The Best Things Are Free – Thessaloniki: A Tour To Remember (Part Two)

Thessaloniki was a throwback destination for me, a call back to my previously aborted plans of eight years before. It was not long after entering the city that I slowly began to slip back into the same type of traveler I was during my initial foray into the Balkans. On that journey, I met an American traveler who has long since been lost to me. He was the one who had first introduced me to the Free Tour in Bucharest. This novel arrangement was a way for European cities to showcase their hidden delights and secret passageways to the past. This was especially important for places that might be considered second tier cities such as Sofia and Sarajevo, Bucharest and Bratislava among many other places emerging from the deep freeze that was the Cold War. Due to free tours, I was able to stand where Romanians had in 1989 while demanding the downfall of Ceaucescu, sneak a peek at the Red Star that diabolical symbol that once graced Sofia’s skyline atop the Communist Party Headquarters and walk through the same area where parts of Schindler’s List were filmed in Krakow. The insights and acquaintances I had gathered on Free Tours remained some of my most pleasant travel memories.

The Best Things Are Free - Thessaloniki Walking Tour

The Best Things Are Free – Thessaloniki Walking Tour

This was before my travel became intensely personal, becoming centered chiefly on Hungary. The upshot was that I stopped searching for free tours. That was until one evening in Thessaloniki when the idea that there might be a Free Tour of the city suddenly occurred to me once again. Thessaloniki was the kind of second tier city that could use a bit of marketing to visitors from outside of Greece. Free Tours were done by locals, but not for locals. It was an opportunity for foreigners to gain local knowledge while getting in on the secrets and treasures hidden by the massive urban façades that had been imposed upon Thessaloniki. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that there were Free Tours scheduled for every day in Thessaloniki. One started close to the waterfront, while the other took visitors into Ano Poli, the evocative upper town. The next one was to take place at 5:00 in the afternoon.

The Secrets They Conceal – A City Exposed
The website offering information and directions for the Thessaloniki Free Tour directed everyone interested to meet their guide outside of the Electra Palace Hotel. This was in the city’s pulsating heart, a stone’s throw from the sea wall where locals and tourists promenaded each day. It was interesting that the Free Tour would start in a rather obvious place because the best thing about these tours was that they almost always focused on the quirkily quixotic. Local knowledge was the Free Tours greatest selling point. In this regard, the Thessaloniki Free tour would not disappoint. At the appointed time I found the guide holding a red umbrella while chatting with a growing group of travelers. A wide array of nationalities was represented. These included Israelis, Germans, Portuguese, Lithuanians, Belgians, Canadians, Americans, Hungarians and Turks. The guides name was Georgios, a rather tall, handsome Greek who looked like he was in his mid to late 20’s. He had the kind of natural warmth that lent itself to making friendships with strangers in a matter of minutes.

A New Beginning - The Electra Palace Hotel in Thessaloniki

A New Beginning – The Electra Palace Hotel in Thessaloniki (Credit: Leandro Neumann Ciuffo)

Georgios began the tour by asking everyone their name, nationality and to tell the group something they disliked. The latter was a source of great laughter, especially after a German woman said she did not like everyone looking at her while trying to answer such a question. It was not long before Georgios was giving us a quick rundown of Thessaloniki’s origins by anointing members of the group as certain historical figures important to the city’s founding in 315 BC. Before long we were headed off on a journey that drifted between past and present, myth and reality. The theme of Georgios’ program could best be summed up as finding the unknown among the known. He stated that Thessaloniki hides its treasures rather than displays them. The city could best be exposed and explained by finding what was hidden in plain sight. This was not so easy to do. While the ignorance of tourists concerning Thessaloniki’s past was understandable, for locals it was surprisingly the same. Few were aware of their ancestors or historical antecedents who had shaped the city. To understand the past meant going to places that on the surface showed no signs of the secrets they concealed.

Behind The Veil of Indifference – A Dilapidated Discovery
Georgios was a prime example of the indifference to the past shown by present day Thessalonians. He took the opportunity to call himself out for this indifference while sharing an illuminating story. Two years earlier Georgios had been leading a free tour when an Israeli, originally from Thessaloniki, told him about the building he had grown up in. He said that it was on one of the side streets just off Aristotelous Square, the city center’s pulsating heart. Georgios told him that this building did not exist anymore, since the area was wiped out in the horrific fire of 1917 when two-thirds of Thessaloniki was reduced to ashes. The man insisted that the house was not destroyed by the fire. He even produced a photo of it from years before.

Old Thessaloniki - The ever present past on the Free Tour

Old Thessaloniki – The ever present past on the Free Tour

Georgios had politely, but firmly maintained his stance that the building had long since ceased to exist. The man decided to show Georgios and the rest of the tour that the building was indeed still standing. He convinced George to allow them to take a short detour to the purported house. Sure enough, the house was still standing though it was in utter disrepair. When Georgios finished telling this story he pointed out the same house. It was still there, a multi-story structure in an all its dilapidated charm. Georgios used it as a prop to remind us to look closer at our own hometowns for those places that should be obvious to us, but of which we are blissfully unaware. The message was clear, take a closer look and the hidden will reveal itself. An amazing world was waiting to be discovered by each one of us. There was more of this to come on the tour.

 

The Search For Lost Glory – Thessaloniki: Traveling To The Balkan Byzantium (Part One)

It only took me eight and a half years to return to a place I had never been. Bear with me, because this will require a bit of explanation. My first trip to Eastern Europe occurred in the spring of 2011. That was when I flew into Sofia, Bulgaria with a plan to travel overland to Thessaloniki in Greece to visit the Museum of Byzantine Culture and the birthplace of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. From there I would make my way to Serbia and then Sarajevo. There was only one problem with this plan. After Greece fell into a prolonged financial crisis, all international trains travelling across Greek borders were cancelled. The reason was simple and startling, the Greek government was in such dire financial straits that they could not afford international train connections.  While the rest of Europe and much of the world had suffered a great recession, the Greeks were suffering a full-blown depression. Not only would I not be able to take a train from Greece to Bulgaria, but even if I did get to Greece traveling overland from there would require bus trips. This was a thought I did not relish. Thus, I decided to make other plans.

