Heading Nowhere Fast – Budapest’s Railway Ruin: Istvantelek Train Yard (Part One)

Befitting the major transit point for an entire nation, Budapest has three main train stations that take in most points of the compass. There is Keleti Palyudvar (Eastern station), whose frontal approach has just undergone a badly needed upgrade, Nyugati Palyudvar (Western station), a spectacular late 19th century Eiffel creation that has slowly succumbed to eloquent dilapidation and Deli Palyudvar (Southern station), a functionalist concrete concoction that was built to replace the original station which was shot to smithereens in the Battle of Budapest. Each of these stations counterintuitively services various points of the Hungarian compass. For hundreds of thousands each year, they are still the palaces of transport.

Trains originating from Nyugati Palyudvar often go east and those starting at Keleti Palyudvar head west. The most notable instance of this twisted logic occurs when trains head west to Vienna from Keleti. While such turns of the tracks have perplexed me on occasion, another question regarding the train stations of Budapest looms much larger in my mind. Specifically, why is there no northern station (Eszak Palyudvar) in the city? After all, if you have east, west and south stations then why not have a north one as well. I have heard various explanations, the most convincing of which is that all the other stations cover potential destinations. Also, the fact that the area north of Budapest is quite mountainous, with rugged terrain and comparatively few populated places would have made a railway station servicing it a needless waste of money.

Rustic Charm - Istvantelek Train Yard

Rustic Charm – Istvantelek Train Yard

The Last Joyride – A Train Trip Back In Time
The fact that there is no northern station in Budapest does not mean that railways have avoided this part of the city. On the contrary, many of the great treasures of Hungarian railway history can be found in the area at two places. The first one is Vasuttorteneti Park (Hungarian Railway Museum), which attracts tens of thousands of tourists every year. Visitors come to look at an amazing array of old locomotives and railway carriages that evoke the increasingly distant golden era of railway travel in Hungary. The other area filled with railway treasures bumps up against the Vasuttorteneti property, but hardly anyone is aware of it. This is the now defunct Istvantelek Train Yard, also known by its colloquial name as the Red Star Train Yard.

Istvantelek is off limits to tourists, but not to wily urban explorers who are willing to chance a visit. Many railway enthusiasts are aware of the rusting treasures to be found throughout the train yard. It has everything from hulking locomotives emblazoned with the communist red star to pre-World War I monsters that stand in silent, stolid testimony to the engineering achievements of a lost industrial age. A visit to Istvantelek is difficult, but not impossible. My Hungarian brother-in-law Attila, set out with me on a brisk winter’s day in January to see if we could get inside and take a look at some incredible railroad history.

A Living Museum - Istvantelek Train Yard

A Living Museum – Istvantelek Train Yard

Controlled Access – A Not So Grand Entrance
Access to the site was somewhat controlled, but Istvantelek was not heavily guarded. Research on the internet showed that the train yard could be accessed one of two ways. Either by sneaking into the train yard or asking for access from someone manning a lightly guarded main gate. The latter method seemed more promising if it was done on a Sunday. That’s because Istvantelek is still home to several small industrial concerns that have handfuls of staff working there on weekdays. On Saturdays and Sundays the site was said to be mostly abandoned, offering the most opportune time for a visit. The fewer people around, the better the odds of having a look. Attila was up for the adventure as well. He contacted a friend of his who had a bit of knowledge about the site. They planned to go with us, but other commitments forced them to back out at the last moment. From what we were able to learn, it was likely that we would have to find a hole in the fence or scale a wall in order to get inside. I did not enjoy the thought of climbing over a wall, especially when I first saw what would face us.

As we drove around the streets surrounding the train yard, I was unable to see much inside. That was because a cement wall, at least six feet high topped with three strands of rusty barbed wire, surrounded much of the perimeter. Thoughts of trying to straddle the wall while tangled up in barbed wire came to mind. We were a couple of guys in our late 40’s who were decently fit, but not exactly in prime shape. Climbing walls and suffering barbed wire wounds was not exactly an appealing idea. Fortunately, while driving around the perimeter we began to see some chain link fencing that looked more easily scalable, including one area with a gaping hole in it. The fence could be overcome, but perhaps there was a more promising option.

Lasting Presence - Abandoned Locomotive at Istvantelek Train Yard

Lasting Presence – Abandoned Locomotive at Istvantelek Train Yard

Twenty Nos & One Yes – A Ticket To Ride
We were finally able to find an entrance to the site with a guardhouse and gate. The gate was up, but the guardhouse was manned. We pulled up to the guardhouse where a man of medium height and build with graying hair and soft eyes greeted us. Attila decided to get out of the car and talk with him. I stayed in the vehicle, trying to look as disinterested as possible. The guard’s voice always maintained a level tone and there was very little discernible emotion on his face. He seemed to be relaxed. This was a good sign. It has been my experience in Eastern Europe that if you are to be told no, a negative answer is almost always immediately forthcoming. In this case, I was cautiously optimistic, but a bit unsure as their conversation lasted several minutes. When Attila returned to the car, he started the engine and said, “after about twenty nos I finally got a yes. The man said we could look around, but not to linger for too long.” I was elated. We were in.

Click here for: The Rustbin of History – Where A Red Star Still Shines: Istvantelek Train Yard (Part Two)


Jozsef Katona of Kecskemet – A Tragedy Followed By Triumph (For The Love of Hungary Part 46)

Visiting a new place in provincial Hungary always seems to bring me into contact with historical personages that I knew nothing about prior to my arrival. Names such as Erkel, Jokai, Kodaly, Balissi and Dobo have become familiar to me because I have visited a city or village where their exploits loom large. Many of these men have statues in Budapest and a prominent place in the national psyche, but their legacies are most alive at the places where they came of age. These are usually hometowns or places that played host to their greatest achievements. A provincial city needs it heroes much more than a nation’s capital. Local heroes offer hope, a sense of pride and a shared connection to the local citizenry. Smaller cities, towns and villages are always proud to extol the virtues of one of their own. Homegrown talent that made a name for themselves and at the same time brought a bit of fame to their hometown.

