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2013 Grateful 20

There’s a house across the road from us at home that I’ve coveted for years. As kids, me and my mate would sneak in the back, through the fields, and try to get as close to it as possible before the caretaker caught us and frog-marched us home to whatever punishment awaited us as repeat offenders. We never learned. It was a place of intrigue, somewhere forbidden.

IMG_7286 (800x600)In 1917 it was used as a military hospital to treat the wounded from WWI. In 1928 it became a TB sanatorium where those with the dreaded affliction also known as the white plague and consumption came to enjoy the restorative fresh air of the countryside and ultimately meet their death. It is said that the mortality rate in Firmount House in the 1920s and 1930s was 100%. One former nurse, still living, said recently that in the 1950s, with the cure for TB discovered, things got better and they only lost, say, one patient a week.

As kids, we knew that the place had been a sanatorium for those with tuberculosis. But instead of making it less appealing for our adventurous forays, it drew use closer. Death was just one of those things that happen, eventually, to us all. And whether we go of TB or cancer or in a car accident or in our sleep, it is inevitable. I knew enough, even then, to know that there are worse things than death and for many it can come as a blessed relief.

IMG_7280 (800x600)The house was taken over by the Department of Defense in 1964. Watching members of the FCA (An Fórsa Cosanta Áitiúil, as the Army Reserves were known back then) walking up the road on their way to the village became a hobby. Like the house itself, they, too, were exotic.

I’ve always wanted to see inside and this weekend, I had my chance. The local history group was giving a talk and I went along to see what I’d missed in not buying the place when it was on the market (it went for 250k and while I might have scraped together a deposit, the renovation costs would have needed a lotto win).

For years and years and years I’ve wanted to live there, to look out those windows onto the fields and hills and to enjoy the relative seclusion offered by the long avenue leading up to the house. And I never once thought of the hundreds who had died there over the years from TB. I was gutted when I heard it had finally sold and my plans to turn it into an artists’ retreat or a shelter for victims of domestic violence went with it (a big difference I know – but them’s the swings and roundabouts my dreams enjoy).

This week, I’m grateful, in a weird way, that the house has sold and that that particular dream has vaporised. One fewer focal points might narrow my choices a little and render decisions about the future a little easier. And, with due consideration for the TB patients of old, I’m extremely grateful to be healthy.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

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…