A Library Brought Back To Life By A Single Book – Eleanor Perenyi At Szollos (Part Two)

It will be many months or years before I am able to visit Szollos Castle in Vynohradiv, Ukraine. I cannot go there at this time due to the simple fact that I am sitting thousands of miles and an entire ocean away from the castle. The only guide I have for now is Eleanor Perenyi’s memoir, More Was Lost, it will have to suffice as a substitute. That might just be good enough, because Perenyi’s writing offers a vivid description of the castle during those final years just before World War II descended on the castle and its inhabitants, altering the course of its history and destroying those that had given it such life. Fortunately, Perenyi keeps memory of the castle alive through the written word. It is a pleasant irony that she recovers some of what was lost at Szollos with her book. Ironic because books helped her learn about the Castle’s past while living there in the late 1930’s. She was one of the last to enjoy an incredible library that would be scattered to the winds just a few years later.

Aristocratic families in Hungary had libraries consisting of hundreds or thousands of volumes

Aristocratic families in Hungary had libraries consisting of hundreds or thousands of volumes

Man Of Reason – A Legacy Of Learning
Many of the great aristocratic families in Hungary had libraries consisting of hundreds or thousands of volumes collected over many centuries. These same libraries also could contain letters that told of everyday life for the nobility. The Perenyi family had one such library. It was discovered by Eleanor Perenyi not long after she arrived at Szollos. She found the library in a downstairs room tucked behind accessories used to run the castle’s wine business. The books were still locked away in glass cases. It turned out that there was much more locked in those cases, including decades of correspondence between family members and friends. The ultimate trove were the old books, some of these dusty tomes had sheepskin bindings and covers. Much of the collection came from a family forebear by the name of Alexei Perenyi who had inhabited the castle a century and a half earlier.

Alexei’s prized books reflected the influence and popularity of French thinkers during this time. Alexei Perenyi had come of age during the Enlightenment, thus the library’s greatest works were the product of men such as Rousseau and Voltaire. Latin and German works were also well represented. The purpose of reading during the 18th century in Hungary was to educate rather than entertain. Reading expanded the world and connected Hungary with a Europe enthralled by the Enlightenment. What influence these books had upon Hungarian political thought and discourse can only be imagined. The latter half of the 18th century was a time of relative peace and prosperity for Hungarian nobles. The Ottoman Turkish occupation was growing more distant with each passing decade, by comparison Habsburg rule were relatively benign. The Kingdom of Hungary was by no means independent or autonomous, but Hungarian consent in imperial affairs was often sought by the Habsburgs. Alexei Perenyi may have been in a European backwater, but his books showed that he was connected to a much larger and changing world.

Telling Tales – The Life Of A Family
These books were so inviting to look at and delicious to read that Eleanor Perenyi had them relocated to a room closest to where she slept. The true power of those volumes was not only in the ideas they transmitted, but the fact that she was following in the footsteps of a Perenyi forebear who also craved the written word. This continued a tradition of self-education that was central to the lives of Alexei and Eleanor Perenyi, a connection that stretched across a century and a half. It is hard to imagine the value of the Perenyi library during the 18th century. This has little to do with money. The books of Alexei Perenyi also acted as a sort of news of the day, filled with new ideas and information. It is hard to imagine just how remote Perenyi Castle was back then from the centers of political power in Vienna and Pozsony (present day Bratislava, Slovakia). The books Eleanor found were a lifeline to the outside world for Alexei Perenyi. And this world did not speak a word of English, since there was not one English language book to be found in the entire library.

And it was not just books that Eleanor discovered, she also delved deeply into an archive of family correspondence. Unlike the books that were filled with ideas and information, these personal letters were rich in narrative. They told of the everyday lives led by several generations of Perenyi’s and their friends during the heyday of Austria-Hungary. This was a time when the Adriatic was almost as much a Hungarian Sea as Lake Balaton. Trips to the seaside of what is today Croatia and northeastern Italy were a rite of passage. Governesses and archduchesses were as much a part of life as horse riding and hunting. This world had not quite been lost, but irreparably altered by the Great War. Viewed through the prism of personal letters it was both real and fantastical. Eleanor read love letters quaint yet romantic in their formality. I am quite sure that she was able to put herself in place of the author, imagining how she would have reacted or felt in similar circumstances. Time must have ticked backwards for her as she read the letters and relived the lives of people whose footsteps she was now following. In this sense, the library spoke volumes.

More Was Lost - A Memoir by Eleanor Perenyi

More Was Lost – A Memoir by Eleanor Perenyi

Reimagined & Recovered – The Glory Of Dusty Volumes
Then another cataclysm – World War II – executed the final death sentence for Perenyi Castle and the nobility at Szollos. Among the victims was their library. We can only imagine how the books and letters were either stolen or destroyed, scattered in a hundred directions or cast into the rubbish bin. The terrible birth of Stalinism in the Subcarpathians required this loss of lifeblood. An avenging Red Army set in motion a merciless destruction of the Perenyi’s past. For the Soviets had to destroy the past, so they could control the future. Eleanor Perenyi was the last in the family line to experience that wonderful library as it had existed for centuries. It had been a great gift for her and she paid it the ultimate respect, by recreating it in her memoir. Each sentence a shelve, every word a book or letter to be reimagined and recovered by future generations such as myself. Left to marvel at the glory of those dusty volumes and the woman who brought a library back to life through a single book.

