Of the nine cities in Hungary with a population of one hundred thousand or more, Kecskemet can lay claim to the most sublimely remote location. The city is located out on the southern Great Plain amid a netherworld of ever-expanding agricultural fields, pancake flat steppe land and horizons that provoke thoughts of forever. Sand and soil were the defining traits of this region for generations. Modern agricultural techniques were the only thing that saved the area from becoming a Hungarian Sahara. The rather recent, at least in historical terms, agricultural cultivation of this land did little to ameliorate the effect of a rail ride into a county (Bacs-Kiskun) that has less than a hundred meters of elevation change throughout the area in which Kecskemet is located. The city itself comes on like a mirage, materializing an hour and 22 minutes by train outside of Budapest. The length of travel time is deceptive. Budapest seems like it could not possibly be that close or for that matter exist at all. Such was the landscape’s effect upon my perception of time and distance that I felt as though I had entered a land that lived by its own rules.
The Mid-Point Of Nowhere – Pass Through Country
Location meant everything to the historical development of Kecskemet. The city stands at the exact mid-point between the Danube and Tisza Rivers, halfway between Szeged and Budapest. Hungary is much too small to have fly over country like the Great Plains of the United States. Nonetheless, it has plenty of pass through country in its eastern portions. Kecskemet could be called the capital of pass through country. On my journey, I got the feeling that Kecskemet was a thousand miles from anywhere. One hundred kilometers on the Great Plain, was equivalent to ten in northern or western Hungary. Sky, grass, turned up earth and belts of trees were the only things marking what must have been a limitless horizon in prior centuries. The cultivation of trees till could not hide the growth of sky which was by far the most dramatic feature of the landscape. Time was measured in hours rather than minutes in this land.
It was with a fair amount of relief that I arrived in Kecskemet. The journey seemed to take much longer than I imagined. Upon my arrival, I had the disconcerting feeling that this was the kind of place I was never meant to visit. It was Hungarian through and through. Gone was the cosmopolitan air of Budapest, a provincial spirit pervaded Kecskemet. The Magyar tongue was the only language I heard spoken on the streets. There was an insular quality to this city, made more so by its seeming isolation. I hoped that whatever attractions the city might hold would be of greater interest than its immediate surroundings. I suspected that Kecskemet’s size and importance were due to its role as a large center of trade and commerce somewhere in this outer Hungarian space. Population, agriculture, pastoralism and the conduct of human affairs demanded as much. In that sense, Kecskemet was much like another metropolis of the Great Hungarian Plain, Debrecen. Both were surrounded by spaces that demanded a center. Kecskemet would turn out to have an astonishingly vibrant one.
Shifting Wasteland – From Existential To Environmental Crisis
I assumed that Kecskemet’s history was pockmarked with the excesses of Ottoman Turkish occupation. This was true to a lesser extent when compared to most other places on the Great Hungarian Plain. As the Ottoman war machine surged northward it laid waste to outlying settlements. Refugees fled to Kecskemet. Its population was swelled further when it gained protected status. Because of its role as a market town and trade center, Kecskemet came under the Sultan’s direct control. Any taxes paid went to the pasha of Buda and Ottoman treasury. Other areas on the southern Great Plain were not so lucky. Corrupt military commanders ruled in what was known as the Spahi system, where their income was derived directly from squeezing the land and business owners in the areas under their rule. Conversely, the Sultan and his administrators held a vested interest in Kecskemet which kept the town under the rule of law and relatively prosperous. This meant the town continued to undergo development rather than destruction during a century and a half of Ottoman rule.
An environmental rather than an existential crisis buffeted the city during the 18th century threatening its commercial livelihood. Tens of thousands of cattle grazed the surrounding steppe land until its already sandy soils were reduced to shifting wastelands. The pastoral economy completely collapsed. It took almost a century for the region’s economy to recover. A vigorous campaign to re-vegetate the Great Plain surrounding Kecskemet was encouraged by a massive tree and vine planting program. This led to the development of fruit orchards and vineyards. The cultivation of apricots was perhaps the most notable offshoot of this economic reorientation. Kecskemet soon became the center of production for Hungary’s delicious apricot brandy. In addition, the sandy soils proved to be the best defense against phylloxera, a nasty insect which caused vine rot across Hungary. Phylloxera devastated the country’s wine growing regions during the late 19th century. Vines entrenched in the sand in the area around Kecskemet proved immune. Production soared to meet demand. The led the city’s economy to a commensurate expansion.
Architectural Inspiration – An Exotic Jewel Box
The redevelopment of the surrounding landscape from pastoralism to viticulture, orchards and cropland brought prosperity to thrifty landowners. This newly acquired wealth led to the construction of public and private buildings in the city center during the late 19th and early 20th century. Some of Hungary’s most magnificent examples of Art Nouveau architecture were constructed during this time. These buildings have become Kecskemet’s calling card for visitors. As I was about discover, the city’s downtown was marked by a spaciousness clustered around four interconnected squares showcasing Art Nouveau inspired wonders. The astonishingly exotic buildings could not fail to impress precisely because they were beyond the modest expectations anyone might conjure up for the city. Kecskemet was more than a large city in the middle of nowhere, it was a self-contained jewel box filled with treasures from a time when architecture was informed by the most spectacular manifestations of creativity. Those manifestations would be the highlight of my visit to the city.