The Things That Cannot Be Explained – Love & Humanity In The Debrecen Train Station

I have been asked many times what was the most impressive thing I have seen while traveling in Eastern Europe? Depending on the person questioning me I almost always give one of two answers. If I feel like the person has little knowledge of the region, I usually answer that the section of Budapest astride the Danube is a stunning sight. If I know the person has traveled in the region I will usually say the Old Town of Lviv. If I answer the former, my inquisitor usually says something to the effect that they will be sure to visit Budapest in the near future. If I answer the latter, it usually elicits a look of befuddlement. The conversation will then turn to more familiar subjects. My answers have always avoided what I really wanted to say. I keep the truth to myself for reasons of intimacy and vulnerability.

The most impressive sight I ever witnessed in Eastern Europe did not come in Budapest or Lviv. It did not come at any of the most heavily trafficked tourist sites or famous places. It cannot be found by using a guidebook or any other piece of tourist literature. No one has written a word about it, until now. I actually saw it in the eastern Hungarian city of Debrecen. And it had nothing do with that city’s Great Church, the Deri Museum’s famous collections or any of the sights along that most famous of streets, Piac Utca. The most impressive thing I ever saw in Eastern Europe took place on a random weekday in late October, inside the waiting area of the Debrecen Train Station, that old cavernous, concrete pile. If you go there, I seriously doubt you will get to see what I did. That is because the actual location can only be discovered in one place, the heart.

Just another ordinary day - the waiting hall at Debrecen Train Station

Just another ordinary day – the waiting hall at Debrecen Train Station

Just Another Ordinary Day – Watching People Watch The Clock
When a person feels vulnerable they become receptive to emotions they keep hidden away inside themselves. Suddenly something they see, hear or sense can trigger a wave of emotion unlike anything they have ever felt before. Some psychologists call this a significant emotional moment. This is not what I was expecting when I walked into the Debrecen train station on a mid-autumn day. The sun was out, the leaves were turning and the station was slumbering. The morning traffic had left long ago. Voices were barely above a murmur. I was half an hour early for the train to Lviv. I had arrived much too early as has so often been my habit. My logic was that only one train was headed for western Ukraine and I did not want to miss it. This left me time to hang out, perhaps grab something to eat and watch people watching the clock.

The atmosphere in the station was emotionless. One of those places where it seems like time has stopped. I began to wander around, first going from the ticket purchase counter to the magazine shop with countless Hungarian language titles for sale that I would unfathomable. Then it was on to look at the food, which from the meager selection on offer, looked as though communism had never left the building.  I did not find the idea of a soggy sandwich, lukewarm cup of coffee or day old pastry appetizing. By this time, I had made my way over to the waiting hall, a large high ceilinged room that smelled of mildew and disinfectant. The most notable feature of this area was a large communist era mural. It showed workers, both agrarian and industrial in a unity that never existed, except in the mind of state propagandists.

The Moment That Comes To Mean Everything – Life & Love
It was also in the waiting hall where I noticed the usual selection of popular novels and hard backed picture books for sale, cheap and easy reads that usually garner mild interest. One of those picture books caught my eye, but it was not located on the for sale table. Instead, it was in the hands of a father sitting with what I assumed to be his son. The two sat side by side on a hard backed bench while the father read aloud, the boy looked to be in his later teenage years. The boy looked at the photos attentively, studying each one closely as the father read to him slowly and carefully.

The boy was fascinated by each photo, staring at them with the curiosity of a small child. I noticed that he had Down’s Syndrome. How much he understood was open to question. From time to time, he would rear his head from one side to the other, than his father’s soft voice would call his curiosity back to the page. I wondered what he might have been thinking as he looked at all those majestic photos of Erdelyi Varak (Transylvania Castles), the book his father read to him with such loving care.  To see a father patiently and quietly taking the time to sit with his son and explain these photos made me want to explode into tears. There was magnificent beauty on those pages, but no castle could compare to what I witnessed in that moment. This was a reminder to me of what it means to be human.

On The Inside – A Sense Of Humanity
Amid that musty waiting hall, in an ugly old train station that looked to be several decades past its prime, I felt an incredible sense of love and humanity. It materialized before my very eyes. I suddenly realized how unexpectedly beautiful life can be. I understood what it really meant to love a child, to do everything you can for them no matter the situation. It took everything I had to hold back tears. Finally, after many minutes I pulled myself away from this scene. On the inside I was shaking, what I had seen disturbed and enlightened me in the most profound way possible. Since then it has never left my mind. It was the most impressive thing I have seen in Eastern Europe. Why was that? I really have no idea. There are certain things in life that cannot be explained, love is one of them.

A Load Of Crap – Incidental Conflicts: Calamity & Chaos On Bus #68 In Kispest (Part Two)

Public transport at night in a major city is normally something I try to avoid. Growing up in America I learned pretty quickly that public transportation in urban areas can be a haven for criminals especially as night closes in. There are a few notable exceptions such as New York City, parts of Chicago and Washington D.C., but by and large buses and subways are best avoided, especially if you do not know your way around. Thus I was quite shocked to discover on my first visit to Eastern Europe that inner cities are among the safest areas. I still recall walking down Unter den Linden in Berlin late one night marveling at happy, blissful people strolling down the street in perfect safety. Such a scene is the rule rather than the exception for almost all major cities in Eastern Europe.

The worst thing I saw in Riga and Prague were the entrances to strip clubs, in Warsaw it was a few drunks stumbling through a city park, while in Kiev and Lviv a bit of loud laughter and yelling. In Budapest – the city I have spent the most time visiting in the region – I can scarcely conjure an area I would not feel safe in late at night. Beggars and random drunks are a menace mostly to themselves. One would have to seek out violent criminal activity in the city to actually find it. Sure there are scams, pick pockets and small scale theft, but nothing to cause major worries. That certainly does not mean Budapest is free of depravity or bizarre behavior. I experienced such on a foggy, winter night while riding a city bus in Kispest, the city’s 19th district.

Bus 68 in Kispest - anything can happen

Bus 68 in Kispest – anything can happen (Credit Aron_son)

In The Mood – Breaking The Impenetrable Silence
On a particular gloomy, December evening I got on Bus #68 with my wife at the Koki terminal, the Kobanya-Kispest shopping mall. We were going home on the final portion of the bus route that ends at Vas Gereben utca. The ride would take about 15 minutes. We had covered this route many times before with nary a problem. Kispest is a working class area of the city. The inhabitants are best characterized by their reserve. Most bus rides are done in impenetrable silence. The passengers practice stoicism with frozen, unsmiling faces. They do not look happy nor sad, just alive, well sort of. The drivers usually offer the most excitement. Driving styles can vary widely or should I say wildly. Sometimes the trip turns into an amusement park ride, with the passenger’s swaying to and fro. A bad driver will slam on the brakes constantly, floor the gas pedal and cut corners at every opportunity. While few ever have an accident, they do plenty of damage to their passengers who are jerked in all manner of unnatural positions. The ability to stay upright is a necessary skill. Perhaps stoicism is the only way to deal with such a calamitous situation.

