Travel after the pandemic #13: Košice, Slovakia
Memorials embrace Márai in his lost homeland
Two tributes can be found in Košice to this scion – the Sándor Márai Memorial Room at 35 Mäsiarska Street where he spent his childhood and began to write, and a Márai statue further down the road at the intersection with Zbrojničná Street, in which he sits pensively, cross-legged in a chair, reflecting on the important issues of life.
The boy was born into a leading burgher family of the town, burghers being privileged and wealthy, and in his autobiographical novel “The Confessions of a Bourgeois” (“Egy polgár vallomásai”, 1934-35) he recalls his memories of Kassa and his family’s role there, plus an account of his youthful rebellion against this and his later return to the value system attached to the burghers, and his own family in particular.
His play “The Burghers of Kassa” (“A kassai polgárok”, 1942), dedicated to the memory of his father, a jurist, was a success, and in the novel “Patrol in Kassa” (“Kassai Őrjárat”, 1941), Márai, a humanist and philosopher, offered his belief that, “For there is only one true power, that of the intellect”.
The Sándor Márai Memorial Room in the former family home in the Old Town is actually a series of five rooms, entered via a lovely sunroom. These detail different phases of his life and contain first editions, signed manuscripts, artefacts, photographs, paintings and personal items, such as his passport and ID card, his globe that was damaged in the siege of Budapest in 1945 and his cross.
Large screens or illuminated information panels inform about arguably the most famous and popular Hungarian writer of his generation, a fervent anti-fascist and anti-communist.
One of four children, Márai’s first story was published when he was 15. He entered journalism. In 1920, after the Treaty of Trianon sliced up Hungary and Kassa became Košice in the newly founded Czechoslovakia, Márai felt he was a stranger in his own town.
In his early years he travelled around Europe and lived in Frankfurt, Berlin and Paris. He briefly considered writing in German but eventually chose his mother language, Hungarian. This eventually became his only link and last bond to his motherland. He settled in Krisztinaváros (there is a plaque at Mikó utca 2), Budapest, in 1928. In the 1930s he gained prominence with a precise and clear realist style. He was the first person to review Franz Kafka’s works.
Márai was highly critical of the Nazis, who occupied Hungary in 1944, and he hated the communist regime that seized power in Eastern Europe after World War II. He left – or was driven away – in 1948, a man in exile, never to return to his estranged, lost homeland.
After living briefly in Switzerland then Italy before moving to New York City in 1952, and back to Italy in 1967, Márai the disillusioned wanderer settled in San Diego, California in 1980. But he felt homesick and missed his European roots. His wife Lola died in 1986 after they had been together for 63 years. Her death broke him. Márai retreated more and more into isolation.
In 1987 he lived with advanced cancer and his depression worsened when he lost his adopted son, János, of a heart infection, aged 46. Márai’s world had fallen apart. On February 21, 1989, he called 911, left his entrance door open and shot himself in the head. He was 88. A few months later the communist regime collapsed in Hungary and elsewhere.
His works were rediscovered by Europe in the 1990s. This significant body of work comprised 46 books of poems, novels and diaries, Like other memoirs by Hungarian writers and statesmen, some were first published in the West because they could not be published in the Hungary of the post-1956 Kádár era. He had written commentaries for Radio Free Europe between 1951-1968.
His death saw him emerge from relative obscurity to become Hungary’s most translated author. He was published in English in the mid-1990s and then in French, Polish, Catalan, Italian, German, Spanish, Portuguese and other languages. He was awarded a posthumous Kossuth Prize, Hungary’s highest award for literature, in 1989.
Despite his roots, his family’s rooms and his statue in Košice, Márai is much more popular in Hungary than Slovakia and it was 2013 before some of his books were actually translated into Slovak, so now the country is “getting to know him”, as one citizen puts it.
