One of the main and best-preserved castles of Transcarpathia – the Palanok castle in Mukachevo – reveals its secrets at night.
Hobbling, but holding his torch high, a man that looks like a monk and wears a cloak with a hood meets us on the bridge in front of the castle gate. He nags the night guests, who came to the grand fortress late in the evening and disturbed him, preventing from reading old books and the creation of new ones. This is Anonymous, the legendary chronicler who made the work “The deeds of Hungarians”. This work helps historians to draw certain important dates for Transcarpathia, in particular, the founding of Uzhhorod. He is a person out of time and even state, so together with him, his torch and stories of different eras, we open Palanok’s gate. Despite the frustration, according to the old custom, the owner can’t leave travelers outside in the pouring rain. He even agrees to tell us something about this prominent place – the beautiful castle that rises above the city on the mountain, which seems to be made especially for it.
“The castle is governed by my laws and rules. Swear to keep them! You must follow my every step and not turn anywhere. You know, after dark, different times and dimensions interconnect, so it is easy to get lost in them. Do you swear? Okay, follow me!” the guide invites us to the castle.
Anonymous begins his story with a tale about the ways of ancient Ugrians and the times when they took over these lands. Of course, he doesn’t give us a lecture on history but brings out vivid facts.
“Hungarian chieftains, on their way to the West, passed various lands, with some rulers they fought, with the others they made peace and agreements. The warranties of the contract were strict: princes exchanged their elder sons as hostages. If someone broke the deal, the boys were executed. That’s how the given word was guaranteed. …Having passed the mountains, the Hungarian tribes stopped in this valley for a rest that lasted for 40 days and nights. Since the crossing was long, it was hard work, so the valley was named Munko that means work in Hungarian. Later, when a settlement had appeared here, it was called Munkach for a thousand years, now it is Mukachevo. Ugrians, however, went further to the fortress town Ung (now Uzhhorod), captured it, and then went further to the West. It seemed that there was no such force in Europe that could stop the devastating tide of Hungarian tribes… But it was found, and this was a Catholic church. In 1001, the Pope baptized a Hungarian chieftain named Vejk (“hero”, “leader”), who took the name Stephen, in Hungarian Istvan, and founded the Hungarian Kingdom. He Christianized his tribes and the state, developed it, so nomadic Ugrians, after receiving borders, settled down. Posthumously, the king received the name of St. Istvan.”
“However, even before that, the Ungrians were fortifying the conquered lands in order to defend them. So at the end of the tenth century, on the top of this mountain, the first fortification was built: a square tower made of stone, which had several levels. However, the tower is not a castle yet. The first castle appears here at the beginning of the XIV century: stone walls 12 meters high were erected around the tower. All this was made during the reign of Prince Fedir Koriatovych, who came here from Podilia, because his brother, Lithuanian prince Vitovt waged war against him there. For 18 years he ruled this land. However after that, the castle goes to the Hungarian crown… “. Anonymous tells us that in 1526 the last hereditary king was killed, and because of the absence of successors, Hungary was split: The West chose the Austrian emperor Ferdinand I Habsburg as its ruler, and the East chose the magnate from Transylvania, Janos Zapoli, the other part of it remained under the Turkish reign. Thus for centuries the revolts and wars were ongoing.
The Rákóczi dynasty owned it for the longest period of time: four members of the family were feudal lords here. Thus, in 1633 the Transcarpathian prince George I Rákóczi bought the Mukachevo castle. During the days of Rákóczi, Palanok became the core, the capital of the principality. They invited leading builders, as well as military engineers from Europe that made Palanok as we see it now. The way Palanok entered history, was determined first and foremost by the priorities of the era, not only human. After the death of her husband, the widow of George Rákóczi, Susanna Lorantffy, continued the construction of Palanok. She built the Middle and the Lower terraces and fortifications around the estate. The princes of Rákóczi dynasty possessed Palanok until 1711, in those times it became an unsurpassed fortress, designed for defense and prepared for a siege. A tunnel leads from the middle to the upper courtyard. It is passage and a trap at the same time, for it was the place where an enemy was stopped. Intruders were blocked by bringing down one lattice and then closing the grid gate at the entrance. Then attackers were hit from the holes in the ceiling with arrows, spears and poured with tar, which was lit, so nobody could survive in this stone sack.
Military engineers paid their attention not only to the defense. They took care of drainage and plumbing as well. In general, the castle was a mini-town: the area of its buildings is 14.5 thousand square meters, respectively, the volume of water is high during precipitation. To absorb all this, a system of ditches was made. Domestic animals and knights’ horses were drinking from them. The animals themselves were there as a stock in the event of a siege. As for humans, they were drinking water from the well. Its depth reaches 86 meters. The well was cut in the granite formation, even today, both historians and builders are surprised by the scale of work. The well was strategically important during a siege. Of course, it has its legend, says Anonymous.
