An Era Of Terror – Memento Park: “Stalin’s Boots” in Budapest (For The Love of Hungary Part 47)

Any park that has as its centerpiece “Stalin’s Boots”, is bound to demand your attention. In this case, “Stalin’s Boots” were not made for walking, they were made for trampling. Trampling the hopes and aspirations of Hungarians until one incredible day in October 1956 the people had enough. That was when the massive statue of Stalin was pulled down. Along with it went hardline Stalinism in Hungary. It would eventually be replaced by “Goulash Communism”. One of the most powerful photos from that historic day shows Stalin’s giant head laying on the ground. This was the face plant felt round the world. The only thing still standing of that Stalin was his boots. The massive symbol of Soviet might had been cut down to size.

“Stalin’s Boots” became an iconic and ironic symbol of a stagnant, stolid system that was stuck in place. For no Stalin ever appeared again in Hungary to fill those boots. Like the communist system, “Stalin’s Boots” could still stand on their own, but the menace that filled them had disappeared. In its place, were straw men, invisible men, who no longer dictated, but decreed and directed. The power of Stalin’s boots was the period it evoked. The era of terror, total control and all-consuming fear that gripped Hungary from 1948 to 1956 came screaming to a halt during the Hungarian Revolution until the uprising was put down by Soviet forces. The power of those boots and that dark history can be felt on a visit to Memento Park. This is where “Stalin’s Boots” joins a sobering series of magnificently awful communist era sculptures set aside in a park unlike any other I have ever visited.

An Arresting Reminder - Stalin's Boots at Memento Park

An Arresting Reminder – Stalin’s Boots at Memento Park

Discarded Detritus – Communist Curios On A Superhuman Scale
When the iron curtain fell, so did thousands of statues all over Eastern Europe. Hundreds of these were pulled down in Hungary, many of them in Budapest. The pantheon of communist heroes such as Lenin and Marx, a wide range of local apparatchiks, fierce looking soldiers and joyful workers were pulled down. They were replaced by a whole new cast of characters, democratic, capitalist and aristocratic heroes began to reappear in the same squares where many of them had once stood decades earlier. The understandable reaction among the Hungarian populace that had labored under totalitarianism was to have the communist era statues discarded once and for all time. Yet this was also history that could not be wiped away so easily. These same sculptures and statues not only represented a failed system, they also represented the past. One that in the heady rush to freedom and democracy most of the population wanted to forget.

The dustbin of history during the early 1990’s was overflowing with the discarded detritus of totalitarian set pieces. A few brave Hungarian voices in Budapest stated that the statues should be set aside and interpreted for what they were, communist propaganda etched, carved and written in stone. These people understood that an important part of the past would be lost if these set pieces were not preserved. In the nation’s capital, a novel idea took root. Rather than destroy propaganda from the recent past that had pockmarked the cityscape, they would instead be moved to an open-air museum and placed in proximity to one another. Tourists would be welcome to visit what most Hungarians would rather forget. It would be a trove of communist curios all on a superhuman scale.

A Revolutionary Reappraisal - Lenin still standing

A Revolutionary Reappraisal – Lenin still standing

An Arresting Reminder – Meet The Parents
For me, as for the 40,000 tourists who annually visit Memento Park, getting there was not exactly easy. The park is nowhere near the city center. Instead it requires a bus trip to the distant southwestern suburbs of Buda where the park stands in a former farm field. I made my way to the park by first taking a tram to Kelenfold Train Station where I then picked up one of the buses that regular travel the route. Onboard the bus, I noticed that the passengers were almost all locals. I would not hear a word of English spoken on the 20 minute ride. Fortunately, the bus driver seemed to understand when I first boarded and said “Memento Park” while pointing at myself. I assumed that he would notify me when we arrived at the correct stop. That is exactly what happened twenty minutes later.

Departing from the bus, I found myself along what could have been any highway in the countryside. Budapest seemed a long way from here even though the city center was only five kilometers away. The development was not nearly as dense out here along the city’s periphery. I quickly walked across Highway 7 towards the park. I was almost immediately greeted by a strange sight. On the right side of the road were two wooden barracks that looked like they had been lifted straight out of a labor camp and strategically placed near the entrance to Memento Park. The barracks acted as an arresting reminder of where communism often ended up.

A Recent Memory - Memento Park

A Recent Memory – Memento Park

No Laughing Matter – The Power To Destroy
Between the two barracks I could see “Stalin’s Boots”. This reproduction was not an exact replica of the original, but the model sufficed. Of note, was the austere concrete platform where communist officials would have stood with Stalin’s presence hovering over them, a figure of towering and unassailable omnipotence. I tried to imagine what it must have been like for those who stood as I did below the platform peering up at the massive sculpture. The statue and platform were an awe-inspiring symbol of vile statecraft. Hungarians were forced to look up to Stalin just as he was looking down upon them. He held the power of life and death over them.

I then turned around to enter the open-air museum portion of the park where 42 statues and sculptures stood. Looking at the open-air museum, I felt a sense of irony. It was like viewing the world’s largest advertisement for failure. Yet communism and its remnants were no laughing matter. Tens of thousands of Hungarians lost their lives and/or their livelihoods due to a system that sacrificed the individual for the state, substituted human creativity for mind numbing conformity and demanded the subjugation of the masses in pursuit of a twisted dystopia. Viewing these statues and contemplating what they stood for begged the question: If communists were trying to represent heaven on earth than I could only wonder what would have been their idea of hell.

Jozsef Katona of Kecskemet – A Tragedy Followed By Triumph (For The Love of Hungary Part 46)

Visiting a new place in provincial Hungary always seems to bring me into contact with historical personages that I knew nothing about prior to my arrival. Names such as Erkel, Jokai, Kodaly, Balissi and Dobo have become familiar to me because I have visited a city or village where their exploits loom large. Many of these men have statues in Budapest and a prominent place in the national psyche, but their legacies are most alive at the places where they came of age. These are usually hometowns or places that played host to their greatest achievements. A provincial city needs it heroes much more than a nation’s capital. Local heroes offer hope, a sense of pride and a shared connection to the local citizenry. Smaller cities, towns and villages are always proud to extol the virtues of one of their own. Homegrown talent that made a name for themselves and at the same time brought a bit of fame to their hometown.

A Call For Justice - Jozsef Katona

A Call For Justice – Jozsef Katona (Credit: Miklos Barabas)

The Famously Anonymous – Provincial Hungarian Heroes
Anytime someone says I am an expert on Hungary a sense of irritation sweeps over me. Knowing the ins, outs and nuances of an entire country is an impossible learning curve. My attempts to master Hungary always falter when I visit a new city or town. That is when I am suddenly standing face to face with a famous historical personage who is anonymous to me. This happens to be someone famous who is immortalized in sculpture or statuary, whose name is etched on a plinth or plaque. These personages are almost always “local” men. I use “local” with quotation marks because many of those deified in provincial cities and towns happen to be national heroes. The proverbial local boy who was better than good, they were great. Those whose deeds far exceeded the modest cities and towns they sprang from. This was the case in Kecskemet, where I was confronted with the life, death and legacy of Jozsef Katona. Katona’s legacy makes an unforgettable appearance in the city center.

