About fortchoteau1

I first learned about Eastern Europe and the various nations in the region by watching the Olympics. The 1984 Winter Games in Sarajevo was a formative experience in my life. I hold a B.S. in Political Science and a minor in History with an emphasis on International Affairs. My professional career reconnected me with Eastern Europe when I spent six years guiding tours and developing exhibits at a decommissioned Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missile site that had been designated a National Park. From that point I began to read more widely about Eastern Europe and starting traveling throughout the region. I have now made thirteen trips to Eastern Europe. Much of this blog is the result of those travels. In my professional career, I currently serve as the Director of a large museum in the Rocky Mountain West.

A Last Bastion – The Mongol Siege Of Esztergom: Up Against The Walls (For The Love of Hungary Part 27)

As the morning mist began to lift only to reveal a leaden sky, I began the climb up Castle Hill (Varhegy) in Esztergom. Up to this point I had been sleepwalking through the lower part of the city. Castle Hill would demand much more of me. This was not so much a climb as it was an ascent. In my present state of physical stupor, scaling Castle Hill was strenuous in the extreme. Though the weather was cool and overcast, it did not take long before I was sweating. Walking uphill toward the castle helped me understand that the hill was as much a part of the castle’s defensive architecture, as the works of man. Any foe hoping to subdue Esztergom would be forced to reckon with the hill’s formidable topography. Coupled with the stone defensive works constructed atop it, potential conquerors were faced with a near impossible task. Castle Hill would not defeat me on this day. I slowly made my way to the top without opposition. The Mongols in the mid-13th century happened to not be nearly so lucky, it was on the slopes of Castle Hill where they finally met with defeat.

A Mongol Manhunt - Bela IV being pursued by the enemy

A Mongol Manhunt – Bela IV being pursued by the enemy

A King’s Ransom – The Search For Bela IV
In the Mongol siege of Esztergom was the beginning of a new and more secure Hungary. Prior to their arrival in northern and western Hungary, the Mongol hordes had laid waste to the entirety of eastern Hungary. They had destroyed the Hungarian Army at the Battle of Mohi during the spring of 1241. They then proceeded to rape, pillage and plunder almost all the villages and settlements across the Great Hungarian Plain. The Magyar inhabitants had little in the way of defenses to put up any kind of resistance. The most formidable fortresses were made of nothing more than earthworks and wood. The Mongols found these easy to penetrate and easier to destroy. The region’s agriculture and population was nearly wiped out. Once the Mongols headed towards the Danube, the odds of a repeat performance looked likely. If they could get across the river, western Hungary would be theirs for the taking.

Esztergom, as the capital of Hungary and seat of royal power was squarely in the Mongol’s sights. While it only had a population of 12,000, Esztergom was Hungary’s largest city at the time. During the Middle Ages, an overwhelming majority of the Hungarian population lived in scattered settlements. Some of the larger population centers, such as Esztergom, did have castles and defensive works made of stone, but there were very few of those in the entire country. Certainly not enough to stop the Mongol assault or protect most of the population. The Mongols were particularly fixated on Esztergom. As the royal capital, it was the home of Hungarian King Bela IV who had barely managed to escape the rout at Mohi with his life. For the Mongols, their conquest would not be complete until they captured and killed Bela. He knew this, so instead of going back to Esztergom he fled the country. He made his way to an island off the coast of present-day Croatia.

The Defeated Victor - Royal Seal of Bela IV

The Defeated Victor – Royal Seal of Bela IV

Lightning Advances – Magyar and Mongol Horsemen
With their king nowhere to be found, the Hungarians were resigned to the same fate that had befallen so many of their countrymen. This was ironic. Three hundred and fifty years earlier, the Magyars (Hungarians) had swept into the Carpathian Basin and penetrated the frontiers of Central Europe using tactics now employed by the Mongols. Lightning advances by expert horseman had been a Hungarian hallmark. Nomads no more, they were now settled and virtually defenseless against a more powerful version of what they had once been. The Mongols on horseback were a weapon of mass destruction that swept all before them. The light infantry and cavalry of the Hungarians offered only tepid resistance. They were up against an all-conquering force that looked to be unstoppable.

On Christmas Day in 1241 a Mongol force of approximately 100,000, thundered across the frozen Danube into western Hungary. It was not long thereafter that they appeared on the outskirts of Esztergom. While the peasants and upwards of 300 nobles from the area in and around Esztergom were slaughtered, those lucky enough to find their way within the city’s hilltop citadel held out hope that they could somehow withstand the Mongol onslaught. During their retreat, the townspeople had employed scorched earth tactics. This deprived the Mongols of foodstuffs and valuable treasure. It is also served to infuriate them. It was now the dead of winter, with the weather looking just as bleak as the defender’s prospects of survival.

For the Mongols, the situation was not ideal either. They were on tactically suspect terrain when it came to siege warfare, reduced to using catapults to try and breach stone walls. When this tactic failed, the Mongol commander Batu Khan decided to order his troops to storm the walls. This was also repulsed when crossbowmen within the walls unleashed a torrent of arrows. The Mongol force was decimated. Batu Khan called off the siege and accepted defeat. The Hungarian victory was a signal success, but it did nothing to expel the Mongols from the Carpathian Basin. That would come about later in 1242 when news arrived that the Great Khan had died. The Mongols subsequently pulled out of Hungary, heading back eastward to take part in the election of a new leader.

Towering Above All - Esztergom Castle as it looks today

Towering Above All – Esztergom Castle as it looks today (Credit: Batomi)

Securing The Kingdom – A Hard Lesson Learned
Bela IV soon returned to his devastated kingdom. He set about on the monumental task of rebuilding Hungary. This meant not only resettling the land, but also ensuring that when the Mongols tried to invade again, the kingdom would be ready. The siege of Esztergom had offered the Hungarians a lesson in how to defend themselves against these rapacious, nomadic horsemen by building impregnable hilltop castles and citadels out of stone. Bela IV soon propagated a construction program to place these across the Hungarian Kingdom. These fortresses, along with heavily armored knights and crack shot crossbowmen, had turned the tide of victory during the siege of Esztergom. They would also turn the tide toward a more secure Hungary. The Mongols would never again get anywhere close to Esztergom.

The Great Facilitator – Maria Valeria Bridge in Esztergom: Bridging The Divide (For The Love of Hungary Part 26)

Over a thousand years ago Esztergom became the Hungarian capital. It continued in that role for two and a half centuries before the Mongols arrived bringing with them an apocalypse on horseback. Soon thereafter, Esztergom was reduced to ruin. The Mongol occupation of Hungary only lasted a year before they disappeared back into the dust of the Eastern steppes. Their influence lasted much longer, specifically in Esztergom. The Hungarian king at that time, Bela IV, moved his residence from Esztergom to Buda. Along with him went the political and administrative power of the Hungarian Kingdom. It was never to return. This had long lasting ramifications extending right up to the present. Budapest eventually grew into a metropolis of two million. Esztergom has a hundred times less population. Though Esztergom remains the seat of Catholicism in Hungary today, it gets much less attention despite holding a prime position along the Danube in a location that is less than half a kilometer from Slovakia.