A Call For Justice - Jozsef Katona

A Call For Justice – Jozsef Katona (Credit: Miklos Barabas)

The Famously Anonymous – Provincial Hungarian Heroes
Anytime someone says I am an expert on Hungary a sense of irritation sweeps over me. Knowing the ins, outs and nuances of an entire country is an impossible learning curve. My attempts to master Hungary always falter when I visit a new city or town. That is when I am suddenly standing face to face with a famous historical personage who is anonymous to me. This happens to be someone famous who is immortalized in sculpture or statuary, whose name is etched on a plinth or plaque. These personages are almost always “local” men. I use “local” with quotation marks because many of those deified in provincial cities and towns happen to be national heroes. The proverbial local boy who was better than good, they were great. Those whose deeds far exceeded the modest cities and towns they sprang from. This was the case in Kecskemet, where I was confronted with the life, death and legacy of Jozsef Katona. Katona’s legacy makes an unforgettable appearance in the city center.

It was difficult not to notice the references in Kecskemet to Katona. A few hundred meters from the railway station was the Jozsef Katona Museum which stands in Jozsef Katona Park. The city’s lavishly ornate neo-Baroque theater is named after Katona. The ultimate and heartbreakingly tragic tribute to the man comes with a memorial stone located a stone’s throw from the Kecskemet City Hall. A flower bed located in front of the building holds a split block of stone. The monument’s sad poignancy is expressed in the fact that it records the exact spot where Katona succumbed to a massive heart attack at the age of 39. The stone is meant to symbolize Katona’s broken heart. During his lifetime, Katona was not given proper appreciation for Bank Ban. A play that still dominates Hungarian drama today.

Strokes of Genius - Manuscript Cover for Bank Ban

Strokes of Genius – Manuscript Cover for Bank Ban

For King Or Country – A Contentious Relationship
Jozsef Katona’s life did not make him an obvious candidate for great renown. He was born in 1791 in Kecskemet, the son of a weaver who lived modestly. During his youth, Katona was often ill, but was blessed with a brilliant intellect. He excelled in his studies at a local Roman Catholic school. At the age of eleven his parents took him to study in Pest. He lasted only a year before returning home mainly due to illness. Katona would regain his academic equilibrium during the ensuing years, eventually matriculating to school in Szeged before returning to Pest. He excelled in philosophy and judicial studies leading him towards a career as an attorney. This made him little different from other upwardly mobile Hungarian men who used their intelligence to advance their position in life. What made Katona different was his passion for drama. He had an artistic side that expressed itself with dramatic intent.

While studying and later practicing law, Katona became increasingly involved in Pest’s theatrical scene. He acted in many plays and during a five-year period wrote or reconfigured twenty-two different dramas. During this time Katona submitted his original work, Bank Ban, in a competition held by the Transylvanian Museum in Kolozsvar (present day Cluj, Romania) for a play to be performed at the opening of a National Theater in the city. The play was rooted in medieval Hungarian history. The central character, Bank, is acting on behalf of King Andrew II (1205-1235) while the king is away fighting in a foreign campaign. Unfortunately, Bank gets himself involved in a nefarious plot to murder the king’s German born wife, Queen Gertrude. He first tries to stop the rebellious plot, but then ends up killing the queen. Bank is forced to wrestle with the question of personal and professional loyalties. The moral quandary he finds himself in regarding his duties is fascinating.

The play touched on contemporary issues concerning the Hungarian’s contentious relationship with their foreign overlords, the Austrian Habsburgs. This would have made the play a lightning rod for controversy if it had been selected as one of the top entries. Instead the committee judging the play did not mention it at all. This may have been because it drew uneasy parallels between past and present attitudes to foreign rulers. Katona revised the play and published it four years later to no avail. It was only several years after his death that it finally received acclaim. Bank Ban soared in popularity to the point that on the first day of the Hungarian Revolution on March 15, 1848 the play was performed at the National Theater. It was later made into an opera by the composer Ferenc Erkel. That rendition of Bank Ban has proved wildly popular with Hungarians ever since. The play is a touchstone of Hungarian drama. As for Katona, he died in 1830 long before his play became famous.

Remember Me When I'm Gone - Jozsef Katona statue in Kecskemet

Remember Me When I’m Gone – Jozsef Katona statue in Kecskemet (Credit: Mister No)

A Dramatic Legacy – Speaking Across The Ages
The legacy of Jozsef Katona is paradoxical. He was a successful attorney whose talent as a dramatist was not discovered until many years after his death. While Katona toiled in theatrical obscurity, he was able to create one of the great Hungarian dramas of all time. Katona may never have achieved the fame and notoriety he deserved, but Bank Ban’s meaning and message has lasted well beyond his life. All any artist can ask for is that their work speaks across the ages to universal experiences that everyone has in common. Allowing each observer to see something of themselves in the work. They might then come to understand the world in which they live much better. Bank Ban has managed to do this for each new generation of Hungarians. It might be said that Jozsef Katona knew his people better than they knew themselves. It is also true that they hardly knew him at all.


Arrivals From The Future, Departures From The Past – Kecskemet’s Eclectic Architecture (For The Love of Hungary Part 45)

The landscape I had journeyed across to arrive in Kecskemet was so devoid of sensory experience that I found myself wondering if the city would be the same. Instead of mind-numbing monotony, I would soon discover that a magnetically eclectic city awaited me. There was enough culture, history and architecture in Kecskemet to keep a person occupied for several days. This was contrary to my inauspicious arrival in the city. I first set foot in Kecskemet at the lackluster looking train station, a structure that did not do the rest of the city justice. Sizing it up, I quickly decided that the station was not worth photographing. This was something of a shame since a different iteration of this very building had been where the great composer, folk song collector and musicologist, Zoltan Kodaly was born. Kodaly’s father worked for Hungarian Railways and lived with his family in the station. The man whose approach to music education, the Kodaly method, would change the teaching of music forever, learned his first notes as a child by the rail side in Kecskemet. Zoltan Kodaly would later compose sounds much different from the constant roars of locomotives arriving and departing.

Kecskemet's Confection - The Cifra Palace

Kecskemet’s Confection – The Cifra Palace (Credit: Mister No)

The Cifra Palace – Utterly Ridiculous & Outlandishly Charming
Departing from the station I began a short walk into the city center. My intended destination was the series of interconnected squares that are at the heart of Kecskemet’s downtown. This area is home to its famous Art Nouveau architecture. These buildings still stand as a reminder of the city’s turn of the 20th century aspirations to radically reinvent its urban landscape. The first of these structures soon came into view as I entered Szabadsag ter. The Cifra Palace (Cifra Palota) was unmistakable. The name literally means ornamentation palace and it certainly lives up to that standard. There was something both utterly ridiculous and outlandishly charming about the palace’s exterior ornamentation. Wall panels in the shape of hearts and other curved patterns were a cross between intricate sublimity and the bizarrely beautiful. Inside these panels were glazed majolica tiles covered with fantastical folk art patterns.

