An Anachronism In Action – Wenckheim Palace: Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Experience

My visit to Wenckheim Palace brought with it sadness. The palace’s state of decay was too obvious to ignore. There was a tragic beauty in the cracked and faded ochre exterior. In places, the palace looked moments away from a state of semi-ruin. Rooms were largely vacant, once lavish furnishings had long since vanished along with the aristocrats and servants who once filled these gilded chambers with the passion of life. The thought that the palace was soon to be restored was heartening, but no amount of restoration would bring back its most glorious era. The fact that there was almost no information about those who once lived and died in this dream palace was heart wrenching. I saw history in stone everywhere, and very little human history anywhere. The stories of innumerable lives had been lost to history or so I thought.

A Noble Encounter - Wenckheim Palace

A Noble Encounter – Wenckheim Palace

Noble Encounters – Between The Woods & The Water
On July 15, 2018 I published a post on this blog entitled, The Bishop’s Tomb – An Act of Faith (Vilmos Apor Part One). The post talked about the famed Catholic Bishop of Gyor, Vilmos Apor, who had done so much to protect Jews during the Holocaust in Hungary. Apor had been tragically murdered near the end of the war while trying to protect women from being raped by Red Army soldiers. The day after I published the post I received the following reply from ATTICUS (a regular commenter on my posts): “see: for account of meeting between Patrick Leigh Fermor and Bishop Apor’s brother, Baron Gabor Apor, in Transylvania in 1934.”

ATTICUS turned out to be Michael O’Sullivan, a retired English Literature professor who had just published, “Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania”, the book for which he provided the link. I already owned a copy of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between The Woods and The Water, which I had yet to read. It was this volume that contained the material which formed the basis for O’Sullivan’s book. In 1933-34, Fermor walked from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. This journey led him to write two books over a half century later that quickly became classics of the travel genre. In the second one, Between The Woods and The Water, Fermor documented his journey across Hungary and Transylvania. He had spent several months staying with various aristocrats while experiencing their way of life. Little did Fermor realize it at the time, but this way of life was about to be swept away by the whirlwind of war.

A Ray Of Light – A People & Palace Renewed
I immediately began searching for O’Sullivan’s book, but it was not yet available for purchase in the United States. Thus, I resolved to buy it when I traveled to Budapest in mid-August. In the meantime, I began to read Between The Woods and The Water. I also began searching for reviews of O’Sullivan’s book. I found an excellent one online in the English language journal, Hungarian Review. While reading a review of the book my pulse quickened as I came across the following sentence, “In Mr O’ Sullivan’s pages we watch again the game of bicycle polo at Count József Károly and Ferenc Mária Wenckheim’s castle, after which PLF found himself dining with a Habsburg Archduke.” This anecdote illuminated a bit of Wenckheim Castle’s human history. A ray of light had been cast on the world of Wenckheim Palace which I had wrongly assumed would forever be hidden from me by a perpetual shadow. It gave me hope that I might learn much more about the interior life of that fabulous palace.  It took every bit of willpower I could muster to avoid jumping ahead in Between The Woods and The Water to read about Fermor’s experience at Wenckheim. I eagerly read a quarter of the book before Fermor arrived at Wenckheim Palace by catching a ride with a couple of nuns.

Fermor had been told earlier in his trip by a cousin of Weckenheim Palace’s owners that “it was a strange house, but we’re fond of it.” This was a spot-on description. Fermor eloquently describes his first impressions of the palace as a “vast ochre-colored pile…there were pinnacles, pediments, baroque gables, ogees, lancets, mullions, steep slate roof, towers with flag flying and flights of covered stairs ending in colonnades of flattened arches. Great wings formed a courtyard and, from a terrace leading to a ceremonial door, branching and balustraded steps descended to a sweep.” Reflecting on the day of my own visit, much of Fermor’s description still applied, minus a flag flying. The courtyard where Fermor, Count Joszi and four others played a fierce game of bicycle polo was still intact. I suddenly had visions of the soon to be renewed palace holding reenactments of bicycle polo matches. Of course, I was thinking of historical accuracy rather than visitor safety.

A Fresh Light - Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania by Micheal O'Sullivan

A Fresh Light – Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania by Micheal O’Sullivan

Notable Exceptions – Fashion & Frivolity’s Final Fling
Count Joszi and his wife, Countess Denise (as Fermor refers to her in his book), were living a life most people of that time could only dream about. They were products of an intermarriage, first cousins long before they were husband and wife. According to Countess Denise they should have been raving lunatics by the laws of genetics. These types of familial/marital ties were the rule, rather than the exception in many aristocratic families. They observed quixotic customs and habits that had become antiquated elsewhere. Fermor watched as Count Joszi took long, elegant draws from an antiquated water pipe known as a chibook. The pipe had long since fallen out of fashion in most parts of Europe. This lasting vestige of eastern exoticism fascinated Fermor, who soon joined in.

Much of what Fermor witnessed at Wenckheim Palace was an anachronism in action with one notable exception. He recalled how Countess Denise’s sister, Cecile, suddenly announced that she must leave for Budapest. Fermor followed Count Joszi and others out to a field where Cecile boarded a plane. The pilot spun the propeller to start the plane. Soon thereafter the pilot and Cecile took flight, heading westward to Budapest. This was a riveting example of technology entering an entirely different world, one that had more in common with the 19th rather than the 20th century. It would be exactly a decade later when more many more planes appeared in the skies above eastern Hungary. These would be carrying bombs rather than passengers. Fermor’s book acts as one of the final witnesses to a land and people on the cusp of transformational change. Fermor had no idea what was to come at the time of his visit. This life of frivolity and fashionable excess would soon come to an end, but as Fermor’s remarkable writing shows, it was good while it lasted. I expect that O’Sullivan’s book will make it last that much longer.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s