Brought to Ruin – Zelemer: Remnants of Gothic Greatness (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #13)

Going home to Hungary, means going to Debrecen. My wife and I often travel back to her hometown so we can spend time with her family. These visits offer the opportunity to relax. Debrecen is the very definition of laid back. Hungary’s second largest city is the equivalent of urban valium. The traffic is light, the sidewalks uncrowded and the locals quietly go about their business. The only problem with Debrecen is that it can drive a restlessness man to madness. After a couple of days, I begin to feel an innate sense of restlessness. This means it is time to travel. My restlessness has spawned a series of day trips from Debrecen to places both near (Hortobagy National Park, Nyirbator, Tokaj) and far (Gyula, Sarospatak, Regec Castle).

Anywhere we can go by car and return to Debrecen on the same day is fair game. This has led to an exhaustive series of adventures to sites of mild historical interest. I have now begun to worry that one day we will run out of places in the area to visit. This fear manifested itself to the point that we journeyed to the village of Zelemer and an obscure, but important piece of Hungarian history. According to what little I could find online, Zelemer had once been the home of a large medieval church. The only thing left of that church today was a partial ruin. That was good enough for me. On a fine late summer day, we went to see what was left in Zelemer. It was certainly worth the effort.

That lonesome whistle – Train Schedule in Zelemer

Spectacular & Mundane – Worth Waiting On
I had never heard of Zelemer before, but it was surprisingly close to Debrecen, requiring only a twenty minute drive north of the city. Locating the Zelemer church ruin proved more difficult than I imagined. After leaving the main highway, we took another road that led to the village. There was only one problem with this, the church ruin was not in the village of Zelemer, but on its outskirts. I did not realize this until we drove around the entire village several times. We finally found the church ruin by the railway station. The term “railway station” only loosely defined the one at Zelemer. The station looked like it had not been open since the 20th century. The door was locked, and windows sealed shut. Anyone wanting to take the train waited at a nearby siding where a schedule was conveniently posted. Twelve different trains stopped here each day, many of which went onward to Debrecen. While villagers waited on the train, they could look up at the ruined church which stood on the other side of the tracks.

The setting for the Zelemer church ruin was both spectacular and mundane. The railway line was within a stone’s throw of the church. At any moment, a train might come roaring by. By way of contrast, there was a large corn field on the other side of the ruin. A similar rural landscape must have existed here during the Middle Ages. What little was left of the Zelemer church stood high up on an artificial mound. Once I saw the ruin, it was almost impossible to take my eyes off it. Part of the tower was still intact. It rose 18 meters above the surrounding area. At one time, it would have soared as high as 30 meters. The church would have been an impressive sight for those traveling through the area. It would not have been the only one. The first church at Zelemer was constructed in accordance with a decree from Hungary’s first Christian king, Saint Stephen, who ordered that one church should be constructed at every tenth village. The initial iteration of the church at Zelemer was a Romanesque structure that would have been destroyed when the Mongols swept through the area in 1241.

Standing tall – Zelemer Gothic church ruins

Staying Power – A Thousand of Years of Christianity
The ruin that stands at Zelemer today was built in 1310. It was a sizable Gothic styled structure. There was enough left of the church to imagine the awe that it must have inspired. It would have been the centerpiece of not only the village, but the entire area. It was a sign of permanence in a world filled with conflict and caprice. The church was formidable enough that something of it managed to withstand destructive acts in the centuries to come. During the latter half of the 16th century, the Ottoman Turks pillaged and burned the church. This started a period of progressive decline. Once the church fell into disuse, the locals found that many of the stones could be put to other uses. There is no telling how much of the Zelemer Church is now part of the foundations for houses and rock walls in the area.

One modern addition has been added to the Zelemer Church ruins. A 3 meter tall statue of Saint Stephen stands nearby. It is a reminder of his decisive role in turning Hungary towards western Christianity. If not for Stephen, it is almost certain that Zelemer would never have been graced with a large church. Western Christianity was a unifying force for Hungary and Hungarians. Though over a thousand years have passed since Stephen’s time, Christianity is still a unifying force in Hungary. Zelemer is a prime example of how ruins offer a connection between the past and present. There have been incredible political, economic, and cultural changes in Hungary over the past thousand years, but Christianity remains a marker of Hungarian identity.