If not by train than by plane - Flying over the Aegean Sea on the way to Thessaloniki

If not by train than by plane – Flying over the Aegean Sea on the way to Thessaloniki

Those plans took me from Bulgaria to Bucharest and eventually to Budapest and Belgrade. This plan B put me in Hungary for the first time. It would come to dominate my travels for years to come. Between 2011 and 2019 life kept getting in the way of a trip to Thessaloniki. There were trips to a multitude of Eastern European nations, including a return to the Balkans, but I never got any closer to Thessaloniki than I did on that first trip. The city slowly drifted out of my mind, until I noticed that Wizz Air made several weekly flights between Budapest and Thessaloniki. This meant it was finally time for that long forgotten Balkan journey. The trip would allow me to widen the southern circumference of my Eastern European travels. I could already trace the paths of my travels across the region in an expanding circle from the Baltics to the Balkans with Budapest the center point of this pattern. That circle would now extend further south to the glistening shores of the Aegean, where I would finally visit Greece’s second largest and much lesser known city.

The Gardeners of Thessaloniki – Digging Up Bones
At the Budapest airport I expected the check in at Wizz Air to be filled with the usual sharp elbows and chaotic jostling that had made my other experiences with the airline less than ideal. I was shocked to find not one person in line. The counter attendant was pleasant and helpful. I immediately surmised that Thessaloniki was not exactly an autumn destination. The attendant said there were 60 empty seats out of a maximum capacity of 170 on the plane. Thessaloniki was not a preferred destination for those traveling to Greece, especially this time of year. When people think of Greece it is either of sparkling islands or Athens. While this is understandable, it is also a shame. For the depth of history in Thessaloniki, along with its situation along the Aegean, make it well worth a visit.

The Gardeners of Salonica - French soldiers in the city during World War I

The Gardeners of Salonica – French soldiers in the city during World War I (Credit: The State Archives of the Republic of Macedonia)

The first time that I can recall hearing of Thessaloniki had nothing to do with Classical Greece. Instead, it was in connection to the First World War.  Historian Alan Palmer had written a famous history of the military campaign that originated from the city. It was entitled, The Gardeners of Salonika, after a pejorative name that France’s wartime Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau gave to the Allied soldiers who spent several years doing almost anything but fighting a military campaign. I never read Palmer’s book, but I also never forgot its title. The fact that a massive contingent of forces from seven different countries – led by large numbers of British and French troops – spent more time tending the land around them they did engaging the enemy is one of the war’s more bizarre ironies. To make matters even stranger, these same forces would later help spearhead a breakthrough offensive in September 1918 that led to Bulgaria becoming the first of the Central Powers to sue for peace. This led to a domino effect where each of the Central Powers soon did the same. Nevertheless, Salonica – as it was then known – became a byword for a stupendously stagnant military adventure characterized by do nothingness. Counterintuitively, this historical debacle made me want to visit the city even more.

Surrounded By History – Besieged By Modernity
There were innumerable other historical attractions to Thessaloniki. The amount of history that had occurred in the city since its founding 2,300 years ago was mind boggling. The tide of human affairs had washed over this port city again and again, leaving faint and illuminating traces of civilizations past stranded on an urban shoreline. Stretching from the glory days of ancient Macedonia through the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Turkish empires all the way up to modern Greece, the city played a starring role in the region. Thessaloniki had been sacked numerous times, riven by earthquakes, a large portion of it burnt to the ground and witnessed one of the largest Jewish populations of any city in the world disappear in less than thirty years. The grand stage on which this history played out was a natural harbor on the Aegean Sea. Conquering, occupying and ruling Thessaloniki guaranteed historical actors that grand stage. That stage had been on the verge of collapse in more recent years with Greece’s financial woes, but the city had been through much worse countless times before. Thessaloniki’s history had its own internal logic, one that resisted easy characterizations.

Besieged By Modernity - Roman Ruins in Thessaloniki

Besieged By Modernity – Roman Ruins in Thessaloniki (Credit: Annatsach)

The complexity of Thessaloniki’s past now makes it a magnetic attraction for the historically inclined. The only problem is selecting the proper starting point to access what bled so dramatically from one era into another. Thessaloniki’s past is less about chronology and more to do with an infinite number of curiosities. There were empires and ethnicities, the worse and worst aspects of humanity, mesmerizing architecture besieged by modernity, the disappeared and depraved. Solun, Salonica, Selanik, Thessaloniki, all the same place with somewhat similar pronunciations, but dramatically different pasts. This was a city that both buried and preserved its history. That past was a riddle waiting to be unraveled, with the joke on people like me who were both foolish and arrogant enough to believe they could somehow come to understand it.

Click here for: The Best Things Are Free – Thessaloniki: A Tour To Remember (Part Two)

 

 

The Ride Of My Life – Budapest To Back Home: Love Them & Never Leave Them (For The Love of Hungary Part 54)

It was and still is the most dreadful part of traveling home from Hungary. Leaving the land I had grown to love was bad enough. Leaving the woman who would soon become my wife was even worse. Waking up at 4:20 a.m. after a restless night of little to no sleep was not how I envisioned my departure. I had no choice in the matter. Living in the heartland of America meant I would forever be a prisoner to airport transfers and connecting flights. This also meant my last day in Budapest would hardly be one at all. It started the evening before with an imminent sense of dread arising from the realization that it would be almost impossible to get a full night of sleep.

My biological clock had adjusted to the previous two weeks. Thus, I knew sleep was not likely to come until ten or eleven o’clock that evening. I would be going on just a few hours of rest before I had to wake up, throw on some clothes and travel to the airport. That was the best I could hope for. I ended up sleeping restlessly for short intervals until I finally fell into a deeper sleep around two a.m. I awoke in a state of extreme grogginess a couple of hours later. Several cups of cold coffee did very little to arouse me, other than provide a temporary shot of caffeine. I was irritable and shaky. This was not how I wanted to spend the last couple of hours with the woman I loved. We would not see each other for three more months. Rather than tender words and sentimental emotions all I could think of was the fact that I would be awake for the next twenty-four hours or more.

