An Anachronism In Action – Wenckheim Palace: Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Experience

My visit to Wenckheim Palace brought with it sadness. The palace’s state of decay was too obvious to ignore. There was a tragic beauty in the cracked and faded ochre exterior. In places, the palace looked moments away from a state of semi-ruin. Rooms were largely vacant, once lavish furnishings had long since vanished along with the aristocrats and servants who once filled these gilded chambers with the passion of life. The thought that the palace was soon to be restored was heartening, but no amount of restoration would bring back its most glorious era. The fact that there was almost no information about those who once lived and died in this dream palace was heart wrenching. I saw history in stone everywhere, and very little human history anywhere. The stories of innumerable lives had been lost to history or so I thought.

A Noble Encounter - Wenckheim Palace

A Noble Encounter – Wenckheim Palace

Noble Encounters – Between The Woods & The Water
On July 15, 2018 I published a post on this blog entitled, The Bishop’s Tomb – An Act of Faith (Vilmos Apor Part One). The post talked about the famed Catholic Bishop of Gyor, Vilmos Apor, who had done so much to protect Jews during the Holocaust in Hungary. Apor had been tragically murdered near the end of the war while trying to protect women from being raped by Red Army soldiers. The day after I published the post I received the following reply from ATTICUS (a regular commenter on my posts): “see: for account of meeting between Patrick Leigh Fermor and Bishop Apor’s brother, Baron Gabor Apor, in Transylvania in 1934.”

ATTICUS turned out to be Michael O’Sullivan, a retired English Literature professor who had just published, “Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania”, the book for which he provided the link. I already owned a copy of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between The Woods and The Water, which I had yet to read. It was this volume that contained the material which formed the basis for O’Sullivan’s book. In 1933-34, Fermor walked from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. This journey led him to write two books over a half century later that quickly became classics of the travel genre. In the second one, Between The Woods and The Water, Fermor documented his journey across Hungary and Transylvania. He had spent several months staying with various aristocrats while experiencing their way of life. Little did Fermor realize it at the time, but this way of life was about to be swept away by the whirlwind of war.

A Ray Of Light – A People & Palace Renewed
I immediately began searching for O’Sullivan’s book, but it was not yet available for purchase in the United States. Thus, I resolved to buy it when I traveled to Budapest in mid-August. In the meantime, I began to read Between The Woods and The Water. I also began searching for reviews of O’Sullivan’s book. I found an excellent one online in the English language journal, Hungarian Review. While reading a review of the book my pulse quickened as I came across the following sentence, “In Mr O’ Sullivan’s pages we watch again the game of bicycle polo at Count József Károly and Ferenc Mária Wenckheim’s castle, after which PLF found himself dining with a Habsburg Archduke.” This anecdote illuminated a bit of Wenckheim Castle’s human history. A ray of light had been cast on the world of Wenckheim Palace which I had wrongly assumed would forever be hidden from me by a perpetual shadow. It gave me hope that I might learn much more about the interior life of that fabulous palace.  It took every bit of willpower I could muster to avoid jumping ahead in Between The Woods and The Water to read about Fermor’s experience at Wenckheim. I eagerly read a quarter of the book before Fermor arrived at Wenckheim Palace by catching a ride with a couple of nuns.

Fermor had been told earlier in his trip by a cousin of Weckenheim Palace’s owners that “it was a strange house, but we’re fond of it.” This was a spot-on description. Fermor eloquently describes his first impressions of the palace as a “vast ochre-colored pile…there were pinnacles, pediments, baroque gables, ogees, lancets, mullions, steep slate roof, towers with flag flying and flights of covered stairs ending in colonnades of flattened arches. Great wings formed a courtyard and, from a terrace leading to a ceremonial door, branching and balustraded steps descended to a sweep.” Reflecting on the day of my own visit, much of Fermor’s description still applied, minus a flag flying. The courtyard where Fermor, Count Joszi and four others played a fierce game of bicycle polo was still intact. I suddenly had visions of the soon to be renewed palace holding reenactments of bicycle polo matches. Of course, I was thinking of historical accuracy rather than visitor safety.

A Fresh Light - Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania by Micheal O'Sullivan

A Fresh Light – Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania by Micheal O’Sullivan

Notable Exceptions – Fashion & Frivolity’s Final Fling
Count Joszi and his wife, Countess Denise (as Fermor refers to her in his book), were living a life most people of that time could only dream about. They were products of an intermarriage, first cousins long before they were husband and wife. According to Countess Denise they should have been raving lunatics by the laws of genetics. These types of familial/marital ties were the rule, rather than the exception in many aristocratic families. They observed quixotic customs and habits that had become antiquated elsewhere. Fermor watched as Count Joszi took long, elegant draws from an antiquated water pipe known as a chibook. The pipe had long since fallen out of fashion in most parts of Europe. This lasting vestige of eastern exoticism fascinated Fermor, who soon joined in.

