Every backwater town opens a museum it seems, and often with the same recipe – preserve a historically significant building and then fill it with 700 years of keepsakes previously stashed in a dozen attics across town. Tokaj, Hungary is no exception.
I visit these small museums generally for three reasons; to admire the house itself, to glance at the collections in search of some quirky or unusual item and to learn something new – which is often an obscure fact unrelated to the intent of the museum. The Tokaj Museum delivered on all three of these goals. If nothing else, these museums provide an inexpensive diversion on a quiet day.
And so we found ourselves in the Tokaj museum in eastern Hungary. For a few dollars, we browsed two floors of artifacts, the ancient wine cellar and the backyard garden. We glimpsed the history of this town and region.
The museum is housed in the restored mansion of an 18th century Greek wine merchant. What else would you expect? Tokaj is one of the ancient cradles of wine, a town founded under no other pretense. A wine merchant mansion underscores the historical importance of Tokaj wines. Merchants stockpiled wealth peddling these distinctive wines to the monarchs of Europe.
The entrance to the home is a small door cut into the much larger double doors which leads to a stone floor entry area – built, it would seem, to pull horses and wagons in from the elements. Now, it houses the ticket window where we pay the admittance fee and head upstairs to the former living quarters.
The staircase is a tinder box of crackled slabs of wood supported by matching risers. Although it appears a bit wormy with dust filled crevices, under our feet it is rock solid. As I was mulling the unusual staircase (Can a staircase actually be that uncommon?), Pat commented, “I never saw anything like this.” It seems a staircase can be noteworthy – and this one is.
The stairs lead into the living space which is grand, though not palatial, with high ceilings and floral stenciled walls. Were I a rich, eighteenth century wine merchant, this is exactly the house I would build right down to the massive window which frames the grand piano and offers views to the back garden.
This floor contains several rooms dedicated to non-wine relics and of particular interest a large collection of gold, Orthodox icons from Saint Nicolas Church. Why Orthodox icons in this part of the world? In the corner, I discovered two Jewish “memorial” holders, something I had never seen before. They appeared almost like a highly decorated post box – the type found on old city apartment buildings; black and iron with an area to place items. What is a “Jewish Memorial Holder”?
I tucked both questions in the back of my mind. Later that same day, we visited the even smaller wine village of Mad and its breathtaking synagogue. Serendipitously, both questions were answered. But that is a story for another post. I have several planned covering the alluring village of Mad.
One floor further up, tucked under the eaves, is an area dedicated to wine. My favorite items are the cask branding irons. I am familiar with cattle brands – but never realized the same concept existed to mark the ownership of stored wine. I made no effort to read each and every display, but rather perused the cases. I had read enough about the history of Tokaj wine before our vacation.
Lastly, we visited the wine cellars – which were stocked with collectable bottles of Tokaj wine and a tasting room that we had to virtually crawl into through the Lilliputian entry way. We finished our museum tour with a quick peek into the peaceful back garden.
We enjoyed the museum more than I expected which leads me to realize, I need to seek out these small and niche museums, particularly those found in the charming villages of rural Hungary.
If you find yourself in Tokaj village, I suggest you stop in for a visit.
Categories: Central/Eastern Europe