Tag Archives: Michael O’Sullivan

Budapest in the footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor

The travel writer arrived in Budapest in 1934. Author Michael O’Sullivan traces his footsteps.

By Michael O’Sullivan

First published in iNews 25 February 2019.

Standing on Budapest’s Freedom Bridge some years ago, with a Turkish friend who comes from an old Ottoman family, I heard her exhale a long, almost doleful sigh. When I asked if everything was alright, she just stared down the Danube and said, “To think that this was once part of the frontier of our old Empire!” Budapest is that sort of city; a place with a capacity to easily unleash a myriad of complex historical emotions.

Few have realised this so perfectly in print as did a 19 year old English youth who came here in 1934. Patrick Leigh Fermor was, among other things, working off his frustration at having been expelled from school when he undertook what is now remembered as a legendary walk from the Hook of Holland to the place he liked to call Constantinople.

He arrived in Budapest on 1 April 1934. He could hardly have known then, that a mere 10 years later, much of what he saw in this ancient city would be greatly altered by the vicissitudes of war, but also by the brutality which was so often the handmaiden of communism.

Can the traveller to the Hungarian capital today hope to find anything left of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Budapest to explore and enjoy? Let’s start our quest where he did; on the west bank of the river Danube on the Buda side of the city so elegantly bisected by one of Europe’s greatest rivers.

Úri utca (Lord’s Street) is at the very heart of the Castle District and lining this ancient cobbled thoroughfare are the one-time palaces and townhouses of the old Hungarian nobility. Stop in front of number 15, a plain two-storey house, and you will be at the very core of Leigh Fermor’s Budapest. If the owner, Baroness Gloria von Berg is at home, you are likely to receive a warm welcome and a free tour of the very quarters in which PLF slept. It was her father, Baron Tibor von Berg who hosted him in 1934. From this hospitable house he explored Budapest in a way that few English travellers had achieved at that time. Patrick Leigh Fermor’s passport

Go north on Úri utca and at its junction with Szenthármoság tér (Trinity Square) you will encounter an object which carries with it immense superstition for students who are about to sit exams: a statue of Field Marshal András von Hadik on horseback. Closer examination reveals the horse’s testicles to be highly polished. This comes from fervent rubbing by generations of students wishing to invoke good luck before sitting their exams.

You may regain your composure with a leisurely stroll to Leigh Fermor’s favourite vantage point for viewing the Danube, its bridges and the glories of Pest across the river. The Fisherman’s Bastion has all the deceptive appearance of an ancient cut-stone belvedere; however, this amalgam of neo-Gothic and neo-Romanesque architecture was erected barely 30 years before Leigh Fermor reached Budapest. On its main terrace an eponymous restaurant, Halászbástya Étterem, offers Hungarian fare. But nearby, for Leigh Fermor devotees are two places of refreshment still thriving since his 1934 visit.

For the traveller seeking the perfect coffee break or a light lunch Ruszwurm (Szentháromság Street 7) was Leigh-Fermor’s favourite café in Buda. Still operating since 1827, it has many of its original Biedermeier furnishings, and its tiny interior offers the perfect Budapest time warp. Those seeking more hearty sustenance should head for the Fekete Holló (black raven) restaurant on nearby Országház Street 10. This is where Leigh Fermor worked with his Budapest mentor Rudi Fischer to shape Between the Woods and the Water into the masterpiece of modern travel literature which it became. Its interior has something of the feel of a Hungarian hunting lodge about it, and its speciality is fish. The fish soup is a meal in itself.

At this point, in order to follow at least some of PLF’s route on the other side of the city in Pest, take the dinky number 16 bus (stops at regular intervals throughout the Castle District) and cross the Danube via the Chain Bridge, first opened to traffic in 1849.

This mighty conduit between both sides of the city was Leigh Fermor’s daily route to Pest where, once he reached Vörösmarty Square, he often stopped at the capitals most famous Café Gerbeaud. Still operating as a café since 1870, today it represents the more expensive side of Budapest’s cafe life.

