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


Palace Intrigue –Esterhaza: Lavishness As A Way Of Life

Passing through the gates at Esterhaza took me into another world, but not that of Versailles. Instead this “Hungarian Versailles” felt more reminiscent of Sans Souci, Frederick the Great’s Palace in Potsdam. That was one of the few large palace complexes I had visited. While Sans Souci was a tourist mecca, with a number of different guided tours on offer, beautiful furnishings and  immaculately quaffed grounds, Esterhaza was still recovering from being on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. In comparison with central and western European palaces, its offerings to tourists were rather primitive. A handful of tours were given each day in either Hungarian or German. Cross border traffic accounted for much of the visitors. The Esterhazy family had owned many different castles and palaces, some of which were located in lower Austria. The tour I went on was conducted in both languages.

I was lucky to arrive a few minutes before a tour began. Though the guide, a Mrs. Toth, spoke good English she would only conduct the tour in the two languages. For a substitute, I was given a laminated information sheet that contained a potted history of the Esterhazy family, the palace and a little bit of information about each room the tour would visit. I could only understand a few words the guide said, so I spent most of my time studying the layout and decor of the rooms. This made for an interesting experience since I had more time to be observant of the surroundings rather than watch and listen to the guide. The most noticeable thing about Esterhaza’s interior was its relatively sparse furnishings and how much of the palace was now empty. I expected it to be a little worse for wear, but it was obvious that Esterhaza was a pale reflection of its former self.

Esterhaza Palace - Aerial view

Esterhaza Palace – Aerial view (Credit: Daniel Somogyi-Toth)

A Pageant On Steroids – Miklos’ Magic
The current state of the palace was not just a product of the 20th century conflagrations and ideological iterations which had done so much damage to the structure and its immediate surroundings. Truth be told, it had been impossible to keep the palace at the same exalted level it first enjoyed under Miklos Esterhazy – aka Miklos the Magnificent – the visionary aristocrat who had conceived this gilded dream.  Miklos was a man whose vision had spared no expense in cultivating a level of grandeur seldom seen anywhere else in Europe, at that time or since. It is said that he modeled the palace after Versailles following a visit to France. He proceeded to spend a mint on the very best music, drama and art for what would become his late spring, summer and early autumn palace. The grounds were expertly sculpted and landscaped in Versailles style

A striking example of just one of the many manias Miklos spent a fortune cultivating was a fetish for all things Chinese. In one room there were reconstructions of Chinoserie, wood paneled Chinese imitation paintings. They contained scenes of nature and oriental figures rendered in a rich sheen of gold on a black background. An unfathomable amount of Chinese artistic influences had once been on display at the palace, both inside and out. In 1773 Miklos threw a grand party at Esterhaza that was attended by Habsburg Queen Maria Theresa. For this special occasion, 24,000 Chinese lanterns were hung from trees in Esterhaza’s immaculately manicured park. Musicians dressed in elaborate Chinese costumes played at a masked ball in the palace’s Chinosiere room. The room was illuminated by six hundred flame lit candles set on eleven giant chandeliers. The party was a pageant on steroids.

Fantastical Frivolity - Cherubic at Esterhaza

Fantastical Frivolity – Cherubic at Esterhaza

Sparing No Expense – The Cost of Living At Esterhaza
Such festivities were the norm rather than the exception at Esterhaza. The palace and adjacent grounds held just as many everyday wonders. There was an Opera House, Chinese House, Puppet Theater, various temples and Joseph Haydn. The latter was the court composer. Haydn created many of the greatest symphonies, string quartets and sonatas in the history of classical music as Kapellmeister at Esterhaza. These works made their debut in the opulent music room which was setup much the same way as it might have looked at that time. The palace’s superlatives went on and on. No expense was spared. This was lavishness as a way of life, refinement at its most opulent level. And yet the palace in this form would not last.

After Miklos died, his son Anton who inherited the palace was not interested in throwing grand balls, living at the palace for prolonged periods or spending a fortune to keep Esterhaza at the epicenter of Habsburg social life. As such, Esterhaza soon fell into decline. Within a couple of decades, the parkland was overgrown and the palace began to crumble. The pristine Sala Terrena (large formal room with direct access to a garden) was scuffed by sheep’s hooves scampering across the marble floors. Grazing was going on both inside and outside the palace. The climate in the area did not help matters. Esterhaza stood on marshy land that had been drained to build the palace. Such a humid environment was prone to the buildup of moisture, mildew and corrosion. A period of slow and inexorable degradation took hold.

