All I Remember Is Saying Goodbye – Debrecen To Budapest: A Crisis Of Consciousness

One of the great laments in my life is that I have only been able to spend a limited amount of time in Eastern Europe. The trips I have taken to the region now number in the double digits, but cumulatively they add up to only half a year of my life. Of course, I have been much more fortunate than most. At least I have been able to indulge my passion for the region over twenty-six sometimes spectacular, always revealing weeks of travel. As memorable as each trip has been, I find myself increasingly alarmed by the blank spots in my memory. Though I try to remember everything I can by taking notes and snapping hundreds of photographs there are still so many moments I fail to remember.

Several things are becoming increasingly clear to me. First, I have taken so many trips that they are now all beginning to run together. I can distinctly recall almost everything about my first two trips to Eastern Europe. I can distinctly remember what I did on each day of those journeys, the arrival in Sofia, the bus trip to Bucharest, a flight to Sarajevo, a train across three countries on the way to Pecs and so forth. My last trip is always completely clear as well, that is until I do another trip. The last trip always overtakes the one before it. The next to last one then exists in a netherworld of confused memory. Secondly, that I am getting older. This has resulted in either very detailed memories – such as a fog engulfed visit to Tata in western Hungary many years ago, where I can still mentally trace my footsteps past waterwheels, along the shores of Old Lake Tata, a dessert lunch at a Cukraszda (patisserie) and standing outside the Parish Church trying to take a photo as a tour group milled around the entrance – or the opposite effect where I remember nothing. This includes a very faint recollection of a walk I once took around central Vienna. I remember wandering around and that is about it.

The Parish Church - Tata Hungary

As I remember – The Parish Church in Tata Hungary

Memory Gap- The Trip I Cannot Remember
Searching my travel memories, I realize that several days in a row can pass where I have no idea what occurred. Without the aid of notes and photos these days would now amount to nothing. This came to mind when I received a call the other day from a friend who accompanied me on my last trip to Eastern Europe. He asked me if I could “remember that train ride we took back from Debrecen to Budapest?”  I was suddenly at a loss. He tried to refresh my memory. “All I remember is saying goodbye to Ibolya when she dropped us off at the train station? I can’t remember anything else.” At that moment neither could I. He is seventy and I am forty-six, this was worrisome. As he kept talking I lost track of what he was saying as I tried to recall a memory, any memory. I finally said, “I can remember walking to the platform through that ghastly underground corridor.”

The only reason I recalled the corridor was because passing through it triggered a memory of a post I had written awhile back about how menacing that place felt, with its communist era chipped paint job, cold concrete and the smell of decades old mildew. It was memorable for all the wrong reasons. My friend continued to search his memory for any detail that might help him recall that train trip. I finally said, “I think there was some woman sitting behind us who kept talking the whole time.” She had been incredibly irritating, loudly conversing with her son. She would pause for 30 seconds of silence and then predictable go off again on minutes long binges of verbiage. My friend did recall this, “Yes I got up and moved to get away from her.” That ended up being the only memory we could excavate from a two and half hour train ride across the Great Hungarian Plain. Such a pity that of all the things I could have remembered it was of a woman who would not shut up.

Filling in the memory gap - Puspokladany Train Station

Filling in the memory gap – Puspokladany Train Station

From Puspokladany To Torokszentmiklos – Running Out Of Memories
After our conversation I began to try and remember all the things I have forgotten. In other words, I attempted the impossible. There are all those train and bus trips I have never written about because everything went according to plan. Contentment might be what I am searching for in life, but it is the enemy of fascinating journeys. No great truths are to be unearthed in comfort and refinement. There are those Hungarian cities, towns and villages I have passed through more times than I will ever remember. They now inhabit an unconscious oblivion. Places such as Puspokladany in eastern Hungary which I have been through, but not actually to, at least twenty times. What do I remember about it? The outlines of a two story, rather elegant station, a vacant platform other than the station keeper – a sort of goodbye greeter – stepping out to signal whether to stay or go. Is this what I have spent so much time, energy and money chasing? At a certain point, travel infused with familiarity becomes a little too much like the life I left behind. This amnesia creeps over and manages to consume me one trip at a time. The easier things get, the less they mean to me, thus the more I proceed to forget.

And then there is the Torokszentmiklos syndrome. This can best be described as a self-induced psychosis of indifferent procrastination, that one day I will travel there to finally see what I promised myself umpteen times in the past, a mid-sized town out along the Great Hungarian Plain. All I can remember is a massive church in the near distance which has managed to impress itself upon my imagination. I have to see that church up close, stand in its shadow and admire the handy work of people whose names I will never pronounce correctly. I do not remember when was the first or the last time that I saw it. For many years I have wanted to visit that church. I always promise myself that I will go there the next time. I am running out of next times, the way I am running out of memories. I am running along the same rails again and again, failing to even remember what I have forgotten. Stuck in that vicious netherworld of travel pervaded by a stultifying sameness. The will to change direction now escapes me.

Holy Trinity Church (Szentharomsag templom) - in Torokszentmiklos

Holy Trinity Church (Szentharomsag templom) – in Torokszentmiklos (Credit: Tamas Thaler)

The Fascination Grows Faint – A Lost Experience
I wonder when I will finally forget all about Torokszentmiklos or Puspokladany. I am trying so hard to remember everything, that I must not have noticed anything. I certainly do not remember passing by those towns on that last trip with my friend. I was there, but I wasn’t there. At least I can remember that I have forgotten all about them. This exercise in frustration and futility reminds me of only one thing, that woman’s banal chattering. I went halfway around the world and that is what I left myself with, memories lost the way they are in everyday life. This is not a crisis of confidence, more a crisis of consciousness. The fascination of traveling to these places has grown faint, the same as my memory. Somewhere way out in eastern Hungary I lost an entire experience, but I was still awake and alive when it occurred. That is the most frightening memory of all.

 

 

 

For Which To Aspire – Hungarians In The Union Army: Fighting On A Far Western Front

While growing up in the American South the Civil War was an endless topic of conversation and consternation. Aspects of the war were analyzed in detail, battles dissected, generals rated, martial exploits of the common soldier told and retold. Everyone claimed to have an ancestor who had been on Robert E. Lee’s staff, while no one had an ancestor who had owned a slave. In early adulthood, I finally realized that the war was a hot topic of discussion for one reason and one reason only, because the South had lost. The stigma of defeat had been passed down from generation to generation. For all the glorious honor evoked by infinitely told tales, the harsh truth was that we had gotten our ass kicked.

