“Tomorrow is Saturday, and I propose that we visit Gyula,” Marika suggests. This involves a lengthy journey of two train rides each way. The town of Gyula amazes me. There is a gigantic castle made of brick three metres thick. We have plenty of castles in Northumberland, and I am used to them, but this something quite different. What is the purpose of such a great castle here on the extreme eastern boundary of Hungary?
“The Turks were here,” explains Marika. “Gyula was on the battleground.” Turks? Here in Hungary? All I know about Turks is the pink and white confectionery coated with icing sugar called Turkish delight, and sometimes a pub sign of a turbaned man outside the Turk’s Head. It is hard to picture the Turks battling in a European country like Hungary, while I am with Western-minded people like Marika and Sanyi. And yet it was so. The great plains of Hungary drew in the Ottoman invaders, as far as Budapest and on towards Vienna. Now I understand the ‘Torok’ part of the village names as I’d hitchhiked to Mezőberény. The Turks had been there. Here in Gyula, the Turks had been masters for 129 years, between 1566 and 1694. Hungary was on the boundary of Europe then, just as it is now. My diary:
We visited the only castle in this part of Hungary, strategic in the battles between the Turks and the Hungarians. It was grim, red brick. This part of the world must have been as unfortunate then as it is now, a continual battleground of ideology, with the Hungarians often getting the worse of the bargain, marshy, badly drained, full of lakes and swamps.
Gyula town on this wintry December day is wet, snowy and slushy, but it doesn’t depress our spirits. Marika and Sanyi find a teashop where we enjoy scrumptious food, mine consisting of tea with lemon, delicious cheese omelette and jam pancakes, finishing off with sweet chestnuts and whipped cream. My diary:
We visited a tiny little Turkish sweetshop where I was bought an enormous lump of ‘Turkish honey’, very similar to our cinder toffee. There was an old Turk behind the counter, sitting on guard over the women workers.
This seems an extraordinary relic of those ancient conquests, a Turkish family descended from those warlike times still living in present-day Gyula.
We had come to Gyula on two steam trains, changing in Békéscsaba, the same way Marika and Sanyi travel to work. My diary:
There is something gloomily fascinating about trains in this Communist land. There are policemen hanging around, quietly in the shadows. It is strictly forbidden to take photographs. The stations are so primitive. There’s no such thing as platforms. We are on the same level as the rails, which means climbing high up into the carriages. There is mud and snow everywhere, poor people in peasant clothes patiently waiting for trains that are so often late. In the evening, the huge, roaring steam engines shunt in and out, guards yelling and running. Through this thread of communication which stretches from Russia out to its victim satellites, one senses the most indomitable power of Communism, the filth and inefficiency, treating the railway system as though it is a deadly secret to be guarded. Here one can sense the contrasting silent menace of the police, the bossiness of the station officials who have power on their side, with the patient, uncomplaining but long-suffering crowds who use the railway service. Their patience is also learned from years of bitter experience. And the pity of it is that every person in sight, with all their own individual life stories and experiences, are but puppets in the hands of Almighty Russia. People of Hungary hardly have the right of ownership of their own souls. But it is not expected to remain forever this way.
Such writing is based on my perceptions but also my immaturity and lack of understanding. People such as Marika and her family very much have ownership of their own souls, and our conversations reveal this as the days go on.
Extracted from Bridget Ashton’s new book, Cold War, Warm Hearts.