The Ultimate Immigrant – Agoston Haraszthy: Hungarian Ambition Arrives In America (Part One)

There are certain people in history who did so many important things that it is hard to imagine how they had the energy, let alone the time, to do them all. One of these is the Hungarian, Agoston Haraszthy. The name will not be found in many history books in Hungary and hardly any in the United States. Haraszthy was not a king, minister, politician or general. He did not pass any major laws, issue important decrees or gain glorious victories on the field of battle. He was a nobleman and so much more. Haraszthy’s life was about action and innovation, travel and pioneering endeavors. Many of his endeavors have passed the ultimate test, that of time and yet only a handful of people know the name or remember what he did. This is such a shame because Agoston Haraszthy’s life was one of accomplishments, both great and small.

Agoston Haraszthy - The Great Innovator

Agoston Haraszthy – The Great Innovator

Every Breaking Wave – A Force Of Undeniable Vigor
To paraphrase a line from Marcel Proust’s great literary work, Remembrance of Things Past, the world was not created once and for all time, instead it is created every day. That would be a fitting epitaph for the life of Agoston Haraszthy. For he created and recreated the world every day of his life, such was his genius for innovation that he was constantly involving himself in new activities. These would take him halfway around the world, until his life finally came full circle. Life and thought flowed out of him like a river that carried ideas to distant shores. The river is a fitting motif for Haraszthy’s life as he was born close to one of the greats, the Danube in Futok (Futog in northern Serbia). He would mysteriously disappear in another river half a world away at the end of his life. Rivers and oceans were avenues of transport that allowed Haraszthy to chase his dreams to distant shores. He rode the crest of many waves to far off lands. And when those waves finally broke, he always found another one to drive him and his ideas forward.

Ambitious and enterprising. To understand everything Agoston Haraszthy accomplished, one must understand that he was the very essence of those two words. Haraszthy was a man with massive amounts of ambition that manifested through an incredible array of enterprising activities. These traits did not come from the pursuit of wealth or an impoverished upbringing. They came from something else, an unquantifiable surge of frenetic activity that stirred deep within him. One of the most fascinating aspects of Haraszthy’s character was that while he had the means to stay in Hungary and live the life of a nobleman on a family estate, he chose to do otherwise. His homeland may have been Hungary, but he lived for his dreams. These dreams he would pursue with an undeniable vigor. This vigor had time for family as well as work. Married at the age of twenty-one to Eleonora Dedinszky, the couple would soon have six children. There was also the existential motivating threat of the Austrian Emperor who looked at men such as Haraszthy with barely disguised disdain. Haraszthy had supported the Hungarian independence movement of Lajos Kossuth. The upshot of his involvement was that it forced Haraszthy to look for other opportunities outside his homeland. This did nothing to deny Haraszthy from pursuing the abiding ambition of his early life, travel to the United States.

Town Builder - Agoston Haraszthy the founder of Sauk Center, Wisconsin

Town Builder – Agoston Haraszthy the founder of Sauk Center, Wisconsin

Cultivating Opportunity – Taming The Untamed Frontier
The trip to America was the beginning of Haraszthy as a pioneer. America was a land made for pioneers, with an outsized canvas on which they could go about creating an entirely new world. Haraszthy first traveled to America in 1840 with a lone cousin in tow. The country they found was a young republic, one on the move. Expansion was the motivating force pulling pioneers westward. This suited Haraszthy who was not content to stop on the East Coast, instead he surged deep into the interior. He traveled to what is today the Upper Midwest. At the beginning of the 1840’s it was an untamed frontier. Upon a stretch of prairie in southern Wisconsin, Haraszthy created that future state’s first Euro-American settlement. Along the Wisconsin River he founded “Szeptaj”, which means “beautiful place” in Hungarian. After a succession of name changes it eventually became Sauk Center. Here was a settlement that had staying power, both as a town and for Haraszthy’s family. The reason for that was mainly due to Haraszthy’s initiative.

