All That Remains  –  Sopron:  Lasting Impressions Of Brief Encounters

Sopron had so many historic buildings that I found it difficult to differentiate between them. This turned out to be as true in memory as it was at the time of my visit. The city left me with indelible impressions, but very few of these were of its most notable churches, homes and other buildings. Instead my visit to the city left me with only the vaguest memories of its historic treasures. It was a case where there were so many that it was hard to separate them in my mind. Just trying to see and understand everything was a bit withering. Of course, I relied on a guidebook at the beginning of my visit, but then instinct took over. This led to a wide range of memorable experiences which had more to do with the people of Sopron than its buildings. The city’s historic structures are now but a distant memory, while a handful of people have become central to the way I remember my visit.

A Reinforcement Of Loneliness – Going Solo
Several of these memories were related to the place where I stayed. Strangely enough I cannot recall much about what my room looked like or the evenings I spent there. What I do remember is how the hostess gave me a discount card for a restaurant just a couple of doors down from the pension. She told me the food was excellent and inquired on multiple occasions whether I had taken the opportunity to eat there. Each time my reply was negative. This elicited a look from her that spoke of disappointment, irritation and impatience. Followed by yet another mention of how wonderful the restaurant was. Her annoying pleas made me less likely to eat at there. I am always suspicious of the hard sell, especially when another country. The fact that I am not a gourmand was the main reason I did not partake of the offer. Good food and fine dining is lost on me. Traveling solo makes me less rather than more likely to sit down by myself at a restaurant. All this would do for me is reinforce my loneliness.

Despite my reticence for dining out I did have one of the most memorable meals of my life in Sopron. And like all good meals for me, it was not so much the quality of the food, as the ambiance of the restaurant. The evening after returning from Esterhaza Palace in Fertod I spent some time in Szechenyi ter (Szechenyi square), availing myself of photo opportunities at the towering statue of Istvan Szechenyi which stood at one end of this rather slender, rectangular square. From the square, I wandered down one of the nearby streets looking for a place to eat. I was searching for somewhere that was informal, any type of casual dining would do. My main hope was to avoid the type of fried fast food that is one of America’s worst exports to the rest of the world. What I needed was something relatively quick, affordable and tasty.

Szechenyi Ter - At dusk in Sopron

Szechenyi Ter – At dusk in Sopron

Lighting Up The Night  – The Happiest Chef In Sopron
As dusk began to turn to darkness I noticed a well-lit building by the name of Bella Italia Pizzeria. A small awning hung over the door, done up in the tricolors of Italy, which also happen to be the exact same three colors that can be found on the Hungarian flag. The lights inside glowed radiant and warm. I was magnetically drawn to the entrance.  Inside I found a single man at work. He was older with a big smile on his face which was very un-Hungarian. The stoicism shown strangers by most Magyars is something I had long since gotten used to. It could be said that Hungarians keep to themselves. They often meet smiles with quizzical expressions. It is my understanding that they find overt friendliness to be a symptom of both superficiality and stupidity. That feeling did not exist in this man, who greeted me with a heartfelt hello.

He was in the process of tossing dough around as though it were a football and making it spin like a basketball. He looked to be enjoying himself as much as his work. I selected a pizza and watched him immediately begin to whip the dough into shape. In less than twenty minutes, he produced a thin crust pie that was delicious. My satisfaction became all the greater when I watched him in action filling another order. He put on quite the performance for a four person family that included two young sons. Their presence made the pizza chef even more dramatic and charismatic. The two boys watched in fascination as he began tossing the dough high in the air, making it flip and flop, this way and that. He never came close to dropping the dough, but that did not stop the youngsters from gasping at his feats of aerial dough throwing. He was a dramatist hidden behind the counter of a provincial pizzeria. A true professional who had had found his calling through the art of performance. He was a chef and a showman. I have never forgotten his face or the fascination shown to him by that family. That moment did more than anything to frame my opinion of Sopron as an outstanding city.

