Tag Archives: Budapest

Comrade Baron: A Journey Through the Vanishing World of the Transylvanian Aristocracy by Jaap Scholten

baronI am very excited about this and I know that some you will be too as you have asked about it on many occasions.

Comrade Baron A journey through the vanishing world of the Transylvanian aristocracy, is written by Jaap Scholten and will be published for the first time in English on 5 May 2016. The book was winner of the Libris History Prize 2011 and shortlisted for the Bob den Uyl Prize for best travel book 2011.

Comrade Baron will be launched at an event, hosted by BBC presenter, Petroc Trelawny, at the Hungarian Cultural Centre, London, on 4 th May. A best-seller in The Netherlands with more than 30,000 copies sold, Comrade Baron has been translated into French, Hungarian and Romanian. An extraordinary, passionate and important work, Comrade Baron is “in part, an oral history of a group we know little about, in part the account of a journey through one of the most beautiful and mysterious regions of Europe and in part a record of a Dutchman’s impressions on finding himself in an extraordinary milieu in the company of some exceptional families.”

In the darkness of the early morning of 3 March 1949, practically all of the Transylvanian aristocracy were arrested in their beds and loaded onto trucks. That same day the Romanian Workers’ Party was pleased to announce the successful deportation and dispossession of all large landowners. Communism demanded the destruction of these ultimate class enemies. Taken away with just the clothes they stood up in, what happened to these once mighty families? Their stories, as told first-hand in this fascinating and enlightening book, are ones of hardship and fear but also of determination, solidarity, family tradition, resilience and indomitable spirit…

Jaap Scholten lives in Budapest, which is where, in 2006, he first heard about the nocturnal mass deportation of the Transylvanian nobility. Fascinated by their plight, he determined to track down as many of the older members of the former aristocracy as he could, recording their stories before they were lost forever. His journey took him the length and breadth of Transylvania (a magical land that comes to vivid life through descriptions in the book), to apartment blocks, slums and ruined castles, and brought him face-to-face with a group of rare and fascinating families with an extraordinary tale to tell.

Supported by a selection of black and white photographs and told through poignant and illuminating first-hand conversations, Comrade Baron is their story – from the days that preceded communism to after the communists came to power and through to the modern day.

Grand houses were exchanged for homes in cellars, attics, laundry rooms and sculleries and pleasure-seeking lifestyles for work in quarries, steelworks or domestic service. Interrogation was a daily occurrence and many were sent to hard labour in the Romanian gulags. Yet despite living under terrifying conditions, inflicted upon them firstly by Gheorghiu-Dej and later Ceauşescu, the aristocrats were leading a double life. Secretly gathering at night, they maintained the rituals of an older world – “they carried on kissing hands and using other formal gestures, their conversations were governed by long established rules… They met in cellars to play bridge, rummy and canasta. They read poetry aloud and made music. The older aristocrats taught the children foreign languages and gave them music lessons.” In contrast, as Jaap travels through Romania and observes the behaviour of the new Romanian elite –extravagant behaviour at parties and restaurants, driving their Mercedes and SUV’s – he recognizes what has been lost and consider how best to rebuild a country in a moral vacuum.

Jaap Scholten studied Industrial Design at the Technical University in Delft, Graphic Design at the Willem de Kooning Academy of Arts in Rotterdam (BA), and Social Anthropology at the Central European University in Budapest (MA). He is the award winning author of seven books, novels and short story collections. Comrade Baron is his first non-fiction book. Jaap has lived in Budapest since 2003. His Hungarian wife is of noble descent and distantly related to some of the families in the book.

“I have enjoyed this book so much – such a great tale, with brilliant original research and source material, and so many stories, tragic, humiliating, painful, yet all engrossing and highly readable” Petroc Trelawny, BBC presenter and journalist.

“This is a classic in the lines of Patrick Leigh-Fermor and it should be on the shelves of anyone interested in Mitteleuropa.” Norman Stone, Professor of Modern History, Oxford.

You can buy Comrade Baron: A Journey Through the Vanishing World of the Transylvanian Aristocracy here.

The launch event for the book, hosted by Petroc Trelawney will take place on Wednesday 4 May 2016 at 7pm at the Hungarian Cultural Centre, 10 Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, London WC2E 7NA. Attendance at the event is free but booking is required on bookings@hungary.org.uk.

