Romanian Churches

Romania is divided into three main provinces/regions: Transylvania (central and north), Moldavia (northeast), and Wallachia (south). The Carpathian Mountains form a sort of L shaped range in the middle of the country; hence,  we ended up crossing them several times. They are quite beautiful, as mountains tend to be (more on one spectacular drive later). The main attraction of our Romanian tour, however, was not the mountains but the churches and monasteries, particularly the painted monasteries. The first group were built by the Saxons and were Catholic, then Lutheran. The other churches and monasteries are all Greek Orthodox, the predominant religion of Romania. The churches we saw fell into three categories, distinctive by region and era, as well as ethnicity, in one case. They were certainly the highlight of the trip as well as its focus.

1. The Saxon Fortified Churches of Transylvania:

The first group of churches we visited were in Transylvania, which had a large German population in the Middle Ages through WWII. These were fortified churches, built between the thirteenth and fifteenth century. (These were, of course, Catholic Churches originally.) As the name might imply, they are churches surrounded by fortress type walls and sometimes even moats that could be flooded. Inside the fortress walls were rooms for each of the families in the town. The idea was that when the Tatars or the Turks or whomever invaded, the people would move into the fortified church. From the outer (and inner) walls they could shoot arrows, pour hot oil or other substances, etc. on the enemy. This was very interesting! The oldest one we saw was the Harman  Church, built in the 13th century.

The church features the remains of medieval frescoes as well. Its style is a mash of Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque, as some parts were changed over time. We next visited the biggest of these fortified churches, the Prejmer church (14th-15th centuries), which had some 270 rooms for each of the town’s families. I walked inside the walls, where you can see the slits for firing at the enemy.

There was even a board with slots for multiple arrows so they had a sort of automatic weapon, medieval style! This was the most heavily fortified of the churches in Transylvania. Another distinction is its altar tryptich from the mid-15th century, the oldest in Romania.

Altar tryptich, Prejmer Church

We saw one more fortified church in Viscri Village (more on this place later), built around the 15th century. Here I got to climb the tower, which was a rather treacherous process with one stretch on uneven steps in the dark. I was rewarded with great views of the town and countryside, however.

We visited one final Saxon church, the Bierthan Church.

Bierthan Church

This stands on a small hill and has multiple towers. It was built in the 17th century and not fortified (the time for those had passed by then, with new types of weaponry I suppose). It was a beautiful church, however.





2. Painted Monasteries in Moldavia:

We crossed the Carpathians (for the first of several times) to reach Moldavia, which borders on Moldova. The painted monasteries were built mainly in the 16th century, under Stephen the Great to fortify the area against the Ottomans. Covered inside and out with brightly colored frescoes, these monasteries take your breath away. They are amazingly well preserved, in part because these churches were closed down for long periods during the periods of rule by the Ottomans, Austro-Hungarians, and communists. The southern exterior walls are best preserved, as the northern walls were less protected from the elements in the harsh winters here.  They have been painstakingly cleaned inside and out since the fall of communism and are just incredible to see. We visited the monasteries at Humor, Moldovita, Sucevita, and Voronet. Like the earlier Byzantine mosaics, the frescoes were meant to teach the illiterate congregation the lessons of the Bible. In most cases the paintings were the work of one artist (with apprentices doing much of the basic painting work). They also have color themes: Moldovita’s is gold, at Sucevita red predominates, and at Voronet it is the special shade they call Voronet blue.

The frescoes tend to have common elements.

Judgement Day fresco, Voronet Church

Each church has an elaborate Judgement Day scene painted on the entry porch illustrating the fates of the good and the wicked, with Sts. Peter and Paul waiting to welcome the just into heaven. The best of these is at Voronet, nicknamed the Sistine Chapel of the East. The exterior walls feature processions of the saints, images of Jesus’s genealogy, and some unexpected elements such as the Greek philosophers and the zodiac symbols. According to Gigi, this is an illustration of earlier efforts to explain and understand the universe. The interiors include a painted church calendar, with each day illustrated, often graphically in the case of martyrs’ feast days. They also feature scenes from the life of Jesus and his crucifixion, as well as scenes of Mary’s life, and other biblical scenes such as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

Besides the spectacular Judgement Day fresco at Voronet, two other paintings stand out. One at Sucevita depicts the ladder to Paradise, with angels guiding the faithful up, but those who fall from grace are graphically shown falling into hell. The second is a scene at Moldovita of a 7th century siege of Constantinople, wherein the enemy is depicted as the Ottomans who were the current threat.

Of everything I saw in Romania, these churches were the things I would most highly recommend. They are simply stunning, even in the pouring rain through which we viewed most! Those protective big roofs also allowed us to view the walls up close out of the rain.

Wooden Churches in Maramures:

The final group of churches were in Maramures, a northern part of Transylvania, so it was back across the Carpathians to get there. This part of Romania borders on Ukraine, and features another unique type of church, wooden churches with tall steeples and interiors painted with vegetable-based paints. We visited several of these churches, including the largest one at Budesti, the tallest at Surdesti, as well as Nasterea and Desesti, which feature fantastic interior paintings (especially at Desesti). These churches also stood in the middle of cemeteries, which were interesting in their own right.

At Nasterea there was a fantastic carved cross, as well as paintings everywhere, including on the back of doors. My favorite was of St. Christopher. Desesti had the most beautiful interior paintings, however. Particularly striking was the depiction of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the fall of Adam & Eve after the encounter with the serpent.

We cannot leave Maramures without mention of the unique “Merry Cemetery” (official name Sapanta). A local artist named Stan Ioan Patras began painting monuments for the people of the town who died. The wood headboards were painted colorfully with images of the person and poems that told, often humorously, of elements of their life, such as their love of drink and dance. Other times they are depicted at their work–at a loom, in the field, in a soldier’s uniform, etc. The poems sometimes tell of their sins as well.  Since Patras died, other artists have continued this tradition. Another custom on display here is that of depicting a Biblical enemy in contemporary garb. In this case, a WWII era cross at the entrance depicts German rather than Roman soldiers at the foot of the crucified Christ.

Off to Romania: First Stop, Brasov

I flew into Bucharest and had lunch in the airport while I waited for Jean to arrive. At that point we found our guide, Gigi, who is from Bucovina (north near the Ukrainian border). We hightailed it out of Bucharest toward Brasov, which is in the Transylvania region, across the Carpathians (one part of them, anyway). The mountains are absolutely gorgeous. Unfortunately, it was a Friday afternoon and a holiday weekend to boot, and a few thousand Romanians had the same idea of heading for the mountains. So we traveled at a snail’s pace through several resort towns, but finally reached Brasov and our home for the next two nights, Casa Wagner, which is a lovely hotel in an old building on the main square. Absolutely beautiful town, although we didn’t really tour it. But we had dinner at a cafe on the square (tons of outdoor cafes). I tried the sarmales, Transylvanian style cabbage rolls, which came with polenta, which seems to be a staple here, interestingly. The cabbage rolls were delish, as was the Ursus lager I washed them down with. Our room was lovely but up a couple flights of stairs, including one which was a bit of a modified spiral staircase. Not  the easiest to walk up, much less bring luggage up and down! We made it with some assistance, however, and spent a comfortable night at Casa Wagner (two doors to the right of the church).

Brasov has a lovely central square with cafes, a clock tower, and beautiful buildings, including an Orthodox Church. There is also the Black Church off the square, which became blackened when the city burned at one point and has ever since been the black church. Unfortunately we didn’t ever get back to town early enough to check out the interior. From a watch tower outside the center, there were good views of the old and new city.

Here is a map to follow our travels:

Romania Map

Gigi picked us up after breakfast, and we headed to Bran Castle (along with the vacationing hordes). We looked at it from afar; it really isn’t where Vlad the Impaler (I.e. Dracula) lived, but his grandfather did, I think. We started walking through the market toward the castle, but it transpired that neither Jean nor I fancied going to the castle, so we did not. Instead we bought some sheep cheese in little tree bark containers that are supposed to preserve it (let’s hope). And we had some tea in a cute little cafe.

Next on the agenda was Peles Royal Castle, built at the turn of the 20th century. It was quite beautiful and had rooms full of displays of armaments and armors, a library to die for, and Turkish and other inspired rooms. Interesting even if castles aren’t really my cup of tea. I much prefer the old churches, wandering towns, and folk culture and heritage.

Speaking of tea, I must say that strong black tea is hard to find in Romania. Good thing I brought some with me. Black tea is generally a fruit tea (forest fruits, e.g.) which was tasty but not breakfast tea, and Earl Grey, about which I feel the same. The only spots with good black tea were those places we stayed that catered to Germans, which figures, as Germans have excellent tea!

Interlude: Of Soups & Desserts

We had our first lunch stop, which became a pattern for us, of soup (ciorba) with a dessert. The soups here were good, although there wasn’t as much variety as in Hungary or Poland. The main types were a tripe soup, which I passed on, and sour soup with chicken (generally a good choice) or beef, mushroom soup in Bukovina, goulash soup in Maramures (heaven), a meatball soup, and a bean barley soup with ham (excellent version at the inn at Red Lake). Dessert today, as many days, was pancakes (their version of the palacsinta in Hungary), filled with jam or chocolate. Very tasty. Other desserts included this insane version of fried donuts with wild blueberry jam and sour cream on top. Excellent but they honestly must either share desserts or really carb load. The first time I had them they gave two (and they are by no means smalll); the second time there were three! It was really a waste of food, unfortunately. I cannot imagine who could eat all that! While we are discussing sweets, I will also say that I had an impressively good pain au chocolat at a gas station with a patisserie!

Final stop for our first day touring was the Sinai Monastery, built in the late 17th Century. The main religion here is Greek Orthodox, but in all the old churches the script tends to be in Cyrillic, as that was used in Romania until the 18th or 19th century when they adopted Romanian, a Romance language. I could pick out some words based on my knowledge of Spanish. This church had paintings on the inside and on the porch. The porch paintings are always of Judgement Day, showing heaven and hell. This one had graphic paintings of martyrs (heads chopped, etc.) inside on the calendar. Each of these churches seems to have a yearly church calendar, showing the feast days and such. Quite nice. The paintings here were done in the 18t C.

One more dinner on the square at the same place with our favorite waitress. More Ursus for me, and we both had trout for dinner (head and all).

Trout with veggies

Our friendly waitress took away the head and showed us the easy way to debone it. Very tasty fish! A fitting end to our stay in Brasov.

Interlude: Reunions in Budapest & Vienna

After leaving Szeged, I spent another couple of days in Budapest, again in Attila’s Airbnb flat on Raday. It was a busy couple days catching up with old (and new) friends. Tuesday I had lunch at a Thai place (okay curry) with Tracey, one of the CEU fellows, whom I met at the workshop. Talked about gifts and about Budapest. Then I met Greg and Jeanne for dinner. Greg, who was one of my fellow Fulbrighters, stationed in Eger, has come back to lead a student study abroad. They spent time in Budapest, Eger, and Vienna. In Eger they visited wineries and worked on marketing plans to suggest how they can market their wines to the U.S. It was wonderful to see them, and we had a nice dinner at a restaurant by their hotel–some nice Hungarian paprika sausage with beans for me.

