Esztergom's craggy Basilica Hill is the natural focus of attention. It was here that Prince Géza established the royal seat. Subsequently his son Stephen chose it as the site of Hungary’s first cathedral. His coronation by a papal envoy on Christmas Day 1000 AD signified the country's recognition by Christendom. In 1991, the hill was the setting for two events symbolizing the Church's triumph over Communism: the reburial of the exiled Cardinal Mindszenty and the first papal visit to Hungary.
Esztergom's Basilica is the largest in Hungary, measuring 118m in length and 40m in width, capped by a dome 100m high. Built on the site of the medieval basilica ruined by the Turks, it was begun by Pál Kühneland and Janos Packh in 1822, and finally completed by Jozsef Hild in 1869. It was consecrated thirteen year earlier in 1856 (as soon as the dome was in place), and Liszt's Gran Mass was composed for the occasion - Gran being the German name for Esztergom.
As befits what is claimed to be the fifth largest church in the world, its nave is on a massive scale, clad in marble, gilding and mosaics. To the left of the entrance is the lavish red marble Bakócz Chapel. Archbishop Tamás Bakócz from the original basilica for which it was commissioned salvaged its Florentine altar. It was this prelate whose papal ambitions were dashed when "his" crusade turned into the great peasants' revolt of 1514. The Venetian Michelangelo Grigoletti, based on Titian’s, painted the basilica’s main altarpiece Assumption in the Frari Church in Venice.
Don't miss the crypt, which resembles a set from a Dracula film with giant stone women flanking the stairway down to gloomy vaults full of entombed prelates. Though several other mausoleums look more arresting, it is the tomb of Cardinal Mindszenty that transfixes Hungarians. The walls of the crypt are 17m thick, to support the weight of the basilica.
Having seen the overpowering collection
of bejeweled crooks and chalices and kitsch papal souvenirs in the
treasury, it is almost a relief to climb the seemingly endless
stairway to the bell tower.
The stifling heat inside the cupola and the pigeon droppings within the bellroom are forgotten the moment you step outside and see the magnificent view of Esztergom, with Slovak Sturovo across the water.
Tickets for the treasury (kincstar) and bell tower (harangtorony) are sold at the entrance to the crypt.