Pizzeria Bella Italia in Sopron

Pizzeria Bella Italia in Sopron

Memory Bank – People & The Power Of Memory
I had come to Sopron, just as I had come to Gyor, Sarvar and Szombathely, looking to explore the city’s history and architecture, but it was the people I met who made the greatest impression upon me. Besides the pension proprietress and the pizza chef in Sopron, there was the young male trainee behind the front desk at my hotel in Gyor who made everything a mistake. I saw in him, so much of myself on the first week of a new job. There was also the man in his 30’s, who while standing beside me at the train station in Sarvar asked if I had a Hungarian girlfriend in town. What else would bring an American to Sarvar on a weekday morning? He was still there despite a good job in IT (he teleworked) because he needed to take care of his parents. And then there was the sports fanatic in the train station in Szombathely who had newspapers sprawled across a large desk. I did not believe that all those papers could be his, until he reminded me that they were. I had made the mistake of trying to read one. The man, like all the other people I met, made an impression on me. No mention of him or them will ever be found in a guidebook. They now exist only in my memory.

Click here for: Mythical History – Sopron’s Place Names: Goats, Gaisels & German Princesses

A Rich Relative At The Discount Store – Austria vs. Hungary In The 21st Century

While staying at a small hotel in Gallbrunn, Lower Austria I decided to try the on-site restaurant. This was one of only two dining options in this somnolent, tidy village on a late Sunday afternoon. The waiter recommended a wiener schnitzel with parsley potatoes. The serving was sizable and the food was delicious. We struck up a conversation with the waiter who had a Hungarian accent. It turned out that he was from the nearby city of Gyor in western Hungary. Like so many Hungarians who grew up on the other side of the border, he had come to work in Austria. The wages were so good that not only could he afford a flat in Gallbrunn, but he had also managed to purchase a home for himself in Gyor.

I had spent quite a bit of time in Gyor a few years ago. I recalled its quaint old town and prosperity in comparison with other places in Hungary. It was obvious that Gyor had maximized its proximity to Austria. The waiter agreed that this was true, but mentioned the fact that wages were still much lower in Gyor than in Austria. He said it was difficult for people in Gyor to save money and get ahead financially. On the other hand, the waiter in this tiny Austrian village, a 40 minute drive from Vienna, had managed to earn and save a sizable income. It paid so well that he had now been working at the restaurant for twenty-two years. When I asked him what the main difference was between Austria and Hungary he replied with one word, “Money.”

Civil Flag of Austria-Hungary

Partners, Rivals & Neighbors – Civil Flag of Austria-Hungary

The Rich Relative – Austria As Seen By Hungary
Austria and Hungary will forever be linked by their long and contradictory history. For just over half a century – from 1867 to 1918 – they made up the Dual Monarchy, also known as the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This was the most glorious era of a relationship that had been terribly deeply conflicted at times. The Habsburg Austrians imposed their will on Hungary with varying degrees of success from the 16th through the 19th centuries. This sparked several rebellions, most notably the Hungarian Revolution of 1848-49. Even when the two were united in the Dual Monarchy, the relationship was fraught with disagreements. The only way this empire could really work was to give each entity a large degree of autonomy. Following the First World War, Austria and Hungary became independent nations.

After World War II, the great divergence of their economies began. By end of the 20th century relations between the two nations were excellent, but the economic disparities were wide. This was due to the fact that Hungary was on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, while Austria was neutral. The latter enjoyed western investment and capital, while Hungary was restricted by its communist government and membership in the Warsaw Pact. After the Iron Curtain fell, the Hungarian economy opened up, but it has never managed to attain anywhere near the prosperity of Austria. This difference in wealth has led Hungarians to look westward with envy at their former imperial partner.

Austria has come to symbolize the wealth and prosperity of the western world to Hungarians. A closer look at economic and quality of life statistics shows why. Austria’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per person ranks 13th in the world at $51,306. That is nearly four times higher than Hungary’s at $13,881. Behavioral economists have shown that people most often base their economic status in life by comparing it with their neighbors. In other words, how rich or poor one feels is all relative. It is little wonder that Hungarians look to the west and Austria for their optimal standard of living. Even though Hungary borders seven countries and has a higher average income than four of them, Hungarians hold up Austria as their economic ideal. I have never met a Hungarian who compared their economic situation with that of say Ukraine, where Hungary holds a four to one advantage in average income.

