Losing Control – An Icy Bridge At Godollo: The Right To Remain Silent (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Twenty-eight)

Godollo is a place that I have always related with happiness. It is a prosperous small city, west of Budapest. The town is most famously known as being home to the Royal Palace of Godollo, the favorite residence of Hungary’s most beloved Queen, Elisabeth I. Otherwise known as Sissi, the palace is a must see for anyone spending time in and around the Hungarian capital. I always had a positive feeling about Godollo, as though nothing bad could ever happen there. It is one of those places whose reputation precedes it. To my mind, anyone going to visit Godollo, might expect the sun to always be shining when they get there.

My opinion of Godollo was frozen in the fin de siècle, that was up until the point that I went across a deceptively icy bridge on the M31 that slices through there. In a breathtaking few seconds I felt myself losing control of the car. As the wheels begin to slide, I was frozen in fear. What happened next was a minor miracle. We struck dry pavement in time for me to gain control. We had crossed the bridge and the wheels now gripped drier pavement. The loss of control and the regaining of it happened so suddenly, that it was not until after it was over that I realized just how lucky we had been to escape unscathed. One moment we were on the edge of disaster, the next we were cruising across the Great Hungarian Plain.

A Happy Place - Royal Palace of Godollo in the Winter

A Happy Place – Royal Palace of Godollo in the Winter (Credit: EtelkaCsilla)

Travel As Near Tragedy – The Road To Mortality
The loss of control was a frightening reminder of how little control we really have over our lives. Control is not so much an illusion, as it is a delusion. I have always believed that we are the ultimate deciders of our fate. This is nothing more than an act of self-delusion. A ruse that allows me to make some sense out of the trajectory of my life. It is not until forces beyond my control intervene and push me towards the edge of disaster that I realize the road to mortality is paved with bad decisions, many of which I had made that morning and throughout the trip. A sheet of ice, an anonymous bridge, a twelve kilometer strip of pavement near Godollo, a lethal combination of these three components could have undone a week’s worth of adventure or forty-seven years of life for me and forty-five for my wife. Losing control and regaining it is a humbling feeling. I suddenly realized that I needed to be more careful, that the risk was not worth it and never will be. Moments like these, are the most important in travel. I want to forget them and know I never will.

Friends, family and casual acquaintances often think that my travels are filled with one fascinating discovery after another. The kind found in photo albums, with days spent amid world famous sites, breathtaking scenery and spectacular architecture. There is plenty of that to be sure. I am guilty of advertising this type of travel when I go back home with a phone full of photos. It is all so wonderful, but it never seems quite real for a reason. What my Eastern European travels have really been about are the same exact things that terrified me on that icy bridge, a loss of control, fear of the unknown and the taking of risk. I have crossed the icy bridge near Godollo countless times, sometimes with my wife in tow, sometimes alone. There is always the thrill of dodging death followed by the morose thought of what if. These experiences have taught me quite a bit, not about Hungary or the Czech Republic or Slovakia or wherever, but about myself. What I am capable of and what are my limits, what I can let go of and what I must hold onto for dear life.

Flashes of Life - An icy Hungarian motorway

Flashes of Life – An icy Hungarian motorway

Flashes of Life – Journey To The Other Side
The most memorable moment of this trip did not occur in the southern reaches of Bohemia or Moravia, it came while driving down the M31 on a gloomy winter morning. I survived that moment and learned a life lesson in the process about what it means to lose and regain control. The lesson was to always remain vigilant. Death awaits even in a positive place like Godollo. I should never have let my guard down because mortality is but a moment away. In the aftermath, I felt gratitude for having escaped with my life intact. Compared to that moment, the rest of the ride was uneventful. How can Hatvan or Gyongos compare to having your life flash before you? The answer is that they cannot compare.

I can barely remember anything about the rest of the drive eastward on the M3 and then the M35 to Debrecen. It was, as it has always been, a rather dull affair. The churned up, pitch black soil in the empty field was covered by dirty snow. This was some of the richest agricultural land in Europe, but no one would know that by how it looked on this day in the dead of winter. There were no traces of greenery or hints of the bounty which bursts forth in the springtime. This was a landscape waiting out the winter. The deeper into this land we drove, the more time seemed to slow. I was tired and shaken by what had happened earlier. Debrecen could not come soon enough. When it did, I pulled into my mother in laws driveway with a feeling of resignation. The journey home had been exhausting.

The Final Stretch - M35 Motorway in Hungary

The Final Stretch – M35 Motorway in eastern Hungary (Credit: MrSilesian)

Upon Arrival – A Haunting Thought
The journey ended where it all began, in a housing estate on the edge of Debrecen. A light dusting of snow was on the ground, but there was no hint of the icy conditions that had plagued our travels throughout Transdanubia and continued to stalk us until we got clear of Budapest. The near whiteout conditions at Austerlitz that started this snowy odyssey seemed as though they had occurred months ago. My mother in law was sitting in the house awaiting our arrival, reading one of the hundreds of books that line the shelves in her living room.

She asked in broken English how the trip went. I said “wonderful”, then rattled off a few of the more notable places – Cesky Krumlov, Brno and Prachtice – we had visited. I asked, “Have you been?” even though I already knew the answer. A deeply cultured traveler, there are few places in Europe she has not been. Her reply was pleasant and brief, “Very nice places.” Of course, I did know one place she had probably never visited, an icy bridge near Godollo. I did not mention what had happened there just a few hours before. The thought of what might have been was haunting. Sometimes the most memorable travel moments are the ones we would rather keep to ourselves. In this case, I reserved the right to remain silent.

Time Of Our Lives – The Hungarian Roadside Inn: A Place In The World (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Twenty-seven)

Is there anything more enchanting than the idea of a warm hotel while a winter storm rages outside? There is something quaint and homey about the idea. That was not where we found ourselves on this icy winter evening in western Hungary. Instead, we were in an anonymous room on the second floor of a roadside hotel that was nice, but nothing special. Outside, large lorries pulled in and out of the OMV station in a never ending succession of traffic sliding along at a snail like place. Nearby, the low hum of cars slow rolling their way along the M1 continued unimpeded well into the night. There was only one thing to do at this point, a bit of research about the area in which we were stranded.