Much of what Fermor witnessed at Wenckheim Palace was an anachronism in action with one notable exception. He recalled how Countess Denise’s sister, Cecile, suddenly announced that she must leave for Budapest. Fermor followed Count Joszi and others out to a field where Cecile boarded a plane. The pilot spun the propeller to start the plane. Soon thereafter the pilot and Cecile took flight, heading westward to Budapest. This was a riveting example of technology entering an entirely different world, one that had more in common with the 19th rather than the 20th century. It would be exactly a decade later when more many more planes appeared in the skies above eastern Hungary. These would be carrying bombs rather than passengers. Fermor’s book acts as one of the final witnesses to a land and people on the cusp of transformational change. Fermor had no idea what was to come at the time of his visit. This life of frivolity and fashionable excess would soon come to an end, but as Fermor’s remarkable writing shows, it was good while it lasted. I expect that O’Sullivan’s book will make it last that much longer.

The Power To Melt Hearts – Wenckheim Palace: An Empty Dress (Part Five)

Approaching Wenckheim Palace on a mid-December day brought with it a strange feeling. Due to the time of year, it felt like we were the only ones around. As far as visitors went that was true. The parking lot adjacent to the palace looked like a wider extension of the driveway, it was nearly empty except for automobiles owned by the handful of employees who worked here. The lack of people gave our arrival a more intimate, personal touch. For me, it felt like we were coming for visit as old friends of the family, but there was no family to be found. I did not have to read a history book to imagine what had happened to the last Wenckheim’s to inhabit this palace. They would have been swept away, like so much else by the Red Army’s arrival in the autumn of 1944. I doubted any aristocrats stayed around to suffer the dire consequences that would have been forthcoming after being labeled class enemies on the spot. This would have likely meant execution or a fate even worse than death. The palace survived though. A lasting reminder of the lavish life that the Wenckheims, as well as many other aristocratic families throughout Hungary, led in the years before two World Wars consumed the countryside.

A Feat of Imagination - Wenckheim Palace in Szabadkigyod

A feat of imagination – Wenckheim Palace in Szabadkigyod (Credit: Mihaly Rakasz)

Metaphorical Messages – Redefining The Idea Of A Palace
Wenckheim Palace was a mystery to me and would remain so during my visit. There was very little literature or information panels in English. For that matter, there was not that much more written in Hungarian. The bookstore/sales area was bare bones. The entrance fee was nominal. It was rather obvious to me that Wenckheim Palace was badly in need of a budget and professional staff. The tours were self-guided by default. Everyone who worked here, either seemed preoccupied or bored. I was happy to learn that the palace had won a large grant from the European Union to restore much of the palace to its former glory. The work was slated to begin in a few more months. Until then, visitors were pretty much on their own. My wife and mother-in-law, both native Hungarian speakers, were not able to offer much in the way of interpretation either.

Learning about Wenckheim Palace would require some good old-fashioned detective work. This meant taking a closer look at the few details I could discern. My investigative work started with the latter half of its name. Calling it a palace, on the order of a Versailles or the Hofburg, did not quite do the building justice. Wenckheim was as much manor house as palace. There was even a tower, recalling what might have been a castle. I stared at its eclectically styled, neo-renaissance exterior without taking the time to enumerate the number of windows. If I had, the count would have come to 365, same as the number of days in a year. Inside the symmetry continued with 52 rooms, matching the number of weeks in a year. A final callback to the calendar related to the palace’s four entrances, corresponding with the number of seasons. Distracted by the palace’s architectural eclecticism, it was hard to notice such metaphorical messages.

Portal to another world - Wenckheim Palace

Portal to another world – Wenckheim Palace

A Feat Of Imagination – The Rural Residence Par Excellence
The palace had been designed to such symmetrical specifications on the orders of Krisztina Wenckheim, one half the aristocratic couple who commissioned the palace’s design and construction. It was built from 1875 – 1879. The architect was none other Miklos Ybl, a man who had studied and soaked up the architectural atmosphere in Vienna and Munich. He brought new ideas back to his native Hungary where he worked exclusively during the latter half of the 19th century. He would soon become the most in demand architect during Hungary’s golden age which followed the creation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1867. As Budapest boomed, following its unification as a single city in 1873, so did Ybl’s career. Many of Ybl’s most famous works date from this time. These include the Hungarian State Opera House, St. Stephen’s Basilica and the Varkert (Castle Garden Bazaar). His creative instincts were not confined to the capital, as he took his talents far afield into the far-flung provincial areas of Hungary.