Bridging The Danube - The Maria Valeria Bridge

Bridging The Danube – The Maria Valeria Bridge

A Reduced Role – A Tale Of Two Cities
One way of measuring Esztergom’s reduced role in Hungary is to compare the Maria Valeria Bridge which connects it to Sturovo, Slovakia (Parkany in Hungarian) with the Chain Bridge further down the Danube which famously connects Buda and Pest. The Chain Bridge was completed in 1849 as the first bridge built across the Danube in Hungary. When the Maria Valeria Bridge was finished in 1895, Budapest already had two bridges crossing the Danube and was about to add a third. The Maria Valeria Bridge went on to suffer an eight-year period from 1919- 1927 where it was incapacitated due to damage incurred by fighting between Czechoslovakia and Hungary following the First World War. It was during the Second World War that the original steel structure suffered a fatal blow. The Maria Valeria Bridge, along with the most important bridges in Budapest, were either blown up or semi-sunk in the roiling waters of the Danube. The Chain Bridge was reconstructed a mere four years after it was sunk. It took 57 years before the Maria Valeria Bridge was rebuilt. Obviously, Budapest took priority as the nation’s preeminent political and economic hub. It would have been unthinkable for the national capital to go without a bridge over the Danube. As for Esztergom it would have to wait until the Iron Curtain collapsed.

History was the first thing I thought of as I walked onto the Maria Valeria Bridge. It was impossible not to notice the neat little border post that was still standing on the left side of the bridge. Not long ago it had been manned around the clock. Now the post was little more than an exquisitely maintained relic. An artifact from a time when the borders of Eastern European nations consisted of something more than ideas. Membership in the European Union and Schengen Passport Free Zone for Hungary and Slovakia made customs checks, border posts and guards superfluous. It was hard to imagine how different things were just fifteen years before. There was no bridge and getting into or out of Hungary required a traveler to show the proper documents. The reconstructed Maria Valeria Bridge was a giant step in bridging that divide, but for Hungarians it was a throwback to a golden age. The Kingdom of Hungary had been exploding with economic growth when the bridge was built in the late 19th century. It tied a unified kingdom together, rather than two nations as it does today. At best, Hungary and Slovakia are not quite friends, but can hardly be considered foes. The bridge ties them to a common commercial culture.

20th Century Relic - Former border post at the Maria Valeria Bridge

20th Century Relic – Former border post at the Maria Valeria Bridge

Crossing Over – The Freedom To Take Sides
The Maria Valeria Bridge now allows motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians to cross over to either side of the Danube in a matter of minutes, if not seconds. The shrinkage of travel time and eradication of what was once a dangerous river crossing, can cause people to sometimes forget that the Danube is a real border in this area. It has often divided more than connected its northern and southern shores in modern times. The Danube was the great facilitator of commerce for centuries, but when the Maria Valeria Bridge was destroyed during World War II the river became an almost insuperable barrier to commerce. The present bridge on which I stood was both a facilitator of transport and commerce. Five years after it was reopened in 2001, traffic had grown twenty fold. The neighboring Slovakian town of Sturovo on the northern side of the Danube had suffered from endemic unemployment prior to the bridge’s completion. One out of every four people in the town were out of work. The bridge changed that situation for the better as cross border commerce soared. Esztergom and Sturovo became intimately reconnected.

A Bridge To History - Archduchess Maria Valeria of Austria

A Bridge To History – Archduchess Maria Valeria of Austria

The Return Of History – Past & Present Reconnected
A funny thing happened on the way to freedom and free trade along this stretch of the Danube. The divide between Esztergom and Sturovo was bridged by a return to Habsburg history in the form of an old name brought back to life. Maria Valeria was the youngest child of Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef and his beloved wife Queen Elisabeth (Sisi). Names have a weighty symbolism in this region for the history they represent. When the Maria Valeria Bridge was blown up in 1944, it would seem that this was the last anyone would hear of that name. The Habsburgs were history and after the imposition of communism nothing more could or would be said. A resurgence of nostalgia for the Austro-Hungarian Empire occurred after the collapse of communism. Never mind that the good old days were not so good, but they had been better than most.
Maria Valeria was a nostalgic rather than national name. One that could easily be resurrected when the bridge was reconstructed. There was opposition in the form of political correctness. Some felt that it would be better to avoid giving the bridge a name related to Austria-Hungary. The bureaucratically banal choice was “Friendship” Bridge. When the time came to choose between that apolitical name and the historically intriguing Habsburg one, imagination, history and nostalgia won out. The resonance of that lost world helped build a bridge that reconnected past and present.

Fascination Street – Saint Anna’s Church in Esztergom: A Spiritual Invitation (For The Love of Hungary Part 25)

All it takes is one moment to turn a place into something special for me. It is often a moment that manages to bring me closer to what fascinates rather than interests me. The difference between a fascination and an interest is the difference between something that lasts forever and something that is fleeting. Esztergom provided me with an unforgettable moment of fascination that six years later remains more than a memory. The moment of fascination arrived as so many memorable things in life do, unexpectedly. My focus in Esztergom had been threefold from the start. Go dip my toe in the mighty Danube, visit the Castle ruins and spend time at the giant domed Basilica.

The Basilica, on a distant hilltop half hidden by mist, was just coming into view. This would have usually been cause for excitement, but its dome looked so faraway as to seem unattainable. It only served to remind me of just how far I still had to walk. In the meantime, I proceeded to wander sleepy eyed down an anonymous street. I meandered past residences of people who I imagined were just as miserable as I was at that very moment. People who went to work for forty years, retired and slept for the rest of their lives. These false assumptions were more about my mood than a reality I could never really know. I had done next to nothing and was already exhausted by the perpetual gloom. I was caught somewhere between restlessness and listlessness.

A Spiritual Invitation - Saint Anna's Church in Esztergom

A Spiritual Invitation – Saint Anna’s Church in Esztergom

Harmony In Dissimilarity – A Logical Symmetry
My grey mood suddenly vanished at the sight of a structure that focused my attention. Along the road of anonymity, I came upon a domed church with two smaller steeples. The entire edifice was designed in the round with a single exception, a neo-classically styled entryway with a columned portico. The design managed to incorporate two disparate styles into one. The columned portico looked as though it had been grafted onto the circular structure. At the same time, the church had a logical symmetry. In my experience, it is rather rare to see architecture with such stylistic dissimilarity that creates harmony. It may have been inspired by neo-classicism, but the overarching effect was of two disparate parts that had been made to fit together. I snapped several photos of the church. This was a memory worth capturing in my own personal memory bank.

