Towns / Cities Visited: 135
Countries Visited: 22
Steps Taken Today: 20,502
Steps Taken Around the World: 3,414,675
We awoke to the sounds of voices outside the door, and it only took a moment and a flick of a light switch to figure out why there was such a buzz in the hotel; the power was out. Unable to get back to sleep with the bustle going on, we resigned ourselves to getting up and heading downstairs to grab some breakfast. Despite the lack of power, there was still a chaffing dish of scrambled eggs to have with bread, and hot water to make tea, as I assume the kitchen here probably runs off gas. Some muesli and fruit to bolster the meal and we were full enough to begin the days adventure.
Checking out and entrusting our belongings to the receptionist, we stepped into the sunshine and headed over to the path which ascends Sibrik Hill, leading us up to attraction number one for the day; the Citadel of Visegrád. Both the upper and lower parts of the castle, which sits at the very top of the tall hill that looms over the town, was built on the foundations of a former Roman camp by King Bela back in the mid 13th century, after the Mongol invasion. It was expanded and renovated many times over the following centuries. It’s worth noting that, although this town is now somewhat small and out of the way, Visegrád was once a hugely significant place, being the royal seat of Hungary between 1325 and 1405. Visegrád fell into the hands of the Ottoman Empire in 1544, and aside from a short ten year stint at the end of the century, remained in Turkish hands until 1685. Unfortunately the Turks did significant damage to the castle, and after they departed it fell into a state of unused disrepair. Efforts to restore the castle began in the 1870’s and continue to this day.
It was about halfway up the hill that we reached the lower section of the fortifications, the main structure here being Solomon Tower. This medieval residential tower was built in the 13th century and has been restored in stages over the last century and a half. As we passed the hedge covered wall, and ducked under the semi-lowered portcullis of the red brick gate, we stood looking up at the tower rising alongside us. One thing becomes glaringly obvious as soon as you see it, the fact that its rough and tumble past is worn very much on its exterior. The outer walls are a bizarre mix of medieval rough hewn stone, the clean grout and square corners of replacement stones, and some much more modern looking planks of what I assume is a durable hard plastic, complete with windows instead of the standard loopholes of the original structure. The central courtyard that the tower abuts, and which would have once housed a number of residents, is everything you would expect if a medieval structure, but as neither this space nor the tower can be entered, we continued the trek up and up.
A tiresome but picturesque walk along the tree-lined path saw us reach the peak heaving a little by the time we approached the gate of the upper castle. Wandering through, we bought our tickets at the booth, pleased to see that up here had power, and, joining the rest of the visitors, almost all of whom seemed to be middle aged and senior Hungarian folk, we made the walk towards the upper landing. The walk took us past a few mock medieval canvas tents, spruiking the chance to do a little archery, or take a selfie with a rather disenfranchised looking hawk. Deciding to give it a miss and instead continued up to the panoramic landing which delivers a truly stunning view down over the wide, aquamarine expanse of the Danube and its sister cities of Visegrád and Nagymaros. To be honest, I could have sat there happily looking at that view all day, but adventure called.
Walking around the castle, and crossing the wooden bridge which provides passage over the moat dug out from the very mountain rock, we made our way to the building we’d made this steep journey to visit. Although very little of the upper levels remain, standing encompassed by the walls of the lower level still provides a solid sense of how this place would have felt centuries before. Within the walls of the rooms that remain sit a number of different exhibits, from one talking about the knights of this region in medieval times, including quite a few coats of arms, along with a number of suits of armour and weaponry; to another about medieval hunting and falconry.
An upper platform where the second storey rooms would have once sat, offers an equally as splendid, if not a little obstructed, view down over the surrounding area, including the lush hilltop forest and the towns further south in the valley.
Coming back down from the heights of the keep, we ducked into the two exhibits in the rooms attached to the inner wall. The first was a little surprising to say the least: a waxworks scene designed to detail the famous Congress of Visegrád of 1355. This was a two month summit in which Charles I of Hungary met with John I of Bohemia and Casamir III of Poland, and formed an anti-Habsburg alliance. Due to the Habsburg’s rapidly growing European dominance, the three leaders came to the conclusion they must create new commercial routes in order to bypass the major port in Vienna, and in doing so free up access with other European markets, while at the same time reducing Habsburg control over their trade. It was a hugely significant event in the history of these three nations, and, as such, it is now rather whimsically displayed in this obscure location through the medium of posed wax figures. Not sure that was quite the way they thought it would be remembered, and yet here I am knowing about it, so it is at least a partially effective method of education. I mean, obviously the real event would have been held in the actual keep, and likely with more eye contact between the kings, a lack of a kids table for royal offspring, and significantly less strategically placed grapes. I also imagine the next room wouldn’t have been filled, as it is here, with strangely bearded men dancing with questionably interested women to men playing ditties on lutes and double flutes. Then again, what do I know, maybe the past was exactly this eccentric.