While boarding bus #68 that night we saw that it was only about a quarter full. We sat towards the back where few seats were taken. As the journey got underway we noticed only two other pairs of passengers in this part of the bus. The first was a father and son sitting in the very back row together. They were clean cut and dressed quite nicely. There was also a man and woman slumped in their seats. We were a couple of rows up from them. It took less than a minute to figure out they were going to be a problem. The man mumbled endlessly, while the woman was not even capable of that much. She would let out a whimpering moan from time to time. Their most notable trait was a body odor that soon overtook the entire back of the bus.The smell actually had a physical aspect, as it did not so much penetrate the nostrils as fill them. It was a force that literally pushed us from our seats and to the front of the bus. Soon, everyone on the bus was complaining about the foul smelling couple. The offending man decided to yell at no one in particular. The passengers were so repulsed that many began to openly voice their disgust.

“Who The Fuck Do You Think You Are? – From Raging To Revolting
The situation worsened when an even fouler odor came wafting through the bus. A noxious smell of human feces soon penetrated the entire bus. This sent the passengers from irritation to near rage. I have never witnessed a riot before, but the passengers suddenly seemed to be in the mood for one. I could feel anger rising. Passengers, both men and women, started yelling at the couple. When this did little good, their anger turned toward the bus driver. My wife translated the cacophony for me. The bus driver pleaded helplessness. He said that the people were homeless and mentally ill, there was nothing he could do except to call the police. They could meet the bus at the end of the route. This did little to assuage the passenger’s anger. They demanded something more be done immediately.

A man had been talking to the driver during the journey, they seemed to be acquaintances. He took it upon himself to go tell the offending couple to get off the bus. This began an argument that went nowhere. The man went back up to the front of the bus where he started talking with the driver again. About this time another man, who looked to be in his mid-20’s, began arguing with the man who had tried to tell the couple to leave the bus. The argument grew fiercer. My wife translated. It seemed that the younger man was upset that this guy had tried to throw the couple off the bus. He said to him, “who the fuck do you think you are?” He berated the man until the bus came to the next stop. Just then he turned to get out, but before exiting turned around and punched the guy just below the shoulder, knocking him backward.  That ended one sideshow. Meanwhile, the main drama continued in the back of the bus.

City Buses & Any Buses – Arriving At A Conclusion
Soon almost all the passengers had exited, but not before telling the driver a few choice words. Looking back, I noticed that the father and son who had boarded with us were still sitting in the same place as earlier. They were the only ones to somehow weather this storm. They sat expressionless, looking forward without a hint of emotion. The bus made it to the final stop. We got off as fast as we could. The police were just pulling up. The couple was still on the bus. That was the last we ever saw of them. Later that evening I began to ask myself if it had really happened. Of course it had. It was not dangerous or violent, just bizarre, depraved and sad, not so much frightening as it was disturbing. It definitely had an effect. Every time we rode bus #68 after that, we took a seat right at the front and tried never to look back. That memorable journey did not change my opinion of Budapest, but it did of city buses and for that matter, any buses.

Taken For A Ride – Incidental Conflicts: Experiences In Eastern European Bus Travel (Part One)

Of all the different modes of travel that can be used to get across Eastern Europe I have found that the bus is by far the most exhausting. On multiple occasions I have stumbled off a bus, half-crazed, vowing never to take another one again. Then a year later, I find myself wanting to visit some remote village or historic site with no train station anywhere nearby. I do not have access to a car. Thus, the bus is the only reasonable alternative. Within ten minutes of departure I am filled with regret and silently declare that this will be my last bus ride. Despite such misgivings, I must admit that a bus can give the traveler a unique perspective on a nation, its people and what life is like for those who rely on public transport. I am still not sure if that perspective is worth the pain and bother of riding the bus.

Looks can deceive - especially when traveling from Riga to Vilnius

Looks can deceive – especially when traveling from Riga to Vilnius (Credit: Bronislava69)

Ready For Rage – The Road To Vilnius
My problems with bus travel began on a trip between Riga, Latvia and Vilnius, Lithuania. The bus was run by the Eurolines Company that covers the continent. The bus was clean, relatively new and professionally operated. Unfortunately, the seats were small, leaving very limited space for passengers to maneuver. Dealing with an extremely tight space for three hours was difficult enough, but when I got up to use the bathroom I found out just how bad it could get. I had troubled keeping my balance as I lurched to the back of the bus while bumping into one passenger after another. The tiny bathroom provided an even worse dilemma. Urinating took an incredible amount of dexterity. I was wedged inside what could have passed for an oddly shaped crawl space. When I got back to my seat, the situation worsened, two “gentleman” (I use that term loosely) a couple of rows behind me decided they would converse in something akin to a loud roar. It was impossible to concentrate on reading or sleeping, this bus ride became a test of tolerance.

At least we were on a main highway that was in optimal condition. Even so, the nature of bus travel means that every crack or crevice in the road can be felt. Because there were no seatbelts I was constantly trying to steady myself. Otherwise I would have bounced right into the lap of the woman sitting beside me.  By the time the bus pulled into the main station at Vilnius I was in a near rage. My mood was worsened by the free for all that ensued when the luggage compartment was opened. I was nearly knocked over by aggressive passengers lunging for their suitcases. I only procured my own after a nasty struggle that ended with me in a fit of temper. With pleasurable disdain I knocked another man’s suitcase, to which he was attached, out of the way. To my surprise he did not seem fazed, must happen to him all the time. I was exhausted, enraged and ready to trade blows as I stomped off to my hostel. Welcome to Vilnius!

Here comes trouble - Marshrutka in Lviv

Here comes trouble – Marshrutka in Lviv (Credit: Buka)

Special Services – Roadside Pullouts & Ukrainian Frights
One thing bus travel is certainly good for is creating memorable experiences. A sterling example of this occurred on a trip I took through Transylvania. The bus from Brasov to Sibiu was down at the heel, with an overwhelming smell of smoke permeating the interior though there was no smoking. Of course everyone chain smoked before they got onboard. A flame orange interior and half dirty seat cushions only added to the charm. The driver made up for the aesthetics by providing a special service. When an old man tapped on his shoulder, the driver immediately pulled over to the side of the road. The old man climbed out of the bus and proceeded to urinate in a meadow as cars roared past on the highway. He then re-entered the bus, thanked the driver and we set off again. I sure was glad he did not need to do more than that.

