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

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.

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.

Anonymous – City Park, Budapest: Biography of an Unknown

One of my earliest memories of school is from the first grade, when I was told a famous story about George Washington. This story involved a youthful Washington who loved to spend time outdoors on his family’s land. One day his father found a cherry tree in their orchard that had been chopped down. Washington’s father knew his son never went anywhere without his trusty hatchet. He suspected that young George may have cut down the valuable tree in an act of thoughtless mischief. When his father asked him if he had been responsible for chopping down the tree, Washington replied, “I cannot tell a lie. I chopped down the cherry tree.”

The point of the story was to always be honest and admit the truth. There were other valuable lessons to be gleaned from the tale, such as taking personal responsibility and the value of being accountable for one’s actions. I would later learn that the story is almost certainly mythical, but it focuses on a greater truth. The tale illustrates values that Americans should all hold dear. Whether it is Washington and the cherry tree or Rome’s creation as a byproduct of Romulus and Remus, mythical lore is central to how great nations, empires and peoples see themselves. This is just as true for Hungary and Hungarians as it is for my own country. Their early history and conquest of the Carpathian Basin is the stuff legends are made of, quite literally.

Anonymous - The Great Unknown

Anonymous – The Great Unknown

The Stuff Of Legend – Words & Deeds Of Hungarians
The importance of myth and legend in Hungarian history can be found at one of Budapest’s most visited attractions. In the City Park (Varosliget), a statue of a strange man sits alone on a concrete pedestal. His head is hung low and covered with a hood. In his right hand is a sharp instrument, not a blade, but a writing utensil. He seems to be either deep in thought or brooding, but no one really knows for sure. Who is this statue supposed to represent? There are no easy answers when it comes to the man known as Anonymous. His identity is vaguely known, unlike his writing which is the stuff of legend, both figuratively and literally. Anonymous casts a long shadow over the history of Hungary. As he should, since an even longer shadow hangs over exactly who he was.

Scholars believe that sometime in the mid to late 13th century a scribe for the King of Hungary wrote the chronicle that provides a narrative on the background, conquest and aftermath of the Hungarian arrival in the Carpathian Basin. The veracity of this chronicle known as the Gesta Hungarorum (The Deeds of the Hungarians) has been questioned. It relies on everything from heroic folk songs, myths and ballads to written sources both ancient and medieval to tell the early story of the Hungarians. Some claims by the author are totally outlandish, such as when he states that Hungarians fought the Romans. There is way more fiction than fact. Nonetheless, the chronicle has provided the Hungarians with many of their founding myths. It also serves as proof of that old cliché to never let a good story get in the way of the truth.

As it is written – excerpt from a facsimile of the Gesta Hungarorum

Teller Of Many Tales & Very Few Truths – “P who is called magister”
The Gesta was written three and a half centuries after many of the events it describes. This makes its historical account of events highly unlikely. Nevertheless, it provides a homegrown basis for the early history of the Magyars. Almost all other accounts come from foreign sources. Truth be told, the Gesta also relies quite heavily on works by foreigners as well as a plethora of dubious sources. The Gesta was written by a Hungarian, which explains much of its popularity. That is the main reason it has informed the Hungarian people’s beliefs concerning their early origins. It is considered a trusted, but extremely flawed source.  So who was the anonymous author of this famous flawed work? A hint is given in the opening sentence.

The author is explicitly vague, calling himself, “P who is called magister, and sometime notary of the most glorious Bela, King of Hungary of fond memory.” The problem with identifying the author from this self-reference is that there were four different Kings of Hungary named Bela. A majority of scholars have concluded that it was written under the reign of King Bela III (1172 – 1196). The reason Anonymous wrote the work is less obscure. One of the more interesting statements made by Anonymous was that he had decided to write the history of Hungary’s kings and noblemen because no such work existed. Many of the tales he told did not exist, until he either made them up or repeated ones he had heard that were not grounded in historical fact. Anonymous was a man who loved good stories, no matter the truth. He did provide just enough factual material that some of what he said was taken seriously. It is this interweaving of truth and tale which created a work that has stood the test of time.

