Versions of Vac: An Obscure King & The Missing Centuries (For The Love of Hungary Part 42)

Where does history begin in Hungary? For Hungarians it begins in the 890’s when they came storming into the Carpathian Basin to take what they consider to be their rightful place in the European family of nations. For many western historians, the human history of the land that is now Hungary begins with the arrival of the Romans. Other historians whose focus is on the Hungarians, begin history before their arrival during the Dark Ages. This was when barbarian tribes that have long since vanished occupied the area. The answer to the question of when history began in Hungary will always be subjective. That same question can be asked on a micro scale in the town of Vac, a half hour north of Budapest on the eastern side of the Danube.

Invisible Man - King Geza I

Invisible Man – King Geza I

The Age Of Baroque – Triumphal Architecture
In a physical sense, the history of Vac begins during the Baroque era. The oldest structures that I saw during my visit were all from that time period. To name but a few, the bridge to Budapest which crosses the Gombas stream south of the city center was completed in the 1750’s, the Dominican Church in 1741, the Franciscan Church in 1765, and the Assumption Cathedral in 1777. Though the Baroque period left the most lasting mark upon Vac, the first three decades of that period (1700 – 1730) were destroyed overnight. Each of the churches were built or finished after a cataclysmic fire in 1731 left only one out of every ten buildings in the town intact. The famous crypt which has become the Memento Mori museum – discovered in 1994 below the Dominican Church – dates from the Baroque period. It only came into use in the years after the fire. The first burial took place in 1738.

The most Important administrative structure, the Town Hall, was also completed in 1764. This was just in time for a visit to the town from Empress Maria Theresa.  A Triumphal Arch, the only one in Hungary, that can be found on the northern end of the old town was raised in honor of the Empress at that same time. Even the infamous building which would become and still acts today as a state prison was completed in 1777. All this gives the impression that the history of Vac is an 18th century construction. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is almost inconceivable to imagine the versions of Vac which have completely vanished. These include the Ottoman, Renaissance and Romanesque. If Vac could regain all the architecture that was swept away during the first 600 years of its existence, the town would be one of Europe’s greatest tourist destinations. Working backwards through Vac’s history reveals the riches which can only be recalled by history books and the most fantastical of imaginations.

An Old View - Vac (Weitzen in German)

An Old View – Vac (Weitzen in German)

Removing The Evidence – Searching For Clues
Eastern style exoticism marked Vac for nearly a century and a half. It was once home to a thousand wooden houses and seven mosques. Bosnian soldiers walked the streets and its inhabitants spent their leisure time at a Turkish bath. These structures were quite an achievement for a town that changed hands 40 times during the border wars which raged in the area between Ottoman, Hungarian and Habsburg forces. The fact that not a hint of that Vac still exists is a depressing thought, that paradoxically manages to exhilarate the imagination. What would it have been like to sail down the Danube then suddenly spy a skyline studded with minarets and domes while the muezzin sounds a sonorous call to prayer? We will never know. There is almost nothing left of Ottoman Vac, not even the ashes. History may have happened here, but we must rely on the written word rather than physical evidence. The effect is akin to visiting the scene of a crime where all the evidence has been removed.

The Vac that existed before the Ottoman Turks occupied the town is even more distant and remote. Next to nothing is left of the Renaissance buildings constructed during the enlightened period when the famous humanist Bishop Miklos Bathori was the most powerful person in the town. A few physical remnants of an earlier time period can be found on display in Marcius 15 ter (March 15 square). These are the traces of St. Michael’s Church outlined in the square. Only those well versed in Hungarian history would have any idea of another clue to the earliest history of Vac. On maps as well as on the ground there is a singular callback to the High Middle Ages in the name Geza Kiraly ter (King Geza Square). King Geza ruled for just three years, 1074 – 1077, as part of the Arpad Dynasty of Hungarian Kings. Hungarians might know this, but it is doubtful that anyone else does. After stumbling across the name while looking at a map of modern Vac, I became fascinated.

Statue of King Geza I at Vac Castle Walls

Statue of King Geza I at Vac Castle Walls (Credit: Mister No)

Memory Marker – The Legacy of A Forgotten King
Hungary has innumerable squares named after Szechenyi, Kossuth and Petofi among a multitude of other famous sons. The name Geza is not used with the frequency of other names unless it refers to Prince Geza, father of Hungary’s first Christian king, Stephen I (Istvan I). Geza Kiraly is a rarity, specific to Vac for historical reasons. Geza was in line for the Hungarian throne until usurped by his cousin Solomon who had support from powerful German forces. After Geza’s father died, he was forced to travel to Poland and recruit military assistance. He ended up traveling back to Hungary with Polish help and fought his cousin to a draw. Geza was able to secure a small area under his direct rule that is now part of western Slovakia.

Eventually Geza and Solomon turned upon each other again. This led to a battle for the throne that took place close to present day Vac. Geza, with the help of his brother Laszlo, won a decisive victory. As King of Hungary his reign was rather short lived. During his reign, Geza managed to have a Romanesque Cathedral constructed at Vac in honor of the Virgin Mary. This was where Geza was buried when he died a natural death in 1077. A century and a half later, the Mongols destroyed the Cathedral. Geza, warrior, king and patron of Vac was little more than a memory by the mid-13th century. Today King Geza I’s legacy in the town is Geza Kiraly ter and a statue of him standing atop the walls of Vac Castle, a structure he would never have had any idea existed. The square and statue may not seem like much, but at the very least they are markers memorializing him. They also act as reminders that this is where the history of Vac really begins.