It was difficult not to notice the references in Kecskemet to Katona. A few hundred meters from the railway station was the Jozsef Katona Museum which stands in Jozsef Katona Park. The city’s lavishly ornate neo-Baroque theater is named after Katona. The ultimate and heartbreakingly tragic tribute to the man comes with a memorial stone located a stone’s throw from the Kecskemet City Hall. A flower bed located in front of the building holds a split block of stone. The monument’s sad poignancy is expressed in the fact that it records the exact spot where Katona succumbed to a massive heart attack at the age of 39. The stone is meant to symbolize Katona’s broken heart. During his lifetime, Katona was not given proper appreciation for Bank Ban. A play that still dominates Hungarian drama today.

Strokes of Genius - Manuscript Cover for Bank Ban

Strokes of Genius – Manuscript Cover for Bank Ban

For King Or Country – A Contentious Relationship
Jozsef Katona’s life did not make him an obvious candidate for great renown. He was born in 1791 in Kecskemet, the son of a weaver who lived modestly. During his youth, Katona was often ill, but was blessed with a brilliant intellect. He excelled in his studies at a local Roman Catholic school. At the age of eleven his parents took him to study in Pest. He lasted only a year before returning home mainly due to illness. Katona would regain his academic equilibrium during the ensuing years, eventually matriculating to school in Szeged before returning to Pest. He excelled in philosophy and judicial studies leading him towards a career as an attorney. This made him little different from other upwardly mobile Hungarian men who used their intelligence to advance their position in life. What made Katona different was his passion for drama. He had an artistic side that expressed itself with dramatic intent.

While studying and later practicing law, Katona became increasingly involved in Pest’s theatrical scene. He acted in many plays and during a five-year period wrote or reconfigured twenty-two different dramas. During this time Katona submitted his original work, Bank Ban, in a competition held by the Transylvanian Museum in Kolozsvar (present day Cluj, Romania) for a play to be performed at the opening of a National Theater in the city. The play was rooted in medieval Hungarian history. The central character, Bank, is acting on behalf of King Andrew II (1205-1235) while the king is away fighting in a foreign campaign. Unfortunately, Bank gets himself involved in a nefarious plot to murder the king’s German born wife, Queen Gertrude. He first tries to stop the rebellious plot, but then ends up killing the queen. Bank is forced to wrestle with the question of personal and professional loyalties. The moral quandary he finds himself in regarding his duties is fascinating.

The play touched on contemporary issues concerning the Hungarian’s contentious relationship with their foreign overlords, the Austrian Habsburgs. This would have made the play a lightning rod for controversy if it had been selected as one of the top entries. Instead the committee judging the play did not mention it at all. This may have been because it drew uneasy parallels between past and present attitudes to foreign rulers. Katona revised the play and published it four years later to no avail. It was only several years after his death that it finally received acclaim. Bank Ban soared in popularity to the point that on the first day of the Hungarian Revolution on March 15, 1848 the play was performed at the National Theater. It was later made into an opera by the composer Ferenc Erkel. That rendition of Bank Ban has proved wildly popular with Hungarians ever since. The play is a touchstone of Hungarian drama. As for Katona, he died in 1830 long before his play became famous.

Remember Me When I'm Gone - Jozsef Katona statue in Kecskemet

Remember Me When I’m Gone – Jozsef Katona statue in Kecskemet (Credit: Mister No)

A Dramatic Legacy – Speaking Across The Ages
The legacy of Jozsef Katona is paradoxical. He was a successful attorney whose talent as a dramatist was not discovered until many years after his death. While Katona toiled in theatrical obscurity, he was able to create one of the great Hungarian dramas of all time. Katona may never have achieved the fame and notoriety he deserved, but Bank Ban’s meaning and message has lasted well beyond his life. All any artist can ask for is that their work speaks across the ages to universal experiences that everyone has in common. Allowing each observer to see something of themselves in the work. They might then come to understand the world in which they live much better. Bank Ban has managed to do this for each new generation of Hungarians. It might be said that Jozsef Katona knew his people better than they knew themselves. It is also true that they hardly knew him at all.

 

Arrivals From The Future, Departures From The Past – Kecskemet’s Eclectic Architecture (For The Love of Hungary Part 45)

The landscape I had journeyed across to arrive in Kecskemet was so devoid of sensory experience that I found myself wondering if the city would be the same. Instead of mind-numbing monotony, I would soon discover that a magnetically eclectic city awaited me. There was enough culture, history and architecture in Kecskemet to keep a person occupied for several days. This was contrary to my inauspicious arrival in the city. I first set foot in Kecskemet at the lackluster looking train station, a structure that did not do the rest of the city justice. Sizing it up, I quickly decided that the station was not worth photographing. This was something of a shame since a different iteration of this very building had been where the great composer, folk song collector and musicologist, Zoltan Kodaly was born. Kodaly’s father worked for Hungarian Railways and lived with his family in the station. The man whose approach to music education, the Kodaly method, would change the teaching of music forever, learned his first notes as a child by the rail side in Kecskemet. Zoltan Kodaly would later compose sounds much different from the constant roars of locomotives arriving and departing.

Kecskemet's Confection - The Cifra Palace

Kecskemet’s Confection – The Cifra Palace (Credit: Mister No)

The Cifra Palace – Utterly Ridiculous & Outlandishly Charming
Departing from the station I began a short walk into the city center. My intended destination was the series of interconnected squares that are at the heart of Kecskemet’s downtown. This area is home to its famous Art Nouveau architecture. These buildings still stand as a reminder of the city’s turn of the 20th century aspirations to radically reinvent its urban landscape. The first of these structures soon came into view as I entered Szabadsag ter. The Cifra Palace (Cifra Palota) was unmistakable. The name literally means ornamentation palace and it certainly lives up to that standard. There was something both utterly ridiculous and outlandishly charming about the palace’s exterior ornamentation. Wall panels in the shape of hearts and other curved patterns were a cross between intricate sublimity and the bizarrely beautiful. Inside these panels were glazed majolica tiles covered with fantastical folk art patterns.

Other touches of secessionism (Hungarian Art Nouveau) included Zsolnay tiles around door frames and seven glazed chimneys embedded on the rooftop. My first reaction to the palace was befuddlement. I had no idea what to make of such stylistic eccentricity. There was an eastern inspired exoticism to the façade that did not seem European in any sense of the word. This wildly eclectic design was the product of a fantastical pathos. While the interior of Cifra Palace is now home to the Kecskemet Art Gallery, nothing can surpass the palace’s exterior ornamentation when it comes to profligate creativity. If Art Nouveau architecture was meant as a break from the past, the Cifra Palace was more like an explosion that left the traditional in ruins.

