About fortchoteau1

I first learned about Eastern Europe and the various nations in the region by watching the Olympics. The 1984 Winter Games in Sarajevo was a formative experience in my life. I hold a B.S. in Political Science and a minor in History with an emphasis on International Affairs. My professional career reconnected me with Eastern Europe when I spent six years guiding tours and developing exhibits at a decommissioned Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missile site that had been designated a National Park. From that point I began to read more widely about Eastern Europe and starting traveling throughout the region. I have now made thirteen trips to Eastern Europe. Much of this blog is the result of those travels. In my professional career, I currently serve as the Director of a large museum in the Rocky Mountain West.

A Meeting With Expectations – Buda Castle Up Close & Impersonal (For The Love of Hungary – Part 6)

When I think of touring a castle, what comes to mind is audio tours that never quite work the way they should, drafty and dank rooms that are mostly empty, loads of meaningless furniture, weapons and armor that look like something no sane person would wield or wear and guides who burden their audiences with structural details that a professional engineer would be hard pressed to understand. Nonetheless, castle tours are infectious, they always keep me and millions of others coming back for more. There are always opportunities to take incredible photos. Castle are photogenic in the extreme. They usually occupy a scenic position atop a hill, plateau or mountain. It as though the brains behind these stone-built spectaculars located them for maximum tourist effect.

In truth, castles attained their exalted topographical positions as a matter of security and survival. Castles manage to capture the imagination to such an extent that not many people care anything about their history. History gets in the way of fantasy and every castle relies more for its effect by stimulating imagination rather than relying on reality. In other words, it is not so much what we see in castles, as it is what they make us want to believe. Thus, I had high hopes when I went to visit Buda Castle for the first time. My head was filled with outrageously high expectations. What I would find was quite unexpected. Buda Castle was unlike any other castle I have ever visited.

Impressive & imposing - Looking over the Danube at Buda Castle

Impressive & imposing – Looking over the Danube at Buda Castle (Credit: Túrelio)

“High & Mighty” – An Exercise In Visual Intimidation
From the distance of the Danube promenade, Buda Castle looks impressive and imposing. High above it stands and spreads outward, a massive edifice that looks like it was pieced together from several buildings. Each one would be large by itself, together they form a coherent and gigantic whole. As I would later discover, to a large degree Buda Castle was an agglomeration that had been pieced together in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Its core architecture is Baroque, with neo-Renaissance elements added as well. Crowning it is a very large neo-Baroque dome, done up in modernist style. Its size cannot be disguised by distance. When viewed from the Danube, the castle seems to spread itself up and out, expanding its girth in several directions and commanding the area around it. No wonder it provides the name for the plateau on which it and hundreds of other buildings stand, Castle Hill (Varhegy). Looking up at the castle is an exercise in visual intimidation, one that can leave the viewer feeling small and insignificant.

The Castle looks the very definition of “high and mighty”, as impenetrable as it is intimidating. From below, the castle communicates a powerful presence. I wondered how a visit to it might make me feel. The answer to that question soon came as I made it a point to visit the Castle on my first full day back in the city. My initial response as I began to approach it was one of trepidation and confusion. The Castle was overwhelming. I could see how, after a full renovation and additions were completed in 1905, it became the largest Royal Palace in the world. At one time it sported over 200 rooms. The Castle had been ordered built as a sop to the Hungarians by Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa for their support in her wars against foreign foes. She had no intention of ever living in it, but that did not stop the construction from being ridiculously outsized and ornate. And that was just the first version in the mid-18th century. It continued to expand as it was redeveloped and revised.

Out of the shadows - Lions Court at Buda Castle

Out of the shadows – Lions Court at Buda Castle (Credit: Darinko)

A Royal Palace Without Royalty – Crowning Behemoth
The version of the Castle which stands today approximates the one that was redesigned in the late 19th century by Miklos Ybl and then finished after his death by Alajos Hauszmann. Ybl’s design had been responsible for an additional western wing, while Hauszmann implemented a massive expansion which resulted in a new northern wing that ended up doubling the size of those parts of the castle facing the Danube. This version of the castle suffered grave damage during the Second World War. The communist regime, which took control of the country in the years after the war, would not hear of rebuilding the castle as it had previously existed. They wanted to avoid any reminder of the proto-nationalist regime of Miklos Horthy, who had called the Castle home during the inter-war period. It was thus decided to gut the interior rooms so Buda Castle could house an array of cultural institutions. While much of the ornate splendor that had once covered the Castle both inside and out was not replaced.

I wanted to take a tour of this crowning behemoth, but that would be problematic. There seemed to be no central starting point. I found myself wandering in and out of shadows, while walking beneath hundreds of windows and past multiple wings. I soon discovered that it was impossible to take a tour that would cover the entire castle. Oddly enough, this is by design.   The upshot of the post-war reconstruction is that visitors see a lesser example of what the Castle was like in its early 20th century heyday. There are no royal quarters to visit. Historically, this is more appropriate than one might think. The Castle was never a royal residence, Horthy was the highest official ever to inhabit its chambers. As far as the Habsburg administration went, the Castle acted as home to the palatine, which was the Habsburg Emperor’s representative in Hungary. Thus, there were no great personages connected with the castle nor any tales of royal feats or depravity.