Miklos Ligeti - sculptor of the Anonymous statue

Miklos Ligeti – sculptor of the Anonymous statue

The Power Of Myth – A Universal Truth
It took five centuries before a translation of the Gesta appeared in Hungarian (the original was written in Latin). Its popularity soared along with Hungarian nationalism in the 19th century. At the time of the Millenary Celebrations of the Magyar conquest of the Carpathian Basin in 1896, the Gesta was promoted as a reputable source. As part of those celebrations, Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef donated funds for the sculpting of ten statues to be placed in public areas around Budapest. This was the impetus for the statue of Anonymous found in the City Park. Miklos Legeti, a native of Pest was commissioned to sculpt it. Legeti, was a rather obscure artist, best known for the realistic quality of his work. He completed the statue in 1903. It is now hailed as a masterpiece. Strangely enough, Legeti is all but unknown today with the exception of his statue of an unknown man. Ironically both of these men have not been forgotten, proving that the power of myth is timeless, as are their works.

 

The Days We Die – First & Last Goodbyes:  Leaving Banffy Castle Behind (An Invitation To A Vanished Past – Part Seven)

I always feel a deep sadness when leaving a place I have finally been able to visit. With my goal attained the question of “Now what?” consumes me. The feeling I have during these moments is reminiscent of how I used to feel on Christmas morning after opening all the gifts. An empty malaise, when hope and expectation are gone. The nothing that comes next would leave a void. When this happens with travel, the feeling can only be replaced by another seemingly impossible trip.

The sadness that consumed me as l walked away from Banffy Castle was much greater than what I had previously felt on other occasions. Perhaps that had to do with middle age and the realization that time was running out on me. There was little chance I would ever come back here. I have too many other places I want to visit. A return trip seems highly improbable. And yet Transylvania is a place that never really leaves you, even after you leave it. The mesmerizing beauty of its landscapes, its diverse blend of peoples, folk culture that infuses its art and architecture with a unique rusticity, all serve to create a sense of magical wonder that lingers in the memory.

A lasting impression - Banffy Castle

A lasting impression – Banffy Castle

To Live & To Leave – The End Of A Dream
After walking out the arched entrance way, I turned around on several occasions to catch a last glimpse of Banffy Castle. I was saying goodbye to a dream from which I was now just beginning to awaken. I only spent a couple of hours at the castle and had come to feel attached. Miklos Banffy had spent a large part of his life there. I wondered how Banffy must have felt the last time he saw his beloved home. It would have been a depressing site after the ravages of warfare. Perhaps he imagined trying to salvage what was left, to rebuild or reconstruct. Or perhaps he knew that all was lost. At that time the castle was as much rubble as ruin.  At least I had a choice whether or not to come back, Banffy ended up leaving Transylvania in 1949 for Budapest to be with his wife and daughter, knowing full well that he would not be able or willing to return. It had taken him several years just to get permission to cross the border from Romania into Hungary. A return would have been too difficult, especially for an old man whose health was on the verge of failing.

And would Banffy really have wanted to return? The castle was a smoldering pile on property that was no longer under his ownership. The communists were in the process of completely transforming Transylvania. At the same time, Hungarian aristocrats were branded enemies of the state. Banffy was lucky to be allowed to live and leave. He could just as easily have been arrested or even worse, shot.  A deep, penetrating sense of loss must have engulfed Banffy in the period between the end of World War II and when he finally left Transylvania four years later. There was no place in the Stalinist world for a man like Banffy. Humanist diplomats from ancient aristocratic families were persona non gratas. While toe the party line ideologues were in demand. This was a world that had been entirely rearranged by the war. Romanticism and sentimentality were out, brutalism and collectivization now held the region in an iron grip.

