The Beauty, Power & Unreality of Reconstructed Ruins – Visegrad: Dual Perspectives (For The Love of Hungary Part 53)

A foreign visitor to medieval Visegrad once described it as a paradise on earth. I did not have quite that same feeling during my visit to modern Visegrad. Almost five hundred years of wear, tear and warfare has done a great deal of damage to the once formidable citadel. What I saw while visiting the upper castle (citadel) was a rough approximation of the magnificent fortifications that made Visegrad impregnable to medieval conquerors. The idea of Visegrad’s impregnability has long since passed into history. Nevertheless, those remnants left standing today are still impressive. One look at the citadel, surpassed only by the sky which its reconstructed ruins seemed to reach out and touch, must have defeated many an army. Unfortunately for Visegrad some foreign visitors did not hold it in high regard. The ruined condition of the citadel is due to those who saw it as a massive obstacle. As such, they decided to lay this island in the sky low. In 1544, the Ottoman Turks brought unprecedented military resources to bear upon the citadel. They soon found themselves standing within its battered walls. Keeping what they had conquered managed to be more difficult than they could have possibly imagined.

Possession of Visegrad was fluid, if not ephemeral over the period of Ottoman Turkish occupation in Hungary. The citadel changed hands several times during the wars which raged along a continually fluctuating border between Ottoman and Royal Hungary. In what amounted to a prolonged state of siege, the mighty citadel’s defensive works were eroded. By the time the Turks were driven out in 1685, the citadel had been rendered nearly useless for military purposes. Ironically, the Austrian Habsburgs who spearheaded the reconquest of Hungary decided to finish what the Turks had started. Ferenc Rakoczi’s War of Independence (1703 – 1711) against Habsburg rule sounded the death knell for any idea of the citadel’s reconstruction for martial affairs. The Austrians carried out a demolition to ensure that Hungarians who opposed their rule could not rebuild or refortify Visegrad. From that point forward, Visegrad’s history was frozen in time. Only at some undetermined point in the future would archaeologists, curators, preservationists and historians recreate Visegrad for those who would come out of curiosity or fascination with its conflicted past. This would be when the afterlife of Visegrad began.

Riverview - Visegrad as seen from the Danube

River view – Visegrad as seen from the Danube (Credit: Horvabe)

A Commanding Presence – From Ideas & Insecurities
For me, the power of Visegrad’s citadel had little do with the ruins that still stand as silent witnesses or the interpretation of its history in museum exhibits. Instead, the true power of the citadel came from first looking up at it from the river below, then an hour later looking down from it back towards the Danube. Viewing the citadel from below makes it appear almost unattainable. There is a certain unreality to its presence. It is so perfectly situated atop Sibrik Hill that one must remind themselves that the citadel is not the product of fantasy or an overactive imagination. The citadel was born from deep rooted insecurities that fed into military strategy. It was placed high atop the hill as the most formidable line of defense. Visegrad, along with other hilltop fortresses, was King Bela IV’s response to the Mongol Invasion of 1241-1242 that had exposed the country’s paltry defenses. The idea behind medieval Visegrad was to save Hungary from another all-consuming cataclysm. Yet it is hard not to look up at Visegrad and think that it existed as much for aesthetic as defensive purposes such is the commanding position it holds over the entire area.

Getting to the top of the Citadel took an effort that expanded my lung capacity. The stairs inside the citadel were ultra-steep. Before long, beads of sweat began to form upon my brow as I ascended toward the highest possible point. There was nothing easy about scaling the heights of Visegrad. This physical exertion did more to communicate the difficult task would be conquerors must have faced. At the same time, it helped me realize just how powerful the Ottoman War machine was in its prime. Just to place the Citadel under siege, would have been a monumental military task involving logistics, weaponry and manpower that only one of the world’s great imperial forces could muster. The defenders seemed to have all the advantages, but I knew better. Visegrad was not the first or last citadel the Ottomans faced, but it was one of the most formidable.

Unreconstructed - Visegrad Citadel

Unreconstructed – Visegrad Citadel (Credit: fortepan.hu)

That Much Closer To Heaven – An Idea of Reality
Once atop the Citadel, the effect was spectacular. The beauty and scale of the scenery was more dramatic than I could have ever imagined. The Danube sliced through the heavily forested, sloping hillsides until they reached the quicksilver surface of the water. The late afternoon sunlight transformed the ribbon of river into liquid fire, gleaming and glowing with a blinding light. It was like staring at a sun emanating out of the earth. I walked to the edge of the walls overlooking the rock face falling away to the river far below. Here was an opportunity to stand in the same place where Hungarian warriors had awaited the enemy half a millennium earlier. Their perspective would have been in complete contrast to the same setting today. The peace and prosperity of the modern world makes the view from Visegrad’s citadel for tourists one of beauty and serenity. This is a highly deceptive, ahistorical perspective.

Crowning Achievement - Visegrad & the Danube

Crowning Achievement – Visegrad & the Danube (Credit: Civertan)

In 1544, those warriors would have been fighting for their lives. The citadel may have offered protection, but it was also a trap. For its defenders, there was nowhere to go except for down. Either to their graves or by falling into Turkish hands. Breaking a siege would have meant holding out for an indefinite period. That proved impossible. The defender’s final days would have been filled with fear and courage, terror and drama. These were the outstanding characteristics of a battle fought just below an impenetrable sky. The only saving grace for the defenders was that they were much closer to heaven when they met their final fate. This historically decisive moment was lost on me as I stared out from the citadel at the beautiful surroundings. The scene was so unlike the history that attended and ended this place that I found it hard to believe. Such was the power of Visegrad that imagination could not quite conquer reality.

A Search For Recognition – Visegrad: Hungary’s True Golden Age (For The Love of Hungary Part 52)

Identifying a “Golden Age” in eleven hundred years of Hungarian history can seem like a thankless task. That is because Hungarians have come to define their country’s history by an elusive greatness that seems tantalizing within reach only for it to be suddenly snatched away. This state of historical affairs is often blamed on foreign invaders and occupiers that managed to crop up with alarming regularity. The Mongol Invasion nearly destroyed the Arpad Dynasty, the Ottoman Turkish occupation during the 16th and 17th centuries weakened Hungary so severely that an argument can be made that it never recovered a place among the great powers of Europe. Hungary can be defined in the annals of European History as either “almost great” or “stolen glory”. The Austrians, with great assistance from the Russian Empire, put an end to the dreams of a free Hungary in the 1848 Revolution. The same can said about the Soviets forces the crushed the 1956 uprising.

Hungarian history can seem like one tragic tale after another. Perhaps this was why I was both surprised and heartened to discover the truest Golden Age in Hungarian history presented at the once mighty citadel of Visegrad, an epoque that often gets overlooked. This Golden Age began after the Arpad Dynasty of indigenous Hungarian kings came ended at the close of the 13th century.  It was the first, but certainly not the last time that foreigners would rule Hungary. The difference was that those who came to rule Hungary in the 14th century happened to be astonishingly successful, to the point that they made Hungary one of the most powerful states in Europe.

