06 June 2012

Castle Hunting: Făgăras

Făgăraș is a compact, grey town in a broad valley.  On it’s brisk way across Transylvania, the E-68 gets jostled a little here, at a big roundabout, before resettling on its course.  There’s plenty of traffic, but not many people stop. The old block buildings don’t leave much impression.  From the road, the town’s principle characteristic is blandness, its chief features are the roundabout and the sound of downshifting trucks.
Having coffee one morning, the waitress at the bakery asked me why I had come to Făgăraș.  When I told her that I was interested in the castle she laughed and shrugged, as though it were a novel idea.  She’d grown up in town.  The castle probably seemed more a fact of life than a point of pride.
Actually, the people of Făgăraș should be proud of what they have sitting in their midst.  Just by the E-68 (but hidden behind a ring of trees) is a nice, kept-up, wide-moated castle.  Ringed by water and trees, the castle feels cut off from the cement and asphalt of the outside world.  Swans and paddleboaters make their slow circuits, the brick fortress is small and tidy from the outside, the moat is a perfect reflecting pool.  It feels exactly like so many municipal castles do: something – like a park or a town hall – that fills a small, unpretentious role in public life.
Făgăraș was, traditionally, the residence of the wives of the princes of Transylvania, and was one of the primary fortresses in the kingdom.  It's a strange place to build a castle, on this long plain where there's not much to defend and little natural defensibility.  Originally, there was a 12th century earthen and wooden fort on the site, but this burned sometime in the 13th century.  In 1310, needing to modernize his defenses but lacking readily available hard stone, Prince Ladislaw Kán began work on his new brick fortress.
When we think of a castle, we usually picture it as being made of granite or limestone – blocky, square edged, heavy walled.  But many castles, especially ones built in river valleys and on the plains, were built with bricks.  Often it was just too expensive or time consuming to quarry and haul stone to the site.  Brick also has its architectural benefits – walls could be constructed in more precise curves or with more complex elements than they could with stone.
With the advent of canon warfare, the walls were thickened - actually, a second wall was built within the outer wall and the space between was filled with earth.
The moat had existed since at least the 14th century, but was widened and upgraded when the castle went through a renovation in the 1540’s.  Often, moats weren’t filled with water at all, and served as a kind of ditch that increased the castle’s height advantage – this was partially the case at Făgăraș, where water is thought to have filled the moat in some seasons but not in others.  This changed when a stream was diverted close by and a system was put in place to allow the moat to be filled quickly if needed.  It’s broader than a lot of moats, and also far away from the walls themselves – the fear was that water would damage the foundation of the castle, which hadn’t been built to deal with seepage.
Făgăraș houses a catch-all town museum now, with old looms and icons, prehistoric pottery and communist era stamps.  It’s a nice collection, but feels meager for the big space.  This was intended as a residence and a fortress, and the inner castle has some eighty rooms, many of them quite large.  Not everything is open to the public – far from it – but it’s easy to wander for a half hour or so without getting bored.  Unfortunately, there are no good views of the inner walls, and it’s not permitted to climb any of the towers.
Făgăraș suffers a little from being too well preserved.  There is a good deal of construction being done right now, but it’s mostly touch-up work.  In better condition than most similar structures, the inner keep is almost like new – so of course it’s not all open to the public.  More ruined castles are usually more accessible for climbing and exploring, with little to damage.  Here, the old rooms and towers had been appropriated for historical society offices.  Harumph.
The courtyard was undergoing the most work, and was completely torn apart.  The gatehouse too, which looks very nice in other people’s pictures.  The Italianate arches and many of the grand rooms are the work of the 17th century Prince Gabriel Bethlen.
Looking like a ship (can’t you see the prow and gunnels?) marooned in a tiny pond, Făgăraș was especially picturesque at dawn, when the town hadn’t yet awoken and the water was glass-still.  I kept going back all day, to walk around the trees and take pictures of the walls.  You see, I’d asked for two nights at the hotel… and there was nothing else to do.
The next day I drove out on the E-68, hit the roundabout and continued past the clump of trees where I knew the castle was.  So many people had been curious about me in town.  The only visitors they get are those too worn down by driving to go any further, the kind that are gone in the morning.  There are more dramatic castles in Transylvania, I’m told, and ones with more interesting towns built around them, but I grew to really like Făgăraș.  It’s not very brash, but it’s worth a stop.

1 comment:

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