A large swath of northeastern Hungary, southwestern Ukraine and eastern Slovakia can rightfully be called Ferenc II Rakoczi country. For anyone who does not who Rakoczi was and why he is held in such great reverence by Hungarians, they might want to take a look at his image on the 500 forint banknote. Rakoczi can be found on the right side of the banknote. In this rendering, he has a head full of dark flowing hair, a swirling mustache, and a mesmerizing stare. He looks the very image of a warrior/statesman. In this case, the image meshes with reality. Rakoczi was the leader of a Hungarian uprising against Habsburg rule. As these uprising usually went for Hungarians, there was a series of astonishing victories, but not enough to prove decisive. Rakoczi’s role was so prominent, the conflict goes by the title Rakoczi’s War of Independence.
Giving Birth – A Legend In Their Own Minds
It as though Rakoczi had the power to not only prosecute a war for eight years (1703-1711), but also to cause a suspension of disbelief. Since Rakoczi’s name is attached to the conflict, it gives the impression he was doing all the fighting himself. This is far from the truth. Rakcozi was the most important and indispensable figure in a war effort that came close to achieving Hungarian independence. That dream would have to wait a century and a half longer. Despite losing the war, Rakoczi endeared himself to Hungarians by never accepting an amnesty. He went into exile in Turkey with many of his most loyal subjects. They held him in great reverence to the end of his life. After his death they and others, kept man and myth alive.
Rakoczi has become in death what he was in life, a symbol of Hungarian independence. As such, he is venerated in Hungary and several sites in historically Hungarian lands. Those lands, such as in eastern Slovakia, are now foreign to Hungarians. The story was different during the early 18th century when these lands were part of the Kingdom of Hungary. I have visited many sites associated with Rakoczi, both in Hungary and abroad, including Sarospatak Castle (found on the reverse side of the 500 forint banknote), Vay Castle and St. Elisabeth Cathedral in Kosice (site of Rakoczi’s tomb). The latter can be found in Slovakia. On one trip, purely by happenstance, I found one of the most important Rakoczi sites entirely by accident. This was his birthplace in the small village of Borsa.
Passing Interest – A Day To Be Endured
I hope the day never comes when I run out of places to visit that are associated with Hungarian history. After fifteen trips, I am still discovering places I barely knew existed. Case in point, Rakoczi’s birthplace in Borsa. Me and my wife found it through sheer serendipity while on a winter journey that along the backroads of northeastern Hungary and just across the border into Slovakia. We made this journey armed with a detailed road map which marked historic sites such as castles and churches throughout the region. After leaving the Zemplen Hills, we set off eastward along remote roadways where the local traffic was light and snowflakes swirled wildly. The sky was filled with perpetual gloom as droplets of precipitation floated through the air. We were traveling during the depths of winter, at a time when much of the land was covered in dirty, wet snow.
The scene was bleak and unforgiving. This was a day to be endured rather than embraced. The only thing to distract our attention from the despair we felt at the lack of sunshine was a search for any place of historical interest. We were skirting the Hungary-Slovak border, winding our way eastward in Hungary through places I had never seen mentioned in any travel guide. An Arpad era (High Middle Ages) church in Karos and a Renaissance Palace in Pacin. It was in the latter that we decided to cross north of the border to visit a ruined castle marked on our map at Velky Kamenec. We soon discovered that there was hardly anything left of the castle. The fact that it was pouring snow by this point did not help with visibility. A steep walk up the promontory where the castle once stood was treacherous. The walk back down even worse. My wife made the smart decision to stay in the car. All I got for my trouble were bad photos and shoes streaked with mud and slush.
A Quiet Veneration – Covered In Glory
At this point we decided to stay in Slovakia for a few more kilometers before heading back down into Hungary. We drove slowly through mist, fog and wet snow which fortunately failed to stick to the highway. When we got to the town of Borsa, I noticed a small sign with the shape of a castle on it and the word, “Kastiel” pointing down a road. Obviously, this got my attention. Winding our way past small houses covered in wet snow we came to the Ferenc Rakoczi II castle. (Kastiel Frantiska II. Rakociho). From the roadway, the Kastiel did not look formidable. If anything, it looked more like a palace than a castle. And from the looks of it, one badly in need of repair. My focus soon turned from the structure to a sculpture. A bust of Rakoczi, with half his face visible and the other half covered in frozen snow stood not far from the entrance. What caught my attention were the many multicolored ribbons tied to the lower half of it. All the ribbons were in the red, white, and green colors of the Hungarian flag. This was a tell tale sign that Hungarians traveled here to pay homage to Rakoczi.
My wife translated the text of inscriptions on various commemorative plaques and markers. I was astonished to learn that this was the birthplace of Ferenc Rakoczi II. He had been born in the southwest bastion of the castle on March 27, 1676. It was mind boggling to learn that the same Rakoczi whose magnificent equestrian statue stands on the grounds of the Hungarian Parliament in Budapest was born in this cracked and crumbling castle in the provincial village of Borsa. The contrast between what I saw here. and the veneration of Rakoczi in Hungary could not have been more different. I walked into the courtyard, snapped some photos, and peered into a few windows. The site was not abandoned, but it did look almost derelict in places. In the summer, it would have looked much different with foliage in bloom and a small museum open. Summer seemed impossible on this day, as did the glorification of Rakoczi I have seen so many times in Hungary. What I saw on this wintry day in a Slovakian village was the reality, rather than the ideal of history.
Click here for: Brought to Ruin – Zelemer: Remnants of Gothic Greatness (A Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #13)