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)

 

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.

“Worse Was Lost at Mohacs” – Hungary’s Historical Psychosis

Mohács is a word fraught with meaning for Hungarians. The word, or more appropriately the name, has come to symbolize more than just a 16th century battle. Mohács has become a byword for the succession of tragedies which have recurred in Hungarian history. Over the past several centuries whenever Hungarians suffered at the hands of historical fate, they have been consoled with the statement, “Több is veszett Mohácsnál.” Roughly translated this means, “worse was lost at Mohács.” Thus the failed revolutions of 1848 and 1956, the losses in World Wars I and II, the curses of fascism and communism all pale in comparison with what happened to Hungary in a few tragic hours at the Battle of Mohács . What resulted was no less than both the end of medieval Hungary and also its end as a major European power. To Hungarians nothing could be worse than the loss at Mohács. For a people who have suffered more than their fair share of catastrophes, the Battle of Mohács ranks as the seminal disaster in Hungarian history. It is hard to overstate just how devastating the battle was to the future course of Hungary.

Battle of Mohács

A 16th century Ottoman artistic rendering of the Battle of Mohács

Disunited – The Long Road To Defeat
In the decades leading up to Mohács, Hungarian society was riven by infighting. Following the death of King Matthias Corvinus (Hunyadi Mátyás) in 1490, the landed nobility asserted their authority. They made sure that the weakest king they could find was placed on the throne. This turned out to be Vladislaus II (Ulászló II), who would soon acquire the nickname “Ok Ulászló” because he agreed with any and all of the nobility’s demands. Vladislaus II handed over most of the royal estates to the nobility in order to satisfy them. Without the income from these lands, the crown became severely indebted and expenditures on border defense against Ottoman incursions in southern Hungary fell to a trickle. Meanwhile, the nobility spent decades mistreating the peasantry.  Their actions included passing discriminatory laws and increasing taxes on those who worked the land. This led to a full scale peasant revolt in 1514.

The rebellion was put down with an extraordinary amount of violence, followed by the imposition of onerous laws which enshrined the largest landholder’s privileges at the expense of not only the peasantry, but the lesser nobility as well. This was soon followed by the accession of a youthful, inexperienced and weak king, Louis II (Lajos II) to the throne. These events made Hungary ripe for conquest by the Ottoman Turks who had been constantly testing the porous border defenses of Southern Hungary. The situation would come to a head in the late afternoon of August 29, 1526 as the Imperial Ottoman army met Hungarian forces on an uneven plain near the Danube River and the town of Mohács in southern Hungary.

Battle of Mohács - painting by Bertalan Székely

Battle of Mohács – painting by Bertalan Székely

Drawn & Quartered – An Army & A Kingdom Fall Apart
The Hungarian forces arrayed that day on the fields near Mohács had wasted months just getting organized. Only when the enemy threat was clear and present did the stubborn, selfish nobility heed Louis II’s call to arms. Their behavior contributed as much to the Hungarian defeat as did the formidable Ottoman war machine. The Ottoman army at Mohács was at least twice the size of the Hungarian one, with a decided advantage in firepower and fighting prowess. In simplified terms, the battle went as follows. The Hungarians charged the center of the Ottoman line. At first, they made some minor gains, but the Ottomans unleashed a devastating counterattack on the Hungarian flanks utilizing a lethal combination of accurate artillery fire and crack troops. The Hungarian forces quickly crumbled before the onslaught. What followed was encirclement and near total destruction. The Ottomans took few prisoners. Sources state that the Ottomans killed thousands of captives by having them drawn and quartered. Louis II, the 20 year old Hungarian king, was said to have drowned in a stream while trying to escape the field of battle. Few of the defeated were able to escape the battlefield alive or for that matter with their limbs intact.

