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)

Spiritual Echo Chambers – The Romanesque Church at Jak (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #7)

Let me be clear, I will kick the bucket before I have a bucket list. Call me a contrarian, but the idea of a bucket list – those must see sights before you die – sounds way too efficient and unimaginative for me. It is the kind of idea that sends a traveler to the most popular and predictable places. In my opinion, any place worth seeing is worth more than a single visit. Of course, the idea behind a bucket list is to see anything that induces jaw dropping awe and then move on to the next one. An argument could be made that this misses the best part of travel, which is not only the sights you see, but the people you meet. I mention this because what first comes to mind when I think of the Romanesque church at Jak in southwestern Hungary, is the attendant who sold me and my wife tickets.

He was a middle age ethnic Hungarian originally from the Vojvodina region of northern Serbia. My wife and I struck up a conversation with him or more to the point, I asked questions while she did the translating. The man then proceeded to provide us with impromptu guide services on a beautiful autumn day. He was extremely kind, generous with his time and completely devoted to his job. There was something about the sound of his voice, the way he carried himself, his attention to service, that I found inspiring. In an enchanting setting this man sprinkled magic with his words. And in the process, Jak became more than a church, it became this man and his devotion to history.

A Rarity Restored -Romanesque Church at Jak

Commissioning Greatness – A Man & A Clan
In my estimation, one of the most common travel cliches, “it is about the journey, not the destination”. misses one crucial element of travel. Neither journey nor destination would mean much without the people you meet along the way or upon arrival. Journey and destination are rather narrow limits, whereas people can take you almost anywhere. And therein lies the problem with bucket lists, it is not so much the sights as it is the people you meet. This was the case with the church at Jak. The man we met was as much a part of our visit as the church. Nonetheless, if the church had not been at Jak, I am almost certain we would never have visited the town. For several years I ruminated on a visit. Looked Jak up on maps and built itineraries with imagination. The longing to visit was also stimulated by guidebooks on Hungary, which almost invariably mention the church at Jak as an outstanding sight, well worth the time it takes to travel there. Many of the guidebooks have photos of the church, which is a magnetic way of attracting attention.

The church at Jak also has a powerful marketing tool in one of Budapest’s most visited spots. A replica of the church’s portal is part of Vajdahunyad Castle (also a replica), built in the City Park to celebrate the Hungarian Millennium in 1896. For many, seeing that replica is enough, but it made me want to visit the original church that much more. Imitations of any great work are just that. While they are certainly worth looking at, the viewer loses context when they are the original. It was not until my ninth visit to Hungary that I made my way to Jak. Getting there was easier said than done. Jak is one of those places that is not on the way to anywhere. Fortunately, my wife and I were traveling around far western Hungary and the Burgenland in eastern Austria. That put Jak easily within our reach. The church was built as a Benedictine Abbey. Wealthy landowners often commissioned churches to be built on their landed estates. In this case, a member of the Jak clan, Marton Nagy, commissioned the church.

Rising to the Occasion – Romanesque Church at Jak

A Rarity Restored – The Romanesque In Hungary
The fact that Hungary has very few works of Romanesque architecture still standing, makes the allure of the church at Jak that much more seductive. It is a rare example of Romanesque style sacral architecture. For any building to survive seven and a half centuries in a place as criss crossed by conquerors as Hungary, it must have more than its fair share of luck. It is not a coincidence that the two best surviving Romanesque churches in Hungary (at Jak and Lebeny) can be found in the far western portion of the country. The Mongols swept across Hungary in 1241-1242, but they likely never made it this far west. At that time the church was still under construction, as the building began in 1220 and was not finally dedicated until 1256. The finished product, with some major restoration work done in the late 19th century, is what stands today.

The most memorable aspect of the church is the Norman-styled portal. This architectural motif was likely transmitted from northern France to Germany, where Hungarian craftsmen may have seen examples at castles and churches in Bavaria. The portal is adorned with lavish sculptural decoration, which includes Christ and the 12 apostles who occupy niches above the portal. Only the sculpture of Christ and the apostles flanking either side of him are original. While the church escaped destruction from the Mongols, it did sustain damage by the Ottoman Turks.

