Actions Preach Louder Than Words – Saint John From Buda to Belgrade (For The Love of Hungary – Part 8)

For me, statues in Hungary are about cultivating memory and encouraging motivation. Helping the viewer to recall past events while motivating them to learn more. On the north side of Castle Hill, within a stone’s throw of the Tower of the Church of Mary Magdalene, I found myself drawn to a charismatic statue. Written on the stone pedestal upon which the statue stood was the name Kapisztran. The name had obviously been Magyarized, the –sz being a dead giveaway. The statue portrayed Saint John of Capistrano (Giovanni de Capestrano in Italian) with both of his arms raised in the air. In one hand he held a flag. His head was turned as though he were looking back at invisible forces imploring them forward into combat. Beneath one of his feet lay a broken and defeated foe, trampled by the victorious saint. Another man, below Capistrano, blows a horn calling on the faithful warriors.

This was a highly emotional personification, an expression of zeal and fervor. There was nothing abstract or subliminal about the message portrayed. I knew hardly anything about Saint John, but the statue communicated that he was a man on a mission, possessed by a fiery faith. Prior to stumbling upon this statue, all I had known was the name. The statue stimulated curiosity in me. The best works of art often have this effect upon their observers. Viewing this portrayal in Bronze made me want to learn more about the man. My first question was what did this Italian priest have to do with Hungary? The answer was more than I could have ever imagined.

Statue of János Kapisztran (Saint John Capistrano) in Castle District

Statue of János Kapisztran (Saint John Capistrano) in Castle District (Credit: Scolaire)

Preaching To The Choir – Combating Heresy In Hungary
The present state of Christianity in Hungary is one of stagnation and slow decline. Much of this can be attributed to four decades of atheistic communist rule. In addition, Hungarians by nature are an extremely critical, some might say cynical people. I cannot help but believe there is more than a fair amount of skepticism when it comes to the Hungarian attitude toward religion. It was not always this way in Hungary. Hungarians were a much more religious people prior to the 20th century. Religion and national identity were inextricably connected. Faith could flare when under threat, especially from external forces. Such was the case in the mid-15th century. In 1453 the bastion of eastern Christendom, Constantinople had fallen to the Ottoman Turks and was now under the banner of Islam. The Turks immediately began to make a push through the Balkans, toward Hungary with the eventual aim of invading the heart of Europe.

At the same time, a priest who would become known to history as Saint John of Capistrano, had been preaching throughout Central and Eastern Europe. John’s sermons were a vehement defense of Vatican orthodoxy. He fomented against heretics. More than a few times, his preaching led to violence, most famously against Jews. His oratorical skills were such that Pope Callixtus III chose him to preach a crusade against the Ottoman Turks in 1456. This would be done in the hopes of stopping Ottoman infiltration into Europe. John’s efforts to garner support were unsuccessful in Germany. The Vatican sent him onward to Hungary, where he found a much more fertile environment for his views. His words fell on attentive ears as peasants and smaller landlords were persuaded to gather into an armed force that would try to repel the Turks.

Depiction of St. John of Capistrano - Preaching to the faithful

Depiction of St. John of Capistrano – Preaching to the faithful

Peasants To The Rescue  –  An Element of Surprise
Much of John’s success in recruitment was helped by the fact that the Turks were now approaching the Kingdom of Hungary’s border. His force was something of a mixed bag, part rabble. Many of them were ill-armed with scythes or other primitive weaponry, but they were highly motivated. They benefited from John’s firebrand leadership as he proved himself a man of action as well as words. This force joined those led by John Hunyadi, the regent of Hungary. Hunyadi and Capistrano kept separate commands. They advanced to Nandorfehervar (Belgrade, Serbia), which at the time was under siege by Turkish forces, led by Sultan Mehmed II. When the two armies met in mid-July 1456, the Turks outnumbered the Hungarians by a ratio of three to one. The Hungarian force managed to fend off the Turks due to some astute command decisions made by Hunyadi. These included lobbing tarred wood into a moat the Turks had bridged with branches. This tactic trapped many of the Sultan’s elite Janissaries before the walls of the fortress. They were then massacred.

The tide of battle turned on July 22nd when the unruly force under Capistrano’s command baited the Turks into a pitched battle. When this largely peasant force’s efforts began to meet with success, defenders under Hunyadi’s command who had been ordered stay in the fortress, climbed over the ramparts and joined in the attack. At that point, Capistrano decided to lead his men in an all out attack. Hunyadi then led his men in doing the same. This surprised the Turks who were soon overrun. No less a figure than Mehmed was wounded in the fighting. Both sides retired to their camps after a day of ferocious fighting. Overnight the Turks abandoned their camp, retreating from Belgrade. It would be another 65 years before they would take the fortress. The battle was won, but the aftermath for both Hunyadi and Capistrano turned tragic Hunyadi caught plague in the immediate aftermath of the battle, less than three weeks after the greatest victory of his military career, he was dead. Capistrano lived a little bit longer, but not by much. He too would succumb to the plague that autumn. Unsanitary conditions, which caused the plague, proved lethal to Hungarian martial and spiritual leadership.

Siege of Nandorfehervar (Belgrade) - Turkish miniature

Siege of Nandorfehervar (Belgrade) – Turkish miniature

Historical Echo – The Ringing Of Bells
Capistrano’s actions at the Siege of Nandorfehervar (Siege of Belgrade) have become the stuff of legend, one that still resounds today. This is the result of an order given by Pope Calixtus III. Prior to the battle, Calixtus III issued a papal bull ordering bells to be rung at churches all over Europe to remind Christians to pray for the defenders at Nandorfehrevar. This order did not make it out in time and was not announced until after the battle’s conclusion. Thus, the bells were rung, but in celebration. The tradition is still upheld today. I have heard them on innumerable occasions while touring the Castle District, a musical reminder of Capistrano’s efforts. One that echoes through the corridors of time, all the way to the present. A man on a mission immortalized in statuary and sound, a daily presence whose fire and fervor demands to never be forgotten.