On the Verge of a New Dawn - Kispest in the early morning

On the Verge of a New Dawn – Kispest in the early morning (Credit: Supergranat0820)

Dearly Departed – Passing Over The Past
There was a sense of unreality in taking a taxi to the airport in the small hours of the morning. Walking out of a crumbling apartment building in Kispest at 4:40 a.m. to find a taxi waiting with the engine running never feels normal. The driver said little more than Jo reggelt! (Good morning) which was a good thing because even if I could have spoken Hungarian, my brain was hardly functioning at this early hour. This was not so much a sad, as it was a strange way to end two magnificent weeks in Hungary. I wanted to stay longer, possibly forever, but that was impossible at this point in my life. Why is it that those things that seem just out of reach tantalize us the most? Perhaps it is because they are attainable. Instead, I would suffer in silence the curse of wanting ever more.

The taxi rumbled down pot holed side streets until it turned onto Ulloi ut. One of the major arteries into and out of the eastern half of Budapest. Ulloi is the longest avenue in the city, getting its name from the suburb of Ullo. The i on the end of the street’s name denoting that the road runs to and from that town. The avenue also has negative connotations for those Hungarians who remember the communist era. Back then, it was named Voros Hadsereg utca or Street of the Red Army. Soviet tanks rolled down the avenue in November 1956 when they arrived in mass to crush the hopes and dreams stirred by the Hungarian Revolution. The avenue was renamed after the Iron Curtain collapsed, but the name Ullo is just as fitting for that dark era. It means anvil.

The end of one journey - The start of another one

The end of one journey – The start of another one (Credit: ChrisW)

Taking Flight – Terminal Associations
The outskirts of Budapest a couple of hours before dawn could be almost anywhere in America. The neon store signs for Aldi, Tesco, Lidl and DK are the only illuminations. It feels almost like home, albeit five thousand miles away. This deserted world would not awaken to well after the sun rose. By that time, I would be gone. It almost felt like it already. After a few more minutes the lights of Ferihegy Airport suddenly appeared. A headache inducing sight that burned my sleep deprived eyes. Cloaked in a fierce fluorescence, there was at least one world already awake. My heart dropped as we pulled up to the terminal. Where I had found my love just two weeks earlier, I was now going to lose it. A visceral feeling of hopelessness swept over me. What an irony, to find and leave love at the same place in so short a time. A life changing romance compressed between the past and present in an airport terminal. My associations with this terminal were manic, swinging wildly between optimism and depression.

As we exited the taxi, I suddenly felt it necessary to over tip the driver. This was done in the hopes of being granted good luck upon future returns. My thoughts turned quickly from romance and superstition to lining up for check-in. The check-in was not yet open for the day, but a line had already formed. There were young adults who looked like they had not slept all night, Asians who I silently felt sorry for because they likely had a longer trip ahead of them than I did, stiffly stylish looking European businessmen and American pensioners who had traveled along the Danube on Viking Cruise ships. I found the latter most annoying. They reminded me just how spoiled and self-centered Americans can be. My irritation was much worse because they reminded me of something in myself.

Bleary eyed goodbye - Terminal 2 at Budapest Airport

Bleary eyed goodbye – Terminal 2 at Budapest Airport (Credit: Ato1)

A Momentary Lapse Of Romance – Don’t Say Goodbye
I felt ridiculous for having been so stressed the night before over the possibility of missing my flight. This was a flight I dreaded having to take. My emotions were just as shaky as my nervous system. Saying goodbye was not going to be easy. After check-in we delayed my departure by having coffee just before I entered security. You know you are tired when a cup of extremely strong coffee makes you less, rather than more alert. The conversation was tepid, nothing need be said. One day, I reminded myself, this would all be over. She would be at my side through arrivals and departures, that day seemed far off, but its possibility pained me even more. Why could I not have that now? Love is a lot like travel, incredible experiences interrupted by long waits in some strange netherworld, whether it be in life or the Budapest Airport. Just like in love where you learn to live with someone’s faults, in travel you learn to live with delays and departures. Then the moment when there is nothing left to wait for suddenly arrives. The goodbye to a person and place that I dearly loved was suddenly reduced to watery eyes, long embraces and sad smiles. This was the end of one journey and the start of another.

 

The Beauty, Power & Unreality of Reconstructed Ruins – Visegrad: Dual Perspectives (For The Love of Hungary Part 53)

A foreign visitor to medieval Visegrad once described it as a paradise on earth. I did not have quite that same feeling during my visit to modern Visegrad. Almost five hundred years of wear, tear and warfare has done a great deal of damage to the once formidable citadel. What I saw while visiting the upper castle (citadel) was a rough approximation of the magnificent fortifications that made Visegrad impregnable to medieval conquerors. The idea of Visegrad’s impregnability has long since passed into history. Nevertheless, those remnants left standing today are still impressive. One look at the citadel, surpassed only by the sky which its reconstructed ruins seemed to reach out and touch, must have defeated many an army. Unfortunately for Visegrad some foreign visitors did not hold it in high regard. The ruined condition of the citadel is due to those who saw it as a massive obstacle. As such, they decided to lay this island in the sky low. In 1544, the Ottoman Turks brought unprecedented military resources to bear upon the citadel. They soon found themselves standing within its battered walls. Keeping what they had conquered managed to be more difficult than they could have possibly imagined.

Possession of Visegrad was fluid, if not ephemeral over the period of Ottoman Turkish occupation in Hungary. The citadel changed hands several times during the wars which raged along a continually fluctuating border between Ottoman and Royal Hungary. In what amounted to a prolonged state of siege, the mighty citadel’s defensive works were eroded. By the time the Turks were driven out in 1685, the citadel had been rendered nearly useless for military purposes. Ironically, the Austrian Habsburgs who spearheaded the reconquest of Hungary decided to finish what the Turks had started. Ferenc Rakoczi’s War of Independence (1703 – 1711) against Habsburg rule sounded the death knell for any idea of the citadel’s reconstruction for martial affairs. The Austrians carried out a demolition to ensure that Hungarians who opposed their rule could not rebuild or refortify Visegrad. From that point forward, Visegrad’s history was frozen in time. Only at some undetermined point in the future would archaeologists, curators, preservationists and historians recreate Visegrad for those who would come out of curiosity or fascination with its conflicted past. This would be when the afterlife of Visegrad began.

