Going All In – Eastern Europe: Everything (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #33c)

There was, still is and always will be too much of everything. All those impressions both material and spiritual that greeted me along a decade of Eastern European travels. These left me with lasting impressions. Some were connected, most were not. The mind works to order things in a logical way. That is the way we make sense of life, but travel does not really work that way. Travel for me has nothing to do with itineraries, it is about being lost and trying to find yourself. At some point, I lost my way back home and the only thing left were the memories.

The iron gate of the Greek Catholic Church at Hajduboszormeny was created by the hands of an anonymous Hungarian just before the turn of the 20th century. I often think of that iron gate, the one I could not get past, either physically or psychologically. The gate haunts me like a friendly ghost. Appearing before my eyes, stored in my memory, captured through the miracle of photography. The image means everything to me, but so do many other things across Eastern Europe. They all add up to a sum greater than their parts. A representation of lived experience, an enhanced reality. I cannot name just one, in the same way I cannot name them all, but I will try to name a few of “everything.”  

At the gates – Greek Catholic Church in Hajduboszormeny

Crossover Appeal – A Matter of Perspective
There was Ampelmann at the crosswalks in Berlin, telling me when to proceed. Ampelmann walked through the wall. He seamlessly crossed over from the east and like so many before him, he refused to go back. He walked away from those had given birth to him, emigrated to affluence and became an influence. Ampelmann made a seamless crossing of the divide between East and West. All Germans should have been so lucky. If Ampelmann could cross that divide so seamlessly, then anything and “everything” is possible. Amplelmann was not communist or capitalist though he was co-opted by both. Instead, he was a symbol, not just of stop and go, but of a familiar figure who brought a sense of continuity between the past and present.

There was the Becsi Kapu (Vienna Gate) on Castle Hill in Buda. This was where the trek from Buda to Vienna either started or ended, depending upon one’s orientation. It was like a magic portal that played mind tricks on those who passed through it. For a few moments, I could imagine entering Vienna rather than Buda, or entering the 18th rather than the 21st century. The difference and distance in time and space between the two cities was compressed at that gate. Go north through the gate into the Castle District or southward to take the first step toward Vienna. “Everything” depended on the chosen direction. Going into Buda meant surging forward into the past. At Becsi Kapu, the past was not what it used to be. Royal processions and traders bearing the riches from far flung lands no longer passed through the gate. Instead, the march of progress has brought regress in the form of tourists by the thousands traveling through the gate each day.  

Going places – Waiting at a train crossing in Tarpa. Hungary

Travel Costs – Taking A Toll
“Everything” includes roads, so many roads that I cannot differentiate among them. They all began to run together, threads of pavement or concrete that I took on my travels. Threads that led nowhere and threads that led to the middle of nowhere. I was the needle that guided the thread through rural landscapes such as the one that ran close to the Hungary-Ukraine border. A road in terrible disrepair, that seismically shook the car. Hitting the brakes to survive numerous quakes. These roads were memorable for all the wrong reasons. Roads in Ukraine that were not as bad as I imagined, roads in Romania which were worse than I imagined. These roads had meant “everything” to commerce and conflict. They meant even more than that to me, the roads offered me the opportunity to see it all. What that all was I still could not quite figure out, but I kept looking for it.

“Everything” included banknotes and coins. The indistinct Euro coins and the highly distinctive currencies of Bosnians and Bulgarians, Romanians and Ukrainians that still valued their fiscal freedoms. Heroes I had never heard of were presented to me on these banknotes. A pantheon of greats staring back at the spender. Reminding those who clutch these currencies of the people who made them possible. These notes and rounded pieces of metal allowed me access, opened doors, lifted gates, greased palms. When it comes to travel, movement is never free. It costs money. Every move I made depended to a greater or lesser extent upon money. I hated to admit it, but “everything” depended upon money. Some might say that is sad, but I know it too be true.

Everything included maps, the maps I bought to places I had been and to others I might never go. In one hand, maps of Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. In the other, maps of Belarus and Moldova. A map is nothing more and nothing less than the art of possibility sketched out on exceedingly fine paper. It offers the viewer a relentless array of choices. The more choices, the merrier, at least for me. I could not have it all, but at least I tried. Those maps have a little bit of “everything” on them. Cities, towns and villages, monuments and historical markers, strange names, and spectacular landforms. Opening one of those maps opened a world of possibilities, it still does. “Everything” felt/feels possible with a map at hand.

A relentless array of choices – Maps of Transylvania and Hungary

Getting Lost – Less Than Logical
When it came to travel, I sought “everything.” I could not just visit one county in Hungary, I had to visit them all. One castle led to a hundred more. Was any of this logical? It was obsessive, it was compulsive, but was it logical. Is life logical? If not, then why should travel be any different. I tried to order and organize my travels so they would lead somewhere. Where was I going? I had no idea then and I have no idea now. I am lost amid “everything”. I always that getting lost would be frightening, but I have found it exhilarating. Confusion can be maddening. It can also be intoxicating. “Everything” became my passion, and I gave it “everything” I had. I would do it again, I will do it again.