The last exhibit contained our second display about the Hungarian crown jewels in as many days, including yet another replica as well as a few replica paintings of the tiny biblical paintings that decorate the crown. You see, not only was this the royal seat of Hungary for a good stint there, it was also home to the crown and its accoutrements from the early part of the 14th century until 1529 when the royal seat moved to Buda. That being said there was a complicated 23 year stint were it was stolen by Queen Elisabeth’s lady in waiting in order to crown the Queen’s infant son. It was eventually reacquired by King Matthias Hunyadi (who’s father was the man who built Corvin Castle which we visited in Romania a few months prior) from where it had ended up in the hands of Frederick, the emperor of Austria. But I mean hey, doesn’t everyone love a good stolen crown jewels story.
One last circle of the castle saw us leaving through a different gate and taking a different, albeit slightly more treacherous, track back down: one which spat us out in town, as oppose to beside our hotel. With one more sight on our list, we walked down the road until we reached it; The King Matthias Museum, a former royal palace turned museum. The first royal house here was constructed in 1325 by Charles I, after which a royal palace replaced it later in the century by his son and heir, Louis I. By the end of the century most of it had been dismantled to make way for an extravagant new 350 room complex, and by the end of the 15th century, King Matthias Corvinus (a.k.a. Matthias Hunyadi) had the entire place redone in the late gothic style. The interiors were then decorated in a more Italian renaissance style, the first place to do so outside of Italy. After the Ottomans invaded in 1544 the palace was abandoned, and by the 18th century it was completely covered with earth, destined to be become a vague memory buried forever. Luckily, it was rediscovered and excavation began in 1934. It has been partially reconstructed, and although it is far from its former glory, it still offers itself up as an attractive place to visit.
Wandering in the gate and heading to the ticket office, we soon discovered that down here in town was still without power, but not to be dissuaded, we assured the ticket man that it was fine by us, paid in cash, and headed on in. I little bit of darkness wasn’t going to stop us. Besides, what else are phone flashlights for if not to read information panels in obscure Hungarian tourist attractions.
Heading up beside the front lawn, we took a moment to marvel at the damaged palace before us. This aging beauty, which would have once stood a gleaming display of whitewash and red brick roofing, now looks as though the entire place has had its upper levels sliced off at rather a strange angle. Still, the bottom couple of levels remain standing, an it was into them that we headed. The first couple of rooms were right at the heart of the building, and as such were rather dim, the only light being whatever weak rays of sun could weave their way in through the impossibly thin window slits. A little help from my phone allowed us to read a little of the castle’s history though, and peak at a few artifacts discovered during the dig.
Heading out the other side of the building, we were delivered into the reconstructed manicured gardens, which would have held the herbs and flowers to serve the apothecary needs of the Franciscan friary which once also sat on the grounds. True to form, the beds still sit planted with fragrant herbs, even if medicine has moved on a bit from medieval tinctures.
Through another more airy corridor and we found ourselves in the cloister, with its peach pink stone walls, crisp white arches, and trickling replica Hercules fountain at its centre, designed based on the remains found of the original. It is a gorgeous place of quiet reflection, which I’m sure would have offered an attractive place for peaceful solitude to the royals who’s lives were so filled with public duty.
The surrounding and upper rooms play host to a number of replica royal apartments which would have once graced this part of the palace. From royal bedrooms, to a private pleasure garden, a large airy kitchen, and even a great hall, complete with crown glass windows and a gorgeous green tiled stove based, once again, on remains found in the excavation. Amongst the rooms sit a few mannequins donning the kind of over the top garb the royals would have swanned around it, including the mildly unnecessary headwear which seemed to fashionable across medieval Europe.
