Old Windmill at Szentendre’s Open Air Museum
Sunday was my final full day in Hungary, and it began with a steady drizzle. I’d made plans with Mátyás and his wife Marika to meet them by the Great Synagogue at 10:30am for a day-trip to Szentendre. The only problem was that if the rain persisted, we might have to call off the excursion, as Szentendre was the kind of place where you’d want to spend most of your time outside. So I crossed my fingers after finishing breakfast at the hotel, hailed a taxi, and left the Buda hills for the heart of Pest.
The drizzle came and went as we drove through the city; by the time I stepped out of the taxi, the drizzle picked up somewhat. It didn’t bode well for a day trip. But as I stood in front of the Great Synagogue with a sizable crowd of American, Israeli and Italian tourists, the rain let up. I folded up my umbrella just as the security guard unlocked the gate and started checking people’s bags before entry.
Inside the gate, I joined a second queue, this time to buy a ticket. A group of elderly women with New York accents were at the ticket booth, debating whether they wanted to spend the five dollars to enter the synagogue. “We’ve seen it from the outside; we’re going back to the car,” one of them said, leaving just one of them to buy an entry ticket.
With my ticket in hand, I went to the door of the main hall. A Hungarian man wearing a yarmulke handed me one and said, “The sign says no pictures, but it’s no problem; just leave a small donation when you leave and all will be fine.” I thanked him for the advice, then went inside.
Interior of Budapest’s Great Synagogue
The interior of the synagogue was as stunning and awe-inspiring as any cathedral I’d ever visited. The ceiling appeared to be 100 feet up, and was decorated with ornate wooden paneling in the form of geometric shapes. Similar to a cathedral, there was a long, central corridor, flanked by columns and adjacent corridors on each side. The central corridor was open all the way to the ceiling, while the side corridors each had two additional levels, their railings and columns made of a much darker, but equally gorgeous wood. Arches along the ceiling of the central aisle gave the illusion of the space getting smaller and smaller, but in reality, the arches didn’t shrink until they were nearly on top of the altar, producing a cascading effect. Two enormous chandeliers hung along the center aisle, its decorated with globe-like white lights.
I walked slowly down the aisle, marveling at the space around me. I’d sometimes mused on trips to cathedrals that we Jews must not be very ambitious architects, because even the remaining historical synagogues of Europe tend to be rather modest. But the Great Synagogues dashed away that idea from my head. Here was a grand, inspiring space that must have been the pearl of Central Europe when it opened in the mid-1800s. Thankfully, actor Tony Curtis and others worked very hard to raise money to restore it after the fall of communism.
Approaching the altar, I found myself among a group of a dozen or so tourists who were sitting in the pews, contemplating the synagogue. I sat for a few minutes but was restless; I wanted to explore every nook and cranny of this glorious space. I walked the length of the synagogue several times until I’d had a chance to traverse each aisle. I would pause and stare at the sides of the synagogue, every inch decorated as meticulously as the rest. How extraordinary it would have been to go to services here. Unfortunately, the timing of my telecottage tours made that impossible; I’d simply have to come back another time, which I promised I would do at some point again.
Eventually, it was time to rendezvous with Mátyás and Marika. Their car was waiting across the street from the synagogue; Mátyás was standing outside, the wireless earpiece for his mobile phone firmly planted in his ear.
“If you would like I can offer you the front seat,” he joked, recalling my queasy trip through the Hungarian countryside.
“I don’t think that’ll be necessary,” I replied while opening the door to the back seat. “No palinka yesterday – only good Hungarian wine.”
With Marika driving, we drove over the Szechenyi chain bridge and through Buda, turning north towards Szentendre. Mátyás pointed out various sites along the way, including the largest apartment block in Central Europe — the pride and joy of Soviet-era architects, I’m sure — and the Roman ruins of Aquincum, which included the foundations of many buildings and remnants of an ancient aqueduct.
Man in traditional costume, Szentenre
The drive to Szentendre didn’t take long; we probably reached the town in 30 minutes. Located north of Budapest in the Danube Bend, just south of the Slovak border, Szentendre was famous for its world-class collection of Orthodox churches, built by the local Serbian population that had called the village home for much of the last six centuries. It was also home to Hungary’s open air ethnographic museum, featuring acre upon acre of historic buildings from around the country. Mátyás suggested we go to the open air museum first, then the town itself, so we could be back in Budapest by late afternoon. That would also give me time to explore the capital one last time before going home to Boston.