A meeting with expectations - Buda Castle

A meeting with expectations – Buda Castle (Credit: Jorge Lascar)

A Daunting Task – Built To Be This Way
Buda’s Castle present status is as a house of museums, converted to showcase works of art, historic artifacts and books. This meant that if I wanted to “visit” the castle, I would have to spend time in such disparate attractions as the Hungarian National Gallery, the National Szechenyi Library and the Budapest History Museum. This seemed like a daunting task for a first full day, so I satisfied myself by walking around the castle, through several courtyards and snapping photos from stunning vistas. This castle was not really made for tourism or tales. It was a place that one could visit, but never quite penetrate. It could never be captured in a single image or grasped in its entirety by the human mind. I had the stinging suspicion that it was built to be this way. It felt like too much of a great thing and it always will be.

The End Of Eighty-Six Worlds – The Ghosts Of War On Buda’s Castle Hill (For The Love of Hungary – Part 5)

Castle Hill (Varhegy) in Budapest is incredible and not just for its architecture. The fact that there is anything still standing atop the hill is either a miracle or a powerfully encouraging sign of Hungarian resiliency, depending upon one’s perspective and system of belief. The Hill has been riven time and again by centuries of warfare. Just about every medieval and modern weapon has been used against it. From catapults to cannons, arrows to harquebuses, arsenals of weaponry have been used to break the will of those defending this limestone plateau. Innumerable sieges and counter-sieges have taken place, to the point where besiegers often end up becoming the besieged. And after all the bombs and bullets have been expended, Hungarians have still managed to claim Castle Hill as their own. I can think of no greater example of staying power.

A shell of itself - Castle Hill in Buda 1945

A shell of itself – Castle Hill in Buda 1945

Lots of War & A Little Peace – Deconstructing History
To get an idea of just how traumatic the history of Castle Hill has been, start with numbers. By one count, since the Mongol invasion in 1241 through the end of World War II in 1945, there have been eighty-six different times Castle Hill was ravaged by warfare. In other words, on innumerable occasions it was left in ruin. That number equates to an average of one cataclysm every eight years. With this kind of combative past, it is a wonder that any buildings are still left standing atop this stricken plateau. Yet a multitude of architectural wonders rise proudly on Castle Hill today. This speaks to the long period of peace that has occurred since the end of World War II. It has now been 73 years since a shot was fired in warfare atop Castle Hill. No one could have known that when the guns fell silent on February 13, 1945, ending the Red Army’s victorious siege of Buda, that this would conclude seven centuries of warfare. At least for now.

To the naked eye of tourists, all those withering assaults on Castle Hill might seem to have disappeared without leaving so much as a trace. A closer look reveals the ghosts of warfare elegantly hidden behind fashionable facades. The most noticeable traces can be discerned by a probing eye coupled with an investigative intellect. Armed with foreknowledge of the various iterations that were built to imitate the past, a visitor can see the hints of a deeper history exposed in plain sight. A good example of this are the many deliciously colored coated Baroque houses lining the Castle District’s streets. These Baroque beauties sport nary a bullet hole, then again looks can be deceiving. Each of these houses were elegantly reconstructed after the Second World War. Sources indicate that when the Siege of Buda ended, only five of the houses left on Castle Hill were still habitable. Due to the extensive damage and exorbitant cost, reconstruction was not completed in the area until the 1980’s. The wartime destruction did have one unintended benefit, many elements of Gothic and Renaissance architecture were unearthed and then incorporated into the reconstructions.

Bullet holes in Buda's Castle District - War damaged former Ministry Of Defense

Bullet holes in Buda’s Castle District – War damaged former Ministry Of Defense

Lack Of Defense – A Monumental Reminder
As thorough a reconstruction as the buildings on Castle Hill have undergone, there are still scars of war in the form of bullet holes to be found. Ironically, the most prominent of these is located at the former Ministry of Defense building where Szinhaz utca runs into Disz ter. This rather non-descript, neo-Baroque styled building stands halfway between Buda Castle and Matthias Church. Tourists rushing back and forth between those two splendid structures often overlook the war damaged building. They fail to notice the monumental reminder of warfare confronting them. Yet the building is pockmarked with unmistakable evidence of the siege. It offered a poignant moment for me when on my first visit to it. I ran my hand across a stone wall and dug a finger into one of the gaping bullet wounds. Here was a tangible trace of gunfire from either a Soviet or German weapon. It was the ultimate outcome of an ideological struggle between fascism and communism, an outcome that spit itself out the barrel of a gun.

The bullet that made this large indention, like tens of thousands of other bullets fired in the Castle District, was meant to maim or kill. Instead, it struck stone, leaving an unforgettable impression in a future age.  An age of peace and prosperity that belonged to another world, the one in which I was lucky enough to now live. This present world had hardly anything in common with the world of war which had transmitted this bullet hole to me. I have never felt so close and so far from war as when I dug my finger into the lasting remnants of that cataclysm.

