Worth Its Weight In Old – Perast: A Lost Legacy of Franz Joseph (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #18)

I did not expect to find the old emperor hanging out in Perast. I figured the Montenegrins were long since through with Emperor Franz Joseph (reigned 1848 – 1916). After his death, the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed just a couple of years later. Every other successor state in the Habsburg domain beyond Austria banished him to the dustbin of history. While I saw his beloved wife, Queen Elisabeth, immortalized in statuary by the Danube in Budapest and across from the train station in Trieste among other places, the emperor who had ruled for an unfathomable 68 years was nowhere to be seen in the territories which he had once ruled over. This was why seeing Franz Joseph in Perast came as such a surprise.

Montenegro was always a fringe area on the empire’s southern frontier. Historically, it had not been a core land of the crown, but one obtained during the early 19th century. Austrian rule never had the deep roots in Perast that others, such as the Republic of Venice, did. The Venetian influence was on display throughout the town in the old mansions that stood facing the Bay of Kotor. The sunny disposition of the seaside also made Perast seem much more Mediterranean than Mitteleuropa. The town reminded me of southern Europe rather than the middle of it. What could possibly be left of the relatively short rule of Austria-Hungary in Perast? I found the answer in a most unlikely place.

Hanging around – Bust of Emperor Franz Joseph in Perast

Unfinished Business – A Towering Discovery
A stunning view of the Bay of Kotor was the first thing I noticed upon entering Perast. The sparkling blue bay was the ultimate distraction. Once I managed to refocus, my eyes were attracted to St. Nicholas’’ Church. Its 55 meter high bell tower drew my attention as it soared into a piercingly blue sky. The church was a magnetic attraction with its own unique allure. It marked a sort of midpoint in the town and a starting point for my explorations. On this day, the church was not open for viewing. That is not so surprising when you consider that the church has never been finished. What I found surprising was the fact that construction on the church began during the 17th century. Looking at the exterior, it was hard to figure out what had been left unfinished. The church was a formidable stone structure, one that fit in well with the rest of Perast. This grand old edifice rewarded me with several excellent photo opportunities.

As I snapped image after image, I focused on getting photos of the bell tower. This took me to the side of it, where I spotted a bust attached to one side of the wall. It was in between some scaffolding that had been erected for restoration work on part of a wall. Staring at the bust, I did a double take. It was hard to believe, but the mutton chop whiskers and regal visage were unmistakable. It was Emperor Franz Joseph. What the old emperor was doing hanging around – quite literally – on a wall at St. Nicholas’ Church was beyond me. The bust was sculpted out of a rustic red material which gave it a certain sheen of distinction. I studied the bust from several angles, its situation seemed to defy gravity. I could see how it might have been grafted on to the wall, but the fact that it had stayed there for at least a century was nothing short of incredible. Weathering and war had not been able to dispose of the old Emperor’s bust. It had withstood the vagaries of ideology and regime change. It stood as a lasting symbol of a lost empire, one whose death knell was sounded in the Balkans.

Unfinished business – St. Nicholas’ Church in Perast

The Emperor Vanishes – Deceased To Exist
There was something ironic and rather endearing about the bust’s survival. If this had been in Austria, I would have thought nothing of it. In Perast, it was the ultimate outlier, a forgotten artifact worth its weight in old. Busts of Emperor Franz Josef must have been a common sight across the empire during the late 19th and early 20th century. Photos of the Emperor would have been a common sight on posters and postcards as well as in civic buildings. Franz Joseph was the ultimate symbol of Austria-Hungary. A unifying presence for the distant and disparate lands of a political entity which stretched from the Adriatic shoreline to the plains of eastern Galicia (present day western Ukraine). Even though the empire was coming apart at its ethnic seams, Franz Joseph acted as a steadying influence. His visage denoted more than a man. He was the essence of stability and longevity. And then after sixty-eight years on the throne, he was gone.

It would not be long before images, busts and statues of Franz Joseph disappeared right along with the empire. The most famous and revered representative of an empire which no longer existed vanished from the public square, posters, and postcards. He went into missing person mode, as the chapter of history he helped write was ripped out of history books. The supposedly benign emperor was viewed as a historically malignant force by the successor states that were formed from the dissolution of Austria-Hungary at the end of World War I. Yugoslavia, the new home for Perast and Montenegro, was more than happy to throw off the Habsburg yoke. The South Slavs now ruled themselves and had little use for those who had repressed nationalist sentiment. Borders changed, flags changed, and forms of government changed. The world of Franz Joseph became an anachronism. Any representations of the emperor disappeared overnight. Oddly, this is the opposite of what happened on the side of St. Nicholas’ Church.

Above and beyond – Looking out from Perast at the Bay of Kotor

A Montenegrin Mystery – Living In Obscurity
For whatever reason, the old emperor had staying power in this small, sequestered area of Perast. The bust’s survival remains a mystery to me and probably always will. Nonetheless, it reminded me of just how far the empire reached and a legacy that has been largely lost. It was in places like Perast where the old emperor still lived in obscurity. There are worse things than having been forgotten, never having been known in the first place is one of them. That was something Franz Joseph never had to worry about, but his legacy is another matter.   

From Discovery To Destiny – Konigstein: The Czech Connection (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #17)

My first foray into Eastern Europe was a predictable one. I decided to visit that part of Germany which lay east of the Iron Curtain. The two places I spent the most time in were Berlin and Dresden. Berlin was most fascinating to me because of its eastern side, that portion of the city which westerners like to call the wrong side of the Berlin Wall. As for Dresden, the city gained its fame during World War II when it was left a smoldering ruin after an infernal fire bombing by British and American bombers. Lately, Dresden has gained a bit of notoriety for also playing host to Vladimir Putin when he worked there as a KGB agent during the Cold War. I found both Berlin and Dresden to be compelling places that were more than worthy of a two week stay.

At the same time, I also took the time to explore further afield. In Dresden’s case that meant heading to the Saxon Switzerland, a landscape of forested hills and unique rock formations that offered great hiking with incredible views over the valley of the Elbe River. I had a delightful time. There was a great deal in the area to explore beyond the natural world. As a matter of fact, it was human rather than natural history which brought me there in the first place. I would never have discovered the Saxon Switzerland without having first traveled to a fortress known as the Saxon Bastille. That was what took me southward from Dresden to Konigstein, a town which hugs the left bank of the Elbe River. I went there to visit the massive fortress of the same name that towers 240 meters above the town. This journey also provided me with inspiration to go further into Eastern Europe on future journeys.

