The Lost World Lurking On A Lower Shelf – A Transylvanian Trilogy At Bestsellers: Budapest Bookstores (Part Two)

Forints (Hungary’s currency) started flying from my wallet the moment I began perusing the shelves and stacks at Bestsellers. I scooped up a copy of Sandor Marai’s Embers, a book I would come to dearly love. I have read this same copy twice. There were also a couple of books on Budapest and Hungary by British authors that I had never seen anywhere else and thus had to purchase. One was by Bob Dent, who moved to Budapest a few decades ago. He wrote a fusion of journalism, travel and history. His Every Statue Tells A Story on the statues, sculptures and monuments of Budapest has become one of my most beloved books. This was the first of multiple purchases through the years of Dent’s books at Bestsellers.

Another memorable find was A Country Full of Aliens by Colin Swatridge, a tale of what he learned about modern Hungarian life, culture and idiosyncrasies while teaching in Hungary. Swatridge’s perspective was so revealing that I have recommended it multiple times to anyone hoping to gain a better understanding of the country. Many of the cultural nuances Swatridge discusses at length in the book I would later discover to be spot on. The store was also where I first found and fell in love with Bradt Travel Guides, which along with the Rough Guide series, I have found to be the most indispensable guidebooks. Bradt has without a doubt the most extensive guidebook coverage of Eastern European nations. Guidebooks specifically dedicated to overlooked places from Belarus to Bosnia, Macedonia to Montenegro and a personal favorite, a guide dedicated to travel in Transylvania. These were the type of hard to find, but easy to read and highly informative books that soon made Bestsellers one of my all-time favorite bookstores.

The Transylvania Trilogy by Miklos Banffy

The Transylvania Trilogy by Miklos Banffy (Credit: Arcadia Press reissue covers)

Cracking Open A Whole New World – Fictional Non-Fictions
My most evocative memory of Bestsellers has nothing to do with leather armchairs or the smell of freshly unpacked books or the arrival of a new daily edition of the International Herald Tribune, though I must admit that each of these added immeasurably to my experience. The atmospherics on offer at Bestsellers have always been aesthetically pleasing, but they were no match for a serendipitous discovery I made on a lower set of shelves that held the English translations of Hungarian literature. This was where I found a set of books that I now believe had been waiting on me my entire life. Bestsellers was the first place I ever came across Miklos Banffy’s Transylvania Trilogy. The mention of Transylvania in the title made me pull out the books and begin browsing their contents.

I was intrigued by their austere titles, They Were Counted, They Were Found Wanting and They Were Divided. These titles were direct to the point of tragic. They had a predictive quality that spoke of stormy relationships in a lost world. The kind of lost world that could be recreated by an author who knew it intimately. Banffy was Hungarian, but he was also a Transylvanian and above all else, a humanist. The books may have been fiction, but from the back blurbs they sounded just as historical as any history book. Their sizable proportions did nothing to hinder my interest. What I would later discover was that the Transylvania Trilogy was a sort of Hungarian version War and Peace with Remembrance of Things Past thrown in for good measure

They Were Found Wanting – The Power Of Less Than Happy Ending
I knew next to nothing about Banffy, but this attracted rather than repelled me. The titles were the initial hint that there was romance in these books that would not end well, but how many romances ever do end well. Happy endings are for Hollywood movies and Harlequin romances, not novels born from the dark forests and epic mountain landscapes of Transylvania. I felt an intense urge to read all three books cover to cover as soon as I picked them up. And that is what I would do, but not right away. I surprised myself by waiting to purchase the Transylvania Trilogy. I did not want to lug the entire set around with me for a couple of weeks. Instead, I would wait until I got back home, then order them online.

Banffy’s books followed me all the way back home to Montana. Over several months I read the trilogy ever so slowly. And my first impression of this trio of volumes would turn out to be true, here was a lost world of romance and aristocracy, a Hungarian Kingdom that no longer existed except for each time I cracked open the trilogy. This was the beginning of a journey into pre-World War I Transylvania that would eventually drive me to go there and chase down the ghosts of an unrecoverable past. A past that I was able to glimpse in all its shimmering, shattered glory. A past that first came to me on a lower shelf at Bestsellers. That has kept me coming back to Bestsellers more times than I can possibly count.

Return Engagements – Shelf Life
The reasons I keep returning to Bestseller are twofold. The first is obvious, the great books on offer. Ones that I am unlikely to find anywhere else, shelved together side by side in neat rows. The sections on Eastern European affairs and associated nations is unparalleled. The second reason I return, is in the hopes of finding a lost world lurking on some lower shelf. Each time I revisit Bestsellers, one of my first stops is the section of English translations of Hungarian literature. I always pick up the same editions, with the same covers of the Transylvania Trilogy.

Then I begin to thumb through one of the volumes. I want to go back to that initial visit. A time when I knew nothing more than the word Transylvania, with its connotations of clifftop castles, a deathly aristocratic count by the name of Dracula and dreadful discoveries to come. This stereotype led me to select The Transylvania Trilogy. I have never regretted for a moment that impulse. And it would not have happened without that remarkable bookstore which made it all possible.

Click here for: Objects Of Intense Desire – Entering The Comfort Zone (Budapest Bookstores Part One)

Considerations Other Than Love – Marital Abyss: Franz Liszt & Countess von Sayn-Wittgenstein

His power to evoke passion was legendary. He could send women swooning just by running his fingers across the ivory keys of a piano. The world fell to its feet in the presence of his musical powers. He created, composed and conjured entirely new worlds of sound from multitudes of magnificent keystrokes. Females were especially prone to his mysterious musical powers. Because of this, he fell in and out of romance. In even greater numbers, he fell in and out of bed. Fathering any number of children with true loves and midnight mistresses. Because of his reputation for romances, both sweeping and fleeting, it is hard to imagine the Hungarian musical impresario, Franz Liszt, ever settling down in marriage. He never quite did, but he was willing to try. When the opportunity arose to marry a countess, Liszt was more than willing to oblige.

Franz Liszt - The photo is from three years before the attempted marriage with Countess zu Sayn-Wittgenstein

Franz Liszt – The photo is from three years before the attempted marriage with Countess zu Sayn-Wittgenstein

Reverence, Rudeness & Respect – Prestigious Possibility
Among the many personality traits of Franz Liszt, one of the more pronounced was his snobbery. Like most snobs, the one thing he could never stomach was others who thought they were better than him. There is nothing a snob abhors more than another snob. Liszt could not stand to be looked down upon due to the simple fact that he himself looked down on the world. His musical ability gave him an exalted position both socially and culturally. For Liszt, it was normal to be treated with the utmost adoration. This was not so much a privilege, as it was his right. Thus, if anyone in the aristocracy or royalty (the elite classes of Europe during the 19th century) did not show him the proper respect, Liszt would reciprocate with rudeness. Conversely, when treated with the proper reverence, Liszt could be gracious, humble and kind. One of Liszt’s great ambitions in life was to climb the social ladder. His musical talent opened the world of aristocracy up to him. He most often played for audiences filled with the finest aristocrats in Europe. During his concert tours he met large numbers of princes and princesses. It was the latter that offered him not only the romance he craved, but also the prestigious possibility of marriage into high society.

