The Shimmering Citadel – Gyula Castle: Last Of Its Kind (Part Two)

The two-hour journey from Debrecen to Gyula that seemed more like ten, came to a sudden end when we suddenly arrived at Gyula. The southern reaches of The Great Hungarian Plain did not end here, but Gyula was so charming, elegant and relaxing that it gave the illusion of an entirely different world. The Belvaros (City Center) was clean swept and tidy, the colorful exteriors of its buildings emanated an aesthetic of vibrancy. The place felt alive, this was quite the contrast to the endless void we had just crossed. Gyula was the essence of quaint, looking as though it had skipped a turbulent 20th century marked by calamity and regress. In truth, Gyula had also suffered grievous wounds during that time, most prominently from that bane of modern Hungarian history, the Treaty of Trianon.

A New Frontier - Border marker on the Hungarian-Romanian border

A New Frontier – Border marker on the Hungarian-Romanian border

A New Frontier – Stranded Along The Border
A large part of my years long procrastination in waiting to travel to Gyula, was due to one thing, its location. A mere four kilometers separated Gyula from the border with Romania. It had not always been this way, Gyula was left stranded on the frontiers of Hungary by geopolitical events over which it had no control. Only a hundred years before, Gyula had been economically connected with cities north, south and east of it which were part of the Kingdom of Hungary. Nagyvarad (Oradea, Romania) and Arad were approximately 70 kilometers away. Temesvar (Timisoara, Romania) was almost as close to Gyula as Szeged. Gyula had been part of this economic orbit until suddenly it was cut off. The Hungarian-Romanian border solidified on June 4, 1920 when the post-war peace treaty was signed at the Grand Trianon Palace in Versailles. The ramifications were felt most acutely seventeen hundred kilometers away in places such as Gyula, whose entire economic orientation was forced westwards.

Whereas before Trianon, Gyula had been within the economic sphere of five cities, after the treaty went into effect it was left close to only two, nearby Beckecsaba and Szeged. Furthermore, it was now at the very edge of Hungary, along an insecure frontier where dangerous grievances seethed. Railway connections were severed, vital markets suddenly cut off and centuries old commercial connections thrown into chaos. Traveling north, south or east meant crossing a hard border into less than friendly territory. The effects caused of this border realignment were vast. Gyula struggled to adapt. The interwar period also brought a blow in prestige to Gyula. The administrative seat of the country was moved to the faster growing Beckescsaba. Gyula was now becoming an afterthought. Something of which it has largely remained since that time.

Reflective qualities - Gyula Castle

Reflective qualities – Gyula Castle

Besieged From On High – A Castle Falls
A few minutes after entering Gyula we were approaching its famous castle. My first view of it was striking. A red brick Gothic era creation set against a winter sky airbrushed with thin clouds. A large pond, fringed by atmospherically placed weeping willows, fronted the castle entrance. The trees and castle reflected off the pond’s placid surface. Looking down at the pond was just as enchanting as looking up. The castle was transformed by its liquid reflection into a dreamlike image, a shimmering citadel spectacularly surreal. Historically, water had been more than just a part of the scenery in Gyula. What water still exists presently around the castle is for public enjoyment and aesthetic appeal rather than as a defensive barrier. The castle had once been surrounded by a large moat. This watery barrier was substantial, measuring 30 meters in length and 5 meters in depth.

In 1566 an Ottoman army, 30,000 strong, surrounded the castle. They outnumbered the defenders by a ratio of at least 10 to 1. The castle’s Hungarian commander, Laszlo Kerecsenyi, had been appointed by the Habsburgs due to his prior success in fighting the Turks. His martial prowess was beyond reproach, but he and the castle’s garrison faced insurmountable odds. When the Turks managed to take one of the castle’s towers the situation turned dire, as enemy fire now rained down on the defenders. It is a tribute to Kerecsenyi’s leadership skills that the defenders managed to hold out for 63 days, twice the average length of time the Turks usually needed to conduct a successful siege. Nonetheless, a surrender was negotiated in early September. This allowed the castle to remain largely intact. The surrender was much less accommodating to Kerecsenyi and his soldiers. Despite promises of safe passage, almost immediately after surrendering they were imprisoned or executed. The Turks then proceeded to occupy Gyula and the surrounding area for one-hundred and twenty-nine years.

Ottoman Traveler - Evliya Celebi statue in Eger Hungary

Ottoman Traveler – Evliya Celebi statue in Eger Hungary (Credit: Globetrotter19)

Venetian Gyula – A Momentary Image
One famous Turkish traveler left a fascinating anecdote of his impressions while visiting Gyula during the 17th century. In 1663-1664 the Ottoman polymath, diplomat and obsessive traveler Evilya Celebi visited Hungary. Celebi recorded for posterity his impressions of Gyula in a travelogue known as the Seyahatname (Book of Travel). He compared Gyula to Venice because of the marshy terrain, remarking that it was a strange sight to see residents traveling between houses, gardens and mills along watercourses. This anecdote is corroborated by engravings from that era. Celebi would be hard pressed to recognize anything from that time in Gyula today other than the castle. The mosques, madrasas and Turkish baths were all wiped out in the half century after his visit.