The further east one goes the crazier bus travel seems to get. Everyone should experience a marshrutka once in their life. Marshrutkas are a famous type of minibus found throughout Ukraine and the former Soviet Union. A cross between a minivan and a bus, they can take the traveler almost anywhere, but only if the traveler survives the experience. I will never forget my first sighting of a marshrutka. I was walking down Svobody Prospekt in Lviv. Suddenly a yellow marshrutka, jam packed with people, their faces pressed up against the windows, rolled slowly by. They looked incredibly uncomfortable. Out of necessity I was unlucky enough to experience a marshutka on my second trip to western Ukraine

I had the distinct displeasure of being on an overcrowded marshrutka returning from the Polish border to Lviv on St. Nicholas’ Day when Ukrainians exchange Christmas gifts with one another. The bus was packed with passengers, their arms filled to bursting with purchases. They were standing against one another in the main aisle. A man leaned on me to the point where at times he was sitting on my shoulder. There was only one seat that did not have a person in it. This was because a woman had paid for two seats, one for herself and the other for two comforters she had purchased. The offending items, as well as the woman were eyed angrily, by those standing in the aisle.

Bus 68 in Kispest - anything can happen

Bus 68 in Kispest – anything can happen (Credit: Aron_son)

Memories That Last Forever – Bringing It All Back Home
The bus is bad enough, but sometimes the people on board lower expectations even further. In southern Hungary a bus ride from Pecs to the wine village of Villany turned into a one man show, when an inebriated Gypsy got on board and proceeded to serenade the passengers. Half laughed nervously, the other half ignored him. The bus driver finally grew so fed up with his behavior that he let him off between villages in the middle of nowhere. The last I saw of him, he was tottering beside an empty field. That incident pales in comparison to a ride I took one gloomy December night on bus #68 in Kispest, the 19th district in Budapest. A traumatic experience that was so utterly unforgettable that still today I shudder at the mere thought of it.

Coming soon: A Load Of Crap – Incidental Conflicts: Calamity & Chaos On Bus #68 In Kispest (Part Two)

 

Weird, But Not Menacing – Against Fear: Crime & Safety in Eastern Europe

It has happened so many times that by now I should be used to it. Someone finds out I have traveled to Europe and asks me where I went. When I mention Hungary or Slovakia or Ukraine or some other country in Eastern Europe they look at me surprised, then follows an awkward silence. They wait for me to say something, it becomes obvious that they know next to nothing about the nation I have mentioned, except that it used to be communist and therefore must be dangerous. An example of this occurred not long ago when I was discussing a European trip with someone whose only overseas travel had been to England and France. They would soon be headed to Greece and eventually hoped to visit Croatia. They asked me places that I might recommend. I said if you get to Croatia, check out Bosnia because it is beautiful, highly affordable and a place where east and west collide sometimes right before your eyes. A third person listening to this conversation turned a bit pale and said, “Bosnia sounds dangerous.” I tried to set their mind at ease, saying “it is fine, one of the safest places I have been.” Their expression belied a willful disbelief. Our conversation ended not long after that, but it reminded me of so many I have had since I first traveled to Eastern Europe.

Beliefs About Bosnia – Safety In Sarajevo
The long shadow cast by four and half decades of the Cold War and communism, the Iron Curtain and Soviet occupation, has left an impression in American minds that Eastern Europe is a land of totalitarian backwardness. The post-Cold War era has transformed that image for westerners into a region that is at best incomprehensible, at worst beset by lawlessness, with governments captured by Mafioso and business riven with bandit capitalism. Like any stereotype, such a reputation contains elements of the truth. For instance, Bosnia is not dangerous today, but was deadly during the 1990’s Yugoslav Wars. Ukraine has an ongoing war in its southeastern part, but the rest of the country – a land mass larger than France – is largely peaceful. Such facts do little to dissuade prejudice and keep many Americans away from the region.

Street sign in Sarajevo - note the bullet holes below the sign

Street sign in Sarajevo – note the bullet holes below the sign

I often get the sense that people believe that as soon as someone arrives in Belgrade or Bratislava they will be set upon by armed thugs, scam artists and corrupt police demanding bribes. The reality is much different. They are much more likely to be left to their own devices. Let’s be honest, a sense of helplessness is likely to cause more travelers to avoid the region than local crime. A city such as Sarajevo stands out for the difference between expectations and reality when it comes to safety. It was ground zero for urban warfare during the Yugoslav Wars. The city was besieged for 1,425 days, as Serbian forces attempted to shell the city into submission. Fifteen years later I visited Sarajevo and have rarely felt safer in a city. Nothing about it felt threatening. Underneath sunny skies, looking up at the hills surrounding the city, it was difficult for me to imagine the horrors that Sarajevo had suffered in the not so distant past. The scenes of Bosnians running for their lives as they struggled to so much as cross a street had been beamed into homes around the world on nightly newscasts during the mid-1990s.

Sarajevo - a city now at peace

Sarajevo – a city now at peace (Credit: Julian Nitzsche)

Now there were young people sitting in outdoor cafes socializing and sipping coffee.  All the main tourist areas were in excellent condition, war could not have been any further from this scene. It was only when I started going down side streets and back alleys that damage from the war became highly visible. Building after building was pockmarked with bullet holes. This had once been a war zone, now it was benign. Since my visit, Sarajevo has continued to exist in a relatively docile state. According to one major crime index Sarajevo is safer than Paris, Brussels, Rome and Dublin. Think about that for a moment, a city that was at the heart of the deadliest conflict in post-World War II Europe a decade and a half ago is now safer for both its citizens and tourists than many wealthy Western European capital cities. When I asked the proprietor at my hotel if the city was safe, he replied “Sarajevo is perfectly safe for tourists.” From what I experienced, he could not have been more correct.

Street in the 8th District (Joszefvaros) of Budapest

Looks safe to me – street in the 8th District (Joszefvaros) of Budapest
(Credit: Czimmy)

Perception & Reality – The Safety Of City Centers
In the 2016 Crime Index, Kharkiv in the far eastern portion of Ukraine was the most unsafe city in Eastern Europe. There were still twelve cities above it though. All of these were in Western Europe or Great Britain. I have never been in Kharkiv, but I have been to Kiev. The most worrisome thing in the capital of Ukraine was a corrupt police force looking to check documents and possibly extract bribes. Even a relatively unsafe Eastern European city has to be put in perspective. Tourists are unlikely to ever go into the most dangerous areas of these cities. The majority of Eastern European cities have very safe city centers. The crime is usually concentrated in outer districts. This is the complete opposite of the United States where inner cities are usually outposts of crime that can sometimes turn deadly, especially after the sun goes down. It is a strange sensation for an American to be wandering around the center of a city such as Budapest late at night not giving much of a thought to personal safety.