Then on Wednesday I had tea with Chris from the embassy and caught up with him. He only has a bit more than a year left here, as they are only posted for three year periods. After that I cut across the city, stopping to visit some of my favorite sites, such as the WWII memorial & pointed (and poignant) counter-memorial and the Dohany Street Synagogue.

By the time I reached  the Fulbright office I was dripping from the heat. I had a long, pleasant chat with Annamaria, who filled me in on what has been happening here, Fulbright wise, including some new difficulties with resident permits–it seems we now have to get those in US, which is a drag since there aren’t many places to do that. So it goes. I also caught her up on my study abroad and all the exchange and other plans we are working on between Fredonia and Szeged, as a result of the connections made through my Fulbright. I look forward to having another one! Finally left there and headed home. Met Greg and Jeanne again for dinner. This time the other prof with them (a wine expert) and her husband, a winemaker, joined us, as did a woman from Melbourne whom they met on the boat back from Szentendre. We went to a wine tasting place which was excellent. We all tried different flights of wine (imagine, me, drinking wine!) and I had reds, of course. We learned about the specialties of the various wine regions of Hungary, including Villany, Eger, and others. I do like the Villany reds, as well as the Bikaver from Eger, the famous “Bull’s Blood”, which is a blend of different reds. Their was even a white Pinot noir, which I wouldn’t have thought possible. We all tasted most, and enjoyed it immensely. Had a nice charcuterie plate to go with it, with different salamis–one with paprika, one telis salami, and one wild boar, I think. And nice cheeses, bread, pickles and such. Very fun evening.

The next day I was up early for the train to Vienna. My friend Janis from grad school met me at the station and with her expert guidance we took the U-Bahn to St. Stefansplatz and walked down to check in at the Pension Nossek. Janis is there to teach for her college’s summer school program; that would be sweet! PN looked just as when Joy and I stayed there, but the same manager wasn’t there this time. I had a nice room again, though not the great one overlooking Graben that we had before. Janis and I had a nice lunch at a sidewalk cafe, some chicken salad and a lemon soda water. Afterward we went to the Secession Building, which is great example of said style. This was the initial place the Secessionists built for their own exhibits after they ‘seceded’ from the mainstream art. There is a fantastic Klimt mural, the Beethoven frieze, though it seems half-finished (have to look up why). It has great Klimtian figures and the signature gold and sylph-like women. And a beast that looked like a prototype for King Kong. Cool place. After this we felt the need for more sustenance, so we went to the Museum Cafe across the street and had Aperol spritzes, made with the bitter orange aperitif and soda–very refreshing. And a nice little tart that we shared.

Thus restored, we continued our Secession tour with a walk along the Vienna River (which isn’t much to look at, I might add). Saw some wonderful building designs, including a couple I wouldn’t mind living in one bit! The tour’s high point were two glorious Otto Wagner (check!) buildings, one white with gold design and the other with flowers down the facade and wonderful balconies. Fantastic!

We met Greg and Jeanne and all their students for dinner at a huge traditional restaurant under the Albertina Museum. Took a look at the anti-fascist memorial first, which is across the street. It is on the spot where an apartment house stood. During WWII it was bombed and the entire building collapsed, killing all those in the bomb shelter beneath. They are still entombed there beneath the concrete. A haunting site. Followed by reminders of life with good food (schnitzel of course) and friends. All in all, it was a lovely if brief day in steaming Wien. I slept well and, after a delicious breakfast at PN, hurried to the City Air Train in the morning to get to the airport for my flight to Bucharest, to begin the next chapter in this trip.

Sunday in Szeged

Sunday seems to be family day in Szeged (not so different than in many parts of the US, in fact). Walk along the river, hang out at Dugonics Ter, even go for a beer at Malata, and you see families. The children delight in the fountain, of course,  and run around it like little maniacs. But they do generally tend to be quite well behaved, unlike a lot of children back home. I went for a walk over to my old stomping grounds in Uj-Szeged this morning, only to find a big children’s carnival going on in Erzebet Park. It had the typical rides–bumper cars, flying swings, etc., and various games and food booths. I walked around it and circled through the park to avoid the crowds, taking a peek at my old home, the Herman Otto Hostel, along the

Liszt Ferenc Walkway in Erzebet Park

It was another glorious day and the views from the river were superb.

View across the Tisza River

That’s the Dom, or the cathedral, with its spires rising above town. If you look at the river picture, you can see the high sea wall protecting Szeged from flooding. The town was originally at the bottom level of that wall, which was built sometime after the devastating flood of 1879. The level of the town was raised. Believe it or not, the level of the most recent flood (the highest yet) was almost to the top of that sea wall! Glad I wasn’t living in Uj-Szeged then.

Detail, Reok Palace

The Reok Palace was looking particularly fabulous in the sunshine, with its irises and curves and flourishes glistening on the white exterior.


1956 memorial

And I had to look in on my favorite 1956 memorial with the student revolutionaries carrying the dead butterfly of freedom.

Sitting in the garden at Malata  this evening sipping a beer, I began to wonder if no one in Hungary ever goes out for a drink or dinner alone. I cannot recall ever seeing anyone else sittting at a table alone, which does tend to make one feel conspicuous and a bit lonely. Oh well, it’s better than staying home all day alone.