A new coat of paint - The Castle District today

A new coat of paint – The Castle District today (Credit Elsa rolle)

An Age, An Idea, An Empire – Dying at the Hands of the Next
The building’s integrity as a still standing, non-reconstructed monument to the fire and fury of the apocalyptic siege of Buda is now threatened by a government planned reconstruction. Last time I visited, fences kept visitors away from the building’s walls. Nice and neat, elegant and classy might soon replace the power of real that resides in this place. If the walls are redone, if the memory of war is erased, then the only reminders of Castle Hill’s destructive history will be confined to hidden niches or buried beneath a thousand cobblestones. What will be lost is not just evidence of one siege, but a connection to all the conflicts that have plagued this magnificent plateau’s past.

There is something about seeing the actual place where hellish events happened that causes a person to contemplate the horrors of war. The thought of what it must have been like to fire a gun or hide from a hail of bullets, to kill or be killed, a hundred thousand times over, that can be enough to make the most courageous person recoil at the idea of using combat to settle affairs of state and ideology.  For the course of empire or the pursuit of power, that was the way eighty-six worlds ended atop Castle Hill. In that maze of medieval streets, one age or idea or empire died at the hands of the next. And it kept going on and on and on, until 704 years of history and misery came to a halt in 1945. Let us hope it never happens again. The history of Castle Hill shows that it will.

Click here for: A Meeting With Expectations – Buda Castle Up Close & Impersonal (For The Love of Hungary – Part 6)

A Dazzling Island In The Sky – Castle Hill In Buda (For The Love of Hungary – Part 4)

This was just my second visit to Budapest, but like the first one I felt the magnetic pull of Castle Hill. Something about castles and hills have a way of drawing throngs of tourists to the most important cities in Central and Eastern Europe. Prague, Krakow and Budapest are among the most prominent places sporting a hilltop castle. In each city’s case, a castle stands high above a famous river. The most famous of these rivers is the Danube or the Duna as Hungarians call it. The river slides between Buda and Pest, a ribbon of slate grey luminescence that is transformed into liquid fire at dawn and dusk. Standing by the Duna looking up at the conical spires reaching upward toward the sky, Castle Hill provides the viewer with an aesthetically enthralling sensation that is nothing short of spectacular.

Elements of magic - Buda Castle & Castle Hill lie up at night

Elements of magic – Castle Hill lie up at night (Credit: hpgruesen)

Elements Of Magic – A Splendid Sensation
This scene was first set out before me a year and a half earlier on my first trip to Budapest. It left me with indelible impressions that have stayed with ever since then. On this my second trip to the city, I found myself on a beautiful autumn morning traveling from the gritty working class district of Kispest to the regal splendor of Castle Hill. This trip when done by way of public transport takes a little less than an hour. Upon arrival, I had one goal in mind on this visit, to spend the better part of a day walking around Castle Hill. This would be done in the hope of gaining a better understanding of its history and architecture. That rocky plateau had been home to triumphs, sieges and cataclysmic battles that had served to shape Hungary’s destiny.

On my previous visit to Budapest, I had spent just a little over an hour atop Castle Hill, not nearly enough time to get to know the place. My most lucid memory was of standing outside the Matthias Church listening to a guide on the Budapest Free Tour explain how the structure had been co-opted as a model for the castle in Disney’s Magic Kingdom. I have never been to Disney World and have no desire to visit a make-believe world when there are real places of much greater interest. I must admit though, that there does seem to be an element of magic associated with Castle Hill. It provides a suitable destination to explore the fantastical. That first visit lodged itself in both my memory and imagination. A trip to Budapest would never take place again without a visit to that dazzling island in the sky that Hungarians call Varhegy (Castle Hill).

A step up - The climb to Castle Hill begins

A step up – The climb to Castle Hill begins

Scaling The Heights – To The Pinnacle Of Power
I made the mistake of walking, rather than riding to the top of Castle Hill. This mistake turned out to be quite revealing. Though I exercise each day, getting to the top of Castle Hill proved to be a workout. It stands on a mile long plateau of rock, rising two hundred feet above the Danube. Two hundred feet may not sound like much of a climb, but when that elevation rises over a length of just a thousand feet, scaling it can be exhausting. I decided against a frontal assault and scaled the hill up a set of stairs along its western side. This approach conveyed to me the importance of topography in the history of Castle Hill. The first capital of the Kingdom of Hungary was not located here, instead it was on another hill further north overlooking the Danube, in the city of Esztergom. Buda only became the administrative seat of power in Hungary after the Mongol invasion in 1241.

The capital at the time of invasion was in Esterzgom, but that city proved no match for the Mongols who destroyed most of it. The King of Hungary at the time of the Mongol Invasion was Bela IV (1235 – 1270). He was forced to flee all the way to an island off the coast of Dalmatia to avoid being killed. After the Mongols withdrew from Hungary a year later, Bela decided that the only way to protect the Kingdom from another invasion was by building hilltop fortresses. These were constructed all over Hungary. Bela had a fortress and accompanying residence built atop Castle Hill. In the 14th century, a castle was built atop the hill as well. Then during the long reign of Sigismund (1387 -1427) a Gothic Palace and protective fortifications were added. By this time, Buda had become without a doubt the epicenter of political power in the Kingdom of Hungary.

