Day: 211 & 212
Towns / Cities Visited: 136
Countries Visited: 22
Steps Taken Today: 21,244
Steps Taken Around the World: 3,516,846
Our two-hundredth and eleventh day was destined to be one of laid back travel. With that in mind, we bid a fond farewell to our little haven in Budapest and made our way to the nearest metro station. A quick and painless flit delivered us to Kelenfold Station, from which the country’s southern regional trains depart. Arriving with almost an hour to spare before our connecting train, we made our way to the platform and, to our surprise, found our locomotive waiting patiently. It was surprisingly refreshing to step aboard and leisurely stow our luggage before settling in, without the usual hurried hustle. The train eventually pulled away, making its two and a half hour journey, before delivering us to our south-westerly destination: Keszthely. The reason for our visit would not come to fruition until the following day though. As such, we wandered through thus quaint little town, checked into our little Airbnb, popped out for some groceries, and enjoyed a night of home-cooked food and chilling out to a few episodes of our current binge.
Rolling out of bed, as and when we were ready, we had a quick bite to eat and made our way towards what had drawn us all the way here in the first place. Although many people make the trip out here to bathe in the restorative waters of the thermal lake, we had come to see something which will not surprise a single one of you who have been playing along at home: a library. The Helikon Library, to be precise. Now, it isn’t some grand public library, or swarming with scholars in some aging university, the Helikon Library, located in Keszthely’s Festetics Palace, is the country’s only remaining aristocratic private library. It was added to the building between 1799 and 1801 by George Festetics to house his literature collection: a collection which has grown to include more than 86,000 pieces. The remnants of a time when this country was under royal ownership, and books and education were a luxury only accessible to the upper classes.
Dropping into the visitor centre to buy our tickets, we were soon walking up, past the fountain, to the front of the palace. Construction of this gorgeous example of Baroque architecture began in 1745, by Hungarian aristocrat Christopher Festetics, and took a century to complete. It was extended twice over its lifetime, making it triple the size of the original, to become the stunning building it is now. The Festetics were in high favour with the Hapsburg family during their rule of Hungary, to the point that Christopher’s son was bestowed the title of Count by Queen Maria Theresa after being her Counsellor to the Court: a title which was passed down to all male descendants of the family. In 1911 the title was upgraded to Prince by King Franz Joseph I. Despite the fall of the Austro-Hungarian after WWI, the family continued to carry their title and live at the palace. The last Festetics to live here were George III, his wife Maria, and their son George IV, who is now head of the household; however, they were forced to leave in 1944, when the Soviets came through and communism took hold in Hungary. The palace is now in the hands of the Hungarian government, who cares for and maintains it.
Its clean white and beige exterior compliments the mix of domed and peaked dark tiled roofs perfectly, and the juxtaposition of sharp edges and the gentle curves makes for an elegant, yet commanding structure. Stepping inside, it delivers all you would expect from a historic aristocratic family home: delicate damask wall coverings in lush golds and reds, beautifully maintained parquet floors, rich antique wooden furniture, impressively detailed fireplaces, and plush sofas and armchairs which almost beckon you to sit in them and breathe in the almost three centuries of stories these walls could whisper. The chandeliers and sconces illuminate the rooms with a soft glow which reflects off the bright gilding of the candelabras, clocks, and picture frames. Each rooms seems to be home to the watchful portrait of some long since passed family member, but no area feels as connected to the easily romanticised, eccentric lives of bygone aristocrats as the series of portraits inlaid into the walls around the grand staircase. The carved, dark wood which surrounds them only serves to highlight the excessive wealth held within the images, and the haunting light of the lantern-esque chandelier leaves you feeling as though the people in this paintings are more ghost than art.
Finally, the series of ever more luxurious rooms led us to our desired destination, and with one last step forward we entered the Helikon Library. It is every bookworm’s fantasy, with its multi-level, floor to ceiling, stained wood bookshelves, stacked endlessly with leather-bound books neatly sorted into their categories. There is something comforting about the bibliochor in the air here: the rich smell of knowledge passed down over centuries. Just like the rest of the palace, this room is lit by a shimmering chandelier, and it was hard not to be jealous that its light gets to gently brush the spines of these editions many would long to hold gingerly and call their own. The literary arts here are complimented by a collection of delicately carved stone busts, a free standing globe, and a couple of other fancies. As you complete a loop around the room, you realise the door you pass through into the connecting room, another smaller reading room, is actually decorated as a bookshelf, as to make it hidden when shut: a last ingenious addition to make my fellow library lovers swoon.
