Worth a Trip: Balassagyarmat & the Palóc People

The Palóc people are a distinct Hungarian group living in the fertile hills and valleys of the Cserhát Hills. Ethnologists are still debating whether they were a separate people who later mixed with the Magyars, or a Hungarian ethnic group that, through isolation and Slovakian influence, developed their own unique ways. What’s certain is that the Palóc continue to speak a distinct dialect of Hungarian. Hollókő, with its uniformly traditional cottages, is undoubtedly Palóc central. Villages like Rimóc (www.rimoc.hu) and Kazar (www.kazar.hu) may have more mixed architecture, but they preserve their traditions with small ethnographic exhibits and elaborate celebrations on feast days. The Palóc Road (Palóc út; www.palocut.hu) will take you to places associated with these people in northern Hungary and southern Slovakia. Palóc Road provides various routes to follow in the ethnographically rich area, home to Hungary's largest Catholic ethnic minority.

If you’d like to know a whole lot more, head for the town of Balassagyarmat and its purpose-built Palóc Museum. The standing exhibit ‘From Cradle to Grave’ on the 1st floor takes you through the important stages in the life of the Palóc people, and includes pottery, superb carvings and mock-ups of a birth scene, a classroom and a wedding. There are also ex-voto objects used for the all-important búcsúk (church patronal festivals). But the Palóc women’s needlework – from the distinctive floral embroidery in blues and reds to the almost-microscopic white-on-white stitching – leaves everything else in the dust. In the garden behind the museum is an open-air ethnographic collection, which includes an 18th-century Palóc-style house, stable and tiny replica chapel.

A dozen daily buses go to Szécsény (370Ft, 25 minutes, 18km) from Balassagyarmat, where you can change for Hollókő (370Ft, 30 minutes, 18km). At least a dozen daily buses link Budapest (1680Ft, 1½ hours, 83km) with Balassagyarmat.