Wherever we are around Hollókő, we keep noticing the landmark of the place, the old fortress perching on a cliff, even from the winding roads among the Cserhát Hills leading to nearby places like Zsunypuszta, Rimóc or Varsány. Of course, from a certain distance a little fog or even the morning haze can hide it, as if mischievous sprites were playing tricks on us. This explanation is not entirely fanciful. As the legend of the origin of the place has it, in bygone times a local nobleman called András, a member of the famous Kacsics dynasty was living here. Once he kidnapped the beautiful wife of a neighbouring landlord and imprisoned her in one of the rooms of a castle which was being built. The masons were still at work, and every day they built the walls of the woman's prison, but by the next morning the stones always disappeared. The beautiful lady had a servant, who happened to have a part-time job of a witch, and this servant made a pact with the devil himself.
Through her mediation the devil's sons changed into ravens and removed the stones of the walls until the kidnapped lady could escape. According to this legend the village and the castle were named after these ravens.
However, it is a fact that members of the Illés branch of the Kacsics dynasty started constructing the pentagonal tower of the castle on a cliff above the village after the Mongolian invasion (1241-42). During the next centuries new walls, towers, rooms and cisterns were added to the first walls built in the 13th century.
In the days when firearms were still unknown the experts in warfare who selected the site of the fortification paid great attention to the aspects of protection. The castle was built on top of a steep cliff 362 m high at the western edge of a range of hills. Knowing the arrangement of some other fortifications built in the same period, we can suppose that the ridge of the hill had a ditch or trench in it to give extra protection to the place.
The foundations of most of the castles of Nógrád County built in the Árpád age were laid after the Mongolian invasion. We know about 42 castles in the area which Nógrád County occupied before WWI, but this figure could even be higher.
Some of the most significant fortifications which exist now, and date back to the Árpád age, are those of Szanda, Drégely, Hasznos (or Cselter), Buják, Salgó, Somosko, Divény, Kékko and Fülek. (The last four are now in Slovakia. On the basis of some dates it can be assumed that Fülek (today's Filakovo) was even mentioned in Roman sources in the 2nd century, as it was a Celtic site.) Nógrád had some royal castles before the Mongolian invasion, which caused destruction and the merging of people: apart from the already mentioned Fülek, the fortifications of Fehérko next to Sámsonháza and Kékko also existed. The national disaster of 1241 destroyed many communities. (Salgó) Tarján, Nógrád and (Balassa) Gyarmat also shared this fate but, hiding in forests among the hills, many of the population must have survived these hardships, because the villages were quickly rebuilt and the construction of castles began on a large scale.
After the Mongolian invasion the landlords did their best to protect their estates. Of course, not all of them could afford to have a castle built of stone. Several fortifications were simple earthworks. Most of these have ceased to exist entirely, and some remains have even misled a few researchers who took them for remains from the period before the arrival of Hungarians in the Carpathian Basin (895 AD). The local Palóc people must have come to the same conclusion, because several remains of former earthworks are still called Pogányvár (castle of the pagans).
The foundations of the walls of the central tower in the Hollókő fortification are 3.5 m wide in certain places. The walls are made of stone from a local quarry, but the corner stones, loop-holes and the frames of passages and gates are made of carved limestone. As such construction material cannot be found here, it had to be transported to Hollókő from further afield.
In the 14th century Hollókő became the seat of the Kacsics dynasty. It must have boosted the development of the village, as well. However, the village in the Árpád age was not on its present site but next to the Elottyi ridge, southwest of the castle. The foundations of a mediaeval church building have been unearthed there, so the place was a significant centre of the parish community.
The storms of history had an influence on the life of those living here. Documents show that, after the first ruling Árpád house died out, a period of uncertainty began and members of the Kacsics dynasty – Mihály, Péter, Lesták and Mikus from the Illés branch – gave their four castles in Nógrád (Hollókő, Bagylasko, Somosko and Sztrahora) to Máté Csák, a nobleman of the Highlands. There is also evidence that in 1311 July the four noblemen set out from Hollókő castle to destroy the estates of landowners who took the side of King Charles Robert. The reason of this small-scale campaign was that the papal envoy excommunicated Máté Csák. Nevertheless, in a year's time the tables were turned: after the battle of Rozgony in 1312 the king's soldiers captured Hollókő and the estates of the Highland ruler were confiscated by the king's supporters – although no significant changes happened until Máté Csák's death in 1321. That time Tamás from the Folkus branch of the Kacsics dynasty became the owner of the castle and the estate. Later he also took other unfaithful landlords' properties and became one of the mightiest landlords of Hungary, a ruler in Transylvania, and through his second marriage, even a relative to the king.
