A Hallucinatory Past – Nadasdy Castle in Nadasladany (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #22c)

Making a difference. Those three words can mean the difference between a good and a great experience when touring a historic site. My wife and I found out just how much of a difference one person can make while at Nadasdy Castle. On the day of our visit, there was only one person working there and that turned out to be the only person we would need. I have no idea what this man’s title was. I like to refer to him as the attendant because he was so attentive to our needs. If we had questions, he would answer them based upon his experience. This allowed him to delve into more than just the castle’s history, we also got a window into future funding efforts that had gone awry.

There was the Hungarian-American who tried to purchase the castle. There was the search for restoration funds from the state or European Union. There was a foundation that might be able to restore the castle to its former greatness. There was even reason for hope. An excellent restoration of the exterior had been completed. No small feat considering the castle’s size. The interior would need a great deal of work and funding. The attendant talked at length about how he really hoped the money could be found. It was a long and laborious process. One that would likely not come to fruition for years. In the meantime, he helped keep the doors open and visitors satisfied.

Going Gothic – Roman Catholic Parish Church on the grounds of Nadasdy Castle

On The Inside – Family Ties
The sun began to dip lower in the sky, as mid-afternoon slowly turned into late afternoon. It was time to say our goodbyes to the attendant who had been so gracious with his time, information, and sharing anecdotal experiences. As we were leaving, he walked with us across the grounds. Then he offered to take us inside the historic Roman Catholic Parish Church that stood at one end of the property. This was outstanding customer service coupled with kindness. The church was hard to miss and not just because of its proximity to the castle. It was a neo-Gothic confection, built of rustic red brick. The church was replete with design elements that made it look much older than its late 19th century construction date. Gables, bastions, a round tower, buttresses, a saddle roof. One would think that crafting all these elements would result in a gigantic building. In this case, though the church seemed large, it was much smaller than it looked. This became apparent when the attendant produced a key, unlocked the front door, and led us inside.

The interior was a nice counterpoint to the exterior. It was much less grand and on a more human scale. Inside, a husband, wife, and son, who I assumed were the last Nadasdys to make their home at the nearby castle were laid to rest. I was especially intrigued by the dates on the tombs. The tomb of the father, Ferenc, said he had lived from 1907 – 1944. Was he killed in the war? I was almost certain that was the case. His wife outlived him by 46 years, she died a year after the Iron Curtain collapsed. Their son was born in 1937. The aristocracy would have vanished once and for all, along with his father near the end of the war. The son lived until 2013. He would likely have come back at some point to see if anything could be regained from what had been lost during his childhood. The church was peaceful, the tombs added a somber element. The Nadasdys were now gone, but their glorious name remained on these grounds, haunted by a past that must have been seemed hallucinatory to those who could still recall it.

From the heart – On the inside of the Roman Catholic Parish Church

For The Sake Of Posterity – A Silent Hero of History
Ironically, the preservation of the Nadasdy legacy at the castle, church and park was left to someone unrelated to the family. The attendant had become lord of the manor, at least during the day. He could rightfully be called the ultimate house sitter, a man entrusted with the stewardship of a site whose existence was in a constant state of limbo. His deep reverence for the place reminded me of how those who served the Nadasdy’s at the castle from 1876 at the time of its completion until its abandonment by the family in 1944, must have felt. The idea of noblesse oblige was in practice at that time. This was the inferred responsibility of nobles to act with generosity towards their subjects. Now that idea had been turned on its head. The castle’s caretaker was not only serving a legacy. He was also serving posterity by keeping the castle and its history alive. It looked like a wonderfully lonely job. The kind of job that was a calling.

