Beautifully situated in a crook of the Danube facing Slovakia, ESZTERGOM, 25km on from Visegrád, is dominated by its basilica, whose dome is visible for miles around. The sight is richly symbolic, since it was here that Prince Géza and his son Vajk (the future king and saint Stephen) brought Hungary into the fold of Roman Catholic (not Orthodox) Christendom, in the nation's first cathedral. Even after the court moved to Buda following the Mongol invasion, Esztergom remained the centre of Catholicism until the Turkish conquest, when the clergy dispersed to safer towns and it became an Ottoman stronghold, besieged by Christian armies. While the town recovered in the eighteenth century, it wasn't until the 1820s that it became the Primal See again, following a nationwide campaign. As part of the ancien régime, the Church was ruthlessly persecuted during the Rákosi era (though the basilica was well maintained, allegedly because the wife of the Soviet leader Khrushchev liked it). From the 1960s onwards, however, the Communists settled for a modus vivendi, hoping to enlist the Church's help with social problems and to harness the patriotic spirit of the faithful. The avowedly Christian government elected in 1990 did its best to restore Church property and influence, and, while this process slowed down after the Communists returned to power, their concordat with the Vatican in 1997 eased fears of it going into reverse.
Esztergom combines historic monuments and small-town charm in just the right doses, with a summer festival as an inducement to linger. The town's layout is easily grasped and most of the restaurants and pensions are within walking distance of the centre.