Down the line – Train stop at the town of Konigstein

Beginner’s Luck – Charting A New Course
It always seems to start with a map. In this case, it was a map posted on the train that took me from Dresden to Konigstein one morning. While the scenery along the Elbe River valley was wonderful, I could not help but be distracted by a map of the rail route and all the stations along the line in this part of Saxony. While I was traveling on a Deutsche Bahn (German Railways) train, I noticed that the map continued across the border into the Czech Republic. I never imagined how close I was to the border until I saw it on the map. The first village on the Czech side shown on the map was a place named Hrensko. I wondered what it was like. More to the point, I was really wondering what the Czech Republic was like. It was just a forty-minute rail ride to a nation that I imagined was more eastern than eastern Germany, at least in a cultural sense. Of course, the Czech Republic is Central European through and through, but during my youth in the 1970’s and 80’s it was considered part of Eastern Europe.

At the time, it was Czechoslovakia and that meant much more than the nation’s name. It denoted the Eastern Bloc, Warsaw Pact, and a repressive regime. Now that was all gone, even the name had been changed as the Czechs and Slovaks parted not long after the collapse of communism. The border was now open. Anyone with a train ticket could crossover in a matter of seconds. The difference between past and present was so breathtaking that many travelers probably do not even notice. The lines between countries in the European Union have been blurred. While borders in the EU are largely porous, they still demarcate dividing lines of language, culture, and politics. The allure of crossing the border was hard to resist, but the fortress of Konigstein called to me.

A deep rooted security – Entrance to Konigstein Fortress

Ancient Avenues – The Flow of History
Lung bursting best describes the hike up to Konigstein fortress. When I first entered the forested slopes from the town below, the weather was cool. By the time I made it to the entrance half an hour later, I was gasping for breath and covered in sweat. Despite the exhausting trek, this was a good kind of tired. One that quelled the anxiety I felt from being in a foreign country. The hike up also reminded me of why this was selected as a strongpoint. A castle or fortress has stood atop this ten hectare plateau of sandstone since the Middle Ages. Konigstein’s position had to be formidable because it stood on a geopolitical fault line. Whether castle or fortress, it helped control access along a historic trade route. It is little wonder that Bohemia and Saxony vied for control of the fortress and by extension the region.

In later centuries, the fortress would keep the enemy within rather than out. It was used to house prisoners of the state and prisoners of war. The days when Konigstein was an impregnable bulwark that protected Bohemia and later Saxony, have since passed into history. And it is history which has made Konigstein into a major tourist attraction. On average, more than 700,000 visitors come each year to walk the mile long fortress walls and visit the many buildings which have help shape the fortress’ history. Rather than soldiers, it is now day trippers who enjoy the beautiful views up and down the Elbe River. Looking out over the fortress walls, I watched the Elbe as it flowed onward. I thought about how the river also offered an ancient avenue to the Czech Republic.

The view from above – The Elbe River as seen from Konigstein Fortress

Open To Change – Going Above & Beyond
Looking out form Konigstein, the view was stunning. I was looking at more than a river, the Elbe was a vital artery flowing through the heart of Mitteleuropa. In this area, the river flows just as freely as people now do across the nearby border. The only boundaries the Elbe knew were the ones it had carved through the area since time immemorial. Just as nature had created boundaries, so too had man. Manmade boundaries were elastic, at time superfluous and always open to change. Borders are artificial constructs that act as barriers, mostly mental and somewhat physical. The Czech Republic offered a mental barrier that I felt had to be breached. It would not happen on this journey because I wanted to further explore the Saxon Switzerland. That did not stop me from dreaming of the day when I would cross into the Czech Republic. I felt it was destiny, just like my discovery of the Czech border on a railway map during the train journey to Konigstein. 

Click here for: Worth Its Weight In Old – Perast: A Lost Legacy of Franz Joseph (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #18)

Inspirations & Aspirations – Subotica: The Destination, Rather Than The Journey (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #16)

It was not about the meal, but the men. It was not about the journey, but the destination. I only realized this after the fact. The meal and the men were in Subotica, that sublime Serbian city which hugs the Hungarian border. The destination was not only Subotica, but also Szeged, Odorheiu Secuiesc and Osijek. I stumbled upon tangible evidence that reconnected me to each of those places by way of Subotica. In a city that I had come to visit for its amazing array of Art Nouveau buildings, I found myself looking back at my previous pasts and finding inspiration for the future. This came to me while looking at photos I took during my time in the city. Most of the photos were of Art Nouveau buildings. These included multiple palaces, a synagogue and town hall covered with lavish decorative elements. Subotica was a place that put the “art” in architecture.

Amid images of one eye popping architectural confection after another, there were a couple of rather simple, elegant, and delicious photos. Delicious may seem the strangest adjective of the three, but it is also the most appropriate. One photo I took in a coffee house, shows a slice of chocolate cake and a small cup of black coffee at my table. Other set pieces in this photo include a glass of water and small fork that sit tantalizingly beside the slice of cake. This is an image that makes me long for the cakes, pastries, and puddings I have so enjoyed in Eastern European patisseries. Yet the photo is more than just a reminder of sugary sweets, it is also a stimulation to the memory of a few men who entered my world one winter morning in Subotica. The other photo shows a series of signs pointing in all directions. They are signposts to my past travels and possibly future ones as well.

Cake & Coffee – Lunch in Subotica

Dropping Off & Dropping In – A Visit With Friends
Arriving in Subotica long before lunchtime presented me with a quandary. I did not want to carry a piece of luggage around the city for several hours while I waited for a 1:00 p.m. check in at my accommodation. Fortunately, I happened upon the city’s main tourist office where the attendant allowed me to drop my bag. Delivered from the shackles of that suitcase, I was now free to roam around Subotica for several hours. I chose to pass the time by wandering around the main town square before slowly branching out beyond it. This offered up plenty of opportunities to take photos of anything that caught my eye. Subotica’s Art Nouveau Architecture was a feast for the eyes. The buildings were coated in an array of radiant colors. The colors did not so much pop, as explode into me. 

Before long I found myself longing for a bite to eat. It was almost lunchtime, so I searched for something on the lighter side. In a matter of minutes, I spied a coffee house. Through the window I could see the usual selection of mouthwatering pastries. The sight of these was magnetic, pulling me inside where I took a small table near the window. I would be able to watch the world go by while I relaxed with coffee and cake. The waiter, an older gentleman who spoke no English, was unfailingly polite as I made my order with hand signs and scattered bits of broken Serbian. While waiting, I could not help but notice the vigorous conversation taking place among three men seated around a corner table in the coziest of confines. By their graying hair and relaxed demeanor, I was able to discern two things. They were pensioners as well as old friends.

