Fainting Chairs and Russian Spies: The Villas of Mátyásföld

The best thing about going on a city walk with a historian is that they will enthusiastically convey anecdotes about the places you’re visiting, throwing in a couple of juicy details for good measure, and then, with a much more matter of fact tone, they will also inform you that your exciting trivia is just an urban legend. Thus, we found out that Mátyásföld is Mátyásföld not because it served as King Matthias’s hunting ground (that was further afield, or perhaps infield, in Zugló) but because a group of moderately wealthy gentlefolk liked the idea of giving it such a fanciful name.

They moved in gradually after 1888- the year when the predecessor of today’s HÉV lines 8 and 9 started running from Keleti station to Cinkota- and formed the Union of Mátyásföld’s Summerhouse Owners. As its name clearly shows, the area was meant mostly as a lush retreat in hot weather, with strict rules which included a ban on poultry and other farm animals, lest the foul smells ruin the appetite of the holidaying bunch and force the lady of the house to lie all day on a secessionist fainting chair.  As the occupants of the villas, of which plenty still stand in a near initial form, spent ever more time in the area, with some settling here for the entire year, Mátyásföld’s infrastructure grew to include a school, churches, a spa, very importantly a restaurant/pub and a lawn tennis club.

Architect József Paulheim played an active role in designing and building a large number of both private villas and institutions, while Sándor Haidekker’s factory provided the neighbourhood with its typical wire fences, of which many have survived until today. Several buildings in the area (their fences included) have protected status, which means that their new owners can undertake refurbishment works only in line with the building’s initial style and with the explicit consent of the local council. The fanciest of the ‘redone’ villas, lying on the corner of Májusfa and Diósy streets, is enveloped in splendid secessionist ornamentation, but looks thoroughly uninhabited- I am hereby offering my services as a tenant with a stipend, as a reward for the great sacrifice I would be making by leaving my beloved inner city. Jokes and my fear of the suburbs put aside, the infrastructure of Mátyásföld is still pretty neat, and Örs Vezér square with its metro connection to the city centre is only 10 minutes away by HÉV or by bus.

Mátyásföld was also the home of Hungary’s first international airport, which operated from 1916, with the first flight linking Budapest to Vienna taking off two years later. The site also included a factory which built small military planes under a Fokker license- officially until the post WWI peace settlement, but unofficially the airport developed into a secret military base, with civil and sports aviation moving first to Budaörs, and then to Ferihegy. A secret airbase was highly likely to pique the interest of Hungary’s post WWII Soviet occupants, which interest was further strengthened by the presence of many villas that could be forcefully taken over and turned into hubs for caviar and vodka fueled debauchery. Or at least that’s what imaginations enriched by Cold War espionage novels will come up with, but be as it may, Mátyásföld gained the dubious moniker of Little Moscow for a short and infamous while.

Since the plain old soldiers needed a place to stay as well, an ensemble of military buildings was erected around Erzsébet-liget which lead, among other things, to the displacement of a small Lutheran church, moved piece by piece to its new location on Prodám street. The wooden ceiling, reminiscent both of Scandinavian wooden churches and Transylvanian motifs, was preserved, but there is no bell tower to this day, although there are plans to add one in the near future.

PS: Our tour was packed with relevant knowledge courtesy of Ágnes Benedek from Kertvárosi Időutaző, the above being only a small fragment all the information conveyed, but some of it I lost when I was focused on shooting fences, branches and such.

PPS: Should you be famished post exploration, Ristorante Limoncello on Bökényesi street is warmly recommended as an example of Italo-Hungarian food fusion that went fortuitously (pasta is al dente), something which has been discovered by the locals as well, so tables can be a bit busy during lunch and dinner hours. 

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