Remembrance of Beers Past: A Weekend in Košice.

The train rolled through the thick autumn mist, and we saw nothing. Depending on how you like to travel, this can be a good thing, or a bad thing. It’s good if you travel for the feeling. It’s bad if you travel for the sights. Now, the sights would have been the fairly lush and hilly northeastern segment of Hungary, with the occasional jolting halt in strangely named villages. The travelers getting on and off would not be out of place on the Transsiberian, we were, after all, approaching Slavic lands. This happens to be the same connection on which we’d caught Covid, in the summer, when the Hungarian rail service managed to pack the passengers of two Budapest bound trains into one, basically creating an ad-hoc Petri dish. It should probably come as a relief that we’d only caught Covid, but eschewed plague and cholera. It was during that ill fated visit to the baths near Miskolc that the idea of a weekend trip to Košice materialised. This time around we took the necessary precautions and booked first class seats. The Saturday morning train was almost eerily empty. Once we’d crossed the border, we were the sole passengers left, to the bemusement of the Slovakian ticket inspector. The return trip, on Sunday evening, was more fraught, as from Miskolc onwards the train was absolutely packed with commuters returning to Budapest after the weekend. Due to a technical glitch, we did not have seats assigned, but other passengers did, so we kept skipping from seat to seat like bishops on a chess table. The practical advice here is to book first class (the difference between the two classes is negligible if you buy online) and well ahead of time.

Upon arrival, we were of course still blissfully unaware of the trials and tribulations of the return trip, and Košice revealed itself aglow in unexpected sunshine. I took an instant liking to it, as it reminded me of my hometown of Arad, which makes sense, given that their current iterations bear the visible marks of flourishing times in the twilight of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They are also similar in size, with Košice being just slightly larger at 236 000 inhabitants. This does, however, make it the second largest city in Slovakia and the undisputed centre of the country’s Eastern provinces. And that’s not all- historically, both share an adventurous fate in the turmoil of central European history, with a shifting mix of populations, in Košice’s case, Slovak, Hungarian, German and Jewish communities called it home at varying times. Given my circumstances, I should have known better than to expect Košice being an essentially Hungarian town, but somehow, I did. In Hungarian it has a distinct name, Kassa, and it’s connected to many historical events people feel emotional about. So much so that there is a particular category of tourist, generally middle aged or elderly Hungarians arriving in groups, who walk the streets of the town with the faces of believers on the eve of rapture, breathing history through their pores. My radar picks them up immediately, because they often come to Arad too, to see our modest version of the Statue of Liberty. I suspect some people will make both trips, and many more in the surrounding areas.

Yet Košice’s current population is overwhelmingly Slovak, with roughly 10% Hungarians. It will be easy to find them, though. They work the desks of all museums with a Hungarian connection and will have a beatific and forgiving smile when you attempt botched Slovak. Peak delight was reached by the very lonely lady at the desk of the Francis II Rákóczi Rodosto memorial house, when we revealed that not only did we come from Budapest, but that the family of the blog’s industrious photographer lives in the province of Tekirdağ.

To understand her elation, we shall take a small historical detour. Rákóczi was a Transylvanian nobleman, and you’ll have an instant lesson about the intricacies of this part of the world when you find out that he’ll be variably referred to as Ferenc (Hungarian), Franz (German), Francisc (Romanian), František (Slovak) and Franjo (Croatian). His mother was, in fact, of Croatian origin, and while his father was a ruler of Transylvania the son was logically born in Borša, near Košice. Rakóczi lead an ultimately failed uprising against the Habsburgs. Once defeated, he went on a peripatetic exile around Europe, with stopovers in Poland, England and France, before finally settling in the Ottoman Empire. But weren’t the Ottomans enemies, too? Well, that depends. Interests frequently change in our strange part of the world, and oftentimes the enemies of your enemies will suddenly become your friends. So Rákóczi lived for 18 years in Rodosto, now called, you guessed right, Tekirdağ, on the coast of the Marmara Sea. The memorial house you can visit in Košice is a reconstruction of the one in Rodosto, integrated into the yard of the Executioner’s Bastion, one of the oldest surviving parts of the one time fortress. Seeing the typically Ottoman house on the side street of a sleepy Central European burg does cause slight cognitive dissonance, but overall, the exhibition is well worth one’s time.

