Is this the world’s most bizarre place for a castle?

Travel in a time of coronavirus
I started this blog as a celebration of travel and our crazy, fabulous planet, but with Covid-19 closing borders for months, if not years, any new adventures are on hold for the foreseeable future. So, in the meantime I’ll be delving into my diaries and dusting off my old 35mm slides to bring you some stories and photos from the past 25 years. 

It should be Europe’s most perfect medieval castle.

It sprawls across a rocky outcrop, accessible only via a narrow stone bridge over a deep chasm.

Its forbidding double walls, crenellated battlements and jumble of Gothic towers bristling with arrow slits must have struck fear into the hearts of even the bravest attackers.

Corvin Castle has all the ingredients of a perfect medieval castle. Photo: Peter de Graaf
Corvin Castle has all the ingredients of a perfect medieval castle. Photo: Peter de Graaf

It was built in the 15th century on the orders of a Hungarian feudal lord in Transylvania, a region indelibly linked in the Western mind with vampires, counts and castles.

Later owners added delicately carved stone tracery, balconies and magnificent banquet halls.

Legend has it that the castle even served as a prison for Vlad “The Impaler” Dracula, the Romanian prince who inspired a 19th century novel and spawned an entire genre of horror movies.

When I first visited in the early 1990s there was only one small problem.

Corvin Castle was almost entirely surrounded by a giant steel mill
Corvin Castle was almost entirely surrounded by a giant steel mill. Photo: Peter de Graaf

The extraordinary Corvin Castle in Hunedoara, Romania, was almost entirely surrounded by a vast, ghastly, smoke-belching steel mill.

It’s without doubt one of the most surreal sights I’ve seen.

Hunedoara was for centuries a stronghold of the powerful Hunyadi family (Corvin in Romanian), but it has also long been a centre for iron and steel production. As early as the 1600s the town’s furnaces were churning out hundreds of tons of iron.

Steel production ramped up dramatically under communist dictator Nicoale Ceauşescu, thanks to his fetish for heavy industry, and by the 1980s the Hunedoara Steel Works was the biggest in all the Balkans.

In the 1980s the Hunedora Steel Works was the biggest in all the Balkans
In the 1980s the Hunedoara Steel Works was the biggest in the Balkans. Photo: Peter de Graaf

Ceauşescu was executed on Christmas Day 1989 by a hastily assembled firing squad and by the early 1990s the steel works was already in decline — its outdated technology proved ill-suited to a market economy — but it was still huge, polluting and, in an awful way, awe-inspiring.

The castle was surrounded on three sides by factory halls, concrete cooling towers, furnaces and rows of towering chimneys spewing acrid, reddish-brown smoke. The colour was a giveaway for nitrogen dioxide, a toxic gas which forms nitric aid on contact with rain. As the smoke spread it turned the sky pink as if it was always sunset.

Along the fourth side of the castle a clanking cableway carried giant buckets of iron ore directly to the furnaces from a distant mine.

It was like stumbling into some kind of dystopian industrial nightmare or the set of a post-apocalyptic movie.

A cableway carries ore directly from a mine to the furnaces
A cableway carries ore directly from a mine to the furnaces. Photo: Peter de Graaf

At that time, once you’d paid your castle entry fee (1000 lei, about NZ$1), you could go wherever you liked.

There wasn’t much inside in the way of furnishings but there were courtyards, ramparts, grand halls, and — best of all — unlocked doors that creaked open with a firm push, revealing a maze of dark passages and twisting staircases.

For some reason I decided to sleep that night under the stars — not that I could see any through the nitric haze — on a grassy hill next to the castle. Maybe I didn’t have much money, or maybe I just didn’t like my chances of finding a hotel in Hunedoara.

All night the furnaces roared and groaned and cast a fiery glow across the town. It was like a medieval vision of hell. I kept thinking of the dark satanic mills of the 19th century William Blake poem lamenting the industrial revolution. Needless to say I didn’t sleep much.

A local rides his horse past Corvin Castle
A local rides his horse past Corvin Castle. Photo: Peter de Graaf

One steel plant had already shut down when I went back for a second visit in 1997; another closed in 1999, according to news reports of the time, along with the cast iron furnaces.

Further shutdowns followed in 2003 and what remained of the steel works was privatised in 2004. The workforce dropped from 20,000 in 1993 to 800 in 2011. In that same year the rows of 90-metre-high chimneys I’d seen spewing toxic smoke were demolished.

Production at the last steel plant was suspended in 2019 and most of the mill has now been demolished. Promotional photos cleverly capture the castle from an angle which avoids the industrial detritus.

Furnace chimneys loom over medieval castle towers at Hunedoara
Chimneys loom behind a castle tower at Hunedoara. Photo: Peter de Graaf

I haven’t been back to Hunedoara since the 1990s but I have returned to other parts of Romania and been amazed by the country’s transformation. Cities which once struck me as dreary and dilapidated are now colourful, clean and full of life.

I suppose if I go back to Hunedoara in a few decades’ time I’ll find a setting worthy of one of Europe’s great medieval castles.

But I’ll also be grateful I saw Corvin Castle when it was surrounded by a giant, smoke-belching steel mill.

The last steel plant was shut down in 2019; most has now been demolished
The last steel plant was shut down in 2019. Photo: Peter de Graaf

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