Opposite Gerbeaud is the former Teleki Palace (now the Bank of China) where Leigh Fermor made several visits to one of Hungary’s most learned Prime Ministers, Paul Teleki, who was on the team of geographers who mapped the Japanese archipelago. The foyer of this bank gives some idea of the former grandeur of this old Budapest palace.

Leigh Fermor described Pest as a modern place criss-crossed by a great swath of Oxford Streets. On one of these streets we find the house which once contained one of Europe’s most legendary nightclubs, frequented by such social luminaries as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. At 20 Nagymező Street is the house which hosted the Arizona. Today, it contains a splendid photographic museum, but a faint sense of what Leigh Fermor described still lingers: ‘’The scintillating cave of the most glamorous nightclub I had ever seen. Did the floor of the Arizona really revolve? It certainly seemed to. Snowy steeds were cantering around it at one moment, feathers tossing: someone said he had seen camels there, even elephants.’’

Despite what war, revolution and communism have done to the physical fabric of Budapest, it is still possible to find a flavour of a city so elegantly described by one of the greatest English travel writers of his generation.

Patrick Leigh Fermor: Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania by Michael O’Sullivan is published by Central European University Press.

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Danube Institute video Noble Encounters

Many of you will have had a lot of enjoyment reading Michael O’Sullivan’s excellent book Patrick Leigh Fermor: Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania which was published in the summer.

Michael gave an excellent presentation at the Transylvanian Book Festival back in September. In anticipation of the London launch next week of Patrick Leigh Fermor: Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania, you may wish to dip in and out of this video by the Danube Institute featuring Michael and Dr. Tamas Barcsay (great-nephew of Miklos Banffy) talking about Paddy’s time in Hungary and the people he met there.

Find out more about the book and its background here.

You can purchase the book by clicking this link Patrick Leigh Fermor: Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania.

Anna Sándor de Kénos – BBC’s Last Word

Anna Sándor de Kénos

BBC Radio 4’s Last Word, obituary programme, speaks to Dr Michael O’Sullivan, author of Patrick Leigh Fermor: Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania, about the life of the late Anna Sándor de Kenos.

Go to position 22 minutes 10 seconds here for the start of the piece (may not be available outside of UK – sorry!).

Anna Sándor de Kénos, friend of Patrick Leigh Fermor – obituary

I have been able to find a copy of the obituary for Anna Sándor de Kénos and hope that you find it interesting reading.

Anna Sándor de Kénos, who has died aged 97, knew Patrick Leigh Fermor in Transylvania when he made his now legendary journey on foot, beginning in 1933, which took him from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople.

They met in July 1934 when he was travelling through Transylvania and Anna Sándor de Kénos was staying with some of her aristocratic neighbours.

This was the period immediately before Communism annihilated the almost feudal way of life of these ancient Transylvanian noble families which Leigh Fermor recorded in Between the Woods and the Water.

Anna Sándor de Kénos was close to the Csernovits family, one of whom, Xenia, became Leigh Fermor’s lover in 1934 and whom he later immortalised as Angela when the book appeared in 1986. She was also close to one of the book’s most enigmatic characters, Elemér von Klobusiczky, who features under the pseudonym Istvan.

Just over a decade later, on the bitterly cold early morning of March 3 1949, the majority of the Transylvanian aristocracy, including the Sándor de Kénos family, were arrested and taken away to internal deportation, Anna among them.

Like many Hungarians she fled Budapest in November 1956 when the Hungarian Uprising was still raging, settling first in New York. She spent the rest of her life helping many of her fellow dispossessed and impoverished aristocrats to settle in the United States. These included members of the Almásy family, one of whom was depicted in the film The English Patient (1996).

Her munificence extended to all Hungarians. However, it was with those still trapped under the repressive Ceausescu regime in her native Transylvania that Anna Sándor de Kénos’s real sympathy lay.

