The Unknown Transylvania – Des to Zilau By Rail: The 1900 Baedeker Guide (Part Seven)

Baedeker was the first English language guidebook to deal extensively with more remote and less visited areas of Eastern Europe, including Transylvania. The seven itineraries provided for that region in the 1900 version of their Austria-Hungary Handbook For Travellers focused on journeys between such larger towns as Klausenberg, Bistritz, Hermannstadt, Fogaras and Kronstadt*. The itineraries did not stop there, they provided details and sites of interest for places along the chosen route. Baedeker also went one level deeper with detours into the countryside.

These itineraries within an itinerary were offered for the most adventurous. They would often begin from smaller towns found along the main route. The town would have a branch railroad line that could take travelers into a rural netherworld of smaller towns and atmospheric villages. Allowing them to see places that had not changed very much since medieval times. In some cases, the only thing different were the steel rails now running across this land which lay beyond the forest (Transylvania literally means the land beyond the forest). Rails ridden by an iron horse that transported a few wayward foreigners to a world entirely different from anything they had ever known before. What was this world like? With the 1900 Baedeker Austria-Hungary as a guide it is time to find out.

Riding the rails - Train at station in Transylvania

Riding the rails – Train at station in Transylvania (Credit: fortepan.hu)

A Detour From Des – Into The Wild
It is 1900, an Englishman is traveling from Klausenberg to Bistritz and his name is not Jonathan Harker. The Englishman’s name is not known and never will be, but he must have been an adventurous spirit to make it this far abroad. Transylvania is just coming into the consciousness of European travelers, it takes a good bit of courage to strike off into a land that few foreigners have ever seen or heard of before. A land of wild nature and diverse ethnic groups adhering to their own exotic centuries-old customs. A land where English is barely spoken and the closest thing to it is German, a rudimentary knowledge of which is essential. Our traveler has made it to Des (present-day Dej, Romania), the halfway point on the tour route provided by Baedeker. From Des, an off the beaten path is offered. On page 406 of that 1900 Baedeker guide to Austria-Hungary a couple of secondary itineraries are given in smaller type. The first of these is a 63 mile (100 kilometer) journey from Des (Dej) to Zilah (Zalau).

The trip by train between these two towns was slated to take a little over four hours. A steam engine would be pulling a few passenger carriages up the Szamos (Somes) River Valley. A trip that would have been well worth it, if for no other reason than to see the stunning nature. The usually sober, fact laden literary style of Baedeker gives way in this mini-itinerary to spasmodic descriptions of an enchanting natural world. There are “wooded slopes and fissured cliffs” “lofty embankments and deep cuttings” to be seen. The train glides along rails close to the Szamos. Our traveler must have realized just how lucky they were to see such scenes of spectacular nature. It is difficult to overestimate the revolutionary effect rail travel had upon Transylvania. Areas once accessible to a select few born in these areas, were now open to the wider world. Furthermore, while rail travel of that era may have been slow, it was quite comfortable. This type of travel was a kind of luxury that the middle class could increasingly afford.

Glimpses Of Past & Future – Rural Skyscrapers & New Settlers
What would our English traveler have thought of those rustic villages that the train passed through on the way to Zilau? About half an hour after leaving Dees, the train arrived at Kacko (Catcau) which stood on the right bank of the Szamos. The village was sizable, with over two thousand people, four-fifths of whom were Romanian. Our traveler would have glimpsed several spires of churches in Kacko. These were then, as they still are today, the skyscrapers of Transylvanian villages. As the tallest, most well-built structures they express one of the most important tenets of village culture, religion. Though Kacko’s history dated back to the mid-14th century, more recent history had been made near the town. Only fifty years before Hungarian troops led by Polish General Joszef Bem fought a battle close to Kacko in their unsuccessful campaign to fee Hungary from Habsburg rule.

Further along the valley was Nagyilonda (IIeanda) where beautiful forested hillsides hemmed in the valley. Perhaps our English traveler saw some of the old wooden Orthodox churches made noticeable by their lean spires and shingled roofs. Nagyilonda had undergone a bit of transformation since the first half of the 19th century. In the 1830’s Jews began to settle in the area. By 1900, they administered most of the trade in the Nagyilonda and nearby communities. Their presence would continue to grow until they were a quarter of the population before being largely wiped out by the Holocaust. All that was part of an unimaginable future of which our traveler would have been oblivious. The pastoral landscape and docile peasantry going about its business would not have given much hint of the underlying tensions slowly building in this land.

Pass Through Territory – A Land Harsh & Quaint
Either side of the journey’s halfway point was bookended by a couple of small villages, Hosszurev (Rastoci) and Letka (Letca). The inhabitants were mainly small-scale Romanian farmers, adherents to the Greek Orthodox faith who lived in wood houses with straw roofs. It was a humble existence in a beautiful land where faith, family, custom and tradition defined the way of life. What these farmers and their families must have thought when the railroad arrived is anyone’s guess. It brought foreign travelers such as our Englishman to look in on a world that must have appeared both harsh and quaint. The laborers, in sunlit fields, surrounded by golden stacks of hay looked like a purer form of enchantment when seen from behind a pane of glass in a comfortable railway carriage. Much less so for those struggling to earn their livelihood in a magnificent, but marginally productive land. The railway was little more than a transitory presence, at least for now. This was pass through territory, but the fact that it could now be accessed by an English traveler was nothing short of miraculous. As was everything else that was to come along this route.

* Klausenberg is now Cluj, Bistritz is Bistrita, Hermannstadt is Sibiu, Fogaras is Fagaras and Kronstadt is Brasov. In 1900 they were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, today they are in Romania.

Click here for: The Beginning & End Of Transylvania – Zsibo to Zilah By Rail: The 1900 Baedeker Guide (Part Eight)

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