August 20, 2008

Saint Stephen's Day Celebrations
Eger, Hungary

Under communism St. Stephen's Day was referred to in Hungary as "The celebration of the new bread—the end of the harvest."

Everything was closed, and it was a Wednesday afternoon. That could only mean one thing (outside of a Latin American siesta): Public holiday.

A 40-minute walk into the center of town and a quick visit to the tourism office to find an English speaker confirmed it—we were smack in the middle of St. Stephen's Day, with the Eger's evening celebrations scheduled to include a jazz band in the town square at six, a rock concert out amongst the countryside vines of wine at eight, and fireworks shot from the town castle at ten. What a treat.

St. Stephen's Day in Hungary refers to August 20, the day on which the relics of King St. Stephen, patron saint of Hungary, were transferred to the city of Buda. This day is the ultimate public holiday in Hungary. Stephen, originally named Vajk, was the son of the pagan chieftain Géza but was baptized a Christian at the age of ten, and was given the Latin name "Stephanus" ("István" in Hungarian). In 997, a succession struggle between the Christian Stephen and his uncle, the pagan chieftain Koppány, ended in a victory for Stephen and his followers. As a result, the Magyar tribes were united into one nation and converted from paganism to Christianity; Pope Sylvester II presented him with a crown (the Crown of St. Stephen, still a symbol of Hungary) as a token of gratitude. In 1083 A.D. Pope Gregory VII canonized Stephen, and he has since been referred to as Saint Stephen of Hungary.

The town of Eger (pronounced egg-air) is saturated in history. During the Turkish occupation of Central Hungary, the city became an important border fortress, successfully defended by Hungarian forces in the 1552 Siege of Eger, in the face of overwhelming odds. The castle's defenders under the command of Captain István Dobó are said to have numbered fewer than 2,000, including women and children, but successfully held off a Turkish army of 80,000 soldiers.

However, Eger was attacked in 1596 by a bigger army of Turks, who took over the castle after a short siege. Then followed 91 years of Ottoman rule in which churches were converted into mosques, the castle rebuilt, and other structures erected (including public baths and minarets). The rule of the Turks in Central Hungary began to collapse after a failed Ottoman attempt to capture Vienna. The castle of Eger was eventually starved into surrender by the Christian army led by Charles of Lorraine in 1687.

Today, Eger's 17th century mosque-less sandstone minaret is the northernmost Turkish minaret in Europe. It stands 40 meters tall (about 130 feet), and is one of only three survivors in Hungary.

Eger Castle

Our walk around the baroque town center was indeed full of visual delights (some enjoyable aerial photos of the city). Many streets have been converted into pedestrian-only walkways, and the city was buzzing with St. Stephen's Day excitement.

As luck would have it, Eger's enjoyable hilltop castle (which offers up some great views of the historic quarter) was admission-free. Casually whiling the evening away, we caught a part of a mass behind held atop the grounds, as well as a fantastic sunset:

( video link )

St. Stephen's Day Fireworks

Hands-down one of the finest fireworks shows I've seen in my life was this evening's display, erupting from within the innards of the castle, timed perfectly to music. The town square lights were cut moments before the enjoyably lengthy 20-minute pyrotechnic show kicked off, and followed by a live band singing vintage American songs and locals dancing.

( video link )

Even more memorable was how there wasn't a single trace of the prep work to be found as we walked around the castle—I've really no idea how they could've set it all up between the two hours from the time the castle closed until the show (or concealed such a massive display).

Wow, what an afternoon and evening…




August 29th, 2008

How was the bread?


Craig |

August 30th, 2008

I'm afraid that was a photo of someone else's bread at an outdoor café — I'm much too poor for such things…

I'm told the braid in the bread represents István's hair.

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