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Angéla’s fate

In this extract from a longer work on Patrick Leigh Fermor and Budapest, Michael O’Sullivan looks at the fate of one of Paddy’s girlfriends in Budapest under communism and also solves the riddle of a postcard Paddy received about his stolen rucksack. The extract is part of a book Michael is working on called Between the Counts and the Comrades which looks at the fate of some of the old Hungarian noble families under communism.

Michael tells me that he has “… traced many of the descendants of the families he stayed with in Hungary especially his first port of call here which was with Baron and Baroness von Berg at Uri Utca. He tried to get access to the house on his last visit to Budapest and there is a rather sad photograph of him at the closed door.”

The best dreams of an ancient lineage are often had on beds of straw. This is the thought that engages me as I stand outside the house in Budapest where Patrick Leigh Fermor’s ex-girlfriend strangled her flatmate in 1969. This end of Budapest’s Pannonia Street is more chipped and faded in appearance than the more prosperous commercial stretch further south which is guarded by the elegant facade of the Vigzinhaus – the city’s Comedy Theatre. This neighbourhood of the XIII district called the Újlipótváros or New Leopoldstown was still a very new part of the city when Leigh Fermor first came to Budapest in 1934. It soon established itself as home to the literary and artistic set and also formed part of the residential area favoured by some of Budapest’s Jewish community. Today, according to recent census information, some of the capital’s Jewish community is again reestablishing itself here. Standing outside 48 Pannonia Street, I imagine it has changed very little since Xenia Cszernovits moved here in 1957, soon after the revolution which tried to end Soviet rule in Hungary. I am trying also to imagine how this woman of distinguished lineage, born into a family of landed gentry in 1909, coped with the ‘class enemy’ status imposed on her by Communism and how she coped too with being sent to work as a labourer in a textile factory.

Xenia Csernovits de Mácsa et Kisoroszi was a ravishing dark-haired beauty. She was the daughter of a Transylvanian land owner from Zam, Mihály Czernovits. The family was of grand Serbian origin. Xenia married Gábor Betegh de Csíktusnád, scion of an old Transylvanian noble family, while still in her early twenties but at the time she met Leigh Fermor in 1934 the marriage was going through a turbulent phase. It later appears to have settled down again because they had a daughter two years after Xenia’s tryst with Leigh Fermor.

Xenia’s niece by marriage, Stefania Betegh, doubts that the [Paddy’s] affair with Xenia ever happened. She has no particular reason to defend Xenia’s honour. She is not, after all, a blood relative. There is also the issue of the confused manner in which Leigh Fermor attempts to disguise, and yet not disguise, Xenia’s identity in Between the Woods and the Water. At one point in the narrative he gives her full name, the location of her family house at Zam and enough detail for us to know exactly who she is. Then he disguises her as ‘Angela’ and even adds a footnote about the need to ‘alter names’ having already made her one of the most identifiable characters in the book. She seems not to have been bothered by this and when, in her seventy sixth year, she read a translation of the book in Hungarian by her relative, Miklos Vajda, she wrote to Leigh Fermor to say how much she had enjoyed it.

Leigh Fermor’s attraction for women and his success as a seducer are well known. The balance of probability, in the seduction stakes, most likely rests with his success with Xenia. It was one of the last happy periods of her life. Miklos Vajda, recalls her as a free spirit and ‘a woman with something of the exotic gypsy in her looks and nature’. Men found her irresistible and the regular absence of her husband on business trips enabled her to have frequent liaisons with various male admirers, amongst whom Leigh Fermor is the best known.

Once Hungary had become a postwar Soviet satellite state, her life was altered in a way that was unimaginable in 1934. As a ‘class enemy’, she was sent to do menial work as a house painter and later in a textile factory in Budapest. She ended her days in a squalid little basement flat which she moved to after she strangled her former flatmate in a fit of rage in Pannonia Street on 20 December 1969. Such was her popularity with her neighbours that many of them testified in court to the justification of her actions, claiming that the victim was an unbearable woman, thus leading to a reduced charge of manslaughter.