A Place Fit For A Fantasy – Andrassy Kastely: Chateau Of The Tisza (Part One)

One of the most popular travel experiences in Europe is visiting the Chateau of the Loire Valley in France. Each year, over a million tourists come to see the Renaissance and Baroque era chateaus that were home to the French aristocracy for many centuries. They marvel at these palatial manors situated astride the Loire River. Conversely, one of the least popular travel experiences in Europe involves visiting a unique Chateau in the Tisza River valley of northeastern Hungary. Until recently this look alike Chateau was not open to visitors. In Hungarian parlance it is not called a Chateau, though it certainly looks the part. Instead it is known as Andrassy Kastely. The Kastely is unlikely to ever see more than a handful of foreign visitors due to its location in a poor and isolated region of Hungary. A remote location did not save Andrassy Kastely from pillage and expropriation during the 20th century, but its size and usefulness were such that it was co-opted for other purposes. Ironically, the Andrassy Kastely was preserved by neglect and indifference for decades until it could be restored to an approximation of its former magnificence.

Andrassy Kastely with Tiszadob in the near distance

Andrassy Kastely with Tiszadob in the near distance (Credit: tiszax)

Time In Tiszadob – Standing Still, Still Standing
The Andrassy Kastely is located on the edge of Tiszadob, a village of just over three thousand inhabitants. The first time I traveled there it was hard to believe that a Loire like chateaux could be found in such a squalid looking place. The village is located in the far western corner of Szatmar-Szabolcs-Bereg County, one of the poorest regions in Hungary. Tiszadob is the kind of place where there are at least five bicycles for every car. The economy is still agrarian based and industry an unknown word. If not for the Andrassy Kastely, it is doubtful that anyone, including Hungarians would come to this village. I traveled there not once, but twice. My initial effort to visit the Kastely was futile. A heavy set woman manning a wood frame guardhouse greeted me with the news that it was not yet open for visitation, though its restoration was nearly complete. She had no idea when it would be possible to visit.

For someone who was in the know, she seemed intent on knowing next to nothing. Her body language and facial expressions mimicked the voice of some anonymous authority. Beyond her I could make out very little, other than the pointed tips of the Kastely’s towers. The denial of access was challenge enough to make me want to come back. There was the added bonus of being the only American to ever visit Tiszadob twice for tourism. I would always have this trivial honor as consolation. Eighteen months later I drove back to Tiszadob after learning from in-laws that the Kastely was now open to visitors. Driving into the village, past a row of abandoned houses, it was still hard to believe that anything of architectural interest was here.

Time stood still in Tiszadob. The only hints of modernity were drooping electrical lines, a scattering of satellite dishes and cracked pavement. The village looked to have progressed very little in the past century. The only hints of life were a few young gypsy boys hanging out in an open lot and a man and woman standing outside a store drinking large beers in the late morning. By the looks of their grizzled features they had spent the last several decades subsisting on a diet of cheap booze and cigarettes. This downtrodden village had once been part of the Andrassy family’s massive landholdings. Trying to square that exalted name of Hungarian aristocracy with the current state of Tiszadob was nearly impossible. And it was not just any Andrassy who had selected the site for the Kastely. It had been the most famous Andrassy of all.

Count Gyula Andrassy

Count Gyula Andrassy

Manorial Magnificence In A Hungarian Hinterland
A name like Gyula Andrássy de Csíkszentkirály et Krasznahork demands that its bearer be a man of great importance. After all, this is a name made up of 42 letters, only two less than the entire Hungarian alphabet contains. Commonly known as Count Gyula Andrassy, he is one of the most famous figures in Hungarian history. His platonic relationship with the Habsburg Empress Elisabeth I (Sisi) helped bring about the compromise that created Austria-Hungary in 1867. It was Andrassy who placed the Holy Crown of Hungary on the head of Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef, making him the King of Hungary. The compromise sparked Hungary’s great golden age, an era marked by economic growth, political stability and cultural confidence lasting right up until the outbreak of the First World War.

The greatest monuments of that era are the many architectural wonders that can still be found today in the lands of Historic Hungary. Andrassy commissioned the one that I had traveled far off into the hinterlands of eastern Hungary to visit. It was largely lost on me why Count Andrassy, a man who had been Prime Minister of Hungary and the Foreign Minister of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a man whose time in exile had seen him frequent the salons of Paris and London, a man who had once haunted the same hallowed diplomatic halls as Franz Josef, Bismarck and William I had decided in his final decade to have a palatial manor built in what was then and now little more than a desultory, provincial backwater. That mystery absorbed me.

Andrassy Kastely - Chateau of the Tisza

Andrassy Kastely – Chateau of the Tisza

Out Of Exile – A Kastely Astride The Tisza
I would later discover that Andrassy had been in charge of the regulation of the Upper Tisza River, a project that managed to subdue the second mightiest river in Hungary. It must have been during this time that he became enchanted with the lush landscape of forested bottomland that surrounded the Tisza’s floodplain.  Here would be a place to relax during his semi-retirement from politics in a land where nature could not only be broken, but also enjoyed. Here was to be the most unique of the family’s mansions and castles. Andrassy Kastely would be a veritable replica of the chateau he had visited in the Loire Valley while exiled in France following the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1848. It was to be a fantastical re-creation on a piece of land not far from the river he had helped tame.

Click here: A Place Fit For A Fantasy – Andrassy Kastely: Chateau Of The Tisza (Part One)

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.

Origins Obscure – Pal Kinizsi’s Castle: From Nowhere To Nagyvasony (Three Castles In One Day: Part Two)

The drive from Szigliegt Castle to Kinizsi Castle in Nagyvazsony took less than an hour. It was a short, but memorable trip down a narrow road passing through the beautiful scenery of Balaton Uplands National Park. A landscape of rolling hills and leafy green forests interspersed with grassy fields was broken only by villages quietly tucked away. I have no idea what the people of Hegymagas, Monsostorapati, Kapolcs and Vigantpetend do for a living. There is no industry and little agriculture, enjoying nature looks to be the most productive activity. The tiny villages were tidy and well kept, they looked relatively prosperous. This was a beautiful place to live, the essence of gentility and relaxation if you could somehow make a living. The same might be said of Nagyvazsony, except for the fact that it is more than just a spot on the map. It is home to the added attraction of Kinizsi castle, which brings in some visitors. The castle makes this village of 1,800 seem more important and lively, but it was really neither. This was a place visited by few foreigners and outside of history buffs, likely few Hungarians as well. As I discovered, the castle is impressive and worth visiting, but it has to be found.