One of the supposedly more “unsafe” areas in Budapest is the 8th District, Joszefvaros. In some areas it does look rougher around the edges than other parts of the city, but I have been in the district more than twenty times and have never had a problem there. Rougher in this area of Budapest means the streets are grimier, there are more odd characters begging for cigarettes and sleeping on the streets. It feels weird, but not menacing. The phrase “weird, but not menacing” perhaps sums up the real fear for those Americans who do not visit Eastern Europe. The region is weird for many people because they know next to nothing about it. It is also filled with nationalities speaking strange languages and who have a much different history from the west. Eastern Europe may not have a reputation for refinement and wealth, but it should also not have a reputation for crime. Western Europe is where that problem largely resides.

 

 

“Just Go” – Journey To Herkulesfurdo (Baile Herculane): A Picture Is Worth Thousands Of Miles

Whenever the subject of my travels to Eastern Europe comes up in conversation, the person I am talking with almost always asks me “How did you ever get there?” My answer usually involves explaining my lifelong interest in the region. Every once in a while, I will add by saying, “It is real easy. All you have to do is book everything online and just go.” While they knowingly nod at the first part, I can see fear in their eyes when I say “just go.” In that moment, I am pretty sure that they will never “just go.” Perhaps they do not trust my judgment, though I have survived all of my trips. Sometimes they look at me like I am crazy. I will admit to making the trip sound way too easy. Yet the truth of the matter: it is that easy.

In front of the train station in Herkulesfurdo, 1911

In front of the train station in Herkulesfurdo, 1911

Magic Act – A Woman In Peasant Dress With A Smile On Her Face
I thought of this the other night while sitting in front of my laptop looking through old photos on the website, Fortepan.hu. Fortepan.hu contains almost 80,000 photographs from Hungary between 1900 -1990 that have been uploaded by anyone who would like to share their photos for the sake of posterity. It is a treasure trove of daily life during a time of great change in the country. One of the photos that captured my imagination was taken in the Banat region (Bansag in Hungarian). It shows a woman in peasant dress with a smile on her face. She is leaning on an umbrella while standing outside a train station in the town of Herkulesfurdo. Both the photo and the town’s name lodged in my consciousness. I suddenly wanted to go there. Go to the exact same place 106 years later and snap a photo in the exact same spot. I was seized by a thought, what if someone looking at this photo felt the same inspiration that I did. And what if that person had never been to Eastern Europe before, but now felt an irresistible urge to travel to a place they would otherwise never visit. What if they decided to “just go.” All it would take is some money, a sense of adventure and force of will.

Let us say that our hypothetical traveler has a passport, money and the inclination to make this trip as soon as possible. They would first book a flight out of Denver, switch planes in Washington and Istanbul before landing in Bucharest. Leaving at 3:45 p.m. (15:45) on March 8th they would arrive in the Romanian capital at 8:45 p.m. (20:45) on March 9th, after nineteen and a half hours in transit. Deprived of sleep, weary from watching one too many melodramatic movies and with their stomach rumbling after consuming a pasta dish swimming in an unknown sauce, our traveler would overnight in Bucharest. A taxi would take them at a considerable markup to an accommodation close to the main train station. They would spend the night with the odd sensation that they were still airborne, as their bed seems to be moving.

Bucharest North Railway Station - the largest in Romania

Bucharest North Railway Station – the largest in Romania (Credit: Daniel Caluian)

Points Of No Return – Urchin Urgings
The next morning our traveler makes their way to the train station. They would be shocked by what they saw. Once a stop on the fabled Orient Express line, the Bucharest North Railway Station (Bucuresti Gara de Nord) has now substituted seediness for grandeur. It is filled with strange characters, illegal cab drivers, petty thieves, corrupt and rather harmless hangers on.  What would an adventure be without a bit of mystery, intrigue and danger from these station urchins? Our traveler finds the ticket window and discovers that no one speaks a word of English. Herkulesfurdo elicits puzzled looks from the female ticket seller. That is the Hungarian name for the town. Using it, rather than the town’s Romanian name could result in dirty looks.

In desperation the magical words “Baile Herculane” are uttered. A ticket is forthcoming. The train leaves at 10:45 a.m. It is a rather uneventful and rickety six hour ride across the Wallachian Plain. Fallow fields stretch out in every direction, waiting for spring to begin in earnest. Plumes of dust fill the air, clouding the horizon. Periodically this scene is broken by oil derricks, hinting at the black gold just beneath the fertile soil. The most notable city along the route is Craiova, one of those places that evoke Ceaucescu era Romania. A place that is famous for making cars, corruption and little else.

There is always a point on any impulsive trip when a traveler wonders if they made the right decision, when the self-doubt begins to feel overwhelming. The unfamiliar magnifies loneliness, fear succumbs to depression. Ignorance of language, customs and culture seems all consuming. This is the moment that proves decisive. Our traveler is too far gone, there is no turning back. At this point what else can they do? And as the afternoon goes on they become more comfortable with the thought. Perhaps this has to do with the striking scenery that comes into view. The train snakes its way into the Cerna valley. Lush forests run up the hillsides. Tucked into this inviting landscape is the final destination, Baile Herculane or Herkulesfurdo. The name hardly matters at this point. Our traveler disembarks at a station that makes them believe it is forever 1900 there.

Point of arrival - Băile Herculane (Herkulefurdo) Train Station

Point of arrival – Băile Herculane (Herkulefurdo) Train Station (Credit: stancosty)

The Search That Never Ends
Our traveler makes their way through the station. Just outside the entrance they look at a printed copy of the photo which brought them this far. They try to reimagine that moment. What was that lady smiling at, a comment, a friend or something else? Why was she holding an umbrella? Where was she going? Where had she been? These were among the many mysteries that would never be answered. Perhaps the more interesting question was why did our traveler care so much? Why had they followed this photo thousands of miles to a remote corner of southwestern Romania? They will probably never know any of the answers to those questions. And that is quite wonderful. Because it will keep them searching and keep them traveling to places like Herkulesfurdo. Places they could have scarcely imagined before they decided to “just go.”

 

Villages Peopled By The Imagination – A Train Ride Between Gyor & Sarvar

I have always had a fondness for the obscure. The first time I became aware of this was while reading a twenty-four hundred page history (do not ask why) of the American Civil War. I enjoyed learning about each of the major campaigns, but I became fixated on the battles and skirmishes of the New Mexico campaign, an obscure theater of the war that I had never known about before. Perhaps this fondness for the obscure is what led to my interest in Eastern Europe. I am bored to death by Paris, London or Tuscany, but the idea of Budapest, Krakow and Kiev thrills me to no end. Now that I have been able to make many trips to the region, I find myself gravitating more and more towards the obscure. Mention Hungary to me and I am dreaming of the Nyirseg in the nation’s eastern extremity. Transylvania stimulates thoughts of Szekelyland. For some mysterious reason the next time I visit Ukraine, Volyhnia is at the top of my list, not for any compelling reason other than the fact that few go into this forested northwestern corner of the country. And so it goes on, give me Szekszard instead of Szeged, Kaunas over Vilnius and Novi Sad over Nis.