We arrived at the museum just after 11am; we were forced to park in a secondary lot because the main lot was already full. That had me worried that the museum would be crawling with tourists. Amazingly, when we got inside it felt like it was just sparsely populated: the museum covered so many acres of space – approximately 100 acres in all -you could spread out thousands of visitors and scantly notice their presence.
With a couple of museum maps in hand, we went clockwise around the park. The first building we reached was actually a restaurant disguised as a historic building; Mátyás bought two large slices of strudel, one apple and the other sour cherry, for us to split on a park bench. We bought it from a baker who had conscripted his three granddaughters to handle the customers.
“This is a good place for eating,” Mátyás said. “A little here, a little there and soon it will be lunch.”
Our new friends from the Socialist party pose with Mátyás
Wiping the crumbs from my face, we left the benches and entered a building used for dyeing cloth. The long, L-shaped building had a sizable courtyard, with a series of rooms used for various parts of the dyeing process. While the docent explained the process to us, a group of elderly men came over and joined in, each of them offering comments. They spoke Hungarian with Mátyás, and after a while they struck up a conversation with him, during which I could make out my name as well as the Hungarian word for blog: Naplo.
“They’re members of the socialist party, the current ruling party in Hungary,” Mátyás said. “They’re out of a social outing, and wanted to know why you were visiting, so I told them about your telecottage visits and your blog.” Simultaneously, the men handed Mátyás business cards so he could write www.andycarvin.com on them so they could check out my impressions of Hungary. When Mátyás spelled it out loud, he said my name as “Andi Tsarvin,” which would have been the Magyar way of pronouncing the letters. In return, the men gave me a Socialist Party pin and a pen from the Netherlands as souvenirs of our encounter.
Next, we wandered over to the tannery. The gentlemen from the socialist party were there as well, now talking to Marika. “It turns out they know of each other,” Mátyás said. “Their families were in the tanning business many years ago.” With the group chatted, I explored the rooms of the tannery, trying to stay shaded whenever possible. The temperature was well over 70 degrees now, and I’d neglected to dress in shorts or a t-shirt. I worried I’d be a sweaty mess by the time I left; fortunately I had a bottle of mineral water to help me get through the heat.
Mátyás and I struck up a conversation about getting a cup of coffee. He said we may have to walk around a bit before we found some, though. “Americans are lucky because they live in a country where they can find whatever it is they want very, very quickly,” Mátyás observed.
“It’s all about convenience; we’re masters of convenience,” I said. “But the flip side to that is that Americans often make cranky travelers. They go to a place that doesn’t have exactly what they need or the fastest customer service, and they act like it’s the end of the world. It’s the classic Ugly American stereotype, and it’s all about suffering from a lack of convenience in an unfamiliar place.”
Farmer’s cottage, Szentendre
Just beyond the tannery, we found a farmhouse that sold traditional handicrafts. As I looked at some of the pottery on display outside, I heard Mátyás call my name. He was pointing to a small sign outside the craft shop; the sign had an arrow pointing inside with the Hungarian word for coffee, kave, above it.
“Andy, look,” he said, smiling broadly. “Convenience!”
Inside the shop, we found a fine collection of crafts from all over Hungary, particularly wooden toys and ceramics. Mátyás ordered us coffees while playing with a wooden door knocker. He handed two of them to the cashier as we waited for the coffee.
“A gift to Susanne,” he said, “in case she ever needs to get your attention.”
Soon, the cashier procured three cups of coffees, in thin plastic cups not much larger than a shot glass. They were filled to the brim with thick Hungarian coffee — I’d be tempted to describe it as Turkish coffee but that might be frowned upon here — and I worried I would scorch my hand carrying it outside. I walked to a bench gingerly and joined Mátyás, sipping away and enjoying the sunshine, as Marika continued to chat with the cashier.
Adjacent to the crafts shop we found the bakery. I spent a while shooting photos and video of bakers shoving huge pans into a wood oven, each pan containing half a dozen loaves of dough waiting to bake into gloriously fresh bread. When I turned around, Mátyás and Marika were standing there with the largest pretzels I’d ever since. Mátyás handed me one of them: “Here is your lunch,” he said.