The attendant was one of those silent heroes of history who toil in the shadows at obscure sites. Whatever this man was paid it could never be enough. If it was not for him, then we would have never been able to step foot inside the hallowed walls of the castle or church. Leaving Nadasdy Castle and the attendant was not easy. Sure, we had a bus and then a train to catch, but there would always be more of those coming, but there would never be another attendant like this one. That I was sure of. In all my travels around Hungary I have scarcely been so fortunate as to meet someone with such a sense of dedication, duty, and integrity. To my mind, he was making as much history as any Nadasdy ever did.

Family ties – Nadasdy family remains at the Roman Catholic Parish Church

Making A Difference – From The Heart
While I do not remember the attendant’s name, it hardly matters. For me he was more than a man, he was an experience. That was because he made us feel as though we were his special guests, people he could share his world with for a few moments. Those moments which make memories that last a lifetime. It is a cliché to say that one person can make all the difference in how we see the world, but in this case it was true. Every time I see a photo of Nadasdy Castle, I recall the kindness of the attendant. On that day, he gave us something much more valuable than a tour, he gave us his heart.

Click here for: The Old Town Born Anew – Bratislava: Raising The Standard (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #23)


A Man & His Castle – Nadasdy Castle in Nadasladany (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #22b)

The first thing I noticed about Nadasdy Castle was that it was unlike any other one I had seen in Hungary. It had been modeled after similar structures in England. The English way of life had been something of a fetish for Hungarian aristocrats in the late 19th and early 20th century. Nadasdy Castle was the physical manifestation of this fetish. I could not help but admire how much craftsmanship went into what amounted to a Neo-Gothic manor house rather than a castle. While it had elements of the latter, including a fine tower with crenellations, its essence was as a palatial residence. Construction of the castle took place over a three year period ending in 1876. One of the chief architects was Alajos Hauzmann, the same man who designed such famous buildings as the New York Palace and the Royal Hungarian Palace of Justice in Budapest. He, along with the Viennese educated architect Istvan Linzbauer, created an unforgettably eye catching confection.

Lord of the manor – The attendant at Nadasdy Castle

Life During Wartime – A Revolution On The Doorstep
The Nadasdy family had a long history in the area dating all the back to the late Middle Ages, but the land where the castle would be built had a much more recent lineage. In 1851, Leopold Nadasdy bought the property from another aristocratic family. After Leopold died, his son Ferenc took over its management. Ferenc saw to it that the small Baroque Palace which was already on the property was assimilated into the castle he commissioned. The completed castle incorporated modern accoutrements that were way ahead of its time. These included indoor plumbing, a central heating system and gas lighting. One fascinating novelty was the kitchen’s location in the garden rather than the main house. That led to one of the castle’s most eclectic elements, delivery of food via a rail system.

Unfortunately, my wife and I did not get to see any of these creature comforts when we entered the castle. The interior had none of its former splendor. This was understandable considering that Nadasladany had been along the line where the German and Soviet armies fought during the autumn of 1944. That splendor vanished when soldiers wreaked havoc upon it during World War II. They left their mark on the castle and it was not a good one. The sights and sounds that must have accompanied their willful acts of destruction and theft would have been awful to experience. The sounds of boot steps on marble floors, furniture being broken, and the shattering of glass were the sounds that accompanied the end of the aristocracy in Hungary. Most of them had fled by this time. Those who tried to protect their property, would not only lose it, but also their lives. This was revenge at the point of a gun barrel, a revolution that suddenly appeared on the doorstep. An unwelcome house guest bent on confiscation and destruction. To be sure, it was a sad end for a glorious residence or was it?

Splendid memories – In the Hall of Ancestors at Nadasdy Castle

Uncovering Dust – The Restoration Of A Former Greatness
The end, thankfully, never came. Instead, the front lines moved on and communism moved into Hungary. Former aristocratic mansions were commandeered by the state. Hungary was impoverished by the war and just as much so in its aftermath as the Soviets requisitioned anything they needed to rebuild their own country. Reconstruction costs were exorbitant. Manpower, material, and money were lacking. Nadasdy Castle offered valuable space that could be put to public use. This included being used by the local school system. We learned this from the attendant, a kindly, middle aged man who allowed us to roam at will through any of the rooms that were open to visitors. This was only interesting up to a certain point since there were few furnishings to see. One of the most sadly astonishing rooms, was a library with exquisite woodwork, but covered in dust and containing many frayed volumes. Despite the lack of furnishings and the general disrepair, it was still an exceptional experience because we were not following any specified tour route. We wandered around and were only confined by our imagination in trying to evoke the splendor that had once permeated the place.