The castle outlasted Celebi and the Ottomans, which judging by the fact that it was the only one of its type left on the Great Hungarian Plain made it worthy of note. I could not help but feel sadness upon learning this fact. While I was glad that Gyula Castle had survived the Ottoman and counter-Ottoman onslaughts, I could not help but think of all the castles and fortifications in southern Hungary which had been ground to dust by decades of unending warfare. They had been erased from history never to return. It was unsettling to consider the eradication of this incredible heritage. For me, Gyula Castle represented all that had been lost, just as much as what still stands today. And while the castle still exists, the area around it has been transformed beyond all recognition. History moves on, Gyula Castle is all that remains.

Click here for: Besieged By Sterility – Gyula Castle: Tidying Up History (Part Three)


An Empire Of Obscurity – Crossing The Great Hungarian Plain: The Path To Gyula (Part One)

The idea had been a long time in coming to fruition. I hatched a plan years ago to visit Gyula Castle in the small Hungarian city of that same name. The problem was taking a trip to get there. Gyula is situated in the extreme southeastern corner of Hungary, just a handful of kilometers from the Romanian border. It is not on the way to anywhere else in Hungary. Unless you are from Gyula, go to university there or are traveling onward to Romania there is little reason to make the trip. In other words, if you travel to Gyula, that is about the only place you are going. Day trips are an option, but from Budapest that means one long day spent mostly on a train. By car it is much more feasible, especially if you can start somewhere in the eastern part of Hungary. These options fluttered through my mind from time to time, but I procrastinated for years. There was always a Sopron, Szeged or Szekesfehervar getting in the way when I traveled into provincial Hungary.

Empire of obscurity - The Great Hungarian Plain

Empire of obscurity – The Great Hungarian Plain (Credit: Károly Telepy – Polgár Galéria 88. Tavaszi Mûvészeti Aukció)

The Outlier – Fortress On The Frontier
Gyula became something of an outlier for me, an empty box yet to be checked off on a personal completion list. For years I delayed a visit, whether it was by indifference or accident I always found a reason for another delay. My one foray into the area was when I passed through by train after leaving Romania. Following a trip through the glowing mountains and shadowy valleys of Transylvania, a short stop in Gyula did little to tempt me into taking a detour for the rest of a day. The brief stop did serve to taunt me with a tangible reminder of what I had not yet accomplished, while also reminding me that sometime in the foreseeable future I would have to go back for a visit. That idea was followed by the passing of three and a half more years. Then ever so slowly it began to gnaw at me that I had not been to Gyula. Though the city was in a remote corner of Hungary, the castle was a definite must see. My wife reminded me of that on multiple occasions. One of my favorite books on Hungarian castles provided a tantalizing overview of the one in Gyula. As I would also later discover it was not the only thing of interest in the area.

Gyula is home to the only castle which survived the wanton destruction of the near constant warfare that plagued the southern region of the Great Hungarian Plain during the Ottoman Turkish invasion and occupation of the area during the 16th and 17th centuries. The castle had somehow survived and was the only one made of brick that was still standing in Hungary. The fact that neither the Habsburgs, Hungarians nor the Turks had destroyed it was highly impressive. I finally resolved within myself to visit Gyula Castle on my next trip to Hungary. For this visit, I would be joined by my wife and mother in law, whose car we would be taking. My mother in law had been to the castle on multiple occasions and saw no reason to visit again. This was not because she disliked Gyula. On the contrary, she said the castle and town were well worth a visit. It was the drive that she dreaded. A four hour round trip in a car sounds like torture to a Hungarian. Driving is something only done out of necessity. The idea of a joy ride was anathema to her, as it is to most Hungarians. A strange American idea that has yet to infiltrate the Hungarian mind and likely never will.

Altered State – The Southern Great Hungarian Plain
The route we took between Debrecen and Gyula would never be anyone’s idea of scenic. Traveling across the Great Hungarian Plain is a cross between sublime and mind numbing, The words Great Plain conjure up images of a dramatic landscape covered with grasslands and thundering herds of hoofed beasts buffeted by a dusty wind, but my experience on this day was quite different. The landscape is neither flat nor hilly, rising and falling ever so gently with a mixed land use pattern that includes a bit of forest, a bit more cropland and long expansive stretches of pasture that stretch off into a hazy horizon. Wetlands are interspersed haphazardly across these flatlands. We bisected a swath of the Great Plain by venturing southward from Debrecen. The further we traveled, the more distance there was in between villages. After we passed through the largest of the towns, Berettyoujfalu, our journey seemed to only get longer. This, despite the fact we were moving ever closer to Gyula.