It was not just 28,000 Hungarian soldiers and assorted mercenary troops that were wiped out on that rainy, late summer’s day. The loss opened a massive gap in central Europe’s defenses. The Ottoman Turks were now free to head north and west, forge deeper into Europe, where in coming years they would besiege Vienna. As for the legacy of Mohács, this set in motion Ottoman occupation of the Hungarian heartland for most of the 16th and 17th centuries. Another swath of Hungary that bordered Ottoman occupied territory became a no man’s land, acting as a permanent war zone with resulting depopulation, deforestation and starvation in those areas. The loss at Mohács led to even greater losses for Hungary, losses from which the Kingdom would never recover. Mohács effectively ended Hungary’s status as a European power forever. It would take nearly three centuries before Hungary would regain complete independence from foreign rule.

Wooden carvings atop a mass grave from the Battle of Mohács

Wooden carvings atop a mass grave from the Battle of Mohács

All Was Lost –Memorializing Mohács
Today the Historical Memorial Park of Mohács is as close as Hungarians and foreign tourists can get to the watershed battle. The Park has a visitor center that is built in the shape of the Hungarian crown. Unfortunately, the visitor center provides limited information and interpretation on the battle. The park contains the site of a mass grave with approximately 400 bodies of those killed in the battle. There are symbolic carvings posted around this burial site. The site is a somber, morose place. It is believed that some of the battle may have taken place near here, but no one can be quite sure. The plain where the battle was fought continues to elude discovery. It is strange that such an important place in Hungarian (and Central European) history was never marked. Then again would it really matter if the specific site was known? In effect, locating the battle site would please a few historical purists and battlefield buffs. For the majority of Hungarians, knowing the actual place would be just another reminder of their ill-fated history. Besides, they get enough painful reminders each time someone says “Több is veszett Mohácsnál.”  

 

 

A Shared Legacy: Romanians, Hungarians, Matthias Corvinus & the Identity of Cluj

Cluj-Napoca (commonly known as Cluj), the largest city in Transylvania, holds a special place in the hearts of Romanians and Hungarians. To Romanians it is a university city. The 50,000 strong student population of Babes-Bolyai University gives the city a vibrant, pulsating energy. As one of the largest cities in Romania, it has a thriving economy that has done much better than the rest of the country. This comparative wealth has made it a magnet for the youth of Romania who are looking to get ahead and enjoy a better quality of life more in line with other European Union nations. To Hungarians, it will forever be known as Kolozsvar, once the capital of Erdely (the Hungarian name for Transylvania). Koloszvar was the urban and cultural heart of a land Hungarians see as inseparable from their history. Erdely was cut asunder from Historic Hungary by the post-World War I Treaty of Trianon. This left the ethnic Hungarian population of Cluj isolated deep in the heart of Transylvania. This has left them yearning for what a lost past. This longing colored relations between the Romanians and Hungarians throughout the 20th century and was the central force in Cluj’s history for nearly a century.

Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj

Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj

From Majority to Minority – The Hungarians of Cluj
The fact that Hungarians continued to be the majority ethnic group in Cluj long after the Treaty took effect meant they were a force to be reckoned with in the city’s economic, political and cultural life. Hungary was even able to regain their beloved Koloszvar, along with northern Transylvania, as a gift (or a bribe) from Hitler for entering World War II on the German side. This gift proved to be both ephemeral and costly. It vanished as ill-gotten gains so often do. This left Koloszvar’s Hungarian population in limbo once again. As late as 1948 Hungarians still made up 57% of Cluj’s population. With the communists taking control of post-war Romania, the Hungarian population became a distrusted ethnic group stuck in the wrong country at the worst time. Hungarians had held economic power in the city for centuries. The communists soon limited the civil rights of Cluj’s Hungarian population. Communist oppression proved overwhelming. The ethnic Hungarian populace sought refuge abroad.

Those who were unable to flee the city, suffered mightily under the policies fomented by the iron fisted dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaucescu. Ceaucescu was deeply suspicious of all ethnic Hungarians, branding them enemies of the state. In 1974 the communists led by Ceaucescu decided to change the name of Cluj to Cluj-Napoca. Napoca being the pre-Roman name for a city that stood on the site of Cluj two thousand years before. It was a lackluster attempt to prove that Romanians predated Hungarians in Transylvania by a thousand years. Ceaucescu’s efforts to settle historical disputes with pompous decrees turned out to be short-lived. On Christmas Day 1989, Romanians as well as ethnic Hungarians cheered as he was relegated to the dustbin of history. He was arrested, quickly given a show trial where he was found guilty of crimes against his own people. Within hours he had been executed, along with his wife. As for Cluj-Napoca, nearly everyone still refers to the city as Cluj. After the fall of Ceaucescu, ethnic Hungarians sought to better their fortunes in other countries, namely Hungary. This emigration resulted in a large loss of the ethnic Hungarian population in Cluj. Presently they make up only 16% of the city’s population.