One room that was restored to its former greatness was the Hall of Ancestors. Portraits of famous Nadasdy family members lined the walls. I took note of the Black Knight, Ferenc Nadasdy II and his wife, the Blood Countess, Elizabeth Bathory. They did not look menacing nor pleasant, just human. Framed for the sake of posterity, generation after generation of Nadasdy’s looked on. An entire Hungarian history lesson could have been taught just on the personages whose portraits adorned the walls at Nadasdy Castle. I would have loved to sit in this room for days, beneath the grim and gracious eminences while reading about the Nadasdy family’s exploits. Alas, that would not happen, but it did not stop me from imagining what this might have been like in another life or another world, one where the aristocracy was a thing of the present, rather than a thing of the past.

Uncovering dust – The library at Nadasdy Castle

Getting Schooled – A Complete Education
Our tour of Nadasdy Castle was largely self-guided, but the attendant who had greeted us upon arrival was more than willing to show us true Hungarian hospitality. Coming down the stairwell between the 1st and 2nd floors, I slipped and tumbled down an entire flight of steps. Fortunately, I was not hurt, but this brought the attendant to my side. He then proceeded to tell me and my wife about his own uniquely personal connection with the castle. He had fond memories of it from his childhood when he attended school here. He showed where one of his classrooms had been located. Another space was where they played ping pong. Many things at Nadasdy Castle had changed since that time, but the man’s love for the castle never wavered. He fervently wished for a complete restoration.

I was ambivalent about the idea. I thought that adding more sparkle might dilute the experience for those who came to visit. Imagination is just as important in how we understand history, as reality. Reconstructions are often little more than poor approximations of the past. The present condition of Nadasdy Castle was a commentary on everything that had happened to Hungary from 1944 to the present. Looking around, I thought less about the Nadasdys and more about the attendant running around the castle as a child. He had now grown into a middle-aged man, one who pretty much had the castle all to himself. I was envious. He had become lord of the manor. It reminded me that sometimes a man’s home really is his castle. We should all be so lucky.

Click here for: A Hallucinatory Past – Nadasdy Castle in Nadasladany (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #22c)


The Tour Less Taken: Nadasdy Castle In Nadasladany (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #22a)

Is there anything more inspiring than a hilltop castle or palatial palace in Eastern Europe? These were the places where dreams were born and died. They are monuments to medievalism and testaments to vanished aristocrats, the last vestiges of historical eras and personages that have become objects of popular fascination. As such, visitors long to get up close and personal with the past through tours of aristocratic mansions and medieval castles. The visitor experience is meant to be both educational and entertaining. Some tours succeed, while others fail miserably. Success often depends upon more than just the information and interpretation on offer.

Group size can mean the difference between an intimate and inferior experience. Sadly, few of the tours I have taken offer what might be called the go it alone option. An overwhelming majority of tours cater to crowds, not to couples or individuals. Fortunately, there are still some places in Hungary, where visitors can go it alone and have a uniquely singular experience. One that is the product of serendipity and happenstance rather than prior planning. It involves being given all access to a place that only lucky few get to visit. This is the tour less taken, but much more memorable.