To alleviate my latent stress from a not so desirable day of driving, I began to research the nearby villages of Nagyegyhaza and Obarok, west and east of the hotel. The glory of travel in Hungary for me is that everywhere is new. The upshot is that this heightens my sense of discovery. It also means many confrontations with obscurity. Villages that are hardly known to Hungarians become points of fascination for me. I would most likely never come this close to either Nagyegyhaza or Obarok again, or if I did it would be much like now, by complete accident. Thus, I decided to avail myself of the opportunity to learn a little bit more about these two villages. They were little more than the proverbial wide spots in the road, but as I have so often discovered in Hungary, the places that seem skimpy on the surface often have very deep roots.

A Place In The World - An Aerial View of Obarok

A Place In The World – An Aerial View of Obarok (Credit: Bjoertvedt)

Staying Power – The Written Record
The first thing I always keep in mind about the distant Hungarian past is if it was not written down, than it might as well have never happened. In that regard, Obarok was mentioned as far back as the late Middle Ages, while Nagyegyhaza arrived in the historic record much later, the early 18th century, a decade after the Ottoman Turks were expelled from the area forever. The villages have survived for the same reason they arose in the first place, their geographical situation. Both are tucked inside the evocatively named Vali Valley. Over time, the two have become synonymous with one another. The short histories I found online about the two villages really told me next to nothing about them. Nevertheless, I did find it quite incredible that each had lasted so long. Even the younger of the two, Nagyegyhaza, was founded over 70 years before the Declaration of Independence was signed forming the United States. An American may scoff at their size, but not there such staying power.

The frame of historical reference in Hungary is much broader than the United States. Obarok is positively ancient by American standards. As for Nagyegyhaza, if it was part of American history, the village’s beginnings would fall within the early colonial era of history. A time period unimaginable to almost everyone except for the kind of history buffs that have long since been relegated to the campus basement. Hungarian historiography has a whole different way of defining age going all the way back to the 890’s when Magyars first came galloping on horseback into the Carpathian Basin. The vagaries of time and the parameters used to define historical eras are important to understanding how history is perceived. Obarok and Nagyegyhaza will never be prominent, but they will always be old by the standards of American history. The age of these villages is also humbling, they have outlasted countless generations and would certainly outlast me and my wife whether we made it home safely or not. In other words, some places were meant to last. When it comes to people, the exact opposite is true.

Good enough to go - Room in a Hungarian Roadside Inn

Good enough to go – Room in a Hungarian Roadside Inn

Time Travelers – A Waiting Game
Time becomes more than a force of nature when a person is stuck in a place longer then they ever imagined. Time becomes elemental to a traveler’s existence when they find themselves facing prolonged stasis. There is something maddening about being unable to move after spending countless days traveling from place to place. I spent much of the night passing time through reading and researching. I was hoping the hours ahead of me would disappear until morning came and we could take the motorway again. All we could do was the thing we had been doing our entire lives, wait. The only problem is that we were now aware of the waiting.  The snow and ice continued to fall from the sky. It covered our cars and the hotel parking lot. We spent the night slumbering under the cover of winter. The immediate future looked gloom. The only thing to do was wait until morning.

The arrival of morning was like the arrival of hope, it made everything seem more bearable. With a new day and the quickening pace of traffic on the M1, I felt a sense of optimism. This was not how I had envisioned my last night on our weeklong trip to and from the Czech Republic. Trips have a way of taking on a life of their own. This trip was a rarity, the kind of journey that closed a full circle. We had started in a snowstorm and now we were ending in one. In our journey’s end was its beginning. I was eager to complete this journey, almost too eager, as impatience began to gnaw at me just after sunrise.  Should we wait or should we go? If there was any question of what to do the internal argument swirling ended in me, the moment I saw cars proceeding down the M1 much faster than I could have hoped for considering the night before. After a four course breakfast at the OMV, consisting of two cups of coffee, a Coke Light (Diet Coke in the states) and a pack of chocolate cookies, I was raring to go.

The M0 in Hungary - A Ring Around Most of the Capital

The M0 in Hungary – A Ring Around Most of the Capital

M0 – The Morning Stress Test
It was not long before my wife raised the issue I knew was coming. She never fails to utter the two letters that strike fear into many a Hungarian driver, the M0. She verbalized what had been weighing on my mind as we closed in on Budapest. “You know this is known as the death zone.” I was certainly aware of the motorway’s nom de guerre. This was one of several occasions that she had seen fit to remind me of that ominous fact. It is easy to see why. Getting around Budapest on the M0, which wraps around the city, is a nerve wracking experience. Much of it has to do with ongoing construction, which never fails to go unfinished. For much of the drive we were isolated in a lane between barriers. These were supposed to ensure that we stayed within the proscribed concrete confines.

It was morning rush hour, with slushy snow still surfacing from time to time, the drive through heavy traffic was the ultimate morning stress test. We made it safely around Budapest on the M0 and turned onto the M31 which would connect us to the M3 leading out onto the Great Hungarian Plain. I had never thought much about the M31 and why would I. It is only 12 kilometers in length, a short connector between two of Hungary’s busiest highways. The M31 should have been nothing more than a short jaunt, the forgettable few minutes it was always meant to be. Suddenly, inexplicably, it became something much more, bringing about a moment I would not soon forget.

Click here: Losing Control – An Icy Bridge At Godollo: The Right To Remain Silent (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Twenty-eight)

On Thin Ice – The OMV Oasis: Roadside Assistance in Transdanubia (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Twenty-six)

There comes that moment when you are bound to ask the inevitable question, “How did I get us into this mess?” We were stuck in an ice induced traffic jam on the M1 in western Hungary and there was little hope of going very far. The cause of our current situation was my own chronic impatience. It had led me to ignore the gray bellies of cloud that had begun to loom on the horizon just beyond Gyor. The sky soon began to spit pellets of sleet and snow onto the motorway. Instead of stopping before nightfall and prior to a thin sheet of ice covering Transdanubia, I stubbornly forged onward. I did this in consultation with myself and that is exactly who I now had to blame. My lack of forethought had led to the moment of no going forward and no going back. We were stuck.