The Castle District got a renaissance makeover during the long and storied reign of Matthias Corvinus (1458 – 1490). This period was the height of cultural and architectural achievement in medieval Hungary, ushering in a gilded age for Castle Hill. Marble fountains, expansive new Renaissance style buildings and crushed gravel pathways covered the district. During this time, the Kingdom of Hungary expanded its borders into lower Austria and Bohemia. This expanding empire had at its core Castle Hill. It must have seemed at the time that nothing could threaten the district. It stood secure, floating high above the Danube, a spectacular reminder of the wealth and power of Matthias’ reign. This peak turned out to be something of a false summit, for it was all downhill after the death of Matthias. The Kingdom of Hungary began a period of decline which led to defeat and occupation by the Ottoman Turks. The Castle District fell into the hands of the Ottoman Turks after their successful siege of Buda in 1541. They then made it their seat of power. Though the Turks converted plenty of churches to mosques on Castle Hill they left the royal palace intact.

Scaling the heights - Statue atop Castle Hill

Scaling the heights – Statue atop Castle Hill

Baroque Beginnings – The Castle District Rises Again
The end of Turkish power in Buda and most of Hungary came in 1686, it also brought an end to the old Castle District. The successful siege by a Habsburg led army resulted in the historic architecture that stood on Castle Hill being laid waste. Very little was left to build upon. This meant an entirely new version of the district, heavily influenced by the Baroque era, would slowly arise. Much of the architecture from that period still exists today. This was what confronted me when I finally I made it to the top of Castle Hill and caught my breath. I was soon to discover it was worth every bit of energy that I expended to get there.

Click here for: The End Of Eighty-Six Worlds – The Ghosts Of War On Buda’s Castle Hill (For The Love of Hungary – Part 5)

 

The Wekerle Estate – Transylvania In Kispest (For The Love of Hungary – Part 3)

Transylvanianism is the kind of quixotic word that sounds like something related to paranormal activity. After first seeing the word my imagination began to run wild with a plethora of bizarre suppositions concerning just what it might mean. Perhaps it was an academic pursuit where all things Transylvania would be examined in detail and the studious sort could procure an undergraduate degree in “the land beyond the forest” (the root word’s literal meaning). Or maybe the word was some sort of strange affliction caused by contact with mysterious counts who double as vampires on the night shift. Another idea was that the word stood for a populist political movement to make Transylvania an independent nation. It turned out that all my theories were wrong. The word was an idea, unique to its time. This idea was largely the brainchild of a famous ethnic Hungarian architect, Karoly Kos (Kos Karoly in the Hungarian order of names) and came about after Hungary’s borders were trimmed to exclude Transylvania following the First World War.

Transylvanianism was controversial at the time because its basis involved an acceptance of Romanian rule over Transylvania. Kos believed that ethnic Hungarians should work within the existing system to promote their interests, rather than call for the old borders to be reinstituted. While Kos’ idea is now largely part of the past, his legacy lives on in an unlikely architectural project. Kos helped construct a little bit of Transylvania in an area that is now part of Hungary’s capital city. This physical representation is something that can still be seen and enjoyed in one of the least visited areas of Budapest. The fact that it stands hundreds of kilometers west of Kos’ beloved Transylvania, makes it that much more fascinating.

Beyond all expectations - Transylvania by way of Kispest

Beyond all expectations – Transylvania by way of Kispest (Credit: toldym)

Opposites Connect – A Splendid Outlier In Budapest
I first discovered Transylvania not in the dark forests of the Apuseni Mountains or among the craggy peaks of the Fagaras, instead I found it confronting me in Kispest, the gritty 19th district of Budapest. Kispest is just about the last place one would expect to be reminded of Transylvania. The district is working class to its core. The resident’s faces are as cracked as its sidewalks. This is a place that has more in common with the 1980’s than the 21st century. The apartment blocks are aging badly, there is a sheen of grime coating anything related to public transport and the citizens have a perpetually dour look frozen on their faces. In other words, Kispest is a place serious about its decrepitude. Scratch beneath the surface though and glimmers of post-communist Hungary soon become apparent. There are fine middle-class homes, shiny car dealerships and a shopping mall that pulses to the rhythms of consumerism and mass consumption.

And then there is the Wekerle Estate (Wekerletelep – named for two-time Hungarian Prime Minister Sandor Wekerle whose government supported its construction). On the surface, such words as Kispest and estate would seem to not have anything in common, but here they do. That is one reason the Wekerle Estate is worth a look. Opposites have not so much attracted, as they have connected here. The Estate stands as a splendid outlier amid the wasted vestiges of the old proletarian ideals that were swept away before the tide of history in 1989. At the Wekerle estate one can find what Kispest could have been, rather than what it was turned into. The estate is a place where style and substance are combined to create a towering achievement no more than three stories high and all the better for it. The scale matters less than a certain sensibility that pervade this remarkable place. The Wekerle Estate consists of 1,007 houses containing over 4,400 apartments. All have an architecturally communal tinge with stylistic elements of Art Nouveau and above all Transylvanian.

