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New Europe

Day Seventy: Visegrád

International Palace Games at Visegrád 
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The golden age of Hungarian history is replayed at the International Palace Games at Visegrád. Hot knights and frisky horses.
Michael Palin - New EuropeIt's mid-morning and a procession is making its way slowly through the riverside town of Visegrád, five miles and two bends downstream from Esztergom. Drums and trumpets are sounding, flags and pennants are fluttering in the breeze, and knights in armour are perspiring in the dusty summer heat. On and on they come; noblemen and women on horseback, citizens walking alongside, mothers with babies, burghers in the colours of their guilds, helmeted Tartar mercenaries from the East, with fur cloaks, barking out orders, Italians in vibrant red and gold tunics carrying huge flags of scarlet and deep blue high into the sky. Heavily robed bishops, archers with leather hoods, heralds in tabards, knights in black chain mail, horses in full armour, lightly dressed cavalry and plodding foot soldiers, and in the middle of them all, on thick-legged horses cloaked in coloured velvet, an unmistakable King and Queen.

The reason for all this is what György calls 'Middle-Aged Day', a once-yearly pageant with more than a hint of yearning for those golden days when knights were bold, and the boldest of all were to be found in Hungary. The serious historical context to it all it is the reign of Matthias Corvinus (Corvinus referring to the raven that was the royal emblem). Matthias, still a teenager when he came to the throne in 1458, was the son of one of Europe's most successful warriors, Janos Hunyadi, a Transylvanian who spent most of his adult life fighting the Turks, defeating them, against all the odds, at the siege of Belgrade.

Matthias reaped the benefit of a breathing space of tranquillity to build up a reputation as a strong but civilised ruler. He taxed his nobles to raise a standing force of 30,000 men, known as the Black Army, but he was equally successful at attracting scholars and artists to his palaces, one of which was at Visegrád.

Visegrád (a Slav word meaning 'high place') guards the last loop of the Danube before it turns south to Budapest and Belgrade, and the remains of a thirteenth-century castle overlook the city. Matthias' Palace, too, fell into disrepair, and was submerged in mud until Janos Schulek, an archaeologist, rediscovered it in 1934. Partly restored, it is now the reason for, and location of, this celebration of all things medieval.

Hungarian day-trippers wander among stalls selling beer, sausages, books, jewellery, Attila the Hun DVDs and maps of pre-Trianon Hungary.

Meanwhile, the long procession spills into the palace grounds where the King and Queen of the day take their place in a Royal Pavilion, and receive solemn pledges of loyalty from the participants, many of whom then go back to join their families in the audience. Where else would you find a Teutonic Knight with his arm round a woman in turquoise hotpants?
International Palace Games at Visegrád 
click to enlarge 
file size
The golden age of Hungarian history is replayed at the International Palace Games at Visegrád. Hot knights and frisky horses.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Seventy: Visegrád
  • Country/sea: Hungary
  • Place: Visegrád
  • Book page no: 167

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