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Published: December 22nd 2009
I was passed out as soon as I had lain in bed, and was confident that I would finally get a full night’s rest. Hell no. It is hours before sunrise and Kristen has awoken me, panicked out of sleep by the large bug she sees crawling on the ceiling. I stumble to the light switch across the room wait for my eyes to adjust to the incandescent barrage. I soon can see that it is just a very large grasshopper and I stand on the bed, trying to grab it. Being what it is, it leaps across the room each time I get near, and it is about five minutes before we finally catch it and open the door, letting it free into the night. Energized and awake, it is even longer before I can finally sleep again. The bed that was so comfortable in exhaustion now feels far less so.
Gabe, as usual, is the first to awake, and is packed and ready before we can wash the sleep from our eyes. He is almost cyborg-like with his ability to function properly with very little sleep. We drive back to Eger and, the parking lot from yesterday being
full, we find a space to park along a street behind the castle. As we head towards the familiar steep street that abused our legs the day before we decide to inspect some interesting graffiti that we had spied that same day. It appears that the city has commissioned local graffiti artists to create murals along an underground stairway, and their creations are of an edgy, grotesque beauty and deranged playfulness. It shows a refreshingly youthful presence among the generations of history that form the city. We follow the stairs and find that they travel through the castle hill and terminate at the fortification’s front gate, meaning, of course, that we had unnecessarily taken the long, arduous way back to our car a day earlier.
Eger is truly a Baroque city. The low buildings flank narrow, cobblestoned streets that turn into squares or alleyways, following medieval paths. Though the buildings are lower, it reminds me of parts of Rome, and I feel for the first time that I am not just traveling in a foreign country - I am walking in Europe. Many of the city’s most beautiful areas have been pedestrianised, though some motorbikes neglect this fact. Having
skipped breakfast and with lunchtime approaching, we find a small Turkish restaurant and order some chicken wraps, eating at an outdoor table and watching the street come to life as shops open.
Originally a medieval marketplace, the nearby Dobó István tér contains an impressive bronze statue of the square’s namesake and his fellow Hungarians battling the Turks on horseback. It is also home to one of the most impressive Baroque churches in Hungary, if not Europe. On the southern side of the square stands the Minorite church, with its twin spires stretching heavenward, encompassing the dynamism of the style. Built between 1758 and 1773, its splendor was criticized for not embodying the vow of poverty taken by the monks of the Minorite order. Indeed, the exterior is beautiful, and the interior contains wonderful frescoes on the walls and ceiling. However, I was surprised to see that what I first took to be marble pillars was in fact painted to look so, perhaps on plaster, its pieces chipping and revealing white beneath.
We wandered the city, peaking into shops and experiencing the daily rhythm. We passed the Lyceum, a pleasant college built in the late 18th century, and eventually
came to the basilica, which looks more forbidding than attractive. Perched atop a ziggurat-like pediment of white steps, the Classicist design is an odd sight as it looms above Eger. Built between 1831 and 1837, this is the seat of the Archbishopric of Eger. Its gaudiness attests to the historically expensive tastes of the Catholic Church. Though decorated with gorgeous sculptures and carvings, the structure nevertheless fails to invite the visitor in for a prolonged stay or to obtain their admiration.
At the foot of the basilica’s steps we a young man talking to a crowd, gathered around what appears to be an underground entrance. We approach and try to read the sign when we hear him say, “Nine Inch Nails.” We find him staring at Gabe’s shirt, which bears the NIN logo, as he walks toward us. “I saw that you have an American band’s shirt,” he says. “Yeah, we’re American,” I answer. “Ah,” he smiles, “a real English speaking country,” alluding to speaking the lingua franca of European tourists whose knowledge is often limited. He proceeds to describe the tour his family gives of the vast system of wine cellars beneath the city, known as város a
város alatt, literally meaning “city under the city.”