Riverview - Visegrad as seen from the Danube

River view – Visegrad as seen from the Danube (Credit: Horvabe)

A Commanding Presence – From Ideas & Insecurities
For me, the power of Visegrad’s citadel had little do with the ruins that still stand as silent witnesses or the interpretation of its history in museum exhibits. Instead, the true power of the citadel came from first looking up at it from the river below, then an hour later looking down from it back towards the Danube. Viewing the citadel from below makes it appear almost unattainable. There is a certain unreality to its presence. It is so perfectly situated atop Sibrik Hill that one must remind themselves that the citadel is not the product of fantasy or an overactive imagination. The citadel was born from deep rooted insecurities that fed into military strategy. It was placed high atop the hill as the most formidable line of defense. Visegrad, along with other hilltop fortresses, was King Bela IV’s response to the Mongol Invasion of 1241-1242 that had exposed the country’s paltry defenses. The idea behind medieval Visegrad was to save Hungary from another all-consuming cataclysm. Yet it is hard not to look up at Visegrad and think that it existed as much for aesthetic as defensive purposes such is the commanding position it holds over the entire area.

Getting to the top of the Citadel took an effort that expanded my lung capacity. The stairs inside the citadel were ultra-steep. Before long, beads of sweat began to form upon my brow as I ascended toward the highest possible point. There was nothing easy about scaling the heights of Visegrad. This physical exertion did more to communicate the difficult task would be conquerors must have faced. At the same time, it helped me realize just how powerful the Ottoman War machine was in its prime. Just to place the Citadel under siege, would have been a monumental military task involving logistics, weaponry and manpower that only one of the world’s great imperial forces could muster. The defenders seemed to have all the advantages, but I knew better. Visegrad was not the first or last citadel the Ottomans faced, but it was one of the most formidable.

Unreconstructed - Visegrad Citadel

Unreconstructed – Visegrad Citadel (Credit: fortepan.hu)

That Much Closer To Heaven – An Idea of Reality
Once atop the Citadel, the effect was spectacular. The beauty and scale of the scenery was more dramatic than I could have ever imagined. The Danube sliced through the heavily forested, sloping hillsides until they reached the quicksilver surface of the water. The late afternoon sunlight transformed the ribbon of river into liquid fire, gleaming and glowing with a blinding light. It was like staring at a sun emanating out of the earth. I walked to the edge of the walls overlooking the rock face falling away to the river far below. Here was an opportunity to stand in the same place where Hungarian warriors had awaited the enemy half a millennium earlier. Their perspective would have been in complete contrast to the same setting today. The peace and prosperity of the modern world makes the view from Visegrad’s citadel for tourists one of beauty and serenity. This is a highly deceptive, ahistorical perspective.

Crowning Achievement - Visegrad & the Danube

Crowning Achievement – Visegrad & the Danube (Credit: Civertan)

In 1544, those warriors would have been fighting for their lives. The citadel may have offered protection, but it was also a trap. For its defenders, there was nowhere to go except for down. Either to their graves or by falling into Turkish hands. Breaking a siege would have meant holding out for an indefinite period. That proved impossible. The defender’s final days would have been filled with fear and courage, terror and drama. These were the outstanding characteristics of a battle fought just below an impenetrable sky. The only saving grace for the defenders was that they were much closer to heaven when they met their final fate. This historically decisive moment was lost on me as I stared out from the citadel at the beautiful surroundings. The scene was so unlike the history that attended and ended this place that I found it hard to believe. Such was the power of Visegrad that imagination could not quite conquer reality.

A Search For Recognition – Visegrad: Hungary’s True Golden Age (For The Love of Hungary Part 52)

Identifying a “Golden Age” in eleven hundred years of Hungarian history can seem like a thankless task. That is because Hungarians have come to define their country’s history by an elusive greatness that seems tantalizing within reach only for it to be suddenly snatched away. This state of historical affairs is often blamed on foreign invaders and occupiers that managed to crop up with alarming regularity. The Mongol Invasion nearly destroyed the Arpad Dynasty, the Ottoman Turkish occupation during the 16th and 17th centuries weakened Hungary so severely that an argument can be made that it never recovered a place among the great powers of Europe. Hungary can be defined in the annals of European History as either “almost great” or “stolen glory”. The Austrians, with great assistance from the Russian Empire, put an end to the dreams of a free Hungary in the 1848 Revolution. The same can said about the Soviets forces the crushed the 1956 uprising.

Hungarian history can seem like one tragic tale after another. Perhaps this was why I was both surprised and heartened to discover the truest Golden Age in Hungarian history presented at the once mighty citadel of Visegrad, an epoque that often gets overlooked. This Golden Age began after the Arpad Dynasty of indigenous Hungarian kings came ended at the close of the 13th century.  It was the first, but certainly not the last time that foreigners would rule Hungary. The difference was that those who came to rule Hungary in the 14th century happened to be astonishingly successful, to the point that they made Hungary one of the most powerful states in Europe.

Primeval Morning - The View From Visegrad

Primeval Morning – The View From Visegrad (Credit: Juri Kowski)

Centralizing Power – The Rise of Charles I
I found it rather surprising to learn that the famed French House of Anjou once ruled over Hungary. Their achievements were just as towering as the citadel of Visegrad which called attention to that glorious era. The Angevin kings’ glorious tenure in Hungary did not start out that way. Charles Robert (Charles I of Hungary), great grandson of the House of Anjou’s founder, laid claim to the Hungarian throne a decade after the final Arpad king died. His claim met with major resistance. Most of the great land magnates refused to recognize Charles as heir to the throne. Charles and the forces supporting him were forced to fight their way past a host of usurpers in a search for recognition. Two other foreign kings, one Bohemian, the other German, were placed on the throne. Between the two of them they lasted a total of three years. Hungary in the late 13th and early 14th century was a land riven by infighting, as rival factions divided and subdivided the kingdom among themselves.

Charles’ perseverance and strategic brilliance eventually won out, as did his military forces who dealt the magnates a crucial defeat at the Battle of Rozsgony in 1312. And still Charles’ campaign of consolidation continued for another ten years. Finally, after being crowned no less than three times and a full twenty years after his campaign for the throne had begun, Charles fully controlled the Kingdom by 1323. His reign would improbably turn into one of the greatest in Hungarian history. Two years after Charles gained control over the Kingdom of Hungary he made the decision to move the seat of Royal Power from Temesvar to Visegrad, which was centrally located in the land he ruled. This decision set in motion the expansion and transformation of the Citadel with the addition of what became the first version of the Royal Palace. Charles’ successors would expand on his original vision making Visegrad into a showpiece for the Kingdom as well as the nexus of power for Hungary’s Angevin rulers.