In a matter of minutes, I went from having visions of Debrecen dancing in my head to hoping we might make it to the next exit and find a warm hotel room where we could wait out this winter weather. I suspected that the hundreds of cars in front of us were asking themselves what next as well. They had a better excuse than I did for being out in this weather. This was their commute, whereas it was my crisis. Fifty kilometers ago the road had been clear. The wind was fierce, but that need not detain anyone. This had been the bluster before the storm. Then the situation had gradually gotten worse, until I suddenly realized that we were in danger of ending up in a ditch.

Nightmare Scenario - Winter Driving on the M1 in Hungary

Nightmare Scenario – Winter Driving on the M1 in Hungary

Dwindling Options – Hungary’s Version of the Highway Patrol
In defiance of fate, I decided that we should continue heading eastward. I began making ridiculous calculations in my head, such as how long it might take to get to Debrecen going 60 kilometers per hour. The thought of a nine-hour drive in an ice storm was not exactly energizing. We soon passed close to the city of Tata, which lies in a valley between the Gerecse and Vertes Mountains. As such, the topography had become increasingly rugged. This only served to heighten the danger of driving in the increasingly treacherous conditions. We were now on suspect terrain, inching our way towards Budapest. The Hungarian capital now seemed like an unattainable fantasy. From where we were sitting on the M1 to the city center would have taken less than an hour in normal conditions, now it was hours away at best and that was only if we wanted to risk our lives. My stress level increased exponentially with each tap of the brakes and slip of the wheels. We kept hoping to come upon an exit. What we found instead was almost as good, the green and blue illuminated neon of an OMV (Österreichische Mineralölverwaltung or Austrian Mineral Administration) gas station. Here was our proverbial shelter amid the wintry storm.

Pulling into the OMV was a welcome break from keeping an iron grip on the steering wheel in a futile effort to exercise a modicum of control over the car. To our surprise, we found several officers of the Hungarian version of the highway patrol standing inside. They had decided to make this station their evening hangout. They stood around sipping coffee while seemingly oblivious to the fact that the motorway had turned into a chaotic morass. These men had that look of complete indifference which is the eternal resting face of every Hungarian police officer. They affected an attitude of genteel neutrality, which might also best describe the face they present to the world. These officers have never failed to impress as well as perplex me with their willful nonchalance. I have never once seen them get excited. Perhaps their stoic demeanor is a way of keeping the enemy guessing. There were no enemies on this night, only beleaguered travelers contemplating their rapidly dwindling options.

Shelter In The Storm - OMV as an oasis

Shelter In The Storm – OMV as an oasis (Credit: SJu)

Opposites Attract – A Winter Haven
I coaxed my wife to ask the officer’s their opinion of the road conditions closer to Budapest. I watched with bemusement as an officer and his colleague answered without a hint of emotion. Watching the officer talk was fascinating. He offered up an emotionless monologue, a neither here nor there kind of conversation. He would have made a great poker player. Though he gave little outward hint of negativity, I could tell by the length of his monologue that he did not think travel was a good idea. This was rather obvious since he and his colleague were not on the road either. My wife reported back to me that one of the officers said traveling to Budapest was only in a madman’s best interest. The road was a sheet of ice and conditions were only going to get worse. I had the confirmation now needed to start imagining an evening spent in some roadside inn. At this point, any roadside inn would do, the nearer the better. The officers pointed out that there was a hotel connected to another OMV station. It was very close, hardly a kilometer away as the crow flies. There was only one problem, it happened to be on the opposite side of the motorway.

A plan was soon hatched. We would head eastward in search of an exit that would allow us to do a prolonged U-turn and get back on the motorway in the opposite direction. We would then head westward, back the same way we came for a few kilometers. This would bring us to the OMV where had a hotel stood nearby. The hotel would turn out be rather quiet and quaint. Amazingly, we had little trouble getting to the hotel and procuring a room. The ad hoc plan worked to perfection. Probably because I was not the one making it. Dinner was procured at the OMV. There is something quite wonderful about having a fistful of dark chocolate bars for supper. The fact that we were now safe brought an unspoken elation. It is comforting to be in a nice warm room after fearing for your life only an hour earlier.

Click here for: Time Of Our Lives – The Hungarian Roadside Inn: A Place In The World (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Twenty-seven)

The Ghostly Terminal – Refusing To Die: Istvantelek (Part Five)

Time stood still while Attila and I roamed around the main workshop of Istvantelek. We were vaguely aware that lingering was not a good idea, but the site was so spectacular that we could hardly contain ourselves. We climbed in and out of one train car after another. We spent minutes inside some of them, amazed as to how much was still intact. We saw toilets that had not been used in years, workers quarters, showers and even beds. Some of these cars looked as though they were ready for a long awaited renewal. Many were the property of the adjacent railway museum, but they would likely continue to deteriorate. We were fortunate to have a look at them before they fell into a state of ruin. At some point in the not too distant future, there would be more glass panels missing on the roof than ones remaining. Perhaps a final decision would then be made on what to do with the workshop and all the locomotives and railroad cars left inside. I am not optimistic about Istvantalek’s future preservation due to benign neglect.

Hell On Wheels - The MAV 301 Series Locomotive

Hell On Wheels – The MAV 301 Series Locomotive

Absurd Attractions – From This World Into The Next One
Before deciding to quietly make our way out of the main workshop, we stopped at one more set piece, a hulking MAV 301 Series locomotive that was impossible to miss. I counted no less than five wheels on each side. This was a locomotive built for brute strength. When I later researched the MAV 301, it was not surprising to learn that it was used to pull trains over the mountains of Transylvania. The massive relic at Istvantelek was one of only two of its kind left in the world. The MAV 301 pulled massive loads with its 1350 horsepower steam engine, fueled by up to 8 tons of coal or wood. Constructed at the Royal Hungarian Iron, Steel and Machine Iron Works it was in service for over fifty years. The size, craftsmanship and sheer power of the locomotive was awe inspiring. The MAV 301 was more than a work of industrial art, it was the will to power on steel rails. Even now, long since decommissioned and resigned to this ghostly terminal, the MAV 301 still communicated some of its awesome strength.

