Sopron’s Superstar – Ferenc Liszt: A Precocious Passion On The Piano

There was one famous name in Sopron that could not be avoided, Ferenc Liszt or as he is known to much of the western world, Franz List. Liszt, world famous composer and pianist, grew up 30 kilometers east of Sopron in the small village of Raiding (Doberling in Hungarian) in what was then the Kingdom of Hungary and is now part of Lower Austria. As such, Liszt’s ethnic background is open to interpretation, if not question. His native language was German, but later in life he would self-identify as a Hungarian. Some scholars have went so far as theorize that Liszt was ethnically Croatian or Slovak. The literature on Liszt’s ethnicity is quite voluminous. From what I read, it sounds like he was a self-Magyarized German. Even along the peaceful and prosperous borderland of Hungary and Austria in the 21st century, it is difficult to escape the ethnic disputes that gave rise to nationalistic fervor in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Ferenc Liszt Cultural Center - Former Casino in Sopron

Ferenc Liszt Cultural Center – Former Casino in Sopron

Famous Facets –  A Prodigy & Popularity
One facet of Liszt’s life that is not disputed, he was a child prodigy who performed his first concert at what was then the Sopron Casino. Today the building is home to the Ferenc Liszt Conference and Cultural Center. This cream colored neo-classical edifice can be found on one end of Sopron’s Belvaros (Inner City). Along one side, the Cultural Center is bordered by Ferenc Liszt utca. Lending Liszt’s name to this street and building was understandable. He was as close to a superstar as Sopron can claim as its own. I came across a plaque that was attached to the Cultural Center. It noted Liszt’s performance there in October 1820. This was the first of countless numbers of concerts the budding piano virtuoso would give across Europe in a life that began and ended with concerts in casinos (casinos in the 19th century were more social establishments than gambling houses). His public performances spanned a period of six and a half decades during which time he attained great fame and name recognition.

The first concert in Sopron was particularly notable since Liszt was only nine years old at the time. To great acclaim he played a concerto by the German composer Ferdinand Ries, managing to add in an improvisation of his own. It was a precocious beginning that showcased Liszt’s otherworldly skills on the piano. In this early performance Liszt relied heavily on talent, but he was no stranger to hard work despite his age. Liszt’s father, Adam, a musician who had been employed at nearby Eszterhaza Palace working with Joseph Haydn, managed to acquire an incredible amount of music which his son eagerly devoured. Documentary evidence shows that Adam Liszt bought 8,800 pages of written music by the greatest masters. In a two-year period leading up to his first performance young Ferenc blazed through these works, many of them from such musical luminaries as Bach, Beethoven and Mozart.

Franz Liszt in 1843 - Earliest known photo

Franz Liszt in 1843 – Earliest known photo

Realizing Potential – From Gushing Praise To Near Riots
There was little doubt that Ferenc Liszt would soon be heard far beyond Sopron. Liszt’s next public performance would serve as a major stepping stone in his career. Just a month after the Sopron recital, Liszt was back in front of an audience. This time it was the political elite of Hungary. In the city of Pozsony (present day Bratislava, Slovakia), where the Hungarian Diet (Parliament) was meeting for the first time in over a decade, Liszt performed for a group of politically and culturally connected aristocrats at one of the Eszterhazy Palaces. This audience was so impressed with the young Liszt’s prodigious piano playing abilities that money was soon raised among them for Liszt to study music abroad. This led him to Vienna where his instructors included Carl Czerny, who had been tutored by Beethoven and Antonio Salieri, Mozart’s weaker rival. Both were impressed with Liszt’s talent, but knew that he would need formal training to realize his potential as one of the greatest musical forces of all time. Under Czerny and Salieri’s tutelage he grew as a musician. To the point that after his first public concert in Vienna, it was said that Beethoven was gushing in his praise. Before he hit puberty, the twelve-year old had become a known talent in the musical world of Central Europe.

His family would soon move from Vienna to Paris where a teenage Liszt would continue to cultivate his talent. It would not be long before Liszt graduated from prodigy to rock star status. He became increasingly famous, not just for his skill on the piano, but also his style. Liszt was known to dramatically toss his gloves to the floor before he began playing. With his shoulder length flowing hair, charismatic flourishes and otherworldly talent he became the most in demand musician of his time. Yet he never forgot his Hungarian roots. In one notable incident, Liszt started a near riot during his performance at the Bezeredj House at Sopron in 1832. Several women in attendance viciously fought for one of the gloves Liszt dropped to the floor. For women, Liszt’s charisma was just as irresistible as his piano playing was mesmerizing. The adulation showered upon Liszt led to many romantic trysts, some little more than one-night stands, others would last longer.

Adulation & adoration - 1839 concert by Liszt in Pest

Adulation & adoration – 1839 concert by Liszt in Pest (Credit: tacsifoto)

A Place In Hungarian Hearts – The Legacy Of Liszt
Perhaps the most enduring romance of Liszt’s life was with Hungary. He grew to prominence during an era of national revival. Hungarians saw in Liszt a representative of high culture for their homeland. He accepted their adoration and repaid it by making Budapest the centerpiece of his instructional efforts during the latter part of his life. Budapest, along with Rome and Weimar, was one of three cities he called home during this time. He would spend part of each year teaching at the Hungarian Conservatoire in Budapest. Liszt may have been master of the piano, but he was never able to attain anything other than a very low level proficiency in the Hungarian language. Yet Liszt’s efforts to try and learn the language were a sign of his endearing love for a nation that accepted him with open arms. In his life and career, Liszt moved from the Kingdom of Hungary’s western fringes near Sopron to its center in Budapest. There was always a place in Hungarian hearts for him and there still is today. In Sopron that place still exists in the building where he gave his first public performance.

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

Mythical History – Sopron’s Place Names: Goats, Gaisels & German Princesses

It was one of the most ridiculous stories I had ever heard and that was what made it so wonderful. While standing in Fo ter, the epicenter of historic Sopron, I was staring at the Gothic exterior of the Goat Church. My guidebook told a tantalizing tale that made me immediately fall in love with the church. I had never heard of a church named for a goat. This was a rarity. Lambs and doves can be found scattered throughout religious iconography. Conversely, goats are almost as rare as unicorns. That was certainly not the case in the center of Sopron. My initial reaction after learning the name was one of surprise. Who would name a church after an ill-tempered animal that has become synonymous with mischievousness? That question could only be answered by delving into the story behind the name.