The art in architecture – Art Nouveau in Subotica

While I enjoyed a bracing cup of coffee that sent my pulse racing, I watched these men vigorously engage in conversation with one another. Their conversation was animated by kindness, inquisitiveness and understanding. There is something entrancing about listening without comprehension to an unintelligible language being spoken. By carefully listening to the peculiar enunciations and expressions of emotion I could tell how the conversation was going. Words ebbed and flowed between the three men. I had no idea what they were discussing, but for me the topic was really their friendship. I, a loner in a strange city thousands of kilometers from home, was witness to something simple and enchanting. The coming together through conversation of three friends. At that moment, I thought to myself that this is what we should all aspire to in the later years of our lives. A sense of comradery and unity, that kinship with our fellow man that offers us the ultimate opportunity to be ourselves. This was something remarkable that happens every day and yet I have barely taken time to notice. We should all be so lucky as those men in Subotica.

Pointing the way – Signs in Subotica

Signing On – Pointing The Way
Only a few meters from the coffee house were a series of signs that I noticed not long after finishing up at the coffee shop. I had seen such signs before, in other Eastern European cities such as Lviv, Krakow and Belgrade. They point the way to other European cities in a variety of directions. I recall looking at one of these on my first journey to Eastern Europe, thinking how much I would like to visit all the different cities. It had scarcely seemed possible at the time, but after a decade of traveling across the region my perspective was quite different. I was now intimately familiar with several of the cities listed on the signs. I would never have guessed that when I first started my travels.

I could now look at a sign pointing the way to Osijek in Croatia and recall a train journey over the Danube there. Or that Odorheiu Secuiesc would conjure images of fin de siècle architecture in a modest sized city on the edge of southeastern Transylvania. Or that Szeged would evoke images in my mind of its pristinely preserved Belvaros. I was astonished that I had made it to all those cities, but I could not help but aspire to go further. Fortunately, one sign listed a place I had not been or ever heard of, Dunajska Streda in Slovakia. I wondered if I would ever make it there, the same way I wondered if I would make it anywhere in Eastern Europe a decade ago. Somehow, I had found those cities on the signs and now they had found me.  On that day, it was about the destination rather than the journey.

Click here for: From Discovery To Destiny – Konigstein: The Czech Connection (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #17)

Beyond The Point of Exhaustion – Deva: A Transylvanian Lassitude (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #15)

We had a whole day’s travel ahead of us and I had already reached the end of my line. I have very few photos taken of me near the end of a journey. That is for good reason. As my wife has reminded me countless times, I always manage to book our trip a day or two longer than I should. This was certainly the case on a spring journey to Transylvania. We had already spent the night on a train, four nights in Brasov, three in Sibiu and a final one in Deva. Deva had been a mixed bag, with thrills and travails. There were two stunning trips to the old fortress ruins above the city, one by vehicle and the other by foot. The one by foot came courtesy of a morning run where a dog leapt out at me from its owner’s leash and managed to bite a hole in my sweatpants. Fortunately, I escaped without so much as a scratch. The dog’s owner and I exchanged a smile, then I proceeded to continue my scramble up the hillside towards the citadel. Once there, I was left gasping for breath and ready to go back to Hungary. It was all downhill here from there, both literally and figuratively.

The end of the line – At Deva Railway Station

The Downside – A Sense of Finality
The Deva Railway Station reminded me of the 1970’s with its bland colors, bad style and down at the heel atmosphere. Standing inside was only an option for those who style themselves sadists or paleo-communists. There was nothing likeable about the place. It was a concrete concoction badly in need of a good whitewashing. The station’s appearance was a shame because it frames most traveler’s first and last impressions of the city. Deva is a fine, modest sized city, that just so happens to have a fascinating history. It has a handful of fascinating attractions, unfortunately the railway station will never be one of them. At least not in its current form. One does not part from the station, as much as flee from it. Unsightly should be the standard definition of its style, an architecture that evokes a dreadful lassitude. My first and last impressions of Deva were of the railway station, a blight on the memory. The best thing I can say about my experience was that it turned out to be mercifully short.  

My wife helped immortalize my mood a few minutes before our departure from Deva. That was when she snapped a photo of me sitting outside the station, in a chair close to the main platform. At that moment I was not so patiently waiting on the train that would take us back to Hungary. In the photo, I am surrounded by luggage and dressed in a blue leather coat. I am looking away, probably in the hope that our train to Budapest will soon arrive. I look haggard and irritable. The photo shows a different side of travel than the one I usually find in old photos, it might be termed, “the downside.”  The final stage of any journey in Eastern Europe usually means just getting it over with. In this regard, the trip had already ended. These multi-day journeys do not end upon arrival at home, they end at the point of exhaustion. I was beyond this point when my wife took the photo in Deva.

Above the clouds – Deva Citadel at sunrise (Credit: Neighbor’s goat)

Enervating Experiences – The Last Legs
I will never be able to quantify the time I have spent waiting on transport in eastern Europe. It must be considerable. Waiting at these places was necessary and often memorable, but that did not make it fun. In many cases, it has been the exact opposite. If something memorable happened while waiting, it was usually not good. The photo from Deva sums up the general experience. Looking grumpy keeps the beggars at bay and seedy types know to keep their distance. If not for the photo my wife took in Deva, I doubt I would have remembered that departure, mainly because it was like so many others. Public transport facilities in Romania have a great deal in common with other eastern European countries I have visited. It almost always involves waiting in unsheltered conditions, at the mercy of the elements or fellow passengers.

The photo from Deva brought back memories of journeys when I was beyond the point of exhaustion. The last legs of journeys when I was on my last legs. There was the morning arrival by train on the outskirts of Sofia, Bulgaria, drinking the strongest and worst cup of coffee ever. It left me wide awake with a perpetual dark brown taste in my mouth. There was the screaming drunk in Warsaw riding the city bus that took me to my hotel for a final night in the city. I feared for his life, rather than my own. There was the broken wi-fi connection in an Austrian hotel just outside of Vienna. Everything in the hotel had the sheen of Teutonic flawlessness, but the wi-fi would never work despite the front desk attendant’s protestations to the contrary.

There were so many departures from Debrecen that I have lost count of them. Standing amid a sea of students, I felt pangs of envy that they would be home in a few hours, whereas I would not be home for two days. There were airport food courts in Kiev, Budapest, and Bucharest, everything was clean and crowded. Everyone was well dressed. The peasantry must never be allowed to set foot beyond passport control. Nothing could have been further from the way most people in Eastern Europe travel. I found the experience enervating.

A dreadful lassitude – Deva Railway Station (Credit: Dezidor)

End of The Line – Summoning The Strength
Deva was the proverbial “end of the line” for me on that trip. Other stops down the line in Arad, border control and Budapest were a blur that vanished somewhere into the vagaries of my memory. All trips, good and bad, must come to an end. When and where that happens has less to do with geography and more with mentality. Once the joy of discovery and sense of adventure fades so does the will to carry on. Summoning the strength to finish off a journey is much more difficult than what it takes to start one. The “end of the line” is not a place, but a feeling. One that I dread and one that I hope to be lucky enough to have again and again. 

