Nothing else so potently evokes dreams of days gone by than the sight of a crumbling castle perched on a hill. Nothing else is quite so European, quite so beyond the experience of North America, as the remnants of fortresses and mansions of royalty and nobility built long before the Old World discovered the New. And the care with which these castles and manor houses have been preserved, restored or rebuilt through centuries of wars, invasions, fires and other man-made and natural disasters speaks volumes about the great respect Hungarians have for their history.
More than 1,500 castles, palaces and manor houses have been built in Hungary over the centuries. It was after the Tatar invasion of the 1200's that King Béla IV erected castles and strong fortresses throughout the country. The foundation of nearly all castles still standing or rebuilt today, including the Royal Palace in Budapest, date to that period.
The northwestern part of the country, Northern Transdanubia, is especially rich in these historical treasures and other architectural reminders of the distant past. Not only can you make daytime visits to castles that are monuments and museums, but you can also stay overnight in castle-hotels or manor house-hotels, where modern amenities have been added without detracting from the romantic atmosphere of ages long ago.
The Royal Palace sits on top of Castle Hill overlooking the Danube on the Buda side of Budapest. Inside is the Budapest History Museum, where you can walk underneath the existing building to explore excavated remains of different periods of this castle. While most of the above-ground present structure was restored after World War II bombing to look much as it did in the 18th and 19th centuries, there are older parts you can visit, including the Round Bastion, the "War Hammer" tower and Gothic Great Hall. The entire Castle Hill area has such a precious place in man's history that it is part of the UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site, which includes the panorama over both sides of the Danube from Margaret Island to Gellért Hill.
Medieval and Renaissance Landmarks
From Budapest, drive to Lake Balaton to see the haunting ruins of two magnificent fortress-type castles. The first is Nagyvázsony, with a 90-feet high intact castle keep. Built in the 15th century, it belonged to the General of Renaissance King Mátyás. On the lake itself is the second, Szigliget - built in the 13th century on a 720-feet high hill. Nearby are the thatch-roofed houses from an old village. Nagyvázsony also has the 200-year old Zichy manor house - now a hotel with a riding school.
Heading northwest from Lake Balaton as you approach the town of Sümeg, the road is lined on both sides with poplars as far as the eye can see. Suddenly in the distance a hill rises, topped by the remains of a mighty stone fortress, and framed between the two converging rows of trees. One of Hungary's largest and best preserved medieval castles, Sümeg, was built in the 13th century, the only fortress in Hungary north of Lake Balaton that the Turks were unable to capture. The cannon rooms, barracks, stables and bakeries in the partially restored fort hint at the life of soldiers from long ago. During the summertime Castle Festival, feasts and tournaments with participants in period costume are staged here.
From Sümeg, it's a
short distance to Sárvár with its pentagon-shaped Nádasdy Castle.
Built in the 16th century on medieval foundations and with a bridge as
an entryway -
even though the moat was drained hundreds of years ago - this
Renaissance mansion is richly decorated with centuries-old paintings and
furnishings. It has an arboretum with trees that are more than 300 years
old and a park with a modern thermal spa hotel, one of the most popular
in all of Northern Transdanubia.
Entire Towns Full of History
At the foot of the Alps on the Austrian border lie two towns rich in architectural history - Kőszeg and Sopron. In 1532, 800 men in Kőszeg withstood a 25-day siege by 60,000 Turks intent on conquering nearby Vienna. Come and marvel at the great stone walls, bastion and gate of Kőszeg's Jurisics Castle, in existence since the 14th century but strengthened in the 15th. Wander through the charming medieval center of town. Here, too, tournaments are staged in summer months, as well as a Renaissance festival in August.
Still on the Austrian border north of Kőszeg, is a town the Romans first settled and called Scarbantia. In Sopron today you can see the excavated Scarbantia Forum, Renaissance and medieval houses, including a 13th century synagogue, tiny trading houses along concentric streets, a Gothic church and Baroque town square. Intricate wrought iron decorates shop signs, gates and doorways of the narrow streets. The town has done such an admirable job of preservation that it was awarded the Europa prize in 1975 for the protection of monuments. After exploring this jewel of a town, relax in Sopron's soothing thermal baths and quench your thirst with fine red wines - particularly Blue Frankish - from its vineyards.
Close by, you can overnight in Nagycenk's 200 year-old manor house hotel that was the family home of the great 19th century reformer, Count István Széchenyi, responsible for building Budapest's famous Chain Bridge (also called the Széchenyi Bridge) and for founding the Academy of Sciences.
Hungarian aristocratic family - Eszterházy - built the country's
mansion in Fertőd, the next stop as we turn back east towards Budapest.
Eszterházy Palace - the 18th century jewel often likened to Versailles
- had an opera house, puppet theater, music hall, Chinese
pavilion, small churches, riding hall, formal gardens and its own
orchestra, directed by Haydn. Today the International Haydn
Festival is hosted here, as well as many musical performances.
One Thousand Years Old Abbey
From extravagant, earthly splendor we turn to restrained religious devotion, as we travel from Fertőd to Pannonhalma, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here in 996, Benedictine monks founded a monastery and the first center of learning in Hungary. The Abbey at Pannonhalma is Hungary's oldest standing building. It has the country's only intact medieval cloisters, Gothic vaulting in its Basilica, Renaissance carving and one of the world's largest Benedictine libraries. This is a place that has witnessed all of the nation's history from struggles within the Árpád dynasty of Magyar founders to Tatar, Turkish and Austrian rule. Pannonhalma's Benedictine high school is one of the most respected in the country.
Take one last look into the distant past at a marvelous castle in Tata before returning to Budapest. With picturesque Öreg Lake on one side and a moat on the other side, a castle appears to rise out of the water. First built in the early 15th century then enlarged and renovated by the great Renaissance King Mátyás, Tata Castle - the only one in Hungary completely surrounded by water - today houses a museum with rare exhibits on ancient and medieval times. This is truly an enchanted place, but then aren't all castles?