Goat Church & Holy Trinity Column in Sopron

Goat Church & Holy Trinity Column in Sopron (Credit: Jozsef Rozsnyai)

Improbable, If Not Impossible – An Eclectic Cast Of Characters
The Goat Church is based on an improbable, if not impossible story. Supposedly a goat dug up a buried treasure in the area. The shepherd tending this goat was thus exposed to a cache of gold. Instead of keeping the treasure for himself and foolishly spending it, he donated it for the building of the Goat Church. His incorruptible benevolence spoke volumes about the purity, grace and devotion of the common man. Like most myths the genesis of this story is lost deep in the past. The truth is much more bourgeois and benign. A wealthy family of locals, known as the Gaisels, provided funds for the church’s construction. Their coat of arms proudly portrayed a goat, thus the Goat Church name. I did not want the truth to get in the way of that wonderful shepherd’s tale so I decided to ignore the Gaisel backstory, though I was almost certain it was the truth. Historically, the Gaisels have had the story of their generosity stole right out from under them. Ironically, it was taken from them at the expense of a poor shepherd.

The Goat Church was by far the most eclectic of all the names given to buildings in Sopron. While walking around the Belvaros I soon discovered that there were many more buildings, specifically houses, graced with surnames. To name just a few, there was the Storno House, the Fabricius House, the Lackner House, Bezeredj House, Cezar House, Eggenberg House and Kossow House among many others. The Cezar and Fabricius Houses were both named after wealthy aristocrats. The Lackner House had been the home of Christoph Lackner, a humanist philosopher who went by the motto of “Thy Will Be Done” which is inscribed on his home’s façade in Latin. Lackner was also a popular mayor of Sopron during the 17th century. The Eggenberg House had been home to a German protestant princess. In fervently Catholic Sopron, Protestants were forbidden to construct churches during the counter-reformation.  The princess found a way around that problem. In an arcaded part of the house there was a built-in a pulpit looking down on the courtyard. She would invite fellow Protestants to dinner in the house’s courtyard. A sermon would then be preached to them from the pulpit while they ate and worshiped.

Esterhazy Palace in Sopron

Esterhazy Palace in Sopron (Credit: Francesco Vecchio)

Forgotten Names – The Fleetingness of Fame
Getting a house named after oneself in Sopron meant that the owner had to be one of two things, insanely wealthy and/or notable in some memorable way.  Take for instance one of Sopron’s favorite sons, Ferenc Storno. Storno was the descendent of a Swiss-Italian family whose father fled the Napoleonic Wars for nearby Eisenstadt (Kismarton). The son started out as a humble chimney sweep. He hoped to use his earnings in support of his artistic passions. He did not do too bad for himself. Eventually earning enough money to pursue what would become his life’s work. He procured work on monuments in both Vienna and Budapest, which eventually led to a commission for restoration work on the monastery of Pannonhalma, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Storno also started a private collection of furniture and ancient artifacts that can be found inside his former home.

The unspoken ghost I could not find among the surnames gracing Sopron’s historic homes was that of the Esterhazy’s. They were the most famous Hungarian family to ever inhabit the area. Not having a house, a square or even a street named after them in the city was more deliberate than coincidental. This was a product of the calamitous 20th century. The Esterhazy’s had gotten the ultimate silent treatment from the anti-aristocratic communists. Their names were difficult, but not altogether impossible to find. The Esterhazy’s presence in Sopron could still be ascertained, most notably in one of their former palaces that sits in the heart of the Belvaros. The mansion is home to two museums which stand side by side, the Central Mining Museum and Museum of Forestry. The Esterhazy’s used to own forests and mines, along with whole swathes of the land surrounding Sopron, now it is a struggle just to find their name in a city where they were revered.

Bezerédj House in Sopron

Bezerédj House in Sopron (Credit: Traumrune)

An Unforgettable Performance – Melee Moment
Names, places and stories go together, but sometimes not in the way one might imagine. Very few people have heard the name Bezeredj , many more that of Franz Liszt. Yet one story binds both names together in Sopron. The Bezeredj House is one of the finest examples of Rococo architecture in the city. More a palace than a home, it came into the ownership of a family by the same name in 1833. It was here that the great composer and pianist Franz Liszt – who was born only 30 kilometers east of Sopron – played a concert. The most noteworthy performance on this occasion did not come from that of Liszt, instead it came from the impromptu melee which ensued among a group of women spectators for one of Liszt’s gloves that he dropped on the floor. It seems that any artifact from the great maestro was worth fighting over. The details of this story are open to question, but so are the details of the goat digging up a buried treasure many centuries ago. It seems that myths are just as powerful as truths in the history of Sopron., Distinguishing between the two is almost impossible. This just goes to show that a good story is often the best substitute for history.

Click here for: Sopron’s Superstar – Ferenc Liszt: A Precocious Passion On The Piano

All That Remains  –  Sopron:  Lasting Impressions Of Brief Encounters

Sopron had so many historic buildings that I found it difficult to differentiate between them. This turned out to be as true in memory as it was at the time of my visit. The city left me with indelible impressions, but very few of these were of its most notable churches, homes and other buildings. Instead my visit to the city left me with only the vaguest memories of its historic treasures. It was a case where there were so many that it was hard to separate them in my mind. Just trying to see and understand everything was a bit withering. Of course, I relied on a guidebook at the beginning of my visit, but then instinct took over. This led to a wide range of memorable experiences which had more to do with the people of Sopron than its buildings. The city’s historic structures are now but a distant memory, while a handful of people have become central to the way I remember my visit.

A Reinforcement Of Loneliness – Going Solo
Several of these memories were related to the place where I stayed. Strangely enough I cannot recall much about what my room looked like or the evenings I spent there. What I do remember is how the hostess gave me a discount card for a restaurant just a couple of doors down from the pension. She told me the food was excellent and inquired on multiple occasions whether I had taken the opportunity to eat there. Each time my reply was negative. This elicited a look from her that spoke of disappointment, irritation and impatience. Followed by yet another mention of how wonderful the restaurant was. Her annoying pleas made me less likely to eat at there. I am always suspicious of the hard sell, especially when another country. The fact that I am not a gourmand was the main reason I did not partake of the offer. Good food and fine dining is lost on me. Traveling solo makes me less rather than more likely to sit down by myself at a restaurant. All this would do for me is reinforce my loneliness.

Despite my reticence for dining out I did have one of the most memorable meals of my life in Sopron. And like all good meals for me, it was not so much the quality of the food, as the ambiance of the restaurant. The evening after returning from Esterhaza Palace in Fertod I spent some time in Szechenyi ter (Szechenyi square), availing myself of photo opportunities at the towering statue of Istvan Szechenyi which stood at one end of this rather slender, rectangular square. From the square, I wandered down one of the nearby streets looking for a place to eat. I was searching for somewhere that was informal, any type of casual dining would do. My main hope was to avoid the type of fried fast food that is one of America’s worst exports to the rest of the world. What I needed was something relatively quick, affordable and tasty.

Szechenyi Ter - At dusk in Sopron

Szechenyi Ter – At dusk in Sopron

Lighting Up The Night  – The Happiest Chef In Sopron
As dusk began to turn to darkness I noticed a well-lit building by the name of Bella Italia Pizzeria. A small awning hung over the door, done up in the tricolors of Italy, which also happen to be the exact same three colors that can be found on the Hungarian flag. The lights inside glowed radiant and warm. I was magnetically drawn to the entrance.  Inside I found a single man at work. He was older with a big smile on his face which was very un-Hungarian. The stoicism shown strangers by most Magyars is something I had long since gotten used to. It could be said that Hungarians keep to themselves. They often meet smiles with quizzical expressions. It is my understanding that they find overt friendliness to be a symptom of both superficiality and stupidity. That feeling did not exist in this man, who greeted me with a heartfelt hello.