On a concert tour in 1847 Liszt met the Polish noblewoman Countess von Sayn-Wittgenstein while performing in Kiev. The Countess lived in what was then the Ukrainian part of the Russian Empire. Her wealth was beyond belief. She owned multiple estates with thousands of serfs working the land. The Countess was something of a paradox. She enjoyed elite social status while at the same time being fanatically religious. The Countess wrote long winded books on religious subjects. Her literary output was lengthy in the extreme, with works that would put War and Peace to shame for their sheer volume of words. Such traits attracted Liszt to her. The Countess’ religious fervor was matched by his own. While the Countess’ social standing appealed to Liszt’s snobbishness. The Countess though, was much more to Liszt than just one of his many mistresses. He would eventually become an abbe (Catholic clergyman) in the Catholic Church. Their kindred religious spirits led to an unlikely romance between the two. By all accounts the Countess was unattractive, homely and serious minded. A sort of uber wealthy plain jane of Russian Ukraine. Liszt hardly cared because of her aristocratic background. There was only one problem, the Countess was married.

Countess Caroline Sayn-Wittgenstein in 1847 - The year she met Liszt

Countess Caroline Sayn-Wittgenstein in 1847 – The year she met Liszt

Life With Liszt – A High Price To Pay
The Countess’ husband was a Russian military officer who went by the exquisite name of Prince Nikolaus zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg-Ludwigsburg. They had one child, a daughter, but the couple were soon living apart. It was a marriage for the sake of titles, prestige and wealth. Love was not a consideration. The Countess spent years trying to get a divorce from Prince Nikolaus. She began living with Liszt in Weimar a year after they met. After two face-to-face meetings with the pope, she nearly succeeded. On October 22, 1861, the Countess and Liszt were due to be married in Rome. Liszt arrived the night before the wedding fully expecting to get married for the first time. The ceremony was scheduled to take place on his 50th birthday. It would never happen. Intervention by The Countess’ husband and the Russian Tsar stopped the marriage. The Russian government had impounded her estates.

If the Countess had gone through with the marriage, she would have lost a fortune. Her lone child, a daughter by Prince Nikolaus, would have had her marriage prospects irreparably damaged. Thus, the marriage failed. The Countess and Liszt eventually grew apart. She was disgusted by his numerous affairs. He was an inveterate womanizer who took the Countess’ love for granted. She eventually grew fed up and moved to Rome. What Liszt was doing with the Countess says much more about him than it does her. Liszt longed for adulation, an aristocratic title would have been another stepping stone to greater prestige. It never happened, but it did not stop him from trying. For the Countess, Liszt was like a dream that was slowly defeated by reality. The Countess was unique though. Her religious fervor knew no bounds. She was loyal to Liszt and that loyalty came at an astronomical price. She squandered much of her riches for the pursuit of passion and a spiritual kinship.

Countess Caroline Sayn-Wittgenstein with her daughter Maria in 1840

Countess Caroline Sayn-Wittgenstein with her daughter Maria in 1840

Romance & Religion – Kindred Spirits
In the end, a life together for Liszt and the Countess was not meant to be. After the attempt at marriage failed, the Countess became just another woman for Liszt in an unending succession of them. A few he loved, most he did not. The love that had existed between the two of them faded. In her post-Liszt life, the Countess spent years writing religious tomes. Her magnum opus was a 24-volume work, Exterior Causes of the Interior Weakness of the Church. Not exactly a page turner. It had the added drawback that on average each volume was over a thousand pages in length. No one remembers these books. For that matter, no one remembers the Countess von Sayn-Wittgenstein except for the romance and religion she shared with the famous Franz Liszt.

Click here for: A Place Touched By Tragedy – Incidental Contact: The Road To Mayerling (Part One)

The Perseverance of Preservation- Endre Csatkai: A Savior For Sopron

I came into Sopron expecting magnificence, I was not to be disappointed. For a city that suffered multiple aerial bombings during the Second World War, Sopron had done an excellent job of putting itself back together with considerable attention to historical detail. Innumerable Baroque buildings lined the streets of the city’s Old Town. There were also vestiges of Renaissance and Medieval era architecture to be found. While getting to the bottom of Sopron’s structural history meant coming to terms with the legacy of ancient Rome. Undergirding its cobblestone streets were the foundations of Sopron’s Roman predecessor, Scarbantia. The Roman city walls could still be seen in several places and Sopron’s main square (Fo ter) was built atop the site of the old Roman forum. In short, Sopron’s Belvaros (Inner City) was consumed by the past. I have rarely visited a place that felt so historical.

The Preservationist - Endre Csatkai

The Preservationist – Endre Csatkai

Selfless Gifts-  A Life’s Work
A showpiece of preservation, the Old Town had been marked by a fate more fortunate than that of almost any other Hungarian city. Perhaps it was destiny or chance, but old Sopron had been left largely intact. The Mongols never quite made it this far and the Ottoman Turks’ stay was surprisingly short. World War II did some damage, but occupation came at the tail of the war. By that point, the worst of the fighting was over. Habsburgs and Hungarians had been the city’s main historical influencers. Sopron shows that a lot of luck can go a long way in preserving an old cityscape. Yet preservation is not something that just happens by chance, it is also based on attitude, ethics and beliefs, all human qualities.

Every city should have as great a preservationist as Sopron did during the 20th century. I discovered this person’s name in the pages of an old guidebook. A passing reference was made in a single sentence to a man who had spent a half century of his life working to tell the story of Sopron and working to preserve its architectural wonders. In the process, he bequeathed a selfless gift to future generations of visitors who would come to revere his legacy, even if they did not know much, if anything, about him. That man was a Hungarian art historian by the name of Endre Csatkai. Sopron was more than a place to Csatkai, it was his passion.

Monumental - One of Endre Csatkai's many books on Sopron

Monumental – One of Endre Csatkai’s many books on Sopron

Self-Education – The Thirst For Knowledge
Endre Csatkai was born in the village of Darufalva in the late 19th century. At that time Darufalva was part of the Kingdom of Hungary, later it would become part of Austria. The village was just a handful of kilometers northwest of Sopron, the city where Csatkai would come to know more intimately than perhaps any of its citizens. He graduated from high school there in 1914. This was the same year that Hungary entered a cataclysmic period in its history with the beginning of World War I. Csatkai was also entering a very difficult time in his life. Due to lung disease he was hospitalized for long periods of time. This kept him away from the battlefront and delayed his studies at the university level. His illness became a blessing in disguise. It afforded him an opportunity for self-education. With considerable time on his hands, he set about satisfying an insatiable thirst for knowledge. When he finally recovered his health, Csatkai completed his doctorate.

