Exploring Hungary in-depth meant getting far off the tourist track. This led to several problems. The foremost of which was my inability to converse with the locals due to language barriers. For this same reason, written literature was off-limits. This put me far from my comfort zone. Thus, I was left to observe and interpret everything I saw. Certain patterns became visible. A rather obvious one concerned the naming of streets. Whether in an outlying district of a major city or a tiny village, I began to see the same names used again and again. While walking around Budapest’s 19th District of Kispest, I became fascinated with the names of famous Hungarians adorning the street signs. Some names were instantly recognizable, others I had to spend time researching. It occurred to me that these names offered clues about Hungarians and who they considered worthy representatives of their history. Street names are spoken thousands of times each day. They help order and organize travel routes while also serving as signposts to the past. The names are reflective of those whose achievements have gained them eternal notoriety in the pantheon of prominent Hungarians.
The Latest & Greatest – Two Thousand Years In The Making
The roll call of Hungarian greats could be seen on signs plastered upon fences, houses and street corners all over Kispest. Names familiar and foreign confronted me on every corner. A litany of lionization more than two thousand years in the making. The names were markers, not just of people, but also progress. They went all the way back to the very beginning, before the idea of Hungary even existed. I spied a sign with the word Pannonia. This was the Latin name for the Roman province that once covered present-day western Hungary. Magyars did not exist at that time, at least not in East-Central Europe. They were still eight hundred years away from arrival, their ancestors wandering out on the Asiatic steppe. The co-opting of Pannonia as a place name in modern Hungary was understandable. It linked the nation to ancient Rome’s imperial might. The suggestion being that it was not a coincidence that Hungarians and Romans had settled in the same area.
Hungarian history began with Arpad utca (utca means street in Hungarian). Little is known of the man whose name has become a byword for Hungarian conquest of the Carpathian Basin. That has not stopped this tribal chieftain from becoming one of the most famous Hungarian historical personages of all time. Arpad was elected leader of the Magyar tribes heading westward. He then spearheaded their arrival in 894 AD into what would become Hungary. His name was given to the dynastic family (House of Arpad) which ruled Hungary during its first four centuries. Arpad also unwittingly provided his name to a street in Kispest, as well as to hundreds of other streets in Hungarian towns. What he accomplished is mostly lost in a distant past, when legends were just as powerful as the truth. In some ways, the same could still be said today.
Greatness & Darkness – From Inspirational To Dreadful
Soon I was onto more solid historical ground with Kossuth and Petofi utcas. Both men were titans of the Hungarian Revolution that took place in 1848-49. Their dreams were thwarted by the Habsburgs, but their vision and legacy lived on It is difficult, if not impossible, to find a place in Hungary that has not been graced by their names. Kossuth the politician and Petofi the poet can be found in every city, town and village. They even kept their places in the pantheon during communism. Long after these two men and their dreams died, Hungarians never forgot them. How could they? From Kispest to Kecskemet, Kossuth and Petofi are deified in every conceivable way. From statues to squares and street names. Their omnipresence a fact of daily Hungarian life. These are two men who will forever inspire Hungarians. Conversely, there are others whose names represented both greatness and darkness.
The famous Hungarian family Bathory was a name that seemed a bit strange to find adorning a street in Kispest. The Bathory’s were exalted aristocracy while Kispest is working class to its core. I sat and stared at a Bathory utca sign for close to a minute. Bathory was a name that had dreadful connotations. The mere mention of it sent ominous chills surging up my spine though it really should not have. The name referred to King Stephen Bathory, who rose from Prince of Transylvania to King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, ruling as a strong, wise leader. Unfortunately, the Bathory that I and most foreigners have in mind when they see that name is Elizabeth Bathory. She was the Blood Countess, who by some scholarly estimates murdered more girls than any female serial killer in history. Her name is still evocative of horror despite four centuries of distance from her crimes. Here I was standing hundreds of kilometers from where those murders happened. It was a sun splashed day in a humble neighborhood in Kispest, but the Bathory name still had a chilling effect. Elizabeth made the kind of history that has blackened the Bathory name forever.
My relief in leaving Bathory behind was only momentary as I would soon come across Nadasdy utca. Nadasdy’s similarity to the word nasty is coincidental, but the Nadasdy for which this street was named could rightly be called nasty, in the extreme. Ferenc Nadasdy was none other than the husband of Elizabeth Bathory. He is also a hero in the Hungarian pantheon, past and present, for his warfare fighting capabilities against the Ottoman Turks. He fought both valiantly and violently for the Hungarian and Habsburg cause. Defending Christendom with a fervor that was less spiritual and more diabolical. Termed the Black Knight, Ferenc Nadasdy lived up to that nickname, both on the field of battle and across his vast landholdings. He and his wife were known to punish servants in the most bestial of manners. Gaining satisfaction through a variety of tortuous methods. At least Ferenc was able to take out much of his rage on the field of battle. It was said that he danced with the heads of Turks, after defeating and then beheading them. His martial exploits were worthy of a great commander, his domestic deeds the preserve of a despotic mind. Nonetheless, he is glorified in Hungary today as a national hero, while his wife goes unmentioned for obvious reasons.
Fame & Infamy – Possessed By Power
There were more famous names to come, Hunyadi and Rakoczi, Batthyany and Kisfaludy, Zichy and Bercsenyi. On these street signs each of them could live on forever. Many had possessed great power during their lifetimes. In the afterlife they still held power, this time over streets and cityscapes, squares and monuments. A reminder of what Hungarians could achieve both good and bad. Along the streets of Kispest, a pantheon of Hungarian heroes lives on in both fame and infamy. These are the ghosts of greatness past.