On the Great Plain, space and time become elastic. They expand in accordance with the distance between objects, whether they be villages, watercourses or thickets of trees. Here was a landscape that after a thousand years of fitful, yet steady human progress was still left largely unconquered by man or technology. Modernity could never settle a mass in this region. It was too inhospitable, unsightly or ugly. For centuries much of this land lay submerged beneath water for months at a time. Slight rises became refuges for villages, surrounded by an ocean of shallow wetlands that would then transform from morass to muck depending upon the season. The marshes may have been drained, but this did little to lessen the isolation out along the frontiers of this empire of obscurity. Man’s best efforts had made this land usable, but it still only supported a scant population that was stranded far from centers of commerce.

Altered state- The Great Hungarian Plain

Altered state- The Great Hungarian Plain (Credit: Antal Ligeti)

Centers of Nowhere – Committing Nothing To Memory
Sleepy villages with forgettable names like Sarkadkeresztur, Kornadi and Zsadany were centers of nowhere. They were still standing, but I began to wonder how many other villages had evaporated into oblivion, slowly dissipating into a haze of horizon. All memory of them lost, except for some parched pages in a county history that would be rarely, if ever, read. We passed by or through all of this committing nothing to memory. The longer we drove, the more silent we became. At times we seemed to be running in place. There were few cars and fewer people. The landscape was pastoral desolation. It felt like we were moving across a perpetual frontier, towards an invisible destination located in a blank space. This felt so far from the Hungary I knew and loved, it felt like the middle years of life, where you lose sight of the start and the end. Where everything feels like forever. This was my path to Gyula.

Click here for: The Shimmering Citadel – Gyula Castle: Last Of Its Kind (Part Two)

All I Remember Is Saying Goodbye – Debrecen To Budapest: A Crisis Of Consciousness

One of the great laments in my life is that I have only been able to spend a limited amount of time in Eastern Europe. The trips I have taken to the region now number in the double digits, but cumulatively they add up to only half a year of my life. Of course, I have been much more fortunate than most. At least I have been able to indulge my passion for the region over twenty-six sometimes spectacular, always revealing weeks of travel. As memorable as each trip has been, I find myself increasingly alarmed by the blank spots in my memory. Though I try to remember everything I can by taking notes and snapping hundreds of photographs there are still so many moments I fail to remember.

Several things are becoming increasingly clear to me. First, I have taken so many trips that they are now all beginning to run together. I can distinctly recall almost everything about my first two trips to Eastern Europe. I can distinctly remember what I did on each day of those journeys, the arrival in Sofia, the bus trip to Bucharest, a flight to Sarajevo, a train across three countries on the way to Pecs and so forth. My last trip is always completely clear as well, that is until I do another trip. The last trip always overtakes the one before it. The next to last one then exists in a netherworld of confused memory. Secondly, that I am getting older. This has resulted in either very detailed memories – such as a fog engulfed visit to Tata in western Hungary many years ago, where I can still mentally trace my footsteps past waterwheels, along the shores of Old Lake Tata, a dessert lunch at a Cukraszda (patisserie) and standing outside the Parish Church trying to take a photo as a tour group milled around the entrance – or the opposite effect where I remember nothing. This includes a very faint recollection of a walk I once took around central Vienna. I remember wandering around and that is about it.

The Parish Church - Tata Hungary

As I remember – The Parish Church in Tata Hungary

Memory Gap- The Trip I Cannot Remember
Searching my travel memories, I realize that several days in a row can pass where I have no idea what occurred. Without the aid of notes and photos these days would now amount to nothing. This came to mind when I received a call the other day from a friend who accompanied me on my last trip to Eastern Europe. He asked me if I could “remember that train ride we took back from Debrecen to Budapest?”  I was suddenly at a loss. He tried to refresh my memory. “All I remember is saying goodbye to Ibolya when she dropped us off at the train station? I can’t remember anything else.” At that moment neither could I. He is seventy and I am forty-six, this was worrisome. As he kept talking I lost track of what he was saying as I tried to recall a memory, any memory. I finally said, “I can remember walking to the platform through that ghastly underground corridor.”