Among his enterprises included crop cultivation, raising livestock, constructing mills, running a store, developing a brick kiln and operating a steamboat. The one enterprise closest to his heart and a direct import from his homeland was the cultivation of vineyards. Haraszthy had worked closely as a wine grower with his father-in-law in Hungary. He now brought a talent for viticulture to the wilds of Wisconsin. Soon he was growing grapes and having wine cellars excavated on hillsides above the river. This was the beginning of the second oldest winery in the United States, one that continues today as the Wollersheim Winery. Such was the success of Haraszthy’s many enterprises in the area that Sauk Center became the first incorporated town in Wisconsin.

A Man On The Move – Travels In North America
Haraszthy was not alone during this time. He worked closely with his partner, another immigrant from England by the name of Robert Bryant. In 1842, Haraszthy managed to bring his entire family to Wisconsin. They would never again return to Hungary, at least not in the flesh. Agoston Haraszthy did return to Hungary in the form of words. As one of the first permanent settlers from Hungary in the United States he took it upon himself to report back to his countrymen about what he had discovered in this land of opportunity. The upshot of his efforts was a remarkable book known as “Utazas Ejszakamerikaban” (Travels in North America). At the time there was very little knowledge of the United States in Hungary, Haraszthy’s book expanded the information on offer exponentially.

The book’s value lay in its eyewitness account. It offered potential emigres a preview of what they would find in the United States if they chose to follow in Haraszthy’s footsteps. This would be of great importance in the years to come as the first wave of Hungarians immigrants left for America after the failed uprising of the 1848 Hungarian Revolution. Haraszthy would also leave his adopted home in Wisconsin during this time. In 1848, he like tens of thousands of others, was struck by the stories he heard of gold discoveries in California. Incredible opportunities awaited those with the energy and vitality to travel there. It was not long before Haraszthy was planning to make discoveries of his own in a new land of opportunity.

In The Name Of A Hungarian Statesman – Kossuth Fever: A Lost American Legacy

The state of Iowa has exactly one hundred counties, a nice, neat number that lends itself to memory. One of these one hundred counties is easy to remember if you are a Hungarian history buff. Several years ago, I was looking at a map of Iowa when I noticed Kossuth County. This immediately caught my attention. Of course, this was because the county name was the same as that of the famous Hungarian statesman and leader of the 1848 revolution, Lajos Kossuth. Immediately I knew that the county must have taken its name from him. The question was why? Either a bunch of Hungarian emigres had settled in the middle of Iowa or people in Iowa had heard about Kossuth’s democratic credentials and decided to honor him. The latter turned out to be true.

Kossuth, Mississippi - Sign along U.S. Route 72

Kossuth, Mississippi – Sign along U.S. Route 72

Famously Unknown – Remains Of A Name
In 1851 Kossuth County was officially formed. It was named in honor of the Hungarian patriot who had led the country during the Hungarian Revolution and then been forced into exile. In 1851-52 Kossuth toured the United States, including the American Midwest as a fighter for freedom and democratic values. This made him a revered figure in places where he otherwise would have been all but unknown. An outbreak of “Kossuth fever” spread across the United States. With his soaring oratorical skills Kossuth managed to make a name for himself in many American communities, especially those with large European immigrant populations. Many years later the lineage behind the county’s name was forgotten. The original inhabitants who had helped form Kossuth County died off. Those who came after them gave little thought to the cause of Hungary or for that matter, a politician who never saw his ideals come to fruition.

A few months after discovering Kossuth County on the map, I considered taking a trip to visit it. Before deciding whether to travel there, which would have required a six hour round trip drive from where I was then living in eastern South Dakota, I decided to call the Kossuth County Historical Museum in Algona, Iowa. I wanted to inquire about what, if anything, they had in the way of exhibits on Lajos Kossuth. A friendly female voice answered the phone. I proceeded to ask her if there were any Kossuth themed exhibits or artifacts in the museum. She replied that “we always knew the county was named for a famous Hungarian, but that is about it.” Our ensuing conversation, in which she communicated that they had nothing in the museum about Kossuth, dissuaded me from a potential visit. I soon forgot about Kossuth County, Iowa. At least until a couple of weeks ago when I was driving through the northern extremity of Mississippi.