“The Discount Store” – Hungary As Seen By Austria
Austria is seen as one of those countries – much like Switzerland – that is a land of eternal prosperity. Being wealthy for Austrians does come at a price though, specifically a higher cost of living. Austria’s cost of living is the 13th highest in the world, higher than that of the United States, while Hungary’s is one of the lowest in the European Union. Austrians are fond of referring to Hungary as “the discount store.” Since Hungary uses its own currency, the forint, rather than the Euro. Thus, prices are even lower than usual due to the exchange rate. Such western Hungarian cities as Sopron, Szombathely and Mosonmagyarvar are flooded with Austrians crossing the border for cheaper goods and services. Case in point, Mosonmagyarvar has 350 dentists, offering cut rate dental care to Austrians. A recent Hungarian government survey found that 160,000 Austrians cross the border annually to get their teeth worked on.

The difference economically between the two countries has always been quite visible to me. The roads in Austria are better, the trains are shiny and sparkling, the houses are freshly painted in picture book villages. There is still a gritty feel to Hungary, a ”rough around the edges” aesthetic that can be seen in the rickety trains, the dusty villages where bicycles outnumber automobiles and the faded paint jobs with cracked siding on many a home. Hungary is more down at the heel, while Austria is a sublime fantasy. The latter can seem a bit eerie, almost too well ordered while Hungary looks as though it is still recovering from war. Economically it still is, from a very cold war that froze its economy in stasis for decades.

The EU – Good Work & They Get It
The European Union is trying to rectify the economic disparities between its members. This is made clear by the amount of EU structural funds Hungary gets compared to Austria.  Hungary has been allocated 25 billion Euros for 2014-2020 for a wide variety of economic, social and cultural development projects, while contributing 4.63 billion Euros. Conversely Austria has been allocated 4.92 billion Euros for that same period while contributing 5.73 billion Euros. In a sense Austria is helping keep “the discount store” open. While for Hungary, the EU – just like Austria – is good work and they get it.

The One That Didn’t Get Away – Sopron: Hungary’s Most Loyal, Most Faithful

Sopron, known as “the most historic town in Hungary”, is a medium sized city of 60,000 located on the extreme western edge of Hungary, within just a few minutes of the Austrian border. Sopron’s catchphrase did not come easily. Its status as “most historic” is due to what did not happen there historically, as opposed to what did happen throughout the rest of Hungary on multiple occasions. The city was NOT ravaged by the Mongols in the 13th century, NOT taken by the Turks in the 16th or 17th centuries and it was left virtually untouched by the Austrians during the imposition of Habsburg Imperial rule. It even managed to avoid the worst excesses of the fighting at the tail end of World War II. Sopron seems to have pulled a Houdini act on Hungarian history, escaping the ravages of conquerors, rulers, invaders and of all things, peace treaties. Treaties brought about 20th century Hungary’s lowest point. This was a conquest by the stroke of pens rather than swords.

The center of Sopron, Hungary

The center of Sopron – a stunning aerial view of the most loyal town in Hungary (Credit: Civertan)

A Diabolical Irony – To The Defeated Goes The…
Famously, the Treaty of Trianon gave approximately two-thirds of Historic Hungary to Romania, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Yet there was another treaty which is rarely spoken of, but also partitioned a slice of Hungary. The Treaty of St. Germain-en-Laye gave the Burgenland, a German speaking part of extreme western Hungary, to Austria. This was an extremely bitter pill for Hungarians to swallow. After all, it was Austria that had led the Dual Monarchy into the Great War, a conflict that brought an end to both the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Historic Hungary. In a mind boggling paradox Hungary was being forced to hand over territory to an erstwhile ally that had played the leading role in its defeat. Here was an exceedingly rare case of “to the defeated goes the spoils.” To paraphrase a bit of Orwellian logic, “all defeated countries were equal, but some defeated countries were more equal than others.”

In his memoirs, The Phoenix Land, the famous writer and Foreign Minister of Hungary during this time Miklos Banffy states the situation as, “a diabolical irony. For centuries Hungarians had fought successfully to defend Hungarian land from Austria; but now, when the Allies had broken up the Austrian Empire, it was demanded of us that we should surrender to Austria land that had always been ours…This was a most perverse idea. It seems to have originated in the desire of the victorious powers to drive a wedge between Hungary and Austria…” It looked like Hungary was fighting yet another lost cause. In the case of Sopron, it turned out differently. Here would be that rarest of instances, where Hungary was actually victorious during the 20th century. A small victory, improbably won considering the historical context of the times.

