Nothing could have prepared me for what I met at Fort Monostor in Komárom. No explanation, or description, or photographs could have done justice to the quite surreal sense of history that followed me around the whole time I was there. Designed not to be seen from the air, or from the river, the fort is built into the hillside. It dates back to 1850 and is the biggest ‘modern’ fortress in central Europe. The buildings themselves occupy 32 000 square metres set in 25 acres and contain 640 rooms. In its day, when full to capacity, 8000 soldiers lived here.
A railway track runs through one of the buildings. It was used to ferry goods unloaded from barges on the Danube through the quarters. We wandered the maze of corridors following the painted arrows, trusting that we would eventually see the light of day. At times I wondered. It seems to go on for ever. The place echoed with footsteps and muffled conversations as if the ghosts of yore were still very much in residence.
The occasional room was still furnished, to give a taste of what life was like back then. One plaque tells the story of the men who trained and lived here during the First World War. From 1914 to 1918, 352 tiszt (officers), 1326 altiszt (junior officers?) and 34412 gyalogos (infantrymen) from this fort lost their lives. Hard to imagine what it would have felt like to strike out for the front line from the relative safety of Fort Monostor.
From the inside looking out, it felt a little like being inside a camera, viewing the world through a lens. The shadows added a sense of yesterday that was so far removed from today, it seemed as if we’d gone back in time. There was a stage when I felt as if I was in an art gallery, looking at pictures, framed in brick. While the Internet has plenty of detailed information on the history of it all, none of it captures what it actually feels like to walk the corridors and stir the dust.
Outside, in the courtyard, monuments of a different kind stand sentry.
The place is crying out for some enterprising head to take charge and make the most of these amenities. To have a proper café, a gift shop with books and histories of the eras, some military demonstrations… it’s almost as if someone was left it in a will and is still struggling to know quite what to do with it. Mind you, selfishly, I’m glad I got to see it on a day where there were just a handful of others visiting, too. The larger the crowds, the harder it will be to let yourself be carried back in time.
One image that will remain with me is that of the names etched into the brick walls – thousands of soldiers far from home might well have seen this as a prison – a prelude to something far worse. The other is that sense of infinity, accentuated by the building’s design. It was like looking into the future somehow. And to think it was built back in the 1800s. Compare this to what’s being built to day and I’m left wondering how many of our modern structures encapsulate that same sense of spirit, of being, of life. Fort Monostor is well worth a visit. Add it to your list.
Note: The city of Komárom was split as a result of the Trianon Treaty. Komárom remained in Hungary while the part of the town on the other side of the Danube became Komárno, in Czechoslovakia (now Slovakia).