The church looked to be well past its prime. Paint and plaster on the exterior were chipping and the Doric columns had aged without grace. This was a temple to faith that did not soar so much as survive. It reminded me of people who show their age. The church’s faded charm was entrancing and managed to make the architecture seem that much more meaningful. On either side of the steps leading up to the entrance, were two and half meter tall angels sculpted in marble. Each was grasping a large cross close to them, while they rested a hand on heart. Further out from the church was a pedestal with a mounted narrow cross of a golden Christ being crucified. Standing in front of this scene, looking back at the church, everything had been placed in near perfect symmetry. I found the setting so entrancing that it altered my sense of time. The time that had elapsed between while I was looking at the church ceased to exist. Fascination has a way of making the rest of the world disappear.

A Moment of Fascination - Angel outside Saint Anna's Church in Esztergom

A Moment of Fascination – Angel outside Saint Anna’s Church in Esztergom

A Last Wish – The Basilica In Miniature
At the time, I wondered why I had not read anything about the church prior to my visit. This exposed my ignorance, along with my fixation on the Basilica which to my mind dwarfed all other attractions in Esztergom. Ironically, I had stumbled upon a smaller, pseudo replica of the Basilica that predated its existence. Saint Anna’s Parish Church (Szent Anna-plebaniatemplom), also known as the Round Church (Kerektemplom) due to its architectural style, was constructed over a nine- year period beginning in 1828. The church was the brainchild of Archbishop Sandor Rudnay and was designed to mimic the Pantheon in Rome. Rudnay believed he would never live long enough to see the Basilica completed in Esztergom so a smaller version was the best he could hope to see in his lifetime. He died three years into Saint Anna’s construction, but not before he was able to perform a ceremony blessing the cross of its great dome. A week later he was dead.

The architect, Viennese trained Janos Packh, would also end up in charge of much of the design and construction of the Basilica. It was a massive undertaking, but his confidence must have been bolstered by the smaller version he had completed. Thus, Saint Anna’s acted as a sort of Basilica in miniature. In truth, the two churches similarities are largely confined to their exteriors. Later when I had the opportunity to compare the two, I found Saint Anna’s much more to my liking. It was human in scale and relatively easy to comprehend. The Basilica was too spacious and powerful for me, it inspired fear and awe in unequal measure. The difference between the two became clear, Saint Anna’s was the art of spiritual invitation, while the Basilica was the art of spiritual intimidation.

Fascination Street - The Road to Saint Anna's Church in 1938

Fascination Street – The Road to Saint Anna’s Church in 1938 (Credit: fortepan.hu)

The Art Of Discovery – A Place To Match My Imagination
It was that spiritual invitation that now drew me closer to not only the church, but also Esztergom. I continued onward in my search for that same feeling I had while standing outside Saint Anna’s. The Basilica may have been the city’s greatest symbol, but for me Saint Anna’s was its lifeblood. I would never be able to imagine Esztergom without it. The city had suddenly come to life. If Saint Anna’s could capture my imagination to such a degree, what other wondrous discoveries were just around the next couple of corners. In retrospect, I reached the pinnacle of my Esztergom experience at Saint Anna’s. Nothing else in the city would come close to the way I felt about it. Saint Anna’s was like a first love, perfect in an imperfect way. I found a place that matched my imagination. Then, now and forever.

A Lost Romance – Sleepwalking Into Esztergom: The Reality Of Arrival (For The Love of Hungary Part 24)

There are many romantic ways to arrive in Esztergom, unfortunately mine was not one of them. Possibly the most romantic would have been to arrive in this small, uniquely historical city by boat. Elegantly floating up the Danube upon its slate grey surface sounds rather appealing. Sadly, that opportunity had long since sailed away with the end of summer. By late September, Danube River cruises north of Budapest were not much more than a distant memory. Even if they had been still taking place, most cruises these days only stop in Budapest, Vienna and less frequently, Bratislava. After all each of these places is capital city, just like Esztergom was eight hundred years ago. Arriving in Esztergom by river cruise seems extraordinarily enchanting, but it has not been the preferred method of arrival since the 19th century.

If I had planned my arrival forty years earlier, which would have been quite a feat for a toddler lacking a passport, I might have been able to take a ferry instead. That was because the original Maria Valeria Bridge had been bombed into oblivion by retreating German troops the day after Christmas in 1944. When the original structure last stood, the bridge connected Esztergom with the Czechoslovakia side of the Danube’s northern shoreline. It was not rebuilt until just after the turn of the 21st century. By that time, Czechoslovakia had ceased to exist and the European Union (EU) had stepped in to fund half the cost. This was something of a shame for those who might prefer the novelty of a river ferry. Taking a ferry ride across the Danube after escaping the suspicious questioning of communist era border guards would have been less enchanting, but more memorable. The river ferry was now nothing more than a relic, much like border posts on either side of the Danube. The EU had changed this situation for the better, altering the course of history. Yet the river continues to flow unbroken between Esztergom and the Slovakian town of Sturovo. Today the border is as much an imaginary one as it is political. The Danube is and always will be the real border that divides Hungary from Slovakia.

Spanning The Danube - Maria Valeria Bridge

Spanning The Danube – Maria Valeria Bridge (fortepan.hu)

Avenues Of Transport – Distant Memories
The Maria Valeria Bridge had once been as much an avenue of transport to Esztergom as the Danube. This arrival option, at least in its original form, had been sunk along with the bridge. If such an arrival had been possible, it would have meant following in the footsteps of the young Patrick Leigh Fermor. At the tender age of nineteen he strode across the bridge and into Esztergom on Easter Saturday. This was in the spring of 1934 on his walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. Leigh Fermor immortalized his journey in a couple of classic works of travel writing. What could have been better than to follow in the footsteps of this intrepid traveler? There were only two problems. I was arriving from the south rather than the north and the bridge Leigh Fermor used had been resigned to a watery grave. I am a purist when it comes to recreating history, so the beautiful bridge that stands in its place today was a poor substitute in my mind.

At the time of my trip to Esztergom I knew little about Leigh Fermor other than what I had gleaned by thumbing through a couple of his works in Budapest bookshops. My ignorance of his travels was probably for the best. I would have felt pangs of envy at being unable to furnish a letter of introduction to Esztergom’s mayor as he did. And I certainly could not have received a warmer greeting. Leigh Fermor had been invited by the mayor to have a front row seat in the Easter Saturday evening services at the great Basilica which towers above the Danube. My arrival was to be neither romantic nor elegant. It would certainly not become the stuff of literary legend.

River Watching - Esterzgom in 1934

River Watching – Esterzgom in 1934 (Credit: fortepan.hu)

The Hidden City – A Mystical Veil
I found my way to Esztergom, the same way hundreds of other people do each day. I hitched my hopes to a train which carried me north until it slowly came to a halt at the halfway point. It could go no further due to ongoing repair work on the tracks. All passengers were shuttled to a bus for an uncomfortable ride north. This was not what I had in mind when I set out on a gloomy autumn morning to traverse by rail the sixty-five kilometers from Budapest to Esztergom. I had imagined Esztergom as a place chock full of historic wonders floating like a medieval fantasy above the sparkling Danube. Of course, my imagination was defeated by the reality of arrival. Rather than a quaint train station, I now imagined we would be disembarking at a non-descript bus terminal. In most cases, mass transport has destroyed the romanticism of arriving in a new city. Bus stations are defined by dinginess, no one can ever look happy in a bus station and even the most respectable individual becomes creepy. I should not have been worried, much to my astonishment the bus pulled right up to the train station. I looked at the station and thought it could have all been so easy. The excitement of arrival had dissipated after the detour.

