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Dead men, dead horses

Eighteen thousand men. Fifteen thousand horses. Dead. In just 90 minutes. And this before bombs or weapons of mass destruction were invented. Twenty thousand men facing an opposition of one hundred thousand all the while knowing their fates of most were sealed. A rather hopeless situation in any era.

IMG_0560 (800x600)All this happened, in Mohács, on 29 August 1526 when Hungarian soldiers took on the might and force of Süleyman’s Turkish army in a fight for Hungary. The memorial site, with its visitors centre built to resemble the Crown of Hungary, marks the mass graves in which the bones of these soldiers lie undisturbed by time. Over a hundred wooden posts in various shapes and forms testify to the hopelessness of their plight. This video depiction will give you some sense of what took place.

IMG_0569 (800x598)Intricately carved by four Hungarian artists, they represent the people, the weapons, the armour, and the horses all lost to the battle. The young King Louis the II  died that day, aged 20.  It’s hard to imagine a 20-year-old today having to face what he faced or make the decision he made.

But he to battle he went: ‘So that no one can look at me as an excuse to his own cowardice, and so that no one can blame me, I will on the morrow go, with the help of the Almighty God, to the place others are loath to go without me‘.

IMG_0576 (589x800)IMG_0567 (596x800)Unlike traditional grave markers bearing names and dates of those interred, these carvings are more representative. Some are painted: in black for old people, in blue for children, and those having suffered a violent end are red. The paths are circular, with a rather labyrinthy feel. And as I walked around, I wished I had someone with me to explain what I was seeing. [The English guide we’d booked had been hijacked by another English-speaking group minutes before we’d arrived. Looking for a woman in a fur coat among the teeming masses was like finding a 10-forint coin in a bag of a thousand 50-forint pieces – not impossible but time-consuming.]

IMG_0570 (800x600)Although the IMG_0574 (494x800)site has been designed and well planned, there is no pattern to the placement of the poles. They’re scattered randomly, tilting this way and that in a manner that seems both deliberate and haphazard. It’s hard to decide whether they’ve been beaten down by wind and weather or placed this way on purpose. Perhaps it’s an artistic rendering of how the best laid plans in such a situation are subject to change.

Despite the crowds, there’s a sense of awe about the place, an almost hushed silence that hangs above the chatter of those wandering through. The death bell adds further to this sense of reverence. It’s said that to ring the bell is to salute those who perished.

IMG_0584 (600x800) (2)It wasn’t unusual then for mothers to kill their sons rather than see them face a certain death in battle – capture by the Janissary(the elite infantrymen that were the Sultan’s bodyguards). History has it that the local lady of the manor (or rather Siklós Castle), one Dorottya Kaniszai, went straight to the battlefield when she heard of the defeat and once there, buried many of the soldiers herself. Amazing fortitude, these women. Not for the first time am I wondering how I’d have reacted had I been there. What would I have done? Sat home with my embroidery?

IMG_0575 (598x800)It all started because Louis II refused to pay tribute to the Sultan. Annoyed, Süleyman decided to visit Hungary, capturing Belgrade on his way. Louis managed to rally some 25 000 men and left Buda to meet the approaching Turks. He could have waited for reinforcements from Transylvania and Croatia but didn’t. It was an expensive decision. Süleyman continued all the way to Buda but then decided to go home, taking with him more than 100 000 captives, and beginning 150 years of Turkish rule and the demise of medieval Hungary.

IMG_0577 (800x600)The future would see Hungary divided between the Ottomans and the Habsburgs with only Transylvania remaining free. There territories belonging to Louis, who was killed in flight, passed to Ferdinand I, a Habsburg who later became Holy Roman Emperor.

Admittedly, when István Fulop insisted on adding the site to our day-trip to Mohács for the Busójárás festival, I thought nah – not my thing. But I’m glad he did. And I’d go back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s only one beautiful woman

It’s not often that my illusions are shattered beyond repair. I can usually glue the remnants back together – enough at least to keep some of the magic and mystery but rarely enough to keep believing. And so was the case with the Valley of Beautiful Women in Eger. It’s been on my list of places to visit for quite some time and although KG had warned me that it was nothing to write home about, I still envisioned  a sweeping valley full of wine cellars set into the side of the hills forming some sort of series of natural figures that people took to be women. Not so.  Szépasszony-völgy translates into the Valley of the Beautiful Woman (only one).  The large statue is of one woman, not a valley of them. And it’s not even a valley – it’s a horseshoe-shaped road.

I hadn’t come to drink wine in one of the new, modernised establishments. I wanted my pincé (cellar) to be grimy, dusty, grotty, complete with resident spiders and an old man on the door. I found it. And while I wasn’t too impressed with the wine (which cost about €0.15 or $0.20) at the time, it turned out to be the best of the bad dose of house wine I would taste in eateries in the town.

Eger is one of the more famous wine regions in Hungary. Just 85 km from Budapest, it was here in the sixteenth century that 2000 soldiers defended the town against an army of 80 000 Ottomans, apparently fortified by a mixture of red wine and bull’s blood. The region is now famous for its Egri Bikavér, also known as bull’s blood.  [David Farley, in his blog, has a different story that’s worth checking out.] It’s about a 20-minute walk from the town centre and if you’re going there sans illusions just to drink and have a good time, I’m sure it will do the job. There are over 40 cellars to choose from and the prices are very reasonable.

The one I chose looked like it had seen better days. The certificates on the wall were very hard to read and the man on the door had seen many winters. But as he poured the 1 dl of wine into the glass, it felt real. Plastic containers had prices marked on them – cheap enough to make your eyes water – if they hadn’t already watered from the wine. I noticed some coins  embedded into the wall above a rusty gate and wondered what that was all about. But as there wasn’t a plant in the vicinity to soak up my leavings and I really didn’t want to insult my host, I was concentrating more on downing my wine without grimacing. Angelina, eat your heart out! Up the road, padlocks and locked doors told another story. Perhaps these cellars belonged to wine enthusiasts in the game for their own enjoyment. On a sunny Saturday in early September though, they certainly weren’t part of the festivities.

 

 

 

It’s quite interesting to see the old and the new side by side – the ones that have adapted in the name of tourism/progress and those that continue with business as usual – a take-me-as-I-am approach, which I admit to finding uniquely refreshing. At least though I can cross it off my list. I’ve been there, seen it, and chose to leave the t-shirt behind me. [Note to DF: Thought Wanda would get a kick out of sharing her name with a wine cellar in Hungary.]