David Holzer discovers a somewhat eclectic museum and a bakery-based site of pilgrimage up in the Buda Hills.
My favorite kind of museums are those where everything is jumbled together without too much obvious logic. The Kiscell Museum of Budapest History, in the green hills above Buda is just one of these.
The museum began life as a chapel built in 1724-25 in a vineyard. Later in that century, a monastery and church were erected. Because it housed a statue of the Virgin of Mariazell, the shrine became a place of pilgrimage. Mariazell is a town in Austria and its basilica is home to a miraculous wooden statue of Mary. I don’t think the one at Kiscell was ever miraculous.
My favorite story about the miraculous properties of the original statue dates from 1157, when the St. Lambrecht Monk Magnus was sent to where the town is today to become a minister. When Magnus’s way was blocked by a rock he put the statue of Mary he’d bought with him down upon it and the rock broke open, allowing him to carry on. He placed the statue on a tree trunk and built himself a place to live and worship out of wood.
Today, Mariazell is the most popular place of pilgrimage in Austria and one of the most visited shrines in Europe.
After the monastic order at Kiscell was dissolved, everything of value was auctioned off. By the late 18th century the building was a military barracks, hospital and veterans’ shelter. The army moved out and this gorgeous place was turned into cheap tenements and temporary lodgings. In 1910, Max Schmidt, a Viennese resident, bought the building and created interior decoration showrooms and a private museum.
In 1935, Schmidt gave the building and his private collection to the municipality of Budapest, on condition that it should become a museum of decorative arts. The building suffered badly in the siege of Budapest, but was reopened to the public in 1949.
Today, the museum’s collections are dedicated to the culture of Budapest, everything from shop signs from old Budapest to an excellent collection of work by artists who helped shape the art milieu of the city.
Among the artists represented is Lajos Kassák, the Hungarian painter, poet, novelist and avant-garde theoretician who was born in 1887 and died in 1967. I’ve been wanting to see work by Kassák in the flesh, as it were, since I first attempted to visit the Kassák Museum in Óbuda, only to find it closed for several months. (According to its website, the Kassák Museum is now open and I’m sure it’s well worth a visit.)
Kassák himself was a remarkable cultural figure who played a central role in the radical intellectual culture of Budapest in the early part of the 20th century.
He adopted elements of expressionism, futurism, constructivism and Dadaism in his work. This preference for experimentation over commitment to one particular movement has led to art historians labelling Kassák an ‘activist’ artist.
As you might imagine from the term, an activist artist is socially engaged in their work. Kassák was concerned with functionality and social effectiveness. Among other things, he painted billboards to bring his art to the public. But, despite its roots in street level activism, Kassák’s work is quite beautiful and highly collectible. My partner was startled to see the two Kassáks on display at the Kiscell Museum. Apparently, they’re worth a fortune.
Should you go to the Kiscell Museum, and I’d highly recommend it, look for a room of random artifacts from across the centuries. Here you’ll find battered pillars and statues with broken noses side by side for no apparent reason other than they might as well be there as anywhere.
Apart from being a wonderfully strange and eclectic museum, Kiscell is set in a quite beautiful location. Following our guide, who’d grown up in the area, we turned right out of the museum gates and strolled past various Stations of the Cross for a few minutes until we came to what I can only describe as a sylvan glade. The air underneath the overhanging leafy trees was blue with smoke from public barbeques and the fragrant aroma of sizzling sausages wafted up to where we were standing.
According to our guide, ordinary families had been coming up to this particular part of the forest to cook in the open for centuries. He had done the same when he was a child growing up nearby in the 1980s. It certainly wasn’t hard for me to imagine myself back in time. Until my rumbling stomach brought me back to the present. Our guide suggested we head for Daubners.
Although it’s not quite as venerable as the Kiscell Museum, Daubner has been in existence since 1901, when it was opened by Béla Daubner. Apparently, his grandson still runs the place. It might seem strange to head all the way out to the hills above Buda to buy cakes and pastries when the city center is filled with them. Go to Daubner and you’ll understand why.
The selection of classic Hungarian cakes and pastries, from the garishly colored and ornate to the simple but undoubtedly delicious, is mouthwatering. As are the homemade ice-creams. Were they better than others I’ve tasted in Budapest? I honestly couldn’t tell you. But I did like the idea of making a special pastry pilgrimage up into the hills. I enjoyed being perhaps the only foreigner in the place. And what I most enjoyed was our journey higher up into the hills above the city to have our cake and eat it while the sun set on beautiful Budapest, shining below us.
Find out more about Kiscell Museum at www.kiscellimuzeum.hu.
The Kassák Museum is in Óbuda, a short train ride from Margit Hid and its website is www.kassakmuzeum.hu.
The best way to get to Daubner is by car but, if you could also take streetcar 17 or buses, 6, 60 or 86 to Kolossy tér. The address is Szépvölgyi út 50.