“The prince Fedir Koriatovych ordered to dig a well, the workers did their job, but there was no water. Mankind will receive steel later, and before that softer metal will crumble against a strong rock. The frustrated prince swore and promised the mountain of gold to the one who will get the water. A filthy man climbed out of the unfinished well and assured that water would be tomorrow, and as soon as they had shaken hands, he leaped in the well. The prince only managed to see the hoofs and the tail. So, he realized that he was dealing with the devil and that he had no mountains of gold. A jester brought him relief and promised to pay for him. When in the morning the water appeared in the well, and a devil appeared in the courtyard of the castle, the jester brought him to the neighboring mountain Lovachka. At its peak he put 5 coins on the ground and said, ‘Here’s your mountain, here is your gold – take it.’ The devil realized that he was fooled by the wordplay. Outraged he jumped into the well. When the wind is blowing there, they say that the devil is angry that he was tricked.” The well served the castle for a long time. A wheel, which was rotated by people inside the device, as well as a room where water was stored were constructed. The neighboring village of Luchky was obliged to regularly supply a rope 97 meters long in order to replace the one that was worn out. In 2008, the well was cleared (garbage was dumped there, especially during the Soviet period); however, no water was found.
The Mukachevo castle has never been taken by force, and only once it capitulated. The most famous story associated with the Palanok castle is the story of its owner Ilona Zrínyi and it’s also about the siege. The Transylvanian Princess, who was the wife of Francis Rákóczi I and mother of the Hungarian national hero Francis Rákóczi II, is the main legend and figure of Palanok. She meets us on the bastion, as always, proud and elegant. Lady Ilona was a “star” of her time, famous for both her beauty and character. She defended the castle during more than two years siege by the Austrians. She took part both in military decisions and everyday work, she took care of the wounded, cooked food, and even sold her jewels to buy weapons for the uprising. However, Ilona Zrínyi got even more fame because of an outstanding love story. After the death of her husband, she met the young rebel named Emeric Thököly and helped him in his fight. Later, 39-year-old Princess and 24-year-old rebel made a huge wedding in the Palanok (according to the legend, which is part of the castle’s myth). The feast is reconstructed here every year. And now they are reconstructing this page: Ilona Zrínyi, standing on the bastion, tells the story of her life.
The 18-year-old noblewoman was married to Francis Rákóczi I. He leads the rebellion against the Habsburgs, which subsequently was suppressed. A mother-in-law bailed out Ilona and her husband, who survived. Francis Rákóczi I died. Later, the widow with two children met the one who was leading the new uprising. “Many saw politics in our union, but who besides us could know the truth? So on June 15, 1682, we had a lavish wedding that lasted for 8 days. That happiness was fleeting. Emeric marches to Vienna loses and gets behind the bars. The Habsburg marches to my castle and besieges it… But his hopes are in vain, I turn my tears into a fire and a stone! At dawn there will be a new battle, I need to check on the guard, and pray so that nobody dies tomorrow. Thus, by no means it is a good place for the guests,” the Countess, whose role for us is the culmination of the excursion, leaves the bastion without saying goodbye.
After the capitulation, Ilona Zrínyi, torn apart from the children, gets to the monastery. Emeric Thököly will be released from custody; he will take part in battles and capture an Austrian general who will be exchanged for the Countess. Subsequently, Habsburg will let the leader of the defeated rebels and his wife go for exile in Turkey, which agreed to host the couple. Ilona Zrínyi is the only woman in history, awarded with a diploma of the Ottoman Empire for military prowess. Her son Francis Rákóczi II continued the uprising and in 1707 Hungary was liberated from the Austrian troops. The headquarters of this revolution was situated here in the Mukachevo castle.
We continue our journey around the castle and through the narrow stone corridor, we get to the dungeons of Palanok. We enter… torture chamber. In quite creepy premises we meet a man in a distinctive dress – local executioner, sort of Palanok’s “star”, the owner of a new attraction.
“Here we were roasting a rebel, they called him György Dózsa. One day I even had to execute the father of our princess. I’m terribly sorry, but this is my job. Those were the prisoners! And then – only small fish. Carrot rebellion, oh boy! They complain about detention conditions…” the executioner acts out the fact that not only historical events took place in Palanok (although not all of them are documented, however, the castle creates its own myth), but also a huge and severe prison was here for a long time.
