Visegrad is a stunning sight. The visitor can see right away why the spot was chosen as the location of successive fortresses/castles stretching back nearly two millennia. The remains of this once magnificent complex stand high atop a rocky crag then snake down an exceedingly steep hillside until terminating close to the banks of the Danube River. This complex, once the capital of Hungary, was sited at a highly strategic location, guarding the entrance to the lower Danube. Due to the forces of geology, geography and topography Visegrad seems to have been chosen not so much by man, but nature to play a unique role in East-Central European history. Once humanity discovered the uniqueness of its natural setting, empires and kingdoms sought to co-opt its nearly impregnable position for defensive purposes.
Going on the Defensive – Visegrad’s Rise, Fall & Rise
Though famous for its role in Hungarian history, the history of Visegrad starts long before the coming of the Magyars. The location first gained prominence during antiquity. The Romans were the first to take advantage of the area’s natural setting. Here they situated a fortress where the mighty River Danube makes a wide arc at what is known as the Danube Bend. This was a critical strongpoint since it helped anchor the defenses which kept the Germanic barbarian tribes to the north at bay. After the Roman Empire collapsed, various tribes continued to occupy the fortress, including Slavic ones which came into the area during the Dark Ages. Not much is known about these tribes, but they did leave at least one lasting legacy. They gave the place a name that is still recognizable today, terming it “Vysehrad” which means “high fortification.” (One of over a thousand words borrowed from Slavic languages that have become part of spoken Hungarian today) The Slavic tribes of the Dark Ages were subsumed by the coming of the Magyars (Hungarians) who swept into the Carpathian Basin at the end of the 9th century. It was not long before the Hungarians were finding the site useful for their own purposes.
In the mid-13th century, a cataclysm of apocalyptic proportions brought about the Visegrad whose remnants can still be seen today. The Mongol Invasion in 1241-42 totally devastated what had been a prosperous Hungarian Kingdom. By one estimate, half of the Kingdom’s two million inhabitants were either killed or became refugees due to the onslaught. In the aftermath, the question was how to protect Hungary from another possible invasion. The answer came from King Bela IV (1235 – 1270) who began to seek out highly defensible places to fortify throughout the Kingdom. His wife, Queen Mary used wealth she had brought with her from the Greek Royal House to help finance the building of the castle/fortress complex. Visegrad became one of the most notable and long lived strategic responses to the utter destruction that had been wrought upon Hungary by the Mongols.
Remnants of a Golden Age
For nearly three centuries a host of Hungarian Kings used Visegrad during a golden age which saw them expand their realms from the Baltic to the Black Seas. The first to move here was King Charles Robert (1308 – 1342) in 1323 who wanted to put distance between his court and Buda’s majority German populace. Even after Charles’ successors moved the court back to Buda they continued to pursue work on a palace and castle complex he had started construction on close to the Danube’s banks. The most lavish renovations took place during the reign of King Matthias Corvinus (1458 -1490) who had the buildings associated with Visegrad redone not once, but twice. First in late Gothic style and then transformed to incorporate Renaissance ideas taking hold. It was the Ottoman Turks who would end the Golden Age of Visegrad just a scant half century after Matthias death. Following their occupation of Buda in 1541, they conquered Visegrad via siege warfare three years later. The castle and palace soon fell into disrepair, but the ruins remained to communicate some of Visegrad’s majestic glory to visitors down through the centuries. In the 20th century a major restoration took place. This effort gives a splendid approximation of Visegrad’s greatness.
A Medieval Fortress At Its Peak – Visiting Visegrad
Today Visegrad consists of three must see sites. The first are the palace ruins. In the late 15th century, the palace contained one of the most marvelous royal residences in Europe. Laid out on a square ground plan, there were over 300 rooms on multiple tiers with hanging gardens. Lavish fountains would spew wine during grand events. Among the remnants of the palace that can still be seen today is a loggia. This was among the first Renaissance architectural elements used on a building in Europe outside of Italy. Next is the Solomon Tower (Lower Castle), one of the more impressive examples of a Keep found anywhere in Europe. At one time a string of these Keeps connected the lower part of Visegrad to the top of the citadel. This must have been quite a sight, intimidating to all but the most formidable of attackers. Unfortunately these defenses still could not stop the Ottoman Turks. During a raid in 1544, the south side of Solomon Tower collapsed. Visegrad was lost and the fortress slowly succumbed to ruin.
The last site is the most impressive of all, the towering Upper Castle looming far above the river, palace and Solomon Tower. It can be accessed via shuttle or footpath. A hike to the Upper Castle leaves the most lasting and exhausting impression. What a task it must have been for any would be conqueror to successfully mount an attack. The Ottoman Turks skill at siege warfare was such that even this daunting task was undertaken with success. From the top of the Upper Castle, the sky above seems close enough to touch, if not with the hand than with one of the citadel’s bastions. The effect is dizzying. It is as though the citadel is floating. Here at the heights of Visegrad, is a medieval castle complex at its peak.