Primeval Morning - The View From Visegrad

Primeval Morning – The View From Visegrad (Credit: Juri Kowski)

Centralizing Power – The Rise of Charles I
I found it rather surprising to learn that the famed French House of Anjou once ruled over Hungary. Their achievements were just as towering as the citadel of Visegrad which called attention to that glorious era. The Angevin kings’ glorious tenure in Hungary did not start out that way. Charles Robert (Charles I of Hungary), great grandson of the House of Anjou’s founder, laid claim to the Hungarian throne a decade after the final Arpad king died. His claim met with major resistance. Most of the great land magnates refused to recognize Charles as heir to the throne. Charles and the forces supporting him were forced to fight their way past a host of usurpers in a search for recognition. Two other foreign kings, one Bohemian, the other German, were placed on the throne. Between the two of them they lasted a total of three years. Hungary in the late 13th and early 14th century was a land riven by infighting, as rival factions divided and subdivided the kingdom among themselves.

Charles’ perseverance and strategic brilliance eventually won out, as did his military forces who dealt the magnates a crucial defeat at the Battle of Rozsgony in 1312. And still Charles’ campaign of consolidation continued for another ten years. Finally, after being crowned no less than three times and a full twenty years after his campaign for the throne had begun, Charles fully controlled the Kingdom by 1323. His reign would improbably turn into one of the greatest in Hungarian history. Two years after Charles gained control over the Kingdom of Hungary he made the decision to move the seat of Royal Power from Temesvar to Visegrad, which was centrally located in the land he ruled. This decision set in motion the expansion and transformation of the Citadel with the addition of what became the first version of the Royal Palace. Charles’ successors would expand on his original vision making Visegrad into a showpiece for the Kingdom as well as the nexus of power for Hungary’s Angevin rulers.

Going Medieval- Charles I of Hungary

Going Medieval- Charles I of Hungary

Mining A Mint – The Glitter of Hungarian Gold

Exercising centralized control from Visegrad, Charles set about introducing reforms that consequently led to an economic boom and a resulting Golden Age. Stating that the 14th century in Hungary was a Golden Age is not historical hyperbole. One of the most telling bits of historical trivia from that era is just how much gold Hungary managed to produce during this time. The great mines of Transylvania and Upper Hungary (present day Slovakia) were making a mint. The mining boom was stimulated by a reform whereby Charles allowed the owner of the land on which a mine stood to take a sizable portion of the production revenues. This incentivized greater excavation of minerals, to the point that Hungary was responsible for one-third of the gold production in the world by the 1330’s. Hungary produced five times as much gold as any other European state. In conjunction with a series of administrative reforms, Charles’ reign  brought prosperity and stability to Hungary. The legacy of the mining boom can still be seen right up to the present. Every time Hungarians use forints – the current Hungarian currency- to pay for a transaction, it is a callback to Charles basing his gold coinage after the Florentine florin.

Possibly the greatest effect of Charles’ long and prosperous reign (1308 – 1342) was how it set the standard for similarly long reigns by the kings who followed him. His successor, Louis the Great (1342 – 1382), held the throne for forty years, an incredible amount of time considering the chaos and upheaval that had occurred less than a half century before he took power. Sigismond from the House of Luxembourg came next. He came to power in 1387 (his wife Mary kept the throne warm for her much younger husband from 1382 -1387) and managed to outlast his predecessor’s time on the throne by ruling for fifty years. Charles I, Louis the Great and Sigismund account for three of the ten longest reigns by kings in the history of Hungary. These three enlightened medieval rulers, with 124 years on the throne between them, set Hungary up for a true Golden Age. This is much more remarkable when one considers that the 14th century was also when the Black Death sent Europe reeling.

Lasting Remnants - Visegrad Citadel

Lasting Remnants – Visegrad Citadel (Credit: Sasimunoz)

A Way of Life – The Glory of Their Times
Visegrad was the center of power for much of this time, acting as a secure base from which royal affairs were conducted. As each king’s power grew, so did their buildup of Visegrad. What had started out as a fortress became more than that. A place where diplomatic affairs were conducted, where king’s enacted reforms that brought about security and stability that became the envy of medieval Europe. Hungary’s truest Golden Age was the product of three visionary kings from the Houses of Anjou and Luxembourg. The citadel and its surroundings at Visegrad evoke an age when glory, chivalry and power were more than words, they were a way of life.

The Towering Citadel – Visegrad: Hungary’s High (For The Love of Hungary Part 51)

Getting to Visegrad is not easy. That has been precisely the point since the citadel was occupied by Hungarians atop a slab of rock in the early 11th century. The fortress was on the same spot where a Roman castrum stood seven centuries before. Its defenses incorporated what was behind from antiquity. Whomever initially had the idea of a citadel commanding the Danube River must have known that the location would be impregnable for all but the most powerful of armies. That proved to be the case with the notable exceptions of the Mongols and Ottoman Turks. I found that trying to get to the heights of Visegrad can be almost as difficult. For an independent traveler it is akin to mounting a major expedition to surmount the eminence on which the remnants of the citadel still stand today.

Castle In The Sky - Visegrad in the late 15th century

Castle In The Sky – Visegrad in the late 15th century

Close To Impossible – A Travelers’ Transport
As I soon discovered, traveling from Budapest to Visegrad presented multiple challenges mainly involving transport. This was not what I expected since Visegrad is quite famous. The citadel is only 45 kilometers to the north of Budapest. I figured getting up there and back would be relatively easy, I was wrong. The trip consisted of three distinct parts, each with a different form of transport. It is rare, if not close to impossible in the United States to travel by train, boat and car all in the space of three hours. A trip to Visegrad offers all these options for the independent traveler. My journey began at Nyugati station with an hourlong train ride to the north. By the end of it, the train was skirting the left bank of the Danube until it arrived at the Nagymaros-Visegrad station. The station’s name was deceptive because Visegrad is located on the Danube’s opposite bank.

To travel from Nagymaros to Visegrad required taking a ferry that seemed to inch from one side of the riverbank to the other. Crossing the mighty Danube by ferry was a throwback to earlier times. In a sense, I was following the same watery course that others have for the past two millennia. When the ferry arrived on the opposite bank, I felt a bit letdown. The citadel seemed more distant than ever from the riverbank. Rising above me was the imposing Sibrik Hill upon which the citadel stands. I could not imagine what it must have been like for a would be conquering army to marshal the reserves of energy and force necessary to successfully scale the hill, then overtake the stout Hungarian defenses. The fact that the Ottoman Turks were able to achieve this feat when the citadel was at its most formidable was testament to their martial skill.