Dawning of a New Age - The Synagogue & Cifra Palace in the early 20th century

Dawning of a New Age – The Synagogue & Cifra Palace in the early 20th century (Credit: Beroesz)

Missing Humanity – A Tragic Artifact
The last, immaculate exterior expression of another tradition that was brought to ruin in Kecskemet was just across the street from the Cifra Palace. The tradition was Judaism and the expression may have been crisp, clean and blindingly bright, but the city’s well-preserved Moorish style synagogue could only provoke a feeling of tragic loss. While the synagogue’s exterior still looked to be in fine form, the city’s Jewish community had long since vanished into the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz in the diabolical summer of 1944. As splendid as this once vaunted house of worship still appeared, I could not help but feel that it was a tragic artifact missing its most vital component, humanity.

At the time I visited, the synagogue was home to a Museum of Science and Technology. This slight was conceived and carried out in 1966 under the communist regime. After the Iron Curtain fell, many places of worship in formerly communist countries that had been forcibly converted into museums or storehouses were reconverted to sacred spaces. That was not case with the synagogue in Kecskemet. There were hardly any Jews left in the city by then. It would have been an honest representation of history if the synagogue had become a museum about Jewish life in Kecskemet. It has not happened and likely never will. The Holocaust is a shame that most Hungarians are not ready to face.

The First Among Many - Kecskemet City Hall

The First Among Many – Kecskemet City Hall (Credit: Mister No)

Incomparable Attractions –  Objects of Fascination
On a much more positive note, I made my way only a couple of hundred meters over to look at the New School (Uj Kollegium), a Calvinist Law School inhabiting an Art Nouveau creation. Could there be two more seemingly incompatible ideas than Calvinism and Art Nouveau? Conservative, taciturn and fundamental religiosity versus creativity in its most revolutionary form. Somehow these two ideas were brought together in the construction of this school which soars above the street below. The main inspiration was Transylvania folk architecture, infused with a healthy dose of secessionist style. This fusion created a building of such striking singularity that it would be the outstanding Art Nouveau work in most cityscapes. That this is not true in Kecskemet owes much to the creative genius of Hungarian Art Nouveau’s godfather, Odon Lechner. His creative genius – in partnership with Gyula Partos – brought about the design and construction of the Kecskemet City Hall, an incomparable work of Art Nouveau architecture that dominates Kossuth ter. This was surely the effect Lechner had in mind when the building was being constructed from 1893-96.

The City Hall was completed just in time for the celebrations of the Hungarian Millennium. The Kecskemet City Hall was Lechner’s first attempt at creating a Hungarian National Style. It would prove to be so successful that the building would influence Hungarian architecture for an entire generation. The City Hall incorporates aspects of early French Renaissance style, English rural architecture and Baroque elements. Lechner and Partos brought the Hungarian influence to bear upon the design with his use of ceramic ornamentation to showcase folk art. His ability to assimilate a medley of stylistic influences into a coherent whole resulted in his first great work of Art Nouveau. I found certain details on the facade to be objects of fascination such as floral motifs on Zsolnay majolica tile and the use of pyrogranite on parts of the building.

I longed to go inside and see some of the ornamented decoration my guidebook so gloriously expounded upon. These included a wood paneled council room covered in frescoes and elaborate stained glass windows. Sadly, I had come at the wrong time to get the standard tour, but I did get enough of a glimpse to whet my appetite for a follow up visit. For me this was the essence of Kecskemet’s architecture, a path breaking attractiveness that left me wanting more. I had never seen anything quite like the fantastic trio of Art Nouveau buildings in downtown Kecskemet, but I had a feeling that one day I would be back.

 

A Land That Lives By Its Own Rules – Kecskemet (For The Love of Hungary Part 44)

Of the nine cities in Hungary with a population of one hundred thousand or more, Kecskemet can lay claim to the most sublimely remote location. The city is located out on the southern Great Plain amid a netherworld of ever-expanding agricultural fields, pancake flat steppe land and horizons that provoke thoughts of forever. Sand and soil were the defining traits of this region for generations. Modern agricultural techniques were the only thing that saved the area from becoming a Hungarian Sahara. The rather recent, at least in historical terms, agricultural cultivation of this land did little to ameliorate the effect of a rail ride into a county (Bacs-Kiskun) that has less than a hundred meters of elevation change throughout the area in which Kecskemet is located. The city itself comes on like a mirage, materializing an hour and 22 minutes by train outside of Budapest. The length of travel time is deceptive. Budapest seems like it could not possibly be that close or for that matter exist at all. Such was the landscape’s effect upon my perception of time and distance that I felt as though I had entered a land that lived by its own rules.

The Midpoint of Nowhere - Landscape around Kecskemet

The Midpoint of Nowhere – Landscape around Kecskemet (Credit: Csepege)

The Mid-Point Of Nowhere – Pass Through Country
Location meant everything to the historical development of Kecskemet. The city stands at the exact mid-point between the Danube and Tisza Rivers, halfway between Szeged and Budapest. Hungary is much too small to have fly over country like the Great Plains of the United States. Nonetheless, it has plenty of pass through country in its eastern portions. Kecskemet could be called the capital of pass through country. On my journey, I got the feeling that Kecskemet was a thousand miles from anywhere. One hundred kilometers on the Great Plain, was equivalent to ten in northern or western Hungary. Sky, grass, turned up earth and belts of trees were the only things marking what must have been a limitless horizon in prior centuries. The cultivation of trees till could not hide the growth of sky which was by far the most dramatic feature of the landscape. Time was measured in hours rather than minutes in this land.

It was with a fair amount of relief that I arrived in Kecskemet. The journey seemed to take much longer than I imagined. Upon my arrival, I had the disconcerting feeling that this was the kind of place I was never meant to visit. It was Hungarian through and through. Gone was the cosmopolitan air of Budapest, a provincial spirit pervaded Kecskemet. The Magyar tongue was the only language I heard spoken on the streets. There was an insular quality to this city, made more so by its seeming isolation. I hoped that whatever attractions the city might hold would be of greater interest than its immediate surroundings. I suspected that Kecskemet’s size and importance were due to its role as a large center of trade and commerce somewhere in this outer Hungarian space. Population, agriculture, pastoralism and the conduct of human affairs demanded as much. In that sense, Kecskemet was much like another metropolis of the Great Hungarian Plain, Debrecen. Both were surrounded by spaces that demanded a center. Kecskemet would turn out to have an astonishingly vibrant one.