Mystical & Invisible - Esztergom on a gray September day

Mystical & Invisible – Esztergom on a gray September day

To makes matters that much more irritating, the train station was a long walk from the historic part of the city. A gloomy fog managed to shroud the city in a depressing veneer of semi-mist. I felt as though I was sleepwalking into Esztergom. Nothing seemed real, including the fact that I was awake. This was not what I had expected, but that is what makes travel so fascinating and unpredictable. I departed for this daytrip with the idea that Esztergom would be stuffed with one architectural treasure after another. Visions of basilicas and castle ruins had been dancing in my head. Those still might lay somewhere out there in the all-consuming gloom. For now, Esztergom was a hidden city, more invisible than mystical.

Crossing Over – Nine-Holed-Bridge: The Hortobagy’s Arched Wonder (For The Love of Hungary Part 23)

Visitors from across the world travel to Hortobagy National Park for a variety of reasons. These include a chance to see the csikos (Hungarian cowboys) in action, to catch a glimpse of ruggedly exotic animals such as Racka sheep and for world class birdwatching. All of these I found fascinating, but first on my list was the most famous and important architectural work associated with the Hortobagy. The Nine-Holed Bridge sounds like something one might find at a municipal golf course rather than part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While the bridge’s name is highly descriptive, it is also deceptive. A closer look at the bridge shows that the holes are actually arches. These help make the bridge an architectural wonder, unlike anything else found in the area.

Located along Highway 33, a half an hour drive from Debrecen at one of the main entry points into the park, this unique 19th century architectural artifact surmounts the serpentine Hortobagy River. At the time of its construction, the bridge was the longest in the Kingdom of Hungary. Today, it is a fascinating stopping point for tourists and architectural buffs, but when it was first conceived the bridge was a crucial piece of infrastructure, facilitating commerce and transportation. It bridged the watery divide between the Hortobagy and its economic hinterland. Without the Nine-Holed Bridge, the Hortobagy would have been a poorer place, both economically and architecturally.

Arched Wonder - The Iconic Nine-Holed-Bridge

Arched Wonder – The Iconic Nine-Holed-Bridge

A Developing Situation – Bridge Over Murky Waters
To understand the Nine-Holed Bridge’s historical importance as much more than a tourist attraction, it is crucial to realize just what it meant to the Hortobagy region when it was first constructed. Travel in this part of the Great Hungarian Plain was daunting and dangerous. Seasonal rains often turned the land into a morass overnight. Getting cattle, pigs and sheep to the region’s largest market in Debrecen could take weeks or months rather than days. At times, the Hortobagy was so inundated by seasonal flooding that only flat bottomed boats could proceed through the murky waters. The steppe was transformed as streams became rivers and rivers swelled into lakes. The latter was apparent at the Hortobagy River which was the largest watercourse crossed on the road to and from Debrecen.

Following the expulsion of the Ottoman Turks from the Great Hungarian Plain, development of the region slowly began to proceed in the final years of the 17th century. Crossing what had become a trackless wasteland during a century and a half of Ottoman rule was a risk few cared to take. Every inch of the way was fraught with danger. Drowning in a sea of mud hole was a real possibility. Packs of hungry wolves lurked in the reeds as they waited to descend on unsuspecting herders. Stories abound of entire villages uniting to fend off ferocious attacks. There were also bandits and highwaymen ready to prey upon weary travelers. Taming this fetid land was a formidable task. To facilitate travel and make the region more accessible, a bridge was constructed over the Hortobagy River in the same place where the Nine-Holed Bridge stands today. By modern standards this wooden bridge would hardly be called substantial, but by the standards of the time it was a major piece of infrastructure.

Bridging The Hortobagy - The Nine-Holed-Bridge from the air

Bridging The Hortobagy – The Nine-Holed-Bridge from the air (Credit: Civertan)

Building Bridges – The Great Facilitator
The bridge’s role of facilitating commerce in the Hortobagy was key to creating a viable economic trade across a large swath of the Great Hungarian Plain. This development was aided by an unprecedented period of peace in Hungary during the 18th and most of the 19th century. It allowed the more marginal areas to enjoy relative prosperity as stock grazing increased. Massive herds loosely guided by shepherds pastured on every available piece of dry ground. The bridge over the Hortobagy helped support this industry as more and more animals were taken to market after grazing upon the sublime steppe. Predictably, the wooden bridge began to buckle under the strain of thousands of hooves pounding the planks into submission. Repair costs were exorbitant just to perform simple maintenance and upkeep. The cost was mainly shouldered by Debrecen. The city burghers could not afford to allow such a lifeline of economic infrastructure to collapse. A new, more durable bridge was soon deemed necessary. Architect Ferenc Povolny created a bridge based upon classical design, hence the arches.

Classicism, or more precisely neo-classical architecture, was emerging anew during what would come to be known as the Reform era in Hungarian history. Many great construction works were conceived during this time period. Povolny’s bridge was one of them. It was designed to be made of stone, as it would better stand the test of time. The only problem was finding the proper materials to construct it. The marshy soil provided little of the material necessary to create a permanent structure. The construction crews tried using sand from the area to build its vaults. This proved little more than an exercise in futility. An idea soon arose to look further afield for materials that might be of more lasting value. The search led northward to the wine growing region of Tokaj, where a local entrepreneur operated a small stone quarry set among his vineyards. Though the stone was quickly collected, the boat transporting it downstream sank due to the excessive weight of the stone. A construction project which should have taken a couple of years, stretched from 1827 until 1833 when it was finally finished.

Crossing Over - Storm on the Great Hortobágy

Crossing Over – Storm on the Great Hortobágy (Credit: Tivadar Kosztka Csontvary)

A Work Of Art – Bridging The Divide
The completed bridge was a work of art. One that was of both utilitarian and aesthetic value. It still is today. Visiting the Nine-Holed Bridge was a strange experience for me. To find such an exquisite piece of architecture on a largely featureless landscape was shocking. It also made the bridge’s appearance that much more appealing. I inspected the bridge from all sides, marveling at its widened entrance which soon narrowed, a design effect to funnel the livestock herded across it. Now automobile traffic races across the 170 meter long bridge in just a few seconds. A far cry from the days when thousands of Hungarian Grey Cattle sauntered across. Times have changed, but the bridge has stayed the same.

Romanticism & Reality – Csikos: The Hungarian Cowboys of the Hortobagy (For The Love of Hungary Part 22)

The most romantic aspect of Hungary is not to be found in the beautiful women that walk the high streets of Budapest. Neither will it be discovered in the vineyards that climb up the hillsides of Villany and Tokaj, nor in the fin de siècle architecture that still soars above the Old Towns of so many Hungarian provincial city centers. Instead, the most romantic aspect in Hungary is to be found in the most inhospitable place. A land with more animals than people, a natural wonderland and wasteland ironically protected for its cultural values. That culture, despite or perhaps because of the harsh environment, lends itself to romanticism. At least that was what I came to believe after taking a wagon journey out onto the heart of the Great Hungarian Plain in Hortobagy National Park. This was an opportunity for me and my future wife to see one of the great cultural landscapes of both Hungary and the world.