This brought Ybl to rural locales where he achieved incredible feats of the imagination amid landscapes that had been previously known for agriculture rather than architecture. Wenckheim Palace would help change the rural idyll. Ybl’s services were coveted by all the major aristocratic families at the time. Only a few were able to command his attention. The Wenckheim’s had the money, power and prestige to purchase Ybl’s services to design a palace on the southern Great Plain. He did not disappoint his patrons with the Wenckheim Palace. It was a rural aristocratic residence par excellence. His fantastical creation was a regional icon where the uber-wealthy rural gentry gathered for grand balls and all-night parties filled with shimmering glitz and moonlit romance. These glory days have all but faded. I viewed the palace as just the scaffolding of what was once a grand social and cultural edifice.

An empty dress - Wenckheim Palace

An empty dress – Wenckheim Palace

An Indelible Impression – The Passion & Pathos Of Love
The current state of the palace could not have been much farther removed from the golden age. Walking through the large rooms it was apparent that the décor was not indigenous to the site. Period pieces of furniture had been placed in the rooms as much to occupy space as portray any sense of elegance. I assumed all the originals had been stolen during the Second World War. The presentation of such areas as the dining room, men’s and women’s salons and bedrooms were well done, but lacking in the prevailing haute bourgeoise spirit of that gilded age. There was one bedroom that did manage to leave me with a lasting impression. Laid out on a bed was a woman’s dress. Looking as though its owner had left it there as a ghostly reminder of a consummated romance. I imagined the dress’s former occupant as an alluringly voluptuous figure. For a moment, I could sense the passion and pathos of love that had once pervaded these chambers. Such romantic notions had long since vanished from this bedroom, but the tiny hint of them that remained was still powerful enough to melt hearts.

Click here for: An Anachronism In Action – Wenckheim Palace: Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Experience

Time Ticking Backwards – Getting A Taste of Old Gyula: The Way To Wenckheim (Part Four)

Gyula Castle had been worth the trip, but it was not the only attraction to be found in this small, compact city. Close to the castle was another historical site, the Almasy Mansion. On the drive to Gyula, my mother-in-law had mentioned a palace she had recently visited in the nearby countryside. I was a bit confused by this because none of my guidebooks mentioned any manor houses or palaces worthy of a visit in the area around Gyula. At first, I assumed she meant the Almasy Mansion, which was just a few hundred meters from the castle. My assumption turned out to be wrong.

I discerned from her smattering of English mixed with Hungarian that this was not the mansion she had been referring to. She kept saying the name Wenckheim, which meant little to me other than I had heard it mentioned before as Hungarian aristocratic surname. This bit of knowledge did little to alleviate my confusion, but it did add an element of mystery. I wondered if she might have something confused. Then I reminded myself that this was a woman who had spent her entire career working as head of a research library at one of Hungary’s most prestigious universities. Something was getting lost in the translation between us. Before the afternoon was over, I would discover what she had been trying to tell me.

Grounds for tragedy - Almasy Mansion in Gyula

Grounds for tragedy – Almasy Mansion in Gyula (Credit: Szalax)

Tragedy & Ecstasy – Deadly & Delicious Bits of History
The cool, crispness of winter had descended on Gyula. A gust of wind was enough to send us into shivers such was the pervasive chill in the air. There was limited daylight left on this mid-December day, thus we decided to skip a visit to the nearby Almasy Mansion. In retrospect, that decision was a mistake. We skirted the grounds of that immaculate mansion on the way back to our car. Later I would learn of the tragic history that had occurred here. The mansion had been the setting for one of those terrible episodes that crop up in Hungarian history with alarming frequency. In August of 1849, at the tail end of the Hungarian Revolution, ten Hungarian generals had surrendered on the mansion’s grounds. They had little idea of what was in store for them. Less than six months later these generals put to death by the Austrian authorities. They, along with three other generals executed at the same time, would become known to history as the 13 Martyrs of Arad (the city in which their execution took place). This incident is one of the tragic touchstones of Hungarian history. Getting to know it better would have to wait for another day. Instead, we set off to get a taste, quite literally, of old Gyula.