Coming Into Its Own - Kecskemet at the turn of the 20th century

Coming Into Its Own – Kecskemet at the turn of the 20th century (Credit: Ferenc Somorjai)

Shifting Wasteland – From Existential To Environmental Crisis
I assumed that Kecskemet’s history was pockmarked with the excesses of Ottoman Turkish occupation. This was true to a lesser extent when compared to most other places on the Great Hungarian Plain. As the Ottoman war machine surged northward it laid waste to outlying settlements. Refugees fled to Kecskemet. Its population was swelled further when it gained protected status. Because of its role as a market town and trade center, Kecskemet came under the Sultan’s direct control. Any taxes paid went to the pasha of Buda and Ottoman treasury. Other areas on the southern Great Plain were not so lucky. Corrupt military commanders ruled in what was known as the Spahi system, where their income was derived directly from squeezing the land and business owners in the areas under their rule. Conversely, the Sultan and his administrators held a vested interest in Kecskemet which kept the town under the rule of law and relatively prosperous. This meant the town continued to undergo development rather than destruction during a century and a half of Ottoman rule.

An environmental rather than an existential crisis buffeted the city during the 18th century threatening its commercial livelihood. Tens of thousands of cattle grazed the surrounding steppe land until its already sandy soils were reduced to shifting wastelands. The pastoral economy completely collapsed. It took almost a century for the region’s economy to recover. A vigorous campaign to re-vegetate the Great Plain surrounding Kecskemet was encouraged by a massive tree and vine planting program. This led to the development of fruit orchards and vineyards. The cultivation of apricots was perhaps the most notable offshoot of this economic reorientation. Kecskemet soon became the center of production for Hungary’s delicious apricot brandy. In addition, the sandy soils proved to be the best defense against phylloxera, a nasty insect which caused vine rot across Hungary. Phylloxera devastated the country’s wine growing regions during the late 19th century. Vines entrenched in the sand in the area around Kecskemet proved immune. Production soared to meet demand. The led the city’s economy to a commensurate expansion.

Stopping Point - Kecskemet Railway Station

Stopping Point – Kecskemet Railway Station (Credit: B.Zsolt)

Architectural Inspiration – An Exotic Jewel Box
The redevelopment of the surrounding landscape from pastoralism to viticulture, orchards and cropland brought prosperity to thrifty landowners. This newly acquired wealth led to the construction of public and private buildings in the city center during the late 19th and early 20th century. Some of Hungary’s most magnificent examples of Art Nouveau architecture were constructed during this time. These buildings have become Kecskemet’s calling card for visitors. As I was about discover, the city’s downtown was marked by a spaciousness clustered around four interconnected squares showcasing Art Nouveau inspired wonders. The astonishingly exotic buildings could not fail to impress precisely because they were beyond the modest expectations anyone might conjure up for the city. Kecskemet was more than a large city in the middle of nowhere, it was a self-contained jewel box filled with treasures from a time when architecture was informed by the most spectacular manifestations of creativity. Those manifestations would be the highlight of my visit to the city.

 

 

The Ghosts Of Greatness Past – Cegled: Kossuth’s Frontier (For The Love of Hungary Part 43)

Hungary was a day trip dreamers delight. Here was a nation where everything was within reach. From Budapest, I could take the train to any large city or town in the country, arriving in my chosen destination in a few hours at most. There was a range of options on offer since everything ran to or through Budapest. The Hungarian railway network allowed me access to places I would have never imagined visiting. This was how I ended up in Cegled, a leisurely hourlong train ride west of Budapest. Cegled had first piqued my interest a week earlier when I traveled through it on the way to Debrecen. I had never heard of the town before, but it was one of a handful of stops on the Intercity route.

The Steel Trail - Rail lines at Cegled Station

The Steel Trail – Rail lines at Cegled Station (Credit: BZsolt)

Stepping Back In Time – Cegled Station
As the train pulled up to Cegled’s station, I was struck by how different its style and architecture was from the other stations I was used to seeing in Hungary. It was constructed entirely out of brick, a striking design feature that gave it an air of permanence. There was also an old locomotive monumentalized between the rail siding and station. Such stylistic elements attracted my attention. At first glance, I could have sworn that Cegled’s station had been transported out of the late 19th century and dropped along the outskirts of a forgotten settlement on the Great Hungarian Plain. The station appealed to the romantic in me precisely because it evoked a lost golden age of rail travel. The station was a conduit to another world, one that existed somewhere between dreams and reality. That desire was fulfilled on an autumn morning where I would soon discover that Cegled’s railway station was not the only site worth visiting in this modestly sized town.

Cegled, the name’s closeness in pronunciation to the famous Hungarian city of Szeged kept it memorable in my mind right from the start. The way a town’s name lodges in the memory and rolls off the tongue can lend an air of sophistication to a place that might otherwise lack the dramatic effects. In other words, Cegled sounded impressive to pronounce. Such wordplay made me like the city even before I set foot on the platform just outside the station. Upon arrival, I spent time inspecting the railway station’s unique architecture, a fusion of material and style unlike anything I had seen up to this point in my Hungarian travels. The station had historical charm. It was redolent of an age of railway travel that still existed in half-forgotten, provincial places that were on the way to somewhere bigger or better.

Points of Arrival - Detail of Cegled Railway Station

Points of Arrival – Detail of Cegled Railway Station (Credit: Globetrotter19)

An Air Of Importance – A Call To Revolution
Cegled was an important railway junction, where lines to Szeged and Szolnok splintered. This ensured that it would have no less than six lines of track running through the station. Those lines, along with the impressive design of the station, gave Cegled an air of importance that new arrivals could not help but notice. The walk from Cegled’s train station to the downtown was longer than I imagined. It took me a good 15 minutes at a brisk pace to find my way into the modestly sized city center. It was hard to imagine that this quiet town of 33,000 had once been a hotbed of rebellion during the Hungarian Revolution in 1848-49. Cegled’s chief historical attraction was aligned with that event, the Lajos Kossuth Museum.

At first, I thought Cegled’s link with Kossuth was likely to have have been tenuous, a barely veiled attempt to attract tourists into a downtown they would otherwise ignore. What could one of the greatest and flawed Hungarians possibly have done in Cegled. I braced myself for a Kossuth slept here type of museum. My assumption could not have been more wrong. The museum was one of several Kossuth inspired sites that the town was extremely proud to share with visitors. Cegled’s citizens had been fired with revolutionary fervor by Kossuth’s legendary oratorical skills when he made one of his more memorable speeches in the town.

An Ecelectic Kossuthism - The Art Nouveau Kossuth Museum in Cegled

An Ecelectic Kossuthism – The Art Nouveau Kossuth Museum in Cegled (Credit: Globetrotter19)

Favorite Son – Between Dreams & Reality
The speech whipped up revolutionary fervor as Kossuth called for the citizenry of the entire Great Hungarian Plain region to take up arms against the Austrian Habsburgs. Cegled never forgot that moment or his visit. When Kossuth was living in permanent exile in northern Italy, one hundred citizens from Cegled traveled there to ask him if he would consider a return to Hungary and run for Parliament. He rejected their overtures, but his son Ferenc did become the MP for Cegled a decade and a half later. It was also Ferenc, who in 1917 donated two thousand artifacts that became the bulk of the Kossuth Museum’s collection in Cegled. The museum was housed in a quite impressive Art Nouveau style building that at one time had served as a bank.