Other touches of secessionism (Hungarian Art Nouveau) included Zsolnay tiles around door frames and seven glazed chimneys embedded on the rooftop. My first reaction to the palace was befuddlement. I had no idea what to make of such stylistic eccentricity. There was an eastern inspired exoticism to the façade that did not seem European in any sense of the word. This wildly eclectic design was the product of a fantastical pathos. While the interior of Cifra Palace is now home to the Kecskemet Art Gallery, nothing can surpass the palace’s exterior ornamentation when it comes to profligate creativity. If Art Nouveau architecture was meant as a break from the past, the Cifra Palace was more like an explosion that left the traditional in ruins.

Dawning of a New Age - The Synagogue & Cifra Palace in the early 20th century

Dawning of a New Age – The Synagogue & Cifra Palace in the early 20th century (Credit: Beroesz)

Missing Humanity – A Tragic Artifact
The last, immaculate exterior expression of another tradition that was brought to ruin in Kecskemet was just across the street from the Cifra Palace. The tradition was Judaism and the expression may have been crisp, clean and blindingly bright, but the city’s well-preserved Moorish style synagogue could only provoke a feeling of tragic loss. While the synagogue’s exterior still looked to be in fine form, the city’s Jewish community had long since vanished into the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz in the diabolical summer of 1944. As splendid as this once vaunted house of worship still appeared, I could not help but feel that it was a tragic artifact missing its most vital component, humanity.

At the time I visited, the synagogue was home to a Museum of Science and Technology. This slight was conceived and carried out in 1966 under the communist regime. After the Iron Curtain fell, many places of worship in formerly communist countries that had been forcibly converted into museums or storehouses were reconverted to sacred spaces. That was not case with the synagogue in Kecskemet. There were hardly any Jews left in the city by then. It would have been an honest representation of history if the synagogue had become a museum about Jewish life in Kecskemet. It has not happened and likely never will. The Holocaust is a shame that most Hungarians are not ready to face.

The First Among Many - Kecskemet City Hall

The First Among Many – Kecskemet City Hall (Credit: Mister No)

Incomparable Attractions –  Objects of Fascination
On a much more positive note, I made my way only a couple of hundred meters over to look at the New School (Uj Kollegium), a Calvinist Law School inhabiting an Art Nouveau creation. Could there be two more seemingly incompatible ideas than Calvinism and Art Nouveau? Conservative, taciturn and fundamental religiosity versus creativity in its most revolutionary form. Somehow these two ideas were brought together in the construction of this school which soars above the street below. The main inspiration was Transylvania folk architecture, infused with a healthy dose of secessionist style. This fusion created a building of such striking singularity that it would be the outstanding Art Nouveau work in most cityscapes. That this is not true in Kecskemet owes much to the creative genius of Hungarian Art Nouveau’s godfather, Odon Lechner. His creative genius – in partnership with Gyula Partos – brought about the design and construction of the Kecskemet City Hall, an incomparable work of Art Nouveau architecture that dominates Kossuth ter. This was surely the effect Lechner had in mind when the building was being constructed from 1893-96.

The City Hall was completed just in time for the celebrations of the Hungarian Millennium. The Kecskemet City Hall was Lechner’s first attempt at creating a Hungarian National Style. It would prove to be so successful that the building would influence Hungarian architecture for an entire generation. The City Hall incorporates aspects of early French Renaissance style, English rural architecture and Baroque elements. Lechner and Partos brought the Hungarian influence to bear upon the design with his use of ceramic ornamentation to showcase folk art. His ability to assimilate a medley of stylistic influences into a coherent whole resulted in his first great work of Art Nouveau. I found certain details on the facade to be objects of fascination such as floral motifs on Zsolnay majolica tile and the use of pyrogranite on parts of the building.

I longed to go inside and see some of the ornamented decoration my guidebook so gloriously expounded upon. These included a wood paneled council room covered in frescoes and elaborate stained glass windows. Sadly, I had come at the wrong time to get the standard tour, but I did get enough of a glimpse to whet my appetite for a follow up visit. For me this was the essence of Kecskemet’s architecture, a path breaking attractiveness that left me wanting more. I had never seen anything quite like the fantastic trio of Art Nouveau buildings in downtown Kecskemet, but I had a feeling that one day I would be back.


The Ghosts Of Greatness Past – Cegled: Kossuth’s Frontier (For The Love of Hungary Part 43)

Hungary was a day trip dreamers delight. Here was a nation where everything was within reach. From Budapest, I could take the train to any large city or town in the country, arriving in my chosen destination in a few hours at most. There was a range of options on offer since everything ran to or through Budapest. The Hungarian railway network allowed me access to places I would have never imagined visiting. This was how I ended up in Cegled, a leisurely hourlong train ride west of Budapest. Cegled had first piqued my interest a week earlier when I traveled through it on the way to Debrecen. I had never heard of the town before, but it was one of a handful of stops on the Intercity route.

The Steel Trail - Rail lines at Cegled Station

The Steel Trail – Rail lines at Cegled Station (Credit: BZsolt)

Stepping Back In Time – Cegled Station
As the train pulled up to Cegled’s station, I was struck by how different its style and architecture was from the other stations I was used to seeing in Hungary. It was constructed entirely out of brick, a striking design feature that gave it an air of permanence. There was also an old locomotive monumentalized between the rail siding and station. Such stylistic elements attracted my attention. At first glance, I could have sworn that Cegled’s station had been transported out of the late 19th century and dropped along the outskirts of a forgotten settlement on the Great Hungarian Plain. The station appealed to the romantic in me precisely because it evoked a lost golden age of rail travel. The station was a conduit to another world, one that existed somewhere between dreams and reality. That desire was fulfilled on an autumn morning where I would soon discover that Cegled’s railway station was not the only site worth visiting in this modestly sized town.

