As the HÉV train rumbles through the increasingly rural countryside north of Budapest, I read about the history of Szentendre, ‘Saint Andrew’. Hungarians climb aboard and then depart again, ladened with the purchases of their Saturday morning errands. Come summer, this train will overflow with tourists. But on the first, beautiful Saturday in April, it’s a locals crowd.
Szentendre is a microcosm of Europe’s war mongering roots; conquered by Romans, established in 1009 by Saint Stephen, destroyed
by the Ottomans, settled by southern Mediterranean immigrants fleeing their own conflicts, and eventually returned to a predominately Hungarian populace before surviving the oppression of 20th century Central Europe. All of those fingerprints can be found in and near the village. But my mission is more focused and two-fold; explore the Serbian roots of the city and discover a Szentendre beyond an oasis of souvenir shops.
At the height of Serbian influence, perhaps some 400 years ago, South Slavs, largely from Serbia and Bulgaria, comprised 88% of the Szentendre population. It served as the See of the Serbian Orthodox religion. At this zenith, eight Serbian Orthodox churches existed in the village. Today, fewer than 1% of the inhabitants are Serbs and five orthodox churches remain – and as I am about to learn, now largely locked or serving as museums.
I arrive in town just before ten o’clock and encounter an all but abandoned pedestrian core. Still I turn left almost immediately, set on a course of ad hoc exploration. Shortly, perhaps no more than 200 yards from my start point, I stumble upon the Saturday farmers market set
up along the banks of a stream which trickles towards the Danube. The vendors here have formed a consortium of sorts. A gray-haired woman brings eggs and potatoes; another carries pasta; a man, bear wrestling with his children, appears to be the fruit and vegetable vendor; some augment their booths with fresh-cut flowers. At the end of the market is a stand of Hungarian meats, predominately lard based affairs. Put together, the vendors create a meal. In front of me a young mother pulls one of the ubiquitous hand carts filled with produce as her young daughter lags behind cradling an arm load of flowers. Everywhere, I hear a Hungarian chorus as friends greet friends, clients greet vendors. Crossing the bridge to head back towards town, Roma women sell cutlery, their station in the market much the same as it is in life, a quiet presence relegated to the margins.
Still meandering, I come upon a cemetery; disheveled and overgrown with sparsely scatters headstones, apparently not terribly well occupied. Above me looms a steeple, blood-red and barely visible through the pale green leaves of early spring. I cut
up an alleyway, through the decorative wrought iron gates and find a sign on the door indicting this is the Serbian Cathedral, the key can be secured from the museum, and the cost of admission to both is 600 HUF (roughly $2.50). Following the path back towards the museum, a young woman plays solitaire on her computer while beautiful and haunting Gregorian music emanates from a distant back room. I buy my ticket and glance through the two room museum; an interesting mix of icons, festive vestments, carved chalices and bibles. When I return for the key, a young man is behind the desk. He pulls out a cast iron key which is
hefty enough to serve as a bludgeon. He lifts it with two hands, and we walk back to the cathedral.
I ask for a recommendation for a Serbian restaurant in town. “Yes. On the square… corner.” Never quite sure of pronunciations and concerned for the real possibility that several restaurants will be found on the square corner, I ask if he can please write the name on my map. “Yes, no problem.” As he hands back my map, I read his neatly printed “C o r n e r”. We step inside. The cathedral is classic Serbian, an ornateness which is over the top by the standards of most any religion. One entire wall is covered in top to bottom and side to side icons in an array of gaudy gold frames. I move about to take a picture trying to avoid the crystal chandelier dangling in the foreground.
Before I leave the cathedral grounds, I sit in the courtyard straining to hear any sign of life in the village. Beyond the wind rattling the leaves, I can make out a periodic bark way off in the distance and a bird happily chirping a welcome to spring. I jot
some notes and start on my way, pausing outside the gates to read my map and figure out exactly where I am. An older woman stops to help me, asking if I need anything – of course speaking to me in Hungarian. Disappointed to learn I know a handful of words, she persists, “Deutsch?” No, I shake my head. Thinking for a moment she points to the right and very precisely says “Grand Place.” I express thanks in my very best and most formal Hungarian, “Köszönöm szépen.” Perhaps a bit startled, she laughingly indicates I am more than welcome, “Szívesen.”
As I head back to the main part of town, I discover a small Jewish memorial which describes itself as the world’s smallest synagogue. Inside, a woman hands me a single page English translation of the history of the Szentendre Jews. There are no happy Jewish stories from World War 2 Hungary, and this is no different. Of the 250 Szentendre Jews, only 35 survived the war. She points to pictures and recounts tales in Hungarian, fully realizing I don’t speak the language. Periodically, I recognize a word; Auschwitz, kis Gyuri (little George) and as she points to a picture of a family, “nem, nem, nem” (no, no, no). I have heard this story enough times to fill in the heartbreaking pieces.
I wish her good day, at this point exhausting my entire Hungarian vocabulary, and head on my way, dropping into the village just off the main square. Looking back up the street I had just descended, it is nearly vacant. Ahead of me, swarms of tourists swirl around guides holding colorful and numbered flags. I imagine Pat and me arguing whether we are a part of the blue group 3 or red group 2. I am tempted to pull a family aside and encourage them to break away from this street and explore. I want them to know the tales of Jewish Szentendre, to chat with a helpful woman determined to bridge the linguistic divide, to sit in a tree-shaded courtyard straining to hear any sound of human life. Yet who am I to judge their apparent fun as they scamper into and out of stores with an increasing number of parcels dangling from their arms.
Instead, I set off to find my Serbian restaurant which is exactly in the spot indicated on my map and with a name as promised; “Corner”.
Make it happen:
Getting there: I took the HEV line from the Batthyány tér metro station (line 2 follow signs to HEV). A one way ticket a 310 HUF (less than 1.50) supplement to my Budapest metro pass. Take this very clearly marked train about 40 minute to the end of the line. Walk straight ahead, down the stairs and up onto the main street. You can walk just on this street, but I really hope you explore a bit.
Corner Restaurant: A mix of Serbian (I had a delicious dish of roasted pork and beef sausage) and Hungarian specialties. Located on a square on the Danube just pass the main square (Fo ter). I paid roughly 15 dollars for a glass of red wine, salad, meat and the tip.
Information: Just as you enter town on the right is a clearly marked information booth. Enter here for maps (200 HUF – under $1) and a selection of books and postcards.
Categories: Central/Eastern Europe