An Approximation of Greatness – Visegrad: The Pinnacle of Ruins      

Visegrad is a stunning sight. The visitor can see right away why the spot was chosen as the location of successive fortresses/castles stretching back nearly two millennia. The remains of this once magnificent complex stand high atop a rocky crag then snake down an exceedingly steep hillside until terminating close to the banks of the Danube River. This complex, once the capital of Hungary, was sited at a highly strategic location, guarding the entrance to the lower Danube. Due to the forces of geology, geography and topography Visegrad seems to have been chosen not so much by man, but nature to play a unique role in East-Central European history. Once humanity discovered the uniqueness of its natural setting, empires and kingdoms sought to co-opt its nearly impregnable position for defensive purposes.

Visegrad as seen from the east side of the Danube River

Visegrad as seen from the east side of the Danube River – in the lower left corner is Solomon Tower (Lower Castle)

Going on the Defensive – Visegrad’s Rise, Fall & Rise
Though famous for its role in Hungarian history, the history of Visegrad starts long before the coming of the Magyars. The location first gained prominence during antiquity. The Romans were the first to take advantage of the area’s natural setting. Here they situated a fortress where the mighty River Danube makes a wide arc at what is known as the Danube Bend. This was a critical strongpoint since it helped anchor the defenses which kept the Germanic barbarian tribes to the north at bay. After the Roman Empire collapsed, various tribes continued to occupy the fortress, including Slavic ones which came into the area during the Dark Ages. Not much is known about these tribes, but they did leave at least one lasting legacy. They gave the place a name that is still recognizable today, terming it “Vysehrad” which means “high fortification.” (One of over a thousand words borrowed from Slavic languages that have become part of spoken Hungarian today)  The Slavic tribes of the Dark Ages were subsumed by the coming of the Magyars (Hungarians) who swept into the Carpathian Basin at the end of the 9th century. It was not long before the Hungarians were finding the site useful for their own purposes.

In the mid-13th century, a cataclysm of apocalyptic proportions brought about the Visegrad whose remnants can still be seen today. The Mongol Invasion in 1241-42 totally devastated what had been a prosperous Hungarian Kingdom. By one estimate, half of the Kingdom’s two million inhabitants were either killed or became refugees due to the onslaught. In the aftermath, the question was how to protect Hungary from another possible invasion. The answer came from King Bela IV (1235 – 1270) who began to seek out highly defensible places to fortify throughout the Kingdom. His wife, Queen Mary used wealth she had brought with her from the Greek Royal House to help finance the building of the castle/fortress complex. Visegrad became one of the most notable and long lived strategic responses to the utter destruction that had been wrought upon Hungary by the Mongols.

A drawing of Visegrad Castle during the reign of King Matthias Corvinus

A drawing of Visegrad Castle during the reign of King Matthias Corvinus

Remnants of a Golden Age
For nearly three centuries a host of Hungarian Kings used Visegrad during a golden age which saw them expand their realms from the Baltic to the Black Seas. The first to move here was King Charles Robert (1308 – 1342) in 1323 who wanted to put distance between his court and Buda’s majority German populace. Even after Charles’ successors moved the court back to Buda they continued to pursue work on a palace and castle complex he had started construction on close to the Danube’s banks. The most lavish renovations took place during the reign of King Matthias Corvinus (1458 -1490) who had the buildings associated with Visegrad redone not once, but twice. First in late Gothic style and then transformed to incorporate Renaissance ideas taking hold. It was the Ottoman Turks who would end the Golden Age of Visegrad just a scant half century after Matthias death. Following their occupation of Buda in 1541, they conquered Visegrad via siege warfare three years later. The castle and palace soon fell into disrepair, but the ruins remained to communicate some of Visegrad’s majestic glory to visitors down through the centuries. In the 20th century a major restoration took place. This effort gives a splendid approximation of Visegrad’s greatness.

Upper Castle - the pinnacle of Visegrad

Upper Castle – the pinnacle of Visegrad

A Medieval Fortress At Its Peak – Visiting Visegrad
Today Visegrad consists of three must see sites. The first are the palace ruins. In the late 15th century, the palace contained one of the most marvelous royal residences in Europe. Laid out on a square ground plan, there were over 300 rooms on multiple tiers with hanging gardens. Lavish fountains would spew wine during grand events. Among the remnants of the palace that can still be seen today is a loggia. This was among the first Renaissance architectural elements used on a building in Europe outside of Italy.  Next is the Solomon Tower (Lower Castle), one of the more impressive examples of a Keep found anywhere in Europe. At one time a string of these Keeps connected the lower part of Visegrad to the top of the citadel. This must have been quite a sight, intimidating to all but the most formidable of attackers. Unfortunately these defenses still could not stop the Ottoman Turks. During a raid in 1544, the south side of Solomon Tower collapsed. Visegrad was lost and the fortress slowly succumbed to ruin.