Csatkai was a man of many diverse occupations. His professions reflected his interests. He taught, worked in a museum, edited a popular Hungarian art magazine, wrote reference works about a wide array of subjects and curated exhibitions on such famous musicians as Joseph Haydn and Franz Liszt. For many years, Csatkai worked in Eisenstadt, Austria which Hungarians referred to as Kismarton. His Jewish ethnicity and the rise of Nazism threatened to derail his career. Following the Anschluss, whereby Nazi Germany annexed Austria, he was forced to flee back to Sopron. The tentacles of fascism were long and reached beyond borders. The German occupation of Hungary in 1944 meant that Csatkai could be arrested or deported at any moment. Despite attempts by powerful members of the Sopron community to protect him from the anti-Jewish laws which were being swiftly implemented, Csatkai was not exempted from discriminatory measures. He became a forced laborer, which left him emaciated and disease ridden. These harsh conditions nearly cost him his life. He was barely able to survive the war.

Old Sopron - Standing The Test of Time

Old Sopron – Standing The Test of Time (Credit: Tamas Konok)

The Afterlife – From Resurrection to Reconstruction
Incredibly Csatkai’s enthusiasm for Sopron’s history, art and architecture never waned despite his wartime sufferings. He did not immigrate abroad like so many other Hungarian Jews in the postwar years. Instead he stayed in Sopron, spearheading the effort to reopen the city museum which had been left ruined by the war. At the same time, he continued to publish many articles on the art history of Sopron. By the end of his long life, he had authored over a thousand articles. They offered a wealth of invaluable detail about a range of subjects, including the monuments, fine art objects and architecture of Sopron from the 17th through 19th century. These were the building blocks of knowledge that helped reconstruct the city. Without Csatkai, Sopron’s historic preservation efforts might have faltered.

Csatkai’s cultivation of knowledge helped restore the Old Town to its former magnificence. It is hard to imagine just how much capacity for knowledge he had when it came to Sopron. His literary output was vast, eclectic and voluminous. Among his many works there were books on the history of Sopron’s Music Association, the Production of Fireworks and Fire Extinguishers in Sopron, Sopron’s Soaps and Candlesticks along with more mainstream works on Liszt and the Hungarian nationalist poet, Sandor Petofi.  If it concerned Sopron, then Csatkai found it worth researching, studying and writing about. It is not a stretch to say that Endre Csatkai was Sopron and Sopron was Endre Csatkai, each a reflection of the other. For Csatkai, cataloging and cultivating the history of Sopron was a selfless act of self-actualization. And besides self-satisfaction, it was not so much what Csatkai got for his efforts, as what he gave to future generations, helping to create an ethos that informs continuing preservation efforts in the city. Csatkai’s work has stood the test of time, just like the city he so dearly loved.

Click here for: Versailles Off The Beaten Path – Traveling To Easterhaza: World Famous & Relatively Anonymous

Versailles Off The Beaten Path –  Traveling To Esterhaza: World Famous & Relatively Anonymous

A Story of Surprises- James Joyce & Szombathely: Walking Through Walls

Two things surprised me in Szombathely, both of which were people. After my arrival on a noon time train from Sarvar, I exited the elegant turn of the 20th century station which was an inspired confection from the heady days of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The station was coated in a rich tone of vanilla, topped by a couple of turrets above a grand entrance way. Beyond the station I was stopped by my own confusion. I had no idea which way to walk in order to find the town center. I thumbed through my guidebook until I found the map of Szombathely which I used to get my bearings. With my focus on the map rather than the immediate surroundings, I was suddenly startled by a person who seemed to have come out of nowhere. A woman inserted her head just above my arm, looked at the map and said, “Can I help you?” Her dark eyes betrayed someone with less than noble intentions. Standing behind her was a man whose height was just above the level of a dwarf. Shaken by this intrusion I firmly stated, “No!” I closed the book and began walking in what I believed was the general direction of the city center. The man and woman followed closely behind me for the next five minutes, but my brisk pace and no-nonsense manner made them give up the chase. When I finally stopped to catch my breath, they were nowhere to be seen.

A High Opinion - Fo ter (Main Square) in Szombathely

A High Opinion – Fo ter (Main Square) in Szombathely

Making The Most Of It – Striking A Pose
First impressions can mean everything. The fact that I had been approached by strangers in Szombathely, with what I assumed to be ill intent, colored my initial impression of the city. It was hard for me to shake this feeling as I walked into the city center. The main square (Fo ter) went some way in ameliorating my concern. The uniquely shaped triangular square was expansive and spacious, a partly successful attempt at the spectacular. This square was out of all proportion to most of Szombathely, which was just a small provincial city on the western frontiers of Hungary. It was obvious that the residents of Szombathely had a high opinion of their city and wanted visitors to feel the same. The baroque, classicist and eclectically styled houses were covered with a diverse array of brightly painted facades beaming radiant in the early afternoon sunlight. My mood was becoming as bright as the sunny disposition of Szombathely’s core.

Then, as before, I was surprised once again by a person, but this one was not alive, at least not in the living and breathing sense. A figure from the world of literature who had long since been dead confronted me at 40/41 Fo ter. This was the Irish writer James Joyce, who was in the process of walking halfway through a wall. He had been improbably brought back to life in statuesque form as the ultimate wallflower. Joyce was resting his right hand on a walking stick while wearing his trademark spectacles and wide brimmed hat. His mustache was properly groomed, coat and tie in proper order. Joyce’s face managed an expression of both seriousness and sadness, while the statue was as notable for its portrayal of Joyce as his pose. Walking through a wall is an expression of magical powers, an unexplainable and incomprehensible phenomenon. Perhaps this was a nod to Joyce’s writing, which is praised by critics and unintelligible to the average person.  I have no idea if that was what the sculptor of this Joyce statue intended, but that was my own personal interpretation.

Ulysses in Hungary - James Joyce in Szombathely

Ulysses in Hungary – James Joyce in Szombathely

Back Story – The Search For Deeper Meaning
This search for deeper meaning did not answer my main question regarding the statue. What was a likeness of James Joyce doing in Szombathely in the first place? From what I discovered through research, Joyce had never visited the city, but was nonetheless aware of it. One of the central characters in his stream of consciousness novel Ulysses happens to be from Szombathely. The character is Rudolf Virag, father of Leopold Bloom the novel’s central character. According to the narrative, Virag, originally a Hungarian Jew, immigrated to Ireland. He is said to have later killed himself, leaving his son without a father. Did a Rudolf Virag ever live in Szombathely? The answer I found turned out to be ambiguous. There was no specific Rudolf Virag known to live at 40/41 on Fo ter, but there was a family by the name of Blum at that residence during the 19th century. In Hungarian Virag means flower. In the novel, Rudolf Virag had changed his last name from Virag to Bloom when after emigrating from Hungary to Ireland.  Why did Joyce select Szombathely as the hometown of Rudolf Virag? There are many different theories.