This former bank building, with ornate decoration covering its upper half, reminded me of a cake that had just been drizzled with a fabulously lavish icing. The inside of the museum was anything, but fabulous. It was rather obvious that the museum was poorly funded and badly in need of new exhibits. One of the museum staff followed me from room to room cutting lights on and off. The museum had a wide range of Kossuth’s paraphernalia. It was likely one of the largest collections of the famous statesman’s artifacts in the world. It looked to be gathering dust and aging rather badly. This was a shame. I felt pangs of empathy for those who worked here. They were polite and well mannered, but they reminded me of impoverished nobles who have inherited a grand estate, decades past its prime.

The Glory Was All Gone – Twinges Of Sorrow
Twinges of sorrow began to gnaw at me. The potential of the Kossuth Museum was unrealized and looked to be unattainable under current conditions. Kossuth’s magnificent legacy had grown musty inside this museum. Cegled had been touched by greatness, but only the ghosts of past greatness pervaded the museum. I grew sad at the thought of those whose idea this had been. There was still pride, but the glory was all gone.

 

Versions of Vac: An Obscure King & The Missing Centuries (For The Love of Hungary Part 42)

Where does history begin in Hungary? For Hungarians it begins in the 890’s when they came storming into the Carpathian Basin to take what they consider to be their rightful place in the European family of nations. For many western historians, the human history of the land that is now Hungary begins with the arrival of the Romans. Other historians whose focus is on the Hungarians, begin history before their arrival during the Dark Ages. This was when barbarian tribes that have long since vanished occupied the area. The answer to the question of when history began in Hungary will always be subjective. That same question can be asked on a micro scale in the town of Vac, a half hour north of Budapest on the eastern side of the Danube.

Invisible Man - King Geza I

Invisible Man – King Geza I

The Age Of Baroque – Triumphal Architecture
In a physical sense, the history of Vac begins during the Baroque era. The oldest structures that I saw during my visit were all from that time period. To name but a few, the bridge to Budapest which crosses the Gombas stream south of the city center was completed in the 1750’s, the Dominican Church in 1741, the Franciscan Church in 1765, and the Assumption Cathedral in 1777. Though the Baroque period left the most lasting mark upon Vac, the first three decades of that period (1700 – 1730) were destroyed overnight. Each of the churches were built or finished after a cataclysmic fire in 1731 left only one out of every ten buildings in the town intact. The famous crypt which has become the Memento Mori museum – discovered in 1994 below the Dominican Church – dates from the Baroque period. It only came into use in the years after the fire. The first burial took place in 1738.

The most Important administrative structure, the Town Hall, was also completed in 1764. This was just in time for a visit to the town from Empress Maria Theresa.  A Triumphal Arch, the only one in Hungary, that can be found on the northern end of the old town was raised in honor of the Empress at that same time. Even the infamous building which would become and still acts today as a state prison was completed in 1777. All this gives the impression that the history of Vac is an 18th century construction. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is almost inconceivable to imagine the versions of Vac which have completely vanished. These include the Ottoman, Renaissance and Romanesque. If Vac could regain all the architecture that was swept away during the first 600 years of its existence, the town would be one of Europe’s greatest tourist destinations. Working backwards through Vac’s history reveals the riches which can only be recalled by history books and the most fantastical of imaginations.

An Old View - Vac (Weitzen in German)

An Old View – Vac (Weitzen in German)

Removing The Evidence – Searching For Clues
Eastern style exoticism marked Vac for nearly a century and a half. It was once home to a thousand wooden houses and seven mosques. Bosnian soldiers walked the streets and its inhabitants spent their leisure time at a Turkish bath. These structures were quite an achievement for a town that changed hands 40 times during the border wars which raged in the area between Ottoman, Hungarian and Habsburg forces. The fact that not a hint of that Vac still exists is a depressing thought, that paradoxically manages to exhilarate the imagination. What would it have been like to sail down the Danube then suddenly spy a skyline studded with minarets and domes while the muezzin sounds a sonorous call to prayer? We will never know. There is almost nothing left of Ottoman Vac, not even the ashes. History may have happened here, but we must rely on the written word rather than physical evidence. The effect is akin to visiting the scene of a crime where all the evidence has been removed.

The Vac that existed before the Ottoman Turks occupied the town is even more distant and remote. Next to nothing is left of the Renaissance buildings constructed during the enlightened period when the famous humanist Bishop Miklos Bathori was the most powerful person in the town. A few physical remnants of an earlier time period can be found on display in Marcius 15 ter (March 15 square). These are the traces of St. Michael’s Church outlined in the square. Only those well versed in Hungarian history would have any idea of another clue to the earliest history of Vac. On maps as well as on the ground there is a singular callback to the High Middle Ages in the name Geza Kiraly ter (King Geza Square). King Geza ruled for just three years, 1074 – 1077, as part of the Arpad Dynasty of Hungarian Kings. Hungarians might know this, but it is doubtful that anyone else does. After stumbling across the name while looking at a map of modern Vac, I became fascinated.

Statue of King Geza I at Vac Castle Walls

Statue of King Geza I at Vac Castle Walls (Credit: Mister No)

Memory Marker – The Legacy of A Forgotten King
Hungary has innumerable squares named after Szechenyi, Kossuth and Petofi among a multitude of other famous sons. The name Geza is not used with the frequency of other names unless it refers to Prince Geza, father of Hungary’s first Christian king, Stephen I (Istvan I). Geza Kiraly is a rarity, specific to Vac for historical reasons. Geza was in line for the Hungarian throne until usurped by his cousin Solomon who had support from powerful German forces. After Geza’s father died, he was forced to travel to Poland and recruit military assistance. He ended up traveling back to Hungary with Polish help and fought his cousin to a draw. Geza was able to secure a small area under his direct rule that is now part of western Slovakia.

Eventually Geza and Solomon turned upon each other again. This led to a battle for the throne that took place close to present day Vac. Geza, with the help of his brother Laszlo, won a decisive victory. As King of Hungary his reign was rather short lived. During his reign, Geza managed to have a Romanesque Cathedral constructed at Vac in honor of the Virgin Mary. This was where Geza was buried when he died a natural death in 1077. A century and a half later, the Mongols destroyed the Cathedral. Geza, warrior, king and patron of Vac was little more than a memory by the mid-13th century. Today King Geza I’s legacy in the town is Geza Kiraly ter and a statue of him standing atop the walls of Vac Castle, a structure he would never have had any idea existed. The square and statue may not seem like much, but at the very least they are markers memorializing him. They also act as reminders that this is where the history of Vac really begins.