Style & substance - Gate into the heart of the Wekerle Estate

Style & substance – Gate into the heart of the Wekerle Estate (Credit: rlevente)

A Garden City– Grown With Folkore
Imagine a village hidden among the urban, a garden city grown to guard against the excesses of modernity, folk architecture blended with domestic living space. The architectural style on offer at the Wekerle Estate emphasizes sharp angles, gables and turrets. An aesthetic appealing slice of Transylvania. The estate was the work of as many as fifteen different architects and engineers with Kos playing the lead role. Construction started prior to the outbreak of World War I and continued up to the mid-1920’s. At that time there was no longer money to complete this vision of Transylvania sprouting up on the fringes of Budapest. Kos is the man most associated with the estate, as he should be since it was his vision which lay at its core. Kos Karoly Square is an oasis of nature surrounded by exquisitely folk inspired structures. Beyond the square, tree-lined streets radiate outward. These streets are lined with dwellings that represent the same inspired style. The development could house up to 20,000 people.

Everything in the Estate was built with the goal of creating an agreeable living space, where people could live in the city, but feel as though they were still in a village. This was of particular interest to the tens of thousands who had moved to Budapest from the countryside in the late 19th and early 20th century. During this period, Hungary was transformed from a rural to a predominantly urban society. The hope was that the Wekerle estate would help these economic migrants keep a connection to the land and also their fellow man. Here was an idea of the communal and collective without the loss of individuality. At the same time, the Wekerle estate represented a physical embodiment of Transylvania. And Karoly Kos was the greatest exponent of that place as an aesthetic ideal.

Living Legacy - Karoly Kos in the Wekerle Estate

Living Legacy – Karoly Kos in the Wekerle Estate (Credit: Mark Ahsmann)

Living Legacy – An Idea Ahead Of Its Time
At the center of the Wekerle Estate stands Kos Karoly Square and at the center of the Square stands a statue of the man himself. It is a fitting tribute to his legacy. Kos would live out his life in Kolozsvar (Cluj in present day Romania), the largest city and cultural capital of Transylvania. He worked hard to advance the idea of Transylvanianism throughout the 1920’s and 30’s. This policy of moderation was not in tune with the Hungarian desire to recover the prewar Kingdom of Hungary’s “lost lands”. Living in peaceful coexistence with Romanians meant more to Kos than going to war, but hotter heads prevailed. Northern Transylvania was re-occupied by Hungary through an alliance with Nazi Germany, but that alliance led to greater losses, including Transylvania forever. Oddly enough though Kos died in 1977, his ideal of peaceful coexistence has been largely realized in Transylvania as part of a different entity, the European Union. In that respect his legacy lives on, just as it does at the Wekerle Estate in Kispest.

Click here for: A Dazzling Island In The Sky – Castle Hill In Buda (For The Love of Hungary – Part 4)

Signs Of Their Times – Chasing Ghosts In Kispest (For The Love Of Hungary – Part 2)

Exploring Hungary in-depth meant getting far off the tourist track. This led to several problems. The foremost of which was my inability to converse with the locals due to language barriers. For this same reason, written literature was off-limits. This put me far from my comfort zone. Thus, I was left to observe and interpret everything I saw. Certain patterns became visible. A rather obvious one concerned the naming of streets. Whether in an outlying district of a major city or a tiny village, I began to see the same names used again and again. While walking around Budapest’s 19th District of Kispest, I became fascinated with the names of famous Hungarians adorning the street signs. Some names were instantly recognizable, others I had to spend time researching. It occurred to me that these names offered clues about Hungarians and who they considered worthy representatives of their history. Street names are spoken thousands of times each day. They help order and organize travel routes while also serving as signposts to the past. The names are reflective of those whose achievements have gained them eternal notoriety in the pantheon of prominent Hungarians.

Arpad utca - In memory of the man who started it all

Arpad utca – In memory of the man who started it all

The Latest & Greatest – Two Thousand Years In The Making
The roll call of Hungarian greats could be seen on signs plastered upon fences, houses and street corners all over Kispest. Names familiar and foreign confronted me on every corner. A litany of lionization more than two thousand years in the making. The names were markers, not just of people, but also progress. They went all the way back to the very beginning, before the idea of Hungary even existed. I spied a sign with the word Pannonia. This was the Latin name for the Roman province that once covered present-day western Hungary. Magyars did not exist at that time, at least not in East-Central Europe. They were still eight hundred years away from arrival, their ancestors wandering out on the Asiatic steppe. The co-opting of Pannonia as a place name in modern Hungary was understandable. It linked the nation to ancient Rome’s imperial might. The suggestion being that it was not a coincidence that Hungarians and Romans had settled in the same area.

Hungarian history began with Arpad utca (utca means street in Hungarian). Little is known of the man whose name has become a byword for Hungarian conquest of the Carpathian Basin. That has not stopped this tribal chieftain from becoming one of the most famous Hungarian historical personages of all time. Arpad was elected leader of the Magyar tribes heading westward. He then spearheaded their arrival in 894 AD into what would become Hungary. His name was given to the dynastic family (House of Arpad) which ruled Hungary during its first four centuries. Arpad also unwittingly provided his name to a street in Kispest, as well as to hundreds of other streets in Hungarian towns. What he accomplished is mostly lost in a distant past, when legends were just as powerful as the truth. In some ways, the same could still be said today.

