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‘Bringing Back to Life’ Hungary’s Castles and Palaces

Interview

Zsanett Oláh, head of the NÖF National Heritage Protection and Development Non-profit Ltd.

In December 2022, Zsanett Oláh was appointed head of the NÖF National Heritage Protection and Development Non-profit Ltd., which is responsible for the asset management of more than 50 monuments in Hungary. The organization also implements the National Castle and National Fortress Programs. We asked the managing director about NÖF’s recent achievements.

BBJ: What was your vision when you took over NÖF at the end of 2022?

Zsanett Oláh: I aim to make this state-owned non-profit company with national coverage and scope a proactive organizing force in municipalities with historical monuments. I also want to create opportunities for grass-roots initiatives tailored to the needs of local communities while at the same time bringing the national heritage network into the international tourism space. I believe it is essential that our monuments and built heritage are not only kept alive by the memory of local communities. This can be achieved by integrating them into the everyday lives of local people. My aim is to restore these centuries-old assets to their original function as economic, cultural, tourist or knowledge centers, and to bring them back to life and make creative use of them as an opportunity to become one of the most exciting social innovations of rural life.

BBJ: NÖF is a non-profit organization. What resources are available to you?

ZsO: Our company covers its costs from public and European Union subsidies and the turnover of the company.

BBJ: NÖF manages and develops the assets of more than 50 of  Hungary’s most important monuments. Which would you highlight in particular from the overall portfolio?

ZsO: Every location is unique in its way. No two monuments are the same; each has a different charm. So, I’ll focus on our outstanding achievements:

• This year we opened the Kinizsi Castle in Nagyvázsony (136 km southwest of Budapest by road), Sümeg Castle (174 km southwest), the Zrínyi Castle in Szigetvár (226 km southwest), the Museum Quarter and the Ruin Garden connected to the castle wall in Sopron (217 km west), and the Castle of Füzér (268 km northeast).

• The Nádasdy Castle in Nádasdladány (92 km southwest of the capital), which could not function as an independent tourist destination before its complete renovation, welcomed its 150,000th visitor in just one-and-a-half years since its reopening on August 1, 2021, which is an excellent professional success. In December 2022, the castle was also honored with the Architecture of Excellence Award.

• The Sándor-Metternich Castle, a classicist mansion complex in Bajna 48 km northwest of Budapest, is one of our most impressive sites, which was recognized by the Icomos Hungarian National Committee with the Icomos Award in 2021.

• Another matter of great pride is that Wenckheim Palace in Szabadkígyós (221 km southeast of Budapest) won this year’s Business Excellence Audience Award for “Best New Market Player,” created by the editors of Business Traveler Hungary magazine. The 2023 Cycling Route of the Year leads to this castle.

• We joined the Night of Museums again this year on June 24 with a large number of venues and welcomed nearly 15,000 visitors.

BBJ: Which are the most significant projects under the National Castle and National Fortress Programs?

ZsO: Within the framework of the respective programs, a total of 17 castles and 11 fortresses have or are being renovated between 2016 and this year to the highest professional standards of monument protection and in line with today’s tourism needs. A total of HUF 52.105 billion will be invested in the projects under the Operational Program for Economic Development and Innovation (Ginop) program. Of this, HUF 43.548 bln is EU money and HUF 8.557 bln comes from the state coffers. A further HUF 4.324 bln of pure domestic funding will be used. The most notable projects in terms of funding are the Eszterházy Castle in Fertőd (189 km west of Budapest); Festetics Palace in Dég (100 km southwest); the Museum Quarter and Ruin Garden in Sopron; the Wenchkheim Palace in Szabadkígyós; and the Károlyi Castle in Füzérradvány (267 km northeast).

BBJ: What is on the agenda for domestic and international visitors this tourist season?

ZsO: A range of activities for the whole family. There’s a petting zoo, a bird park, a miniature railway, a horse show, crafts, and museum education for the little ones. All of our sites are also part of the Kajla program for young schoolchildren [the aim of which is to encourage young people to develop an interest in tourism within Hungary and to acquaint themselves with the diverse cultural heritage, natural resources and historical monuments that the country has to offer through discounted travel], so there are plenty of “passport” stamps to collect. Youngsters can enjoy music concerts, garden cinema screenings, interactive equipment in the exhibition spaces, tempting selfie points, shaded picnic areas in the castle gardens and lawns for light sports. But we’ve also considered the arts-loving public with jazz and classical music concerts, theater performances and special guided tours. In addition to cultural, social and sporting experiences, most castle gardens are also open to responsible dog owners.

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of June 30, 2023.

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