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New Europe

Day Sixty-nine: Esztergom

The Basilica at Esztergom 
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'A Vatican For Central Europe.' Bishop Kiss-Rigo, goalkeeper and guide, is dwarfed by the mighty portico of Hungary's biggest church, the Basilica at Esztergom.
Michael Palin - New EuropeJune 4 1920 was a dark day in Hungary's history. In the ornate elegance of the Grand Palais de Trianon at Versailles, a treaty was signed which, at a stroke, reduced the country to a third of its size. Land was lost north, south, east and west. Access to the sea through the port of Fiume (now Rijeka) was denied. There is hardly a route into Hungary which is not a distant reminder of national pain.

The Maria Valeria bridge on which I'm standing this balmy morning, looking down into a far-from-blue Danube, was originally built by the Emperor Franz Josef in 1895 to connect two provinces of an Austro-Hungarian empire which stretched from Switzerland to Russia. Now the empire's long gone, and the other side of the bridge is a foreign country. The bridge itself has suffered too, destroyed by the Germans in the Second World War, and not reopened until 2001.

The Austro-Hungarian empire was a political and religious balancing act, a polyglot conglomeration at a time when Europe was re-forming into independent nation states. Franz Josef's subjects were Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Greek and Russian Orthodox and they spoke a dozen languages. The First World War brought the whole unsteady edifice tumbling down, and from being part of the structure itself, Hungary became one of the pieces.

Not that you'd know it from crossing the bridge from what is now Slovakia. Hungary presents its credentials in immediate and dramatic fashion. On the first low hill, overlooking the river and dominating the border town of Esztergom, is a massive domed Basilica, more than 300 feet high. It's the largest cathedral in the country. Standing on the spot where the founder of the nation, King Istvan (Stephen) I, was crowned in AD 1000, it contains the tomb of the revered Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, who suffered imprisonment and torture for his resistance to both fascism and communism. Potent symbols of Hungarian pride are gathered together on this hill, of their long history, their independence and their religion.

And, for what it's worth, Esztergom has one of the biggest Tesco's I've ever seen.

Mercifully, not all of the city is on an epic scale. Down the hill below the Basilica are some small, attractive cobbled streets with carefully trimmed fruit trees and fat hydrangea bushes on clipped grass verges. In one of these lives Bishop Kiss-Rigo, my guide to the town they call 'The Cradle of Hungary'.

With his greying hair, ruddy complexion, quick, impish smile and way with a story, he seems more Irish than Hungarian, but he grew up in Budapest and first became a priest here twenty-nine years ago. He's the goalkeeper of his local priests' soccer team, and rather proud of the fact that they came fifth in last year's championships in Zagreb.

He's interesting about the Maria Valeria bridge. For a long time after the war there was no will to rebuild it. The politicians on both sides preferred it that way. He considers its much delayed reopening six years ago to be very important, a victory for co-operation over confrontation. And it seems to work. As I look back at it I can see people walking, cycling, even rollerblading, from one country to another.
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Sixty-nine: Esztergom
  • Country/sea: Hungary
  • Place: Esztergom
  • Book page no: 164

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