The Way It Was - Szazeves Cuksraszda in Gyula

The Way It Was – Szazeves Cuksraszda in Gyula

Gyula is most famous for two attractions. One of course is its castle. The other is Szazeves Cukraszda, which in translation means “the one hundred year old patisserie”. It is purportedly the second oldest patisserie in all of Hungary. The name is something of a misnomer, since Szazeves was started much longer than a hundred years ago. The patisserie opened in 1840 and since that time, despite multiple revolutions, two world wars and the imposition of ideologically extreme governments, Szazeves has managed to both survive and thrive. It is one of the most famous patisseries in the country and rightfully so. In addition to delicious coffee and a full range of mouthwatering deserts, it is also home to 19th century period furnishings which are more than museum set pieces, they are used by customers. This provides a magical environment in which customers can step back in time to experience the look and feel of Cukraszda culture at its height. This was one of the great gifts that the ruling Austrians bequeathed to Hungary at the outset of the early modern period and running right up through today. Szazeves Cukraszda is a striking example of this phenomenon.

Bourgeois At Its Best -– A Feeling Of Quaint Formality
As soon as we entered, time ticked backwards over a hundred years. It was hard not to feel a bit out of place because everything inside Szazeves looked or felt like it had come from Hungary’s pre-World War I golden age. The servers wore period outfits. For us, suits and dresses would have been more appropriate, such was the style and elegance on display. The place had a feel of quaint formality that has been all but lost in mass, technologically driven societies. The atmosphere in Szazeves was splendid, we were surrounded by what was the height of bourgeois society. While sipping a hot white chocolate I could sense for just a moment that sense of noble social refinement that was pervasive in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Szazeves may have been in a small provincial city, but the empire style décor and Biedermeier furniture made it seem much grander, as though we were in Vienna rather than Gyula. Perhaps that was the real value of Szazeves, it allowed for the re-creation of an era that has been lost to history. Plus, the desserts were delicious.

A fantastical reality - Wenckheim Palace in the late 19th century

A fantastical reality – Wenckheim Palace in the late 19th century

After filling our bellies full of delightfully delicious desserts and copious amounts of hot chocolate, we drove back out of Gyula. My mother-in-law now directed us. Our route at first followed the one we had taken into town, but at an intersection we made a left rather than right turn. Gyula quickly vanished from view and we were soon out in the countryside. The road was bumpy and not very well maintained. I could not imagine there would be anything to see out here, let alone a palace. The roadside was lined with trees and brush. Beyond that were turned up fields that lay fallow. There was nothing memorable about this landscape. The only excitement was caused by the constant jolts our car received from the road. After a few minutes we came to a small village, Szabadkigyos, which was tidy but unimpressive. We then turned down a slim street which led to a more wooded area. A large mansion painted in a vibrant shade of ochre beamed brightly in the afternoon sunlight. It was a brilliant symmetry of gables and spires, towers and turrets, verandas and weathervanes. This was Wenckheim Palace.

Click here for: The Power To Melt Hearts – Wenckheim Palace: An Empty Dress (Part Five)


The Shimmering Citadel – Gyula Castle: Last Of Its Kind (Part Two)

The two-hour journey from Debrecen to Gyula that seemed more like ten, came to a sudden end when we suddenly arrived at Gyula. The southern reaches of The Great Hungarian Plain did not end here, but Gyula was so charming, elegant and relaxing that it gave the illusion of an entirely different world. The Belvaros (City Center) was clean swept and tidy, the colorful exteriors of its buildings emanated an aesthetic of vibrancy. The place felt alive, this was quite the contrast to the endless void we had just crossed. Gyula was the essence of quaint, looking as though it had skipped a turbulent 20th century marked by calamity and regress. In truth, Gyula had also suffered grievous wounds during that time, most prominently from that bane of modern Hungarian history, the Treaty of Trianon.

A New Frontier - Border marker on the Hungarian-Romanian border

A New Frontier – Border marker on the Hungarian-Romanian border

A New Frontier – Stranded Along The Border
A large part of my years long procrastination in waiting to travel to Gyula, was due to one thing, its location. A mere four kilometers separated Gyula from the border with Romania. It had not always been this way, Gyula was left stranded on the frontiers of Hungary by geopolitical events over which it had no control. Only a hundred years before, Gyula had been economically connected with cities north, south and east of it which were part of the Kingdom of Hungary. Nagyvarad (Oradea, Romania) and Arad were approximately 70 kilometers away. Temesvar (Timisoara, Romania) was almost as close to Gyula as Szeged. Gyula had been part of this economic orbit until suddenly it was cut off. The Hungarian-Romanian border solidified on June 4, 1920 when the post-war peace treaty was signed at the Grand Trianon Palace in Versailles. The ramifications were felt most acutely seventeen hundred kilometers away in places such as Gyula, whose entire economic orientation was forced westwards.

