Kőszeg is what be termed “dramatically cute.” This historic town in extreme western Hungary, a handful of kilometers from the Austrian border, offers a feast for the eyes. It transports visitors back to an age where burghers once walked the streets, terra cotta roofs towered above the townscape and brightly painted buildings flashed a full spectrum of colors. Today, the old merchants are gone, but numerous buildings remain, creating an ensemble of aesthetic architectural beauty. The effect of Kőszeg’s architecture is both physical and psychological. Physical in the sense that its structural aesthetics are so well defined, it seems impossible that it could have ever existed in any other state than its current one. The town’s urban environment imposes itself upon the imagination. Psychological because the town’s architectural atmospherics are enough to make visitors believe that they are walking backward in time to the 17th and 18th centuries. Renaissance and Baroque architecture predominates throughout the pristine Belváros (Inner City). One of the more amazing things about Kőszeg is how it is of the past, but does not seem stuck within it. This is a vibrant town where history informs the present as much as it does the past. Because of this, it is all the more shocking to discover that the present has been much easier on Kőszeg than the past.
Perception Informs History – The Fantasy Of Kőszeg
Present day Kőszeg contains a highly subjective portrayal of history, showcasing both what people want to see and what they want to believe as it pertains to the past. The look and feel of the place today reveals more about human vanity, than it actually does about the town itself. It is a grand historical illusion and there is nothing really wrong with that. This is in no way meant to disparage Kőszeg. Each place should be allowed to nurse a historical fantasy, especially in Hungary where the past has been a lot less than pleasant. The interesting thing is that Kőszeg did not really exist in its current “historical” form until the end of the 19th century, though much of its architecture gives the idea that it is has been there for many centuries. Instead the past on display at Kossel has been pieced together. It does not constitute a whole from any certain era, instead remnants and fragments have formed into a collective.
One representation of this historical reality is front and center at the Church of the Sacred Heart, an eye catching piece of neo-Gothicism that is quite out of proportion with the square it soars over. An otherworldly fantasy, it works because of its sheer dissimilarity with the immediate surroundings. It was built in 1894 close to the heart of the inner town. Baroque is considered the quintessential architectural style in Kőszeg, but the church calls into question this stereotypical view. Sure it is only one structure, but it surmounts all its immediate surroundings. The long shadow of Sacred Heart casts itself upon the old town. Could an 18th century burgher have imagined such a fanciful creation here, it seems highly unlikely.
Flames & Remains – The Reality of Kőszeg
When it comes to Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture, Kőszeg has it in spades. There are hybrid examples such as the Városháza (Town Hall) and Sgraffito House which combine elements of multiple styles. Ornate columns display Holy Trinity and Holy Virgin statues from the Baroque era. A stone’s throw away is the late Renaissance St. Imre’s Church and late Gothic Church of St. James. It is as though the constructions of centuries past have been placed in close proximity to one another in order to engage the visitor in historical comparisons, contrasts and conversations. For all those historical structures still standing in Kőszeg, much more has been lost. The town famously held off a Turkish siege in 1532 against incredible odds, but most of it was left in ruins. Prior to the 20th century Kőszeg was reconstructed time and again. That makes the town which is on display today all the more remarkable. It was one of the few places in Hungary lucky enough to escape the ravages of World War II and the long period of communist rule that followed. The majority of medieval and early modern Kőszeg is gone. It went up in flames at the hands of invaders or surprisingly its own citizens. Kőszeg had a terrible problem with fire. Smoking was banned in the town after fires repeatedly gutted it during the 17th and 18th centuries. A law was instituted that anyone caught smoking was to be given 50 lashes.
Today much of the Belváros is built atop the rubble and ashes of wooden houses that succumbed to numerous conflagrations. The beautiful historic houses found throughout the inner city were lucky to have lasted at all. Many of their architectural ancestors lie beneath the cobblestone streets. Life and fate were not kind to Kőszeg in the early modern age, but that’s at odds with the impression of refinement on display today. The question comes to mind: Were these houses built to last or are they just the last lucky vestiges of their line? Here was the reality of history in Hungary for centuries: capricious, schizophrenic and unpredictable. If the citizens of 18th century Kőszeg were to visit the town today, they would probably be surprised to find so much of the architecture they inhabited still intact. In their own lifetimes, they had suffered through and then rebuilt after a succession of calamities. War, plague and fire remade Kőszeg. In turn, Kőszegians recreated the town. At some point in the 20th century the constructions and reconstructions stopped. Except for restorations, history became frozen. This is the history of Kőszeg that tens of thousands of visitors gawk at each year. It is the past and at the same time, nothing like it.
Window Shopping History
The paradoxical nature of what remains of Kőszeg’s historic architecture will not stop visitors from seeing every street as a museum, every building as a monument and every square as a gallery. Never mind that it only came to look this way in the 20th century. The “historical” Kőszeg that stands today only exists in the present. In truth, the only constant was change and uncertainty, upheaval and reclamation. Present-day Kőszeg gives only glimpses into the reality of that past. What’s really on display is a shop window of history, it looks great from the outside, but the true cost never really gets advertised.