What It Is, Is What It Isn’t – Nyirbator: The Unknown Hungary

When I told a Hungarian friend that Nyirbator happened to one of my favorite places in his country that I visited he looked at me in astonishment. His reply was less than positive, “I can’t imagine anyone taking a trip to Nyirbator. They would have to pay me to visit that place.” Nyirbator is located in the far northeastern corner of Hungary, beyond the Great Plain that dominates the nation’s eastern half. It is a place few visit. Thus it suffers from the stereotypical view that “there is nothing there.” This is pretty much the same opinion that most Hungarians and travelers have of the northeastern portion of the country.

The ice coated train station at Nyirbator, Hungary on a cold winter day

The ice coated train station at Nyirbator, Hungary on a cold winter day

“There Is Nothing There” – The Opposite of the Truth In Eastern Hungary
Besides Hortobagy National Park – a landscape and wildlife refuge that looms large in the Hungarian historical imagination – eastern Hungary is seen as poor, flat and boring. It is a land of agriculture rather than industry, much less technology. Even during the late 19th century golden age of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, eastern Hungary was the poorest region in both the nation as well as the entire empire. It was even more downtrodden than Galicia (present day western Ukraine), a province known to as a byword for backwardness. Perhaps this less than desirable reputation is what makes a visit to eastern Hungary and specifically Nyirbator such an enchanting surprise. One will not find overwhelming prosperity in this small city, but neither will they find abject poverty. They will find a large provincial town that has a deep and rich history, once home to a great and tragic European family.

Nyirbator is one of those places you couldn’t imagine existed until you go there. At first site it is a miracle of matter of factness, an oversized village of cracked sidewalks, colorful squat sized houses, ever barking dogs and people going about their businesses with a noticeable lack of zeal. It seems that the 13,000 Hungarians who live in Nyirbator are asleep with their eyes open. Things may have changed over the years, but what use would it be to take notice. The traveler who makes it here probably got lost at least twice. It is a highly improbable destination, but that makes it no less charming. Nyirbator will never make off the beaten path lists. It is either on the unknown or forgotten path and that is how it will probably always be.

Even the most exacting guidebooks devote at most a page or two to Nyirbator. The main impetus for a traveler going there is more than likely vague. Maybe it was a couple of striking photos on Wikipedia of the city’s Calvinist Church and Bathory Castle. Maybe it was the well known (and feared) historical family name of Bathory. Then again maybe it was just a day trip, in the depths of winter to escape a day inside. Yet photos are one thing, the experience quite another. A nation and its secrets are not given up easily, sometimes these are best found in quiet, provincial communities. Places that still maintain remnants of a unique and fascinating past. The uniqueness is all the more striking because of its unexpectedness.

Bathory Castle in Nyirbator

Bathory Castle in Nyirbator

The Bathory’s – Nyirbator’s Royalty
Nyirbator’s fame comes from the Bathory family, who made the place their administrative center for the vast estates they held throughout the Kingdom of Hungary. The family crypt was placed here as well. Of course, the most famous of the Bathory clan turned out to be the woman known to history as the Blood Countess, Erszebet (Elizabeth). She is thought to have murdered somewhere between 35 and 600 girls. Yet the blood lust of one deranged family member should not overshadow the greatness of many other family members who were significant political, military and cultural figures.

Bathory is derived from the word “bator” which means brave. This certainly fit the description of one Istvan (Stephen) Bathory (1533 -1586) who was not only the leader of Transylvania, but also became King of Poland. He was the seminal military leader of his day and is now considered to have been one of the best Polish Kings in history. The Bathory family supplied multiple voivodes (governors) of Transylvania and palatines (prime ministers) of Hungary. Many different Bathory’s ruled Transylvania during the 16th and 17th centuries while other areas of Hungary were occupied by the Ottoman Turks. The Bathory’s golden age coincided with that of Transylvania’s, as the territory gained the status of a semi-autonomous state during that time.