Click here for: Looking Into The Mirror – Vysehrad Abandoned Railway Station (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #34)

The War That Will Not Go Away – Geza Nagy & Damak: Honoring Mystery & Memory (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #27)

The cough that would never quite go away. It might start suddenly in the middle of a sentence, all too noticeable and near constant at times. It was a plague that kept reminding the professor from Hungary where he had been. It must have cropped up from time to time in his classes. While lecturing on medieval history he might be taken back not by his subject matter, but by the cold hand of death which had once held him in its grim clutches on the Eastern Front. I was told that the cough could be heard as though it were part of his conversation at times. He could not quite escape those grim days on the Don River during the winter of 1942-43 when the front seemed no longer to expand. This was when the Russian winter closed in and the Red Army suddenly materialized with a blizzard of bullets announcing their arrival.

The noose was drawn ever tighter as the temperature plummeted and along with it, the hopes of the Hungarian 2nd Army. He managed to somehow survive this frozen apocalypse, unlike 90% of his fellow soldiers. He pulled himself back home to Hungary, only to have to flee further westward. Finally, he made it to safety, only to find that safety was just an illusion. The wounds of war were buried deep in his lungs,  an infection could never be expunged. For the cough he caught on the Eastern Front would haunt him for the rest of his life. A life he lived far from a Hungarian homeland he would never see again.

A long way from home – Hungarian soldiers in the Soviet Union during World War 2

A Legend In Name Only – Final Journey
It was the last half of the last day of our last journey before Christmas. We had hesitantly put Central Slovakia behind us, extending our trip in the country for as long as possible. After crossing into Hungary, we had delayed our arrival in Debrecen with a stop to walk the grounds at Edeleny Palace, enjoying the splendid sight of Baroque architecture at its most refined. Now one last delay beckoned. Unlike other travel delays, which usually sent me into sighs of exasperation, this was one I eagerly looked forward to experiencing. We would make a detour to Damak, a village of just 250 people, 30 kilometers north of Miskolc for an improbable visit to a place I knew nothing about.

There was only one reason for coming here. I wanted to see the hometown of a man who was famous only to me. A man I never knew, who died when I was seven years old. He was not related to me in anyway and everything I knew about him came from someone who had only known him during the last part of his life. Stories had been passed along to me in conversation, stories that I found by turns, fascinating and frightening. The man who told me those stories had also died, only five months before. We had not spoken about the Hungarian from Damak in years, but the memory of those conversations was committed to my memory forever.

Research had given me some hard facts about the man. His hometown of Damak in northeastern Hungary. A pan-European education that took him to Heidelburg University and the Sorbonne. Rounding out his education with a doctorate in Philosophy and International Law at Hungarian University. His service as an officer in the Hungarian Army on the Eastern Front. His postwar flight to Austria. Crossing the Atlantic to Canada and working for Interpol. Finally ending up as a Professor of History at Western Carolina University. I gleaned all this from his obituary, which I read and reread several times. I vowed that if I was ever anywhere near Damak, I would take the time to visit the village. As much to honor my curiosity as to honor his memory.

Homeland – Landscape near Damak (Credit: Istvan Baggins)

Permanent Exile – Passing Through History
It was 2014 and thirty-seven years had elapsed since Geza Nagy’s intriguing and tumultuous life had come to an end in the shadows of the Smoky Mountains in western North Carolina. By the time he died, Nagy had not been in Hungary since the end of World War II. He lived the last three decades of his life abroad. Nagy could never go back home, so I went back to Damak for him. On this winter’s day, the sky was overcast, but the sun kept threatening to break through. Sometimes the weather acts as a metaphor for a journey. In this case, the rays of hope were hidden behind clouds. At some point the clouds might part and all would be revealed.

The drive from Edeleny to Damak was pleasant enough. On either side of the narrow, rural roadway, low hills and fallow fields unfolded. The scenery was austere. The golden fields of wheat, which rise from this land during the summer, were in hibernation until the change of seasons. Damak was hidden somewhere behind the sloping hills. Driving along, I doubted many people come to Damak, but I am sure there are many people from Damak. In other words, many leave and never return. One of these was Geza Nagy. He had a good reason not to return. Going back to Damak would have meant imprisonment or worse. This was because an officer of the Hungarian Army, who had been a participant in the invasion of the Soviet Union, would have been a wanted man. When the Red Army invaded Hungary in 1944 no one knew that it would be the start of a forty-five year occupation. The occupation would outlast Nagy.

Geza Nagy spent the last three decades of his life in permanent exile. This led him first to Canada and then the United States. His time in the latter brought Nagy to my attention. Otherwise, I would never have known about him. Nagy was as much myth as man to me. What I knew of him came courtesy of the man I would call my father figure. He had worked with Nagy at Western Carolina University where they both taught history. The latter was a subject that Nagy not only knew, but also lived through. History had given Nagy a career. It had also nearly killed him. He must have dodged death innumerable times while walking back to Hungary from the blizzard ravaged steppe of southern Russia during the Second World War. He was lucky to live so long after the war. Tragically, it was not long enough to return home.