Kossuth County Historical Museum - Algona, Iowa

Kossuth County Historical Museum – Algona, Iowa

Magyar In Mississippi – The New Hope
I was with my wife and mother on a trip to the Civil War battlefield of Shiloh in southern Tennessee. The quickest route to drive there from Memphis was to dip down into Mississippi along US Route 72, head eastward toward the city of Corinth and then turn north on another highway. The weather was poor that day, with intermittent rain showers falling from a gloomy sky. At times the rain degraded visibility to the point that I had to concentrate more than normal for safe driving. About five miles east of Corinth, I spotted one of those green signs denoting an upcoming turnoff for a nearby town. On the sign was a single word, Kossuth. I did a double take, then quickly pointed it out to my wife. We both agreed that taking a picture despite the inclement weather would be a good idea. Soon we were doing a U-turn followed by another U-turn, pulling over by the roadside and taking photos. I was zealous enough to chance my life by walking along the roadside to get in position for the best possible photo. Then I snapped several pictures. Our time was limited so we decided not to take the ten-minute detour to Kossuth. Instead, we satisfied ourselves by later doing research on the history of the town’s name.

The town of Kossuth, Mississippi was founded in the 1840’s. It was originally named “New Hope”. In 1852, the town’s named was changed to honor the Hungarian patriot Kossuth. It has kept that name ever since, giving it a quixotic claim to fame.  This is about the only thing memorable about a place that is home to only 209 inhabitants. I doubt anyone in the town has given much thought to Kossuth, but perhaps one day they will rediscover him. Kossuth in America has quite a naming niche that spans several states. There are other towns named for Kossuth in Ohio, Wisconsin and Indiana. There is an entire Historic District in Dayton, Ohio that also bears his name. While Lajos Kossuth may seem like an unknown or at best an extremely obscure historical figure to Americans, that was not the case in the 1850’s.

Dress parade of the United States Army in New York for Lajos Kossuth - December 6, 1851

Dress parade of the United States Army in New York for Lajos Kossuth – December 6, 1851 (Credit: E Perczel)

The Great Orator – Something To Talk About
In 1851 the United States Congress authorized Kossuth to enter America. Ironically, he was transported to American shores by the U.S.S. Mississippi. Massive crowds gathered to greet him upon arrival in New York City. He was seen by many as a latter-day George Washington type figure, fighting to advance the cause of freedom and liberty.  From New York he went on to Washington, D.C. In the nation’s capitol he became just the second foreigner to ever address a joint session of Congress. (A bust of Kossuth can be still found in the Capitol today) Kossuth then proceeded to go on a speaking tour of New England, the South and Midwestern regions of the United States. He hoped to garner support for the cause of a democratic Hungary that would break off the shackles of Austrian rule.

His efforts soon went awry after he started making his opinions known on American politics. Officials began to see Kossuth as a threat. He failed to denounce slavery and supported the pro-slavery presidential candidate Franklin Pierce. By the end of his speaking tour, the warm welcome had grown cold. He was soon traveling back across the Atlantic Ocean to England. He would never set foot again on American soil. Today, his legacy in America consists of a few town names scattered across the interior parts of the United States. The people who live in these communities say the name Kossuth hundreds of time each day. Unfortunately, few of them have little idea who he was or what he stood for. Such are the vagaries of history.

A Dream Meeting With Reality – Getting On & Off The Red Bus: Budapest’s Last Best Bookstore (Part Two)

Visits to the Little Red Bus Bookstore filled me with a fair amount of trepidation when the worst clerk imaginable was entrenched behind the front desk. One day I entered the store expecting no acknowledgement, no pleasantries and no small talk. Imagine my surprise when I entered and was greeted by a proper “hello” as soon as I opened the door. The voice came to me in a heavy English accent. Behind the desk stood a man of medium height, with dark hair and an intense, but well-meaning look on us face. His acknowledgment of my existence was the first of many greetings he would give me in the years to come. I soon discovered that this was the owner of the Little Red Bus Bookstore. His name was David. He hailed from a small town not far from London. Marriage had brought him to Budapest.  I got to know him over several more visits to the Red Bus in the ensuing years.