There has been much talk in Budapest recently about the publication of the final installment of Leigh Fermor’s account of his walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. In the third volume The Broken Road he moves onward through Rumania and it is his favourable view of the old enemy that has irritated some amongst his admirers in Hungary. Presenting the Rumanian nobility as better read and more cosmopolitan than their Hungarian neighbours has not endeared him to some of the descendants of his former hosts. ‘No good deed goes unpunished’ is how one of them put it, at a recent event to mark the anniversary of the 1956 Revolution. But despite this he is remembered with great affection in Budapest where his friend, writer and translator, Rudi Fischer, now in his 90s, still lives.

Meeting him one can see how Leigh Fermor admired him and came to rely on his extraordinary knowledge of Hungarian history and culture. Fischer recently solved a Leigh Fermor conundrum when he admitted authorship of a hoax postcard addressed to Paddy from Kirchstetten, W.H. Auden’s Austrian retreat. In it he claimed that it was his grandfather, ‘Alois Schoissbauer’, who stole Paddy’s rucksack containing his money, passport and travel journal, from a Munich hostel in 1934. To add veracity to the hoax Fischer claimed that the author of the postcard later inherited the rucksack and that it was stolen again by ‘an Australian hippie’ as he travelled across Asia to Peshawar. He signed it ‘Dr Franz Xavier Hinterwalder, Professor of Farsi and Pashtoo, Firdausi School of Oriental Languges, Kirchstetten Lower Austria. The card was written after a bibulous lunch at the Traveller’s Club in Pall Mall. Paddy enjoyed it enough to copy it to Debo Devonshire.

There are plans in Budapest to raise a plaque in the city to mark Patrick Leigh Fermor’s 1934 visit and plans too for a commemorative lecture about his time in the city.

Re-opening of Bánffy exhibition at Budapest Opera House

Zsuzsanna Szebeni, who is the curator of the Count Bánffy exhibition at the Budapest Opera House, contacted me to say that the exhibition has re-opened at the opera house from 3 April 2012. If my Magyar is up to scratch it appears to run until 24 June, but I could be wrong about that! From the 16th of July the exhibition will move to a larger location in the city of Sepsizsentgyörgy or Sfântu Gheorghe (in Romanian), a city which is predominantly Székely Hungarian, and lies to the north-east of Brasov in Transylvania.

Miklos Bánffy was a Transylvanian Count and director of the Budapest Opera House at the end of the Great War. At the same time he planned the very last coronation of a King of Hungary, the last Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Charles I. This is all wonderfully described in the English Translation of Bánffy’s memoirs, The Phoenix Land, published by Arcadia Books.

As you will know by now, Paddy wrote the introduction to the English translation of Bánffy’s fictional Transylvanian Trilogy which is wonderful and an absolute must read. Cluj gets many a mention. You can read more about Count Bánffy here on the blog.

You can contact Zsuzsanna as follows: Mobil: +36 20 3304070 and Office: +36 1 3751184/128.

For those of you who speak Magyar you will find this video of interest. For those who don’t I hope that you will enjoy the colourful images!

Urgent! Can we help Nick locate Istvan’s kastely?

I know I could open BTTW but I might still find that I don’t know the answer so I thought in this electronic age the best thing would be to go viral with the question Can we Help Nick Find Istvan’s Kastely?

I received this note from Nick just an hour or so ago …

Tom

Thanks so much for your support with reposting some of my articles. I’m glad people seem to be finding them interesting. I’ve got one question about the Romanian leg of the journey — do you have any idea where Istvan’s kastely was? It’s somewhere east of Zam, near the river Mures, but there’s nothing more specific than that. I’ve had a lot of help on the other kastelys from someone called Ileana who works for this organisation – http://monumenteuitate.blogspot.com/ – involved in restoring and preserving historic buildings in Romania. She contacted me having found my blog somehow, and is really helpful. I’m not sure if she has any more clues about the location of Istvan’s place.
Hope all is well with you. Have you been travelling recently? Best wishes from Budapest… and soon from the Great Hungarian Plain.
Nick
Any clues or answers please email me or add a comment. I am sure we will crack this so thank you in advance!

Greeks in Hungary: A history in two acts

I thought this would be of general interest. I don’t recall Paddy encountering any Greeks in Hungary but he did come across Greek fishermen from the Greek diaspora when walking along the Bulgarian Black Sea coast in late 1934. That encounter was related in Words of Mercury and includes the Mystery of the Black Sea Cave.

by Alexander Billinnis

First published in The Hellenic Voice, 22 June 2011.

