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Hungary's beauty survives turbulent history
by Bosley Wilder
HUNSOR publication

He bringeth forth grass for the cattle; and green herb for the service of men; That he may bring food out of the earth, and wine that maketh glad the heart of man..." -- The Prayer Book 1662

  Hungary -- How fitting that "rhapsody" -- selections from an epic poem -- should be applied to this ancient, small country at the heart of Europe. Hungary -- its landscapes verdant and serene, its history checkered.

A unique language and culture combine to make this landlocked nation as different from its neighbors as its famed Tokaj dessert wine eludes comparison with other of the world's great wines.

Hungary, country of peaceful vistas, thermal springs, appealing food and great wines, singular palaces, and a remarkable collection of some of the best and worst architecture in Europe existing side by side. Of a past often oppressive and of a stubborn persistence of spirit that has kept the land alive through centuries of constant pummeling, from the Mongols and Turks through the Nazis and the Soviets.

Today, free of foreign domination, Hungary stands with her history and her 10 million people a little reticent.

Hungary is a land where the spa exists side by side in popularity with the coffee house and the bar/restaurant as a place for relaxation alone or in a friendly gathering of family or friends. More than 1,000 thermal springs rise out of the thin crust of earth of the Carpathian Basin that layers the country. More than 100 of these springs are beneath Budapest. Hundreds of others dot the map as open natural springs or as spa resorts complete with pools, Jacuzzis, Turkish baths and massage centers. Simple or developed, one of the most pleasant experiences of an outdoor thermal spring in a cool season is bathing in lovely steamy warm water up to your neck while the cooler air -- or even a little snow -- plays at your hair. Hungary knows how to please the senses in all seasons.

A crossroads between East and West, Hungary has been overrun again and again by invaders. According to legend, Attila the Hun is buried there. Slays, Avars, Turks and Teutons early overran the land. Hungary dates its national beginnings to 896, when seven wild tribes, fierce fighters and horsemen from the Urals known as the Magyars, rode down from the steppes and settled on the fertile plains. To this day, the Hungarian language, similar only to Finnish and Estonian among the languages of Europe, remains unique in its roots and its structure.

During the ninth century, the Magyars were converted to the Roman Catholic faith, thus joining with Rome and the West against Byzantium and the East. Hungary's first king, St. Stephen, was sent an official crown from Rome in 1001. The crown has been an honored symbol of Hungary to present day.

Until the late 17th century, Hungary was controlled by the Turks. Austria, which came to the aid of Hungary to push out the Turks in the 18th century, subsequently made the country a chattel of its own. From the 13th century, only Buda had existed as a town. In 1873, Budapest became one city, the hilly Buda castle district residential, the flat Pest side largely commercial and a venue for the arts. The distinction remains today of Buda and Pest as two separate entities.

Despite uprisings, Hungary remained under Austria's thumb and the rule of Emperor Franz Joseph until 1867, an important date to Hungarians, as it was at that time the country obtained status as a partner, able to direct its own internal destiny as part of Austria-Hungary. Austria-Hungary under the Hapsburgs was economically and culturally strong. But war was to destroy that economy and the monarchy.

Following World War I, Hungary became a republic, but not for long. The past decades have seen it in the throes of a monarchy without a king, a puppet of the Germans, of local communists and the Soviet Union. Only in 1991 did Hungary breathe freely as an independent nation. Today it works hard to replace the past four decades of "soft communism" with the viability of a democracy, reviving traditions from religious instruction to the glitter of a New Year's ball.

Hungary is also an eclectic architecture buff's dream come true. The entire nation is dotted with cathedrals and churches, palaces, lyceums and other grand buildings to provide a feast for the eyes. A visit to Budapest can introduce you to the variety of a Royal Palace on Buda Hill; the world's second-largest synagogue; Matthias Church; Fisherman's Bastion; the quite splendid Opera House; handsome tile work on ordinary buildings; and some eye-catching shopping centers. Gellert Hill, today a nature conservation area rising over the Danube at the center of town, offers the country's most elegant thermal bath. Classical and newly constructed hotels and shops provide every level of service you might look for in which to spend your forints. And, where else in the world can you find pharmacies that put out jugs of water and glasses so that medicines can be taken on the spot?