Click here for: Inspirations & Aspirations – Subotica: The Destination, Rather Than The Journey (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #16)

Journey Into The Unknown – Arpad Era Church At Karcsa: Mapquest (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #14)

The possibilities seemed endless because they were. We left Sarospatak in northeastern Hungary on a dreary winter day. Snow was falling, but not sticking on the roads. Visibility was down to a half mile before it blended into an all consuming grayness. The sky was hidden beneath a cloak of perpetual gloom. This was not the most auspicious beginning for a journey eastward. We had no idea where to go or what we were looking for. Thankfully, my wife was up for an adventure. I was restless after our successful visit to the famous Library at the Sarospatak Reformed College. We still had part of a morning and all the afternoon to travel around the countryside. The weather was problematic, but this did nothing to defeat my ambition to see something of historical value.

An incredible discovery – The Reformed Church at Karcsa

Mysterious Days – Plotting A New Dream
To plan our journey into the unknown, I was armed with a trusty Magyarorszag (Hungary) Classic map by Cartagraphia purchased earlier at a MOL (Hungarian Oil and Gas Public Limited Company) gas station. Every MOL station has racks filled with Cartagraphia maps for sale. The choices on offer include not only maps of Hungary, but also many of the surrounding countries. I have purchased a number of these through the years. They are invaluable aids for dreaming up new travel adventures across Eastern Europe. The Magyarorszag Classic covered the basics in four languages (Hungarian, English, German and French). Looking over the map was a stimulating experience as I could plot out potential discoveries or retrace old travel routes. I was especially enthralled with the small symbols shaped like castles. These denoted famous castles, as well as minor ruins for those who wanted to seek out more obscure sites.

I also could not help but notice the small red stars scattered across the map. These denoted other “tourist sites.” One site in the general vicinity of Saraspatok caught my attention. Just off Highway 381, beside the town of Karcsa, was a red star. This would be easy for us to access by taking a nearby rural highway.  While I had never heard of Karcsa, I found the idea of visiting the mysterious, red starred site marked on the map intriguing. Besides the red star, there was no hint of what exactly could be found there. For all I knew, it could be a misprint. Nevertheless, Karcsa was worth an investigative journey. This was a mystery we would have to solve for ourselves.

Depending upon one’s perspective, the internet’s vast database of information either illuminates or spoils. A search for Karcsa on my phone revealed that there was an Arpad era (1000 – 1301) church still standing in the town. Most Romanesque churches in Hungary were either destroyed or sustained irreparable damage during the Mongol invasion of 1241. Most of these were not rebuilt and those that were morphed into styles quite different from their previous selves. The Romanesque churches that I had visited in Hungary were all quite famous and could be found in the western part of the country at Jak, Lebeny and Zsambek. Each of these had managed to escape the Arpad era relatively unscathed. To find a Romanesque church still standing in northeastern Hungary was a rare find, one well worth exploring.

Mapquest – The route to Karcsa

Outlier – The Knights of St. John in Hungary
The snow did not let up during the half hour drive to Karcsa. The landscape was covered in a wet whiteness that left everything sodden from the half melting snow. As soon as we arrived in Karcsa, we saw a sign on the highway that directed us to the church. My first impression of Karcsa was a lasting one, an oversized village with modest homes lining quiet streets. I got the distinct feeling that change was something that happened only gradually in Karcsa and sometimes not at all. The latter was true of the Reformed Church at Karcsa, which we found amid the town. It was an outlier, a structure that was literally ancient in comparison to everything around it. It was built of brick and stone, materials that were made to last. How else to explain that the church had survived for over nine hundred years in one form or another. Its first iteration, dating all the way back to the 11th century, consisted of a brick rotunda which still stands today. Round churches were common during the Romanesque period in Hungary and the rotunda of the church at Karcsa was a perfect circle. Unlike most other examples in Hungary, this one was constructed entirely of brick.

Architectural historians have pondered whether the church at Karcsa has more in common with similar examples in the Caucasus (Armenia and Georgia) or those found in western Europe, such as France. Oddly enough, the church at Karcsa is an outlier that may not be related to churches in either region. One scholar has stated that its antecedents may lie in the Balkan region of the Byzantine Empire during the High Middle Ages. The church later underwent two major revisions that added on to the existing structure. These give the church much of its current configuration. The renovations kept the rotunda as a sanctuary, but extended the church with a stone nave, quadrangular chambers, and chapels. These alterations have a great deal in common with French and Italian sacral architecture during this time. It is likely that French and Italian craftsmen were working in the area. They were employed by the Knights of St. John who research has shown were responsible for the two later versions of the church. I was astonished to learn about their involvement. What I found even more fascinating was that this is the only structure left in Hungary associated with the Knights.

Rounding into form – The Reformed Church at Karcsa

Obscure Wonder – An Incredible Find
Because the church was closed, we were unable to go inside of it to view the interior spaces. Instead, we inspected the church’s architectural and aesthetic merits while walking all the way around it. What I found most fascinating about the church had little to do with its structural history. Instead, it was the fact that the church had managed to survive for so long in a region that had experienced wave after wave of transformative change. While the town of Karcsa slowly modernized over the centuries, the church was frozen in time from the late Middle Ages right up through today.

Survival and preservation of the church at Karcsa is an achievement in and of itself, serving as an important reminder of the role that chance and fate play in historic preservation. It was also chance and fate that had brought us to the church. We traveled to Karcsa to solve a mystery through the act of discovery. We discovered not only the church, but a tangible connection to an age in Hungarian history that is all too often obscured by a lack of physical evidence. The church at Karcsa was an incredible find. One that sent me back to the Classic Magyarorzseg map in search of other obscure wonders awaiting discovery in rural Hungary.

Click here for: Beyond The Point of Exhaustion – Deva: A Transylvanian Lassitude (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #15)

Brought to Ruin – Zelemer: Remnants of Gothic Greatness (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #13)

Going home to Hungary, means going to Debrecen. My wife and I often travel back to her hometown so we can spend time with her family. These visits offer the opportunity to relax. Debrecen is the very definition of laid back. Hungary’s second largest city is the equivalent of urban valium. The traffic is light, the sidewalks uncrowded and the locals quietly go about their business. The only problem with Debrecen is that it can drive a restlessness man to madness. After a couple of days, I begin to feel an innate sense of restlessness. This means it is time to travel. My restlessness has spawned a series of day trips from Debrecen to places both near (Hortobagy National Park, Nyirbator, Tokaj) and far (Gyula, Sarospatak, Regec Castle).

