It was the first afternoon of the Savaria Carnival in the town of Szombathely and we were eager for adventure. Szombathely is known as the oldest city in Hungary. It has also been a famous Saturday market town for centuries. So it felt like we were in a time warp.
This annual festival commemorates Szombathely’s glorious beginnings as a provincial capital of the Roman Empire in 45 AD. It’s a very important milestone for the city. So everyone is enthusiastically part of the drama.
A SUMMER CARNIVAL IN HUNGARY
Knights with spears and banners walked past us as we sat in front of the beautiful old Jewish synagogue. They were accompanied by ladies in pastel-colored gowns. Meanwhile, trumpeters in breeches followed them, filling the air with music.
At the same time, townsfolk dressed as Roman gladiators walked past us nonchalantly. Also, a choir of ladies sang songs from the Middle Ages. Then, little girls in white placed twigs and leaves at their feet.
ABOUT THE SAVARIA CARNIVAL
In fact, everyone was caught up in the spirit of the ancient past. And everyone was excited for a weekend of fun in this otherwise quiet but historic town; and soon, so were we.
The carnival happens every August. It’s a combination of culture, arts, and leisure. Regular life also stops during this time. Instead, townsfolk focus on showcasing their talents, They take on different personas, with brown paper bags of salami and glasses of palinka in hand.
WHAT IS PALINKA?
It’s amazing just how effective this food-and-drink combination can be. Hungarians prescribe Pálinka for everything from curing a headache to overcoming indigestion. It’s even prescribed to fend off depression.
But for me, it’s all about the simple happiness of it all. If everything else fails, the day can always still be saved by a bag of addicting Hungarian salami and a bottle of palinka. You simply take these to a good seat in the town plaza and watch the the local bands taking turns onstage.
THE ARTS AND CRAFTS OF HUNGARY
It was also a most opportune time to sample the best of Hungary’s arts and crafts — and in the oldest city in Hungary nonetheless. The city centre was lined with wooden stalls bursting with the most interesting handmade goods. Villagers probably spent a good part of the year creating these goods in their living rooms and backyard workshops.
One man, so shy of foreigners speaking English that he could barely raise his head above his display table, ironically sold the fiercest-looking hunters’ knives. They had the sharpest edges; and when we were finally able to coax him out of his self-imposed seclusion, he impressed us with his ability to slice a walnut shell with one clean swoop. This was how we eventually broke the ice.
THE POTTERY OF HUNGARY
Another lady filled her stall with coffee mugs and dessert plates, all painted with pink roses. “How long does it take you to make one of these?” I asked her. She replied, “Each piece takes me two hours. Everything is made with love.”
THE SALAMI OF HUNGARY
We also met the wife of a hunter, brown and strong from spending most of her time outdoors, manning a stall standing all alone in the museum square. For some reason, no other stalls were around but hers was worth the visit anyway. She offered us tastes of the sausages and salami that she and her husband had made themselves from meat they’d hunted and then cured. Everything was delicious.
FINDING HANDPAINTED SCARVES
Then there was a happy lady who seemed to exist in her own world, smiling all the time even without a common language between us. All day she danced and waved her colourful handprinted scarves around hoping to catch the attention of passersby.
So finally we just had to stop and inspect her wares, and so this was how we discovered the real beauty of her creations. Each was fastened with a metal ring so that a look could be changed at a whim.
“These are my originals,” she whispered, as if we were talking about state secrets. “So I named them after myself. My name is Marguerite.” I happily bought a Marguerite scarf in attractive hues of red and pink to remind me of this weekend back in time.
The days passed in this blissful state of walking around and shopping for beautiful trinkets and gifts we would never have found elsewhere. Then when hunger pangs overtook, we simply stopped at the nearest food stand to sample whatever was on offer. This was not quite the kind of weekend for dining at fancy restaurants — it was a time for hats, sunscreens, walking shoes and also adventurous appetites.
We must have tasted at least two dozen different dishes and snacks, but two Hungarian favorites stole our hearts from the start. The first was the kurtoskalacs, which is basically a chimney cake that is kneaded, flattened and then rolled onto a wooden stick for roasting.
THE KURTOS KALACS FUNNEL CAKE
More importantly, the cake that comes out of the grill is always piping hot to the touch; and when you finally bite into it, it is crunchy on the inside but soft as cotton inside. At festivals all over Hungary, this snack, originally from Transylvania, is also available in various flavors including chocolate, caramel and nuts.
To change the flavor, the baker simply rolls the freshly baked roll in the appropriate pan. We bought a chimney cake at every stand we found that cooked these over live charcoal instead of in an oven, as the charcoal made all the difference.
EATING PORK KNUCKLES IN HUNGARY
However the Hungarian dish at the top of my foodie list is one found both in festivals and in fine restaurants, thank goodness. The csülök is basically roasted pork knuckles accompanied by cabbage and potatoes. It’s almost always amazingly good and roasted to perfection as Hungarians certainly know their pork. So I ordered it whenever it popped up on a restaurant menu or saw it at a weekend festival.
In fact, at the food stands of the Savaria Carnival, I usually found large platters of csülök under heat lamps, glistening with fat. Of course, I could never resist these; and what a festive feeling it gave, to eat csülök on paper plates right on the main square of Szombathely, with the prospect of enjoying freshly baked kurtoskalacs afterwards.