The Search for Splendor – Nadasdy Castle

Original Splendor – An Approximated Experience
In tourism lingo, the self-guided tour option usually refers to visitors being given the information via written brochure or audio transmitted through headphones. The visitor then follows a specified tour route through the site, making several stops along the way at the most interesting points. I have done several of these with headphones, including at Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna and Godollo Palace outside of Budapest. For all the information I heard on those tours, to this day I cannot remember a single thing. Contrast that with a much less formal tour I took of Nadasdy Castle, a splendid and sprawling structure in the countryside of western Hungary. A visit my wife and I made turned out to be one of the most memorable in our various travels around Hungary. On that day, we discovered a seldom seen treasure in rural Hungary.

Except for historical enthusiasts or those who like to visit the former residences of obscure aristocrats, Nadasdy Castle sees relatively few visitors. While it is not that far off the beaten path, getting there by public transport would turn out to be a time consuming process. Prior to our visit, I wondered what the experience of visiting Nadasdy Castle would be like. Photos showed an expansive Tudor style structure that was unique for Hungary. It looked like a cross between a manor house and castle. The kind of place one would expect to find in the English countryside. I knew that it was futile to get my hopes up too high, because palatial residences in Hungary usually have a splendid exterior and a less than engaging interior that was hollowed out long ago by the looting of Red Army soldiers during World War II. Many castles, palaces and manor houses in Hungary were then put to other uses such as retirement homes, sanitariums, and hospitals. Most of these places are just beginning to be restored back to an approximation of their original splendor. Nadasdy Castle would be no different.

An open gate policy – Entrance to Nadasdy Castle

There was another reason that Nadasdy Castle gets overlooked. The name is deceptive. While the Nadasdys were one of Hungary’s most powerful families from the Middle Ages forward, many family members fell on hard times after a conspiracy against the ruling Habsburgs was discovered. One of the ringleaders, Franz III Nadasdy was executed for his involvement in what was known as the Magnate Conspiracy. Franz III, was the grandson of Ferenc Nadasdy II, the man most famously known as the Black Knight for his military exploits while fighting the Ottoman Turks. Nadasdy Castle likely gets confused with another, more famous Nadasdy Castle in Sarvar. The latter was where Ferenc II made his home, along with his wife Elizabeth Bathory, who is infamous for reputedly being one of history’s most prolific serial killers. For Hungarians, the Nadasdy name does not denote infamy. It is covered in glory due to Ferenc II’s role as a military leader protecting what was left of Hungary in a time of great peril during the late 17th century. 

Taking flight – Nadasdy Coat of Arms as seen on exterior of Nadasdy Castle

Hurry Up & Wait – The Rural Route
My wife and I first visited Varpalota Castle, which was filled with interesting and informative exhibitions. There had been a good deal of money put into these exhibitions and for good reason. Varpalota sees more than its fair share of tourist traffic as it is on the main road between the historic cities of Szekesfehervar and Veszprem. Not far from Varpalota was our next destination, the small village of Nadasladany. Getting there would not be easy. We spent half an hour waiting on one of the local buses which ran rather infrequently to the village only ten kilometers away. I love public transport in Hungary, but there is always the problem of being on someone else’s schedule. This is especially true when traveling to rural villages in outlying areas. Time spent waiting is almost always longer than the time spent traveling while making these journeys. This was our experience while trying to get to Nadasdy Castle

Finally alighting at a bus stop in Nadasladany, we made the short walk to the stunning cream colored castle, though calling it a castle was something of a misnomer. A Baroque palace had once stood here, but during the 1870’s the mansion cum castle was completed. It was surrounded by a park that had seen better days. Case in point, there was a lake without water. The grounds were a bit ragged as well. Only later would I learn that though the castle was owned by the Hungarian state, it was severely understaffed, to the point that I only saw a single staff member at the site during this visit. The castle was of such magnificent stature I could only imagine how many staff it would have taken to keep the mansion and grounds in top condition. Unfortunately, the days when aristocrats had an army of servants to keep everything in immaculate condition had passed into history. Nadasdy Castle now had to stand on its own. That was proving more difficult than anyone could imagine, but at least it was still standing.

