A Revolution On Rails – Budapest To Vac: Making The Connection (For The Love of Hungary Part 40)

The quintessential day trip from Budapest is to travel north of the city to the beautiful town of Szentendre which lies along the Danube’s western bank. Tens of thousands of tourists who would otherwise never venture anywhere outside the capital take the HEV suburban railway to the town each year. They are joined by throngs of Hungarians who also love to visit Szentendre for a break from their beloved capital. The town has a noticeably artistic vibe. It has spectacularly cute houses and spiritually evocative churches in addition to eclectic art galleries. The only drawback are the crowds who clog the streets and alleyways. Finding solitude in Szentendre is one art that has definitely been lost. Visitors are much more likely to be rubbing shoulders or exchanging sharp elbows while jockeying for space. Mass tourism has managed to degrade the visitor experience, but Szentendre is still so wonderful that many walk away proclaiming it as the highlight of their visit to Hungary. It is hard to disagree with them.

Waiting on a Train - Vac station

Waiting on a Train – Vac station

Ride The Lightning – Fast Forwarding To The Future
There is another option for visitors willing to venture north of Budapest along the Danube. Only the more adventurous or long-term visitor will likely travel to the riverside town of Vac. It lies along the eastern bank or opposite side of the Danube from Szentendre. Because Vac is not connected to the city by suburban railway it requires the potential visitor to take a train from Nyugati Station. Depending upon which one is chosen, the train can take anywhere from 25 to 42 minutes. The main difficulty I had with this trip was remembering to get off the train not long after I took my seat. Vac came on rather fast, not giving me time to settle in as I usually like to do on a train journey. The train’s departure and arrival was without note. This was decidedly different from what had taken place 170 years earlier along this same route. I would only later learn that I was following in the footsteps of a seminal event in Hungarian transport history.

On the afternoon of July 15, 1846, thousands of people were gathered around the Western Railway Station in Pest. They were there to see two steam engines, “Buda” and “Pesth”, transport passengers by engine driven locomotive. Exactly a decade earlier, an announcement had been published by the government for starting the construction of railroads. It included plans for 13 different lines. After many years of political and economic roadblocks, the first engine driven train in Hungarian history headed northward from Pest to the cheers and astonishment of the crowd. The train traveled at lightning speed by the standards of the time, making its 33 kilometer trip in 49 minutes with only a single stop to take on wood and water. The world had suddenly fast forwarded to a future which had been brought forward to the present. What was once a three hour trip by horse drawn wagon cart under the best circumstances had been reduced to less than an hour in a single afternoon.

The First Time - Opening ceremony of the first Hungarian railway line

The First Time – Opening ceremony of the first Hungarian railway line

Taking Speed – The Journeys Begin
The train that travelled between Pest and Vac was not the first showcase of steam power in Hungary, steamboats had already been plying the Danube and Tisza Rivers with both passengers and cargo. The difference with railways was that they offered countless  possibilities since unlike rivers they could go almost anywhere that engineering, manpower and a steam driven engine could take them. Here was the industrial revolution being brought to the countryside. The options were endless for the development of transportation corridors, the movement of people and the facilitation of commerce. One of the first to ride the iron horse to Vac was that most famous of Hungarian poets Sandor Petofi. Petofi immediately recognized that railways could connect all regions, cities and towns in Hungary. The sprawling kingdom could be threaded together through these iron rails, offering possibilities for transit and travel that only a visionary few could foresee.

The biggest difference between that 1846 train journey and the one I made, was how such a trip had gone from a revolutionary novelty to a matter of fact journey that took place over 30 times a day. There were no onlookers, either at the stations or along the rails as they were for that first journey. The Palatine (defacto Prime Minister in 1846) or any other high government official would likely never take such a short journey by train today. Unlike that first journey which was reserved for elites, today’s Budapest to Vac passengers use it as a form of mass transit. The fact that no one so much as raised an eyebrow about the journey is indicative of just how commonplace such excursions, whether for work or pleasure, have become. For all the differences between that first journey and mine they did have one thing in common, both took less than an hour. Travel time was speeding up at a magnificent rate during the 19th century, little has been done to better it since then.

Endless possibilities - Railway map of Hungary

Endless possibilities – Railway map of Hungary (Credit: Maximillian Dorrbecker)

A Last Time For Everything – Memento Mori
I alighted at a rather large, two story station. It was only a short walk to the city center. Almost immediately I sensed that the town had a rather laid back feel to it. The hustle and bustle of Budapest had been left behind 33 kilometers ago. Vac was a contrast, not a compliment to Szentendre. There was plenty of space to roam and foreigners were scarce. It looked like a great place to wander at a relaxing pace before imbibing coffee and devouring pastries. In short, Vac was Valium compared to the steroid of Szentendre. The sedate environment of Vac was also deceptive. That was because the city was home to a museum that could literally chill the bones. What is known as the Memento Mori had drawn me to Vac. I have never been particularly interested in burial customs, mummified remains or crypts full of centuries old corpses, but I had also never been given the opportunity to visit one. There is a first and in the case of the Memento Mori last time for everything. Little did I know what lay beneath Vac and for hundreds of years neither did its citizens.