Anywhere we can go by car and return to Debrecen on the same day is fair game. This has led to an exhaustive series of adventures to sites of mild historical interest. I have now begun to worry that one day we will run out of places in the area to visit. This fear manifested itself to the point that we journeyed to the village of Zelemer and an obscure, but important piece of Hungarian history. According to what little I could find online, Zelemer had once been the home of a large medieval church. The only thing left of that church today was a partial ruin. That was good enough for me. On a fine late summer day, we went to see what was left in Zelemer. It was certainly worth the effort.

That lonesome whistle – Train Schedule in Zelemer

Spectacular & Mundane – Worth Waiting On
I had never heard of Zelemer before, but it was surprisingly close to Debrecen, requiring only a twenty minute drive north of the city. Locating the Zelemer church ruin proved more difficult than I imagined. After leaving the main highway, we took another road that led to the village. There was only one problem with this, the church ruin was not in the village of Zelemer, but on its outskirts. I did not realize this until we drove around the entire village several times. We finally found the church ruin by the railway station. The term “railway station” only loosely defined the one at Zelemer. The station looked like it had not been open since the 20th century. The door was locked, and windows sealed shut. Anyone wanting to take the train waited at a nearby siding where a schedule was conveniently posted. Twelve different trains stopped here each day, many of which went onward to Debrecen. While villagers waited on the train, they could look up at the ruined church which stood on the other side of the tracks.

The setting for the Zelemer church ruin was both spectacular and mundane. The railway line was within a stone’s throw of the church. At any moment, a train might come roaring by. By way of contrast, there was a large corn field on the other side of the ruin. A similar rural landscape must have existed here during the Middle Ages. What little was left of the Zelemer church stood high up on an artificial mound. Once I saw the ruin, it was almost impossible to take my eyes off it. Part of the tower was still intact. It rose 18 meters above the surrounding area. At one time, it would have soared as high as 30 meters. The church would have been an impressive sight for those traveling through the area. It would not have been the only one. The first church at Zelemer was constructed in accordance with a decree from Hungary’s first Christian king, Saint Stephen, who ordered that one church should be constructed at every tenth village. The initial iteration of the church at Zelemer was a Romanesque structure that would have been destroyed when the Mongols swept through the area in 1241.

Standing tall – Zelemer Gothic church ruins

Staying Power – A Thousand of Years of Christianity
The ruin that stands at Zelemer today was built in 1310. It was a sizable Gothic styled structure. There was enough left of the church to imagine the awe that it must have inspired. It would have been the centerpiece of not only the village, but the entire area. It was a sign of permanence in a world filled with conflict and caprice. The church was formidable enough that something of it managed to withstand destructive acts in the centuries to come. During the latter half of the 16th century, the Ottoman Turks pillaged and burned the church. This started a period of progressive decline. Once the church fell into disuse, the locals found that many of the stones could be put to other uses. There is no telling how much of the Zelemer Church is now part of the foundations for houses and rock walls in the area.

One modern addition has been added to the Zelemer Church ruins. A 3 meter tall statue of Saint Stephen stands nearby. It is a reminder of his decisive role in turning Hungary towards western Christianity. If not for Stephen, it is almost certain that Zelemer would never have been graced with a large church. Western Christianity was a unifying force for Hungary and Hungarians. Though over a thousand years have passed since Stephen’s time, Christianity is still a unifying force in Hungary. Zelemer is a prime example of how ruins offer a connection between the past and present. There have been incredible political, economic, and cultural changes in Hungary over the past thousand years, but Christianity remains a marker of Hungarian identity.

The Christian King – Saint Stephen at Zelemer

A Rapturous Effect – Deep Into The Imagination
For me, the most powerful aspect of the Zelemer Church ruins was how much it left to the imagination. Besides the tower, a portion of the northern wall and outlines of the floor plan there was little to go on. The missing pieces sent me deep into the imagination. What must the interior have looked like during the late Middle Ages? I imagined a cool, quiet nave with light streaming through Gothic windows. The sound of chants and a chorus of song emanating among the recesses. The voice of a priest booming from behind a pulpit. Whispers of prayer echoing across the aisles. The overall effect would have been rapturous. Seven hundred years later, without anything to go on other than my imagination, I could still catch a faint whiff of this most distant past. For a moment, the ruin of Zelemer Church was made whole and so was I.

Click here for: Journey Into The Unknown – Arpad Era Church At Karcsa: Mapquest (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #14)

The Cold, Harsh Reality – Borsa: Birthplace of Ferenc II Rakoczi (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #12)

A large swath of northeastern Hungary, southwestern Ukraine and eastern Slovakia can rightfully be called Ferenc II Rakoczi country. For anyone who does not who Rakoczi was and why he is held in such great reverence by Hungarians, they might want to take a look at his image on the 500 forint banknote. Rakoczi can be found on the right side of the banknote. In this rendering, he has a head full of dark flowing hair, a swirling mustache, and a mesmerizing stare. He looks the very image of a warrior/statesman. In this case, the image meshes with reality. Rakoczi was the leader of a Hungarian uprising against Habsburg rule. As these uprising usually went for Hungarians, there was a series of astonishing victories, but not enough to prove decisive. Rakoczi’s role was so prominent, the conflict goes by the title Rakoczi’s War of Independence.

Frozen in time – Bust of Ferenc Rakoczi in Borsa, Slovakia

Giving Birth – A Legend In Their Own Minds
It as though Rakoczi had the power to not only prosecute a war for eight years (1703-1711), but also to cause a suspension of disbelief. Since Rakoczi’s name is attached to the conflict, it gives the impression he was doing all the fighting himself. This is far from the truth. Rakcozi was the most important and indispensable figure in a war effort that came close to achieving Hungarian independence. That dream would have to wait a century and a half longer. Despite losing the war, Rakoczi endeared himself to Hungarians by never accepting an amnesty. He went into exile in Turkey with many of his most loyal subjects. They held him in great reverence to the end of his life. After his death they and others, kept man and myth alive.

Rakoczi has become in death what he was in life, a symbol of Hungarian independence. As such, he is venerated in Hungary and several sites in historically Hungarian lands. Those lands, such as in eastern Slovakia, are now foreign to Hungarians. The story was different during the early 18th century when these lands were part of the Kingdom of Hungary. I have visited many sites associated with Rakoczi, both in Hungary and abroad, including Sarospatak Castle (found on the reverse side of the 500 forint banknote), Vay Castle and St. Elisabeth Cathedral in Kosice (site of Rakoczi’s tomb). The latter can be found in Slovakia. On one trip, purely by happenstance, I found one of the most important Rakoczi sites entirely by accident. This was his birthplace in the small village of Borsa.

