The past really is a different country at Somosko Castle. Set atop a basalt peak, straddling the Hungarian-Slovakian border, are the crumbling castle ruins. At 526 meters (1,725 feet) these ruins are not especially lofty by the standards of hilltop fortresses, but the fact that they can be sighted towering over the Hungarian village of Somosko gives them an evocative presence. Driving through the village hundreds of meters below I found my eyes drawn upward. Among the small village homes tucked together up and down the winding village streets, the castle ruins would appear and then disappear. As the final road to the ruins was scaled, what was left of Somosko castle became more and more prominent. Yet the closer I got, the less entrancing the view. From a distance, the castle looked like a regal sentinel, keeping watch over the surrounding mountains and valleys. Up close, the crumbling edifice was less impressive, my perspective was now limited. There was no longer any space to help frame the view, now there were crumbling half walls and rough archways towering just above me. The size of the walls, even though much had vanished, was still imposing. The castle was not what I had thought it was going be. This mirrored my visit, which was also quite different from what I expected.
First Impressions – A Man & His Castle
At the entrance to the castle, stood the caretaker, dressed not in an official uniform, but in street clothes. He wore a thick jacket with a hood pulled over his head to protect against the fierce winter wind blowing through the barren, leafless trees covering the hillsides. I have been to at least fifty castles in Europe, but I had never seen anyone like this caretaker. He did not have any tickets to sell. Because of this, it was really up to the visitor whether or not they wanted to pay the nominal fee, which was handwritten on a placard. If not for his name tag, which stated his name and position, there was no way of separating this man from any other visitor. He had a small portable radio attached to him, on which he was listening to what sounded like a talk radio show in Hungarian. My feeling for this bizarre embodiment of a docent was one of deep and abiding gratitude.
It was Sunday morning, the temperature was 0 degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit) and the wind was gusting. He had to be freezing. His nose was running from the cold. Nonetheless, he stood their manning the entrance, giving directions, answering questions. If he had not been there, no one would have been allowed to go inside. Much to my surprise there were other visitors, a father with his young son and a couple. It was four days before Christmas, in the dead of winter on top of a mountain and Somosko Castle, at least what was left of it, was open to visitors all because of this one man. I began to wonder, what was more impressive the ruins or this man’s devotion to duty.
Crossing Historical Fault Lines – On The Border
From conversation, I learned that he worked pretty much every day. I also learned that though he lived in the Hungarian village at the foot of the castle, he worked for the state of Slovakia. His job straddled a historic fault line. He even took the time to point out the border markers which had been placed in the ground. The entrance to the castle stood in the middle of the Hungarian – Slovakian border. He showed where a border gate used to be situated. This was where an official border crossing had been located for many decades between Czechoslovakia and Hungary and later on between Slovakia and Hungary. With both nations now members of the European Union that crossing had been disassembled. It was hard to imagine why anyone would have gone to the trouble of erecting a border post, on the side of a hill, in the woods.
Then again it is hard to imagine the depth of ancient enmities or the dictates of totalitarian societies which once held sway over this region. Much is made these days about problems with the European Union, much less is said about all the good things this community of nations has brought about. Putting an end to ridiculous border posts is one of them, especially among countries that have much more in common than they are ever likely to admit.
What Really Matters – The Personal Over The Past
The caretaker at Somosko Castle – a historic site that just happens to be in Slovakia – is an ethnic Hungarian. Slovakia is not persecuting Hungarians they are employing them. The border is still there, but as much in theory as in practice. What a refreshing change from the past. The caretaker, his sense of duty and the information he shared was much more interesting than the castle itself. Sometimes history is no match for personal experience.
And really do the details of history matter when it comes to Somosko Castle. Hardly! Sure it is interesting to note that the first iterations of what would become the castle were laid out in the 14th century and that this was one of the few fortresses in Upper Hungary that the Ottoman Turks managed to occupy. Yet these tidbits are just random, disconnected facts. Any discerning person could stand atop the ruins of Somsko Castle and immediately realize its historical value. Specifically that location matters. It was placed atop a prominence to command the surrounding area. The location was in a fabulous defensive position. This was all well and good, but not half as interesting as the guy manning the entrance.
For All I Remember – Keeping History Alive
The journey to visit Somosko Castle had been transformed into something quite different. To be honest I do not remember much about walking among the ruins, I do not remember what the signboard explaining the castle’s history actually said. At this point I have to go back through my photos to get more than just a bare impression of what Somsko castle even looked like. What I do remember though, is that caretaker standing at the entrance waiting to assist the very few visitors who might arrive on a bone chilling winter day. I remember his sense of duty and his helpfulness. And I will never forget that man is the one who is keeping history alive for thousands of people, including myself.