Mária Valéria Bridge, February 2003. I’d only been teaching in Bratislava for a few months when my school gave me a new and unusual assignment. They wanted me to travel halfway across the country every Thursday to teach at the Kappa factory in the godforsaken outpost of Štúrovo, a nonentity town on the Slovak-Hungarian border. Initially I was less than enthused, though it actually turned out to be quite the adventure (See my short story The Last King of Štúrovo). While there was virtually nothing to do in Štúrovo itself, the town was at least the perfect base to discover The Danube Bend, a series of picturesque river towns over the border in Hungary. And so one day I set off with five teaching mates on a weekend adventure. First up was getting into Hungary on foot over The Mária Valéria Bridge. It was a piece of cake, the bored-looking guards at each end skimming through our passports and waving us through.
Deserted Street, Esztergom February 2003. Our first port of call was the little town of Esztergom. It was a biting cold February afternoon and the skies were grey, the streets almost deserted in their drab gloominess. And if all that sounds miserable it really wasn’t. There was an almost mysterious ghost-town vibe to the place as we sought out a warm pub for piping hot beef goulash and a round of cold beers.
Esztergom Basilica, February 2003. In any case the real reason for coming to Esztergom was to check out its magnificent Basilica. Located on Castle Hill, this is Hungary’s largest church, complete with a seventy-two meter dome, which can be seen for miles around. It’s an invigorating walk up, while inside there’s enough to keep you busy for at least an hour. A chapel on the south side is stuffed full of Italian Renaissance carvings and sculptures and the treasury houses a rich collection of gold, silver and all manner of jewels. Don’t miss the crypt either, where an eerie staircase leads you down to a chamber of tombs and monoliths. Cap your visit off with a four hundred-step climb to the cupola and its outstanding views over the town and The Danube.
Hiking up Visegrád Castle, February 2003. The small castle town of Visegrád boasts the remains of a 14th century summer palace once home to King Matthias I. Access comes via a steep one-hour hiking trail from the town. Taking in a pretty section of forest, we also passed this commanding collection of stone bells. At the top the ruins themselves are pleasant enough, but the views over the Danube are truly excellent!
Town Centre, Szentendre, February 2003. Our final stop came in the cultural hotspot of Szentendre, an incredibly cute town with cobbled squares, a handful of churches and a sizeable collection of art galleries. There’s even a Marzipan Museum, while Szentendre Island sits right in the middle of The Danube. It was sleepy as hell when we arrived on that cold February afternoon, though these days online travel advice begs tourists to completely avoid the place during summer weekends.