He was in the process of tossing dough around as though it were a football and making it spin like a basketball. He looked to be enjoying himself as much as his work. I selected a pizza and watched him immediately begin to whip the dough into shape. In less than twenty minutes, he produced a thin crust pie that was delicious. My satisfaction became all the greater when I watched him in action filling another order. He put on quite the performance for a four person family that included two young sons. Their presence made the pizza chef even more dramatic and charismatic. The two boys watched in fascination as he began tossing the dough high in the air, making it flip and flop, this way and that. He never came close to dropping the dough, but that did not stop the youngsters from gasping at his feats of aerial dough throwing. He was a dramatist hidden behind the counter of a provincial pizzeria. A true professional who had had found his calling through the art of performance. He was a chef and a showman. I have never forgotten his face or the fascination shown to him by that family. That moment did more than anything to frame my opinion of Sopron as an outstanding city.

Pizzeria Bella Italia in Sopron

Pizzeria Bella Italia in Sopron

Memory Bank – People & The Power Of Memory
I had come to Sopron, just as I had come to Gyor, Sarvar and Szombathely, looking to explore the city’s history and architecture, but it was the people I met who made the greatest impression upon me. Besides the pension proprietress and the pizza chef in Sopron, there was the young male trainee behind the front desk at my hotel in Gyor who made everything a mistake. I saw in him, so much of myself on the first week of a new job. There was also the man in his 30’s, who while standing beside me at the train station in Sarvar asked if I had a Hungarian girlfriend in town. What else would bring an American to Sarvar on a weekday morning? He was still there despite a good job in IT (he teleworked) because he needed to take care of his parents. And then there was the sports fanatic in the train station in Szombathely who had newspapers sprawled across a large desk. I did not believe that all those papers could be his, until he reminded me that they were. I had made the mistake of trying to read one. The man, like all the other people I met, made an impression on me. No mention of him or them will ever be found in a guidebook. They now exist only in my memory.

Click here for: Mythical History – Sopron’s Place Names: Goats, Gaisels & German Princesses

The Price Of Loyalty – Sopron’s Return To History: Bordering On Prosperity

Sopron is known as the “most loyal” city in Hungary for good reason, almost two-thirds of the citizenry voted in a 1921 plebiscite to remain part of Hungary. It was the only area of “Historic Hungary” that reversed a territorial adjustment from the hated Treaty of Trianon which was imposed upon a defeated Hungary in the aftermath of the First World War. Hungarians have returned that devotion by lavishing Sopron with affection. In my experience, the city is second only to Budapest in mentions of the most beloved city in Hungary. Sopron has other attributes that add to its attractiveness. These include hundreds of historic structures and monuments, with a depth of history going all the way back to antiquity. There is also Sopron’s prosperity, which by Hungarian standards makes the city quite wealthy. It is wealth and loyalty that made Sopron what it is today, but those traits also lie deep in its past.

Worth more than a visit - History and beauty in Sopron

Worth more than a visit – History and beauty in Sopron

Roads To Wealth – Shopping In Scarbantia & Sopron
Over a thousand years before there was a Sopron, another city existed in the same location. That city was part of the ancient Roman empire and went by the name of Scarbantia. Just as modern-day Sopron is built upon commerce, so too was ancient Scarbantia. The latter could not rely on a nearby neighbor such as Austria to stimulate trade, instead the genesis of Scarbantia’s trade arose from more far flung regions. The city was located at an important junction where two roads, one each from the settlements of Vindobona (Vienna) and Carnuntum (to the north along the Danube River), came together on the Via Emilia, a Roman road that led onward to the Adriatic. This route, as well as Scarbantia, lay along the older Amber Road, that stretched from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. The Romans were imposing their imperial designs on a trade route which predated their arrival. Scarbantia’s wealth grew due to the volume of trade which passed along the roads and this route, much of which the city benefited from.

Present day Sopron is also focused on trade. Commerce comes to it via several different roads, most principally the ones from Austria. Since both countries are members of the European Union, traffic can flow across the border unimpeded. Hundreds of cars drive across the Klingenbach and Deutschkreutz border crossings each day, moving from west to east, in search of deep discounts in consumer products and highly affordable health care. It has been said that location is everything when it comes to business, that is certainly true of the economic prosperity of Sopron past and present. Modern Sopron enjoys a fabulous location for commerce, as it is tucked up close to the Austrian border. For Austrians, Sopron is just minutes or at most a few hours away. A cross border trip is worth the savings they will incur by going to shop in Sopron. Prices are anywhere from 20% to 50% lower. On weekends, Austrians come to enjoy the beauty and ambiance of Sopron’s Belvaros (Inner city), but also more importantly to shop. Sopronites may have voted to stay in Hungary, but they are more than happy to welcome Austrians.

Ruins of Scarbantia in Sopron

Ruins of Scarbantia in Sopron

Fierce Attachment – A Habsburgian Hungarian City
Just as Sopron’s economic basis as a trade hub aligns with both its past and present, so too does its loyalty to the homeland. The plebiscite vote in 1922 was not the first time in the city’s history when Sopron’s citizenry voiced their fervent support to stay part of Hungary. Almost 650 years earlier the same decision faced the Magyars who made up the bulk of Sopron’s population. It was in 1273 that military forces led by the Bohemian King, Ottokar II captured Sopron’s castle. He then took sons and daughters of the nobility as hostage in the hopes of forcing the population into supporting him and submitting to his rule. This strategy backfired. When the Hungarian King Ladislaus IV brought his troops to the city walls. The citizens threw open the gates to them. Sopron was recovered and for its faithfulness was rewarded with the designation of Free Royal Town (Szabad királyi város). This limited the Hungarian nobility’s privileges, while allowing the city to exercise self-government which manifested itself in greater freedom to develop and control its economy.

Sopron’s fierce attachment to Hungary is reflected in the events of both 1273 and 1922, but these were by no means the only times that the city showed its loyalty to Hungary. A fine example of this took place in 1529, when the city was looted by the Ottoman Turks. The Turks were unable to occupy the city long term. After they left, the city was refortified and became one of the most important cities in Royal Hungary, as great multitudes of Magyars fled to it. It soon retook its place as a thriving economic hub. The Ottomans were never able to occupy it again, despite the century and a half of on again, off again warfare that plagued Hungary. Yet the famed loyalty of Sopron does come with some paradoxes. In both of Hungary’s Wars of Independence against Habsburg rule – Rakoczi’s from 1703 – 1711 and the Hungarian Revolution of 1848-49 – Sopron was firmly secured under the Habsburg yoke. This is understandable, since Sopron’s nearness to the seat of Habsburg power in Vienna meant that Austrian power could be easily imposed. Plus, Sopron had benefited more than most Hungarian cities from Habsburg rule, due to the same type of trade and economic connections which it still enjoys today.