The remainder of the rooms in the castle follow a similar style to the first that we had viewed, with the same multi lingual information boards explaining the funiture, art, and history of each room. This section, however, sports a colour palette that is a little more diverse, and a feel that is a little less stiff and formal. This part of the circuit also includes a peaceful private chapel; a drawing room complete with grand piano; and a large hall which I imagine was often used for grand feasts, with bright white walls, gilded coving and decorations, and massive mirrors to reflect the light of the chandeliers. There is also a display about the Festetics family, and their contributions to Keszethely and Hungary, including: founding the first primary and secondary schools in Keszthely, and the first agricultural college in Europe.
Eventually, we found ourselves spat back outside, finding ourselves in the grounds to the rear. Despite the rather dreary weather, the manicured flowerbeds still displayed splashes of colour, the water still trickled playfully from the mouths of the stone lions on the fountain, and the goldfish still swam happily beneath the bridge over the tranquil pond.
The grounds are also home to a few extra exhibits including the coach exhibit, housed, rather appropriately, in the old coach house. If there’s one thing I love almost as much as libraries, its horse drawn carriages. Therefore, it will come as no surprise that we decided to spend a little time amongst them too. The exhibit is actually quite impressive in its sheer volume, with almost every kind of carriage you can imagine. It was like being at a car dealership where they had everything from the most modest mid-budget Hyundai sedan, to the top of the line Aston Martins. There are simple coaches with little more than a couple of bench seats on a cart, to plush enclosed carriages complete with velvet trim and lanterns. There are also a few surprising additions, like the collection of coaches mounted on runners rather than wheels, in order to be pulled over snow; as well as a morbid but beautiful hurst carriage, a few small children’s carriages, and even a very early car.
By now, we had seen all we had hoped to, and our stomachs were making their emptiness audibly known, so we wandered back through this pretty little town, and found a restaurant to grab a bite to eat. With an eclectic collection of comfort food, we settled for some flat bread and dip, followed by a burger and a chicken cordon bleu, and washed it down with a couple of pretty decent and cheap cocktails. I know, I know, its not exactly Hungarian food, but sometimes you just want a damn burger.
We were left with a little free time on our hands, and thus chose to take a meander down to the lakeside. We may not have been going for a swim, but we figured it would be strange to visit this lakeside town without at least catching a glimpse of the water. The parkland around the waters edge makes for a pleasant walk with it’s towering avenues of trees, ivy ground-cover which creeps tenderly up each trunk it finds, and the stoic memorial rotunda flaked by its late season red roses. A statue of Queen Sisi also reminds you that she was beloved just as much here as in Budapest. Reaching the bank of the lake we stood for a while, watching the swans and ducks paddle around, and listening to the soft lapping of the waves.
Our visit to Hungary had now come to its conclusion, and we headed back to our Airbnb to rest for the evening and get a good nights sleep before we journeyed back across the border into Austria the following day. Laying in bed, basking in the quiet of our surrounds and lulling in the mental playground of half sleep, a found myself standing at the top of the stairs of the palace once more, the smell of old books wafting past me. As I looked from portrait to portrait I saw the wealthy figures begin to move. At first just a small twitch of a finger here and there: micro-movements which make you question if it is simply the flicker of candlelight from the chandelier. Then, little by little, as sleep drew me into its arms, I saw the figures begin to move; straightening sashes and cloaks, brushing the creases out of gowns, adjusting poses.
I turned to the window behind me, the crunch of snow under hooves and runners tearing me from my fixation. Peeking out past the heavy curtains, I found a string of carriages pulling up. Well dressed figures stepped out into the warm light of the entrance, reflecting off the gold threads of their garments and the jewels strung around their delicate pale necks. As I swiveled back to the paintings I found each frame sitting empty.
Suddenly, the sound of voices and footsteps carried up the stairs and I scurried off down the hall, grabbing a lit candelabra and weaving through rooms until I found myself in the safety of the library. Prying open the spiral staircase door I clambered up to the mezzanine, sitting down in a quiet corner as the joyful laughter of the reanimated aristocrats trickled through the door, then moved away again. Their frivolities would not extend to this solitary space of enlightenment. Maybe it was my introverted subconscious trying to reiterate some deeper truth, but as I slid a book out of its place on the shelf, brushed off the dust, and opened it quietly in my lap, a feeling of overwhelming calm washed over me, and the dream faded away into a deeper sleep.