The period of more than a century after Máté Csák's death was a kind of a golden age of Nógrád: no dogs of war were let loose, churches and cloisters were built, castles were extended with palaces and comfortable wings and the economy and trade increased. The old tower of Hollókő castle was considerably extended. The peaceful period of development was over when the Czech Hussite soldiers pillaged the Highlands in the 1430s. Written documents show that on 17 September 1442 the envoys of Giskra, the Hussite leader in charge of the forces occupying the Highlands, and the representatives of the counties Nógrád and Hont met in the castle of Hollókő and agreed upon a truce which lasted until 24 April the next year.
Hollókő remained in the hands of the Szécsényi family until the middle part of the 0th century. In the 1450s the last male member of the family, László, owned Hollókő together with the villages of Pusztaalmás, Zsuny(puszta), (Nagy)lóc and Bátka (now in Slovakia). After his death Mihály Guthi Ország and Albert Losonczy inherited the Szécsényi estates which descended to László's daughters. By the time of the Turkish occupation Hollókő had practically lost its strategic importance because of the use of cannons. After the major defeat at Mohács in 1526 the nation could not hold together, so in 1541 the Turks captured the capital of Buda without any trouble and the country was divided into three major parts. The eastern side was ruled by the elected Hungarian king until 1556, the western part belonged to the Habsburgs, and the central area was the domain of the Turks. In 1546 the Diet gave an order to fortify the castles in the counties of Nógrád and Hont, but by that time the southern parts of the region had been given up. It was Kristóf Ország who had the walls of Hollóko strengthened in 1549.
From this period there is an authentic account of a duel. In 1550 György Kapitán, captain of Hollókő castle, challenged the powerful warrior of Szanda castle, the Turkish Agha Hubiár to a duel. The famous Hungarian poet Sebestyén Tinódi Lantos wrote a fine poem describing the fight which was a draw. In 1552 Pasha Ali's army arrived at Hollókő after taking Drégely, (Ipoly)Ság, (Balassa)Gyarmat and Szécsény. At that time the fortification had two commanders, Imre Porkoláb and András Szászi. When Ali's envoy summoned the defenders, Porkoláb agreed to obey without informing his colleague.
When the envoy left Szászi got the news and attacked the other commander with a dagger, but the defenders held him down and surrendered the castle to the Turks. Later Ali let both of the commanders and the defenders free, but Imre Porkoláb suffered such a humiliation that he had to escape to Turkey.
According to a Turkish survey made in 1568-69 Fülek had 252, Szécsény 229, Nógrád 208, Salgó 38, Szanda 31, Buják 30 and Hollókő 22 mercenaries stationed there. However, these figures were probably higher, also including unpaid marauders, whose number might have amounted to half of the total garrison.
The first period of the Turkish rule in the northern part of Nógrád County lasted until the outbreak of the fifteen years' war.
In the summer of 1591 the captain of Kassa (now Kosice in Slovakia), Kristóf Tieffenbacn, was able to recapture the castles one by one. At the end of November in 1593 Hollókő was taken by an army led by Bálint Prépostváry, the captain of Eger.
Of course, it did not mean the end of the Turkish threat. As a survey of Hollókő reported that the fortification was in a rather dilapidated state, its reconstruction was ordered again. Now it was the lack of workers which created a problem. Because of the long period of warfare there was a shortage of men, so peasants were recruited from faraway places like Heves, Outer Szolnok,
Pest, Solt and Fejér (still under Turkish rule) counties to build the walls of Hollóko. In 1556 only 21 soldiers were stationed in Hollókő, 18 foot-soldiers and three gunners, so the place was not really powerful. In 1663, under the command of Köprili Ahmed, the Turks recaptured most of their former conquests. That time Hollókő changed hands without any resistance. Its final liberation was only twenty years later by the Polish king Jan Sobiesky's army in 1683. After that four peasants of Hollóko were commissioned to defend the walls and the castle lost its strategic importance.
In 1711, at the end of the Rákóczi War of Independence, a royal decree was issued to destroy the Hungarian fortifications to prevent them from giving shelter to Ferenc Rákóczi's soldiers. The bridges and certain walls of Hollókő castle were demolished but the stronghold itself escaped destruction.
The reconstruction of Hollóko castle began in 1966 and it lasted thirty years. The most impressive parts are the thick walls between the old and new sections of the castle, the cisterns excavated into the cliff with explosives and the gatehouse. From the upper windows of the western and eastern wings of the palace there is a beautiful view of the nearby forests and the valley of the river Ipoly. When the weather is clear one can even see as far as the Slovakian Lower Tatra Mountains on the north.