Click here for: Prisoner To The Past – Mihaly Tanscis Radical Of The 1848 Revolution (For The Love of Hungary – Part 9)

Silent Witness – Tower of the Church of Mary Magdalene In Buda (For The Love of Hungary – Part 7)

The focal point of my visit to Castle Hill was the Hungarian National Military Museum. I had been looking forward to going there for quite some time. Unfortunately, I was out of luck on this day as the museum was closed. I was a bit discombobulated by the closure, but before I could come up with a new plan I stumbled upon a fascinating relic of architecture. On the backside of the museum I spotted an old Gothic Church tower. It loomed over Kaspistrzan Square, a battered reminder of the intertwined fate of Christianity and conflict in the Castle District. This was the Tower of the Church of Mary Magdalene, an astonishing artifact out of all proportion and style to its surroundings. It immediately demanded my attention. I did not have any foreknowledge of its history or forewarning of its presence, but I immediately knew that it was much more impressive than anything I would have seen in the military museum. The Tower sent me on a journey that lasted long after my visit that day. A journey deep into its fascinating history. A history of conflict, combat and conquest. A history of invasion, occupation and regeneration.

The Tower of the Church of Mary Magdalene - Statue of St. John of Capistrano in foreground

The Tower of the Church of Mary Magdalene – Statue of St. John of Capistrano in foreground

Beginning At The End – A Garden Of Scattered Ruins
The Tower is all that is left of the Church of Mary Magdalene. All other parts of the Church have vanished, victimized like so much else on Castle Hill by the catastrophic destruction unleashed during the 1944-45 Siege of Budapest and the vicissitudes of totalitarianism which was imposed in the war’s aftermath. Destruction and transformation are constants in the history of the Church. For the Church of Mary Magdalene cannot be thought of as the kind of architectural entity or house of worship fixed once and for all time, instead it has been shaped and molded by the varying extremes that have buffeted the history of Hungary and by extension Castle Hill. Instead of starting at the beginning in telling the history of the Church, perhaps it is better to start where I did, at the end.

My first view of the Tower of the Church of Mary Magdalene was startling. I knew almost immediately that the tower stood as much for what was not there as what was. This was a place where presence and absence were inseparable. There was a garden of scattered ruins fronting the tower, providing rough traces of what had once existed. The Tower itself, like the Military Museum, was not open on this day. That made it no less impressive. I was forced to use my imagination to try and envision what it had once been like. The tower looked and felt medieval, but as I would later learn that was only part of its story. A view from the top would have been spectacular, but even from ground level its height and proportions had a way of causing dizziness. A sort of vertigo in reverse, induced while looking upward from the ground below. It had a Leaning Tower of Pisa like quality, looking as though it might fall at any moment. And of course, it had not fallen and probably never would, at least not in my lifetime. The present age is most likely not the end for the tower, more like another beginning.

Tower of the Church of Mary Magdelene prior to wartime destruction

Tower of the Church of Mary Magdelene prior to wartime destruction (Credit: fortepan.hu)

The Separation of Church & State – The Conqueror Becomes The Conquered
There have been many beginnings for the Church of Mary Magdalene. The first of these dates to its inception back in the 13th century. It acted for the next several centuries as the Parish Church for Hungarians in the Castle Hill area. The German population had their own house of worship nearby, the Matthias Church. Each ethnic group was segregated from the other in religious affairs. A stultifying example of how heaven is informed by the human prejudices on earth. Back in those times, the Church was a fine example of Gothic architecture. It remained as such even after the Ottoman Turkish conquest following their successful Siege of Buda in 1541. The Church was the only one which was not immediately turned into a mosque. It managed to serve the Christian population for half a century. That was until the Turks finally decided to make it a mosque during the Long War (1591-1606). This transformation did not last out the 17th century. A Habsburg led army defeated the Turks in yet another Siege of Buda in 1686. The siege left the church badly damaged. And began yet another era in its history.

There is a saying that every crisis is also an opportunity, the same might be said about the aftermath of war. The ability to change things is much easier when something has been brought to near ruin. That is what transformed the Church of Mary Magdalene in the early modern age. The church was given to the Franciscans who tore down what was left of the existing structure, except for the tower. They then rebuilt the church with a single nave in fully fledged Baroque style. The Franciscans were eventually ousted after the Habsburg Emperor Joseph II issued his edict closing monasteries in the latter part of the 18th century. The Church stood dormant for many years with only one memorable exception. An unlikely event which bequeathed a bit of fame upon it took place in 1792. In that year, the Church was the scene for Habsburg Emperor Franz I’s coronation. This was an eventful interregnum amid a long period in which the church was scarcely utilized.

Casualty of war - Tower of the Church of Mary Magdalene

Casualty of war – Tower of the Church of Mary Magdalene (Credit: fortepan.hu)

Live By The Sword , Survive Despite The Sword – A Final Testament
In 1817 the Church was handed over to the military garrison in Buda. The military used it to conduct services for the soldiers up until the outbreak of World War II, but it was militarism that would bring most of it down. The catastrophic violence the church endured during the Siege of Budapest left it once again teetering on the edge of extinction. Several years after the war’s end, most of the ruins were swept away by order of Hungary’s Stalinist dictator Matyas Rakosi. Only the Tower was left as an austere reminder, standing as a final testament to over 600 years of Hungarian history, a statement of ruin and rejuvenation. The Tower of the Church of Mary Magdelene bears silent witness to all those ages that have long since passed.

Click here for: Actions Preach Louder Than Words – Saint John From Buda to Belgrade (For The Love of Hungary – Part 8)

A Dazzling Island In The Sky – Castle Hill In Buda (For The Love of Hungary – Part 4)

This was just my second visit to Budapest, but like the first one I felt the magnetic pull of Castle Hill. Something about castles and hills have a way of drawing throngs of tourists to the most important cities in Central and Eastern Europe. Prague, Krakow and Budapest are among the most prominent places sporting a hilltop castle. In each city’s case, a castle stands high above a famous river. The most famous of these rivers is the Danube or the Duna as Hungarians call it. The river slides between Buda and Pest, a ribbon of slate grey luminescence that is transformed into liquid fire at dawn and dusk. Standing by the Duna looking up at the conical spires reaching upward toward the sky, Castle Hill provides the viewer with an aesthetically enthralling sensation that is nothing short of spectacular.