The interior is structured as a basilica with three naves and three apses. It is an airy space, much larger than I imagined. Only when I walked around the exterior did I understand the church’s sizable proportions. The interior is both austere and grand. In comparison to the portal’s lavish ornamentation, the interior feels minimalistic. The narrow yet spacious confines give the impression of spiritual echo chambers, in the weighty silence one can hear the slightest sounds. I could only imagine the glorious chanting which must have taken place here across the centuries. The church was a monument which could match those moments.

The Ultimate Portal – Romanesque Church at Jak

The Greatest Treasures – Of People & Place
The church at Jak was everything we thought it would be, an astonishing work of architecture that reminded me that a whole other world had been lost in Hungary due to the Mongol invasion. Surviving Romanesque architectural works, such as the church, are much more powerful due to their rarity. Traveling to Jak was worth the time and energy we expended getting there. The greatest treasures in Eastern Europe are often found in remote villages. While the church at Jak is rightfully famous, the man who provided us with a warm welcome and valuable information was entirely unexpected. Proving that it is not just the place, but also the people who make travel so memorable. 

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Written In Stone – St. Elisabeth’s Cathedral: First & Lasting Connections (The Kosice Chronicles #5)

Specific buildings have become synonymous with certain cities. That is as true in Eastern Europe as anywhere else in the world. Think of Budapest and the glittering Hungarian Parliament comes to mind, Vienna and the soaring steeples of St. Stephen’s Cathedral are an inseparable image, Krakow and the grandeur of Wawel Castle are one, if not the same. Cities paired in the public consciousness with their most famous building is just as true in provincial areas as it in more well known ones. In Sopron, Hungary, the Firewatch Tower is the icon of choice and Lviv, Ukraine is unimaginable without the Korniakt Tower just to name but two. One of the best examples of this trend is the towering Gothic pile at the heart of Kosice, St. Elisabeth’s Cathedral.

The first time I saw the cathedral was a memory worth savoring. Despite a cruel and cold wind exhaling its icy breath down the narrow confines of Mlynska street, my eye was drawn into the distance and upward by the sight of St. Elisabeth’s rising above everything else. A couple of minutes earlier I had been standing before the Neo-Gothic Jakab’s Palace, with a sense of wonder and awe. Those senses increased exponentially at the site of the ultimate Gothic high rise, St. Elisabeth’s. Unlike Jakab’s Palace, which was built at the turn of the 20th century, St. Elisabeth’s was not a derivative work. Instead, the Cathedral had set a new standard upon completion in 1508. Nothing since that time has been built to rival it as a symbol of Kosice.

Written In Stone - St Elisabeth Cathedral in Kosice

Written In Stone – St Elisabeth Cathedral in Kosice (Credit: Ingo Mehling)

Wealth Creation – A Free Royal Town
It is hard to know where to start when studying the architecture and history that permeates St. Elisabeth’s Cathedral. That is not unexpected for a building over six hundred years old. Across the centuries it has undergone major alterations and expansions. Little wonder that it is full of eye catching details and structural intricacies. The Cathedral is also massive. As the largest church in Slovakia, St. Elisabeth’s measures out at 13,000 square feet with enough room to accommodate a congregation of up to 5,000 people. The size of the cathedral is symbolic of the power and wealth of medieval Kosice which had cornered much of the salt trade. When construction first began on the cathedral in the late Middle Ages, Kosice had already been given the status of a Free Royal Town with all the special rights and privileges granted to its citizenry. The privileges in turn, had been used by the town’s burghers (property owners who made up the medieval bourgeoisie to advance their own economic interests.

Kosice continued to grow in prominence during the 14th century. It was the first town anywhere in Europe to be given its own coat of arms, bestowed by King Louis I of Hungary in 1369. Kosice was one of the most important cities in the Kingdom of Hungary. As such, its wealthy burghers, civic minded citizenry and royal sponsors, including none other than Hungarian King Sigismund of Luxembourg, provided funds for building a new cathedral. This took place after the city’s main house of worship burned down in 1380. The exact year when construction began on St. Elisabeth’s is not known, but the work grew in such size, scale and scope that it ended up stretching across three different centuries before completion.

At First Sight - A view of St. Elisabeth's Cathedral

At First Sight – A view of St. Elisabeth’s Cathedral (Credit: Maro Mraz)

A Medieval View – Looking Back Into The Past
Just as I was awe struck after first sighting the cathedral while walking down Mlynska street, the effect must have been similar for traders and travelers coming to the city from afar. Today, modern buildings block views of the cathedral from many places in the city. During medieval times, it was the exact opposite. The Cathedral could be been seen from almost anywhere in Kosice including from well outside the city walls. This would have provided a stunning first impression of the city’s wealth and importance to merchants, emissaries and foreigners who had business to conduct in the city. And though that impression may have changed over time due to various developments, something of it remains today. A first impression of St. Elisabeth’s is a visceral connection between the medieval and modernity. One that I felt just as acutely as those who had come centuries before me.