In 2013 Košice was a European Capital of Culture alongside Marseille, France, and in 2016 the city, Slovakia’s second-largest, was awarded the title European City of Sports and also held the prestigious Art Film International Film Festival. Košice has the largest preserved urban promenade in Slovakia, Hlavna ulica (Main Street), an almost kilometre-long pedestrian street lined with burgher houses and “numerous jewels of Gothic, Baroque, Classical and Modern architecture”. The city’s sights include:
St. Elisabeth’s Cathedral
Košice’s number one attraction is astonishingly impressive. The largest church in the country and the easternmost Gothic cathedral in Slovakia was completed in 1508 after taking 130 years to build. The exterior is magnificently detailed, all intricate vaults and Gothic spires giving it the look of a Gothic cathedral in its most developed form, but the true magic awaits inside. More than 10 altars dot the interior, the main altar itself consisting of 48 complicated paintings that move through three cycles to create one fantastic whole. Medieval legend says that removing one stone could cause the cathedral’s collapse. It can hold some 5000 people.
St. Michael’s Chapel
Next to the cathedral, you can find the beautiful St. Michael’s Chapel from the 14th century – yet another great example of the Gothic architecture in Košice. It used to be the cemetery chapel and the lower parts served as the ossuary. These days it is a popular wedding chapel and some people like it even more than the impressive cathedral, especially that it played an important role for the Slovak citizens of the city. St. Michael’s Chapel has always been a Slovak church whereas the cathedral went through German and Hungarian tenures. On the exterior walls can be seen some of the marble gravestones from the 14th-17th century.
The historic coat of arms
Košice has the oldest coat of arms in Europe. It was granted by King Louis I the Great in 1369, then changed three times, in 1423, 1453 and eventually in 1502. Since then the Košice coat of arms has remained the same. You can find the beautiful sculpture with all four versions at the edge of the park near St. Michael’s Chapel.
Located at the edge of the Old Town and built in the Neo-Gothic style for the family of Peter Jakab, the man behind some of the most beautiful buildings in Košice, such as the State Theatre. This is where the president of Czechoslovakia, Edvard Benes, stayed during his visit to the city in April 1945.
Located in the middle of Hlavna ulica and built in 1899 not far from the cathedral, this is truly impressive both from the outside and inside. It is rich in decorations, including the works of Shakespeare that light up the ceiling.
Now a museum, see the old cells, how the condemned (guilty or not) were executed as well as checking out a display of executioner’s swords. This is a grisly piece of history, and the interesting architectural times of this part of this town are also explored.
St. Urban Tower
A mighty bastion in the very centre of Hlavna, this started life as a Gothic bell tower in the 14th century, its bell dedicated to the patron of vine-dressers. The tower is an intriguing piece of architecture, as much because of what it was as what it is, a hulking campanile that has seen all the good and the bad that has enveloped Košice over the centuries. The illustrations towards its roof are particularly interesting, and it remains an important landmark in the centre of the city.
It doesn’t sound particularly inviting but be sure to give the Beggars House a good look. Another excellent piece of architecture in a city full of it, this Art Nouveau was supposedly built with the alms collected by a beggar back in the day, a far cry from the reality of beggars today. The statue on the roof is the highlight, as a cheery man doffs his cap to all around.
This plague column sits in the centre of town on the spot where the old gallows were located. It shows Virgin Mary at the top, a mass of babies reaching up for her and a group of saints at the base.
This original gateway to the town dates to the 13th century and was only discovered when Hlavna ulica went under heavy reconstruction in 1996. The wine festival takes place here.
Slavia is probably the fanciest of Košice cafes, located in a beautiful Art Nouveau house. The first café was opened here in 1900. After a turbulent history, the Slavia was reopened a few years ago and now this is one of the best spots for people-watching. Try to score the window seat and you can see the State Theatre and observe the main street. The interior is beautiful, with Art Nouveau decor and glazed ceiling.
The Budapest Times stayed at the Crystal Hotel in Košice, a three-star, seven-storey place that has only been open for a couple of years and is about a 10-minute walk from the Old Town.