Across the Wide Danube - Nagymaros-Visegrád Ferry

Across the Wide Danube – Nagymaros-Visegrád Ferry (Credit: VargaA)

Medieval Designs – Put On The Defensive
The area close to the riverbank and along the lower hillside had once been part of a much more sizable Visegrad complex. The Lower Castle as it has been termed, contained the remnants of King Matthias Corvinus’ magnificent renaissance palace. Surprisingly, Hungary was the second place in Europe after Italy to welcome the Renaissance. This occurred after King Matthias married Queen Beatrix of Naples who helped bring art, architecture and humanist culture to the area. After the palace was ruined by the Turks, it was buried by run off from centuries worth of rains and only rediscovered in the 1930’s. Excavations since that time have managed to uncover a great deal of the original works. Since it was already late afternoon, I regretted having to skip the palace ruins. Instead I took a bit of time to inspect the reconstructed Solomon’s Tower, which had been part of a fortification system that had once stretched all the way up the hillside. This mimicked earlier Roman defenses, the ancient defenses informing and reinforcing the medieval design.

The tower’s name has turned out to be a misnomer. It was named after Solomon, a rebellious relative of King Ladislaus. Solomon was believed to have been imprisoned within its walls. The only problem is that Solomon was held captive during the 11th century. The first documentation of the tower’s existence is not until the mid-13th century when fortifications were built along what became the Lower Castle area to avoid another catastrophe like the Mongol Invasion of 1241. The upshot is that Solomon may have been imprisoned by Ladislaus, but it was certainly not in the tower that has been given his name. Solomon would be rather surprised to discover that he had a tower named after him at a place where he experienced a great deal of misery. Nonetheless, myth can be a much more powerful force than the truth, especially the further one goes back into history.  Myth often fills in gaps for what has been forgotten.

History Rising - Solomon's Tower from the Danube

History Rising – Solomon’s Tower from the Danube (Credit: VargaA)

A Palpable Power – The Loftiest Stage
Getting from Solomon’s Tower to the citadel required either a strenuous hike which I did not fancy or paying for a private minibus that took less than 10 minutes to reach the top parking lot. Opting for the latter, I soon found myself standing at the entrance to one of the great historic sites in Hungary. The only thing left for me was either to visit the fortress or touch the sky, perhaps both. The former was plausible and the latter seemed possible from where I stood. The power of Visegrad was palpable the moment I began to climb the steep stairs to what was left of the fortress. Here was a case where natural history and geology conspired over tens of thousands of years to create one of the more perfect locations for human drama to play out on the loftiest stage imaginable.

Standing inside the fortress, looking up at the sky and down at the Danube, I realized once again how location informs everything when it comes to history. Visegrad was the epicenter of so many important events in Hungarian history because of where it was located. It guarded the road between Esztergom and Buda. It stood above the midpoint of the Danube Bend which meant that it would come to play a central role in medieval Hungary. The citadel’s setting demanded respect. In that regard, Visegrad would not disappoint.

History Without The Ruins To Show For It – Szeged: Before The Flood Of 1879 (For The Love of Hungary Part 33)

Upon arrival in Szeged I walked into the city’s main train station which I found much to my liking. It was a multi-storied affair that I found to be of an engaging design with its pre-World War I styled festive façade and large windows overlooking the entrance. These elements were the hallmarks of architect Ferenc Pfaff, many of whose 29 palaces of rail transport can still be found placed throughout the provincial cities of what was once the Kingdom of Hungary.  The station had been recently restored to its former grandeur using Pfaff’s original plans. The grandeur it evoked was in harmony with greater architectural wonders to come in the city. For Szeged was a provincial city par excellence whose architecture, history and culture punched far above its weight.

Standing outside the station looking back at the façade it was easy to imagine that time had been turned back by over a century. It would not have been surprising to see men in bowler hats and dark suits checking their timepieces while they escorted ladies with parasols on to carriages or horse drawn trams that would transport them to the inner city. Starting with the train station, Szeged was a place that was the ultimate throwback to the halcyon days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A whiff of the imperial pervaded the city. This made it beloved by many who looked with adoration on what many consider to the glory days of modern Hungary. Conversely, it also serves to hide a deeper, more troubled history that was hidden behind the immaculate eclecticism of its Golden Age architecture.

The Triumphal Procession - Segedin in 1686

The Triumphal Procession – Segedin in 1686 (Credit: Jacob Peeters)

Swept Away– The Flood Tide Of History
The key event in Szeged’s modern history occurred on March 12, 1879. During the night a massive wall of water came surging into the city. The Tisza River turned into a veritable tsunami, causing a flood of biblical proportions. Estimates of the damage were cataclysmic with just 3% of the city’s structures still standing and hundreds of lives washed away literally overnight. When this massive inundation receded hardly anything was left of the once thriving city. It was not just that all hope was lost, so was most of the city. In the immediate aftermath, Szeged’s future looked bleak. A plan was soon hatched to rebuild Szeged in a style befitting a great city rather than a provincial riverside one.

The plan was first laid out in overwhelmingly ambitious terms by the words of none other than Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef who had come to see the damage for himself. Franz Josef stated that Szeged would be rebuilt more beautiful than before. He pledged to put the entire empire’s resources behind the rebuilding. The emperor’s words were soon backed by action. What followed was the construction of beautiful squares and spacious boulevards for an inner city stuffed with eclectic and art nouveau architectural confections. This reinvention of Szeged was so successful that it is now hard to imagine that another, distinctly different Szeged existed for many centuries before the rebuilding. Pre-1879 Szeged was physically obliterated by the great flood, while the memory of it was also washed away.

The pre-flood version of the city might as well be ancient history without the ruins to show for it. The beauty of modern Szeged has all but obscured this deeper past, one that was devastated by the Turks long before it was drowned by the Tisza. Nonetheless, this invisible past was worth a look, but I would have to find it in the pages of history books rather than on my stroll through the city. Finding old Szeged was the equivalent of chasing the ghosts of a city’s invisible past. For instance, little more than a few insubstantial remnants of Szeged’s old castle still exist. That does not leave much to go on. Turning back time, means looking to the written record and finding illustrations of the old city to make up for a woeful lack of physical evidence. I began to search for the most important date in Szeged’s history prior to the flood. This brought me to 1686, a year of historical paradoxes. On one hand there was liberation, on the other was the start of another occupation.

Ottoman Endgame - The Siege of Szeged in 1686

Ottoman Endgame – The Siege of Szeged in 1686

Capturing History At A Crucial Moment – Szeged: Version 1686
In 1686 a woodcut of Segedin (Szeged’s German name) was created in Antwerp by a Flemish artist named Jacob Peeters. It provides an image of old Szeged at a moment of sweeping change while also offering a less than authentic rendering of the city at a crucial point in its history. In the autumn of 1686, following a siege of many months, 143 years of Ottoman Turkish occupation came to an end.  The woodcut from Peeters shows this in rather tidy fashion with some trampled Turks in the foreground while Habsburg forces proceed to fight off a few others. Further back sits a beautiful walled city, looking as though it has been untouched by conflict.  A bit of homage is paid to its century and a half of Muslim rule, with a mosque and couple of minarets conspicuously rising above most of the stone structures. Beyond flows the Theis (Tisza) and Marosch (Maros) Rivers delineated in their Germanic spellings. The woodcut offers a romanticized image of Szeged as a place of triumph and idyllic beauty. What it does not show is the squalor and ruin that weeks of fighting would have inflicted upon the castle and its surroundings.