We walked a little while and found a shady bench near an old chapel. The pretzel was soft and flaky, not the chewy, thick pretzel that I was used to at home. And rather than being coated with course salt, it was drizzled with heavily salted cheese. The combination gave the illusion of eating a pretzel-shaped pizza, sans the tomato sauce.
For the next hour or so, we wandered throughout the park, visiting a series of historic buildings from the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. There were peasant houses that fit several generations of family members under one small roof, while across the way we would find relatively sprawling villas own by wealthy merchants. Each one was decorated with period furniture and implements, including books, chairs, wood stoves, ceramics, cutlery and religious art.
“Andy, come see this,” Mátyás said. “I have a friend who has a very old house; it is decorated exactly like this, all the furniture and pieces in the exact same places. Marvelous, marvelous….”
Outside one of the houses I spotted a large wooden pole, with another pole connected to it on a hinge, like a medieval crane. I’d actually seen many of them as we drove through rural Hungary, each one of them close to a well.
“Is this for lifting water out of the well?” I asked.
“Yes, they’re still in use,” Mátyás replied. Meanwhile, an airplane flew high overhead, leaving a contrail at roughly the same angle as the spar connected to the well pole.
“That makes a good picture,” Mátyás replied, laughing to himself. “Old technology, new technology: perfect for your book.”
One of the last buildings we visited was an old school house. In one room, we found the teacher’s residence, complete with a collection of 19th century newspapers and magazines; in the other room we found the classroom itself, where several benches were set up with hand-sized writing tablets. “Look at those,” Mátyás exclaimed. “Marvelous, marvelous.”
“They were the laptops of their time,” I quipped, smirking.
We’d reached the far end of the park at this point. The three of us cut through some farm houses and headed downhill, towards a massive stone windmill. First, we passed through what I think must have been the only working farmhouse at the museum. There were stables of horses, as well as a series of large pens, each housing cows, goats, sheep and other farm fauna. Children and adults alike were crouched along the edges of the pen, happily feeding clumps of hay and fresh grass to even happier groups of goats, while lambs frolicked playfully in the background.
We now reached the windmill. It was even bigger up close, a giant stone monolith with wings the size of sails. Mátyás suggested we go inside, which sounded like a great idea since I’d never actually been in a windmill before. It was hard to appreciate much, though, as it was packed rather claustrophobically with tourists, and I couldn’t really make out what the docent was saying. Meanwhile, Mátyás pointed to a row of wooden shoes along the wall. “Wood shoes, windmills — they’re not just Dutch, you know,” he said.
Outside, Mátyás pointed to a series of large ropes and poles that reached up to the wings of the windmill. “Do you know what those are for?” he asked me.
“No, I can’t venture a guess.”
“They’re for steering the wind. Since you can’t move the windmill itself when the wind blows from a new direction, you can rotate the wings like sails to catch the air.”
Heading towards the far end of the park, we cut through an employee parking lot where we found a convenient bathroom – perhaps the only one in the park that didn’t charge 100 forints for privilege to go to the privy. We then hiked through the park’s amphitheatre and past the ruined foundation of a Roman villa to the museum’s crafts bazaar. By this point I wanted to strip off my clothes; hiking along the open plain with the sun bearing down on us, it felt much hotter than it probably was.
The crafts bazaar was crowded with shoppers exploring several dozen kiosks of handicraft vendors and food stalls. We made a loop through bazaar, checking out fine collections of woodworking, ceramics, wool goods, leather and Hungarian chotchkes of all imaginable styles. There was also a lot of traditional village clothing for sale.
“You could buy this for yourself, and maybe that for Susanne,” Mátyás said, pointing to costumes decorated with male and female villager costumes. “But today the clothing is political,” he continued. “If you wear it, you are making a statement, that you are traditional, a nationalist.”
A girl rides the carousel
After making a complete circle around the bazaar, Mátyás plopped himself in the grass while Marika continued to browse. I was getting thirsty, so I wandered off to buy a drink and take some pictures. Before getting in line for a bottle of water, I discovered small village carousel; a wooden contraption powered by a hand crank, the carousel spun around a small group of young children sitting on planks suspended by ropes. Just to the right, not far from the food tents, enormous cauldrons simmered under wood fires. I leaned over to see what was cooking and found gallons of gulyas (goulash) in one and fisherman’s stew in the other. The aromas brought me back to the villages we’d visited just a couple of days ago and the friendly people we’d met along the way.
