Lonely Planet review
Not even the power of Stalin could shut down the Pannonhalma Abbey, and today it still functions as a monastery. Additionally, it runs one of the best secondary schools in the country, founded in 1802.
After buying your ticket at the reception building opposite the car park and watching a 15-minute film about life in the monastic community, follow the overhead walkway to the central courtyard, where the tour begins. In the centre you’ll see a statue of the first abbot, Asztrik, who brought the crown of King Stephen to Hungary from Rome, and a relief of King Stephen himself presenting his son Imre to the tutor Bishop Gellért. To the north are dramatic views of the Kisalföld, while looming behind you are the abbey’s modern wings and a neoclassical clock tower built in the early 19th century.
The entrance to St Martin’s Basilica (Szent Márton-bazilika), built early in the 12th century, is through the Porta Speciosa . This arched doorway in red limestone was recarved in the mid-19th century by the Stornos, a controversial family of restorers who imposed 19th-century Romantic notions of Romanesque and Gothic architecture on ancient buildings; it is beautiful despite the butchery. The fresco above the doorway by Ferenc Storno depicts the church’s patron, St Martin of Tours, giving half his cloak to a crouching beggar. Look down to the right below the columns and you’ll see what is probably the oldest graffiti in Hungary: ‘Benedict Padary was here in 1578’, in Latin.
As you walk along the cloister arcade, you’ll notice the little faces carved in stone on the wall. They represent human emotions and vices, such as wrath, greed and conceit, and are meant to remind monks of the baseness and transitory nature of human existence. In the cloister garden a Gothic sundial offers a sobering thought: ‘Una Vestrum, Ultima Mea’ (One of you will be my last).
The most beautiful part of the abbey is the neoclassical abbey library * (főapátság könyvtára) built in 1836 by János Packh, who was involved in designing the Esztergom Basilica. It contains some 300,000 volumes – many of them priceless historical records – making it the largest private library in Hungary. But the rarest and most important document is in the abbey archives. It is the Deed of Foundation of the Abbey Church of Tihany and dates from 1055. It is written in Latin, but also contains about 50 Hungarian place names, making it the earliest surviving example of written Hungarian. The library’s interior may look like marble, but it is actually wood made to look like the more expensive stone. An ingenious system of mirrors within the skylights reflects and redirects natural light throughout the room.
The art gallery (képtár) off the library contains works by Dutch, Italian and Austrian masters from the 16th to 18th centuries. The oldest work, however, goes back to 1350.
Because it still functions as a monastery, the abbey must be visited with a guide. Tours in Hungarian (with foreign-language text) go on the hour throughout the year. Between October and March, foreign-language tours must be booked in advance.
Up until 1945, the abbey and its monks had a long, fruitful history of wine-making. The communist takeover managed to destroy 1000 years of abbey viticulture, but since the early 1990s the monks have been hard at work reviving it. Their efforts can be seen at the Abbey Winery , where tours of the press house and wine storage facilities are available throughout the year between 10am and 7pm, by prior arrangement only.
If you’ve time to kill waiting for your tour to begin, a visit to the Glass Gallery makes a rewarding filler. Located 120m below the abbey, the gallery features the colourful and striking glassworks by Hefter László and other artists.