Frontier Mentality – A Reverence For Tradition
Cowboys are the great icons of frontier culture. Chiefly associated with the American West, they are tough and rugged, the essence of independence and individualism. The cowboy is symbolic of a time when man was locked in a fierce struggle with the natural and animal world. The essence of this struggle was conquest, subdue or submit, conquer or be conquered. The Hortobagy is Europe’s answer to the American West. It was and to a small degree still is today another quintessential breeding ground for cowboys. Yet finding them on the Great Hungarian Plain still managed to shock me.  I had expected to see exotic animals, wetlands teeming with bird life and endless expanses of grass covered steppe. Yet finding the Hungarian cowboy alive and well in the middle of nowhere was another matter altogether. To discover these romantic characters still roaming these flatlands was cause for an afternoon of reverential romanticism.

Known in their mother tongue as Csikos, Hungarian cowboys are as much a part of the Hortobagy’s history as the mind-bending spaces that are a hallmark of this desolate steppe land. The Csikos have been riding the range in eastern Hungary for a millennium, crisscrossing the vast expanses on horseback. Stock growing and sheep herding is as much a part of the Hortobagy as the seeming endlessness of the terrain. Time and technology have largely failed to transform the region or its few inhabitants. The Csikos on the Hortobagy today carry on in much more moderated form the traditions of their ancestors. I soon discovered this when our wagon ride halted on the steppe. and a group of Csikos suddenly appeared on horseback. Rather than the blue jeans that American cowboys have helped make world famous, they were wearing looser fitting bright blue pants and shirts. Black boots and vests, along with a wide brim hat completed this fashionable garb. Watching the Csikos gallop forth and then alight from their steads was a study in frontier stylishness. With their clothing fluttered by a gentle breeze, it was as though they were unfurling themselves upon the landscape. Their unique and colorful clothing acting as an impressive response to the bland natural surroundings.

Romanticism & Reality - Csikos are the Great Hungarian Plain's Master Horsemen

Romanticism & Reality – Csikos are the Great Hungarian Plain’s Master Horsemen

From Another World – An Incredible Amount of Determination
Silhouetted against the cloudless sky with an autumnal sun burning bright and vibrant, the Csikos looked as though they had come from another world. To a large extent they had. A world where only the toughest managed to survive the endless succession of sunup to sundown days. Where weekends meant just as much work as weekdays while toiling outdoors in all four seasons. Struggling to graze and raise the massive herds of livestock that roamed the Hortobagy. The Csikos had been shaped by the unforgiving nature of this land. Only those as tough as the natural environment could survive. Weakness had no place in a world where the elements were the real opposition. Forging an existence out of the grass, dust and periodic bogs that laid upon this land took an incredible amount of tenacious grit.

Unyielding determination came to mind as the Csikos stood before us mounted on their dark steads. These muscular, sturdy men, many with flourishing mustaches, sun baked features and faces chiseled from stone, were the human embodiment of the will to survive in the Carpathian Basin’s most inhospitable landscape. A dismounted leader of the Csikos soon moved to the fore. He brandished a giant whip which he swung with great dexterity. As the whip cracked, each of the horses and riders focused their attention. Soon all the horses were brought to heel. They dropped to the ground and sat beside a still standing Csikos. The Csikos leader made several exhortations, calls that horse and rider obeyed. It was an impressively indigenous display of historical choreography that hearkened back to the earliest roots of historic Hungary, a cultural touchstone that was being kept alive by the men who stood before us.

Each person in our group was offered the opportunity to mount a stead with assistance from an accompanying Csikos. The thrill for me was less about getting atop the horse, than coming face to face with a Csikos. The one I met up close conveyed immeasurable strength. In concert with his exotic clothing, he looked like a historical character who had stepped straight out of central casting. It was impossible not to fall in love with the performance that was put on for us. Of course, I knew that these men were more substance than style. They led a hard life in an isolated region. Independent from the modern world, they were cut off from the comforts that have made the average Hungarian’s everyday existence a walk in the park. They had chosen a life of laborious hardship filled with satisfactions that those who came in cursory contact with them could scarcely imagine. For all the theater of their short performance, I knew this was largely an illusion. Their day to day existence was one of wearisome toil.

Staying Power - Hungarian Gray Cattle

Staying Power – Hungarian Gray Cattle

Survival of The Toughest – Life In The Hortobagy
On the ride back from our journey, the wagon took us past a herds of Hungarian Gray Cattle and Racka Sheep. The animals, like the Csikos, mirrored the landscape. They were stout, with a look of forceful determination and inherent stubbornness. While docile, I was ever mindful that they could turn fierce in a matter of moments. To survive in the Hortobagy such traits were essential. There was nothing easy in this land for man or beast. While Romanticism may inform the popular image of the Hortobagy, it is toughness which allows it inhabitants to survive.

Mysticism, Mirages & Melancholy – Hortobagy National Park: An Impossible Frontier (For The Love of Hungary Part 21)

When I think of World Heritage Sites in Hungary, I think of history, culture and architecture. Foremost among these are two places that could not be more different. Budapest, along the banks of the Danube and the quintessentially Hungarian village of Holloko, tucked into an obscure valley deep in the Cserhat Mountains. The riverfront in Budapest evokes the most splendid European cityscape imaginable while Holloko conjures up thoughts of age old traditions and images of spectacular quaintness. Budapest and Holloko are respectively the best of urban and rural Hungary. They also happen to be World Heritage Sites because of their outstanding intrinsic value. These are the places that come to mind for most of those who have spent time in Hungary’s capital as well as its hinterlands.

As for spaces, geological, biological and ecological, it is much more difficult to find world class landscapes in the country. Hungary’s most well-known natural wonder, the inland sea of Lake Balaton, does not enjoy World Heritage Site status, but there are several natural areas that do. The most surprising of these I discovered in an area one would not normally associated with natural wonders. It was to be found on the Great Hungarian Plain in the eastern part of the country. Covered by an ocean of short grass, marked by sublime flatness, dotted with shimmering wetlands and set beneath an incomprehensibly huge sky, lies the Hortobagy. It is Hungary’s first national park, as well as an International Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site. Ironically this vast and expansive landscape was historically viewed by travelers as a formidable wasteland. Today, it is sought out as a destination by tens of thousands of tourists.