Up In Flames - 1950's Matchbook Cover of Old Szeged

Up In Flames – 1950’s Matchbook Cover of Old Szeged (Credit: Takk)

Whatever Szeged may have looked like in 1686, it was certainly nowhere close to what it had been when the Turks took it in 1543. Back then, Szeged had 7,000 inhabitants with an economy centered around the Transylvanian salt trade. By 1686 the population was down to just 2,000. The ethnic Hungarian population had largely vanished. Getting the city back to a semblance of what it had been before the Turks arrived would take decades. The first step was liberation, the second would be reconstruction and resettlement. The expulsion of the Ottoman Turks was a seminal event in Szeged’s history. Ironically, it would never have happened without Habsburg military prowess. One occupation was replaced by another. Austrian and Hungarian interests were more similar, but certainly not the same. For Szeged to become a Hungarian provincial city par excellence was still far off in the future. As for this history, there was hardly anything more important and more invisible. The irony was that without the Turkish expulsion and Austrian inspired rule, Szeged would never have realized its ultimate destiny.

A Last Bastion – The Mongol Siege Of Esztergom: Up Against The Walls (For The Love of Hungary Part 27)

As the morning mist began to lift only to reveal a leaden sky, I began the climb up Castle Hill (Varhegy) in Esztergom. Up to this point I had been sleepwalking through the lower part of the city. Castle Hill would demand much more of me. This was not so much a climb as it was an ascent. In my present state of physical stupor, scaling Castle Hill was strenuous in the extreme. Though the weather was cool and overcast, it did not take long before I was sweating. Walking uphill toward the castle helped me understand that the hill was as much a part of the castle’s defensive architecture, as the works of man. Any foe hoping to subdue Esztergom would be forced to reckon with the hill’s formidable topography. Coupled with the stone defensive works constructed atop it, potential conquerors were faced with a near impossible task. Castle Hill would not defeat me on this day. I slowly made my way to the top without opposition. The Mongols in the mid-13th century happened to not be nearly so lucky, it was on the slopes of Castle Hill where they finally met with defeat.

A Mongol Manhunt - Bela IV being pursued by the enemy

A Mongol Manhunt – Bela IV being pursued by the enemy

A King’s Ransom – The Search For Bela IV
In the Mongol siege of Esztergom was the beginning of a new and more secure Hungary. Prior to their arrival in northern and western Hungary, the Mongol hordes had laid waste to the entirety of eastern Hungary. They had destroyed the Hungarian Army at the Battle of Mohi during the spring of 1241. They then proceeded to rape, pillage and plunder almost all the villages and settlements across the Great Hungarian Plain. The Magyar inhabitants had little in the way of defenses to put up any kind of resistance. The most formidable fortresses were made of nothing more than earthworks and wood. The Mongols found these easy to penetrate and easier to destroy. The region’s agriculture and population was nearly wiped out. Once the Mongols headed towards the Danube, the odds of a repeat performance looked likely. If they could get across the river, western Hungary would be theirs for the taking.

Esztergom, as the capital of Hungary and seat of royal power was squarely in the Mongol’s sights. While it only had a population of 12,000, Esztergom was Hungary’s largest city at the time. During the Middle Ages, an overwhelming majority of the Hungarian population lived in scattered settlements. Some of the larger population centers, such as Esztergom, did have castles and defensive works made of stone, but there were very few of those in the entire country. Certainly not enough to stop the Mongol assault or protect most of the population. The Mongols were particularly fixated on Esztergom. As the royal capital, it was the home of Hungarian King Bela IV who had barely managed to escape the rout at Mohi with his life. For the Mongols, their conquest would not be complete until they captured and killed Bela. He knew this, so instead of going back to Esztergom he fled the country. He made his way to an island off the coast of present-day Croatia.

The Defeated Victor - Royal Seal of Bela IV

The Defeated Victor – Royal Seal of Bela IV

Lightning Advances – Magyar and Mongol Horsemen
With their king nowhere to be found, the Hungarians were resigned to the same fate that had befallen so many of their countrymen. This was ironic. Three hundred and fifty years earlier, the Magyars (Hungarians) had swept into the Carpathian Basin and penetrated the frontiers of Central Europe using tactics now employed by the Mongols. Lightning advances by expert horseman had been a Hungarian hallmark. Nomads no more, they were now settled and virtually defenseless against a more powerful version of what they had once been. The Mongols on horseback were a weapon of mass destruction that swept all before them. The light infantry and cavalry of the Hungarians offered only tepid resistance. They were up against an all-conquering force that looked to be unstoppable.

On Christmas Day in 1241 a Mongol force of approximately 100,000, thundered across the frozen Danube into western Hungary. It was not long thereafter that they appeared on the outskirts of Esztergom. While the peasants and upwards of 300 nobles from the area in and around Esztergom were slaughtered, those lucky enough to find their way within the city’s hilltop citadel held out hope that they could somehow withstand the Mongol onslaught. During their retreat, the townspeople had employed scorched earth tactics. This deprived the Mongols of foodstuffs and valuable treasure. It is also served to infuriate them. It was now the dead of winter, with the weather looking just as bleak as the defender’s prospects of survival.

For the Mongols, the situation was not ideal either. They were on tactically suspect terrain when it came to siege warfare, reduced to using catapults to try and breach stone walls. When this tactic failed, the Mongol commander Batu Khan decided to order his troops to storm the walls. This was also repulsed when crossbowmen within the walls unleashed a torrent of arrows. The Mongol force was decimated. Batu Khan called off the siege and accepted defeat. The Hungarian victory was a signal success, but it did nothing to expel the Mongols from the Carpathian Basin. That would come about later in 1242 when news arrived that the Great Khan had died. The Mongols subsequently pulled out of Hungary, heading back eastward to take part in the election of a new leader.

Towering Above All - Esztergom Castle as it looks today

Towering Above All – Esztergom Castle as it looks today (Credit: Batomi)

Securing The Kingdom – A Hard Lesson Learned
Bela IV soon returned to his devastated kingdom. He set about on the monumental task of rebuilding Hungary. This meant not only resettling the land, but also ensuring that when the Mongols tried to invade again, the kingdom would be ready. The siege of Esztergom had offered the Hungarians a lesson in how to defend themselves against these rapacious, nomadic horsemen by building impregnable hilltop castles and citadels out of stone. Bela IV soon propagated a construction program to place these across the Hungarian Kingdom. These fortresses, along with heavily armored knights and crack shot crossbowmen, had turned the tide of victory during the siege of Esztergom. They would also turn the tide toward a more secure Hungary. The Mongols would never again get anywhere close to Esztergom.

