Refuge by the River- Visit(s) to Szentendre

It recently dawned on me that, shockingly, I haven’t written anything about Szentendre here, though I’ve probably been there more than to any other place in Hungary besides Budapest, which figures, since it’s a leisurely 40 minutes away by HÉV line number 5, which gently rocks upstream along the course of the Danube. (An extension ticket needs to be bought for the section outside Budapest, current price is 310 forints.)  I’m also very fond of Szentendre, for many subjective and sentimental reasons, and that figures as well, since logic and objectivity are rarely the groundwork for love. One of the reasons is the Danube itself. The river of life, or at least my life, the trajectory of my dreams, upstream again, the Mureș flowing into the Tisa, flowing into the Danube, then finally going downstream, meeting the Black Sea crossing its dark depths, through the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles into the dream landscape of the Mediterranean, through the Marmara Sea, Marea Marmara in Romanian, a mesmerizing rhythm like an ancient spell.

Upstream again, migrations. I was far away, basking in the sunlight of a scorched Mediterranean island when streams of refugees gathered in the shade of Keleti station, running from war and ruin. How easily we forget that we humans have always migrated, have always been on the move, like rivers flowing towards the welcoming shelter of a sea. From the 15th to the 17th Centuries, Szentendre (Sentandreja to the Serbs, Senandrija to the Croatians, as always split by about one vowel, one consonant and an ocean of misunderstanding) was settled by migrants leaving their Balkan homes shaken by the upheavals of the Ottoman conquest. Their numbers have dwindled, more precisely, many have slowly and amiably melted into their Hungarian speaking and feeling surroundings, yet the churches remain, incredibly packed for such a relatively small town, with skulls and bones engraved on their outer walls, a reminder of fears long gone.

The Beogradska or Saborna Crkva, the cathedral, dating back to 1756, with its baroque shapes and green roofed belfry. The Blagoveštenska, towering over the main square, spiced with a whiff of rococo, having ceased to operate as a church for almost a century now, currently a museum. The Požarevačka, the first one you encounter walking towards the centre from the HÉV station, more modest than the rest, bearing in its name the memory of its builders’ hometown, Požarevač, today right across the Danube from the Romanian town of Moldova Veche. The Preobraženska, lying closest to the river, at the foot of Szamárhegy (Donkey’s Hill), a miraculous survivor of the legendary and devastating 1838 flood, today only open on August 19, the traditional celebration of Szentendre’s Serbian community.

High on the hill, offering stunning views of the Danube, is the square surrounding the Saint John the Baptist Catholic parish church. The oldest church in town, dating back to the 13th Century, it was originally built in the Gothic style and dedicated to Saint Andrew (hence the name of the town), later used by Szentendre’s Dalmatian community. Visiting at dawn or dusk is highly recommended, with the sky often taking on shades of fiery crimson and candyfloss peach, the shimmering Danube reflecting the fireworks above. The river itself is usually hazy and brown, already an old soul, and not really the Danube, either: a few kilometres downstream of the Visegrád castle the river splits into two branches, encircling the lush area named Szentendre island. The river you see from Szentendre proper is thus the smaller branch, which will rejoin the main course right as it enters Budapest. The Church Square is connected to the centre of town by a narrow passageway that hosts a somewhat less spiritual local staple: a lángos restaurant tucked away in a tiny courtyard, that has slowly become the stuff of legend, hence be prepared for longish queues in high season but also disappointment in winter, as it generally remains closed from November until early spring. 

Since we’ve reached the culinary delights sections, I don’t think I’ve ever been to Szentendre without visiting Corner restaurant, logically situated on the corner of Bem street and the Duna korzó (that is, the Danube walkway). It’s a Serbian restaurant with the usual Balkan staples of pljeskavica and ćevapi, which are delicious, but be prepared for a certain tardiness during rush hours- although very popular with both locals and visitors, they seem to be constantly surprised by the onslaught of patrons and thus understaffed and a bit frustrated, though in a fairly polite way. A more recent discovery (thank you, Untappd) is Teddy Beer, a cozy hipster pub on Péter Pál street, right off the main drag taking you back to the HÉV station. And please don’t be scared by the hipster moniker, in this case it’s totally positive: our waiter was super friendly and very knowledgeable about beer, they have a greet selection of local and foreign, mostly Belgian, beers and the décor is pleasantly wonky, themed around teddy bears and a spectacular ceiling mirror. They also serve traditional bar food, of which we could only check out the fries, being in a post-Corner pljeska-coma, but they were top notch fries indeed.

Besides ogling the skulls of the Beogradska (weird occupation, I know) and Corner, another Szentendre must is a visit to the Líra and Lant bookstore on the main square. Meandering and fairly dark, it’s actually more like a book cave, but the selection is excellent, with many English language books as well, and the staff always seems to be involved in absorbed and absorbing conversations about anything ranging from literature to local gossip, thus being completely unfazed by your spending hours browsing the shelves and then leaving with empty hands and a polite good bye. I only do that because I go fairly often, if it’s your one time in Szentendre, I warmly suggest buying something- perhaps an album of local art. Szentendre has long been a renowned artist colony, its meandering cobbled streets and scenic Danube views making it fairly inspirational, an outsourced Budapest Montmartre of sorts.

The past few years have thus propelled it into the status of compulsory mini break when on a Budapest city break, and as such the main streets have been inundated with souvenir stalls, though, for the time being, many of these are still trying to promote local handicrafts, such as clothes, wood- or leatherwork (many of the Serbian settlers to the area were tanners, so the craft has a longstanding local tradition), plus many painting reproductions or even original aquarelles. In spite of this, oft dangerous, raise in international popularity, Szentendre’s soberly picturesque jewel box charms haven’t yet been too spoiled, and if the God praised in its many churches is out there and listens, let’s hope it will stay the same for many years to come.


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