More than a memory – Monument in Damak for those who died in the World Wars (Credit: Tothh417)

Iron Curtains – You Can Never Go Home Again
It is ironic that Geza Nagy lived the last decade of his life in the same mountains of western North Carolina that produced American writer Thomas Wolfe. It was Wolfe who coined the phrase, “You can never go home again” in his seminal work, Look Homeward Angel. Geza Nagy could never go home to Damak. It was hidden behind an Iron Curtain kept in place by an iron fist. It must have been a great sorrow for him. At some point he must have realized that Hungary was closed forever to him. In this, he was no different from thousands of other Hungarians who lived out their lives in places they could never have imagined.

When my wife and I drove into Damak, it slumbered beneath a grey sky. The curtains were drawn in the cube shaped houses painted a wide range of fading pastels. I doubt Damak had changed that much since the war ended. It had a small store for groceries and not much more. I had no idea if the home Nagy grew up in still existed, but I searched for his spirit in the village. The closest I came was at a monument to those from Damak who had tragically lost their lives fighting in the First and Second World Wars. There were an alarming number of names on the monument for such a small village. Geza Nagy’s was not one of them. He did not lose his life, instead he lost his homeland. There was no monument or memory of that event. A man of history, he faded into it. On this day the streets of Damak were quiet. The ghost of Geza Nagy was not to be found. All I could do was reflect on all that has been lost and will never be found.

Click here for: Bordering On Obsession – Curtici Railway Station: Further Down The Line (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #28)

The Future Was Now – Buda: One Last Shot At Tennis Glory (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #25)

In dreams begin possibilities. And so it was many years ago that my best friend and I attended a professional tennis tournament in North Carolina. This was as close as either of us would get to realizing our childhood dream of playing professional tennis. As a substitute for this dream, seeing pro players up close was almost as satisfying. Men from all over the world had come to vie for the U.S Clay Court Championship. That included players from a wide swath of Europe and South America. These players had a lifestyle we envied, globetrotting in search of sporting glory. At least it seemed that way until we watched several of them practice for hours on end. Hitting the ball cleaner and crisper in a single stroke than either of us ever had in our lives. Our dreams did not die the day we saw this, but they were dealt a heavy blow. It was better to finish college and go into a less taxing career field, because professional tennis looked like way too much work.

Serving Notice – Futures Tournament in Buda

Improbable Odds – The Final Frontier
While our dream faded as we moved on with life, both of us kept a keen interest in the pro game. This dream had been more than just playing the pro tour, it was also to visit glamorous and mysterious European cities during the clay court season. These would come to include tournaments held in Budapest and Bucharest, Prague and Umag among other locales in Eastern Europe. We always told ourselves that sometime in the foreseeable future we would follow the tour across Europe. It was a dream that up until now has yet to come true. There was one exception though. This happened when I managed to spend half a day at a tournament in Budapest. And this was not just any tournament, forget the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) World Tour or even the second tier Challenger tour. Instead, I went to the lowest of the low in professional men’s tennis terms, what were once known as satellite tournaments and are now called Futures.

Futures tournaments are the refuge of up and comers, never have beens and never will bes, those still living their dreams against improbable, if not impossible odds. Men who are on the very fringes of the pro tennis establishment, hoping against hope for a shot at glory. While staying in Budapest I talked my wife into going with me to a tennis club in Buda where a Futures tournament was in progress. Prize money for the event was $15,000, not for the winner, but the entire field. Money was likely of secondary consideration to those playing. What they were really after was valuable ATP ranking points. Those points were the difference between falling off the tour and climbing the rankings upward to Challenger tournaments where prize money rises into six figures.

Holding Court – At the Lowest Level in Buda

The Lowest Level – Warm Body Syndrome
Going to see a Futures tournaments for the first time left me wondering just how good the tennis on offer would be. Would there be any discernable difference between players ranked between #300 and #600 in the world or lower? Futures tournaments do not exactly get great players. Case in point, I once received a place in the qualifying draw of a Futures event in Turkey. This was after an inquiry about the tournament, not asking to play in it. I was shocked to be offered a place in qualifying, so shocked in fact that I did not play the event. What I learned was that satellite tournaments will give almost anyone who believes they can make the pro tour a chance to compete. The warm body syndrome is alive and well in tennis’ minor leagues. In Buda, I would realize that satellite tournaments may be filled with marginal prospects, but many of them are excellent players.