Going Medieval- Charles I of Hungary

Going Medieval- Charles I of Hungary

Mining A Mint – The Glitter of Hungarian Gold

Exercising centralized control from Visegrad, Charles set about introducing reforms that consequently led to an economic boom and a resulting Golden Age. Stating that the 14th century in Hungary was a Golden Age is not historical hyperbole. One of the most telling bits of historical trivia from that era is just how much gold Hungary managed to produce during this time. The great mines of Transylvania and Upper Hungary (present day Slovakia) were making a mint. The mining boom was stimulated by a reform whereby Charles allowed the owner of the land on which a mine stood to take a sizable portion of the production revenues. This incentivized greater excavation of minerals, to the point that Hungary was responsible for one-third of the gold production in the world by the 1330’s. Hungary produced five times as much gold as any other European state. In conjunction with a series of administrative reforms, Charles’ reign  brought prosperity and stability to Hungary. The legacy of the mining boom can still be seen right up to the present. Every time Hungarians use forints – the current Hungarian currency- to pay for a transaction, it is a callback to Charles basing his gold coinage after the Florentine florin.

Possibly the greatest effect of Charles’ long and prosperous reign (1308 – 1342) was how it set the standard for similarly long reigns by the kings who followed him. His successor, Louis the Great (1342 – 1382), held the throne for forty years, an incredible amount of time considering the chaos and upheaval that had occurred less than a half century before he took power. Sigismond from the House of Luxembourg came next. He came to power in 1387 (his wife Mary kept the throne warm for her much younger husband from 1382 -1387) and managed to outlast his predecessor’s time on the throne by ruling for fifty years. Charles I, Louis the Great and Sigismund account for three of the ten longest reigns by kings in the history of Hungary. These three enlightened medieval rulers, with 124 years on the throne between them, set Hungary up for a true Golden Age. This is much more remarkable when one considers that the 14th century was also when the Black Death sent Europe reeling.

Lasting Remnants - Visegrad Citadel

Lasting Remnants – Visegrad Citadel (Credit: Sasimunoz)

A Way of Life – The Glory of Their Times
Visegrad was the center of power for much of this time, acting as a secure base from which royal affairs were conducted. As each king’s power grew, so did their buildup of Visegrad. What had started out as a fortress became more than that. A place where diplomatic affairs were conducted, where king’s enacted reforms that brought about security and stability that became the envy of medieval Europe. Hungary’s truest Golden Age was the product of three visionary kings from the Houses of Anjou and Luxembourg. The citadel and its surroundings at Visegrad evoke an age when glory, chivalry and power were more than words, they were a way of life.

The Towering Citadel – Visegrad: Hungary’s High (For The Love of Hungary Part 51)

Getting to Visegrad is not easy. That has been precisely the point since the citadel was occupied by Hungarians atop a slab of rock in the early 11th century. The fortress was on the same spot where a Roman castrum stood seven centuries before. Its defenses incorporated what was behind from antiquity. Whomever initially had the idea of a citadel commanding the Danube River must have known that the location would be impregnable for all but the most powerful of armies. That proved to be the case with the notable exceptions of the Mongols and Ottoman Turks. I found that trying to get to the heights of Visegrad can be almost as difficult. For an independent traveler it is akin to mounting a major expedition to surmount the eminence on which the remnants of the citadel still stand today.

Castle In The Sky - Visegrad in the late 15th century

Castle In The Sky – Visegrad in the late 15th century

Close To Impossible – A Travelers’ Transport
As I soon discovered, traveling from Budapest to Visegrad presented multiple challenges mainly involving transport. This was not what I expected since Visegrad is quite famous. The citadel is only 45 kilometers to the north of Budapest. I figured getting up there and back would be relatively easy, I was wrong. The trip consisted of three distinct parts, each with a different form of transport. It is rare, if not close to impossible in the United States to travel by train, boat and car all in the space of three hours. A trip to Visegrad offers all these options for the independent traveler. My journey began at Nyugati station with an hourlong train ride to the north. By the end of it, the train was skirting the left bank of the Danube until it arrived at the Nagymaros-Visegrad station. The station’s name was deceptive because Visegrad is located on the Danube’s opposite bank.

To travel from Nagymaros to Visegrad required taking a ferry that seemed to inch from one side of the riverbank to the other. Crossing the mighty Danube by ferry was a throwback to earlier times. In a sense, I was following the same watery course that others have for the past two millennia. When the ferry arrived on the opposite bank, I felt a bit letdown. The citadel seemed more distant than ever from the riverbank. Rising above me was the imposing Sibrik Hill upon which the citadel stands. I could not imagine what it must have been like for a would be conquering army to marshal the reserves of energy and force necessary to successfully scale the hill, then overtake the stout Hungarian defenses. The fact that the Ottoman Turks were able to achieve this feat when the citadel was at its most formidable was testament to their martial skill.

Across the Wide Danube - Nagymaros-Visegrád Ferry

Across the Wide Danube – Nagymaros-Visegrád Ferry (Credit: VargaA)

Medieval Designs – Put On The Defensive
The area close to the riverbank and along the lower hillside had once been part of a much more sizable Visegrad complex. The Lower Castle as it has been termed, contained the remnants of King Matthias Corvinus’ magnificent renaissance palace. Surprisingly, Hungary was the second place in Europe after Italy to welcome the Renaissance. This occurred after King Matthias married Queen Beatrix of Naples who helped bring art, architecture and humanist culture to the area. After the palace was ruined by the Turks, it was buried by run off from centuries worth of rains and only rediscovered in the 1930’s. Excavations since that time have managed to uncover a great deal of the original works. Since it was already late afternoon, I regretted having to skip the palace ruins. Instead I took a bit of time to inspect the reconstructed Solomon’s Tower, which had been part of a fortification system that had once stretched all the way up the hillside. This mimicked earlier Roman defenses, the ancient defenses informing and reinforcing the medieval design.