Return to history - Hungarian border guard cuts barbed wire at the border with Austria in 1989

Return to history – Hungarian border guard cuts barbed wire at the border with Austria in 1989

Beyond Borders – The Economic Ties That Bind
Loyalty can also come with a cost. Sopron discovered just how high the price could be during the Cold War. For four decades it stood on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, this hindered the city’s economic development. In a classic case of faraway, so close Austria and the wealth of Mitteleuropa was just out of reach. Barbed wire, border controls and gun barrels stood in the way of progress and prosperity. Nothing could have been nearer or farther than the Austrian border. Sopronites waited, faithfully and fitfully for the border to reopen and the city to be reconnected with its economic hinterland. That moment finally arrived in 1989. Since that time, the most faithful city in Hungary has resumed its historical role as one of the nation’s most prosperous.

Click here for: All That Remains  –  Sopron:  Lasting Impressions Of Brief Encounters


From Mansion To MOL Station –  Nagycenk Before Nightfall: Life A Little More Than Ordinary

Upon leaving the Szechenyi mausoleum and the cemetery behind I followed the road that I had taken from the railway station on into the center of town. The road itself was named for the great man. After making an arcing curve past rows of small houses it led to Szechenyi ter, where a sculpture of Istvan Szechenyi stood. Atop a large white plinth, there Szechenyi stood with his right hand in the air, palm turned upward and his gaze fixed skyward. It was as though he was lifting an entire nation up with his pose. On the white pediment were the words “Magayaorszag nem volt hanem lesz” which roughly translated into English means “Hungary wasn’t, it will be”. These were words Szechenyi had expressed with a future certainty.

Behind the statue was Saint Stephen Church, a rather restrained neo-Romanesque edifice that was about the only thing in Nagycenk which tried to challenge Szechenyi’s grip on local grandeur. Unfortunately, the church was closed. This was not the first time this had happened to me in Hungary, even in villages. Something I will never quite understand is why these churches are closed and locked. They should be places of spiritual shelter, rather than premises of unpermitted access to all but the anointed. This situation did not surprise me, though I found it highly irritating. I then headed off to find Szechenyi’s mansion. This entailed a good twenty-minute walk that took me just out of town into the adjacent countryside.

Szechenyi Mansion in Nagycenk

Szechenyi Mansion in Nagycenk (Credit: Harriet)

A Mansion & Memory – Everlasting Ideals
The neo-classical/late baroque façade of the Szechenyi Mansion looked like the type of home befitting a great family of pragmatic sensibilities. It managed to be stately and understated at the same time. There was no hint of the fantastical Esterhaza which I had visited in nearby Fertod a day earlier. Istvan Szechenyi was a man whose ideals were based on economy and efficiency. The mansion lacked any type of esoteric flourishes, instead it evoked stability and presence, just like the Szechenyi’s themselves. Istvan Szechenyi was a man who believed in capitalism, innovation and social progress. His greatest literary work was a volume on how to eliminate economic backwardness in Hungary and given the austere title Credit (Hitel). It would have been nice to see the interior, but I was out of luck again as the mansion had closed an hour before my arrival. I wandered around the back of the building, walking past the stud farm. At one time, Szechenyi had eighty studs on this farm. He had also pastured 25,000 sheep on the family estates. Those days were gone, but the memory of them was being kept alive by the mansion and its well-manicured grounds.

The grounds were impressive and my stroll around part of them took a considerable amount of time. Late afternoon was slowly turning to evening. I noticed the sun beginning to dip toward the western horizon. This was my signal to go find the nearest bus stop and wait on the next one for Sopron. As luck would have it, the bus had just left and there were very few running because it was a weekend. I was forced to wait for almost two hours until the next one arrived.  This was the first time I had ever found myself in a Hungarian village with more than a half-hour wait and nothing to do. There was little activity in Nagycenk, which was not all that surprising. It was early Sunday evening and spring was just arriving. The air began to grow chilly as dusk began to beckon. The sound of barking dogs and cars passing through town were the only noises that broke the silence.

Hanging out with the rest of humanity - MOL petrol station

Hanging out with the rest of humanity – MOL petrol station (Credit: globetrotter19)

Civilized Progress – An Extraordinary Convenience
After a few minutes at the bus stop, another man who looked to be in his fifties showed up and studied the bus schedule.  He asked me a question in Hungarian which I did not understand. He then pointed at the arrival time for the next bus to Sopron, shook his head and we both laughed. Actions translate more easily than words. I knew exactly what he meant, just like me he had been a few minutes too late. He soon wandered off, likely back to his residence. I did not have that option. There was nothing left for me to do other than walk to the MOL station and get something to eat. MOL (Magyar OLaj- és Gázipari Részvénytársaság) stands for the Hungarian Oil and Gas Public Limited Company. The company operates a chain of gas stations across the country. At the point where Highways 84 (to Sopron) and 85 (to Sarvar) split off in Nagycent stands a strategically placed MOL station.

I was likely one of the few tourists or travelers that walked, rather than drove, to a MOL station. This action was nothing special though it turned into an essential travel experience. Walking to a MOL station was not what I traveled halfway around the world to do, but I felt more a part of Hungary doing this than I would have on any grand tour of the country. There is travel experience and then there is living experience. For a moment I was able to step out of the former and into the latter. Going to a MOL station was a daily activity for many Hungarians, what I would call a living experience. This was what life came down to every day for many Hungarians and the same could be said for Americans. All the collective efforts of civilized progress had brought MOLs and similar stations like it.

Same As It Ever Was – Hanging Out With The Rest Of Humanity
I have often wondered what it would be like to live in Eastern Europe. My several hours in Nagycent gave me an idea. People came and went at the gas station, fueling up their cars. The attendants looked incredibly bored, just like they do in the United States. Everything was pretty much the same as at home. I found this familiarity comforting. The days of Hungary being part of a wild, exotic east or sequestered behind an Iron Curtain were a thing of the distant past. Communism came and went, what it left behind were a bunch of bad buildings and endemic corruption. Capitalism now reigned supreme. If anything, the MOL station was much nicer than the mom and pop convenience stores back home. Everything was coated in a bright sheen of stylish design. There was nothing exotic about the place, but professionalism and neatness reigned supreme over every shelf.

The genius of western civilization offered every traveler the comfort of candy bars and fizzy drinks. I had come to Nagycenk in search of Szechenyi and in the process discovered the joys of a MOL petrol station. The station lodged itself in my memory much longer than the Szechenyi Mansion or Mausoleum. The latter were extraordinary places, sought out by thousands of bored school children, fervent Hungarian nationalists and travel guide toting foreigners. The MOL station was a place where the rest of humanity hung out, fated to spend a few minutes or hours of their lives.