No ticket was needed, seating was open, and people milled around the tennis club. The atmosphere was anything but electric. This was the unknown side of men’s professional tennis, few glamorous girlfriends, family members or entourages were to be seen. It was just a bunch of tennis players scrambling for their careers across clay courts. Most of the spectators were coaches and managers. One gentleman who looked like he was born in a black leather jacket eyed the competition intensely. From time to time he looked at me and my wife with a penetrating stare. This man looked like the sort of henchmen that would be part of a protection racket or an oligarch in training. Obviously, he had some sort of connection to one of the players, but I could never quite figure out which one. He looked more ready to do battle than the players on the court.

The players were a study in contrasts. Every style of play imaginable was represented. There were booming servers, blistering groundstrokers, those who rushed the net and others who never left the baseline. Some of the players tried to knock the fuzz off the ball, while others put excessive spin on each shot, hitting the proverbial moon balls in near perfect arcs. The latter were especially entrancing since they stymied more powerful players with a combination of finesse and patience. It was akin to yawning while looking down the barrel of a bazooka. The level of skill on display was tremendous. What these players seemed to lack was consistency. Rallies often ended in errors. It would have been maddening to play a point with such aplomb only to make a sudden unforced error. This trait reminded me of what I knew from playing the sport myself, once you have reached a certain level of aptitude, tennis is mostly mental.

Rising In The Rankings – Filip Krajinovic (Credit: R191)

Parting Shots – The Dream That Never Dies
I have been following tennis for years and keeping up with many obscure Eastern European players, including Hungarian ones. Watching the players, I was surprised that none of them were recognizable to me. We only spent half a day at the tournament, other travel commitments pulled us away. It was not until later that I found out who won the tournament. A Pole by the name of Piotr Gadmoski edged the Serb, Filip Krajinovic in three tough sets. For Gadmoski it would be the highlight of a short lived career. The event in Hungary was the third and final Futures tournament he won in 2013. Those were the only three titles of his career. Less than two years later he was off the tour.

It was a very different story for Krajinovic. The tournament in Budapest was the fourth Futures final he lost in 2013. Only 21 years old at the time, he continued his ascension in the years to follow. In 2017 Krajinovic’s career soared to new heights when he won five Challenger tournaments and improbably came through qualifying to make the final of the ATP World Tour Paris Masters. Krajinovic has carved out quite a career for himself, rising as high as 26th in the rankings. At present, he is holding steady at #39. The Futures tour is either the making or breaking of careers. For Gadmoski, that week in Budapest was the pinnacle of his career. For Krajinovic it was a stepping stone. For me, it was an opportunity to relive a childhood dream, one that has never really died and refuses to fade away.

Click here for: Old & New Frontiers – The Heathen’s Gate: Roman Austria (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #26)

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)

A Steeple Floating In The Sky – St. Martin’s Church In Feldebro: The Joy of Rediscovery (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #21)

Two quotes I always keep in mind while traveling around Hungary have come from a couple of my favorite travel partners. They came from my wife and mother in law. My wife once said, “there is something to see in every town and village in Hungary.” To my pleasant surprise I have discovered this to be true on innumerable occasions. Even the most downtrodden village almost always has a church or monument worth visiting. If nothing else, there are the atmospherics of the village with the cock’s crow echoing down dusty streets throughout the day and the sound of bicycle wheels spinning as the villager’s slowly traverse broken pavement. When it comes to travel within Hungary, my wife’s mother sees things very differently.

Though she is quite proud of my interest in Hungarian history, I have often driven her – quite literally – to distraction while traipsing around the countryside in search of some obscure historic site that she feels could not possibly be worth the bother. It was such a journey along country highways in Hungary that caused her to exclaim in frustration, “he stops and looks under every bush.” This was said after we got lost three times in search of a county boundary line. It was a backhanded compliment that I now wear as a badge of honor. I am sure much of my mother in law’s frustration comes from the fact that I have been known to go off course on a trip at the slightest hint of a historic site. Such a side journey brought us a memorable visit to the village of Feldebro and its Aprad Era (11th-12th century) church in the Tarna River Valley located in north central Hungary.

A Steeple Floating In The Sky – St. Martin’s Church In Feldebro: The Joy of Rediscovery

A Historic Treasure – Going Back In Time
The journeys usually start with a castle. I scour the map of northeastern and north-central Hungary for any castle within driving distance of my mother-in-law’s home in Debrecen. This has yielded fantastic day trips to castles in Sarospatak, Fuzer, Regec, and Holloko, among other places. The more we do these trips, the less castles there are to visit in these regions. Somehow, I always manage to find another castle that I overlooked. This was how I found Sirok Castle, a magnificently evocative pile at the eastern extent of the Matra mountain range. Getting there was not nearly as difficult as it had been in traveling to some of the other castles in mountainous areas of Hungary. We took the M35 and M3 motorways west from Debrecen, then took an exit to a rural road which led us northward through several villages and towns that seemed to run from one right into another. Along the way we passed through the village of Feldebro (pop. 1000), but I was so focused on Sirok I did not notice anything special about the village. The opposite was true on our return journey.