We begin the tour and descend underground. The temperature drops and our breath plumes. We stop frequently at various checkpoints, some of which have wax figures dressed in period attire demonstrating what the area would have looked like. The system was hand chiseled and stretches for kilometers, and was used to house the bishopric’s wine storage. Because the value of money fluctuated too frequently and produce rotted, the church began using wine as a currency, as it was one of the only things the worth of which increased over time. Eger being a fertile wine country, the cellars were packed floor to ceiling with bottles and stored in specific areas relative to type and age. Additionally, the environment of the underground system proved ideal as the wine produced a special fungus on the tunnel walls which helped to maintain a waterproof environment. Unfortunately, when the cellars were eventually cleared and in the past century cleaned for people to visit, the fungus was removed and water has now begun to seep into places. All of this the tour guide explains for five minutes in Hungarian to our fellow tour-takers, and then for
thirty seconds to Kristen and I. Understandably, I know that we were getting the condensed version, especially when the Hungarian families laugh at his descriptions and there are no jokes in our version. Luckily, Gabe is able to fill us in on any interesting points we would have otherwise missed. One story which Gabe relates regards a secret rendezvous between students of the girls’ college and the men of the Lyceum, both of which would use secret passages to meet, drink, and do the sort of things that drunken students do in the privacy of the tunnels. At one airshaft we see the roots of a chestnut tree sprawling from the ceiling and along the wall, as a thin stream of water trickles beside our path. Whenever people straggle too far behind in the subterranean maze, the guide hits a light switch on and off, casting us in complete darkness for a few seconds so as to encourage people to follow closer. We finally finish the tour by ascending into a wonderful courtyard, secluded from the street, with a bubbling fountain, and wrapped on two sides by a brilliantly yellow building.
We continue walking through the city and Kristen
finds a shop with designer shirts for only $5, and so Gabe and I wander the street snapping photos. Hungry again, we try a pizzeria and find a magazine filled with topless women among the available reading material left on the tables. “You’d never find this in a restaurant in America,” Gabe says, flipping the pages, looking mournful. Kristen rolls her eyes and looks back to her map of Eger.
We again pick up the tourist trail and make our way towards the minaret, built by the Turks in the 16th century (and reinforced in the 19th). It is the northernmost minaret in Europe. After navigating some backstreets along a rambling stream we round a corner and find the square with the minaret pointing like a brown, bony finger towards the sky. Standing at 40 meters and carved from sandstone, it is surrounded by a small iron fence. A short line stands before the gate where we see a woman collect a few forints and allow about five people inside the structure. Thinking our wait will be short, we get in line, but it is nearly ten minutes before all the people have come down and a few more
are let in. We see people exit looking out of breath and relieved, as though they had just run down the steps, or we think that maybe the height had frightened them. Not being a fan of heights myself, I immediately sympathize. Truly, if it were not for the unique historical nature of the minaret, I would not be in line.
After waiting about a half-hour in a line that was only about ten people deep, we are allowed to enter. As we do we are instantly aware of the reason for the flustered expressions on those that went before us. The stairs which spiral upward have been smoothed slippery with time and are barely large enough for a hand to cover. I do not walk up the steps as much as climb on all fours, the walls around me giving a sense of claustrophobia and making me thankful for the rare little window I come across to the outside world, breathing deep the cool fresh air that wafts from it. After several minutes and nearly a hundred steps we finally reach the top only to discover a circular terrace which is only wide enough for one foot, and
an iron balustrade that rises to my waist. It is impossible to turn back, as more people are coming up the steps behind. I am forced to shimmy sideways around the terrace, trying to admire the admittedly breathtaking view and not imagine falling to my death. While I am generally fearful of dying, the anxiety is heightened if its potential circumstance would make front page news. If any part of my consciousness lingers after the brain is spilled, I would like to spare it any embarrassment if possible. Kristen and Gabe are noticeably less concerned as they lean against the railing to snap photos. Knowing I must go full-circle to reach the door again, I kindly but firmly ask them to continue on so that at least I can get back inside and start heading down. Once I do, it is very obvious that no one can run down these steps, and the huffing and exhaustion we saw from others was due simply to fear. If one slipped, they would ricochet off steps and walls like a pinball until they hit the bottom, as there is not even a railing on which to grab. There is no way that people
would be allowed up something like this in the U.S., I think as I carefully take each deep step. Now even Kristen and Gabe are nervous, asking from above as they descend if I can see light from the doorway below. I am relieved when I finally reach sunshine and try my best to look nonchalant as I exit. While I am certainly proud of myself for overcoming my fears, and do not deny that it was a worthwhile experience, and I would be lying if I said it was fun.