Bathory utca - A Family, a King & Blood Countess

Bathory utca – A Family, a King & Blood Countess

Greatness & Darkness – From Inspirational To Dreadful
Soon I was onto more solid historical ground with Kossuth and Petofi utcas. Both men were titans of the Hungarian Revolution that took place in 1848-49. Their dreams were thwarted by the Habsburgs, but their vision and legacy lived on It is difficult, if not impossible, to find a place in Hungary that has not been graced by their names. Kossuth the politician and Petofi the poet can be found in every city, town and village. They even kept their places in the pantheon during communism. Long after these two men and their dreams died, Hungarians never forgot them. How could they? From Kispest to Kecskemet, Kossuth and Petofi are deified in every conceivable way. From statues to squares and street names. Their omnipresence a fact of daily Hungarian life. These are two men who will forever inspire Hungarians. Conversely, there are others whose names represented both greatness and darkness.

The famous Hungarian family Bathory was a name that seemed a bit strange to find adorning a street in Kispest. The Bathory’s were exalted aristocracy while Kispest is working class to its core. I sat and stared at a Bathory utca sign for close to a minute. Bathory was a name that had dreadful connotations. The mere mention of it sent ominous chills surging up my spine though it really should not have. The name referred to King Stephen Bathory, who rose from Prince of Transylvania to King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, ruling as a strong, wise leader. Unfortunately, the Bathory that I and most foreigners have in mind when they see that name is Elizabeth Bathory. She was the Blood Countess, who by some scholarly estimates murdered more girls than any female serial killer in history. Her name is still evocative of horror despite four centuries of distance from her crimes. Here I was standing hundreds of kilometers from where those murders happened. It was a sun splashed day in a humble neighborhood in Kispest, but the Bathory name still had a chilling effect. Elizabeth made the kind of history that has blackened the Bathory name forever.

My relief in leaving Bathory behind was only momentary as I would soon come across Nadasdy utca. Nadasdy’s similarity to the word nasty is coincidental, but the Nadasdy for which this street was named could rightly be called nasty, in the extreme. Ferenc Nadasdy was none other than the husband of Elizabeth Bathory. He is also a hero in the Hungarian pantheon, past and present, for his warfare fighting capabilities against the Ottoman Turks. He fought both valiantly and violently for the Hungarian and Habsburg cause. Defending Christendom with a fervor that was less spiritual and more diabolical. Termed the Black Knight, Ferenc Nadasdy lived up to that nickname, both on the field of battle and across his vast landholdings. He and his wife were known to punish servants in the most bestial of manners. Gaining satisfaction through a variety of tortuous methods. At least Ferenc was able to take out much of his rage on the field of battle. It was said that he danced with the heads of Turks, after defeating and then beheading them. His martial exploits were worthy of a great commander, his domestic deeds the preserve of a despotic mind. Nonetheless, he is glorified in Hungary today as a national hero, while his wife goes unmentioned for obvious reasons.

Nadasdy utca street sign - Kispest, 19th District

Nadasdy utca street sign – Kispest, 19th District

Fame & Infamy – Possessed By Power
There were more famous names to come, Hunyadi and Rakoczi, Batthyany and Kisfaludy, Zichy and Bercsenyi. On these street signs each of them could live on forever. Many had possessed great power during their lifetimes. In the afterlife they still held power, this time over streets and cityscapes, squares and monuments. A reminder of what Hungarians could achieve both good and bad. Along the streets of Kispest, a pantheon of Hungarian heroes lives on in both fame and infamy. These are the ghosts of greatness past.

Click here for: The Wekerle Estate – Transylvania In Kispest (For The Love of Hungary – Part 3)

Romanticism For A Restless Man: An Affair Of The Heart (For The Love Of Hungary – Part 1)

The more times I traveled to Eastern Europe, the more my focus and interests began to narrow. I found myself wanting to go deeper into one country. To try and understand Eastern Europe’s history, politics and culture through the prism of a single nation. That nation would be Hungary. I surprised myself with this decision. Why Hungary?  The answer was twofold. First, the woman who would become the love of my life and who I would eventually marry lived there. This meant I traveled to Budapest and outward to the Hungarian countryside on numerous occasions. Secondly, from the moment I first entered the country at the border post of Magyarboly in southern Hungary, I felt comfortable there. That feeling was hard to explain because it felt so natural, as though it was meant to be. This was quite odd since I could not speak a word of Hungarian and really did not have the time or inclination to learn it. And for good reason, the difficulty of learning the Magyar language has been rated on the same level as trying to learn Chinese. Nevertheless, linguistic impossibilities did not put me off.

