Wednesday, June 14, 2017

30 years ago today: Four days in Kőszeg, a small Hungarian town.

Previously: 30 years ago today ... experiencing Sopron, Hungary.

This is neither the time nor the place for a wider consideration of Communism as practiced in the geopolitical vicinity known as the "East(ern) Bloc" following World War II.

The Eastern Bloc is a collective term for the former Stalinist puppet countries and colonies in Central and Eastern Europe. This generally encompasses the Soviet Union and the countries of the Warsaw Pact.

Communism varied by country, although it can't be argued that in practice, Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria answered to the Kremlin.

Yugoslavia and Albania, while professing Communism, pursued independent courses while perched on the fringe of the Soviet sphere.

These East Bloc countries are where I wanted to be for two months in 1987, and my whole trip was built around this desire. It never ceased to amaze and confuse the folks back home, and perhaps my name as yet can be found in an old-fashioned file drawer on a CIA watch list. To be sure, I wanted to see what Communism was about, but long before these Eastern European countries were Communist, they were simply European, without the east vs. west qualifiers.

Hungary was my third stop, after Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. Apart from the necessity of being in Moscow on June 29, my itinerary wasn't fixed. However, each of these countries required effort beyond that necessary in Western Europe.

Most obviously, visas. Showing one's passport wasn't enough, because explicit advance permission was required to enter. It could be done at the border in Yugoslavia, but for most (maybe all) of the other Warsaw Pact countries, this layer of bureaucracy demanded forethought and planning.

I obtained the needed visas by mailing my passport, application forms and money orders back and forth to embassies in Washington D.C. They could also be obtained at Western European embassies.

Once on the ground in the Bloc, life was very safe and salubrious for most tourists, who even at modest levels of expenditure could afford to "buy" their way out of problems that beset ordinary citizens there.

The Bloc's chronic economic shortfalls meant that our "hard" currency was needed, and so long as we stayed away from drugs, there seldom were problems. The regimes wanted tourists to spend money, although some countries made the basics harder than others.

For instance, East Germany was almost impossible to navigate as a solo traveler. Yugoslavia charged foreigners a higher price than Yugoslavs for the same hotel room. Czechoslovakia required visitors to exchange a certain amount of foreign currency into kroner for every day of the stay, and it could be problematic changing it back when departing. Black markets were illegal, though sometimes tolerated. The rules changed at every border.

By acclamation, the international budget travel community considered Hungary the most relaxed Communist country in which to holiday. This dichotomy probably sounds strange -- live well and have fun amid a Communist dictatorship -- but to me the objective was to learn, and if learning could be done less expensively, I was in favor.

Language barriers aside, I fully expected Hungary to be the best choice for spending three and a half weeks prior to joining my prepaid USSR tour group. I was right. Once inside Hungary, I was smitten. It was cheap and fascinating.

In retrospect, I might have chosen to see more of the country -- Pecs, the Puszta, Eger. It didn't pan out this way. Tellingly, I elected to spend all my Hungarian time in Sopron, Kőszeg and Budapest.

Then as now, Sopron and Kőszeg are located within strolling distance of the Austrian border, and of course Budapest is the capital and largest city. Arguably, with more German and English speakers and a better developed tourist infrastructure, the northwestern side of Hungary was the easiest choice for me. In retrospect, it was a missed opportunity, though I enjoyed the experience.

After Sopron, the next stop was Kőszeg (KOE-seg is close), a town of 10,000 or so snuggled in wooded hills just a few clicks from Austria. I can't remember whether my ride to Kőszeg was by rail or bus, but the tourist bureau offered me the plushest private accommodation for $5 per night that I've ever experienced, before or since.

The dates of my stay were June 11, 12, 13 and 14. I took several long walks, which I believe testifies to a budding urbanite's need to periodically relive his childhood out in woods.The Kálváriatemplom is situated in the countryside, just out of town.

At the time, I saw this field and concluded it must be the border with Austria. In fact, it is not. Even so, at one point on a walk, a bearded fellow in jeans popped out from the trees and began interrogating me, first in Hungarian (blank look), then German ("Ich spreche kein Deutsch") then finally very rudimentary English. He showed me his official ID and was quite pleasant, conveying that the path I was on led to the border, so I should turn around.

I did.

A random, archaic country house. This shade of yellow follows me everywhere.

Next, a set of old/new photos. In the Kőszeg of 1987, this synagogue was in a jungle-like setting.

30 years later, restoration is complete (view courtesy of Google Map's street view).

A nice German-style beer garden, which may have served Austrian lager.

Kőszeg's Town Hall on Jurisics Square has been used continuously since the 14th century.

The Heroes’ Gate (or Heroes’ Tower), originally the 14th-century Southern Gate, was demolished in 1880 and this new tower built to mark the 400th anniversary of the Siege of Kőszeg by the Turks.

St. Imre Church on Jurisics Square was built after a squabble between Kőszeg's German and Hungarian Protestants.

Freshly picked flowers for forints (the Hungarian currency), available on the honor system from this streetside chair.

A view of the town from the wooded hills.

"The castle was named after Miklós Jurisics, who was the captain of the castle when the Hungarian army managed to stop the Turkish troops, who planned to lay a siege on Vienna. Jurisics and his small army repelled 19 sieges altogether. According to the legend, the bells at 11 o’clock commemorate the last Turkish soldier leaving the town."

On June 15, I worked my way back to Budapest, where I'd remain until my train left for Moscow on the 26th.

Next: 30 years ago today: Genesis live in Budapest on June 18, 1987.

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