Elements of magic - Buda Castle & Castle Hill lie up at night

Elements of magic – Castle Hill lie up at night (Credit: hpgruesen)

Elements Of Magic – A Splendid Sensation
This scene was first set out before me a year and a half earlier on my first trip to Budapest. It left me with indelible impressions that have stayed with ever since then. On this my second trip to the city, I found myself on a beautiful autumn morning traveling from the gritty working class district of Kispest to the regal splendor of Castle Hill. This trip when done by way of public transport takes a little less than an hour. Upon arrival, I had one goal in mind on this visit, to spend the better part of a day walking around Castle Hill. This would be done in the hope of gaining a better understanding of its history and architecture. That rocky plateau had been home to triumphs, sieges and cataclysmic battles that had served to shape Hungary’s destiny.

On my previous visit to Budapest, I had spent just a little over an hour atop Castle Hill, not nearly enough time to get to know the place. My most lucid memory was of standing outside the Matthias Church listening to a guide on the Budapest Free Tour explain how the structure had been co-opted as a model for the castle in Disney’s Magic Kingdom. I have never been to Disney World and have no desire to visit a make-believe world when there are real places of much greater interest. I must admit though, that there does seem to be an element of magic associated with Castle Hill. It provides a suitable destination to explore the fantastical. That first visit lodged itself in both my memory and imagination. A trip to Budapest would never take place again without a visit to that dazzling island in the sky that Hungarians call Varhegy (Castle Hill).

A step up - The climb to Castle Hill begins

A step up – The climb to Castle Hill begins

Scaling The Heights – To The Pinnacle Of Power
I made the mistake of walking, rather than riding to the top of Castle Hill. This mistake turned out to be quite revealing. Though I exercise each day, getting to the top of Castle Hill proved to be a workout. It stands on a mile long plateau of rock, rising two hundred feet above the Danube. Two hundred feet may not sound like much of a climb, but when that elevation rises over a length of just a thousand feet, scaling it can be exhausting. I decided against a frontal assault and scaled the hill up a set of stairs along its western side. This approach conveyed to me the importance of topography in the history of Castle Hill. The first capital of the Kingdom of Hungary was not located here, instead it was on another hill further north overlooking the Danube, in the city of Esztergom. Buda only became the administrative seat of power in Hungary after the Mongol invasion in 1241.

The capital at the time of invasion was in Esterzgom, but that city proved no match for the Mongols who destroyed most of it. The King of Hungary at the time of the Mongol Invasion was Bela IV (1235 – 1270). He was forced to flee all the way to an island off the coast of Dalmatia to avoid being killed. After the Mongols withdrew from Hungary a year later, Bela decided that the only way to protect the Kingdom from another invasion was by building hilltop fortresses. These were constructed all over Hungary. Bela had a fortress and accompanying residence built atop Castle Hill. In the 14th century, a castle was built atop the hill as well. Then during the long reign of Sigismund (1387 -1427) a Gothic Palace and protective fortifications were added. By this time, Buda had become without a doubt the epicenter of political power in the Kingdom of Hungary.

The Castle District got a renaissance makeover during the long and storied reign of Matthias Corvinus (1458 – 1490). This period was the height of cultural and architectural achievement in medieval Hungary, ushering in a gilded age for Castle Hill. Marble fountains, expansive new Renaissance style buildings and crushed gravel pathways covered the district. During this time, the Kingdom of Hungary expanded its borders into lower Austria and Bohemia. This expanding empire had at its core Castle Hill. It must have seemed at the time that nothing could threaten the district. It stood secure, floating high above the Danube, a spectacular reminder of the wealth and power of Matthias’ reign. This peak turned out to be something of a false summit, for it was all downhill after the death of Matthias. The Kingdom of Hungary began a period of decline which led to defeat and occupation by the Ottoman Turks. The Castle District fell into the hands of the Ottoman Turks after their successful siege of Buda in 1541. They then made it their seat of power. Though the Turks converted plenty of churches to mosques on Castle Hill they left the royal palace intact.

Scaling the heights - Statue atop Castle Hill

Scaling the heights – Statue atop Castle Hill

Baroque Beginnings – The Castle District Rises Again
The end of Turkish power in Buda and most of Hungary came in 1686, it also brought an end to the old Castle District. The successful siege by a Habsburg led army resulted in the historic architecture that stood on Castle Hill being laid waste. Very little was left to build upon. This meant an entirely new version of the district, heavily influenced by the Baroque era, would slowly arise. Much of the architecture from that period still exists today. This was what confronted me when I finally I made it to the top of Castle Hill and caught my breath. I was soon to discover it was worth every bit of energy that I expended to get there.

Click here for: The End Of Eighty-Six Worlds – The Ghosts Of War On Buda’s Castle Hill (For The Love of Hungary – Part 5)

 

The Coming Of The Vizslas –  Conquering Hearts: Hungary’s Iconic Companion

There are certain aspects of history that will never be known. It is a daunting thought to consider that way less is known about the past than anyone can possibly imagine. Put simply, much more has been lost than preserved. This is especially true when it comes to pre-modern history. Before the era of mass literacy (largely a 20th century phenomenon), documentation was limited. The past only survives in fragments, whether on paper or parchment, in slowly disintegrating ruins or beneath the earth waiting to be uncovered by excavation. Because of this incomplete record of the past, historians and scientists are often left to amass evidence wherever possible. This makes it nearly impossible to say when and where many things began.

Such is the case with the Magyar Vizsla, that most iconic of Hungarian sporting dogs. Ancestors of the Vizsla are believed to have been with the Magyar (Hungarian) tribes when they first arrived and conquered the Carpathian Basin in the late 9th century. Exactly when the Vizsla breed originated is open to conjecture. The starting point for when a breed of hound resembling the Vizsla enters history is not open to speculation. It is commonly given as 1357, the year generally agreed upon when a Vizsla first appears in the historical record.

Distant Ancestors - Illuminated illustration from the Chronicon Pictum

Distant Ancestors – Illuminated illustration from the Chronicon Pictum

A Gift To The Future – Illuminated History
In the mid-14th century, King Louis I of Hungary (reigned 1342- 1382) decreed that an illuminated chronicle be created depicting the history, culture and life of Hungary. Officially it was known by its Latin name of Chronicon Pictum or Chronicon (Hungariiae) Pictum (also known as the Vienna Illuminated Chronicle), which in translation means “Illuminated Hungarian Chronicle”. That name is an apt description of the magnificent volume created. It contains 147 illuminated pictures (as well as text) that provide some of the best visual information on the culture, court life and lifestyle in the upper echelons of medieval Hungarian society during the reign of Louis I.