Kinizsi Castle

Kinizsi Castle – Veszprem County, Hungary

The Castle Below – Lost Assumptions
It was easier to find my way to Nagyvazsony than it was to find the castle in this little village. How could that be? Unfortunately I made an assumption about the castle’s location, based upon many other castles I have visited. Castles usually occupy hilltops because they are the most easily defensible positions. Nagyvazsony was fairly hilly, so after turning off the main highway I found a car park at the base of a large hill. There was a person walking up the hill to what I thought was a large structure. I was soon following them. After a short climb I found myself looking at the backs of several houses. The path I had followed led to backyards and barking dogs rather than a medieval castle. I was confused and annoyed. Walking back down the hill I followed a street for several hundred meters, when suddenly a 30 meter high castle keep and six storey tower came into view. It was not on a hill, but in a lower lying part of the village. This made it seem much less impressive than it actually was.

Rather than towering above the village, Kinizsi Castle was surrounded by much of it. This resulted in some lucky villagers getting a look straight out their windows at the medieval castle. A signboard at the entrance provided the reason for the castle’s location. It was situated at a point where two trade routes met. The intersection of these roads was a critical, strategic point. The castle provided a secure fortress. It is in astoundingly good condition for a medieval Hungarian castle. That is because it escaped destruction in warfare by the Ottoman Turks and obliteration in peace by the Habsburgs. The owners of the castle in the early modern era were the Zichy family who were staunch supporters of the Habsburgs. When the Habsburgs were decreeing that fortresses and castles in Hungary must be torn down so they would not be used against them during a possible rebellion in the future, Kinizsi Castle was spared.

Inside the walls of Kinizsi Castle - Nagyvazsony, Hungary

Inside the walls of Kinizsi Castle – Nagyvazsony, Hungary

Legend & Reality – Pal Kinizsi’s Strengths
Though the Zichys and Habsburgs allowed for its preservation, the castle’s fame comes from the individual for which it is named, Pal Kiniszi, a famous general who led troops for King Matthias Corvinus (1458-1490). Kinizsi’s sarcophagus is located in a reconstructed chapel in the castle’s main tower. His life falls somewhere between the vagaries of legend and history.  His origins are obscure, but it is believed that he was ethnically Serbian. As legend has it Kinizsi was a miller, a person who operated stone mills to grind grain. This was said to be the genesis of his legendary strength. Supposedly he came to the attention of King Matthias, who while on a hunting expedition in the country north of Lake Balaton stopped in the village where Kinizsi worked. When the King asked for a drink, Kinizsi delivered it to him on a large millstone. The King was astounded by his incredible strength. Soon Kinizsi was commanding the King’s vaunted Black Army of mercenaries. His generalship was superb, never more so than at the Battle of Brentfield in Transylvania where his army inflicted a resounding defeat on the Turks, killing thousands and making the area safe from the Turkish threat for decades.

One of the most famous stories regarding Kinizsi’s legendary strength comes from his exploits against the Turks. It was said that after victory he would dance while holding the body of a dead Turkish soldiers in each of his hands. This could be dismissed as a bit of dark Hungarian humor, yet it is also instructive as to Kinizsi’s fearsome reputation. Such stories have been passed down through the ages. His legend is the one thing that lives on. Such stories and ironically, Kinizsi’s sarcophagus, lends an impressive bit of life to otherwise austere interiors of Kinizsi Castle. This is a place dedicated more to the memory of one man than that of medieval castle architecture. A great man once called this place home, with a fair amount of imagination he still does.

The view from Kinizsi Castle in Nagyvazsony

The view from Kinizsi Castle in Nagyvazsony

Further Down The Road – Parting With the Past
After climbing to the top of the castle for a stunning view of the surrounding area, it occurred to me that without this castle, Nagyvazsony would be just as anonymous as the other villages in the area. The village managed to lodge itself in the memory due to history, but history had moved on from here centuries ago while Nagyvazsony and Kinizsi Castle were left behind. The place had outlived its prominence. All it had left was a formidable castle and beautiful natural surroundings. This was more than most Hungarian villages had, but it served to remind me that this was just a place to stop for a few hours at most, a place that would forever be on the way to somewhere else. I left Nagyvazsony behind because it was part of the past. The future was somewhere further down the road.

Towering Above Balaton – Szigliget Castle (Three Castles In One Day – Part One)

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.

The view over the ruins of Szigliget Castle looking inland

The view over the ruins of Szigliget Castle looking inland

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.

Szigliget Castle

Szigliget Castle – view towards upper ruins with Lake Balaton in the background (Credit: Kontiki)

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.

Magnificent ruins with a magnificent view - Szigliget CastleMagnificent ruins with a magnificent view - Szigliget Castle

Magnificent ruins with a magnificent view – Szigliget Castle

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.

A Family’s Home As Its Castle – Forchtenstein & The House Of Esterhazy In Burgenland

It is not hard to locate Forchtenstein Castle. All you have to do is travel to the tidy village of Mattersburg in the Austrian state of Burgenland. I found myself driving through the village, weaving my way through its cleanly swept, serpentine streets. Suddenly I looked up and amid the forested mountains, there was the castle soaring atop one of the foothills. It was set against a deep blue sky rising above the Rosaliengebirge Mountains. The stout, tiered defensive walls surrounding the castle were noticeable from several kilometers away, as were a couple of its towers shooting skyward. Forchtenstein was already impressive from a distance. I had read prior to my visit that the Ottoman Turks had never been able to take Forchtenstein. It was easy to see why.