A Wilderness Sublime - Sheep grazing on the Hortobagy

A Wilderness Sublime – Sheep grazing on the Hortobagy

Magical Bleakness – A Land Without Limits

A land of mysticism, mirages and melancholy, where time and distance take on an entirely different meaning, the Hortobagy is a landscape that seems to have neither an end nor a beginning. If the infinite exists on earth, than I just might be able to find it out on the Hortobagy. A land without limits, it was billed as much a state of mind, as a place. The park inhabits what might be termed an in between space. Famously noted by travelers as treacherous to cross due to searing heat, icy winds or freezing cold, bandits and a decided lack of natural landmarks. It was a place for nomadic herdsmen to graze cattle and sheep across vast expanses of land underlain by alkali soils. Inhospitable, mostly uninhabitable and hardly worth cultivating other than for stock raising, the Hortobagy was difficult to avoid for those traveling across eastern Hungary and even more impossible to forget.

In Hungary, the Hortobagy and surrounding land on the Great Plain is also known as the puszta, a term that is synonymous with emptiness. Though remarkably bleak, it is an entrancing landscape. Out on the puszta, the sky is so large and land so vacant that it is difficult to discern where horizons begin or end. Strangely enough, this also leads to optical illusions which gives the Hortobagy a magical quality. The kind of landscape where myths are shaped out of torpid air and mirages have been known to materialize on humid summer days. Historical accounts tell of travelers dazzled by illusion and disillusion. Some have reported seeing cities spring from the clouds, while others have sighted fantastical palaces forming in the near distance. These are but a few examples of the imaginary formations that appear without warning.

Laid Over The Land - Hortobagy River in the National Park

Laid Over The Land – Hortobagy River in the National Park (Credit: Wikipedia)

A Mesmerizing Isolation – Outer Space On Earth

The natural history of the Hortobagy is inseparable from the Tisza River, which is now dammed and held in a large lake to the west of the national park. While the mighty Tisza is now relatively tame, it long since left a distinctive mark upon the landscape. The alkali soil, the main component of the Hortobagy’s barren landscape, was deposited over ten thousand years ago by a wilder version of the Tisza. Back then, massive herds of wild animals roamed across the area, Later, domesticated animals grazed these grasslands into submission. The same processes still take place today on a much smaller scale. To witness the timeless rituals of nature, animal and man interacting in this sublime landscape, my future wife and I traveled by train from Debrecen to the small village of Hortobagy. This was where we entered Hortobagy National Park, paying to take a wagon out onto the expansive flatlands.

My initial impression of the Hortobagy could best be summed up as “nowhere to hide.” The plain expanded exponentially in every direction. The only vegetation to be seen, other than grass, were hazy clumps of tiny trees. These were so far away as to be barely discernible. It was difficult to tell if the horizon was ten or ten thousand miles in the distance. The further we traveled, the further away the horizon stretched. Everyone and everything, whether natural or manmade, was reduced to insignificance by the sky. A few minutes after leaving the village behind, I felt as those we had entered outer space on earth. The wagon was moving, but I had the sensation that it was going nowhere. The horses pulling it were running to stand still. The openness was mesmerizing and at the same time isolating. It was world unto itself.

Heading out to the Hortabagy - Hungarian cowboy on a wagon cart

Heading out to the Hortabagy – Hungarian cowboy on a wagon cart

Heading out to the Hortabagy – Hungarian cowboy on a wagon cart

The Wilderness Sublime – A Land Of Illusion

The idea that the Hortobagy was in the same country as Budapest seemed impossible. This felt like the most remote frontier I had ever visited. Light years away from the rest of Hungary. This land made me believe, if just for a moment, that nothing else existed outside of it. It was mind boggling to think that Debrecen was only a forty-minute car ride to the west. The otherworldly quality of the landscape was largely due to it being filled by absence rather than presence. The wagon had transported us to an entirely different universe, one where time hardly existed. I began to wonder if any living entity could stand to live here for very long. The lack of life, like so many things with the Hortobagy, turned out to be an illusion. People and animals had been integral to the region since time immemorial. As I was about to discover, they still were.

The Inseparability Of Church & State – Kossuth’s Chair In Debrecen (For The Love of Hungary Part 20)

As an American I had always been taught that the separation of church and state was sacrosanct. It was one of the defining differences between the United States and Europe. This became apparent to me when I first started visiting churches in Hungary. In almost every one of them, the Hungarian flag could be found flying in a prominent place. The relationship was explicit, the church was an integral part of the state and vice versa. Four decades of communist rule may have eroded the religiosity of Hungarians, but the relationship of church intertwined with state had been returned to its historical role in 1989. This relationship was inviolable, but also paradoxical. That was because I found Hungarian churches almost always empty. The few times I witnessed a service, the church would be largely devoid of parishioners. Nonetheless, the Hungarian flag was proudly flying among all the other usual religious trappings.

Kossuth's Chair - In the Great Reformed Church of Debrecen

Kossuth’s Chair – In the Great Reformed Church of Debrecen (Credit: Andreas Poeschek)

An Empty Chair – Kossuth Takes A Stand
The most poignant example of the interconnection between church and state I found in Hungary was at Debrecen’s Great Reformed Church. In addition to being a House of God, it has also acted as a House of History. The church is home to one of the more unique and exalted historical artifacts to be found anywhere in the country. Placed up against one of the white washed walls of the interior is a rather simple chair. Its frame is made of polished wood with a burgundy cushion adorned with a circular wreath of flowers covering the seat. The chair looks like the kind of set piece one might expect to find in an exhibition of Biedermeier inspired furnishings, but this is no ordinary chair. It is known as the Kossuth Chair because on April 14, 1849, Lajos Kossuth sat in this chair at the Great Reformed Church on a momentous day in Hungarian history.

The Hungarian government had been forced earlier in the year to flee from Pest due to the Austrian army’s occupation of the city. Now Kossuth was prepared to make a historic pronouncement in Debrecen’s most famous building. The church was packed with a capacity crowd that spilled out its doors and into the immediate surroundings. They were there for an open session of parliament. When Kossuth rose to speak the audience fell silent. He then made a statement that has become known as the Hungarian Declaration of Independence. His pronouncements can best be summed up by the words that due to their behavior in Hungary the “House of Habsburg has forfeited the throne.”

This declaration was met with roars of approval, but the cheers were deceptive. While a motion was approved by parliament, one-third of the lower house was not present and only twenty-eight members of the upper house were there. Many in Hungary either disagreed with Kossuth’s course of action or were ambivalent. On the other hand, Kossuth took a risk that sealed his place in history. It also helped seal the fate of Hungary. Later that same year Hungarian independence collapsed as its military forces were overwhelmed by the Austrians who were by then supplemented by an influx of Tsarist Russian forces. Kossuth fled the country never to return. The chair at the Great Reformed Church became part of his legacy. A chair that has remained empty ever since that time.

Kossuth makes his case - Declaring independence

Kossuth makes his case – Declaring independence

The Ghost That Haunts – Invisible Forces
I found Kossuth’s Chair to be one of the more fascinating artifacts I have come across in my travels across Hungary. The chair was left unsecured, up against a wall where anyone could approach it. The fact that it was not in the Hungarian National Museum, even though it was certainly worthy of an exalted spot there, made the chair’s presence that much more powerful. To see an artifact in the same place where it became part of history is a relatively rare experience. Rarer still is the ability to stand within arm’s length of such an artifact without anything or anyone standing between viewer and object. Regardless of one’s opinion of Kossuth, the chair is an excellent stand in for his historical presence. It gives the moment he gave voice to Hungarian independence a certain permanency. Though the chair is empty, Kossuth’s ghost haunts the church. Just as he haunts the history of a valiant yet failed attempt at revolution.