One of the more intriguing credits Joyce’s genius at word play. The pronunciation of Szombathely (Sombattay) sounds like “somebody”, thus it might have been a light-hearted play on words. The most plausible theory is that Joyce was naming it after a close Jewish friend, the scholar Marino De Szombathely. They became acquainted after Joyce and his wife went into self-imposed exile at Trieste (now located in Italy), which was one of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s main ports on the Adriatic Sea prior to World War I. Joyce may have never made it to Szombathely, but he had a great deal of experience with multi-ethnic Austria-Hungary. For over a decade he taught English, first in the port city of Pula (now located in Croatia) and then in Trieste. He would have come into contact with many Jewish citizens of the empire. Joyce also would have learned about the submerged nationalism of the many ethnic groups advocating for greater representation in the empire. This would have chimed with the Irish nationalism that he knew so well.

Home of the Blum Family - Szombathely

Home of the Blum Family – Szombathely (Credit: Pan Peter)

The Life Of Exiles – Ulysses in Hungary
James Joyce’s experiences while living in Austria-Hungary informed character details and back stories in Ulysses. While Hungary was peripheral to the story, it nonetheless played a part in perhaps the greatest modern novel ever written. Rudolf Virag was a self-imposed exile from Hungary and his creator was a self-imposed exile to Austria-Hungary. Joyce thought enough about Hungary to give Szombathely a minor role in the book, one that the city has repaid with the statue of him walking right out of a wall and nearly into me. This was a shocking surprise, one of several that afternoon in Szombathely.

Click here for: American Shadows – The Bombing of Szombathely: Explosive Effects (Part One)

 

The Orient Express In Austria-Hungary – Romancing The East: An Initial Journey Into Exoticism (Part One)

In the autumn of 1883 a romance began that would continue for the next one-hundred and twenty-five years in a wide variety of forms. This romantic endeavor crisscrossed large swathes of Europe several times a week.  It started in the cultural and artistic wonderland of Europe at that time -Belle epoque Paris – and ended in the exotic east, within sight of the Sea of Marmara, skirting the shadows cast by mosques and minarets in Ottoman-era Constantinople. This romance was none other than the Orient Express. Thousands of passengers took part in the journey, authors waxed poetic about it and the refined elegance it represented became the stuff of legend. Orient and Express were two words bound together by creativity and innovation. They expressed all anyone needed to know about the route. “Orient” symbolized the eastern frontiers of Europe. “Express” a technological wonder that could defeat space and time to make a novel approach into the near east.

Orient Express - Advertising Poster

Orient Express – Advertising Poster (Credit: Jules Cheret)

From Dreams To Reality – All Aboard
The train would pull Europe and its eastern hinterlands closer together in a matter of days. The route made travel possible to places most people had only dreamed of. When the Orient Express first departed, those dreams were on the verge of becoming reality. Many of the stops along the line were much less exotic than Constantinople, but each was glamorous in its own way. Budapest and Bucharest, Vienna and Sofia, with their own unique allure. None of these were as exotic as Constantinople, but each offered a window into a wider world that Parisians or Londoners, aristocrats and journalists scarcely knew. Along the route, the world of Austria-Hungary was to be crossed. A multi-ethnic empire filled with people speaking a multitude of strange languages and adhering to antiquated folk customs. For the Orient Express ran right through the heart of the empire, the railway acting as an arrow piercing the heartland of both Austria and Hungary. The train’s passengers would be witness to an empire that was rapidly changing.

The inaugural journey of the Orient Express took place on October 4, 1883. There was a chill in the air as it pulled out of the Gare de L’est (East Station) in Paris. By the time dawn broke the next morning it was approaching Strasbourg, 300 miles to the east. The Express had entered the mighty German Empire, a land of progress that was fast leaving the rest of continental Europe behind. The explosive growth of the German economy was making it a world power. The Express made its way through Bavaria, with a stop at Munich on its first full day. Soon it would be crossing the border into the Austrian portion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At this point the train had been traveling for thirty hours. It was in the early morning hours of Saturday, October 6th that the Orient Express came gliding through the Austrian border town of Branau am Inn, passing not far from the residence of Alois Hitler, a customs officer. Five and a half years later a son would be born to Alois and his third wife Clara. That son would be named Adolf and change the world for the worse.

The first run of the Orient Express in 1883

The first run of the Orient Express in 1883 (Credit: Jürgen Franzke)

Advancing Into The Modern Age – Antecedents In Asia & The West
The Orient Express was now gliding along the 270 miles of railway that stretched between Munich and Vienna. By the late afternoon, it was pulling into the central station at Vienna where its passengers were feted by music from the Imperial Guards. The national anthems of France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey were played by the band, paying homage to each country the train would pass through on this inaugural journey. A huge dinner with champagne and wine was served for the passengers at the station’s restaurant. They were then invited to visit an electric lighting exhibition that had been kept open well past its closing time, just for them. Many of the passengers were too exhausted to attend, which was something of a shame. The exhibition was a showcase for how Austria-Hungary was advancing into the modern age. Trains, railroads and electric lighting were certainly notable achievements, but the stagnant political system which limited the rights of all its disparate nationalities – with the notable exception of a thin veneer of  Austrians and Hungarians – constantly threatened to derail the empire.

Slowly the Orient Express chugged further eastward through the night, making an obligatory stop at Poszony (present day Bratislava, Slovakia) to take on water and fuel. It was now in the Kingdom of Hungary, a land that no less a political figure than the Austrian, Prince Klemens Von Metternich, had once referred to as part of the Orient. The passengers onboard the Express were keen to see Budapest for the first time. The city had experienced explosive growth ever since Buda, Pest and Obuda (Old Buda) had been unified as a single entity a decade earlier. This was no Asiatic city, but a fast growing European metropolis. The railway station at Pest had antecedents in the west, specifically Paris, as it had been designed by the Eiffel Company.  The train’s arrival at mid-morning was greeted by a military band. This was followed by some Hungarian folk music topped off with a buffet that favored Magyar cuisine, specifically goulash.

The Early Years - Routes of the Orient Express 1883 - 1914

The Early Years – Routes of the Orient Express 1883 – 1914 (Credit: Alphthon)

All But The Memory – Ghost Of An Empire
From Budapest it was onto Szeged, a city where the damage from a catastrophic flood four years earlier was still visible. After the Orient Express pulled into the ramshackle station, a gypsy orchestra was sited coming toward the train. Their performance had been prearranged. They were invited to board the train, riding the Express to Temesvar (present-day Timisoara, Romania), where they were already slated to perform a concert that evening. It was a memorable two hour trip, with the strains of Roma music wafting through the restaurant car. The Orient had never sounded so close until that moment. Exoticism, mystery and mystique permeated the air. Once the gypsy orchestra departed, the train headed further east toward the Romanian border and out of Austria-Hungary. It was a memorable first journey through an empire that was not to last nearly as long as the rail route which now ran across the length of it. The Orient Express would still be running long after the Austro-Hungarian Empire had disappeared from all but the memory. All romances eventually end, but some last longer than others.

