Tag Archives: Hungary

Pecs–or in German, Fünfkirchen

21 May

Szechenyi Square, Pecs

We would have had no idea that this invigoratingly attractive little town even existed if we hadn’t been staying on Lake Balaton in the region that our Eyewitness Guide defined as “Southern Transdanubia.”  That section of the guide gave an inviting description of the place, only two hours away by car.  During our trip to Budapest, we found out that all those Zsolnay tiles and ceramics we were seeing had been made in Pecs. So we were curious to see this place that seemed to us to be far removed from European cultural centers, but which had been selected in 2010 as the European Capital of Culture.

After driving through pleasant green hills and a host of small villages, we came into Pecs on a road like any town’s outskirts, with car dealerships and tattoo parlors. Parking in the lot of a shopping center that could have been in any Australian or Midwestern town, we walked up out of the lot’s bowels to find ourselves in front of…another synagogue!  On one of the main squares named after the great Hungarian patriot Kossuth, the synagogue was an absolute gem–still a bit shabby around the edges and in need of some repair, but we were welcomed in by the friendliest man at the entrance, and directed to a set of placards throughout the interior that gave the history of the Jewish community in Pecs, both in Magyar and in English. The story is, of course, as heartbreaking as all of the others in this part of the world: at its height, the community here numbered at least 6,000; in 1944, the Hungarian Nazis known as Arrow Cross rounded them up and sent them all to Auschwitz. Only 500 survived. The displays do tell this part of the community’s history, but also focus more happily on the contributions to Pecs by its Jewish citizens. It was all so welcoming and charming, and the 1870s interior, with painted decorations, was delightful. And look who contributed to its renovation: USC!

We then walked past the Kossuth monument–one to Kossuth seems to appear in every Hungarian town–and up to Jokai ter, one of the historic center’s squares, where we found Az Elefantos Cafe among many other superb offerings for a great lunch. It was becoming increasingly clear to us that Pecs is a buzzing, hip university town–and indeed it is! It is home to the first university in Hungary, in fact, founded in 1367, and today has about 30,000 students. We were charmed by the expansiveness of the squares and the cozy location of the town up against green hills that are now a national park.

The town’s greatest claim to fame, at least for history buffs, is its concrete evidence of the extended presence in Hungary of the Turks. As my guidebook says, “No other city centre in Hungary is quite so dominated by a former mosque as Pecs’s Szechenyi ter, yet no other city seems quite so at ease with the fact.”

The Gazi Kasim Pasha Mosque was built on the site of a Gothic church in 1579, and has a 28-meter high dome. As soon as the Turks were routed in 1702 (by “our beloved Prince Eugene,” as my Austrian teacher used to call Eugene of Savoy), the building was changed into a Christian church, and is now The City Parish Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Tit for tat! Although a “Christian” extension has been added to the original mosque, evidence of its Islamic origins remain, in some Arabic writing on the central wall, and in a prayer niche in the domed center. And there is that fantastic dome!  The Jesuits pulled down this mosque’s minaret in 1766, but there is yet another mosque converted to a church in town that still retains its minaret. Unfortunately, we ran out of time to visit that building, as with so many other sites in this fascinating town.

For us, the highlight of the visit, and the place where we spent most of our time, was the Zsolnay Museum, location of the most magnificent works of that vaunted figure, Vilmos Zsolnay (1828-1900), creator of all those tiled surfaces and roofs that we had seen in Budapest (and, it turns out, in Vienna as well). Located in the oldest building in Pecs (from the 14th century), the collections are simply mind-bogglingly prolific and diverse.


Iridescent tiles made in the 1890s.

Zsolnay began his career in the ceramics factory of his family, which made garden pots and pipes. He had always wanted to be a painter, so along with his technical training decided to apply his newly invented techniques to artistic designs and objects. By the 1860s, he had developed important new glazes for ornamental ceramics, and by the end of the century was in the perfect position to be at the forefront of the aesthetic directions that defined the Central European version of Art Nouveau, the Secession style. He became wildly popular for his iridescent glazes (shades of Tiffany at the very same time) and was known especially for a blue metallic method that one started to see in vases and tiles throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  His factory employed the best designers from Vienna and elsewhere, who produced the most elegant decorative pieces for public spaces–roof tiles, fountains, and garden ornaments–as well as the designs that defined the Secession period.  Zsolnay was lionized and received medals at every World’s Fair across Europe. The factory continued to produce the Zsolnay trademark blue-glazed objects until the end of World War I, when Hungary lost Transylvania to Rumania, and Zsolnay thus lost his source of necessary raw materials. The company is still in operation, and still produces luxury porcelain, but nothing on the scale or with the same aesthetic variety of Vilmos Zsolany’s heyday.