Forchtenstein Castle

Forchtenstein Castle (Credit: Roman Klementschitz)

A Fortress & A Repository – The Duality Of Forchenstein
Forchtenstein Castle stands 867 feet (264 meters) above Mattersburg and the Wulkatel valley. Overcoming such a stout defensive position was beyond the military prowess of the Turks. Driving up from Mattersburg to the castle showed me why. The climb requires a car to go into the lowest gears to get up the steep, winding grade. It is hard to imagine how a medieval army could scale such heights with their weaponry and equipment intact. There would have been no paved road for use by the Ottoman forces, only a rough track filled with impediments and booby trapped by the Austrians. And if the Turks had taken Forchtenstein what would they have really gained, but a smoldering, dilapidated ruin that would have to be rebuilt and refortified. It never came to that. The cost of conquest was greater than any benefit. This was going through my head as I pulled into the parking lot just outside the castle walls.

Walking across the drawbridge and through the main castle gate I was immediately impressed by the size, scale and structural integrity of the castle. It was fairly obvious that Forchtenstein’s impregnable position had kept it safe from conquest since the first fortress was constructed on the site in the mid-15th century. Formidable and ominous were the two words that came immediately to mind. Here was a hilltop castle par excellence.  As I was soon to find out the last three hundred years at Forchtenstein had nothing to do with war and everything to do with one family. The House of Esterhazy dominated the castle’s history. In the process it also became a repository for preservation of the Esterhazy legacy. I witnessed this for myself while touring some – but certainly not all – of the castle’s impressive chambers.

Esterhazy Coat Of Arms from medieval times

Esterhazy Coat Of Arms from medieval times

A House For Esterhazy – The Family Wealth
The first owners of Castle Forchtenstein were the Counts of Mattersdorf, a name that sounds a bit frivolous, unlike the location they selected as home for a 50 meter high keep and an adjoining great tower, parts of which are still extant at the castle today. The Counts soon turned to calling themselves by the much more intimidating title, the Lords of Forchtenstein. Despite their seemingly invincible home, this line of Lords could not escape mortality, eventually dying out. Forchtenstein then fell into the hands of the Habsburgs who leased it out for a century and a half before Emperor Ferdinand II gave the partly ruined castle, along with the title of count, to Nikolaus Esterhazy in 1622. Soon thereafter, Esterhazy brought in Italian stonemasons to build up its defenses. Nikolaus’ son Paul continued the building process and began adding Baroque elements to its interior.

Following Paul’s death in the late 17th century and with the Ottoman Turks banished from the region forever, the castle became a princely residence used to store the many treasures acquired by the western line of the House of Esterhazy. To say that the family was wealthy would be an understatement. During several periods the Esterhazy’s wealth actually exceeded that of the Habsburgs, making them one of the richest noble families in Europe.  At Forchtenstein I saw for myself the remains of their considerable wealth in two areas of the castle. The Esterhazy Gallery of Ancestors is a Baroque portrait gallery of the family that also includes other treasured items of interest. I also visited the Weapons Collection display, filled with room after room of martial accoutrements from the Baroque and Early Modern periods of European military affairs.

Aerial view of Forchtenstein Castle

Aerial view of Forchtenstein Castle (Credit: Privatpilot)

The Castle Of Fear – Faces & Phases Of Forchenstein
It is hard to describe just how many treasured works of art were on display in these exhibits. The amount and variety was astonishing. The exhibits included a family tree that was a stretch of ancestral imagination, a visual representation of the Esterhazy mania for genealogy. The connection with distant forebears was made explicit. Such notorious historical figures as Attila the Hun were portrayed in all their glory. Such a potential ancestor seemed patently absurd, but the intended meaning was clear, the Esterhazy’s had sprung from the roots of ancestral greatness. The most interesting painting for me had nothing to with an Esterhazy or their supposed forebears. Instead it was of all people, Vlad the Impaler. The Esterhazy’s had acquired the only painting ever to portray Vlad from head to toe. All other paintings showed only his upper body. The sheer novelty of the painting left me staring at it for quite some time. It also served to remind me of the sheer brutality of medieval life and warfare. That could easily be forgotten among all the Baroque treasures housed in Forchtenstein, but the castle’s notorious black tower (now white) at its center was a frightening reminder of what once went on at the castle.

Painting of Vlad the Impaler at Forchtenstein Castle

The only full body painting of Vlad the Impaler can be seen at Forchtenstein Castle

Forchtenstein had once been named the “castle of fear.” This was because those imprisoned in the castle would often be subjected to acts of sadism in one of the castle’s multiple torture chambers. One of the worst tortures involved being starved of food and water while strung upside down over the aptly named “Pit of Oblivion.” This would occur until death ensued. The Forchtenstein that exists today seems far removed from this world. The elegance and history on display is a paean to the House of Esterhazy, but one would do well to remember that the family first gained its wealth and acclaim as well as Forchtenstein Castle from their martial exploits.



A Betrayal of Passion & the Power of Chopin – “One evening in summer” from Sandor Marai’s Embers

I rarely read a book twice. My reasoning is that with all the information out in the world waiting to be discovered, why read the same thing again? Nevertheless, there are exceptions when a really fascinating book breaks me from this stubborn habit. My most memorable case of this was Sándor Márai’s Embers (“Candles burn until the end“). The book was originally published in Hungarian all the way back in 1942. It was only translated into English and published in the United States in 2001, a full fifty-nine years after it was written. The story revolves around two old men, Henrik and Konrad, who were once the closest of companions, but whose friendship was shattered by a horrible betrayal. Separated for forty-one years they finally come back together for a dinner at Henrik’s castle located in the woodlands of upper Hungary. There they discuss the events that divided them, specifically an illicit affair Konrad was having with Henrik’s wife Krisztina that came to light when Konrad sensed that Henrik was about to “accidentally” shoot him while they were hunting. Konrad then fled abroad while Henrik and Krisztina continued to live in the castle, but now in separate wings. Eventually Krisztina died and Henrik was left to ponder the betrayal he had suffered from both his wife and best friend. The book revolves around these events and a discussion of them. The dinner between the two men turns into an attack, in the form of a mostly one sided monologue, by Henrik on his old friend’s character.