The illuminated artistic renderings are a tribute to the artistic ability of Mark Kalti, a priest who produced the work. Such was the combination of intimacy and accuracy in the Chronicon’s that it took Kalti nearly fifteen years to complete the work. It was then given by Louis to King Charles of France upon the engagement of the Louis’ daughter to Charles’ son. It would turn out to be more than a gift between royals, it was also a gift to the future that would come to inform a great deal of history, including that of the Vizsla.

Kalti’s work included the first documented representation of a dog resembling a Vizsla. It is found in a section of the Chronicon that provides information on falconry. Prior to the advent of firearms, hunters relied on falcons as their weapons of choice in hunting wild game. The role of finding and pointing out such animals was left to hounds that were most likely ancestors of the modern Vizsla. There has been a great deal of speculation as to what dog is portrayed in Kalti’s rendering. It was likely a yellow Turkish hound or a breed of hound from Transylvania. The hound’s appearance in the Chronicon is similar enough to the modern Vizsla that many believe this to be one of its forebears. Other references to dogs of similar stature and skill can be found in Hungarian documentation throughout the centuries leading right up to the modern age

The Vizsla - Hungarian Born & Bred

The Vizsla – Hungarian Born & Bred (Credit: Antoniodog)

A Rare Breed – On The Edge Of Extinction
During the period from the 18th through the mid-20th century, the Vizsla was quite literally an aristocratic dog. Most of the owners were the social elites of Hungary. This meant that a relatively small number were bred. Ownership was closely guarded by those who saw the Vizsla as much a symbol of wealth and refinement as it was a hunting dog. By the late 19th century, the Vizsla had become overwhelmed by pointer breeds in Hungary that were dominated by an influx of English setters and German Weimaraners. The number of pure bred Vizslas left in Hungary was miniscule. If something was not done, the Vizsla would soon become extinct. A group of breeders scoured the countryside, where they were able to collect a dozen pure breds. It was from this stock that the Vizsla rose once again in numbers and prominence over the course of the first four decades of the 20th century. Their growth prospects look assured until they took a disastrous turn for the worse during the Second World War.

Like everything else Hungarian, the Vizsla breed suffered irreparable harm when the fighting between German and Soviet forces came to Hungary during the latter part of 1944. As the Red Army fought its way across the country, the Vizslas, much like their aristocratic owners were subjected to murderous treatment. They were possessions of the wrong class, in the wrong country, at the wrong time. This led to the decimation of nearly all Vizslas in Hungary. The situation was dire by war’s end. Once again, the Vizsla was facing extinction. Fortunately, some of their aristocratic owners who had fled to the west took their Vizslas with them. Though they once again numbered little more than a dozen, this Vizsla stock would provide a resurgence in numbers. What also helped matters was that Vizslas were taken abroad to peaceful and prosperous countries such as the United States and Canada where they would soon thrive.

Growth Spurt - A healthy population of Vizslas have returned to Hungary

Growth Spurt – A healthy population of Vizslas have returned to Hungary (Credit: Adam Ziaja)

The Embodiment of Hungary – A Special Breed In A Special Land
The transport of Vizslas to the west following the Second World War was the beginning of a buildup that led to the healthy population that can be found throughout the world today. They have also returned to prominence in Hungary, valued as hunting dog, loyal companion and family pet. Their intelligence, beauty and grace has made them highly valued. In many ways, Vizslas are reflective of the land where they originated and the Hungarians who revere them. They are a special breed in a special land, seen by many as an embodiment of Hungarian greatness. To see a Vizsla in the Hungarian countryside is an unforgettable experience, a fascinating reminder of this iconic breed’s deep roots in the land of the Magyars.

The Siege Of Koszeg – From Tourists To Turks: Visitors From Abroad

I liked Sopron so much that for the second day in a row I took to the surrounding countryside for a day trip. The attraction of Koszeg was such that I could not resist. When a place is given the title “Jewel Box of Hungary” it deserves a visit. From the sound of it, Koszeg was what Hungary would have been without World Wars and communism. That is if the country had been left to develop on its own without foreign interference. Of course, every European country could say the same thing, but in Hungary there was a sense that history had been unkind to it. That Hungary’s greatness had been thwarted by foreign interlopers. As for Koszeg, it was said to have largely escaped wartime damage. That would turn out to be only half true, depending on what war was being referenced. I would discover the damage from World War II was more human than structural, whereas the damage from the Ottoman Turks was both.

Before making these discoveries I first had to find my way to Koszeg. By train this was not as simple as the map made it look. There was not a direct line by rail between Sopron and Koszeg, though the latter was just 45 kilometers south of the former. The problem was that Austria was in the way. Thus, I would first have to travel to Szombathely by train and then take a short branch line to Koszeg. I found this to be an annoyance. That was until I arrived at Szombathely, where I was surprised and delighted by the train that would take me to Koszeg. The train only consisted of two cars, looking more like an elongated bus on rails. Covered in yellow paint, with a few green markings, the cars were eye catching and lively looking. The branch line to Koszeg was worth it just for the ride on this little train.

Koszeg - Jurisics ter in the foreground

Koszeg – Jurisics ter in the foreground

The Last Hold Outs – A Commander & A Castle
After arriving at the railway station in Koszeg I discovered it was a bit of a walk to the town center. When I arrived in Koszeg’s Old Town I felt like a kid in a candy store. Everything was so colorful and vibrant that I could almost taste it. The Renaissance and Baroque era buildings were coated in a rich array of colors that made the cityscape look good enough to eat. There was architectural eye candy on offer throughout the cobbled squares and streets. The heart of quaint old Koszeg was Jurisics ter (Jurisics Square). That was a name that would soon become familiar to me. Jurisics would forever be associated with Koszeg, albeit a very different one from the marvelously atmospheric town that exists today. It was Nikola Jurisics who not only saved Koszeg from the Ottoman Turkish threat, but some would also argue Vienna. For his efforts, the castle had been named after him.

