Not that long ago I was having a conversation with an in-law about the dullness of Debrecen, Hungary’s second largest city. I am always astonished at how static and boring the city seems. Though it has a population of over 200,000 and includes one of the largest universities in Hungary, there is little nightlife and a palpable sense of malaise. Outside of the city’s main thoroughfare, Piac Utca, there is little to see and even less to do. The energy level in the city is extremely low. Street life and café culture are benign. The largest crowd I have witnessed during multiple trips to the city was at the mall, a nice, but hardly memorable shopping complex. Debrecen reminds me of suburbia in the United States, fairly prosperous, with cleanly swept streets and people going about their business in a dutiful manner. It could be called the most American of European cities. My in-law, who grew up in Debrecen, agreed with me about the city’s subdued demeanor and stultifying dullness. He then added, “It could be worse, at least it’s not Szolnok.” I replied with nervous laughter. Our conversation soon moved on to other subjects, but his remark about Szolnok stuck with me.
Pass Through Place – Szolnok From A Window
I am always proud to tell people, for no reason in particular, that I have been to every one of Hungary’s 19 counties. It is a sort of trivial badge of travel honor. Who else can say that? Then again, who else would want to say that? The remark usually elicits puzzled looks. Yet for all my travels in Hungary I have never really been to Szolnok. I say “never really” because stopping at the train station countless times does not count to me as a visit. In the same way that the Midwest is flyover country in America, Szolnok is a pass through place in Hungary. It is the kind of city that one goes through very briefly on the way to somewhere else. When I have asked Hungarians what they think of Szolnok the reply can be summed up as a blank stare, followed by “I have never been there” or “went through there on a train many times.” Ask if there is anything to see in Szolnok and the stock answer is always the same, “well the Tisza goes through there.”
The city’s setting at the confluence of the Tisza with the Zagyva River made it a point of transit as well as contention for centuries. Szolnok must hold some sort of record for sieges in a Hungarian city, as it has been the setting for no less than 68 of them. With these came the usual pillage, destruction and rebuilding. The Tisza River is certainly Szolnok’s most memorable landmark that can be seen from a train window. Almost invariably there will be a few fishermen standing on its banks, staring stoically at their lines. Everything else is reminiscent of the Iron Curtain decades, concrete apartment blocks and a large, functionalist style train station that looks as though it came straight out of a 1960’s era Central Party Planning unit.
Trains, Planes & Tragedy – A Crossroads In The Crossfire
Trains have played an outsized role in the history of modern Szolnok, for both good and ill. Just over a year after the first railroad was built in Hungary a one hundred kilometer stretch of track was constructed between Szolnok and Cegled to the west. The city soon became a major railway junction for trains headed in every direction across the Great Hungarian Plain. Transport links brought economic development and prosperity as well as tragedy to Szolnok. During the 20th century the city suffered grave damage in the aftermath of World War I and during the latter part of the Second World War. As a key transit point it was targeted by invaders from below and above. The Hungarian Red Army battled Romanian forces along the Tisza at Szolnok for two and a half months in 1919. During this fighting, the railroad bridge over the Tisza was destroyed. Twenty-five years later, Allied bombers rained destruction down on the city, specifically targeting the rail yard and station. By the end of the war, Szolnok had lost close to 90% of its population. The city was rebuilt, but most of its aesthetically pleasing architecture was gone forever.
The railroad helped Szolnok prosper in the post-war period, but it also led to several terrible train crashes. One of the few things Hungarians mentioned to me when I asked about Szolnok concerned these disasters. This is shocking, but not surprising since the city is home to one of the largest rail switchyards in Hungary. On Christmas Eve 1963, 45 people were killed and dozens more injured when a passenger train slammed into a standing freight train. The crash was caused by an engineer failing to notice a red warning signal light. Then in 1994 a train at Szajol (on the eastern outskirts of Szolnok) blew past a false switch while traveling at 110 kilometers per hour, hurtling into a station building, killing 29 people and injuring 52. There have been a couple of other rail accidents at Szolnok that have led to deaths since then. It seems that Szolnok has had its fair share of excitement, but not the kind that would make anyone want to visit.
It Could Be Worse – The Appeal of Dullness
Is there anything interesting besides train crashes and the Tisza when it comes to Szolnok? I cannot say from personal experience since I have never actually set foot in the city proper. Furthermore, I have yet to meet any Hungarians who have traveled to the city for a reason other than to visit family. Because of its tragic past, I am sure normality to the point of anonymity suits the inhabitants of Szolnok. This is a place where history is a dark and dirty word. The future, like the present might be dull, but that is a vast improvement over much worse times. After learning about the city’s history, the phrase “it could be worse, at least it’s not Szolnok” has taken on a whole new meaning.