Pleasing as the city of Budapest is, Hungary blossoms out prodigiously on trips outside the capital to visit the rural fens and grasslands, plains and pastures. It's great fun to tootle about the countryside by bus or rental car, stopping to enjoy the pastoral scenery, or to take in a thermal dip or two along the route. There are plenty of delights. Hungary's 36,000 square miles of landlocked countryside is rich with produce. There is little forest and no mountains of notable height, but the hills and plains put on their own show of neat orchard and vineyard -- flowers, grasses, wheat, corn, flax, hemp. Grapevines and red pepper plants grace the landscape.

Following two days in the capital, we headed north for Eger, a delightful small town nested between the Matra and the Bukk volcanic hill ranges. Eger is one of the oldest archeological regions in the country. A list of fine buildings in the town can take up a volume. Its cathedral, begun in the 800s, is Hungary's second largest church; its castle dates from the 11th century. Ecumenical in its architecture, the town also contains an 11th-century 35-meter-high Turkish minaret. Underneath the cobbled roads of the town lies a labyrinthine network of caves and emergency hiding places and escape routes out of the town.

For a really startling sight of eclectic architecture, climb the castle hill to its top, from where you have a panoramic view of the ancient, the medieval, the splendid baroque and, squat in the middle of town, like the proverbial monkey wrench -- a great gray concrete block of an apartment building constructed during the communist regime, in an architectural style I like to call Soviet contemporary monolith.

Like most towns on the map of Magyarland, Eger has its own thermal bath. This one is outdoors and is indeed refreshing and restoring to the spirit, as we discovered at the end of one hot, lengthy sightseeing afternoon.

The Eger area is especially noted for its wine. The king of the Hungarian clarets -- themselves world-notable -- is Egri Bikaver (Eger Bull's Blood), which uses four kinds of grapes. This wine for centuries has held its reputation throughout Europe as a celebrated tonic for body and spirit. Even during the Turk regime, Eger wine-growing continued, although the enjoyment of wine was strictly forbidden and drunkenness punished with 80 lashes.

Eger's diminutive town square is one of the most sympatique I have come across in all of Europe. I was so overcome with pleasure at its dollhouse appearance -- the whole town square looked as though it belonged under the Christmas tree -- that I purchased on the spot a sweet three-story 17th-century country inn, its outside painted a brilliant yellow, its coat of arms -- a proud lion imaged over the country's flag -- resplendent at the high front eaves.

Only a half hour from Budapest by auto or electric tram lies Godollo, a town whose principal architectural focus is Hungary's most immense palace. Originally built as a summer resort for Emperor Franz Joseph and his popular Queen Elisabeth (known to her loyal Hungarian supporters as "Sisi"), the 150-year-old palace was occupied by the Russians from 1945-91. Current ambitious renovation plans include a 250-room hotel, conference center, hunting facilities, baths, an orangery and a baroque theater. Daily tours of the spacious grounds and buildings include the Louis XIV rooms with some very andsome Gobelin furniture and views off to the Queen's secret chambers. Queen "Sisi" appears to have been the Princess Diana of her day, sympathetic to the needs of the Hungarian people and beloved by them. On display is one of her gowns, a jeweled elegance that took a recorded 627 hours for several dressmakers to create.

A little over two hours' drive out of Budapest northeast toward the Romanian border lies the important thermal spa town of Hadjuszoboszlo. The Hadjus were a fierce, independent tribe who rode the plains tending their cattle until the 1600s, when Bocskai, Prince of Transylvania, ceded them the land known today as Hajdusag. But it was not until this century that, during a search for oil or natural gas, thermal waters containing over 20 minerals therapeutic to human aches and pains gushed forth, turning the area into what is today called the Mecca for arthritis sufferers. The large spa, complete with indoor and outdoor pools, is suitable for all seasons. The site has expanded its facilities to include a variety of hotels, parks, entertainment spots and boating on its lake. Overall, it's a serene resort with plenty of fluorides and sulfides to get anyone up kicking for that rock 'n' roll disco back in Budapest! And while you're exploring the countryside, try the baths at the neighboring town of Debrecen and the ancient southern town of Pecs, each worth discovering.

On my most recent trip, we also drove to Holloko, the first village in the world to be proclaimed a World Heritage Village by UNESCO. Picturesque Holloko is a sort of Hungarian Williamsburg, taking the visitor back to an earlier time. The village, inhabited by only 450 ethnic Palocs, has preserved its unique medieval structure of houses -- each street floor is the structure's cellar, with living quarters above stairs. The tiny church, the whitewashed houses, cobblestone streets, handicrafts and costumes of the Palocs themselves are authentic and charming reminders of a past age.