Of all the buildings worth seeing in Koszeg, Jurisics Var (Jurisics Castle) was one of the least impressive. Remnants of its old walls were so busted and battered that they did not look particularly evocative of any great defensive work. Behind them stood the inner castle, a group of towers and buildings covered in a brownish-red coat of color that appeared a little too refined for my taste. Meanwhile the entryway looked like the run up to a large inn. It was hard to imagine this was the same castle that had resisted nineteen assaults by the Ottoman army of Sultan Suleiman. Truth be told, the present-day castle was only a rough approximation of what had stood on the site during the siege of 1532. Most of that castle had been consumed by a great fire in 1777. The town had honored its history by having the castle reconstructed.

Nikola Jurisics statue - Entrance to Jurisics Castle

Nikola Jurisics statue – Entrance to Jurisics Castle (Credit: Pan Peter 12)

Creation By Destruction – To Do The Impossible
Fire was a recurring theme in the history of Koszeg. The town had been torched several times, more by accident or incident rather than at the hands of foreign foes. The threat of fire was of such concern that smokers incurred large fines. Anyone suspected of arson could be termed a “villain” and sentenced to fifty lashes. Such painful punishments certainly commanded the attention of potential offenders. While fire was a mortal threat, it also helped create the Koszeg which stands today. Disastrous infernos were an opportunity for urban renewal. As a history buff, I would have been interested to see the original wooden and mud caulked houses of medieval Koszeg, but I doubt this would have brought in many tourists. The current townscape was much more pleasing to aesthetic sensibilities, even if much of the architectural history did not reach back any earlier than the 17th century.

It was an earlier aspect of Koszeg’s history that Jurisics Castle recalled, if not in form at least in spirit. This was where Jurisics commanded a force of 700 men facing an Ottoman Army numbering close to a hundred thousand. What ensued was a 25 day siege, that halted the Ottoman movement toward Vienna. From the start Jurisics’ force was close to the point of exhaustion, but somehow held out long enough to exhaust the Ottoman Army’s will to fight. How did such an outmanned and outgunned force manage to hold out against incredible odds? In a word , leadership. Nikola Jurisics was more than a commander, he was a leader. He convinced his ragtag group of defenders – mainly Hungarian peasants – that they could do the impossible. Jurisics and the defenders also got lucky. Heavy rains came at the end of August, which helped persuade the Sultan to withdraw his troops. Thus, the siege of Koszeg may helped save Vienna from the impending Ottoman threat. Paradoxically, Koszeg also saved the Habsburgs at the expense of Hungary. Ottoman rule over much of Hungary solidified in the years after the siege.

The Last Hold Out - Jurisics Castle

The Last Hold Out – Jurisics Castle

Point of Departure – Historical Developments
As for Koszeg it had managed to escape Ottoman occupation. This allowed it to develop more normally, akin to that of Austria rather than Hungary. That development brought in German merchants who spearheaded the economy during the 18th and 19th centuries. Yet it was also Germans who brought the next wave of destruction to the town. This destruction left the city’s beautiful Old Town untouched. The same could not be said for Koszeg’s small Jewish community. They were not so lucky. I would never have known this, except for a photo I would see in a book many months after my visit. That photo made me look at Koszeg quite differently, specifically its train station, which In 1944 had acted as a point of departure to Auschwitz.

Click here for:  Final Departures – Koszeg Railway Station: Traces Of Evil

A Path Paved By History – Bratislava’s Coronation Route: Long Live The Past of Pozsony

Rasto and I finished our awkward conversation at the Slavin Monument with both of us holding firm to our opinions, his pro-Russian, mine anti-authoritarian. Slovakia was still stuck between East and West. Rasto wanted his nation to straddle this divide, while I was adamant that a westward orientation would lead to greater prosperity and democracy. My opinion was stated with the zeal of someone who did not have a personal stake in the situation. My knowledge of Slovakia’s geopolitical situation had been cultivated thousands of miles and an ocean away from the country. I had no vested interest, other than wanting America to be on the right side of history. Rasto’s skepticism was understandable. He had grown up much closer to the Russian sphere of influence than the American one. Old alliances did not die with the Cold War and new alliances would take a long time to replace the powerful influence of the recent past.

Maria Theresa coronation in 1741 - Bratislava

Maria Theresa coronation in 1741 – Bratislava (Credit: Johann Daniel Herz)

Minority Report –  Prosperity, Populaism & Pozsony
Speaking of the new replacing the old and the influence of history, I asked Rasto about Slovakia’s relationship with its old historical nemesis, Hungary. Slovakians had been under Hungarian rule from the Middle Ages until the end of World War I. Since that time, the two had been in recurrent conflict over the large Hungarian minority in southern Slovakia. Rasto thought the relationship was much better than it was made it out to be by the media and vote seeking politicians looking to stir up ethnic strife. The large Hungarian minority in the country had been restive during the 1990’s and early 2000’s with the rise of nationalist sentiment and extremist political parties on both sides. The situation had moderated quite a bit since those fraught times. This was largely due to economic growth and membership in the European Union for both Slovakia and Hungary. I knew that Slovakia’s economy had surged since 2004 when its government had instituted a 19% flat tax. Foreign investment, especially in the automotive industry, soared. In the years that followed, Slovakia became known as the Tatra Tiger due to it roaring economy.

When economic times are good, no matter whether it is in Slovakia or Zanzibar, nationalism tends to wane. Eastern Europe was no different. Despite the occasional flare-up, mostly stoked by politicians, Slovakia and Hungary were getting along as well as could be expected. Rasto said Slovakians were wary of Hungary, but would continue working with them. His attitude was cautious with a hint of optimism. Our conversation about Hungary and Slovaka was particularly appropriate since we were having it in Bratislava, known to Hungarians as Pozsony. No other city in the lands that had formerly been part of the Kingdom of Hungary was so important to Hungarian history. It had acted as the coronation site for the Kings of Hungary and home to the Hungarian Diet (Parliament) after the Ottoman Turks occupied central and southern Hungary during the early 16th century. It had continued in this role for 300 years. During this time, no less than ten kings and one queen (Maria Theresa) were crowned in the city.