Alongside all of this I must also give a mention to the truly stunning carved artwork perched on one of the walls which is so well made that you’s be forgiven for thinking it was three dimensional. As well as the lapidarium which holds the remains of the fountain and stove so lovingly recreated for the display rooms. A room which really makes you appreciate the efforts restoration teams put in to faithfully recreate what once was from fragments of the past.
Despite it all, it was a much more unassuming room which caught my attention. As you near the far wall of this otherwise bleak room, you notice that there is, in fact, a bath built into the wall in stone. Now don’t think some form fitting tub, its more of a tiny personal pool, yet it has something most lacked during medieval times, taps. You see it is set up to allow water to be boiled in receptacle beside the bath and piped in directly. I know we take hot running water for granted these days, but back then, this would have been the height of luxury. I mean, not having to have your servants painstakingly carry up pots of boiling water from the kitchen over the course of an hour or so; yes please.
Outside, in the upper courtyard, you are greeted by the serene sight of a gorgeous sprawling shade tree bearing an autumnal collection of greens and yellows. Off to the side, sits the red marble Lion fountain, named aptly after the five lions laying at the base of its pillars, and the two lion faces acting as water spouts. The fine tracery of the now glass-less windows, and a balcony fit for a princess only serve to enchant you more. Its the kind of scene that looks peeled straight from the pages of a book, a scene akin to the realms of Middle Earth or Westeros, or a perfect backdrop to some Shakespearean romance.
We had, by this point in the mid afternoon, completed out self assigned exploration for the day, and with the power still out town wide we agreed the best course of action was to stave off hunger on what snacks we had on us, and find food when we arrived at our next destination. Just as we were talking to one another about how lucky it was that we had taken out money from the ATM the previous night, and as such would not have to hop back on the ferry penniless in the local currency, we passed the restaurant beside our hotel. There was an all too familiar sound coming from their parking lot. As we looked up, our suspicions were confirmed, sitting there, humming along, was a portable generator unit: they had power. Continuing to the front, we scanned the menu, and immediately decided that lunch plans were back on the books. The quaint place, in this sleepy little town, offered a medieval inspired menu with a medieval inspired decor. Given that we had just spent the day delving into the medieval history of this area, it seemed like the perfect end to our visit.
Our meal was just as good as we had hoped, starting with a venison soup and a pheasant broth accompanied by some scrumptious warm bread; then following with a roasted goose leg with potato pancake and braised cabbage, and a ragout of boar with bread dumplings. Everything, including our drinks, were served, true to form, in earthenware. The staff were all donned in medieval garb, and they also offer a rack of medieval clothing should you wish to join in on their theme. To top it all off, our meal was enjoyed to the tune of a man swanning round the dining room playing medieval tunes on a lute. It was fun, casual, and most of all delicious: a place I would recommend you drop into should you find yourself here, and one I will remember fondly.
Full, and far happier than we would have been subsisting on snacks, we grabbed our bags from the hotel and trekked back to the waterside, waiting half an hour for the ferry to come and collect us. As we alighted in Nagymaros, we took a moment to look back over at Visegrád. It had been a visit with far more stress and inconvenience than we’d hoped, and yet we had achieved all we had come to, and in doing so left with only fondness in our hearts for this rural village, and the hilltop castle that serves as its sentinel.
We managed to make it to the train station just in time to board the next train out, and in a short and painless forty-five minutes, we found ourselves in the nation’s capital; Budapest. Following our Google directions, we made the long and tedious walk to our Airbnb, before finally tumbling in the door, grateful to peel off our backpacks and unload ourselves or our suitcases. For the first time in two months, we were finally standing in a place we would call home for five nights. As it is with constant moving, now that we were pausing for multiple days, the evening was filled with gathering groceries, showering, and banging out some laundry, so that we would be ready to enjoy a less stressful stay.
As I lay in bed, and drifted in and out of the land of nod, I thought about how amusing it is that such a quiet and self-effacing little town like Visegrád was once the ruling capital of the once much larger Hungarian Empire: that its importance has ebbed and waned so monumentally. I pondered about how places that we now know to be booming metropolises and centres of important international trade and national rule, were once similarly as meek. As immovable as our capitals are now, the same was not always as true in centuries and millennia past. Especially back in a time when Europe’s borders, particularly in the east, were constantly moving, and land was regularly being fought over and changing hands. If nothing else, our education in Visegrád reminded us that looking beyond the major cities is often where the true history of a country can be found, and should never be forgotten in favour of more well known and tourist friendly attractions.