Click here for: The Price Of Loyalty – Sopron’s Return To History: Bordering On Prosperity

Unable To Escape Destiny – The Road To Nagycenk & Szechenyi: Adventurous Spirits

My trip back by train, first from Koszeg to Szombathely then Szombathely to Sopron. gave me ample time to read through the guidebook. On the outgoing journey I had noticed the train made a stop at a small, neat station named Nagycenk. The station’s exterior, painted a pristine lemon-lime color looked like it had been kept in immaculate condition. I found this enchanting if a bit odd. It was not as though Nagycenk was on the way to anywhere. The railway line did not go through the village, instead I could only see Nagycent across fields in the distance. It was hard figuring out why the station had a look of neatness and importance.  The station made me wonder what exactly was to be found there. A guidebook set me straight, Nagycenk was home to Istvan Szechenyi’s mansion. Szechenyi was someone with whom I was not familiar, though he kept popping up in my travels around Hungary. In every city there seemed to be a Szechenyi ter (Szechenyi square) which almost always included a statue of the man.

Neat & Tidy - The Nagycenk Train Station

Neat & Tidy – The Nagycenk Train Station

The Greatest Hungarian – Famous In All Except The Name
The fact that I had never heard of Istvan Szechenyi before visiting  Hungary was not all that surprising. Famous historical figures from Hungary or anywhere in Eastern Europe were hardly ever talked about in school. I soon realized that Szechenyi was more important to Hungary than I could have ever imagined. He had done more than any other Hungarian to reform his homeland and bring about industrialization. Szechenyi had been responsible for the building of the Chain Bridge in Budapest, regulation of the country’s two biggest rivers, along with managing major road and rail projects.  Szechenyi was a product of the first half of the 19th century. As such, he like so many other Hungarians of that time was dwarfed by the Habsburgs in fame. Furthermore, Szechenyi had been a promoter of Hungary, rather than himself.

As such his achievements had been overshadowed by another Hungarian, Lajos Kossuth, a self-promoter par excellence who made himself synonymous with the Hungarian independence movement. While Kossuth became well known abroad, Szechenyi was relatively anonymous. It was different at home though. Hungarians, including Kossuth,  referred to Szechenyi as “the greatest Hungarian”. The epicenter of homage to his greatness was in Nagycenk. Both his mansion and the family mausoleum could be found in the village. I was intrigued enough to decide on an impromptu detour. When the train stopped at Nagycenk, I decided it was time to get off for a visit.

Nagycenk - A short walk into the village

Nagycenk – A short walk into the village

An Opportunity Taken  – The Road To Nagycenk
It was late afternoon on a Sunday, the station was already closed. This meant that when I was through visiting Nagycenk I would have to find my way back to Sopron some other way than by train. This gave my side trip a bit of an adventurous feel which I rather liked. I can think of nothing more pleasing in travel or life than altering a pre-planned itinerary. Here was a place that a few hours earlier I knew nothing about. Now I was chancing a trip to explore it. The fact that none of my family or friends had any day that I was going to Nagycenk or any idea where it was located only served to heighten a sudden spurt of euphoria. The walk from the train station to the town limits was at least a kilometer. During this short hike I was suddenly struck by a wild idea. I could spend the rest of my life doing just this.

Getting off a train, wandering into a village, finding something to eat or a place to sleep, seeing a handful of sites and then on to the next village. No one would ever know what happened to me. A life spent in one small village after another. At that moment this dream seemed possible. Travel is about opportunity, whether it is realized or not matters much less than the possibility that it could be. At that moment anything seemed possible. To find my true self on a kilometer long stretch of roadway between the Nagycenk train station and the town limits was worth every penny I spent on this trip. My romanticism took a somber turn when I got to the outskirts of Nagycenk. That was where I saw a sign directing me to the town’s cemetery and site of the Szechenyi mausoleum.  I soon arrived at the entrance. The cemetery looked peaceful and serene. The late afternoon sun was bright and warm. A constant breeze swirled through the trees.  According to a signboard this was one of the most visited sites in Hungary.

The Remains of Greatness - Szechenyi Mausaleom

The Remains of Greatness – Szechenyi Mausaleom

Rural Roots – Falling Back To Earth
And yet anyone who knew how Szechenyi’s life ended could not help but feel saddened. He spent the decade that followed the failed Hungarian revolution of 1848-49 under the watchful eye of Austrian police. He grew increasingly despondent about the heavy handedness with which the Habsburgs had imposed their rule on his defeated homeland. Szechenyi then suffered a nervous breakdown that resulted in a stay at a sanitarium. Despite his failing mental health, Szechenyi never stopped dreaming of ways to better his beloved country. By 1860 he was back writing political correspondence that was published in British newspapers. This brought him once again to the attention to Austrian authorities, who threatened to put him on public trial for treason. It was at this point that Szechenyi’s mental health totally collapsed. On Easter Sunday, he committed suicide with a gunshot to the head.

Szechenyi’s body was to be brought back home to Nagycenk from Austria. This worried the Austrian authorities, who wanted to ensure that the funeral did not cause an upswell of Hungarian patriotism and possibly lead to revolt. They demanded that the funeral take place a day before originally scheduled. Despite this, Szechenyi’s body was treated with the utmost reverence by Hungarians. It was carried be men on foot all the way from Sopron, a distant of 13 kilometers. He was then interred in the family mausoleum. This was where I stood on another Sunday, over a century and a half later. There was no one else at the site other than me. I was not able to enter the mausoleum, but that hardly mattered. There was the feeling that I had suddenly stumbled upon lost greatness in the heart of Hungary. The village cemetery setting, so quiet and tranquil added to the atmosphere. Here was the perfect place to contemplate Szechenyi’s life. He was a microcosm of his homeland, rising to greatness from deeply rural roots, then falling back to earth, unable to escape destiny.

Click here for: From Mansion To MOL Station –  Nagycenk Before Nightfall: Life A Little More Than Ordinary

Final Departures – Koszeg Railway Station: Traces Of Evil

The last thing I did before leaving Koszeg was snap a photo of the train station, a two story building with a lime exterior and dirty red roof that was a cross between elegant and decrepit. The station looked like it was either one coat of paint away from renovation or one moment away from dilapidation. This made it especially photogenic. The picture was one that I came to treasure, as a throwback to a bygone era of travel that had somehow survived into the modern age. This was a photo that I enjoyed staring at, imagining that I was on one of the empty benches, backpack at my side, guidebook in hand, waiting for the next train to Szombathely. For me, this photo was essentially romantic, filled with the unspoken possibilities of travel, a journey beginning or ending in some far-off place. In sum, it stirred my imaginative longings for a place I longed to be. A life spent in perpetual motion, always in transit, a citizen of nowhere and everywhere.