Click here for: A Man & His Castle – Nadasdy Castle in Nadasladany (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #22b)


Objects of Intense Desire – Bory and Tarodi Castles (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #3)

The rise and fall of Hungarian castles was a matter of security. National security and personal security were paramount in the building of the many hilltop fortresses which sprouted like mushrooms across the Kingdom of Hungary after the Mongols ransacked the country in 1241. For the next couple of centuries, castles became strongholds that were the nexuses of power across Hungary. These fortresses, carved out of stone, were impregnable power bases that kept foreign powers at bay. That all changed in 1526 following the cataclysmic defeat at the Battle of Mohacs suffered by Hungarians at the hand of the Ottoman Turks. Castles once again became places of refuge. In many cases, they were places of last refuge. The Hungarians and Turks fought lethal sieges over the battlements and ramparts in Buda, Szekesfehervar, Eger and just about everywhere else in between. Many of the castles underwent massive revisions or were reduced to smoldering ruins.

By the time, the Austrian Habsburgs pushed the Turks beyond the Hungarian frontier at the end of the 17th century, there were beginning to be doubts about the efficacy of castles as defensive works. After Rakoczi’s War of Independence (1703 – 1711), the Habsburgs decided that they could not afford to have Hungarians fomenting rebellion and then using castles to protect themselves. Thus, they blow up or pulled many castles down across Hungary. Besides ruining many excellent examples of defensive architecture and irreparably harming what would now be considered historic architecture, the Austrians wanted to ensure that Hungarians would never rebel against their rule again. This turn of affairs coincided with a long period of peace and economic development. This also inaugurated a transformation of aristocratic architecture. No longer were wealthy landowners having to build or refortify castles to protect themselves. Instead, they moved into manor houses. Architecture became less about defense and more about making an impression.

Fantasy Land - Bory Castle in Székesfehérvár

Fantasy Land – Bory Castle in Székesfehérvár (Credit: Harp)

A Fantastical Fairy Tale – The Castle Reimagined
The era of castle building was at an end or so it seemed. As Hungary modernized, castles became objects of intense desire for historians and tourists. By the 20th century, the castle was an anachronism, symbol of a bygone age. A place to be revered rather than refortified. That was until the efforts of Jenos Bory resurrected the idea of what a castle could be. Bory began construction on his own highly personalized version of a castle on a single acre plot close to the city of Szekesfehervar. He took the old cliché that “a man’s home is his castle” quite literally. He set out on what turned into a lifelong mission to construct an unforgettable work of architecture. Bory’s inspiration was not only other Hungarian castles, but also his wife Ilona. Bory Castle became a romanticized shrine to his wife with her image adorning a multitude of places within the castle.

Jeno Bory’s architectural style might best be described as one size fits all. The castle he constructed incorporated a range of styles, including Romanesque and Gothic. Seven towers were built to offer a range of vantage points, walls are covered in symbolic paintings and hundreds of sculptures are on display. Bory loved to create art as much as he did architecture. The garden contains many of his sculptures, while the castle interior houses loads of his paintings. His favorite subject matter was Ilona. Bory was completely obsessed by two things, building the castle and his passionate love for Ilona. Everything else was esoteric. These two passions informed everything he did. How else to explain a man who almost singlehandedly built the castle. In the process, he also created a mini-tourist industry. Tens of thousands flock to the outskirts of Szekeferhervar every year to see Bory’s fantastical fairy tale.

Tarodi's Inspiration - Somosko Castle

Tarodi’s Inspiration – Somosko Castle (Credit: Civertan Grafikai Stúdió)

A Singular Work – Medievalism Gone Modern
Little did Jeno Bory realize that about the time he died, a castle building counterpart would soon arise. This incipient castle creator also lived in western Hungary. The life and work of Istvan Tarodi is just as interesting as anything Bory could imagine. Tarodi began his own singular castle creation to the east of Sopron, close to the Austrian border. Tarodi spent decades on the construction of his own personal castle. Before undertaking this monumental task, Tarodi hiked and biked around Hungary where he studied various castles. His favorite of all was Somosko Castle, which today straddles the Hungary-Slovakia border. Tarodi modeled his work after Somosko, but he did not stop there. Everything from towers and turrets to gates and bridges, marks out the work as medievalism gone modern.

