Europe in My Region

The forecast indicated rainy, windy, cold weather for the whole Whit weekend. Our plan was to find a place in Hungary that is relatively easily to reach from Budapest on the motorway and promised acceptable weather. We visited Szigetvár.

This is a repost of Miért éppen Szigetvár?, originally published in Hungarian by Viktor Balogh (@eleverege, Facebook) and translated into English by the European Commission as part of the Europe in My Region 2016 blogging competition.

Our initial choice was Pécs, European Capital of Culture in 2010, but here the weather included rain combined with gusty winds, and so we continued to search on the map until we found Szigetvár (Siget in Croatian, Großsiget/Inselburg in German, Zigetvar in Turkish), a mere 35 kilometres farther west. The town with nearly 10,000 inhabitants is located in Baranya County in the South Transdanubia region, on route no 6.

Nowadays it does not make the news very often but it does have a historical past, and is famous for its spa and its proximity to the Villány wine region.

The entrance to the fortress
The entrance to the fortress

On 6 August 1566, “Suleiman the Magnificent,” Great Sultan of the Ottoman Empire (1520–1566), besieged Szigetvár with his army of nearly 150 thousand men. The leader of the defenders of the fortress, a small force of approximately 2,300 soldiers, was Nikola Zrinski (known in Hungary as Miklós Zrínyi), a Croatian noble.

The Italian-style, three-division fortress itself, standing in a swampy area, was considered modern at the time, built with thick walls, but the defenders could not expect any further help from King Maximilian of Hungary, the “Lutheran Habsburg.” The battle, which lasted for a month and was fought to the last man, was finally won by the overpowering Ottoman forces. Victory, however, was not so sweet as Suleiman, who was 72 at the time, died during the siege in his tent outside the fortress of Szigetvár. Zrinski then led his remaining troops to break out of the fortress, and die a heroic death. His memory is preserved by the epic poem entitled “Peril of Sziget.”

Vienna, which was the original target of the campaign, was safe for the time being: Suleiman’s double led the victorious Ottoman army triumphantly back to Constantinople. The next sultan, Selim II, concluded the Treaty of Adrinople with Maximilian in 1568. Under the terms of the treaty, the Habsburgs gave up the areas conquered by the Ottomans, both parties ensured the immunity of envoys, banned the slave trade, and agreed that their subjects would not be hurt or their freedom violated.

View from the fortress wall
View from the fortress wall

You can relive the historic events of 450 years ago in the authentic environment of the fort. As a result of the archaeological excavations started in the late 1960s, an equestrian statue, a concrete monument and a wooden bridge were erected to commemorate Zrinski and the defenders of the fortress.

After earlier partial rebuilding and conservation efforts, the reconstruction of the fortress was finally completed in June 2015, in the framework of a tourism development project receiving 300 million Hungarian forints from the European Regional Development Fund.

The visitor centre is the starting point for getting acquainted with the age. Descriptions in Hungarian, English and Turkish languages, as well as interactive projected displays help visitors get an impression of the age and the battle. Original artefacts combined with digital technology provide information from the birth of Islam as a religion up to the siege of Szigetvár.

There are animations of the siege itself, highlighting the heroism of the defenders. After leaving the visitor centre, you can tour Suleiman’s mosque, which is used today as an events hall, and also take a stroll along the walls of the fortress.

Between the walls the area frequently serves as a venue for outdoor events. On the Whit weekend, for example, there was a gastronomy festival, featuring wines from the nearby vineyards of Villány and wild game dishes. In the gift shop, visitors can buy copies of the “Peril of Sziget,” the baroque epic poem about the siege, consisting of 15 “books” and written by the great-grandson of Nikola Zrinski in the winter of 1645–46.

The concrete memorial, the wooden bridge and the statue
The concrete memorial, the wooden bridge and the statue

The rain had finally stopped by the time we came to the end of visit to history, and so we had the opportunity to eat dinner on the outdoor terrace of a nearby csárda. Csárdas, often operating today as restaurants, were taverns typically located on the Great Plain of Hungary, as well as on former swampy areas like those around Szigetvár, beside the highways. These were places where travellers and tradesmen stopped and spent the night.

In Hungary, during the Habsburg and Ottoman times, a special group emerged. The betyár, known in the United Kingdom and in Ireland as highwaymen, often robbed the rich and then disappeared on horseback. The fare offered on the menus of csárdas has not changed much over the past few centuries, so visitors can always sample Hungarian goulash, fish soup, and also add a modern “Gundel” pancake.


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