HUNGARY  |  Eastern Bank of the Danube, Hungary Travel Guide
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The Ipoly River & Duna-Ipoly National Park

The Ipoly River & Duna-Ipoly National Park

The Ipoly River meanders along the northern border of Hungary, a dividing line between the mountains of Slovakia and Hungary. Its waters also define the borderline of the Börzsöny Mountains, which range west to end in their plunge to the romantic Danube. A jagged surface and volcanic rock, pillars and peaks, steep causeways and canyons characterize the range. The highest peaks are Csólvanyos (2,700 feet) and Nagy-Hideg Mountain (2,600 feet). One can scarcely discern that they line the perimeter of an ancient volcanic crater. They are thick with forests of Austrian oak and blue beech. Nevertheless, while some parts of the protected Danube-Ipoly National Park allow you to wander freely, other parts require you to stay on the designated hiking trails. Their rugged isolation has preserved one of the most fascinating areas of Hungarian folk culture, going back thousands of years.

The villages and surroundings are the home of the Palóc people, whose origins pre-date even the arrival of Árpád. On the border between Slovakia and Hungary, the Hungarian ethnic influence has not totally overridden their regional identity and, as noted by Ferenc Bako in his monumental work, The Palóc People, they are a transitional group. You will find most of their villages remain as they were a thousand years ago, even down to the costumes. The folk tradition is so strong that individual towns and villages have retained their own special dress since before the advent of the steam engine… and the women can be seen in their famous bonnets and, if you’re in the know, you can still identify the village origins of a denizen by the blend of colors and patterns in their dress. A number of the villages have retained language characteristics that completely set them apart from the Slavs to the north, and from the rest of Hungary. As such, driving through, hiking, biking, or busing from village to village in this region, is a rich adventure in cultural and ethnic history.

Then there are the flora and fauna of the Börzsöny Mountains, home of 70 protected species of plants and more than 100 protected species of birds, deer and boar and smaller mammals. In winter, snow stays a long time on the former volcanic caps and in the enclosed valleys. This is ideal cross-country skiing territory, but minus the challenge of the Alps or the Slovakian peaks. At the same time, an abundance of trails and bike pathways are interspersed with rest areas at lookouts and glades.

Márianosztra

The medieval religious imprint persists today, no more evident than in this out-of-the-way area as we one trail heading inland away from the river. From Szob we can follow the footsteps of the Pauline monks, who started here and headed into the middle of the forest in the 14th century, where they built a monastery that still stands today in Márianosztra. It is a nine-km/5½-mile walk or, if you prefer, drive or take the hourly bus. Márianosztra is one of Hungary’s best known pilgrimage destinations. Built on medieval remains, the inner sanctuary of the Baroque parish church contains an 18th-century copy of the famous Black Czestochowa Madonna (the original was taken to Poland in 1382 by Hungarian monks). The believers who make the pilgrimage in July, September, or December can see the Calvary Chapel and Stations of the Cross, built in 1772, on the eastern edge of the village. The interconnections across the countries of Europe are at times astonishing.

The Borderline Trail from Szob to Nagybörszöny

The road winds out of Szob, heading up the Ipoly River valley. Willows and alders along the riverbank give shade for those who come to fish. The forest shimmers in virtually every shade of green. Birds and animals hide, but you feel their presence and sometimes you see them. At Letkés the bridge spans the Ipoly to Slovakia, but offers entrance only for locals. However, we are going farther up the river. Romantic fairytale hollows dot the riverbank. As you go through Letkés and Ipolytölgyes, there are also walking trails, which eventually lead you to a road marked for Nagybörszöny. Alternatively, you can drive, bicycle, or bus from Szob directly to Nagybörszöny.

Nagybörszöny

Nagybörszöny is among the oldest towns in the Ipoly Valley. Up through the 18th century, it was a prosperous gold, copper, and iron mining town. But eventually the ore gave out. Now, it is a minor logging town, home to four churches of unusual historic value. The Bányász (Mining) Church was built in Gothic style, replete with mining symbols and decorations carved with hammer and chisel on the wall. Just below it is the Mining Museum, at Petõfi utca 19.

But what is a Gothic village without its water mill? In Europe, there are few water mills still in operation from 200 or more years ago, but the mill at Nagybörszöny is still going strong, and it is an open museum. The gigantic carved wooden wheels and stone grist still work as they did centuries ago.

One of the most beautiful monuments of the Árpád era, the Nagybörzsöny Saint István (Stephen) Church has been here since the 13th century, on the left as you enter the village. It was basically abandoned after the 15th century and left as a cemetery chapel. If either one or both of these buildings are closed, it is almost an adventure in itself to get inside. Go to Petõfi utca 17 and ask for the key – “Kérek a templom kulch, Szabad latni?” They are monstrous medieval keys. Having experienced this village, you may want to walk, drive or bike to the nearby towns of Ipolytölgyes, Vámosmikola, Bernecebaráti and Perõcsény. They are all are within walking distance, and all have their own Baroque monuments and churches, thatched-roof buildings, and the hospitable Palóc people. However, there is one place in the Ipoly National Park – Szent Orbán Erdei Hotel – where you can choose a wide variety of accommodations, and be greeted in English.

Kemence

The 12th-century Kemence is a walk back in time, amidst archaic houses and crooked streets. This is also a Palóc town. There is a small village museum, and much of the town retains its turn-of-the-century ambiance. The town is favorite starting point for hunters and ramblers heading into the Börzsöny Mountains, and many of them start by riding on a piece of history – the Kemence Forestry Museum Railway, a restored line that was originally built in 1910. It still takes passengers into the forests and mountains of the region. Though a series of floods in the 1990s wiped out bridges and substantial parts of the rail line, it was subsequently restored with a combination of new technologies. The line is what remains of the once-active gravity run mining train. Horses pulled it uphill to the mines, and then gravity was allowed to bring it down again. Today, the class MD-40 locomotive is working again, and it pulls restored open-air coaches up and down the line about 20 km/12 miles. The ride is beautiful and there is a chance to see wildlife along the tracks. 

Last updated January 18, 2008
Posted in   Hungary  |  Eastern Bank of the Danube
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