The Christian King – Saint Stephen at Zelemer

A Rapturous Effect – Deep Into The Imagination
For me, the most powerful aspect of the Zelemer Church ruins was how much it left to the imagination. Besides the tower, a portion of the northern wall and outlines of the floor plan there was little to go on. The missing pieces sent me deep into the imagination. What must the interior have looked like during the late Middle Ages? I imagined a cool, quiet nave with light streaming through Gothic windows. The sound of chants and a chorus of song emanating among the recesses. The voice of a priest booming from behind a pulpit. Whispers of prayer echoing across the aisles. The overall effect would have been rapturous. Seven hundred years later, without anything to go on other than my imagination, I could still catch a faint whiff of this most distant past. For a moment, the ruin of Zelemer Church was made whole and so was I.

Click here for: Journey Into The Unknown – Arpad Era Church At Karcsa: Mapquest (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #14)

An Acquired Taste – Hungary’s Second City: Eclectic & Humble Debrecen

As Brno is to Prague, as Split is to Zagreb, as Nis is to Belgrade, so Debrecen is to Budapest. The first cities in each of these comparisons are relatively unknown and less visited. They have populations of a few hundred thousand rather than millions. They enjoy less prestige in both their own countries and abroad. They are neither centers of political or economic power. It has often been said that no one remembers who finished second. Just like in sports, the same goes for cities in central and southern Europe.

Day Tripping – The Capital Of Eastern Hungary
These largely unknown places do have attractions to recommend them. These second cities are an acquired taste. Their delights are not commonly known or easily discerned. The city of Debrecen, economic capital of eastern Hungary and the second largest city in the nation fits this mold. It is dwarfed in prestige by its much bigger brother, Budapest. It is a far second in size, with just 12% of the population. It has little cultural vibe and still today is one of the least known second cities in all of Europe. That is hardly surprising. Most travelers across eastern Hungary are headed either westward to Budapest or eastward to Transylvania.  The mind numbing train ride across the great Hungarian Plain does Debrecen no favors. Kilometer after kilometer of flat agricultural fields stretches off into the hazy horizon.

The Debrecen train station - a world of difference from the old one

The Debrecen train station – a world of difference from the one destroyed during World War II

When the train finally pulls into Debrecen, most passengers are either asleep or dreaming of bigger and better attractions that lay hundreds of kilometers further down the line. A few travelers may decide to stop off at Debrecen. Their thinking is probably something to the effect that if it happens to be one of Hungary’s largest cities, then it certainly has to have something of interest. Debrecen does not have many attractions and need not detain the traveler for more than a day at most, but it is worth a stop if for nothing else, to see its main avenue. This is literally a hop, skip and jump away from the main railway station.

Debrecen Train Station - before being destroyed during World War II

Debrecen Train Station – before being destroyed during World War II

Of Bombing & Brigands – Debrecen’s Past
The first stop for the majority of visitors to Debrecen is the railway station, a sight that can make even the most travel hardened recoil. It is a concrete mass of communist architecture, a cold and indifferent welcome to the city. The original station, a classic Austro-Hungarian era design was destroyed, as was much of the southern part of the city, by aerial bombing and a large tank battle, known as the Battle of Debrecen that occurred between German and Soviet forces in 1944. Leaving the train station, the city gets better right away, more precisely it gets right to its best. This is a city that does not try to hide its treasures, they are front and center along Piac Utca (Market Street) which stretches northward from the station. This has been the main thoroughfare of Debrecen for the past two hundred years.

