In a country filled with religious sites, nothing comes close to the hilltop Pannonhalma Abbey in terms of architectural splendour and historical significance. It was here that the legendary Árpád expressed his pleasure with the beauty of his new territory after its conquest by the Magyar. Visits are with audio guide only and visitors can access the beautiful St Martin's Basilica, a 13th-century crypt and a remarkable neoclassical library. Trains run from Budapest to Győr; buses connect Győr to Pannonhalma.
Still a functioning monastery today, it was originally founded in 996 by monks from Venice and Prague, who came on the invitation of Prince Géza. Its creation marked the beginning of Christianity in Hungary; Géza’s son, King Stephen, converted the pagan Magyars with the Benedictines’ help. The monastery is an eclectic mix of architectural styles with its buildings razed, rebuilt and restored over the centuries. It served as a mosque during the Turkish occupation and as a refuge for Jews in autumn 1944 under the protection of the International Red Cross.
The centrepiece of the central courtyard is 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. From here there are dramatic views of the Kisalföld range and the rolling countryside, while looming behind you is the neoclassical clock tower built in the early 19th century. The main entrance to St Martin’s Basilica (Szent Márton-bazilika), built in the early 12th century, is through the Porta Speciosa. This red-limestone doorway comprising a series of arches 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. The fresco above the doorway depicts the church’s patron, St Martin of Tours. To the right below the columns is probably the oldest graffiti in Hungary: ‘Benedict Padary was here in 1578’, in Latin.
Inside the pleasantly austere stone church, well-worn steps lead down into the 13th-century crypt. The red-marble niche allegedly covers the wooden throne of St Stephen and a marble slab inscribed with ‘Ottó 1912–2011’ marks the burial spot of the heart of Otto von Habsburg – the last crown prince of Austria-Hungary and one of the leaders of Austrian anti-Nazi resistance (the rest of him is buried in Vienna).
In 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 library built in 1836 by János Packh, who was involved in designing the Esztergom Basilica. It contains some 400,000 volumes – many of them priceless historical records – making it the largest private library in Hungary. On display is a copy of the priceless Deed of Foundation of the Abbey Church of Tihany, dating from 1055 and written in Latin; it 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.
Frequent buses serve Győr (465Ft; 30 minutes; 21km; half-hourly).