birdland golf course is the oldest-established 'championship' venue in Hungary and certainly offers a challenge. It wasn't my favourite of those we played and had an American country club feel, with plenty of water (it's in play on 10 of the holes). But it has been voted among the 20 best in continental Europe so my carping can probably be interpreted as a reflection of the fact that I experienced a virulent shank on the day I played.

My own objections started on the par five fourth, a ridiculous hole of 448 metres (just under 500 yards) in the shape of a horseshoe. A blind drive leaves you with the dilemma of playing over the centre part of the horseshoe, which is a lake, or tacking around the entire length of the curve. The problem is, even from a good drive, going for the green in two is outside the scope of most handicap players but there is no clear 'safe' route as water also intrudes if you opt for a three-shot strategy. In short, both options are equally risky, which is a nonsense on a so-called strategic hole which should, if it was designed a bit better, offer a relatively safe bogey or par against a risky birdie.

Despite these grumbles Birdland was presented in excellent condition and one of the features of all the courses we played in Hungary was the excellence of the greens. Having flown from a wet and windy Scotland in early May it was a real treat to test one's putting stroke on surfaces that were uniformly well maintained and true - and there was hardly an unrepaired pitchmark to be seen. Even now, before the new hotel opens for business (and an extra nine holes are also scheduled to open before the end of this year), Birdland would be an excellent place to stay for those with partners who are not golfers - you can set out to try and beat the course record while your other half lays back and gets pampered.

Further east, and still south-west of Budapest, is Hencse, home to the European Lakes Golf and Country Club. As soon as you drive through the gates it feels different, very much like an older, well-established course in France or even the home counties. This is a delightful oasis that is also supplied by its own thermal spa, sulphuric waters from which are pumped from 750 metres underground. In addition, the complex has a number of on-site cottages, perfect for two people. European Lakes was bought last year by two Irish businessmen and is undergoing considerable refurbishment to its on-course properties.

The course is not quite as tree-lined as the area immediately outside the clubhouse suggests and is a good, if not overly demanding test of golf. In particular it has a tricky start and tough finish but the central core of 12 holes are very fair and not too demanding - in short, the perfect holiday course. A double room costs about £86 a night (per room, not person) and the available accommodation also includes double rooms in a country house, single rooms, villas and suites. In addition, the owners are anxious to tailor a package to individual visitor needs, so you could book an all-inclusive golf week, including lessons, green fees, club hire and the like, or just visit for a night or single round of golf.

If you prefer smaller resorts to staying in a large, perhaps anonymous hotel, European Lakes is an ideal base and in addition to the on-site facilities it can book you onto various excursions and days out in the region.

However, it is noticeable in Hungary that Budapest is not only the capital but the hub around which the whole country revolves, politically, socially and economically, so no visit to the country would be entirely satisfactory without spending time there. Prague in Czechoslovakia is a favoured weekend destination for the British, largely because of its magnificent architecture and history, yet there are many parts of Budapest that are its equal and the city has been declared a world heritage site by Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation). It is divided by the Danube (which I have to confess, didn't look very blue to me), and has a strict limit on the height of buildings, so is delightfully free of the concrete and glass office blocks that scar so many major conurbations.

For accommodation in Budapest it is difficult to think of anywhere better than the Hyatt Regency, which is right on the Danube, alongside the famous iron bridge, which resembles Hammersmith Bridge in London, (perhaps not a surprise considering that both were designed by the same architect). The bridge is brightly illuminated at night to create a magical setting and a short walk along the river bank brings you to the parliament building, one of the most beautiful pieces of architecture anywhere in Europe. The Hyatt Regency's director of sales and marketing is Peter Takacs, who not only plays golf but speaks English so well that he understands all the nuances of insult and banter that are such an essential part of the game to many of us.

Hungary is a golfing secret waiting to be discovered and yet it offers much more than golf. Now is the time to take advantage of its value-for-money but please, don't tell everyone.


Fact file
Hungary is a relatively small (526km wide, 268km deep) land-locked, central European country bordered by Slovakia, Ukraine, Croatia, Slovenia, the former Yugoslavia, Romania and Austria. It has a population of 10 million, of which just over a fifth live in the capital.
It has no shoreline and therefore no sea beaches so the inland lakes, the largest of which is lake Balaton, are popular holiday destinations. Many of the lakes have their own beaches and, as the waters are shallow, in mid and late summer, water temperatures are very warm.
The continental climate means cold winters and warm summers and from April-September 10 hours of sunshine a day is the norm. No other country speaks Hungarian but German and English are widely understood and spoken.
No visa is needed for UK visitors (and from most other parts of Europe) but your passport must have at least six months before expiry when you travel.


Contact details

Hungarian National Tourist Office
H-1061 Budapest
Liszt Ferenc ter 11
Hungary
Tel: (36-1) 479-0158
www.hungarytourism.hu

Malev Hungarian Airlines
First floor
22-25a Sackville Street
London W1X 1DE
020 7439 0577
www.malev.hu

Hyatt Regency Hotel
H-1051 Budapest
Roosevelt ter 2
Hungary
Tel: (36-1) 266 9788
www.budapest.regency.hyatt.com

European Lakes Golf and Country Club
H-7532 Hencse
Kossuth u. 1-3
Tel: (36-82) 481 245
www.europeanlakes.com

Pannonia Golf and Country Club
Mariavolgy Rt H-8087
Alcsutdoboz- Mariavolgy
Tel: (36-2) 2594 200
www.pannonia-golf.hu

Birdland Golf and Country Club
H-9740 Bukfurdo
Thermal krt. 10
Hungary
Tel: (36-94) 358 060
www.birdland.hu

Danubius Hotels Group
H-1138 Budapest
Margitsziget
Hungary
Tel: (36-1) 452 6200
www.danubiusgroup.com

Hungarian Golf Federation
H-1027 Budapest
Lipthay u. 9
Hungary
Tel: (36-1) 3151 125
www.hungolf.hu



©    16 - MAY 2003



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