The Greek presence in Hungary is one of the oldest in Greece’s modern diaspora. It is, further, one of the most interesting, because as a tragic accident of war and politics, it received a new lease on life, a second chapter of sorts. The Greeks’ odyssey in Hungary is a tale of two diasporas and the efforts of current Greeks to unite the two acts into a common play.

Act I: The First Diaspora

After swallowing up the Balkans, the Turks shattered the Hungarian army at the Battle of Mohacs, and the Turks controlled most of Hungary, and up to the gates of Vienna in Austria, for more than 150 years. On the heels of the Turks’ second, failed siege of Vienna in 1683, the Austrians, at the head of a multinational European force, began the taskof evicting the Turks from Central Europe. When the guns fell silent, in 1717, the Austrians and Hungarians needed to rebuild their realm devastated by war, and many Ottoman Christians, primarilySerbs but also Greeks and Vlachs, responded eagerly.

Greek merchants quickly established themselves in major Hungarian cities, such as Buda, Pest, Szentendre, Miskolc and Tokaj. They were heavilyinvolved in the overland trade with the Ottoman Empire, but they also worked as agriculturalists and vintners. There is some evidence that winemakers from Macedonia first cultivated Hungary’s prized Tokaj wine. The Greek merchants were heavily involved in the coffee trade, and some of the oldest Budapest coffeehouses have Greek origins. As an avid coffee drinker, this makes me particularly proud.

The Greeks’ natural appetite for commerce, their large commercial network in the Ottoman Empire and their growing colonies throughout the Austrian (later Austro-Hungarian Empire) brought a great deal of wealth to the small but financially and politically powerful community. The Greek community supported schools, charitable institutions and of course church organizations. Initially the Greek students studied at the Serbian school, but by 1785 they established their own, which operated continuously until 1900. The Greeks and Vlachs established a church community separate from other Orthodox nationalities (though still subject to the Serbian Patriarchate), and their cathedral, built in 1809, continues (as the Hungarian Orthodox Church) to serve a largely Hungarian Orthodox community, often Balkan in origin. Other Greek Orthodox churches grace several Hungarian cities, including Tokaj, Eger and Miskolc.

The Greeks’ very success fostered an increasing assimilation. Greeks left the merchant class, became naturalized Hungarians, and in some cases nobility. Events in Hungary followed a similar pattern to those in Vienna and other key Austrian commercial centers. Lacking the critical mass of population that the Serbs had in southern Hungary (which later became the Serbian province of Vojvodina, where my family and I currently live), the Greeks became Hungarians, though some did keep the Orthodox religion of their ancestors, and vestiges of their culture.

Act II: The Second Diaspora

Just as the First Greek Hungarian diaspora faded into assimilation and history, events in Greece stirred up another wave of Greeks into Hungary. Many of these immigrants came from the same mountains as the first diaspora, but they were not merchants, but refugees – guerillas, villagers and intellectuals of the communist movement in the Greek Civil War. Many were children, many came involuntarily. Their connections with Greece were severed by the hard frontiers of the Cold War, but they did not forget Greece or their traditions.

In the “Greek” village of Beloiannisz (Beloyiannis), which I visited, or in small communities in Budapest, Miskolc, Pecs and Kesckemet, the Greeks kept their language and culture alive. In the communist period the Church played little role as a guardian of faith and identity, in contrast with the first Greek diaspora in Hungary, or Greek diasporas in the Americas or Australia. In the post-communist era, the role of the Church has reemerged.

Other virtues we associate with the diaspora, hard work and study, also marked this post Civil War diaspora. Greeks excelled in academia and professions well out of proportion to the small size of their community. All of the Greeks I met, including the second generation born in Hungary, spoke Greek with a precise fluency.

A fair percentage of the Greek Hungarian community repatriated to Greece, particularly in the 1980s, but the community by that time was quite well established in Hungary. The Hungarian government recognized Greeks as a distinct minority and cofunded cultural and educational activities. This support enables a diverse educational and cultural agenda, including an elementary school, weekly cultural performances and a growing literature about the community. When I arrived at the cultural center, I was welcomed as a fellow diaspora Greek, and loaded down with books on the community.

