The Third Tower Travels – One: Szombathely

Traveling is an experience of freedom. My favorite one, for that matter. It’s a cliché, really: when I get away from the scenes of everyday life, that opens me up, rejuvenates me. I don’t even have to be alone: in fact, sharing this with family or friends even adds to the excitement.

Cliché or not, I can’t help bearing witness to its truth. And I can’t help sharing this deepest of my experiences: I’m starting a series of travel pieces on this blog called the Third Tower Travels. The travel pieces will be short and made up of photos, highlights and anecdotes rather than facts and figures or accurate and complete travel information. At the same time, I hope they will make some of the readers want to visit the places I’m writing about.

I do realize I’m probably among the happy few who can afford to travel for leisure. Neither am I confined to a single location, nor have I ever had to travel to flee for dear life. I am grateful for this: and I’m trying to use it for the benefit of others. I’m not sure if this will be the way, but it deserves a shot.

This first piece will be about Szombathely that my wife and I visited a couple of weeks ago – one week before Bloomsday. If you wonder why I mention that, it’s one more reason for you to read on. Another reason to read on is to make use of the time while this slide show loads.

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Szombathely is close to Hungary’s border with Austria. It’s an ancient place; the Romans called it Savaria.

There’s a lot to learn about the ancient past of Szombathely: the Iseum, the most interesting museum of the city, is built around what used to be the fourth largest temple of Isis in the Roman empire, only to be surpassed by the ones in Alexandria, Rome, and Sabratha. Today it’s just a few steps outside the city center, but from the 1st through the 3rd century AD, it fell outside the city’s fortifications (as was due for Isis’ temples).

The museum is comprehensive: quite naturally, it isn’t restricted to the history of the temple; it goes through the history of the entire area, using artefacts found in various excavations. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have an English-language website at the time of writing.

Shortly after people in the area stopped worshipping Isis and other antique or oriental deities, Szombathey, then still Savaria, became the birthplace of St Martin, bishop of Tours – you know, the one who divided his cloak to give one half to the beggar. Legend also has it that he was reluctant to accept the bishop’s seat – so he sought refuge among the poultry at a farm. But the geese betrayed him. Thus, on St Martin’s day (November 11), it’s customary to make a fine dinner of goose. The first wine of the year is also tasted on St Martin’s day.

Funny how the Wikipedia article omits St Martin’s Day celebrations in Hungary, of all places. Never mind, here’s another article to make up for that.

Today, Szombathely has a pilgrimage route that relates to St Martin, and, in front of the church dedicated to him, there is a statue showing St Martin as he baptizes his own mother.

Fast forward fifteen centuries (not to say that nothing happened in the city in between) when a fictional character was born in Szombathely. Leopold Blum, the protagonist of James Joyce’s Ulysses, was allegedly a son of a Jew from the place. We don’t know if Joyce had any acquaintances in Szombathely, but a Jewish family called Blum did live in a house in the main square. Today, there is a statue of Joyce in front – that is, built into the façade – of that house (Fő tér 40).

Talking about Jews, they weren’t allowed to live within the city limits before 1840, although they could own businesses there. After 1840, Szombathely had a quickly growing Jewish population. Their best witness in today’s city is the magnificent synagogue, just across the street from the Iseum.

Quickly as the Jews appeared in the city, their disappearance was just as swift – in 1944, when more than 4000 Jews were taken from the city, never to return. Their last memory is the symbolic gate to the ghetto, built into the wall of a modern building that occupies the same space now. The Shoah is also remembered in a monument in front of the synagogue, and also in a Jewish museum.

It is also well worth wandering outside Szombathely, but if you just want to get an impression, visit the open-air village museum, the “skanzen”, fashioned after the famous Skansen in Stockholm, by the way. This open-air museum is the second oldest in Hungary, and it showcases the rural households in the area, both Hungarian and Slovenian (for Slovenia is also close by).

Should you decide to roam a bit outside the city, you might want to have a look at Hungary’s best-preserved Romanesque church in Ják. Completed in 1256, it used to be a basilica that belonged to the Benedictine order. This building is sheer perfection – a seamless unity between landscape and architecture.

Burgenland, the easternmost Austrian province, is so close that you might consider an incursion or two. Out of nostalgy, we visited the Badesee Rechnitz, an artificial lake 300 meters (just a bit shy of 1000 feet) long, 100 meters (328 feet) wide, and 7 meters (23 feet) deep. It’s filled with the crystal clear water of a nearby stream. It’s a bit cold, even in the middle of summer, but in the area, it’s by and large the best place to swim. It’s just across the border, if you take the road from Szombathely to Bucsu, then to the small town of Rechnitz (Rohonc, by its Hungarian name).

Szombathely is nowhere near the most likely tourist destination in western Hungary. The Őrség region – to the south – or Sopron, or even Kőszeg, are much more famous places – not to mention the plenty of spas such as Sárvár or Bük. But Szombathely is just as fascinating as it is underrated.

Because tourists are relatively scarce, decent places to sleep are rather thin on the ground, at least within the city. The one that used to be the most decent of them (sometime in the past) went out of business long years ago. But the Modernist building is still magnificent: you wouldn’t want to miss it when you walk around the city.

We stayed in one of the two four-stars of the city (for all the reasons above, expect moderate rates), which turned out to be a historic building itself: built in 1911, it used to be the first children’s hospital in the area.

Stay tuned: I will come up with accounts from some obvious and quite a few less obvious places in the coming weeks.

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