It’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?
A crowd of several thousand is entertained by all sorts of marching, music, pitched battles and feats of skill. The Italian contingent is led by a phalanx of gamine flag-bearers who toss flags and poles high in the air and catch them with infectious precision. A falconry display could have been a little dull but is immeasurably enlivened when one of the birds, poised elegantly on a post, raises its tail and sends a perfectly aimed jobby onto the upraised lens of a tourist’s camera. A display of belly-dancing is a rare nod to the Ottoman past, but the highlight of the entertainment is a solo display of extraordinary skill from Lajos Kassai, the master of the art of horseback archery. At full gallop, aiming, firing and reloading as he goes, he sends six arrows from quiver to target in twelve seconds. On the next pass he fires at targets thrown up into the air, and hits four in succession, dead centre. In seventeen seconds he can shoot twelve arrows into a target.
As befits a member of the World Association of Horse Archery, Kassai knows his history. Did I know that the technique of backwards archery was the great advantage that Attila the Hun’s men had over the Romans? Did I know that the Avars, another tribe from Central Asia, invented the stirrup? That an arrow fired at a gallop of 30 miles per hour will have double the piercing power of an arrow fired from stationary? The key to the success of the invading Huns, Avars and Magyars was the equestrian skills that came naturally to people who had been nomadic herdsmen for generations.
For Lajos, a powerfully built man with a shaved head and steely blue eyes, re-creating these ancient skills has become a way of life. He owns 15 hectares of a remote valley in which he has a riding school, archery courses, and a yurt to remind him of the roots of the ancestors he admires so much.
‘Every Hungarian feels in his heart he is Attila.’
Further down the river in the direction of Budapest, a pretty little town called Szentendre (St Andrew) adds another piece to the jigsaw of Hungarian history. Szentendre was founded by Serbs fleeing north after the catastrophic defeat of their armies by the Turks at the Field of Blackbirds in 1389, and many more came later when the Ottoman armies recaptured Belgrade in 1690.
It has a handsome Orthodox church, next to which is what used to be the priest’s house and is now the home of the Eredics, one of the hundred or so Serb families still left in Szentendre.
Kálmán Eredic, the elder of the family, started his group of musicians thirty-two years ago. Various members of the family have now joined him and in the secluded garden of what is largely a 300-year-old house, they play, on violins of all kinds (with Kálmán on the double bass), vigorous folk music that has not just Serb but also Macedonian and Croatian influences. Marta Sebestyen, one of Hungary’s most celebrated singers, who sang the haunting folk song in The English Patient, has worked with the group over many years. With her wide emotional range and apparently effortless technique she can cope with any kind of material, but it’s the songs of loss and longing that seem to suit this tall walled garden as the sun goes down.
‘Melancholic,’ she says apologetically, after we’ve all been reduced to reflective silence.
‘Just like our history.’
A very un-melancholic meal follows, featuring a complex and delicious goulash, prepared over an open fire by Kálmán’s short, dark, feisty wife Zita, and augmented with Hungarian wine and shots of pálinka. We’re sent back to the Budapest ferry in high spirits, after hospitality so generous that I’m unable to remember whether or not music is the food of love, or food is the music of love. Time for bed.