Soon Attila and I decided to leave the train workshop. We walked outside into the late afternoon sunshine which burned with feverish immensity in a bottomless blue sky. Sunset was not far off and the slanting light made the rust around Istvantelek begin to glow. What remained of the glass on the workshop windows turned to molten fire and the tall yellow grass blazed gold in the sunlight. There was a furious beauty to be found here, the emotive intensity of a place refusing to die. The light had sharpened everything it touched, including an immaculately restored water tower that rose above the site, its lower brickwork and octagonal pinnacle honed to perfection. The tower looked as though it had been built yesterday. That was true to a certain extent since it was recently restored. It acted as a brilliant counterpoint to the rest of Istvantelek. The tower’s magnificent symmetry acted as an absurdly attractive opposite to the ruined kingdom of railroading a stone’s throw from it. As we were leaving, the site stood before us in a spectacle of decrepit sensuality. This was what I had come searching for, not facts or photos, but a feeling. I would carry this world with me into the next one.

A Window To The Past - On The Inside Looking Out at Istvantelek

A Window To The Past – On The Inside Looking Out at Istvantelek

Exit Strategy – What Really Matters
We finally headed back towards the main gate after spending an hour and a half on the grounds. Time had hardly mattered to us while we were on the inside. There are attractions in this world so magnetically seductive that they cause time to collapse, Istvantelek was one of them. The idea of seconds, minutes and hours had meant nothing. The world outside the walls of Istvantelek did not exist during our visit. The only thing that could bring us back to everyday reality approached the car as we pulled up to the main gate. The gentleman who had allowed us inside came out of his guardhouse as we approached. As the gate raised up to let us pass, he came out to say a few words to Attila. I could not understand anything that was being said. The man’s voice was low, but serious. He talked for some time, allowing Attila only a few words. I could not decide whether he was irritated, angry or just wanted to talk.

After a couple of minutes, Attila thanked him one last time and we went on our way. I then asked, “What did he have to say?” “He said that someone who worked there had seen us walking around. They told him that he should not have allowed us to go inside. Now he is worried that they will report him and say that he accepts money from people who want to visit. This could get him into trouble.” Attila said this with complete dispassion. His nonchalance mirrored that of the man at the gate who in my mind had put on an exceptional performance. He had made his point without ever raising his voice. I would not have been able to stay that calm if a couple of total strangers had gotten me in trouble.  A little later I learned what had really upset the man was how long we stayed inside. He had said, “I give you a finger and you take my whole arm.” I could not argue with that logic because it was true. I felt a twinge of guilt until Attila said, “Well we got to see it. That’s what matters.” My guilt suddenly melted away.

Restoration & Preservation - Water Tower at Istvantelek

Restoration & Preservation – Water Tower at Istvantelek

Passion & Intrigue – Deeper Meanings
Visiting Istvantelek was about passion and intrigue rather than rules and regulations. We did not go inside to break past a forbidden barrier. We went inside to get up close and personal with history. Istvantelek was more than just abandoned locomotives and derelict train cars. It was about the rise and fall of industry, about World Wars and the Holocaust, about harnessing steam power to defeat time and distance, about bringing the power of a forgotten past back to life. Most of all, it was about two middle aged men searching to find the power of the past in an abandoned wreck of a train yard and within themselves.

A Question Without An Answer – The Holocaust In Hungary: Istvantelek Train Yard (Part Four)

It is not sufficiently well known that the greatest number of Jews murdered at Auschwitz came from Hungary. In one of the most lethal actions in European history, 475,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz, approximately 75% of whom were immediately killed. When we think of Auschwitz, gas chambers and crematoria usually come to mind. Yet many historic photos taken while the camp was in operation show something else, hundreds of Jews standing on the platforms at Auschwitz-Birkenau. In the background can be seen the train cars that helped deliver hundreds of thousands of innocent victims into the hands of the Final Solution.

To make the Holocaust at Auschwitz possible, it took much more than Nazi malevolence and industrialized forms of killing, it also took locomotives, wooden railroad cars and cold steel rails to deliver Jews from Hungary and other parts of Eastern and Central Europe to the camp. And if there was one experience each of the Hungarian victims at Auschwitz had in common, it was being packed into a railroad car and transported to their deaths. In the main workshop at Istvantelek Train Yard in Budapest, I stumbled upon some of the same cars that might have transported Hungarian Jews on their final journey. It was a sobering reminder that dark secrets can lurk in even the most fascinating places in Hungary. Shedding some light on that darkness is difficult, but not impossible.

Deutsche Reichsban - The Logistics Of Genocide

Deutsche Reichsban – The Logistics Of Genocide

Final Boarding Calls – Journey To A Nightmare
Before going to Istvantelek Train Yard I had read that several abandoned wooden railroad cars still sitting there may have been used to transport Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. My brother in law Attila had read on a Hungarian language website that these cars had actually been used in a movie as replicas to show Jews being deported to that infamous death camp. We had no way of really verifying these claims, but either way I made a mental note to look out for these while we were on the grounds. The biggest giveaway for me was the wooden train car painted red with white lettering that said “Deutsche Reichsbahn”. This sure looked like something that might have been used by the powers that be to carry out their insidious plans. It certainly caught my attention, leaving me staring at it for quite some time. Photographic comparisons I would make after my visit would confirm my suspicions that this train car was similar to those used during deportations.

Mass genocide on the scale of the Holocaust would not have been possible without railroads. It made the logistics of mass murder possible on an unprecedented scale. Whereas the Nazis at first had attempted to carry out their plans in Eastern Europe by having Jews rounded up and murdered by death squads, this proved highly inefficient, not to mention the fact that most soldiers began to buckle under the psychological weight of committing innumerable atrocities. Commandeering the railways and getting assistance from the occupied nation’s railroad authorities were crucial to Nazi plans for carrying out the Final Solution. By the time Hungary was invaded and occupied by German forces in the spring of 1944, the techniques to carry out mass murder had been refined to lethal precision. Trains and cars like the one that stood before me at Istvantelek were essential to this plan. The standard car used for the deportations were 10 meters in length. On the bottom right hand side of the car at Istvantelek, the numbers 10 58 m were painted in white.

The Final Journey - Hungarian Jews just after arrival at Auschwitz Birkenau

The Final Journey – Hungarian Jews just after arrival at Auschwitz Birkenau

Numbers Game – The Logistics Of Genocide
According to the Nazi SS manual which provided the rules and regulations governing these cars, 50 people were supposed to be packed inside a car. Each standard train would have 50 of these cars. Thus, 50 cars with 50 people meant 2,500 Jews transported to Auschwitz at a time. This carrying capacity would often be exceeded as much as twofold with deadly consequences. People would be packed inside with little water, food or light on a train that was just the beginning (and in some cases the end) of a terrifying experience. Adding to their humiliation, the Jews were forced to pay for their own tickets. The proceeds from the sales of what was little more than a death warrant went back to the Deutsche Reichsban. All of this was carried out with breathtaking efficiency.