Anonymous tells: “This castle had the times of honor and valor. But there was also a shameful period. After the Bastille was stormed, it was here that one of the largest prisons in Europe was situated. For 108 years, 20 thousand prisoners had been detained here. Among them, there were ordinary criminals, as well as noble prisoners. For example, Ferenc Kazinczy that unlike others, thanks to his relatives had good food, a table with writing supplies and even a window. The others had nothing like that. However, not everyone was willing to tolerate it. One day food supplies were delayed, only a carrot was left, so prisoners started carrot riot, someone even managed to break out and reach the yard, but the guard didn’t let him further. It is primarily a fortification for good reason – it is difficult to get in, but it is not easy to escape also.”
“Palanok was once great and romantic knight’s castle – the way castles are pictured in fairy tales. However, firearms and guns appeared in Europe. Then the big towers had to be dismantled. For when the gun hit, big stone blocks could fell on the defenders. Instead, they dug deep dry moats and built bastions more than 5 meters thick. They had sharp corners, so that the cannonballs ricocheted aside, without dealing significant damage. Bastions covered the interior of the castle. The keep was the main and last refuge of the feudal lord. People brought supplies and taxes that were often in-kind: grain, meat, wine,” Anonymous, coming to the well, as out of nowhere gets a basketful of bottles and glasses. He treats everybody with wine. By the way, it was made in those villages, which were paying tax to the rulers of the castle for a long time.
So it’s time to get acquainted. Under a cloak, funny cap and name of Anonymous hides Mukacheve resident Maksym Adamenko – an extremely energetic guide with a good sense of humor.
“Taking into account the fact that for 108 years there was a prison, this new attraction of the castle – a torture room where the ‘executioner’ is working – is worthy of attention during the tour. We added executioner to bring up emotions. It’s still in the ‘test mode’, but he will probably get the name of Sanson. The history knows the longest dynasty of the executioners. Sansons from Paris were mastering their craft for more than 200 years. The way they handed over their skills is a separate matter… The oldest executioners had problems with his back and became almost paralyzed. The profession was passed, of course, down the male line. However, only girls were born, and at last, there was a boy who had to take up the profession at the age of eight. Of course, at that age, he did not have to work on his own. So the family hired a special man, who, however, had to do everything only in the presence of a hereditary executioner… Later there was also an incident with this family. When technical progress had already come and the guillotine appeared and after the number of public executions diminished, so the executioner pawned the guillotine, out of the blue a ‘state order’ appears and there is no instrument. This was the official end of public executions. Frankly speaking, it is a real craft with its laws, hence the form of punishment and execution should correspond to the severity of the crime committed,” says the guide.
He tells about the idea to unfold the story in this particular way – at night with a torch, “My Anonymous is a very successful and very universal character as a guided tour. I am Anonymous the chronicler. I retell what I’ve seen, know, and read. Thanks to chronicles I can travel through the ages and tell about events of different eras. Well, the darkness, almost monastic hood – all this atmosphere, mystery, mysticism… it fits me. The castle in the night is special, it boosts your imagination, adds adrenaline to the blood. I easily lead guests through various stages of the castle’s life – from its founding to defense. I tell the love story, the story of its owner Ilona Zrínyi. For the guests, the ‘most delicious’ piece of the past is her story, because love, politics, diplomacy are such an interesting ‘game of chess’. Interactive elements are also of great interest to the guest. One of the emotional points is ascending to the night bastion – the dark sky, the stars and a mess of Mukacheve lights, the city is best seen from the castle mountain.”
Once, the town, located near the castle, was named Palanka that means surrounded by spikes, picket fence. It is believed that this gave Palanok its name. In 1897, the castle was bought by the Austrian Ministry of Justice. The prison officially closed one year before, however, it operated until 1903. After that, the castle dilapidated and degraded. During the period of the Czechoslovak Republic (1919-1938), military units were located in the castle. During the Second World War Palanok was occupied by the Hungarian troops. Since 1944, when Transcarpathia has joined Soviet Ukraine, the vocational school was situated here. Now it is a museum, and Palanok is the most visited tourist attraction of Transcarpathia.
Palanok can surprise you even now. At the end of 2018, during the research work in the lower level of the fortress, a room of a round shape was found. Builders and historians argue what it was: either just a warehouse, or a separate prison cell, or a bath, or even a mosque. So, the old Palanok still has secrets that are to be opened. All this can be done at night with the torch of the old chronicler Anonymous, but you can also do it during a day tour or a simple walk. The pearl of Transcarpathia is always glad to open its gate to the guests.
By Alla Khayatova
Photo by Serhiy Hudak