Before leaving Eger we buy a bottle of Bull’s Blood of Eger and tokaji
, a sweet white wine that is world famous and made in this region. King Louis XV once called the imperial topaz-colored liquid the “Wine of Kings, King of Wines,” which is quite an endorsement. Its unique taste is indeed pleasant and fruity, if not also very potent.
We drive back to Kengyel, pulling over beside a quiet road at one point to watch the sun descend behind an ocean of sunflowers, casting the sky in a red blaze. We arrive back at the house and enjoy the night air, admiring the brilliance of
the Milky Way and its accompanying stars. While Kristen and Gabe practice with their cameras, trying to capture the celestial show, Feri tells me of the prisoner labor camp that he and his mother had visited that day. Recently uncovered and rebuilt as a museum, Recsk was originally erected by the Soviets in 1950 to execute political dissidents. Prisoners, guards, and documents attest to its purpose. Fortunately, before the plan could be carried out, it was closed by Imre Nagy, the Prime Minister who inspired the 1956 revolution and was executed by the Soviets in 1958.
Feri talks a bit about growing up under Soviet influence. He tells me how each village would have someone secretly appointed whose duty it was to report activities thought to be treasonous, such as speaking skeptically of the government or suggesting capitalist sympathies. The village was always cautious about whom they spoke to and that of which they would speak, for one never knew who the sleeper agent was. He tells me that, after the man had died, they had learned that Kengyel’s spy had been the local dentist.
Later that night I would learn even further of life in Hungary under
the Soviet Bloc, always the ghostly presence in this country’s daily transactions. After Kristen has fallen asleep I walk out to the living room to find Gabe and his mother searching through a box of old papers and documents. Included is a small booklet, like a Soviet passport, which presented the reader with an outline of their father’s life. Everyone was required to carry one and present it to authorities at a moment’s notice. It held a photograph, place of birth, history of jobs held, times of military service, and other information that most Americans would consider intrusive. Their father was a cook in the military, service of which was mandatory, of course, and they remember being awoken in the night by banging on the front door. No prior notice would be given as soldiers would tell their father to suit up and head to a designated post for months at a time.
Also among the papers is a copy of a letter that Gabe’s grandfather, who died under Soviet imprisonment in 1957, wrote to a radio station just months before his arrest. Klara attempts to translate it for me and from what I am able to gather the
intended receiver of the letter was a radio program which answered listeners’ questions on air. Gabe’s grandfather tells of his dance instruction, and how he had built an addition onto his house which served as the school’s dance hall. He had paid off all of the debts involved in its construction. However, the Hungarian Soviets had told him that his house was too big and they therefore took it from him, even though the extra space was clearly not residential. They promised to turn it into a cultural center for the town but they did no such thing and the building had fallen into decay. He asks the radio station how the government can do this. Also present was the radio program’s reply - if the government had ruled on it, they could not comment.
Another of the grandfather’s letters that we find in the box was written from prison. Understandably, it contains little insight into the reasons for the imprisonment or his situation, as it would have no doubt been monitored by the authorities. His wife - Gabe’s grandmother - escaped the country a few years after his death and in the early 1960s settled in the Bronx,
NY. Gabe’s father - her son - could not follow for more than two decades.
Growing up in the 1980s, I was used to seeing the Soviets depicted as torturous villains. I learned to fear them from movies like Red Dawn. It was difficult to distinguish the reality of the U.S.S.R. from the Hollywood caricature that would be pounded and destroyed by Reagan-era icons like Rocky or Rambo. As one grows older and wiser about the world, one learns to be suspicious of such depictions and becomes aware that there is very often another side of the story to be told. One of the things which I am surprised about thus far on this trip is just how faithfully the history of Soviet occupation lives up to the cruel reputation of my childhood. Note: Some photos were taken by Gabor J. Szabo
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