I did have a lovely lunch with Réka and Robi–some nice chicken with potatoes and mixed sautéed veggies, with a starter of delicious spinach soup. And cakes for dessert from Suti nem Suti. Yesterday I also had a delicious although overly filling lunch with a friend at Malata–burger and beer–and some cake at Suti. Good thing I’m walking a lot. Tomorrow I meet another Agi (three friends here with that name!) for lunch.

I cannot believe I have to leave Tuesday, but I have to move on to the next phase of my trip, I suppose. I have completed the work I came here to do, and seen all the friends I had hoped to visit. It will be hard to leave, but knowing I’ll be back in November will ease the pain!

Adventures in Hungarian Life

I’ve found that it’s  always the banal, everyday things that get most complicated in a place where you do not know the language. While here in 2015, I wrote of my post office adventures (December 2015); I can still hear that accusatory cry of “toll, toll.” This week I had to deal with my new Vodafone plan for my Hungarian phone. At the airport they sold me a plan with data and some minutes, but hadn’t explained it thoroughly and I, being too groggy from lack of sleep, failed to ask enough questions or about alternatives. Of course, although they have an English website, all documentation and texts come to you only in Hungarian, including the 4 page terms and conditions. I figured out some of it on my own and had Réka look, and she decided I should switch to a different plan to better suit my needs. However, when we tried it, it wouldn’t work. So then I went to Vodafone at the mall here. Now it must be said that in places such as this, you get a number when you get in and wait until you see it called. The young man who assisted me there told me it would be 30 minutes. Miraculously, it was only 20 and I started explaining my question, in English of course, only to find out that this clerk didn’t speak English that well. So then another 20 minute wait, after which I spoke with a very friendly clerk who said that the plan Réka suggested was indeed the one for me. The problem was I would lose my data if I switched, so he advised to use up the data first and then switch. He also expressed some frustration that the airport Vodafone put everyone on that plan and then they came to him and wanted to switch it! One problem is the first plan is a recurring charge plan, which doesn’t work if you are only here for a month. And the recurring charge for useless data would have taken all the money I had on the plan for calling or texting. So I’m hoping this will work when I try to switch. Otherwise, back to Vodafone!

My other adventure has been with the washing machine at my Airbnb. I had difficulties figuring out my washer when I was in the Herman Otto apartment, and had to look up the instructions online. Thank goodness for wifi and the internet, where it truly seems sometimes that you can find anything. I just searched for the model number of this washer and lo and behold, I found an English language manual. Let’s just say that the washers here are not at all intuitive to those of us used to a basic American washer. Indeed, these are far advanced in their water and energy saving capacities, not surprisingly, but they also offer a confusing array of options that the neophyte definitely needs a manual or direct instruction to figure out! Even once I got it, I had the phenomenon of the screen not reading end at the end, but instead flashing and flashing, and nothing I pressed seemed to stop it. Today, however, I inadvertently selected a different cycle and at the end it said ‘End’ exactly as it was supposed to. Ta-da! Some days it is the simple victories that keep us going. (Actually, it may be most days that this is true!)

I have been getting better at grocery stores and such; sometimes I actually understand the amounts they tell me (I did quite well at the farmers market yesterday), but I also make sure to look at the readout. And at restaurants I try my awful ‘Hunglish’ on them. Of course the problem when one starts with a bit of Hungarian, such as a simple “Jo napot” (polite form of greeting–good day, essentially), it tends to lead to questions in rapid (to my ear) Hungarian that I don’t understand. And then we are back to Hunglish or the English language menu! (Was there ever a foreign language that did not seem to be spoken in double time to the untrained ear? Probably not; I always have the same issue in Mexico, although my Spanish is way better than my Hungarian.)  I cannot imagine ever learning enough Hungarian to get by, but I suppose I could if I put my mind to it and was going to spend enough time here to make it worthwhile.

Well, enough adventures in Hungarian for one post. Today I am hosted for lunch by Réka and Robi, which will be wonderful, I know (from experience). My stay in Szeged is winding down; I leave in a couple of days for new adventures in travel.

Getting Reacquainted

This has been a week to get reacquainted with Szeged. I’ve been spending time with friends like Réka and Robi, Agi, Daniel, Zoltan, Thomas, Emma. I have also been revisiting favorite spots around town, such as the lovely Dugonics square, the market at Mars square (it’s strawberry season!), the Water Tower and Szent Isztvan Square, the riverfront walk, and of course that gem of Art Nouveau, Reok Palace. And the Moricz House, my dream apartment building. And let’s not forget the Deutsch Palace, with its cool folk art tulip motifs.  I also discovered the Guild Building,  which has wonderful statues of workers on top.  My place is a block from another favorite, the Synagogue, which is sheathed in scaffolding, as it is undergoing a complete exterior renovation. Not so nice to see now,  but it should be glorious when it’s done (I hope for next summer’s study abroad). Its earlier version is  looking good, though!

I have also been working with Agi and Anett  to plan out the schedule for my study abroad next summer. I think we have a fabulous study trip developed, for which I must give most credit to Anett. Today I went with Agi to see the Panzio (think pension) where the students stay for the summer program–very nice place. I really think the students will love this trip! In addition I have been discussing with Zoltan the study abroad/exchange program we are trying to set up with Szeged. In other words, I have been hard at work (at least for a couple days). I also went with Zoltan to the  dedication of the walkway behind the Arts Building to Goncz Arpad, a former revolutionary of 1956,  a professor at Szeged, a translator, and a politician. The anti-Stalinist revolution began here at U-Szeged when students met and drew  up  a  list of demands. I knew there was a reason I liked this place, haha!