One last look - Miklos Banffy in his later years

One last look – Miklos Banffy in his later years

The Wicked Irony – A Spiritual Death
Cluj, the city where Banffy stayed during his final years in Transylvania, most have felt like a wicked irony. He had successfully negotiated it as an open city in 1944, sparing it the bullets and bombs of the Red Army. The man who had helped save a city full of treasures, had his own destroyed or in the case of his palace in Cluj, stolen from him. As a man of the theater he understood drama and tragedy all too well, but this was theater of the absurd on a whole new level with continuous acts of unreality. This included the fact that there was no time left for him to say goodbye. Maybe not being able to say goodbye was for the best, after all there was nothing left but memories to mourn. Sometimes goodbye means turning a cold shoulder to the truth, not so much in contempt as indifference. Banffy was a man of great passion I doubt he could have done this. It would have killed him. Then again maybe it did kill him. His life ended in Budapest only in a physical sense. Spiritually he died the day he left Transylvania for the last time.

I was leaving Transylvania, but unlike Banffy it would not be for the last time. Nothing stood in my way of returning other than work and money. Yet I would never be able to return here for the first time. I could not replicate my own experience. Coming back to the castle again and again would only be a futile attempt at recapturing a highly personalized piece of the past. It would be like an alcoholic or drug addict always chasing their first high. All returns are diminished. Innocence can only be lost one time. The thought of this engulfed me with sadness. I knew as I walked away, this goodbye was forever. And once again I was left with the question of “Now what?” My answer was a thumbs up and out, an attempt to flee faster than I had arrived. This meant hitchhiking, something that I had hardly ever done before.

A final glimpse - Banffy Castle

A final glimpse – Banffy Castle

Acts Of Rural Kindness – The Only Way To Say Goodbye
Here I was in a foreign land, unable to speak the mother tongue, with my red hair and southern accent I stuck out like a sore thumb. It was not long before a delivery van stopped to pick me up. In my experience, acts of rural kindness are universal and global, Transylvania was no different. The driver could not speak a word of English, but I knew the Romanian word for train station, “Gara.” He nodded in understanding. The ride was short and uneventful, retracing my earlier footsteps in a matter of minutes. This was the only way I could say goodbye to Banffy Castle and Bontida, to get away as fast as I could.

An Entire World On One Foundation – Banffy Castle: The Problem & The Solution (An Invitation To A Vanished World – Part Six)

“The radiant afternoon sunlight of early September was so brilliant that it seemed like summer.” That is the first sentence of Miklos Banffy’s The Writing On The Wall trilogy. I could have said much the same thing as I stood just inside the entrance to Banffy Castle in Bontida, Count Banffy’s home for much of his life. The sun shown down with a ferocious glare that felt out of season. Instead of early September, it was late in that same month, but it might as well have been July such was the heat. I was glad to have finally arrived at the castle after a four kilometer trek that had taken in much of the village. I was tired and haggard, the walk was not what I expected, neither was the castle. I had expected to find an evocative ruin, a bit of magic in the crumbling edifice. What I found was a place in a paradoxical state of disrepair and restoration.

The grandeur of ruin - Banffy Castle

The grandeur of ruin – Banffy Castle (Credit: Daria Virbanescu)

Grandeur & Glamour, Romance & Loss  – In Vacant Ruins
The hollowed out shell of several structures at Banffy Castle, including the main house and stables, provided hints of past greatness. Despite over a decade and a half of restoration efforts, the irreparable damage wrought by warfare was the most notable aspect of the castle as it now stands. There was not much left of the Baroque or earlier Renaissance stylistic elements that made the castle’s architecture so well known. To be quite honest if it was not for the literary renown of Miklos Banffy I seriously doubt there would be many visitors, if any at all, to what was left of the castle. There are hundreds of abandoned manor houses and ruined castles all over Transylvania just like this one. Banffy Castle was different from all the others because of Banffy’s portrayal of it as Denestornya in the trilogy. This brought people on pilgrimages to visit the ruins. It was certainly what had brought me here.