Embers by Sándor Márai

Embers by Sándor Márai

Sándor Márai & Betrayal of Homeland
As with the best works of literature there are many different ways of looking at Embers. The fact that it was written at a time when Europe was once again being consumed by a world war cannot be overlooked. The two old men are relics of the pre-World War I Austro-Hungarian Empire, a world and a way of life that is soon to be swept away forever. The betrayal of Henrik by Conrad is telling. This could be read as a metaphor at the time of East-Central Europe’s recent history, how the Empire and specifically Hungary were betrayed by its numerous ethnic minorities. Henrik is an insider, coming from an old aristocratic military family, while Konrad hales from the eastern reaches of the Empire and is a reflective of those ethnic groups that were subsumed within the empire.

The author Márai had experienced the effects of this geo-political betrayal first hand. He was born and grew up in the city of Kassa located within the Hungarian part of the Empire. Kassa had been transformed into Kosice following the war, when it was placed in the new state of Czechoslovakia. Marai’s hometown was sundered from what ethnic Hungarians believed was its mother country, Hungary. The story mixes the personal with the political in several ways. Even after Henrik subjects Konrad to innumerable accusations, he still admits that despite what happened between them that they will always be bound by friendship, albeit an extremely strained one. This is not unlike the bond that continued to exist – and still does today – between Austria, Hungary and the nations born out of the Empire’s former territories.

Sándor Márai - Author of Embers ("Candles burn until the end")

Sándor Márai – Author of Embers (“Candles burn until the end”)

A Dangerous Passion
Embers is a well told and gripping story throughout, but there is one scene in the book that takes the art of literature to a whole new level. I have read and reread this scene – which makes up the entirety of Chapter Six – over fifty times. The passage shows Konrad in a very extraordinary manner. In just a few paragraphs, Márai delineates Konrad’s character showing that he has inclinations and talents that go well beyond soldiering or any kind of control. These inclinations have nothing to do with a military career, but will have a decided effect upon the future course of his life. The reader learns that there is something that stirs deep within Konrad. This is something that makes him different from most people, especially other soldiers. It is a difference that contains both the seeds of greatness and betrayal. For Konrad is an artist, not a soldier. He is a musician, but no ordinary one. He is able to unleash the forces that lay behind a great work of art, Frédéric Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantasie.

The scene takes place in Konrad’s teenage years when he plays the piano with Henrik’s mother, while Konrad and his father, an Officer of the Guards in the Imperial Army look on.

“One evening in summer, he was playing a four-handed piece with Henrik’s mother, when something happened, It was before dinner, they were in the main reception room, the Officer of the Guards and his son were sitting in a corner listening politely, the way patient and well-intentioned people do, with an attitude of “Life is made up of duties. Music is one of them. Ladies wishes are to be obeyed.” They were performing Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantasie and Henrik’s mother was playing with such passion that the whole room seemed to shimmer and vibrate. As they waited patiently and politely in their corner for the piece finally to end, both father and son had the sensation that some metamorphosis was taking place in Henrik’s mother and in Konrad. It was as if the music were levitating the furniture, as if some mighty force were blowing against the heavy silk curtains, as if every ossified, decayed particle buried deep in the human heart were quickening into life, as if in everyone on earth a fatal rhythm lay dormant, waiting for the predestined moment to begin its fateful beat.

The courteous listeners realized that music is dangerous. But the duo at the piano had lost all thought of danger. The Polonaise-Fantasie was no more than a pretext to loose upon the world those forces that shake and explode the structures of order which man has devised to conceal what lies beneath. They sat straight-backed at the piano, leaning away from the keys a little and yet bound to them, as if music itself were driving an invisible team of fiery mythical horses riding the storm that circled the world, and they were bracing their bodies to maintain a firm grip on the reins in this explosive headlong gallop of unshackled energies. And then, with a single chord, they ended. The evening sun was slanting through the large windows, and motes of gold were spinning in its rays, as if the unearthly racing chariot had stirred up a whirlwind of dust on it way to ruin and the void.”

This is a scene that encapsulates the power of art to reveal both the world and people in ways that can scarcely be imagined. Art, in this case Chopin and the performers interpretation of the Polonaise-Fantasie reveals a vital and dangerous power that “could loose upon the world those forces that shake and explode the structures of order which man has devised to conceal what lies beneath.” Here is the power of art to transcend and reveal the true nature of things. This creation is so powerful that it can destroy the old world and conjure into existence a magnetic, beautiful and frightening new one. This is not the stuff of conservative military men, this is the stuff of revolution, whether personal or political, private or public, it is the stuff beyond all control. This is music acting as an elemental force of both destruction and creation. It is powerful, magnetic, attractive and extremely dangerous.  Konrad, in concert with Henrik’s mother, attains transcendence and betrays himself to the audience long before he will betray his best friend.

Joint portrait of Frédéric Chopin and George Sand

Joint portrait of Frédéric Chopin and George Sand (Credit: Eugène Delacroix)

Fathoming the Depths Of A Man
“Chopin,” said the French wife and mother, breathing heavily. “His father was French.”
“And his mother was Polish,” said Konrad, turning his head sideways and looking out of the windows. “He was a relative of my mother’s,” he added parenthetically, as if ashamed of this connection.