Marker on the coronation route in Bratislava

Marker on the coronation route in Bratislava

This Is History – One Step At A Time
With Rasto’s circumspect attitude to Hungarians I was surprised when he asked me if I knew about the historic coronation route that winded its way through the streets of Bratislava’s Old Town.  I had no idea that the route could be followed. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was marked in the Old Town. The markers consist of 178 brass plaques embedded with the icon of a crown. They can be found along much of the historic route which begins at the Vydricka Gate close to St. Martin’s Cathedral where the King of Hungary were crowned (they were all Austrian Habsburgs). The gate does not exist today save for a few stone blocks that are now part of a house at Rudnay Square. Once the coronation had taken place at St. Martin’s the procession would begin in earnest. Red carpet was laid along the route for the newly crowned monarchs. As the royal retinue passed by, the crowd of onlookers would shout the Latin phrase “Vivat rex” which means “Long Live The King”. They then fought over scraps of the carpet which instantly had become valuable souvenirs.

Rasto and I picked up the route not far from St. Martin’s in a quiet section of the Old Town, where there was none of the usual clamor from restaurants and bars. He pointed out one of the brass plaques marking the route on Kapitulska Street. By this time night had fallen on the old town. The buildings were cloaked in darkness except for the illumination provided by the odd street lamp. Rasto pointed out a marker each time he saw one, soon he was walking ahead of me lost in another world. Then he finally slowed down, waiting for me to approach. When I did, he said in a low voice, “This is history.”  Many of the old historical buildings which stood on either side of the street looked the worse for wear. They had yet to be commercialized. Their walls were chipped and cracked while the street was empty. The only thing I could hear was the lowered voice of Rasto and the sounds of our footsteps. We were walking on a path paved not just by cobblestones, but also by history.

This is history - Kapitulska Street at night in Bratislava

This is history – Kapitulska Street at night in Bratislava

Time Travelers – Chance & Fate Along Kapitulska
Walking up Kapitulska Street on this warm spring evening I felt that time had melted away. If it is possible to live in both the present and past at the same moment, then I was there. The feeling was transcendent. No one else was on the street, except for the two of us. Yet in a sense everyone had been here, kings and queens, wealthy nobles, burghers and merchants, the high and mighty, the low and destitute. Slovaks, Hungarians, Germans and Jews all called these corridors of time their home. Kapitulska was an 800-year old avenue to the past that had been preserved just for our arrival. To experience this it took imagination and knowledge. Rasto was the ultimate guide, acting as a conduit to the past. There was something in the air that night, I could feel it. In the silence history could be heard, crying out across the ages for two men who were brought here by chance and fate, just like everyone who had come before them.

Click here for: Darkness Gathered Around The Light – Vienna: A City Laid Low

Anonymous – City Park, Budapest: Biography of an Unknown

One of my earliest memories of school is from the first grade, when I was told a famous story about George Washington. This story involved a youthful Washington who loved to spend time outdoors on his family’s land. One day his father found a cherry tree in their orchard that had been chopped down. Washington’s father knew his son never went anywhere without his trusty hatchet. He suspected that young George may have cut down the valuable tree in an act of thoughtless mischief. When his father asked him if he had been responsible for chopping down the tree, Washington replied, “I cannot tell a lie. I chopped down the cherry tree.”

The point of the story was to always be honest and admit the truth. There were other valuable lessons to be gleaned from the tale, such as taking personal responsibility and the value of being accountable for one’s actions. I would later learn that the story is almost certainly mythical, but it focuses on a greater truth. The tale illustrates values that Americans should all hold dear. Whether it is Washington and the cherry tree or Rome’s creation as a byproduct of Romulus and Remus, mythical lore is central to how great nations, empires and peoples see themselves. This is just as true for Hungary and Hungarians as it is for my own country. Their early history and conquest of the Carpathian Basin is the stuff legends are made of, quite literally.

Anonymous - The Great Unknown

Anonymous – The Great Unknown

The Stuff Of Legend – Words & Deeds Of Hungarians
The importance of myth and legend in Hungarian history can be found at one of Budapest’s most visited attractions. In the City Park (Varosliget), a statue of a strange man sits alone on a concrete pedestal. His head is hung low and covered with a hood. In his right hand is a sharp instrument, not a blade, but a writing utensil. He seems to be either deep in thought or brooding, but no one really knows for sure. Who is this statue supposed to represent? There are no easy answers when it comes to the man known as Anonymous. His identity is vaguely known, unlike his writing which is the stuff of legend, both figuratively and literally. Anonymous casts a long shadow over the history of Hungary. As he should, since an even longer shadow hangs over exactly who he was.

Scholars believe that sometime in the mid to late 13th century a scribe for the King of Hungary wrote the chronicle that provides a narrative on the background, conquest and aftermath of the Hungarian arrival in the Carpathian Basin. The veracity of this chronicle known as the Gesta Hungarorum (The Deeds of the Hungarians) has been questioned. It relies on everything from heroic folk songs, myths and ballads to written sources both ancient and medieval to tell the early story of the Hungarians. Some claims by the author are totally outlandish, such as when he states that Hungarians fought the Romans. There is way more fiction than fact. Nonetheless, the chronicle has provided the Hungarians with many of their founding myths. It also serves as proof of that old cliché to never let a good story get in the way of the truth.

As it is written – excerpt from a facsimile of the Gesta Hungarorum

Teller Of Many Tales & Very Few Truths – “P who is called magister”
The Gesta was written three and a half centuries after many of the events it describes. This makes its historical account of events highly unlikely. Nevertheless, it provides a homegrown basis for the early history of the Magyars. Almost all other accounts come from foreign sources. Truth be told, the Gesta also relies quite heavily on works by foreigners as well as a plethora of dubious sources. The Gesta was written by a Hungarian, which explains much of its popularity. That is the main reason it has informed the Hungarian people’s beliefs concerning their early origins. It is considered a trusted, but extremely flawed source.  So who was the anonymous author of this famous flawed work? A hint is given in the opening sentence.

The author is explicitly vague, calling himself, “P who is called magister, and sometime notary of the most glorious Bela, King of Hungary of fond memory.” The problem with identifying the author from this self-reference is that there were four different Kings of Hungary named Bela. A majority of scholars have concluded that it was written under the reign of King Bela III (1172 – 1196). The reason Anonymous wrote the work is less obscure. One of the more interesting statements made by Anonymous was that he had decided to write the history of Hungary’s kings and noblemen because no such work existed. Many of the tales he told did not exist, until he either made them up or repeated ones he had heard that were not grounded in historical fact. Anonymous was a man who loved good stories, no matter the truth. He did provide just enough factual material that some of what he said was taken seriously. It is this interweaving of truth and tale which created a work that has stood the test of time.