A Confrontation With Mortality – Memento Mori In Vac: Death Becomes Us (For The Love of Hungary Part 41)

Vac was clean, lively and laid back. Its squares were filled with those enjoying a sun filled sky as early autumn took hold. The cluster of churches in the city center was well worth visiting. The town’s most lasting architectural attributes had come from the Baroque era, one of the more positive and peaceful eras in Hungarian history. This made Vac seem even more welcoming than it already was. Thus, it was shocking that the town’s most notable attraction lay beneath all the happiness of Vac’s city center. The one attraction most likely to lure a tourist out from Budapest and up to Vac was dark, cold and hidden away. It was with a sense of curious trepidation that I made my way to the Memento Mori.

Crypts were never my thing. They are always chilling, both physically and metaphorically. The descent into them begins with a rush of cool air that starts off as refreshing, quickly becomes bracing and always ends up stifling. The heavy, moist air does not help matters. This is accompanied by a weighty silence, the soundtrack to mortality. One gets a feeling that death is just around the corner, as it inevitably is. I always get the feeling that something terrible is going to happen in a crypt, but it already has. The life went out of these spaces long ago. At least that had been my experience in prior visits to crypts. The Memento Mori in Vac changed my opinion of what a crypt could be. I would soon discover that the crypt was as much about life as death. It would also cause me to confront mortality.

Hidden Passageway - The Dominican Church in Vac

Hidden Passageway – The Dominican Church in Vac

Rediscovering The Dead – Memory Bank
In 1994 during restoration work on the Dominican Church in the center of Vac, construction workers discovered a vaulted crypt that had been bricked off for over 150 years. They had made an astonishing discovery. Inside were 265 stacked, hand painted coffins of parishioners, priests, nuns and others who had been buried there between 1731 and 1839. Then somehow the crypt was all but forgotten. Because the temperature and relative humidity inside the crypt were stable, the deceased were mummified. 166 of the corpses were in such good condition that they could be positively identified. Even more intriguing than the corpses were the clothes and jewelry that adorned each one. They were dressed in period clothes, wore rosaries and other accoutrements offering ethnographers a treasure trove of details concerning the life and customs of Vac’s inhabitants during the Baroque era.

Incredibly, every one of the 266 coffins discovered was unique. A variety of symbols were painted on them to represent the lives of the deceased. These included quotes and bible verses in Hungarian, German and Latin that acted as epitaphs and remembrances. The coffins and clothes were symbols of life, offering a different take on death and how it was perceived two centuries ago. All but three of the corpses are now in storage at the Hungarian Natural History Museum in Budapest where they have been scrutinized down to the most intimate details. Scientists studying the mummies uncovered evidence of tuberculosis which raged in Baroque era Vac. This was caused by people moving from the countryside into town. The information gleaned from the mummified remains has been a boon for scientists. This has helped them learn about tuberculosis before antibiotics were available.

Grave Misgivings - Coffins at the Memento Mori in Vac

Grave Misgivings – Coffins at the Memento Mori in Vac

Freeze Frame – State Of Preservation
The three mummies and coffins on display at the Memento Mori were representative of the entire discovery. These included a male, female and an infant. As I began the “tour” which was little more than being led downstairs into the crypt, I was told that photos were not allowed. I certainly did not have any problem with this rule. Almost immediately, a creepy, voyeuristic feeling came over me as though I were entering a mysteriously ancient morgue that mortals were not supposed to visit. The atmosphere in the crypt was quiet and funereal, just as one might imagine. The problem for me in the crypt was that it forced me not so much to confront the corpses and coffins on view, as much as it did my own mortality. I discerned right away that this was where we were all headed. Maybe not to a crypt bricked up beneath a Baroque Church, but to our own silent, cold graves. The effect was multiplied once I peered inside the wooden coffins at the inhabitants dressed in their finery.

It is slightly disconcerting to peer into a wooden coffin and see a woman’s skull wearing a bonnet. My initial reaction was one of horrific bemusement. The bonnet covered skull sounds was like something out of a 1950’s horror film. In another coffin was a was man who had gone by the surname Martinovics. I distinctly remember his name for a reason that I will never quite fathom. Looking at the man and woman I was shocked. So this was what dead people looked like semi-preserved. It was hard to imagine a living soul had ever inhabited their bodies. While his clothing was colorful, the body of Martinovics looked fragile, as though he might crumble at any moment. Was this really going to be me one day? That thought was interrupted by a more disturbing one. This would be me, but only if I was lucky enough to be preserved.

Confrontation With Mortality - Mummy at the Memento Mori in Vac

Confrontation With Mortality – Mummy at the Memento Mori in Vac

A Silent Scream – Saving The Worst For Last
The memory of Martinovics was not what would come to haunt me from that visit. I managed to save the worst for last. When I peered into the third coffin, I was suddenly confronted by a horrifying scene. In a small coffin lay the skeleton of a small infant. What caused me to recoil was the opening where the infant’s mouth had been. It formed the outline of a scream. This was beyond my capacity to process. This sight filled me at first with terror, then pain. I knew infant mortality had been inordinately high in centuries past, but the reality of a single death was brought home to me in the moment I looked at that infant. There in front of me was the reality of life and death two centuries ago in Hungary. Suddenly I realized that it was still a reality today. Many things have changed over the centuries, but death has not. That was my final impression of Memento Mori.

 

A Revolution On Rails – Budapest To Vac: Making The Connection (For The Love of Hungary Part 40)

The quintessential day trip from Budapest is to travel north of the city to the beautiful town of Szentendre which lies along the Danube’s western bank. Tens of thousands of tourists who would otherwise never venture anywhere outside the capital take the HEV suburban railway to the town each year. They are joined by throngs of Hungarians who also love to visit Szentendre for a break from their beloved capital. The town has a noticeably artistic vibe. It has spectacularly cute houses and spiritually evocative churches in addition to eclectic art galleries. The only drawback are the crowds who clog the streets and alleyways. Finding solitude in Szentendre is one art that has definitely been lost. Visitors are much more likely to be rubbing shoulders or exchanging sharp elbows while jockeying for space. Mass tourism has managed to degrade the visitor experience, but Szentendre is still so wonderful that many walk away proclaiming it as the highlight of their visit to Hungary. It is hard to disagree with them.

Waiting on a Train - Vac station

Waiting on a Train – Vac station

Ride The Lightning – Fast Forwarding To The Future
There is another option for visitors willing to venture north of Budapest along the Danube. Only the more adventurous or long-term visitor will likely travel to the riverside town of Vac. It lies along the eastern bank or opposite side of the Danube from Szentendre. Because Vac is not connected to the city by suburban railway it requires the potential visitor to take a train from Nyugati Station. Depending upon which one is chosen, the train can take anywhere from 25 to 42 minutes. The main difficulty I had with this trip was remembering to get off the train not long after I took my seat. Vac came on rather fast, not giving me time to settle in as I usually like to do on a train journey. The train’s departure and arrival was without note. This was decidedly different from what had taken place 170 years earlier along this same route. I would only later learn that I was following in the footsteps of a seminal event in Hungarian transport history.