Since it has already been revealed in previous installments that we are fairly clueless tourists, we discovered most of Košice’s attractions by pottering around the main street. Here they score a big one against Arad, by having a lovely, pedestrian central area, with many beautifully renovated buildings. There is no chance you will miss the Saint Elizabeth cathedral, as it is very large, and very Gothic, one of the easternmost Gothic cathedrals in Europe. Its first version dates back to the 13th Century, with several rebuilds over the years, such as the one in the 18th Century, made necessary by the damage of the Rákóczi occupation. Yes, he’s back, for good, in fact, because to thank him for ruining the building, his body was returned from Turkey and lies, together with that of his mother, in a crypt below the cathedral. You’ll find the crypt (opening hours vary from that of the church, and the clock tower) by looking for Hungarian families taking selfies with a grave. No, really. The clock tower is one of those narrow, spiral staircase affairs where traffic can only ever go one way, so you’ll find yourself flattening against the wall, like a cartoon character, to let others pass by. The views are however worth the cardio, and maybe you can be smarter than us and time your climb closer to the sunset.

We also visited the Lower Gate (Dolná brána) museum, the entrance of which is right behind the cathedral, and offers an entertaining interactive glimpse into the city’s history through the evolution of its fortification, of which the lower gate was a part. At the time of writing, the museum is however closed, but a reopening is planned for spring 2023. On the other side of the Cathedral, you can revel in the Neo Baroque State Theater and the lovely secessionist artwork of the Slavia restaurant which doubles as, obviously, a boutique hotel. On our way from the train station to the city centre we also bumped into the Neo Gothic Jakabov palac.Turning right from the Rákóczi memorial house you will pass the Mikluš prison, which can be visited, if you’re into that sort of thing, but we rather preferred the narrow and atmospheric Hrnčiarska street.

The only museum we found because we actually looked for it was the Sándor Márai memorial house, on Mäsiarska street, which runs parallel to the main one. Since I grew up without the shackles of a literary canon taught in school, my knowledge of Hungarian literature has always been idiosyncratic, and I took an instinctive liking of Márai, without ever fully understanding why. Visiting his hometown, that he intensely missed while living most of his adult life in exile, revealed something about this connection. Márai wrote about exile not only from a place, but also a time, that very brief period when the multicultural, multilingual and multiethnic experiment of the Austro-Hungarian Empire seemed to work. Márai killed himself aged 89, and his work was only rediscovered and translated more extensively after his death. It has, however, steadily increased in popularity since and has a rather quirky readership, including, out of all people, disgraced former Brazilian president Dilma Roussef.

Not entirely surprisingly, we know a bit more about where to get beer in Košice than where to get food, as our Saturday evening evolved into a delightful pub crawl. We’d started, in fact, with a proper meal in Republika Východu, and then after some cultural undertakings, went for another meal in Pivovar Hostinec, which prides itself in being the oldest restaurant in Slovakia. They have an in house brewery as well, and the selection was good, if not spectacular. The reason why my halušky were not spectacular was my own incompetence, as I’d ordered the cabbage ones instead of the cottage cheese ones. Next up was Red Nose Pub, an honest, unfussy, hole in the wall, with sticky floors and excellent craft beer. Staromestská Piváreň is more along the lines of a classical, Slovak/Czech beer house with homey food, only they’d run out of bread, so I had to eat my hermelin with extra pickles instead. (To their excuse, it was getting quite late, we just hadn’t realised it.) Here we also indulged in blackthorn brandy, which proved interesting in the long run, as I’d also brought a shower gel with blackthorn scent, from the seasonal collection of Czech brand Manufaktura, so I would occasionally feel like showering in brandy for the next few weeks. U Seburgiho might have been the final stop we should not have made, but, to hell with it, we’ll just have some extra coffee next morning to wake us up. That proved harder than we thought, for Saint Coffee, while having a lovely interior, offered fairly disappointing brews, while MUUN, which should have theoretically been open, was not. Coffees set aside, we do recommend Košice as a weekend getaway far from the madding tourist crowd. Quirky museums, nice architecture, good beer. Perhaps one less than we did, but that’s all up to you.

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