The only reason I recalled the corridor was because passing through it triggered a memory of a post I had written awhile back about how menacing that place felt, with its communist era chipped paint job, cold concrete and the smell of decades old mildew. It was memorable for all the wrong reasons. My friend continued to search his memory for any detail that might help him recall that train trip. I finally said, “I think there was some woman sitting behind us who kept talking the whole time.” She had been incredibly irritating, loudly conversing with her son. She would pause for 30 seconds of silence and then predictable go off again on minutes long binges of verbiage. My friend did recall this, “Yes I got up and moved to get away from her.” That ended up being the only memory we could excavate from a two and half hour train ride across the Great Hungarian Plain. Such a pity that of all the things I could have remembered it was of a woman who would not shut up.

Filling in the memory gap - Puspokladany Train Station

Filling in the memory gap – Puspokladany Train Station

From Puspokladany To Torokszentmiklos – Running Out Of Memories
After our conversation I began to try and remember all the things I have forgotten. In other words, I attempted the impossible. There are all those train and bus trips I have never written about because everything went according to plan. Contentment might be what I am searching for in life, but it is the enemy of fascinating journeys. No great truths are to be unearthed in comfort and refinement. There are those Hungarian cities, towns and villages I have passed through more times than I will ever remember. They now inhabit an unconscious oblivion. Places such as Puspokladany in eastern Hungary which I have been through, but not actually to, at least twenty times. What do I remember about it? The outlines of a two story, rather elegant station, a vacant platform other than the station keeper – a sort of goodbye greeter – stepping out to signal whether to stay or go. Is this what I have spent so much time, energy and money chasing? At a certain point, travel infused with familiarity becomes a little too much like the life I left behind. This amnesia creeps over and manages to consume me one trip at a time. The easier things get, the less they mean to me, thus the more I proceed to forget.

And then there is the Torokszentmiklos syndrome. This can best be described as a self-induced psychosis of indifferent procrastination, that one day I will travel there to finally see what I promised myself umpteen times in the past, a mid-sized town out along the Great Hungarian Plain. All I can remember is a massive church in the near distance which has managed to impress itself upon my imagination. I have to see that church up close, stand in its shadow and admire the handy work of people whose names I will never pronounce correctly. I do not remember when was the first or the last time that I saw it. For many years I have wanted to visit that church. I always promise myself that I will go there the next time. I am running out of next times, the way I am running out of memories. I am running along the same rails again and again, failing to even remember what I have forgotten. Stuck in that vicious netherworld of travel pervaded by a stultifying sameness. The will to change direction now escapes me.

Holy Trinity Church (Szentharomsag templom) - in Torokszentmiklos

Holy Trinity Church (Szentharomsag templom) – in Torokszentmiklos (Credit: Tamas Thaler)

The Fascination Grows Faint – A Lost Experience
I wonder when I will finally forget all about Torokszentmiklos or Puspokladany. I am trying so hard to remember everything, that I must not have noticed anything. I certainly do not remember passing by those towns on that last trip with my friend. I was there, but I wasn’t there. At least I can remember that I have forgotten all about them. This exercise in frustration and futility reminds me of only one thing, that woman’s banal chattering. I went halfway around the world and that is what I left myself with, memories lost the way they are in everyday life. This is not a crisis of confidence, more a crisis of consciousness. The fascination of traveling to these places has grown faint, the same as my memory. Somewhere way out in eastern Hungary I lost an entire experience, but I was still awake and alive when it occurred. That is the most frightening memory of all.




A Match Made In The Matras – Hungarians, Slovaks & the Shadow of Galya-tető

What is the third highest mountain in the world? Stumped? You are not alone. It seems that no one remembers bronze medalists? Knowledge of third place finishers is an acquired taste even for trivia buffs. We remember firsts for the simple reason that they are first. It is that obvious. Runner-ups are remembered for coming oh so close. Whatever comes after second, no matter how notable, falls into the realm of the unknown. To finish third, is to be resigned to an excruciating oblivion. Faraway and not close enough, inevitably forgotten. This logic also goes for the tallest mountains (or hills as they are often called) in Hungary. It must be said though that the highest peak in Hungary is hardly going to receive special status and as for the runner-up, it falls firmly under the category of so what. As for third place, it is all but anonymous. Yet anonymity can also be illuminating.

Mt. Kékes - Hungary's highest point - as seen from the slopes Galya-tető

Mt. Kékes – Hungary’s highest point – as seen from the slopes Galya-tető (Credit: Susulyka)

Lowering Elevations & Expectations – The Mountains of Hungary
Topographically, Hungary is assumed to be flat. It is well known for its rich, agricultural land, most famously, the Great Hungarian Plain which covers much of its eastern half. In the west, Hungary is mostly rolling hills and smaller plains covered with fertile soil. Overall, it is one of the flattest countries in Europe, with an average elevation of just 143 meters (469 feet), almost the same as the state of Alabama. The truth is that in the popular imagination, even among those who have traveled in Eastern Europe, mountains in Hungary are an afterthought. That is if they are given much thought at all. This was not always the case, since “Historic Hungary” (the pre-1920 Kingdom of Hungary) was once home to mountainous Transylvania and Upper Hungary (present-day Slovakia). Peaks in Transylvania and the Tatras were the pride and joy of Greater Hungary. After World War I the territory of Hungary shrunk considerably, as did the nation’s topography.

