The Danube, Hungary's dustless highway and the second-largest river in Europe, cuts a path through the hills to the north of Budapest. Over the millennia the unrelenting mass of the Börzsöny Hills on the left bank and the Pilis Hills on the right have forced the river into a handful of tight, bunched curves, creating arguably the prettiest stretch of the Danube.
Of course places like this don't stay uninhabited for long. First the Romans then the Magyars decided the area needed to be settled and fought over, and this legacy of human endeavour is plain for all to see along the river's banks. Esztergom, for so many years the Pope's 'eyes and ears' in Hungary, is now a sleepy town with the biggest basilica this side of the Balkans, a mammoth edifice containing artwork and a crypt worthy of age-old bishops. Not far to the east is Visegrád, once the seat of Hungary's kings and queens; nowadays it plays host to the ruins of a 15th-century palace and hilltop castle, with a position so intimidating would-be attackers must have thought their generals suicidal.
The town of Szentendre is another kettle of fish altogether. Embracing newcomers and unorthodox religions, it sports more church spires than seems practical and lives quite well on a legacy of artists' colonies dating from the early 20th century.
And this is only to mention the highlights of the west bank. On the east, the atmosphere changes again. Vác, a small town with a big history, is a lovely spot with a Mediterranean feel and a laid-back attitude, but scratch the surface and you'll find a macabre crypt of bodies. To the north of Vác are the Börzsöny Hills, a wild stretch of nature and an outdoor playground.