Closure

I spent an hour talking to Professor Nikosz Fokasz (Nikos Fokas), an eminent Hungarian sociologist and one of the Greek community’s leading intellectuals. Son of a Paris-educated Cephalonian architect and a mother from a village in Evritania, Professor Fokas is an urbane academic at home in university circles throughout Europe and North America. He considers thispostwar Diaspora to be the keepers and the descendents of the first diaspora. After all, both generally descended from the same Macedonian and Epirote mountains, a “diaspora of the Mountains,” as he calls it. Many Hungarians are now rediscovering their Greek roots, with the active help of this newer Greek diaspora.

Professor Fokas noted, with a particular pride, that Baron Simon Sina, a Greek Hungarian, financed Budapest’s most iconic Danube bridge, Lanc Hid (Chain Bridge), as well as a large part of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, another signature Budapest building. Honoring him, Greek Hungarians have been instrumental in establishing the “Sina Award,” bestowed upon a member of the Hungarian business community for outstanding support of the arts and sciences. Fostering awareness of Hungary’s Greek and Orthodox elements in its history has been a key contribution of this new diaspora, and in so doing, it has honored, and in some cases, literally resurrected, the first diaspora.

As always when I travel among diaspora Greeks, I felt a common bond with the Greek Hungarians in spite of our very different histories. There was that love of Greece, somehow less jaded, than that of Greeks in Greece. There is also a very clear consciousness among Greeks in Hungary that the history of Hellenism and Orthodoxy is a long one in their country, and that custody of this tradition is an important role, which they assume with pride. It is a pertinent lesson for our community in America.

Alexander Billinis is a Greek American writer living in Serbia. He previously worked in international banking in the US, Britain and Greece. His book, “The Eagle has Two Faces: Journeys through Byzantine Europe,” will be released later this year. 

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On the Pontic shores where the snowflakes fall

The mystery of The Black Sea Cave

Walking Paddy’s Route in Mitelleuropa: Frugal Europe, on Foot

It’s time to be honest now: who amongst the regular readers of this blog, or even those that stumble across us because they have read ‘A Time of Gifts’ or ‘Between the Woods and the Water’, has not thought about following Paddy’s 1930’s route? For myself it is a definite goal. It is an ambition; probably a passion. I had come across the following article but have been inspired to re-produce it by Blog reader Matt who says he first got into Paddy’s work when stationed in Baghdad:

Tom, The New York Times travel writer, Matt Gross, just did an article on PLF. He walked the Vienna to Budapest stretch recently … I first read PLF while stationed in Baghdad four years ago and revisit him often. Living in Heidelberg, I’ve been able to visit some of the places he mentioned specifically and have recommended A Time For Gifts to many of my fellow Americans living here or travelling to Europe. As I’m in the process of moving back to the States, it will be a few years before I’m able to pick up the thread of his travels. I’m not sure if you’re in contact with PLF, but pass him the respects of this Yankee officer. Matt

Frugal Europe, on Foot

First published in the New York Times,  May 23, 2010

The article is written by New York Times’ Frugal Traveler columnist Matt Gross who attempted to follow in the footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor. Like all good stories it begins ….

ONCE upon a time, a young man went for a walk. It was December 1933, and an 18-year-old Englishman named Patrick Leigh Fermor put on a pair of hobnail boots and a secondhand greatcoat, gathered up his rucksack and left London on a ship bound for Rotterdam, where he planned to travel 1,400 miles to Istanbul [Ed: Constantinople!] — on foot. He had virtually no money; at best, he’d arrive in, say, Munich to find his mother had sent him £5. But what he did have was an outgoing nature, a sense of adventure, an affinity for languages and a broad network of friends of friends.

 “If I lived on bread and cheese and apples,” he later wrote, “jogging along on fifty pounds a year like Lord Durham with a few noughts knocked off, there would even be some cash left over for papers and pencils and an occasional mug of beer. A new life! Freedom! Something to write about!”

 Something to write about indeed! The books he produced from the yearlong journey — “A Time of Gifts” and “Between the Woods and the Water” — are gorgeously rendered classics that have led many to call Mr. Leigh Fermor, now 95, Britain’s greatest living travel writer. But to my mind, he’s always had another title: the original Frugal Traveler — the embodiment of that idea that, though a wanderer may be penniless, he doesn’t have to suffer.

