Postcard from Budapest, Hungary: Graves reveal layers of Hungarian history

The policy of the house of Austria, which aimed at destroying the independence of Hungary as a state, has been pursued unaltered for 300 years.

Lajos Kossuth (1802-1894)

A bronze winged genius, a protecting spirit defiantly bearing a torch of freedom, stands guard with a powerful lion atop the recently restored massive wedding-cake-like mausoleum memorializing Lajos Kossuth. A lawyer and extremely effective orator, Kossuth’s journalistic endeavors to promote an independent Hungary led the Austrian monarchy to imprison him for treason.

The Austrians later regretted releasing him, as he became the inspirational leader of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. By 1850, the interlude of independence faltered and Kossuth was in exile in Turkey. In London, he was welcomed as a hero, and New York staged a parade on Fifth Avenue to herald the defeated Hungarian leaders. A bust of him is displayed near one of Winston Churchill in the United States Capitol. While Kossuth spent most of the rest of his life in exile, he was well honored at home after his death.

Kossuth is one of many residents of Kerepesi Cemetery, opened for occupancy in 1847. The national pantheon sprawls over more than 130 acres of peaceful grounds shaded by so many different types of trees it doubles as a botanical garden. Declaration of it as a decorative cemetery in 1885 led to its role as a sculptural paradise reflecting Hungarian artistic trends as well.

Alright, a cemetery is an unusual entry point for the upcoming series of travel posts about Budapest, but it is no secret I love wandering among ancient graves. Also, Hungarian history is so complicated by the turbulent history of all of Europe, the cemetery serves a restful resource for slowly absorbing some of the waves that swept through it.

For example, the genius atop the mausoleum of Ferenc Deak (1803-1876) seems much more peaceful than that of Kossuth. The angelic figure bears a palm frond and a laurel wreath, symbols of immortality. Deak is remembered as a statesmen who successfully negotiated with Emperor Franz Josef to establish a dual Austrian-Hungarian monarchy, the Compromise of 1867.

Here you find graves of artists and writers inspiring patriotism and those motivated by their words who fell in wars. Arcades adorned with mosaics offering shelter to some of Budapest’s wealthy stand in contrast to the workers’ pantheon added in 1958. There are graves of Russians who died liberating Budapest from the German fascists, and memorials for Hungarians who were killed during the 1956 unsuccessful revolt against Soviet control.

Art deco details in some sections stand in stark contrast to the severe style dictated by later Communist rulers. Four horses struggle to break free from the corners of a tent-like shroud ominously sheltering the tomb of the Hungary’s first elected president after the fall of Communism, Jozsef Antall (1932-1993).

Introducing you to Budapest through this cemetery is meant to illustrate how we failed to strictly adhere to guidebook lists of the top 10 must-see attractions and things to do when visiting, despite staying there for a month. I’ll just get our shortcomings as guides helping shape your future travels, probably verging on sinful to many, out of the way now.

(1) We did not take the dinner cruise on the River Danube. Spending time standing in a buffet line to get food while missing the scenery seemed as though it would defeat the point, so we walked both sides of the river instead. Multiple times.

(2) We did not dip into the famed Turkish baths. As architecturally seductive as they are, the images of people crowded in the pools and men standing in waist-deep water playing chess failed to entice me to want to join them. They seem to have an abundant supply of wrinkled, overweight patrons without me.

(3) We only tasted goulash once. Can’t believe I confessed to that last one.

Postcard from Ferrara, Italy: The magnetic pull of cemeteries

Taking a little sabbatical in the midst of writing the final chapter of a book about the families living around the Coker Settlement, an assignment that has me digging, figuratively speaking, through the graveyard for long-buried clues about their lives.

So where did we accidentally wind up on our first day in Italy trying to walk off the fog from staying awake all night to fly across the ocean? A cemetery.

A beautiful, parklike cemetery with acres and acres of Renaissance-style arcades and mausoleums. The grounds of Certosa di Ferrara originally belonged to a Carthusian monastery founded in 1461, but the monks found their compound within the walls of Ferrara when Ercule d’Este, now resting there, expanded and fortified the city in 1492. The final blow, however, was delivered by Napoleon when he confiscated all church lands at the end of the 1700s.

With such wonderful names engraved there  – Chiavissimo Zabardi, known for his austere ideals and honest work before he died in 1910; Achille Valli, an early publicista who departed this world in 1915; Illuminata and Giuseppe Solovagione, with their photos perched atop a whole family tree of their descendants who later joined them – I could have wandered for hours wondering about their stories.

Yet, this was our first day in Italy. How could I spend it among the dead?

So the Mister tugged gently on my arm, and we left to begin exploring the more vibrant areas of Ferrara in Emilia Romagna, Italy.

Cemeteries are such peaceful places, but, after all, we will have much more time than we desire to spend in one later. Much later, I hope.

Reviving Dia de los Muertos

When I first moved to San Antonio, the places to see flowers and foods placed on graves to encourage visits from their inhabitants were the old San Fernando Cemeteries. Most of the wrinkled pilgrims picnicking with their deceased loved ones on All Saints and All Souls Days, November 1 and 2, appeared poised to repose alongside them. The remnants of the Dia de los Muertos traditions enduring from when San Antonio had been part of Mexico were dying with them.

Bedoy’s Bakery, founded in 1961, credits Father Virgil Elizondo with encouraging the bakers to dust off traditional old recipes for dead bread, pan de muerto. I used to buy the breads around Halloween, but felt guilty when we selfishly ate them without offering to share them with the dead.

In the past decade or two, artists in San Antonio began adding contemporary twists to ancient Day of the Dead traditions, and now the city sponsors a full-blown fiesta for Dia de los Muertos in La Villita. Altars, processions and even a concert by Girl in a Coma were part of this year’s event, held a bit early because the city’s Day of the Dead calendar is getting more crowded.

While a far cry from the celebrations we witnessed outside of and in San Cristobal de las Casas last November, San Antonio’s spirited version represents traditions worth reviving and refreshing for new generations.

Although I cannot comprehend why the marketing department at Coca-Cola is not all over sponsorship opportunities for this event. In Mexico, Coca-Cola dominates the graveyard market in San Juan Chamula, Chiapas:

One would think a people who have rejected so many standards held by outsiders would not consider taking even one sip of a Coca-Cola. But expelling evil spirits from the body is key. Spitting helps, but burping is best. And what is better at inducing burping than a few shots of rapidly consumed Coke….

But, what marketing genius convinced the Chamulans a half-century ago to incorporate Coke into not only their Sunday church-going regimen, but everyday life? I mean, Chamulans need to continually maintain their guard against those invasive evil spirits, burping them out on a regular basis.

And whoever the lucky holder of the local bottling franchise is really struck a home run with this. The market is larger than just the living. On Dia de los Muertos, even the dead are served Cokes to quench their parched throats from so much time spent underground and to burp away any evil spirits hanging around the cemetery.

Just think how large Coca-Cola’s market share would soar if this practice spread to the dead everywhere.

Here are some posts from last year in Chiapas, Mexico: