Hungary in detail

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The Arts

Hungarian art has been both stunted and spurred on by pivotal historical events. King Stephen’s conversion to Catholicism brought Romanesque and Gothic art and architecture, while the Turkish occupation nipped Hungary’s Renaissance in the bud. The Habsburgs opened the doors wide to baroque influences. The arts thrived under the Dual Monarchy, through Trianon and even under fascism. Under communism much money was spent on classical music and 'correct' theatre. Under current economic conditions funding for the arts is being slashed.

Architecture

You won’t find as much Romanesque and Gothic architecture in Hungary as you will in, say, Slovakia or the Czech Republic – the Mongols, Turks and Habsburgs destroyed most of it here – but there are a few examples of Romanesque architecture about, and important Gothic churches in cities like Sopron.

Baroque architecture abounds in Hungary; you can see examples in virtually every town in the land. For something on a grand scale, visit the Minorite church and the nearby Archbishop’s Palace in Eger.

Distinctly Hungarian architecture didn’t come into its own until the mid-19th century, when Mihály Pollack, József Hild and Miklós Ybl were changing the face of Budapest or racing around the country building mansions and cathedrals like Esztergom Basilica. The Romantic Eclectic style of Ödön Lechner (see the Museum of Applied Arts in Budapest) and Hungarian Secessionist or art nouveau style (Szeged's Reök Palace) brought unique architecture to Hungary at the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th. Art nouveau fans will find some of the best European examples of that style in Budapest but also in Szeged and Kecskemét. Szeged's New Synagogue and Gróf Palace are worth a sighting; in Kecskemét head for the Ornamental Palace and Town Hall.

Post-WWII architecture in Hungary is almost completely forgettable. One exception is the work of Imre Makovecz, who developed his own ‘organic’ style using unusual materials like tree trunks and turf. His work is everywhere, including in Budapest (the office building at VIII Szentkirályi utca 18). Equally controversial is the work of both László Rajk (Lehel Market in Budapest) and, more recently, Mária Siklós (Budapest’s National Theatre).

Painting & Sculpture

For Gothic art, have a look at the 15th-century altarpieces done by various masters at the Christian Museum in Esztergom. The Bakócz Chapel in Esztergom Basilica and the Royal Palace at Visegrád contain exceptional examples of Renaissance sculpture and masonry.

The finest baroque painters in Hungary were the 18th-century artists Franz Anton Maulbertsch and István Dorffmeister, who decorated many churches with frescoes and murals The ornately carved altar in the Benedictine Abbey Church in Tihany is a masterpiece of baroque woodcarving.

The saccharine Romantic Nationalist school of heroic paintings, best exemplified by Bertalan Székely (1835–1910) and Gyula Benczúr (1844–1920), gave way to the realism of Mihály Munkácsy (1844–1900), the 'painter of the puszta'. See his work at the Déri Museum in Debrecen. The greatest painters from this period were Tivadar Kosztka Csontváry (1853–1919), who has been compared with Van Gogh, and József Rippl-Rónai (1861–1927), the key exponent of Secessionist painting in Hungary. For the former's work visit the Csontváry Museum in Pécs. The Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest has a large collection of paintings by Rippl-Rónai.

Hungary’s favourite artists of the 20th century included Victor Vasarely (1908–97), the so-called father of op art, and the sculptor Amerigo Tot (1909–84). There are museums dedicated to the former in both Pécs and Budapest. For an idea of where fine art is in Hungary today, visit the Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art in Budapest or Debrecen's new Centre of Modern & Contemporary Art.

Folk Art

From the beginning of the 18th century, as segments of the Hungarian peasantry became more prosperous, ordinary people tried to make their world more beautiful by painting and decorating clothing and everyday objects. Thus, Hungary has one of the richest folk traditions in Europe and, quite apart from its music, this is where the country has come to the fore in art.

Three groups of people stand out for their embroidery, the acme of Hungarian folk art: the Palóc of the Northern Uplands, especially around the village of Hollókő; the Matyó from Mezőkövesd near the city of Miskolc; and the women of Kalocsa on the Great Plain. Also impressive are the waterproof woollen coats called szűr, once worn by herders on the Great Plain, which were masterfully embroidered by men using thick, 'furry' yarn.

Folk pottery is world-class here and no Hungarian kitchen is complete without a couple of pairs of matched plates or shallow bowls hanging on the walls. There are jugs, pitchers, plates, bowls and cups, but the rarest and most attractive are the írókázás fazékok (inscribed pots), usually celebrating a wedding day, or produced in the form of animals or people, such as the Miskai kancsó (Miska jugs), not unlike English Toby jugs.

Most people made and decorated their own furniture in the old days, especially cupboards for the tiszta szoba (parlour) and tulipán ládák (trousseau chests with tulips painted on them).

One art form that ventures into the realm of fine art is ceiling and wall folk painting. Among the best examples of the former can be found in churches, especially in villages like Tákos and Csaroda in the Bereg region of northern Hungary.

Music

One person stands head and shoulders above the rest: Franz (or, in Hungarian, Ferenc) Liszt (1811–86). He established the Liszt Music Academy in Budapest and liked to describe himself as 'part Gypsy'. Some of his works, notably his 20 Hungarian Rhapsodies, do in fact echo the traditional music of the Roma people.

Ferenc Erkel (1810–93) is the father of Hungarian opera, and two of his works – the nationalistic Bánk Bán, based on József Katona’s play of that name, and László Hunyadi – are standards at the Hungarian State Opera House.

Imre Kálmán (1882–1953) was Hungary’s most celebrated composer of operettas. The Gypsy Princess and Countess Marica are two of his most popular works and standard fare at the Budapest Operetta.

Béla Bartók (1881–1945) and Zoltán Kodály (1882–1967) made the first systematic study of Hungarian folk music, travelling together and recording throughout the Magyar linguistic region of today's Romania and Hungary in 1906. Both incorporated some of their findings in their music – Bartók in Bluebeard’s Castle, for example, and Kodály in the Peacock Variations.

Pop music is as popular here as anywhere – indeed, Hungary has one of Europe’s biggest pop spectacles, the annual Sziget Festival. It boasts more than 1000 performances over a week and attracted an audience of just under 500,000 people in 2016.

Folk Music

When discussing folk music, it’s important to distinguish between 'Gypsy' music and Hungarian folk music. Gypsy music is schmaltzy and based on tunes called verbunkos played during the Rákóczi independence wars of the 18th century. At least two fiddles, a bass and a cymbalom (a curious stringed instrument played with padded beaters) are de rigueur. You can hear this music at almost any fancy hotel restaurant in the country or get hold of a recording by Sándor Déki Lakatos and his band.

Hungarian folk musicians play violins, zithers, hurdy-gurdies, bagpipes and lutes on a five-tone diatonic scale. Watch out for Muzsikás, Marta Sebestyén, Ghymes (a Hungarian folk band from Slovakia), and the Hungarian group Vujicsics that mixes elements of South Slav music. Another folk musician with eclectic tastes is the Paris-trained Beáta Pálya, who combines such sounds as traditional Bulgarian and Indian music with Hungarian folk.

Roma – as opposed to Gypsy – music is different altogether, and traditionally sung a cappella. Some modern Roma music groups – Kalyi Jag (Black Fire) from northeastern Hungary and the newer Ando Drom (On the Road) and Romanyi Rota (Gypsy Wheels) – have added guitars, percussion and even electronics to create a whole new sound.

Dance

Táncház (literally 'dance house') is an excellent way to hear Hungarian folk music and to learn traditional dance, and they’re good fun and relatively easy to find, especially in Budapest (eg at the Aranytíz House of Culture or the Municipal Cultural House). You’ll rarely – if ever – encounter such traditional dances as the karikázó (circle dance) and csárdas (inns) outside the capital these days.

Hungary has ballet companies in Budapest, Pécs and Szeged (contemporary), but the best by far is based in the western city of Győr.

Literature

Sándor Petőfi (1823–49) is Hungary’s most celebrated and widely read poet, and a line from his work National Song became the rallying cry for the 1848–49 War of Independence. A deeply philosophical play called The Tragedy of Man by Imre Madách (1823–64), published a decade after Hungary’s defeat in that war, is still considered the country’s greatest classical drama.

After Hungary’s loss in 1849 many writers looked to Romanticism for inspiration: winners, heroes and knights in shining armour became popular subjects. Petőfi’s comrade-in-arms, János Arany (1817–82), wrote epic poetry (including the Toldi Trilogy) and ballads. Another friend of Petőfi, the prolific novelist and playwright Mór Jókai (1825–1904), gave expression to heroism and honesty in such accessible works as The Man with the Golden Touch and Black Diamonds. A perennial favourite, Kálmán Mikszáth (1847–1910), wrote satirical tales such as The Good Palóc People and St Peter’s Umbrella, in which he gently poked fun at the gentry in decline.

Zsigmond Móricz (1879–1942) was a very different type of writer. His works, in the tradition of Émile Zola, examined the harsh reality of peasant life in Hungary in the late 19th century. His contemporary Mihály Babits (1883–1941), poet and editor of the influential literary magazine Nyugat (West), made the rejuvenation of Hungarian literature his lifelong work.

Two 20th-century poets are unsurpassed in Hungarian letters. Endre Ady (1877–1919), sometimes described as a successor to Petőfi, was a reformer who ruthlessly attacked Hungarians’ growing complacency and materialism, provoking a storm of protest from right-wing nationalists. The work of socialist poet Attila József (1905–37) expressed the alienation felt by individuals in the modern age; his poem By the Danube is brilliant even in translation. József ran afoul of both the underground communist movement and the Horthy regime in the 1930s. Tragically, he threw himself under a train near Lake Balaton at the age of 32. The crisp style of Sándor Márai (1900–89) has encouraged worldwide interest in Hungarian literature.

Among Hungary’s most important contemporary writers are György Konrád (1933–) and Péter Nádas (1942–); two titans – Imre Kertész (1929–2016) and Péter Esterházy (1950–2016) – died within months of one another in 2016. Konrád’s A Feast in the Garden (1985) is an almost autobiographical account of a Jewish community in a small eastern Hungarian town. A Book of Memoirs (1986) by Nádas traces the decline of communism in a style reminiscent of Thomas Mann. In the End of a Family Story (1977), Nádas uses a child narrator as a filter for the adult experience of 1950s communist Hungary. Esterházy’s partly autobiographical Celestial Harmonies (2000) painted a favourable portrait of the protagonist’s father. His later Revised Edition (2002) was based on documents revealing that his father had been a government informer during the communist regime.

Novelist and Auschwitz survivor Kertész won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002, the first time a Hungarian had gained that distinction. Among his novels available in English are Fatelessness (1975), Fiasco (1988), Kaddish for an Unborn Child (1990), Liquidation (2003) and Dossier K (2006). Works by Hungary’s foremost female contemporary writer, the late Magda Szabó (1917–2007), include Katalin Street (1969), Abigail (1970) and The Door (1975), a compelling story of a woman writer and the symbiotic relationship she has with her peasant housekeeper.

Making a big splash in literary circles both at home and abroad these days is the novelist and screenwriter László Krasznahorkai, who writes demanding postmodernist novels (Satantango, 1985; The Melancholy of Resistance, 1988; War and War, 1999; Seiobo There Below, 2008). In 2015 he was awarded the Man Booker International Prize, the first Hungarian author to receive that distinction.

Cinema

For classic Hungarian films look out for works by Oscar-winning István Szabó (Sweet Emma, Dear Böbe, The Taste of Sunshine), Miklós Jancsó (Outlaws) and Péter Bacsó (The Witness, Live Show). Other favourites are Simon Mágus, the surrealistic tale of two magicians and a young woman in Paris, from Ildikó Enyedi, and her Tender Interface, about the brain drain from Hungary after WWII.

Péter Timár’s Dollybirds is a satirical look at life – and film production quality – during communism. Zimmer Feri, set on Lake Balaton, pits a young practical-joker against a bunch of loud German tourists; the typo in the title is deliberate. Timár’s 6:3 takes viewers back to that glorious moment when Hungary defeated England in football. Gábor Herendi’s a Kind of America is the comic tale of a film-making team trying to profit from an expatriate Hungarian who pretends to be a rich producer.

Of more recent vintage is Hungarian-American director Nimród Antal’s Kontroll, a high-speed romantic thriller set almost entirely in the Budapest metro in which assorted outcasts, lovers and dreamers commune. Kornél Mundruczó’s award-winning Delta is the brooding tale of a man’s return to his home in Romania’s Danube Delta and his complex relationship with his half-sister.

Films that that use pivotal events in Hungarian history as backdrops are Children of Glory by Krisztina Goda, which recounts the 1956 Uprising through the eyes of a player on the Olympic water-polo team; Ferenc Török’s Moszkva tér, the comic tale of high-school boys in 1989 oblivious to the important events taking place around them; and And Son of Saul, a poignant debut film by László Nemes in which a prisoner at Auschwitz tries to give a dead child he takes to be his son a proper burial. It won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2016.

The Hungarian People

Most of Hungary's 10 million people are Magyars, an Asiatic people of obscure origins who do not speak an Indo-European language and who found their way to the Carpathian Basin in the late 9th century. The only cousins Hungarians have are the far-flung Finns and the Estonians. Much of Hungarian culture and nationalism has been formed by an almost paranoid fear of being swallowed by neighbouring countries.

A Polite Formality

Hungarians are not uninhibited people like the extroverted Romanians or the sentimental Slavs. Forget about the impassioned, devil-may-care, Gypsy-fiddling stereotype – it's just that. Hungarians are a reserved and somewhat formal people. They are almost always extremely polite in social interactions, and the language can be very courtly. But while all this civility certainly oils the wheels that turn a sometimes difficult society, it can be used to keep 'outsiders' (both foreigners and other Hungarians) at a distance.

Penchant for the Blues

Himnusz, Hungary’s national anthem, describes Hungarians as a people 'long torn by ill fate', and the overall mood here is one of honfibú, literally 'patriotic sorrow' but with a penchant for the blues with just enough hope to keep most people going.

This mood certainly predates communism. In the early 1930s a song called Szomorú Vasárnap (Gloomy Sunday) reportedly so depressed many ordinary Budapesters that whenever it was played, they would rush to jump off a nearby bridge. Also called 'the Suicide Song', it has been covered in English by many artists, including Billie Holiday, Sinéad O’Connor, Marianne Faithfull and Björk. It is a real downer.

Scientific Minds

Hungary is a highly cultured and educated society, with a literacy rate of more than 99% among those 15 years of age and older. The nation’s contributions to specialised education and the sciences have been far greater than its present size and population would indicate. A unique method of music education devised by the composer Zoltán Kodály (1882–1967) is widespread and Budapest’s Pető Institute, founded by András Pető (1893–1967) in 1945, has a very high success rate in teaching children with cerebral palsy to walk. Albert Szent-Györgyi (1893–1986) won the Nobel Prize in 1937 for his discovery of vitamin C. Georg von Békésy won the Nobel Prize in 1961 for his research on the inner ear and Eugene Paul Wigner received it two years later for his research in nuclear physics. Both Edward Teller and Leo Szilard worked on the so-called Manhattan Project, which led to the development of the atomic bomb.

Lifestyle

If Kovács János and his wife, Kovácsné Szabó Erzsébet, invite you home for a meal, be flattered. By and large, Hungarians meet their friends outside the home at cafes and restaurants. If you do go along, bring a bouquet of flowers or a bottle of good wine.

You can talk about anything under the sun in the Kovács háztartási (Kovács household) – from religion and politics to whether their language is more difficult than Japanese and Arabic – but money is a touchy subject. Traditionally, the discussion of wealth – or even wearing flashy bling and clothing – was considered gauche. Though it’s almost impossible to calculate (with the 'black economy' being so widespread and significant), the average monthly salary at the time of research was about €900 – but after taxes and social security deductions, only half of that went home.

Like more than two-thirds of all Hungarians, the Kovács live in a town but retain a connection with the countryside, having access to a hut in a wine-growing region. Friends have a more coveted nyaralóház (summer cottage) by the lake. During szüret (grape harvest), they head for the hills and probably attend a disznótor, which involves the slaughtering of a pig followed by a party.

There’s not much gay or lesbian life in the countryside unless you take it with you; both communities keep a low profile outside Budapest. Since 2009 Hungary has allowed registered partnerships (bejegyzett élettársi kapcsolat), which offer almost all the benefits of marriage, except adoption, to same-sex couples. However, same-sex marriage is prohibited by the Hungarian constitution, which was rewritten in 2011 under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

Life expectancy in Hungary is very low by European standards: just over 72 years for men and 79 for women. Kovács Jánosné can expect to outlive Kovács János by almost seven years (but that might have something to do with the amount of alcohol János puts away).

Drinking is an important part of social life in a country that has produced wine and fruit brandies since at least the time of the Romans. Consumption is high at an annual 13.3L of alcohol per person, putting it within the top half-dozen heaviest-drinking countries in the world. Alcoholism here may not be as visible to the outsider as it is in, say, Russia, but it’s here nonetheless; official figures suggest that as much as 20% of the population abuse alcohol in some form. And it must be said that even social drinking is not always a happy affair and can often end (willingly) in tears. Indeed, Hungarians have an expression for this bizarre arrangement: sírva vigadni, or 'to take one’s pleasure sadly'.

Multiculturalism

In the 2011 census, just under 84% of those counted identified themselves as Hungarians (Magyars), followed by Roma (3.1%), Germans (1.3%), Slovaks (0.3%), Romanians (0.3%) and Croats (0.2%). The rest did not declare their ethnicity. The number of Roma is officially put at around 310,000 people, but some believe the figure is twice as high, and members of the Roma community itself put the number at closer to 800,000.

For the most part, ethnic minorities in Hungary aren’t discriminated against and their rights are inscribed in the constitution. Yet this has not stopped the occasional attack on nonwhite foreigners, a rise in anti-Semitism and the widespread discrimination against Roma.

In the summer of 2015, at the height of the European refugee crisis, Hungary was the first country in Eastern Europe to build a barrier along its borders to stop the flow of what it called migrants. In an October 2016 government referendum, 98% of those voting rejected an EU initiative to relocate about 1300 refugees to Hungary. On the surface that may appear to suggest that Hungarians – at least those who vote – are anti-foreigner. But voter turnout was very low (just 40%), which made the referendum invalid, and many people who did vote spoiled their ballots. And in the period preceding the construction of the fence, thousands of volunteers assisted refugees both along the highways to Austria and at the Keleti train station (the main point of assembly in Budapest) with food, water and bedding.

The Roma

The origins of the Gypsies (Hungarian: cigány), who call themselves the Roma (singular Rom) and speak Romani, a language closely related to several spoken in northern India, remain a mystery. It is generally accepted, however, that they began migrating to Persia from India sometime in the 10th century and had reached the Balkans by the 14th century. They have been in Hungary for at least 500 years, and they officially number around 310,000, although that figure could be higher.

Though traditionally a travelling people, in modern times the Roma settled down in Hungary and worked as smiths and tinkers, livestock and horse traders, and as musicians. As a group, however, they are chronically underemployed and have been the hardest hit by economic recession (statistically, Roma families are twice the size of gadje, or 'non-Roma' ones).

Unsettled people are often persecuted in one form or another by those who stay put, and Hungarian Roma are no exception. They are widely despised and remain the scapegoats for everything that goes wrong in certain parts of the country, from the rise in petty theft and prostitution to the loss of jobs. Though their rights are inscribed in the constitution, along with those of other ethnic minorities, their housing ranks among the worst in the nation, police are regularly accused of harassing them and, more than any other group, they fear the revival of extreme nationalism as promulgated by the right-wing Jobbik party, which has 24 seats in parliament.

You will probably be shocked at what even educated, cosmopolitan Hungarians say about the Roma and their way of life. Learn the truth from Budapest-based Romedia Foundation (http://romediafoundation.org), whose remit is to use media as a tool to bring about social change.

Religion

Hungarians tend to have a much more pragmatic approach to religion than most of their neighbours; it has even been suggested that this generally sceptical view of matters of faith has led to Hungary’s high rate of success in science and mathematics. Except in villages and on the most important holy days (Easter, the Assumption of Mary and Christmas), churches are never full. The Jewish community in Budapest on the other hand, has seen a great revitalisation in recent years, mostly due to an influx of Chasidic Jews from the USA and Israel.

Of those Hungarians declaring religious affiliation in the most recent census, about 53% said they were Christians, with Roman Catholics making up the bulk at 37%, followed by Reformed (Calvinist) Protestant at 11% and Evangelical (Lutheran) Protestant at 2.2%. There are also small Greek Catholic and Orthodox (2.7%) and other Christian (1%) congregations. Hungary’s Jews (not all practising) number around 100,000, down from a pre-WWII population of about 750,000.

Feature: Where the First Come Last

In a practice unknown outside Asia, Hungarians reverse their names in all usages, and their 'last name' (surname) always comes first. For example, John Smith is never János Kovács but Kovács János, while Elizabeth Taylor is Szabó Erzsébet.

Most titles also follow the structure: Mr John Smith is Kovács János úr. Many women follow the practice of taking their husband’s full name. If Elizabeth was married to John, she might be Kovács Jánosné (Mrs John Smith) or, increasingly popular among professional women, Kovácsné Szabó Erzsébet.

Feature: A Dubious Distinction

Hungary has one of Europe's highest rates of suicide: 19.6 per 100,000 deaths. Only Lithuania and Russia precede it. Psychologists are still out to lunch as to why Hungary should have such a high incidence of suicide. Some say that Hungarians' penchant for the blues leads to the ultimate act of despair. Others link it to a phenomenon not uncommon late in the 19th century. As the Hungarian aristocracy withered away, the kisnemesség (gentry), some of them no better off than the local peasantry, would do themselves in to 'save their name and honour'. As a result, suicide wasn't – and isn't – looked upon dishonourably in Hungary, victims may be buried in hallowed ground, and the words 'Kovács János died suddenly and tragically' euphemistically used in obituaries.