The Village Immortal – Szenna: A Secret Joy in Southwestern Hungary

Even in an era of continued globalization Hungary is still a land with an exotic language and a unique culture, a place that acts as a bridge between Eastern and Western Europe. It is part of Europe, but still somewhat isolated and misunderstood. It is a landlocked island of otherness smack dab in the middle of Europe. Hungarians see themselves as clever and complex, survivalistic (this word does not exist, but if it did Hungarians history would be defined by it) and revolutionary.  Yet there is one trend that Hungary has not managed to escape, it is that of urbanization. The nation has become increasingly urbanized over the past two hundred years. Thousands upon thousands of Hungarians have left villages behind in pursuit of opportunity in cities. Countless village communities were depopulated in the 19th century by a vast migration to urban areas, above all Budapest.

The Great Internal Migration – A Nation Moving at the Speed of Progress
It may be hard to believe today, but Budapest was once the fastest growing city in Europe. During the 19th century its population exploded exponentially. In 1800 the combined population of Buda and Pest was only 54,000. One hundred years later the unified city had expanded thirteen fold to 733,000. There were jobs and dynamism in Budapest. Meanwhile, the countryside was a place that came to be marked as backward. Peasants continued to toil in virtual servitude on large estates in service of the landed gentry. This way of life would come to a screeching halt following two World Wars. The first half of the 20th century ended with the collectivization of agriculture in Hungary and the resulting exile, imprisonment or even worse of the land holding class.  Meanwhile, those tens of thousands that had made up the impoverished peasantry were transformed into factory workers literally overnight.


Csepel Factory Works today - the remnants of heavy industry (Credit torbala)

Csepel Factory Works today – the remnants of heavy industry (Credit: torbala)

The communist era saw a dramatic and sustained movement toward urbanization. Heavily industrialized cities were hailed as icons of a new world. Areas such as Csepel, which became the 21st district of Budapest and northern Hungary’s largest city, Miskolc were exalted. Then the iron curtain fell. The world suddenly changed and attitudes along with it. Old, fading industrial parts of cities became known for their rusted out smokestacks, concrete tower apartment blocks and abandoned factories. The utopia had become a dystopia almost overnight. By the late 1990’s no one dared to extol the merits of Csepel or Miskolc, once darlings of heavy industry, they were now the very definition of downtrodden.

Hungarians began to look back upon village life and its distinctive culture as unique, rather than antiquated. Folk culture was something to be celebrated. Nostalgia set in for the simple life. People all but forgot the fact that a rural existence had meant grinding agricultural labor. Instead they longed for a connection with land and nature

Szenna Skanzen (Open Air Museum) - in Somogy County Southwestern Hungary (Credit:

Szenna Skanzen (Open Air Museum) – in Somogy County Southwestern Hungary (Credit:

The Life Cycle of a Village – Tradition & Modernity
Love for the countryside and a yearning for village traditions led to a resurgent interest in folk culture. Nowhere was this revival more prominently felt than in Holloko, a UNESCO World Heritage Site dedicated to the preservation of village life and the culture of the Paloc people. Of course, not all villages could be as rich in traditional life ways as Holloko, just as not all cities had the dreary and slowly decaying factories of Csepel. The teary eyed sentiment for village life was a bit different from the actual reality of rural life.

Today in Hungary, villages contain the amenities of modern life. Cars speed down narrow streets, the train whistle still calls at a tiny rail siding, satellite dishes decorate the sides of brightly colored (and somewhat dilapidated) houses. These places are now far beyond the horse and buggy, but not the bicycle. Many villages are slowly dying, but this process has been going on for two centuries. It is a death that happens every day, but only becomes noticeable after decades, if at all. These are places that have seen progress in fits and starts, yet they are still more modern than traditional.

Calvinist Church (Reformed Church) in Szenna (Credit: Csilla Nemeth)

Calvinist Church (Reformed Church) in Szenna (Credit: Csilla Nemeth)

Rise of the Skanzen – Ways of Life Untouched By Time
For those traveling in Hungary, a village could be any smallish place with at most a thousand people. A place less traveled, sometimes just a wayside on a branch rail line, or a road to nowhere in particular. Villages are full of surprises and not always good ones. They give a sense of life blossoming, stagnating or fading. Many times a little bit of all three. A village’s life depends upon its location. If they are close to population centers they may well be thriving. If more remote, then time has usually passed them by as they slide into oblivion. These villages are scattered and scarcely noticed. That is until tourism arrives, the great economic hope of the country side.

The nostalgia for village culture has brought about the creation of open air museums or skanzen as they are known. One of the best can be found tucked into the wooded hills of the Zselic region in Szenna. It is a fabulous example of what life was like for the majority of Hungarian people over the centuries. Located only 9 kilometers (5 miles) from Kaposvar in the southwestern part of Hungary, Szenna seems far removed from the modern world. Five structures were moved to the village along with a Calvinist Church (Reformed Church) in order to replicate village life. Here a visitor can step inside small white washed residences with the obligatory thatched roofs. The daily rituals of rural living can be detected through the details seen in original furnishings. These pervade the interior of each structure, adding context and texture to the surroundings.

Hope, Faith & Timelessness - the tiled ceiling in the Calvinist Church (Reformed Church) at Szenna (Credit: szabadoszoltan)

Hope, Faith & Timelessness – the tiled ceiling in the Calvinist Church (Reformed Church) at Szenna (Credit: szabadoszoltan)

A Secret Joy – The Simple Life
Szenna is a place where intimate connections are forged with the past. Here is a history of the village that speaks across the ages. One structure is particularly revealing, the Calvinist Church that acts as the centerpiece of the skanzan is remarkable. It has an unforgettable ceiling which lifts the eyes upward. Over a hundred painted panels cover the coffered ceiling, communicating to the faithful that their toil and sacrifice will be rewarded, in this life and the next one. Here hope and faith intermingle. Complex in its artistic representation, but simple in its appeal, the panels are a call to salvation. The simple life of the village filled with a secret joy.



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