The tower’s name has turned out to be a misnomer. It was named after Solomon, a rebellious relative of King Ladislaus. Solomon was believed to have been imprisoned within its walls. The only problem is that Solomon was held captive during the 11th century. The first documentation of the tower’s existence is not until the mid-13th century when fortifications were built along what became the Lower Castle area to avoid another catastrophe like the Mongol Invasion of 1241. The upshot is that Solomon may have been imprisoned by Ladislaus, but it was certainly not in the tower that has been given his name. Solomon would be rather surprised to discover that he had a tower named after him at a place where he experienced a great deal of misery. Nonetheless, myth can be a much more powerful force than the truth, especially the further one goes back into history.  Myth often fills in gaps for what has been forgotten.

History Rising - Solomon's Tower from the Danube

History Rising – Solomon’s Tower from the Danube (Credit: VargaA)

A Palpable Power – The Loftiest Stage
Getting from Solomon’s Tower to the citadel required either a strenuous hike which I did not fancy or paying for a private minibus that took less than 10 minutes to reach the top parking lot. Opting for the latter, I soon found myself standing at the entrance to one of the great historic sites in Hungary. The only thing left for me was either to visit the fortress or touch the sky, perhaps both. The former was plausible and the latter seemed possible from where I stood. The power of Visegrad was palpable the moment I began to climb the steep stairs to what was left of the fortress. Here was a case where natural history and geology conspired over tens of thousands of years to create one of the more perfect locations for human drama to play out on the loftiest stage imaginable.

Standing inside the fortress, looking up at the sky and down at the Danube, I realized once again how location informs everything when it comes to history. Visegrad was the epicenter of so many important events in Hungarian history because of where it was located. It guarded the road between Esztergom and Buda. It stood above the midpoint of the Danube Bend which meant that it would come to play a central role in medieval Hungary. The citadel’s setting demanded respect. In that regard, Visegrad would not disappoint.

A Fatal Distraction – Bela Kun Memorial:  The Masses & The Movement (For The Love of Hungary Part 50)

It has been my experience that the most meaningful art exhibitions are those where I find myself drawn to a singular work that personalizes the experience and leads to a deeper connection. This connection is something that is hard to explain. It is that moment when you feel something transcendent and unexplainable. This happened to me in the least likely of places, Memento Park in Budapest. My first reaction to most of the statues and sculptures on display was one of curiosity and opposition. Curiosity, because I always wondered how the supersized statues and sculptures from the communist Eastern Bloc countries looked up close and personal. After making the rounds in the Statue Park portion of the site, I realized just how impersonal communism and the remnants of its propaganda were. Each piece was like ideology on steroids. It was hard to feel a personal connection with something so harsh and unforgiving. Communism was a force to be reckoned with and that force was applied to its extremity.

A Fatal Distraction - The Bela Kun Memorial in Memento Park

A Fatal Distraction – The Bela Kun Memorial in Memento Park

Radical & Revolutionary – An Opportunist Extraordinaire
Amid all the thrusting fists, muscular chests and exacting expressions, I searched increasingly in vain for something to which I might feel a connection. Communism as a governing ideology and socialist-realist art were just not my thing. Trying to find the humanity amid concrete, bronze and granite that had been shaped and sculpted into scowls was nearly impossible. I had trouble finding any semblance of humanity amid the sterility of Statue Park. That was until I found myself standing before the Bela Kun Memorial. Humanity and Bela Kun would usually be viewed as diametrically opposed ideas. Kun founded the Hungarian Communist Party, then later declared and led the Hungarian Soviet Republic. This short lived “Red Republic” lasted only 133 chaotic days. That period was long enough to convince most Hungarians that Kun was not the answer to their problems. If anything, he was the cause of further calamities.

Kun, the son of an alcoholic Transylvania notary, grew up on the edge of poverty. He pursued a less than successful career as a pseudo-reform minded journalist prior to the outbreak of World War I. It was the war which made him into a professional revolutionary. After being captured on the Eastern Front, he spent time in a Russian prisoner of war camp becoming completely radicalized during the process. Once freed, he fought with the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War. After proving his revolutionary credentials, Kun was sent back to Hungary with a large sum of money in November 1918 to foment revolution. He soon got himself thrown into prison, but the Social-Democrat Karolyi government was such a disaster that Kun was plucked from his cell and given control over the levers of power. The consequences of communist rule would turn out to be worse than that of the Socialists.  Kun was an opportunist extraordinaire. He took advantage of the chaos and confusion that beset postwar Hungary in his rise to power.

Red Tide Rising - Bela Kun in Hungary during the 1919 Revolution

Red Tide Rising – Bela Kun in Hungary during the 1919 Revolution

Red Tide Rising – Toeing The Party Line
Kun’s short-lived reign is best known for Red Terror, collapse on the military front and administrative incompetence. Kun’s government tried to nationalize nearly everything, expropriated land and businesses while managing to alienate most of the population. He was forced to leave the country when his government crumbled. It was a calamitous start for communism in Hungary. Kun’s legacy was a chaotic one that most would have liked to forget. He ended up back in the Soviet Union, where he first presided over the killing of thousands of anti-Bolshevik prisoners of war and then became a point man for oppression of the Crimean Tatars which resulted in more death and destruction. Kun ended up an official in the Comintern (Communist International) before he was arrested during Stalin’s purges in the late 1930’s. He was secretly executed in Moscow. In a dark irony, Kun was consumed by the same violence he had conjured throughout his life.

Kun was persona non grata until rehabilitated by the communists after the De-stalinisation campaign during the Khrushchev era. He was the closest thing to an iconic Hungarian communist founding father. As such he was venerated in many circles all the way up through the waning days of communist rule. A monument meant to glorify Kun was commissioned on the 100th anniversary of his birth. The artist selected to create it was Imre Varga, one of Hungary’s greatest sculptors. Varga was not the usual ideologue chosen for rigid adherence to the party line. He was skilled in the use of a variety of materials portraying a wide range of historical figures. His Bela Kun Memorial was less an honorific than a commentary on Kun and the effect of his ideals on the masses. It also happens to be the most memorable work of sculpture I have ever seen.

An Opportunist Extraordinaire - Bela Kun

An Opportunist Extraordinaire – Bela Kun

Lethal Roles – A Fatal Distraction
Varga’s sculpture captures the essence of Kun and his power to persuade others to action. He is portrayed as both a leader and strangely detached figure. He seemingly floats above the workers and soldiers set out below him. His left arm is outstretched and in it he holds his hat in hand, using the hat to implore the men onward. These men are packed closely together. They only look forward, taking no notice of Kun. Amid the metal clad soldiers, there are grim workers moving along with the mass. These men are headed off to war. A lamppost rises close to Kun. Some have seen this as a reminder of the gallows, the possibility of death looming above the entire scene.

