The make believe castle at Disney’s Magic Kingdom is the only one I ever really imagined visiting in my life. Real castles, like the one shown in Monty Python’s The Holy Grail film, were beyond any travel dreams I could conjure. Now at the age of forty five I still have not been to the Magic Kingdom and have no plans to ever visit the castle there. Perhaps this is because I have been fortunate enough to spend so much time at historic castles in Europe. I have visited close to one hundred castles in Scotland, Slovakia and Slovenia, Austria, Hungary and Germany, Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine, everything from hilltop fortresses to barely recognizable ruins, the ornate and decadent, from fully furnished interiors to empty, cavernous rooms. I can scarcely recall many of these castles, most of their names now escape me. I have only the vaguest recollection of that otherworldly architecture sculpted out of stone and shaped by historic forces that have long since vanished along with their owners from a long, lost world. My most vivid memory of visiting castles does not concern a single spectacular structure, but instead of one day spent in southwestern Hungary when I was fortunate enough to see three castles in six hours. Hopping across the hills and plunging into the valleys north of Lake Balaton allowed me to visit Szigliget, Kinizsi and Sumeg castles in succession.
Climbing To A Castle – The Way To Szigliget
There is no substitute for an automobile when it comes to maximum travel mobility in the Hungarian countryside. Public transport would have taken me to the three castles I longed to visit, but not in a single day. A car, a map and a plan were all that I really needed. Jumping on the M7 in Nagykanizsa was just the start. Within half an hour I was on the S71, skirting the beautiful city of Keszthely on the northern shore of Lake Balaton. From there, it was a short drive on the heavily trafficked road through holiday towns, vacation bungalows and vineyards, until the prominence of the 239 meter Varhegy (Castle Hill) on which the remnants of Szigliget Castle suddenly came into view. From several kilometers away the ruins stand out, protruding from the hilltop. Turning off the main highway towards the castle, the secondary road to the castle was exceedingly steep. It climbed a couple hundred meters in less than a kilometer. A small parking lot signaled the furthest extent that cars were allowed to go.
The final ascent would have to be made over a cobbled way, by foot, up what looked to be at least a 20% grade. This climb communicated to me the sheer brute physicality, strength and toil that it would have taken to carry rock and stone to such heights. Such arduous, backbreaking labor would have been the death of many an unlucky peasant. I consider myself to be in good physical condition, but by the time I reached the lower part of the ruins I was almost out of breath. And the climb was far from over. Szigliget Castle, or at least what was left of it, sprawled over the hillside, crawling upward until the walls stand high above the surrounding land. Distracted by the ruins, it is easy to forget that the hill the castle stand upon was the central reason for its location. Nature had conspired to create a hill that was just as formidable as the fortress which had been placed atop it. The hill was here long before any castle and while the stone walls of Szigliget were slowly degrading, Varhegy would certainly outlast any man made structure. For that matter, there is an excellent chance the hill will outlast humanity.
Remnants & Ruins – Piecing Together The Past
As for the castle its period of human activity lasted four and a half centuries, from the mid-13th until the end of the 17th century. The most interesting era was during the Turkish wars when the castle was under constant threat. If anyone ever wonders what stopped the Ottoman Turks from taking Vienna and surging across central Europe, they should look no further than castles and fortresses along the military frontier in Hungary. Szigliget castle was the scene of multiple sieges and innumerable pitched battles that raged on and off for decades. Hungary suffered gravely during the Turkish occupation, but the Ottomans met fierce resistance in northern and western Hungary, areas that they were only able to subdue momentarily. One of the main crucibles in which this conflict was fought included castles such as Szigliget, highly contested areas in which Turkish military forces were faced with unyielding opposition. Szigliget castle never fell to the Turks. There is no telling how many bones are buried beneath the slopes of Varhegy.
The human cost of near constant warfare for decades on end can only be imagined. This led to a slow but progressive erosion of Ottoman power which contributed to its final collapse at the end of the 17th century. Szigliget did not long survive the end of the Turkish military threat. Its hilltop situation made it a natural target for nasty weather events. Violent thunderstorms often sweep across the waters of Lake Balaton, gaining momentum and ferocity before they strike land or in Szigliget’s case, the nearest thing to the sky. A lightning strike started a major conflagration in the late 17th century which badly damaged much of the existing structure making it uninhabitable. Then in an ironic twist, the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I, whose domains had been partly saved from Turkish conquest by the martial fortitude of Szigliget and other Hungarian castles, ordered that such fortresses be destroyed, lest they become hubs of Hungarian rebellion against Austrian rule.
Stunning, Shimmering Reflections – A View From Varhegy
The ruins of Szigliget today are still quite impressive, giving a rough idea of just how formidable a castle once stood within sight of the mesmerizing bluish green waters of Lake Balaton. It is this view that leaves the greatest impression. The shimmering silver reflection on the water as shafts of sunlight strike the surface of the Balaton. The view from the remnants of Szigliget Castle is stunning and well worth the climb. Seeing this made me ready for another castle, just an hour away.