Postcard of Sopron at the beginning of the 20th century

Postcard of Sopron at the beginning of the 20th century – even then it was part of the Hungarian half of the Austro-Hungarian Empire

Loyalty, Faith & History – All Along The (Firewatch) Tower
The Hungarians negotiated a plebiscite to take place among Sopron’s citizens. This would decide whether the city wanted to be part of Hungary or Austria. The odds of a victory were not exactly in favor of Hungary. The last pre-war census taken of the city in 1910 showed that Sopron’s population was 51% ethnic German, 44% Hungarian.  It probably helped matters for Hungary that there were independent Hungarian led militias in the area, answerable to no government. Though violence was minimal, the psychological effect of such force offered a hidden incentive for Sopron to vote for Hungary. The plebiscite was held just eleven days prior to Christmas in the winter of 1921. 65% of the citizens voted to keep Sopron and eight surrounding villages in Hungary. Sopron was given the title (depending upon the translation) “the Most Loyal” or “the Most Faithful” town.

Map showing Hungarian and Austrian voting patterns in the Sopron Plebiscite

Map showing Hungarian and Austrian voting patterns in the Sopron Plebiscite (Credit: Sarah Wambaugh Plebiscites Since The World War)

What Hungary gained can still be seen today as Sopron’s historic architecture is largely intact. The city’s Belvaros (inner city) is packed with buildings constructed in Baroque style. Out of 115 monuments and 240 listed historic buildings one of the most famous is also one of the tallest, the Firewatch Tower. The guards who staffed the tower for centuries not only kept a watch out for fires, but they also blew trumpets from the balcony every 15 minutes to keep the city’s citizens informed of the time. That’s quite a lot of trumpeting! Unfortunately, the Firewatch Tower guards could not stop the great fire of 1676 that would consume the upper half of the structure. That fire also burnt much of the original city to the ground. The rebuilding that followed, successfully meshed one architectural style with another. The tower’s base is built on the old Roman town wall. The cylindrical lower half goes back to the 12th century and is quintessentially medieval in character. The tower is then topped off by a Baroque balcony and helm roof. That’s nearly two millennia of history incorporated in a single structure. It can be said that the most historic town in Hungary also has one of the most historic structures.

The Firewatch Tower in Sopron

The Firewatch Tower in Sopron – landmark of the city (Credit: Vadaro)

The Heart Of A Nation
The Firewatch Tower is the place to get magnificent views of Sopron’s Belvaros (inner city). Looking out over its Baroque elegance one can see why the Hungarians wanted to keep this city part of their nation. The beauty and elegance on offer along these winding, cobblestones streets is aesthetically pleasing. It can almost lead one to believe that historically little has ever been lost by Hungary. An illusion for sure, but an alluring one nonetheless. Sopron can never make up for all that was lost of Historic Hungary in the aftermath of the Great War, but it offers every Hungarian a bit of solace. Here on the very fringes of Hungary can be found the heart of a nation, faithful, self-confident, forever loyal.

To Watch The World & Yourself Fade Away – Banksa Stiavnica

When you end up in the middle of a place you never could have imagined, in a town whose name you have never heard of, when you learn fascinating details about the place that they probably should have taught you in history class but never did and never will, then you know you are in Banska Stiavnica.

In Defiance of Disbelief – All the Banska Stiavnica’s
There are countless Banska Stiavnica’s and you never even noticed them. They can be discovered hiding throughout Eastern Europe. That’s because Banska Stiavnica is representative of all the Gyors and Soprons, the Sibius and Clujs, the Veliko Tarnovas and Plovdivs, the Lvivs and Uzhhorods that exist outside both historical and travel consciousness. They are all uniquely distinct cities, both large and small. Secret finds and fascinating surprises that capture, first your imagination and then steal your heart. They punch above their weight in atmospherics and aesthetics. Delightful in the way they soar through you and then seep back into your memory many months later. They are the delights of the selfish traveler, all yours and only yours because the people you keep company with back home would not even begin to consider visiting them.