During the Holocaust in Hungary, on average of two of these trains left each day. This was how hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews were taken to meet their doom in southern Poland. The first train left for Auschwitz on April 29, 1944, the last one a little over two months later on July 8th. There was a good chance that the train car I was looking at had played a role in the deportations. There were other similar cars both inside and outside the main workshop. The paint left on the wooden exterior of these had chipped, cracked or faded to a sea foam green. Seeing these cars made me recall the article I had read that mentioned these might have been used in deportations.  None of these cited a source, but sometimes standing so close to the real thing offers a sixth sense of understanding that trumps anything found in a history book. Whatever the case, these cars did not look so quaint or rustic after I realized what might be lurking in their past. Instead, they looked as menacing as everything else associated with the Holocaust.

Sinister Indifference - Abandoned railway car at Istvantelek

Sinister Indifference – Abandoned railway car at Istvantelek

Coming To Terms – A Sinister Indifference
The question might be asked: What is so special about finding an old railroad car that might have been used in the Holocaust? After all, many of the same ones can be found at museums throughout Europe. While that is certainly true, there is something both shocking and sinister when you find such an artifact abandoned and forgotten amid an old industrial site. It is like going into the attic and discovering a terrible family secret that has suffered from years of neglect and casual amnesia. The indifference with which the railroad car had been treated spoke volumes about trying to come to terms with the Holocaust. The fact remains that we never can and probably never will.

Click here for: The Ghostly Terminal – Refusing To Die: Istvantelek (Part Five)

 

 

A One Way Ticket To Oblivion – Abandonment: Istvantelek Train Yard (Part Three)

“See that glass”, Attila said as he pointed at the ruined roof of Istvantelek Train Yard’s main workshop, “that could slice your head right off.” We were standing outside the workshop looking at the ruined roof. As many of the glass panels were missing as those that remained. The panels had been battered and broken after years of neglect, falling and shattering without anyone there to notice. The roof was a rather ominous warning of the dangers that lay inside the main workshop. I now realized why visitors were hardly ever allowed inside Istvantelek. Even when the rare guided tour was given, the workshop was off limits.

Of course, passion, mystery and intrigue were working in our minds to defeat the inherent dangers of entering an industrial site strewn with a minefield’s worth of hazards. Both Attila and I peered in through an open window to see what ruined treasures stood inside. That was when I noticed a scene that had first caught my eye on the internet. Inside were graffiti covered carriages, too many to count. This was a train enthusiast’s heaven, an urban explorer’s dream. It made my heart skip a beat. I felt the kind of longing usually reserved for a long lost, unrequited love. I wanted to get inside, but how. That was when Attila said, “let’s go in and have a look.”

On the Outside Looking In - Workshop at Istvantelek

On the Outside Looking In – Workshop at Istvantelek

Positively Apocalyptic – A Veil of Grime & Dust
Getting into the main workshop was much easier than getting into the site. There was no guard or anything else to bar entry, only an opening where a door used to be. This opening was slightly obscured by an encroachment of ivy. Such greenery was a strange counterpoint to the rust, ruin and broken glass closing in around it. Upon entering through the open doorway, we were immediately confronted with another world. The scene before us was positively apocalyptic. Everything was in a state of semi-ruin. Locomotives and passenger cars were lined up in a procession that had gone nowhere for decades, a motley assemblage of industrial detritus was scattered about. It was as though we had walked on the set of a zombie film. Any minute I expected to have some otherworldly creature lunging for me. I have never been stalked before, but I cannot imagine a worse place for that to happen.

The entire place looked as though it had been shot to pieces. Shafts of light penetrated through the many openings in the roof.  The railway cars colors looked incredibly vivid, especially those covered with graffiti. There was beauty to be found amid the ugly reality of these cast-offs. The rust and graffiti were powerful artistic counterpoints to one another. One the work of time and neglect, the other created by the mind and hand of man. Everything was cloaked in a veil of grime and dust. And throughout the workshop all that could be heard was an empty silence. The main workshop was the end of the line, the end of an age, the end of history for over one hundred locomotives and railway cars. We were at a station inhabited by ghosts with a one-way ticket to oblivion.

Hazards of the Job - Inside the Main Workshop at Istvantelek

Hazards of the Job – Inside the Main Workshop at Istvantelek

Magnificently Creepy – An Irresistible Invitation
Inside the main workshop we walked down one row after another, between passenger cars that managed to all look different and somehow the same. From time to time, the most eye-catching relics would cause us to pause and ponder how they had arrived at this place. Doors were flung open, offering an ominously irresistible invitation to step inside. And that is just what we did. One carriage was of especial interest after Attila informed me that it was used to deliver the mail. Upon entering we found the mail slots empty except for an inch or two of dust. It had been a post office riding the rails that delivered to small, remote villages. This mail car did not deliver to other postal facilities. Instead, it delivered straight from the car.

The excitement that once accorded the mail car upon its arrival must have been dramatic. This was the traveling messenger of the early 20th century delivering happiness and sorrow in unequal quantities across the Great Hungarian Plain and the hills, mountains and valleys of northern Hungary. To get a letter from this car must have been an event in of itself, rivaled only by the postal car’s appearance. It was an essential connection between Hungarian villages and the larger world. The stories this postal car could tell would have been unbelievable, but just as it was always on the move from one village to the next, so was time and progress, creating a distance from the past that could never quite be recovered.

Mail Call - Inside an old mail car at Istvantelek

Mail Call – Inside an old mail car at Istvantelek

There was also a multitude of empty passenger cars, many of which I recognized from my own travels across Hungary’s railways. Several of these had been festooned with eye popping graffiti. One had the phrase 420 Hurts painted on it just below four windows without a single pane of glass. Hurts was painted in blood red that had slowly crawled down from the letters. The graffiti was redolent of a murder scene and looked more like the work of an urban gang than random vandals. Speaking of vandals, I did not doubt that some of the cars had been vandalized, but this only added to their post- apocalyptic aesthetic. Here was a world that looked as though it had been subjected to a nuclear attack. I could imagine giant cockroaches and lethal alien beings lying in wait for the unsuspecting urban explorer. The fact that much of the railway stock looked familiar made the workshop seem magnificently creepy. For some reason, I had the feeling we were always being watched. Perhaps this fear arose from being surrounded by abandonment.