It's not possible to write about Hungary without a testament to gastronomy. Good food? Yes, mouthwatering if sometimes a wee bit heavy: Gulyas (goulash), actually a thick meat and vegetable soup. Chicken paprikash, made of chicken, sour cream and paprika, the national spice made from local red peppers. Taste the salami and the goose liver pate, delicate and subtle. I didn't care much for the famed Lake Balaton pike-perch, but then I'm not particularly a riverfish lover. I found Hungarian soups uniformly superb, even those without portabello mushrooms or quails' eggs as ingredients.

You'll probably want to taste the konyakos meggy, that internationally known dark chocolate with a cognac-enhanced center, a Budapest specialty invented by Emile Gerbaud, founder of the Gerbaud Cafe, with its exciting pastry collection in a city full of delicious retes, tortes and petit fours. Top it off with a little of the special apricot brandy.

No Hungarian culinary data is complete without some discussion of those products of the vineyard. Gift and tribute to foreign emperors for centuries, the famed Tokaj (pronounced Tokay) wine is well-known internationally. Lesser known are many fine reds and whites in a country that loves its wines and knows how to make them. The Valley of Beautiful Women is full of wine caves. We spent a memorable day at the Disznoko Estate in a beautiful setting at the southernmost point of the Tokaj hills, on the Tisza River. The wine tasting included some unforgettable Furmint and other fine Aszus of that come from volcanic clay soil.

In a country where the average income is about $300 a month, culture still flourishes brightly. If you are in Budapest, plan to spend an evening at the Hungarian State Opera House, where, depending on the season, you can enjoy the ballet, an opera or the National Symphony Orchestra with its well-loved conductor and pianist Zoltan Kodaly. Hungary has produced Franz Liszt, Bela Bartok and Soltan Kodaly. Who has not heard Ferenc Molnar's "Liliom"? Arthur Koestler's "Darkness at Noon" is a classic of modern literature.

Summer in Hungary is a potpourri of celebration. Folk singing and dance events abound, as do festivals of winegrowers, with displays and sampling of some 500 Hungarian and foreign wines. There is indeed something for everyone. A trip along the Danube brings into sharp focus the beauty and silence along the Hungarian stretch of that renowned river. In June, the town of Magyarpolany, picturesque in itself, hosts a passion play. In July, a Fish Soup Festival in Baja stages the cooking of several tons of fish over open fires in a thousand kettles. If you're taking the kids, you'll find National Children's Folk Dance festivals in several parts of the country. For food and wine buffs, there is a cooking competition in the village of Nagi, in which participants are required to re-create the tastes of the time of King Matthias. Varieties of Hungarian wines, music and entertainers add to the Renaissance atmosphere. For swimmers, a 5.2-kilometer race across Lake Balaton is in its 18th year.

Thousands enter the race, which is accompanied by 100 boats of the local sailing club and other water sports associations. There is white-water boating down the Tisza River.

Throughout August of this year, an Art for the Millennium exhibit of Hungarian artists and sculptures is scheduled to be held in Budapest. The city's Opera and Ballet Festival features Hungarian and foreign artists.

As this year marks the 1,000th anniversary of the founding of the Hungarian State in a Christian Europe, there are numerous religious observations.

The last week of August also will highlight a glimpse into the rich local Jewish culture (Budapest's synagogue is Europe's largest), with a festival that includes cantor concerts, theater and dance, a kosher cabaret and literary programs.

What a summer -- the temperatures are reasonable, the winds divine. Not to speak of the spas and the Turkish baths.

Roads are good. It's not difficult to get around the countryside, and rental cars are easily available.

As to language, you will find at least one person who speaks English in almost any area where visitors are likely to be. A good deal of German is spoken; it has been taught as a second language in the school system. One hears extremely little Russian. Hungarian, that mysterious Magyar tongue that only the Finns and Estonians are so in touch with, was learned in six weeks by my niece, a bright young thing who spent a year as an exchange student in Hadjuszoboszlo. Her aunt, a professor of Romance languages, in two weeks was able only to squeak out the words for good morning: "Jo reggelt kivanok"; thank you: "Koszonom szepen"; and, one very warm afternoon, the phrase "Egy hideg sort kerek," roughly translated as "May I have a cold beer, please?" -- Hardly a grasp of the language, but a few phrases you may find useful.

by Bosley Wilder

Source: Post Gazette Baltimore

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