After visiting Sirok Castle we went back to the town of that same name where we enjoyed a late lunch at a lively restaurant. This respite gave me a chance to pursue my favorite pastime, studying my Cartographia Hungary Classic road map. It showed a red star next to Feldebro, meaning there was a monument, building or church of historical interest in the town. I fixated on that red star. At the very least it was worth investigating the side streets in Feldebro to find out what the red star denoted. Sure enough as soon as we got to Feldebro, I noticed a tall steeple back off the main road. The steeple rose above the village’s cube houses with rust red shingles. I turned us off the main street onto a side road that would take us in the direction of the steeple. I could see my mother in law already frowning. Here I was looking under another bush, but this search yielded a treasure of truly historic proportions.

A historic treasure – St. Martin’s Church in Feldebro

Positively Medieval – Medieval Hungary Between East & West
We pulled in front of St. Martin’s Church, a structure that looked positively medieval because it was. There was the stone church and a unique sub church. The former had been imposed upon the latter. The sub church was recognizable by the stones climbing a quarter of the way up the church’s façade. They had a different coloration. This part of the church had been part of the original Arpad Era structure. It was one of the few that had managed to escape complete destruction during the Mongol invasion in 1241. On this day, the church was closed. Unfortunately, we had no luck finding anyone who could open it to let us see inside. It would have been awe inspiring to view the medieval frescoes that still adorn the walls. Nevertheless, we were able to walk around the church. I snapped a series of stunning photos showing the church from several angles in the mid-afternoon light.

The church was made more dramatic by the fact that the immediate area around it was clear of foliage. Its situation gave the church a dominant presence, dwarfing the viewer. It was a humbling experience to stand outside those walls with the knowledge that the church’s founding went all the way back to the early days of Christianity in Hungary. Uniquely, the church was laid out in the style of a Greek cross. This signifies Eastern Byzantine influence. The tug of war for the spiritual soul of Hungary between East and West plays out in the architecture of the church. The sub-church being subsumed to the rest of the church. This could be seen by the metaphorically inclined as the sub-Church being a stand in for eastern Christianity and the rest of the church as an imposition of western Christianity. Architecture like art, ultimately reflecting history.

Seeing is believing – The sub church visible as part of St Martin’s Church Feldebro

Beating The Bushes – Steeple Chase
The church also has a fascinating historical importance due to one of Hungary’s earliest kings, Samuel Aba (reigned 1041 -1044) having once been buried here. This added gravitas to an already weighty history. The Aba family’s extensive landholdings included Feldebro. The church was used for family burials. Of course, time changes everything, including the history of an area. Feldebro was for one shining period at the heart of Hungarian royalty. Now it was a provincial backwater, a typical Hungarian village, but with one asset that had lasted the test of time. St. Martin’s Church was worth every bit of the time we spent there. It proved what my wife had said about there always being something to see in every Hungarian village. All you need to do is look under a bush or in the case of Feldebro, for a steeple floating in the sky.

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

Journey Into The Unknown – Arpad Era Church At Karcsa: Mapquest (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #14)

The possibilities seemed endless because they were. We left Sarospatak in northeastern Hungary on a dreary winter day. Snow was falling, but not sticking on the roads. Visibility was down to a half mile before it blended into an all consuming grayness. The sky was hidden beneath a cloak of perpetual gloom. This was not the most auspicious beginning for a journey eastward. We had no idea where to go or what we were looking for. Thankfully, my wife was up for an adventure. I was restless after our successful visit to the famous Library at the Sarospatak Reformed College. We still had part of a morning and all the afternoon to travel around the countryside. The weather was problematic, but this did nothing to defeat my ambition to see something of historical value.

An incredible discovery – The Reformed Church at Karcsa

Mysterious Days – Plotting A New Dream
To plan our journey into the unknown, I was armed with a trusty Magyarorszag (Hungary) Classic map by Cartagraphia purchased earlier at a MOL (Hungarian Oil and Gas Public Limited Company) gas station. Every MOL station has racks filled with Cartagraphia maps for sale. The choices on offer include not only maps of Hungary, but also many of the surrounding countries. I have purchased a number of these through the years. They are invaluable aids for dreaming up new travel adventures across Eastern Europe. The Magyarorszag Classic covered the basics in four languages (Hungarian, English, German and French). Looking over the map was a stimulating experience as I could plot out potential discoveries or retrace old travel routes. I was especially enthralled with the small symbols shaped like castles. These denoted famous castles, as well as minor ruins for those who wanted to seek out more obscure sites.

I also could not help but notice the small red stars scattered across the map. These denoted other “tourist sites.” One site in the general vicinity of Saraspatok caught my attention. Just off Highway 381, beside the town of Karcsa, was a red star. This would be easy for us to access by taking a nearby rural highway.  While I had never heard of Karcsa, I found the idea of visiting the mysterious, red starred site marked on the map intriguing. Besides the red star, there was no hint of what exactly could be found there. For all I knew, it could be a misprint. Nevertheless, Karcsa was worth an investigative journey. This was a mystery we would have to solve for ourselves.