Cegled, the name’s closeness in pronunciation to the famous Hungarian city of Szeged kept it memorable in my mind right from the start. The way a town’s name lodges in the memory and rolls off the tongue can lend an air of sophistication to a place that might otherwise lack the dramatic effects. In other words, Cegled sounded impressive to pronounce. Such wordplay made me like the city even before I set foot on the platform just outside the station. Upon arrival, I spent time inspecting the railway station’s unique architecture, a fusion of material and style unlike anything I had seen up to this point in my Hungarian travels. The station had historical charm. It was redolent of an age of railway travel that still existed in half-forgotten, provincial places that were on the way to somewhere bigger or better.

Points of Arrival - Detail of Cegled Railway Station

Points of Arrival – Detail of Cegled Railway Station (Credit: Globetrotter19)

An Air Of Importance – A Call To Revolution
Cegled was an important railway junction, where lines to Szeged and Szolnok splintered. This ensured that it would have no less than six lines of track running through the station. Those lines, along with the impressive design of the station, gave Cegled an air of importance that new arrivals could not help but notice. The walk from Cegled’s train station to the downtown was longer than I imagined. It took me a good 15 minutes at a brisk pace to find my way into the modestly sized city center. It was hard to imagine that this quiet town of 33,000 had once been a hotbed of rebellion during the Hungarian Revolution in 1848-49. Cegled’s chief historical attraction was aligned with that event, the Lajos Kossuth Museum.

At first, I thought Cegled’s link with Kossuth was likely to have have been tenuous, a barely veiled attempt to attract tourists into a downtown they would otherwise ignore. What could one of the greatest and flawed Hungarians possibly have done in Cegled. I braced myself for a Kossuth slept here type of museum. My assumption could not have been more wrong. The museum was one of several Kossuth inspired sites that the town was extremely proud to share with visitors. Cegled’s citizens had been fired with revolutionary fervor by Kossuth’s legendary oratorical skills when he made one of his more memorable speeches in the town.

An Ecelectic Kossuthism - The Art Nouveau Kossuth Museum in Cegled

An Ecelectic Kossuthism – The Art Nouveau Kossuth Museum in Cegled (Credit: Globetrotter19)

Favorite Son – Between Dreams & Reality
The speech whipped up revolutionary fervor as Kossuth called for the citizenry of the entire Great Hungarian Plain region to take up arms against the Austrian Habsburgs. Cegled never forgot that moment or his visit. When Kossuth was living in permanent exile in northern Italy, one hundred citizens from Cegled traveled there to ask him if he would consider a return to Hungary and run for Parliament. He rejected their overtures, but his son Ferenc did become the MP for Cegled a decade and a half later. It was also Ferenc, who in 1917 donated two thousand artifacts that became the bulk of the Kossuth Museum’s collection in Cegled. The museum was housed in a quite impressive Art Nouveau style building that at one time had served as a bank.

This former bank building, with ornate decoration covering its upper half, reminded me of a cake that had just been drizzled with a fabulously lavish icing. The inside of the museum was anything, but fabulous. It was rather obvious that the museum was poorly funded and badly in need of new exhibits. One of the museum staff followed me from room to room cutting lights on and off. The museum had a wide range of Kossuth’s paraphernalia. It was likely one of the largest collections of the famous statesman’s artifacts in the world. It looked to be gathering dust and aging rather badly. This was a shame. I felt pangs of empathy for those who worked here. They were polite and well mannered, but they reminded me of impoverished nobles who have inherited a grand estate, decades past its prime.

The Glory Was All Gone – Twinges Of Sorrow
Twinges of sorrow began to gnaw at me. The potential of the Kossuth Museum was unrealized and looked to be unattainable under current conditions. Kossuth’s magnificent legacy had grown musty inside this museum. Cegled had been touched by greatness, but only the ghosts of past greatness pervaded the museum. I grew sad at the thought of those whose idea this had been. There was still pride, but the glory was all gone.


An Era Of Perceived Greatness – Komarno & Klupka’s Square (For The Love of Hungary Part 39)

The Danube River is a great watery ribbon that acts as a connecting thread through a large swath of Europe. It connects Central with Eastern Europe, the capital cities of Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest and Belgrade, the Black Forest from its beginning to the Black Sea at its end. The river is a natural phenomenon that has a unifying effect on disparate peoples. Germans, Magyars and Slavs can all identify with the river they respectively refer to as the Donau, Duna and Dunaj. Where else in Europe can a river be found that touches the lives of both Bavarians and Bulgars? Only the Danube has a foothold that ranges from Mitteleuropa to the Balkans with the Carpathian Basin squeezed in between for good measure.

Border Control - The Elisabeth-Danube Bridge from the Hungarian side

Border Control – The Elisabeth-Danube Bridge from the Hungarian side

A Fluid Border – The Natural Dividing Line
I never thought of the Danube as a divider, at least not until I arrived on its southern shore in the Hungarian town of Komarom (pop. 18,000). Just across the river in Slovakia stands what might be called its bigger brother, Komarno (pop. 33,000). During the late 19th century, Ujszony (present day Komarom, Hungary) was the town located on the south side of the river while Komarom (present day Komarno, Slovakia) was a small city on the northern side of the river. In 1896, the two were combined into a single municipality. This was logical since both sides of the river were part of the Kingdom of Hungary. That would change radically after the First World War. The Danube suddenly became the southern border of Czechoslovakia, leaving 750,000 Hungarians who lived north of it in what they considered a foreign nation. Either side of the Danube became a controlled border. The river made a natural dividing line to demarcate the boundary between the two nations. That division, though much softer than it was during most of the 20th century, can still be felt today.

The only reason I felt it necessary to pay a visit Komarom was due to the massive fortress, the largest in Hungary and one of the largest in all of Europe, which stands on its outskirts. It is part of a militarized complex built by the Austrians during the mid-19th century that once straddled the Danube in this area. Before visiting the fortress, I could not help but walk across the elegant four span, steel truss, Elisabeth-Danube bridge which connects the northern and southern banks of the river. The fact that I could saunter across the bridge uninhibited was one of those miracles of post-Cold War history now taken for granted. Hungary and Slovakia might still have their differences, but accession to the European Union in 2002 collapsed border controls between the two nations. This had the effect of reconnecting Komarom and Komarno in a way they had not been since the early 20th century. It also allowed me to walk across the bridge, crossing over from one nation to the next in a mere five minutes. This would have been unimaginable only twenty-five years before. What some might call unrestricted access is what I would call progress.