Rolling into obscurity

Rolling into obscurity

An Unknown Force – A Passion For Obscurity
One of the best ways I have found to fulfill my fetish for the obscure is to take a regional train through the countryside. These trains tend to stop at smaller sidings, offering a window into crumbling towns and tiny villages that dot the landscape. Places that the upwardly mobile escaped from long ago, but are still somehow hanging on despite the effects of urbanization causing long term demographic decline. In Eastern Europe such places are sometimes foreshadowed by an abandoned collective farm that looks like it lost its raison d’etre long before the Iron Curtain fell. It is in Hungary where I have been able to experience these rural settings most evocatively. These are the kind of places that no one other than their inhabitants will ever remember, but for some strange reason I am the only foreigner unlikely to ever forget them either. These proverbial wide spots in the road drift into the consciousness, hide there and then resurface, triggered by an unknown force.

On an uneventful train trip in Hungary during the early spring I was able to spy several of these small villages from a window seat. I was traveling on a rattle trap of a local train from the city of Gyor in western Hungary to Sarvar. The excursion was for one reason only, to visit Sarvar Castle. The castle had been one of the main homes for the dreaded “Blood Countess”, Elizabeth Bathory. The horror which had occurred in the castle during the late 16th and early 17th centuries had kept me reading wide-eyed for many evenings prior to my trip. It occupied my imagination to the point that on the morning I boarded the train in Gyor, I had an ominous sense of dread, a nervous anticipation of what I might discover later that day in Sarvar. This was the product of an overactive imagination searching for drama.

Mihalyhaza Train Station

Mihalyhaza Train Station

The Land Of Just Getting By – A World That Lies Fallow
As the train rolled out of Gyor and into the countryside, the morning fog was slowly burning off. The train was nowhere near even half full. Being an American, I immediately thought of how nice it would be to have trains such as this rolling through obscure regions in the Midwest or Great Plains. The United States once had such trains, seventy years ago. Hungary was not seventy years behind the United States, but this train felt like a throwback to the days of communism. It was a purely mediocre mode of transport replete with cracked leather seats, a bare bones bathroom with a hand soap dispenser parceling out a grainy substance that looked like half bleached sand. Running water was little more than a leaky faucet. The windows on the train looked like they had ossified themselves shut. Other than that, it was a pleasant ride through a Europe few tourists would ever see. The trees were not quite in bloom, the fields still lay fallow, but greenery was starting to show. This was a land on the verge of rebirth, unlike the towns which inhabited it.

The train slowed and made intermittent stops. The first few towns were relatively prosperous due to their proximity to Gyor. The further out from Gyor, the more a village could best be defined as a place “where people live.” There was Szerecseny, Gecse-Gyormat, Vasvar, Mezolak and Mihalyhaza. There were places with unusual, typically incomprehensible Hungarian names such as Kemenesmihalyfa and Ostffyasszonyfa. Here was a world few would ever see except for the local inhabitants. There was no breathtaking beauty, only pleasant pastoralism. Small sized, frayed houses in many of the villages were a reminder that the economy had long since moved elsewhere. A question which I had no way to answer kept coming to mind, “What do people do here?” From the looks of it, they either had the career choice of staying inside or farming, but there were no farmers in the fields. There was land everywhere, but where were the people who worked it. Hidden behind walls, windows and curtains was the answer to that mystery. This was the land of just getting by. There was no dire poverty, only a slow steady decline into obsolescence.

Rural Hungary - a window into rural decline

Rural Hungary – a window into rural decline (Credit: Marcel Bauer)

Western Hungary In My Heart – A Place For Imagination
These villages for me were the height of obscurity. Places no one really cared about or was even conscious of. Because of that I wanted to know everything about them. I could only imagine what history was hidden inside all those houses, personal rather than national, love affairs and loneliness, homemade feasts of food and alcohol, a slow life and an even slower death. These were places with too much past and hardly any future. At least that is what I wanted to imagine. To know the truth would have been illuminating and enthralling, but then these villages, this train line and that forgotten land would have no longer been obscure to me. I would then almost certainly lose interest, move on to another place down the line. It was best just to know them for a few fleeting minutes. That way they could stay forever obscure and I could keep a small slice of Western Hungary in my heart.

Pleasure Palaces Of Empire – Taking A Bath: Roman, Ottoman & Austro-Hungarian Baths In Budapest

The Roman, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires were very different entities. On the surface they seem to have little in common, besides the fact that all three eventually collapsed. It is difficult to find clear connections among the three. They were separated by time, hundreds and even thousands of years apart. They were also largely separated by space. The Roman world was centered largely on the Mediterranean Sea, the Ottomans around the near east, the Austro-Hungarians in east-central Europe.

Each of these empires also radiated outward and at certain points managed to overlap, if not in the same historical time period, than in the same geographic location centuries apart. One of the best places to see this is in Budapest. It was here that the Romans built a city on the western side of the Danube called Aquincum – in today’s Obuda area – to guard their northern frontier. A millennium and a half later the Ottoman Turks occupied and then recreated Buda in their image. Still later, Austria-Hungary oversaw the expansion of the city into a political, industrial and cultural powerhouse. Quite miraculously, there is still one commonality among all these empires to be found in the city today, baths.

The Great Public Bath at Aquincum

The Great Public Bath at Aquincum (Credit : Bjoertvedt)

From Romans To Ottomans – Bathing In Buda
The Romans were great lovers of baths. Much of their social life took place at imperial bath complexes known as thermae. These were constructed in cities throughout the empire. A thermae in Aquincum can still be seen today as part of the excavated ruins. In addition to thermaes there were private bathing facilities called balneum. Aquincum also has one of these, which was part of a villa that belonged to a wealthy citizen. Such ruins offer the first window into baths and bathing culture in the land which would one day become Hungary. The warm springs that simmer beneath the surface of Budapest have been exploited by each empire that occupied the area since antiquity. They are the city’s greatest natural resource, numbering over 120 in Buda alone. Though the Roman baths lost their purpose not long after the empire fell, the ones built by the Ottoman Turks many centuries later have had a much different destiny.

One of the very few sites left over from the Ottoman occupation are the baths which were constructed in the 1560’s and 1570’s. Though bathing culture had come down to them through the Byzantines (Eastern Roman Empire), the Ottoman Turkish bath facilities were unique in that they were also part of religious customs, specifically ablutions. Thus their baths were built adjacent to mosques. The mosques in Buda have long since disappeared, but the baths have managed to survive. On the west side of the Danube, close to Elizabeth Bridge, stands the unique domed structure of the Rudas Baths. It looks like something that might be found tucked away in a quiet corner of Constantinople. Yet these baths were fundamentally different from the ones in the Ottoman capital city. Whereas a traditional Turkish bath, known as a Hamam, consisted of three rooms, one each for hot and cold soaking, plus a large central room that was filled with steam.