Depending upon one’s perspective, the internet’s vast database of information either illuminates or spoils. A search for Karcsa on my phone revealed that there was an Arpad era (1000 – 1301) church still standing in the town. Most Romanesque churches in Hungary were either destroyed or sustained irreparable damage during the Mongol invasion of 1241. Most of these were not rebuilt and those that were morphed into styles quite different from their previous selves. The Romanesque churches that I had visited in Hungary were all quite famous and could be found in the western part of the country at Jak, Lebeny and Zsambek. Each of these had managed to escape the Arpad era relatively unscathed. To find a Romanesque church still standing in northeastern Hungary was a rare find, one well worth exploring.

Mapquest – The route to Karcsa

Outlier – The Knights of St. John in Hungary
The snow did not let up during the half hour drive to Karcsa. The landscape was covered in a wet whiteness that left everything sodden from the half melting snow. As soon as we arrived in Karcsa, we saw a sign on the highway that directed us to the church. My first impression of Karcsa was a lasting one, an oversized village with modest homes lining quiet streets. I got the distinct feeling that change was something that happened only gradually in Karcsa and sometimes not at all. The latter was true of the Reformed Church at Karcsa, which we found amid the town. It was an outlier, a structure that was literally ancient in comparison to everything around it. It was built of brick and stone, materials that were made to last. How else to explain that the church had survived for over nine hundred years in one form or another. Its first iteration, dating all the way back to the 11th century, consisted of a brick rotunda which still stands today. Round churches were common during the Romanesque period in Hungary and the rotunda of the church at Karcsa was a perfect circle. Unlike most other examples in Hungary, this one was constructed entirely of brick.

Architectural historians have pondered whether the church at Karcsa has more in common with similar examples in the Caucasus (Armenia and Georgia) or those found in western Europe, such as France. Oddly enough, the church at Karcsa is an outlier that may not be related to churches in either region. One scholar has stated that its antecedents may lie in the Balkan region of the Byzantine Empire during the High Middle Ages. The church later underwent two major revisions that added on to the existing structure. These give the church much of its current configuration. The renovations kept the rotunda as a sanctuary, but extended the church with a stone nave, quadrangular chambers, and chapels. These alterations have a great deal in common with French and Italian sacral architecture during this time. It is likely that French and Italian craftsmen were working in the area. They were employed by the Knights of St. John who research has shown were responsible for the two later versions of the church. I was astonished to learn about their involvement. What I found even more fascinating was that this is the only structure left in Hungary associated with the Knights.

Rounding into form – The Reformed Church at Karcsa

Obscure Wonder – An Incredible Find
Because the church was closed, we were unable to go inside of it to view the interior spaces. Instead, we inspected the church’s architectural and aesthetic merits while walking all the way around it. What I found most fascinating about the church had little to do with its structural history. Instead, it was the fact that the church had managed to survive for so long in a region that had experienced wave after wave of transformative change. While the town of Karcsa slowly modernized over the centuries, the church was frozen in time from the late Middle Ages right up through today.

Survival and preservation of the church at Karcsa is an achievement in and of itself, serving as an important reminder of the role that chance and fate play in historic preservation. It was also chance and fate that had brought us to the church. We traveled to Karcsa to solve a mystery through the act of discovery. We discovered not only the church, but a tangible connection to an age in Hungarian history that is all too often obscured by a lack of physical evidence. The church at Karcsa was an incredible find. One that sent me back to the Classic Magyarorzseg map in search of other obscure wonders awaiting discovery in rural Hungary.

Click here for: Beyond The Point of Exhaustion – Deva: A Transylvanian Lassitude (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #15)

Brought to Ruin – Zelemer: Remnants of Gothic Greatness (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #13)

Going home to Hungary, means going to Debrecen. My wife and I often travel back to her hometown so we can spend time with her family. These visits offer the opportunity to relax. Debrecen is the very definition of laid back. Hungary’s second largest city is the equivalent of urban valium. The traffic is light, the sidewalks uncrowded and the locals quietly go about their business. The only problem with Debrecen is that it can drive a restlessness man to madness. After a couple of days, I begin to feel an innate sense of restlessness. This means it is time to travel. My restlessness has spawned a series of day trips from Debrecen to places both near (Hortobagy National Park, Nyirbator, Tokaj) and far (Gyula, Sarospatak, Regec Castle).

Anywhere we can go by car and return to Debrecen on the same day is fair game. This has led to an exhaustive series of adventures to sites of mild historical interest. I have now begun to worry that one day we will run out of places in the area to visit. This fear manifested itself to the point that we journeyed to the village of Zelemer and an obscure, but important piece of Hungarian history. According to what little I could find online, Zelemer had once been the home of a large medieval church. The only thing left of that church today was a partial ruin. That was good enough for me. On a fine late summer day, we went to see what was left in Zelemer. It was certainly worth the effort.