Thoroughly beaten by those wretched “Yankees”, a word commonly used as both a pejorative and profane term. By “Yankees” we meant anyone north of the Mason-Dixon line. “Those people” who were from states such as New Yawk, Taxachusetts and Disconnecticutt. I had long been aware that plenty of immigrants had also fought for the Union, but I never thought any of them could be Eastern Europeans.  Then on a winter evening I stumbled upon a very different kind of Yankee, one that hailed from the Carpathian Basin.

Startling revelations usually arrive when least expected. Imagine my shock then, as I read the following sentence in Volume I of Shelby Foote’s incomparable history of the Civil War, “his (John C. Fremont, Union commander of the Western Department) personal staff included Hungarians and Italians with titles such as ‘adlatus to the chief’ and names that were hardly pronounceable to a Missouri tongue; Emavic, Meizarras, Kalamaneuzze were three among many.” This was the first time that I learned of Hungarians serving as officers in the Union Army. I found this information startling, but should not have been that surprised for two reasons. Hungarians had been arriving on the shores of North America, beginning as far back as 1583. Secondly, when the conflict broke out the Union was desperate for officers with battlefield experience. Many of the Union’s Hungarian officers came ready made for fighting, since they had served in the 1848/49 Hungarian War of Independence against Austria and later Russia that broke out following the revolutionary upheaval. The loss of that war led to a boatload of Hungarian military officers literally washing up on America’s shores.

Scene from the Hungarian Revolution of 1848

Scene from the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 (Credit: Miklos Barabas)

Martial Bearing –  Exiled To War: From East To West
Of the several waves of Hungarian immigration to the United States the first is by far the smallest and least known. This wave consisted of the “Forty-Eighters” those Hungarian men of military bearing who fled the country after the revolution failed. The numbers were tiny by later standards of immigration, no more than two thousand Hungarians crossed the Atlantic. It is estimated that perhaps 400 of these fought in the war. That does not sound like much, but consider that there were only 4,000 Hungarians living in the United States at the time. As a proportion, Hungarians had greater participation in the war than any other immigrant group at the time. Furthermore, around a quarter of the Hungarians serving in the Union Army were officers. Thus, they took on a role of outsized importance, especially in the Western Department of John C. Fremont, the famous western explorer, presidential candidate and egotistical charlatan.

The more notable Hungarians who served in the Union Army were attached to Fremont’s command.  The most well-known, Alexander Asboth was born on the western shore of Lake Balaton at Keszthely to a prominent family. Asboth was trained as a military engineer. During the Hungarian Revolution, he served with distinction and became the favorite adjutant of Lajos Kossuth. Asboth came to the United States in 1851 along with the exiled Kossuth who was promoting the cause of Hungarian independence. Kossuth went back to Europe, Asboth decided to stay. When the Civil War broke out, Asboth was selected as Fremont’s chief of staff. He would later command a division at the Battle of Pea Ridge. Asboth was wounded twice in battle and ended the war as a brevetted Major General. This turned out to be the highest rank any ethnic Hungarian would attain in the Union Army.

General Alexander Asboth

General Alexander Asboth – (Credit: Matthew Brady – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

Hungarian Chivalry In Missouri – Zagonyi Leads The Charge
If there had been an award for the most dashing and chivalrous ethnic Hungarian in the Union forces it would likely have gone to Charles Zagonyi. Zagonyi had served as a cavalry officer during the Hungarian War of Independence. When the Civil War broke out, Zagonyi reprised that role when he was chosen to lead Fremont’s personal bodyguard. Zagonyi achieved great fame from an improbable victory at the First Battle of Springfield which took place in southwestern Missouri in 1861. Outnumbered nearly five to one, Zagonyi led his cavalry force on three consecutive charges that scattered the opposing Confederate force. While high on drama, the strategic value of the victory left much to be desired. Zagonyi lost over a quarter of his force and was unable to hold Springfield. Nonetheless, Zagonyi gained lasting notoriety when Fremont’s wife – Jessie Benton Fremont – portrayed him as a heroic figure in her book, Story of the Guard, published during the war. Unfortunately, Zagonyi’s fame was fleeting as he was out of the army less than a year after charging into history.

Fremont’s coterie included several other Hungarians as well as many foreigners often dressed in elaborate, decoratively colored outfits. This led to criticism from those who visited Fremont’s command that the languages spoken there were unintelligible and the pageantry rather ridiculous. For instance, Zagonyi’s bodyguard was decked out in the garb of Polish hussars. The dark blue uniforms and headgear were little more than flourishes of vanity. Other Hungarians among Fremont’s most trusted confidants were better disguised, none more so than Philip Figyelmessy who brought an aptitude for espionage all the way from Eastern Europe to the Western Theater of the Civil War. Fremont also found a place on his staff for Emeric Szabad, the rare personage whose literary talent was matched by his military ability. He served with distinction throughout the war, managing to survive Fremont’s quick fall from grace to attain the rank of colonel by war’s end.

First Battle of Springfield - Zagonyi's Charge on October 25, 1861

First Battle of Springfield – Zagonyi’s Charge on October 25, 1861 (Credit: from book by Geza Kende)

To Admire & Aspire – Fighting For Freedom
Hundreds of other Hungarians fought for the Union throughout the war. They were not “Yankees” in the usual sense of the word as I learned it, they were Hungarians first and foremost. Military men who chose to fight for a new country. Fremont’s patronage allowed them an exalted position as officers in the Union forces. America offered them freedom and independence, something that their Hungarian homeland still did not enjoy. The martial exploits of the “Forty-Eighters” helped preserve the Union as a bright and shining example of a democratic republic. An example for all Hungarians to admire and for which to aspire.

Lost Luxury – The Hungarian Night Train: Passing Into History

Depressing news for travelers came out of Hungary this past week. MAV, the Hungarian State Railways (Magyar Allamvasutak), announced that beginning in December many of the international trains they operate would no longer have buffet or sleeping cars. The reason given, the great financial losses incurred by MAV in operating these services. I was saddened, but not surprised by this news. All over Europe, both east and west, such night trains are getting cut due to their unprofitability. My sadness stems from the fact that once these services are cut, they are likely to never come back. This is what happened in America, unless one includes Amtrak which offers an increasingly rare and less than desirable experience.

Slowly, but steadily, during a century and a half of European railway travel, comfort has been increasingly forfeited and services slimmed down in adherence to the profit motive. Speed, efficiency and the bottom line trump everything else. The romance and leisure of long distance rail travel is slowly becoming a thing of the past. Nothing seems more appealing to a traveler such as myself than departing from Budapest one evening and arriving in Munich the next morning. One day in the not so distant future that may no longer be possible. Then again, from my own experience, at least in Eastern Europe this style of travel went out long ago.