They all paid attention to his words because there was a great sadness in his voice; he sounded like an exile speaking of home and the longing to return. The Officer of the Guards bent forward as he stared at his son’s friend; he seemed to be seeing him for the first time. That evening, when he and his son were alone in the smoking room, he said, “Konrad will never make a true soldier.”
“Why?” asked his son, shocked.
But he knew that his father was right. The Officer of the Guards shrugged his shoulders, lit a cigar, stretched his legs toward the fireplace and watched the curl of smoke. And then calmly, with the assurance of an expert, he said, “Because he is a different kind of man.”

His father was long dead and many years had passed before the General understood what he had meant.

Henrik never forgot this scene and what his father said that evening in the immediate aftermath of that spectacular moment. Years later, long after the terrible betrayal, Henrik realizes that his father understood a great and disturbing truth about Konrad. The truth that comes pouring out in fits of passion, the truth that can end up changing the world and people’s lives forever. The truth inspired by the power of art and music. The truth I learned from Sándor Márai’s Embers.

House Of Unspoken Horrors: The Black Knight & The Blood Countess at Sarvar Castle

I can safely say I went to Sarvar, a small city in western Hungary, for one reason only. That was to see Sarvar Castle, which was once home to the notorious “Blood Countess” Elizabeth Bathory, the most prolific female serial killer of all time. What I found at the castle was quite different than what I came expecting to see. There was not much mention of the “Blood Countess” or the horrific acts she carried out on numerous young girls. Instead the castle’s historical exhibits focused on the exploits of her husband Ferenc Nadasdy, also known as the Black Knight. His feats are not for the faint of heart. While the castle focuses on his military deeds against the Ottoman Turks, Nadasdy was in some ways as cruel off the battlefield as he was on it. Some believe this was due to the influence of his wife. He is said to have both shared and learned many techniques of torture from her. This diabolical husband and wife team, made their home at Sarvar Castle for many years. Behind the stout, stone walls of the castle, inhuman cruelty and murder was carried out. This has left a tainted legacy. While Elizabeth Bathory today is a national shame, her husband is considered a national hero. The latter’s glorious history is what Sarvar Castle promotes, but this is at the expense of telling the frightful truth about a dark and deeply disturbing individual

Sarvar Castle

Sarvar Castle – beautiful but shadowed by a dark and disturbing past

A Match Made In Hell – Ferenc Nadasdy & Elizabeth Bathory
It is a strange thing to consider that among the regal splendor of Hungarian and Viennese high nobility one of the most violent warriors of the sixteenth century was reared.  Ferenc Nadasdy was brought up in the age of the Renaissance, but he turned out to be a destructive product of that time.  He was the only son of Tamas Nadasdy I, otherwise known as the Great Palatine. Tamas was given a splendid education at Graz, Bologna and Rome. He rose through the ranks to become the closest councilor to the Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand.  He was among the elite of the 15th century in education, military and diplomatic skill. His son Ferenc would only surpass the father in military terms. Ferenc had some of the best tutors in Europe educating him at Sarvar, but his real interest was in soldiering. After years of what can only be described as the finest schooling, Ferenc had just a basic understanding of German and Latin, the lingua francas of that time. As for Hungarian, he could only speak it in the most rudimentary sense.

At the tender age of sixteen Ferenc was married to the twelve year old Elizabeth Bathory. Their marriage united two of the most powerful noble families in Central Europe. The newlyweds would turn out to be a match made in hell. The difference between them was stark, the prepubescent Elizabeth and the fast maturing Ferenc. Elizabeth was truly a learned, Renaissance woman. She could speak five languages fluently including classical Greek. Ferenc was a warrior to his very core. She was known for her sharp intelligence, while he was interested in martial affairs. The one common trait between them was a streak of sadism that united the young couple in macabre matrimony. Many innocents suffered at the hands of the couple, but Elizabeth also suffered at her husband’s hands.

They would be married for over a decade before Elizabeth gave birth to the couple’s first child, but this was not her first child. At the age of thirteen she is said to have become impregnated by a servant and table waiter (other sources say he was a young nobleman) at a property in Trnava located in Upper Hungary (present day Slovakia). The story goes that a furious Ferenc had the servant castrated. The unfortunate man and his private parts were thrown to a pack of wild dogs. As for Elizabeth, she was allowed to give birth to the baby at another of the Nadasdy properties, but the infant was taken from her and never seen again. It is believed that the baby may have been murdered on the order of Ferenc.

Ferenc Nadasdy (the Black Knight)

Ferenc Nadasdy (the Black Knight) – husband of the infamous Elizabeth Bathory

Degrees of Depravity – Methods of the Macabre
Ferenc and Elizabeth spent a good deal of their marriage apart as he won fame and infamy while campaigning successfully against the Ottoman Turks who occupied the central and southern portions of Hungary. Elizabeth was left behind at Sarvar or one of the 20-odd castles they owned together to manage their vast estates. The couple’s combined wealth was greater than that of the Habsburg King. Ferenc gained power and prestige due to his military acumen. He was nicknamed the Black Knight by his enemies. His appearance on the field of battle chilled the blood of the Ottoman Turks. He was especially feared for his methods of dealing with prisoners. He was known to dance with their dead bodies. He would also take the heads of prisoners and play catch or kickball with them. On occasion he ordered that they be impaled on stakes so as to die in slow and agonizing pain that could last for days on end.

When Ferenc and Elizabeth were together sparks literally flew in the most depraved sense. He showed his wife a punishment method that could be used on idle servants. This involved inserting pieces of paper soaked in oil between their toes then lighting them on fire. They would kick and scream wildly. The lesson to be learned was to work harder. One gift he brought his wife back from the battlefront was a claw like contraption that could be placed over the hand to tear, stab and cut victims. Together the two of them compared torture methods. Elizabeth had been practicing these on young servant girls to the point of killing them while her husband was off fighting the Turks. This led to scandals. Ferenc had to pay off the authorities to quiet the stories that abounded of his wives murderous behavior. Though he was said to have disapproved of her brutality, he also believed that harsh and painful punishment of offending servants was justified. The difference between the two was that Ferenc stopped short of murdering them.