With my new bottle of water in hand, we regrouped and headed back to the car, weaving through groups of tourists streaming into the park. We then drove into town, parking in a lot about a block away from the Danube. The three of us strolled towards the center of Szentendre, past a variety of shops, many of which seemed to sell either antiques or ice cream. Mátyás then reached a doorway and motioned that we should go in.
“Do you know marcipan?” he asked.
“Oh, marzipan, sure,” I replied.
“This is a marcipan museum,” he continued. “Come and see.” Meanwhile, Marika rolled her eyes and stayed outside, getting in line for an ice cream across the street.
“She does not like the place,” Mátyás said as we paid the entrance fee. “But I think you will like this.”
On the first floor, we found a marzipan chef making a series of animal characters behind a glass window; several young girls pressed their faces against the glass, watching the chef put together rows of sheep, owls, cats and other sugery creatures.
Michael Jackson in Marzipan
Matyas then directed me to go upstairs, which I thought would be about the history and gastronomy of marzipan. Instead, we entered a surreal universe — a marzipan art museum. First, we were treated to a fine collection of marzipan creatures shaped like the entire cast of the Muppet Show.
“This is crazy,” I said, laughing at what I was seeing.
“Oh, it gets even better,” Mátyás replied, a big smile on his face.
Indeed, the museum got better — better in the kitschiest way imaginable. In one room, we marveled at a marzipan portrait of Princess Diana. Further along, in the Hungarian heritage room, were life-sized busts of famous Hungarian kings and national heroes. There was even a full-sized standing marzipan statue of King Mátyás Corvinus. The best of all, though, was a life-sized statue of none other than Michael Jackson. Like the Lady Di portrait, the Wacko Jacko statue felt as if it had been entered into a junior high school art contest — and received only an honorable mention. I couldn’t stop laughing; I snapped a picture on my camera phone and immediately emailed it to Susanne and my brother.
Szentendre’s main square
Leaving the museum, we walked towards the heart of the town. To the left, I could see the St. Peter and Paul Church, used by the local Croatian Catholic community. Beyond that, we reached Fo Ter, the main town square. It was teaming with tourists crowding into every shop, along the public fountain, in line to visit the beautiful Serbian Blagovestenska Church. In some ways it was a bit of a turn-off, but the village’s charm still shined through the masses of people.
We hiked a few short blocks from the main square; the crowd thinned out to a trickle. Matyas pointed to a Star of David in front of one building; he said it was a memorial to the town’s former Jewish community.
We entered the memorial; a modest courtyard hosted a series of marble plaques listing the names of Szentendre Jews killed during the holocaust. Across the courtyard was a triangular shaped room, no larger than a dining room. Several rows of wood pews pointed to an altar, behind which a gated enclosure housed a Torah. Approximately 250 Jews lived in Szentendre before the war; by the time it was over, they had all died or left. Since then, the city decided to build this memorial, which was consecrated by the Chief Rabbi of Hungary as a synagogue, making it both the first synagogue built in Hungary after the Holocaust as well as the smallest synagogue in the world. Currently, there are no Jews in Szentendre, but the city has promised it would donate a house to a rabbi if he would move to Szentendre and bring at least one Jewish family with him. It was a very somber experience.
With much to contemplate, we wandered the back streets of Szentendre, soaking up the atmosphere while avoiding most of the tourists. But much of the action was nearer to the center of town, so we braved the crowds to explore various shops and art galleries. In one gallery, we saw a fine collection of Salvador Dali prints; in a shop down the street, I bought two bags of crushed paprika, one sweet and one hot, and a bottle of soda. We also sat along a stone wall by the Danube, enjoying the view of the river as it flowed gracefully towards Budapest.
The three of us walked through the central square on our way back to the car, window shopping along the way. At one point I opened my bottle of soda to take another sip, and it exploded all over me. To my horror, I saw streams of carbonated liquid pour into my newly purchased bag of paprika. I scrambled to save my private spice horde, but one of the bags had already gotten wet. To make matters worse, it was the one bag that wasn’t waterproof; I could see the light beige sack cloth turn dark red as the soda soaked up some of the spice. We did our best to pad it down with Kleenexes; meanwhile, I had to pour what was left of my old water bottle all over my hands to get rid of the stickiness. It was an unfortunate wrinkle at the end of what was otherwise a great day trip.