The Concert Hall at Esterhaza

Vacant splendor – The concert hall at Esterhaza

A Turn For The Worse – Death After Life
It was not until the start of the 20th century that Esterhaza received its first restoration. This came from Prince Miklos Esterhazy IV and his wife Margit (Cziraky), who were instrumental in this latter day renovation of the palace. The fact that the couple made it their residence helped matters. Making the palace into a livable space was a full time job that took years of effort by numerous artisans. Princess Margit provided guidance. She tastefully decorated the couple’s apartments, a visit to which was part of the tour. Tragically, their work would be mostly lost when Hungary – like the rest of Europe – was buffeted by the ill winds of war which blew through Esterhaza. The Esterhazy family fled to the west, but they could not take the palace with them. It was left behind, awaiting new overlords. These were the opposite of aristocrats. Soldiers representing forces that wanted to reshape the world in their own image. The aristocracy was dead in Hungary or soon would be. The future of Esterhaza would take a turn for the worse.

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

Versailles Off The Beaten Path –  Traveling To Esterhaza: World Famous & Relatively Anonymous

I had not even been in Sopron for an entire day before I found myself headed to the city bus station. Sopron had plenty to see, but there was one place in the nearby countryside that appealed even more to me. The small village of Fertod was the home of Esterhaza, famously known as “the Hungarian Versailles”. It had been Hungary’s most famous palace since its construction in the last half of the 18th century. To visit Sopron for several days and not take a day trip to Esterhaza would have been unthinkable. From what I had read beforehand, the palace had a lot in common with Hungary. It was world famous and relatively anonymous. A sort of poor man’s substitute for the splendor that was found further to the west in Europe. Yet the family whose name graced the palace was anything but poor.

The House of Esterhaza had seen better days than the present. Historically they had been one of the great aristocratic families in all of Europe. Their loyalty to the Habsburg dynasty was legendary. As such they had been given more titles, privileges and properties than almost any other aristocrats in Hungarian history. No less a royal personage than Maria Theresa thought the best operas were given at Esterhaza. She only ever went to one, but that was enough to inform her opinion. The name Esterhazy had a certain enchantment to it that I could not ignore. And this was not the first time I had heard it.

Taken for a ride - Sopron Bus Station

Taken for a ride – Sopron Bus Station

Family Fame – From High Culture To Pop Culture
Long before I came to Hungary, the name Esterhazy was familiar to me, albeit from American pop culture. The screenwriting mastermind behind the sexual thriller Basic Instinct and the notorious cinematic flop Showgirls was Joe Eszterhas, an ethnic Hungarian who had been born in the village of Csakanydoroszlo, 110 kilometers to the south of Sopron. His father was not an aristocrat but a journalist. Prior to the Second World War, the name Esterhazy was given the greatest respect by Hungarians. Following the war, Soviet Hungary viewed the name quite differently. It marked members of the Esterhaza family as enemies of the state. Joe Eszterhazy’s father had been extremely pro-Nazi and virulently antisemitic. The family ended up living in an Austrian refugee camp before immigrating to the United States. Other more famous Esterhazy’s moved to Austria or Germany. The family’s legacy lived on long enough to be resurrected in the post-Cold War era. The same thing happened to Eszterhaza. The palace was undergoing a continuing restoration. All this made me want to visit, but first I had to find my way there.

Getting to Esterhaza was not going to be easy. It would entail my first trip to the countryside in Hungary on a bus. This meant going to the station, purchasing a ticket, getting on the right bus and off at the correct stop. Pretty basic stuff, if only I had known more than a handful of Hungarian words. The bus station in Sopron was easy enough to find, just a short walk over from the Old Town. The station itself was quite ghastly, consisting of a series of stalls and spaces. There was an ugly orange metal structure covering the stalls. It was straight out of the 1970’s. Whomever picked the color was a sadist against stylishness. The strange color looked like something a reform communist would find presentable. A down at the heel, somewhat seedy feel pervaded the station. To be honest, it looked less like a bus station and more the kind of random space where one would find weird people any time of day. Even under sunny skies, on a beautiful Saturday there was something that worried me about the place. If this had been the United States I would have feared for my existence, but because it was Hungary I figured everything would be fine.

