As Brno is to Prague, as Split is to Zagreb, as Nis is to Belgrade, so Debrecen is to Budapest. The first cities in each of these comparisons are relatively unknown and less visited. They have populations of a few hundred thousand rather than millions. They enjoy less prestige in both their own countries and abroad. They are neither centers of political or economic power. It has often been said that no one remembers who finished second. Just like in sports, the same goes for cities in central and southern Europe.
Day Tripping – The Capital Of Eastern Hungary
These largely unknown places do have attractions to recommend them. These second cities are an acquired taste. Their delights are not commonly known or easily discerned. The city of Debrecen, economic capital of eastern Hungary and the second largest city in the nation fits this mold. It is dwarfed in prestige by its much bigger brother, Budapest. It is a far second in size, with just 12% of the population. It has little cultural vibe and still today is one of the least known second cities in all of Europe. That is hardly surprising. Most travelers across eastern Hungary are headed either westward to Budapest or eastward to Transylvania. The mind numbing train ride across the great Hungarian Plain does Debrecen no favors. Kilometer after kilometer of flat agricultural fields stretches off into the hazy horizon.
When the train finally pulls into Debrecen, most passengers are either asleep or dreaming of bigger and better attractions that lay hundreds of kilometers further down the line. A few travelers may decide to stop off at Debrecen. Their thinking is probably something to the effect that if it happens to be one of Hungary’s largest cities, then it certainly has to have something of interest. Debrecen does not have many attractions and need not detain the traveler for more than a day at most, but it is worth a stop if for nothing else, to see its main avenue. This is literally a hop, skip and jump away from the main railway station.
Of Bombing & Brigands – Debrecen’s Past
The first stop for the majority of visitors to Debrecen is the railway station, a sight that can make even the most travel hardened recoil. It is a concrete mass of communist architecture, a cold and indifferent welcome to the city. The original station, a classic Austro-Hungarian era design was destroyed, as was much of the southern part of the city, by aerial bombing and a large tank battle, known as the Battle of Debrecen that occurred between German and Soviet forces in 1944. Leaving the train station, the city gets better right away, more precisely it gets right to its best. This is a city that does not try to hide its treasures, they are front and center along Piac Utca (Market Street) which stretches northward from the station. This has been the main thoroughfare of Debrecen for the past two hundred years.
Tram One (one of only two in the city) glides past striking examples of eclectic, art nouveau, romantic and neo-classical architecture. These include the Old County Hall which is the first building of note to appear. It is a product of the secessionist style, the name implying its deviation from classical and romantic styles of architecture. A little over half way up it façade are several striking sculptures of armed Hajdus. The Hajdus were outlaws and brigands, both guerilla and freedom fighters who came to this area from the Balkans. They were in the vanguard as Hungarians resisted Ottoman Turkish and Habsburg authority. For their service during the 17th century they were given land in this region of eastern Hungary to settle on. It is only fitting that they are represented front and center on the County Hall since Debrecen is the county seat for none other than Hajdu-Bihar County.
The Calvinist Rome – Countering the Counter Reformation
Further along the left hand side of Piac Utca is a very strange looking building, which turns out to be the Kistemplom (Small Church). It is known by locals as the mutilated church. This is because the church had its top torn off during a storm in 1909. Today its uppermost portion bears an almost fortress like resemblance. Its original onion shaped dome having been replaced post-storm by a bastion-like top which crowns it today. One thing visitors may notice about Piac Utca is the presence of an absence, specifically the lack of a Catholic Church along Debrecen’s central street. Unlike most other Hungarian cities, Catholicism failed to dominate the life of Debrecen, thus the city has been given the title of Calvinist Rome. It has been one of Europe’s easternmost outposts of Protestantism (the Calvinist type) going all the way back to the reformation. During the reactionary days of the counter-reformation, the Austrian Habsburgs were unable to break the Protestant hold on the area. This was due as much to the spirited independence of the region’s inhabitants as it was to its distance from Austria.
The presence of Calvinism in Debrecen is most prominently displayed in the city’s main architectural attraction, the Reformed Great Church, a soaring monument to the Protestant faith. Towering over Kossuth square, which delimits the northern end of Piac Utca, the church makes a fitting finish to the city’s hallowed main street. This twin spired, neo-classical structure painted an eye popping yellow, manages the twin feat of being both monumental and austere. Monumental in its beautiful physical presence, austere in its lack of exterior or interior ornamentation, the Great Church is the ultimate symbol of Debrecen, no frills and straightforward.
Eclectic & Humble – Sizing Up Hungary’s Second City
Debrecen will always pale in comparison to other similar sized cities in Hungary. It was never the recipient of Habsburg splendor and suffered mightily during the Second World War. Nevertheless, Piac Utca is a delight. It showcases the best the city has to offer and begins literally a few steps away from the main railway station. It offers a seldom seen side of Hungary, Debrecen is eclectic and humble, monumental and quiet, truly like so many second cities in this part of Europe, it is an acquired taste.