There’s a French proverb that says to compare is not to prove. On some intellectual level, I know that. I know that comparing myself to anyone else is pointless – I’m just about the only person in the world who can do any sort of job of being me. And yet, I find myself saddled with a vocabulary full of comparatives – taller, thinner, wiser, younger, faster, quicker, fitter, better, richer. I know better than to use them other than to state a fact and have managed, even at this tender age, to rid myself of the wistfulness that used to accompany them.
I was struck by all of this last month when I visited two of the Esterházy palaces in Hungary. The first was in Tata at the Esterházy-kastély, a building that is visibly losing what’s left of its grandeur, broken beneath the boughs of lack of public finance and … judging by the size of the tour group (3) … lack of public interest. The town of Tata was bought in 1727 by Count József Esterházy – head of a family that has left a noticeable mark on the Hungarian landscape. His local residence, built by a young Hungarian, Jakab Fellner in the mid-eighteenth century, was visited by no fewer than four kings – a tribute to both the architect and the Count himself.
Although it has seen better days, there’s still a magic about the place. Part of its grandeur still remains. The Dutch ceramic tiles in the bathroom were quite a novelty in their day and I’m sure caused many an unnecessary trip to the powder room. Its last ‘commercial’ use was as a lunatic asylum under Russian rule. It was during this time that the place was painted a sterile white, with only one room left where you can see just a glimpse of times past.
When the Russians left in 1991, they simply opened the doors and let everyone walk free. This, apparently, happened all over the country and might explain a couple of the characters I’ve seen on the trams in Budapest. Although there’s a site that says the place is currently under reconstruction, I didn’t see as much as a paintbrush. But if I ever won the EuroMillions, it would be high on my list of considerations. It’s a lovely, lovely spot and one that I could happily see myself living in.
Some miles away in Fertőd, another Esterházy – Prince Nikolaus I – also built himself a palace. And this one, in sharp contrast, is in a wonderful state of repair, although it, too, spent some time as a Russian hospital. You can still some some pencil drawings on the walls, sketched by patients,that give it a faint sense of realism. There must have been 30 of us on this particular tour, which, given the amount of time devoted to the Herend porcelain on display, felt a little like an infomerical for that great Hungary export.
In stark contrast to the palace at Tata, this one could have housed the world’s royalty just last weekend. We met room after room of jaw-dropping splendour, nay, decadence. How one family could have warranted so much palatial wealth is beyond me. Is there a latent socialist in me, I wonder? Still, it didn’t take from my enjoyment and once I had silenced the voices of envy, I let my imagination wander and pretty soon, I was ensconced in my mind’s eye at one of the many writing desks seeking inspiration as I looked out the window on the vast lawns.
I danced in the ballroom, entertained guests in one of the many dinning rooms or salons, catnapped on any one of a multitude of daybeds. I wondered idly how big the household would have to be to keep it running. I debated menus, guest lists, and even got so far as to contemplating my wardrobe. The detail is exquisite. How many countless thousands of hours must those ceilings have taken to paint? The tour itself was in Hungarian and truth be told, I wasn’t all that interested in the finer points. I was happy enough to wander slightly ahead of the posse and have the rooms to myself before the hordes descended.
I didn’t know, for instance, that back then, many people slept sitting up as they were too afraid to lie down in case they died in their sleep. And there I was, thinking this was just a drastic solution for snoring.
Going through room after room of fine art, and expansively decorated walls I felt the stirrings of what might have been a mild case of Stendahl’s syndrome. It all began to be just a little too much. Yes, it was gobsmackingly gorgeous but it was complete. There was nothing you could add to it. No personal imprint. Anything extra would look so out of place. And I thought back to Tata, to the lumbering ruin of the other Esterházy, and I knew that, given all the money in the world and the choice of both, I’d pick that one. The one that still had potential. Something could be done with. There was little use in drawing comparisons. They were both big, both in the same family, both magnificent in their day, both Russian hospitals of a sort, both now tourist attractions. Fertőd is definitely bigger, grander, and more opulent but Tata still has soul.
One of the last things we saw was the magic mirror. It is said that if you look into it, you will either see true beauty or become more beautiful – I can’t quite remember. But hey, either works. I looked a couple of times for good measure, so if you notice a change in me, that’s why.
On a final note (ahem) the composer Joseph Haydn lived here from 1766 to 1790. He had a four rooms in the separate servants’ building, and while he might have been relegated to the outer house back then, there’s now a full-size statue of him in the gardens. Amazing what death can accomplish.
This makes three Esterházy palaces that I’ve seen (I’ve been to see another) – and my imaginary wealth is fully vested in Tata. Both are definitely worth a trip if you ever find yourself in the west of Hungary. And rumour has it that one of the Esterházy heirs has rooms in Fertőd while another reportedly has a bakery somewhere in Australia – the Esterházy cake could well be to Hungary what the Sachertorte is to Austria.