A Meeting With Expectations – Buda Castle Up Close & Impersonal (For The Love of Hungary – Part 6)

When I think of touring a castle, what comes to mind is audio tours that never quite work the way they should, drafty and dank rooms that are mostly empty, loads of meaningless furniture, weapons and armor that look like something no sane person would wield or wear and guides who burden their audiences with structural details that a professional engineer would be hard pressed to understand. Nonetheless, castle tours are infectious, they always keep me and millions of others coming back for more. There are always opportunities to take incredible photos. Castle are photogenic in the extreme. They usually occupy a scenic position atop a hill, plateau or mountain. It as though the brains behind these stone-built spectaculars located them for maximum tourist effect.

In truth, castles attained their exalted topographical positions as a matter of security and survival. Castles manage to capture the imagination to such an extent that not many people care anything about their history. History gets in the way of fantasy and every castle relies more for its effect by stimulating imagination rather than relying on reality. In other words, it is not so much what we see in castles, as it is what they make us want to believe. Thus, I had high hopes when I went to visit Buda Castle for the first time. My head was filled with outrageously high expectations. What I would find was quite unexpected. Buda Castle was unlike any other castle I have ever visited.

Impressive & imposing - Looking over the Danube at Buda Castle

Impressive & imposing – Looking over the Danube at Buda Castle (Credit: Túrelio)

“High & Mighty” – An Exercise In Visual Intimidation
From the distance of the Danube promenade, Buda Castle looks impressive and imposing. High above it stands and spreads outward, a massive edifice that looks like it was pieced together from several buildings. Each one would be large by itself, together they form a coherent and gigantic whole. As I would later discover, to a large degree Buda Castle was an agglomeration that had been pieced together in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Its core architecture is Baroque, with neo-Renaissance elements added as well. Crowning it is a very large neo-Baroque dome, done up in modernist style. Its size cannot be disguised by distance. When viewed from the Danube, the castle seems to spread itself up and out, expanding its girth in several directions and commanding the area around it. No wonder it provides the name for the plateau on which it and hundreds of other buildings stand, Castle Hill (Varhegy). Looking up at the castle is an exercise in visual intimidation, one that can leave the viewer feeling small and insignificant.

The Castle looks the very definition of “high and mighty”, as impenetrable as it is intimidating. From below, the castle communicates a powerful presence. I wondered how a visit to it might make me feel. The answer to that question soon came as I made it a point to visit the Castle on my first full day back in the city. My initial response as I began to approach it was one of trepidation and confusion. The Castle was overwhelming. I could see how, after a full renovation and additions were completed in 1905, it became the largest Royal Palace in the world. At one time it sported over 200 rooms. The Castle had been ordered built as a sop to the Hungarians by Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa for their support in her wars against foreign foes. She had no intention of ever living in it, but that did not stop the construction from being ridiculously outsized and ornate. And that was just the first version in the mid-18th century. It continued to expand as it was redeveloped and revised.

Out of the shadows - Lions Court at Buda Castle

Out of the shadows – Lions Court at Buda Castle (Credit: Darinko)

A Royal Palace Without Royalty – Crowning Behemoth
The version of the Castle which stands today approximates the one that was redesigned in the late 19th century by Miklos Ybl and then finished after his death by Alajos Hauszmann. Ybl’s design had been responsible for an additional western wing, while Hauszmann implemented a massive expansion which resulted in a new northern wing that ended up doubling the size of those parts of the castle facing the Danube. This version of the castle suffered grave damage during the Second World War. The communist regime, which took control of the country in the years after the war, would not hear of rebuilding the castle as it had previously existed. They wanted to avoid any reminder of the proto-nationalist regime of Miklos Horthy, who had called the Castle home during the inter-war period. It was thus decided to gut the interior rooms so Buda Castle could house an array of cultural institutions. While much of the ornate splendor that had once covered the Castle both inside and out was not replaced.

I wanted to take a tour of this crowning behemoth, but that would be problematic. There seemed to be no central starting point. I found myself wandering in and out of shadows, while walking beneath hundreds of windows and past multiple wings. I soon discovered that it was impossible to take a tour that would cover the entire castle. Oddly enough, this is by design.   The upshot of the post-war reconstruction is that visitors see a lesser example of what the Castle was like in its early 20th century heyday. There are no royal quarters to visit. Historically, this is more appropriate than one might think. The Castle was never a royal residence, Horthy was the highest official ever to inhabit its chambers. As far as the Habsburg administration went, the Castle acted as home to the palatine, which was the Habsburg Emperor’s representative in Hungary. Thus, there were no great personages connected with the castle nor any tales of royal feats or depravity.

A meeting with expectations - Buda Castle

A meeting with expectations – Buda Castle (Credit: Jorge Lascar)

A Daunting Task – Built To Be This Way
Buda’s Castle present status is as a house of museums, converted to showcase works of art, historic artifacts and books. This meant that if I wanted to “visit” the castle, I would have to spend time in such disparate attractions as the Hungarian National Gallery, the National Szechenyi Library and the Budapest History Museum. This seemed like a daunting task for a first full day, so I satisfied myself by walking around the castle, through several courtyards and snapping photos from stunning vistas. This castle was not really made for tourism or tales. It was a place that one could visit, but never quite penetrate. It could never be captured in a single image or grasped in its entirety by the human mind. I had the stinging suspicion that it was built to be this way. It felt like too much of a great thing and it always will be.

Click here: Silent Witness – Tower of the Church of Mary Magdalene In Buda (For The Love of Hungary – Part 7)

The End Of Eighty-Six Worlds – The Ghosts Of War On Buda’s Castle Hill (For The Love of Hungary – Part 5)

Castle Hill (Varhegy) in Budapest is incredible and not just for its architecture. The fact that there is anything still standing atop the hill is either a miracle or a powerfully encouraging sign of Hungarian resiliency, depending upon one’s perspective and system of belief. The Hill has been riven time and again by centuries of warfare. Just about every medieval and modern weapon has been used against it. From catapults to cannons, arrows to harquebuses, arsenals of weaponry have been used to break the will of those defending this limestone plateau. Innumerable sieges and counter-sieges have taken place, to the point where besiegers often end up becoming the besieged. And after all the bombs and bullets have been expended, Hungarians have still managed to claim Castle Hill as their own. I can think of no greater example of staying power.

A shell of itself - Castle Hill in Buda 1945

A shell of itself – Castle Hill in Buda 1945

Lots of War & A Little Peace – Deconstructing History
To get an idea of just how traumatic the history of Castle Hill has been, start with numbers. By one count, since the Mongol invasion in 1241 through the end of World War II in 1945, there have been eighty-six different times Castle Hill was ravaged by warfare. In other words, on innumerable occasions it was left in ruin. That number equates to an average of one cataclysm every eight years. With this kind of combative past, it is a wonder that any buildings are still left standing atop this stricken plateau. Yet a multitude of architectural wonders rise proudly on Castle Hill today. This speaks to the long period of peace that has occurred since the end of World War II. It has now been 73 years since a shot was fired in warfare atop Castle Hill. No one could have known that when the guns fell silent on February 13, 1945, ending the Red Army’s victorious siege of Buda, that this would conclude seven centuries of warfare. At least for now.

