Hungary: Pannonhalma Abbey

Pannonhalma Abbey is one of the largest monasteries in the world.

Address: Pannonhalma, Hungary Date of foundation: 996 Main attractions: St. Martin’s Basilica, Library, Refectory, Chapel of Our Lady, Botanical Garden and Nursery, Winery Coordinates: 47°33’09.6 “N 17°45’39.6 “E

A couple of dozen kilometers from the Hungarian city of Győr, on St. Martin’s Hill stands an ancient monastery – Pannonhalma Abbey. In 1996, when the Catholic abbey was 1000 years old, UNESCO included it in the list of World Heritage Sites. On the territory of the Benedictine abbey are preserved beautiful churches and other monuments, which absorbed the architectural traditions of different eras. The size of this Hungarian abbey is second only to the abbey in Montecassino in Italy.

Pannonhalma Abbey in Hungary

A bird’s eye view of the abbey

Abbey history

The abbey in Pannonhalm is the oldest in Hungary. The Benedectine monks arrived here in 996 during the reign of Prince Gez, who was the father of the first Hungarian king, Saint Stephen. They baptized the Hungarians, founded the first school, copied ancient books, and began to compose the first written documents in the Hungarian language. In 1001, the first Romanesque chapel was consecrated on the monastery grounds.

Throughout its history, the abbey has been a center of learning and monastic life in Central Europe and has kept its Catholic traditions sacred. The Benedictines attached great importance to education and the image of an unfolded book became part of the abbey’s coat of arms.

In the 16th century, the monastery assumed the status of an archbishopric. At this time in history, the Hungarian lands, like much of Europe, were under threat of Ottoman invasion. To save the shrines, they enclosed them with fortress walls, and the abbey turned into a strong fort. However, despite the measures taken, in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Turkish invasions forced the monks to leave the abbey. Each time the monastery was looted and some of the buildings were destroyed.

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Restoration work and the construction of new buildings was possible only in the first third of the XVIII century, when the Ottoman rule over the territory of the country came to an end. At that time, new buildings were built in the tradition of Baroque, but the bell tower and the library of the monastery were erected in the style of early classicism.

Pannonhalma Abbey in Hungary

View of the abbey from the town of Pannonhalm

When World War II was going on, the walls of the Benedictine monastery were used by the Red Cross to hide Jews from the Nazis. In 1945, when the pro-communist regime came to power in the country, the monastery was closed. The school in which the Benedictines taught also ceased to exist. In the 1990s, Hungary left the camp of socialist countries. The monks returned to the abbey, they resumed classes at the Benedictine college, and the grounds of the abbey were thoroughly restored.

The abbey today

One of the main attractions of the abbey is considered to be the Basilica of St. Martin. Most visitors come to this temple. Construction of the basilica began in the XIII century, and the reconstruction of this building took place in the course of seven centuries. The oldest part of the temple is the early crypt – an underground temple, where burials take place to this day. Experts believe the crypt was erected in the XII century, and the bell tower building was added to the temple much later, in the XIX century.

Inside the basilica one can see a gilded altar, exquisite stone carvings, multicolored stained glass windows, and star-shaped vaults decorated with frescoes. The southern portal of the church is made of sandstone and red marble. All the interiors were restored anew after the departure of the Ottoman Turks from the country – in the XVIII-XIX centuries.

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Pannonhalma Abbey in Hungary

The bell tower of St. Martin’s Basilica

The Baroque refectory also appeared in the monastery after the country’s liberation from the Ottomans in the 1720s. It is interesting not only for its external appearance, but also for its splendid frescoes. The frescoes on the walls of the refectory were made by the famous 18th-century master from Switzerland David Fossati. Thematically, all the painted biblical scenes are related to eating and eating. On the ceiling of the refectory one can see frescoes with King Istvan I as the main character.

At about the same time as the refectory, the Chapel of Our Lady was built in the abbey. The chapel was originally intended for guests of the abbey and residents of the surrounding Catholic parishes, and the monks were buried in its crypt. Today, inside the chapel there is a small organ from the 18th century and three elegant altars made in the Baroque tradition.

The monastery has a very rich library – one of the largest collections in Hungary, which contains more than 360,000 books. The building of the unique book repository was built in the 1920s. Two floors of the library are filled with massive oak cabinets with rare books, historical documents, and manuscripts. Among them, the Statute of Benedictine monastery of Tihany, the oldest written document found on the territory of Hungary and dated 1055, occupies a special place. The doors of the library cabinets are instructed with beautiful ornaments, and the high vaults of the rooms are decorated with frescoes. In one of the library halls one can see a large antique globe.

Pannonhalma Abbey in Hungary

The main entrance to the abbey

In front of the entrance to the book repository is a sculpture of a young man leaning over a desk. This expressive image is not accidental. In the Middle Ages there was a men’s school at the abbey where young men had the opportunity to receive a secular and theological education. The Benedictine college still teaches today. Most of its graduates devote their lives to church service.

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Another monument, located in the abbey, commemorates the 1,000th anniversary of the formation of Hungary. It appeared here in 1896.

Since 1820, on the territory of the monastery a beautiful botanical garden, which is called “Tree Nursery”. There are about 400 species of trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants.

Traditions of wine making

For many centuries the monastery, on an area of 37 hectares, has been growing grapes and making wine with a great taste. It is believed that the Romans brought the culture of grapevine cultivation to the territory of Hungary. The local tradition of winegrowing dates back to the abbey’s foundation and was only interrupted between 1945 and 1990 by the Hungarian authorities. During this time, the vineyards were nationalized. After the interruption the tradition of wine making was restored and in 2003 the monks made their first wine. The monastery’s coat of arms is decorated with a bunch of grapes.

Pannonhalma Abbey in Hungary

Today, in addition to its extensive vineyards, the monastery maintains a lucrative winery, which has an area of 2 thousand square meters. Here they make wines “Tramini”, “Rajnai Rizling”, “Sauvignon Blanc”, “Pinot Noir”, as well as liqueurs “St. Martinus”, “Tricollis”, “Hemina” and “Infusio”, which are very popular with locals and tourists.

Tourist visits to the abbey

The abbey has the status of a functioning monastery. Monks live here, and therefore not all the territory of the abbey is accessible for viewing. In 2004, there were 47 Benedictine monks living in the abbey, 14 of whom were clergy. The monks serve in 15 surrounding Catholic parishes, teach at the Benedictine college, care for plants in the “Tree Nursery” and grow grapes.

Tourists visit the abbey daily, coming here on their own and as part of organized tours. Visitors are welcome from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., and the museums are open until 4 p.m. If desired, guests of the abbey can use audio guides, including those in Russian.

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In the monastery it is interesting to hear the organ concert and performances of the choirs of monks and boys. Here you can visit the picture gallery, see the collection of ancient coins and stroll through the botanical garden. The abbey also has a store serving local wines, wine vinegar, herbal teas, aromatic oils and lavender. Visiting the grounds of the abbey is free, while there is a fee to visit the museums.

Pannonhalma Abbey in Hungary

An antique globe in the Abbey library

How to get there

The abbey is located in the small town of Pannonhalma, in the northwestern part of Hungary. The territory of the monastery occupies the top of a 282-meter-high hill. The nearest city Győr is located 20 km from the monastery. To Gyor from the capital Budapest take buses and trains.

From Győr you can get to the monastery by bus, which leaves several times a day from the city bus station. Another option is to come to the abbey by train. Get off at Pannonhalma station, which is located at a distance of 2 km from the monastery. From there you can get to the abbey on foot or by cab.

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