The Synagogues of Szeged and Subotica

If you’re bicycling through southern Hunganry and the adjoining (formerly Hungarian) province of  Vojvodina in northern Serbia, you can’t but be aware of the terrible displacements and atrocities that have been committed in the region by one ethnic, religious or cultural group against another over the last several centuries, and even quite recently, nearby.

One such atrocity, the Nazi murder of the Jewish population of the region, stands out. So, still, do the beautiful synagogues of Szeged and Subotica, both of which I saw earlier this week. They are a stark reminder of the sheer size of the Jewish communities in these two cities, communities which, as I understand it, are virtually non-existent, or very small, today.

The synagogue in Szeged (1907) is the fourth largest in the world, and the second largest in Hungary, after the Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest. It is in good condition and is used as a concert hall as well as for worship.

The synagogue in Subotica (1902), inspired by the great Hungarian architect Odon Lechner, was built for a community that numbered around 3,000 at the time. It’s another great example of Hungarian art nouveau.


Both great buildings are evidence and poignant reminders of the Jewish life and culture that must have been part of everyone’s everyday life in these and other cities in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans until the 1940s.

But I write about this mainly because I am intrigued by the language of the memorial tablet placed outside the Subotica Synagogue:


The  Jews, it says, ‘perished in fascist death camps.’ So, it seems to imply, that had nothing to do with the local populations, or local hatreds. It all happened in a faraway place.

The description places the blame on ‘fascism’, as if anti-Semitism was, and is, principally a matter of political ideology, rather than something with darker, less intellectual origins (an irrational hatred that lay at the heart of Christian European culture for centuries)- something that can be ‘educated’ away, and blamed on specific political leaders rather than on the population at large. Of course, I may be maligning the people of Subotica. I don’t know if they were exemplary in their protection of the Jewish community (as Serbia was, in general) or not. Even if so, the description is misleading. The murder of the Jews was not a ‘fascist’ crime. It was not a German crime. It was a Nazi crime, inspired by the leaders of the Nazi party and supported by millions of others, in Germany and elsewhere, who shared their hatred.

The inscription dates from 1994, a time perhaps when Communist ideology was still lingering in the country (Yugoslavia still?) and it was convenient to wipe the slate clean and claim that in the absence of ‘fascism’ the danger no longer existed.

But I remember a train journey I made from Belgrade to Budapest in the summer of 1987, when both Hungary and Yugoslavia were still nominally communist. I talked for an hour or so with a pleasant middle-class lady who was eager to practise her excellent English. For some reason we got onto the events of the Second World War and I asked a few questions about Jewish survivors, and about the scale of the transportation and murder of the region’s Jews.

‘I know it was awful,’ she said. ‘And it’s awful that the Jewish communities were almost entirely destroyed, but you know we never really liked them.’

So much for the eradication of the irrational by political re-education! Anti-Semitism was not specifically a fascist phenomenon.




Chemical Gin

I bicycled today from Kecskemet to Szeged. I took a wrong turning in the morning and found myself cycling across fields (see dog leg below).  But I never turn back, in the belief that there’s always a way through. Until, one day, of course,  there won’t be. But today there was.


Kiskunfelegyhaza made an unpronounceable lunch stop, and I met a delightful Dutch couple who were bicycling the border of the Roman Empire. They had a book about it and had a splendid device that attached it to the handlebars. Trust the Dutch to be so well prepared.

Szeged, three hours later, announced itself too early, raising hope in my heart and a desperate last gasp vigour in my legs, when there were still seven kilometres to go. And then there was another sign, and then another, and then another two, one of them a socialist realist monster. But the tease is worthwhile.

Szeged is definitely worth persisting with and crossing fields for. It’s the most elegant and relaxed city in Hungary, home of paprika and salami, and other agricultural products, and home to one of the great universities of the country. It’s changed hugely since I first visited in 1987 and consumed a Government-manufactured gin, in a very shabby bar, that had a dampening effect on me and my friends for at least two weeks.

I’m staying at the Tiszavirag Hotel, where I stayed last year on a hideously rainy day in June. It’s one of the most wonderful hotels in the country, perhaps the world, and serves the best food in the country. If I were not a driven person, I would stay another day or two. But got to get on.

Although you might have difficulties in finding an excuse to visit this city (though they did a Flying Dutchman in the open air a few weeks ago), this hotel makes it worthwhile. I’m afraid I’ve reached that stage in my life, when the hotel is as important, even more important, that its location.

Tomorrow, I bicycle towards Novi Sad, but more importantly, it’s John Chilcot’s day. With any luck our former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, will have been savaged by teatime and in handcuffs by dinner time.