The Last Time - Oil Change on December 12th 2001

The Last Time – Oil Change on December 12th 2001

A Dark Secret – Lost In Translation
A constant source of curiosity and perplexity for me were the letters and numbers that had been painted, etched or stenciled on so many of the locomotives and cars. These were written in an unintelligible language that I had no idea how to decipher. Attila remarked that a train enthusiast would have a field day with such terminology. They could disseminate the make and model, where and when for each of these relics by translating such coded messages. Attila was able to translate one of these. Written on the side of a badly beaten up wooden railway car was OLAJCSERE. Db.2001.12.11. This meant that an oil change had been done back on December 12th, 2001. We found this particularly amusing since preventive maintenance was not exactly the strong suit of Istvantelek.

Another wooden train car, one that was still sporting much of its red paint, had more ominous terminology stamped on it, among which I immediately noticed the words “Deutsche Reichsban.” This was a reminder of a horrific artifact that was said to still be located at Istvantelek. One that made these abandoned cars suddenly seem menacing. There was a very dark secret said to lurk among these cars, one which is known by a single word, Auschwitz.

Click here for: A Question Without An Answer – The Holocaust In Hungary: Istvantelek Train Yard (Part Four)

The Rustbin of History – Where A Red Star Still Shines: Istvantelek Train Yard (Part Two)

There was a feeling of unreality that came over me inside the ruined kingdom. One that I could scarcely have imagined even in my most fevered dreams. Being allowed into Istvantelek Train Yard was like leaving the world behind in search of the starkest reality. And then the strangest thing happened, for the next few minutes Attila and I discovered the train yard looked much like any other old industrial site. There were random buildings that looked ever so slightly occupied with a few cars scattered about the premises. These were the few signs of life in an otherwise lifeless landscape of muddy roads, overgrown weeds, bare trees and an alarming amount of rust growing on any substantial surface.

We did notice one area with a warehouse door closed and a large truck parked outside of it. Whatever kind of work was going on at Istvantelek these days was hidden from view. It was odd seeing scattered traces of human activity, but with no discernible signs of what might be taking place inside the many buildings. This was an area plagued by neglect. That aesthetic was most noticeable with the first major railroad relic that came into view. Sitting on a small segment of rusty rails was a gigantic locomotive with the ominously iconic Soviet red star painted upon the front of it. At this point, Attila decided to park the car so we could get a better look at several of the locomotives and carriages strewn about the site.

Built To Last - The MAV Class 424 Steam Locomotive

Built To Last – The MAV Class 424 Steam Locomotive

“Nurmi” – An Indestructible Workhorse
Sitting on a small section of track amid encroaching brush was a MAV Class 424 steam locomotive. The very definition of a hulking beast. Weighing in it at a colossal 137 tons, the behemoth stood silent and omnipotent, a singular, immaculately crafted set piece from the age when locomotives were shrinking time and distance. Forged with intensity and magnificent craftsmanship, the amount of work that went into creating this monster must have been incredible. A total of 514 MAV 424 locomotives were constructed between the mid-1920s and late 1950’s. It was nicknamed the “Nurmi”, after the famous Finnish distance runner Paavo Nurmi, due to its speed and endurance.

The MAV 424 was used for both passenger and freight transport. It could pull up to 1,400 tons of freight at a speed of 50 kilometers per hour or up to 500 tons of passenger carriages at 90 kilometers per hour. This indestructible workhorse looked as formidable as any locomotive I have ever seen. Over 70% of the MAV 424’s were either sold or given to communist countries. 15 of them were sent to North Korea in the 1950’s. A few may still be in use by that hermit nation today. In Hungary, the last ones were resigned to museums, outdoor exhibits in provincial cities or in the case of the Istvantelek Train Yard. While the MAV 424 at Istvantelek was in nothing like prime shape, it was certainly built to last. The components looked as though they could survive a nuclear blast. I was quite surprised that the locomotive was in such good condition, especially considering that it had been exposed to the elements for many years.

MAV (Magyar Államvasutak) - Hungarian State Railways

MAV (Magyar Államvasutak) – Hungarian State Railways

A Fiery Magic – The Industrialized Sauna
We climbed inside the hulking brute and stood awestruck in the same space that engineers did for decades. Most of the knobs and dials were still in working condition. We got a feel for just how difficult it would have been to drive the locomotive. The coal furnace was within arm’s length of the driver’s space. The only windows were on the side. The smoke and heat must have been ferocious. All the romanticism of train travel suddenly melted away. Only a person within an iron constitution could have stood in this industrialized sauna for hours on end. We also saw where the coal shoveler would have worked their fiery magic within arm’s length of the engineer. The shrill noise, infernal heat and brutal physicality of such jobs must have taken a terrible toll. The MAV 424 may have been state of the art, but for those who worked on this locomotive, I imagined it had all the appeal of a blast furnace.

The iconic emblem painted on the MAV 424 locomotive resulted in the area being nicknamed the Red Star Train Yard. This is misleading and causes many train enthusiasts to think that Istvantelek is a communist era creation. In fact, the site has a long history that predates communism in Hungary. Officially, the train yard was known as the Istvantelek Main Workshop (Istvantelki Fomuhely). Its storied history goes all the way back to the turn of the 20th century when train travel was booming across the Austro-Hungarian Empire. To deal with the many maintenance issues for its expanding fleet of locomotives, passenger and freight cars, Hungarians decided to construct a workshop in the northern part of Pest. Development of the site took place from 1901- 1905. Construction included the main workshop which was the largest building anywhere in Budapest at that time.

Vagabondage - An abandoned railroad car outside a ruined workshop at Istvantelek

Vagabondage – An abandoned railroad car outside a ruined workshop at Istvantelek

Going Nowhere – A Different Kind of Museum
The site continued to expand in the years after its opening, especially during World War I when two thousand workers were on-site servicing trains for the war effort. The Second World War was less kind to Istvantelek as it became a target of aerial bombing and sustained a great deal of damage. Nonetheless, it somewhat recovered after the war. What really sounded the death knell of Istvantelek was when the age of steam came to an end. By the mid-1980’s regular operations had ceased. The site’s future became the past, as it was tied to the Vasuttorteneti Park (Hungarian Railway Museum), adjacent to its grounds.

