In the centre of Gyula you’ll find – indeed you can hardly miss it – an imposing gothic fortress, built as defence against the Turks. This is apparently the only purpose built brick fortress still standing in Central Europe. It’s a terrific setting for a Shakespearian theatre festival. Like many other great ideas it seems obvious – after somebody else thinks of it. Fortunately somebody did. The Shakespeare in Gyula festival is the brainchild of one József Gedeon, the Gyula Castle Theatre’s director. A large man with a winning manner and high hopes, his festival has grown each year since 2004, with theatrical troupes from all over the world now coming to Gyula to perform. This week a Lithuanian production of King John will have its world premiere and a troupe from South Korea will perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream!
The performance which we attended on Saturday night was the third show in a run of Troilus & Cressida. Now, Troilus & Cressida – this is not exactly one of Shakespeare’s better known or more accessible works. Yet the 300 plus seats inside the fortress theatre were almost full. My Shakespearian Hungarian isn’t accomplished enough to tell you how well the actors spoke the bard’s blank verse. But the physicality and daring of the production was plain to see. Actors scrambled up and down scaffolding, they stood on top of each other, and generally did everything they could to make the play more difficult for themselves – and more entertaining for us. They didn’t miss a beat.
Hungarians love their theatre. Indeed, while it’s only really in the corporate sector that anyone really dresses up to go to work, when it comes to a night at the theatre, you’ll see people dressed to the nines. I find this to be an enormously endearing characteristic, just like the bouquets and rosettes left every day by the statues and gravestones of composers and writers all over the country.
But the Gyula weekend wasn’t all Shakespeare and high culture, far from it.Festivities began with a welcome drink or four at the Gyula palinka factory. Palinka – in case you’re not familiar with it – is a potent liqueur made with apples, plums, blackberries and the like. It’s quite strong. Let’s put it this way: until we as a species conquer the depths of space and find the famous Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster, Gyula palinka will just have to do as the most potent drink available to man. Note to anyone reading who works for a Tourist Board anywhere: All Journalists Familiarisation tours should begin in such style.
Gyula is a leafy, sleepy seeming sort of town but it has several different points of interest. For example, there is a magnificent stork’s nest perched on a telegraph pole beside a Saxon cathedral outside the Erkel museum. Well, I thought it was magnificent anyway. The museum just as it sounds is dedicated to the Hungarian composer Erkel. Along with Franz Liszt, essentially Erkel was the founder of Hungarian Opera, which is to say, Opera sung in the Hungarian tongue. Whatever the merits of that conspectus, the museum is certainly well designed and the exhibits presented very attractively. I liked its setting, in an area of the city known as Saxon town. About 300 metres walk away is the Ladics House, the perfectly preserved residence of a prosperous 19th century family. Heavy shuttered windows kept the succession of traditionally furnished rooms cool as our party inspected them. The country kitchen was in a word, adorable. From there it was an even shorter canter to the Százéves Cukrászda, or Centenary Confectionary. The Centenary Confectionery’s name is actually somewhat misleading. The establishment actually opened its doors not 100 but more than 170 years ago in 1840 and its saloons are imbued with post Napoleonic, reform era elegance even today. Tin moulds and utensils from the original confectionery are used in the preparation of all kinds of candies, ice creams, parfaits, tee biscuits, leavened dough and short pastries and in the creation of ice cream and parfait compositions. In addition to confectioneries, cakes and parfaits, handicraft bonbons are made laden with nougat or stuffed with truffles. Other specialties include contain fruit mellowed in spirits and bonbons with brittle (hard candy) as well as bonbons with wafer and marzipan.
Outside in a pleasant courtyard where once apparently horse drawn carriages had come all day to unload goods, a luncheon banquet had been laid out for our enjoyment. We sat in the shade and enjoyed a brilliant summer repast of plums, grapes, cold chicken, foie gras and the like. It was just the right foundation for the afternoon which was to follow.
Although – still controversially to some – the Hungarian nation lost its coastline after the First World War, the Magyar’s love of the water has not decreased one iota. For one thing, there are the mineral water springs. In Gyula, these were discovered in the 1800s when prospectors had actually been drilling for oil. These days people from all walks of life gather at the Gyula Castle Spa, which as its name suggests, is only a stone’s throw from the fortess. A little further afield by car or van, and you can pitch your tent or just plant your towel at numerous camping sites along the banks of the Black River, or Fekete Körös, at the spot where it joins the White River Fehér-Körös to form the Körös river.
After a fairly sedate boat trip up and down a stretch of river, the ‘Kapitany’ asked if any of us would like to go for a ride in an air boat. Though I don’t pretend to be particularly physically courageous, I found myself the first in our group to say “yes please, I have a need for speed”. The air boat, pictured, has been seen all over the world in, I believe, episodes of CSI Miami. It is capable of skimming along through swamplands at considerable speeds and in water as shallow as just 10 centimetres. This particular air boat, we were informed, was the only one of its kind in Central …oh, enough with the statistics. It was quite simply huge fun, and a great way to forget one’s troubles; skimming through swamp waters on a boat with a propeller at the back and a navigator in the mood for some mischief. “Don’t get in if you don’t want to get wet”, he had warned us, with a smile.
On the Sunday evening, before returning with some reluctance to Budapest, we were treated to an ‘interactive’ performance of Romeo & Juliet. It was a young cast, the winner of a high school theatre competition. It was much more accomplished than one had any right to expect from a high school production. I found myself with a lump at my throat at the customary plot points. Well. I’m a silly, sentimental sort. It’s in my theatrical blood, but I was also impressed by the raw talent and commitment of the young cast.
We had stayed in Gyula at the Elizabeth hotel, a light and airy hotel that faces onto the castle. The English speaking staff went out of their way to be helpful, as had the Tourist board, our indefatigable translator Marianna, and the Director of the Gyula Castle Theatre, the aforementioned Mr Gedeon. It’s an old saw. The less you have, the more you give. And after a delightful weekend in Gyula, Hungary, I can say that there’s truth in it. You see, Gyula is in the Eastern part of Hungary which is widely understood to be the poorer part of the country. It’s a few days after my weekend in Gyula, and I am still basking in the glow of the hospitality; touched by the genuine nature of the people. Gyula is but a three hour train ride from Budapest, yet the consensus seems to be that it’s a long way off the beaten track. Well, I think it’s time to give that perception a jolly good Shakespeare up. Pun intended.