The paddy cap rested haphazardly atop my face, failing to completely shield my eyes from the sun. I shifted into new positions in the uncomfortable passenger’s seat, then moved the cap, then my body again. This restless effort to sleep was my failing attempt to make up for the rest I’d lost the previous night, when I agreed to rise early and join my host father on a business trip to Slovakia’s oldest city.
Most of the three and a half hour drive was spent this way. Tossing and turning, while listening to music for meditation on Spotify. I felt the car exit the highway and begin making frequent turns through city streets. “We must be in Nitra,” I assumed. After savoring a few more moments of my absolutely sleepless rest, I removed the cap from my face and promptly did a double take out the window.
We passed a sign, bolted to the steel latices of a bridge, which read “Exiting Štúrovo”. It took a moment for my brain to do the math.
“I know of the City of Štúrovo… And the only bridge that should leave it… goes over the Danube River to Hungary.”
A moment later, just as I was realizing it, I passed onto the opposite bank and into Hungary, marking it as my twelfth visited country.
Little explanation accompanied this surprise on my host father’s part. He merely dropped me off on a curb with instructions on where to meet him in two hours time and then drove off to handle some sudden problem which had cropped up in his firm.
I looked around.
How quickly atmosphere can change in Europe. I’d only crossed a river, yet the air of the city was entirely different. Štúrovo, like many Slovak cities, is a sunny town with little flora, yet Esztergom’s plentiful trees provided almost constant shade and the sense of being enclosed. Slovak buildings are kept clean and painted in faded pastel tones; advertising clutters facades which reflect a melting pot of Central European architectural heritage. Yet, in Hungary, I walked amidst consistently medieval-looking buildings which were covered in vines, not signs, their faces charmingly mottled with ages of built-up soot.
Immediately, Esztergom gave a very personal impression to me. I passed by pairs of nuns quietly strolling along boulevards, down which the sounds of children playing on recess echoed. A piper blew notes from his flute on the steps of a church, while elderly couples sat and listened in an adjoining park. The lack of cars in the old city permitted the warbles of songbirds to echo through the narrow roads that branched away from the central canal, criss-crossing in labyrinthine loops that might have been difficult to navigate were it not for the central orienting point which towered over the entire city.
The Esztergom Basilica was constructed between 1822 to 1869 to once again make the city the heart of Christianity in Hungary. Numerous churches had stood in the spot previously, but all had either been burned down or been sacked by invaders or usurpers. The Basilica is the largest church in Hungary and, at 100 meters tall, it is the tallest building in the country as well.
I climbed the hill, reaching the park in which the Esztergom Basilica was cradled. I couldn’t believe the peace that pervaded the place. Besides a couple joggers, I was alone. Bird song filled the shadow of the structure which fell upon the grove I stood in. I again reflected on how different such nearby places could be. Just across the river from the Basilica’s hilltop perch Štúrovo and Slovakia extended out to the hills on the horizon.
To have a different world exist from your own, with little more barrier than a river crossing… It is truly a foreign concept to Americans—and most of the rest of the world for that matter. Crossing between countries and cultures in the EU is as easy as moving between states in the USA and much more exciting. In a day of driving across the America, I might end up in a place almost indistinguishable from where I started. Yet, in Europe, I could experience the entirely unrelated landscapes and languages of Italy, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary and more in less than a day, hardly even stopping for a toll both along the way.