Portal to the past - Hungarian sleeper train

Portal to the past – Hungarian sleeper train (Credit: The Man In Seat 61)

Off Track – Looking Back Rather Than Forward
The Hungarian Railway History Park (Magyar Vasuttorteneti Park) is not exactly on the beaten path for tourists in Budapest. It is located north and east of the city center, an area where people work to live rather than vice versa. Though I have a passion for trains and the history of rail travel, I did not manage to visit the museum until my third trip to the city. The museum is not nearly as well-known as many others in Budapest, mainly because of its location and the fact that it is rather new. It did not open until the beginning of the 21st century, a year after a Foundation was formed to build the museum.  The foundation must have realized that there was much to preserve regarding the history of railways in Hungary. The museum can also be seen as a response to the fact that railway travel might already be in decline. Thus, it was time to look back rather than forward.

The golden age of rail travel in Hungary was the late 19th and early 20th century, a time when the pace of travel was speeding up, but still slow enough to offer a relaxing experience. Many of the rail cars on display at the museum were from this period. The ones that I found most engaging were dining and sleeper cars. The compartments in the sleepers looked so comfortable and cozy that I began to daydream about travel in an earlier era. I imagined myself tucked into bed in the early evening, reading a novel while traveling through a snow covered landscape in Transylvania on an overnight trip to Budapest. One of the dining cars I stepped into was the very scene of elegance. The place settings were immaculate, glasses and silverware sparkling, fine white linen. I imagined that the food would have matched the décor in excellence. Looking at all this served to reinforce the fact that railway travel was not what it used to be. I knew this from personal experience.

Train to Transylvania - leaving Keleti Station at night

Train to Transylvania – Leaving Keleti Station at night (Credit: Miroslav Volek)

Crossing Over – A Painful Awakening
The only MAV night train I have ever taken was the IC407 which runs from Budapest to Bucharest. I took this train to visit the old Saxon city of Brasov in eastern Transylvania. Boarding the train at Keleti Palyudvar (Eastern Station) in the evening I found the train clean and well kept, the compartment functional, but far from luxurious. The dining car was not on my agenda and from the looks of it on no one else’s either. Most passengers stayed either in their compartments or close by. My food selection was limited to what I bought in the station. Other services from the attendant were unmemorable, which meant it was good enough. The compartment was satisfactory, but felt a bit cramped. I had imagined a night train into the heart of Transylvania would be a romantic way to travel, stirring my literary sensibilities. The experience turned out to be much different. After a couple of hours I was ready for bed. The only problem was unlike in the early 20th century, there would be passport control to tear me away from the arms of Morpheus. This meant two stops, first on the Hungarian side of the border, then on the Romanian one. In 1900 there was no border to cross when traveling between Budapest and Brasov. Since that time the situation had regressed. Even with European Union membership for both Hungary and Romania, there were still tedious border controls.

Not long after falling asleep I was awakened by the call of “passports” from a Hungarian border agent. Less than an hour later the same thing happened on the Romanian side, only this time with a good deal of shouting. A drunken passenger had to be roused several times from his alcohol induced slumber to produce a passport. Less than an hour after this disquieting incident, the train pulled into Arad, a city on the frontier of western Romania, for an extended break. It was not until the wee hours of the morning that I finally fell asleep. I woke not long after daylight with stiffness in my lower body from the cramped conditions.

Night trains - from Budapest Keleti

Night trains – from Budapest Keleti

Old Romances – Left To The Imagination
By the time I arrived in Brasov, my romance with night train travel had ended. I was bleary eyed, agitated and ready for a hotel room. This was my jilted romance with a modern Hungarian sleeper train. This experience stripped away any illusions I had about the luxury and refinement of Hungarian night trains. I have had much the same experience throughout Eastern Europe. The night train has not gone away quite yet, but the legendary service and romantic odysseys have largely passed into history. Trying to recapture that past is a futile pursuit. Some old romances are best left to the imagination.

Formula One For The Common Man – Driving The M Roads In Hungary: Freedom To Go Fast

Driving in Hungary can be an intensely pleasurable experience, a positively frightening one or a little bit of both. Much of this has to do with road conditions which can vary wildly, depending on how they have been maintained. There are roads smoother than silk, while others are so busted and beaten that a wagon would be of better use than a sedan. It is those silk like roads that have stuck in my memory. These are the dream of every motorist with a long journey ahead of them. I have had the pleasure of traveling on several of them, almost all of which are M roads. They have left me envious and wondering why my own car crazed nation cannot maintain highways in such pristine condition.

Open Road - Motorway in Hungary

Open Road – Motorway in Hungary (Credit: Wikipedia)

Mesmerizing Monotony – An Open Road
The M roads are the motorways (autópálya in Hungarian). These are by far the best roads to be found in Hungary. They consist of two lanes in each direction and include an emergency lane, allowing for the highest speeds of any type of road in the nation. The limit is usually set at 130 kph (80 mph). Because they require a toll vignette to travel on them, motorways have less traffic than other roads, especially non-toll roads between large towns or cities. The M roads have no roundabouts, no stoplights, no horse drawn wagon carts or farm equipment to slow a motorist. In short, they offer an unobstructed path (except for other vehicles) between major urban areas. The main problem with the M Roads is that they are insanely boring, especially in the eastern part of the country. There is a sameness to these roads that can be positively mesmerizing, with very little to see in the way of scenery. This situation reminds me of what my grandfather used to say about road travel in the United States.  “If you want to see anything on a car trip, you have to get off the interstate and take the old highways.”

What is true for America turns out to be just as true for Hungary. Speed is the substitute for scenery. Unless a person enjoys endless expanses of tilled soil interspersed with random copses of woods, the M roads leave much to be desired when it comes to scenic landscapes. What the M Roads offer is open road, hundreds of kilometers of wide open road. Ribbons of pavement stretch before the motorist beckoning them forth at the fastest speed they can possibly imagine. This is less dangerous for the speedster, than it is for those drivers that stick to the slow lane. A motorist wanting to pass in the fast lane must be prepared for a speedway experience, a sort of Formula One for the common man. Passing on an M Road requires a driver to worry more about other drivers using the fast lane, than about the vehicle they are trying to pass, quite the opposite of interstate driving in the United States. It is an absolute must for those attempting to pass that they go at least as fast as the vehicle that will almost certainly come roaring up behind them.

The fast lane -sign for a Hungarian motorway (autópálya)

The fast lane -sign for a Hungarian motorway (autópálya)

Life Or Death – In The Passing Lane
The “passing lane” means the “fast lane” on M roads. Speed limits are not nearly as helpful on them as an adrenaline rush. Anyone dawdling will soon find another car pressing up against their bumper. Nothing makes a Hungarian driver quite as irate as someone using the passing lane to go at less than the speed of sound. Expect honking of the horn, fist shaking and fierce, red faced drivers in the Magyar version of road rage. There is no such thing as passing in the slow (right) lane on an M Road. Such an idea is highway heresy to Hungarians. Even when a slower driver moves back over to the relative safety of the right lane, they will find their head spinning time and again, as they watch those using the fast lane for maximum effect. I have personally witnessed cars that had to be going close to 200 kph (120 mph). I estimated their speed by how fast they disappeared into the distance.