That lonesome whistle – Train Schedule in Zelemer

Spectacular & Mundane – Worth Waiting On
I had never heard of Zelemer before, but it was surprisingly close to Debrecen, requiring only a twenty minute drive north of the city. Locating the Zelemer church ruin proved more difficult than I imagined. After leaving the main highway, we took another road that led to the village. There was only one problem with this, the church ruin was not in the village of Zelemer, but on its outskirts. I did not realize this until we drove around the entire village several times. We finally found the church ruin by the railway station. The term “railway station” only loosely defined the one at Zelemer. The station looked like it had not been open since the 20th century. The door was locked, and windows sealed shut. Anyone wanting to take the train waited at a nearby siding where a schedule was conveniently posted. Twelve different trains stopped here each day, many of which went onward to Debrecen. While villagers waited on the train, they could look up at the ruined church which stood on the other side of the tracks.

The setting for the Zelemer church ruin was both spectacular and mundane. The railway line was within a stone’s throw of the church. At any moment, a train might come roaring by. By way of contrast, there was a large corn field on the other side of the ruin. A similar rural landscape must have existed here during the Middle Ages. What little was left of the Zelemer church stood high up on an artificial mound. Once I saw the ruin, it was almost impossible to take my eyes off it. Part of the tower was still intact. It rose 18 meters above the surrounding area. At one time, it would have soared as high as 30 meters. The church would have been an impressive sight for those traveling through the area. It would not have been the only one. The first church at Zelemer was constructed in accordance with a decree from Hungary’s first Christian king, Saint Stephen, who ordered that one church should be constructed at every tenth village. The initial iteration of the church at Zelemer was a Romanesque structure that would have been destroyed when the Mongols swept through the area in 1241.

Standing tall – Zelemer Gothic church ruins

Staying Power – A Thousand of Years of Christianity
The ruin that stands at Zelemer today was built in 1310. It was a sizable Gothic styled structure. There was enough left of the church to imagine the awe that it must have inspired. It would have been the centerpiece of not only the village, but the entire area. It was a sign of permanence in a world filled with conflict and caprice. The church was formidable enough that something of it managed to withstand destructive acts in the centuries to come. During the latter half of the 16th century, the Ottoman Turks pillaged and burned the church. This started a period of progressive decline. Once the church fell into disuse, the locals found that many of the stones could be put to other uses. There is no telling how much of the Zelemer Church is now part of the foundations for houses and rock walls in the area.

One modern addition has been added to the Zelemer Church ruins. A 3 meter tall statue of Saint Stephen stands nearby. It is a reminder of his decisive role in turning Hungary towards western Christianity. If not for Stephen, it is almost certain that Zelemer would never have been graced with a large church. Western Christianity was a unifying force for Hungary and Hungarians. Though over a thousand years have passed since Stephen’s time, Christianity is still a unifying force in Hungary. Zelemer is a prime example of how ruins offer a connection between the past and present. There have been incredible political, economic, and cultural changes in Hungary over the past thousand years, but Christianity remains a marker of Hungarian identity.

The Christian King – Saint Stephen at Zelemer

A Rapturous Effect – Deep Into The Imagination
For me, the most powerful aspect of the Zelemer Church ruins was how much it left to the imagination. Besides the tower, a portion of the northern wall and outlines of the floor plan there was little to go on. The missing pieces sent me deep into the imagination. What must the interior have looked like during the late Middle Ages? I imagined a cool, quiet nave with light streaming through Gothic windows. The sound of chants and a chorus of song emanating among the recesses. The voice of a priest booming from behind a pulpit. Whispers of prayer echoing across the aisles. The overall effect would have been rapturous. Seven hundred years later, without anything to go on other than my imagination, I could still catch a faint whiff of this most distant past. For a moment, the ruin of Zelemer Church was made whole and so was I.

Click here for: Journey Into The Unknown – Arpad Era Church At Karcsa: Mapquest (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #14)

The Cold, Harsh Reality – Borsa: Birthplace of Ferenc II Rakoczi (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #12)

A large swath of northeastern Hungary, southwestern Ukraine and eastern Slovakia can rightfully be called Ferenc II Rakoczi country. For anyone who does not who Rakoczi was and why he is held in such great reverence by Hungarians, they might want to take a look at his image on the 500 forint banknote. Rakoczi can be found on the right side of the banknote. In this rendering, he has a head full of dark flowing hair, a swirling mustache, and a mesmerizing stare. He looks the very image of a warrior/statesman. In this case, the image meshes with reality. Rakoczi was the leader of a Hungarian uprising against Habsburg rule. As these uprising usually went for Hungarians, there was a series of astonishing victories, but not enough to prove decisive. Rakoczi’s role was so prominent, the conflict goes by the title Rakoczi’s War of Independence.