Though tiny in physical stature she earned the nickname “the titaness of Transylvania” for her fearless disregard for officialdom. This extended even to the intimidating Communist apparatchiks in Ceausescu’s Romania, which she revisited regularly from the mid-1960s.

Anna Sándor de Kénos, seated front left, with other members of the Transylvanian nobility in exile at the Plaza Hotel, New York, 1960

Anna Sándor de Kénos, seated front left, with other members of the Transylvanian nobility in exile at the Plaza Hotel, New York, 1960

Another favourite target was officious airport check-in clerks. Once, at Sarasota Airport, Florida, in the mid-1960s when checking in for a connecting flight that would eventually take her onward to Budapest, and laden down with massive overweight baggage containing clothes and food for the poor of Transylvania, she was ordered to pay a substantial overweight baggage charge.

Her response was to point to a lady on her left hand side and declare in a strong Hungarian accent: “Sir, as you can see, I weigh a mere 44 kilos, the lady on my left I reckon about 144, why don’t we split the difference in our combined weights, or perhaps you would rather have me take her with me and make her into a delicious Goulash for my poor people in Transylvania.” The charge was immediately dismissed.

At the age of 92 Anna Sándor de Kénos applied to a US bank for a 30-year mortgage of $100,000. Three years earlier she had walked the excruciatingly long route of the Csíksomlyó pilgrimage to a Marian shrine in central Transylvania, a journey that would have challenged pilgrims half her age.

It was an 
unusual undertaking because the pilgrimage is the highlight of the Catholic calendar in Transylvania and she was a devoted Calvinist. She told a friend that she did it because “anything that was banned under Communism must be good for the soul”.

Anna Sándor de Kénos, known as Annuska, was born on March 21 1921 in Deva, the capital of Hunedoara County, which had been ceded from Hungary to Romania by the 1920 Treaty of Trianon.

The scion of a 16th-century Transylvanian noble family who were long characterised by unflinching determination and optimism in the face of adversity, she was one of two daughters born to Béla Sándor de Kénos and his wife Etelka (née Buda de Galacz), who were then living on the family estate near Deva.

The family’s circumstances were, like so many other “class enemies”, greatly reduced from quite comfortable to an indigent state under Communism in Romania. Though deprived of all the privileges that would have come to one of her class, Anna Sándor de Kénos was never resentful of her reduced situation.

She worked in New York for the renowned cosmetics company created by her fellow Hungarian Ernö László, whose client list included the Duchess of Windsor, Greta Garbo, Ava Gardner and Jacqueline Kennedy, before giving it up to work as a theatre nurse.

Anna Sándor de Kénos in Budapest on her 90th birthday

Anna Sándor de Kénos in Budapest on her 90th birthday

She spent much of her life in Sarasota, keeping open house for Hungarian émigrés. On occasion she had as many as 50 guests for dinner. The only rule was that guests should make a donation for her charitable interests in Transylvania. After the collapse of Communism in 1989 she spent part of the year between Budapest and her native Deva.

Although Anna Sándor de Kénos never married, her name was linked for many years to a Transylvanian nobleman who also never married.

With the death of Anna Sándor de Kénos, the last living link to the Transylvania and Hungary of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between the Woods and the Water has gone. She is survived by her nephew, Daniel Lészay de Lésza.

Anna Sándor de Kénos, born March 21 1921, died May 18 2018

The last of the Noble Encounters

Anna Sándor de Kénos in 1960

Michael O’Sullivan, the author of the recently published Patrick Leigh Fermor: Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania writes to inform us:

It is with great sadness I write to inform the PLF blog readers that the last woman who knew Paddy in Transylvania in 1934 has died at the aged of 97. Anna Sándor de Kenós was thirteen when she met Paddy at the Csernovits mansion in Zam. She was from an ancient Transylvanian noble family and the doyen of the Hungarian ex patriot community in the United States where she moved after the 1956 Uprising against Soviet rule in Hungary.