The diversity of Zsolnay’s experimentation with materials and styles is what impressed us the most. What was a bit depressing was that absolutely no one was in the Museum, and the guards acted like they hadn’t seen a soul in weeks.  They were also completely indifferent about the collection, and even if they could speak English, didn’t know a thing about the holdings or the building, and didn’t seem to care to learn. We decided that perhaps they were military-age students who were fulfilling their service obligation by being guards in the Museum. In any case, we can only encourage anyone who visits Hungary to seek out this extraordinary place in this elegant little town.

There was so much else to see in the town, but we had no more time.  I really recommend a visit to anyone who is in the vicinity–or make it a special stop when in Central Europe!

Bonus for the day:  on our way to and from Pecs, we saw storks in their nest!  Hungary is very proud of its stork population, the ones who return every year from their migration to Africa.  I was so excited to have one pose for me!

Finally, while some of my followers insist that I include a cat photo in all my blog posts, on this trip I only saw some funny dogs. These two were in front of a dress shop on the square where we ate lunch, and they presented a entire movie of charming entertainment as we ate.

Visit Pecs! You’ll love it!

Backtrack: Budapest

19 May


Having come to Hungary chiefly because I had never been to Budapest, we did finally get around to driving up to the Big City, which was an hour and a half away from our place on Lake Balaton. Since we only spent half a day there and assumed we would return (we didn’t), we decided to focus our visit thematically: we would explore Jewish Budapest. This theme is in keeping with our visits in other cities, from Berlin to Trieste. And in Budapest this focus seemed especially appropriate:  before World War II, one in four Budapest residents were Jewish, and they were probably more accepted and essential to the city’s culture than in most other places in Central Europe. In the 1920s, 90% of bankers in Budapest were Jewish, 60% of the doctors, and 50% of university students. (I am not Jewish, but have a long, close relationship with many Jewish friends and have been drawn to Jewish history because of the years spent in German-speaking countries).

One can learn so much about a society’s cultural mores and its history by visiting its cemeteries, so we began our explorations at the Kosmas Cemetery, opened in 1893 and one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe.  It lies much further out of town than we had anticipated, and driving there brought us through less than salubrious parts of the city, past lots of those unfortunate Soviet-era apartment blocks, as well as a rather intimidating prison (we were stopped in traffic while prisoners were being escorted across the street, surrounded by viciously barking German Shepherds and what seemed like about 20 guards). Not the greatest introduction to one of the most beautifully-situated cities in Europe. But the cemetery’s grounds were an inviting venue of solemn calm. The entrance is where the domed building stands, now a bit dilapidated and having lost its gilt around the dome. The gates lead into a myriad of tree-lined paths extending for great lengths in several directions, with grassy expanses filled with gravestones.

jewishcemetery_schmidltomb2_budapest_may9Near the entrance are a number of extravagant tombs in all architectural styles:  the resting places for Budapest’s leading Jewish families in the period of their most prosperous and influential presence in the city, from the 1860s through the 1920s. One of the most impressive and flamboyant tombs is that of the Schmidl family, designed in 1903 by Hungary’s leading Secession architects Ödön Lechner and Béla Lajta and using Zsolnay tiles (we’ll talk about Zsolnay again in Pecs). One gets a sense in these elaborate tombs of a competition for ostentatious display among these prominent families, even in monuments to the dead. Evidence of happy, integrated times.

But then one is confronted here with the sorrowful fate of this shining world.

So many of the gravestones list a death date of 1944.  Most of these are memorial tombs, created to commemorate the loss of whole families in that hideous year, when under Adolf Eichmann’s direction, all the Jews of Hungary were sent to the concentration camps, or were locked up in the Budapest ghetto where they were systematically shot or died of starvation. (Hungary is the place, however, where thousands of Jews were saved from the camps by people like Raoul Wallenberg, for whom there is a memorial sculpture in the Jewish Museum.) The Kosmas Cemetery also has a Holocaust Memorial, on which, poignantly, names are still being pencilled in, as families learn more about their ancestors’ fate.

