In and around Szentendre: An oasis of serenity
For a couple of years, as a student, I called the Hungarian capital of Budapest home. Exotic, unfamiliar, Eastern European — a city that boasted of a range of architectural styles from distinct time periods. An exciting artistic and musical scene, the iconic Széchenyi Chain Bridge twinkling in the night time, summoning you to cross from hilly, tranquil Buda to young, pulsating Pest; ruin pubs with their eclectic decor and mismatched furniture that echo with the raucous song of many a tourist; gentrified districts with hip cafés and brunch places that serve artisanal food; and the continent’s beloved Danube — Duna to the locals — calm, winding, snaking its way under the city’s many, many bridges.
For months, I was intoxicated, spellbound by its seemingly magical ability to feel so welcoming and familiar, despite the grandeur of its buildings and a tongue that none of my foreign language training had prepared me for. It took the rigour of academia and the monotony of routine for me to stop finding romance in the creaking of the hardwood floors of my 19th century apartment, in the drunken revelry of those who congregated at the pub beneath my window, or in the smell of freshly baked bread from the neighbourhood pekség (bakery). No longer did a sighting of the majestic neo-Gothic style parliament building make my day. The spell had broken and Budapest’s famous thermal baths, impossibly relaxing as they were, didn’t seem quite enough. Craving a break, the humble town of Szentendre was beckoning.
Escaping the city’s escapades
A mere 40 minutes away by the suburban railway with its green carriages, starting from one end of the yellow Margaret bridge that affords breathtaking views of Pest, Buda and the gentle blue-grey waters between them, is the small town of Szentendre, making for a perfect day trip from the bustling capital. For the athletically inclined, a tree-lined bike path leads one from Buda to Szentendre, replete with riverfront views and snack stations for quick bites. The popular tourist destination lies on the west bank of the picturesque Danube Bend, the region where the river turns sharply between the hills on either bank and is home to several charming towns that teem with visitors.
Szentendre’s building facades — in pastel shades of blue, pink, yellow and green — with white window ledges that house flowerpots bursting in bloom, labyrinthine cobbled streets lined with souvenir shops and cafes, and many churches, museums and galleries make it a postcard European town. It has mixed ethnic influences and a somewhat Mediterranean vibe that are a result of, as travel books say, its cultural mix of Greek, Dalmatian and Serb immigrants, as well as that of German and Slovak populations. While the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Baroque-Rococo Greek Orthodox Blagovestenska church, both important points on a tourist’s agenda, are the most obvious testament to the region’s cultural diversity, Szentendre has seamlessly integrated its influences into not just its art and architecture, but also its food.
Once one enters Szentendre, either from the station or from where the ferry docks on the bank, one is likely to first visit Fo Tér, the spacious main square that is almost always decked with twinkling lights, decorative umbrellas or rows of hanging patterned lampshades that form a colourful canopy over the historical town’s winding alleys. Small cafés with cozy outdoor seating amidst trees briskly changing colour, and large restaurants with garden seating, rustic wooden tables and distinctive art work on their walls offer soft, crumbly ricotta cheesecake, and warm, sour cream-topped deep-fried langos (a Hungarian delicacy).
Whatever the season is, a trip to Szentendre is usually incomplete without a pit stop at Levendula, an ice cream shop dutifully painted in shades of lavender and sporting in its window a violently purple bicycle that admittedly conjures up images of carefree rides through unspoiled meadows. Its ice cream is less predictable than its decor, however, with flavour combinations such as lavender-lemon, strawberry-balsamic vinegar and even Camembert. A trip to the Marzipan Museum, which fancies itself to be a Tussauds of sorts with its sometimes odd recreations of celebrities and buildings in marzipan, may perhaps best be avoided by those to whom the idea of sugary almond paste is not particularly appealing. Instead, a visit to the National Wine Museum that educates the visitor on the region’s many vineyards and the development of Hungarian wine, may be more appealing.
Bustling street life
Szentendre’s streets are lined with quaint little shops with brass name boards, carved wooden doors, and ivy-covered windows that sell everything from kitschy souvenirs, bunches and bunches of fiery-looking Hungarian paprika, and memorabilia inspired by folk art to fine clothing, delicate glass jewellery, Chinese porcelain, handcrafted artefacts, paintings and sculpture.
Szentendre, in fact, is known as a hub of Hungarian artists, authors, musicians and sculptors; its Artist Colony, founded in 1928, brought together several important creative people, and the artistic tradition of the region continues to flourish today with several generations of artists calling Szentendre their home. A number of museums pay homage to this tradition: the Margit Kovács Ceramic Museum houses Hungary’s leading ceramicist’s work; Barcsay Museum celebrates the many works of local artist Jeno Barcsay, and the Art Mill holds exhibitions of painting, photography, sculpture, and other modern innovative art.
For most people, a day at Szentendre typically ends with a lazy stroll by the river or a sprint up to Templom Tér, which offers a view of interlocking, overlapping red roofs at various heights, the wide plazas, and the cobbled streets of the city below.
So postcard-perfect Szentendre, that people often remark it is lost in time, a place almost removed from reality, and the perfect escape, therefore, from the caprices of everyday life.