The last site is the most impressive of all, the towering Upper Castle looming far above the river, palace and Solomon Tower. It can be accessed via shuttle or footpath. A hike to the Upper Castle leaves the most lasting and exhausting impression. What a task it must have been for any would be conqueror to successfully mount an attack. The Ottoman Turks skill at siege warfare was such that even this daunting task was undertaken with success. From the top of the Upper Castle, the sky above seems close enough to touch, if not with the hand than with one of the citadel’s bastions. The effect is dizzying. It is as though the citadel is floating. Here at the heights of Visegrad, is a medieval castle complex at its peak.

A Small Corner in Szentendre – Serbia & The Power of Belief

North of Budapest, on the west bank of the Danube sits the astonishingly charming town of Szentendre.
Due to its proximity to the capital, it has pretty much become the number one day trip destination for visitors and locals alike. The town can be easily reached via the city’s suburban railway. On arrival, visitors find a colorful array of historic buildings, quaint, cobble stoned streets and an artistic colony, second to none in Hungary. Szentendre has a feeling of prosperity and wealth, as it has become a refuge for those looking to flee the noise, clamor and bustle of Budapest. It has also become a refuge for artists looking to glean inspiration from its Mediterranean like vibe.

Szerb utca (Serb street) - one of the main streets in Szentendre and for good reason.

Szerb utca (Serb street) – one of the main streets in Szentendre and for good reason.

History & Memory on a Street Corner in Szentendre
Szentendre’s history as a refuge extends much deeper into the past than might be expected. For those who look beyond the curiosity shops, patisseries and stylish restaurants there is a multi-ethnic history waiting to be discovered. On the corner of Lazar car ter (square) in Szentendre there is a monument topped with a cross. It is placed in a rather inconspicuous setting, beside a restaurant. The throngs of tourists that come to visit this historic town often overlook it. Nonetheless, this monument and where it stands represent the importance of Szentendre to the memory and history of Serbia during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Strategically located at the beginning of the Danube River’s bend north of Buda, Szentendre became a home to South Slavic refugees during the Middle Ages. The town’s history as a refuge began in the 14th and 15th centuries when groups of Bulgarians and Dalmatians made their way to the banks of this Hungarian stretch of the Danube while fleeing the Ottoman Turkish hordes ravaging their homelands. This wave of immigration was later followed by Serbs who settled in the area after fleeing the same group of invaders.  By the mid-16th century, the Turks had managed to occupy most of Hungary including the area that was Szentendre. The village was soon depopulated. It was only after the ouster of the Ottoman Turks in Hungary by Habsburg forces in the latter part of the 17th century that the region was safe once again for settlement.

Monument to Tsar Lazar of Serbia in Szentendre - in the place where a church once stood that held his bones

Monument to Tsar Lazar of Serbia in Szentendre – in the place where a church once stood that held his bones

The Life Force Of A Nation
Meanwhile the Serbs were able to reoccupy their ancestral homeland. It was not long though before they were uprooted again by Ottoman counter advances. As a reward for their bravery and courage in fighting the Ottomans, the Habsburgs allowed some 6,000 Serbs to resettle in Szentendre. Their leader, Arsenije III Čarnojević, also brought the relics (bones) of Tsar Lazar, the Serbian nation’s last pre-Ottoman leader who had been killed on the field of blackbirds at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. The relics had been given the greatest protection for the past three hundred years. Centuries long efforts of monks kept these relics from being defiled by the marauding Turks.

The relics allowed for the veneration of Lazar as physical and spiritual evidence of the Serbian nation’s will to exist no matter the historical circumstances. The relics were brought to Szentendre in 1690 where they were placed in a newly constructed wooden Serbian Orthodox church. They were housed there for seven years before eventually being returned to Serbia. The spot where the church was located is today marked by the memorial at the corner of the square. It seems almost impossible to believe that in this spot, the life force of a nation was once safeguarded.

Serbian Orthodox Church in Szentendre - Credit: upsalatty

Serbian Orthodox Church in Szentendre – Credit: upsalatty

Symbols Matter – The Veneration of An Idea
To modern visitors this might seem like no big deal. In the present age where “enlightened” beliefs are pervasive, relics fail to receive accolades or veneration. It is commonly thought, especially in westernized cultures, that such traditions are based on antiquated beliefs, the superstitions of an unscientific age. Yet it is instructive to remember that people act on what they believe. If that belief is powerful enough to motivate the actions and activities of a group of people then it is certainly a worthy part of the historic record. The Serbian people believed in the greatness of their leader Tsar Lazar and the independence of the Serbian kingdom. He was the living embodiment of a people and culture at its zenith. Despite the centuries of Turkish occupation and oppression that followed Lazar’s reign, the idea of Serbia lived on.

In death Lazar may well have been more important to the idea of Serbia than he was in life. The veneration of his relics is as much the veneration of an idea as it is of a man. It is not so much who he was, as to what he symbolizes: a Serbian people ruling themselves, leading all the South Slavs, free and independent of foreign control. Did the relics assist this belief in Serbia? The answer is almost certainly yes. They were as much a part of the fight for that kingdom as any soldier or sword. The monument where that wooden church was once located, now stands improbably in another nation, Hungary, in a town that has only a handful of Serbs still living there. Nevertheless, it deserves not only to be noticed, but also to be read and remembered.