Confronted for the first time by the sight of St. Elisabeth’s Cathedral, I spent time studying and then attempting to photograph its exterior. Part of the Cathedral’s power lies in the odd symmetry and style of the structure. For instance, its highest point. Sigismund’s Tower (northern tower) tops out at 60 meters (194 feet). While the church is almost completely Gothic in style, the tower was extended after a fire in the late 18th century and topped with a Rocco copper cupola, an architectural aberration that adds a certain decorative flair to the cathedral’s crowning point. Beside and bit lower down from Sigismund’s Tower stand the shorter Matthias Tower (South Tower) which was never completed. It also sports a stylistic outlier, a metal octagon roof. The towers, along with many other sumptuous details were so photogenic that it was hard to know what to focus my lens upon. It was easy to see how construction on the cathedral took one-hundred and twenty years. That does not count the restorations and reconstructions that had periodically taken place, adding to a highly complex structural history.

Storyteller - The Main Altar of Saint Elisabeth

Storyteller – The Main Altar of Saint Elisabeth (Credit: Scotch Mist)

Written In Stone – A Timeless Tale
Trying to grasp the entire exterior of St. Elisabeth’s in a single viewing was impossible. Such were the intricacies of its architecture and rich sculptural elements that a person could spend countless hours contemplating the structure. I snapped photo after photo, knowing the whole time that it would never do the Cathedral’s scale justice. One way of comprehending the Cathedral’s sheer size is to consider that its total circumference was said to be equal in length to the outer line of Kosice’s city wall in the 15th century. A great deal of expense and even greater sums of effort went into its construction. Master craftsman toiled for decades on specific details. This is just as true of the interior as of the exterior.

Among the more memorable elements of the interior are no less than ten altars, a double spiral staircase and bronze baptistery. Of these, the Main Altar of St. Elisabeth deserves attention. The altar is an original work done during one of the Cathedral’s last stages of construction in the late 15th century. Two wings join a central cabinet containing three statues. The Virgin Mary stands in the center holding baby Jesus. To her right, is the cathedral’s namesake, Saint Elisabeth of Hungary. To the left is the biblical Saint Elisabeth, mother of John the Baptist. The altar’s interior portrays the legend of Saint Elisabeth of Hungary. When closed, the altar portrays the suffering of Christ. In all, these stories are represented on 48 Gilded tablets.

The fact that these artistic elements tell such stories goes some way in explaining how the masses, who were mostly illiterate, would have been able to understand these stories and the divine wisdom of God. In a sense, St. Elisabeth’s is one gigantic Holy Book telling a timeless story for all who spend time studying it. The book requires intense concentration and multiple re-readings to understand its weighty symbolism. A person could spend a day or a lifetime comprehending the meaning of St. Elisabeth’s religious iconography. The same could be said of the legends and stories surrounding the Cathedral.

Click here for: Many Happy Returns – Ferenc Rakoczi: The Road To Reburial (The Kosice Chronicles #6)

“So Much Depends Upon” – St. Elisabeth’s Cathedral: Legendary Exploits (The Kosice Chronicles #4)

One of my favorite poems is also one of the shortest. “So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow/ glazed with rain water/beside the white chickens.” So said William Carlos Williams in his short, brilliant poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow.” The imagery in the poem, “a red wheelbarrow” “glazed with rainwater” and “white chickens” are rendered extremely vivid by just a few short words. Yet it is the opening four words that have endured with me the longest. “So much depends upon” is as dramatic, ambiguous and fatalistic an opening as I have come across at the beginning of a literary work. That phrase could apply to many things in the world, but for me it seems particularly appropriate for a legendary story concerning St. Elizabeth’s Cathedral in Kosice.

As the tale is told, medieval stonemasons who built the mighty St. Elizabeth’s made sure that one certain stone, if removed, would cause the entire Cathedral to collapse. This became known as the hollow stone. The masons were the only ones who knew where this stone was located. The idea behind the hollow stone was that if those masons were not paid for their work, the stone could be pulled and bring the Cathedral to ruin in a matter of moments. The story is almost certainly apocryphal, but it also illustrates the importance of unseen forces, whether spiritual or temporal.

