The Aftertaste – Sumeg Castle: A Not So Sweet Side of History (Three Castles In One Day: Part Three)

The castle at Sumeg was my final destination on what would turn out to be a three castle visit in just seven hours. I had wanted to visit Sumeg ever since I saw a fascinating photo on the fortepan.hu website from 1963. The site contains over seventy thousand photos taken in Hungary during the 20th century. Many of these are family photos, which give a unique look at daily life in the country during tumultuous times.

A sense of satisfaction in Sumeg circa 1963

A sense of satisfaction in Sumeg circa 1963 (Credit: fortepan.hu)

In Search Of A Mysterious Sense Of Satisfaction – Two Photos, One Castle
The photo from Sumeg captured my imagination. In it a lady stands outside the open passenger door of a Trabant automobile. She is looking towards the camera, with the ruins of Sumeg Castle standing high on a hill in the background. The lady’s eyes are hidden by sunglasses, but there is a look of complete satisfaction on her face. Her perfectly pleated skirt and stylish top give a sense of style. She looks to be out for a joyride while on holiday.  The lady and the Trabant have a symbiotic relationship in the photo, markers of their time. Something else from an earlier age, two white horses pulling a wagon cart, can be seen coming down the road opposite the Trabant. This is a snapshot of the new (Trabant, fashionably well-dressed woman) juxtaposed with the old (hilltop castle ruins, horse drawn wagon cart), an expression of 1960’s Hungary frozen in time, caught forever by an anonymous photographer. In some Hungarian family’s collection of old photographs this picture was kept until it was given a new life in digital format, half a century later.

This photo has stayed with me since the first time I saw it four years ago. I will forever associate it with Sumeg. The photo lured me to the town, both to see its castle and experience a semblance of the satisfaction represented by the look on that lady’s face. There was another photo that drew me to Sumeg. This one, taken much more recently, shows the castle illuminated at night. At first I thought the castle was glowing, as if on fire. It helped me imagine how the castle could have looked while under siege at night, set alight by artillery rounds exploding around and within its walls. There was a mysterious quality to the picture, a foreboding that lent itself to a darker side of the imagination. It pulled me into the photo and towards the castle, making me want to see the flaming world of those walls.

The path to Sumeg Castle

The path to Sumeg Castle

Presenting History – One Chimney Cake At A Time
With such pictures in mind, I could hardly wait to visit Sumeg. It was a day of perfect fall weather, warm, with a few fluffy clouds floating in the sky. Arriving in town, I did not find a castle in flames or a stylishly attired woman standing beside an old East German automobile. What I did find was a castle that was not to be missed. It was situated on Sumeg’s single notable hill, one that towered above everything else in the area. It could be spotted from a great distance. The conical shaped, limestone hill looked to have been created by nature as a home for Sumeg castle. In truth the castle was built in the 13th century following the Mongol destruction of a large majority of Hungary. Hilltop castles would act as secure fortresses where the population would be safe in the event of another invasion.  Sumeg Castle is one of the best examples of the many such castles that once dotted Hungarian hilltops. Its position turned out to be formidable enough that the Ottoman Turks never came close to conquering it. Only after the Austrians occupied western Hungary in the wake of Ferenc Rakoczi’s failed War of Independence at the start of the 18th century was the castle partially destroyed by fire. The ruins were vast enough that much of it could be rebuilt. Over the past couple of decades a reconstruction effort has brought the castle back to life.

For me, visiting Sumeg Castle was more fantasy than history, imagination rather than reality. That is largely true of most castles I have visited. I can hardly recall more than a few sparse details about what really occurred at these castles. Hardly anyone goes to a castle in search of a history lesson. Even a history zealot like me spends the entire time taking in the fabulous views and snapping photos. Whatever human history happened within the walls of Sumeg is largely lost on me. The idea behind most castle visits is to recreate some of the magic of medieval times. No matter that the people who once lived behind these castle walls had less to do with knights or gleaming suits of armor and more to do with survival in a chaotic world where warfare was the rule rather than the exception. Few visitors myself included, really care to hear the sordid details of what life was really like five hundred years ago, the disease, the suffering, the backbreaking hardships of manual labor and a low life expectancy where people were lucky to live beyond the age of thirty. Instead they are happy to eat a delicious chimney cake baked by a young lady in period clothing within one of the castle’s chambers. History today is meant to leave a good taste in your mouth. The true taste of history is bittersweet.

Sumeg Castle - illuminated

Sumeg Castle – illuminated (Credit: Attila Csaba Kontar)

Fantasy As History, Fantasy As Reality
From the walls of Sumeg Castle I had a panoramic view of the countryside. There were no hordes of Mongols, armies of marauding Turks or Austrian infantrymen sweeping the plain below, but I did spot a Tesco superstore. The modern, developed world of capitalism always awaits, a world that was unlike anything having to do with a castle. I asked myself what was more a fantasy, the castles I had visited or the way life is lived today. Sumeg Castle seemed more real, more tangible, more permanent than any superstore, but the history on offer behind its magnificent walls – an audio-visual presentation, paved walkways and souvenirs for sale – was not of the past. It was based on the present and that made it seem just as fantastical as the world I would soon travel back to.

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