Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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My long, difficult day of travel from Breb, Romania to Cluj-Napoca began when I hitched a ride with two Romanian-Americans who were making their annual visit to family. They dropped me at the train station in Baia-Mare, where I hoped to score a ticket with my first class Eurail Global Pass. With the exception of scattered chunks of plaster that had fallen off the walls, the circular waiting room was completely empty. I stepped up to the sole clerk standing behind an iron barred window and asked for a ticket to Cluj. My only option was a 3:30 p.m. train that would arrive at 8:30, a five hour ride for a drive that could be made in about 2.5 hours. The clerk muttered “autogare” (bus station) and pointed back the way I had come. I was learning what every Romanian has known for decades: in this part of the world, buses are often a much better option than the inconveniently scheduled trains.

With bus ticket finally in hand, I lugged my suitcase out to the bays to find my coach. Neither the bays nor my ticket were numbered and I saw no bus marquee with my destination, so I began querying everyone in sight by saying “Cluj-Napoca?” Finally, a young woman named Mikhaila, who spoke perfect English, came to my rescue. Since her elderly mother was taking the same bus, she showed me the correct bay and promised to stay around until we were both safely aboard. Curious, her mother asked my age. Mikhaila translated my answer: 61. Her mother’s eyes crinkled at the corners as she beamed and grabbed my hand. Her seat was directly in front of me and we spent the next couple of hours communicating with giggles and sign language. Too soon, she signaled that her stop was coming up. She gathered her things and took a few steps two toward the front of the bus, then turned and walked back to my seat. Leaning down, she planted kisses on both my cheeks and give my hand one last squeeze. She was still waving and blowing kisses as we pulled away.

An hour later the bus pulled up in front of the Cluj train station and I hopped out into 90 degree heat and worse humidity. I was exhausted but still had a mile to walk. Bedraggled and soaked in perspiration, I finally located my hostel, checked in, struggled up two flights of stairs with my luggage, and collapsed on the bed. And that’s where I probably would have stayed until morning…if I hadn’t been so hungry.

Matthias Corvinus Statue and Saint Michael's Cathedral on Unirii Square

Matthias Corvinus Statue and Saint Michael’s Cathedral on Unirii Square

Groaning, I forced myself to shower, change clothes, and go in search of food. I didn’t have to look very far. Three blocks away, just beyond Unirii Square, with its burbling fountains and stately Saint Michael’s Cathedral, I found Boulevard Erolior (Heroes Boulevard), a quasi-pedestrian mall lined with shops and restaurants. The signboard touting gourmet coffee at Olivo Cafe caught my eye and I settled into an overstuffed leather banquette just inside the front door, where I could people-watch as I ate dinner. Read More

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From the lush green floor of the valley I gazed toward the encircling dusky blue mountains. Puffy white clouds drifted lazily across the sky, allowing the sun to peek through just enough to make the afternoon comfortably warm. A week earlier the village of Breb, Romania, had been sweltering in a heat wave that caused wells to run dry. But my arrival was timed perfectly – temperatures had moderated to the mid-70′s, perfect walking weather.

With only one paved road, I relied on footpaths that wandered through gardens overflowing with colossal heads of cabbage and fat ears of golden-tasseled corn. Ruby-red tomatoes were bursting their skins and green-black zucchini hung heavy on their vines. Stealthily, I opened a wire metal gate and crept through a farm yard, passing just a few feet from the front door of an old wooden cabin constructed from wide wooden planks, dovetailed together without the aid of nails. I felt like a sneak-thief but the owners of the hostel where I was staying, Babou Maramures, insisted that walking through private property was perfectly acceptable; everyone uses the footpaths, including cows, chickens, and pigs.

Every home has a huge gardens, which provides all the fruits and vegetables for the family

Every home has a huge gardens, which provides all the fruits and vegetables for the family

In years past, almost every home in Maramures County had an ornate wooden gateway (poarta maramuresana) at its entrance. During my walks around Breb I spied several of these hand-carved portals, which featured astrological symbols, flowers, animals, people, and in one case even a complete tree of life. Unfortunately, as older gates weather and deteriorate they are not being replaced; these days only wealthier families can bear the cost of such an elaborate portal. However every yard still holds at least one tall wooden tub with a heavy wooden lid. In late summer, apples from the area’s abundant orchards are tossed in and left to ferment. The resultant mash is distilled into Tuica, a fruit brandy that has greater than 50% alcohol content, much the same as the Palinka produced from plums just over the border in Szatmár, Hungary. Read More

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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.

Carriage and coach collection at the Szatmari Museum in Mateszalka, Hungary

Carriage and coach collection at the Szatmari Museum in Mateszalka, Hungary

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

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The pungent scent of over-ripe fruit perfumed the air in Panyola, Hungary on the day I arrived. Limbs heavily laden with Nem tudom plums dripped over garden fences or scraped the ground in fields where trees stood in orderly rows.

“Almost everyone has a small orchard or at least a few trees in their yard,” said my host, Zsuzsa Méhész.

This tiny purple plum is the sole ingredient in Hungarian pálinka, a traditional high-alcohol content fruit brandy that has been produced since the Middle Ages. Villages in the Szatmár region of far eastern Hungary are famous for their pálinkas but none more so than Panyola, where the intersecting Tisza, Túr and Szamos Rivers create an ideal micro-climate for the Nem tudom plum. Locals insist the name, which means “I don’t know” in English, is derived from a long-ago conversation when someone who was asked the name of the plum replied “Nem tudom.” The name stuck.

Trees heavily laden with Nem tu dom (I don't know) plums are found throughout the Szatmár region in eastern Hungary

Trees heavily laden with Nem tu dom (I don’t know) plums are found throughout the Szatmár region in eastern Hungary

The Panyola Pálinka Distillery was almost as tenacious as the plum’s name. First mentioned in a document dated 1752, it survived through innumerable geopolitical upheavals, two World Wars, and a major flood in 1970. When other distilleries were ordered closed during the Soviet Era, Panyola’s facility remained open because János Kádár, the communist leader of Hungary from 1956 to 1988, liked his pálinka. Ironically, it was the fall of the Soviet Union that finally signed the distillery’s death warrant. Under communism, vital businesses were not required to be profitable. Though the distillery had always produced a superior product, no attention had been paid to bottle design and labeling, marketing was non-existent, and no one had the knowledge or expertise to turn the plant into a money-making enterprise. After a few years of struggle, it was closed in 1997. Read More

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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.”

Infinite grasslands of Hortobagy National Park in eastern Hungary

Infinite grasslands of Hortobagy National Park in eastern Hungary

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

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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.

The Christ Trilogy by Hungarian artist Mihály Munkácsy, on display at the Déri Museum in Debrecen, Hungary. Photo courtesy of the Déri Museum.

The Christ Trilogy by Hungarian artist Mihály Munkácsy, on display at the Déri Museum in Debrecen, Hungary. Photo courtesy of the Déri Museum.

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