A turn of the 20th century traveler going from Klausenberg to Bistritz* was in for quite a journey. The trip by train took seven hours, today that same journey has been reduced to a little over three. The train only averaged ten miles an hour over the entire route. Such a leisurely pace had all the stealth of a snail’s pace by the standards of today, but in the golden age of European railway travel that amount of time was nothing short of transformative. Consider that before the railway was constructed travel between the two cities would have taken several days across dusty, bone jarring roads at the best of times. Traveling by wagon carriage included the added drawback of possibly being robbed or held hostage by highwaymen.
Conversely, the comfort and security of a railway carriage offered travelers an opportunity to see the countryside while enjoying a fine meal in luxurious surroundings. With so much time on their hands, it was a good thing that these travelers would have their trusty Austria Including Hungary, Transylvania, Dalmatia And Bosnia Handbook For Traveller’s by their side to guide them the entire way. The Baedeker of that era may have been less than forthcoming with narratives and historical details, but unlike modern guidebooks of today, they provided a linear account of towns, villages and sites along the way. The itinerary would have been of great use in passing time. Today it is just as much a pleasure for the modern railway enthusiast or armchair traveler to follow along with to see what has and has not changed since 1900.
Missing History – The Remnants Of Kingdoms & Aristocrats
The railway route from Klausenberg to Bistritz first went west and then after twelve kilometers headed north toward the city of Dej. Then, as now, the line followed the Kis-Szamos River up its valley (Somesul Mic). Along the way it passed close to or through many villages. The first of these was Apahida. Due to its proximity to modern Cluj, the village of Apahida has now been incorporated in a commune with seven other villages. Baedeker only mentioned that it was “a Rumanian village with about 1000 inhabitants”, but in 1889 a major archaeological discovery had been made in the village. Since that time several digs have brought to light other artifacts that have caused some scholars to believe Apahid stands on the spot where the capital of the Gepid Kingdom was located. The Gepids were an East Germanic tribe that joined the Goths in their invasion of the Roman province of Dacia in the late 3rd century. This invasion would lead to the end of Roman rule in what is now Romania. If Apahida was indeed their seat of power the remains of any Gepid settlement have all but vanished, much like this mysterious tribe did only a few centuries after their arrival.
At Apahida, the route turns north, crosses the river and soon passes by Valasul-Bonczhida (Bontida). The guide does not mention that nearby was Banffy Kastely. At that time, it had not yet become part of history, it was in the process of still making it. A beautiful Baroque manor, the Kastely was residence of the aristocrat, politician, author and theatrical director Miklos Banffy de Losocnz. Banffy would go on to enshrine his name in Hungarian and later International literature with his Transylvania Trilogy, a set of novels that offers the best portrait of the Transylvanian aristocracy in its waning days. The Kastely was looted and large parts of it destroyed by retreating German forces in 1944 for Banffy’s role in attempting to unsuccessfully negotiate Hungary’s exit from the war. What is left of the Kastely today is a mere shell of its former splendor despite years of restoration work.
Armenopolis – Making Their Presence Felt
About a third of the way through the journey, Baedeker informed travelers they were arriving at a rather substantial town, Szamosujvar (present day Gherla). The town had a population of 5,800 in 1900 and it has increased more than threefold since that time. Baedeker mentions the two things for which Gherla still remains famous – and infamous – for today, its Armenian heritage and a state run prison. Lost among the notoriety of the disparate ethnic groups of Transylvania – Romanians, Hungarians, Jews, Saxons, Szekely and Roma – is the Armenians. Their history in Transylvania goes back to the mid-17th century when several hundred migrated to the area. Armenians were highly sought for their skill as merchants in trade endeavors. Transylvania was much more stable than other parts of Hungary during the 17th century, thus they gravitated to the area.
Szamos uj var became the largest Armenian community in Transylvania and was first known by its Latin name of Armenopolis. By the late 19th century the Armenian community had become in the words of Baedeker “now Magyarized”, causing them to lose touch with the language and culture of their homeland. Baedeker does point travelers to the Armenian-Catholic Church (one of the largest churches in present day Romania) with “an altarpiece attributed to Rubens” It can still be seen today. Baedeker also mentions a fortress on the northern side of town that had been converted into a prison. It had been the last home for Sandor Rosza, one of the most famous Hungarian highwaymen. Rosza was a sort of rogue Robin Hood type of character who made a career robbing travelers on the Great Hungarian Plain. Later, under the Romanian communists, the prison took a much more sinister turn.
Drowned Out – The Prison At Gherla
During the imposition of Stalinism, Gherla held imprisoned enemies of the state. Their confinement included a horrific re-education program consisting of bestial types of physical and psychological torture. This program was ended in the early 1950’s, but the prison could not escape even greater infamy. In 1970 one of the most infamous events in the prison’s history occurred when a flood hit Gherla. The prison warden refused to evacuate the prisoners from their cells which were slowly submerged. It is estimated that 600 prisoners drowned in this malevolent act of indifference. Fortunately, travelers in 1900 had no idea of the tremendous tumult the future would bring to Transylvania. Instead they could enjoy views of the Kis-Szamos and low lying hills prescribing the valley as they neared Dej, the mid-point of their journey and the most sizable stopover between Klausenberg and Bistritz.
*Note: Klausenberg is now Cluj, Romania and Bistritz is Bistrita, Romania