It has always perplexed me how these drivers manage to avoid speeding tickets. The motorway police can usually be found waiting beside some lonely stretch of road with their radar guns at the ready trying to catch speeders. A police car may also be situated at some random point with its only inhabitants the equipment used to clock unsuspecting speedsters. Yet for all these checks on fast drivers, I can only recall a couple of times where I saw anyone pulled over by the police. This reminds me of the situation with the Budapest Metro controllers who are doing constant checks for those without a valid ticket, the controllers are everywhere, but few law breakers are ever to be found. I figure that in Hungary such operations are more about employment than enforcement. I cannot say these operations are not without merit though, I shudder to think what speeds Hungarians drivers might attain on the M roads without a set limit.

License to speed - open lanes on the M85 in western Hungary

License to speed – open lanes on the M85 in western Hungary

The Joyless Ride – Endured & Unenjoyed
Even on the M Roads, which are almost immaculate, very few Hungarian drivers seem to be taking it nice and slow so they can enjoy the ride. The truth is, anyone who drives slower than the speed limit on an M Road is risking a life threatening accident. Perhaps that is why besides large trucks, I have so rarely witnessed slow driving in Hungary. Nothing would be more terrifying than trying to survive these motorways at 80 kph (55 mph). The idea of driving in Hungary is opposite that in the United States. It is something to be endured rather than enjoyed. The goal is to get from one place to another as soon as possible, driving in a focused, aggressive manner. I imagine that what Hungarians enjoy the most about driving is the freedom to go fast and release inner angst. Hungarians are serious people and their driving reflects that mentality. The motorway is not a place for joking around, it is there for a reason, to get somewhere and get there fast.

Collecting The Counties Of Historic Hungary – Vanished Traces: Entering The Kingdom (Part Two)

The fact that collecting every county in Hungary only mattered to me, made it that much more compelling and disconcerting. Driven to succeed by this inexplicably strange fervor, I turned off the immaculately paved four-lane known as the M3, one of Hungary’s major highways. Then headed north on a road that immediately became weather beaten, inching towards my ultimate goal while having to navigate through a byzantine web of road construction. This slowing my progress to a speed of not much more than a kilometer every couple of minutes. The road was pockmarked with potholes and badly in need of the ongoing repair.

After ten kilometers bouncing upon this bone rattler, I was ready to return to the M3, but with my goal nearly in sight there could be no turning back. And besides, the road construction could not go on forever or at least that was what I wanted to believe. This drive was not going to be a victory parade. It was a windy, bitterly cold day, as to be expected a week before Christmas. The trees were leafless, the landscape lifeless, the ground bare and brown. The sky was hung with a blinding sun besieged by a spectacularly blue sky.

Somewhere in the distance - Nograd County

Somewhere in the distance – Nograd County (Credit: László Szeder)

In The Distance – Provincial Pressures & Pleasures
It was strange driving through a part of Hungary I had little interest in getting to know. The hills and valleys did nothing for me. The beauty of this region was always somewhere in the distance. It may have been a frontier, a neglected hinterland, but it also seemed incredibly normal. I felt like a local who was going about their daily routine, perhaps traveling to work or running an errand. There was a matter of fact quality about the landscape, forest interspersed with fields that made it look like the essence of just another ordinary place in provincial Hungary, the kind of place where everyone suffered from the same low salary and getting by was a legitimate job description. I had imagined that the approach to my final county would be unique and enthralling, the actual experience was turning out to be rather mundane.

I kept a sharp lookout for the finish line, a coveted Nograd megye sign, which would signal the end of my Hungarian county collecting obsession. It was not long before it came into view. I did not let off the gas pedal to slow down, instead just passing by as though this were no big deal.  Completing this long-time goal left me with conflicting emotions of euphoria, relief and sadness. Euphoria in that first moment of attainment. All the flights, all the trains, all the bus trips and hours behind the wheel led to an intensely personal sense of accomplishment. I must admit that such elation was a rather absurd concept. I just might have been the only person in the entire world that had obsessed over making it to Nograd County. This was the Everest of my ambitions. The relief I felt came from the release of a ridiculous amount of self-imposed pressure to complete this strange goal. More than once it had crossed my mind that I might just fall one county short. If that had occurred, I would have been the only person on earth who felt a void in their life from a failure to visit Nograd County.

Looking at the past - Somoskő Castle 

Looking at the past – Somoskő Castle (Credit: Anna Doczy)

Historic Hungary – The Discovery of Possibilities
The main emotion that engulfed me was an incredible wave of sadness. I had spent years just trying to reach this goal, but now what? Was this the end of my interest in travel to Hungary? Not a chance, but I was at a loss on what to do next. This sadness stayed with me as I wound my way north through the hills and forest of Nograd County. The road eventually smoothed out, the weather was beautiful and I was depressed.  At Somosko Castle, I first set my feet firmly on the soil of the long sought county. The castle straddled the border with Slovakia, the chill air was crisp and clear affording expansive views into southern Slovakia, the land Hungarians still call Felvidek. Looking north, I knew there was a whole new land to explore. Perhaps I could try to visit every county in Slovakia. From my previous trips into the country, I knew that it was a beautiful land. At the moment such an idea provided solace, but little more. Getting to all of Slovakia’s counties seemed doable and that was why it did not interest me at the moment. I wanted the pseudo-impossible, a challenge to challenge myself. At the moment, I was a traveler without a goal. It was rather stupid to need one. Travel was supposed to be about opening yourself up to the world, not checking off arbitrary places on a map. Yet no matter how far I traveled, I could not escape myself. I needed regimentation and rituals, goals and a focus.

It would not be until a few months later that I dreamed up a new county collecting odyssey. Southern Slovakia had given me an idea. A century ago it was still part of the Kingdom of Hungary or what is now termed by some as “Historic Hungary”. It was one of the 64 counties that made up a Kingdom which stretched from the shores of the Adriatic Sea to the towering peaks of the Tatra Mountains. Due to the Trianon induced post-World War I breakup of the Kingdom these territories became part of Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Austria and Romania. By the end of the 20th century they were part of several newer nations including Croatia, Serbia, Ukraine and Slovakia. Collecting (aka traveling) to all the counties of the Kingdom of Hungary would mean crossing borders, cultures and language barriers. My imagination surged with thoughts of exploring back roads in southwestern Ukraine, visiting tidy villages in eastern Austria and hiking up to the austere ruins of castles in the Spis region of Slovakia.

