ROUTES TO YOUR ROOTS - HUNGARIAN HERITAGE DISCOVERY TOUR
Several tours were specifically designed to retrace the steps of the 19th and 20th century emigrants into various regions of Hungary. Here is a diary of an 8 day tour chosen by one couple.
On the way from the airport to the hotel in Budapest, Susan Wood talked nostalgically about food shopping with her father, especially about the lunch break for grilled hurka at the butcher. That was on Second Avenue in New York, where she was born as Susan Szirmay. Now, as a promise to her father, she was in Hungary for the first time. The tour group -Hungarian emigrés, their children (like Susan), who were born in America (and their spouses and friends)-gathered after lunch for sightseeing in Buda. First-timers peeked curiously into imposing doorways of the old, narrow streets and admired the Baroque churches. The returning Hungarians delighted in hearing their language all around; Susan envied them. The tour ended at the top of Castle Hill with its breathtaking view of the city from the Fishermen's Bastion. Susan had seen it on postcards. "They are very proud of it," she said to her husband. "Aren't you?" he asked.
The day started early with a background lecture - in English - given by a university professor on Hungary's history, society and economy in the years when Hungarians migrated to America. The lecture was promptly followed by sightseeing in Pest. The experienced tour guide added many colorful notes and tidbits about the city's history and its architecture whenever they stopped. Some of the landmarks they saw were the Opera House, St. Stephen's Basilica, the Great Synagogue. They visited the National Museum and took a walk through 1000 years of Hungarian history, from the migration from Asia to the 1950s. At the nearby Market Hall, they went to the self-service restaurant for lunch of home-style dishes. While the first-timers enthused, the returnees criticized before having a second helping. Just across the Danube the famous Hotel Gellért and its thermal baths glistened in the sunlight. Susan followed her father's advice and had a massage. Tom went swimming in the outside pool. They managed to work up an enormous appetite for a big Hungarian dinner at a popular restaurant, the Balázs, in a green suburb.
Most of the group went to the National Archives for a presentation about emigration but Susan and Tom sneaked away to browse for crystal and china at nearby shops. They later met up with the group at the House of Wines for a wine tasting event that featured specialties from Northern Hungary. "I am starved; I had six aperitifs," muttered Tom as they walked over to the Fortuna Restaurant for lunch. The afternoon was spent at the Music Academy, a spectacular art nouveau building, the perfect setting for a concert by Hungarian composers from the early 20th century. That evening they had a special treat, a dinner cruise on the Danube. Dinner while viewing the sparkling panorama of Buda and Pest, what could be better?
The morning visit to the House of Parliament, where the Holy Crown is on display, impressed everyone. A presentation on Hungarian folk culture followed at the Museum of Ethnography, just across the square. Attentions wandered: everyone was interested in their own or their friends', characteristic region. "How long does it take to put on sixteen skirts?" asked the joker in the group. Today, the group had a school lunch-at the restaurant of the College of Hotel and Tourism Management. The regional dishes from Northern Hungary were a success. The afternoon excursion to Szentendre started with a walk through the beautiful little town and art colony scattered with galleries and museums, followed by a visit to the Skanzen, an open air museum of villages. Dinner, too, was in Szentendre, in a restaurant proud of its authentic Hungarian dishes. The gregarious host invited guests to the kitchen. "I need to work here for a week," said Tom, the amateur chef, when he returned, "then I can make your favorite dishes. If I could only understand a word of Hungarian."
The group left in different directions this morning. Susan and Tom met their guide/driver and started their own tour to her family's "small country." On the way, they stopped at the Royal Palace in Gödöllö, the favorite resort of "Sissy," Franz Josef's Queen Elisabeth, for a tour and nibbles in the patisserie. Passing through Mezökövesd, they visited the Matyó Museum, a treasury of folk art from the region. Arriving in Eger, they went on a walk with a guide. There was a lot to see. Eger has markers of five centuries: the fort that defended against the Turks, the minaret that was built during the latter's 150 year occupation of Hungary, the beautiful Baroque buildings that were built during the town's revival. The region also boasts some of the finest vineyards in the entire country. A delicious dinner in the Museum Cellar with the fiery Eger's Bulls Blood red wine claimed the prize for the evening.
Susan was impatient. She decided not to take the drive through the Bükk Mountain, home of the white Lippizzaner horses in Szilvásvárad. She first wanted to see Mikófalva. They passed Szarvaskö. "My mom told me she visited this village." Mónosbél. "My grandparents had friends here." Finally they reached dusty, small Mikófalva. "Do you know the Szirmays?" the guide asked a young man. "Try the pub," he said. "Szirmay? My parents knew old Géza Szirmay, he was the shopkeeper in the village" said an older woman, "his son went to America in 1920." "Géza was my grandfather," said Susan. "This is Zsuzsa Szirmay," explained the guide. The woman was delighted and hesitantly asked "Does Susan like hurka? We are having it for dinner tonight and we would be honored if they joined us." Susan and Tom accepted the invitation with great pleasure. After an early dinner, their hosts took them to the cemetery where generations of Szirmays lay buried, and to the family's home site now a school. Later they stopped by the church and introduced Tom and Susan to the minister, who showed them the church's book of record. It was a strange and moving moment to see the name of so many Szirmays, some dating back to the 1700s. The couple spent the night in a small pension just 15 minutes from Mikófalva.
After attending the Sunday service and mingling with some local youngsters who were eager to practice their English, Susan and Tom continued their trip. The car was already loaded with local embroideries and home produced honey they bought at a private house in Mikófalva. They toured the Bükk in a roundabout way and went back for another half day to Eger. A long soak in the thermal waters, later a tour of the Turkish Minaret and a visit to the ruins of the fort.
Return to Budapest, getting ready to fly. "So," Tom asked, "Did you find what you were looking for?" "I don't know what I was looking for but my dad was right: hurka is better in Mikófalva than in Budapest or New York. I also discovered that I like being called Zsuzsa. Now I have two homelands. Next year, we'll bring the children, Géza's great-grandchildren, I think they will love Hungary."