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When comparatives fail

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.

IMG_3174 (800x600)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.

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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.

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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.

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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 see 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 infomercial for that great Hungary export.

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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.

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I danced in the ballroom, entertained guests in one of the many dining 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.

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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.

IMG_3534 (600x800)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.

P.S. To the pedants – I know that Esterházy can be spelled Eszterházy, too… I went with what’s on the official site.

What would you do with a second-hand palace?

When it came to wealth, I thought the Habsburgs reigned supreme but apparently the Esterházy family topped them on the who’s richest list of the day. If you visit northwestern Hungary, you’ll find yourself tripping over the Esterházy name. It seems as if any building worth noting in the region was once part of their estate: the hermitage at Majkpustas; the castle at Csesznek; the palace at Csákvár.

From what I gather, the family got this particular castle in 1629 and over the course of two generations, completely restored it and its surrounds. It looks like János was the one to settle into the place and make it his own. Back in its day, it featured a huge library, an art gallery, a hunter’s hall, and a riding school. And there’s no doubt in my mind that tucked away somewher was a ballroom.

The one-time palace was passed down from generation to generation – resting with Móric János around 1917. He had three children: Marcell, Mátyás and Mónika but it was his two grandchildren that staked their claim to fame:  the writer Péter and the footballer Márton. The family lived in the castle until 1944 when they escaped Hungary and settled in Austria.

The castle was ravaged in the war years and renovations didn’t begin until 1957. It’s now a state-run sanatorium for pulmonary diseases (and I know this because????  I saw a sign inside saying pulmonary and one outside saying Florena szanatórium and one blog post I found confirmed it – nothing like a little Internet detecting). Although it’s a few stars short of a ‘come hither’ listing, it still retains its sense of grandeur and has been listed as a national monument since 1960.

The ghosts of Elizabeth Bennett and her ilk stroll through the gardens and you could be forgiven for imagining the sound of horse-drawn carriages pulling up to the front door. The day wasn’t particularly fine – we’d been driving through mist and fog for most of the morning – but it didn’t take much to imagine the place in the height of the summer.

Not knowing that we were supposed dto check at the porter’s gate to arrange a tour, we simply wandered in. No one asked what we were doing. We met a couple of residents in wheelchairs and a few who looked as if they didn’t quite belong. Sans cameras, these I took to be visitors, but unlike ourselves, had probably brought grapes. Apart from the woman busily closing down the buffet at 10am, I didn’t see anyone remotely resembling a doctor or a nurse and this made me wonder.  It could have been one giant movie set. Try as I might to retain some sense of perspective and keep my already tenuous grip in reality,  images of Mr Darcy’s boots kept coming to mind. Perhaps a stay at a sanitorium is really what I need!

If you do decide to visit Csákvár, my mate David McCall, commenting on a previous post via Facebook, highly recommends a local restaurant: By the way, in Csákvár, did you go have lunch at Publó? Probably one of the best restaurants in Hungary — and much cheaper than anything similar in Budapest! Not that I need much of an excuse to go back. I have this thing about boots…

Paying for prayers

Before it became a Camaldulian heritage, the monastery at Majk was a Premonstratensian provostry. And yes, I had to check the dictionary. Twice. Once to see what a Premonstratensian provostry was and again to see who or what the Camaldulians were/are. The former is a priory that followed the teachings of St Norbert at Prémontré, near Laon, Île de France, c1120 (also called Premonstrants, Norbertines, and, from the colour of their habit, White Canons).The latter are bald, bearded monks in white robes that follow the teachings of St Benedict and take vows of silence.

Situated in the northern part of the Vértes Mountains (NW Hungary) the hermitage was originally built in the twelfth century and was significant for its notarial functions – the monks were authorised to issue deeds and wills. When the Turks arrived, the monks left, and the monastery was subsumed into the Tata Castle estate. When  Count József Eszterházybought Tata and all the surrounding villages, he also got the monastery, and having little need for it, gave it over to the Camaldulian Order who arrived in Majk at the turn of the century.

The Camaldolese were established by an Italian monk by the name of Romauld around the begnning of the second millennium. A student of the teachings of St Benedict, Romauld wanted to mix the eremetical tradition of monastic life with that of the cenobium, in other words, living as a hermit while living in a community. The mind boggles.

Construction lasted from 1733 to 1770. Each of the 17 houses was sponsored by an aristocratic family and took two years to build. The family crest on the outer wall  makes it easy to identify the patrons… if you’re up on your crests, that is. Each house (80 square metres) has five rooms – a living room, a private chapel, a workshop, a pantry and a kitchen. Stairs lead up to the attic and down to the cellar. The 17 monks took vows of silence and twice a year, at Christmas and Easter, could join the rest of the community in the refectory and talk three times a day for three days… this must be when the  eremetical tradition of monastic life [met] with that of the cenobium. Of course, it could also be that the houses are laid out as in a village, surrounded by a stone wall, with the church in the centre.

The monks worked their gardens, growing vegetables, fruit, herbs and medicinal plants, which were processed at the monastery’s pharmacy. The rest of their time was spent praying and making intercessions on behalf of their patrons. Before a monk could be housed, he had to spend three years in training – on probation as it were. Once he made the cut, he took the vow of silence. Those who didn’t make the cut continued to serve as lay people in the wider monastic community.

It is a truly lovely place and well worth a visit if you find yourself in the neighbourhood of Majkpuszta, near Oroszlány, in Komárom-Esztergom county. The monks have long gone [photos here are photos of photos and could even be from a similar monastery in Poland… can’t rightly remember]. What with the monks being silent and so not doing any useful work like nursing the sick or educating the poor, Emperor Joseph II, one of Europe’s enlightened despots,  had the order dissolved. Back once again in the  Eszterházy family, this time it was Móric who found a use for it, converting it to a hunting lodge. After the Second World War, it was used to house the miners from the nearby mine. Now it’s a museum… testament to a life once lived.

Some of the houses are available for rent. Mind you, it’s hardly a quiet life these days with the bell tower playing one of 17 aristo tunes every 15 minutes.  Forget any thoughts you might have of aimlessly wandering… if you’re not resident, you need to be on a guided tour. Nonetheless, the experience will stay with you long after you leave. If nothing else, reflections on the rich of the eighteenth century paying for prayers might dominate conversation on the drive home…