Counties of the Kingdom of Hungary

Counties of the Kingdom of Hungary

Searching For A Lost World – One County At A Time
The difficulty of completing this goal would be exponentially greater, but also that much more satisfying. Soon I found myself staring at a map I posted on the wall at home showing the Kingdom of Hungary and all of its counties in the early 20th century.  I then began to count the counties I had already visited. It did not take me long to figure out that traveling to every county would be a daunting task. Was I up to the challenge? That question would only be answered at some undetermined time in the future.  I liked the idea of a years-long odyssey in search of a lost world whose boundaries had vanished with hardly a trace. This journey would be about more than a strange obsession, it would also be a way to recapture the past by traveling to a kingdom, a kingdom that could still be recreated by collecting counties one trip at a time.

Click here for: Collecting Counties in Hungary – Everywhere & Nowhere: A First Finale To Nograd County (Part One)

Collecting Counties In Hungary – Everywhere & Nowhere: A First Finale To Nograd County (Part One)

Whenever I mention to someone that I love traveling in Hungary, the inevitable question arises, “Where have you been?” They almost immediately provide an answer before I can speak. “Budapest?” This is likely the only place in the country they know because the city is world famous for its beauty and culture. My stock reply these days is, “I have been everywhere.” This usually elicits dubious looks, as though I am exaggerating. To a certain extent I am. No one could possibly say that they have been everywhere in Hungary. It would take years to travel to the hundreds of small villages that dot the countryside, traverse the endless plains that spread out on either side of the Danube or hike through all the nooks and crannies in the hills to the north. “Everywhere” in Hungary for me, means every county. I am the proud member of an exclusive club, a foreigner and an American no less, who has been to every county in the country. This has become my badge of travel honor, being a county collector so to speak. A Hungarian friend of mine who travels widely thinks this kind of collecting is absurd and pointless. I beg to differ.

Where the road goes - the real Hungary

Where the road goes – the real Hungary

More Than Lines On A Map – Crossing Invisible Borders
My interest in counties began when I was a teenager. In eighth grade Social Studies class, the teacher required us to memorize all one-hundred counties in our home state of North Carolina. This was not easy. I spent many days labeling a map and then trying to spell words such as Perquimans and Pasquotank. It was a great way to learn geography and develop muscle memory. It was not until years later that I realized this might have stimulated an affinity for collecting counties. It started in of all places Wyoming. After several trips passing through the state I realized that I had been in every county except for two. Getting those final two required several hundred miles of driving, but I soon checked them off the list. Later I did the same thing in Montana. It only took me fifteen years and thousands of miles of driving. Then it was on to North Dakota. Why North Dakota? For no better reason other than because I could.

It was around this time that I began to travel to Hungary. After multiple trips, I suddenly realized that I lacked only one of the nineteen counties or megye as they are called in the Magyar language. The idea excited me to no end. How many foreigners could actually say they had been to every county in Hungary? I never asked the corollary question of, “Why would anyone care how many counties a person had visited in Hungary? Passion, like love, causes blindness. On the surface, my fixation for seeking out and crossing an arbitrary administrative boundary made little sense. These were just lines on a map. Counties came and went in Hungary depending upon both the internal and external political situation.

Mapquest - the 19 counties of Hungary

Mapquest – the 19 counties of Hungary

Radical Realignments – Trains, Two Lanes & Automobiles
In the 20th century, boundaries for Hungary’s counties had been redrawn on multiple occasions. The most radical realignment took place following the post-World War I Treaty of Trianon, with the territories of Transylvania, Croatia/Slavonia, Upper Hungary (present day southern Slovakia) and Lower Hungary (present-day Northern Serbia) severed from the mother country. The number of counties dropped from 64 to 34. Then in 1949, this number was reduced again, to the current number of nineteen. Nineteen counties were not very many to visit, but it was still going to be difficult since Hungary was thousands of miles and an ocean away from my home. Though Hungary is not a very big country – approximately the size of Indiana – it is still large enough that going to every county was quite an undertaking. Fortunately, after five trips I had inadvertently covered large swaths of the country. The reason for this was two-fold, a love of train travel and to visit castles.

To my mind, riding a train almost anywhere in Hungary is always well worth the experience. The rail network radiates outward in every direction from Budapest. I took advantage of it to take day trips everywhere from Szeged to Sopron and points in between. Castles were also scattered throughout the countryside. Sometimes this meant a trip partly by train and partly by bus, such as to Nadasladany in Fejer County. Many castles, especially 18th and 19th century ones were on large estates deep in the countryside. This meant going to out of the way places. I had traveled impulsively to the sites that piqued my interest, with no master plan to collect counties. Somehow I ended up just one county short of having all nineteen. The solution to collecting the final county was to travel there by car. Hungary has plenty of cars, but would never be called a car culture, incomes are modest and public transport is readily available in even the tiniest of villages. Roads in Hungary are generally pretty good, especially the main highways and I was going to make use of them to visit Nograd County, a land of hills and small mountains in the northern part of the country.

Remote & beautiful - Nograd County in northern Hungary

Remote & beautiful – Nograd County in northern Hungary

Nograd – The Pass Though County
Nograd County is the smallest of Hungary’s nineteen counties and has only two percent of the nation’s population. It is the antithesis of stereotypical Hungary, there is hardly any agricultural land. Instead, it is heavily forested. Tourism is relatively undeveloped. The two main exceptions are old ruined castles from the late Middle Ages piled atop many of the hills and the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Holloko village, which holds the finest examples of vernacular architecture in the country. Though Nograd County is really not that far from Budapest, the area has never been easily accessible due to the rugged topography. It was little wonder that this was the final county for me to collect. There was little reason to visit or even pass through unless one was traveling to Slovakia. My plan was to visit Somosko Castle right on the Hungary-Slovakia border. It would be the grand finale for me to celebrate visiting the final county. At least that is what I imagined. The reality turned out to be different.

Click here: Collecting The Counties Of Historic Hungary – Vanished Traces: Entering The Kingdom (Part Two)

 

 

This Is How It Starts – The Hajmasker Barracks: To Visit A Vanished Empire

This is how it starts. On an atypically grey, summer Sunday afternoon I was marking time in my home, trying to find some sort of intellectual stimulation. Not an easy thing to do in an incredibly dull small town located out on the high desert of western America. The leaden skies outside had nearly lulled me to sleep. Drifting in and out of drowsiness I haphazardly searched the internet for random Hungarian topics. This is how happened upon a place in western Hungary called Hajmasker, a village of just over 3,000 people. Usually villages of that size in Hungary have a couple of 19th century churches, some well kempt, colorful houses each with the ubiquitous backyard garden and not much else of interest. Hajmasker stood out in a different way though. Viewing it on Google Earth, I saw that Hajmasker had all the accoutrements of a Hungarian village. What made it different were some massive Austro-Hungarian era military related structures.  These can be visited by the adventurous.