In addition to friends, there are the rewards that Szeged’s cafes and beer gardens offer. I have been revisiting favorite haunts such as the pizza place on Klauzal square, and the gelateria nearby. I had some gulyasleves at Regi Hid and a palacsinta (Hungarian crepe) at the market, and I tried the famous cold sour cherry soup (refreshing although cold soup is just not soup in my book), as well as a fantastic croisssant at a place cutely named Suti nem Suti. And of course the pogacsas, savory little (or not so little) biscuits, which are one of my favorites. I even learned how to make them from my friend Agi. Not to mention beer or gelato on Dugonics ter with the dancing girls of the Ungar-Mayer House looking on. And then there are, of course, the tasty Hungarian craft beers and delicious burgers at the garden at Malata Bar and the new place on Szechenyi square run by the same owners, Napfeny Muterem.

Aside from a downpour that left me soaked to the skin (the one day I didn’t carry my raincoat, naturally), the weather has been glorious–60s and 70s and mostly sunny. Perfect walking weather for the perfect walking town. Have I mentioned the roses are already in full bloom? I feel so lucky to have been able to return here, and am glad that I made such a good choice in applying for my Fulbright. I feel that this town will truly become a second home for me. Indeed, I will be returning in November for a conference here at the university, and again next summer with a study abroad group, if all goes as planned.

I’m Baack!

So here I am back in Szeged after 15 months, give or take. It feels strange but oh so familiar, and each day we move more into familiar! I arrived in Budapest Thursday after a gruesome flight (nothing out of the ordinary, just the typical packed like sardines coach experience–seriously thinking I should at least upgrade to extra legroom on the way back). Took the bus/metro into the city like a regular, and found my way to Airbnb #1 on Raday ut. I messed up the street and apartment number and went to the wrong place (my brain on no sleep) but figured it out and got settled in. Nice apartment, small and basic but comfy and in a good location.

Despite my sleep deprivation, I decided I must get out into the glorious warm day and see Budapest, and so I did, strollling up the Danube a bit and around and about until my feet were tired. Had a beer and a falafel and eggplant pita at the Hummus Bar and headed home for a somewhat early night.

The next two days were filled with the CEU workshop on “Dangerous Gifts,” where I heard a stimulating group of papers on gifts from the Eucharist to death, and from relics to forced Christmas gifts in NY department stores (the last my contribution). It was great to meet Alexandra, my Russian counterpart in 19C gifts, though her interests are literary not historical. Met interesting people and found it a valuable experience all around. I am sorry that I was leaving Sunday and could not attend the CEU rally Sunday evening.

On Friday night I went to the Hungarian American Fulbright Association 25th anniversary celebration, a cruise on the Danube. It was packed with this year’s fellows, and many American and Hungarian fellows from previous years, as well as assorted dignitaries. Chatted with some old friends and made a couple new ones and had a nice dinner to boot. Also discovered that red wines from Villany are the bomb–yes, that is me, drinking wine! Below are a couple of shots along the Danube from the cruise. Tomorrow’s post will move on to Szeged.

Heading toward Chain Bridge
Parliament from the Danube

Hungarian Art Nouveau: Kecskemét & Subotica

This continues my “too big for one post” discussion of what we might call the Hungarian Art Nouveau Belt. The region from Szeged and Kecskemét to Subotica (formerly part of Hungary, now in Serbia) is well known for having some of the best examples of Secessionist architecture. I visited Kecskemét on my last day in Szeged, and had lunch with one of my fellow Fulbrighters, Natalie, who is studying at the Kodaly Institute there. (Zoltan Kodaly was a composer and educator who developed the hugely influential Kodaly method for music education.) The most notable buildings in Kecskemet are the Cifra Palace, built in 1902 and decorated with Zsolnay ceramics (more on this to come, when I belatedly write on Pécs), and the City Hall, designed by Ödön Lechner, the architect of Szeged’s City Hall and the fabulous Applied Arts Museum building in Budapest.

I visited Subotica one very cold and rainy November day with my good friends Réka and Robi, who generously sacrificed their Sunday to take me to see the Art Nouveau. Subotica has been dubbed the City of Secession, although I’d say Szeged is another viable choice for that title. There I got a tour from my brilliant graduate student Emma (who lives there), who walked me around in the rain, pointing out some of the main architectural wonders. Afterward, we all had “Serbian burgers”  (beef & pork blend on a kind of pita bun, with toppings of your choice) at a place with a picture of Wimpy on the menu, reminding me of the old Wimpy’s hamburger joints of my childhood. I washed it down with a nice Serbian beer, Jelen (which I enjoyed on my Danube cruise). Then we had coffee and tea and a variety of lovely cakes at the beautiful Art Nouveau Cafe Ravel. On the way back we stopped at Lake Palic, a resort featuring more Art Nouveau. Aside from the rain and the two-hour wait at the border on the way back, it was one of the nicest days I had while in Hungary.

Subotica’s Secessionist architecture includes another superb synagogue, designed by architects Marcell Kumor and Deszo Jakab (who were disciples of Ödön Lechner), and built 1901-1902, when Subotica’s Jewish community was 3000 strong.  It is apparently the only synagogue in full Hungarian Art Nouveau style (and this is a design they submitted for the Szeged Synagogue); the Szeged one featuring some Art Nouveau but also other elements. They also designed the City Hall (built 1908-12). Both feature Zsolnay ceramic roofs and details, as well as Miksa Roth stained glass. Unfortunately, I was unable to go inside any of the Subotica buildings, so I have no great stained glass photos. But if you are interested in Subotica Art Nouveau, you can find much more at the same site listed in my previous post for Szeged.