Quite shockingly, my view of this photo was irreparably altered months later while reading Paul Lendvai’s remarkable work of history, The Hungarians: Victory In Defeat. In the middle of the book were the usual assortment of glossy historical photos of personages or events that were important to Hungarian history. One of these caught my attention. It showed a large group of people crowded together holding some of their belongings. They were huddled together, most of them with their backs to the camera waiting on some form of transport. The caption stated: “Jewish deportees from the Western Hungarian township Koszeg, summer 1944. Between 15 May and 7 July 402 Jews were deported to Auschwitz, of whom only a minority survived.” I immediately made a connection. The Jews in this photo were likely standing at Koszeg’s train station. Sure enough, when I started searching on the internet I discovered that the photo was snapped at the station. This raised questions, was the photo taken surreptitiously or purposely? Likely the latter. Perhaps for official purposes, as proof that deportation was taking place.

Dreams & Nightmares - Koszeg Railway Station

Dreams & Nightmares – Koszeg Railway Station

Sinister Stirrings – Taking It Personally
I later discovered a larger sized version of the same photo that personalized the horror. Studying it, I was able to discern multiple details. There was a woman in white headscarf in the front left of the group. In her arms she held a large, thick black coat. Judging by her looks, she was older than average and thus would have been sent immediately to the gas chambers upon arrival at Auschwitz. All the adults standing in the group are wearing coats. Some are better dressed than others, such as the man in the far left of the image who looks to be wearing a rather nice suit. Quite a contrast from a man in the front right of the photo, who is only seen from a side angle. His slump shouldered posture expressive of defeat. He props himself up with a cane, while a hat and coat cover his beaten figure. In the background stands a vehicle piled high with suitcases and trunks filled with personal belongings. These possessions were destined to be taken from their owners in the coming days. The same could be said for so many of their lives.

The most disturbing part of the image for me was to be found in the lower right corner. Here a woman can be seen dressed in a very nice outfit, perhaps an employee of the state railways. She is talking with another person who cannot be seen. The woman looks stylish and quite casual. There is no hint on her face that anything sinister is taking place. It is just another day at work for her or at least that is what the image portrays. There could be no greater contrast than that of this woman protected by her status and ethnicity, standing within a stone’s throw of those Jews on the verge of being transported to a death camp. This all happened close to where I took my picture. There was no plaque at the station commemorating this tragedy. It was lacking out of shame or ignorance, neglect or indifference.

Traces of evil - Hungarian Jews in Kozseg await a train that will deport them to Auschwitz

Traces of evil – Hungarian Jews in Kozseg await a train that will deport them to Auschwitz

Abandoned Dreams – A Nightmare Scenario
It has since dawned on me that the most consistent physical reminder left of the Holocaust in Hungary are its railway stations. These portals of public transport were supposed to be harbingers of technological progress. They were built to facilitate commerce and the movement of people. The stations and trains certainly did that, but also ended up being used for genocidal purposes in 1944. Koszeg’s train station is the rule rather than the exception when it comes to the deportation of the Jews. The same thing happened at innumerable railway stations and sidings across Hungary. Without the extensive railway system in Hungary it would have been much more difficult, if not impossible, to administer the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews. Never in the history of Europe had such a normal aspect of everyday life, whether for work or pleasure, been put to such horrific use.

The fact that Koszeg’s little railway station was the place where more than 400 Jews were shuttled off to one of the most infamous death camps in history is almost as difficult to fathom as the Holocaust itself. A place that I saw as a starting point for dreams of wider travel excursions had been the beginning of someone else’s nightmare. This ambiguity can be found in many such places where a conflicted history meets a present reality in Hungary. On the day I arrived and departed from the station it was almost vacant. There were few passengers on the platform. What I could not see, understand or comprehend were the ghosts of all those Jews who had been deported not so long ago. They were somewhere out there in the past, waiting on a train that they hoped would not arrive and wondering if it did, what that meant for their future. Whatever dreams of life in Koszeg they still had were left abandoned at the siding. Whatever illusions I had about travel from the Koszeg railway station were also abandoned. Left behind at the very moment I saw that photo in Lendvai’s book.

Click here for: Unable To Escape Destiny – The Road To Nagycenk & Szechenyi: Adventurous Spirits

The Siege Of Koszeg – From Tourists To Turks: Visitors From Abroad

I liked Sopron so much that for the second day in a row I took to the surrounding countryside for a day trip. The attraction of Koszeg was such that I could not resist. When a place is given the title “Jewel Box of Hungary” it deserves a visit. From the sound of it, Koszeg was what Hungary would have been without World Wars and communism. That is if the country had been left to develop on its own without foreign interference. Of course, every European country could say the same thing, but in Hungary there was a sense that history had been unkind to it. That Hungary’s greatness had been thwarted by foreign interlopers. As for Koszeg, it was said to have largely escaped wartime damage. That would turn out to be only half true, depending on what war was being referenced. I would discover the damage from World War II was more human than structural, whereas the damage from the Ottoman Turks was both.

Before making these discoveries I first had to find my way to Koszeg. By train this was not as simple as the map made it look. There was not a direct line by rail between Sopron and Koszeg, though the latter was just 45 kilometers south of the former. The problem was that Austria was in the way. Thus, I would first have to travel to Szombathely by train and then take a short branch line to Koszeg. I found this to be an annoyance. That was until I arrived at Szombathely, where I was surprised and delighted by the train that would take me to Koszeg. The train only consisted of two cars, looking more like an elongated bus on rails. Covered in yellow paint, with a few green markings, the cars were eye catching and lively looking. The branch line to Koszeg was worth it just for the ride on this little train.

Koszeg - Jurisics ter in the foreground

Koszeg – Jurisics ter in the foreground

The Last Hold Outs – A Commander & A Castle
After arriving at the railway station in Koszeg I discovered it was a bit of a walk to the town center. When I arrived in Koszeg’s Old Town I felt like a kid in a candy store. Everything was so colorful and vibrant that I could almost taste it. The Renaissance and Baroque era buildings were coated in a rich array of colors that made the cityscape look good enough to eat. There was architectural eye candy on offer throughout the cobbled squares and streets. The heart of quaint old Koszeg was Jurisics ter (Jurisics Square). That was a name that would soon become familiar to me. Jurisics would forever be associated with Koszeg, albeit a very different one from the marvelously atmospheric town that exists today. It was Nikola Jurisics who not only saved Koszeg from the Ottoman Turkish threat, but some would also argue Vienna. For his efforts, the castle had been named after him.

Of all the buildings worth seeing in Koszeg, Jurisics Var (Jurisics Castle) was one of the least impressive. Remnants of its old walls were so busted and battered that they did not look particularly evocative of any great defensive work. Behind them stood the inner castle, a group of towers and buildings covered in a brownish-red coat of color that appeared a little too refined for my taste. Meanwhile the entryway looked like the run up to a large inn. It was hard to imagine this was the same castle that had resisted nineteen assaults by the Ottoman army of Sultan Suleiman. Truth be told, the present-day castle was only a rough approximation of what had stood on the site during the siege of 1532. Most of that castle had been consumed by a great fire in 1777. The town had honored its history by having the castle reconstructed.