A Small Corner in Szentendre – Serbia & The Power of Belief

North of Budapest, on the west bank of the Danube sits the astonishingly charming town of Szentendre.
Due to its proximity to the capital, it has pretty much become the number one day trip destination for visitors and locals alike. The town can be easily reached via the city’s suburban railway. On arrival, visitors find a colorful array of historic buildings, quaint, cobble stoned streets and an artistic colony, second to none in Hungary. Szentendre has a feeling of prosperity and wealth, as it has become a refuge for those looking to flee the noise, clamor and bustle of Budapest. It has also become a refuge for artists looking to glean inspiration from its Mediterranean like vibe.

Szerb utca (Serb street) - one of the main streets in Szentendre and for good reason.

Szerb utca (Serb street) – one of the main streets in Szentendre and for good reason.

History & Memory on a Street Corner in Szentendre
Szentendre’s history as a refuge extends much deeper into the past than might be expected. For those who look beyond the curiosity shops, patisseries and stylish restaurants there is a multi-ethnic history waiting to be discovered. On the corner of Lazar car ter (square) in Szentendre there is a monument topped with a cross. It is placed in a rather inconspicuous setting, beside a restaurant. The throngs of tourists that come to visit this historic town often overlook it. Nonetheless, this monument and where it stands represent the importance of Szentendre to the memory and history of Serbia during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Strategically located at the beginning of the Danube River’s bend north of Buda, Szentendre became a home to South Slavic refugees during the Middle Ages. The town’s history as a refuge began in the 14th and 15th centuries when groups of Bulgarians and Dalmatians made their way to the banks of this Hungarian stretch of the Danube while fleeing the Ottoman Turkish hordes ravaging their homelands. This wave of immigration was later followed by Serbs who settled in the area after fleeing the same group of invaders.  By the mid-16th century, the Turks had managed to occupy most of Hungary including the area that was Szentendre. The village was soon depopulated. It was only after the ouster of the Ottoman Turks in Hungary by Habsburg forces in the latter part of the 17th century that the region was safe once again for settlement.

Monument to Tsar Lazar of Serbia in Szentendre - in the place where a church once stood that held his bones

Monument to Tsar Lazar of Serbia in Szentendre – in the place where a church once stood that held his bones

The Life Force Of A Nation
Meanwhile the Serbs were able to reoccupy their ancestral homeland. It was not long though before they were uprooted again by Ottoman counter advances. As a reward for their bravery and courage in fighting the Ottomans, the Habsburgs allowed some 6,000 Serbs to resettle in Szentendre. Their leader, Arsenije III Čarnojević, also brought the relics (bones) of Tsar Lazar, the Serbian nation’s last pre-Ottoman leader who had been killed on the field of blackbirds at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. The relics had been given the greatest protection for the past three hundred years. Centuries long efforts of monks kept these relics from being defiled by the marauding Turks.

The relics allowed for the veneration of Lazar as physical and spiritual evidence of the Serbian nation’s will to exist no matter the historical circumstances. The relics were brought to Szentendre in 1690 where they were placed in a newly constructed wooden Serbian Orthodox church. They were housed there for seven years before eventually being returned to Serbia. The spot where the church was located is today marked by the memorial at the corner of the square. It seems almost impossible to believe that in this spot, the life force of a nation was once safeguarded.

Serbian Orthodox Church in Szentendre - Credit: upsalatty

Serbian Orthodox Church in Szentendre – Credit: upsalatty

Symbols Matter – The Veneration of An Idea
To modern visitors this might seem like no big deal. In the present age where “enlightened” beliefs are pervasive, relics fail to receive accolades or veneration. It is commonly thought, especially in westernized cultures, that such traditions are based on antiquated beliefs, the superstitions of an unscientific age. Yet it is instructive to remember that people act on what they believe. If that belief is powerful enough to motivate the actions and activities of a group of people then it is certainly a worthy part of the historic record. The Serbian people believed in the greatness of their leader Tsar Lazar and the independence of the Serbian kingdom. He was the living embodiment of a people and culture at its zenith. Despite the centuries of Turkish occupation and oppression that followed Lazar’s reign, the idea of Serbia lived on.

In death Lazar may well have been more important to the idea of Serbia than he was in life. The veneration of his relics is as much the veneration of an idea as it is of a man. It is not so much who he was, as to what he symbolizes: a Serbian people ruling themselves, leading all the South Slavs, free and independent of foreign control. Did the relics assist this belief in Serbia? The answer is almost certainly yes. They were as much a part of the fight for that kingdom as any soldier or sword. The monument where that wooden church was once located, now stands improbably in another nation, Hungary, in a town that has only a handful of Serbs still living there. Nevertheless, it deserves not only to be noticed, but also to be read and remembered.