Exotic Normalcy – A Country Full of Contradictions
Perhaps the reason I made Hungary my focus was because of its exotic normalcy. A nation of paradox, a country of contradiction and a fascinating oxymoron, Hungary straddled a major cultural and political divide with a little bit of the Orient and a whole lot of Europe. Hungary is the ultimate European bridge between East and West. It has been pulled in both directions throughout its long and conflict ridden history. The east is where Hungary’s exoticism comes from. The west its normalcy and for me, familiarity. The Magyars (what Hungarians call themselves) originally came from the east, the far, far east by European standards. Their slow, many centuries long migration took them across the Russian steppe and into the Carpathian Basin. They reached the area during the late 9th century, quickly conquered the existing peoples and have been a mainstay in the region ever since.

One of the most pivotal events in Hungarian history happened not long thereafter. In the year 1000 AD, Hungary’s King Stephen (Istvan) I accepted the Holy Crown from a papal legate and turned Hungary into a Christian Kingdom. This could have easily gone the other way, if Stephen had preferred the Byzantine Empire instead. It is strangely fascinating how an historical event that occurred a millennium earlier could have influenced my affinity for Hungary. Visiting a western oriented Christian nation such as Hungary, as opposed to an Eastern Orthodox one, always feels more familiar to me. When I see onion domes, smell incense burning and try to read signs written in Cyrillic, I feel like a complete foreigner. Ukraine and Serbia come to mind. There is something unsettling for me about most Eastern European nations, attracting and repelling in unequal measure. I have no means to understand these countries other than through guidebooks. That is usually where my visits to these lands start and end. In between, my time is spent on the ground trying to comprehend something incomprehensible.

Hungarian Parliament Building - As seen from the bank of the Danube in Budapest

Hungarian Parliament Building – As seen from the bank of the Danube in Budapest (Credit: Epistola8)

True Happiness – Strangers On A Train
Right from the start, Hungary came across as opposite of the eastern world. It was a nation approaching the normal, at least in my mind. The people kept to themselves, but were willing to help when asked (that is if they understood a word I said). The land – especially in the eastern part of Hungary – reminded me of America’s Great Plains region where I lived at the time. The small towns were like those in the United States, battered and past their prime, but full of kind people. Conversely, Budapest was like nothing else in the United States or for that matter the world. It had a uniqueness that separated it from other cities. At the same time, it bore resemblance in its shops and restaurants to other places I had visited. Budapest felt like it was made to be special and made me as a visitor feel the same.

And the Hungarian people were wonderful for a reason many tourists end up taking the wrong way. By their nature they are not overtly friendly and tend to be suspicious of foreigners, preferring to leave them alone. I loved being left alone, it was my idea of true happiness to be a stranger on a train headed towards the unknown. The fact that Hungarians could take one look at me and know that I was not Hungarian (it must have been my red hair), meant I was kept at arm’s length. At least that is what I believed. This meant I was given room to breathe. Deference equaled distance, both physically and mentally. I was free to move about the country with minimal interference. One example of this occurred when a ticket checker on a train into Budapest tried to tell me I had the wrong ticket, but finally gave up while under assault from my perpetually puzzled expression. To her, I was a foreigner who was best left alone so she finally decided to ignore the issue.

The Contrarian Impulse – Local Knowledge
There was something else about Hungarians I loved that many others have come to loath. They are known to be notoriously selfish, some might say individualistic in the extreme. It is little wonder that their history has been marked by multiple rebellions. Name any century in the last five hundred years and there will be a Hungarian revolt against authority. There is a reason why Hungary was where the Iron Curtain first fell apart. Trying to control Hungarians was a thankless task. My mother would likely say the same about me. I felt there was a contrarian impulse in Hungarians, a skepticism that looked at the world through less than rose colored lens. This was a trait that I shared with them. History had not been kind to them, but they were kind to me. That probably mattered more than anything else. It was one of the many reasons that I kept coming back to Hungary. Love and distance, reserve and passion, a country of complex contradictions. Here was a nation and a people worth getting to know.

Click here for: Signs Of Their Times – Chasing Ghosts In Kispest (For The Love Of Hungary – Part 2)

 

 

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

Our English traveler was proceeding through the heart of northwest Transylvania at a leisurely pace. He would have probably checked his pocket watch somewhere past Aranymezos (Babeni), noticing that over two hours had elapsed thus far on what was shaping up to be a very pleasant journey. To his left, the sunlight created a cascade of sparkles on the Szamos River, a little further off in the distant a series of low hills were covered in verdant greenery. Here was a whole new world that only a few outsiders had ever seen. One of those had been a Baedeker guidebook author who had first blazed this itinerary a few years earlier. The journey had only become possible in 1890, the year that the Des-Zsibo-Zilah Railway opened. Two-thirds of the railway line followed the serpentine course of the Szamos. It was not until Zsibo (Jibou), where the Agrij River entered the Szamos, that the line broke away from the river.