Click here for: The Orient Express Enters The Orient – Romania: Strangely Familiar & Totally Foreign (Part Two)

A Passion For Public Consumption – Austria-Hungary’s Picture Postcards: The Zempleni Museum Collection

One of the great joys of my youth was collecting sports cards. There was nothing quite like going to the convenience store and seeing that a new box of football, baseball or basketball cards had arrived. I spent most of my meager savings trying to collect the cards of favorite teams and players. My careless treatment of these prized possessions ended up rendering them worthless. Then again, I was not in it for the money. Like many avid collectors, my joy came from the pursuit and discovery of the cards I lacked. The search for these rarities consumed much of my youth. I gave up sports card collecting long ago, but vividly recalled this youthful passion when I stumbled upon a unique exhibit at the Zempleni Museum in Szerencs, a small city in northeastern Hungary.

Before entering, I assumed the Zempleni Museum to be replete with exhibits and artifacts from Ferenc Rackozi’s War of Independence (1703 – 1711). The war dominates history in the area and the museum is not surprisingly housed in a wing of the Rackozi Castle in Szerencs. I also imagined the museum would display peasant costumes indigenous to the Zemplen Hills, a small mountain range tucked up tight against the Hungarian border with Slovakia. I was correct about the Rackozi exhibit, but fortunately I did not have to suffer through another of those ubiquitous peasant fashion shows that inhabit almost every other regional museum in Hungary. Instead one of the rooms was a revelation that ignited my long-lost interest in collecting.

Zempleni Museum at Rackozi Var in Szerencs

Zempleni Museum at Rackozi Var in Szerencs

Artifacts of A Vanished Age –From Beyond The Empire’s Grave
The museum had an excellent display of historic picture postcards focusing on the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef and his wife Queen Elisabeth, otherwise known as Sisi, who was beloved by all Hungarians, then and now. The postcards spanned nearly all of Queen Elisabeth’s life and sadly her tragic death. There was a particularly poignant postcard showing her coffin, following her murder at the hands of an Italian anarchist in 1898. The postcards of Franz Josef extended across his long and eventful reign. One of the most arresting showed the grizzled emperor with his head bowed and hands clasped, deep in prayer for the empire’s soldiers fighting in World War I. Just a couple of years after that postcard was manufactured, both the emperor and empire would be dead. This also meant the end of postcards from Austria-Hungary, but collecting of them would continue right up until today.

The history of postcards in Austria-Hungary was told in fascinating detail by the exhibit. These were artifacts of a vanished age. For those intoxicated by a whiff of nostalgia, the fin de siècle era represented on the postcards was redolent of the life of Austria-Hungary, which lasted from 1867 – 1918. That time frame also spanned the rise and resulting golden age for picture postcards. This age lived again through what I encountered at the Zempleni Museum. There were a couple of hundred postcards on display. These were just a tiny proportion of its massive historic postcard holdings. The museum is the repository for the third largest postcard collection in the world, approximately one million in all. This was the life’s work of a local physician, Dr. Laszlo Petrikovits, part of whose passion was now prominently displayed for public consumption. Providing insights into both Austria-Hungary and a form of mass communication that joined the empire ever closer together until the First World War tore it apart. The inception of postcards sent by mail tracks the empire’s formation and development.

Bringing an empire back to life - Dr. Laszlo Petrikovits

Bringing an empire back to life – Dr. Laszlo Petrikovits (Credit: Zempleni Museum)

Symbols of Affection – Bringing People Closer Together
The predecessor of the picture postcard was first produced in Austria-Hungary just two years after the empire was formally created. During the autumn of 1869, the Austro-Hungarian Postal Service produced an open postcard on which could be written short messages, the brainchild of Dr. Emmanuel Hermann. His idea was transformed and then soared in popularity. Just four years after its inception, six and a half million of these postcards were delivered by the Hungarian Postal Service. Over that same period artists in Prussia and France began to illustrate one side of the card, giving birth to the picture postcard. In 1874 another breakthrough occurred when the Universal Postal Union made the crucial decision that postcards would only cost half the price of sealed letters. Then in 1878, the picture postcard was accepted as an official postal matter at an International Conference in Paris. In the space of less than a decade the picture postcard had been conceived, developed and formalized. Soon tens of millions of these postcards were being produced and began to crisscross Austria-Hungary, a physical symbol of affection among family members and friends.

The postcards for Hungary were produced outside its borders, in either the Austrian part of the empire or Germany. That began to change in 1896 with the Millennium Celebration, commemorating the thousand-year anniversary of the Hungarian conquest of the Carpathian Basin. The Hungarian Mail Service created a series of 32 postcards that showed various scenes from the celebration. In addition, there were landscapes and historical scenes from around Hungary. The series proved extremely popular. These postcards inaugurated a thirty-year period that can rightly be called the “Belle Epoque” of Hungarian picture postcards. Every type of Hungarian historical and contemporary scene imaginable was portrayed. They became a favored form of communication for those travelling both inside Hungary and abroad.  Families began to collect the postcards as keepsakes that brought back fond memories of time spent together on vacation. When friends would visit, they would often be shown an album of these postcards. For many the photos on the postcards familiarized them with far off places on the empire’s frontiers in Erdely (Transylvania) and Felvidek (Upper Hungary/present-day Slovakia). Others who lived out on these frontiers saw the sights of Budapest represented on these cards. The picture postcard was a form of connection, threading the masses of Austria-Hungary closer together.

Historic picture postcard of the Gazdasgi Bank in Kiskunhalas, Austria-Hungary

Historic picture postcard of the Gazdasgi Bank in Kiskunhalas, Austria-Hungary (Credit: Zempleni Museum)

The Empire Dies – The Empire Lives
Connection is one of the main reasons that people still collect these picture postcards today and why I found the collection at the Zempleni Museum so fascinating. The old photos brought a bygone era back to life for me. An age when women still wore long dresses and strolled beneath parasols as they locked arms with their husbands and strolled along promenades in Budapest and Becs, Kassa and Kolozsvar. An age when the entire Hungarian nation fell under the spell of Queen Elisabeth’s entrancing beauty. An age when an Emperor prayed for the preservation of his soldiers and the empire they fought valiantly to save. An empire that would soon crumble, but still lives on today in the picture postcard collection that can be found at the Zempleni Museum in Szerencs.

First & Final Traces – Oppression, Prominence & Prejudice: The Jews of Szombathely (Part One)

In 1960 a remarkable photograph was taken in Szombathely by a man named Gyula Nagy. There is no way of knowing whether Nagy set out to show the remains of two lost civilizations when he snapped the black and white image, but that is exactly what he ended up doing. Nagy took the photo while standing at the ruins of the Temple of Isis, a religious site from the ancient Roman city of Savaria. In the photo’s foreground are three ruined columns, through these would have passed Roman citizens entering or exiting the temple. In the background and to the right of one of the columns, can be seen the Moorish styled synagogue of Szombathely. Its twin domed shaped towers rising above everything else in the photo. The temple’s ruined columns and the synagogue’s towers provide an intriguing architectural expression of all that remained of the Romans and Jews in Szombathely. The Romans had long since passed into history, but the Jews of Szombathely had only recently vanished by the time this photo was taken. The temple ruins are the immediate point of fascination in Nagy’s photo, causing one to reflect on the greatness of Rome and the legacy it left behind.

