The Things That Cannot Be Explained – Love & Humanity In The Debrecen Train Station

I have been asked many times what was the most impressive thing I have seen while traveling in Eastern Europe? Depending on the person questioning me I almost always give one of two answers. If I feel like the person has little knowledge of the region, I usually answer that the section of Budapest astride the Danube is a stunning sight. If I know the person has traveled in the region I will usually say the Old Town of Lviv. If I answer the former, my inquisitor usually says something to the effect that they will be sure to visit Budapest in the near future. If I answer the latter, it usually elicits a look of befuddlement. The conversation will then turn to more familiar subjects. My answers have always avoided what I really wanted to say. I keep the truth to myself for reasons of intimacy and vulnerability.

The most impressive sight I ever witnessed in Eastern Europe did not come in Budapest or Lviv. It did not come at any of the most heavily trafficked tourist sites or famous places. It cannot be found by using a guidebook or any other piece of tourist literature. No one has written a word about it, until now. I actually saw it in the eastern Hungarian city of Debrecen. And it had nothing do with that city’s Great Church, the Deri Museum’s famous collections or any of the sights along that most famous of streets, Piac Utca. The most impressive thing I ever saw in Eastern Europe took place on a random weekday in late October, inside the waiting area of the Debrecen Train Station, that old cavernous, concrete pile. If you go there, I seriously doubt you will get to see what I did. That is because the actual location can only be discovered in one place, the heart.

Just another ordinary day - the waiting hall at Debrecen Train Station

Just another ordinary day – the waiting hall at Debrecen Train Station

Just Another Ordinary Day – Watching People Watch The Clock
When a person feels vulnerable they become receptive to emotions they keep hidden away inside themselves. Suddenly something they see, hear or sense can trigger a wave of emotion unlike anything they have ever felt before. Some psychologists call this a significant emotional moment. This is not what I was expecting when I walked into the Debrecen train station on a mid-autumn day. The sun was out, the leaves were turning and the station was slumbering. The morning traffic had left long ago. Voices were barely above a murmur. I was half an hour early for the train to Lviv. I had arrived much too early as has so often been my habit. My logic was that only one train was headed for western Ukraine and I did not want to miss it. This left me time to hang out, perhaps grab something to eat and watch people watching the clock.

The atmosphere in the station was emotionless. One of those places where it seems like time has stopped. I began to wander around, first going from the ticket purchase counter to the magazine shop with countless Hungarian language titles for sale that I would unfathomable. Then it was on to look at the food, which from the meager selection on offer, looked as though communism had never left the building.  I did not find the idea of a soggy sandwich, lukewarm cup of coffee or day old pastry appetizing. By this time, I had made my way over to the waiting hall, a large high ceilinged room that smelled of mildew and disinfectant. The most notable feature of this area was a large communist era mural. It showed workers, both agrarian and industrial in a unity that never existed, except in the mind of state propagandists.

The Moment That Comes To Mean Everything – Life & Love
It was also in the waiting hall where I noticed the usual selection of popular novels and hard backed picture books for sale, cheap and easy reads that usually garner mild interest. One of those picture books caught my eye, but it was not located on the for sale table. Instead, it was in the hands of a father sitting with what I assumed to be his son. The two sat side by side on a hard backed bench while the father read aloud, the boy looked to be in his later teenage years. The boy looked at the photos attentively, studying each one closely as the father read to him slowly and carefully.

The boy was fascinated by each photo, staring at them with the curiosity of a small child. I noticed that he had Down’s Syndrome. How much he understood was open to question. From time to time, he would rear his head from one side to the other, than his father’s soft voice would call his curiosity back to the page. I wondered what he might have been thinking as he looked at all those majestic photos of Erdelyi Varak (Transylvania Castles), the book his father read to him with such loving care.  To see a father patiently and quietly taking the time to sit with his son and explain these photos made me want to explode into tears. There was magnificent beauty on those pages, but no castle could compare to what I witnessed in that moment. This was a reminder to me of what it means to be human.

On The Inside – A Sense Of Humanity
Amid that musty waiting hall, in an ugly old train station that looked to be several decades past its prime, I felt an incredible sense of love and humanity. It materialized before my very eyes. I suddenly realized how unexpectedly beautiful life can be. I understood what it really meant to love a child, to do everything you can for them no matter the situation. It took everything I had to hold back tears. Finally, after many minutes I pulled myself away from this scene. On the inside I was shaking, what I had seen disturbed and enlightened me in the most profound way possible. Since then it has never left my mind. It was the most impressive thing I have seen in Eastern Europe. Why was that? I really have no idea. There are certain things in life that cannot be explained, love is one of them.

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.