CSATKA, Hungary (Reuters) - Thousands of Roma from Hungary and beyond flock every year to a shrine to the Virgin Mary in a chapel among undulating hills, to pray for good health, happiness and luck in love.
Some actually find love there, like Adam Vidak and his wife Nikoletta who met at the huge party after the holy mass last year and have now returned. They want their newborn to be christened at the shrine, where the main Roma mass this year took place on Saturday.
“We met each other on Facebook and arranged a date here, we came, we liked each other, then we got in the car and off we went,” said Vidak, 22, as 20-year old Nikoletta cradled the baby boy in her arms.
“The next day we called her parents, told them we were together and shortly afterwards we had our wedding.”
Hungary has an estimated 700,000 Roma, one of the largest Roma minorities in Central Europe. Most of them live in poverty. The Roman Catholic chapel in Csatka, around 120 km (75 miles) west of Budapest, is their main place of pilgrimage, but many non-Roma Hungarians also come to pray.
Roma families come carrying big candles and statues of the Virgin Mary, and draw water from the sacred spring next to the chapel which is believed to have magic healing powers.
Some arrive in traditional outfits, like Zoltan Sztojka, 42, who wears a yellow silk shirt and a black vest embroidered richly in gold. He came with more than 40 family members from Soltvadkert, eastern Hungary.
“Roma have been coming here for 150-200 years, so we have to be here. Everybody comes to lay down our sins, pray for luck, strength and health,” he says, showing an enormous silver ring with a finely engraved horse, the coat of arms of his family.
The chapel was built in 1862, and at that time a hermit lived at the site. Even under Hungary’s four decades of communist rule from 1949, Roma came here in horse-drawn carts.
Now there is a huge parking lot for cars and caravans, as some people camp out over the weekend.
On the hill, a large family have set up camp, and are cooking tripe stew over a campfire.
As a child, Sandor Jakab, 60, used to come here by cart with his parents. Now he brings his family for three days each year from the village of Erd.
“We have our fridge and freezer here, full of meat and drinks,” he says.
Is it true that many Roma families seek wives and husbands for their children during the pilgrimage?
Jakab replies with his brother-in-law standing next to him.
“Now let’s say, for example, suppose the two of us know each other, then we would have a few drinks, and he has a daughter and I have a son....then we would chat and I would ask whether I can go to you to see your daughter (as a potential bride).”
He says promises made at Csatka are carved in stone.
But he does not agree with the huge party, loud music and dance that follows the prayers on the hillside.
“My family does not go there... We pray and spend time together. This music is not for this place,” he says.
Reporting by Krisztina Than; Editing by Mark Trevelyan