The beginners guide – Historical plaque on the wall at Ferenc Rakoczi Castle in Borsa Slovakia

Passing Interest – A Day To Be Endured
I hope the day never comes when I run out of places to visit that are associated with Hungarian history. After fifteen trips, I am still discovering places I barely knew existed. Case in point, Rakoczi’s birthplace in Borsa. Me and my wife found it through sheer serendipity while on a winter journey that along the backroads of northeastern Hungary and just across the border into Slovakia. We made this journey armed with a detailed road map which marked historic sites such as castles and churches throughout the region. After leaving the Zemplen Hills, we set off eastward along remote roadways where the local traffic was light and snowflakes swirled wildly. The sky was filled with perpetual gloom as droplets of precipitation floated through the air. We were traveling during the depths of winter, at a time when much of the land was covered in dirty, wet snow.

The scene was bleak and unforgiving. This was a day to be endured rather than embraced. The only thing to distract our attention from the despair we felt at the lack of sunshine was a search for any place of historical interest. We were skirting the Hungary-Slovak border, winding our way eastward in Hungary through places I had never seen mentioned in any travel guide. An Arpad era (High Middle Ages) church in Karos and a Renaissance Palace in Pacin. It was in the latter that we decided to cross north of the border to visit a ruined castle marked on our map at Velky Kamenec. We soon discovered that there was hardly anything left of the castle. The fact that it was pouring snow by this point did not help with visibility. A steep walk up the promontory where the castle once stood was treacherous. The walk back down even worse. My wife made the smart decision to stay in the car. All I got for my trouble were bad photos and shoes streaked with mud and slush.

The dream is still alive – Rakoczi statue at the Hungarian Parliament in Budapest

A Quiet Veneration – Covered In Glory
At this point we decided to stay in Slovakia for a few more kilometers before heading back down into Hungary. We drove slowly through mist, fog and wet snow which fortunately failed to stick to the highway. When we got to the town of Borsa, I noticed a small sign with the shape of a castle on it and the word, “Kastiel” pointing down a road. Obviously, this got my attention. Winding our way past small houses covered in wet snow we came to the Ferenc Rakoczi II castle. (Kastiel Frantiska II. Rakociho). From the roadway, the Kastiel did not look formidable. If anything, it looked more like a palace than a castle. And from the looks of it, one badly in need of repair. My focus soon turned from the structure to a sculpture. A bust of Rakoczi, with half his face visible and the other half covered in frozen snow stood not far from the entrance. What caught my attention were the many multicolored ribbons tied to the lower half of it. All the ribbons were in the red, white, and green colors of the Hungarian flag. This was a tell tale sign that Hungarians traveled here to pay homage to Rakoczi.

My wife translated the text of inscriptions on various commemorative plaques and markers. I was astonished to learn that this was the birthplace of Ferenc Rakoczi II. He had been born in the southwest bastion of the castle on March 27, 1676.  It was mind boggling to learn that the same Rakoczi whose magnificent equestrian statue stands on the grounds of the Hungarian Parliament in Budapest was born in this cracked and crumbling castle in the provincial village of Borsa. The contrast between what I saw here. and the veneration of Rakoczi in Hungary could not have been more different. I walked into the courtyard, snapped some photos, and peered into a few windows. The site was not abandoned, but it did look almost derelict in places. In the summer, it would have looked much different with foliage in bloom and a small museum open. Summer seemed impossible on this day, as did the glorification of Rakoczi I have seen so many times in Hungary. What I saw on this wintry day in a Slovakian village was the reality, rather than the ideal of history.

Click here for: Brought to Ruin – Zelemer: Remnants of Gothic Greatness (A Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #13)

Palace Intrigue – Mikosdpuszta: The Dream & The Reality (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #11)

My newest travel obsession began not long after I awoke on a recent Saturday morning. While scrolling through the seemingly endless dross that Facebook’s algorithm pumps into my news feed, I came across a post which captured my interest. I belong to a group with one of those typically bizarre Hungarian names, Elhagyatott regi epuletek Magyarorszagon. Roughly translated this means, “Abandoned old buildings in Hungary”. I cannot remember when or why I subscribed to this page, but I am sure it had something to with the photos that members post of abandoned buildings in Hungary. Unlike in the United States where abandoned buildings usually denote derelict structures in urban areas, Hungary has plenty of rural areas with dilapidated castles, palaces, manor houses and architectural oddities. Photos of these are often taken and uploaded by Hungarians who use their local knowledge to find and document old buildings throughout the country.

The crumbling facade – Mikosdpuszta (Credit: Zsolt Salamon)

The Crumbling Façade – A Beautiful Ugly
I am always surprised at how many abandoned historic structures exist in out of the way places in Hungary. Woods and fields in remote places are littered with the detritus of a way of life that vanished, quite literally, overnight. Many of the structures were once the homes of aristocratic families who abandoned them near the end of the Second World War. Many were gone before the Red Army arrived, if not, they suffered dire consequences. Their former homes were symbols that Soviet soldiers looked to smash. It is worth remembering that aristocrats still largely lived in the countryside until the 1940’s. They were wedded to a lifestyle not all that different from their distant forebears. Only a select few of their ancestral residences have been restored to their former glory. The cost and upkeep are huge barriers to restoration work.

The upshot is that Hungarians who care about historic preservation are kept busy exploring the hundreds of ruins in various states of decay. There are many pages and posts dedicated to these explorations.  They provide information on places I would have never thought existed until I saw the photographic evidence. This was the case with Mikosdpuszta. After looking at a post filled with some incredible photos of Mikosdpuszta, I decided to search for its location. I was surprised to discover that on multiple occasions I had been less than a half hour drive away from this Gothic Revival structure gone wild. It was hidden in plain sight, not far from Szombathely or Sarvar, both places I have visited before. That knowledge was both depressing and exhilarating. Depressing, because I missed a chance to visit Mikosdpuszta. Exhilarating, because I can pursue a visit on a future trip. This was what happened when someone posted photos of Mikosdpuszta, a place I was unaware of before I went online that morning.

The photos showed a work of eclectic imagination which is now in dire need of repair. The same could be said for hundreds of other similar sites across Hungary. The difference for me was that Mikosdpuuszta, with its many turrets and gables was quite unlike anything I had seen in Hungary. The high quality images showed sublime scenes of decay, interiors so rundown and ugly that they were almost beautiful. The photos did more than make me want to visit the manor house, they also made me want to learn more about Mikosdpuszta. What I found was a compelling backstory, one that helped bring back to life the humanity behind the crumbling façade.

