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

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

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

Riverview - Visegrad as seen from the Danube

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

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

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

Unreconstructed - Visegrad Citadel

Unreconstructed – Visegrad Citadel (Credit: fortepan.hu)

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

Crowning Achievement - Visegrad & the Danube

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

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

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

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

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

Primeval Morning - The View From Visegrad

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

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

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

Going Medieval- Charles I of Hungary

Going Medieval- Charles I of Hungary

Mining A Mint – The Glitter of Hungarian Gold

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

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

Lasting Remnants - Visegrad Citadel

Lasting Remnants – Visegrad Citadel (Credit: Sasimunoz)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Across the Wide Danube - Nagymaros-Visegrád Ferry

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

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

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

History Rising - Solomon's Tower from the Danube

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

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

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