On that somber note–it rained only during our time in the cemetery, and cleared up as soon as we left–we drove into Central Pest, first to visit The Great Synagogue on Dohanyi Street (“dohanyi” means tobacco in Hungarian!). This is the largest synagogue in Europe (the largest in America, Manhattan’s Central Synagogue, is a direct copy of this one), built in a Byzantine Moorish Revival style by the Viennese architect Ludwig Förster in 1854-59. As is so often the case with 19th-century historicist buildings, Förster said he chose this revival style because he thought it was most closely aligned to Levantine styles and could not identify a specifically Jewish architecture!

If you look at the photo of the synagogue’s interior, you can see plaques with flags along the middle aisle. These identify where guides speaking each country’s language give explanations of the synagogue’s history. The biggest group sat in the English-language section. The grounds also include a memorial garden to the victims of the 1944 pogrom–many of whose bodies are buried here–and a stunning Holocaust memorial, a metal weeping willow with the names of victims inscribed on every leaf. (The sculpture was partly funded by Tony Curtis, who was of Hungarian background).

Next door to the Synagogue is a small Jewish Museum, which has been in operation since 1931.  Its exhibits change regularly, but we were able to see this artifact, which will speak for itself:

Another of our thematic goals on this trip is to document public libraries, and in Budapest we found a doozy.

The Ervin Szabó Library is housed in a 19th-century Neo-Baroque palace built by the Wenckheim family. When we arrived, we found a film crew had taken over the palace part of the building, so we were only able to enter the library section. But what a public library space!  One has to pay to buy a library card to enter the reading room, so we just admired the coffee shop and got information about the collections. It contains an unbelievealbe photographic archive of 120,000 images of Budapest, as well as 300,000 books and documents on the history of the city.  It is located next to the university, and the place was stuffed to the gills with students. Szabó was a social reformer who served as the library’s first director.

Budapest–or shall I say Pest, since we really only got to that side of town–is filled with some beautiful buildings, many of which are still in a lamentable state. Plastering is desperately needed!  They reminded me of what Viennese buildings looked like in the early 60s before war damage had been completely repaired. While the city has a bit of a hipster buzz–all the young folks speak English, there are tons of pubs and night spots–it’s obvious that money is only being spent to renovate the most touristy places, which is sad.  Let’s hope that progress will be made soon–it’s a shame to see these edifices falling into decay. And I am not saying they should be tarted up to gentrified levels! Just maintained a little bit.

So that was our whirlwind trip to Budapest! We also were able to visit the spectacular Central Market near the river, the mighty Danube River, which, as I had always been told, looks much more like the romantic waterway of song in Budapest than it does in Vienna.

Finally, as we drove past, we caught a glimpse of the phantasmagoric Museum of Applied Arts, with all those amazingly glittery Zsolnay tiles. Mention of Zsolnay leads into my next blog on Pecs; I had hoped to include that description here, but there’s so much to write, and so little time!  Next blog, I promise!


Things I’ve learned about Hungary–so far

7 May


At this point I can no longer remember why I decided that we should come to a very small village in the vicinity of Lake Balaton, Hungary, for two weeks of this trip. I think the notion to be in Hungary began because I was amazed that in all my time in Vienna, I had never crossed into the other half of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and people who knew me were astonished that I had never been to Budapest. As for the decision to come to this resort region: all I can reconstruct now is some vague idea that seeing this part of the country would expand my understanding of how Austria and Hungary were connected; we have often been so close to this border in Austria that we could look into the Hungarian countryside. Another factor was, I think, that all the rentals in Budapest were too expensive! In any case, the consensus of our Austrian friends has been that two weeks here is a bit much, and that we would be bored out of our minds in a few days. I know what they mean–I’m sure I’d say the same thing if a friend said he was going to spend two weeks at Lake Havasu or the Nevada desert–but so far we have found more than enough to do and explore, despite rainy weather and some discomfiting ailments.