Another wonderful building is the Raichl Palace, built by the architect Ferenc Raichl as his own home in 1904. It has a fabulous front facade with Zsolnay towers; the blue design, a Hungarian folk motif, is a mosaic, as you can see in the detail shot of the peak over the entrance (with the snake). The main door features a lovely wrought iron gate. The rear is plainer but beautifully graceful, with towers featuring ceramic floral details. Sadly, Raichl went bankrupt in 1908 (guess architecture wasn’t too profitable) and his beautiful mansion went on the auction block. Today it houses a gallery. Another building featuring Hungarian folk motifs is the Sonnenberg Palace, built in 1910 for tailor Salamon Sonnenberg. It has wonderful ceramic floral motifs, and a fabulous door featuring geometrics, which reminded me of the work of the Scottish Art Nouveau architect Rennie Mackintosh.

Lastly (I promise!) is the beautiful little summer resort at Lake Palić outside Subotica. The main buildings were done by Komor and Jakab in Hungarian Art Nouveau style. The Grand Terrace originally featured a restaurant as well as terraces and a stage. The Women’s Lido (bathing area and spa)  provided a secluded spot for early twentieth-century women to take in the lake waters without being seen from the shore. The water tower is spectacular, and connects to the former tram stop, together forming the entry to Palić. The buildings are mainly wood and design features here include carved flower motifs. There is a nice fountain with carved fish and duck. I’ve also included a photo of one of the private residences that I particularly liked.

So ends our epic two-part tour of the marvels of Hungarian Art Nouveau. Whew!

A Love Letter to Szeged

(Note: this post has been a long time in the writing, as I’ve started it and come back to it. I began it in March and it is now May. But I’ve left my original opener anyway!)

Sitting on my father’s patio in Phoenix, Arizona, enjoying the warm weather, I feel very removed from Szeged, Hungary. And yet I also feel unaccountably homesick for it. I heard from two friends there today,  which got me thinking about it. And it is high time (way past time, in fact) that I write about the city where I spent the majority of my Fulbright time. So here goes.

Szeged is the third largest city in Hungary, with about 160,000 people, which makes it really a smallish to mid-size city. It has a first-rate research university, where I was lucky enough to teach for the fall semester. When I had been in Szeged perhaps six weeks, I met a colleague in the English Department, who asked if I spent all my time in Budapest. Somewhat nonplussed by this question, I said no, and he asked why I would spend my time in Szeged when I could be in Budapest. A good question, I suppose. And as you’ve heard, I do love Budapest and did spend quite a bit of time there. But Szeged was my home in Hungary, and I was quite content living there. In New York I live in a small town (the population of Dunkirk-Fredonia is a bit less than one-sixth of Szeged’s). But despite Szeged’s larger size, it felt comfortable to me. The city’s core, where I spent most of my time, is probably not much bigger in area than Fredonia. I could walk pretty much anywhere I wanted to go–to work, to the mall, to the grocery store, to restaurants, even to the train station. And if I had luggage or the weather was bad, I had not one but three different modes of public transit from which to choose: tram, bus, or trolley. Add the odd lift out to the Super Tesco and I was set.

And this is one of the things I loved so much about living in Szeged. I adore the compact nature of European cities, where you can walk virtually everywhere. Even in Budapest I walked most places. And there is so much to see as you walk. From my apartment every day I walked through a lovely park and across the bridge spanning the Tisza River into Szeged proper. From there I had my choice of routes to the university–along the river, down the pedestrian street, or down any combination of other streets. Along the way there were cafes and shops and grocery stores and bookstores and restaurants and public squares, complete with benches on which to sit and people watch. Here are some scenes from my walks.

And oh so much fabulous architecture to gape at. And always, always, other people walking, biking, waiting for a bus or tram, having a coffee at a sidewalk cafe, hanging out in the park. There are cars, of course, but there are people. This city is vibrant, always full of people going about their daily business. I have been walking around the lushly landscaped paths of the community where my father lives, and I rarely see another soul, except on the golf course. If I want a drink, I’ll have to get it at home or drive somewhere for it. Even in Fredonia, where a lot of people do walk in summertime, the sidewalks are pretty empty in the winter. And, frankly, looking at suburban houses or landscaped golf courses  is just not as interesting as wandering through a lively cityscape. Few American cities come close to this–New York, San Francisco, New Orleans, and after that I start running out. (I’ll get to the advantages of Arizona in another post, but trust me, they are not generally related to the cities!)

So I didn’t need to spend all my time in Budapest because to me, Szeged itself was a daily adventure. One of the things dearest to my heart about Szeged was its architecture. In 1879 the city suffered a devastating flood, which destroyed most buildings. Afterward they raised the level of the city (indeed, as the flood marker by the Tisza shows above, they have had far higher water levels since then but no flood has done the damage of 1879). And then they set about rebuilding. Much as Chicago after its great fire became a place for architectural innovation, so too did Szeged, albeit on a smaller scale. Instead of structural steel skyscrapers, however, Szeged built palaces or palotas (as they  called mansions) and other buildings (some of which did use structural steel, admittedly) in a variety of styles, including neo-classical, eclectic, and, most notably, Art Nouveau or, as it is often called in Hungary, Secessionist style. (The Secessionist moniker comes from the Viennese artists, including Gustav Klimt, who seceded in 1897 from the Viennese Artists Association–see here for more.) Art Nouveau was a turn of the century movement of design, architecture, and applied and decorative arts that embraced sensuous curves and geometric forms, with natural (think flowers, leaves, e.g.) and folk art motifs. If you’d like to know more about Art Nouveau in Hungary, see this. And Szeged (along with the nearby towns of Subotica and Kecskemet) is home to some of the most stunning Art Nouveau I have seen.  It often features Zsolnay ceramics, including roofs as well as decorative elements, and Hungarian folk art motifs such as tulips, hearts, and peacock feathers. So let me introduce you to Hungarian Art Nouveau.