The castle has the following dimensions: 68 m from north to south, 51 m from east to west, and from the outer gate to the entrance of the tower one has to climb 27.5 m.
When entering the castle through its mediaeval gate we reach a narrow yard between high walls, which takes us to a square outer gatehouse with a drawbridge. Approach to the outer yard was obstructed by several gates with moats between them. Access to the outer yard with the cistern was only possible through the lowered drawbridge. The most conspicuous element of the outer castle yard is a 4-m-wide cistern cut nto the rock. There is a legend attached to it: it was this well in which Máté Csák hid his treasures, and later the Turks also used it to hide the gold which they robbed. In the past this legend attracted many fortune hunters, but alas, they had to leave empty-handed.
In the outer castle yard a restored shed houses an exhibition. Pictures show the unearthed findings, the appearance of the castle before the renovation and stonework finds. The original ones are in Szécsény, in the Forgách manor house which contains the Ferenc Kubinyi Museum.
From the outer yard two narrow passages take us to the inner castle gate. One is a direct one to the gate, and the other is among some dilapidated walls, also giving access to the inner castle yard.
In the 16th century this passage-way was already replaced by a wider one below it, in the western wing of the castle, which ended in a watchtower. The outer wall had four gates in it to give access to the gate of the inner castle. Passing through this gate we reach an enclosure from which there is passage to three rooms. We have to go through gothic arches to get into them.
The entrance on the left takes us to a vaulted cellar, the one on the right to the south-western wing of the palace, and the middle one, to which we have to ascend some steps in a cliff, to the inner yard.
In the beginning of the 16th century the inner yard was narrowed down and the palace had two other floors built onto it. The width of the walls of the inner castle reaches 2 m at certain points, and these walls also give support to the northern and western wings of the palace, which has a ground-plan with the shape of an "L". From the narrowed inner yard it was possible to get to the basement of the tower, and from the basement there were steps to the upper floor. The tower of four floors, with loop-holes in its wall, rises high above the other parts of the castle.
Leaving the yard on the left side we come to the wing of the palace which is above the cellar. Above it was the knights' hall, the most ornate room of the palace. To the right from the yard there is the western wing of the palace. In its south-western corner there is the cistern of the inner castle. Its diameter is 260 cm. A pit with a "D" shape next to the wall of the tower collected the water, which flowed to a circular reservoir through a carved water conduit. From the yard there are steps to another one with a trapezoid shape, and from that one there are stairs again to the machicolation gallery. When going round a long flight of stairs we get to the entrance door of the tower. As the roof of the tower was not completed by the end of the renovation in 1996, this door is closed, but there are plans to finish the work on the highest level in the next few years. After that visitors will be able to enjoy the view of the countryside from that level too. There are also plans to furnish the three lower rooms of the tower with all types of utensils used in the Middle Ages and to open them to the public.
There are "Castle Days" several times every year, which include displays with mediaeval weapons, historic games, period music and dances, puppet-shows and spectacular parades with banners.
Since 1987 Hollóko castle and the central part of the village have been on the UNESCO List of World Heritage, and the surrounding 141 hectares are also preserved. The Directorate of Bükk National Park has selected a trail around the castle – indicated in green in the map – where 23 informative boards present the cultural and natural assets of the area.
Wax-works, the "Kacsics Room": a scene of life in the 13th century with the lord of the castle and his family receiving guests. The exhibition of seven figures takes us back into the period when the Kacsics dynasty had the castle built. It also shows the typical clothes that men and women on different levels of society wore in the 1200s. In this room you can see how the castle looked when people were living in it.
Armoury: The small arms on the walls are proper representations of weapons used from the 11th to the 16th centuries. The armorial ensigns of kings and noble families evoke an atmosphere of bygone times. The exhibition in the armoury also includes pictures and explanatory texts taken from a mediaeval Hungarian document, Chronica de Gestis Hungarorum.
Castle Chapel: The chapel of the castle was most probably built in the 14th century. During the Turkish occupation it was converted into a mosque, and after the Turks were driven out, the Habsburgs destroyed it together with a large part of the castle. The present chapel of the castle, just below the original one, was consecrated on 15th August 2006, on the Feast of the Assumption.
Museum of stonework finds: This exhibition shows the reconstruction plans of the castle and pictures made during the different phases of the work, together with photos of implements found at the excavations and carved stones. You can also see a clay model of the castle which depicts its form at the end of the 13th century.