Divided into two countries, the towns of Komárno and Komárom are a curiosity set on each side of the Danube between Slovakia and Hungary respectively. While this city split across the border is interesting from its literary and historical perspective, it’s also interesting in terms of its demographic population. After travelling around Hungary’s border countries, I’ve learned that substantial Hungarian communities exist beyond Hungary’s border today, be it Romania, Serbia and in this particular case Slovakia, where 60% of Komárno’s population are Hungarian.
There are also many Hungarians living in Budapest who were born outside the border – people who consider themselves Hungarian but hold passports to other nationalities, and my friend Livia was one of them. A Slovak according to her ID card, but Livia’s mother tongue and identity is solidly Hungarian.
So on a hot sunny weekend, she offered us to come and visit her hometown with her. With a few bottles of wine in hand and some snacks a group of us jumped on a local for a day trip across the border to Slovakia.
The train station we got off at was located on the Hungarian side of the border, but we could already see Slovakia across the river as we stepped outside. We wandered along the breezy banks of the Danube as we made our way to the green bridge connecting the countries.
“There’s not much point looking at the Hungarian side,” Livia said, “it’s mostly residential and suburban, anything worth seeing is across the river in Komárno.”
At the entrance to the bridge, I could make out an abandoned checkpoint post. Before the Schengen Zone this was an official border control between the countries. The Danube acts as a natural border that split the town in two, but today crossing from Hungary into Slovakia is as simple as just casually walking across the bridge. The only difference here is you’re greeted with signs welcoming you to Slovakia or Hungary, depending on the direction.
A Tale of One City Split Between Countries
Komárno/Komárom was once one city, and similar to many cities, simply divided by one river. However, in this particular case, the town was once united under one country.
The city has a long history that dates back to the Bronze Age, making it one of the oldest in Slovakia, and already mentioned in documentation as early as the 11th century. Its position on the Danube and the Váh rivers gave it a unique and strategic location. Komárom was not only a city known for its fortifications, but it also became a home to a flourishing trade centre in historic Hungary.
Hungary might be a small country today, but its geography has shifted over the centuries. It used to include territories in today’s Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and even in Austria. In 1920, the Treaty of Trianon, a peace agreement between the allies of the World War I, divided the states of Austria-Hungary and redrew the borders in Central and Eastern Europe. And, today it’s still a heated topic in this part of the world. However this country division also left a Hungarian diaspora of around 31% outside of the country’s borders.
The Slovakian side of Komárno went through further changes in its home country. While it became a part of Czechoslovakia post-Trianon, it then became Slovakia in the 1990s.
Even today, Komárno still has a large Hungarian population, around 60%, as well as a strong Serbian minority in the city as well.
But thanks to the Schengen Zone, the life between two towns feel more united again.
Strolling the Old Town
On a Sunday morning Komárno felt like a ghost town. Its city streets were pristine; lined with refurbished baroque buildings and plants and young trees, but there seemed to be no life on the silent cobbled streets. Only the church bell in the distance and the smell of cooked food wafting out of windows hinted at life in the town.
Close to the bridge, Livia pulled us aside to a side street and pointed out a classically Central European looking house with a balcony.
“This is where ‘Az Arany Ember’, the Man with the Golden Touch, was set,” she said, referring to the novel by Mór Jókai, a famous Hungarian author native to Komárno. The story was set here in the town, which lay on a strategic position between the the Habsburg and the Ottoman Empires.
Jókai’s legacy still lives on in Komárno. In the garden of the Danube Region Museum a few streets down, we found his statue. We sat on the bench with a few plastic wine glasses in hand and ate a few sandwiches here.
“Should we drink here?” One friend asked as we mixed up the wine with soda water.
“Jókai liked his wine and women,” another replied, “I think he’d approve,” and toasted to the statue.
We cleaned up our picnic from the benches and continued to explore the still empty town.
“Where is everyone?” I asked. It was almost midday and the sunny streets were still empty.
Livia shrugged, “Sunday, in church, or in bed, I guess.”
Europe in One Square
Walking along the main street on Župná, Livia stopped in front of an arched walkway. It looked like the entrance to a garden or a restaurant.
“I want to show you something cool,” she said, and we turned under the archway into a garden. The pathway continued and I could make out a few interesting looking buildings at the end. The tower with the black domed top, and its arched windows accented with arches and white and red details looked particularly unusual, but soon we were in a huge plaza surrounded by eclectic buildings that are supposed to represent a blend of diverse European architecture.
The Courtyard of Europe is a surreal place. Each building represents different unique styles from the continent, with some more recognisable than others, but the mismatching between the buildings are what make it a special place. The square is hidden in the city, with entrances from St. Stephen’s Gate, Belo IV Gate and Maria Theresa’s Gate, with the main entrance opening from the inner park of Zichy Palace called Matthew I Gate. The square is a spectacular cornucopia of architectural diversity, but feels akin to a Disneyland’s vision of Europe in places.
Shades of Komárno
Komárno is not a city where you can simply tick off boxes on a list of sites, but rather it’s a place better suited to wandering and exploring. The locals finally trickled out into the Klapka Square, sitting on shady benches under the trees just as the city entered the golden hour. Their relaxed pace of life slowly infected us, but perhaps that was the wine we had earlier in Jókai’s honour.
We ambled around, strolling over to the fortress, which is on the tentative list of UNESCO Sites and said to be one of the largest in Europe.
But our highlight ended on a high note, when we explored beyond the city sites and found ourselves on top of Livia’s family home in a residential area next to the cemetery. On first impression, the high rises look like any other in the region – it could be Budapest or Bratislava, but from the rooftop, overlooking the entire city at sunset as the wind swept in from the Danube, with views across both countries, it’s clear that there is more to Komárno than first impressions can simply give.