We are in the tiny village of Somogyszentpal, a place with only two roads in and one of them is so rugged that it hardly counts as a road.  I found this little romantic-seeming cottage on HomeAway–what an amazing thing the internet can be! And from this vantage point, and at this time of year, this is what I have observed and learned so far about this proud little country:


The village church, Somogyszentpal

**Despite being a largely Catholic country, historically Hungary has harbored many different religious sects. During the Reformation, and probably because of opposition to Habsburg rule, the country embraced Calvinism, Unitarianism, and Lutheranism, as well as every different type of Orthodoxy. Under Turkish rule, of course, Islam also entered into the mix.  All of this resistance to Catholicism may explain why the churches, even though Catholic, appear so severe and unornamented. Inside of the small village churches, the walls are usually whitewashed, and altars and Stations of the Cross are added as wood carvings or plaster artifacts. Even the more significant churches appear rather subdued on the exterior, when the interior are elaborately painted.

**Although a resort location that half of Hungary visits in the summer, no town or village in the area has a laundromat! We are at a loss to understand what people are supposed to do to wash clothes. Since the owner of the cottage we’re staying in has declined to put in a washing machine, we have had to wash things one at a time by hand, and finally had Rosi, our neighbor, offer to wash things in her machine. This lack would seem to be a golden opportunity for some eager entrepreneur to invest in:  just a few locations in places like Keszthely, Marcali, and Tapolca.

**The reason Magyar, the famously indecipherable language of the country, is so frustrating for foreigners is because the words are in Roman script, and so appear to be approachable for Westerners. But when one tries to make out the words, not a single syllable or root has any relationship to any of the other Western languages.  So one confronts the letters and is certain that SOMETHING will make sense, but nothing does. The other intriguing thing is that despite speaking this language that nobody else understands, Hungarians are not enthusiastic about learning other languages. Unlike the Finns or the Danes, who recognize that their language is too limited to be learned by others and so they must learn to communicate in other languages as a matter of course, the Hungarians are fiercely proud of their language and hold on to it intently. Whereas Swedish and Slovenian universities teach many of their classes in English, Hungarian universities do not. We have found that most people just keep talking Magyar to us, even when we make it clear that we have no idea what they’re saying. We find the sound of Magyar quite pleasing, and people are nothing if not kind despite the language barrier.


**Recently, in keeping with what seems to be a distressing trend, the Hungarians have elected their own Donald Trump: Victor Orban, who has made so many reactionary and corrupting decisions that even other conservative leaders have made him retract his orders. He came to real power once the refugee crisis began in Europe. The Hungarians were strenuously opposed to the floods of refugees entering the country, and refused to take in any number of those fleeing Syria and elsewhere. While Hungarians can be prone to gloom in the best of times, this situation has led many to even greater bouts of moroseness, while Orban’s dictatorial hold on power continues.

**Economically, Hungary is in the doldrums, although the recent popularity of Budapest with trendy folks has made for some improvements, if only evident in the more touristy parts of the city, but not in the rest of the country. On the plane to Vienna, we read an article in the London Financial Times about all the hot properties in Budapest, but this really did seem geared toward the elite end of the market. A 2014 study found that 1 in 2 Hungarians live on less than 260 Euros a month, and that more than 250,000 children are undernourished.

**The place where we have noticed the most fascinating evidence of how dramatic a border change can be is in the example of bread. Austria–literally yards away from Hungary–has some of the best, most diverse, varieties of hardy breads, the kind that make Germanic types consider bread the staff of life. Cross the border into Hungary: the bread is awful! Mediocre white bread, very little variety, and even searches in bakeries yield perhaps a whole grain that doesn’t hold a candle to a loaf one could buy at the Austrian supermarket Billa. How/why does this happen?


Bondi, the only fully domesticated cat we’ve met in Somogyszentpal

**The Hungarian people are quite diverse in appearance, with all shapes and sizes, from dark hair to the lightest blondes. This is only to be expected, given that the country has been conquered and pillaged for centuries by every group of invaders imaginable. Even the cats are diverse–orange and white, calico, gray, lots of black and white ones, but I haven’t seen any tabbies.

**There are many, many Gypsies in Hungary (about 400,000!), all Roma or Romani, but of every variety of assimilation. Our neighbors here in the village, who act as caretakers for this house (the owners are German) are Roma, but of the more assimilated sort, who have a reasonably nice house, have worked in Germany, are gainfully employed, and have never been wanderers. According to locals, there are hierarchies of Gypsy groups: at the top the assimilated ones, at the bottom those who are very dark-skinned and look like they come from South India. We have seen wild and ragged groups of these kind,  living in near hovels on the edge of the village, and in huge family bunches buying food at Tesco (yes, there is a Tesco on the outskirts of Mancali, a town 10 km away from here). Apparently, very few Gypsies still live in wagons and travel throughout the countryside. In any case, they are still the minority most maligned and mistreated. I must admit that I have rarely seen a group of people so frightfully feral in my life.