Nikola Jurisics statue - Entrance to Jurisics Castle

Nikola Jurisics statue – Entrance to Jurisics Castle (Credit: Pan Peter 12)

Creation By Destruction – To Do The Impossible
Fire was a recurring theme in the history of Koszeg. The town had been torched several times, more by accident or incident rather than at the hands of foreign foes. The threat of fire was of such concern that smokers incurred large fines. Anyone suspected of arson could be termed a “villain” and sentenced to fifty lashes. Such painful punishments certainly commanded the attention of potential offenders. While fire was a mortal threat, it also helped create the Koszeg which stands today. Disastrous infernos were an opportunity for urban renewal. As a history buff, I would have been interested to see the original wooden and mud caulked houses of medieval Koszeg, but I doubt this would have brought in many tourists. The current townscape was much more pleasing to aesthetic sensibilities, even if much of the architectural history did not reach back any earlier than the 17th century.

It was an earlier aspect of Koszeg’s history that Jurisics Castle recalled, if not in form at least in spirit. This was where Jurisics commanded a force of 700 men facing an Ottoman Army numbering close to a hundred thousand. What ensued was a 25 day siege, that halted the Ottoman movement toward Vienna. From the start Jurisics’ force was close to the point of exhaustion, but somehow held out long enough to exhaust the Ottoman Army’s will to fight. How did such an outmanned and outgunned force manage to hold out against incredible odds? In a word , leadership. Nikola Jurisics was more than a commander, he was a leader. He convinced his ragtag group of defenders – mainly Hungarian peasants – that they could do the impossible. Jurisics and the defenders also got lucky. Heavy rains came at the end of August, which helped persuade the Sultan to withdraw his troops. Thus, the siege of Koszeg may helped save Vienna from the impending Ottoman threat. Paradoxically, Koszeg also saved the Habsburgs at the expense of Hungary. Ottoman rule over much of Hungary solidified in the years after the siege.

The Last Hold Out - Jurisics Castle

The Last Hold Out – Jurisics Castle

Point of Departure – Historical Developments
As for Koszeg it had managed to escape Ottoman occupation. This allowed it to develop more normally, akin to that of Austria rather than Hungary. That development brought in German merchants who spearheaded the economy during the 18th and 19th centuries. Yet it was also Germans who brought the next wave of destruction to the town. This destruction left the city’s beautiful Old Town untouched. The same could not be said for Koszeg’s small Jewish community. They were not so lucky. I would never have known this, except for a photo I would see in a book many months after my visit. That photo made me look at Koszeg quite differently, specifically its train station, which In 1944 had acted as a point of departure to Auschwitz.

Click here for:  Final Departures – Koszeg Railway Station: Traces Of Evil

The Glitter Of Lost Glory: The Fall & Rise Of Esterhaza: A Chaotic Convalescence

The sound of boots marching across the marble floors of Esterhaza announced that a new, more terrible era had come to this far corner of western Hungary. These ancestral lands of the Esterhazy family were being overrun, first by the Wehrmacht and then by the all-conquering Red Army. In comparison with past conflicts, the cataclysm to come was on an entirely different scale. Esterhaza had managed to escape the First World War unscathed, the Second was to be an entirely different matter. German and then Russian echoed down the corridors where Prince Miklos Esterhazy had once strolled in a diamond encrusted robe. In the ornate spaces where queens, princes and counts had once conversed, now officers, soldiers and nurses went about their duty with grim determination. The palace floors no longer sparkled or shined, they were now smeared with mud and dung. Areas that had once been the drawing rooms of women in the finest clothing and with the most impeccable manners had become temporary housing. The 126 rooms of Esterhaza were apportioned for armed forces on the move or soldiers so sick that they must have wondered if the last moments of their lives would be spent hundreds of kilometers east of Soviet soil.

Before the fall & rise - Esterhaza in 1900

Before the fall & rise – Esterhaza in 1900 (Credit:

Unexpected Guests – Lost In Place
Esterhaza was not built to withstand a war, instead the palace was irreparably modified by it. In 1945 the Germans suddenly arrived at its gates, unexpected guests on a hastily organized retreat. The palace was just a wayside stop on the long march to defeat. The Wehrmacht converted parts of Esterhaza into a military headquarters, a losing proposition if ever there was one. By this point the war was all but lost. The Germans were unsuccessfully scrambling to hold back the Red Army, which was preparing to invade Austria. The German stay at Esterhaza was short lived. They would soon be pushed out of the premises. The Soviets followed in their boot steps for what would be a much longer stay. They setup a military hospital for soldiers who were suffering from typhoid. The soldiers, whose ill health permitted an inordinately long stay, left traces of their presence which can still be seen today.

The most poignant part of my tour through Esterhaza was when the guide pointed out a drawing done by a convalescing Soviet soldier.  Scrawled on a whitewashed stone wall were several airplanes that looked like they were in combat. A reminder of what one man had seen on his long journey from Soviet soil. Such artistic renderings were relatively innocuous reminders of the Red Army presence. It was what could no longer be seen that was more troubling. Almost all of the palace’s furniture had been carried off by the Soviets. Anything of even miniscule value was fair game for theft. The material possessions contained in the palace likely ended up flung out on some anonymous roadside, in a soldier or officer’s home or hidden away in a Soviet museum collection.

Drawing room - A Russian soldiers drawings at Esterhaza

Drawing room – A Russian soldiers drawings at Esterhaza

Consumed By Time & Fate – The Way It Had To Be
World War II did not put an end to Esterhaza, but it ushered in a new era that threatened the palace’s preservation. In 1946 a horticultural college was established in one wing of the palace. The Versailles like garden was converted into a fruit farm by the communists. The palace’s interior also underwent changes. The roof deteriorated until it was in a state of ruin. Rainstorms then drenched the palace interior, causing mildew and decay. The floors were rotting, the walls were peeling and the palace was in a state of dilapidation. A strange thing happened on the way to complete destruction, the Hungarian state, which now fully owned the property, decided it would undergo renovation. This process started in 1959 and was still going on over four decades later. On the day I toured Esterhaza, restoration work was in progress. It was a time consuming process, made more so by the rare skills needed by the artisans. Marble floors, Chinese paintings and recreating frescoes was just some of the restoration work that had already been done and there was much more to come. Finding those who could do such work was about as difficult as the work itself. Cost was also an impediment. Over four billion forints (Hungary’s currency) was spent trying to bring back a semblance of the glamor that Esterhaza once enjoyed.

The original creator of Esterhaza, Miklos the Magnificent, had set such a stratospherically high standard of luxury and haute couture that decades of restoration would never be able to recreate his original vision. This was lamentable, but also understandable. There could be only one Esterhaza in the history of Hungary, just as there could be only one Versailles in the history of France. What can be seen of either today is but a small approximation of the glory and gilded decadence of that time. To some Miklos was a visionary, a man whose striving for social ascendance brought world class art, architecture, music and culture to a rural netherworld. For others, Miklos was a wastrel, a rich aristocrat with limitless fiscal resources. He was able to realize the most fantastical ideas at the expense of thousands of serfs who labored on his lands. Neither view is incorrect. He was a great man, but like all great men terribly flawed. Esterhaza Palace reflects the man as much as the age.