Tram One (one of only two in the city) glides past striking examples of eclectic, art nouveau, romantic and neo-classical architecture. These include the Old County Hall which is the first building of note to appear. It is a product of the secessionist style, the name implying its deviation from classical and romantic styles of architecture. A little over half way up it façade are several striking sculptures of armed Hajdus. The Hajdus were outlaws and brigands, both guerilla and freedom fighters who came to this area from the Balkans. They were in the vanguard as Hungarians resisted Ottoman Turkish and Habsburg authority. For their service during the 17th century they were given land in this region of eastern Hungary to settle on. It is only fitting that they are represented front and center on the County Hall since Debrecen is the county seat for none other than Hajdu-Bihar County.

Looking south down Piac Utca from the top of the Great Reformed Church

Looking south down Piac Utca from the top of the Great Reformed Church

The Calvinist Rome – Countering the Counter Reformation
Further along the left hand side of Piac Utca is a very strange looking building, which turns out to be the Kistemplom (Small Church). It is known by locals as the mutilated church. This is because the church had its top torn off during a storm in 1909. Today its uppermost portion bears an almost fortress like resemblance. Its original onion shaped dome having been replaced post-storm by a bastion-like top which crowns it today. One thing visitors may notice about Piac Utca is the presence of an absence, specifically the lack of a Catholic Church along Debrecen’s central street. Unlike most other Hungarian cities, Catholicism failed to dominate the life of Debrecen, thus the city has been given the title of Calvinist Rome. It has been one of Europe’s easternmost outposts of Protestantism (the Calvinist type) going all the way back to the reformation. During the reactionary days of the counter-reformation, the Austrian Habsburgs were unable to break the Protestant hold on the area. This was due as much to the spirited independence of the region’s inhabitants as it was to its distance from Austria.

The presence of Calvinism in Debrecen is most prominently displayed in the city’s main architectural attraction, the Reformed Great Church, a soaring monument to the Protestant faith. Towering over Kossuth square, which delimits the northern end of Piac Utca, the church makes a fitting finish to the city’s hallowed main street. This twin spired, neo-classical structure painted an eye popping yellow, manages the twin feat of being both monumental and austere. Monumental in its beautiful physical presence, austere in its lack of exterior or interior ornamentation, the Great Church is the ultimate symbol of Debrecen, no frills and straightforward.

The Reformed Great Church in Debrecen (Credit: PePM)

The Reformed Great Church in Debrecen (Credit: PePM)

Eclectic & Humble – Sizing Up Hungary’s Second City
Debrecen will always pale in comparison to other similar sized cities in Hungary. It was never the recipient of Habsburg splendor and suffered mightily during the Second World War. Nevertheless, Piac Utca is a delight. It showcases the best the city has to offer and begins literally a few steps away from the main railway station. It offers a seldom seen side of Hungary, Debrecen is eclectic and humble, monumental and quiet, truly like so many second cities in this part of Europe, it is an acquired taste. 




The Land Beyond the Tourists – Nyirseg

For a tourist, spending too much time in a small country can become boring. All the major must-sees are soon exhausted. At best, the tourist finds him or herself covering the same ground again and again, at worst they just pack up and move on with a been there, done that attitude. Both of these scenarios are predicated upon the dangerous idea of having seen it all. “Seeing it all” is usually based on recommendations of notable sites given by popular travel guides.

Unconventionally Conventional Wisdom
In a nation such as Hungary, the must see places are Budapest, followed by a visit to the Danube Bend, Szentendre and perhaps Lake Balaton or the historic town of Eger. If a tourist visits each of these than conventional wisdom pretty much says they’ve done Hungary. This is a completely superficial and wrongheaded assumption. A nation with the breadth and depth of Hungary’s natural and cultural history cannot be seen in a couple of weeks. “Doing Hungary” in travel parlance is way different from actually “knowing Hungary” or better yet “understanding Hungary.”

To know or understand Hungary, one would – as the unconventional that has come to be conventional wisdom states – have to go off the beaten path. Yet off the beaten path tourism is quite predictable. In Hungary it can be defined as anything other than Budapest. So called hidden treasures to visit in Hungary might include: the cities of Pecs, Sopron and Szeged; the mind bending expanses of Hortobagy National Park; the baroque quaintness of Koszeg. These are places usually seen by those with a couple of weeks to spare or a compelling reason to stay in the country for a while longer.