A glorious past – Mikosdpuszta in the 19th century

The Long Goodbye – Dueling Tragedies
It is hard to say which is more tragic, the current state of Mikosdpuszta or the lives that have been lost to history by its destruction. The manor house has a human history which can match its architecturally eclectic one. The brainchild of Mikosdpuszta was Baron Ede Mikos de Tarodahaza who oversaw its construction in a nine year period that ended in 1866. The palace was built in the middle of a forest atop an artificial mound. The Baron expended as much time and expense on the grounds which surrounded the palace. These included a couple of artificial lakes, horse stables and vineyards. Pavilions were also scattered about the immaculately sculpted grounds. The Baron’s youngest child, Gizella, ended up marrying the pretender to the Mexican throne. The couple made the manor house their home. The Baron willed the castle to Gizella and her sister Olga, rather than his son, Janos. The Baron had little use for his son’s dissolute lifestyle and did not want him gaining title to it.

Janos finally obtained rights to the castle three years after his father’s death. He spent a good deal of his time following rather strange pursuits, such as founding Hungary’s first science fiction magazine and writing a play about a real life Hungarian Robin Hood. His ventures failed to support his lifestyle. In 1881, he sold the castle to avoid being consumed by debt. This led to a new era at Mikosdpusta when a wealthy Viennese banker, Vilmos Zierer, bought the place in 1891. He was disciplined and industrious, the opposite of Janos. Zierer transformed farming on the property while successfully raising potatoes. Zierer was a modernizer, living out his dreams in a manor house that was more modern than anything found in the surrounding region. While architecturally the manor house was a throwback to past influences, it was filled with modern amenities such as its own power supply and central heating system.

At the same time, Zierer furnished the house with antiquities. Everything from painting to furniture was carefully arranged, adding ambiance to the architectural aesthetics. The Zierer’s owned the palace for over half a century. Their era of splendor came to an end when the Red Army arrived in 1945. The furnishings were either plundered or destroyed. The long goodbye had begun. Like all aristocratic residences across Hungary, the post-war communist government appropriated the property and found other uses for it more in line with their ideological doctrines. Among these was an education center for party members. Later it became a holiday resort for children. The collapse of the Iron Curtain could not stem the downward trajectory of Mikosdpuszta. Opaque private ownership did little for the manor house, other than allow it to decay even further.

Looking back into the past – Mikosdpuszta (Credit: Zsolt Salamon)

The Passion of Preservation – Dreams & Reality
Today, the greatest advocates for the palace’s preservation are the same ones who post photos like those on Facebook which captured my attention. These people have passion, but not the political or financial power to restore Mikosdpuszta. The palace stands lonely and crumbling, awaiting more visitors who see past the dereliction and reimagine the glory of those times when barons, bankers and their families lived a life that others can only dream about. That dream has a powerful allure, despite or perhaps because of the palace’s current state. Like many others, I want to have that dream, if just for one day. I hope to visit Miklospuszta in the future and see the place where dreams meet reality.

Click here for: The Cold, Harsh Reality – Borsa: Birthplace of Ferenc II Rakoczi (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #12)

The Ride of My Life – A Path To & From Pannonhalma (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #10)

It begins a couple of hours before the break of dawn. At 4:38 in the morning, a train from the Hungarian State Railways pulls into the village station at the town of Pannonhalma in western Hungary. The time that elapses between the train’s arrival and departure is a little over a minute. Anyone who might have missed the train need not worry, because the same thing will happen again at 5:47, 6:46, 8:03, 10:09 and so on. Nine times each day, a train arrives and then departs from Pannonhalma. It then heads westward to the city of Gyor. Many of its passengers go to work in the city and its outskirts. They enjoy all the benefits of living in a quiet village that is in near proximity to the economic engine that Gyor has become in this part of Hungary.

The trip from Pannonhalma to Gyor takes less time, twenty-seven minutes, than a person will spend watching a television sitcom. When it comes to travel, sometimes briefer can be better. It is not the length of a journey that determines its memorability, but the quality and/or novelty of the experience. The older trains on which journeys to or from Pannonhalma take place, often pull battered railway carriages. These carriages were built to be functional, rather than comfortable. Each carriage usually has twice as many empty seats as occupied ones. If a traveler arrives at the right time, they might be able to enjoy their own personal railway carriage. My wife and I had this exact experience on a beautiful autumn day. It turned out to be the most memorable part of a long awaited journey.

Looking up – Benedictine Pannonhalma Archabbey (Credit: torobala)

Deep Roots – Present Before The Creation
Pannonhalma had occupied my thoughts for several years. That is a strange thing to say about a town that has just 3,948 inhabitants according to the Hungarian census. I was a bit miffed for not taking the time to visit it while in Gyor eighteen months earlier. For those exploring the earliest roots of Hungarian history, Pannonhalma is a must visit. Its history begins in the Middle Ages and continues all the way through to the present. The reason for our visit to this otherwise forgettable town was for one simple reason. It is home to the Benedictine Pannonhalma Archabbey, which has improbably survived over a thousand years of often turbulent history while perched on a hilltop rising above the town. The archabbey is one of the most significant religious sites in Hungary, and for that matter all of Europe. That is why it has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The genesis of the site’s significance dates all the way back to the late Roman Empire, half a millennium before the Magyars conquered the Carpathian Basin. Legend has it that Saint Martin of Tours (an extremely powerful Christian bishop) was born at the foot of Marton-hegy (Marton Hill), though it is more likely he was born somewhere in the wider region. Marton-hegy became the site for the first Hungarian Benedictine Monastery, built in 996 AD, approximately a hundred years after the Magyars had arrived in the area. Just four years later, Hungary would turn decisively toward the west after Istvan I was crowned as king by a papal legate in Esztergom.

It might be said that Pannonhalma was present before the creation. The site’s longevity and spiritual significance are beyond compare in Hungary. That is why my wife and I took a train from Budapest to Pannonhalma on a warm autumn morning. We were looking forward to visiting the archabbey. My first glimpse of it came via the railway carriage window when our train pulled into the station. My most vivid memories of the trip to Pannonhalma are completely unexpected ones. They have nothing to do with the Archabbey which was as magnificent as advertised. Instead, it was our arrival and departure by train that made the most lasting impressions.

Station Master – Attendant at Pannonhalma Station

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly ­- Stationed Out Front
One way of immortalizing a moment is capturing it in a photograph. This is easier said than done when the subject is train travel. Fortunately, I took a moment after we arrived in Pannonhalma to snap a photo of the station with one of the attendants standing out front. The photo will not win any awards, but it is still special to me for what it represents, a scene that takes place in hundreds of towns and villages across Hungary every day. This is the moment when the station attendant takes center stage as they wait to signal the train for departure. This is done by holding up a stick that has a round sign on it. The sign lets the locomotive’s engineer know that all passengers have boarded the train and it is now time to proceed further down the line. In my photo, this officious task is done by a woman, dressed in a smart blue uniform, and wearing a peaked cap. Behind her is the rather grim Pannonhalma Railway Station. The station is covered in graying stone and dirty brick that shows its age.

