The Danube Bend (Dunakanyar) is a name given to a string of small riverside towns just north of Budapest. "Danube Bend" is actually a misnomer, since the river doesn't change direction at this point. The Danube, entering Hungary from the northwest, flows in a southeasterly direction for a while, forming the border with Hungary's northern neighbor, Slovakia. Just after Esztergom, about 25 miles north of Budapest, the river swings abruptly south. This is the start of the Danube Bend region. Just before Visegrád, the river turns sharply north again and flows south again before reaching Vác. From Vác, it flows more or less south, through Budapest and down towards Serbia and Croatia.
The delightful towns along the snaking Bend, in particular, Szentendre, Visegrád, and Esztergom, can easily be seen on day trips from Budapest since they are all within an hour drive from the city. The great natural beauty of the area, with forested hills looming over the river, makes it a welcome haven for those tired of the city noise.
Formerly a Roman settlement, Esztergom was the seat of the Hungarian kingdom for 300 years. Prince Géza and his son Vajk, who was crowned by the pope in 1000CE as Hungary's first king, István I, were the first rulers to call Esztergom home. István converted Hungary to Catholicism, and Esztergom became the country's center of the early church. Though its glory days are gone, this quiet town remains the seat of the archbishop-primate, Esztergom is the "Hungarian Rome." The first post-Communist regime in 1989 tried to enhance the city's political weight by bringing the Constitutional Court here.
The center of Szentendre must rank with Pest's Váci utca and Buda's Castle District as one of the most heavily visited spots in all of Hungary. In the summer, it becomes a huge handicraft and souvenir marketplace. Despite the excess of vendors, Szentendre remains a gorgeous little town. In medieval times, Serbian settlers fleeing Turkish northward expansion populated Szentendre, which accounts for half a dozen Serbian churches among its rich collection of historical buildings. The town retains a distinctively Mediterranean flavor that's rare this far north in Europe.
Since the early 1900s, Szentendre has been home to an artists' colony. Today, about 100 artists live and work here. As a result, the town has a wealth of museums and galleries. Perhaps distracted by the shopping opportunities, surprisingly few people visit the museums however. After the hubbub of the center of the city, Fo tér will allow you to appreciate the peace and quiet of the many exhibition halls and the winding cobblestone streets that lead to a Roman Catholic church yard at the top of the hill, with lovely views of the red-tile rooftops. Szentendre is too small to get lost in and too beautiful for a less-than-thorough exploration.
Halfway between Szentendre and Esztergom, Visegrád is a sparsely populated, sleepy riverside village, which makes its history all the more fascinating and hard to believe: The Romans built a fort here, which was still standing when Slovak settlers gave the town its present name (meaning "High Castle") in the 9th or 10th century. After the Mongol invasion (1241-42), construction began on both the present ruined hilltop citadel and the former riverside palace. Eventually, Visegrád boasted one of the finest royal palaces ever built in Hungary. Only one king, Charles Robert (1307-42), actually used it as his primary residence, but monarchs from Béla IV, in the 13th century, through Matthias Corvinus, in the late 15th century, spent time in Visegrád and contributed to its development, the latter expanding the palace into a great Renaissance center known throughout Europe.
Adapted from Artur Frommer's Hungary