Mátyás, Marika and I drove back to Budapest, where they offered to drop me off at the end of the chain bridge, near the funicular that went to the top of Castle Hill. I said my goodbyes to both Marika and Mátyás, who had been extraordinarily gracious and generous hosts. As they drove off, I got in line for the funicular, which cost 600 forints to go up, but only 450 to go down. Still, at three bucks for a ride up several hundred feet of cliff, it was well worth the minor expense. The ride up the funicular afforded me with a wonderful view of the chain bridge, at the end of which sat a palace now used as the Four Seasons Hotel.
Exiting the funicular, I found myself by the palace, just a stone’s throw from Corvinus Gate, the Habsburg Steps and the giant raven statue. From there, I walked past the presidential palace towards Mátyás Church. I planned to visit it before it closed at 5pm, but to my surprise, I discovered that the church had closed earlier than usual, at 4pm. So I decided to explore the neighborhoods around Castle Hill, weaving in and out of the small side streets that most tourists neglected. There were very few people around except locals going about their business, so the walk was quite relaxing.
A singer performs at the Lutheran church
Near Vienna Gate, I passed an old Lutheran church. Inside, I heard a pipe organ and people singing. I went inside and discovered a choir rehearsing a concert they would give that night. They were high above the pews, in the balcony where the pipe organ was located. About half a dozen people were sitting in the pews towards the altar, watching the rehearsal. I walked down the aisle and found a spot with a good view, then spent the next 30 minutes watching them practice. As a conductor stood immediately in front of the organ, around a dozen singers belted out a Hungarian hallelujah chorus, with several instruments backing them up, including a double bass, violins, woodwinds and the organ.
By the time I left the rehearsal, most of the small museums in the neighborhood were closed for the day. So I decided to go back one more time to the wine tasting museum for a round of tastings. It appeared to be a different set of wines for tasting today, which was what I was hoping for. Unfortunately, there were lots of very dry wines that irritated my throat, which was sore from all the talking I’d been doing all week. Fortunately, there were several sweet Tokaj wines that were quite soothing, so my tasting ended on a nice note.
A view of the Szechenyi Chain Bridge and Pest
Leaving the wine museum, I walked back to the Habsburg steps and followed them down a path that went all the way down the hillside towards the Danube. I snaked back and forth along the paths, overtaken by a group of mountain bikers who were whizzing down the hillside, including its many marble steps. At the bottom of the hill, I found myself at the roundabout in front of the Szechenyi chain bridge. I strolled across the bridge, stopping every minute or so to take another picture from another angle. The view from the bridge was spectacular, with Castle Hill to my left, the Danube straight ahead, and parliament to my right. I’d have to come back after dark tonight and take more pictures.
After crossing into Pest, I made a brief pit stop at the Four Seasons hotel. It was a gorgeous hotel located at the foot of the chain bridge — talk about premium real estate. I then walked over towards St. Stephen’s Basilica, a gorgeous, imposing church that dominates a wide square a few blocks east of the Danube. The church itself was closed by now, but that was okay; sitting on a bench and soaking up the atmosphere was perfectly fine by me.
By now it was approaching 8pm; I walked a few blocks and found a hip Hungarian restaurant called Mocha. I wasn’t extraordinarily hungry, so I ordered a bowl of gulyas and a salmon salad. The guylas was the hottest dish I’d tasted in Hungary, which is saying a hell of a lot. The salmon salad was really nice — a balsamic dressing with small chunks of grilled salmon, drizzled with scoops of salmon roe. The waiter seemed disappointed when I ordered a ginger ale, though, given their enormous wine menu. But I figured I’d had my allotment of Hungarian wine for the day at the tasting that afternoon, so ginger ale seemed quite reasonable.
A nightime view of Castle Hill
By 9:30 or so, I was getting a little tired and my feet were killing me, but nonetheless I made myself walk across the chain bridge again. It was well worth it: the bridge, palace and surrounding buildings were awash in floodlights, truly a magnificent spectacle. Though my camera batteries were dying, I took out my tripod and set up my camera in at least half a dozen locations, taking pictures at a variety of settings. I managed to get several dozen shots before the camera finally gave out on me, signaling that it was time to hail a taxi, return to the hotel and pack up for my return to Boston the next morning. -andy