Whether or not Nagy was trying to evoke the loss of these peoples is open to conjecture, but the fact remains that his photo did just that. The site of Szombathely’s synagogue looming in the background provides a tragic parallel to the temple ruins. Though the synagogue is still intact, the Jews of Szombathely were nearly extinct by this time. The building was no longer a working synagogue, while the culture it stood for was nearly as remote to Szombathely as the ancient Roman one of Savaria. The fall of Savaria, like Rome itself, had taken centuries. The collapse of Szombathely’s Jewish community took just a few months. Both left traces behind that are worth exploring. Many do just that at the Roman ruins, considerably less at the synagogue and associated Jewish sites in the city. The difference in interest is massive. Discovering ancient Rome in Szombathely is enthralling, while discovering the history of the Jews in the city is tragic

Traces of Vanished Civilizations - Szombathely

Traces of Vanished Civilizations – Szombathely (Credit: Gyula Nagy/fortepan.hu)

Persecution & Pogroms – A History Of Harassment
It is interesting to note the proximity of the ruined Temple of Isis with Szombathely’s most impressive synagogue. This proximity could be interpreted as a historical metaphor. The first Jews likely arrived in the territory of present day Hungary during the 2nd century AD. Roman legions, who had been sent from the province of Pannonia (which included much of present day western Hungary) to put down a revolt in Judea, brought Jews back as slaves. Many of them settled in Savaria. When the Barbarian invasions overran the city in the 5th century, Jews fled along with the Roman inhabitants. A Jewish presence in the area would not be recorded again in this area until the 17th century. During that period and in the centuries that followed, Jews with very few exceptions were not allowed to settle within the city of Szombathely. Instead, they were relegated to the outskirts and surrounding countryside on land set aside at the Bathhyany estates, one of the most powerful noble families in Hungary.

The local Hungarian population viewed Jews in the area with extreme suspicion. The prejudice towards them would never completely vanished and would come to a head on multiple occasions beginning in the mid-19th century. In 1840 Jews finally secured rights to settle in Szombathely after the Habsburg Empire gave them freedom of settlement. By 1848 three hundred had moved or were planning to move into the city. This stirred up antisemitism among the locals. The Jews were viewed as a threat, an alien race that could not be assimilated with the majority Hungarian culture. The more Jews that moved into the city, the greater the chance of a nasty backlash developing. Less than a month after an independent Hungary was proclaimed in the spring of 1848, locals in the city went on a rampage. They attacked the synagogue, ripped up the Torah Scrolls and looted Jewish property. The local administration did nothing to prevent these attacks and subsequently proclaimed that all Jews were being banned from the city. A forcible expulsion was to take place on April 24th for those who failed to leave the city voluntarily. At this point, officials of the national government intervened. The ban never took effect and peace was soon restored, but trust could not easily be repaired.

The Rise To Power  – Freedom From Fear
Most of Szombathely’s citizens continued to view its Jewish populace with skepticism. It would not be until 1867, with the unification of Austria and Hungary in the Dual Monarchy that the Jewish citizens of Szombathely were emancipated and received full civil rights. It was from this point that the city’s Jewish population began a meteoric rise in business and culture, one that would lead directly to the construction of the richly patterned, exotically wondrous edifice of the Neolog (Reformed) Synagogue in 1880. It was built on one side of Bathhyany Square, which only seemed right since that family had afforded invaluable protection and living space for Jews in the area prior to emancipation.

Freed from the shackles of discriminatory legislation the Jews of Szombathely soon came to dominate the business and industrial enterprises in the city. Their wealth, influence and number all grew during the Dual Monarchy era. In 1869 there were 1,154 Jews in Szombathely, by 1900 that figure had grown two and a half-fold to over 2,600. The most common occupation of those with a steady income were merchants. Several major enterprises were owned by Jews, including textile mills and several different industrial concerns. These provided employment for hundreds of non-Jews in Szombathely. Assimilationist tendencies among business minded and progressive Jews, who were a majority of the Jewish population in Szombathely resulted in their widespread acceptance by non-Jews. Their ascent was halted, as with so much else in Hungary, by the First World War.

An Unmitigated Disaster – The Great War Changes Everything
It is no secret that the First World War was an unmitigated disaster for Hungary, the same could also be said for Szombathely’s Jewish inhabitants. This can hardly be disputed, as the post-war Treaty of Trianon resulted in two-thirds of the Kingdom of Hungary’s land area and population being stripped away from it. The scale of this cataclysm serves to obscure the suffering inflicted on Hungarians Jews after the war. Business owners saw their profits plunge as Hungary was cut off from markets in the hinterlands. This was certainly true in Szombathely which lay close to the new border with Austria. Jews were blamed for both the political and economic turmoil that plagued Hungary during this time. Jews were blamed for the Red Revolution which brought a short-lived communist government to power in Hungary. This was followed in turn by a “White Terror” that persecuted anyone suspected of leftist tendencies. Being Jewish was synonymous to many Hungarians with being left wing. Such extremism foreshadowed the rise of fascism and the resulting threat to all Jews in Hungary, including those in Szombathely.

This Is How It Starts – The Hajmasker Barracks: To Visit A Vanished Empire

This is how it starts. On an atypically grey, summer Sunday afternoon I was marking time in my home, trying to find some sort of intellectual stimulation. Not an easy thing to do in an incredibly dull small town located out on the high desert of western America. The leaden skies outside had nearly lulled me to sleep. Drifting in and out of drowsiness I haphazardly searched the internet for random Hungarian topics. This is how happened upon a place in western Hungary called Hajmasker, a village of just over 3,000 people. Usually villages of that size in Hungary have a couple of 19th century churches, some well kempt, colorful houses each with the ubiquitous backyard garden and not much else of interest. Hajmasker stood out in a different way though. Viewing it on Google Earth, I saw that Hajmasker had all the accoutrements of a Hungarian village. What made it different were some massive Austro-Hungarian era military related structures.  These can be visited by the adventurous.

I felt a twinge of yearning, a delight in this discovery. Imagining that Hajmasker must be an obscure village in some remote, pastoral hamlet, I was shocked to learn that it stood astride the main route between Veszprem and Varpalota. I had traveled through the village by both train and bus on separate occasions several years back without the slightest knowledge of the treasure trove of Austro-Hungarian martialtecture just a short walk from the stations. Never once did I suspect the area as a place where I would be able to let my curiosity run wild. For me, anything related to the Austro-Hungarian Empire is worth seeing. Immediately I began to search for more information, while in the back of my mind I began to concoct plans to visit Hajmasker.