Say That Again - Trilingual sign in Komarno

Say That Again – Trilingual sign in Komarno

Downside Up – All That You Can’t Leave Behind
Once I had set foot on the Slovak side, it was not long before the two town’s dueling identities were on display. The first sign I saw after crossing the bridge was trilingual. First there was Vitame Vas! (Slovak), then Udvozoljuk Ononket! (Hungarian) and below that Welcome! A few paces further down the road were signs with the town’s name. The top one of course was in Slovak (Komarno), the lower one in Hungarian (Komarom). It was the exact opposite on the Hungarian side of the bridge. Besides the signs in Slovak, I had an eerie feeling of still being in the same country that I had just left behind. Komarno was like landing in an Eastern European version of the Twilight Zone brought to the modern world courtesy of the Treaty of Trianon.

It was only a short, but fascinating walk through the historic heart of Komarno. I was impressed with how everything was tidily kept with not a speck of rubbish to be found anywhere. The town could have been Koszeg or Kaposvar rather than Komarno, such was its resemblance to other downtowns in provincial Hungary. The most memorable area was Klapka Square, located in front of the deliciously vanilla coated Town Hall. On the western side of the square was the delicate splendor of the Zichy Palace. In the center of the square stood the statue of Gyorgy Klapka, a military hero who gained notoriety for his fearless fight beyond the finish during the Hungarian Revolution. Klapka led his troops to victory in the Fourth Battle of Komarno, the last Hungarian victory of the conflict. While all the other Hungarian forces had been defeated, Klapka held out long enough to get decent terms of surrender for his soldiers. General Klapka managed to escape into exile. Later he would return to Hungary after the Compromise that created Austria-Hungary in 1867.

An Air of Defiance - Klapka Rising In Front of Komarno Town Hall

An Air of Defiance – Klapka Rising In Front of Komarno Town Hall

An Inherent Irony – The Shifting Tides Of History
Klapka was now immortalized in bronze while soaring over everything except for the beautiful buildings that flanked three sides of the square. The statue, with the Komarno Town Hall’s tower rising directly behind, managed to make Klapka look just as heroic as his exploits. It portrayed him with a sword at the ready in one hand, while his other was balled into a fist. Klapka’s upper torso jutted out as he struck a charismatic pose of defiance. From the statue, I ascertained that Klapka was selected both for his martial exploits as well as his long record of heroic deeds. His presence evoked pride, courage and honor. Traits That I suspected the town’s Hungarian inhabitants must have seen as unique to themselves.

The statue was riveting, but also a distraction from its own inherent irony. Here was a famous Hungarian military commander towering over a town in Slovakia. This was history in more ways than someone who did not come from Hungary or Slovakia could possibly imagine. Klapka signaled the town’s ethnic Hungarian majority as much in the present as the past. He was a stand in for an era of perceived greatness. He also represented staying power. Hungary’s rule over this region long since slipped south of the Danube. Nevertheless, Hungarians still had their feet firmly planted on Slovakian soil, the shifting tides of history have yet to fully dislodge them or their history.

Shaky Foundations – Bridging The Tisza In Szeged (For The Love of Hungary Part 37)

Szeged was as much an illusion as it was a reality. The beautifully elegant Belvaros (downtown) was perfectly configured, filled with historicist, eclectic and art nouveau buildings lining its pristine streets. Every one of the squares had been swept clean, the sidewalks were immaculate, the cafes and restaurants pictures of upscale propriety. There was no hint that anything had ever been amiss here. The swarthy, seething river city that existed prior to the Great Flood of 1879 with its noxious humidity, mud slicked streets, and the scent of decay had vanished beneath structures laden with stone, plaster and an eye popping array of pastel colors. The Austro-Hungarian architectural makeover was a complete success. Szeged had been transformed into the super model of Hungarian provincial cities, right sized with voluptuous charm. The city felt both romantic and ecstatic, a fantasy born out from a belle epoque that continued right up through today.

My only problem with Szeged was that it reminded me of what might have been. Other Hungarian cities that had suffered destruction from catastrophic disasters could not compete with Szeged’s beauty. I suddenly imagined the treasure trove of architecture that had been stolen away from Hungary by the harsh hand of war. What might have been in other Hungarian cities was a depressingly glorious thought. Paradoxically, Szeged was an outlier among Hungarian cities. Its “historic” architecture was intact or at least that was what I wanted to believe. In 1879 Szeged experienced catastrophe, during Hungary’s nightmarish 20th century it managed to largely avoid it. The harsh hand of war did touch the city, destroying one of its most impressive and important structures.

Bridge Over The Tisza - The old Downtown Bridge (Belvarosi-hid) in Szeged

Bridge Over The Tisza – The old Downtown Bridge (Belvarosi-hid) in Szeged (Credit: fortepan.hu)

Spanning The Tisza – An Economic Lifeline
Every Hungarian and many a tourist knows that the Chain Bridge was the first bridge built over the Danube. Except for local historians and a handful of history buffs, few are probably aware that the first bridge spanning the Tisza, Hungary’s second largest river, opened nine years after the Chain Bridge’s completion. This one was a railway bridge at Szeged completed in 1858. Unlike its more famous predecessor, the bridge no longer exists because it was washed away with the rest of Szeged during the Flood of 1879. It would not be long before the planning of a replacement bridge was in the works. A total of twenty-nine separate proposals were submitted. The winning one bore that most famous of 19th century European architectural names, the Eiffel Company.

The man who created the winning design for Gustave Eiffel’s firm was Janos Feketehazy, a Hungarian engineer. Feketehazy had learned his craft on the design of such works as the Bosphorus Canal in the Ottoman Empire and the Vienna Stadiu Bridge over the Danube. In 1873 he gained a position with the Hungarian State Railways which led to his involvement in the design of all railway bridges in Hungary up through 1912. Feketehazy was also involved in the design and construction of such famous spans as the Franz Josef Bridge in Budapest and the Maria Valeria Bridge between Esztergom and Parkany (present day Sturovo, Slovakia).

Feketehazy’s bridge in Szeged was no less important than his more famous works. It almost came to naught during its first year of construction when swamped by one of the Tisza’s perennial floods in 1880. The final and most difficult stretch to construct was over the riverbed. This part of the bridge was not completed until 1883. The bridge which would be known as the Belavrosi-hid (Downtown bridge) finally opened to traffic that autumn. The sturdy structure was capable of bearing loads that would later make it fit for future innovations such as tram traffic. Most importantly, it reopened an avenue of transport that was much more reliable than crossing by dangerous watercraft. The bridge was more than a connection from riverbank to riverbank, it was an economic lifeline that helped facilitate interaction between different parts of the growing city.

