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.

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.