Red marble, blue hats, onion domes, beheaded angels, vested men, long shadows, persistent chapels, the Danube Bend & musters of migrating storks.
W e left Budapest by boat in the spring sunshine, travelling north towards Slovakia. There were few craft on the wide Danube, mostly pleasure cruisers, a little bit of freight. As the city thinned out, tall cranes and the bare bones of half-baked tower blocks emerged above the tree line at the edges.
There were fishing huts on the wooded banks, houses with terraced gardens reaching down to the river. We overtook a lone canoeist in a blue hat, a long barge carrying sand. A man slept, laid out under a tree on the far bank.
The Danube Bend curves through history, through thickly forested hills studded with castles and churches, the spires and onion domes of Vác, Veroce, Visegrád, Zebegény. And then it came into view on the near side, the huge green-domed basilica at Esztergom. A church has stood there, high on Castle Hill, since the tenth century, looking down on the river, over the people passing their lives in its long shadow.
A circus had pitched its colourful tents at the lower end of the town, and further up there were men in vests arranging marquees with sound and stage equipment, electrical cables stretching out across the cobbles. There was going to be a party tonight.
The bells were ringing the Angelus as we walked up the hill. A circus had pitched its colourful tents at the lower end of the town, and further up there were men in vests arranging marquees with sound and stage equipment, electrical cables stretching out across the cobbles. There was going to be a party tonight.
The Primatial Basilica of the Blessed Virgin Mary Assumed Into Heaven and St Adalbert is as vast as its name. It houses the relics of a Jesuit saint, an organ played by Liszt and the largest painting on a single canvas anywhere in the world. Eight colossal Corinthian columns support a portico emblazoned with the legend Caput, Mater et Magistra Ecclesiarum Hungariae (The Head, the Mother and the Teacher of the Hungarian Church), in case there was any doubt.
Inside, a group of Japanese tourists drifted, looking heavenward to the jewel-bright frescoes of the central dome seventy-two meters above us. Politely dressed in suits and ties, they seemed properly attired for a place with such serious intent. Light streamed in from the twelve windows around the cupola and fell onto the marble floor beneath our feet, emblazoned with a golden sunburst surrounded by stars. We were literally standing in the firmament.
We overtook a lone canoeist in a blue hat, a long barge carrying sand. A man slept, laid out under a tree on the far bank.
Above the main altar hangs the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Into Heaven by Michelangelo Grigoletti, painted after a work by Titian. Like everything else in this place, it is vast at 44 x 21.5 feet. Against all this gilt and glory, the richly painted ceilings, the red and grey marble, the height and light and monumental majesty of it all, we stood small and drab and lost.
The basilica has had many previous incarnations. The first church to stand on this site was built by Stephen l of Hungary, around a thousand years ago. After his coronation there, it was for a while the old crowning place of kings. It was sacked and restored several times until the present building was completed in 1869. The Bakócz Chapel on the south side of the nave is all that is left of the medieval church. It was painstakingly disassembled and reconstructed stone by stone, a glorious celebration of Italian Renaissance carving in the red marble of Sütto.
Esztergom Basilica also bears witness to Europe’s turbulent history. When Sultan Suleiman and the Ottoman army besieged the city in the sixteenth century, they laid waste the cathedral. The statue of God’s messenger Gabriel was defaced, and the other angels all lost their heads.
Against all this gilt and glory, the richly painted ceilings, the red and grey marble, the height and light and monumental majesty of it all, we stood small and drab and lost.
We climbed the 396 spiral steps to the cupola and looked out over Hungary across Slovakia to the Tatra Mountains in the far distance. It was a long clear view. From there, we could see the Mária Valéria Bridge, which spans the Danube from Esztergom to Štúrovo, the unmanned border between Hungary and Slovakia falling in the middle. It was on that bridge in simpler times that the author Patrick Leigh Fermor had lingered in 1933, the moment recalled at the end of A Time of Gifts. He had watched a huge muster of migrating storks on their way to Poland from Africa, marvelling at the distance they had travelled and the sight of so many in the sunset. As the church bell tolled and the light faded, throngs of people had streamed from all directions in splendid finery, carrying musical instruments and armfuls of flowers, to the great basilica for the Easter Vigil.
By the time my grandfather drove through in 1937, the world was tilting towards war, though he didn’t know it. He wrote in his diary that on the road from Esztergom he gave a lift to a Hungarian soldier, “a nice chap who had worked in the gold mines near Nice.” They chatted in French all the way back to Budapest. Seven years later, on Boxing Day 1944, the bridge was blown apart by the German army as it retreated from the town.
It was not rebuilt for nearly sixty years, until the new millennium turned and a grant from the European Union covered half the costs and rejoined the Hungarians and the Slovaks once again across the river. Although, of course, by then everything had changed. Czechoslovakia was dissolved, and from the Velvet Divorce sprang two nations—Slovakia and the Czech Republic—both with strong independent identities. The Europe that Paddy and my grandfather knew and fought for looked very different on the map. New boundaries, new partnerships, new names.
There is a café on the basilica grounds and we stopped for a beer. The woman serving us was very young, her hair very long, her English very good. We talked about Brexit and what it will mean for the future, for crossing borders, for moving on. Yet all those things felt a lifetime away, sitting there in that bright garden beneath the cherry blossoms, looking out across another country in the shade of the largest church in Hungary.
Maeve Bruce is a writer, wanderer and poet. She is interested in the ways that story intersects with place towards conceptions of home and belonging. Her work has appeared in various publications, including The Independent, the Huffington Post, The Pilgrim and Words for the Wild. Her poetry has been published by Indigo Dreams Press and Walcot Books. She lives in an old stone house on the edge of the Wychwood Forest in Oxfordshire, England. This story was a finalist in Nowhere’s Fall 2019 Travel Writing Contest. maevebruce.com
Lead image: Photo by Daniel Olah