For a tourist, spending too much time in a small country can become boring. All the major must-sees are soon exhausted. At best, the tourist finds him or herself covering the same ground again and again, at worst they just pack up and move on with a been there, done that attitude. Both of these scenarios are predicated upon the dangerous idea of having seen it all. “Seeing it all” is usually based on recommendations of notable sites given by popular travel guides.
Unconventionally Conventional Wisdom
In a nation such as Hungary, the must see places are Budapest, followed by a visit to the Danube Bend, Szentendre and perhaps Lake Balaton or the historic town of Eger. If a tourist visits each of these than conventional wisdom pretty much says they’ve done Hungary. This is a completely superficial and wrongheaded assumption. A nation with the breadth and depth of Hungary’s natural and cultural history cannot be seen in a couple of weeks. “Doing Hungary” in travel parlance is way different from actually “knowing Hungary” or better yet “understanding Hungary.”
To know or understand Hungary, one would – as the unconventional that has come to be conventional wisdom states – have to go off the beaten path. Yet off the beaten path tourism is quite predictable. In Hungary it can be defined as anything other than Budapest. So called hidden treasures to visit in Hungary might include: the cities of Pecs, Sopron and Szeged; the mind bending expanses of Hortobagy National Park; the baroque quaintness of Koszeg. These are places usually seen by those with a couple of weeks to spare or a compelling reason to stay in the country for a while longer.
The Land Beyond the Tourist – Nyirseg
These places are off the beaten path in a touristic sense, but hardly to the traveler. The main difference between a tourist and a traveler is that the former seeks comfort, beauty and refinement. The latter seeks unpredictability, adventure and understanding. The tourist wants to get away from it all, the traveler wants to get into it all. Getting into it all can mean anti-tourism, visiting the places beyond the tourists. Places that even Hungarians have left behind out of neglect, economic backwardness or disinterest. Where the scenery is mediocre and the only reason people are there is because it is where they live. These are places people travel through, but never to. Places people are moving away from. It is the land of forever leaving and left behind.
There is no place in Hungary that better fits this definition, than the Nyirseg. It is truly the land beyond the tourists, as well as a land beyond most Hungarians. The Nyirseg is found mainly within Szatmar-Szabolcs-Bereg County. It is the second poorest county in the nation today and has been a historically depressed area for centuries. Eastern Hungary is and has been the most economically backward area of the country. Even during the heady days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire it was the poorest province. One economic historian has estimated that it had a lower income even than that hallmark of Eastern European backwardness, Galicia. This was not just due to the vagaries of economic development, it has also to do with the natural environment.
Going Back In Time
Traveling through the Nyirseg is instructive. On a drive last week starting from Debrecen, located just east of the Nyriseg, I was shocked at how quickly the landscape changed. Around the Debrecen area one finds the earth upturned and cultivated in every direction. The pancake flat Great Hungarian plain is one of Europe’s richest agricultural regions. By contrast, once I entered the Nyriseg, the land began to roll ever so gently. Open fields were no longer home to crops, but instead sandy soil, the remnants of dunes left behind as sediment from rivers long ago. Forests became abundant. The root word of Nyriseg is Nyir which means birch in Hungarian. These trees were prevalent throughout the area.
Speaking of Nyir, I passed through innumerable towns all with the prefix Nyir attached to their name. A search in the Hungarian Wikipedia showed upwards of 90 named towns and villages in Szatmar-Szabolcs-Bereg County, 30 of these have Nyir as their prefix. It is not by accident that the two regional centers are called Nyriegyhaza and Nyirbator. These are relatively prosperous well-kept places. The same cannot be said of the villages in the countryside. One side road took me through several villages. These are strange places for a foreigner. Even with only a thousand people, houses line the road for several kilometers. A village can seem to go on forever. A few horse drawn wagon carts were still being used as transport. Bicycles vastly outnumbered cars. Villagers were everywhere, noticeable walking to or from their destinations. It seemed to be 1950 all over again.
A Landscape of Ambivalence
Many of the houses looked abandoned. I saw a woman engulfed in dust as she swept the sidewalk, or perhaps it was her yard. The yards looked to have as much sand as grass. The villages of the Nyirseg seemed to have been hollowed out, by urban flight and a search for economic prosperity. It was hard to imagine what anyone still does in these places, but wait. What are they waiting on? Perhaps even they do not know. Every once in a while there would be a freshly painted house, well kept. This was more puzzling than almost everything else on view. From whence did their prosperity arise? Were they the mayor? Did they own land? Who can say?
The road through the villages and the Nyriseg winded further on, bumpy, but not excessively so. The traffic was light, the spring sun slowly turning the trees to bloom. It almost felt like there was hope in the air. The Nyriseg, its villages and towns seemed forgotten. It was an insular and inward looking world. Its brushes with modernity had not so much improved as scarred it. It seemed like nothing ever really changed here and why would it. This was where traveling leads you. Not so much to the real Hungary, as to ambivalence.