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)