Many of the locomotives and carriages that were now resigned to the rustbin of Hungarian railroad history had been possible exhibit items for the museum. The problem was that the museum already had quite a collection, plus there was only so much money for restoration and room for storage. Thus, Istvantelek had become a different kind of museum. One where the locomotives and carriages were left to speak for themselves, austere reminders of a golden age that had turned to rust. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the main workshop which we would soon stumble upon.

Click here for: A One Way Ticket To Oblivion – Abandonment: Istvantelek Train Yard (Part Three)

The Lonely Bibliophile of Budapest – Dani’s English Bookshop: Reading The World Away 

My bi-annual Hungarian travel pilgrimage always involves a trip to my favorite English used bookstore in Buda. Amid all the atmospheric architecture and quaint, picture perfect Baroque townhouses found in the Castle District stands a small bookselling business located at Orszaghaz 18. Signs attached to gated shutters adorning either side of the entrance state:  English Book Shop * Second Hand. Below these signs are books enclosed within glass cases. Above the entrance in fading letters the word Vadaszbolt is written.  Literally translated from Hungarian the word means “Hunters store”. All traces of the Hunters store have disappeared except for the ghost sign. Taking its place is Dani’s English Bookshop, an eclectic establishment with an incredibly eccentric owner. I have met Dani, or at least the man I assume is Dani, on many different occasions. He sits in the back corner of his one room shop staring intently at a book. Every couple of minutes he turns the page. The only time he looks up from the book is to greet a customer with a single word, “Hello”. He makes very little eye contact after this initial interaction.

A Whole New World - Dani's English Bookshop

A Whole New World – Dani’s English Bookshop

A World Unto Himself – A Strange Sort Of Shopkeeper
Almost invariably, I am the only person in Dani’s English Bookstore. That certainly does not make Dani any more aware of my presence. He is a study in complete indifference. Dani’s attention is focused on one thing, finishing the page he is reading so he can turn to the next one. His attention is never fixed on the customer. This makes him a strange sort of shopkeeper, even by Hungarian standards of customer service. One thing I love to try with Dani is engaging him in conversation. My attempts are met with either an uncomfortable silence or a quizzical glance. For the longest time, I have wondered whether Dani might be hard of hearing. He does not seem to understand or care about anything I say to him. Dani might also be suffering from poor eyesight. While reading books, I noticed that he holds them very close to his face. So close, that he could turn the pages just by exhaling. Oddly, he never wears glasses.

Dani is the most intense reader I have seen. The look on his face is of a man totally engrossed in another universe. Nothing other than the book in his hand seems to matter. For Dani, words are to be read, not spoken. Besides the obligatory hello, his only other words are the amount due for a purchase. As soon as the sale concludes, Dani goes back to reading whatever book has captured his interest. Saying goodbye or good day or any parting words in Hungarian fails to elicit so much as a mutter. The term “character” and Dani are synonymous. The last few times I visited Dani’s bookstore was mainly so I could be ignored by him. He has become a Budapest institution in my mind, more so because Dani sticks out like a sore thumb amid the exalted streets, smart shops and overpriced tourist traps that inhabit so much of the Castle District. His prices are totally reasonable, he is not pretending to be anything other than what he is, an inveterate reader with little interest in anything other than books. In short, Dani is a world unto himself.

The Curiosity Shop - Statistics of Centuries

The Curiosity Shop – Statistics of Centuries

Hidden Gems – A Booklover’s Life
I have often wondered what motivates Dani. Obviously, it is not meeting people or customer service. Studying Dani’s dis-shelved clothing, intensely focused stare and lack of social skills, I figured running a bookstore must be a way for him to pursue his twin passions of reading hundreds of books each year and being left alone. The bibliophile life is a solitary, if somewhat enviable existence. It takes someone unique to open a store day after day for years on end, sell a smattering of books and read their days away. I just wish Dani’s knowledge was communicable. Since picking Dani’s brain about his favorite books is impossible, I spend my time perusing the stacks while trying to discern what topics interest him most. History takes up a good deal of space in this small store, thus that might be Dani’s favorite subject. As for my favorite, I go to Dani’s specifically looking for the proverbial needle in his Hungarian section’s bookstack. That is because Dani’s store brought me one of my favorite Hungarian books of all time, Statistics of Centuries (Statistical curios in the Hungarian history) by the Hungarian Central Statistical Office. The fact that I found this hidden gem has kept me coming back for more.

Statistics of Centuries is not the kind of book meant to be read straight through, from the first page to the last. Instead, it is the type of book that can be perused at one’s leisure. It is broken up into four sections: 1) The Millennium in Brief 2) Society in the 19th and 20th Centuries 3) Economy in the 19th and 20th Centuries and 4) Regions, Counties, Towns, Villages. Each section is chock full of statistical and historical nuggets on every aspect of Hungary. The only drawback is the date of publication, 2002, which makes the most current information (1990’s onward) a bit dated. It is enlightening to open the book to a random page and see what fact catches the eye. For example, on page 25 I find a chart showing the proportion of the Hungarian electorate that votes, only 56% did in 1998. This was disconcerting, coming less than a decade after the collapse of communism. So much for the love of democracy. On page 88, I learned that the top two causes of death in Hungary – Heart Disease and Malignant Tumors – did not change between 1948 and 2000.  Of the top eight causes of death listed, the most notable entry was liver disease which came in at #5 in 2000. It did not appear on the 1948 list. Alcoholism represents a clear and consistent danger to Hungarians.

Pull Up A Chair - Orszaghaz Utca on Castle Hill in Buda

Pull Up A Chair – Orszaghaz Utca on Castle Hill in Buda

Random Fashion – Finding New Directions
One of the most fascinating charts in a book full of them, is the “Frequency of draws Five -Lotto Numbers” for the first six months of 2001 found on page 112. I had no idea such information was readily available. Of course, the numbers are supposedly generated in “random fashion.” I have never played lotto in Hungary, but I hope that if I ever do, I will draw a 64 (most drawn) over 63 (least drawn) out of the 90 potential numbers. This information may seem nonsensical to some, but it is the type of hard data that stimulates my mind. There are also narratives, recording the history and associated statistical curios from each of the 19 counties in Hungary. I feel like every time I open Statistics of Centuries a multitude of enlightening details come my way. I have Dani to thank for helping me find all these new directions. I just don’t think he would appreciate me telling him so. Such is the life and legacy of the lone bookseller. I expect to see him again soon and be met with indifference. Nothing will please me more.