Kossuth’s speech is the most famous of a surprisingly long list of political activities that took place within the church. Political turbulence in Hungary often found its way into the Great Reformed Church and the nearby Reformed College during the first half of the 20th century. In the chaotic aftermath of World War I, Romanian troops occupied Debrecen for eleven months. When they were finally ready to leave, the troops were marshaled in front of the Great Reformed Church and from there marched out of town. A month later, the man who would lead Hungary during the interwar era, Regent Miklos Horthy was greeted upon his arrival in Debrecen with a ceremony in the church.

When the Horthy regime was swept aside during World War II, the German authorities took over much of the nearby Reformed College. That occupation was short lived as the Germans were usurped by the Soviets who proceeded to use both the college and church for their own purposes. In December 1944, the Provisional National Assembly overseen by the Soviets met in the church. Debrecen had once again provided a home for the Hungarian government, but as in 1849, not for long. Time and again, the Great Reformed Church and Reformed College were recalcitrant participants in Hungary’s tumultuous 20th century history.

In the shadows of history - The Great Reformed Church with Kossuth statue

In the shadows of history – The Great Reformed Church with Kossuth statue

A Consequence Of History – The Declaration Of Independence
Today, the Great Reformed Church plays a more spiritual role in Hungarian life. The memorable political events of the past two centuries that took place within its walls are gone, but not forgotten. Kossuth’s chair stands as a testament to more turbulent times, when Hungary was searching to regain its independence. An independence that they would eventually recover. Kossuth’s declaration was a major, but also misleading step on the road to that recovery. That it took place within the white washed walls of the Great Reformed Church was not a coincidence, but a consequence of Hungarian history. One where church and state is inextricably intertwined.

“It Used To Be Way Worse” – Debrecen: The Tales Of Three English Travelers (For The Love of Hungary Part 19)

Debrecen, for me the city’s name provokes two immediate thoughts. The first is of the Great Reformed Church, that soaring neo-classical symbol of a city that has come to be called the “Calvinist Rome”. The other, is Debrecen’s less than compelling reputation as a forlorn city on the frontiers of eastern Hungary. The words “forlorn” and “Debrecen” stir memories of a story I heard about a visitor to the city several years ago. It was told to me by an Englishman who now lived in Budapest and was discussing his low opinion of the city. Debrecen was of mutual interest to us because we had both married women who were from there. Each of us had spent a considerable amount of time in the city. My English acquaintance prefaced his story by stating that he found the city ultra-boring. He said that his father, who lived in a drab suburban village on the far outskirts of London, came to Debrecen for his wedding. The father had hardly ever traveled much outside of Great Britain, thus he had little idea of what to expect. After spending the better part of a week in Debrecen, he told his son that the experience gave him a better appreciation of where he lived in England.

Prior to his visit, he had always thought his home village was rather stale and sleepy, but Debrecen took boredom to a whole other level. There was nothing to do or see after a day in the city. He nearly went stir-crazy with cabin fever while sitting in a hotel room for what seemed like weeks rather than days. Like most people, he likely did not have the will or fortitude to seek out some of Debrecen’s lesser known attractions. And why would he? The language was unintelligible and the city’s history a subject for which he had zero knowledge. The greater truth for this man, like many other visitors, is that once they sample the delights of Debrecen’s main thoroughfare, Piac utca (Market Square) and the surrounding Belvaros (Inner city) there is not much to see, especially if you do not have a native speaker as a guide. For me, the most interesting aspect of this Englishman’s story was that his less than stellar opinion of Debrecen aligned with those of a couple of his fellow countrymen who visited the city hundreds of years before him.

Pre-modern Debrecen - Artistic rendering of citizens at a market in the town

Pre-modern Debrecen – Artistic rendering of citizens at a market in the town

Far Flung & Forlorn – Obscure Magic On The Hungarian Frontier
Robert Townson grew up in the latter part of the 18th century. He hailed from a town that was part of the greater city of London. Townson was an English natural scientist by trade, as well as something of a polymath who happened to also be a curious traveler. He specialized in medicine and mineralogy. In 1793 Townson traveled to Hungary on an expedition, where among other things, he explored the High Tatra mountains in what was then Upper Hungary (present- day Slovakia). He wrote in detail about his travels, not only in the mountains, but also across much of Hungary. During that trip, Townson passed through Debrecen. To say that he was not impressed with what he found would be an understatement.

In his book Travels in Hungary Townson stated: “To what circumstance Debretzin (sic) owes its existence I don’t know; nor can I divine what can have induced thirty thousand people to select a country destitute of springs, rivers, building materials, fuel and the heart cheering vine, for their residence. Debretzin, though it has the title and privileges of a town, must be considered as a village; and then it is perhaps the greatest village in Europe. But should it be considered as a town, it is one of the worst, though its inhabitants are not the poorest.”

Townson’s description focuses on the frontier aspects of the city, making it sound like what it was, an oversized urban island mysteriously situated in a rural hinterland. Reading Townson’s description, one gets the feeling that Debrecen somehow appeared on the Great Hungarian Plain. Not so much out of nowhere, as in the middle of nowhere. As if by some obscure magic it had arisen out of the dusty and alkali ridden soil with nothing to recommend it. A sort of baffling miracle, just as featureless as the landscape it was set within. Townson was not the only Englishman to feel that Debrecen was far flung and forlorn.

Robert Townson - Author of Travels in Hungary

Robert Townson – Author of Travels in Hungary (Credit: Augustus Earle)

The Largest Village In Europe – A Liquid Mass Of Mud
John Paget was an English agriculturist who married into Transylvanian aristocracy. He then lived on an estate owned by his ethnic Hungarian wife in Transylvania. This was where he perfected several notable agricultural innovations. Paget also found the time to travel extensively across Hungary. In the process, he became a travel writer in the truest sense of the word, collecting information on people and places, customs and culture from observations made during his travels. Paget’s travels coincided with the first great wave of modernization in Hungary. Thus, he was witness to a country on the cusp of what would eventually become a wholesale transformation. These travels led him to author Hungary and Transylvania: With Remarks on Their Condition, Social, Political and Economical, Volumes 1 and 2. This work, published in the mid-19th century, offers a comprehensive look at every region in Hungary through the eyes of Paget who was a keen observer.