The first Art Nouveau mansion I “met” on my first full day in Szeged was the one that remains my favorite, the exquisite Reök Palace. A graceful asymmetrical white building with green trim, adorned with purple irises and green leaves, and featuring curvy balconies and balustrades with trailing wrought iron vines, it resembles nothing so much as a fantastic wedding cake. It was built in 1907 by the architect Ede Magyar, called by some Hungary’s Gaudi, who of course has a romantic story. Falling in love with the wife of one of his other clients in Szeged, he ended up killing himself in 1912, at the tender age of 35. Reök Palace is one of the jewels of Szeged, and today it houses an arts center and exhibit space. Perhaps the most remarkable architectural detail inside is a curving green wrought iron staircase with copper flowers “growing” and twining all the way up. Fantastic!

A close second for my favorite piece of Secessionist architecture and design is the New Synagogue, which is perhaps the most beautiful one I’ve ever seen. It was built in 1903 in what has been called Moorish-Art Nouveau, and it is magnificent. Szeged’s Jewish community numbered almost 6000 at this time (and grew to almost 8000 in the 1920s at its height), and this synagogue seats more than 1300. The architect was Lipot Baumhorn, who built 25 synagogues in Austria-Hungary. He was known for his eclectic style, mixing Art Nouveau with Moorish, Gothic, Romanesque, and other architectural elements, which can be seen in the synagogue. The dome and stained glass in the interior, which are stunning, were designed by the great Art Nouveau stained glass artist Miksa Róth. Tragically, close to 3000 of Szeged’s Jews perished in WWII, mostly in the concentration camps. Although some returned to Szeged after the war, today the Jewish population is only about 500. For more on the synagogue and the history of the Jewish community in Szeged, see this.

Ede Magyar did most of his important work in Szeged, contributing hugely to its reputation as a center for Hungarian Art Nouveau. Beyond Reök Palace, one that I particularly like is the  Ungár-Mayer Palace, built as an apartment building (which it still is today). Like  Reök, it features sensuous curves, this time in pink accented with red and grey. It sits on a corner of the lovely space of Dugonics tér, where you can sit at a cafe in the summer, sip a lemonade or a beer, and drink in the wonderful architecture as you people watch. Its outstanding feature is its cupola adorned with  with lovely dancers, allegedly modeled on  ballerinas. Another noteworthy buildings is  the Palace of the Reformed Church, which features colorful mosaics above the windows and sculptures of children, which suggest its former function as a school. One of Magyar’s last commissions was  a charming apartment building called Shaffer Palace, but unfortunately the tenants decided upkeep was too costly and got rid of many of the decorative elements in the 1920s. We got to sneak inside one day, as the gate was uncharacteristically open, and saw some of the last remnants of his design, with sylph-like women (reminiscent of those on Ungár-Mayer)  in the entryway.

There are a couple of buildings by Ferenc Raichl, another of the foremost architects of Hungarian Art Nouveau. The Gróf Palace features a golden mosaic design. The Raichl Palace was built as an apartment building and, after functioning for a time as a theater, today serves as main building for one of Szeged’s high schools. Another Raichl with different design motifs is the Moricz Palace, which is now an apartment building. Some of the exterior decorative elements were apparently removed after WWII when it became an apartment building. But some lovely blue leafy folk decorative elements remain and have been restored, and I love the blue door. And that apartment with the balcony on the corner–there is a place I could live! (Although an apartment at Ungár-Mayer would also be great, so long as we’re dreaming.)  As a Moricz Palace is on Szent Isztván tér, overlooking the water tower.

Other notable early 20th century buildings in Szeged include the Deutsch Palace. I came across this strolling near the Tisza River one day, and was enchanted by the tulips. Is it any wonder that I love the architecture here, when tulips and irises are among my favorite flowers? The Deutsch Palace has not yet been fully restored, but let’s hope it finds a benefactor who will do so soon. Another fine example of Secessionist architecture in Szeged is the Water Tower, built in 1903-4 according to a design by Dr. Szilard Zielinszki. It seems to have been an influential design, as I saw many water towers around Hungary and Szeged that were similar. It’s built of reinforced concrete, and designed with a spiral staircase that goes up the center, with the water holding tank surrounding it. One Saturday a month they open it to visitors, and I took this opportunity to explore it and climb up to the top for some great views of Szeged. As a bonus, they had an exhibit on the history of soda water, which allegedly was invented in Hungary. A final favorite of mine was the City Hall, designed by the famous Hungarian architect, Ödön Lechner, known particularly for some of his Budapest works, especially the Applied Arts Building (see my post on Budapest and Prague).

So ends our tour of Szeged. See my various posts on Budapest for some of its great architecture. The next post will continue the Art Nouveau theme with trips to Kecskemet and Subotica, the latter just across the Serbian border. In the meantime, if you’d like to learn more about the Art Nouveau in Szeged and the region, this website, a joint project of Szeged and Subotica, features Art Nouveau “tours” and a lot more information about each building.