 And Mr. Leigh Fermor never suffered, thanks to the miracle of human generosity. Peasants gave him baskets of eggs and swigs of raspberry schnapps. Small-town mayors found him beds. The lingering nobility of Europe put him up in their castles, invited him to balls and lent him their horses. When Mr. Leigh Fermor did sleep rough — in hayricks and barns or on the banks of his beloved Danube — he did it by choice, not because (or not merely because) poverty required it. He knew, even at 18, that the world is an experience to be savored in all its multifarious incarnations.

Matt Gross' route

Could a young person (is 35 still young?) with strong legs and little money find the same spirit of hospitality that Mr. Leigh Fermor encountered some 76 years ago? At the end of March, I set out to find the answer. With only two weeks free, my plan was to walk from Vienna to Budapest, a 180-mile route that would connect the old poles of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and track Mr. Leigh Fermor’s trail as closely as possible, taking me along the Danube to Bratislava, the Slovakian capital, and across the plains of Slovakia south to Hungary — through three countries whose languages, cultures and histories could not be more different, or more intertwined.

It was tempting, the day I arrived in Vienna, to just walk east from the airport, but I couldn’t completely skip the Austrian capital, where Mr. Leigh Fermor had spent three weeks among the “crooked lanes” and “facades of broken pediment and tiered shutter.” And so I followed his lead, going into the imperial crypt, where the grandest members of the Hapsburg family lay entombed in elaborate sarcophagi, and into the museums, although I shied away from the most famous in favor of oddities like the International Esperanto Museum. And I luxuriated in storied places like Cafe Alt Wien and Cafe Bendl.

But after two nights in Vienna, I was restless. So I crossed the Danube, put on my 45-pound pack and took off down the Donauradweg, a well-kept biking trail that runs from the river’s source to its mouth at the Black Sea. To my right, the Danube, more green than blue, sparkled in the cool sunlight, and I encountered fishermen tending their rods, elderly sunbathers, nordic hikers poling along and cyclists speeding in both directions.

This first day, I figured, I’d take it easy and do only 15 miles. Ideally, I’d need to hit 18 miles a day — about six hours of walking — to reach my goal. It seemed reasonable, especially with the terrain so uniformly flat. The path, sometimes dirt, sometimes paved, would often stretch so far and straight that I couldn’t imagine I’d ever reach the end, and then I’d finally hit a slight turn and face the same thing: an art-school lesson in perspective, complete with the first low foothills of the Carpathians at the vanishing point — and a scampering rabbit to remind me this was no still life.

Even with such straightforward terrain, there were snags. An attempted shortcut through a fuel depot left me with minor scratches and an extra three miles. But such mistakes have a way of turning out for the best. Had I stayed on the trail, I would have never crossed paths, two hours later, at the edge of Donau-Auen National Park, with Jean-Marc and Marie, newlywed French cyclists who stopped to say hello when they saw a lone hiker in the middle of nowhere. They were taking an extended honeymoon: a two-year bicycle journey from their home in Paris — to Japan!

“Do you know where you’re staying tonight?” I asked. They didn’t. I told them to meet me at Orth an der Donau, a small Austrian town a couple of miles farther down the Danube, where I had arranged for a place to stay via CouchSurfing.org. Maybe, I said, my host could find them somewhere to pitch their tent.

THE host, Roland Hauser, whom we met in front of Orth’s impressive castle, did better than that. He invited them home to his dreamland of soft beds and hot showers. Roland, 26, had traveled from California to Southeast Asia to New Zealand, and his German-accented English was peppered with words like “sí” and “bueno.” That evening, we cooked spaghetti Bolognese, nibbled Südtirolean ham and drank big bottles of beer. I went to sleep marveling at our extraordinary, Fermorian luck.

In the morning, after coffee, I threw out my underwear. This was a strategy to lighten my load — bring old undies and get rid of them day by day. Frankly, I should have done that with everything, as the pack was needlessly heavy. Along with two weeks’ worth of shirts, I had an ultralight down jacket, a waterproof shell and rain pants. A tent and sleeping bag. One pair of jeans and lightweight canvas shoes to change into at day’s end; nothing worse than walking 20 miles and spending the evening in the same clothes. And I packed Mr. Leigh Fermor’s books and Claudio Magris’s “Danube,” which I never had time to read. And my computer and camera gear — work necessities, alas.

When I set off, I was wearing my typical walking outfit: khaki pants by a company in Portland, Ore., called Nau; waterproof running sneakers by Lafuma; good socks (as important as good shoes); and a long-sleeved cotton shirt.