To the naked eye of tourists, all those withering assaults on Castle Hill might seem to have disappeared without leaving so much as a trace. A closer look reveals the ghosts of warfare elegantly hidden behind fashionable facades. The most noticeable traces can be discerned by a probing eye coupled with an investigative intellect. Armed with foreknowledge of the various iterations that were built to imitate the past, a visitor can see the hints of a deeper history exposed in plain sight. A good example of this are the many deliciously colored coated Baroque houses lining the Castle District’s streets. These Baroque beauties sport nary a bullet hole, then again looks can be deceiving. Each of these houses were elegantly reconstructed after the Second World War. Sources indicate that when the Siege of Buda ended, only five of the houses left on Castle Hill were still habitable. Due to the extensive damage and exorbitant cost, reconstruction was not completed in the area until the 1980’s. The wartime destruction did have one unintended benefit, many elements of Gothic and Renaissance architecture were unearthed and then incorporated into the reconstructions.

Bullet holes in Buda's Castle District - War damaged former Ministry Of Defense

Bullet holes in Buda’s Castle District – War damaged former Ministry Of Defense

Lack Of Defense – A Monumental Reminder
As thorough a reconstruction as the buildings on Castle Hill have undergone, there are still scars of war in the form of bullet holes to be found. Ironically, the most prominent of these is located at the former Ministry of Defense building where Szinhaz utca runs into Disz ter. This rather non-descript, neo-Baroque styled building stands halfway between Buda Castle and Matthias Church. Tourists rushing back and forth between those two splendid structures often overlook the war damaged building. They fail to notice the monumental reminder of warfare confronting them. Yet the building is pockmarked with unmistakable evidence of the siege. It offered a poignant moment for me when on my first visit to it. I ran my hand across a stone wall and dug a finger into one of the gaping bullet wounds. Here was a tangible trace of gunfire from either a Soviet or German weapon. It was the ultimate outcome of an ideological struggle between fascism and communism, an outcome that spit itself out the barrel of a gun.

The bullet that made this large indention, like tens of thousands of other bullets fired in the Castle District, was meant to maim or kill. Instead, it struck stone, leaving an unforgettable impression in a future age.  An age of peace and prosperity that belonged to another world, the one in which I was lucky enough to now live. This present world had hardly anything in common with the world of war which had transmitted this bullet hole to me. I have never felt so close and so far from war as when I dug my finger into the lasting remnants of that cataclysm.

A new coat of paint - The Castle District today

A new coat of paint – The Castle District today (Credit Elsa rolle)

An Age, An Idea, An Empire – Dying at the Hands of the Next
The building’s integrity as a still standing, non-reconstructed monument to the fire and fury of the apocalyptic siege of Buda is now threatened by a government planned reconstruction. Last time I visited, fences kept visitors away from the building’s walls. Nice and neat, elegant and classy might soon replace the power of real that resides in this place. If the walls are redone, if the memory of war is erased, then the only reminders of Castle Hill’s destructive history will be confined to hidden niches or buried beneath a thousand cobblestones. What will be lost is not just evidence of one siege, but a connection to all the conflicts that have plagued this magnificent plateau’s past.

There is something about seeing the actual place where hellish events happened that causes a person to contemplate the horrors of war. The thought of what it must have been like to fire a gun or hide from a hail of bullets, to kill or be killed, a hundred thousand times over, that can be enough to make the most courageous person recoil at the idea of using combat to settle affairs of state and ideology.  For the course of empire or the pursuit of power, that was the way eighty-six worlds ended atop Castle Hill. In that maze of medieval streets, one age or idea or empire died at the hands of the next. And it kept going on and on and on, until 704 years of history and misery came to a halt in 1945. Let us hope it never happens again. The history of Castle Hill shows that it will.

Click here for: A Meeting With Expectations – Buda Castle Up Close & Impersonal (For The Love of Hungary – Part 6)

A Dazzling Island In The Sky – Castle Hill In Buda (For The Love of Hungary – Part 4)

This was just my second visit to Budapest, but like the first one I felt the magnetic pull of Castle Hill. Something about castles and hills have a way of drawing throngs of tourists to the most important cities in Central and Eastern Europe. Prague, Krakow and Budapest are among the most prominent places sporting a hilltop castle. In each city’s case, a castle stands high above a famous river. The most famous of these rivers is the Danube or the Duna as Hungarians call it. The river slides between Buda and Pest, a ribbon of slate grey luminescence that is transformed into liquid fire at dawn and dusk. Standing by the Duna looking up at the conical spires reaching upward toward the sky, Castle Hill provides the viewer with an aesthetically enthralling sensation that is nothing short of spectacular.

Elements of magic - Buda Castle & Castle Hill lie up at night

Elements of magic – Castle Hill lie up at night (Credit: hpgruesen)

Elements Of Magic – A Splendid Sensation
This scene was first set out before me a year and a half earlier on my first trip to Budapest. It left me with indelible impressions that have stayed with ever since then. On this my second trip to the city, I found myself on a beautiful autumn morning traveling from the gritty working class district of Kispest to the regal splendor of Castle Hill. This trip when done by way of public transport takes a little less than an hour. Upon arrival, I had one goal in mind on this visit, to spend the better part of a day walking around Castle Hill. This would be done in the hope of gaining a better understanding of its history and architecture. That rocky plateau had been home to triumphs, sieges and cataclysmic battles that had served to shape Hungary’s destiny.

On my previous visit to Budapest, I had spent just a little over an hour atop Castle Hill, not nearly enough time to get to know the place. My most lucid memory was of standing outside the Matthias Church listening to a guide on the Budapest Free Tour explain how the structure had been co-opted as a model for the castle in Disney’s Magic Kingdom. I have never been to Disney World and have no desire to visit a make-believe world when there are real places of much greater interest. I must admit though, that there does seem to be an element of magic associated with Castle Hill. It provides a suitable destination to explore the fantastical. That first visit lodged itself in both my memory and imagination. A trip to Budapest would never take place again without a visit to that dazzling island in the sky that Hungarians call Varhegy (Castle Hill).

A step up - The climb to Castle Hill begins

A step up – The climb to Castle Hill begins

Scaling The Heights – To The Pinnacle Of Power
I made the mistake of walking, rather than riding to the top of Castle Hill. This mistake turned out to be quite revealing. Though I exercise each day, getting to the top of Castle Hill proved to be a workout. It stands on a mile long plateau of rock, rising two hundred feet above the Danube. Two hundred feet may not sound like much of a climb, but when that elevation rises over a length of just a thousand feet, scaling it can be exhausting. I decided against a frontal assault and scaled the hill up a set of stairs along its western side. This approach conveyed to me the importance of topography in the history of Castle Hill. The first capital of the Kingdom of Hungary was not located here, instead it was on another hill further north overlooking the Danube, in the city of Esztergom. Buda only became the administrative seat of power in Hungary after the Mongol invasion in 1241.