I felt a twinge of yearning, a delight in this discovery. Imagining that Hajmasker must be an obscure village in some remote, pastoral hamlet, I was shocked to learn that it stood astride the main route between Veszprem and Varpalota. I had traveled through the village by both train and bus on separate occasions several years back without the slightest knowledge of the treasure trove of Austro-Hungarian martialtecture just a short walk from the stations. Never once did I suspect the area as a place where I would be able to let my curiosity run wild. For me, anything related to the Austro-Hungarian Empire is worth seeing. Immediately I began to search for more information, while in the back of my mind I began to concoct plans to visit Hajmasker.

Hajmasker Barracks - Main building

Hajmasker Barracks – Main building

A Pervasive Sense Of Permanence = What Did Not Happen?
What does the village of Hajmasker have in common with Sopron, Salzburg and Zagreb, Vienna and Wiener Neustadt? Like each of these well-known cities, Hajmasker was home to an Austro-Hungarian artillery barracks. The difference was that the barracks in Hajmasker were the largest in the whole empire.  Almost a thousand soldiers might be stationed there at any one time. It was an instant village of sorts, but this one came with loud explosions as a major artillery range was setup nearby. In grandeur and style the barracks in Hajmasker could easily compete with much larger places. The main barracks building, now in the process of slowly decaying, looks like a giant manor house with a castle grafted onto it.

Festooned with turrets and spires, red roofed with massive gray walls, this building has all the hallmarks of imperial architecture, a foreboding mass of enormous grandiosity. And this is just one of many such massive structures which dot the grounds. The entire complex emanates a pervasive sense of permanence and why not? The ruling Habsburgs, the family behind the Austro-Hungarian throne, had ruled much of central Europe for seven centuries and Hungary for the past two when the Hajmasker barracks were constructed. It is evident by their construction that the barracks were built to last. And that is precisely what did not happen.

Hajmasker Barracks - Abandoned entrance

Hajmasker Barracks – Abandoned entrance

No Ordinary Occupation – Will They Ever Leave?
World War One changed everything, at least for a little while. The Hajmasker barracks were used to house prisoners of war during the conflict, by the end of which the eternal Hapsburg dynasty proved to be mortal. Austria-Hungary collapsed along with it. The barracks were there for the taking. Another empire would find them of use for their own military, but not before a quarter of a century had passed. In the latter part of 1944 the Red Army took control of Hajmasker. This would turn out to be no ordinary occupation, as the Soviets extended their stay for the entirety of the Cold War. Their occupation was equal in length to the entire history of the Hajmasker barracks prior to their arrival. They came to dominate the area. Two generations of villagers learned to live with the Soviets literally on their doorsteps. The soldiers left indelible marks on the barracks, stripping them bare of valuable items. The walls were papered over with Russian language newspapers. A pitiful degradation, as well as a representative example of Soviet scarcity, as their own system began to buckle beneath the weight of tiresome occupations in places such as rural Hungary.

One can easily imagine Red Army soldiers asking themselves, “What are we doing here? “ While the villagers in Hajmasker must have asked themselves a variant of that same question, “Will they ever leave?” A symbiotic relationship of mutual reliance developed down through the decades between soldier and villager. The Soviets traded gasoline for Hungarian wine. The former would be guzzled by the local’s automobiles and motorbikes, while the latter would be guzzled by the soldiers. More lethal concoctions were on offer courtesy of the Red Army, including machine guns, grenades and loads of ammunition. Hajmasker would be the first base vacated by the Red Army when it left Hungary in 1990. As this strained relationship finally came to an end, the barracks of Hajmasker became what they are still today, a vast scaffold of fin de siècle military architecture waiting in vain for another imperial occupier. The only occupation going on there today is a vacant one.

Hajmasker Barracks - The hope that never ends

Hajmasker Barracks – The hope that never ends

Internal Conflict – The Hope That Never Ends
Everything I have learned about Hajmasker has only made my need to visit the barracks that much greater. The fact that I came so close without even knowing of its existence will bother me until the day I visit or until the day I die. An obsession has taken hold of me that I cannot let go. Not until I have walked down those cavernous corridors and stood in the empty chasms of vanished imperial power. I have an intuition, an inexplicably powerful feeling that the barracks in Hajmasker will be worth whatever toil it takes to get there. It will be an opportunity to see lasting vestiges of Austria-Hungary, to resurrect the empire before it disintegrates. All this I want to believe, I have to believe, I need to believe. This is how it starts and I hope it never ends.

Fear Of Serbia – A Journey To The Other Side: Crossing Irrational Borders (Travels In Eastern Europe #29)

I was afraid of Serbia and that made me want to go there. A sense of danger has always held a strange attraction for me. The idea that something awful could happen can actually draw me to certain places. Serbia happened to be one of them. My fear was not really based upon experience, only imagination.  I only ever met a handful of Serbians in my entire life, they were all friendly. My fear stemmed from how I would be received upon entering the country. Though it had been a decade and a half since the United States military dropped bombs on Belgrade, I wondered if there was still some residual anger over American intervention into Balkan affairs.

I left Budapest on a morning train heading south to Serbia with a certain feeling of trepidation. I really did not fear for my personal safety. It was more a fear that I might run into difficulties at the border because I was an American. Of course, I was being irrational. I had already met an American on this trip who had been to Serbia and survived the experience.  He told me there was no problem crossing the border, but did mention the fact that he been detained on the Bosnian border. He was forced to spend the night in a holding cell at a border post after the guards had noticed his prescription bottle of Xanax. It was totally legal, but he thought they were looking for a bribe of some sort. He advised me that if I ever got detained to just keep saying call the American consulate. I kept that in mind as the train slowly made its way along the flat lands of southern Hungary.

Into the unknown - Hungary from the rails

Into the unknown – Hungary from the rails

The Familiar & The Foreign – Pass Through Places
I was nervous, but the tension heightened my awareness on what should have been an otherwise sleepy trip through a provincial hinterland. The train car was only about half full. I found myself studying passengers that were sitting nearby. A Roma couple sat in the aisle opposite me. The woman was young and not unattractive, she was also several months pregnant, judging by her bulging belly. Her male companion, a skinny man with a slender face, looked to be in his early 20’s. He opened up a paper bag, pulled out a huge loaf of bread along with a giant sausage. He then proceeded to devour it within a matter of minutes. This was an impressive feat, to the point that the woman burst out laughing while watching him ravenously finish off this impromptu meal.  After this I spent an inordinate amount of time studying them. They eyed me suspiciously, making comments to one another when looking my way.

