The term castle has a fantastical meaning for many of us who grew up in the United States. This is most likely due to the influence of pop culture icons such as Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom castle, which looked as though it was conjured up in the eclectic imagination of an architectural wizard. A close second to the glistening spires and sparkling facade of the Magic Kingdom castle, was a stereotypical house of horror, placed high upon a rocky precipice. This type of castle was a profusion of angular spires and defensive turrets, sprinkled in with a liberal dose of foreboding atmospherics. In other words, the haunting abode of Count Dracula.
When I first traveled to Europe I was somewhat shocked to discover that most castles are not like this at all. Though appealingly designed, they hardly match the stereotypical image. Castles come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, ranging from little more than walled enclosures to full blown defensive works the size of a small town. Castle architecture is dependent mainly upon the historical era in which it was constructed as well as its purpose. For instance, hilltop castles were more fortresses than homes. These reached their zenith during the Middle Ages when warfare was near constant and the precariousness of existence placed security as the highest priority. Beginning in the 18th century, stylistic changes occurred due to an era of extended peace across much of continental Europe. This ushered in a new architectural age for castles which has come to be defined as the Baroque. The Baroque era of castle architecture in turn gave way to the classicist style movement, characterized by an aesthetic of stately grandeur. Both of these styles left an indelible mark on the castles of central and eastern Europe.
A Shining Example of Historic Restoration
Much of this legacy can be seen across Hungary today. At last count there were some 2,000 castles in Hungary, only about a third of which are protected. Its most famous and notable castles, were built during a time span beginning in the 18th century and continuing all the way up until the first decade of the 20th century. While many Hungarian castles have attributes which conform to stereotypical images, the Hungarian word for castle – kastely – also takes into account other stylized creations. Many kastelys are more like gigantic manor houses. At one time these happened to be the home bases of the large landed estates which covered Hungary up until the First World War.
I had the distinct pleasure of visiting one of these recently in Balmazujvaros, a small city on the Great Plain of eastern Hungary. The structure on display, close to the town’s main square, is known as Semsey Castle. It is one of the finest examples of classicist architecture to be found in Hungary today. The Castle’s name comes from the noble Semsey family who held title to the rich agricultural land surrounding the town for generations on end. Semsey castle just had a grand reopening on December 5th. On display were the fruits of a two year refurbishment project funded by the European Union to promote the rich cultural heritage of Balmazujvaros. One look at the eye popping yellow exterior was enough to magnetically focus the gaze. At first glance, the exterior seemed almost too blindingly bright, that was until I viewed photos of the kastely prior to the refurbishment. Before (see above photo) there was only a drab, decaying façade, the product of decades long neglect by the communist state. Now (see next photo) the façade emanates a revelatory brightness, a ray of structural sunlight perpetually shining at the heart of this small city.
The interior is not to be outdone either. Each exhibit room is furnished with richly upholstered ottomans that visitors can use to rest while pondering the displays concerning the town’s local history (a number of famous Hungarian writers were from here), as well as the cultural wares and traditions of the area’s people. These included exhibits on the gulyas (Hungarian cowboys), who had spent the past several centuries roaming the nearby, vast landscape of the Hortobagy, an area which is today protected as both a National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Even with the displays only in Hungarian, the archival photos and original artifacts visually communicated the wealth of tradition that this otherworldly landscape of sky and horizon surrounding Balmazujvaros has bequeathed upon its inhabitants.
A New Reality
On a personal note, perhaps the most engaging exhibit for me was a singular painting of the Semsey family tree. Starting just above the base of the tree’s trunk were a series of blossoms representing a succession of generations, the first of which began over 750 years ago, in the middle of the 13th century. Before my eyes was the visual realization of a family which had inhabited this land from the Dark Ages up through modern times. The painting provided an artistic representation of the venerability of Hungarian existence in the Carpathian Basin.
A visit to the Semsey Kastely is more than just a way to reconnect with the opulence and elegance so integral to the life of the great estates and landed gentry. It is also a way to redefine what a castle actually means. It is a well spring of culture, tradition, and the arts. The Semsey Kastely stands as both part of a grand architectural tradition and outside of it. It helps redefine the concept of a castle, presenting the visitor with a new idea, a new reality, much more vibrant than anything that could have been imagined.