A Confrontation With Mortality – Memento Mori In Vac: Death Becomes Us (For The Love of Hungary Part 41)

Vac was clean, lively and laid back. Its squares were filled with those enjoying a sun filled sky as early autumn took hold. The cluster of churches in the city center was well worth visiting. The town’s most lasting architectural attributes had come from the Baroque era, one of the more positive and peaceful eras in Hungarian history. This made Vac seem even more welcoming than it already was. Thus, it was shocking that the town’s most notable attraction lay beneath all the happiness of Vac’s city center. The one attraction most likely to lure a tourist out from Budapest and up to Vac was dark, cold and hidden away. It was with a sense of curious trepidation that I made my way to the Memento Mori.

Crypts were never my thing. They are always chilling, both physically and metaphorically. The descent into them begins with a rush of cool air that starts off as refreshing, quickly becomes bracing and always ends up stifling. The heavy, moist air does not help matters. This is accompanied by a weighty silence, the soundtrack to mortality. One gets a feeling that death is just around the corner, as it inevitably is. I always get the feeling that something terrible is going to happen in a crypt, but it already has. The life went out of these spaces long ago. At least that had been my experience in prior visits to crypts. The Memento Mori in Vac changed my opinion of what a crypt could be. I would soon discover that the crypt was as much about life as death. It would also cause me to confront mortality.

Hidden Passageway - The Dominican Church in Vac

Hidden Passageway – The Dominican Church in Vac

Rediscovering The Dead – Memory Bank
In 1994 during restoration work on the Dominican Church in the center of Vac, construction workers discovered a vaulted crypt that had been bricked off for over 150 years. They had made an astonishing discovery. Inside were 265 stacked, hand painted coffins of parishioners, priests, nuns and others who had been buried there between 1731 and 1839. Then somehow the crypt was all but forgotten. Because the temperature and relative humidity inside the crypt were stable, the deceased were mummified. 166 of the corpses were in such good condition that they could be positively identified. Even more intriguing than the corpses were the clothes and jewelry that adorned each one. They were dressed in period clothes, wore rosaries and other accoutrements offering ethnographers a treasure trove of details concerning the life and customs of Vac’s inhabitants during the Baroque era.

Incredibly, every one of the 266 coffins discovered was unique. A variety of symbols were painted on them to represent the lives of the deceased. These included quotes and bible verses in Hungarian, German and Latin that acted as epitaphs and remembrances. The coffins and clothes were symbols of life, offering a different take on death and how it was perceived two centuries ago. All but three of the corpses are now in storage at the Hungarian Natural History Museum in Budapest where they have been scrutinized down to the most intimate details. Scientists studying the mummies uncovered evidence of tuberculosis which raged in Baroque era Vac. This was caused by people moving from the countryside into town. The information gleaned from the mummified remains has been a boon for scientists. This has helped them learn about tuberculosis before antibiotics were available.

Grave Misgivings - Coffins at the Memento Mori in Vac

Grave Misgivings – Coffins at the Memento Mori in Vac

Freeze Frame – State Of Preservation
The three mummies and coffins on display at the Memento Mori were representative of the entire discovery. These included a male, female and an infant. As I began the “tour” which was little more than being led downstairs into the crypt, I was told that photos were not allowed. I certainly did not have any problem with this rule. Almost immediately, a creepy, voyeuristic feeling came over me as though I were entering a mysteriously ancient morgue that mortals were not supposed to visit. The atmosphere in the crypt was quiet and funereal, just as one might imagine. The problem for me in the crypt was that it forced me not so much to confront the corpses and coffins on view, as much as it did my own mortality. I discerned right away that this was where we were all headed. Maybe not to a crypt bricked up beneath a Baroque Church, but to our own silent, cold graves. The effect was multiplied once I peered inside the wooden coffins at the inhabitants dressed in their finery.

It is slightly disconcerting to peer into a wooden coffin and see a woman’s skull wearing a bonnet. My initial reaction was one of horrific bemusement. The bonnet covered skull sounds was like something out of a 1950’s horror film. In another coffin was a was man who had gone by the surname Martinovics. I distinctly remember his name for a reason that I will never quite fathom. Looking at the man and woman I was shocked. So this was what dead people looked like semi-preserved. It was hard to imagine a living soul had ever inhabited their bodies. While his clothing was colorful, the body of Martinovics looked fragile, as though he might crumble at any moment. Was this really going to be me one day? That thought was interrupted by a more disturbing one. This would be me, but only if I was lucky enough to be preserved.

Confrontation With Mortality - Mummy at the Memento Mori in Vac

Confrontation With Mortality – Mummy at the Memento Mori in Vac

A Silent Scream – Saving The Worst For Last
The memory of Martinovics was not what would come to haunt me from that visit. I managed to save the worst for last. When I peered into the third coffin, I was suddenly confronted by a horrifying scene. In a small coffin lay the skeleton of a small infant. What caused me to recoil was the opening where the infant’s mouth had been. It formed the outline of a scream. This was beyond my capacity to process. This sight filled me at first with terror, then pain. I knew infant mortality had been inordinately high in centuries past, but the reality of a single death was brought home to me in the moment I looked at that infant. There in front of me was the reality of life and death two centuries ago in Hungary. Suddenly I realized that it was still a reality today. Many things have changed over the centuries, but death has not. That was my final impression of Memento Mori.


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.