Hungary experienced a Renaissance in the 15th century and became the greatest kingdom of Middle Europe. It’s King Mátyás Corvinius and his second wife, Beatrice, daughter of the King of Naples, enabled a resurgence in art, architecture, sculpture and learning.
Hungarian towns dazzled with baroque buildings and glittering cathedrals and were bustling with sophisticated populations of merchants, traders, artists, musicians, craftworkers and ambassadors, diplomats to the surrounding foreign powers.
It was a force from the east that once again shaped Hungary’s destiny. 600 years after the Magyar tribes colonised the country, a new force arrived… the Turks. Seizing the opportunity in 1526 to invade a politically weakened Hungary, Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent annihilated the Hungarian Army and its young King Lajos II at the Battle of Mohács.
The Ottoman Empire marched north and established itself in Budapest from where it ruled the centre and east of the country for 150 years, partitioning the west with the Austrian Habsburg Empire.
Perhaps the most romantic tale of resistance to the Ottomans unfolded at Szigetvár in 1566. Legendary Captain Miklós Zrínyi and his small garrison of 2,300 soldiers held the town’s fortress against a Turkish attacking force of more than 100,000 for 22 days.
Eventually defeated by lack of fresh water, the garrison marched out to noble but futile deaths in hand-to-hand combat.
We walked the beautifully reclaimed brick walls surrounding the fort and imagined the lives lived inside it, frightened but fearless in those last days.
The heroic captain is remembered in practically every street and business name in the town, and has many statues. Perhaps an ironic revenge is to be had in the town’s former mosque, sited on the main square Zrínyi Ter, which became a Catholic church in 1789.
Siklós, the southernmost town in Hungary and close to the border with Serbia is dominated by its outstanding fortified castle.
Built in 1294 it has had a charmed life, being spared both by the Turks, and later the Habsburgs (twice). Set up on a bluff above the pretty town, it looks south to the border and the many vineyards of the wine-making region. The ramparts are beautifully preserved and a wooden platform allows you to walk alongside the surrounding brick crenelated walls.
The castle itself is impressively simple, a three-storey square building of thick walls, its many rooms are white washed and bathed in cool light from its long, deep windows.
We peeped into a prayer niche – the only one of its kind in Hungary and thought to date to the 1500s. Faded and undecipherable frescoes decorate the walls and a worn kneeling stone bench and alter face east.
An interesting photography exhibition showed the castle in the 1930s, home to the noble Batthyány family. The rooms were wallpapered and furnished richly with heavy curtains and ornate wooden furniture.
Cocktails were enjoyed amongst the pots of palms and ferns and outside, excavations and treasure finds were ongoing. It seemed a lovely time to claim ownership of this castle!