The entrance to Sarvar Castle

The entrance to Sarvar Castle – a walk you would not have wanted to make when Ferenc Nadasdy and Elizabeth Bathory were living here (Credit: Tamas Janos)

Selective Memories –The Horror Vanishes
In 1604 Ferenc died at the front. It is not known for certain what killed him, but he had been having trouble with pain in his legs. The Black Knight was a shadow of his former self. He was crippled up and bedridden on several occasions in the years prior to his death. Whatever the disease, it finally took his life on January 4th. In a cruel irony, the death of Ferenc sent Elizabeth into a spiral of sadism that eventually led to her downfall. She began to murder and torture on an unprecedented scale. Some accounts put her victims in the hundreds. She was arrested in 1610 and imprisoned until her death in one of her houses of horror, a castle in western Slovakia. Her days and deeds, along with her husband at Sarvar, were long in the past. The couple would live on in the pages of history, but as Sarvar shows, they are remembered or deliberately forgotten for quite different reasons. Elizabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess who tortured and killed countless young women is nearly invisible, while Ferenc Nadasdy, the Black Knight, is extolled for his glorious deeds.

A Tale Of Two Kingdoms – Csokako Castle: What Warfare Wrought And Brought On Hungary

Is there anything more entrancing than a hilltop castle? Towering above its surroundings, a fortress perched high above a village has a timeless appeal. It is a magnet to the eyes, allowing the imagination to wander back in time to the Middle Ages when chivalry and honor were seemingly all that mattered. It is as though warriors are still perched on the heights above, behind formidable walls, ready to defend to the death their lonely outpost. For the enemy, these same walls would have looked impregnable. They offered an almost insurmountable obstacle, but that was nothing compared to the topography. Sloping, precipitate hillsides were as much a part of an elevated castle as were its stone walls. By the time a besieging army attempted to scale nature’s heights, they would have despaired at the near impossible task of confronting the thick, stone walls ahead and above them.

Csokako Castle - an artistic rendering as it looked during the late Middle Ages

Csokako Castle – an artistic rendering as it looked during the late Middle Ages (Credit: Ferenc Tamas)

A Strategic Position Shaped By Nature
This feeling is still possible today and not only via the imagination, but also through the experience of visiting Csokako Castle. Located in the Transdanubian region of western Hungary, high above an 1,100 person strong village bearing the same name, the medieval castle of Csokako has stood the test of time. Its location bears as much responsibility for its security as the stone walls. The castle was constructed several hundred meters above the surrounding landscape on a rocky plateau that is part of the Vertes Mountains. The hillsides were nearly vertical on three sides of the castle’s strategic location. The lone approach was from the western side, but a defensive ditch guarded that direction. Natural geological processes that unfolded over millennia created this piece of highly defensible terrain. It is little wonder that the Hungarian nobility of the Middle Ages chose such a strategic setting to safe guard their existence.

Because of the formidable terrain, Csokako castle was a mighty symbol. Constructed in the late 13th century, it became one of the main political centers for Feher County, second only to the royal coronation site at nearby Szekesfehervar. The castle was a critical part of a series of fortifications built to guard the road between the cities of Gyor and Komarom. Despite Csokako castle’s supposedly impregnable location it fell to the Ottoman Turks during the 16th century. This was just the beginning of a chaotic period in the castle’s history. It was the scene of numerous battles over the next 140 odd years as it changed hands multiple times. For instance, in a battle that took place in the autumn of 1601, Hungarian forces under the command of Archduke Matthias emerged victorious. Less than a year later they had lost the castle. It was not until 1687 that the fortress was cleared of all Turkish forces. At this point the region was devoid of population and the castle began an afterlife as a ruin. After resettlement of the area the Austrian Habsburg’s had little interest in rebuilding the castle. They did not want to give any possibly rebellious Hungarian subjects a fortification that one day might be captured and used against them.

Csokako Castle - A view from below

Csokako Castle – A view from below

Reconstructing A Kingdom
It would not be until the late 20th century that reconstruction of the castle began in earnest. Despite this, the remaining ruins continue to be instructive. To the historically minded visitor they recall the central role in Hungarian history of the Ottoman Turkish occupation. These ruins represent not only the bitter taste of defeat and occupation that came at the highest of costs, but also the military violence that took plagued the region for a century and a half. It was this violence which decimated the native Hungarian population. Csokako castle was part of Royal Hungary (Habsburg ruled Hungary during the 16th and 17th centuries, roughly equivalent to the northwestern portion of modern Hungary). The castle was much too close to the Habsburg-Ottoman border. Csokako was in an area that experienced every violent metamorphosis that can possibly be imagined. Endless raids, skirmishes and at times, full scale battles took place across the land for decades on end. Squeezed between these warring empires, many parts of what had once been the Kingdom of Hungary were left in smoldering ruins just like the castle. Eventually the land was recovered, but in the process Hungary lost much of its ethnic homogeneity.

In the 17th century the Habsburgs decided to repopulate the countryside to recultivate what had become a wasteland. Germans, Slovaks, Croats, Serbs and Romanians were allowed rights to settle across wide swathes of Hungary. The village of Csokako that exists today rose from the dust in the 1750’s, due to the efforts of a nobleman, Count Lamberg. Notice the Germanic surname. The old medieval Hungary had been wiped away. The new one that rose in its place was increasingly diverse. As the historian Paul Lendvai noted, “as a result of the catastrophes of the Middle Ages and the Turkish occupation, Magyars (ethnic Hungarians) amounted to only 35 – 39 percent of the population.” The Kingdom of Hungary became a heterogeneous society. This had major consequences in the late 19th and early 20th century in regard to the Magyarization policies of Hungarian governments and resulting backlash from the nationalities.

