Esztergom and hotels nearby.

Beautifully situated in a crook of the Danube facing Slovakia, Esztergom is dominated by its basilica, whose dome is visible for miles around. The sight is richly symbolic, since it was here that the locally bom St Stephen, king of Hungary, converted his subjects to Catholicism in 1000 AD - the city has remained a centre for Catholicism ever since. It also served as the royal seat from the tenth to the thirteenth century, when the Mongol invasion forced the royal court to move to Buda.

The capture of the town by the Turks in the sixteenth century curtailed the Church's influence until the nineteenth century, when a concerted campaign was started by the Catholic Church to restore Esztergom as its center.

As a pillar of the ancien regime, the Church was ruthlessly attacked during the Rákosi era, when hundreds of priests were tortured and jailed. It is claimed that Esztergom's basilica was well maintained because Khruschev's wife was particularly fond of it. However in its change of approach the regime settled for a modus vivendi from the Sixties onwards, hoping to enlist the Church's help with social problems and to harness the patriotic spirit of the faithful.

The avowedly Christian government elected in 1990 did its best to restore prestige and property to the Church, while the return of the reform communists in 1994 has sparked off new worries about anti-Church policies. One change in the local landscape has been the arrival of the Suzuki car plant which you pass as you enter town by train.

Picture Gallery of Esztergom

The Town

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.

The Basilica

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.

Map of the Danube Bend with Esztergom

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