Like every Englishman I have ever met, he was hard to get to know. The English have a way of deflecting any personally intrusive questions with humor, politeness and verbal evasion. I always marvel at their ability to answer a personal question, without really answering it at all. One had to see these tactics for what they were, a strategy to keep everyone at a distance. It was not friendship at first sight and never would be, but there was a mutual love of books that our conversations bonded around during multiple visits.

Catching The Little Red Bus Bookstore - Budapest

Catching The Little Red Bus Bookstore – Budapest

Getting On The Red Bus – From Babysitting Backpackers to Bookstores
David was an interesting character. He had not known much, if anything about Hungary before he met the Hungarian woman he would marry. They moved to Budapest and had lived in the city for several years. The couple were now raising a young child. David’s first occupation in the city was not as a bookseller, but a less than glorified innkeeper. He ran that most typical of Eastern European conurbations, a hostel. The hostel (now under different ownership) was still located in the same building whose ground floor was still home to the Little Red Bus Bookstore. I imagined when David ran the hostel that he spent many an evening on front desk duty reading endless stacks of quality non-fiction books. The hostel was most often frequented by students, partygoers and those in search of a cheap night’s sleep.

His job provided him with interesting fodder for memorable stories which he sometimes shared. The most bizarre guest was a young man who spent just a single night at the hostel. That was all he needed to steal the mattress on which he slept, somehow dragging it out of the hostel and into the night without it being noticed. The mattress was never recovered while the crook disappeared into the night. Such experiences made for good tales, but not so good business. David soon had enough of late night babysitting of drunken backpackers. The bookstore was an idea whose time soon arrived.

The Dream & The Reality – A Pauper’s Paradise
The Red Bus selection of books came predominantly from used book fairs back in the London area. They were an eclectic mix, imagine everything from a biography of David Bowie to a history of pre-Roman civilizations to a Guide to the World’s Most Dangerous Places. None of the books were in Hungarian, but I observed plenty of Hungarian customers who spoke to David in their native tongue. I was shocked to hear him converse with these customers in fluent Hungarian. I expressed my surprise, then inquired as to how he learned Hungarian. He had taken intensive classes that made him conversant in the language after only a year. Prior to that, David had never learned any foreign language. That he had so quickly learned what is consistently rated as one of the five most difficult languages in the world was a great achievement. This attested to his innate intelligence. From what I heard of his Hungarian, he was a natural. To me, his Hungarian was indistinguishable from that of the natives.

I soon developed a ritual anytime I visited Budapest. My first afternoon was spent browsing the stacks at the Little Red Bus Bookstore. Whenever I start going out of my way to see a person multiple times it usually means there is some part of their life that I idolize. In the case of David, it was that he was living my dream. To own a bookshop, to be an expat in Budapest, to spend many hours each day devoted to an intellectual activity and then paying yourself for it. This looked like a paradisiacal existence to me. And to see someone doing it, made what I had so long imagined feel as though it was within reach. What I did not know was just how hard it was to earn a living selling second hand English language books in Budapest. Over multiple conversations with David I learned the reality of his situation. The second-hand books business ebbed and flowed, depending upon such vagaries as international tourism and the Hungarian economy. The economics were marginal. This was much the same thing I had heard from booksellers stateside. David echoed the prevailing opinion that a person could get by selling books, while getting ahead was close to impossible.  There is a good reason why so many second hand booksellers I have met are semi or fully retired.

The Final Chapter - Little Red Bus Bookstore in Budapest

The Final Chapter – Little Red Bus Bookstore in Budapest

A Terminal Illness  – Closing Time
One dreary mid-December day, with the city shrouded in a perpetual winter gloom, I walked up to the Little Red Bus looking for some books to shine sun on my soul. The lights were on inside and all was well with the world until I saw a sign that said, Red Bus Bookstore Budapest CLOSING DOWN SALE!!!  Books at 400 ft…Last Day Jan 11th. I was not completely surprised, but my heart still sank. The news hit me hard. The Little Red Bus had always been part of my Budapest experience. Visiting the bookstore on multiple occasions during those last days felt like going to see an old friend who was terminally ill. There was a feeling of hopelessness. Not only was the bookstore closing, a part of me was dying with it.

Like any terminal illness there were desperate hopes of a cure. David was going to try having a book stall on selected Saturday’s at nearby cafes (I would later go to one of these sells, but it was just not the same). He might open a new store on Octagon right off Budapest’s very own Champs Elysees, Andrassy utca. Glitter flickered in front of my eyes for a moment, then faded. The future was never going to be the way I remembered it. David needed a steady income to raise his family. He had other options, none of which involved my personal happiness or nostalgic longing. The Little Red Bus was on its final journey, one from which it would never return. My world would become a lesser place because of its closing.

Click here for: Magic Sprinkled On The Mind – The Red Bus In Budapest: Life Through Books (Part One)

Magic Sprinkled On The Mind – The Red Bus In Budapest: Life Through Books (Part One)

Paradise was a place that I found by getting off the metro at Deak ter in the heart of Budapest, heading down Karoly korut, making a right turn onto Gerloczy utca, then after a short jaunt taking a left onto Semmelweis utca. From there I would walk about fifty paces and find myself in front of the Little Red Bus Bookstore. The ten-minute walk led me to a place that brought me that much closer to heaven. This was the location of the premier English language bookstore in Budapest. A tiny marvel of a store informed by intellect and filled with information, all bound up in slender volumes awaiting prospective book buyers. Perhaps it was the Little Red Bus logo or my eventual meeting with the affable British owner, that made me feel as though I had died and gone shopping in a London suburb.

There was something so English about this wee little shop hidden near the end of a street in Budapest that only a smattering of tourists ever frequented it. If England was a nation of shopkeepers as Napoleon once quipped, then this was its ultimate overseas expression, a colonization courtesy of a Europe with porous borders and capitalist designs. It was exactly the kind of place one would expect to find the unexpected. Here I stumbled upon an expatriate Brit in Hungary, a shopkeeper hovering in the shadows of Budapest, plying his trade in a city that largely ignored him. Owner of a store that made me forget all about the grandeur just outside its doors and settle into the bookshop’s self-created quaintness.

Customer Service Without A Smile – The Answer Is No
The books on offer were thoughtfully selected and haphazardly arranged, row upon row of paperbacks on a wide array of subjects that would appeal to erudite readers. The books were predominantly non-fiction, but not exclusively so. There could not have been more than a thousand of them set out upon the shelves. The emphasis was on quality rather than quantity. The same could not be said for the service I first suffered on my initial visit. A man in his 20’s, who looked like he had a chronic case of bed head, with an awful attitude to match was half-slumbering on a seat. He barely lifted his head from behind the desk. Forlorn and brooding, glassy eyed and looking perpetually hungover, he stared listlessly at some form of digital device. Judging by the look on his face it could not have been much more interesting than the standard television test pattern.

The clerk (if he could even be called that) tried to never acknowledge anyone’s presence. And I imagined customers returned this disfavor. If he did have something to say it was by grunt or mumble. His customer service skills were as non-existent as smiles on a grizzled face that looked like it was the product of a fortnight’s worth of benders. And yet, the books at the Little Red Bus were so good, that they managed to more than make up for the grim figure brooding behind the counter. His presence cast a pall over the place. By accent I recognized him as Hungarian, but for me he was the definitive representative of a dreadful lassitude. For a man so young, he would have fit in awfully well with a previous generation of stoic styled Soviet men. The Iron Curtain was written all over his weathered face. His only temptation towards extraversion was the word “no.”