The sculpture astonished me. I felt the magnetic pull of men headed off to do battle, thrust forward by a figure they do not even notice. The power of being swept up in a historical moment has overcome the men and it overcame me. For once, I felt the true power of a revolutionary movement. It was quite extraordinary that the sculpture could make me feel this way, since I believe everything Kun stood for to be horribly wrong. Subsequent history bore this out. That truth did nothing to take away from the Memorial’s attraction. I felt the power of the man, the masses and the moment. This was more than a Memorial it was the essence of a movement. Kun was the lead actor in this movement, while the soldiers and workers played a vital part. Tragically, these roles ended up costing them their lives.

Reversal of Fortunes – Ostapenko: Parleying With Fate & Fortune (For The Love of Hungary Part 49)

When I asked my future wife if she wanted to visit Memento Park with me, the answer was a resounding “No!” She followed her negative reply with, “Why would I want to go see those statues we were forced to look at for years?” This was a line of irrefutable reasoning. Only later would I learn the magic name that might have defeated her resistance, “Ostapenko.” That name is bound to elicit a certain amount of nostalgia for those Hungarians born prior to the end of the Cold War. If there is such a thing as Ostalgie, (German nostalgia for aspects of communism in East Germany) in Hungary, then Ostapenko certainly heads up the list. For multiple generations of Hungarians, “Ostapenko” conjured up pleasurable memories of departures for holidays at Lake Balaton or their arrival back home in Budapest.

A statue by this name stood prominently for over forty years on the southwestern fringes of the city in the 11th district. It was located at the junction of Budaors utca and Balaton utca, making it an unforgettable landmark for successive generations of Hungarians. Motorists and their passengers would see the bronze statue of a soldier dressed in great coat and holding aloft a flag. This was an unintentional signal that they were on their way to Balaton or perhaps Vienna. Conversely, it might mean that they were almost home. This was ironic since the man whom the statue was named after never completed his own journey. And for that reason, Ostapenko was sanctified in stone.

Brothers In Arms - Ostapenko & Steinmutz

Brothers In Arms – Ostapenko & Steinmutz

Right of Refusal – The Logic Of a Madman
Ilja Ostapenko was by present-day standards, Ukrainian not Hungarian. In 1944 he was a Soviet citizen and captain in the Red Army. Ostapenko was fighting, along with hundreds of thousands of Red Army soldiers, in the campaign to take Budapest. By December 29, 1944, Soviet forces had surrounded the city and put it under siege for nearly a week. This was the beginning of a very long, involved and ultraviolent process whereby the Soviets would spend several months attempting to destroy the Hungarian and German forces defending the city, but the Battle of Budapest did not have to turn out the way it did. In the last days of December, Captain Ostapenko was chosen to parley with German forces to present – by Soviet standards – rather lenient terms of surrender. Hungarian soldiers were to be released almost immediately and German troops eventually repatriated. Food and medical care were offered as well.

It was a deal only a madman could refuse. The problem was that Adolf Hitler had declared that Budapest be declared a fortress city. Both German and Hungarian forces were ordered to hold out at all costs and fight until the bitter end. This was a strategy based on cynicism. The Third Reich’s self-interest demanded it. The idea was to delay the inevitable offensive against Germany for as long as possible while weakening Soviet forces. The upshot was the sacrifice of the Hungarian capital along with countless lives. Ostapenko’s mission was fraught with danger. He, along with two others, would have to travel through the no man’s land dividing the respective forces. The same mission was given to Captain Miklos Steinmetz on the southeastern approach to Budapest. Both missions were to end in tragedy.

A Legend Before His Time - Captain Ilja Ostapenko

A Legend Before His Time – Captain Ilja Ostapenko

Live Targets – Powerful Pieces of Propaganda
At the German lines Ostapenko and two other Soviet envoys were blindfolded and driven to the 8th SS Calvary Division’s headquarters atop Gellert Hill. There Ostapenko presented the terms of surrender to the division’s commanding officer. These were then relayed to the overall German commander, Karl Pfeffer-Wildenbruch. While he awaited an answer, Ostapenko engaged in some idle chit chat with the Germans. The negative reply from Pffefer-Wildenbruch took almost an hour. At this point Ostapenko and the two Soviet soldiers who had accompanied him prepared to depart. The Germans offered the Soviet delegation soda water to quench their thirst. After this brief respite, the Soviets began the same perilous journey they had just undertook, only this time in reverse.

Ostapenko, his men and the German officer accompanying them soon began to encounter artillery fire coming from the Soviet side. The German officer told Ostapenko that he should wait with him until the shellfire ceased. Ostapenko was adamant that he must deliver the negative reply as soon as possible to the Soviet command. At that point, the German officer bid him farewell. Ostapenko’s duty-bound zealousness ended up costing him his life when three shells exploded nearby, followed by a hail of bullets. Ostapenko dropped to the ground dead. In a bit of tragic irony, just before he was killed Ostapenko reputedly told one of the Soviet soldiers with him that “It looks as if we’ve made it. We’ve been lucky once more.” Ostapenko had spoken a second to soon.  Captain Steinmetz suffered the same fate. He was killed in extremely questionable circumstances. The Soviets would blame the Germans for the killing of both men.

The purported German murders of Ostapenko and Steinmetz would become the standard line in communist Hungary throughout the Cold War. Others believed the opposite, that the Soviets ordered the deliberate murders of both Ostapenko and Steinmetz. A more likely scenarios was that they were both killed by accident. Proper communication was lacking and confusion rampant between the two sides. The Soviets wasted no time propagandizing the death of Ostapenko, going so far as to fake a photo of a body amid battle debris. This photograph has long since been disproven.  Nonetheless, the deaths of Ostapenko and Steinmetz were powerful pieces of propaganda that would prove useful long after the war was over.