The Ride Of My Life – Budapest To Back Home: Love Them & Never Leave Them (For The Love of Hungary Part 54)

It was and still is the most dreadful part of traveling home from Hungary. Leaving the land I had grown to love was bad enough. Leaving the woman who would soon become my wife was even worse. Waking up at 4:20 a.m. after a restless night of little to no sleep was not how I envisioned my departure. I had no choice in the matter. Living in the heartland of America meant I would forever be a prisoner to airport transfers and connecting flights. This also meant my last day in Budapest would hardly be one at all. It started the evening before with an imminent sense of dread arising from the realization that it would be almost impossible to get a full night of sleep.

My biological clock had adjusted to the previous two weeks. Thus, I knew sleep was not likely to come until ten or eleven o’clock that evening. I would be going on just a few hours of rest before I had to wake up, throw on some clothes and travel to the airport. That was the best I could hope for. I ended up sleeping restlessly for short intervals until I finally fell into a deeper sleep around two a.m. I awoke in a state of extreme grogginess a couple of hours later. Several cups of cold coffee did very little to arouse me, other than provide a temporary shot of caffeine. I was irritable and shaky. This was not how I wanted to spend the last couple of hours with the woman I loved. We would not see each other for three more months. Rather than tender words and sentimental emotions all I could think of was the fact that I would be awake for the next twenty-four hours or more.

On the Verge of a New Dawn - Kispest in the early morning

On the Verge of a New Dawn – Kispest in the early morning (Credit: Supergranat0820)

Dearly Departed – Passing Over The Past
There was a sense of unreality in taking a taxi to the airport in the small hours of the morning. Walking out of a crumbling apartment building in Kispest at 4:40 a.m. to find a taxi waiting with the engine running never feels normal. The driver said little more than Jo reggelt! (Good morning) which was a good thing because even if I could have spoken Hungarian, my brain was hardly functioning at this early hour. This was not so much a sad, as it was a strange way to end two magnificent weeks in Hungary. I wanted to stay longer, possibly forever, but that was impossible at this point in my life. Why is it that those things that seem just out of reach tantalize us the most? Perhaps it is because they are attainable. Instead, I would suffer in silence the curse of wanting ever more.

The taxi rumbled down pot holed side streets until it turned onto Ulloi ut. One of the major arteries into and out of the eastern half of Budapest. Ulloi is the longest avenue in the city, getting its name from the suburb of Ullo. The i on the end of the street’s name denoting that the road runs to and from that town. The avenue also has negative connotations for those Hungarians who remember the communist era. Back then, it was named Voros Hadsereg utca or Street of the Red Army. Soviet tanks rolled down the avenue in November 1956 when they arrived in mass to crush the hopes and dreams stirred by the Hungarian Revolution. The avenue was renamed after the Iron Curtain collapsed, but the name Ullo is just as fitting for that dark era. It means anvil.

The end of one journey - The start of another one

The end of one journey – The start of another one (Credit: ChrisW)

Taking Flight – Terminal Associations
The outskirts of Budapest a couple of hours before dawn could be almost anywhere in America. The neon store signs for Aldi, Tesco, Lidl and DK are the only illuminations. It feels almost like home, albeit five thousand miles away. This deserted world would not awaken to well after the sun rose. By that time, I would be gone. It almost felt like it already. After a few more minutes the lights of Ferihegy Airport suddenly appeared. A headache inducing sight that burned my sleep deprived eyes. Cloaked in a fierce fluorescence, there was at least one world already awake. My heart dropped as we pulled up to the terminal. Where I had found my love just two weeks earlier, I was now going to lose it. A visceral feeling of hopelessness swept over me. What an irony, to find and leave love at the same place in so short a time. A life changing romance compressed between the past and present in an airport terminal. My associations with this terminal were manic, swinging wildly between optimism and depression.

As we exited the taxi, I suddenly felt it necessary to over tip the driver. This was done in the hopes of being granted good luck upon future returns. My thoughts turned quickly from romance and superstition to lining up for check-in. The check-in was not yet open for the day, but a line had already formed. There were young adults who looked like they had not slept all night, Asians who I silently felt sorry for because they likely had a longer trip ahead of them than I did, stiffly stylish looking European businessmen and American pensioners who had traveled along the Danube on Viking Cruise ships. I found the latter most annoying. They reminded me just how spoiled and self-centered Americans can be. My irritation was much worse because they reminded me of something in myself.

Bleary eyed goodbye - Terminal 2 at Budapest Airport

Bleary eyed goodbye – Terminal 2 at Budapest Airport (Credit: Ato1)

A Momentary Lapse Of Romance – Don’t Say Goodbye
I felt ridiculous for having been so stressed the night before over the possibility of missing my flight. This was a flight I dreaded having to take. My emotions were just as shaky as my nervous system. Saying goodbye was not going to be easy. After check-in we delayed my departure by having coffee just before I entered security. You know you are tired when a cup of extremely strong coffee makes you less, rather than more alert. The conversation was tepid, nothing need be said. One day, I reminded myself, this would all be over. She would be at my side through arrivals and departures, that day seemed far off, but its possibility pained me even more. Why could I not have that now? Love is a lot like travel, incredible experiences interrupted by long waits in some strange netherworld, whether it be in life or the Budapest Airport. Just like in love where you learn to live with someone’s faults, in travel you learn to live with delays and departures. Then the moment when there is nothing left to wait for suddenly arrives. The goodbye to a person and place that I dearly loved was suddenly reduced to watery eyes, long embraces and sad smiles. This was the end of one journey and the start of another.

 

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

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

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

Riverview - Visegrad as seen from the Danube

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

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

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

Unreconstructed - Visegrad Citadel

Unreconstructed – Visegrad Citadel (Credit: fortepan.hu)

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

Crowning Achievement - Visegrad & the Danube

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

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