Spanning the Tisza - The Old Downtown (Belvarosi-hid) Bridge in the distance

Spanning the Tisza – The Old Downtown (Belvarosi-hid) Bridge in the distance (Credit: fortepan.hu)

Seismic Shockwaves – On The Verge of Collapse
The Belvarosi-hid managed to stand longer than anyone might have expected. By the 1920’s, problems with movement of the pillars due to the swift current of the Tisza meant the bridge was living on borrowed time. Stabilization and renovation work extended the bridge’s lifespan right up into the Second World War. A year before the war arrived on the shoreline of Szeged more work was done to stabilize the riverbed pier. The bridge was suffering from wear and tear, but it might just as well have been jolted by the seismic shock waves from the mass of men, armaments and military equipment moving with rapid speed across the Great Hungarian Plain toward Szeged.

By the autumn of 1944 eastern Hungary had become a battleground between the German and Soviet Armies. The skies above the steppe resounded with the roar of Allied aircraft that targeted strategic points across the region. At the beginning of September, the Belvarosi-hid was damaged by an Allied airstrike. Then with the Red Army closing in on Szeged, retreating German forces sounded the bridge’s death knell when they detonated explosive charges on October 8th. The bridge became another casualty of a total war. The demolition did little to slow the Red Army. Three days after the bridge was blown up, Soviet forces occupied Szeged. As for a new bridge, it would be four years before a replacement could be designed and built.

A New Look - The Downtown Bridge (Belvarosi-hid) in Szeged

A New Look – The Downtown Bridge (Belvarosi-hid) in Szeged

An Enduring Presence – Function Over Style
The bridge that spans the Tisza today is basically the same steel structured edifice that was completed in 1948 with a few revisions. It is not as elegant or striking as Feketehazy’s previous work. Nor does it have the revered Eiffel name for cachet. What it does have is a design that values function over style. This is the main reason that it has lasted longer than any bridge over the Tisza in Szeged. The bridge is not especially photogenic or noticeable, but it helps transport thousands to and from Szeged’s beautiful Belvaros every day. Most of the commuters who use the bridge probably do not give it a second thought. In the grand scheme of bridge construction and destruction in Szeged that is probably a good thing.

More Than Anyone Can Imagine – The Seduction of Szeged (For The Love of Hungary Part 32)

One of the most appealing aspects of travel in Hungary is the ability to make day trips to the far corners of the country from Budapest. Almost any point is accessible by rail in less than three hours. This includes all the major cities. Fancy taking a day trip to climb Sopron’s Firewatch Tower, it is a straight shot by rail only two hours and twenty-two minutes away. Want to see a magnificent example of a fin de siècle train station, hop on a train from Budapest to Miskolc and in one minute less than the time it takes to travel to Sopron you can arrive at Ferenc Pfaff’s confectionary creation. Or what about viewing the famed Reformed Church in Hungary’s “Calvinist Rome”? All it takes is an affordable train ticket to glide across the Great Hungarian Plain for two hours and thirty-five minutes on the railway to Debrecen. I found every one of these options appealing, to the point that I found myself staring at the Hungarian National Railways map in a state of barely contained rapture imagining all the dreams that could soon become a reality.

A five hour round trip train ride through the Hungarian countryside may not be for everyone, but it is my idea of travel at its finest. Passenger trains are nothing more than a novelty in the United States, but in Hungary they are the preferred mode of public transit. As such they link up every point of the compass, shuttling Hungarians across the countryside hundreds of time each day. Train travel is a way of life for many as they shuttle from city to city, village to city and village to village. For the masses in Hungary this is a necessity, whereas for me it was an opportunity to go anywhere I chose. That is how I ended up riding the rails to Szeged on a Saturday morning in late September.

On The Border - Szeged is located in southeastern Hungary

On The Border – Szeged is located in southeastern Hungary

Paved With Grass – The Path To Conquest
Traveling by train to Szeged offered me the opportunity to see the landscape of southeastern Hungary, which I soon learned was a yawning extension of the Great Hungarian Plain. If not for Szeged, there would be very little reason for foreign tourists to set foot in this region of sublime expanses, limitless horizons and pastoral landscapes. This is a land with no natural borders, a fact which proved of great detriment to its history. Marauding armies found little to stop them other than Hungarian forces which were dutifully cut to pieces. Once they were dispatched, these grasslands were thoroughly overrun, occupied and starved of Hungarian development for a century and a half while under the cruel administrative thumb of the Ottoman Turks.

One of the great revelations regarding the region occurred when I came across a map of Hungarian castles. Southeastern Hungary, with only one exception – Gyula Castle – showed nothing of note when it came to castles. Those that once rose from the Great Plain have long since been reduced to ruin. Their dusty residue blew away centuries ago. Rather than defend a defenseless land it was better for Hungarians to head north and west for the hills. Hundreds of settlements and tens of thousands of people disappeared from southeastern Hungary. The population density has never really recovered. This makes the city of Szeged an outlier in the region, a city of the plain that improbably sprung from the flatlands. It is an urban outpost on an otherwise unknown frontier that offers more than anyone can imagine.

Always On Time - The Szeged Train Station

Always On Time – The Szeged Train Station

Sealing The Borders – A Treaty of Transformation
A few of the things I learned about Szeged before arriving in the city were not that surprising until I considered its location. Hungarian to its core, home of the famous Pick Salami and one of the nation’s leading universities, the city’s population is 93.5% ethnic Hungarian. Nonetheless, it is located close to foreign soil. The point at which the borders of Hungary, Romania and Serbia meet is just 20 kilometers from Szeged. In terms of Hungary, Szeged is the most isolated of its largest cities. Taking a more expansive view of the area’s geography by incorporating the old Kingdom of Hungary’s borders, Szeged happens to be not nearly as isolated. The city of Subotica, which is now located in the northern extremity of Serbia, was only 50 kilometers away. The cities of Arad and Timisoara now in Romania were only a little over a hundred kilometers to the east. Like everything else in post-World War I Hungary, the Treaty of Trianon caused massive upheaval. Today a train to any of those nearby cities from Szeged can take up to six hours since none of them go there directly.

