These articles were published in the Spectacular Slovakia travel guide, published annually by The Slovak Spectator since 1996. The latest editions can be obtained from our online shop.

Standing proud

By James Thomson

    The magnificient view from Štúrovo.
 The magnificient view from Štúrovo.
 Photos by James Thomson

It might as well be a metaphor for the less-than-happy state of Slovak-Hungarian relations in the twentieth century.

The Mária Valéria bridge, built to link the towns of Štúrovo and Esztergom, was blown up by the retreating German army in 1944. Its forlorn remains continued to jut out into the Danube until 2001, when the two countries finally got round to rebuilding it only after the European Union had ponied up the cash.

This did use to make for an amusing border crossing, on a small boat which would deposit travellers before a similarly diminutive immigration and customs hut on the far bank. But now, with both countries in the EU and the Schengen area, and the road freshly reconstructed, you are free to stroll unmolested across the bridge. Which is what you will be itching to do as soon as you catch sight of the view across the Danube from Štúrovo.

Because there, on a bluff high above the river, is one of Europe's grandest churches in one of Europe's grandest settings. First-time passengers on Bratislava-to-Budapest trains can occasionally be heard exclaiming (rather inappropriately) 'What the hell is that?' as the enormous edifice suddenly appears on the train's right-hand side soon after it leaves Štúrovo for Budapest.

Part of the effect is its position: this is an otherwise rural area, so it's as if you'd come across a skyscraper in a field. In fact there is quite a large town below the church. There is also a castle next to the basilica, though it also tends to get lost in the excitement. It now houses a museum.

The town is an old one; this was the seat of the Hungarian church before the Ottoman army occupied the country in the sixteenth century, and their eminences were forced to flee north, to Trnava. The basilica, by contrast, is not. It was built in the nineteenth century, with work beginning in 1822 and the final touches only added in 1869.

    The front door
 The front door
 Photos by James Thomson

The town is worth a wander around. Watertown, the older part around the basilica has tree-lined, cobbled streets with cafes, restaurants and pensions near the river and on the road leading up the hill. None seem to take euros, so if you want a drink it's worth buying some Hungarian forints at the exchange booths which can be found around at either end of the bridge.

The nineteenth-century centre of the town, a few hundred metres straight on after the bridge, is considerably more handsome than Štúrovo's rather scrappy effort. Centred around a pedestrianised square with fountains, it's a pleasant place for an ice cream from one of the cafes and restaurants dotted around it.

But the cathedral cannot be missed.

One way to get there is via a switch-back path up St Thomas's Hill, said to be named after the martyred English saint, Thomas Becket, by a Hungarian bishop who studied with him in the twelfth century. At the top is a collection of small houses and villas with winding streets between them, evoking an almost Mediterranean air. These were the houses of the masons and artists who built the basilica. On the other side of the hill is a calvary with views of the church.

If you don't fancy the hike, skirt St Thomas's Hill and take the slightly gentler climb up the main road to the cathedral. Once there you realise that what can be seen from the Slovak side is actually the rear view of the basilica: at the front, gigantic stone columns dominate the Classicist façade and dwarf the tourist crowds.

The basilica, as was doubtless architect Pál Kühnel's intention, is an awesome sight from the outside. It is the largest church structure in Hungary and reportedly the third largest in Europe, measuring over one hundred metres from the crypt to the cross at the top of the dome.

    Esztergom’s pretty town centre
 Esztergom’s pretty town centre
 Photos by James Thomson

From within, however, it is not quite so impressive. The domed roof soars above you, but the open space inside, uncluttered with supporting columns, seems smaller than you might expect. The altarpiece by Michelangelo Grigoletti, which depicts the assumption of the Virgin Mary, is reckoned to be the world's largest painting on a single piece of canvas, at almost one hundred square metres.

One part of the church which predates its construction is the Bakócz Chapel, a Renaissance work in red marble which survived the Ottoman occupation. It was broken up into about 1600 pieces in order to be moved 20 metres and incorporated into the new cathedral in the nineteenth century.

To the church's credit, entrance is free, and there is only a modest charge to climb up to the gallery which skirts the dome and from which there are superb views of the surrounding countryside.

It is only when you get up there (or walk around to the back of the church) that you realise the one drawback of the basilica's magnificent position: its main view is of Štúrovo. Charming though its people may be, the town of Štúrovo boasts few buildings of aesthetic merit. From the basilica, the bridge is in the foreground, in the middle distance stand the familiar, serried ranks of paneláks and in the background is a large factory with an equally large chimney.

It's enough to send you back across the bridge, to enjoy the view of the Esztergom's basilica - and the gently-flowing Danube - once again.

These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2009, which you can obtain from our online shop.

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