Had I only stayed one day in Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg county, as planned, I would have left believing that the meandering rivers, lush orchards, and bucolic villages were pretty, but otherwise uninteresting. Fortunately, one day turned into five and this region, rife with legends that have been handed down from father to son and grandparents to grandchildren for generations, revealed its secrets to me like a flower blossoming from a tight bud.
My adventure began in Mátészalka, the second largest city in the county and home to the Szatmari Museum. After a leisurely walk around the grounds to view the museum’s impressive collection of traditional wooden carriages, coaches, and sleds, my hostess Zsuzsa Méhész whisked me off to lunch so that I could recover from the five-hour sweltering ride on the rickety old train that had carried me from Debrecen.
An hour later, full of Hungarian pickles and vegetable soup, I was more than ready for round two, The Route of Medieval Churches. The Great Hungarian Plain, situated on the eastern frontier of Western Christianity, was once littered with churches. Though most were destroyed by the Mongol invasions of the 15th century, those that remain are concentrated in the Szatmár region, which was largely spared because mounted armies could not easily navigate marshlands created by rivers that regularly flooded the area.
The late Romanesque style church in Csaroda is the star of this collection. Between the end of the 13th and the beginning of the 14th centuries the Csarnavodai family, which owned the village at that time, built the church as their private place of worship. The Read More
Turning my back on the tiny settlement, I walked into brittle yellow grasslands that swept to the horizon. An occasional cluster of trees broke the otherwise unrelieved flatness of the endless Puszta, the Great Hungarian Plain. The sound of vendors hawking fur hats and cracking leather whips faded, replaced by burbling water rushing beneath the historic Nine-Arched Bridge and a symphony from some of the 340 species of birds that inhabit Hortobágy National Park.
Nora Erdei, my host at the Debrecen Tourism had suggested this side trip as part of my visit to the intriguing town of Debrecen. Perhaps I was a bit too enthusiastic, for just prior to boarding the bus she remarked, “I hope you don’t expect too much. It’s just a huge plain.”
She couldn’t have realized that too many big cities, filled with too many tourists, had left me exhausted. I closed my eyes, breathed in the sweet fragrance of dank earth mingled with manure and wildflowers. I spread my arms wide to embrace it, trying to burn the feeling of infinite space and serenity into my memory. Read More
Unprepared for the purposely darkened exhibit room, I groped my way down the gentle ramp and settled into a chair to view the Christ Trilogy, three floor-to-ceiling oil paintings by Mihály Munkácsy. Initially impressed by their sheer size, my reaction turned to awe as the spotlit canvases gradually emerged from the surrounding blackness. Christ Before Pilate, Ecce Homo, and Golgotha are the artist’s interpretation of the Passion of Christ from the 18th chapter of the Bible in the Gospel according to John. Painted in rich, almost lurid colors, the works are nothing less than mesmerizing.
It took Munkácsy nearly two decades to complete the series, as he conducted extensive research and made dozens of preparatory sketches for each painting prior to beginning work on the final canvases. He read the Bible several times, studied the clothing worn in the time of Christ, and took photographs of Jewish immigrants in traditional garb. Munkácsy even photographed himself bound with rope and hanging in order to accurately illustrate the musculature of a crucified body.
I made a slow circuit of the room, examining minute details of each painting. Expressions of love conflicted with pure hatred. Grief with joy. Dispassionate scholars debated points of law as Mother Mary collapsed into the arms of St. John. The guilty shrank before watchful soldiers and mothers held their children up to witness the judgment. The techniques utilized by Munkácsy: juxtaposition of dark and light, attention to dramatic facial expressions, and amplification of body language; exposed the spectrum of naked human emotions. I have never felt anything so powerful in the realm of religious art. Read More
The lake appeared outside the window of my rickety old train much sooner than I had expected. We chugged to a slow stop with brakes protesting and my anxiety rose when I spotted a sign for Balatonalmádi. I was on my way to Lake Balaton in western Hungary but it was just 2.5 hours into the four-hour trip; surely this could not be my stop already. Frantically, I questioned fellow passengers, looking for someone who spoke English. “Is this Lake Balaton?” I asked, time and again. Heads nodded. Yes, yes, and yes. Just as I was about to jump off the train a young man stopped me. “This is Lake Balaton, but what town are you going to?” I suddenly remembered that I had booked passage to the town of Révfülöp, though the name of the lake is what had stuck in my head. Relieved, I returned to my seat and, lacking announcements in the carriage, watched for town names each time we squealed into another station. We rattled slowly down the northern shore past Alsóörs, Csopak, Balatonarács, Balatonfüred, Tihany, Balatonudvari, Balatonakali, and several unidentified stops. An hour and a half after I had first spotted the lake, a conductor appeared to alert me that Révfülöp was the next stop. The entire time, the seafoam green lake had rippled peacefully just beyond the tracks.
I later learned that Lake Balaton, 48 miles in length and nearly nine miles wide in places, is the largest lake in Central Europe, however I was more astounded by its color than its size. Balaton shimmers a soft seafoam green at its edges, morphs to an exquisite turquoise a short distance offshore, and stretches toward the horizon in bands of aqua, jade, and ultramarine. The lake we know today as Balaton was formed when the large inland sea that once covered this area of western Hungary receded, leaving an arid plain that was eroded by strong northern winds. Subsequent faulting caused the land to subside even more and by the Pleistocene era the Zala River had flooded the shallow depression, creating a fresh water lake that averages less than 20 feet deep. The color of the water, and the silky feel of it on the skin, is due to this shallow depth and the thick layer of calcium and magnesium rich sediments that lies at its bottom. Read More
As a travel writer specializing in culture, I’m often asked how I tap into the culture of the destinations I visit. I must admit to having a secret weapon – well maybe two secret weapons. First, I will talk to anyone. But I have to find an opportunity to open a conversation, which leads me to tactic number two. I literally haunt coffee shops and cafes.
As my visit to Budapest neared, I was excited to learn that the city has one of the most impressive cafe cultures in the world. By the beginning of the 20th century, more than than 400 coffee houses (kávéház) were attracting writers, painters, musicians, philosophers, and actors who gathered daily to sip espresso and discuss politics. More importantly, these poor artists found sustenance in the form of cheap food, free paper and ink, and a warm refuge from rented rooms they could not afford to heat during the brutal Hungarian winters. It is said that entire books were written in these coffee houses. Many of the original cafes were destroyed during World War II and the remainder, seen as a breeding ground for political dissidents, were closed down during the communist era, but since the 1989 revolution quite a few have been restored to their former glory.
Determined to discover this alternative culture, early one morning I met a guide from Budapest Underguide for their Delicatessen Tour. My guide for the day, Bogáta, wasted no time, waltzing me into the New York Kávéház. Reputed to be the most beautiful of all the cafes, it was such a popular spot that writer Ferenc Molnár is said to have tossed the key to its front door into the Danube in an effort to keep it open around-the-clock. I could understand why; what writer wouldn’t want to spend his days and nights spinning words beneath the obscenely opulent gold-leaf decor that spread before me? Read More