Giving Signals - The Ostapenko Statue

Giving Signals – The Ostapenko Statue (Credit: fortepan.hu)

Beloved Figures – The Long Afterlife
Statues in memory of both Ostapenko and Steinmetz were erected in the respective areas where they met their ultimate fates. Only after the Iron Curtain fell were the two statues placed in proximity to one another in Memento Park. They now occupy a prominent space at the back of the park. These are probably the only statues in the park that most Hungarians enjoy seeing. This is especially true for Ostapenko who became a beloved figure, despite or perhaps because few cared what his original mission had been. Ostapenko came to be viewed as a playfully iconic figure, one who was signaling to passing motorists. What Ostapenko might have thought of the strange turn of events that helped him achieve iconic status in Hungary is anyone’s guess. Ostapenko’s place in history turned out to be less as a peacemaker and more a roadside greeter for Hungarians. In forty years, he had gone from occupying a space beside a roadway to a place in Hungarian hearts.

Propaganda With A Pulse – Living History at Memento Park (For The Love of Hungary Part 48)

The only temple of tyranny I have entered was at Memento Park on the outskirts of Budapest. The entrance to the Statue Park portion of the site managed to be both strangely familiar and frighteningly unique. It consisted of a neo-classical façade constructed out of red brick. On one side was a statue of Lenin, while on the other side was a statue of Marx and Engels. The former portrayed Lenin as serious and studious, while the latter was the only cubist statue of Marx and Engels to be found anywhere in the world. It was not surprising to find these deities of communist ideology at the entrance. Both statues were done in socialist-realist style, the pervasive and aesthetically displeasing artistic form in communist countries. Seared into the entrance gate was “One Sentence About Tyranny” by the Hungarian poet Gyula Ilyes. The poem is one sentence that happens to be fifty-four stanzas long. I did not need to read any of the words to know by the way it was written that the poem was a warning.

I entered the gate with both eagerness and trepidation. Suddenly I saw the statues, sculptures, friezes, bas-reliefs and plaques scattered along dirt pathways. Each of these pieces once stood in a prominent place somewhere in Budapest, now they were reduced to the city’s fringes. The forty-two pieces on display were impressive or depressive depending upon one’s perspective and extremely charismatic. Emphasis should be placed on “extremely” because there was nothing moderate or benign about these statues. They were slanted towards a single ideology. Each was as unyielding as the system they glorified. Fierce faces, serious expressions and ferocious poses were their hallmarks. The figures were marshaled and ready for a fight to the finish against invisible enemies.

The Will To Power - Lenin & Fallen Soldiers

The Will To Power – Lenin & Fallen Soldiers

Twinges of Madness – The Will To Power
Photogenic was one word that immediately came to mind as I looked over the statues. The risk with viewing the contents of Statue Park this way was that they might be defined as communist kitsch. These statues were nothing of the sort. They were harbingers of a life and death struggle. Back in their day, each one reigned supreme over the squares, streets and sidewalks of Budapest. A constant reminder to the masses of what their rulers stood for or against. The pieces were propaganda with a pulse. They died a slow death over many decades. Now they were buried above ground for curious onlookers such as myself to spend time scrutinizing.

One of the most interesting pieces for me was a statue of a half Lenin beside a frieze of soldiers lying on their sides. Lenin was only visible from the waist up, his face grave and determined. I could sense a snarl lurking behind his expression. From the looks of it, he seemed to be in the process of delivering his usual revolutionary rhetoric. To the side of him were soldiers and workers lying flat upon the ground. I imagined this for what it was not meant to be, a metaphor for the millions who were laid low by the revolution Lenin worked so tirelessly to promulgate. There was a twinge of madness about the piece. The same could be said of Lenin’s dream of worldwide revolution which turned lethal for those who followed his words with deeds. It eventually became a nightmare for almost everyone infected with communist zeal. One could not look at such a piece of art and feel anything other than fervor, discontent and the will to power.

Frontal Assault - Martyrs Monument at Memento Park

Frontal Assault – Martyrs Monument at Memento Park

A Pantheon of Has Beens – The Presence of a More Recent Past
One of the more disconcerting aspects in Statue Park were the many pieces on display of officials and personages who I had never heard of before. At the front entrance had been those who were synonymous with communism, but scattered about the park were more anonymous personages. I consider myself rather well read on the communist era in Hungarian history, but some of those glorified in stone had more in common with missing persons than they did the Kadar’s, Rakosi’s and Nagy’s of that era.  These included such low level luminaries as Ede Chlepko (one of the founders of the Hungarian Communist Party who ended up dying in a Soviet prison), Janos Asztalos and Kalman Turner who both died while fighting for the communist party in the 1956 Revolution) and Robert Kreutz (his most notable trait was passing out leaflets and getting himself shot by the Germans in 1944). There were several more of these heroes who used to be glorified. Here was a pantheon of has beens. Usually they met a violent end. It was hard to find anyone who lived past the age of 60. Communism was hard on the masses, it was often worse for its heroes.

Some of the statues on display were of such force that it was hard not to have an emotional reaction when confronted with them. The one that looked most furious to me was the Monument to the Hungarian Socialist Republic, which portrayed a man running with full force, his fists thrust outward while he gave a full-throated scream. In his left fist he gripped what looked like a scarf, but more likely was a banner. The energy and dynamism of this statue was highly impressive. This was the pose of a zealot rushing toward revolution. The revolution certainly did not falter for lack of belief or motivation. The forty-two pieces on display all seemed rather lonely figures despite being surrounded by their fellow travelers. Propaganda taken out of context from the political passion and turmoil which gave rise to it was rather hard for me to comprehend.

Shaking Hands & Fists- Hungarian-Soviet Friendship Memorial

Shaking Hands & Fists- Hungarian-Soviet Friendship Memorial

Silent Witnesses – Shaking Hands & Fists
Of course there were statues of soldiers. They looked solid, committed and ready for battle. Perhaps the most important of these from a historical standpoint were part of the Hungarian-Soviet Friendship Memorial. The Memorial consisted of two figures, a Soviet soldier and a Hungarian worker. The Soviet soldier offered his hand in “friendship”, but his posture was restrained while the Hungarian worker grasped the Soviet soldier’s hand with both of his own. The Soviets were obviously in charge. The memorial was completed in 1956. With the failure of the Hungarian Revolution that autumn, it was obvious the Soviets were going stay in charge. Their continued occupation led to the creation of even more statues, many of which still stand today as silent witnesses at Memento Park.

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.