Hajmasker Barracks - Main building

Hajmasker Barracks – Main building

A Pervasive Sense Of Permanence = What Did Not Happen?
What does the village of Hajmasker have in common with Sopron, Salzburg and Zagreb, Vienna and Wiener Neustadt? Like each of these well-known cities, Hajmasker was home to an Austro-Hungarian artillery barracks. The difference was that the barracks in Hajmasker were the largest in the whole empire.  Almost a thousand soldiers might be stationed there at any one time. It was an instant village of sorts, but this one came with loud explosions as a major artillery range was setup nearby. In grandeur and style the barracks in Hajmasker could easily compete with much larger places. The main barracks building, now in the process of slowly decaying, looks like a giant manor house with a castle grafted onto it.

Festooned with turrets and spires, red roofed with massive gray walls, this building has all the hallmarks of imperial architecture, a foreboding mass of enormous grandiosity. And this is just one of many such massive structures which dot the grounds. The entire complex emanates a pervasive sense of permanence and why not? The ruling Habsburgs, the family behind the Austro-Hungarian throne, had ruled much of central Europe for seven centuries and Hungary for the past two when the Hajmasker barracks were constructed. It is evident by their construction that the barracks were built to last. And that is precisely what did not happen.

Hajmasker Barracks - Abandoned entrance

Hajmasker Barracks – Abandoned entrance

No Ordinary Occupation – Will They Ever Leave?
World War One changed everything, at least for a little while. The Hajmasker barracks were used to house prisoners of war during the conflict, by the end of which the eternal Hapsburg dynasty proved to be mortal. Austria-Hungary collapsed along with it. The barracks were there for the taking. Another empire would find them of use for their own military, but not before a quarter of a century had passed. In the latter part of 1944 the Red Army took control of Hajmasker. This would turn out to be no ordinary occupation, as the Soviets extended their stay for the entirety of the Cold War. Their occupation was equal in length to the entire history of the Hajmasker barracks prior to their arrival. They came to dominate the area. Two generations of villagers learned to live with the Soviets literally on their doorsteps. The soldiers left indelible marks on the barracks, stripping them bare of valuable items. The walls were papered over with Russian language newspapers. A pitiful degradation, as well as a representative example of Soviet scarcity, as their own system began to buckle beneath the weight of tiresome occupations in places such as rural Hungary.

One can easily imagine Red Army soldiers asking themselves, “What are we doing here? “ While the villagers in Hajmasker must have asked themselves a variant of that same question, “Will they ever leave?” A symbiotic relationship of mutual reliance developed down through the decades between soldier and villager. The Soviets traded gasoline for Hungarian wine. The former would be guzzled by the local’s automobiles and motorbikes, while the latter would be guzzled by the soldiers. More lethal concoctions were on offer courtesy of the Red Army, including machine guns, grenades and loads of ammunition. Hajmasker would be the first base vacated by the Red Army when it left Hungary in 1990. As this strained relationship finally came to an end, the barracks of Hajmasker became what they are still today, a vast scaffold of fin de siècle military architecture waiting in vain for another imperial occupier. The only occupation going on there today is a vacant one.

Hajmasker Barracks - The hope that never ends

Hajmasker Barracks – The hope that never ends

Internal Conflict – The Hope That Never Ends
Everything I have learned about Hajmasker has only made my need to visit the barracks that much greater. The fact that I came so close without even knowing of its existence will bother me until the day I visit or until the day I die. An obsession has taken hold of me that I cannot let go. Not until I have walked down those cavernous corridors and stood in the empty chasms of vanished imperial power. I have an intuition, an inexplicably powerful feeling that the barracks in Hajmasker will be worth whatever toil it takes to get there. It will be an opportunity to see lasting vestiges of Austria-Hungary, to resurrect the empire before it disintegrates. All this I want to believe, I have to believe, I need to believe. This is how it starts and I hope it never ends.

The Ultimate Hungarian Love Affair – Empress Elisabeth: Falling At Her Feet

The more times I visited Hungary, the more I began to notice that very few women are commemorated by statues, monuments or memorials. Statues of such national denizens as Lajos Kossuth and Istvan Szechenyi can be found in every sizeable town. Monuments and memorials to those who fought and died in both World Wars grace the squares of even the smallest villages, but try to find one dedicated to the memory of a woman and your search will largely be in vain. Why is this? Many experts in culture have noted “Hungarian Chauvinism”, a tendency towards what might best be described as “bigheadedness”. In effect this means that Hungarians tend to put themselves above all others, this tendency manifests itself in a will to dominate. I remember having dinner with a Hungarian acquaintance several years ago, who leaned over and said in a particularly expressive manner “we love to dominate things.”

Hungarian chauvinism is usually noted in reference to the treatment of ethnic groups that once fell inside the borders of the Kingdom of Hungary, such as Slovaks, Romanians and Serbians. Since this chauvinism was political and Hungarian politics has always been dominated by men, this chauvinism may primarily be a male thing. Perhaps this goes some way in explaining the lack of women commemorated throughout the country. Whatever the case, finding a Hungarian female memorialized is a rare occurrence. This is ironic because Hungarian women are known for their remarkable beauty and style. Maybe it is because of an emphasis on the superficial that their accomplishments have been overlooked. Whatever the case there is at least one woman whose presence is front and center in the hearts of Hungarians. And this woman was not even a Hungarian.

Elisabeth as Queen of Hungary

Elisabeth as Queen of Hungary (Credit: Emil Rabending)

“Friend of the Hungarian People” – The Eternal Queen
In the center of Budapest, laid across the Danube River, stands the Elisabeth Bridge named after Elisabeth, Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary or as she is most famously known, Sisi. There is no more beloved woman in all of Hungary. Elisabeth was the wife of Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef, a man who was reviled in the wake of Austria’s victory over Hungary in the revolutionary uprising of 1848. The harsh reprisals carried out on the order of Franz Josef did little to endear him to the Hungarian nation. Less than two decades later, times had changed and Austria’s position as one of the great powers in Europe was threatened. Its power was waning due to the rise of Prussia. Austria needed a new partner to avoid being subsumed in what was soon to be the German Empire. Many historians and almost all Hungarians believe Elisabeth used her influence to persuade Franz Josef to compromise with Hungary. This led to the creation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1867, setting off a golden age in Hungary which saw the country’s rapid economic and cultural transformation.

Coronation of Franz Joseph and Elisabeth as Apostolic King and Queen of Hungary

Coronation of Franz Joseph and Elisabeth as Apostolic King and Queen of Hungary (Credit: Edmund Tull)

Elisabeth’s love for Hungary was a reflection of her extraordinary relationship with Count Gyula Andrassy. She admired Andrassy as the essence of rugged, exotic manhood. Their platonic romance (some believe it may have been more than that) helped unite the two nations. For her role, Elisabeth forever became known as a “friend of the Hungarian people.” And she was certainly fond of them, going so far as learning to speak the exceedingly difficult Hungarian language. Elisabeth was most at home in Hungary, far away from the stifling court protocol of Vienna. Her home away from home was the palace of Godollo, just 20 miles northeast of Budapest. It was a gift to her and her husband from the Hungarian people following their coronation in 1867. Godollo was a place where Elisabeth was free to be herself. She remarked that “Here no one disturbs me, as if I were living in a village where I can come and go as I please.” The Hungarian people reciprocated the love shown to them by Elisabeth. It is not a stretch to say that she was the most popular woman in Hungary at the time and probably still is today.