On the afternoon of July 15, 1846, thousands of people were gathered around the Western Railway Station in Pest. They were there to see two steam engines, “Buda” and “Pesth”, transport passengers by engine driven locomotive. Exactly a decade earlier, an announcement had been published by the government for starting the construction of railroads. It included plans for 13 different lines. After many years of political and economic roadblocks, the first engine driven train in Hungarian history headed northward from Pest to the cheers and astonishment of the crowd. The train traveled at lightning speed by the standards of the time, making its 33 kilometer trip in 49 minutes with only a single stop to take on wood and water. The world had suddenly fast forwarded to a future which had been brought forward to the present. What was once a three hour trip by horse drawn wagon cart under the best circumstances had been reduced to less than an hour in a single afternoon.

The First Time - Opening ceremony of the first Hungarian railway line

The First Time – Opening ceremony of the first Hungarian railway line

Taking Speed – The Journeys Begin
The train that travelled between Pest and Vac was not the first showcase of steam power in Hungary, steamboats had already been plying the Danube and Tisza Rivers with both passengers and cargo. The difference with railways was that they offered countless  possibilities since unlike rivers they could go almost anywhere that engineering, manpower and a steam driven engine could take them. Here was the industrial revolution being brought to the countryside. The options were endless for the development of transportation corridors, the movement of people and the facilitation of commerce. One of the first to ride the iron horse to Vac was that most famous of Hungarian poets Sandor Petofi. Petofi immediately recognized that railways could connect all regions, cities and towns in Hungary. The sprawling kingdom could be threaded together through these iron rails, offering possibilities for transit and travel that only a visionary few could foresee.

The biggest difference between that 1846 train journey and the one I made, was how such a trip had gone from a revolutionary novelty to a matter of fact journey that took place over 30 times a day. There were no onlookers, either at the stations or along the rails as they were for that first journey. The Palatine (defacto Prime Minister in 1846) or any other high government official would likely never take such a short journey by train today. Unlike that first journey which was reserved for elites, today’s Budapest to Vac passengers use it as a form of mass transit. The fact that no one so much as raised an eyebrow about the journey is indicative of just how commonplace such excursions, whether for work or pleasure, have become. For all the differences between that first journey and mine they did have one thing in common, both took less than an hour. Travel time was speeding up at a magnificent rate during the 19th century, little has been done to better it since then.

Endless possibilities - Railway map of Hungary

Endless possibilities – Railway map of Hungary (Credit: Maximillian Dorrbecker)

A Last Time For Everything – Memento Mori
I alighted at a rather large, two story station. It was only a short walk to the city center. Almost immediately I sensed that the town had a rather laid back feel to it. The hustle and bustle of Budapest had been left behind 33 kilometers ago. Vac was a contrast, not a compliment to Szentendre. There was plenty of space to roam and foreigners were scarce. It looked like a great place to wander at a relaxing pace before imbibing coffee and devouring pastries. In short, Vac was Valium compared to the steroid of Szentendre. The sedate environment of Vac was also deceptive. That was because the city was home to a museum that could literally chill the bones. What is known as the Memento Mori had drawn me to Vac. I have never been particularly interested in burial customs, mummified remains or crypts full of centuries old corpses, but I had also never been given the opportunity to visit one. There is a first and in the case of the Memento Mori last time for everything. Little did I know what lay beneath Vac and for hundreds of years neither did its citizens.

An Era Of Perceived Greatness – Komarno & Klupka’s Square (For The Love of Hungary Part 39)

The Danube River is a great watery ribbon that acts as a connecting thread through a large swath of Europe. It connects Central with Eastern Europe, the capital cities of Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest and Belgrade, the Black Forest from its beginning to the Black Sea at its end. The river is a natural phenomenon that has a unifying effect on disparate peoples. Germans, Magyars and Slavs can all identify with the river they respectively refer to as the Donau, Duna and Dunaj. Where else in Europe can a river be found that touches the lives of both Bavarians and Bulgars? Only the Danube has a foothold that ranges from Mitteleuropa to the Balkans with the Carpathian Basin squeezed in between for good measure.

Border Control - The Elisabeth-Danube Bridge from the Hungarian side

Border Control – The Elisabeth-Danube Bridge from the Hungarian side

A Fluid Border – The Natural Dividing Line
I never thought of the Danube as a divider, at least not until I arrived on its southern shore in the Hungarian town of Komarom (pop. 18,000). Just across the river in Slovakia stands what might be called its bigger brother, Komarno (pop. 33,000). During the late 19th century, Ujszony (present day Komarom, Hungary) was the town located on the south side of the river while Komarom (present day Komarno, Slovakia) was a small city on the northern side of the river. In 1896, the two were combined into a single municipality. This was logical since both sides of the river were part of the Kingdom of Hungary. That would change radically after the First World War. The Danube suddenly became the southern border of Czechoslovakia, leaving 750,000 Hungarians who lived north of it in what they considered a foreign nation. Either side of the Danube became a controlled border. The river made a natural dividing line to demarcate the boundary between the two nations. That division, though much softer than it was during most of the 20th century, can still be felt today.

The only reason I felt it necessary to pay a visit Komarom was due to the massive fortress, the largest in Hungary and one of the largest in all of Europe, which stands on its outskirts. It is part of a militarized complex built by the Austrians during the mid-19th century that once straddled the Danube in this area. Before visiting the fortress, I could not help but walk across the elegant four span, steel truss, Elisabeth-Danube bridge which connects the northern and southern banks of the river. The fact that I could saunter across the bridge uninhibited was one of those miracles of post-Cold War history now taken for granted. Hungary and Slovakia might still have their differences, but accession to the European Union in 2002 collapsed border controls between the two nations. This had the effect of reconnecting Komarom and Komarno in a way they had not been since the early 20th century. It also allowed me to walk across the bridge, crossing over from one nation to the next in a mere five minutes. This would have been unimaginable only twenty-five years before. What some might call unrestricted access is what I would call progress.

Say That Again - Trilingual sign in Komarno

Say That Again – Trilingual sign in Komarno

Downside Up – All That You Can’t Leave Behind
Once I had set foot on the Slovak side, it was not long before the two town’s dueling identities were on display. The first sign I saw after crossing the bridge was trilingual. First there was Vitame Vas! (Slovak), then Udvozoljuk Ononket! (Hungarian) and below that Welcome! A few paces further down the road were signs with the town’s name. The top one of course was in Slovak (Komarno), the lower one in Hungarian (Komarom). It was the exact opposite on the Hungarian side of the bridge. Besides the signs in Slovak, I had an eerie feeling of still being in the same country that I had just left behind. Komarno was like landing in an Eastern European version of the Twilight Zone brought to the modern world courtesy of the Treaty of Trianon.

