A Castle Worthy of Legend

If the walls of your average hotel room could talk…I don’t think I’d ask. But the walls of Suceava Citadel, on the other hand? They would have some stories to tell.

Also called The Seat Fortress of Suceava, this castle is an order of magnitude larger and more important than either Bran or Poenari, and protected the capital city of Moldavia throughout its five centuries of existence as an independent state or autonomous principality (only ending in 1859 when Moldavia unified with Wallachia to form modern Romania). This crucial terrain overlooking the Suceava River was assaulted by Ottomans, Tatars, Hungarians, Romanians, other Moldavians, and Polish armies throughout its tumultuous centuries.

(The roofed chapel on top is Stephen’s original chapel, restored)

The oldest identifiable fortress dates back to the late 1300s and is attributed to Peter Musat, who was the first local ruler to have diplomatic ties with Russia, negotiated peace treaties between his neighbors, and was excommunicated by the Patriarchate of Constantinople after staying loyal to one of his spiritual advisors. The castle’s first 100 years were largely peaceful, and saw expansion by Alexander the Good, and even better, by Stephen the Great. (Stephen the Great, or Stefan cel Mare, is a kind of King Arthur figure in this part of the world, with statues in many towns.)

Stephen made the largest changes to Suceava Castle, and with good reason. The fortress had survived attacks before, but faced its biggest threat in 1476 when it was besieged by Mehmed II, known as “Mehmed the Conqueror” after he took Constantinople at age 21, ending the Byzantine Empire. Stephen’s castle was able to resist The Conqueror’s attack, but the siege left the fortress nearly in ruins, its defensive vulnerabilities exposed. So Stephen went big.

(He doesn’t look like the kind of king who messes around, does he?)

The original fortress had been a rectangle, with blocky towers at the corners and walls roughly two meters thick. Stephen wrapped this in a second, circular fortress, doubling the thickness of the ramparts to four meters, creating a killing zone between the two, and utilizing the curved walls that were much better at resisting bombardments by cannons, which were just coming into widespread use in Europe at that time. He also added a 10 meter deep ditch and a single entry bridge, which could be collapsed underneath an attacking foe. (I wish I’d known about this place when I was a kid!) These improvements were immediately put to the test, as Suceava Castle survived sieges in both 1485 and 1497.

Stephen died in 1504, and the fortunes of his Camelot went downhill. When Suleiman the Magnificent marched on Suceava in 1538, the situation in the castle was very different. The ruler at that time was Petru Rareş, an authoritarian ruler loved by precisely no one. His nobles proved the point by betraying him and delivering the city to Suleiman. The delighted sultan appointed Stephan’s nephew to rule. Magnificent decision.

(View of Suceava from the battlements, note the three cannons on the middle rampart)

Things got messy from there, like the Reformation battle where one leader brained his rival with a mace, but the final straw came in 1675 when a thoroughly unlikeable fellow named Dumitrașcu Cantacuzino obeyed the orders of his Ottoman overlords to fill the castle with timber and burn it. History remembers him as the archetype “phanariote profiteur,” a selfish ruler concerned only with his own wealth and wellbeing, founding no universities or hospitals, betraying his friends and constituents, and impoverishing the country. I wonder what the walls would have to say about him?

After that, Suceava Castle followed the same path as many other sites, including Ancient Rome and Hadrian’s Wall: it became a quarry. Stones that once defended the kingdom were carried away to make someone’s kitchen. The degradation continued after the area came under Austrian Habsburg rule, until the turn of the (20th) century, when Karl Romstorfer showed up with his architectural expertise, archeological curiosity, and magnificent mustache. Karl was the first in a series of benevolent caretakers that culminated a century later in the 2015 EU-funded restoration that further repaired the walls and included a series of multimedia installations (plus everyone’s favorite, two new bathrooms!)

(Check out Karl’s ‘stache! They just don’t make ’em like they used to.)

Suceava Castle has seen more than its share of action, and would have a lot to say about human history, its cyclical nature, and our capacity for violence. But, sitting on a green grassy slope, on a day as warm as sunny as when I visited, and with fresher memories of art exhibitions, music festivals, and cultural events, I think it would have some important reminders about what it really means to be alive today. And that’s the sort of message I like to hear.