One World Fades Into Another - A scene looking up and out from a corner in Banska Stiavnica

One World Fades Into Another – A scene looking up and out from a corner in Banska Stiavnica

Banska Stiavnica is a hallmark example for these types of places. It has a quaint grandeur all its own. This little city, with a population of barely ten thousand, has an outsized history which is betrayed by its current size and lack of prominence. A potted history of Banska Stiavnica goes something like this: It was a mining mecca starting in the early Middle Ages. First declared a royal free town in the mid-13th century by King Bela IV of Hungary (Hungarians call the city Selmecbanya), the town grew quickly into one of the most important mining communities in the world. Skilled German miners (Germans call the city Chemnitz) were invited by the Hungarian kings to provide the expertise and labor to excavate the vast silver and gold reserves in the area. The city enjoyed a series of recurrent booms spurred on by the ingenuity of miners and engineers.

Historic & Forgotten Firsts – The Hidden History of a Five Hundred Year Boom
Among the historic firsts that happened at Banska Stiavnica include the first use of steam driven mechanisms to expunge water from mining areas and the world’s first polytechnic university. Incredibly the good times ebbed and flowed for over five hundred years. By the late 18th century Banska Stiavnica was the third largest city in the Kingdom of Hungary, ahead of even Buda and Pest in population at that time. Strangely enough, while the population was at its pinnacle with 40,000-odd residents in 1782, the mines had already been in terminal decline for several decades. Lacking economic diversification, Banska Stiavnica soon faded into obscurity.

Stary Zamok (Old Castle) in Banska Stiavnica

Stary Zamok (Old Castle) in Banska Stiavnica

The city’s rich (quite literally) past is still physically represented by the superb architectural wonders straddling its serpentine streets. There are two castles within a ten minute walk of one another. The most impressive of these, Stary Zamok (Old Castle), is a three nave Romanesque style, part spiritual, part military fortress. What had started as a church had been fortified to fend off the Turks during the 16th century. It is an intriguing synthesis of the religious and the martial. In Namestie sv Trojice (Holy Trinity Square), at the city’s heart, stands a very large Baroque plague column. It attracts the eyes and humbles the heart, a monument to those who suffered the scourges of centuries past. Either side of the square is lined with Romanesque and Renaissance era burgher’s houses. Further afield the colorful buildings continue.

The Baroque Plague Column in Namestie sv Trojice (Holy Trinity Square)

The Baroque Plague Column in Namestie sv Trojice (Holy Trinity Square)

A Lifetime’s Worth of Discovery – Glory of the Faded & Forgotten
The city’s setting, in an expansive wooded valley with hills rising on several sides, lends an air of dramatic natural beauty. Taking it all in, the traveler gets the sense of a deep and penetrating history that pervades Banska Stiavnica. It is enough to make the traveler want to settle in for what might become a lifetime long sojourn of sipping coffee and reading historical tomes in sleepy cafés. Another alternative is just as inviting, to use Banska Stiavnica as a stimulus to continue teasing out all the hidden in plain sight places that lie in between the more well-known places on the map of Eastern Europe. How many other Banska Stiavnica’s are out there, likely a lifetime’s worth. For those who say that everything has been discovered, Banska Stiavnica and cities like it put the lie to that cliché. Discovery is not about some vague historical personage stumbling on the New World. Instead discovery is something deeply personal, finding a place where you find yourself.

The crazy thing is that for the completely curious, those who cannot wander far enough, who have to keep pushing into the deeper recesses of the atlas, there are always going to be more remote spaces and unimaginable places with semi-pronounceable names to discover. The idea that they are all out there waiting, is enough to set the pulses of wayward travelers racing. They are an avenue into a wider world, stretching across thousands of invisible kilometers, space and time captured by a wandering heart. True discovery lurks in these in-between spaces. The places you were never required to know or consider but forever exist in a state of suspended anonymity.

A window into the present and a reflection of the past - the allure of Banska Stiavnica

A window into the present and a reflection of the past – the allure of Banska Stiavnica

Stay (Faraway, So Close)
There is this idea with travel that if you go long enough and far enough, you will eventually have seen it all or at the very least exhausted your curiosity. Then abruptly the affair will end and you will retire to a cubicle and life of disciplined domesticity, climb the ladder into middle management, live a nice quiet life sleeping in on Saturdays and one day telling the grandkids you visited Banska Stiavnica. They will look at you like the crazy old man you have become, dreaming of the days when you owed the world nothing and tramped into parts unknown. There is another way this comfortingly sad tale might end. What if you went to Banska Stiavnica and never left. Decided to stay there and watch the world along with your life slowly grow old and familiar until, like this slumbering old mining city, it finally fades away.