The capital with the eye of an expat

Tard: A stitch in time

In the many road trips I’ve taken around Hungary, the same questions always come to mind. Why isn’t more being done to capitalise on the wealth of talent in the villages? Why is almost everything city-centred?

In the early days, before I started spending serious time in a kis falu, I’d drive through one of the long, ribboned settlements and wonder what everyone did with their time. Seldom would I see someone on the street. Now, of course, I know. Those street-side gates mask a hive of activity that starts in the early hours of every morning (except Sundays) and continues into the early evening.

There’s a simple complexity to village life in Hungary, a glimpse of which is both restorative and inspirational.

I found both in Tard, a little village in the foothills of the Bükk mountains in eastern Hungary, part of the triad that includes the town of Mezőkövesd and the village of Szentistván that makes up the Matyó embroidery region. Szentistván uses more pastel colours and while Tard was originally famous for its cross-stitch, it now favours the traditional Mezőkövesd Matyó colours and designs.

My friend, Kath Griffith, of Parna fame, was scoping out venues for a  possible folk-art tour and I tagged along. Just to see.

We took the train to Mezőkövesd from Keleti and then the bus to Tard. We made our way to the headquarters of Matyó Design, the brainchild of Rozi Váczi, a woman after my own heart.

Váczi’s presence in Tard is happenstance. Her parents, both teachers, met and married in Budapest in the 1970s. Wanting to move out of the city, they hitchhiked around the country, visiting villages to find one they liked. Tard was #11. A man with two horses pulling a cart stopped and offered them a lift. He dropped them at the church, which was open. When they went inside, her musician dad asked if he could play the organ. They said yes. He played. They stayed. For a while.

Both taught in the local school and were given a house as part of the package. Later they’d build the one Váczi grew up in along with her five siblings. Her mum was widowed at 30 and although they’d moved back to Budapest, they kept the house for holidays. A childhood of idyllic summers ensued.

When Váczi had her first child, she suffered from post-partum depression and went back to Tard to recuperate. During that time, her then-husband had a birthday. She had no clue what to get him. Shops are few and far between in Tard. Inspired, she took a plain white shirt and asked her néni to embroider something on it.

From that one shirt, a business was born.

Váczi enrolled three local women to embroider traditional patterns from the region on new clothes. They sold to friends before eventually opening a webshop. UNESCO putting Matyó on the heritage list helped. In the last 12 years, they’ve grown to 35 resellers (think of the gift shops in the Parliament, the Four Seasons, the Hilton, and the airport and you’ll get the idea).

Pre-Covid, 90% of their sales came through their resellers. All was good until on the same day, with the first lockdown, all of them closed. Váczi and her family moved back to Tard, the weight of responsibility for the livelihoods of those three women heavy on her mind. But again, inspiration descended in the form of embroidered face masks. They flew off the shelves and three became the 45 embroiderers on the books today.

They’re doing everything right.

Two or three ladies work each day cutting out the material and stencilling on the designs. Then the embroiders take the work home with them, returning when they’re done. Each piece is personalised with a card with a photo and a short bio of the embroiderer who stitched it. So very personal.

And while they respect the traditional patterns and limited colour palettes that make Matyó embroidery instantly recognisable, they’ve also embraced modernity with fresh colours and designs.

For Váczi though, it’s not just about the embroidery and making a living; it’s about sharing a way of life.

They offer day experiences for those who want to see a little more of Hungary, something more than the capital. Greeted with the traditional palinka and pogácsa, visitors get to embroider their own Matyó rose (or tulip or forget-me-knot) under the watchful and instructive eye of one of their embroiders. It’s all about personal attention.

All the embroidery I’d learned in primary school came flooding back along with the stark realisation that I simply didn’t have the patience for it. Marika did her best but I’m a poor student.

I was distracted by her outfit.

She told us that back in the day, when matches were being made with the fields in mind, the men preferred their women strong and sturdy. The ladies, quick to catch on to this partiality, added three layers of petticoats to their skirts to bulk themselves out.

We also heard that when a suitor came to call, the father of the house would leave only one chair at the kitchen table. If he liked the look of his would-be son-in-law, he’d ask him to sit and offer him a glass of wine. If he didn’t like the look of him, he’d take the chair away. And God help the man who sat, uninvited.

The traditional costumes are handed down from oldest to youngest, from one generation to the next. The colours are amazing, the detail is exquisite. After WWII though, there were no colours – everyone, including brides, dressed in black.

After the embroidery comes a visit to the local early-nineteenth-century church of Saints Peter and Paul, where Váczi’s dad played the organ all those years ago. An old soul bell (lélekharang) stands in the grounds. No longer in use, the more modern bells are now used to spread the word. One of the two bells rings to mark a pending death, summoning friends and family to be with the person as they depart this world. It peals twice when a woman dies and three times for a man. News spreads around the village from house to house like a Hungarian version of Chinese whispers.

It has the most beautiful statue of St Elizabeth of Hungary depicting the miracle of roses. As the story goes, she met her husband while on an errand to deliver bread to the poor. She was suspected of stealing from the castle so when he asked her what she was carrying under her cloak. When she pulled it open, the loaves of bread had changed into roses. It’s a statue I’ve not seen before. Special. Very special.

From there it’s on to the local Tájház – said to be the oldest village museum in the country dating back some 300 or more years. It’s a haven of treasures from times past that offer a colourful insight into how life was lived. And indeed, still is being lived. If you could smell time, it would smell like this. A sample of folk music and singing adds to the sense of stepping back in time. And this is not just for show – it’s real. They do this. All the time. A lady we met at the bus stop was telling us of her trip to France with the folk dancers, to Josselin, where the village’s most famous son, writer Zoltán Szabó lived out his days.

I knew that given my low patience quotient, there was little point in me even attempting to make a csigatészta (snail pasta) – it needs ten times more patience than embroidering a Matyó rose – and we know how that worked out for me. But it’s an option.

Matyó Design has also refurbished a 150-year-old house in the village that sleeps up to 12 people in three spaces – perfect for groups and families. If you’re after more than just a day trip, they can accommodate you. I can vouch for their hospitality and am working my calendar so that I can go back and stay for longer.

It’s a perfect day out for groups and families and a real treat for visitors from abroad. Contact them at I know they’re taking bookings for a tour on 21 October. One not to be missed.

Mary Murphy is a freelance writer, copyeditor, blogger, and communications trainer. Read more at | |

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