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New Europe

Day Sixty-nine: Esztergom

The birth of Hungary 
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On a high point overlooking the Danube this striking statue commemorates the moment when Hungary was founded. It shows the coronation of King Istvan I with a crown sent by the Pope, in 1000 AD.
Michael Palin - New EuropeWe walk up the hill and talk a little about the communist days. As a priest he was never physically harmed but everything was, as he put it, 'under control'. Letters were opened, phones tapped. But he doesn't sound too happy with present-day Hungary. Corruption is bad, and getting worse.

By now we've reached the wide expanse of forecourt that leads the eye up to the mighty columned portico of the Basilica. I find myself becoming grudgingly Protestant about the intimidating immensity of the whole thing, and even the bishop himself agrees it's probably bigger than it need be. Completed in 1869 after fifty years in the building and intended as a glorious reaffirmation of national spirit and the Catholic faith after years of Turkish repression and Hapsburg Germanisation, it was modelled on St Peter's in Rome.

'It was to be a Vatican for Central Europe,' he says. The work so captured the imagination of the times that Beethoven offered to write a Mass for the opening but was turned down for lack of money. In the end Franz Liszt provided a Missa Solemnis without even claiming expenses.

The cavernous interior is full of people staring about in awe. Most seem to be tourists. Bishop Kiss-Rigo surprises me by saying that there was no great rush back to the churches after the years of communist repression.

'Faith is sometimes stronger in adversity,' he explains, without any great conviction.

Sixty-five per cent of Hungarians consider themselves to be Catholic, but church attendance is only around twelve per cent.

The most memorable space inside has beauty as well as bombast and that's because it was built over 300 years before the rest. It's a chapel with walls of red marble, saved from destruction by the Turks and reassembled in the body of the new Basilica. Impressive in a different way is the tomb of Cardinal Mindszenty. For some reason the current fails as we enter and with the darkness of the crypt broken only by oblique shafts of daylight, the power and simplicity of his memorial is extraordinarily effective.

'Vita Humiliavit Mors Exaltavit' it reads.

Life humiliated him. Death exalted him.

The drive through the enchanting Pilis Hills from Esztergom is a joy. We climb up over the escarpment, through graceful beech woods, and stop off at the country cottage of our guide and translator György, his wife Ildiko, and their soppily affectionate Belgian Shepherd called Zeus. It's a hot afternoon and she offers us a pick-me-up of mint, lime, sugar and a touch of white rum. It's a rare and gratifying pleasure on these long journeys to be able to sit and do nothing more than take in the unsensational tranquillity of fields and woods and distant hills. Summer afternoons don't come much better than this.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Sixty-nine: Esztergom
  • Country/sea: Hungary
  • Place: Esztergom
  • Book page no: 165

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