The walk began well. My feet were tender, but the flatness of the Marchfelddamm, a high berm that doubled as biking path and flood deterrent, ensured that I wasn’t struggling. This was the heart of the Donau-Auen National Park: forests of thin trees broken by occasional streams flowing to the Danube. At first, I appreciated the play of light on the water and between the trunks, but hour after plodding hour of unchanging scenery soon became mind-numbing, and I simply marched, putting one foot in front of the other and watching for kilometer markers. It would be 13 miles before I could stop for lunch, and another 10 before I reached my day’s goal: Bratislava.

But there’s a funny thing about long walks. With patience, all those steps add up, and by 2 p.m., I’d crossed a bridge over the Danube and settled into a cafe in the stately town of Hainburg, where an open-faced baguette pizza and glass of beer gave me the courage to face the miles ahead. And soon I found myself trudging along the shoulder of the small highway with cars flying past — and missing the monotonous near-silence of the forest.

Not far off, I could see Bratislava’s hilltop castle — in Mr. Leigh Fermor’s era, a burned-out wreck worked by prostitutes but in the 1950s rebuilt as a stately white-and-red palace — and it teased me with its apparent nearness. Still, I had far to go, past a derelict border post, and through three miles of snaking bike paths, before I crossed the Danube again and was in the heart of Bratislava’s old town, all cobblestones and tile roofs and sidewalk cafes.

After checking into the Hotel Kyjev — a 1970s tower turned budget boutique — I checked myself out: I wasn’t sore, out of breath or even tired. I did have blisters on my feet, but they were easily treated: puncture, drain, clean, bandage. My ankles, however, were terribly swollen, the peroneal tendons in particular, a result (I think) of how my body mechanics had altered with the weight on my back. I popped some ibuprofren, took a shower, then hobbled outside for dinner.

It was the Friday during Passover, and like any wandering Jew, I wanted a Sabbath meal. And thanks to Chabad, the Hasidic Jewish outreach organization, I got one, at the home of the transplanted American rabbi Baruch Myers. He was only too willing to share his food (cucumber salad, gefilte fish), his friendship and his family, including a battalion of adorable children who cheerily walked me through the Passover story.

It wasn’t just this heartfelt welcome that got to me; it was the very existence of a Jewish community in Bratislava. Back in his day, Mr. Leigh Fermor wrote, the Jews “were numerous enough to give a pronounced character to the town.” No longer. The Holocaust had reduced the Jewish population to, in Rabbi Myers’s estimate, 1,000 people. There was a synagogue, a few kosher restaurants, a Jewish museum and even a pension, but few visitors today would see in Bratislava a Jewish-inflected city.

On Saturday, partly inspired by the rabbi and partly because of my feet, I rested and contemplated the future. I had walked 40 miles so far, and if my ankles were any indication, there was no way I’d make the remaining 140. Unless … If I took a train a short way — say, 15 miles northeast — I could certainly walk another 10 miles. I’d be breaking my rules, but those rules were arbitrary. Continue reading

Easter 1934 – Paddy reaches the Hungarian border at Esztergom

After what must have seemed an amazing four months to a young man of eighteen, Paddy arrives at the Czechoslovak-Hungarian border at Esztergom, which as he says (p 276 A Time of Gifts) contained ‘the Metropolitan Cathedral of all Hungary’. It is these last closing pages of his first volume that he describes the colourful preparations for an Easter service as he watches from no-man’s land in the middle of the bridge spanning the Danube. It is from this point that he picks up the story in volume two ‘Between the Woods an the Water’.

Wikipedia tells us: Esztergom (Hungarian pronunciation: [ˈɛstɛrɡom], also known by alternative names), is a city in northern Hungary, about 50 km north-west of the capital Budapest. It lies in Komárom-Esztergom county, on the right bank of the river Danube, which forms the border with Slovakia there.

Esztergom was the capital of Hungary from the 10th till the mid-13th century when King Béla IV of Hungary moved the royal seat to Buda.

Esztergom is the seat of the prímás (see Primate) of the Roman Catholic Church in Hungary. It’s also the official seat of the Constitutional Court of Hungary. The city has the Keresztény Múzeum, the largest ecclesiastical collection in Hungary. Its cathedral, Esztergom Basilica is the largest church in Hungary.

Imagine Paddy standing in the middle of this bridge looking at the cathedral