Dream palace - Little Red Bus Bookstore in Budapest

Dream palace – Little Red Bus Bookstore in Budapest

Spiritual Sustenance – A Book Lover’s Dream
The excellent selection of books at Red Bus overcame this cataclysm of customer service. The low prices certainly helped matters. The place was a book lover’s dream. Entering its cloistered confines was nothing short of spiritual. Magic was sprinkled on the minds of those who perused the shelves. Everything became of interest in my search to find just the right books. I found myself at the point of near rapture, immediately proclaiming to myself that this was a used bookstore par excellence. Multiple visits over the next several years served to solidify my opinion. And I soon acquired the wares to show for it. I can still ascertain the books I bought at Red Bus by the price in forints written on the first page in pencil. One of the most beloved was an inaugural edition of the Blue Guide to Hungary (550 forints) written by my favorite Budapest based British author, Bob Dent. It is most valuable as a historical document, part travel guide/part time capsule of Hungary in 1990 as it was just beginning to crawl out from behind the curtain.

Another find was Mimi and Toutou Go Forth: The Bizarre Battle of Tanganyika (1000 forints), a tragi-comic history of a British led expedition into the heart of Africa during World War I. The expedition’s leader, a shamateur by the name of Geoffrey Spicer-Simson, smokes monogrammed cigarettes, miraculously wins a naval battle due to sheer luck and is accompanied by a motley crew of soldiers that includes a man addicted to Worcestershire sauce. And the hits kept on coming. The Byzantine Wars (1300 forints) by John Haldon, an excellent military history of Byzantium. Such a work would be considered esoterica in the United States, at Red Bus it was par for the course. The File on the Tsar (1300 forints) which purports to uncover the “truth” about the fate of Tsar Nicholas III and his family. Such a breathtaking claim seemed utterly ridiculous to me and well worth reading.

The Exploits Of Others – Life Through Books
One of my all-time favorite purchases was Between the Woods and the Water: On Foot To Constantinople by Patrick Leigh Fermor. Among the many things to recommend this classic 1930’s account of Fermor’s trek on foot from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, is the part that deals with his walk across Hungary. He meets a cast of characters, several of them aristocrats, still living under the principles of an era that has all but vanished. I could go on for hours about the journeys each of these books and so many others took me on, but without the Red Bus Bookstore I would likely never have read any of them. It was a conduit to another world, a life of adventure that I was able to reach by living vicariously through the exploits of others. Speaking of other people’s lives, there was one man who I met through Red Bus that made more of an impression on me than any other. That was the owner of this fine establishment.

Click here for: A Dream Meeting With Reality – Getting On & Off The Red Bus: Budapest’s Last Best Bookstore (Part Two)

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

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

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

The Transylvania Trilogy by Miklos Banffy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Objects Of Intense Desire – Entering The Comfort Zone (Budapest Bookstores Part One)

One of my favorite international travel pursuits is searching for English language bookstores in Europe. What started out as a personal fetish quickly turned fanatical. I had already been to ones in Berlin, Brussels, Istanbul and Paris. I spent countless hours in those cities wandering around places that most travelers would gladly ignore These bookstores were the haunts of expats or native speakers who wanted to improve their English. I left many of them with nothing in hand because much to my chagrin, I would find a range of titles that were already available at home, often at exorbitant prices. A half day or more was often wasted wandering down unpronounceable city streets to buildings that were badly in need of repair.

This would be followed by mostly futile searches, but ones I would never regret. Bookstores have always been the places where I feel most comfortable. Spaces of refuge in familiar or foreign lands. And the thrill of discovery kept me coming back for more. Give me a bookstore, even with volumes in unintelligible languages and I enter my comfort zone. There was also the thrill of discovery. The ultimate prize would be to find a local history or guidebook that was not available in the United States. Scouring the stacks at dusty bookstores in search of dog eared tomes was less like finding a needle in a haystack, than it was like sticking a needle in my arm. Information, anecdotes and good stories have always been my drugs of choice.