In the time it would take a passenger to ride one way to Timisoara, they could ride from Budapest to Szeged and back with time to spare. It was a good thing I was going to Szeged on this day, because trying to cross the Romanian or Serbian borders by train from Szeged is a tedious task. Szeged’s political, economic and cultural life was unmade and then transformed by Trianon. The world class university that Szeged is so proud of today, moved from Transylvania after that region became part of Romania. It also became the regional powerhouse now that all its nearby competitors were in other nations. Its geographic situation just inside the new national borders also brought about an influx of ethnic Hungarians from lands that had been lost due to Trianon. Thus, it became what it is today, the powerhouse of southeastern Hungary.

Upon Arrival - Szeged is a banner city

Upon Arrival – Szeged is a banner city

Extreme Makeover – From Flood To Flourishing
Szeged’s post-World War I makeover pales in comparison to its radical transformation due to the calamitous flooding of the Tisza River in 1879. The cityscape of Szeged that stands today, is part and parcel of a massive rebuild that occurred after the flood waters receded. The reason I had chosen Szeged for a day trip was almost entirely due to the flood of 1879. The city’s rebuilding provided a staging ground for Austro-Hungarian architectural styles. This construction took place in a period without precedent in Hungarian history. Economic growth flourished throughout the land and most prominently came to an apogee on the reconstructed streets and structures of Szeged. As the train pulled into the city’s main station, I could barely contain my excitement to see the many wonders that awaited me.


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.

A Matter Of Interpretation – Heroes’ Square:  Wonder & Confusion At The Millennium Monument (For The Love of Hungary Part 14)

If I could have traveled back in time to visit the Millennium Monument in Heroes’ Square (Hosok tere) at the turn of the 20th century, it would have surprised me to see just how non-Hungarian the monument was back then. That was because multiple Habsburg Emperors were deemed important enough to be given a place among the colonnaded columns. The statues on display included ones of Ferdinand I, Charles III, Maria Theresa, Leopold II and Franz Josef. The latter statue would have been the most egregious to an informed contemporary observer. Though Franz Josef was still ruling what was then called the Austro-Hungarian Empire (the Dual Monarchy) at the time, he had also been the Austrian Habsburg ruler during and after the Hungarian Revolution. Franz Josef had signed off on measures of oppression, such as the execution of 13 Hungarian generals at Arad that would never be forgiven by many Hungarians. Despite such feelings, Franz Josef along with several other of his Habsburg ancestors, had been placed in one of Hungary’s most exalted spaces. This state of statuary affairs would not last. The First World War and its aftermath destroyed the Dual Monarchy, leaving Hungary riven by revolution and the Millennium Monument open to new interpretations.

Changing times - Rally at Heroes' Square

Changing times – Rally at Heroes’ Square in 1939 (Credit: Bruno Pesti/Fortepan.hu)

Time For A Change -From Celebration To Confusion
If I had come back to visit the Millennium Monument in 1920 there would have been no statue of Franz Josef. The communists had taken it upon themselves to destroy it. Most symbols of the old imperial order were banished to the dustbin of history during the six months of communist rule in 1919. The counter-revolutionary Horthy regime would right (quite literally) this historical wrong by commissioning a new statue of Franz Josef. He would reappear transformed. No longer dressed in military garb, instead the former emperor was now portrayed in coronation regalia. The imperial was deemed worthy of promoting since Miklos Horthy was now acting as regent. If I had made a third visit to the Millennium Monument ten years later, I would have seen the recent addition of a National Heroes Memorial cenotaph that commemorated those lost in the Great War as well as the preservation of the Kingdom of Hungary’s old borders that had been greatly reduced by the post-World War I Treaty of Trianon.

These changes, like seemingly everything else at the Millennium Monument, were not to last. If I came back a decade and a half later after World War II had ended, the National Heroes Memorial cenotaph was now nowhere to be found. All the statues of Habsburg monarchs had vanished, replaced with indigenous Hungarian heroes. Strangely all the new heroes on display had come from regions that were no longer inside the nation’s borders. Historic Hungary, which the monument was supposed to deify, had undergone massive changes since the monument had been first commissioned. Those changes continued until the communists solidified their hold on power, which would last forty relatively stable, but increasingly stagnant years. The only change of note was the reappearance of the National Heroes Memorial cenotaph in 1956. It had been altered prior to reinstallation. Language about those who died fighting in the World Wars and anything concerning the borders of Historic Hungary had been erased.  Through all the turbulent political changes, the Millennium Monument was still left standing.  Its metaphorical meanings had changed from celebration to confusion.

Getting to know you - Imre Thokoly at the Millennium Monument

Getting to know you – Imre Thokoly at the Millennium Monument (Credit: Karelj)

Know Nothings – The Slightest Of Ideas
Of course, I could not travel back in time and judging by all that had happened it was probably a good thing. What I knew of the Millennium Monument’s past had been the product of research from history books and travel guides. Despite the peaceful present, the experience I had at the monument was disconcerting in its own way.  Watching group after group of foreigners snapping photos of the statues left me wondering if they had any idea who these Hungarian heroes were. I was just starting to read a fair amount of Hungarian history, but I would have had trouble identifying several of these historical personages. If I had been asked to give a recitation of their achievements, I would have flunked the test. One of the oddest things about visiting Budapest is that many of the city’s attractions are so grand, so dramatic and so sensational that a visitor feels compelled to snap photos, feign interest and act as though they have a compelling interest in people, events or objects they know nothing about.

I doubt most visitors had the slightest idea of what Lajos Kossuth did other than lead Hungary in the failed revolution of 1848. A few might know from their guidebooks that Ferenc Rakoczi had an entire independence war named after him. They would also have learned that this was a war he had lost. As for Gabor Bethlen, well at least he was a Prince of Transylvania. Though he did not remind me of Dracula, he did look quite devious. And then there was Imre Thokoly, a hero who induced head scratching from everyone except Hungarians. Thokoly’s name was made for verbal butchery by English speakers who pronounced the h which should be silent. I later learned that Thokoly had also made a name for himself opposing the Habsburgs. Thus, most of the statues on the right side of the colonnade had been pro-Habsburg, then they became and stayed anti-Habsburg. Eventually the truth must come out.