The Matthias Corvinus Statuary Group - in Cluj's Union Square

The Matthias Corvinus Statuary Group – in Cluj’s Union Square

A Shared Legacy – The Birthplace of Matthias Corvinus
The present situation is an improvement over the not so distant past. Both Romania and Hungary are members of the European Union, which acts a strong guarantor of minority rights. This, along with the city’s relative prosperity has caused tensions to wane. Acts of violence by one group against the other are now scarce. The biggest barrier to integration is a deep sense of mistrust. This is the main legacy of the Ceaucescu era. Yet there are still some Romanians who would prefer that all the Hungarians in Cluj and Transylvania move to Hungary once and for all. Conversely, Hungarian nationalists (the large majority of whom live in Hungary) want Kolozsvar and Transylvania given back to Hungary. There is little chance either group of extremists will get there way. Commonalities between the two groups are rarely emphasized in the news. Conflict and controversy sell, peaceful coexistence does not.

Strangely enough in Cluj’s main square, Piati Unirai (Union Plaza) there is a statue that has proven contentious, despite the fact that it serves to emphasize a common historical figure who was both Romanian and Hungarian. This is the equestrian statue of the Great “Hungarian” King, Matthias Corvinus. Corvinus is remembered as the king who kept the Ottoman Turks at bay in the late 15th century. In addition, under his rule, Hungary became the first European state outside of Italy to experience the Renaissance. One of the most famous Corvinus historic sites, his birthplace, can be seen in Cluj.

St. Michael's Church - legacy of the Saxons

St. Michael’s Church – legacy of the Saxons

Identity Crisis – The Roots of a King
In the winter of 1443, Corvinus was born at a small guesthouse in Cluj. His father was none other than Janos Hunyadi (Ioan de Hunedoara to Romanians), Voivode (Governor) of Transylvania. A famed military figure who had worked his way through the ranks of the nobility to a leading position in the Kingdom of Hungary. Corvinus mother, Erzsbet Szilagyi, came from an influential Hungarian family. Now what’s interesting is that Hunyadi, who is celebrated as a national hero by Hungarians was also partly Romanian. He descended from a noble family of Wallachian origin. Wallachia was the historic heart of Romania. At the time, chronicles referred to Hunyadi as Valchus (the Wallachian). This means that Corvinus was half-Hungarian and half Romanian. Both Hunyadi and Corvinus are lauded as Hungarian national heroes, but no one much bothers to mention their Romanian blood. At the heart of Cluj’s inner town lies the Matthias Corvinus statuary group.

Ever since the Iron Curtain was swept aside there has been talk of removing the statue. The larger than life sculpture portrays Corvinus in heroic fashion, towering above the viewer. Below him are four of his leading generals (admittedly they were all Hungarian). Instead of arguing about whether the statuary group should be removed, perhaps an information board or plaque of some type should be placed close by to inform visitors, especially Cluj’s citizenry, that it’s most famous son is reflective of the city’s multi-ethnic history. Corvinus was one of the greatest kings in history. That is something everyone in Cluj should be proud of. His dual ethnicity illuminates the complex and conflicted history of the area. Cluj and Transylvania was an ethnically mixed place, it still is today.

Speaking of mixed up, the Corvinus statuary group stands in front of St. Michael’s Cathedral. This mighty Gothic structure is one of the finest examples of a medieval hall church in Europe. It is a product of the German Saxons who called the city Klausenberg. In Transylvania, the deeper one digs into history, the more complicated and diverse it gets. No one in Cluj really owns the past, instead they all share it.