Waiting for a return - The Gates to Esterhaza in 1956

Waiting for a return – The Gates to Esterhaza in 1956 (Credit

Never To Return – Family Connections
The tour of Esterhaza left me wanting more. Perhaps it was the language barrier (I hardly understood a word the guide said in Hungarian) or all those vacant rooms, but I wanted to know more about what had happened at Esterhaza, especially during World War II and in its immediate aftermath. I wanted to know what had happened to all those members of the Esterhazy family that had once reigned supreme over much of western Hungary and eastern Austria. For centuries it seemed like they owned everything and everyone in this land. And then suddenly it was gone, never to return, at least to their ownership. I wondered what had happened to the heirs who were supposed to inherit  Esterhaza? They had vanished, like the palace furnishings had vanished, but whereas the furnishings were shipped east, the Esterhazy’s had been banished to the west. What became of them? I imagined they had turned out much like Esterhaza, their lives filled with the glitter of lost glory.

Click here for: The Siege Of Koszeg – From Tourists To Turks: Visitors From Abroad


Palace Intrigue –Esterhaza: Lavishness As A Way Of Life

Passing through the gates at Esterhaza took me into another world, but not that of Versailles. Instead this “Hungarian Versailles” felt more reminiscent of Sans Souci, Frederick the Great’s Palace in Potsdam. That was one of the few large palace complexes I had visited. While Sans Souci was a tourist mecca, with a number of different guided tours on offer, beautiful furnishings and  immaculately quaffed grounds, Esterhaza was still recovering from being on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. In comparison with central and western European palaces, its offerings to tourists were rather primitive. A handful of tours were given each day in either Hungarian or German. Cross border traffic accounted for much of the visitors. The Esterhazy family had owned many different castles and palaces, some of which were located in lower Austria. The tour I went on was conducted in both languages.

I was lucky to arrive a few minutes before a tour began. Though the guide, a Mrs. Toth, spoke good English she would only conduct the tour in the two languages. For a substitute, I was given a laminated information sheet that contained a potted history of the Esterhazy family, the palace and a little bit of information about each room the tour would visit. I could only understand a few words the guide said, so I spent most of my time studying the layout and decor of the rooms. This made for an interesting experience since I had more time to be observant of the surroundings rather than watch and listen to the guide. The most noticeable thing about Esterhaza’s interior was its relatively sparse furnishings and how much of the palace was now empty. I expected it to be a little worse for wear, but it was obvious that Esterhaza was a pale reflection of its former self.

Esterhaza Palace - Aerial view

Esterhaza Palace – Aerial view (Credit: Daniel Somogyi-Toth)

A Pageant On Steroids – Miklos’ Magic
The current state of the palace was not just a product of the 20th century conflagrations and ideological iterations which had done so much damage to the structure and its immediate surroundings. Truth be told, it had been impossible to keep the palace at the same exalted level it first enjoyed under Miklos Esterhazy – aka Miklos the Magnificent – the visionary aristocrat who had conceived this gilded dream.  Miklos was a man whose vision had spared no expense in cultivating a level of grandeur seldom seen anywhere else in Europe, at that time or since. It is said that he modeled the palace after Versailles following a visit to France. He proceeded to spend a mint on the very best music, drama and art for what would become his late spring, summer and early autumn palace. The grounds were expertly sculpted and landscaped in Versailles style

A striking example of just one of the many manias Miklos spent a fortune cultivating was a fetish for all things Chinese. In one room there were reconstructions of Chinoserie, wood paneled Chinese imitation paintings. They contained scenes of nature and oriental figures rendered in a rich sheen of gold on a black background. An unfathomable amount of Chinese artistic influences had once been on display at the palace, both inside and out. In 1773 Miklos threw a grand party at Esterhaza that was attended by Habsburg Queen Maria Theresa. For this special occasion, 24,000 Chinese lanterns were hung from trees in Esterhaza’s immaculately manicured park. Musicians dressed in elaborate Chinese costumes played at a masked ball in the palace’s Chinosiere room. The room was illuminated by six hundred flame lit candles set on eleven giant chandeliers. The party was a pageant on steroids.

Fantastical Frivolity - Cherubic at Esterhaza

Fantastical Frivolity – Cherubic at Esterhaza

Sparing No Expense – The Cost of Living At Esterhaza
Such festivities were the norm rather than the exception at Esterhaza. The palace and adjacent grounds held just as many everyday wonders. There was an Opera House, Chinese House, Puppet Theater, various temples and Joseph Haydn. The latter was the court composer. Haydn created many of the greatest symphonies, string quartets and sonatas in the history of classical music as Kapellmeister at Esterhaza. These works made their debut in the opulent music room which was setup much the same way as it might have looked at that time. The palace’s superlatives went on and on. No expense was spared. This was lavishness as a way of life, refinement at its most opulent level. And yet the palace in this form would not last.

After Miklos died, his son Anton who inherited the palace was not interested in throwing grand balls, living at the palace for prolonged periods or spending a fortune to keep Esterhaza at the epicenter of Habsburg social life. As such, Esterhaza soon fell into decline. Within a couple of decades, the parkland was overgrown and the palace began to crumble. The pristine Sala Terrena (large formal room with direct access to a garden) was scuffed by sheep’s hooves scampering across the marble floors. Grazing was going on both inside and outside the palace. The climate in the area did not help matters. Esterhaza stood on marshy land that had been drained to build the palace. Such a humid environment was prone to the buildup of moisture, mildew and corrosion. A period of slow and inexorable degradation took hold.

The Concert Hall at Esterhaza

Vacant splendor – The concert hall at Esterhaza

A Turn For The Worse – Death After Life
It was not until the start of the 20th century that Esterhaza received its first restoration. This came from Prince Miklos Esterhazy IV and his wife Margit (Cziraky), who were instrumental in this latter day renovation of the palace. The fact that the couple made it their residence helped matters. Making the palace into a livable space was a full time job that took years of effort by numerous artisans. Princess Margit provided guidance. She tastefully decorated the couple’s apartments, a visit to which was part of the tour. Tragically, their work would be mostly lost when Hungary – like the rest of Europe – was buffeted by the ill winds of war which blew through Esterhaza. The Esterhazy family fled to the west, but they could not take the palace with them. It was left behind, awaiting new overlords. These were the opposite of aristocrats. Soldiers representing forces that wanted to reshape the world in their own image. The aristocracy was dead in Hungary or soon would be. The future of Esterhaza would take a turn for the worse.

Click here for: The Glitter Of Lost Glory: The Fall & Rise Of Esterhaza: A Chaotic Convalescence