It started out like any other trip. During a visit to Hungary last month, I had my eyes on the scenery, and on the whirl of business activity in the cities. But while relaxing at a small-town museum, I discovered something altogether different: an art exhibit of astonishing freshness and energy, a striking collection of works in glass that, not so incidentally, gives visitors a clear insight into the Hungarian spirit.

It is this show of contemporary Hungarian glasswork -- not the wonders of Budapest or the tranquility of the forests -- that comes to mind now when I think of Hungary.

The organizers of the Tihany exhibit -- called the First Triennial of Glass in Tihany -- confirm in the catalogue what my husband, Saul, and I felt as we walked through the exhibit: This is a "truly significant event" in the artistic life of Hungary, a turning point for an art form with a long history. The cryptic, yet searingly critical, catalogue notes conveyed that this facet of life too should change in the new political atmosphere.

Beautiful glass has graced Hungarian life for nearly two millenniums, since the Roman occupation in early Christian times. Now, with this show, modern creative turmoil brings the sediment of tradition bubbling to the surface through the vision of some two dozen artists. The variety of the work reflects the tremendous range of glass -- at once fluid and brittle, clear and brilliantly colored, graceful and jarring, somber and exuberant.

Adding to the high quality of the exhibit -- which runs through Oct. 31 -- are the fine surroundings in Tihany (pronounced TEE-hawn), a lively resort town on the northern shore of Lake Balaton, about 60 miles southwest of Budapest.

Saul and I enjoyed the little that we saw of Tihany, but so taken were we with the glass show that we cut short our stay to look for some of the artists' studios in Budapest before our flight home.

That hurried search ultimately was unsuccessful -- many of the artists were out of town on vacations, or had their studios in the country -- but it was an unusual and intimate introduction to Hungary's art scene. It may be years before I return to Hungary, but next time I will start, rather than finish, with a glass studio tour.

Our stop in Tihany came just at the start of the European holiday season in early July, so we had plenty of company. Lake Balaton, 48 miles long, is an established vacation area -- it's the biggest lake in Central and Western Europe -- and draws not only Hungarians but many Germans and Austrians as well.

The village of Tihany sits near the end of the Tihany Peninsula, which juts south into the narrow lake. The road into the village was jammed, but we squeezed into a parking space near the town's handsome abbey. The twin spires of the abbey's church are a magnet for thousands of visitors, so on this balmy day we joined the crowd strolling through the extensive hilltop park that surrounds the church.

Everything was for sale from vendors who set up shop on the grass: books and magazines, crocheted tablecloths and embroidered blouses, vases and plates, even handmade toys. The view over the lake was lovely; one of the big passenger ferries from the south shore cut a crisp white wake in the still water as it approached the dock. (Besides these ferries, no other motorboats are allowed on Lake Balaton.)

Although the church has considerable historical and architectural interest -- the original structure dates from the 11th century, and the present church has an elaborate silver altar -- neither Saul nor I was interested in joining the line waiting to tour inside. Instead, we walked around the corner and entered the museum housed in the abbey.

Our first stop was the Lapidarium in the basement. I was fascinated by the Roman ruins displayed here, relics of ancient occupation. The tombstones and burial vaults from the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. were exceptionally fine examples of how the tides of history have washed over this region again and again, depositing Hungary's rich culture.

Then, upstairs, we found the glass.

Picture the long corridors, the low, arched ceilings of the 18th-century abbey painted flat white. And in front of one window, a box: a blue ice room of glass, just a foot high. Inside it, a bare chair, symbol of isolation.

Or this: a frosty, undulating cave carved from a slab of clear glass. Set into this was a perfect convex lens that distilled the image of the mustard-yellow abbey walls across the courtyard beyond.

Or this: thick, shining, cylindrical vessels in red, blue, green, violet. Layered geometric sheets bolted together and shot through with ... open space. A fan of mirrors. A soft white bowl iced with blue. Jade-like pendants. A green and pink bud vase in arrested motion. A pair of tulip-shaped vases in sunrise pastels. Stately clear decanters. A simple compote set in milky blue.

The variety, the intensity of the glass on display took my breath away.