I spent much of the trip aimlessly thumbing through my guidebook as the train slowly rattled along through a pastoral landscape. We rolled past towns and villages with the usual range of bizarre Hungarian place names such as Fulopszallas, Kiskoros and Kiskunhalas. The kind of places that are only known to travelers during the time it takes to pass through them. Even by the standards of Eastern European travel these places were remote. And yet in the most remote places something always seems familiar, whether it is people riding bicycles, villagers tending a backyard garden or children playing in the street. At the same time, there are constant reminders of the foreign such as sounds of a foreign tongue being spoken and unintelligible words on signage. This incongruity of the familiar with the foreign was disconcerting, adding to my apprehension.

Crossing Borders – The Way It Used To Be
It was an excruciatingly slow ride to the border. For no apparent reason, the train would halt amid a landscape of pancake flat fields, where black soil stretched in all directions. Nothing would happen for a few minutes then the train would start to slowly move once again. As we neared the border my pulse quickened. The closer we got, the more my heart pounded. I kept thinking that any minute we would be at the border. Anyone who does not think the European Union has transformed border crossings should measure the amount of time it takes to cross the border from one EU member to another as compared with crossing from an EU to a non-EU member. In the latter case, there is no welcome sign that you glide by at eighty kilometers per hour, instead there is a first stop for the exit process, in this case with Hungarian officials. This is usually quick and painless.

Then there is a crossing to the other side, where the way things used to be in Europe still holds true. In the case of Serbia, it meant we halted at border control and waited for officers to enter the train for passport checks. It is ironic that while I waited to enter Serbia, I was already in Serbia. If I was detained and not allowed to enter Serbia, I would be held in Serbia. Understand that? Some would say that border control lies in a geo-political netherworld, a land of ambiguity. That is true enough, but no matter what officialdom says when you arrive at a nation’s point of entry, you are in that nation, subject to its laws whether or not you agree with them.

Stamp of approval

Stamp of approval (Credit: Jon Rawlinson)

Welcome Without A Smile – Crossing Over
Sitting on that train at the extreme northern tip of Serbia, I knew that my immediate future lay in the hands of people I had never met, who spoke a language I could not possibly comprehend, whose culture was foreign to my own. And something told me that there was no place I would rather be. The moment when the compartment door opened and an accented cry of “passport control” echoed forth I felt a rush of adrenaline. The dull thud of boots foretold the border official to come. He was stocky with a hard look on his face, serious and proper. He took my passport, turned it to the page with my photo and essential information. He eyed me for just a moment then flipped through the passport until he found a blank page. He took his stamp and punched it methodically, handed the passport back to me and said, “Welcome To Serbia.” He did it all without the hint of a smile.

The Ultimate Hungarian Love Affair – Empress Elisabeth: Falling At Her Feet

The more times I visited Hungary, the more I began to notice that very few women are commemorated by statues, monuments or memorials. Statues of such national denizens as Lajos Kossuth and Istvan Szechenyi can be found in every sizeable town. Monuments and memorials to those who fought and died in both World Wars grace the squares of even the smallest villages, but try to find one dedicated to the memory of a woman and your search will largely be in vain. Why is this? Many experts in culture have noted “Hungarian Chauvinism”, a tendency towards what might best be described as “bigheadedness”. In effect this means that Hungarians tend to put themselves above all others, this tendency manifests itself in a will to dominate. I remember having dinner with a Hungarian acquaintance several years ago, who leaned over and said in a particularly expressive manner “we love to dominate things.”

Hungarian chauvinism is usually noted in reference to the treatment of ethnic groups that once fell inside the borders of the Kingdom of Hungary, such as Slovaks, Romanians and Serbians. Since this chauvinism was political and Hungarian politics has always been dominated by men, this chauvinism may primarily be a male thing. Perhaps this goes some way in explaining the lack of women commemorated throughout the country. Whatever the case, finding a Hungarian female memorialized is a rare occurrence. This is ironic because Hungarian women are known for their remarkable beauty and style. Maybe it is because of an emphasis on the superficial that their accomplishments have been overlooked. Whatever the case there is at least one woman whose presence is front and center in the hearts of Hungarians. And this woman was not even a Hungarian.

Elisabeth as Queen of Hungary

Elisabeth as Queen of Hungary (Credit: Emil Rabending)

“Friend of the Hungarian People” – The Eternal Queen
In the center of Budapest, laid across the Danube River, stands the Elisabeth Bridge named after Elisabeth, Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary or as she is most famously known, Sisi. There is no more beloved woman in all of Hungary. Elisabeth was the wife of Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef, a man who was reviled in the wake of Austria’s victory over Hungary in the revolutionary uprising of 1848. The harsh reprisals carried out on the order of Franz Josef did little to endear him to the Hungarian nation. Less than two decades later, times had changed and Austria’s position as one of the great powers in Europe was threatened. Its power was waning due to the rise of Prussia. Austria needed a new partner to avoid being subsumed in what was soon to be the German Empire. Many historians and almost all Hungarians believe Elisabeth used her influence to persuade Franz Josef to compromise with Hungary. This led to the creation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1867, setting off a golden age in Hungary which saw the country’s rapid economic and cultural transformation.

Coronation of Franz Joseph and Elisabeth as Apostolic King and Queen of Hungary

Coronation of Franz Joseph and Elisabeth as Apostolic King and Queen of Hungary (Credit: Edmund Tull)

Elisabeth’s love for Hungary was a reflection of her extraordinary relationship with Count Gyula Andrassy. She admired Andrassy as the essence of rugged, exotic manhood. Their platonic romance (some believe it may have been more than that) helped unite the two nations. For her role, Elisabeth forever became known as a “friend of the Hungarian people.” And she was certainly fond of them, going so far as learning to speak the exceedingly difficult Hungarian language. Elisabeth was most at home in Hungary, far away from the stifling court protocol of Vienna. Her home away from home was the palace of Godollo, just 20 miles northeast of Budapest. It was a gift to her and her husband from the Hungarian people following their coronation in 1867. Godollo was a place where Elisabeth was free to be herself. She remarked that “Here no one disturbs me, as if I were living in a village where I can come and go as I please.” The Hungarian people reciprocated the love shown to them by Elisabeth. It is not a stretch to say that she was the most popular woman in Hungary at the time and probably still is today.