Inside the Kiraly Thermal Bath

Inside the Kiraly Thermal Bath (Credit: Báthory Gábor)

In Ottoman Buda, the bath’s central space consisted of several pools. Rather than being filled with steam it was used as a bath. What is today the Kiraly Thermal Bath was completed under the administration of Pasha Sokoli Mustapha, the Ottoman governor who oversaw the construction of several Turkish baths in Buda. Over four hundred years later the architecture is pretty much unchanged. The outer walls of the bath are square, in the large room they enclose an octagonal chamber topped with a dome which allows in shafts of light. The light projects through the glass, adding an exotic element to the splashing and soaking that goes on inside. Modern bathers relax in the same setting that Ottoman officials once did. The Ottomans and almost all of their architecture have disappeared from Hungary, but their presence can be felt inside Kiraly Thermal Bath. Other Ottoman Turkish baths in Budapest include the Rac and Rudas Baths. These marvels of architecture are also places where Hungarians and tourists rub shoulders while soaking in the history.

Drilling Deep – Szechenyi Surfaces
Modern Budapest bathing culture began in the 19th century as scientific innovation brought thermal waters to the surface in places the Romans and Ottomans could only have dreamed about. With the industrial revolution, drilling technology improved at an incredible rate. Drillers were able to plume formerly unfathomable depths beneath the city. One of the first was a Hungarian engineer by the name of Vilmos Zsigmondy who spent ten years drilling a well that was nearly a thousand meters deep in the area that is now a pond in the City Park (Varosliget). This well provided thermal waters to the Artesian Bath or “old Szechenyi Bath” as it is sometimes called. The Artesian Bath has long since disappeared, but its famous replacement is nearby.

From a touristic point of view, bath and spa culture in Budapest is dominated by the splendid neo-Baroque Szechenyi furdo (Szechenyi thermal bath). Completed in 1913, the Szechenyi takes bathing to a whole new level. It is a world away from the quasi-Oriental aesthetic and sultry exoticism of the Ottoman baths. The Szechenyi has a fin de siècle refinement infused with a tasteful modernization that includes state of the art deck pools, whirlpools and even wave pools. As one of the largest bath complexes in Europe its hosts tens of thousands of visitors each year, many of whom snap photos of elderly men enjoying a soak while playing a game of chess. The magnificence that was Austria-Hungary and the golden age of Budapest permeate Szechenyi still today.

The splendor of Szechenyi Thermal Bath in Budapest

The splendor of Szechenyi Thermal Bath in Budapest

Impossible To Resist – Three Empires That Took The Waters
For all the physical architecture that the Romans, Ottomans and Austro-Hungarians imposed on the cityscapes of Aquincum, Buda and Budapest it is doubtful that any of these empires suspected that baths would be among their most lasting contributions. As different as each empire was, they all found the thermal waters of the area impossible to resist. These waters were harnessed to great effect in baths that can still be visited today. Whether in ruins or modernized, they evoke the grandeur and charm of an imperial golden age’s true pleasure palaces of empire.

 

 

An Age That Lives Forever – The Jakovali Hassan Pasha Mosque In Pecs (Ottoman Hungary #3)

The Mosque of Geza Kasim Pasha seems to have it all, a central location in Pecs’ Szechenyi ter at one of the highest points in the Belvaros (inner city), an original structure that is largely intact with a fascinating history of conflict and conservation. One thing it does not have is a minaret. Two and a half centuries ago it was pulled down. I would never have noticed this omission if not for a second visit to Pecs. After arriving at the train station on a cold and rainy spring day I had to walk through an intermittent downpour to my accommodation southwest of the city center. There are few things worse than dragging a suitcase through puddles while being pelted by raindrops. I clung to the sidewalk along Rakoczi utca while passing by shops, banks, small scale residences and apartments. Quickening my pace I lamented the weather, my baggage and a strange adherence to an odd personal superstition that does not allow me to use umbrellas.

I kept my head down for long stretches, as if not looking up would somehow keep me dry. This trek would have been an altogether miserable one if not for a startling sight that caused me to pause. On the south side of the street, sandwiched between an ochre colored building that housed a medical clinic and a cream colored four story structure, was a mosque. A minaret pierced the sky just behind it. It is hard to imagine a stranger setting for a mosque. Centuries of development had remade Rakoczi utca time and again, but the Jakovali Hassan Pasha Mosque was still standing. The mosque looked to be smaller than its counterpart in  Szechenyi ter, but it did have the characteristic minaret from where in the 16th and 17th centuries a muezzin sounded the call to prayer five times each day. I made a mental note to visit the mosque before I left Pecs.

Jakovali Hassan Pasha Mosque in Pecs

Side by side – Jakovali Hassan Pasha Mosque in Pecs (Credit: Peter Lóránd)

“Caravans of camels laden with the merchandise” – Ottoman Pecs
It is rare that a person comes into contact with another world, but seeing the Jakovali Hassan Pasha Mosque made the distant past suddenly seem close at hand. The building transcended space and time, acting as a portal to Ottoman Hungary. It made me wonder just what Pecs was like during the Turkish occupation. The remains of that time lie scattered in and around the city center offering a few disparate clues, two mosques and a Muslim burial chapel hinted at the role of Islam in Ottoman society. Not long after the Bishop of Pecs handed over the keys to the city in 1543, Ottoman administrators ordered that most of the Christian churches be converted into mosques. The two still standing in present-day Pecs were subsequently converted back to churches soon after the Habsburg conquest. The idea was to eradicate the physical, spiritual and cultural symbols of Ottoman rule. This had been done to the point where a curious visitor has no other recourse but to rely on historical information to gain any idea of what the Ottoman period in Pecs that lasted from 1543-1686 had actually been like.

Prior to the mid-16th century Pecs had been a town organized by its streets. The Ottoman system was fundamentally different, arranging towns around neighborhoods. The Muslim administrators, soldiers and settlers took over the center as well as the area within the city walls. Very few Muslims lived outside the walls. The exceptions were those who lived near the gates that led to roads out of the city towards Buda, Szigetvar and other important cities. The Christian population was pushed into the suburbs. Each of their neighborhoods was centered on a specific congregation with a church in the center. Christians were still free to practice their religion. The Ottomans brought in their own emigrants from the northern Balkans. These settlers transformed the streets, roofing them over and selling goods from stalls.

The inner part of the city center underwent radical change. What is today the heart of Pecs, Szechenyi ter, had been a marketplace prior to Ottoman rule. It was now turned into a bazaar. One historical account described a scene with “caravans of camels laden with the merchandise from India and the Yemen.”  The orient had arrived in Hungary. The Muslim emigrants were usually much poorer than the Christian inhabitants. They lived in ramshackle structures of haphazard construction and made their living trading an assortment of goods. The ephemeral quality of their humble homes and market stalls is one of the main reasons why Pecs and the rest of Hungary have so few remnants of the Ottoman presence.