Consider how the stonemasons who toiled away for years building this grand edifice are not given a second thought by visitors to the Cathedral. What the hollow stone legend illustrates is that these masons were the ones who really held the keys to the kingdom. Their work was just as important as the artisans whose lavish work has a monopoly on the memorable at the cathedral. The stonemasons who built St. Elisabeth’s might remain anonymous, but they were far from powerless. So much still depends upon their work.

So Much Depends On - Saint Elisabeth Cathedral in the early 20th century

So Much Depends On – Saint Elisabeth Cathedral in the early 20th century (Credit: Tibor Somlai – fortepan.hu)

Eternal Shame – A Very Public Drunkenness
It does not come as a surprise that a building with over six hundred years of history has given rise to numerous legends. The Cathedral may be set in stone, but the tales surrounding it have continued to surface many centuries later. The difference between myth and history at St. Elisabeth’s has been blurred when it comes to certain stories. Many tales get altered in the retelling. Some of these stories are both ridiculous and humorous. One of the most famous involves the Cathedral’s master builder (conveniently unnamed) whose wife was said to be embarrassing him with her public drunkenness.

After she humiliated him in public on numerous occasions, the master builder got his revenge by transforming his wife into a ghoulish gargoyle-like sculpture that seems to be both inebriated and getting ready to imbibe a beverage at the same time. To say that the sculpture comes as a shock is an understatement. The cockeyed, half clothed figure with sagging breasts and a twisted look on her face is sufficiently frightening. The sculpture is out of character when compared to other carvings on the cathedral’s exterior. To the point, that it makes the viewer wonder if the master builder was not also guilty of consuming too much alcohol.

While the drunken wife legend is almost certainly false, it does say a great deal about medieval attitudes concerning proper behavior by women and the eternal shame they might face for stepping out of line. Fear was one of the most powerful motivators during the Middle Ages. Those telling this tale were looking to make a point. They may have been wanting to proscribe the behavior of women in a society that was dominated by men. Ironically, the Cathedral is named after a woman. That fact must have been lost on those telling the story.

Public Drunkenness - Gargoyle woman sculpture at St Elisabeth's Cathedral

Public Drunkenness – Gargoyle woman sculpture at St Elisabeth’s Cathedral (Credit: Dominika Jenčová)

Lighting The Way – Dramatic Displays of Imperfection
One of the more popular legends concerning the cathedral that may have its basis in truth, involves a priest who spilled red wine from the sacrament onto the floor. The liquid was said to then form an image of Christ which some parishioners heard moan. There is little doubt that a priest overturning a communion goblet might elicit strong emotions. Seeing one of the most sacred ceremonies in Christianity suddenly go awry would have been startling. A dramatic display of imperfection before a shocked congregation.

Healing the imperfect or at least freeing them is the subject of another legend, this one regards the Lantern of Matthias Corvinus. It is said that any criminal who stood beneath the lantern would be absolved of their guilt. Unfortunately, the lantern has been moved from its original position on a twisted stone column near the Cathedral’s southern portal to the tower wall of Matthias. Whether or not the lantern can make criminals innocent is something only those who have committed crimes and stood beneath the lantern could answer. For everyone else, it is a story that begs the question of why such a legend persists. Perhaps the creators of this myth saw the lantern’s namesake, Matthias Corvinus (1458 – 90) for what he was, one of the more just kings in Eastern European history.

Some of the stories about St. Elisabeth’s are more than the stuff legends are made of. They are the product of the massive Cathedral’s powerful presence. The tolling of its bell was said to be heard as far away as the city of Eger. This would have been deafening in the extreme, since Eger is 150 kilometers away from Kosice. Most likely, the bell’s ability to shatter silence and be heard far away from the city gave it a powerful reputation that soon became exaggerated. The story illustrates how the power and glory of St. Elizabeth’s extended well beyond Kosice into its hinterland.

