A Match Made In The Matras – Hungarians, Slovaks & the Shadow of Galya-tető

What is the third highest mountain in the world? Stumped? You are not alone. It seems that no one remembers bronze medalists? Knowledge of third place finishers is an acquired taste even for trivia buffs. We remember firsts for the simple reason that they are first. It is that obvious. Runner-ups are remembered for coming oh so close. Whatever comes after second, no matter how notable, falls into the realm of the unknown. To finish third, is to be resigned to an excruciating oblivion. Faraway and not close enough, inevitably forgotten. This logic also goes for the tallest mountains (or hills as they are often called) in Hungary. It must be said though that the highest peak in Hungary is hardly going to receive special status and as for the runner-up, it falls firmly under the category of so what. As for third place, it is all but anonymous. Yet anonymity can also be illuminating.

Mt. Kékes - Hungary's highest point - as seen from the slopes Galya-tető

Mt. Kékes – Hungary’s highest point – as seen from the slopes Galya-tető (Credit: Susulyka)

Lowering Elevations & Expectations – The Mountains of Hungary
Topographically, Hungary is assumed to be flat. It is well known for its rich, agricultural land, most famously, the Great Hungarian Plain which covers much of its eastern half. In the west, Hungary is mostly rolling hills and smaller plains covered with fertile soil. Overall, it is one of the flattest countries in Europe, with an average elevation of just 143 meters (469 feet), almost the same as the state of Alabama. The truth is that in the popular imagination, even among those who have traveled in Eastern Europe, mountains in Hungary are an afterthought. That is if they are given much thought at all. This was not always the case, since “Historic Hungary” (the pre-1920 Kingdom of Hungary) was once home to mountainous Transylvania and Upper Hungary (present-day Slovakia). Peaks in Transylvania and the Tatras were the pride and joy of Greater Hungary. After World War I the territory of Hungary shrunk considerably, as did the nation’s topography.

Hungarians had to learn to live with less natural grandeur, their alpine days were over. Yet this did not mean the end of trekking up mountainsides. It just meant that they would have to quite literally lower their expectations. Suddenly, new peaks rose to prominence. These were located in northern Hungary. Up until the 20th century, it is doubtful that anyone who did not live or vacation near the Mátra Mountains, knew of Mt.Kékes. In 1920 it suddenly became the highest point in Hungary. Kékes contained no jagged spires soaring upward to touch the sky. It was covered with forests on both its flanks and summit. The highest point in Hungary now topped out at 1,014 meters (3,327 meters). Before 1920 the tallest peak had been in the High Tatras of what is today northern Slovakia. Instead of the tallest peak being a weeks-long journey from Budapest, it was now only a weekend excursion away. Mt. Kékes had risen from obscurity. The second highest, Pezső-kő was also worthy of mention. The same could not be said then or now for the next highest Hungarian mountain.

Galya-tető, as seen from Mt. Kékes

Galya-tető, as seen from Mt. Kékes (Credit: Susulyka)

Altitude Adjustments – Escape Over Expulsion
Galya-tető, the name does not exactly roll off the tongue, but at 964 meters (3,163 feet) this mountain comes in as the third tallest in Hungary. It is part of the Mátraszentimre, one of the highest ranges in the country. These heavily forested uplands are as close as Hungarians can get to finding a genuine mountain trekking experience in their homeland. They loom above a region of small villages, thick forests and grassy meadows covered in wild flowers during the late spring and summer.  In a sense, this is a land that time forgot. Yet just because these mountains are lesser known, does not make them any less inviting.  This peaceful and forgotten landscape may seem to be relatively anonymous, but it could not escape the ravages of Europe’s 20th century history. Many of the small villages tucked into these hills were once home to various ethnic groups, including Slovaks.

That changed irreparably following the end of the Second World War. Hungary, which had taken southern Slovakia back in 1938, was forced to cede control of the region at the end of the war. This led to one of the many forced population exchanges that occurred in the post war period. In Hungary, this is mainly remembered because of the infamous Benes Decrees that were put into effect by Czechoslovakia, leading to the forcible expulsion of ethnic Hungarians from southern Slovakia. Somewhere between 41,000 and 120,000 (these numbers are debatable and highly politicized) Hungarians were forced to move. This was “victor’s justice” pure and simple. Of course the Hungarians had been allies of Nazi Germany, but the Slovaks had also done the same. What is less well known is the fact that over 70,000 Slovaks in Hungary – who had called places such as Mátraszentmitre home for centuries – moved back to Czechoslovakia. This was also a part of the population exchanges. The big difference between these two situations: the Hungarians were forced to move, while the Slovaks chose this option. Nonetheless, it caused major upheaval for both sides. In villages such as those around Mátraszentimre, Slovaks who had lived in this area for centuries vacated them in a matter of months. Much of their culture vanished as well. Some Slovaks did remain though.

Traditional Slovak home in Mátraszentimre

Traditional Slovak home in Mátraszentimre (Credit: Kozkincs)

Timeless Ascents & Accents
Today in Mátraszentimre, there are still villagers that speak Slovak. In order to sustain their culture and boost tourism, special events are held that focus on the deeply rooted Slovak culture of Mátraszentimre. Thus, visitors to the region get to enjoy the stunning scenery while learning about a unique mountain culture. Looming above it all is the verdant green prominence of Galya-tető . A prominent natural landmark that helped infuse the folk culture of the Mátra. There is a secret and surprising delight that pervades this virtually anonymous area. Both Galya-tető  and the Slovaks of the Mátra deserve to be better known.

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