Prayer hall of Jakovali Hassan Pasha Mosque

Prayer hall of Jakovali Hassan Pasha Mosque (Credit: Zairon)

From Conversion To Transformation – Bringing In The Balkans
The most radical transformation of Pecs was in the religious sphere. The centrality of Islam was on full display in the city. Charitable foundations supported educational institutions. There were five madrasah (Islamic religious schools) and at least twice as many mektebs (elementary schools).  Pecs was the major Muslim educational center in southern Hungary. Mosques matched schools in both number and importance.  In 1663 the Ottoman traveler and scribe Evliya Celebi visited Pecs. His work lists seven large mosques and ten small ones. Several of these had been converted from existing Christian churches. The city’s cathedral was converted to a mosque named after Sultan Suleiman who had led the conquest. Another one, the mosque of Memi Pasha, was built on the site of a medieval Franciscan monastery. The former monastery provided the scaffolding around which the mosque was built.

Both of these would eventually disappear, but the Jakovali Hassan Pasha Mosque which I discovered on that rainy day managed to survive. Its namesake was the great-grandson of Memi Pasha who had established both a mosque and Turkish bath in Pecs. Hassan ordered his mosque built right next to that of his illustrious ancestor. Visiting the mosque brought me as close physically as one can now get to the era of Ottoman Hungary. The exterior of the building is rather simple in design, square shaped, lacking decoration, with two stone bordered windows close to ground level and a round arched window further up. Atop the structure sits a round dome. From the street side this dome hides much of the minaret on the mosque’s southwestern corner. The exit door onto the minaret’s balcony faces mecca.

The lone minaret in Pecs

The lone minaret in Pecs – Jakovali Hassan Pasha Mosque (Credit: Alesha)

The Essence Of An Era – A Deeply Spirtual Place
Inside I saw what was left of the original interior that had escaped the mosque’s conversion to a Christian chapel. It had been restored back to an approximation of its former glory in the 1960’s. There were painted verses from the Koran, floral decoration and three stalactite arches. It was a deeply spiritual place that seemed far removed from the busy street just outside its walls. I felt a pervasive stillness, a quiet reverence. This was a space that transcended the present, transporting me to an eternal past, the essence of an age that in this space could live on forever. The past was no longer just a part of history, it was also alive. I could feel it within these walls. I could feel it within me.

A Miracle of History – Fusion of Faith: The Mosque of Pasha Gazi Kasim In Pecs (Ottoman Hungary #2)

One of the more remarkable experiences of my Eastern European travels came in Pecs, the second largest city in southern Hungary. On an early spring Sunday afternoon I disembarked at the eclectic masterpiece which has acted as the city’s railway station since 1900. My objective was an overnight stay in the city’s Belvaros (inner city). It was early afternoon and the wind was blowing hard. I walked up the Jokai Mor utca (Mor Jokai Street) dragging my luggage behind me while trying to shield my eyes from swirls of dust. My only knowledge of the city was what little I had read. Pecs was known for its jewel box of a Belvaros, a magnificent cathedral and an early Christian Necropolis that had been designated a Unesco World Heritage site. The mid-sized city certainly sounded like a nice stopover to break up a train trip between Sarajevo and Budapest. At least that is what I thought until I entered Szechenyi ter (Szechenyi square). My expectations were immediately exceeded.

It was right then and there that the magic of Pecs materialized before my very eyes. To my right was the baroque façade of Saint Sebastian’s Church, in front of which stood the pyrogranite, Art Nouveau Zsolnay Well. Further up was the neo-baroque Town Hall with its grand tower surging into a clear blue sky. Next I saw the colorful confectionary façade of the Nandor Hotel. Further up there was a brass statue of the great Hungarian leader Janos Hunyadi on horseback, adding an element of glorious pageantry. Could this really be just a provincial city, there was something positively royal about it. The square slanted upward as it proceeded to the north where a large column of the Holy Trinity was situated. Behind it was the most stunning sight of all, at the highest point of the square stood what had formerly been the Mosque of Pasha Gazi Kasim and now is the Downtown Candlemas Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The structure was positively magnetic to the eyes. It looked like it had come from another world and truth be told it had.

Mosque of Pasha Gazi Kasim looking northward from the center of Szechenyi ter

Mosque of Pasha Gazi Kasim looking northward from the center of Szechenyi ter (Credit: Derzsi Elekes Andor)

If You Build It, They Will Come – The Conquest Of The Conquerors
Most miracles are created by the imagination and based on a belief system, but there are other miracles that can be seen and touched, these are the miracles of history. The fact that there is anything left of the Mosque of Pasha Gazi Kasim can rightly be considered a miracle of history. Following the Ottoman Turkish conquest of Pecs, Pasha (Governor) Gazi Kasim ordered the building of the mosque. It took four years to construct and used stones from what had been the Gothic Saint Bartholomew Church which had stood on the city’s main square.

As impressive as the structure looks today, it was even more stunning during the era of Ottoman rule. The famous Ottoman traveler and literary scribe Evilya Celebi commented on the majestic view of the mosque. He compared its size and grandeur to the mosque of Sultan Selim in Istanbul. Celebi was lucky to visit Pecs right before Turkish rule in Hungary suffered a series of devastating setbacks.

The threats to the mosque’s existence began even before the Turks were forced out of Pecs. In 1664 an army under the command of nobleman Miklos Zrinyi besieged and then occupied Pecs. They carried out acts of wanton destruction, pillaging and burning for several days. Yet the Mosque of Pasha Qasim was one of three in the city that survived this rampage. A little over two decades later the Turks were cast out of the city for good. They burnt much of the city, but left the mosque untouched before the conquering Habsburg Army entered Pecs on October 14, 1686. After the Habsburgs took control they held a Thanksgiving dinner inside the mosque to celebrate their conquest. Their initial plan for the city, as well as the mosque, was to destroy it. The Habsburg court in Vienna changed its mind after deciding they needed Pecs to act as a rival to nearby Ottoman held Szigetvar.

Flowers in Szechenyi ter with Saint Sebastian's Church in the backgrounnd

Flowers in Szechenyi ter with Saint Sebastian’s Church in the backgrounnd

Conversions – Spiritual & Physical
The peace and prosperity that Habsburg rule brought to southern Hungary meant something quite different for the mosque. It would survive, but undergo a major transformation in the process. Six years after the Habsburg conquest it was converted into a church. The mosque’s minaret was struck by lightning in the 18th century, before finally being pulled down by the Jesuits in 1766. Then in the 19th century the interior was rebuilt. After 1868 only Christian worship services could be held there. This spiritual conversion was done in parallel with an overhaul of the interior. Such features as the containers for holy water that today stand beside the vestries were taken from the Turkish baths which were once adjacent to the mosque.

