Europe | Hungary | Esztergom – The muse of the Danube
Family legend, and an embellished obituary in the Duluth Herald, 1911, both say that my great grandfather, Jules, ‘escaped from the Tsar’ and went to Vienna. Since his actual place of birth, the Caucasus, is pretty much off limits to visitors, I’m concentrating on the route he may have taken west of the Black Sea.
Prior to this trip I spent a few days in the British museum, pouring over maps from the 1850s, including a Cyrillic one that stank of 2 centuries’ old urine. Trains didn’t run much east of Budapest before 1860; and even during the 1850s, one might have taken the Danube all the way from the Black Sea to Vienna. Before rail, water was the quickest and most efficient form of transport.
These days only the rich can take cruises the entire length of the Danube; but us regular folk can still enjoy the most scenic stretch by excursion boat from Budapest. According to Bradshaw’s Continental rail and travel guide, 1855, the Danube is its most scenic between Szentendre and Esztergom. The Hungarian tourist board in London, 2002, agrees.
Sexton and I were up at six, to find six ducks quacking outside our porthole. Not to be confusing but we are also staying on a boat – the Fortuna Botel lies at anchor across from Margit island on the Pest side of the river. It’s dead posh but we’re in the hostel deck – stuffy, hot and cramped. But we still give it the thumbs up for location. And ducks. And the fact that it’s a boat. Just don’t drink on it as the bar’s a bit pricey, though very nice. So have one drink as a treat, on the outside deck, overlooking the water.
Anyway, dragging my husband out at that hour was no easy feat; but he came to love the day as much as I did. We caught the boat at the promenade (Belvaros? between Erzsebet and Szechenyi bridges). It took five hours to Esztergom, and 4 coming back (downstream). Cost:1500 F return/round trip (about 5 pounds).
As we passed villages with pointed churches and trees like broccoli, I tried to imagine my great grandfather on the same route. Hills and trees would have been much the same, but I doubt if Jules would have noticed. Not because he came from a stunningly beautiful place himself (The Caucausus rivals Switzerland, according to a 19th century traveller named Viscount Vogue) but because he was orphaned by the cholera epidemic (1854-56), and was fleeing from uprisings in Russia. Getting as far as possible as quickly as possible would have been his top priority.
The hilltop ruins of Visegrad Castle would have been there, but they lay buried for hundreds of years before being rediscovered in the 1930s. Jules would have seen the high hill marking the westward bend in the Danube, but nothing on it. He probably would not have seen people sunbathing nude on the banks of the Danube either. And he certainly would have had no idea that his great grand daughter, named after the wife he had not yet met, would one day take this same route.
New A-frame houses dotted the hillsides – summer homes for Budapest residents. Back in the present, Sexton began work on a new novel while being highly fascinated with how much the Hungarians drank. One large man in beige trousers had had vodka and champagne, and was on his 3rd beer by 10 am.
Esztergom was the most wonderful surprise of the day. The boat itself was what we wanted to do; we had no expectations of our destination. We ended up wishing we could have spent a night there, not just a few hours. There are several churches besides the giant Cathedral (Bazilika) and also there are interesting looking museums. Plus it was easy to find affordable food and drink (always a plus) and the village just had a nice feel to it. There were a lot of tourists but mostly Hungarians so it felt more local then Budapest centre, which is becoming homogenised Europe (I saw a Marks and Spencers today. Ugh).
And Esztergom Bazilika itself…words can not do justice. It is huge, awe inspiring. 100 metres from floor of the crypt to top of the dome. Great views of the Danube and surrounding village, only slightly marred by tower blocks across the river.
During the boat ride back Sexton and I continued writing, drawing, talking and listening to CDs, including the new one we are working on with our band. We both found the river gave us great inspiration. I can hardly touch on what a special day it was, and must really get out now, otherwise I could spend all day in front of this computer!
One final image to leave you with, from the banks of the Danube: a woman painting at an easel, in a blue polka dot bikini….