Seven Days of Solitude

A hundred years would be too many, but I must admit that I look forward to seven days of solitude, bicycling in the Carpathian basin from Kecskemet to Belgrade. Just yesterday I was engaged, with my partner, in manufacturing cucumber sandwiches for thirty guests at a summer music party in Prague, as well as two kinds of chicken, baked salmon, Elin’s beetroot and apple salad, roast squash, Caprese, beans, and so on (see Outcooking Julie).

The host insisted on a proper English tea, with chocolate éclairs, lemon cake, Victoria sponge and shortbread biscuits, as well as mounds of cucumber sandwiches, though he rather spoiled things by offering champagne as well as three teapots of  Marks & Spencer’s Gold Blend.

As it happens, I’d never before made that insipid classic of the British tea table, and though I consulted widely on the web, I don’t think that my first attempt was perfect. Everything needs to come together – salted, drained and finely sliced cucumber, firm white bread, and butter soft enough to spread and seal. I added a dusting of mint and provided a separate plate of cucumber sandwiches with Marmite, to amuse the British. I kept them waiting – the sandwiches, I mean – for no longer than an hour. But they were all gone in forty-five minutes, so I must have got something right, even if they were structurally insecure and wouldn’t have passed muster at the Ritz.


And whilst the guests were entertained by the distinguished pianist, Jordana Palovicova and the distinguished baritone, Jiri Polacek (regaling the guests with Schubert, Beethoven, Chopin, Sibelius, Debussy and Rogers & Hammerstein), the tea had to be swept noiselessly away to be replaced by a savoury first course, and then during another forty minutes of classical music, by a heap of desserts. The party began at four, but it took the host’s oboe playing to drive the guests to their beds. The last left at ten, but the host insisted on clearing and tidying before bed, so I had only four hours sleep before waking to catch the 7.52 to Budapest from Prague.

Nyugati Palyaudvar


Of course, it’s not quite solitude. I carry my phone and PC and will be in touch by voice, text and email with all my worlds, but bowling along those splendidly flat roads across the puszta, with the wind at my back, and no risk of drizzle, I shall feel free.

I reached the market town of Kecskemet (named after a goat) at about eight this evening, by train. It’s a lovely town, but a stroll and dinner on a terrace do it justice.

Admire the Town Hall by Odon Lechner, Hungary’s most famous Romantic Nationalist architect.


Tomorrow, Szeged (capital of paprika), via Csongrad.



All You Need

biking stuff

You don’t need much for eight days’ cycling around the edge of Hungary. I’ve been known to go on trips where your luggage is carried from hotel to hotel, whilst you cycle at a leisurely pace, unencumbered by clothes and equipment, but those trips are for softies. Serious cycling is a penitential experience, and you must fend for yourself, comfort generally shunned. That said, I confess that don’t carry a tent, nor cooking equipment and I do stay in hotels and eat in restaurants, when I can find them.

So, what does a moderately penitential cyclist carry? What you see in the picture is what I took.


  • 1 Dell Notebook PC and cable
  • 1 Kindle and cable
  • 1 iPhone and cable (iPhone not in the pic, since in use)

Bike Wear

  • Three light luridly-coloured easy-to-wash easy-to-see miracle-fibre tops
  • Two light easy-to-wash miracle-fibre shorts
  • Helmet (including net to prevent insects reaching hair)
  • Waterproof jacket from sponsor Helly Hansen

Elegant Evening Wear

  • Three pairs black socks
  • Three polo tops from sponsor Banana Republic
  • Hoody for chilly evenings

Constant Wear

  • Rigidly-soled cycling sandals
  • Underwear (five pairs)

Food and Drink

  • Small bag of nuts
  • 40 Gold Blend teabags from sponsor Marks & Spencer

Bathroom and Medical Supplies

  • Savlon for abrasions and mosquito bites
  • Toothpaste from sponsor Colgate
  • Deodorant from sponsor Gillette
  • Toothbrush
  • Painkillers for headaches caused by dehydration and drink
  • Blood pressure pills to alleviate the high blood pressure brought on by age and an unhealthy lifestyle
  • Razor from sponsor Gillette
  • 50+ Sun Cream
  • Black Pepper Cologne by sponsor Molton Brown
  • Bag to put them all in


  • Glasses and case
  • Cash
  • Passport
  • Credit Cards
  • Bag to put them in from sponsor Etihad
  • Pens from sponsor British Airways
  • Earphones
  • Two maps

That’s all. Try it. Who needs furniture and paintings and things? Life can be simple and free.

But I’m off my bike now. I’d go further, much further (‘second star to the right and straight on ’til morning’), but having arrived in Timisoara two days ahead of schedule, I added on Szeged, reached in two days through a corner of Serbia, and there, after 675 km, I stopped and got on a train.

bike map