At the Gates - Esterhaza

At the Gates – Esterhaza (Credit: Zyance)

Bussing It – Departure Anxiety
It was easy enough to purchase a ticket to Fertod from a lady behind the window. She wrote on a slip of paper the stall where I was to wait and time of departure. My wait consisted of standing beside a stall wondering if the bus would arrive. There were so many buses coming and going, seemingly at random, that it was hard to figure out any sense of organization. Would be passengers stood around looking by turns hopeful or depressed. These mood swings were dependent on if the bus they were waiting for showed up. I gathered with a crowd that also seemed to be taking the same bus as me. After several minutes a bus appeared much to everyone’s relief. Its arrival made me exceedingly nervous. There was no way that I would get two seats to myself, there were way too many people boarding. This was a busy route.

I checked with the driver to make sure he would alert me when the bus stopped at Fertod. Hungarian bus drivers for all their brusque, matter of fact manner can be quite helpful if prompted. And I certainly needed help to not miss the correct stop. I squeezed into an aisle seat beside a young lady who did her best to hug the window. She looked to be very reticent and a bit fearful, I was no less nervous. Slowly the bus made its way out of Sopron. There are few more exhausting forms of travel than by bus, especially when done with a bunch of strangers. I felt like every eye was on me. This was an exaggeration, I was too self-conscious. Truth be told, the other passengers were either preoccupied with their own worries or arriving at a destination. The seats were small and uncomfortable. I spent much of my energy trying not to brush up against my seatmate.

Esterhaza - Hungary's Greatest Palace

Esterhaza – Hungary’s Greatest Palace (Credit: Peter Szvitek)

A Way Of Life – More Than A Name
Before too long the bus was stopping. The driver looked back at me, giving a verbal signal that this was my jumping off point. I got off the bus promptly. Suddenly I felt like I could breathe once again. From the stuffy air of the bus compartment to the fresh, natural air of the rural countryside. Outside of the entrance to the palace there was only a scattering of development. The gates of Esterhaza were a short walk away. Here was Versailles off the beaten path. It was a throwback to the days when the glitterati of Hungary lived on rural estates deep in what we today would call the hinterlands. This was the prototype of a place where the rich and powerful plied their dreams in 18th and 19th century Hungary. Esterhaza had been more than a name back then, it had also stood for a way of life. Until all that changed.

Click here for: Palace Intrigue – Esterhaza: Lavishness As A Way Of Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Was Lost - A Memoir by Eleanor Perenyi

More Was Lost – A Memoir by Eleanor Perenyi

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

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

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

Andrassy Kastely with Tiszadob in the near distance

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

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

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

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

Count Gyula Andrassy

Count Gyula Andrassy

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

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

Andrassy Kastely - Chateau of the Tisza

Andrassy Kastely – Chateau of the Tisza

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

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

The Aftertaste – Sumeg Castle: A Not So Sweet Side of History (Three Castles In One Day: Part Three)

The castle at Sumeg was my final destination on what would turn out to be a three castle visit in just seven hours. I had wanted to visit Sumeg ever since I saw a fascinating photo on the fortepan.hu website from 1963. The site contains over seventy thousand photos taken in Hungary during the 20th century. Many of these are family photos, which give a unique look at daily life in the country during tumultuous times.

A sense of satisfaction in Sumeg circa 1963

A sense of satisfaction in Sumeg circa 1963 (Credit: fortepan.hu)

In Search Of A Mysterious Sense Of Satisfaction – Two Photos, One Castle
The photo from Sumeg captured my imagination. In it a lady stands outside the open passenger door of a Trabant automobile. She is looking towards the camera, with the ruins of Sumeg Castle standing high on a hill in the background. The lady’s eyes are hidden by sunglasses, but there is a look of complete satisfaction on her face. Her perfectly pleated skirt and stylish top give a sense of style. She looks to be out for a joyride while on holiday.  The lady and the Trabant have a symbiotic relationship in the photo, markers of their time. Something else from an earlier age, two white horses pulling a wagon cart, can be seen coming down the road opposite the Trabant. This is a snapshot of the new (Trabant, fashionably well-dressed woman) juxtaposed with the old (hilltop castle ruins, horse drawn wagon cart), an expression of 1960’s Hungary frozen in time, caught forever by an anonymous photographer. In some Hungarian family’s collection of old photographs this picture was kept until it was given a new life in digital format, half a century later.