The modern aspect is represented by a swimming pool, perhaps this is a stand in for a moat. It took a half-century for Tarodi, with only a bit of help from his family, to build the castle. It was a highly personal work of art, one that Tarodi was more than happy to share with tourists. He even acted as a tour guide for those who wanted to visit it. His home was his castle, but it was his family’s as well. Tarodi did not mind bringing strangers on a tour even if it meant entering the castle’s living spaces. This made the castle something of a family affair. When Tarodi died in 2010, his sons took over management of the castle. The Hungarian state helped pay for renovations that will preserve this important monument to one man’s mission.

The Hand of Man - Tarodi Castle near Sopron

The Hand of Man – Tarodi Castle near Sopron

Determination & Inspiration – The Building Blocks
Bory’s and Tarodi’s creations prove that castles have never really gone out of date. While the onset of modernity in Hungary meant that many castles were either deserted or destroyed, others that were resigned to oblivion ended up being saved as architectural landmarks. Men like Jeno Bory and Istvan Tarodi were inspired by what they saw. To the point that they then proceeded to recreate castles in their own unique image. These castles mimic much of the old medieval architecture, but with more modern touches. Bory’s and Tarodi’s castles are timeless testaments to the two men who spent their lives working to create something familiar, as well as unforgettable. They created these castles not just out of stone and mortar, but also through determination and inspiration. These are the great building blocks of architecture.

Click here for: Blighted Charm – Split’s Railway Station: An Unforgettable Wake-up Call (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #4)

Memory or Mirage Above The Mures River – Fortress Soimos (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #1)

In the spring of 2014 I saw a hilltop fortress flash by me. With sadness, I looked back for as long as I possibly could, only to watch the fortress – or was it a ruined castle – vanish into the distance. I told myself that someday in the not so near future I would return to visit it. The idea seemed romantic. A wayward traveler catches a fleeting glimpse of an evocative ruin, then travels halfway around the world for a return to a place he has never really been. The fortress would act as a metaphor for everything I had ever wanted, but somehow eluded my grasp. I had no idea of the fortress’s name and only a rough idea of the location, but that was enough to launch me into another dream. Like all dreams this one was largely lost to memory, only to be revived from time to time by an image that evoked thoughts of that mysterious wonder crowning a hilltop in western Romania.                     

Memory or Mirage – Fortress Soimos as seen from Lipova (Credit: LKenzel)

A Brooding Citadel – The Residue Of Extinction
My momentary glimpse of the fortress came on a train trip between the cities of Deva and Arad in Romania. The train was passing through a transition zone from the last vestiges of Transylvania onto the Banat, one of the most fertile regions in Europe. While gliding along steel rails flanked by the Mures River I noticed the mountains turning to hills as the train sped westward. Before the topography totally collapsed into farmland, the fortress appeared. It stood singular and austere, a silent, brooding citadel falling into ruin. The residue of an extinct kingdom that was once a hub of administrative and martial power, but now only the preserve of medieval scholars, curious tourists and young lovers looking for a hideout to satisfy their desires. My mind preserved the fleeting image of the fortress, in the hope that one day I would return for a visit.

Over the ensuing years I pretty much forgot about the fortress. On those rare occasions when it came to mind, I would promise myself that I was going to properly locate it and learn about its history. I would then proceed to lazily procrastinate until it faded from memory. The fortress only really came back into my consciousness when I traveled between Deva and Timisoara by automobile last month. I felt its presence lurking to the north. Unfortunately, in my zeal to finally see Timisoara I took a highway several kilometers to the south of where it is located. I did not have the time or energy after a long trip around eastern Transylvania, to go on what would have likely been a half day detour. And so an opportunity was lost. I must not have wanted to really see it that badly or perhaps I wondered if it had really been a mirage. I had no idea if what I had seen was real or a figment of an overactive imagination stimulated by travels around Transylvania.

