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, 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 are still standing or rebuilt today, including the Royal Palace in Budapest, date to that period.
In addition to the Buda Royal Palace, the towering ruins of Visegrád reflect both the military and strategic significance of this small but ancient town along the banks of the Danube. The imposing fortress was built by King Mátyás at a time when Hungary was flexing its muscles on the international stage. This is further emphasized by the lavish palace in the town below.
Lake Balaton has always been treasured by Hungarians and it is no coincidence that it is surrounded by castles and other fortifications. Some 30 kilometres to the north of Keszthely, the castle of Sümeg dominates the skyline from its vantage point atop its solitary limestone hill. Originally built as a defence against the Mongols, it was the only fortress that didn't fall to the Turks, but it did finally succumb to the might of the Habsburgs. In the sixteenth century, the town of Nagyvázsony was on the border between Turkish and Habsburg-ruled Hungary. The 90 foot-high castle keep is still intact today and is complemented by the Zichy manor house, which also has its own riding school.
The area of Transdanubia to the north of Lake Balaton was caught in the crossfire for much of the long-drawn-out conflict between the Hungarians, the Turks and the Habsburgs. The scores of castle ruins in the region are a lasting legacy of the battles fought out over the centuries. In 1532, 800 soldiers held an army of 60,000 Turks at bay for 25 days at the city walls of the delightful town of Koszeg on the Austrian border, halting their progress to Vienna. Today, Jurisics Castle and the historic medieval town stage tournaments in the summer months, as well as a Renaissance festival in August.
The famous Hungarian aristocratic family, the Eszterházy family built the country's largest Baroque mansion in Fertod. The 18th century jewel often likened to Versailles had an opera house, puppet theatre, music hall, Chinese pavilion, small churches and its own orchestra directed by Haydn. Today the international Haydn Festival is hosted there as well as many musical performances.
Remarkably, the Benedictine Abbey in Pannonhalma, founded in 996, has survived every war in Hungary's history. It is one of the few medieval cloisters still standing today, although it has had a few makeovers and even functioned briefly as a mosque.
Sárvár, with its pentagon-shaped Nádasdy Castle, is also home to a Renaissance mansion decorated with lavish paintings and furnishings, as well as a fine collection of medieval weaponry. What's more, many of the trees in the arboretum are more than 300 years old and the park houses a modern thermal spa hotel, one of the most popular in Transdanubia.