The glorious past - Banffy Castle in 1890

The glorious past – Banffy Castle in 1890

Walking around the grounds and through what was left of the structures gave me some idea of the environment Banffy lived, worked and loved in. Though most of the buildings were mere shadows of their former selves, it was enough to walk on a dirt floor, down a hallway or corridor while imagining what intrigues of passion and politics had occurred there. Or to look in a room, imagine Banffy in conversation with the woman who became the model for his main character’s ill-fated love in the trilogy, Adrienne Miloth. There was romance in these vacant ruins and also loss. Photos of the interiors, on signboards showed spectacularly lavish furnishings. A whole way of life had once existed within these walls, then in a thirty year period from 1914 through 1944 it had been all but vanquished. Every attempt at restoration and reconstruction of the castle since the 1990’s had been done in the hopes of reviving some semblance of the grandeur and glamour of the Hungarian nobility’s way of life.

The way they were - life at Banffy Castle in 1890

The way they were – life at Banffy Castle in 1890

A past that can never be quite restored - Banffy Castle

A past that can never be quite restored – Banffy Castle (Credit: Sipos Kinga)

The Power Of Art – The Power Of Place
What I found most interesting was not what had been lost, but the power of what was still standing. The ruins of Banffy Castle had outlasted the historical processes and events that had done so much damage to them. The fascist Nazis had pillaged and burned much of the castle in 1944, but within a year Nazism had been defeated and destroyed. The Soviet Army had also looted here, but the Stalinist system they represented had long since been resigned to the dustbin of history. Later the Ceaucescu regime had allowed parts of the castle ruins to be blown to bits during the making of a movie, but Ceaucescu would meet a bad end, executed after a show trial. His reign of terror was now only a memory, he and his system exposed as a megalomaniacal fraud. And after all the evil deeds perpetrated upon it, still a remnant of Banffy Castle stood, silent and stoic, symbol of a glorious way of life much admired, awaiting resurrection.

Slowly the castle was being brought back from the brink of extinction because the timeless values of the society it represented – honor, duty, loyalty – were always in demand. There was a lesson to be learned here, about the power of art and architecture to overcome the worst excesses of humanity. Miklos Banffy’s writing had eventually defeated armies, ideologies and dictators. The same could be said of the architecture of Banffy Castle, these ruins had a magnetic allure, communicating their power to the viewer. An entire world had been constructed upon their foundation.

The Writing On The Wall at Banffy Castle

The Writing On The Wall at Banffy Castle

Creating & Preserving – Banffy For The Sake Of Humanity
In the midst of all these epiphanies one little detail caught my eye and has remained with me ever since, scrawled on the wall in the stables was a question, “Are you part of solution or are you part of problem?” This work of scratch graffiti was more appropriate than the vandalizing soothsayer could have ever imagined. Banffy’s trilogy was called The Writing On The Wall in reference to writing that appeared on a wall during the feast of Belshazzar, which is recounted in the Old Testament book of Daniel. Each of the three titles in the trilogy: They Were Counted, They Were Found Wanting and They Were Divided were lines of warning. The question that had been scrawled on the wall could also be read as a warning, causing me to reflect on my own role in a world, much like Banffy’s, seemingly on the verge of ruinous upheaval.

Was I going to be part of the solution? Or was I going to be part of the problem, the cynicism and negativity, the extremist passions that threatened to destroy yet another world? The problem was clear, but what was the solution? Banffy may hold that answer for both me and humanity. The solution is art, art that reveals the world in all its various guises and disguises, art that cultivates understanding and combats ignorance. Art that can be found on every page of Banffy’s trilogy. Art that can be found by visiting the ruins and resurrection of Banffy Castle in Bontida. And art scrawled on the wall of a half-ruined stable, that made me reflect on what really matters, creating and preserving like Miklos Banffy did…for the sake of humanity.

Coming soon: The Days We Die – First & Last Goodbyes:  Leaving Banffy Castle Behind (An Invitation To A Vanished Past – Part Seven)