In Hot Pursuit – An Uncontrollable Fit Of Passion
Finding that drug in Budapest would be more difficult than in other European capitals. Of all the European Union member nations, Hungary has the lowest percentage of English speakers. The Hungarian language (known as Magyar) has a lot to do with this situation. The language is exceedingly difficult to learn when compared to Indo-European languages. It is difficult to translate, full of infinitesimal nuances and a bizarre range of rules regarding usage patterns that are certain to baffle the less linguistically inclined. The upshot is that Hungarians are pigeon holed into their own language, more than perhaps any other group in Europe. The Magyar tongue being inaccessible to the point that it crowds out learning of other languages. The upshot of this linguistic limbo is that there are comparatively few bookstores selling English-language titles. Budapest is something of an exception to the prevailing situation in Hungary due to its cosmopolitan nature. Nonetheless, a search would take up a fair amount of my time in the city.

Searching for bookstores, both used and new, was to be my supreme focus. I arrived with only a vague list of the historical sites and cultural attractions that I wanted to visit. Conversely, I had a definite plan to visit at least two bookstores on my first full day in the city. I would see the sites in Budapest only after I fed my habit. Personal passion overrode moderation or any sense of logic with this plan. My urge to visit bookstores was based on emotion rather than reason. The longing I felt to find English language bookstores in Budapest was akin to the uncontrollable fits of passion that accompanied the first time I fell in love. I had found it impossible to stay away from the object of desire. The yearning to be acknowledged and fulfilled overrode all other needs. I went to almost any length to requite this intense desire. Such passion also informed my search for bookstores in Budapest.

Bestsellers Bookstore in Budapest

Bestsellers Bookstore in Budapest

Bookended – Two Stores, One Mission
The bookstores I most wanted to visit in Budapest were both on the Pest side of the city. I had been to each of them once before, on my first visit to the city two and a half years earlier. Unlike then, I would have unlimited amounts of time to enjoy them and any others I might find. The two bookstores I had in mind were opposites in many ways. One sold only new books, was relatively well known and frequented by tourists, expats and diplomats, Whereas the second one sold used books, was located at the end of a street few tourists would ever visit and catered to budget conscious buyers. Both were tops on my agenda. Fortunately, each of them was within walking distance of Deak Square (Deak ter), the only place in Budapest where its three main metro lines, the Yellow, Red and Blue lines intersect. Deak Square made a convenient jumping off point. Due to an earlier opening time, I went to the more well known one first. Located on October 6th Street (Oktober 6 utca), Bestsellers Bookshop was just a two-minute walk from St. Stephen’s Basilica. The surrounding restaurants and shops catered to an upmarket clientele. The area exuded class and wealth. Bestsellers storefront fit in well with its surroundings.

The store’s exterior was an invitation to bibliophiles, as multiple glass windows were filled with the latest English language titles, Window shopping conveyed the store’s emphasis on non-fiction, politics and history. I estimated that eighty percent of Bestsellers inventory was English language books. It was also home to a large stock of English language newspapers and magazines, as well as a handful of books in French, German, Italian and Russian. My focus quickly became the English language section concerning Hungarian history, politics, memoirs and literature. Prices were high by the standards of ordinary Hungarians, but they do not happen to be the main customer base for Bestsellers. The store has managed to stay in business because it is something of an institution among the English-speaking, expat population of Budapest. The store’s proximity to the American Embassy and Central European University certainly helps matters.

If There Is A Heaven – The Journey Beyond This World
Bestsellers was started by the same man who still owns it today, Tony Lang. He decided to open a bookstore after a futile search throughout Budapest for an English language book he wanted to read. By the time I went there, Bestsellers had been open for two decades. The space it occupied was formerly a grocery store, with one caveat, it expanded over the years into an adjacent space which effectively doubled its size. The bookstore soon became a refuge for devoted English language book lovers. I immediately joined that group. I was hooked on the place after a single visit. It was my kind of place, filled with countless volumes on Eastern Europe and many other magnificent subjects. Bestsellers felt like the kind of place I was meant to visit in this life and if there is a heaven, the next one as well.

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

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