Thus it is no surprise that the most prominent statue of a female in Hungary is the one of Queen Elisabeth which now stands on the Buda side of the Danube, adjacent to the bridge that is also named for her. The fact that this statue still stands illustrates the reverence and respect Elisabeth has been given by Hungarians. Getting the statue up in the first place was a long and drawn out process. Following Elisabeth’s death a million crowns was quickly raised to erect a statue dedicated to the memory of her. Raising money was the easy part, selecting a winning design proved much more difficult. It took five competitions over a twenty year period yielding over one hundred and thirty designs before a winning design was selected. Then there was another interminable delay caused by confusion over where the statue would be located. Among the choices were multiple spots on Castle Hill in Buda and the City Park in Pest. It was eventually decided to place it on the Pest side of the Danube adjacent to the bridge also named after Elisabeth.

Queen Elisabeth statue in Budapest

Queen Elisabeth statue in Budapest

An Undying Love – Elisabeth By The Danube
In 1932, over three decades after it was first conceived, the statue was dedicated, but it would not stay at its original location. Oddly, it was not until the end of Hungary’s hard line Stalinst era in 1953 that the statue was removed.  Elisabeth’s statue may have been mothballed, but the communists could not bring themselves to destroy it. Despite the fact that she was a royal princess, everything the communists professed to loathe, the statue was kept in what turned out to be long term storage. It finally reappeared, oddly enough not after, but before the Iron Curtain fell. In 1986 the statue took another prominent position beside the Danube. Thirty-three years after its removal the statue rematerialized, on the opposite side of the Danube at Dobrentei ter where it can still be found today. The statue of Elisabeth sculpted in stone looks positively radiant, just as she did when all of Hungary fell for her 150 years ago. On the banks of the Danube that love affair continues.

A Measure For Their Dreams – Budapest By The Danube: Heart Of Optimism (Travels In Eastern Europe #27)

There is only one thing to do after arriving in Budapest for the very first time. It is to make your way over to see the Hungarian Parliament Building. I know this from experience as it was late in the afternoon on a sunny day in mid-March when I rushed over to see the structure. As such there was no time to try and take a tour of the interior. That was fine with me because truth be told all I really wanted to do was feast on the ultimate piece of architectural eye candy, a building that brings to mind a confection of the most fantastical kind. No amount of superlatives can aptly describe the Hungarian Parliament building. It is much larger than photos of it are able to capture. Just to walk around the building at a rather brisk pace takes a good twenty minutes. The sheer glamour of this neo-Gothic masterpiece is overwhelming. The beauty and grandeur of the building is one thing, but consider that the Parliament serves a country of only ten million people. It looks like something one would expect to find as the seat of government for a world power. Hungary is only a mid-sized country in east-central Europe, but it obviously has much greater designs.

Hungarian Parliament Building

Hungarian Parliament Building (Credit: Ivanhoe)

Historic Convergence – Pulling A City Together
The Parliament is a reflection of how the Hungarians see themselves and their place in Europe. These are people of outsize ambition, who take creativity to its ultimate extreme. This is how they ended up with such a fantastical confection astride the Danube. It is also how they ended up creating a city along both sides of the river front of unsurpassed majesty. The area where Budapest is strung along the Danube brings to mind an old phrase, “the hits just keep coming.” From where I stood in the shadow of the Parliament on the river’s embankment I took in a scene of architectural enchantment that was as much the product of a fairy tale, as it was the work of man. Gazing upriver, across the placid, slate gray surface of the Danube I spotted the unique three-part Margaret Bridge connecting both sides of the city with an island of the same name. Then I looked downriver where the Chain Bridge, that inaugural link between the two sides of what became the same city, stretched across the watery expanse.

The bridge is a historic link, it allowed the lifeblood of Buda and Pest to flow unimpeded into one another. Its centrality to the city’s convergence is without equal in annals of European history, magnetically pulling the two sides together to create Europe’s fastest growing metropolis in the latter half of the 19th century. The Buda Hills across the river from where I stood that day, displayed a series of treasured buildings that any city would be pleased to call its own. I counted at least six church spires, the most prominent of which soared above all, that of the Matthias Church on Castle Hill. There was another set of spires recognizable just below the church. These were part of the Fisherman’s Bastion. Further on was a dome that signaled the top of Buda Castle which spread royal wings beneath it. This panorama of Buda as seen from Pest was so wondrous that I could hardly believe my eyes.

Looking towards Castle Hill from the Danube in Budapest

Looking towards Castle Hill from the Danube in Budapest

Rising From Ruins – The Building Of Buda
To think that all this is not the product of prior planning, but many centuries worth of organic growth is mind boggling. Here is a scene of stunning urban perfection that has scarcely been repeated. Descriptions will not do it justice. Taken as a whole, this part of the city as it stands astride the Danube is one of the great wonders of the world, a setting that has no peer, even in the annals of old Europe. The sheer scale of grandiosity on offer along the Danube in Budapest is overwhelming. That makes it hard to imagine that the beautiful scene standing on the Buda Hills has been reduced to a smoldering ruin on multiple occasions in the past. When the Habsburgs took it back from the Ottoman Turks in 1686 and the Red Army stormed it during the winter of 1945, they left a residue of rubble that paradoxically became a foundation for regrowth, rebirth and reconstruction.

Following World War II, what was left of both the Margaret and Chain Bridges lay submerged in the river. Revolutions in 1848, 1919 and 1956 left bullet scared buildings and rising plumes of smoke in their wake, signals of the resistance that lay at the heart of all good Magyars. The embankment I stood upon has been inundated by the Danube too many times to recount, sending parts of Pest to a watery grave. Good men and women laid low by the pessimism of the Magyar mentality have leapt into the dark waters of the Danube in alarming numbers over the past two centuries. Jews had been marched to these river banks and shot by the hundreds in acts of genocidal indifference. Historical fate had subdued this city and its citizens repeatedly. Yet through it all the city rises again and again.

Chain Bridge looking up at Buda Castle at night

Chain Bridge looking up at Buda Castle at night (Credit: Noval Goya)

The Will To Splendor – In The Minds Of Magyars
Budapest by the Danube is a sparkling example of triumph over tragedy, the will to splendor, an astounding adherence to national destiny. For all their reputed gloomy cynicism, the heart of every Hungarian must be filled with an abiding optimism to overcome the many misfortunes of history inflicted upon their nation. How else to explain the creation of a capital that is such a showcase of scintillating beauty? Optimism is the eternal answer. Optimism took the grey Danube, spun it into a silvery thread and wove it into a fantasy cityscape of the most furtive imagination. Optimism built a series of unforgettable bridges that transcended nature to connect a city and nation into a greater whole. Optimism touched the sky with steeples that soared from a wellspring of faith. And optimism created a city that is a stunning exposition of the majesty that lives in the heart and mind of every Magyar.