Hungary Builds Things Big

Trip Start Jun 08, 2010
Trip End Aug 26, 2010

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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

This morning I drove out to Pannonhalma Abbey. It was pretty easy to find as it was yet another instance of a gargantuan building looming in the distance as I approached the town. Also, it was easy to navigate the Hungarian roads because the country continues to have ample signs with road numbers.

Pannonhalma Abbey was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites in 1996. Given it's charter as a monastery in 1002 by Hungary's own St. Stephen, it was damaged during the Turkish occupation, so much of the current building dates from the 19th century. Today, around forty monks were living on the premises. For some reason, I had always thought a monastery had monks and an abbey had nuns, but I was wrong. An abbey was a monastery with enough monks to qualify for electing an abbot. In Hungary, that number was twelve. However, they were reluctant to demote abbeys when membership declined, so there are still buildings like Tihany Abby that are called abbeys, even with fewer monks.

Today, when they weren't praying or reading the Bible, the monks ran two boarding schools. One was on the abbey grounds, and the second was in the nearby city of Győr. There was also a retirement home for elderly clergy and a winery on the grounds. The intro video didn't mention the winery, and I don't know how involved with it the monks actually were.

I ended up with a semi-private tour of the building. There was only one other family on the English-speaking tour. It was a welcome change after the super-sized English groups for the Parliament and Opera House. The biggest groups seemed to be the Hungarian and the German tours. My guidebook said there were three English tours a day, but that turned out to be inaccurate. When I showed up, the receptionist made a few calls and added an English tour at 11:40. Only the Hungarian and German tours seemed to have regular schedules.

The tour was good. We didn't see much of the cloisters, because it was an operating monastery, but we did see the church and library. The lower section of the church was actually the only part of the old late-Romanesque/early-Gothic church, which in turn had been built on the spot of earlier churches. Most of the services took place in the upper section, with benches for pilgrims and other visitors and a raised section with chairs for the monks.

The tour finished in a museum with a small, temporary exhibition. Today's exhibit was on books. Specifically, it was on medieval book making and Bibles. There were recipes for parchment and ink, as well as descriptions of the jobs of scribes and illuminators.

Parchment books tended to be expensive relative to later paper books as it could take an entire flock of sheep to make a full Bible. Because of this, and probably because writing was surprisingly onerous with scribes not being able to rest their hands on the pages for reasons unmentioned, maybe so the oils from their hands didn't stain the parchment, medieval texts used a method of shorthand that would make them difficult to understand today. The cost of books also lead to a reuse of pages from older works to bind new versions. Modern scholars can sometimes use these bindings to reassemble parts of the originals.

One placard had a blurb about how readers shifted in the 11th century from primarily reading just the Bible or other large works for an extended period of time to studying several books in rapid succession, or even reading small sections of several pieces in parallel. It made me think of how modern commentators bemoan the internet for shortening our attention spans and the perils of multitasking. I could envision elderly monks in the 11th century sitting around the dining hall saying the same thing about the new fangled habit of reading more than one book in a decade.

On a nearby peak of the same hill as the abbey was something called the Millennium Monument. A small, domed, single-room in the Neo-Classical style, it was erected in 1896 to mark 1000 years since Magyar (what the Hungarian's call themselves) tribes settled in the region. From photos inside the monument, it seemed to have been one of several erected at the time. Also inside was a colorful modern mural. The mural was a work in progress judging by semi-painted sections above the entry.

After the abbey, it was back to town and time to explore Győr. Győr had a mid-sized old town with a few churches and an enormous city hall. The city hall was impressive, and the rest of the area wasn't bad, but I've become a little jaded about old towns at this point. You'll know it's something special when I rave about an old town in future entries.

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