It was only a short, but fascinating walk through the historic heart of Komarno. I was impressed with how everything was tidily kept with not a speck of rubbish to be found anywhere. The town could have been Koszeg or Kaposvar rather than Komarno, such was its resemblance to other downtowns in provincial Hungary. The most memorable area was Klapka Square, located in front of the deliciously vanilla coated Town Hall. On the western side of the square was the delicate splendor of the Zichy Palace. In the center of the square stood the statue of Gyorgy Klapka, a military hero who gained notoriety for his fearless fight beyond the finish during the Hungarian Revolution. Klapka led his troops to victory in the Fourth Battle of Komarno, the last Hungarian victory of the conflict. While all the other Hungarian forces had been defeated, Klapka held out long enough to get decent terms of surrender for his soldiers. General Klapka managed to escape into exile. Later he would return to Hungary after the Compromise that created Austria-Hungary in 1867.

An Air of Defiance - Klapka Rising In Front of Komarno Town Hall

An Air of Defiance – Klapka Rising In Front of Komarno Town Hall

An Inherent Irony – The Shifting Tides Of History
Klapka was now immortalized in bronze while soaring over everything except for the beautiful buildings that flanked three sides of the square. The statue, with the Komarno Town Hall’s tower rising directly behind, managed to make Klapka look just as heroic as his exploits. It portrayed him with a sword at the ready in one hand, while his other was balled into a fist. Klapka’s upper torso jutted out as he struck a charismatic pose of defiance. From the statue, I ascertained that Klapka was selected both for his martial exploits as well as his long record of heroic deeds. His presence evoked pride, courage and honor. Traits That I suspected the town’s Hungarian inhabitants must have seen as unique to themselves.

The statue was riveting, but also a distraction from its own inherent irony. Here was a famous Hungarian military commander towering over a town in Slovakia. This was history in more ways than someone who did not come from Hungary or Slovakia could possibly imagine. Klapka signaled the town’s ethnic Hungarian majority as much in the present as the past. He was a stand in for an era of perceived greatness. He also represented staying power. Hungary’s rule over this region long since slipped south of the Danube. Nevertheless, Hungarians still had their feet firmly planted on Slovakian soil, the shifting tides of history have yet to fully dislodge them or their history.

It Will All End In Fears – From Szeged To Oblivion (For The Love of Hungary Part 38)

This was just the start of how I fear it will all end. I have no recollection of the return trip from Szeged back to Budapest. I do not remember the scenery, the ticket inspector, the stops or the starts, the woman who was with me that I would later marry, nor the departure or arrival. All those memories, if they ever existed have vanished. I do not have a single photo from either a camera or my memory to conjure up any images. I do not remember what time the train left or when it arrived. Either this means I am losing my memory or Hungary was becoming so familiar to me that habit had dulled my curiosity and eliminated my fascination.

Hungarian Dreams - My life gone by I miss it so

Hungarian Dreams – My life gone by I miss it so (Credit: fortepan.hu)

An Unanswerable Question – Straying Into Semi-Consciousness
Perhaps the problem was that nothing notable happened on the return trip. No one tried to accost me, there were no arguments between me and my significant other, there was no outstanding scenery, the train was on time and the tickets were in order. Difficulty did not exist. It must have been a rather pleasant journey. If it had not been this way, I would surely recall something or someone. Pleasantness and comfort are the mortal enemies of memory. Give me a comfortable seat, a silent carriage, unremarkable scenery and I return with nothing. In a sense, I went to oblivion on this journey, lost active engagement with my surroundings and strayed into semi-consciousness. This must be what death is like when a person is still alive.

None of this would be troubling except for the future that it represents, one day whether through memory loss or mortality everything I have seen and done in Hungary will be resigned to oblivion. That thought always brings me a self-defeating sadness. What was the point of it all? This kind of questioning is dangerous precisely because it is unanswerable. There was no explanation for my memory loss that afternoon. Usually while traveling in an unfamiliar part of Hungary, I am impressionable rather than impressionless. Maybe it was because Szeged had been so filled with outstanding attractions that I was on memory overload. My brain could not process all the little details or for that matter any details after the visit to Szeged. This bothered me because it portended the end of my personal history with Hungary.

Do You Remember The First Time - Budapest Taban District

Do You Remember The First Time – Budapest Taban District (Credit: fortepan.hu)

From Habit To Addiction – Making My Way Towards The Exit
The memory lapse on that return trip is a precursor to my inevitable future arrival at the end of my Hungarian journeys. It is the fear of never returning to Hungary that keeps me coming back again and again. Nevertheless, one day in the near or far off future I will have visited that lovely nation for the last time. The visit in which the Szeged trip occurred was just my third to the country. Not long thereafter, my trips to Hungary turned from a habit to an addiction. Presently I am up to fourteen trips. I cannot imagine fourteen more future trips any more than I could have imagined taking the first fourteen trips. As the trips increased, so did the blank spaces in my memory. I have had to rely on notes and photographs to regain the routings. My memory cannot retain much of what I have seen or done. I would love to have all those trips filled with fantastical moments back again. That is impossible, but research and writing has allowed me to capture some of those moments, if only for a few fleeting hours.

Ironically, somewhere along the way at a place and time that I cannot now recall, a cloud began to loom on my Hungarian horizons. A shadow slowly fell upon the map as I began to unconsciously make my way towards the exit. An all-consuming fear of being nearer the end than the beginning began to plague my thoughts. The idea that most likely my best trips were behind me. The frightening realization that there would never be another first time journey to Sopron or Szekesfehervar or Szombathely or Szeged. And if there was a second time in any of these cities, it would likely be the last. There was still Kaposvar, Kisvarda and Karcag but visiting them would mean there was even less places to visit than before. I had moved from second to third tier cities, eventually I would run out of room, both on the map and with my memory. Hungary was the size of Indiana not Canada, through my obsession I had tricked myself into believing it was so much more.

Somewhere along the way I became aware that not only was time running out on my Hungarian travels, but that it had been since I first slid across the southern border at Magyarboly. That bright and sunny March day eight years ago was still a vivid though increasingly distant memory. The border station festooned with all those Hungarian tricolors, the guards dressed in their officious best, everything proper and neatly kept, all these stylistic details had charmed me beyond belief. It was love at first sight, obsession after a couple of visits and finally the slowly creeping realization that it would all end in oblivion. Perhaps these were just normal stages of travel obsession. First comes love and fascination followed by a prolonged romance that manifests itself in an unquenchable obsession that eventually resigns itself to failure.

Dawn on the Danube - Budapest from Margret Bridge

Dawn on the Danube – Budapest from Margret Bridge

A Lapse In Memory – At The Point Of Death
Whether I chose to accept this fate or not hardly mattered. The memory lapse which began that day on the return trip from Szeged to Budapest occurred without my recognition of it until many years later. It may have been normal, but that did not make it any better. Whether it was due to fatigue, human frailty or lack of curiosity hardly matters, it was and still is something I will eventually be forced to accept. Everything I have learned about Hungary will eventually come to naught. Such is life, which inevitably proceeds towards lapses in memory and deletes them all when at the point of death. My only solution to this irreconcilable problem is one filled with irony and impossibility. I could always just choose to forget.