Miklos Ligeti - sculptor of the Anonymous statue

Miklos Ligeti – sculptor of the Anonymous statue

The Power Of Myth – A Universal Truth
It took five centuries before a translation of the Gesta appeared in Hungarian (the original was written in Latin). Its popularity soared along with Hungarian nationalism in the 19th century. At the time of the Millenary Celebrations of the Magyar conquest of the Carpathian Basin in 1896, the Gesta was promoted as a reputable source. As part of those celebrations, Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef donated funds for the sculpting of ten statues to be placed in public areas around Budapest. This was the impetus for the statue of Anonymous found in the City Park. Miklos Legeti, a native of Pest was commissioned to sculpt it. Legeti, was a rather obscure artist, best known for the realistic quality of his work. He completed the statue in 1903. It is now hailed as a masterpiece. Strangely enough, Legeti is all but unknown today with the exception of his statue of an unknown man. Ironically both of these men have not been forgotten, proving that the power of myth is timeless, as are their works.

 

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

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

A sense of satisfaction in Sumeg circa 1963

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

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

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

The path to Sumeg Castle

The path to Sumeg Castle

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

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

Sumeg Castle - illuminated

Sumeg Castle – illuminated (Credit: Attila Csaba Kontar)

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

Origins Obscure – Pal Kinizsi’s Castle: From Nowhere To Nagyvasony (Three Castles In One Day: Part Two)

The drive from Szigliegt Castle to Kinizsi Castle in Nagyvazsony took less than an hour. It was a short, but memorable trip down a narrow road passing through the beautiful scenery of Balaton Uplands National Park. A landscape of rolling hills and leafy green forests interspersed with grassy fields was broken only by villages quietly tucked away. I have no idea what the people of Hegymagas, Monsostorapati, Kapolcs and Vigantpetend do for a living. There is no industry and little agriculture, enjoying nature looks to be the most productive activity. The tiny villages were tidy and well kept, they looked relatively prosperous. This was a beautiful place to live, the essence of gentility and relaxation if you could somehow make a living. The same might be said of Nagyvazsony, except for the fact that it is more than just a spot on the map. It is home to the added attraction of Kinizsi castle, which brings in some visitors. The castle makes this village of 1,800 seem more important and lively, but it was really neither. This was a place visited by few foreigners and outside of history buffs, likely few Hungarians as well. As I discovered, the castle is impressive and worth visiting, but it has to be found.

Kinizsi Castle

Kinizsi Castle – Veszprem County, Hungary

The Castle Below – Lost Assumptions
It was easier to find my way to Nagyvazsony than it was to find the castle in this little village. How could that be? Unfortunately I made an assumption about the castle’s location, based upon many other castles I have visited. Castles usually occupy hilltops because they are the most easily defensible positions. Nagyvazsony was fairly hilly, so after turning off the main highway I found a car park at the base of a large hill. There was a person walking up the hill to what I thought was a large structure. I was soon following them. After a short climb I found myself looking at the backs of several houses. The path I had followed led to backyards and barking dogs rather than a medieval castle. I was confused and annoyed. Walking back down the hill I followed a street for several hundred meters, when suddenly a 30 meter high castle keep and six storey tower came into view. It was not on a hill, but in a lower lying part of the village. This made it seem much less impressive than it actually was.

Rather than towering above the village, Kinizsi Castle was surrounded by much of it. This resulted in some lucky villagers getting a look straight out their windows at the medieval castle. A signboard at the entrance provided the reason for the castle’s location. It was situated at a point where two trade routes met. The intersection of these roads was a critical, strategic point. The castle provided a secure fortress. It is in astoundingly good condition for a medieval Hungarian castle. That is because it escaped destruction in warfare by the Ottoman Turks and obliteration in peace by the Habsburgs. The owners of the castle in the early modern era were the Zichy family who were staunch supporters of the Habsburgs. When the Habsburgs were decreeing that fortresses and castles in Hungary must be torn down so they would not be used against them during a possible rebellion in the future, Kinizsi Castle was spared.

Inside the walls of Kinizsi Castle - Nagyvazsony, Hungary

Inside the walls of Kinizsi Castle – Nagyvazsony, Hungary

Legend & Reality – Pal Kinizsi’s Strengths
Though the Zichys and Habsburgs allowed for its preservation, the castle’s fame comes from the individual for which it is named, Pal Kiniszi, a famous general who led troops for King Matthias Corvinus (1458-1490). Kinizsi’s sarcophagus is located in a reconstructed chapel in the castle’s main tower. His life falls somewhere between the vagaries of legend and history.  His origins are obscure, but it is believed that he was ethnically Serbian. As legend has it Kinizsi was a miller, a person who operated stone mills to grind grain. This was said to be the genesis of his legendary strength. Supposedly he came to the attention of King Matthias, who while on a hunting expedition in the country north of Lake Balaton stopped in the village where Kinizsi worked. When the King asked for a drink, Kinizsi delivered it to him on a large millstone. The King was astounded by his incredible strength. Soon Kinizsi was commanding the King’s vaunted Black Army of mercenaries. His generalship was superb, never more so than at the Battle of Brentfield in Transylvania where his army inflicted a resounding defeat on the Turks, killing thousands and making the area safe from the Turkish threat for decades.

One of the most famous stories regarding Kinizsi’s legendary strength comes from his exploits against the Turks. It was said that after victory he would dance while holding the body of a dead Turkish soldiers in each of his hands. This could be dismissed as a bit of dark Hungarian humor, yet it is also instructive as to Kinizsi’s fearsome reputation. Such stories have been passed down through the ages. His legend is the one thing that lives on. Such stories and ironically, Kinizsi’s sarcophagus, lends an impressive bit of life to otherwise austere interiors of Kinizsi Castle. This is a place dedicated more to the memory of one man than that of medieval castle architecture. A great man once called this place home, with a fair amount of imagination he still does.