Csokako Castle - A view from above

Csokako Castle – A view from above

A Symbol Of Disenchantment
The remains of Csokako Castle are a window into the wider world of change wrought by war and occupation. These changes transformed Hungarian society. Today, the village of Csokako is almost entirely Hungarian. It eventually recovered a Hungarian ethnic identity, but the Kingdom of Hungary never regained the type of power and influence it had before the Turks arrived. The hilltop castle at Csokako still captures the imagination today, but the reality behind the consequences of its history is not nearly as enchanting.

Siege Mentality: The Hungarian Will To Resist & A Turkish Eclipse At Eger

One of the defining aspects of Hungarian history are the catastrophic military defeats the nation has suffered on a recurrent basis. In 1241, the Mongol Invasion decimated the country. Less than three centuries later, the Ottoman Turks inflicted a devastating defeat at the Battle of Mohacs in 1526. They repeated the feat again in Buda a mere fifteen years later. In 1711 Rakoczi’s War of Independence against the Habsburgs ended in a resounding defeat. In somewhat the same manner, the 1848 Revolution brought yet another loss to the Habsburgs (with a major assist from the Russians). Then there was World War I. A conflict that involved more than just lost battles, it also saw the nation’s finest men disappear on far flung battlefields. The Kingdom of Hungary disintegrated in the aftermath, losing 72% of its territory in the peace settlement that followed.  Less than twenty-five years later, caught between the Nazis and Soviets, the Hungarian people were among the worst hit by the violent vortex of the Second World War’s final months. In a sort of dark coda, a decisive blow was delivered by the Soviet Union that brought the 1956 Revolution to its knees.

Cannon on top of the walls at Eger Castle

Cannon on top of the walls at Eger Castle

Stopping Point: The Walls Of Eger Castle
This succession of military calamities might make a person wonder how Hungary has managed to survive up to the present day. Or they might marvel at the nation’s resilience to rise again and again from the ashes, while sustaining a cultural life that has been the envy of Eastern Europe. It certainly says something about the Hungarian people’s character that they have not just survived, but also managed to thrive despite this history. The subtitle of journalist Paul Lendvai’s popular history of Hungary perhaps says it best, “One Thousand Years of Victory In Defeat.” And no place in Hungary is more reflective of that phrase “Victory in Defeat” than the city of Eger, site of a famous siege in 1552.

By the middle of the 16th century, the Ottoman Turks controlled a large part of Hungary and were closing in on Eger. Their goal was two-fold, subdue Eger and move on towards Kassa (present day Kosice, Slovakia) where vast wealth could be found in its gold and silver mines. At the same time, this success would also open a new supply route westward for another attempted siege of Vienna. The Ottomans arrived at Eger with approximately 40,000 men, a load of artillery and surprisingly, a massive herd of 2,000 camels. By contrast, the Hungarian force was a motley assemblage of 2,200 soldiers, peasants and a few dozen women. The defenders withdrew behind the towering walls of Eger castle. They placed their hopes on heavy artillery and the seeming impregnability of the fortress walls.

Siege of Eger Castle - Painting by Béla Vizkelety

Siege of Eger Castle – painting by Béla Vizkelety

Fighting For Kingdom & Birthright: The Siege Of Eger
The vast numerical advantage of the Turks was considerable, but mitigated by the fact that the Hungarians had a fantastic leader in Istvan Dobo as well as an expert tactician, Gergely Bornemissza. Dobo, a land owning noble from northern Hungary, was literally fighting for his family’s birthright. He oversaw the fighting force throughout the battle. His leadership was probably worth several thousand troops. Dobo was able to keep the defender’s morale at a peak level, in contrast to the Ottomans who were riven by infighting. Dobo’s best lieutenant was the infantry commander Bornemissza who had a knack for creating makeshift yet deadly weapons. The most famous turned out to be a water mill wheel filled with gunpowder that would both explode and spread fire. He also developed grenades and powder keg bombs packed with such incendiaries, as oil and sulfur.

Repeatedly the Ottomans found fire raining down on them from the towering castle walls they were unable to scale. Some of this fire came at the hands of female defenders who took to pouring oil on to the enemy, which would then ignite. For thirty-nine bitter and hard fought days, the resourceful Hungarians used every stratagem available to keep the attackers at bay. Finally the Turks withdrew. They had suffered an unexpected defeat. Beaten soundly by a force they had outnumbered nearly twenty to one.

The Women of Eger - Painting by Bertalan Szekely

The Women of Eger – painting by Bertalan Szekely

Defining Traits – The Hungarian Will: Resisting Conquest
The Siege of Eger was a legendary victory that echoed down through the centuries. It became a milestone, often repeated in Hungarian historical lore. Case in point, the most famous literary work on the siege of Eger was written over three hundred years later. In 1899, Geza Gardonyi penned the fictional novel Eclipse of the Crescent Moon. Gardonyi literally walled himself off in his room to maintain focus (and perhaps recreate the same siege mentality of the defenders) while writing the book. It portrays the heroism and courage of the defenders in the face of almost insurmountable odds. Today it is required reading for all Hungarian school students.  Both Eger Castle and Gardonyi’s nearby home can be visited on a trip to the city. Visitors can look down from the castle walls and imagine the Hungarians valiantly fighting off the mighty Ottomans. The Siege of Eger showed the Turks that the Hungarians would not surrender to absolute conquest. This trait, holding out against all odds, gaining small, but important victories among cataclysmic defeats has defined Hungarians in both medieval and modern history.

The Eger minaret

The Eger minaret – all that remains of the Ottoman Turkish presence