Hungarians had to learn to live with less natural grandeur, their alpine days were over. Yet this did not mean the end of trekking up mountainsides. It just meant that they would have to quite literally lower their expectations. Suddenly, new peaks rose to prominence. These were located in northern Hungary. Up until the 20th century, it is doubtful that anyone who did not live or vacation near the Mátra Mountains, knew of Mt.Kékes. In 1920 it suddenly became the highest point in Hungary. Kékes contained no jagged spires soaring upward to touch the sky. It was covered with forests on both its flanks and summit. The highest point in Hungary now topped out at 1,014 meters (3,327 meters). Before 1920 the tallest peak had been in the High Tatras of what is today northern Slovakia. Instead of the tallest peak being a weeks-long journey from Budapest, it was now only a weekend excursion away. Mt. Kékes had risen from obscurity. The second highest, Pezső-kő was also worthy of mention. The same could not be said then or now for the next highest Hungarian mountain.

Galya-tető, as seen from Mt. Kékes

Galya-tető, as seen from Mt. Kékes (Credit: Susulyka)

Altitude Adjustments – Escape Over Expulsion
Galya-tető, the name does not exactly roll off the tongue, but at 964 meters (3,163 feet) this mountain comes in as the third tallest in Hungary. It is part of the Mátraszentimre, one of the highest ranges in the country. These heavily forested uplands are as close as Hungarians can get to finding a genuine mountain trekking experience in their homeland. They loom above a region of small villages, thick forests and grassy meadows covered in wild flowers during the late spring and summer.  In a sense, this is a land that time forgot. Yet just because these mountains are lesser known, does not make them any less inviting.  This peaceful and forgotten landscape may seem to be relatively anonymous, but it could not escape the ravages of Europe’s 20th century history. Many of the small villages tucked into these hills were once home to various ethnic groups, including Slovaks.

That changed irreparably following the end of the Second World War. Hungary, which had taken southern Slovakia back in 1938, was forced to cede control of the region at the end of the war. This led to one of the many forced population exchanges that occurred in the post war period. In Hungary, this is mainly remembered because of the infamous Benes Decrees that were put into effect by Czechoslovakia, leading to the forcible expulsion of ethnic Hungarians from southern Slovakia. Somewhere between 41,000 and 120,000 (these numbers are debatable and highly politicized) Hungarians were forced to move. This was “victor’s justice” pure and simple. Of course the Hungarians had been allies of Nazi Germany, but the Slovaks had also done the same. What is less well known is the fact that over 70,000 Slovaks in Hungary – who had called places such as Mátraszentmitre home for centuries – moved back to Czechoslovakia. This was also a part of the population exchanges. The big difference between these two situations: the Hungarians were forced to move, while the Slovaks chose this option. Nonetheless, it caused major upheaval for both sides. In villages such as those around Mátraszentimre, Slovaks who had lived in this area for centuries vacated them in a matter of months. Much of their culture vanished as well. Some Slovaks did remain though.

Traditional Slovak home in Mátraszentimre

Traditional Slovak home in Mátraszentimre (Credit: Kozkincs)

Timeless Ascents & Accents
Today in Mátraszentimre, there are still villagers that speak Slovak. In order to sustain their culture and boost tourism, special events are held that focus on the deeply rooted Slovak culture of Mátraszentimre. Thus, visitors to the region get to enjoy the stunning scenery while learning about a unique mountain culture. Looming above it all is the verdant green prominence of Galya-tető . A prominent natural landmark that helped infuse the folk culture of the Mátra. There is a secret and surprising delight that pervades this virtually anonymous area. Both Galya-tető  and the Slovaks of the Mátra deserve to be better known.

Hidden In A Hungarian Cellar: The Last Living Legacy of the Mongol Invasion – Szokolya, Hungary

History is always with us, even when if we do not recognize it. Most of the past remains unacknowledged or unknown. This is due to both ignorance and the sheer breadth and depth of human activity. In nations such as Hungary, where history seems ever present, historical consciousness centers on events that are more recent and have defined modern Hungarian society. These are most obviously, the post-World War I Treaty of Trianon in which Hungary lost two-thirds of its land and population, the failed 1956 Revolution against Soviet style communism and the fall of the Iron Curtain. More generally, there is an awareness (some would say psychosis) of having suffered invasion and occupation by foreign powers such as the Soviets, Habsburgs, Ottoman Turks and Mongols. The further back in history one goes, the less visceral the memory. The Mongol invasion occurred so long ago that it is now nothing more than an abstraction. Proportionately though, it was as close to a cataclysm as Hungary would ever experience. The Mongol conquest could best be described in two words, wanton destruction. That is why there is so little physical evidence in Hungary today of any building or structure that existed prior to the Mongol invasion, but that does not mean there is none.