The photo represents the contradictions of post-communist transport in Hungary. A smartly dressed attendant standing in front of a station which is in a suspended state of painfully slow decay. The good, the bad and the ugly are all on display here. Pannonhalma is just another stop in a long series of them for those riding the rails. I caught the attendant in the act of doing her job. While standing in front of the station, she looks like a latter day lord of the manor. For eight or more hours a day, the station is her home. Everyone who comes and goes is a mere visitor. Their place in the world is to be found somewhere further up or down the line. While the attendant’s place is stable, secure, and static. She knows her place in the world, if only the rest of us were so lucky.

The Road Ahead – Pannonhalma Archabbey on Marton-hegy

The Loner – Personalizing The Experience
Later we would depart from Pannonhalma the same way we came, via the railway. Besides the attendant, we were the only two people at the station. The train soon arrived as a lifeline to the outside world, ready to transport us westwards to Gyor. We were the only passengers for this journey, not only from Pannonhalma, but also from other stops further up the line. The railway carriage we chose was empty. I soon discovered the entire train was empty except for me and my wife. This was a first for us and a delightful one at that. Having your own car is a rite of passage, having your own airplane is all but impossible, but having your own train is still possible in Hungary.

Click here for: Palace Intrigue – Mikosdpuszta: The Dream & The Reality (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #11)

The Kindness of Strangers – Keszthely: An Unexpected Guest (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #9)

It seemed like the day trips from Kispest would never end. They were one of the great delights when I made frequent visits to Hungary before my wife emigrated to the United States. Since Hungary is a midsized country by European standards (same size as the state of Indiana) and the public transport network is so vast, we could go almost anywhere in the country and be back in Kispest that same evening. We took trips to every point of the compass, visiting provincial cities and quaint villages, immaculately styled palaces, and crumbling castles.

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A stroll through the center – Keszthely

Splashes of Sunlight – Along The Shores of Balaton
One of the most appealing day trips involved traveling to the shores of Lake Balaton. The railway network runs between the shoreline cities and towns. From Budapest, you can be almost anywhere around Balaton in three hours. Known as the Hungarian Sea and referred to by Hungarians as “the Balaton”, it is the largest lake in Central Europe and one of the most beautiful. At times the water glows almost emerald. The shoreline is covered in holiday homes, resorts, and vineyards. In general, the north side of the lake is wilder and less developed, the south side is a haven for spring breakers and those taking summer vacations.

Lake Balaton offers lovers of water the optimum natural experience. Motorized boats are not allowed on the lake except for ferries. The daytrip possibilities are endless. One of the first trips we made was to the lake’s northern shore. There, we visited Balatonfured and the scenic Tihany Peninsula. That journey was my first experience of Balaton. Even though I am no great lover of water, Balaton seduced me that day. Its waters were pure and warm. The lake was a mesmerizing sight, especially from a window seat on the train. A blinding white splash of sunlight turned the lake into a shimmering ball of silver fire. The sun was shining twice, once in the sky and another on the water. The latter was even brighter than the one which shone radiant in a clear blue sky. After seeing this, I was ready for many more trips to Balaton.

Fantasyland – Aerial view of Festetics Palace

A Picture of Contentment – By Chance & Choice
When it comes to visiting Balaton, it is easy to forget Keszthely, a small and spectacular city of 20,000 just off the western shore of Lake Balaton. Since Keszthely stands at one of the furthest points from Budapest along the lake, it does not get as many day trippers as more towns further to the north. That is a shame, because Keszthely has an immaculately kept city center and Festetics Palace to recommend it. These places, along with the lakeshore, are the recipe for a perfect visit. We visited Keszthely on a day trip and enjoyed it immensely, spending half a day taking in the sights. As usually happens on such trips, it was the unexpected which turned out to be most memorable.

On our way back to the train station we stopped in at a Hungarian patisserie in the city center. The sight of so many sugary delicacies was irresistible. We wanted to satisfy our sweet tooth before riding the rails back to Budapest. After making our selections, we sat down to devour them. At a nearby table, I noticed a man with gentle features, a warm smile, and an air of approachability. He sat alone with a laptop in front of him. He did not seem to be looking at the screen. Instead, he watched people coming and going. The man was a picture of contentment, if not stoicism. Before long, we were exchanging pleasantries and openly conversing with him. The fact that he fluently spoke English with an English accent was not lost on me. We soon discovered that he had retired to Keszthely. This fact altered the course of our conversation. I felt envy and curiosity.

How had this man made it to Keszthely? Was it through business connections or family? Expats do not just appear in a provincial Hungarian city, there has be something out of the ordinary that attracts them. Perhaps this man was married to a Hungarian? I could think of no better arrangement then to marry the love of your life and move to Keszthely. Spring, summer, and fall could be spent by the shores of Balaton, in the shadow of Festetics Palace and strolling the streets of Keszthely in the evening. This was what I assumed the man did. I never found out whether any of this speculation was true or not. What I did discover was the man’s backstory, for he had come to live in Keszthely by way of chance and choice.

Living Out A Dream- Keszthely

A Lifelong Affinity – Living Out A Dream
The man told us his Hungarian story in a soft voice, as though he were cushioning the impact of his story. This added to the effect of his words. It had all started on a vacation to Hungary in the 1980’s. The man was driving a recreational vehicle that became involved in an accident. This could have placed him at the mercy of the authorities, instead it brought him into contact with the kindness of strangers, in this case Hungarians. A couple who witnessed the accident, offered the man assistance, not just in the moment, but also in the weeks ahead. They opened their home and hearts to him. This was an extraordinary act of kindness, engendering in the man a lifelong affinity for Hungarians.

He compared his experience in Hungary, with the hospitality of his homeland, Great Britain. Helping strangers in such a manner was unheard of. He had never felt such a sense of warmth as the day of the accident. This was something he would like to have all the time, rather than only after a chance mishap. After his Hungarian experience, the man had made up his mind that Hungary was a special place, with people who were incredibly attentive to the needs of a stranger. Because of the warmth and sensitivity of Hungarians, the man moved to Keszthely. From what I heard he had made the right choice. Listening to the story, all I could think was sign me up. Keszthely is one of those places that just feels right. The kind of place where I knew that retiring here would be the equivalent of living out a dream. That dream took shape in the man’s story. It made me wish we could have stayed longer, not just on this day, but forever.

Click here for: The Ride of My Life – A Path To & From Pannonhalma (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #10)