Nyírség region (shaded in red) is in northeastern Hungary

The Nyírség region (shaded in red) is in northeastern Hungary

The Land Beyond the Tourist – Nyirseg
These places are off the beaten path in a touristic sense, but hardly to the traveler. The main difference between a tourist and a traveler is that the former seeks comfort, beauty and refinement. The latter seeks unpredictability, adventure and understanding. The tourist wants to get away from it all, the traveler wants to get into it all. Getting into it all can mean anti-tourism, visiting the places beyond the tourists. Places that even Hungarians have left behind out of neglect, economic backwardness or disinterest. Where the scenery is mediocre and the only reason people are there is because it is where they live. These are places people travel through, but never to. Places people are moving away from. It is the land of forever leaving and left behind.

There is no place in Hungary that better fits this definition, than the Nyirseg. It is truly the land beyond the tourists, as well as a land beyond most Hungarians. The Nyirseg is found mainly within Szatmar-Szabolcs-Bereg County. It is the second poorest county in the nation today and has been a historically depressed area for centuries. Eastern Hungary is and has been the most economically backward area of the country. Even during the heady days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire it was the poorest province. One economic historian has estimated that it had a lower income even than that hallmark of Eastern European backwardness, Galicia. This was not just due to the vagaries of economic development, it has also to do with the natural environment.

Going Back In Time
Traveling through the Nyirseg is instructive. On a drive last week starting from Debrecen, located just east of the Nyriseg, I was shocked at how quickly the landscape changed. Around the Debrecen area one finds the earth upturned and cultivated in every direction. The pancake flat Great Hungarian plain is one of Europe’s richest agricultural regions. By contrast, once I entered the Nyriseg, the land began to roll ever so gently. Open fields were no longer home to crops, but instead sandy soil, the remnants of dunes left behind as sediment from rivers long ago. Forests became abundant. The root word of Nyriseg is Nyir which means birch in Hungarian. These trees were prevalent throughout the area.

Speaking of Nyir, I passed through innumerable towns all with the prefix Nyir attached to their name. A search in the Hungarian Wikipedia showed upwards of 90 named towns and villages in Szatmar-Szabolcs-Bereg County, 30 of these have Nyir as their prefix. It is not by accident that the two regional centers are called Nyriegyhaza and Nyirbator. These are relatively prosperous well-kept places. The same cannot be said of the villages in the countryside. One side road took me through several villages. These are strange places for a foreigner. Even with only a thousand people, houses line the road for several kilometers. A village can seem to go on forever. A few horse drawn wagon carts were still being used as transport. Bicycles vastly outnumbered cars. Villagers were everywhere, noticeable walking to or from their destinations. It seemed to be 1950 all over again.

Sand dunes - part of the Nyirseg landscape

Sand dunes – part of the Nyirseg landscape

A Landscape of Ambivalence
Many of the houses looked abandoned. I saw a woman engulfed in dust as she swept the sidewalk, or perhaps it was her yard. The yards looked to have as much sand as grass. The villages of the Nyirseg seemed to have been hollowed out, by urban flight and a search for economic prosperity. It was hard to imagine what anyone still does in these places, but wait. What are they waiting on? Perhaps even they do not know. Every once in a while there would be a freshly painted house, well kept. This was more puzzling than almost everything else on view. From whence did their prosperity arise? Were they the mayor? Did they own land? Who can say?

The road through the villages and the Nyriseg winded further on, bumpy, but not excessively so. The traffic was light, the spring sun slowly turning the trees to bloom. It almost felt like there was hope in the air. The Nyriseg, its villages and towns seemed forgotten. It was an insular and inward looking world. Its brushes with modernity had not so much improved as scarred it. It seemed like nothing ever really changed here and why would it. This was where traveling leads you. Not so much to the real Hungary, as to ambivalence.