The Kiraly Forest Railway

The Kiraly Forest Railway – takes visitors into the verdant Borzsony Hills

Traveling With The Past & Into The Past
That brings us to Szokolya, smack in the middle of the largest basin in the Borszony Hills. It is less than an hour from Budapest by car, but the best method of travel to Szokolya is by railway. It’s not just the natural beauty of the northern uplands that make this trip worthwhile, but also the opportunity to ride on the Kiralyret Forest Railway one of the few narrow gauge rail lines left in Hungary. This line has withstood radical changes in travel and technology. It offers visitors to the Borszony Hills an intimate window into this bucolic landscape. Though the railway’s terminus is just a little farther north at Kiralyret, those interested in early medieval history should disembark at Szokolya. At first glance it is a prototypical Hungarian village with neatly kept streets, tidy houses and church steeples rising above it. It is easy to be impressed on a superficial level with this quaint settlement and its beautiful natural surroundings.

In Szolkolya though, there is more than meets the eye, especially when it comes to what lies beneath. Many homes in the village have cellars which store wine. Surprisingly this was not the initial reason for their construction. These were actually built as hiding places. Hiding from whom? Not the usual suspects. Not the Soviets or Habsburgs or Ottoman Turkish forces. In the case of Szokolya, it was the inaugural foreign conquest, the first in what would become a recurring theme in Hungarian history, the Mongol Invasion of 1241 – 1242 which sent people into the underground. Overshadowed historically by more recent invasions, the Mongol incursion was the inaugural calamity in Hungarian history.

 Szokolya, Hungary

The village of Szokolya, Hungary – history is literally hidden beneath the surface here

The First Cataclysm
On several occasions before their arrival, King Bela IV had been forewarned that the Mongols were a ferocious opponent moving westward with alarming speed. For all intents and purposes, Bela did take the danger seriously. He conducted inspections of fortifications and attempted to improve the kingdom’s defenses. Unfortunately, the nobility was too busy quarreling with each other and the king while trying to protect or increase their privileges. This disunity has been a recurring theme in Hungarian military defeats. The nobles gave little thought to the ominous threat that was gathering on the eastern horizon. By the time they did take notice, it was much too late. In the spring of 1241, at the battle of Mohi in northeastern Hungary, the Hungarian army was destroyed in a matter of hours. The Mongols then swept across the Great Hungarian Plain carrying out a rapacious wave of destruction.

It has been calculated that over half of all settlements in this area were obliterated from the landscape. Those few that were left standing had their fields burned and food sources pillaged. Disease and starvation followed. Resisters were killed, while those who surrendered were taken as slaves. As if matters could not get any worse for the area east of the Danube, the Mongols advanced very little west of the river, instead they focused on “pacifying” the region. Historians have estimated that half of the entire population of Hungary was either killed or enslaved. How did the villagers who avoided this fate survive? Thousands were lucky enough to make their way to walled fortresses that provided some protection from the rampaging Mongol cavalry. The villagers also fled to the thick forests of the northern uplands where Szokolya is situated. In many cases, those fortunate enough to survive had to go underground, quite literally. They hid in cellars beneath village dwellings. Some of these still survive in Szokolya today.

The Mongol invasion of Hungary

The Mongol invasion of Hungary in Chronica Hungarorum by Johannes de Thurocz

Beneath the Surface – History’s Dark Spaces
There is little physical evidence of 13th century Hungary left in the country today. The rampaging Mongols wiped out both the present and what would have come to represent the past. The cellars in Szokolya offer one of the few recognizable remnants from this brief yet all- consuming catastrophe. These might not be overly impressive to the curious onlooker, until they realize that the Mongol destruction was so complete that the only physical remains left from that time can only be found beneath the earth. The fact that even this exists is something of a miracle. The Mongol invasion of Hungary has been completely forgotten. It is not even a distant memory. Sure it can be read about in history books, but that hardly brings it back to life. The only place left to get in touch tangibly with that event is in one of Szolkolya’s cellars. Here the past still survives, in dark, dank spaces hidden deep in the historical conscious.

