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.

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.

Sedentary Vengeance – Vlad Tepes (The Historical Dracula) Imprisonment at Visegrad

The real life historical Dracula, Vlad Tepes or “Vlad the Impaler,”  is most often remembered for the extreme bloodletting he unleashed in Transylvania and Wallachia – both parts of present day Romania – in the 15th century. During Vlad’s multiple reigns as Prince of Wallachia he displayed a level of cruelty unmatched in medieval history, which considering the times is really saying something. The list of those who suffered his wrath was long and notable. These included rich landowning boyars, Saxons, Ottoman Turks and Hungarian nobles. Vlad’s macabre designs were not only reserved for elites and foreigners. Peasants and the destitute were also among the many thousands of his victims.

Vlad Tepes - known to history as Vlad the Impaler

Vlad Tepes – known to history as Vlad the Impaler

Betrayal & Confinement– The Prince of Darkness at Peace
The popular conception of Vlad’s life might lead one to believe that he was forever at war, constantly engaged in torturing or killing his many enemies. To be sure there was plenty of that, but there was also a long period he spent in confinement, far from his homeland. During this time, he did not engage in warfare or for that matter much of anything. This period is much less well known and even less discussed. It took place along the Danube in Hungary. Beginning in 1462 he would spend a decade under house arrest in Visegrad at the summer palace of the Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus. During this time he was the political prisoner of the king. For ten years Vlad’s life was sedentary and domesticated. This is the polar opposite of the usual image of him as a bloodthirsty avenger. Vlad Tepes spent one-fifth of his life in relative solitude waiting for the moment when he could return to the warpath.

Why was Vlad imprisoned at Visegrad? The simplest explanation of Vlad Tepes’s imprisonment at Visegrad is that he was betrayed. In 1462 he had traveled to the Kingdom of Hungary seeking money from King Matthias to continue his campaigns against the Ottoman Turks. At this point, constant warfare had nearly bankrupted Vlad who was no longer able to pay his mercenary forces. Unbeknownst to Vlad, the king was in no position to loan him money. Matthias had his own financial worries. He had already spent a large sum of money that had been given to him by the Papacy for the purpose of carrying out expeditions against the Turks. He was more interested in cultivating the Renaissance in his homeland, rather than fighting yet another war.

Matthias took Vlad prisoner and had a letter drawn up showing that Vlad had actually proposed peace with the Turks. Thus Matthias had made it look as though Vlad had committed treason. This letter soon made its way to the pope. The upshot was that Matthias imprisoned Vlad for the foreseeable future. At the same time, the king had distracted the papacy with this incident. To the point, where they forgot about the debts Matthias owed them. As for Vlad, he was now a vassal of the Hungarian king. Confined to a palace in Visegrad, the feared Vlad would become a useful political tool.

Aerial view of the ruins of the Royal Palace at Visegrad (Credit: Civertan)

Aerial view of the ruins of the Royal Palace at Visegrad (Credit: Civertan)

Frozen In Fear – The Domesticated Impaler
What was Vlad Tepes up to during all those years? Was he plotting revenge? Planning an escape? Wondering if he would ever regain power? Did he spend his time walking in the lavish courtyard of the palace, staring at its magnificent hanging gardens, visiting with other guests who were staying in one of the palace’s 350 rooms? Did he examine the ongoing work at the palace? This might have brought about a stinging realization. The money which could have funded Vlad’s campaigns against the Turks was instead being used to adorn the palace with Renaissance style flourishes. What little information is available about Vlad’s time at the palace seems to confirm that he had not changed much. He was still able to satisfy his lust for torture. According to a Russian Ambassador to the court, Vlad occupied himself capturing birds, then cutting off their heads or plucking them free of their feathers. An Italian bishop reported that Vlad cut up mice and then impaled their body parts on small sticks.

In the hands of King Matthias, Vlad also became a political weapon against the Turks. When the Sultan’s diplomats arrived at Visegrad to talk over the terms of an armistice that had went into effect, they could not help, but notice that Matthias had Vlad present. The emissaries must have frozen in fear. This would have sent shivers through the entire Ottoman leadership. Almost certainly, the news of Vlad’s presence was relayed all the way back to Sultan Mehmed. After all, in 1462 Mehmed had ordered his army to retreat when he came upon a horrific sight, a forest of 20,000 impaled corpses left behind by Vlad and his mercenary forces at Targoviste in Wallachia. Eventually Matthias moved Vlad to a house further down the Danube at Pest before finally freeing him from twelve years of captivity. Vlad was sent back to Wallachia to deal with local forces that had allied with the Turks.

Statue of Vlad Tepes in his birthplace of Sighisoara, Transylvania (Credit: Sailko)

Statue of Vlad Tepes in his birthplace of Sighisoara, Transylvania (Credit: Sailko)

An Uneasy Peace – A Paradox at Visegrad
Most likely the years at Visegrad extended Vlad’s life. He was assassinated a mere two years after he had regained his position as Prince of Wallchia. He was forty five years old when he died. Vlad Tepes had lived longer than most of his kinsmen. Then again he had been singularly responsible for lowering the life expectancy in any area he occupied for long. The only exception in his life was his time at Visegrad. There, on the banks of the sullen gray Danube, amid the splendor and refinement of a Renaissance palace, the Prince of Darkness was confined to a life of uneasy peace.