An obituary was published in the Telegraph but it has some access restrictions.

My apologies to you all for the radio silence over the last few weeks. It was due to some personal reasons, and I now hope that all will get back on track with the blog!

Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania

In March 1934 a young man stood midway on a bridge over the Danube which connected Czechoslovakia and Hungary. He was taking stock of a world which, ten years hence, like the very bridge he stood on, would no longer exist. Patrick Leigh Fermor had left London the year before, at the age of eighteen, to walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople to complete a journey which would later become the source for some of the best travel writing in the English language. As he stood on the Mária Valéria bridge, facing the ancient Hungarian city of Esztergom, he had no idea that he would one day become the chronicler of a form of social life which was soon to be extinguished by the vicissitudes of war and by the repression which so often went hand in glove with Communism…

Noble Encounters takes a different perspective on Paddy’s 1934 journey, meticulously recreating Paddy’s time spent among the Hungarian nobility. It is the culmination of many years of work and research by author Michael O’Sullivan. He has had access to the private papers and correspondence of many of Leigh Fermor’s hosts, has used extensive interviews with surviving members of these old noble families, delved into the Communist Secret Police archives, and even met the last woman alive who knew Patrick Leigh Fermor in Transylvania in 1934.

O’Sullivan reveals the identity of the interesting characters from BTWW, interviewing several of their descendants and meticulously recreating Leigh Fermor’s time spent among the Hungarian nobility. Paddy’s recollections of his 1934 contacts are at once a proof of a lifelong attraction for the aristocracy, and a confirmation of his passionate love of history and understanding of the region. Rich with photos and other rare documents on places and persons both from the 1930s and today, Noble Encounters offers a compelling social and political history of the period and the area. Described by Professor Norman Stone as “a major work of Hungarian social archaeology,” this book provides a portrait of Hungary and Transylvania on the brink of momentous change.

The book will be officially launched at an invitation only party on 25 May in the house in Budapest where Paddy stayed in 1934, hosted by Gloria von Berg the daughter Paddy’s Budapest host, Baron Tibor von berg. Attending will be a representative of every Hungarian and Transylvanian noble family PLF stayed with as he went castle hopping across the old Magyar lands. They all want to gather to honour the man who was witness to a way of life, and of an entire class, soon to be part of a vanished world a mere ten years after he stayed with them. O’Sullivan has even managed to find Paddy’s signature in the von Berg’s guest book from 1934 when he was signing himself ‘Michael Leigh-Fermor’ – an amazing survival from the Nazi and Soviet occupations of Budapest. Petroc Trelawny will be MC for the evening and the book will be launched by Prince Mark Odescalchi whose ancestor, Princess Eugenie Odescalchi, Paddy met in 1934.

Michael O'Sullivan

Michael O’Sullivan

Michael O’Sullivan is an English Literature graduate of Trinity College Dublin where his postgraduate work was on the poet W.H. Auden. He curated the first major international symposium and exhibition on Auden in the Künstlerhaus Vienna in 1984. He was Vienna correspondent of the London Independent and later worked on both the Foreign and Parliamentary desks of Ireland’s national broadcasting service RTE. He is the author of bestselling biographies of Mary Robinson, Ireland’s first woman president and later UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. He has also written biographies of the founding father of the modern Irish state, Sean Lemass and of the playwright Brendan Behan. His association with Hungary began in 1982 when he became a frequent visitor to Budapest and when he met many of the old Hungarian noble families who met Patrick Leigh Fermor in 1934 and were then banished from their native land under Communism. O’Sullivan will be talking about his book at its public launch at the Danube Institute (Budapest) on 7 June (details here), and at the 2018 Transylvanian Book Festival

The book is published by CEU Press. It will be available soon on Amazon etc; I will endeavour to keep you updated. Here is a link to the pdf of the full book cover. PLF BOOK COVER FINAL EDITION