Memory or Mirage – Fortress Soimos as seen from Lipova (Credit: LKenzel)

A Chance Discovery – Floating Above The Mures
All would have been almost lost concerning this mysterious fortress if not for a book I bought in Budapest and began reading after I returned home. A little over midway through Michael O’Sullivan’s recent book, Patrick Leigh Fermor: Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania, I came across a photo which gave me total recall of my view from the train four years earlier. On the lower half of page 188 was a photo of a partially ruined hilltop fortress. The caption stated that this was “Solymos, the castle of Janos Hunyadi”. The text mentioned that Fermor passed by this “physical landmark” as he followed the course of the Mures River from one aristocratic estate to the next. My pulse quickened. I turned to the inside of the back cover to look at the handy map printed on it. Fermor’s path of travel passed right through the same area that I did on that train west of Arad. Could Solymos Castle really be the fortress that had embedded itself so deep in my memory?

Using Google Earth I was able to locate Fortress Soimos (Cetatea Soimos) on a hilltop overlooking the Mures River. Between the river and hilltop on which the fortress stood were the railway tracks I had traveled along four years earlier. From mystery to materialization, first by way of a fleeting glimpse, then from flashes of a fading memory and finally the chance discovery of a photo deep within a book, this was how I finally found Fortress Soimos. A feeling of destiny fell upon me. At that moment I was over 9,000 kilometers and an ocean away from the fortress. That did not keep me from feeling as though I was standing outside the dilapidated stone walls of Soimos examining them for traces of the past. Within minutes of the discovery, I was researching Fortress Soimos with a genuine curiosity to learn more. I wanted to add color to that distant image that had lingered for so long in my mind.

The fortress was first constructed in the late 13th century, a byproduct of the Mongol Invasion which came close to destroying the Kingdom of Hungary in 1241-1242. King Bela IV who ruled Hungary from 1235-1270 decreed that castles and fortresses be constructed on hilltops as a defensive measure to ward off a future Tartar invasion. Across the next several centuries, Fortress Soimos was the property of such famous noble families as the Banffys, Bathorys and Corvins. Its most famous owner was Janos Hunyadi (Ioan de Hunedoara), the man whose generalship beat back the Turks most famously at the Battle of Nandorfehervar (Belgrade) in 1456. By the late 15th century, the fortress commanded a wide swath of the surrounding region that included 95 settlements. The Turkish occupation came relatively late (1552) and ended a century earlier (1595) than in many other areas of Hungary. By the 18th century it was being used as a military outpost. When it was finally abandoned in 1788 the fortress was slated for demolition, escaping this fate only due to its remote and difficult to access location. In the 18th century, it was declared a protected monument of historical importance.

High Upon a Lonely Hilltop - Ruins of Fortress Soimos (Cetatea Soimos)
High Upon a Lonely Hilltop – Ruins of Fortress Soimos (Cetatea Soimos)

Struck By A Mystery – High Upon A Lonely Hilltop
This information set me salivating at the thought of a future visit. It would be worth the long and tiring journey to stand in the place where kingdoms  were conquered, empires occupied and men who would never be known to history had fought and fallen with valor. Can there be anything more redolent of the medieval spirit than a fortress standing stark and lonely on a hilltop, a standard hoisted high above the battlements, rippling in an ill wind. Fortress Soimos was a place that had left its mark upon history. No longer important to anyone, save a man glancing out of a train having his heart carried away by a mystery.

Click here for: A Perpetual Hangover – Keleti Station: (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #2)

(Note: Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny is an intermittent series on places in Eastern Europe that have made a lasting impression upon me)

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.