The capital at the time of invasion was in Esterzgom, but that city proved no match for the Mongols who destroyed most of it. The King of Hungary at the time of the Mongol Invasion was Bela IV (1235 – 1270). He was forced to flee all the way to an island off the coast of Dalmatia to avoid being killed. After the Mongols withdrew from Hungary a year later, Bela decided that the only way to protect the Kingdom from another invasion was by building hilltop fortresses. These were constructed all over Hungary. Bela had a fortress and accompanying residence built atop Castle Hill. In the 14th century, a castle was built atop the hill as well. Then during the long reign of Sigismund (1387 -1427) a Gothic Palace and protective fortifications were added. By this time, Buda had become without a doubt the epicenter of political power in the Kingdom of Hungary.

The Castle District got a renaissance makeover during the long and storied reign of Matthias Corvinus (1458 – 1490). This period was the height of cultural and architectural achievement in medieval Hungary, ushering in a gilded age for Castle Hill. Marble fountains, expansive new Renaissance style buildings and crushed gravel pathways covered the district. During this time, the Kingdom of Hungary expanded its borders into lower Austria and Bohemia. This expanding empire had at its core Castle Hill. It must have seemed at the time that nothing could threaten the district. It stood secure, floating high above the Danube, a spectacular reminder of the wealth and power of Matthias’ reign. This peak turned out to be something of a false summit, for it was all downhill after the death of Matthias. The Kingdom of Hungary began a period of decline which led to defeat and occupation by the Ottoman Turks. The Castle District fell into the hands of the Ottoman Turks after their successful siege of Buda in 1541. They then made it their seat of power. Though the Turks converted plenty of churches to mosques on Castle Hill they left the royal palace intact.

Scaling the heights - Statue atop Castle Hill

Scaling the heights – Statue atop Castle Hill

Baroque Beginnings – The Castle District Rises Again
The end of Turkish power in Buda and most of Hungary came in 1686, it also brought an end to the old Castle District. The successful siege by a Habsburg led army resulted in the historic architecture that stood on Castle Hill being laid waste. Very little was left to build upon. This meant an entirely new version of the district, heavily influenced by the Baroque era, would slowly arise. Much of the architecture from that period still exists today. This was what confronted me when I finally I made it to the top of Castle Hill and caught my breath. I was soon to discover it was worth every bit of energy that I expended to get there.

Click here for: The End Of Eighty-Six Worlds – The Ghosts Of War On Buda’s Castle Hill (For The Love of Hungary – Part 5)

 

The Siege Of Koszeg – From Tourists To Turks: Visitors From Abroad

I liked Sopron so much that for the second day in a row I took to the surrounding countryside for a day trip. The attraction of Koszeg was such that I could not resist. When a place is given the title “Jewel Box of Hungary” it deserves a visit. From the sound of it, Koszeg was what Hungary would have been without World Wars and communism. That is if the country had been left to develop on its own without foreign interference. Of course, every European country could say the same thing, but in Hungary there was a sense that history had been unkind to it. That Hungary’s greatness had been thwarted by foreign interlopers. As for Koszeg, it was said to have largely escaped wartime damage. That would turn out to be only half true, depending on what war was being referenced. I would discover the damage from World War II was more human than structural, whereas the damage from the Ottoman Turks was both.

Before making these discoveries I first had to find my way to Koszeg. By train this was not as simple as the map made it look. There was not a direct line by rail between Sopron and Koszeg, though the latter was just 45 kilometers south of the former. The problem was that Austria was in the way. Thus, I would first have to travel to Szombathely by train and then take a short branch line to Koszeg. I found this to be an annoyance. That was until I arrived at Szombathely, where I was surprised and delighted by the train that would take me to Koszeg. The train only consisted of two cars, looking more like an elongated bus on rails. Covered in yellow paint, with a few green markings, the cars were eye catching and lively looking. The branch line to Koszeg was worth it just for the ride on this little train.

Koszeg - Jurisics ter in the foreground

Koszeg – Jurisics ter in the foreground

The Last Hold Outs – A Commander & A Castle
After arriving at the railway station in Koszeg I discovered it was a bit of a walk to the town center. When I arrived in Koszeg’s Old Town I felt like a kid in a candy store. Everything was so colorful and vibrant that I could almost taste it. The Renaissance and Baroque era buildings were coated in a rich array of colors that made the cityscape look good enough to eat. There was architectural eye candy on offer throughout the cobbled squares and streets. The heart of quaint old Koszeg was Jurisics ter (Jurisics Square). That was a name that would soon become familiar to me. Jurisics would forever be associated with Koszeg, albeit a very different one from the marvelously atmospheric town that exists today. It was Nikola Jurisics who not only saved Koszeg from the Ottoman Turkish threat, but some would also argue Vienna. For his efforts, the castle had been named after him.

Of all the buildings worth seeing in Koszeg, Jurisics Var (Jurisics Castle) was one of the least impressive. Remnants of its old walls were so busted and battered that they did not look particularly evocative of any great defensive work. Behind them stood the inner castle, a group of towers and buildings covered in a brownish-red coat of color that appeared a little too refined for my taste. Meanwhile the entryway looked like the run up to a large inn. It was hard to imagine this was the same castle that had resisted nineteen assaults by the Ottoman army of Sultan Suleiman. Truth be told, the present-day castle was only a rough approximation of what had stood on the site during the siege of 1532. Most of that castle had been consumed by a great fire in 1777. The town had honored its history by having the castle reconstructed.

Nikola Jurisics statue - Entrance to Jurisics Castle

Nikola Jurisics statue – Entrance to Jurisics Castle (Credit: Pan Peter 12)

Creation By Destruction – To Do The Impossible
Fire was a recurring theme in the history of Koszeg. The town had been torched several times, more by accident or incident rather than at the hands of foreign foes. The threat of fire was of such concern that smokers incurred large fines. Anyone suspected of arson could be termed a “villain” and sentenced to fifty lashes. Such painful punishments certainly commanded the attention of potential offenders. While fire was a mortal threat, it also helped create the Koszeg which stands today. Disastrous infernos were an opportunity for urban renewal. As a history buff, I would have been interested to see the original wooden and mud caulked houses of medieval Koszeg, but I doubt this would have brought in many tourists. The current townscape was much more pleasing to aesthetic sensibilities, even if much of the architectural history did not reach back any earlier than the 17th century.