Unrealized Potentials – Traveling the Tisza River

Thousands of tourists cruise the waters of the Danube River each summer. Along the way they have the opportunity to pass through four European Capitals, Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest and Belgrade. They might also float by such historic cities as Ulm, Regensburg and Linz among many others.  Those traveling further down the Danube to Belgrade might fail to notice one of its most important tributaries across from the non-descript Serbian village of Novi Slakamene. It is here that another important European river has its mouth. This river is the largest left bank tributary of the Danube, though rarely given much thought or recognition. It is called the Tisza. Unlike the Danube’s most famous stretches that flow through the heart of Central Europe, the Tisza is both naturally and culturally an Eastern European river from its headwaters high in the Carpathian Mountains of Ukraine to its meandering course across the Great Hungarian Plain all the way down to its mouth in northern Serbia. The Tisza has a rich, distinct history almost entirely unknown. Though it lacks the cultural cachet and name recognition of the Danube, the Tisza has its own delights, offering adventure and discovery of the unknown.

Map of the Tisza River and the southern part of the Danube

Map of the Tisza River and the southern part of the Danube

Taming the Tisza – Placing Nature In A Straitjacket
Like all major rivers in Europe, the Tisza as it exists today is very different from its original form. The most dramatic changes to the river have occurred over the last two hundred years. The forces of industrialization, technological change and modernization all in the name of economic development reshaped the river. In the process, the Tisza’s flow was transformed from a serpentine course to a relatively straight and much more navigable waterway. Staring at the languid waters of the Tisza today, one gets the sense that the river is rather benign. This is deceiving. Not that long ago the Tisza was a wild, dangerous river that periodically inundated the surrounding landscape, tormenting villagers who relied on its waters for their livelihood. The project to tame the river took decades. It was massive, especially by the standards of the 19th century. When it began in 1846, the river stretched 1,419 kilometers (880 miles), equivalent to the distance from Amsterdam to Budapest.

By the time “regulation of the Tisza” was complete, the river had been considerably shortened. 453 kilometers (280 miles) of bends and ox bows had been cut off. Ships and barges were now able to travel further up the Tisza into the heartland of the Kingdom of Hungary.  This expedited commerce, especially the transport of grain. The areas through which the Tisza flowed became a breadbasket for the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  In the late 19th century, the river had taken on its present form. With the Tisza’s development, cities along its shores also grew, but never to the extent that those along the Danube did. Cities such as Szeged and Szolnok blossomed, but never grew in size anywhere close to the extent of Budapest or Belgrade. The Tisza had become what it still pretty much is today, an important, albeit economic backwater. In essence, a vital artery for the region it drained and flowed through, but of no greater significance outside of its adjacent region.

The Tisza at Szeged, Hungary

The Tisza at Szeged, Hungary – the largest city on the river (Credit: Zsolt Varadi)

Tourism & the Tisza – A Confluence Of Pleasures
The same could be said of the Tisza’s present day tourism potential. If one is looking to get away from the crowds on and along the Danube, then following the Tisza can certainly result in a unique experience. Those traveling on the river are most likely to start in Tokaj, Hungary, the center of a UNESCO World Heritage Wine Region Cultural Landscape. They then cruise down to Szeged, famed for its beautiful turn of the 20th century architecture that stemmed from a massive effort to rebuild the city in the wake of catastrophic flooding from the Tisza in 1879.  Further down, the river meets the mighty Danube at Novi Slankamen in the Vojvodina region of Serbia. That is as far as most travelers are likely to venture along the Tisza, they have little idea that the most interesting areas are much further upstream.

The adventurous need to seek out the Tisza’s wilder upper reaches. The provincial hub of Rakhiv, Ukraine is the top destination for this area. Almost totally unknown even today, Rakhiv has only become accessible since the fall of the Iron Curtain. The Tisza proper begins here as the waters of the White and Black Tisza, streams that flow down from the highest reaches of the Ukrainian Carpathians unite at Rakhiv. This is a much different version of the Tisza than the more familiar one in Hungary.  The river’s current is swift and sure as it runs through a valley that it helped carve over many millennia. This is not the place for genteel cruising. Instead it is a playground for recreational paddlers with the river running swift and sure, the nature wild and untamed.

The Upper Tisza at Rakhiv, Ukraine

The Upper Tisza at Rakhiv, Ukraine (Credit: Ivan Bil)

Eastern Approaches – Against The Shores of Progress
Incidentally for all the remoteness of its upper reaches, the Tisza flows within a few feet of what was once deemed the geographical center of Europe. Just 15 kilometers from Rakhiv is the small village of Dilove. This was where the center of Europe was located by a team of Austro-Hungarian geographers in 1887. Today this designation is open to much debate, but it is striking that all of Dilove’s competition can be found in Eastern Europe as well. Who would have thought that the obscure upper reaches of the Tisza would run right through what many consider the geographical center of Europe? Most fascinating of all, for both paddlers and travelers, is the fact that the upper Tisza straddles the Ukraine – Romania border. On one side stands a society still trying to escape from the legacy of Soviet influence, on the other a member of the European Union. This is one of three stretches along the Tisza where this occurs. The others are the Ukraine – Hungary and Hungary-Serbia border. The Tisza as it stands today is not just a river, but also a border, where the old Eastern Europe washes up against the shores of the new.

