Camera Obscura

Trip Start Jun 08, 2010
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Trip End Aug 26, 2010


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Flag of Hungary  ,
Saturday, July 31, 2010

After a parade of art and history museums, today I was able to visit a science museum, or maybe a science history museum or a historical science museum. The city of Eger was mostly known for its wine and its castle, but my first stop of the day was the Lyceum. The Lyceum was established at the end of the 18th century by Count Károly Esterházy, no word on any relation to Nikolaus Esterházy of palace and fireworks fame. The count wanted to found a university, but some unspecified dispute with the Hapsburg powers-that-be prevented him from establishing a full university. He called it a "Lyceum" instead and eventually politics changed and it was able to become an official college. There was still an active college in the building today.

The original library was there too, and it was open for tourists. The shelves were just as tall, but the books were not as colorful, as at either the Pannonhalma Abbey or Festetics Palace libraries. There was an impressive mural on the library ceiling. It depicted the Trent Synod, because the count was also a bishop and he saw the synod as calling for a renewed commitment to education as a means of renewing the Church. The four corners symbolized themes from the assembly: ordination of priests, censorship of books (ironic?), reverence of the Virgin Mary and Saints, and the Sacrament of the Ill. The ceiling dome appeared to be quite deep, but apparently it was all a trick of perspective as the actual depth of the dome was not more than a meter.

The second bit of science history was an astronomy exhibit in the building's old observatory. There was a collection of telescopes and other astronomical equipment. My favorite was a sundial with a small cannon attached. The sunlight at noon was focused by a lens to heat the powder and set it off to signal the time. The owner had inscribed the modest motto: "The Sun directs me, but the Shadow directs you."

There was also a room with a bunch of "science magic" demonstrations for kids, but the best demo was the camera obscura. The camera obscura was similar to a periscope, with mirrors and lenses redirecting a view from above, but instead of looking at the light directly, it was focused onto a white table, like projecting a movie onto a screen. It wasn't a camera in the sense of recording images and transmitting them, it was a simple, optical device with no chemicals or electricity involved.

I want one for my house. The guide used the camera obscura to show us a panorama of the city and pointed out the various landmarks. My favorite part, though, was watching the people and the cars moving through the city. The lenses and mirrors had a slight distorting effect on the image, so it wasn't just like looking off the top of the roof. There was an odd perspective to the picture, like a computer was drawing the image, but the calculations were a little off. It didn't quite look like a computer or movie image, though, because the resolution was perfect. It was fascinating, and the lack of sound to go with the images also added an eerie effect.

For lunch, I stopped at a restaurant listed in my guidebook and had a gigantic broccoli "pancake". It was really more like a crepe, but it was gigantic. I liked it at first, but it wore out it's welcome in my stomach as the meal went on. I saw just about everyone else taking half of theirs to go. I had no fridge to put mine in, so some of it stayed on the plate.

Full of broccoli and pancake, I climbed the hill to Eger Castle. This castle was somewhere between Sümeg and Szigliget on the cheese scale. There were tents selling tacky castle-themed souvenirs. There were also "medieval" guards who took themselves way too seriously. They seemed to think they were at Buckingham Palace or maybe the Hungarian Parliament rather than a tourist-attraction castle in a mid-sized town. One of the older guards got upset when I tried to take a picture of him giving another guard a glass of water. As if it would break the glorious myth of the unflagging sentinels of Eger Castle. The castle also had the same annoying pricing structure as Festetics. One ticket to see the grounds, another to see some of the exhibits, another to see a different exhibit, another to take pictures of some of the exhibits, etc.

So given all that I was prepared, even hoping, to hate the castle museum, but I just couldn't. The mid-sized museum had a collection of quality folk arts and crafts items (one of my favorites was a chess set where the pawns were tradesmen holding the symbols of their various professions), medieval paraphernalia (mostly reproductions), and a cogent history of the castle and it's famous siege, with English descriptions.

You see, probably the reason the old guy was so vain about being a pretend guard at Eger Castle was because it was the scene of a legendary Hungarian battle against the encroaching Ottoman forces. From reading the museum descriptions, it was something of their Alamo, except the Hungarians won. István Dobó and his small band of defenders held out for over a month against an army of tens of thousands of Ottoman soldiers until winter came (really early fall, but it must have seemed cold to the southern invaders) and the Turks retreated to their barracks. Over forty years later, the Turks returned and captured the castle, but the initial victory was a source of Hungarian pride nonetheless. The stories and monuments of the battle even depict women helping to rain stones and tar down on the attackers.

The basic museum package also included entrance to the castle gallery. It contained a small collection of mostly Renaissance art. In total, it was good but not spectacular. It was certainly better than it deserved to be in that cheesy castle. My favorite works were a set of landscape paintings by a Hungarian artist, although most of the works were by foreign artists, including works by an unnamed "Netherlandish" master.

Before leaving the castle, I ducked into the Prison Museum, which was also included with combo ticket. I've said before I didn't care for that type of exhibit, and I only went into this one because I was hoping to wait-out some distant thunder. Unfortunately, the Prison Museum didn't take that much time, especially since I wasn't actually interested in it, and it was all in Hungarian anyway.

Having run out of included exhibits, I didn't want to hang around the castle for another hour to wait for the storm to clear, so I decided the lightning was far enough off to make a break for my car. Plus, the top of a hill didn't seem the best place to wait-out a thunderstorm. Of course on the way down the hill, I remembered I still hadn't been over to the minaret. Eger had a minaret that was said to be the "northernmost historical building from the Turkish era in Europe". I had seen it from several points around town, but I wanted to actually go up to it and find out if it was as slender as it appeared.

I made it to the minaret without incident and confirmed three people could probably wrap their collective arms around them base (okay, maybe three pro-basketball players). Above the base, the minaret narrowed, and I can't imagine there was room inside for anything other than a single-person staircase. You could go up in the minaret, but there was a line and it also seemed to be a bad place for viewing a storm so I made my way to my car, ducking under awnings as needed when the rain finally did arrive. I got stuck under one for almost half an hour waiting for the rain to lighten since I'd brought my umbrella with me from the hotel, but left it in my car. Well, it was half a good plan anyway.

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