This photo has stayed with me since the first time I saw it four years ago. I will forever associate it with Sumeg. The photo lured me to the town, both to see its castle and experience a semblance of the satisfaction represented by the look on that lady’s face. There was another photo that drew me to Sumeg. This one, taken much more recently, shows the castle illuminated at night. At first I thought the castle was glowing, as if on fire. It helped me imagine how the castle could have looked while under siege at night, set alight by artillery rounds exploding around and within its walls. There was a mysterious quality to the picture, a foreboding that lent itself to a darker side of the imagination. It pulled me into the photo and towards the castle, making me want to see the flaming world of those walls.

The path to Sumeg Castle

The path to Sumeg Castle

Presenting History – One Chimney Cake At A Time
With such pictures in mind, I could hardly wait to visit Sumeg. It was a day of perfect fall weather, warm, with a few fluffy clouds floating in the sky. Arriving in town, I did not find a castle in flames or a stylishly attired woman standing beside an old East German automobile. What I did find was a castle that was not to be missed. It was situated on Sumeg’s single notable hill, one that towered above everything else in the area. It could be spotted from a great distance. The conical shaped, limestone hill looked to have been created by nature as a home for Sumeg castle. In truth the castle was built in the 13th century following the Mongol destruction of a large majority of Hungary. Hilltop castles would act as secure fortresses where the population would be safe in the event of another invasion.  Sumeg Castle is one of the best examples of the many such castles that once dotted Hungarian hilltops. Its position turned out to be formidable enough that the Ottoman Turks never came close to conquering it. Only after the Austrians occupied western Hungary in the wake of Ferenc Rakoczi’s failed War of Independence at the start of the 18th century was the castle partially destroyed by fire. The ruins were vast enough that much of it could be rebuilt. Over the past couple of decades a reconstruction effort has brought the castle back to life.

For me, visiting Sumeg Castle was more fantasy than history, imagination rather than reality. That is largely true of most castles I have visited. I can hardly recall more than a few sparse details about what really occurred at these castles. Hardly anyone goes to a castle in search of a history lesson. Even a history zealot like me spends the entire time taking in the fabulous views and snapping photos. Whatever human history happened within the walls of Sumeg is largely lost on me. The idea behind most castle visits is to recreate some of the magic of medieval times. No matter that the people who once lived behind these castle walls had less to do with knights or gleaming suits of armor and more to do with survival in a chaotic world where warfare was the rule rather than the exception. Few visitors myself included, really care to hear the sordid details of what life was really like five hundred years ago, the disease, the suffering, the backbreaking hardships of manual labor and a low life expectancy where people were lucky to live beyond the age of thirty. Instead they are happy to eat a delicious chimney cake baked by a young lady in period clothing within one of the castle’s chambers. History today is meant to leave a good taste in your mouth. The true taste of history is bittersweet.

Sumeg Castle - illuminated

Sumeg Castle – illuminated (Credit: Attila Csaba Kontar)

Fantasy As History, Fantasy As Reality
From the walls of Sumeg Castle I had a panoramic view of the countryside. There were no hordes of Mongols, armies of marauding Turks or Austrian infantrymen sweeping the plain below, but I did spot a Tesco superstore. The modern, developed world of capitalism always awaits, a world that was unlike anything having to do with a castle. I asked myself what was more a fantasy, the castles I had visited or the way life is lived today. Sumeg Castle seemed more real, more tangible, more permanent than any superstore, but the history on offer behind its magnificent walls – an audio-visual presentation, paved walkways and souvenirs for sale – was not of the past. It was based on the present and that made it seem just as fantastical as the world I would soon travel back to.