A View From Beyond The Walls - Medieval Kosice and St Elisabeth's Cathedral

A View From Beyond The Walls – Medieval Kosice and St Elisabeth’s Cathedral

Legends Live On – Beyond The City Walls
Another story told in the 17th century novel The Adventures of Simplicius Simplicissimus, also mentions sound effects emanating from the Cathedral. The title character states that drumming atop the Cathedral’s tower could be heard in the countryside up to two hours away from Kosice. That sound would have accompanied travelers into and out of the city. Even when the cathedral may have been out of sight, it was still within earshot. Its presence loomed over the city as well as the surrounding area, accompanying both citizens and travelers as they ventured forth beyond the city walls. They carried the Cathedral in their hearts, minds and in its legendary tales, also on their tongues. The cathedral was a place where legends lived on. They still do today.

Click here for: Written In Stone – St. Elisabeth’s Cathedral: First & Lasting Connections (The Kosice Chronicles #5)

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

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

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

Riverview - Visegrad as seen from the Danube

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

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

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

Unreconstructed - Visegrad Citadel

Unreconstructed – Visegrad Citadel (Credit: fortepan.hu)

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

Crowning Achievement - Visegrad & the Danube

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

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

A Search For Recognition – Visegrad: Hungary’s True Golden Age (For The Love of Hungary Part 52)

Identifying a “Golden Age” in eleven hundred years of Hungarian history can seem like a thankless task. That is because Hungarians have come to define their country’s history by an elusive greatness that seems tantalizing within reach only for it to be suddenly snatched away. This state of historical affairs is often blamed on foreign invaders and occupiers that managed to crop up with alarming regularity. The Mongol Invasion nearly destroyed the Arpad Dynasty, the Ottoman Turkish occupation during the 16th and 17th centuries weakened Hungary so severely that an argument can be made that it never recovered a place among the great powers of Europe. Hungary can be defined in the annals of European History as either “almost great” or “stolen glory”. The Austrians, with great assistance from the Russian Empire, put an end to the dreams of a free Hungary in the 1848 Revolution. The same can said about the Soviets forces the crushed the 1956 uprising.

Hungarian history can seem like one tragic tale after another. Perhaps this was why I was both surprised and heartened to discover the truest Golden Age in Hungarian history presented at the once mighty citadel of Visegrad, an epoque that often gets overlooked. This Golden Age began after the Arpad Dynasty of indigenous Hungarian kings came ended at the close of the 13th century.  It was the first, but certainly not the last time that foreigners would rule Hungary. The difference was that those who came to rule Hungary in the 14th century happened to be astonishingly successful, to the point that they made Hungary one of the most powerful states in Europe.

Primeval Morning - The View From Visegrad

Primeval Morning – The View From Visegrad (Credit: Juri Kowski)

Centralizing Power – The Rise of Charles I
I found it rather surprising to learn that the famed French House of Anjou once ruled over Hungary. Their achievements were just as towering as the citadel of Visegrad which called attention to that glorious era. The Angevin kings’ glorious tenure in Hungary did not start out that way. Charles Robert (Charles I of Hungary), great grandson of the House of Anjou’s founder, laid claim to the Hungarian throne a decade after the final Arpad king died. His claim met with major resistance. Most of the great land magnates refused to recognize Charles as heir to the throne. Charles and the forces supporting him were forced to fight their way past a host of usurpers in a search for recognition. Two other foreign kings, one Bohemian, the other German, were placed on the throne. Between the two of them they lasted a total of three years. Hungary in the late 13th and early 14th century was a land riven by infighting, as rival factions divided and subdivided the kingdom among themselves.

Charles’ perseverance and strategic brilliance eventually won out, as did his military forces who dealt the magnates a crucial defeat at the Battle of Rozsgony in 1312. And still Charles’ campaign of consolidation continued for another ten years. Finally, after being crowned no less than three times and a full twenty years after his campaign for the throne had begun, Charles fully controlled the Kingdom by 1323. His reign would improbably turn into one of the greatest in Hungarian history. Two years after Charles gained control over the Kingdom of Hungary he made the decision to move the seat of Royal Power from Temesvar to Visegrad, which was centrally located in the land he ruled. This decision set in motion the expansion and transformation of the Citadel with the addition of what became the first version of the Royal Palace. Charles’ successors would expand on his original vision making Visegrad into a showpiece for the Kingdom as well as the nexus of power for Hungary’s Angevin rulers.