Frozen in time – Bust of Ferenc Rakoczi in Borsa, Slovakia

Giving Birth – A Legend In Their Own Minds
It as though Rakoczi had the power to not only prosecute a war for eight years (1703-1711), but also to cause a suspension of disbelief. Since Rakoczi’s name is attached to the conflict, it gives the impression he was doing all the fighting himself. This is far from the truth. Rakcozi was the most important and indispensable figure in a war effort that came close to achieving Hungarian independence. That dream would have to wait a century and a half longer. Despite losing the war, Rakoczi endeared himself to Hungarians by never accepting an amnesty. He went into exile in Turkey with many of his most loyal subjects. They held him in great reverence to the end of his life. After his death they and others, kept man and myth alive.

Rakoczi has become in death what he was in life, a symbol of Hungarian independence. As such, he is venerated in Hungary and several sites in historically Hungarian lands. Those lands, such as in eastern Slovakia, are now foreign to Hungarians. The story was different during the early 18th century when these lands were part of the Kingdom of Hungary. I have visited many sites associated with Rakoczi, both in Hungary and abroad, including Sarospatak Castle (found on the reverse side of the 500 forint banknote), Vay Castle and St. Elisabeth Cathedral in Kosice (site of Rakoczi’s tomb). The latter can be found in Slovakia. On one trip, purely by happenstance, I found one of the most important Rakoczi sites entirely by accident. This was his birthplace in the small village of Borsa.

The beginners guide – Historical plaque on the wall at Ferenc Rakoczi Castle in Borsa Slovakia

Passing Interest – A Day To Be Endured
I hope the day never comes when I run out of places to visit that are associated with Hungarian history. After fifteen trips, I am still discovering places I barely knew existed. Case in point, Rakoczi’s birthplace in Borsa. Me and my wife found it through sheer serendipity while on a winter journey that along the backroads of northeastern Hungary and just across the border into Slovakia. We made this journey armed with a detailed road map which marked historic sites such as castles and churches throughout the region. After leaving the Zemplen Hills, we set off eastward along remote roadways where the local traffic was light and snowflakes swirled wildly. The sky was filled with perpetual gloom as droplets of precipitation floated through the air. We were traveling during the depths of winter, at a time when much of the land was covered in dirty, wet snow.

The scene was bleak and unforgiving. This was a day to be endured rather than embraced. The only thing to distract our attention from the despair we felt at the lack of sunshine was a search for any place of historical interest. We were skirting the Hungary-Slovak border, winding our way eastward in Hungary through places I had never seen mentioned in any travel guide. An Arpad era (High Middle Ages) church in Karos and a Renaissance Palace in Pacin. It was in the latter that we decided to cross north of the border to visit a ruined castle marked on our map at Velky Kamenec. We soon discovered that there was hardly anything left of the castle. The fact that it was pouring snow by this point did not help with visibility. A steep walk up the promontory where the castle once stood was treacherous. The walk back down even worse. My wife made the smart decision to stay in the car. All I got for my trouble were bad photos and shoes streaked with mud and slush.

The dream is still alive – Rakoczi statue at the Hungarian Parliament in Budapest

A Quiet Veneration – Covered In Glory
At this point we decided to stay in Slovakia for a few more kilometers before heading back down into Hungary. We drove slowly through mist, fog and wet snow which fortunately failed to stick to the highway. When we got to the town of Borsa, I noticed a small sign with the shape of a castle on it and the word, “Kastiel” pointing down a road. Obviously, this got my attention. Winding our way past small houses covered in wet snow we came to the Ferenc Rakoczi II castle. (Kastiel Frantiska II. Rakociho). From the roadway, the Kastiel did not look formidable. If anything, it looked more like a palace than a castle. And from the looks of it, one badly in need of repair. My focus soon turned from the structure to a sculpture. A bust of Rakoczi, with half his face visible and the other half covered in frozen snow stood not far from the entrance. What caught my attention were the many multicolored ribbons tied to the lower half of it. All the ribbons were in the red, white, and green colors of the Hungarian flag. This was a tell tale sign that Hungarians traveled here to pay homage to Rakoczi.

My wife translated the text of inscriptions on various commemorative plaques and markers. I was astonished to learn that this was the birthplace of Ferenc Rakoczi II. He had been born in the southwest bastion of the castle on March 27, 1676.  It was mind boggling to learn that the same Rakoczi whose magnificent equestrian statue stands on the grounds of the Hungarian Parliament in Budapest was born in this cracked and crumbling castle in the provincial village of Borsa. The contrast between what I saw here. and the veneration of Rakoczi in Hungary could not have been more different. I walked into the courtyard, snapped some photos, and peered into a few windows. The site was not abandoned, but it did look almost derelict in places. In the summer, it would have looked much different with foliage in bloom and a small museum open. Summer seemed impossible on this day, as did the glorification of Rakoczi I have seen so many times in Hungary. What I saw on this wintry day in a Slovakian village was the reality, rather than the ideal of history.

Click here for: Brought to Ruin – Zelemer: Remnants of Gothic Greatness (A Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #13)