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.
“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.
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 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.