Going Medieval- Charles I of Hungary

Going Medieval- Charles I of Hungary

Mining A Mint – The Glitter of Hungarian Gold

Exercising centralized control from Visegrad, Charles set about introducing reforms that consequently led to an economic boom and a resulting Golden Age. Stating that the 14th century in Hungary was a Golden Age is not historical hyperbole. One of the most telling bits of historical trivia from that era is just how much gold Hungary managed to produce during this time. The great mines of Transylvania and Upper Hungary (present day Slovakia) were making a mint. The mining boom was stimulated by a reform whereby Charles allowed the owner of the land on which a mine stood to take a sizable portion of the production revenues. This incentivized greater excavation of minerals, to the point that Hungary was responsible for one-third of the gold production in the world by the 1330’s. Hungary produced five times as much gold as any other European state. In conjunction with a series of administrative reforms, Charles’ reign  brought prosperity and stability to Hungary. The legacy of the mining boom can still be seen right up to the present. Every time Hungarians use forints – the current Hungarian currency- to pay for a transaction, it is a callback to Charles basing his gold coinage after the Florentine florin.

Possibly the greatest effect of Charles’ long and prosperous reign (1308 – 1342) was how it set the standard for similarly long reigns by the kings who followed him. His successor, Louis the Great (1342 – 1382), held the throne for forty years, an incredible amount of time considering the chaos and upheaval that had occurred less than a half century before he took power. Sigismond from the House of Luxembourg came next. He came to power in 1387 (his wife Mary kept the throne warm for her much younger husband from 1382 -1387) and managed to outlast his predecessor’s time on the throne by ruling for fifty years. Charles I, Louis the Great and Sigismund account for three of the ten longest reigns by kings in the history of Hungary. These three enlightened medieval rulers, with 124 years on the throne between them, set Hungary up for a true Golden Age. This is much more remarkable when one considers that the 14th century was also when the Black Death sent Europe reeling.

Lasting Remnants - Visegrad Citadel

Lasting Remnants – Visegrad Citadel (Credit: Sasimunoz)

A Way of Life – The Glory of Their Times
Visegrad was the center of power for much of this time, acting as a secure base from which royal affairs were conducted. As each king’s power grew, so did their buildup of Visegrad. What had started out as a fortress became more than that. A place where diplomatic affairs were conducted, where king’s enacted reforms that brought about security and stability that became the envy of medieval Europe. Hungary’s truest Golden Age was the product of three visionary kings from the Houses of Anjou and Luxembourg. The citadel and its surroundings at Visegrad evoke an age when glory, chivalry and power were more than words, they were a way of life.

The Towering Citadel – Visegrad: Hungary’s High (For The Love of Hungary Part 51)

Getting to Visegrad is not easy. That has been precisely the point since the citadel was occupied by Hungarians atop a slab of rock in the early 11th century. The fortress was on the same spot where a Roman castrum stood seven centuries before. Its defenses incorporated what was behind from antiquity. Whomever initially had the idea of a citadel commanding the Danube River must have known that the location would be impregnable for all but the most powerful of armies. That proved to be the case with the notable exceptions of the Mongols and Ottoman Turks. I found that trying to get to the heights of Visegrad can be almost as difficult. For an independent traveler it is akin to mounting a major expedition to surmount the eminence on which the remnants of the citadel still stand today.

Castle In The Sky - Visegrad in the late 15th century

Castle In The Sky – Visegrad in the late 15th century

Close To Impossible – A Travelers’ Transport
As I soon discovered, traveling from Budapest to Visegrad presented multiple challenges mainly involving transport. This was not what I expected since Visegrad is quite famous. The citadel is only 45 kilometers to the north of Budapest. I figured getting up there and back would be relatively easy, I was wrong. The trip consisted of three distinct parts, each with a different form of transport. It is rare, if not close to impossible in the United States to travel by train, boat and car all in the space of three hours. A trip to Visegrad offers all these options for the independent traveler. My journey began at Nyugati station with an hourlong train ride to the north. By the end of it, the train was skirting the left bank of the Danube until it arrived at the Nagymaros-Visegrad station. The station’s name was deceptive because Visegrad is located on the Danube’s opposite bank.

To travel from Nagymaros to Visegrad required taking a ferry that seemed to inch from one side of the riverbank to the other. Crossing the mighty Danube by ferry was a throwback to earlier times. In a sense, I was following the same watery course that others have for the past two millennia. When the ferry arrived on the opposite bank, I felt a bit letdown. The citadel seemed more distant than ever from the riverbank. Rising above me was the imposing Sibrik Hill upon which the citadel stands. I could not imagine what it must have been like for a would be conquering army to marshal the reserves of energy and force necessary to successfully scale the hill, then overtake the stout Hungarian defenses. The fact that the Ottoman Turks were able to achieve this feat when the citadel was at its most formidable was testament to their martial skill.