Piliszentkerszt – Last Bastion of the Slovaks of Hungary

Deep in the Pilis Hills of northern Hungary stands the village of Piliszentkerszt (The Holy Cross of Pilis). Its natural setting attracts hikers who seek refuge in the dense oak and beech forests. The natural beauty and resources of Piliszentkerszt has also attracted many foreigners to the area, including some that are not only tourists. On multiple occasions over the past 800 years this small village became a haven to foreigners who immigrated to the area. Many of them found the climate and natural beauty to be extremely hospitable, thus they decided to stay. Even today, this sheltered environment is home to one of the few villages in Hungary with a non-Magyar ethnic majority. This goes against the grain of 20th century European history. With the fall of empires, multi-ethnic states were turned into smaller, highly homogenous nations. Hungary was part of this movement. Only areas along borders or those hidden in relative isolation were able to buck this historical trend. Piliszentkerszt was one of these places.

Aerial view of the ruins of the Benedictine Abbey of Piliszenkerszt (Credit: Civertan)

Aerial view of the ruins of the Benedictine Abbey of Piliszenkerszt (Credit: Civertan)

By Invitation Only – The Creation of Piliszentkerszt
The foreigners that first permanently settled Piliszentkerszt came by way of invitation. The first immigrants to arrive were monks brought to Hungary by the French wife of King Bela III (1172 – 1196). A Benedictine Abbey was established for them in the year 1184. Soon a village sprang up around it.  The abbey and its immediate area may have seemed like a safe haven, but during the early Middle Ages, those who ruled the land shared one thing in common with the average person, the precariousness of life. Being a foreigner could make life even more perilous.

One of only two assassinations of queens in Hungarian history occurred near Piliszentkerszt. The German wife of King Andrew II (1205 – 1235), Gertrude of Merania, was despised by the indigenous nobility because of her overt favoritism toward fellow Germans. Among Gertrude’s many affronts to the native nobility, she gifted one-third of Hungarian land to her fellow Germans. The hatred this action engendered led the nobles to conspire against her. In the autumn of 1213 during a hunting trip in the Pilis, she was murdered by nobles. They then had her body torn to pieces. What remained was interred at the nearby abbey in a Gothic tomb. During the latter half of the 20th century an excavation of Gertrude’s Gothic tomb took place. This provided confirmation of her fate.

Piliszentkerst’s isolation could not protect it from either immigration or by the 16th century, invasion by foreigners into the Carpathian Basin. Just as foreigners had constructed the abbey and village, so too did another group of outsiders bring about its destruction. In 1526, the Ottoman Turks under the banner of Islam, destroyed both the abbey and village. The ruins left behind are still visible today and can be visited. Following the expulsion of the Turks, the settlement was a non-existent, lifeless ruin.

Bilingual signage greet visitors to the village today

Bilingual signage greet visitors to the village today

A Slovak Haven – Reconstructing Piliszentkerszt
It was not until the middle of the 18th century that yet another group of foreigners would arrive on the scene. In 1747, a group of Slovak migrants arrived to rebuild the village. The ruling Habsburgs who had thrown the Turks out of Hungary in the late 17th century, brought in groups of migrants, namely ethnic Germans and Slovaks to help repopulate a Hungarian Kingdom that had been denuded of its people by a century and a half of warfare. The Slovak presence in Piliszentkerst would act as a magnet, attracting Slovaks from all over Hungary. The village was soon reconstructed, becoming a new home for another group of ethnic and linguistic outsiders.

Unlike those who came before them, the Slovaks had staying power. Despite over two and a half centuries of fraught relations between Hungarians and Slovaks, the population of Piliszentkerszt resisted the forces of Magyarization and cultural assimilation. Even the 20th century draw of a newly born Czechoslovak nation to the north was not enough to uproot them. Perhaps it was the isolation of the community that allowed it to defy history. While the nation of Hungary became over ninety percent ethnically Hungarian, Piliszentkereszt remained the only settlement in Hungary where Slovaks made up the majority. Even today that is true, though they are a very slim majority at 54%. The Slovak name for the village, Mlynky can be seen on bilingual signs. Signage in the shops is also written in both the Slovak and Hungarian languages. Here stands an island of Slovak settlement thriving amid a sea of Hungarians.

Piliszentkerszt - Isolated from change but for how long

Piliszentkerszt – Isolated from change but for how long

Out With the Old – The Challenge of Modernity
A new threat to the Slovaks of Piliszentkerst is now presenting itself. The ever progressing forces of modernity, with greater opportunities to travel and communicate with the larger world may end the village’s isolation. Slowly a younger generation of Slovaks in Piliszentkerszt has been losing the language skills and cultural ties that have so tightly bound the community together. A legacy of over eight centuries of foreign settlement is now threatened, not by the dominant ethnic culture, but instead by the transformative effects of technology and globalization. What will the future hold for Piliszentkerszt? Is it destined to become like the rest of Hungary, assimilated into homogeneity? If so, it will not be the first time that foreigners have been swept from the area. Foreigners may have a long history in this village, but challenges from the modern world may finally prove too much to overcome.