Just days before our gift voucher expired, we decided to book a city walking tour of Budapest with Mysterium Tours. It was a miserable, wet winter’s night. We had our guide to ourselves when we turfed up to the zero-mile marker at Clark Ádám tér. The tour promised much.
Away from the hustle and bustle of Pest, this Vampire Tour, takes you to the most charming, magical and intimate places of the city of Budapest: the Buda Castle District, where you will be amazed by the wonderful nightly panorama from top of the hill to the “Pearl of Danube”. We’ll go back in time, to a dark and hostile time, between 15th and 17th century when Hungarian rulers faced invading armies and reveal the despicable actions of two mad figures: Vlad Dracula, “the impaler” and Elizabeth Báthory, “the blood countess”. At Buda castle, the ancient seat of the Hungarian lords, the lantern will guide our way along silent streets and around sinister corners where your narrator will tell legends and lore, besides cases of vampirism in the old Hungary, which gave birth to myths that lie between fantasy and chilling truth during the darkest periods of the history of Eastern Europe.
And had I read the description, I’d have been more prepared. As it was, I was more enthralled by our guide Zsigmond’s coat than I was with the prospect of trudging for two hours uphill on a wet, cold December night, while navigating the cobblestones and wrestling with my umbrella.
If I learned anything that night, apart from the bevvy of historical facts and various fictions that Zsigmond delivered with the polish of a well-seasoned actor, I learned that I’m a creature of habit. In all the years I’ve gone up Castle Hill, I’ve gone the same way, always approaching from the right of the Clark tunnel, and never from the left. It’s a whole new world, made all the more spectacular by the wintry night that was in it.
Elizabeth Báthory was someone I’d never heard of, even though she was the most vicious serial killer the world has ever known if viciousness had a scale by which it could be measured.
Engaged before she was a teenager, Elizabeth got pregnant by another man and had a daughter shortly after reaching her teens. Her fiancé was so incensed that he had the father castrated and torn to pieces by his dogs. She married said fiancé Nádasdy when she was 14.
Legend has it that one day an attendant girl was brushing Elizabeth’s hair when she accidentally pulled too hard and it tugged on a snag in her hair. The countess erupted in anger, jumping up and striking the girl with the back of her hand. The strike was so hard that it made the girl bleed and some of that blood was left on Elizabeth’s hand. Later that night, Elizabeth noticed that the skin on her hand where the blood had been looked more youthful than she had seen it in many years. This gave her the idea that if such a small amount of blood could make her hand look so young, then more could restore youthfulness to her whole body. It’s said that this is when the madness began and Elizabeth started to bathe in the blood of virgin girls.
By all accounts, she was evil incarnate.
It was said that she enjoyed torturing and killing young girls. At first they were servants at her castles, daughters of the local peasants, but later they included girls sent to her by local gentry families to learn good manners. She believed that drinking the blood of young girls would preserve her youthfulness and her looks. Witnesses told of her stabbing victims or biting their breasts, hands, faces and arms, cutting them with scissors, sticking needles into their lips or burning them with red-hot irons, coins or keys. Some were beaten to death and some were starved.
Finally, a Lutheran minister reported her but given her social standing, she wasn’t put on trial. Instead, she was confined in a windowless room in Csetje Castle where she died four years later aged 54. Her kill tally is said to be 650.
This was just one of the many stories Zsigmond told us with great aplomb. He revelled in the gory details, the dark wet night adding to the grimness of his tales. I hadn’t realised that Hungary had such a murky past, replete with vampires and villains and all sorts of ne’er-do-wells.
We walked through the back streets of the Castle district, stopping now and then for a story, in the shadow of Zsigmond’s strategically placed oil lamp. We got some funny looks from the few who had braved the night but it was all in good fun.
I’d never noticed the 4-metre statue of the Madonna and Child before. It’s only been there since 2014, though, so that might explain it. It’s not your usual depiction of the baby Jesus in Mary’s arms. In this statue, the child Jesus is suspended in front of Mary, not held by her.
The bronze statue’s scaled-down version, a man-sized replica of it can be seen in the Castle Gallery made by sculptor László Mátyássy. The artwork is very different from other Virgin Mary statues found in Hungary. It depicts Mary and the child Jesus, but the child is hovering in front of his mother’s body, so depicting the mystery and the wonder of the immaculate conception.
Put aside your phone and the modern way of seeing things; let yourself be carried away by the stories of war and honour that will be told and follow each step carefully. Open your mind and play with your imagination; this will provide you with a glimpse of the past, a glance into the ancient history and stories, born from the superstition of the old times gone by.
PS. I have dibs on Zsigmond’s coat, so don’t get any ideas.