The view from Kinizsi Castle in Nagyvazsony

The view from Kinizsi Castle in Nagyvazsony

Further Down The Road – Parting With the Past
After climbing to the top of the castle for a stunning view of the surrounding area, it occurred to me that without this castle, Nagyvazsony would be just as anonymous as the other villages in the area. The village managed to lodge itself in the memory due to history, but history had moved on from here centuries ago while Nagyvazsony and Kinizsi Castle were left behind. The place had outlived its prominence. All it had left was a formidable castle and beautiful natural surroundings. This was more than most Hungarian villages had, but it served to remind me that this was just a place to stop for a few hours at most, a place that would forever be on the way to somewhere else. I left Nagyvazsony behind because it was part of the past. The future was somewhere further down the road.

Towering Above Balaton – Szigliget Castle (Three Castles In One Day – Part One)

The make believe castle at Disney’s Magic Kingdom is the only one I ever really imagined visiting in my life. Real castles, like the one shown in Monty Python’s The Holy Grail film, were beyond any travel dreams I could conjure. Now at the age of forty five I still have not been to the Magic Kingdom and have no plans to ever visit the castle there. Perhaps this is because I have been fortunate enough to spend so much time at historic castles in Europe. I have visited close to one hundred castles in Scotland, Slovakia and Slovenia, Austria, Hungary and Germany, Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine, everything from hilltop fortresses to barely recognizable ruins, the ornate and decadent, from fully furnished interiors to empty, cavernous rooms. I can scarcely recall many of these castles, most of their names now escape me. I have only the vaguest recollection of that otherworldly architecture sculpted out of stone and shaped by historic forces that have long since vanished along with their owners from a long, lost world. My most vivid memory of visiting castles does not concern a single spectacular structure, but instead of one day spent in southwestern Hungary when I was fortunate enough to see three castles in six hours. Hopping across the hills and plunging into the valleys north of Lake Balaton allowed me to visit Szigliget, Kinizsi and Sumeg castles in succession.

The view over the ruins of Szigliget Castle looking inland

The view over the ruins of Szigliget Castle looking inland

Climbing To A Castle – The Way To Szigliget
There is no substitute for an automobile when it comes to maximum travel mobility in the Hungarian countryside. Public transport would have taken me to the three castles I longed to visit, but not in a single day. A car, a map and a plan were all that I really needed. Jumping on the M7 in Nagykanizsa was just the start. Within half an hour I was on the S71, skirting the beautiful city of Keszthely on the northern shore of Lake Balaton. From there, it was a short drive on the heavily trafficked road through holiday towns, vacation bungalows and vineyards, until the prominence of the 239 meter Varhegy (Castle Hill) on which the remnants of Szigliget Castle suddenly came into view. From several kilometers away the ruins stand out, protruding from the hilltop. Turning off the main highway towards the castle, the secondary road to the castle was exceedingly steep. It climbed a couple hundred meters in less than a kilometer. A small parking lot signaled the furthest extent that cars were allowed to go.

The final ascent would have to be made over a cobbled way, by foot, up what looked to be at least a 20% grade. This climb communicated to me the sheer brute physicality, strength and toil that it would have taken to carry rock and stone to such heights. Such arduous, backbreaking labor would have been the death of many an unlucky peasant. I consider myself to be in good physical condition, but by the time I reached the lower part of the ruins I was almost out of breath. And the climb was far from over. Szigliget Castle, or at least what was left of it, sprawled over the hillside, crawling upward until the walls stand high above the surrounding land. Distracted by the ruins, it is easy to forget that the hill the castle stand upon was the central reason for its location. Nature had conspired to create a hill that was just as formidable as the fortress which had been placed atop it. The hill was here long before any castle and while the stone walls of Szigliget were slowly degrading, Varhegy would certainly outlast any man made structure. For that matter, there is an excellent chance the hill will outlast humanity.

Szigliget Castle

Szigliget Castle – view towards upper ruins with Lake Balaton in the background (Credit: Kontiki)

Remnants & Ruins – Piecing Together The Past
As for the castle its period of human activity lasted four and a half centuries, from the mid-13th until the end of the 17th century. The most interesting era was during the Turkish wars when the castle was under constant threat. If anyone ever wonders what stopped the Ottoman Turks from taking Vienna and surging across central Europe, they should look no further than castles and fortresses along the military frontier in Hungary. Szigliget castle was the scene of multiple sieges and innumerable pitched battles that raged on and off for decades. Hungary suffered gravely during the Turkish occupation, but the Ottomans met fierce resistance in northern and western Hungary, areas that they were only able to subdue momentarily. One of the main crucibles in which this conflict was fought included castles such as Szigliget, highly contested areas in which Turkish military forces were faced with unyielding opposition. Szigliget castle never fell to the Turks. There is no telling how many bones are buried beneath the slopes of Varhegy.

The human cost of near constant warfare for decades on end can only be imagined. This led to a slow but progressive erosion of Ottoman power which contributed to its final collapse at the end of the 17th century. Szigliget did not long survive the end of the Turkish military threat. Its hilltop situation made it a natural target for nasty weather events. Violent thunderstorms often sweep across the waters of Lake Balaton, gaining momentum and ferocity before they strike land or in Szigliget’s case, the nearest thing to the sky. A lightning strike started a major conflagration in the late 17th century which badly damaged much of the existing structure making it uninhabitable. Then in an ironic twist, the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I, whose domains had been partly saved from Turkish conquest by the martial fortitude of Szigliget and other Hungarian castles, ordered that such fortresses be destroyed, lest they become hubs of Hungarian rebellion against Austrian rule.

Magnificent ruins with a magnificent view - Szigliget CastleMagnificent ruins with a magnificent view - Szigliget Castle

Magnificent ruins with a magnificent view – Szigliget Castle

Stunning, Shimmering Reflections – A View From Varhegy
The ruins of Szigliget today are still quite impressive, giving a rough idea of just how formidable a castle once stood within sight of the mesmerizing bluish green waters of Lake Balaton. It is this view that leaves the greatest impression. The shimmering silver reflection on the water as shafts of sunlight strike the surface of the Balaton. The view from the remnants of Szigliget Castle is stunning and well worth the climb. Seeing this made me ready for another castle, just an hour away.