Across the Wide Danube - Nagymaros-Visegrád Ferry

Across the Wide Danube – Nagymaros-Visegrád Ferry (Credit: VargaA)

Medieval Designs – Put On The Defensive
The area close to the riverbank and along the lower hillside had once been part of a much more sizable Visegrad complex. The Lower Castle as it has been termed, contained the remnants of King Matthias Corvinus’ magnificent renaissance palace. Surprisingly, Hungary was the second place in Europe after Italy to welcome the Renaissance. This occurred after King Matthias married Queen Beatrix of Naples who helped bring art, architecture and humanist culture to the area. After the palace was ruined by the Turks, it was buried by run off from centuries worth of rains and only rediscovered in the 1930’s. Excavations since that time have managed to uncover a great deal of the original works. Since it was already late afternoon, I regretted having to skip the palace ruins. Instead I took a bit of time to inspect the reconstructed Solomon’s Tower, which had been part of a fortification system that had once stretched all the way up the hillside. This mimicked earlier Roman defenses, the ancient defenses informing and reinforcing the medieval design.

The tower’s name has turned out to be a misnomer. It was named after Solomon, a rebellious relative of King Ladislaus. Solomon was believed to have been imprisoned within its walls. The only problem is that Solomon was held captive during the 11th century. The first documentation of the tower’s existence is not until the mid-13th century when fortifications were built along what became the Lower Castle area to avoid another catastrophe like the Mongol Invasion of 1241. The upshot is that Solomon may have been imprisoned by Ladislaus, but it was certainly not in the tower that has been given his name. Solomon would be rather surprised to discover that he had a tower named after him at a place where he experienced a great deal of misery. Nonetheless, myth can be a much more powerful force than the truth, especially the further one goes back into history.  Myth often fills in gaps for what has been forgotten.

History Rising - Solomon's Tower from the Danube

History Rising – Solomon’s Tower from the Danube (Credit: VargaA)

A Palpable Power – The Loftiest Stage
Getting from Solomon’s Tower to the citadel required either a strenuous hike which I did not fancy or paying for a private minibus that took less than 10 minutes to reach the top parking lot. Opting for the latter, I soon found myself standing at the entrance to one of the great historic sites in Hungary. The only thing left for me was either to visit the fortress or touch the sky, perhaps both. The former was plausible and the latter seemed possible from where I stood. The power of Visegrad was palpable the moment I began to climb the steep stairs to what was left of the fortress. Here was a case where natural history and geology conspired over tens of thousands of years to create one of the more perfect locations for human drama to play out on the loftiest stage imaginable.

Standing inside the fortress, looking up at the sky and down at the Danube, I realized once again how location informs everything when it comes to history. Visegrad was the epicenter of so many important events in Hungarian history because of where it was located. It guarded the road between Esztergom and Buda. It stood above the midpoint of the Danube Bend which meant that it would come to play a central role in medieval Hungary. The citadel’s setting demanded respect. In that regard, Visegrad would not disappoint.

Versions of Vac: An Obscure King & The Missing Centuries (For The Love of Hungary Part 42)

Where does history begin in Hungary? For Hungarians it begins in the 890’s when they came storming into the Carpathian Basin to take what they consider to be their rightful place in the European family of nations. For many western historians, the human history of the land that is now Hungary begins with the arrival of the Romans. Other historians whose focus is on the Hungarians, begin history before their arrival during the Dark Ages. This was when barbarian tribes that have long since vanished occupied the area. The answer to the question of when history began in Hungary will always be subjective. That same question can be asked on a micro scale in the town of Vac, a half hour north of Budapest on the eastern side of the Danube.

Invisible Man - King Geza I

Invisible Man – King Geza I

The Age Of Baroque – Triumphal Architecture
In a physical sense, the history of Vac begins during the Baroque era. The oldest structures that I saw during my visit were all from that time period. To name but a few, the bridge to Budapest which crosses the Gombas stream south of the city center was completed in the 1750’s, the Dominican Church in 1741, the Franciscan Church in 1765, and the Assumption Cathedral in 1777. Though the Baroque period left the most lasting mark upon Vac, the first three decades of that period (1700 – 1730) were destroyed overnight. Each of the churches were built or finished after a cataclysmic fire in 1731 left only one out of every ten buildings in the town intact. The famous crypt which has become the Memento Mori museum – discovered in 1994 below the Dominican Church – dates from the Baroque period. It only came into use in the years after the fire. The first burial took place in 1738.

