God’s busy bees – Archabbey Pannonhalma

It has been a couple years since I last visited the Archabbey of Pannonhalma and I remembered only the gloominess of the church rising from the gently sloping land. But then more and more news reached me from different sources about how nicely the complex has been renovated. So I waited for the perfect moment – the opening of the annual Lavender festival – to hit the road.

Driving towards the Abbey, the first building which comes into sight is the astoundingly modern block of the Viator restaurant. It seems to levitate and thus it foretells the unbelievable progression and energetic spirit that characterizes the area.

Get organized

As there are so many interesting sights in the monastery, it is worth planning your trip in advance. We started at the vinery. The cellars and the vinery complex can only be visited in groups; therefore, we made arrangements a couple days ahead. The next fixed item on our agenda was the lavender walk. During the festival there is a guided horticultural tour each day starting at 1.00 p.m. In between the two guided tours, we scheduled our lunch, although we were a bit worried about the short time frame we allowed ourselves. Just to be sure, we chose our dishes in advance, and before the vinery tour, we knocked on the door of the still closed restaurant to place our orders. The kind waitress immediately understood our concerns and promised that our lunch would be ready by 12 noon sharp.

Where gravitation also helps

With the satisfaction of excellent organization, we set out towards our first program on the agenda, the tour of the wine cellars. The Pannonhalma Archabbey has owned vineyards since its creation, as viticulture has always been an essential part of the monastic life. In the beginning of the 1900s, the size of the Abbey’s estates might have been around 100 hectares in the Pannonhalma vicinity.  However, the Abbey also had vineyards in the Somló and Tokaj-Hegyalja regions.

After World War II, vine-growing and the winery was secularized and church properties confiscated. The viticulture that thrived for a thousand years perished. The revival of the vine-growing and wine-producing tradition in the Abbey began 10 years ago, when part of the old estate was re-purchased and the vine-stock planting program was initiated. Next the new cellar and wine house were built, and from March 2004 the new Abbey Winery also welcomed visitors.

The winery, extending over 2000 sq. meters with a storage capacity of 3000 hectoliters, uses the most advanced technology, just as in the past. The expert advisor during the construction was Tibor Gál, a viticulturist from Eger. The complex utilizes effectively the local topography and despite its several levels, fits the landscape naturally.

In the four storey building where grapes are processed, everything is based and built on the principles of gravitation to protect the wine from any external impact during production. From the top floor, we continued along the route of the wine to the cellars, where you also have the chance to taste some of the prepared nectar. However, with our schedule being so tight, we passed on this opportunity to have enough time for lunch.

Gastronomy at its best

While walking from the high-tech winery to the most modern restaurant in the country, one easily forgets that he/she is walking in the yards of a millennium old monastery. The Viator was built on a hilltop neighboring the monastery, just next door to the new Visitors‘ Centre, and was opened in 2010. We learned from one of the workers that at the very beginning, visitors were perplexed and baffled by the modern, minimalist building with its glass walls and facade.  Nevertheless, they got used to it quite soon, and today it is almost self-evident to stop by for lunch.

And why should we be surprised that alongside the Romanesque basilica, the Gothic cloisters, the Baroque buildings of the monastery and the Classicist library that contemporary architecture also appears in Pannonhalma? From the inside a fantastic panorama of green landscape is revealed, and from the terrace we can take pleasure in admiring the orchard. There is something pleasant in sipping your lavender lemonade in the calming sight of some lavender bushes. The restaurant prepares a special menu for the Lavender festival, which we also chose from. By the dessert stage, we hummed with satisfaction: the gorgeous milieu combined with the excellent dishes and the impeccable service gave us the perfect experience.

With a full stomach it was a bit harder to reach our next destination, the herb garden. It is good to know that the locations within the complex (the visitor’s center, winery, herbal garden and abbey) are a couple hundred of meters apart and some may only be reached after climbing a few dozen stairs as well. It is therefore worth planning your trip with some extra time reserved for these transfers.

The botanical garden has a very long and rich history dating back several hundred years, as monks have always carefully grown and collected herbs for healing the sick. The botanical garden, where hundreds of tree and bush species may be found, offers a splendid view and extraordinary attractions in every season, although it might be the most magical during the lavender season. We grew speechless just by seeing a glimpse of the endless lavender fields, and felt we were in a dream when the thick scent of lavender hit us upon entering the distillery .

Lavender Weeks

During the Lavender weeks, the whole procedure of lavender-processing – from the harvest until the oil is made – can be observed. It is a curiosity that the organic waste produced in the process is further utilized in an eco-friendly and economical heating apparatus. The unique Biomass Heating System was constructed in 2009, and provides 60% of the heat needed in the monastery.

The job of lavender-pickers is beautiful but hard: among the bushes hundreds of bees are flying, and without question, they sting the laborers. The only question is how many times this will happen during the day. From the laborers geared with small scythes, we learned that they prevent the possible allergic reactions with a calcium injection, and fight the itch with Fenistil gel. Seeing the swarm of bees is good enough warning for the visitors not to rifle with the lavender fields.

Last but not least, we set off to visit the Archabbey, which is the last standing example of the classical monastery of Benedictine tradition in Hungary. From spring 2013, visiting the monastery has also been modernized: there is no need to wait for a group tour to start, individual visitors can now walk through the building at their own pace with the help of audio guides. The length of an audio-tour can be regulated by turning on and off different options. We could stay and look around any point of the tour as long as we wanted, as the device senses our location and starts the commentary accordingly.

Modern details of interior design can be found in the 13th century basilica, as well as a result of the last restoration finished in 2012 and realized by the plans of the English architect, John Pawson. A modern lamp and a minimalist row of chairs, that self-evidently fits into the medieval space, gives us a chance to wonder over and over again about the courage it takes to accomplish such a task, and how beautifully Pawson succeeded in renewing the basilica whilst also respecting the traditions.

One of the most beautiful parts of the Abbey is the library, finished in the first third of the 19th century. As if we were walking in a sanctuary; thousands of antique books and prints involuntarily silence the visitors and so they are walking with inaudible quiet steps among the heavily laden bookshelves. The archives also hold invaluable treasures, for example the first known written text containing Hungarian words – the founding Charter of the Tihany Abbey dating back to 1055. Close by, the St. James Guesthouse of the Archabbey offers clean, simple, affordable accommodation to groups as well as individual visitors.

Where music, theater, visual arts and film meets

We left with the distinct conviction that Pannonhalma does not only mean the Archabbey’s edifice and nostalgia, but rather a unique and exciting experience. Although the Catholic church is usually untimely, archaic and eternal, here the sense of open-minded progression pervades the area. Naturally, for these accomplishments a leader is also needed, who not only upholds the historical values but also recognizes the necessity of change and eagerly realizes them.

The grand touristic redevelopment program is strongly connected to Abbot Asztrik Várszegi, who achieved this spectacular modernization – of both architecture and spirituality – thanks to different EU grants and banking investments. The open-minded Benedictine community won’t hide behind strict formalities and refuse challenges, rather they incite thinking and discussion with popular events. The Archabbot, whom I had a chance to hear earlier on a lecture, charms everyone with his simple and humble yet sweepingly authentic and impressive personality. This spirit floats around every corner of the Abbey.

Besides the Lavender festival, the Archabbey offers a variety of colorful events and programs the whole year round. Organ concerts, jazz nights, exhibitions, winery masterclasses, folklore programs follow each other. An art festival is held each August, where music, theater, visual arts and film meet in their classical and modern variant – the duality of which is so characteristic for the whole complex. The Benedictines are obviously God’s busy bees, even now.