Reflections, part 2: “Uncomfortable, but not paralyzed”

So, I just submitted my Fulbright final report. I thought you might like to see my reflections on what the experience has meant for me, on a personal and professional level. If you do, read on.

My Fulbright experience has already transformed my personal and professional life, and I expect it to continue to do so in the years to come. A professor I know writes on his syllabus that he wants to make his students “uncomfortable but not paralyzed.” I found this to be a great summation of how we learn through challenging ourselves, and I have subsequently used it with my own students. It also provides an apt summary of my Fulbright experience in Hungary.

On a personal level, living and working in a foreign country for almost six months has been both challenging and transformative. I have traveled quite a bit internationally in the past ten years or so, but I quickly found out that living in a foreign country is a very different thing than a two-week tourist visit. I had not quite anticipated the depth of loneliness of living among people whose first language is not your own. I went a few weeks early to get settled in Szeged before I had to start teaching, and the first weeks seeing the sights and finding my way around were not so different from my previous experiences. The Fulbright orientation in Budapest was wonderful, and I got to meet the other Fulbright scholars, but of course none of them were living in my town. After this the loneliness of missing family and friends set in. My colleagues were wonderful and helpful, but they were busy and didn’t have as much time to socialize as I did. I spent my time preparing for class and teaching, but that wasn’t sufficient to fill my time. This forced me to find ways to keep busy and learn more about Hungary and its culture. I attended lectures by visiting scholars, and made contacts (which in some cases led to later speaking invitations). I also started attending a couple of Hungarian language courses, to try to learn more of this difficult language, and I also sat in on a cultural geography course. Although I could only attend the classes sporadically, they did help me to feel somewhat more comfortable. I hit a low point after a visit from my sister about six weeks in; I don’t think I have ever felt quite as homesick as when she left. Amazingly, however, after a couple of days, it passed.

Having surmounted this hurdle, I began to enjoy the rest of my time even more. I made more overtures to colleagues and made a few good friends, whom I will continue to correspond with and visit. I sought out and took on speaking engagements, both to university audiences and to high school (and even middle school) students. I kept myself busy preparing for classes and for invited lectures, and I got to travel a bit around the country and the region. The outings sponsored by the Hungarian Fulbright Commission were great occasions to see more of the country and visit with the other Fulbrighters. I spent some time in Budapest, one of my absolute favorite cities. I came to love walking to work through the city of Szeged, and to take for granted the magnificent architecture I passed daily. Did I become fluent in Hungarian? Of course not. Did I never feel lonely again? No. But I learned enough Hungarian to manage, and I became comfortable living in Szeged. I came to appreciate the warmth of the Hungarian people, who are some of the most hospitable I’ve met, and I made a few very good friends along the way, which is saying a lot. In October I was glad that I hadn’t gotten the year in Hungary that I had applied for, but by the time I left I was back to wishing that I had that full year. Above all, I learned that I could meet the challenge of living in a foreign country. I certainly do not intend this to be my last time doing so, nor do I expect it to be my last time in Hungary.

The Fulbright has been just as transformative for my professional life. I anticipated forming some sort of partnership between my university and the University of Szeged, and I believe this will happen. I have already begun working with my International Education Director, and my colleagues in Szeged have been working on their end. We are working towards developing a Memorandum of Understanding between the two universities, which could also include some faculty exchanges. In addition to semester or year long study abroad experiences, I intend to develop a short term summer course that will bring students to the University of Szeged (with a trip to Budapest) to study Hungarian culture, particularly focusing perhaps on its amazing architecture. I have already begun working on this as well. Beyond these institutional activities, the Fulbright experience will have an impact on my teaching and research. I revamped my lectures for the undergraduate course, focusing particularly on fuller explanation of American historical context for the holidays I was teaching about. Given the varying backgrounds of Fredonia students, including the increasing number of international students there, I believe the techniques I have learned will be useful for improving my instruction in this and other introductory level courses at Fredonia. My experience in Hungary introduced me as well to a very different university system and policies than that of the United States, particularly when it comes to teaching hours, grading, and examination schedules. This taught me to be more flexible as an instructor. I came to understand the value of oral examinations, although I also have a newfound appreciation for U.S. examination scheduling!

Although it is far from my area of research expertise, I am also drawing on my experience in Hungary for a paper for an upcoming conference in Latin American Studies. Living in Hungary during the height of the migrant crisis last fall, I was struck by parallels between Hungarian and American attitudes toward immigrants and refugees, as well as border protection (particularly on the U.S./Mexican border). I will be presenting a paper in Cartagena, Colombia in March that considers some of these parallels and what they suggest about national responses to global mass migrations. Despite my lack of expertise, I felt compelled to wrestle with this question. If the paper is well received, it will perhaps lead to a publication. So once again, the Fulbright experience has forced me to move outside my comfort level.

In conclusion, I am so grateful to have received this Fulbright scholarship. I hope to become a Fulbright scholar again one day, whether as an “expert” or as a teaching scholar. I am already on a mission to push both colleagues and students to apply for Fulbrights. I have suggested it to several students, including members of my extended family as well as a former student who is in graduate school. A good number of Fredonia faculty members have been Fulbright scholars, but I am not sure that any students have. I plan to become a strong advocate on the Fredonia campus for the program, and particularly hope to increase the number of students who apply for the scholarships. An inveterate traveler before my Fulbright, I have become a firm believer in the value of the extended intercultural exchanges the Fulbright program makes possible. I only wish that I had applied for my first Fulbright earlier in my career, but I am comforted by the knowledge that one can still apply after retiring, too!