Semsey Kastely – Bringing The Past Back To Light

The term castle has a fantastical meaning for many of us who grew up in the United States. This is most likely due to the influence of pop culture icons such as Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom castle, which looked as though it was conjured up in the eclectic imagination of an architectural wizard. A close second to the glistening spires and sparkling facade of the Magic Kingdom castle, was a stereotypical house of horror, placed high upon a rocky precipice. This type of castle was a profusion of angular spires and defensive turrets, sprinkled in with a liberal dose of foreboding atmospherics. In other words, the haunting abode of Count Dracula.

When I first traveled to Europe I was somewhat shocked to discover that most castles are not like this at all. Though appealingly designed, they hardly match the stereotypical image. Castles come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, ranging from little more than walled enclosures to full blown defensive works the size of a small town. Castle architecture is dependent mainly upon the historical era in which it was constructed as well as its purpose. For instance, hilltop castles were more fortresses than homes. These reached their zenith during the Middle Ages when warfare was near constant and the precariousness of existence placed security as the highest priority. Beginning in the 18th century, stylistic changes occurred due to an era of extended peace across much of continental Europe. This ushered in a new architectural age for castles which has come to be defined as the Baroque.  The Baroque era of castle architecture in turn gave way to the classicist style movement, characterized by an aesthetic of stately grandeur. Both of these styles left an indelible mark on the castles of central and eastern Europe.

A Shining Example of Historic Restoration
Much of this legacy can be seen across Hungary today.  At last count there were some 2,000 castles in Hungary, only about a third of which are protected. Its most famous and notable castles, were built during a time span beginning in the 18th century and continuing all the way up until the first decade of the 20th century. While many Hungarian castles have attributes which conform to stereotypical images, the Hungarian word for castle – kastely – also takes into account other stylized creations. Many kastelys are more like gigantic manor houses. At one time these happened to be the home bases of the large landed estates which covered Hungary up until the First World War.

Semsey Kastely prior to refurbishment

Semsey Kastely prior to refurbishment

Semsey Kastely as it looks today

Semsey Kastely as it looks today

I had the distinct pleasure of visiting one of these recently in Balmazujvaros, a small city on the Great Plain of eastern Hungary. The structure on display, close to the town’s main square, is known as Semsey Castle. It is one of the finest examples of classicist architecture to be found in Hungary today. The Castle’s name comes from the noble Semsey family who held title to the rich agricultural land surrounding the town for generations on end. Semsey castle just had a grand reopening on December 5th. On display were the fruits of a two year refurbishment project funded by the European Union to promote the rich cultural heritage of Balmazujvaros. One look at the eye popping yellow exterior was enough to magnetically focus the gaze. At first glance, the exterior seemed almost too blindingly bright, that was until I viewed photos of the kastely prior to the refurbishment.  Before (see above photo) there was only a drab, decaying façade, the product of decades long neglect by the communist state. Now (see next photo) the façade emanates a revelatory brightness, a ray of structural sunlight perpetually shining at the heart of this small city.

Semsey Family Tree Painting

Semsey Family Tree Painting

The interior is not to be outdone either. Each exhibit room is furnished with richly upholstered ottomans that visitors can use to rest while pondering the displays concerning the town’s local history (a number of famous Hungarian writers were from here), as well as the cultural wares and traditions of the area’s people. These included exhibits on the gulyas (Hungarian cowboys), who had spent the past several centuries roaming the nearby, vast landscape of the Hortobagy, an area which is today protected as both a National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Even with the displays only in Hungarian, the archival photos and original artifacts visually communicated the wealth of tradition that this otherworldly landscape of sky and horizon surrounding Balmazujvaros has bequeathed upon its inhabitants.

A New Reality
On a personal note, perhaps the most engaging exhibit for me was a singular painting of the Semsey family tree. Starting just above the base of the tree’s trunk were a series of blossoms representing a succession of generations, the first of which began over 750 years ago, in the middle of the 13th century. Before my eyes was the visual realization of a family which had inhabited this land from the Dark Ages up through modern times. The painting provided an artistic representation of the venerability of Hungarian existence in the Carpathian Basin.

A visit to the Semsey Kastely is more than just a way to reconnect with the opulence and elegance so integral to the life of the great estates and landed gentry. It is also a way to redefine what a castle actually means. It is a well spring of culture, tradition, and the arts. The Semsey Kastely stands as both part of a grand architectural tradition and outside of it. It helps redefine the concept of a castle, presenting the visitor with a new idea, a new reality, much more vibrant than anything that could have been imagined.