**The region around Lake Balaton, and indeed throughout Hungary, is filled with thermal baths, which the natives take to as enthusiastically as the touring Germans. I had no idea that this region was volcanic (all of them now extinct), thus the enormous number of hot springs. Thermal spas are also a huge money spinner, as places such as Heviz, with the largest natural thermal lake in Europe, attract health seekers from around the world, who come here on tours to putter around on plastic floats in the mildly radiated waters that are supposed to cure any number of ailments. Signs for “Wellness Centers” abound around Lake Balaton, and offer all kinds of treatments.  I’m going to go get a massage and paddle around in the muddy waters tomorrow; George thinks it’s all nonsense and can’t imagine why anybody would get into an irradiated pool.

**Hungarian architecture swings from the traditional thatched house of the Plains to Secessionist elements to some bizarrely “folkloric” styles for public buildings and restaurants that seem to refer to some romantic and phantasmagorical adaptation of vernacular forms.  I must do some more study of this, but all these excessively pitched red roofs, with ornamental sculptures at the peak seem to be everywhere. Kind of kitschy-pretentious, if you ask me, but they must fulfill some nationalist sentiment.*

housewithhorns_1877_somogyszentpal_may2The most fascinating aspect to me is the number of domestic houses that look ever so much like a Texas ranch-style country house. These often involve an arched walkway along the side of the house, and each room must be entered separately. The front of the house will contain the kitchen and a main room, perhaps a dining room, then the bedrooms are along the walkway.  It almost looks sometimes as if they add on a room each time they have a child or need another space for some reason.


**Hungary has 20 different wine regions, all of them producing different varieties, many of which are claimed to be world class varieties.  Only a few of these are known outside of the local region.

**The history of this region is so complex, and involves so many conquests, re-conquests, ancient resentments about regions taken away from nations, that one can hardly make sense of what was considered Hungary when. Transylvania is the real sore spot: given to Rumania after World War I, the region still is home to some 2 million Magyars, the Szegedi, and Hungary has never forgotten this slight.

One fascinating example of this ethnic diversity is the story of the Festetics family, Croatians who came to Kezsthely on Lake Balaton in the 16th century, made a bundle in land (i.e. real estate!), were ennobled by Maria Theresa in the 18th century, and made Kezsthely their own personal fiefdom. They were enlightened rulers, built an enormous palace and accumulated a superb library. They thrived throughout the Dual Monarchy, and suffered the fate of all aristocracy after World War I.  The Palace, now open to the public, contains other amusing examples of Hungarian pride in identity:  in the Maria Theresa Room, the Empress of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and her son Josef II are identified in the labels only as the rulers of Hungary. No mention is made of Austria at all.

**Another ethnic example: we found in our Eyewitness Guide a reference to a folk museum in the village of Buzsak, only a few miles from our village as the crow flies, but since marshes lay between the two spots, one has to go a rather roundabout way to get there. The museum is charming, and plays up the fact that this particular part of the region was populated by Croatians who maintained their own language and culture well into the 20th century.  The ladies of the village who were there to sell their embroidery, and all the labels in the museum, emphasized that these designs and motifs were Croatian rather than Hungarian, even though they have been here for hundreds of years.

**One final note:  the near-sanctification of “Sisi”, Empress Elizabeth, Franz Josef’s wife, is evident everywhere in Hungary.  She was beloved by the Hungarians because she learned the language and preferred to spend her time in the country outside the stifling atmosphere of the Habsburg court.  Statues of her appear everywhere. As a friend of mine says, in Austria Sisi is just a tourist doll, while in Hungary she is a saint.  I was so amused to capture this image of these ladies reading the plaque below her statue on Lake Balaton.


*I want to thank my friend David Lightfoot for steering me to the most likely source for this fantastical architecture: Imre Markovecz, who worked mostly in the 1950s and was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright and Rudolf Steiner.  http://www.pbase.com/helenpb/makovecz