Bring your liege, bring your family: Hungary's great houses have opened their doors to guests
Georg Schlosser

Mention staying a night in a European castle and travelers are sure to have visions of the mansions of French kings and Spanish moors: canopied beds, well-trained valets, Aubusson tapestries. The castle hotels of Hungary are a species apart. Though slightly less luxurious than their western European counterparts, they nonetheless provide a rare opportunity to indulge in a rich man's vacation at a poor man's price.

Many of Hungary's castles were built in the Baroque and Rococo periods and later renovated in the neoclassical style; properties built in the early 20th century tried to recapture this eclectic grandeur. After World War II, however, there was little money for maintaining the castles. Most were left empty and neglected, and still exude a rather romantic sense of the decay permitted during the country's socialist era. Some, however, endured as museums, schools, and, in a few cases, resorts for the Communist party elite.

In the 1990's, an effort was begun to modernize the castles, many of which are in the hands of the state. When I first came to Hungary in 1992, a stay at some of these castles was embarrassingly inexpensive: suites could be rented for $25 a night, with breakfast. That's now changed, but the hotels remain remarkably affordable— for the time being. Here, three standouts.

Sziráki Castle
Just 55 miles from Budapest on the slopes of northern Hungary's Cserhát Hills, this imposing Baroque-turned-neoclassical mansion looms like an ornate vision in the midst of an otherwise unimpressive village, Szirák. The region is home to the Palóc people, known for their traditional folk dress and distinctive Hungarian dialect (in a country where language differences are extremely rare).

Sziráki Castle itself is surrounded by a large, well-groomed park, with a fine riding stable, a clay tennis court, and tidy walking paths. The main building houses four suites and four double rooms, each with a television, radio, phone, and mini-bar. The significantly more modest annex has an additional 17 doubles. Rooms 15 and 17 are recommended for their generous size, ample sunlight, and period furnishings.

The castle operates a decent, very reasonably priced restaurant and wine bar, along with an art gallery showing the work of contemporary Hungarian painters. Concerts are frequently held in the conference room. Tip: Summer here can be hot; the best time for a visit is spring or fall, when the fertile slopes and valleys are in bloom or decline and the air is crisp.

26 Petöfi Út, Szirák; phone and fax 36-60/353-053; doubles $59-$69, suites $87, including breakfast; dinner for two $30.

Hotel Palota
As you approach the mock-Gothic towers of this magnificent 1930's palace hotel, rising from the forested hills along Hámori Lake, you'll inevitably think of The Shining. The Palota was one of Hungary's most elegant resorts until 1950, when it became a retreat for workers and officials of the National Council of Trade Unions. It reopened as an upscale hotel in 1990. The gorgeous original stained-glass windows and gilded moldings complement the very up-to-date amenities (satellite TV, mini-bars, direct-dial phones). The 133 guest rooms are each decorated differently; rooms 105 and 215 have large stone balconies overlooking the valley, while the apartments (such as No. 128) have smaller terraces facing the lake.

Close by is a great assortment of sights and activities that are especially good for families: boating and fishing on Hámori Lake; hiking in the Bükk National Park or in limestone caves. You can even ride a narrow-gauge railway to the State Trout Farm, a scenic spot for a lunch break.

1 Erzsébet Sétány, Miskolc-Lillafüred; 36-46/331-411, fax 36-46/379-273; doubles $58; apartments $70 .

Nagycenk Castle
Late-Baroque Nagycenk was the favored residence of Count István Széchenyi (1791-1860), a legendary politician, engineer, financier, writer, and economist— a kind of Magyar Thomas Jefferson. The accommodations at his former retreat are more luxurious than at the typical castle hotel; they're the closest thing to Western-style comfort that rural Hungary has to offer.

Located in the northwest, 15 minutes from the Austrian border, Nagycenk Castle is convenient to the city of Sopron, with its rich concentration of medieval buildings. Also nearby are the famed thermal spas in Balf, Bükk, and Sárvár, and— a rarity— a golf course, at the Birdland Golf and Country Club.

You need a certain taste for purplish-brown velour to appreciate the castle's decor. There are 17 doubles and two suites. Suite 106 offers treetop views of the formal gardens. The restaurant (with outdoor tables in summer, and a shady terrace café) serves continental fare that goes well beyond goulash. The castle is also home to the Széchenyi Memorial Museum, a veritable temple to the accomplishments of the esteemed count. Writing utensils, printing presses, irrigation devices, and other objects reflect Széchenyi's obsession with modernization. (Though display labels are only in Hungarian, tours on tape are available in English.) During your visit, if you begin to wonder what became of the remainder of the Széchenyi family's vast holdings, you'll need to make a pilgrimage to Budapest: their collections form the basis of the National Library and the National Museum.

Kiscenki Út, Nagycenk; phone and fax 36-99/360-061; doubles $62-$104, apartments $84-$140, including breakfast; dinner for two $30.

>. . . and three more to consider

Esterházy Castle 2 Bartok Béla Út, Fertod; 36-99/370-971, fax 36-99/ 370-120; doubles $15. Someday you'll tell your grandchildren you spent the night in what was once the most opulent summer palace in Europe— for $15. They'll never believe you. For that matter, no one today would either. In its heyday the estate held an opera house, a puppet theater, a Chinese amusement house, and a 620-acre garden. Joseph Haydn lived here as a resident composer. Today Esterházy is mainly a museum; lodgings in the east wing are akin to those in a hostel. The 21 guest rooms (some with as many as 12 beds) are no-frills but immaculate. Note: Esterházy is closed for renovation; it's scheduled to reopen in late spring.

Taurus Castle Seregélyes; 36-22/447-030, fax 36-22/447-032; doubles $35, apartments $45; dinner for two $25. This neoclassical 1821 mansion has frescoed interiors with huge crystal chandeliers. There are 30 guest rooms and six apartments, along with outdoor pools, a sauna, and tennis courts. Lake Balaton is conveniently close by.

Nagyvázsony Castle 12 Kossuth Lajos Út, Nagyvázsony; 36-88/ 364-109; doubles $21-$40. Neoclassical Nagyvázsony, just 15 minutes from Lake Balaton, is known for its fine stables and prestigious riding school. It's a favorite among Austrian equestrians.

MICHAEL BLUMENTHAL spent four years in Budapest as a Fulbright lecturer. His collection When History Enters the House: Essays from Central Europe (Pleasure Boat Studios) will be published in February.