The provincial cities of Hungary are a varied lot, each with their own distinct charms. From the Mitteleuropa splendor of Sopron to the Baroque beauty of Eger, the exotic glories of Pecs and the belle epoque magnificence of Szeged, the nation is blessed with a splendid array of urban conurbations. Following several trips traveling around the country I just knew I had seen it all. Then I arrived in Nagykanizsa, which turned out to be the most pleasantly surprising. Before arriving in this small city of 55,000 inhabitants for a two night stay I dutifully checked both the Rough Guide to Hungary and the Bradt Guide to Hungary, neither of these travel guides – which in my opinion give the most exhaustive coverage of the nation – had a single word to say about the city. That was not shocking. Nagykanizsa is located in Zala County, but is not the county seat. It sits deep in southwestern Hungary, lying much closer to the borders of Croatia, Slovenia and Austria than to Budapest. It is a pass through place not a destination. The proprietress of my accommodation remarked that the only tourist traffic to the city came from travelers going to or returning from the coast of Croatia. To the unaware it is just another place with a strange Hungarian name on the way to someplace else. That is such a shame because the city itself is charming and clean, energetic and prosperous with a Belváros (inner city) that has been beautifully preserved.
What brought me to Nagykanizsa? Not the city itself, but its proximity to other attractions, specifically Zala County and the city’s location within sixty kilometers of the western end of Lake Balaton. Other towns were much closer to the lake, but Nagykanizsa was one of the few Hungarian cities I had yet to visit, other than a brief stop at the train station on the way to Croatia for a vacation. A visit would allow me a deeper look. Even though it was not my preferred destination I still felt compelled to stroll in the downtown. I was not expecting to be impressed. To be honest, I was really not expecting anything at all. The first thing that struck me came totally unexpected and was probably intended to be that way.
The Ground Beneath Their Feet
In the early evening while walking down a side street past small, colorful homes I noticed something shining on the ground. The dying rays of sunlight at dusk shown on a couple of small metal plates embedded in the pavement. These were placed side by side and engraved with two names, both Jewish. I learned that it was here that Dr. Janos Hoffmann and his wife Jasone Hoffman lived until they were deported to Auschwitz in 1944, swallowed up by the murderous abyss of the Holocaust. They were two of the 3,000 Jews from Nagykanisza who lost their lives that year. They had disappeared from this city along with so many others. Seeing the plates made a startling impression on me. The scope and scale of the Holocaust can be overwhelming, especially when one visits a former concentration camp, but the tragedy of it is deeply personal. The insidious destruction of individual lives and how it affected every community in Hungary was displayed before me with tragic poignancy on the sidewalks of this provincial city.
Many of Nagykanizsa’s Jews were key players in the banking and trade industry during the city’s golden age during the latter part of the 19th century. This period is still symbolized by the elegant buildings found in the Belváros. Prime among these is the Bank Palace (Bankpalota), an eclectically styled confection sporting a large cupola. Its gleaming exterior was hard to miss as I strode down main street (Fő utca) in the city center. The structure’s imposing presence and grandiosity symbolizing the importance of trade and finance during Nagykanizsa’s greatest age of development in the half century prior to the First World War. Several other palaces can be found across the city center covering a wide range of architectural styles, including the eye popping pink façade of the secessionist Bogenrieder Palace, the stately neo-classicism of the Small Palace and the lime green eclectic-secessionism of the Insurance Palace. All of these palaces recall an era of confidence and wealth.
Today Nagykanizsa is on the fringes of Hungary, but just over a century ago it was centrally placed on one of the key trade routes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as the center point of the railway line that linked the Adriatic seaport of Rijeka with the empire’s two largest cities, Vienna and Budapest. Commerce in the city boomed during this time along with construction of architecturally significant buildings in the city center. Though that type of prosperity has never returned to the city or Hungary, what makes Nagykanizsa so appealing is that the buildings from this period have been largely restored. The buildings sport bright and colorful paint jobs, without chips or cracks. They exude warmth and generosity. I was left with the distinct impression of a proud and prosperous city.
A Profound Tidiness – The Belváros of Nagykanisza
The profound tidiness of the Belváros added to these aesthetics. The squares at Deak ter and Erzsebet ter were swept clean and pristine to the point of being disturbingly clean, not even a stray cigarette butt was to be discovered. The solemn memorials that are a hallmark of almost every Hungarian city, such as those for soldiers lost in the Great War and World War II, were well cared for. In addition, there was a sort of memorial sculpture garden with busts of the 13 martyrs of Arad, those military leaders executed by the Austrians for their role in the Revolution of 1848. Many locals were silently studying these works. Meanwhile live music played wafted through the air, as an open air cultural festival slowly took over the night.
There was an air of mystery for me concerning the prosperity of Nagykanizsa. I wondered what could possibly be the economic engine that helped preserve such refinement. Later I learned that the main driver of the local economy was a light bulb factory. Started in 1965, the factory goes by the name of Tungsram Plc. It is now owned by General Electric and happens to be one of the largest in the world. The jobs at the factory provide good, stable incomes, money which obviously flows back into the community. The city is rightfully proud of this factory, as they are of the architectural wonders and currents of commerce that have molded this city into a vibrant community. Nagykanizsa is a city of beauty and light suffused with the radiant glow of a golden age that has lasted right up to the present.