Nyirbator bears tombs, churches, a mausoleom as well as one magnificent section of castle that were all bequeathed by the Bathory’s. Their rule over the town was total. They owned lots of land, virtually owned most of the people and even owned most of Transylvania (they had holdings in parts of 16 counties). Even the vampiric Erszebet (1560 – 1614) was wealthier than the Habsburg emperor at the time. When her husband Ferenc Nasdady (the famed Turk killing Black Knight) died it was said that it took months just to count her wealth.

The Calvinist Church & the Wooden Belfry in Nyirbator

The Calvinist Church & the Wooden Belfry in Nyirbator

Historical Justice – The Architectural Gems of Nyirbator
Two must-sees in Nyirbator reflect the town’s prominence in the Middle and late Middle ages. These are the Gothic-era Calvinist Church and the late Renaissance-style Wooden Belfry which towers close to it. The church was constructed in 1480. As such, it is a masterpiece of Gothic architecture, a style quite rare to find in Hungary. On a cloudless winter’s day when the sky is deep blue, the church’s blinding white exterior is a stark reflection of Protestant austerity. A stone’s throw away stands Nyirbator’s massive Wooden Belfry – the largest in Hungary. It acts as a counterpoint to the church, yet at the same time it’s hard to imagine one without the other. The wooden belfry’s spires and eaves recall Transylvania. This is a bit of historical justice.

Though Transylvania proper is located a couple of hundred kilometers from Nyirbator, it was here during the mid-16th century that the Habsburgs agreed to return that land to the Kingdom of Hungary.  The church and belfry seem to be engaged in a conversation of dissimilarity and inseparability, this is perhaps an architectural parallel to the relationship between eastern Hungary and Transylvania. One cannot seem to exist without the other. There are other historical discoveries to be made in Nyirbator as well. These include a Baroque Minorite Monastery and the Istvan Bathory Museum. There is also a refurbished section of Bathory Castle replete with a series of astounding waxworks of both the Bathory family’s famous and infamous denizens. Each one of these attractions is within strolling distance of another.

A wintry path to the Calvinist Church & Wooden Belfry in Nyirbator

A wintry path to the Calvinist Church & Wooden Belfry in Nyirbator

What It Is, Is What It Isn’t: Getting to Know Nyirbator
It might be said that Nyirbator is an acquired taste. It is not for everyone or for that matter hardly anyone since most tourism in the city consists of those who live in the region or at most travel in from a couple of hours away. That being said, Nyirbator’s allure can best be summed up by the fact that what it is, is what it isn’t. It is not on the beaten path. It will never be filled with throngs of tourists and it is of no interest to the historically ignorant. It isn’t going to be featured on the front of any glossy tourist publications and it does not exist to charm or entertain. What it is though: is inspirational, authentic and unknown. The last of those is what it will probably always be. That is except for those lucky few travelers who stumble upon the remnants of its late medieval magnificence.

3 thoughts on “What It Is, Is What It Isn’t – Nyirbator: The Unknown Hungary

  1. Nyirbator. There is an Ulan Bator in Mongolia. Is it a co-incidence that Hungary and Mongolia both have cities with bator in their name? I’ve always felt that Eastern Europe has quite an oriental touch, though.

  2. Hmm. I visited Nyirbator in the fall of 2006, because my Jewish Hungarian Holocaust survivor mom was born and raised there. There were 3 synagogues prior to WWII; not a trace left. Only the old and decaying Jewish cemetery, which had some post war burials, as late as the 1990s. Fortunately my great grandparents aren’t buried there, as they were wise enough to leave for Israel at the turn of the 20th century, leaving their grown, married children behind. My mom did talk about the Protestants in town, and how more civil they were to the Jews.

  3. I’m going to be visiting Nyirbator as that is where I was born in August. I can’t wait . Ill be staying overnight as I want to see my home.

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