One of the delights of traveling in Hungary is that a castle can be found almost anywhere. The country has approximately 2,000 castles. In a nation that is roughly the size of the state of Indiana, that is an astounding figure. Many of the wealthiest aristocratic families owned multiple castles, one of which usually acted as their home base while others were used as summer residences or second homes. Whether deep in a pastoral landscape or closer to a populated area, castles were often surrounded by many acres of landscaped gardens. Outlying areas of the property were used for agricultural purposes, or as timber reserves and hunting grounds. Settlements whether large or small developed adjacent to many castles. The aristocrats and their land holdings provided jobs and sustenance for much of the local population. It was an inherently unequal system, but also self-sustaining for many centuries.
A majority of the finest examples of these castles were built in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. This was a time when the Habsburgs in Austria to a greater or lesser extent controlled the Kingdom of Hungary. The aristocracy flourished and engaged in a showy display of wealth. They looked not just to Austria, but also further afield, in some cases all the way to the British Isles for stylistic inspiration. Even the oldest and most noble families of Hungary were susceptible to influences from abroad. A striking example of this can be seen today in the small village of Nadasdladany, in the countryside northwest of Szekesfehervar. This is where the Nadasdy Kastely can still be seen and visited today.
The Nadasdy Kastely takes its name from one of the oldest noble families in Hungary, the Nadasdys. The family traces its roots back to the early Middle Ages. At the Nadasdy Kastely gift shop there is a wall chart for sale listing every hereditary leader of the family in chronological order down through the centuries until the present day. The chart shows the first heir starting in 1190 and then proceeds all the way to the last one who died in 2013. This last heir moved back to the village following the end of the Cold War, after living abroad in prolonged exile first in Austria and then Canada. The Nadasdy family line may have just ended, but their gilded way of life collapsed earlier in the 20th century and what a way of life it was. Entering the castle grounds one is struck by the magnificent English Tudor style castle standing amid the 59 acre property. The Kastely’s creamy colored façade in English Gothic style looks like something one would expect to find in the British countryside. Such was the influence of the English gentry on certain Hungarian nobles that they attempted to replicate its architecture and values here in the heart of western Hungary.
Entering through the front doors, the beauty and grandeur of the exterior gives way to a relatively hollowed out interior. The Kastely’s interior was looted by both German and Soviets troops at the end of the World War II. Then time, in the form of neglect during four decades of communism, left the grand rooms mere shells with little hint of their former elegance. Most of the rooms are decorated with furnishings that have been borrowed from other museums or loaned by private benefactors. These give at least a semblance of what life was like inside the vast and spacious halls a century ago. Fortunately, there are several areas of the Kastely with original architectural elements that still retain a vestige of the past greatness that once pervaded the interior.
The first is the exquisitely named Hall of the Ancients. Step inside and the visitor enters an entirely different world. Elaborately carved stalls line the sides of the hall while wrought iron chandeliers hang precariously from the ceiling. Above the stalls are portraits of leading Nadasdys who carried the family mantle for generation after generation. The visitor’s eyes cannot help, but be drawn to the portraits of Ferenc Nadasdy and his wife Elizabeth Bathory. The latter portrait is likely to send chills up the spine of those who have come to know this lady as the “Blood Countess.” Bathory was reputedly one of the most prolific serial killers of all time. She was married to Ferenc Nadasdy, better known as the “Black Knight” for his martial exploits in battling the Ottoman Turks during the late 16th century. Though Elizabeth is far more famous, Ferenc was also known to be a master of cruelty to both the Turks and his own servants. When Elizabeth, already engaged to him as a teenager, was impregnated by one of the household servants, Ferenc had the young man castrated and then thrown to a pack of wild dogs. The husband and wife’s stern visages, placed side by side in the gallery, peer down at the onlooker. They cast a pale over the entire hall. Fortunately, these portraits were as close as the two ever got to Nadasdladany, which was built long after they passed into history.
Centuries of much more sane and genteel Nadasdy nobility are also portrayed in the hall. These include Ferenc’s father, Tamas, who among other things was the Great Palatine (akin to a Prime Minister) of Hungary, chief counselor to the Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand I and defender of Croatia from the Turks, all during the period between the 1530’s and 1562. Ironically, he was also a man of great learning who had been educated in Graz, Bologna and Rome. He spent much of his life promoting education. It is interesting to contemplate how a man of such skill and intellect could rear such a brutal son. Perhaps it was the experience of warfare with the Ottoman Turks that turned the elite of the Kingdom towards brutality.
Moving beyond the Hall of the Ancients, the visitor soon arrives in the spacious grand ballroom. Though only a few non-original furnishings are on display at present, during the communist era this area once included recreational equipment such as a ping pong table. That is because one wing of the Kastely was used as a school during this time and the ballroom became a recreational facility for the students. This seems like it would be the ultimate fantasy world for children. Speaking of fantasy, the library with its intricate woodwork still intact is a feast for the imagination. Designed by the master architect Alajos Hauzmann, a coffered wood ceiling, twisted columns and gallery proscribed by a wrought-iron balustrade all compliment the beautiful shelving. Now here is a place one could sit and read their life away. It is a the product of visionary enchantment.
And enchantment is perhaps the best word to describe the experience of a visit to the Nadasdy Kastely. With its fairy tale like exterior and reverential interior design , it seems to have been created for another world, both better and worse than the one of today. The collective whole gives the aura of a contradictory spirit, both festive and gloomy. And indeed the Nadasdy Kastely is from another world, filled with brilliance and madness, much like the family that gave it its name.