Saul and I wandered through this treasure trove for half an hour, always returning to the amazingly complex abstract work of Maria Lugossy. It was her massive cave-cum-lens that caught our attention. From the exhibition catalogue, we learned that she worked in Budapest.

We decided at once to return to the capital. Perhaps we could find this remarkable woman.

It was a quick trip until we came to the outskirts of the city; then we joined the slow parade of cars and trucks belching their toxic fumes into the filthy air. For the better part of an hour we fought our way through the crowded streets until we came to Lugossy's street, in the heart of the Buda side of town. Her apartment was several flights up in an old building.

The door was opened by Lugossy's husband, Zoltan Bohus, who -- what luck! -- spoke English. Unfortunately, this was a bad time for a visit: Maria was doing errands, the family was leaving for a visit to Italy the next day, and their teenage son had broken his toe the day before.

Undaunted, we asked if there were any way we could see some of Lugossy's work.

Bohus invited us into the apartment, past a menacing dachshund, which he reprimanded in Hungarian. He explained that Lugossy's studio was elsewhere in Budapest. Anyway, the pieces began at nearly $10,000 -- far beyond our means.

Saul and I told him how taken we were with the Tihany show, and how we had so little time left in Hungary; was there any way to see this kind of work in the United States? We wondered if some of the other artists represented in the exhibit might be available to show us their work -- Marianna Szilcz, perhaps, with her restful vases, or Judit Lengyel's delicate constructions or Livia Dombi's dynamic geometrics.

Bohus knew them all -- had taught them, in fact, at the Academy of Applied Arts in Budapest. Yes, he concurred, this was the best glasswork in Hungary today. And while most of the artists at Tihany have had their works on display across Europe, it was difficult -- complicated -- to get it to the United States.

There was one man, Bohus said, who knew how to do it, a Hungarian expatriate living in Potomac, Md.

Back in the United States, I talked with Robert Loeffler at length about his connection to Bohus and the others. Now an orthopedic surgeon, Loeffler emigrated from Hungary in 1953 and began collecting studio glass as a hobby in the early 1980s. While visiting Hungary in the mid-'80s to add to his collection, he arranged with the government to become the sole import agent in the United States.

The motivation was not money, he said, but an attempt to keep the quality of imported glass high. In the past few years he has helped organize Hungarian glass shows at the Heller Gallery in SoHo and at Habitat Galleries in Detroit; he also has lectured on the subject.

Much of current American art glass is, in Loeffler's opinion, "stale, staid and uninteresting"; he praised the Hungarian and other Eastern European work as more innovative. And he agreed that economic reform in Hungary may allow individual glass artists to benefit from some of the resources that now are tied up in industrial glass production.

As the organizers of the Tihany exhibit say in the English translation of their catalogue: "The assignment of the now shaping economic structure is to overcome all the constraints that are a hindrance now. This exhibition proves that there is a group of artists living and working in Hungary, who are in possession of spiritual capacity, artistic gift and well-founded professional knowledge... . This exhibition seems to be a good omen."

Of all the hopeful signs this summer in Hungary, the glass show in Tihany was, for me, the most joyous.

Nan Chase is a reporter in Boone, N.C. WAYS & MEANS

GETTING THERE: Tihany is a two-hour drive from Budapest via the main expressway, E71, and then Highway 71. Reservations for rental cars can be made from the United States with the major companies; the most convenient pickup place is at the airport in Budapest.

IBUSZ, Hungary's travel agency, also rents cars at reasonable rates and can supply a driver and private tour guide.

Trains from Budapest take visitors as close as Balatonfured, a first-class spa town several miles away, and from there regular bus service continues to Tihany.

There is also ferry service from Siofok and from Szantod, both on the southern shore of the lake. These two towns are connected to Budapest by train. MUSEUMS: The Tihany Museum is open Tuesdays through Sundays. There also is an open-air ethnographic museum open until Oct. 31. BUYING GLASS: The U.S. agent for Hungarian imported glass is Robert Loeffler, (301) 299-4438. Prices range from $4,000 to $15,000. INFORMATION: IBUSZ, Hungarian Travel Co., 1 Parker Plaza, Suite 1104, Fort Lee, N.J. 07024, (201) 592-8585.