It was spring break 1995, when I was teaching with the Soros Foundations in Banská Bystrica in central Slovakia. Trains ran regularly to Budapest, about a four-hour trip back then. I went with a Frenchman from Annecy (a wonderfully picturesque town I’ve unfortunately never managed to visit), who lived down the hall from me in a dormitory with other foreign lectures.
He’d never been to Budapest, and I’d been several times already, so we developed separate itineraries, he seeing the typical sites and I seeking out more obscure locations. We did hike together up the Gellért Hill on the Buda side, up to the citadel, followed by dinner in the hotel restaurant. But our lodgings were in the much more modest pension run by a stout, vigorous woman of about sixty named “Kati.” A hostel where as many as ten students and backpackers slept in a single room. Seven bucks a night per bed, a wonderful tip from the Let’s Go Guide.
That book also suggested Győr, a couple of hours to the west of Budapest, on the main line to Vienna, and closer to the latter. The German name for the town, Raab, comes from the river—called Rába in Hungarian—which flows among embankments as the waters finish their journey from a source near Graz, Austria, to its confluence with the Danube on the northeast outskirts of Győr.
I settled in modest lodgings, the railway motel, which housed out-of-town personnel and also rented rooms to non-employees, another suggestion from Let’s Go!
Exploring town on foot, I found it a charming Austro-Hungarian locale, with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century facades of imperial yellow and some pastels, though not all the architecture had recovered from its socialist-era pallor. After the noise and grit of Budapest, it was nice to stroll the quieter streets, with large pedestrian zones, though mid-March was still cold for café life. Inside a baroque library turned museum, my tour guide happened to be one of those ethnic Hungarians born in Slovakia. He had come here as part of a voluntary and peaceful population exchange (as opposed to brutal ethnic cleansing – the Slovak border is four miles away) at the end of WWII. And so he led me around speaking Slovak, not quite native, and a bit rusty after nearly a half-century.
Győr had been an important center of education for centuries. Ľudovít Štúr, who would go on to standardize the Slovak language in the mid-1800s, attended secondary school there, back in the days when he had little chance to acquire and education in any other tongue beside German or Hungarian. Curiously, Josef Dobrovský, a Catholic priest instrumental in codifying modern Czech, also had connections to the town.
Probably the greatest contribution to learning came from the Benedictine order, which is responsible for both the St. Ignatius church and the adjoining gymnasium (college-preparatory secondary school) on the large square in the center of town.
But the Benedictines are probably best know in northwest Hungary for their stately Pannonhalma Archabbey, the destination for my second day’s excursion. I checked and double-checked the bus schedule with locals in an English-Magyar-Deutsch cacophony. I finally decided that I could reliably get a bus out there. And back – not getting stranded was the ticklish point. After a stretch of highway, the hill came into view. That was the -halma of the name, a Germanic borrowing. The first part comes from “Pannonia,” as the central Danube region was known in Roman times.
A central dome rose above it all, its patina topping three sections of cream-colored cylinder, gently telescoping upward. Nervous I might pass my destination, I hopped out at a small stop in the village of Pannonhalma. When the bus continued to wind up the road to the monastery, I felt foolish for having gotten off too early. How I’d have to huff it uphill. But I was rewarded by the sight of a wooden cart hitched to two horses. Old-World charm spoiled only by rubber tires. Right in front of a vendéglő, or tavern – guess the driver had stopped in for a drink. But I was going to save drinking for afterwards – if I had time before the last bus back to Győr.
I trudged up, and finally reached the entrance where a handful of eighties-model Ladas were parked. Tourists were few, and I saw no monks wandering the grounds. But I found the ticket office and was soon touring the church and library. I read from a tattered English-language brochure while the guide spoke Hungarian. One of the curious items in the library is a document, mostly in Latin, which is also the oldest writing to contain both Finnish and Hungarian words, a remarkable thing, given that no one recognized the relationship between those two languages until the late eighteenth century. (Hungarian belongs to a family called Uralic, with no clear ties to Indo-European, which includes Germanic, Slavic and Celtic languages, as well as ancient Greek, Latin and Sanskrit. The ancestors of the Magyars migrated to Central Europe in 896, leaving them linguistically isolated.)
But the most impressive thing the Benedictines have done here is to run a school, with few interruptions, for a thousand years. It was part of the project of establishing Christianity in the region, an undertaking that had strong support from King St. Stephen, who was baptize in the year 1000. The secondary school, a kind of collegium, has long attracted boys from aristocratic families. In the 1930s it focused on Italian language. It was closed under Communist rule in 1948, but remarkably reopened in 1950, one of the few Catholic schools permitted to operate in the former East Bloc. It was undergoing renovations at the time in 1995.
After the tour, I strolled outside, taking in a view of the surrounding countryside. The abbey looked to be in decent shape after forty years of state atheism, but one could imagine things being cleaner, masonry repaired, walls repainted. I had the feeling things would get better under a government less hostile to religion.