Whereas before Trianon, Gyula had been within the economic sphere of five cities, after the treaty went into effect it was left close to only two, nearby Beckecsaba and Szeged. Furthermore, it was now at the very edge of Hungary, along an insecure frontier where dangerous grievances seethed. Railway connections were severed, vital markets suddenly cut off and centuries old commercial connections thrown into chaos. Traveling north, south or east meant crossing a hard border into less than friendly territory. The effects caused of this border realignment were vast. Gyula struggled to adapt. The interwar period also brought a blow in prestige to Gyula. The administrative seat of the country was moved to the faster growing Beckescsaba. Gyula was now becoming an afterthought. Something of which it has largely remained since that time.

Reflective qualities - Gyula Castle

Reflective qualities – Gyula Castle

Besieged From On High – A Castle Falls
A few minutes after entering Gyula we were approaching its famous castle. My first view of it was striking. A red brick Gothic era creation set against a winter sky airbrushed with thin clouds. A large pond, fringed by atmospherically placed weeping willows, fronted the castle entrance. The trees and castle reflected off the pond’s placid surface. Looking down at the pond was just as enchanting as looking up. The castle was transformed by its liquid reflection into a dreamlike image, a shimmering citadel spectacularly surreal. Historically, water had been more than just a part of the scenery in Gyula. What water still exists presently around the castle is for public enjoyment and aesthetic appeal rather than as a defensive barrier. The castle had once been surrounded by a large moat. This watery barrier was substantial, measuring 30 meters in length and 5 meters in depth.

In 1566 an Ottoman army, 30,000 strong, surrounded the castle. They outnumbered the defenders by a ratio of at least 10 to 1. The castle’s Hungarian commander, Laszlo Kerecsenyi, had been appointed by the Habsburgs due to his prior success in fighting the Turks. His martial prowess was beyond reproach, but he and the castle’s garrison faced insurmountable odds. When the Turks managed to take one of the castle’s towers the situation turned dire, as enemy fire now rained down on the defenders. It is a tribute to Kerecsenyi’s leadership skills that the defenders managed to hold out for 63 days, twice the average length of time the Turks usually needed to conduct a successful siege. Nonetheless, a surrender was negotiated in early September. This allowed the castle to remain largely intact. The surrender was much less accommodating to Kerecsenyi and his soldiers. Despite promises of safe passage, almost immediately after surrendering they were imprisoned or executed. The Turks then proceeded to occupy Gyula and the surrounding area for one-hundred and twenty-nine years.

Ottoman Traveler - Evliya Celebi statue in Eger Hungary

Ottoman Traveler – Evliya Celebi statue in Eger Hungary (Credit: Globetrotter19)

Venetian Gyula – A Momentary Image
One famous Turkish traveler left a fascinating anecdote of his impressions while visiting Gyula during the 17th century. In 1663-1664 the Ottoman polymath, diplomat and obsessive traveler Evilya Celebi visited Hungary. Celebi recorded for posterity his impressions of Gyula in a travelogue known as the Seyahatname (Book of Travel). He compared Gyula to Venice because of the marshy terrain, remarking that it was a strange sight to see residents traveling between houses, gardens and mills along watercourses. This anecdote is corroborated by engravings from that era. Celebi would be hard pressed to recognize anything from that time in Gyula today other than the castle. The mosques, madrasas and Turkish baths were all wiped out in the half century after his visit.

The castle outlasted Celebi and the Ottomans, which judging by the fact that it was the only one of its type left on the Great Hungarian Plain made it worthy of note. I could not help but feel sadness upon learning this fact. While I was glad that Gyula Castle had survived the Ottoman and counter-Ottoman onslaughts, I could not help but think of all the castles and fortifications in southern Hungary which had been ground to dust by decades of unending warfare. They had been erased from history never to return. It was unsettling to consider the eradication of this incredible heritage. For me, Gyula Castle represented all that had been lost, just as much as what still stands today. And while the castle still exists, the area around it has been transformed beyond all recognition. History moves on, Gyula Castle is all that remains.

Click here for: Besieged By Sterility – Gyula Castle: Tidying Up History (Part Three)


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)