The most Important administrative structure, the Town Hall, was also completed in 1764. This was just in time for a visit to the town from Empress Maria Theresa.  A Triumphal Arch, the only one in Hungary, that can be found on the northern end of the old town was raised in honor of the Empress at that same time. Even the infamous building which would become and still acts today as a state prison was completed in 1777. All this gives the impression that the history of Vac is an 18th century construction. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is almost inconceivable to imagine the versions of Vac which have completely vanished. These include the Ottoman, Renaissance and Romanesque. If Vac could regain all the architecture that was swept away during the first 600 years of its existence, the town would be one of Europe’s greatest tourist destinations. Working backwards through Vac’s history reveals the riches which can only be recalled by history books and the most fantastical of imaginations.

An Old View - Vac (Weitzen in German)

An Old View – Vac (Weitzen in German)

Removing The Evidence – Searching For Clues
Eastern style exoticism marked Vac for nearly a century and a half. It was once home to a thousand wooden houses and seven mosques. Bosnian soldiers walked the streets and its inhabitants spent their leisure time at a Turkish bath. These structures were quite an achievement for a town that changed hands 40 times during the border wars which raged in the area between Ottoman, Hungarian and Habsburg forces. The fact that not a hint of that Vac still exists is a depressing thought, that paradoxically manages to exhilarate the imagination. What would it have been like to sail down the Danube then suddenly spy a skyline studded with minarets and domes while the muezzin sounds a sonorous call to prayer? We will never know. There is almost nothing left of Ottoman Vac, not even the ashes. History may have happened here, but we must rely on the written word rather than physical evidence. The effect is akin to visiting the scene of a crime where all the evidence has been removed.

The Vac that existed before the Ottoman Turks occupied the town is even more distant and remote. Next to nothing is left of the Renaissance buildings constructed during the enlightened period when the famous humanist Bishop Miklos Bathori was the most powerful person in the town. A few physical remnants of an earlier time period can be found on display in Marcius 15 ter (March 15 square). These are the traces of St. Michael’s Church outlined in the square. Only those well versed in Hungarian history would have any idea of another clue to the earliest history of Vac. On maps as well as on the ground there is a singular callback to the High Middle Ages in the name Geza Kiraly ter (King Geza Square). King Geza ruled for just three years, 1074 – 1077, as part of the Arpad Dynasty of Hungarian Kings. Hungarians might know this, but it is doubtful that anyone else does. After stumbling across the name while looking at a map of modern Vac, I became fascinated.

Statue of King Geza I at Vac Castle Walls

Statue of King Geza I at Vac Castle Walls (Credit: Mister No)

Memory Marker – The Legacy of A Forgotten King
Hungary has innumerable squares named after Szechenyi, Kossuth and Petofi among a multitude of other famous sons. The name Geza is not used with the frequency of other names unless it refers to Prince Geza, father of Hungary’s first Christian king, Stephen I (Istvan I). Geza Kiraly is a rarity, specific to Vac for historical reasons. Geza was in line for the Hungarian throne until usurped by his cousin Solomon who had support from powerful German forces. After Geza’s father died, he was forced to travel to Poland and recruit military assistance. He ended up traveling back to Hungary with Polish help and fought his cousin to a draw. Geza was able to secure a small area under his direct rule that is now part of western Slovakia.

Eventually Geza and Solomon turned upon each other again. This led to a battle for the throne that took place close to present day Vac. Geza, with the help of his brother Laszlo, won a decisive victory. As King of Hungary his reign was rather short lived. During his reign, Geza managed to have a Romanesque Cathedral constructed at Vac in honor of the Virgin Mary. This was where Geza was buried when he died a natural death in 1077. A century and a half later, the Mongols destroyed the Cathedral. Geza, warrior, king and patron of Vac was little more than a memory by the mid-13th century. Today King Geza I’s legacy in the town is Geza Kiraly ter and a statue of him standing atop the walls of Vac Castle, a structure he would never have had any idea existed. The square and statue may not seem like much, but at the very least they are markers memorializing him. They also act as reminders that this is where the history of Vac really begins.