Thus it is no surprise that the most prominent statue of a female in Hungary is the one of Queen Elisabeth which now stands on the Buda side of the Danube, adjacent to the bridge that is also named for her. The fact that this statue still stands illustrates the reverence and respect Elisabeth has been given by Hungarians. Getting the statue up in the first place was a long and drawn out process. Following Elisabeth’s death a million crowns was quickly raised to erect a statue dedicated to the memory of her. Raising money was the easy part, selecting a winning design proved much more difficult. It took five competitions over a twenty year period yielding over one hundred and thirty designs before a winning design was selected. Then there was another interminable delay caused by confusion over where the statue would be located. Among the choices were multiple spots on Castle Hill in Buda and the City Park in Pest. It was eventually decided to place it on the Pest side of the Danube adjacent to the bridge also named after Elisabeth.

Queen Elisabeth statue in Budapest

Queen Elisabeth statue in Budapest

An Undying Love – Elisabeth By The Danube
In 1932, over three decades after it was first conceived, the statue was dedicated, but it would not stay at its original location. Oddly, it was not until the end of Hungary’s hard line Stalinst era in 1953 that the statue was removed.  Elisabeth’s statue may have been mothballed, but the communists could not bring themselves to destroy it. Despite the fact that she was a royal princess, everything the communists professed to loathe, the statue was kept in what turned out to be long term storage. It finally reappeared, oddly enough not after, but before the Iron Curtain fell. In 1986 the statue took another prominent position beside the Danube. Thirty-three years after its removal the statue rematerialized, on the opposite side of the Danube at Dobrentei ter where it can still be found today. The statue of Elisabeth sculpted in stone looks positively radiant, just as she did when all of Hungary fell for her 150 years ago. On the banks of the Danube that love affair continues.

A Measure For Their Dreams – Budapest By The Danube: Heart Of Optimism (Travels In Eastern Europe #27)

There is only one thing to do after arriving in Budapest for the very first time. It is to make your way over to see the Hungarian Parliament Building. I know this from experience as it was late in the afternoon on a sunny day in mid-March when I rushed over to see the structure. As such there was no time to try and take a tour of the interior. That was fine with me because truth be told all I really wanted to do was feast on the ultimate piece of architectural eye candy, a building that brings to mind a confection of the most fantastical kind. No amount of superlatives can aptly describe the Hungarian Parliament building. It is much larger than photos of it are able to capture. Just to walk around the building at a rather brisk pace takes a good twenty minutes. The sheer glamour of this neo-Gothic masterpiece is overwhelming. The beauty and grandeur of the building is one thing, but consider that the Parliament serves a country of only ten million people. It looks like something one would expect to find as the seat of government for a world power. Hungary is only a mid-sized country in east-central Europe, but it obviously has much greater designs.

Hungarian Parliament Building

Hungarian Parliament Building (Credit: Ivanhoe)

Historic Convergence – Pulling A City Together
The Parliament is a reflection of how the Hungarians see themselves and their place in Europe. These are people of outsize ambition, who take creativity to its ultimate extreme. This is how they ended up with such a fantastical confection astride the Danube. It is also how they ended up creating a city along both sides of the river front of unsurpassed majesty. The area where Budapest is strung along the Danube brings to mind an old phrase, “the hits just keep coming.” From where I stood in the shadow of the Parliament on the river’s embankment I took in a scene of architectural enchantment that was as much the product of a fairy tale, as it was the work of man. Gazing upriver, across the placid, slate gray surface of the Danube I spotted the unique three-part Margaret Bridge connecting both sides of the city with an island of the same name. Then I looked downriver where the Chain Bridge, that inaugural link between the two sides of what became the same city, stretched across the watery expanse.

The bridge is a historic link, it allowed the lifeblood of Buda and Pest to flow unimpeded into one another. Its centrality to the city’s convergence is without equal in annals of European history, magnetically pulling the two sides together to create Europe’s fastest growing metropolis in the latter half of the 19th century. The Buda Hills across the river from where I stood that day, displayed a series of treasured buildings that any city would be pleased to call its own. I counted at least six church spires, the most prominent of which soared above all, that of the Matthias Church on Castle Hill. There was another set of spires recognizable just below the church. These were part of the Fisherman’s Bastion. Further on was a dome that signaled the top of Buda Castle which spread royal wings beneath it. This panorama of Buda as seen from Pest was so wondrous that I could hardly believe my eyes.

Looking towards Castle Hill from the Danube in Budapest

Looking towards Castle Hill from the Danube in Budapest

Rising From Ruins – The Building Of Buda
To think that all this is not the product of prior planning, but many centuries worth of organic growth is mind boggling. Here is a scene of stunning urban perfection that has scarcely been repeated. Descriptions will not do it justice. Taken as a whole, this part of the city as it stands astride the Danube is one of the great wonders of the world, a setting that has no peer, even in the annals of old Europe. The sheer scale of grandiosity on offer along the Danube in Budapest is overwhelming. That makes it hard to imagine that the beautiful scene standing on the Buda Hills has been reduced to a smoldering ruin on multiple occasions in the past. When the Habsburgs took it back from the Ottoman Turks in 1686 and the Red Army stormed it during the winter of 1945, they left a residue of rubble that paradoxically became a foundation for regrowth, rebirth and reconstruction.

Following World War II, what was left of both the Margaret and Chain Bridges lay submerged in the river. Revolutions in 1848, 1919 and 1956 left bullet scared buildings and rising plumes of smoke in their wake, signals of the resistance that lay at the heart of all good Magyars. The embankment I stood upon has been inundated by the Danube too many times to recount, sending parts of Pest to a watery grave. Good men and women laid low by the pessimism of the Magyar mentality have leapt into the dark waters of the Danube in alarming numbers over the past two centuries. Jews had been marched to these river banks and shot by the hundreds in acts of genocidal indifference. Historical fate had subdued this city and its citizens repeatedly. Yet through it all the city rises again and again.

Chain Bridge looking up at Buda Castle at night

Chain Bridge looking up at Buda Castle at night (Credit: Noval Goya)

The Will To Splendor – In The Minds Of Magyars
Budapest by the Danube is a sparkling example of triumph over tragedy, the will to splendor, an astounding adherence to national destiny. For all their reputed gloomy cynicism, the heart of every Hungarian must be filled with an abiding optimism to overcome the many misfortunes of history inflicted upon their nation. How else to explain the creation of a capital that is such a showcase of scintillating beauty? Optimism is the eternal answer. Optimism took the grey Danube, spun it into a silvery thread and wove it into a fantasy cityscape of the most furtive imagination. Optimism built a series of unforgettable bridges that transcended nature to connect a city and nation into a greater whole. Optimism touched the sky with steeples that soared from a wellspring of faith. And optimism created a city that is a stunning exposition of the majesty that lives in the heart and mind of every Magyar.