In wonder & confusion - Heroes' Square at night

In wonder & confusion – Heroes’ Square at night (Credit: Paul Mannix)

True Heroes – Standing Up To The Test Of Time
The statues on the left side of the colonnade were of Hungarian kings who had been much more successful than those Hungarian heroes who had replaced the Habsburgs on the right side. I found these statues to be impressive, but not nearly as fascinating. Tragically, one of the selling points of Hungarian history and consistent threads that run through it is of resistance, failure, survival and then somehow coming out ahead. Only one of the kings on display fit this narrative, Bela IV. He lost the kingdom and nearly his life to the Mongol Invasion in 1241-1242, but then returned to rebuild and reign for over a quarter century. His name and feats were worthy of a place in this pantheon. True heroes overcome adversity and stand the test of time. The Millennium Monument fits that definition. It has been transformed by regimes both tyrannical and democratic, but still stands in the heart of Budapest for Hungarians and tourists to gaze at in wonder and confusion.

Click here for: Making Ends Meet – Metro Line 3: Riding The Blue Line Beneath Budapest (For The Love of Hungary Part 15)

Headed Towards A Confrontation – Heroes Square In Budapest: A Deep Romance (For The Love Of Hungary Part 13)

It was a late autumn afternoon in Kispest. Only a few hours of light were left in the day. As I left on Bus 68 for the Kobanya-Kispest metro station the sun was making a slow descent from the sky. I decided to spend this late afternoon visiting an attraction in Budapest. Where or what that would be I had not the slightest idea. So many choices and so little time made the decision more than a little difficult. Due to the late afternoon hour visiting a museum was not going to happen. I had already toured Castle Hill and both sides of the city along the Danube, so neither of those options sounded appealing. Then a certain place came to mind or maybe it would be better to say a certain space, Heroes’ Square (Hosok tere).

The name reminded me of where I had stood two and a half years before. On that occasion, I had been Intimidated by my first visit to the square, ignorant of its history and dumbfounded by the heroic statues that stood before me. Who were these people? Why had I never heard of them? They were all important enough to be called “heroes”, but I had no idea why.  The Millennium Monument of which they played a part was just as perplexing. Who was the winged figure that stood atop the slender column at its center. That first visit to Heroes Square made me feel less than heroic. I was humbled by how little I knew about Hungary and its history.

Headed towards a confrontation - Heroes' Square (Hosok tere)

Headed towards a confrontation – Heroes’ Square (Hosok tere)

An Elegant Throwback – Traveling Back In Time
My path for a return visit to Heroes’ Square took me first to Deak Square (Deak ter) where all three of the city’s metro lines intersect. Late afternoon public transport traffic was heavy, a human stampede rushing to make transfers for a final journey home. Fortunately, I was changing to Line One, used mostly by tourists because it goes to a multitude of the city’s most popular sites. On what was the first underground Metro Line in continental Europe (third in the world), I found myself passing through stations with names that went from the unpronounceable (Bajcsy-Zsillinszky) to the evocatively poetic (Opera and Oktogon) until the quaint yellow car I was riding in stopped at Hosok tere (Heroes Square), where I disembarked into the immaculately tiled station, an elegant throwback to an earlier era.

My reentry to the surface world consisted of walking up a single flight of stairs. Now standing at ground level, I looked back down Budapest’s own Champs Elysees. Here was the grand tree lined Andrassy Avenue (Andrassy ut), the boulevard that I had just passed beneath on Line One. Turning around, I now saw the spectacular open space of Heroes Square just a short walk away. The Millennium Monument, with its soaring column at one end of the square was silhouetted against the sky, with the Archangel Gabriel’s wings rising into a deep blue sky amid airbrushed wisps of cloud. The flanking colonnades added to the spectacle. I could hardly wait to cross over Gyorgy Dosza ter, the street bordering the square’s southern end, to get a much closer look.

Hosok Tere (Heroes Square) - Line One Metro Station

Hosok Tere (Heroes Square) – Line One Metro Station

Conquering All Who Come Before Them – A Heroic Pantheon
In a matter of minutes, I was walking onto the square where I began a methodical frontal assault on the monument. The openness of the square gave me the feeling that I was getting ready to confront something of great importance. That confrontation was with Hungarian history. The monument showcases a pantheon of Hungarian heroes, selected from eleven hundred years of conflict, conquest and consternation. It starts at the centerpiece column’s base, where Arpad and six other chieftains of the Hungarian tribes that first entered and conquered the Carpathian Basin are mounted on a pedestal, high above ground level. This forces mere mortals to look up at them.

Arpad and the chieftains on either side of him are portrayed as prototypical warriors, stern and regal, intense and unapproachable, the kind of men who conquer all who come before them. Hungarian history is not something most tourists are going to have much, if any prior knowledge of. Nonetheless, Arpad and the other six chieftains are probably the most easily understandable of all the figures portrayed at the monument. An observer can quickly discern that these men on horseback were quasi-civilized warriors. The kind of tough men who were fierce, savage and uncompromisingly tough.

As such, most tourists who ponder this group of sculptures likely understand that these are the first Hungarians in a long line to come. Comprehending the rest of the monument is not as easy. The archangel Gabriel crowning the column is symbolic of a legend that I had never heard. The story goes that Stephen I (Saint Stephen and the first King of Hungary) had a dream in which Gabriel encouraged him to continue the push to turn the Hungarians towards Christianity. This encouragement was taken as Stephen was crowned Christian king of Hungary in the year 1000. To that end, Gabriel holds a double cross in one hand and a crown in the other, symbolic of the intertwining of church and state in the Hungarian kingdom.

The Magyar Conquest at Heroes' Square

The Magyar Conquest at Heroes’ Square (Hosok tere)

Ideology Above Country – History In Hiding
Much of this symbolism was lost on me at the time. It was not until I later read about it that I became cognizant of the deeper meanings inherent in the Millennium Monument. I did find the angelic sculpture topping the column at 120 feet above the square to be highly impressive in its singularity. Perhaps because it stood so high above the rest of the monument, the column and Archangel Gabriel sculpture had not been tampered with for ideological reasons. This was not the case with the statues which stood on the colonnade. As I would later discover, heroes had not been hard to replace at the monument. Heroes’ Square was much too important of a space not to be reconfigured to fit the ideological whims of more tyrannical regimes that had ruled over Hungary not so long ago. This history was now hidden to all except those who dared to look deeper into the past.

Click here for: A Matter Of Interpretation – Heroes’ Square:  Wonder & Confusion At The Millennium Monument (For The Love of Hungary Part 14)