The volumes include his observations of Debrecen. “It well deserves the name of ‘the largest village in Europe,’ given it by some traveler; for its wide unpaved streets, its one-storied houses, and the absence of all roads in its neighborhood, render it very unlike what an European associates with the name of town. In rainy weather the whole street becomes one liquid mass of mud, so that officers quartered on one side the street are obliged to mount their horses and ride across to dinner on the other. Instead of a causeway, they have adopted the expedient of a single wooden plank; and it is a great amusement of the people, whenever they meet the soldiers on this narrow path, to push them off into the sea of mire below.” Mud ridden streets at best, lack of roads at worst. In Paget’s account the dusty frontier outpost Townson described becomes an oversized, pre-modern village lined with thoroughfares of sludge. Paget does go on to offer an analysis of the Magyar (Hungarian) character, based on the people he observed in Debrecen. He felt the city offered a purer version of both the Hungarian language and the Hungarian people. Nonetheless, Paget makes it clear that he does not find Debrecen an ideal town.

John Paget - Wrote two massive volumes on Hungary in the mid-19th century

John Paget – Wrote two massive volumes on Hungary in the mid-19th century

First Impressions – An Unsightly Mess
The three opinions of Debrecen given above were honest assessments of what each of these Englishman thought of it. Admittedly, I also found Debrecen less than impressive on my first visit. The area in and around Piac Utca (Market Square) was worth seeing, but not much else. My wife who spent the first two decades of her life in the city told me, “It used to be way worse.” She said that the city center had been in disrepair during the communist period. It had improved markedly since that time. National government and European Union structural funds had gone into redeveloping the city center. I shuttered to think what it must have looked like in the late 1980’s. Debrecen’s historical reputation, at least among a handful of English travelers, as an unsightly mess with few attractions worth seeing has remained somewhat true up to the present. Yet as I would discover over many visits to the city in the coming years, there was much more to see and do in Debrecen than first time visitors could possibly imagine.

Minimalism On A Massive Scale – The Great Reformed Church of Debrecen (For The Love of Hungary Part 18)

What would Debrecen be without the Great Reformed Church? Some distant day in the far away future, that question will likely have to be answered. Twice in the city’s history, the magnificent church that lay at its heart has been burned to ruin. The first time occurred in 1564 when fire irreparably damaged the three hundred plus year old Saint Andras (Saint Andrew) Church. It took sixty-four years before a new and improved version rose from the ashes. This one failed to last longer than its predecessor.  A little over two and a half centuries after reconstruction it too was consumed by a blaze. A massive conflagration took the entire city center with it in 1802. Almost immediately workers began clearing the ruins as planning began a replacement for the church to be constructed on the same site.

The view from above - Great Reformed Church in Debrecen

The view from above – Great Reformed Church in Debrecen (Credit: Civertan)

Great Reformed Architecture – Breaking With Tradition
The early 19th century was a time of transition in architecture, the Baroque period was fading into history. Classicism would soon become the ascendant trend. A unique design for the Great Reformed Church in Debrecen would be part of the vanguard of this movement in Hungary. The newest iteration of the church broke with tradition, both architecturally and with the choice for the main architect. Mihaly Pechy was a military engineer not an architect by trade. Stationed in the Transylvanian city of Nagyszeben (present day Sibiu, Romania), Pechy had once been a student at the Reformed College in Debrecen. The college had also been wiped out by the fire in 1802. Pechy submitted plans to rebuild the college which were quickly approved. Soon he did the same for a new church. His initial vision was for a round church topped by a massive dome. This highly original new design also called for a pair of towers. The dome and round shape were dropped due to cost and difficulties with water not far beneath ground level.

The final architectural product would be an alteration of Pechy’s ideas along with the work of two other architects, Jozsef Thaller and Karoly Rabl. The former reorienting the church longitudinally, while the latter added vaulting to the church’s interior space. Construction of the church was not yet complete when the first service was held in 1819. It would be another three years until the eastern tower was finished. When it was, exactly twenty years had passed since its immediate ancestor had passed into history.
Neo-classicism had come to the Great Hungarian Plain, leaving its stylistic imprint all over the Great Reformed Church. Eight large columns lined the façade, while a massive pediment crowned them. This facade was flanked at the top by twin towers, one each for the eastern and western ends. The towers soared higher than any other part of the building, topping out at sixty-one meters aboveground. The brightness of the church’s beaming yellow exterior provided a varnish of radiance.

The interior of the church had its own charms, but they were much less exuberant than the exterior. The nave could hold up to 5,000 people. Since decorative elements took up so little space inside the church there was plenty of room for a large congregation. The most prominent of these were an Empire style pulpit, from which a minister could address the congregation with spiritual authority. One thing that the interior and exterior had in common, neither was overwrought. Everything was done cleanly, without a hint of ostentation. The church evoked power and glory, but without seeming overbearing or lavish. In a sense, Debrecen’s Great Reformed Church managed to pull off the paradoxical feat of minimalism on a massive scale.

Silence on the inside - Interior of the Great Reformed Church in Debrecen

Silence on the inside – Interior of the Great Reformed Church in Debrecen (Credit: Zairon)

Overwhelming Awe & Subtle Reverence – Silence On The Inside
My first visit to the Great Reformed Church was paradoxical, a combination of overwhelming awe while peering up at the exterior and subtle reverence after entering its confines. The exterior made me feel small. That was to be expected since I was standing before the largest Calvinist Church in Hungary. I was struck by the building’s overpowering presence. It was humbling to be confront by such a massive structure, but upon entering the church my perspective changed to the spiritual. The nave was surrounded by stark white walls on all sides. There was nothing to distract from focusing on worship and prayer. A silence swept over me. This was a place for listening, not just to the words from a sermon, but to one’s own heart. This was an environment created to cultivate introspection. Truth be told, if the church’s interior had been as grandiose as the exterior I doubt it would have made much of an impression upon me. The contrast between the two spoke volumes. The interior architecture was trying to tell me something, mostly about myself.

Soon thereafter I decided to climb a series of stairs that led to the top of the church’s western tower. This was an expansive exercise in lung capacity. Once again, my heart was at the center of the experience. In this case, one that was more physical than spiritual. Climbing to the top of the Great Reformed Church was quite literally not for the faint of heart. The Rakoczi Bell, made from captured Austrian cannons almost four hundred years before, could be seen here. The Great Fire of 1802 had not caused it irreparable harm. The bell had achieved quite a feat, outlasting the Great Reformed Church’s predecessor. There is a good chance that it just might outlast everything which surrounds it today, such is the craftsmanship and solidity that has helped it to survive the fall of empires, kingdoms and state sponsored ideologies. The Rakoczi Bell has tolled for all of them.

Bastion of beauty - Eastern tower of the Great Reformed Church in Debrecen

Bastion of beauty – Eastern tower of the Great Reformed Church in Debrecen (Credit: Zairon)

A Citadel Of Calvinism – Towering Above
After I made it up the last set of stairs, I was treated to a view over Debrecen’s Belvaros (Inner city), specifically Piac utca (Market street) and Kossuth ter (Kossuth square). These were the second and third most important public spaces in Debrecen, ranking only behind the one I stood atop. The Great Reformed Church towered above it all. The church was built to be this way. A citadel of Calvinism that had become the symbolic embodiment of Debrecen. The church and the city were inseparable. To imagine one without the other was unthinkable. What would Debrecen be without the Great Reformed Church? Let us hope that question will never have to be answered. Judging by history, it probably will.