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In the foothills of the Alps

In the foothills of the Alps, not far from the Hungary/Austria border, where deer can leap 100o metres and run at 60 km/hr, lies the old mediaeval town of Kőszeg. It’s been around for a while, and has that ye olde worlde feel to it.

It was here, way back in 1532, that Captain Miklós Jurisics and just 50 of his closest friends managed to hold up some 80,000 – 100,000 Turkish troops (depending on who you listen to) advancing towards Vienna. They held out for 25 days! In the end, they allowed the Turks to run up their flag over the castle in a symbolic declaration of victory provided they left immediately afterwards. They did and they did – at 11am the last of the Turks left the city limits and still today, the church bells ring at 11 o’clock to mark the occasion. I had read somewhere that the church clocks were all stopped at 11am as a constant memorial, but that simply ain’t true.

Miklós made his mark, though. It’s down to him that Vienna didn’t meet the same fate as Buda did some few years later.  The castle is named after him, as is the local secondary school. Jurisics Miklós Gimnázium (JMG) was founded in 1677 and is the oldest operating International School in Hungary. It’s a testing center for the US college boards (SAT, ACT,etc.), as well as the British IGCSE exam and in 2006, the Herald Tribune listed it as one of the top ten international schools in the world. Who’d have thought it, eh?

Remnants of the town walls can still be seen and those houses in the shadow of Jurisics Castle have been preserved in their original form. The town square is dominated by the Jesus Heart Parish Church – I wonder perhaps if something was lost in translation here and if it is supposed to be the Sacred Heart? Fond as I am of making three wishes when I visit a church for the first time, I don’t need much enticing to darken their doors. Usually, the plainer the better for me – but this one is something else, hand painted in the most intricate designs. Truly amazing. I can’t even begin to imagine how long it all took – and this was before ‘colour by numbers’! The guide book, much to my amusement, noted that it was ‘unexceptional’ – what it takes to please some folks! The mind boggles!

Walking through the back streets, stumbling on the cobblestones, you really can feel how old everything is. We’d arrived around mid-morning to find the place thriving. The local market was in full swing and the town was bustling. Three hours later, it was empty. This lack of commercialism was nice to see and further evidenced by the honour system which is still employed ‘after hours’. Punnets of fruit on stood tables, the prices clearly marked. Alongside them a collection box where you pay your money – cash only, no change given.  Admittedly there are one or two shops where India meets Tibet, but there are still places selling local crafts and products.  Other than the world fame of the JMG, you’d be forgiven for questioning what century you were in. The only visible graffeti is that etched into the stucco on what’s now a pub originally built in 1688.

There’s something really lovely about this town. Although it’s known as Hungary’s jewel box and you might be tempted to append the adjectives twee or quaint, they just don’t quite fit. I’m not sure what it is about the place, but if you’re in the vicinity, it’s worth a visit.