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.
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.
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.
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.