A few Islamic details did escape the transformation, such as verses of poetry from the Koran that can still be seen on the interior walls. The exterior, with the exception of the minaret, stayed almost exactly the same as it looked during Ottoman rule. The building that stands today is still the most impressive example of Turkish architecture in Hungary. It consists of an octagonal drum crowned with a dome. On top of the dome is a crescent moon, symbol of Islam, connected to a Christian cross. The duality of the symbolism is not lost on the historically minded viewer.

Interior of the Mosque of Pasha Gazi Kasim/Downtown Candlemas Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Interior of the Mosque of Pasha Gazi Kasim/Downtown Candlemas Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Credit: Jan Mehlich)

The Will To Change – Pattern Of The Past
I was lucky enough to be one of those viewers on that beautiful sunlit, spring day. Walking up to and then around the church/mosque I felt as though I were in an outdoor museum studying an artifact from the past that had been shaped by centuries of spiritual history. A steady succession of beliefs had produced this synthesis of Christian and Islamic sacred architecture, fused together as one now, but still with distinct patterns of the past, imposed one atop another. Here was a lasting remnant of how the world was built, from foundations and fusions, changes and challenges. The will to create and restore, defeating the will to destroy.  Only a miracle of history could have created such a structure.

 

The Father Of Roses In Buda – Afterlife: The Tomb Of Gul Baba (Ottoman Hungary #1)

You have to really take your turban off to Gul Baba. For a man who spent only a small part of his life in Buda he sure has staying power there. For nearly five centuries his tomb has retained a place among the city’s attractions. Despite sweeping changes in empires, rulers, religions and ideologies the tomb remains. Known as “The Father of Roses”, legend has it that Gul Baba was the first to introduce roses to the area. Not by coincidence the tomb is located in the 2nd District (Roszadomb – Hill of Roses) about a thousand feet west of the Danube in Buda. It is one of a very select few Ottoman Turkish sites left in Buda today.

The cobbled way up Gul Baba utca in Rozsadomb

The cobbled way up Gul Baba utca in Rozsadomb (Credit: Dguendel)

Getting to the site requires a steep climb up the cobbled, broken Gul Baba utca followed by a short walk along Turban utca. Suddenly and quite improbably the visitor arrives at the tomb. To find the shrine of an Ottoman Bektshi Dervish tucked within the quiet back streets of the Hungarian capital is surprising to say the least. On a visit to the tomb, I got the distinct feeling that I was in Anatolia rather than Eastern Europe. The Orient felt very near. Such a fascinating slice of eastern exotica left me with questions. Just who was Gul Baba and why does he still have a presence in a city that is two thousand kilometers from his birthplace? From what I discovered Gul Baba exerted a powerful spiritual influence. Much the same effect can be felt by those who visit his tomb today.

A Sultan’s Spiritual Sage – The Rise Of Gul Baba
Gul Baba died in the Carpathian Basin, but his life began far, far away on a plain in northern Anatolia. He was born sometime in the late 15th century at the fortified trading city of Merzifon. He would eventually make his way to the Ottoman capital of Istanbul where he would come to the attention of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. Legend has it that Suleiman came upon him while hunting. At the time Gul Baba was tending and praying for roses he had planted. He certainly made a lasting impression on the Sultan as he had on many others. Gul Baba was a member of an Islamic movement known as the Bektashi dervish order that flourished throughout the Ottoman Empire. They practiced Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam. In the Bektashi order, baba denotes an experienced spiritual guide. A baba ranks above a dervish and one below the highest rank in the order. The order was closely affiliated with the Sultan’s Janissary corps, elite infantrymen who were the heart and soul of the Ottoman war machine.

Statue of Gul Baba outside his tomb in Buda

Statue of Gul Baba outside his tomb in Buda (Credit: Thaler)

Gul Baba became a close companion of Suleiman, offering him spiritual guidance during his many military campaigns. He was also a warrior, known to carry a large wooden sword in his hand during battle. He was with Suleiman when the Ottoman Turks occupied Buda. Gul Baba was going to start a religious center in the city, but he suddenly died. The death of Gul Baba, like so much of his life, is shrouded in mystery and conjecture. Two possible dates are given for his death. The first, August 21, 1541, also happens to be the final day of the siege of Buda, when the Habsburg army was finally defeated after three and half months. Gul Baba may have perished in the fighting below the city walls. The second and more common date of death given is ten days later on September 1st. In this case Gul Baba is said to have collapsed and died after giving the first prayer during a Muslim ceremony held in the Church of Our Lady (current Matthias Church), which had instantly been converted into the Great Mosque. The funeral that followed shows Gul Baba’s popularity, likely stimulated from the great emotion felt by the Sultan. It is said that thousands took part, with Suleiman himself acting as one of the pall bearers.

Restoration & Resurrection – A Spiritual Revival
Suleiman’s affinity for this holy warrior and deeply spiritual figure likely had much to do with Gul Baba becoming the Patron Saint of Ottoman Buda. He was memorialized for the sake of posterity when his tomb was constructed from 1543-48 on orders of the third pasha of Buda. It was to become a holy shrine with a dervish cloister and a site of pilgrimage for the Bektashi order during Ottoman rule in Hungary. The tomb survived the retaking of Buda by the Habsburgs in 1686, but afterwards was converted to a Jesuit chapel. Only after the Jesuit Order was dissolved did the tomb start to be restored through local efforts. A landowner, Janos Wagner, allowed Muslim pilgrims access to the site. The first of two major restorations by the Turkish government took place in the late 19th century. Another restoration was done at the end of the 20th century, giving the complex its current form. The area around the tomb includes a colonnade, decorative fountains and gardens planted with roses. There is also a statue of Gul Baba. The tomb itself is located in a hexagonal shaped building, made from limestone and mounted with a gold crescent.

The casket of Gil Baba

The casket of Gil Baba (Credit: Thaler)

The day I visited the tomb there was only a single family of Turks at the site. The eldest of which was a grandmotherly type who was overcome with emotion during their visit. She spent many minutes deep in prayer as her family looked on. All around the tomb’s interior, the walls contained tiles with verses from the Koran. Gul Baba’s coffin was of traditional Ottoman design, covered with Oriental carpets featuring elaborate patterns. I marveled at the lady’s devotion. To travel all the way from Turkey into the heart of Europe, just to visit this obscure site made a great impression upon me. The tomb of Gul Baba is the most far flung pilgrimage site for Muslims in Europe. The opportunity to see the tomb and pray on-site must have been a lifelong dream for this lady. I had no way of communicating with her through language, but her expressive emotion told me all I really needed to know. Gul Baba was more than just a historical personage, he was that rarest of Holy Men, one whose mysterious power could speak across the ages, both to believer and observer.