It was an earlier aspect of Koszeg’s history that Jurisics Castle recalled, if not in form at least in spirit. This was where Jurisics commanded a force of 700 men facing an Ottoman Army numbering close to a hundred thousand. What ensued was a 25 day siege, that halted the Ottoman movement toward Vienna. From the start Jurisics’ force was close to the point of exhaustion, but somehow held out long enough to exhaust the Ottoman Army’s will to fight. How did such an outmanned and outgunned force manage to hold out against incredible odds? In a word , leadership. Nikola Jurisics was more than a commander, he was a leader. He convinced his ragtag group of defenders – mainly Hungarian peasants – that they could do the impossible. Jurisics and the defenders also got lucky. Heavy rains came at the end of August, which helped persuade the Sultan to withdraw his troops. Thus, the siege of Koszeg may helped save Vienna from the impending Ottoman threat. Paradoxically, Koszeg also saved the Habsburgs at the expense of Hungary. Ottoman rule over much of Hungary solidified in the years after the siege.

The Last Hold Out - Jurisics Castle

The Last Hold Out – Jurisics Castle

Point of Departure – Historical Developments
As for Koszeg it had managed to escape Ottoman occupation. This allowed it to develop more normally, akin to that of Austria rather than Hungary. That development brought in German merchants who spearheaded the economy during the 18th and 19th centuries. Yet it was also Germans who brought the next wave of destruction to the town. This destruction left the city’s beautiful Old Town untouched. The same could not be said for Koszeg’s small Jewish community. They were not so lucky. I would never have known this, except for a photo I would see in a book many months after my visit. That photo made me look at Koszeg quite differently, specifically its train station, which In 1944 had acted as a point of departure to Auschwitz.

Click here for:  Final Departures – Koszeg Railway Station: Traces Of Evil

The Glitter Of Lost Glory: The Fall & Rise Of Esterhaza: A Chaotic Convalescence

The sound of boots marching across the marble floors of Esterhaza announced that a new, more terrible era had come to this far corner of western Hungary. These ancestral lands of the Esterhazy family were being overrun, first by the Wehrmacht and then by the all-conquering Red Army. In comparison with past conflicts, the cataclysm to come was on an entirely different scale. Esterhaza had managed to escape the First World War unscathed, the Second was to be an entirely different matter. German and then Russian echoed down the corridors where Prince Miklos Esterhazy had once strolled in a diamond encrusted robe. In the ornate spaces where queens, princes and counts had once conversed, now officers, soldiers and nurses went about their duty with grim determination. The palace floors no longer sparkled or shined, they were now smeared with mud and dung. Areas that had once been the drawing rooms of women in the finest clothing and with the most impeccable manners had become temporary housing. The 126 rooms of Esterhaza were apportioned for armed forces on the move or soldiers so sick that they must have wondered if the last moments of their lives would be spent hundreds of kilometers east of Soviet soil.

Before the fall & rise - Esterhaza in 1900

Before the fall & rise – Esterhaza in 1900 (Credit: fortepan.hu)

Unexpected Guests – Lost In Place
Esterhaza was not built to withstand a war, instead the palace was irreparably modified by it. In 1945 the Germans suddenly arrived at its gates, unexpected guests on a hastily organized retreat. The palace was just a wayside stop on the long march to defeat. The Wehrmacht converted parts of Esterhaza into a military headquarters, a losing proposition if ever there was one. By this point the war was all but lost. The Germans were unsuccessfully scrambling to hold back the Red Army, which was preparing to invade Austria. The German stay at Esterhaza was short lived. They would soon be pushed out of the premises. The Soviets followed in their boot steps for what would be a much longer stay. They setup a military hospital for soldiers who were suffering from typhoid. The soldiers, whose ill health permitted an inordinately long stay, left traces of their presence which can still be seen today.

The most poignant part of my tour through Esterhaza was when the guide pointed out a drawing done by a convalescing Soviet soldier.  Scrawled on a whitewashed stone wall were several airplanes that looked like they were in combat. A reminder of what one man had seen on his long journey from Soviet soil. Such artistic renderings were relatively innocuous reminders of the Red Army presence. It was what could no longer be seen that was more troubling. Almost all of the palace’s furniture had been carried off by the Soviets. Anything of even miniscule value was fair game for theft. The material possessions contained in the palace likely ended up flung out on some anonymous roadside, in a soldier or officer’s home or hidden away in a Soviet museum collection.

Drawing room - A Russian soldiers drawings at Esterhaza

Drawing room – A Russian soldiers drawings at Esterhaza

Consumed By Time & Fate – The Way It Had To Be
World War II did not put an end to Esterhaza, but it ushered in a new era that threatened the palace’s preservation. In 1946 a horticultural college was established in one wing of the palace. The Versailles like garden was converted into a fruit farm by the communists. The palace’s interior also underwent changes. The roof deteriorated until it was in a state of ruin. Rainstorms then drenched the palace interior, causing mildew and decay. The floors were rotting, the walls were peeling and the palace was in a state of dilapidation. A strange thing happened on the way to complete destruction, the Hungarian state, which now fully owned the property, decided it would undergo renovation. This process started in 1959 and was still going on over four decades later. On the day I toured Esterhaza, restoration work was in progress. It was a time consuming process, made more so by the rare skills needed by the artisans. Marble floors, Chinese paintings and recreating frescoes was just some of the restoration work that had already been done and there was much more to come. Finding those who could do such work was about as difficult as the work itself. Cost was also an impediment. Over four billion forints (Hungary’s currency) was spent trying to bring back a semblance of the glamor that Esterhaza once enjoyed.

The original creator of Esterhaza, Miklos the Magnificent, had set such a stratospherically high standard of luxury and haute couture that decades of restoration would never be able to recreate his original vision. This was lamentable, but also understandable. There could be only one Esterhaza in the history of Hungary, just as there could be only one Versailles in the history of France. What can be seen of either today is but a small approximation of the glory and gilded decadence of that time. To some Miklos was a visionary, a man whose striving for social ascendance brought world class art, architecture, music and culture to a rural netherworld. For others, Miklos was a wastrel, a rich aristocrat with limitless fiscal resources. He was able to realize the most fantastical ideas at the expense of thousands of serfs who labored on his lands. Neither view is incorrect. He was a great man, but like all great men terribly flawed. Esterhaza Palace reflects the man as much as the age.

Waiting for a return - The Gates to Esterhaza in 1956

Waiting for a return – The Gates to Esterhaza in 1956 (Credit fortepan.hu)

Never To Return – Family Connections
The tour of Esterhaza left me wanting more. Perhaps it was the language barrier (I hardly understood a word the guide said in Hungarian) or all those vacant rooms, but I wanted to know more about what had happened at Esterhaza, especially during World War II and in its immediate aftermath. I wanted to know what had happened to all those members of the Esterhazy family that had once reigned supreme over much of western Hungary and eastern Austria. For centuries it seemed like they owned everything and everyone in this land. And then suddenly it was gone, never to return, at least to their ownership. I wondered what had happened to the heirs who were supposed to inherit  Esterhaza? They had vanished, like the palace furnishings had vanished, but whereas the furnishings were shipped east, the Esterhazy’s had been banished to the west. What became of them? I imagined they had turned out much like Esterhaza, their lives filled with the glitter of lost glory.

Click here for: The Siege Of Koszeg – From Tourists To Turks: Visitors From Abroad