A Chateau & A Park - Wesselenyi Kastely in the early 20th century

A Chateau & A Park – Wesselenyi Kastely in the early 20th century

The Hidden Opposition – Deep In The Countryside
Zsibo (Jibou) was an important town in the region, but Baedeker only hints at that in a description that refers to “a chateau and a park”. These were references to the Wesselenyi Castle and Botanical Garden, which can still be visited today. The castle was, as it still is, one of the largest Baroque structures in Transylvania. This branch of the powerful Wesselenyi family gained a fair amount of fame for their fervent opposition to Habsburg rule. Miklos Wesselenyi Sr. took up the fight, leading an army of nobles, peasants and outlaws in an attack on the local Austrian administrator. This resulted in Wesselenyi Sr. being throw into prison for several years. His son, Miklos continued the opposition, going so far as to support the liberation of serfs as leader of the liberal, reformist nobility. In an ironic coda to this lost cause, Zsibo (Jibou) also became the setting for the final surrender of a Hungarian Army in 1849 fighting for the Revolution that had begun the year before.

Zsibo (Jibou) was the turning point, quite literally, for the final stage of our Englishman’s journey to Zilah. The Szomas soon became a memory as the railway sliced south and then southwest along its new course. The low, forested hills periodically closed in either side of the railway. The Englishman may well have grown both excited and apprehensive by the thought of arrival which was now less than an hour away. It is doubtful he knew that prior to reaching Zilah, deep in the hills a few kilometers off to the south stood one of the great architectural antiquities of Transylvania. Porolissum had been the site of a Roman settlement which had begun as a military encampment during the Emperor Trajan’s conquest of the Dacians in 106. It eventually grew to become the capital of a province known as Dacis Porolissensis. Baedeker does not mention the ruins – which include three temples and an amphitheater – that can be found there. This is not surprising since most of these remnants were not excavated until the latter half of the 20th and early part of the 21st centuries. The hidden historical secrets of Transylvania did not give themselves up so easily to tourists or modernity.

Old Zilah - The Unseen Transylvania

Old Zilah – The Unseen Transylvania

Sights Unseen – Staying The Night In Zilah
After passing through one last narrow defile the train would suddenly arrive in Zilah. The town was situated in a valley of the same name at a crucial geological junction of the Apuseni Mountains with the Eastern Carpathians. In 1900, Zilah was growing rapidly in no small part due to the railroad which aided commerce. The population had grown to 7,000, three-quarters of whom were ethnic Hungarians. Baedeker gave Zilah only a single sentence in its narrative. This hardly did the town justice. Baedeker does mention that the railroad station has a restaurant. It also recommends one accommodation, known by the name Tiger. Let us imagine that our Englishman decided to avail himself of an overnight stay. He would have been one of the few foreigners to have ever walked the streets of Zilah. A clutch of sites would prove of interest.

The City Hall had only been completed in 1889, work that was over fifty years in the making. The building’s trapezoidal shape and prominence – centered on the Old Market square – were a fine expression of the role played by the town as administrative seat for Salaj County. The town also sported a museum, its first, which had been opened in 1880. Gifted by a former Minister of the Hungarian Parliament and art collector, Lajos Szikszai, the museum contained a wealth of archaeological objects. Our English traveler may well have availed himself of a visit to the theater in the evening. Located in the Transylvania Building, which was just five years old at the time, the theater showcased local and regional talent in an array of productions. This was the main form of entertainment of that era for urban dwellers.

Looking back - Panorama of Zilah in 1903

Looking back – Panorama of Zilah in 1903

The Other Side Of Twilight -A Land Distilled To Its Essence
Zilah was the end of the line for Baedeker’s mini-itinerary as well as for our fictional English traveler. The area has always been a good place to make a transition. This transitory role goes back over two millenniums, long before the town came into existence. In ancient times, the town site had been inhabited by the Free Dacians, members of the Dacian tribe that had not been conquered by Rome.  A mere five kilometers away stood the Roman border. In later centuries, Zilah had been a crossing point between Transylvania and Central Europe along the old Salt Route. In Austria-Hungary, it was either the beginning or the end of Transylvania depending on which way a traveler was going.

No matter which way one was traveling in 1900, a journey to Zilah was a trip to the periphery. A journey along the edge of a world just beginning to be discovered by foreigners. Few made that journey or the discovery, but those that did were able to see Transylvania distilled to is essence. Romanians and Hungarians living side by side among nature’s beauty, if not its bounty. The timeless traditions and quasi-mystical landscapes of the Land Beyond the Forest were now accessible to anyone. All they needed was a bit of courage, a train ticket and the good sense to let Baedeker be their guide.

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)

The Fortunes & Misfortunes Of Transylvania – Des to Bethlen via Baedeker The 1900 Baedeker Guide (Part Six)

Reading Baedeker on Transylvania one gets the sense that the town of Des (Dej, Romania) had a great deal going for it in 1900. It was a “Royal Free Town, capital of the county of Szolnok-Doboka.” The adage of location, location, location best explains Des’ prominence. In their first sentence describing Des, Baedeker makes this clear, stating that the town lies “at the confluence of the Great and Little Szamos”. The town was a meeting point in more than one way, as it was located where the Transylvanian Plateau and Transylvanian Plain meet. A confluence point for rivers, transition zone for land forms and junction on an important travel corridor, Des was always a highly strategic point.

The town also greatly benefited from its proximity to salt deposits. Its supply of “white gold” was one of the most coveted commodities throughout its history. Evidence suggests salt was being mined from the deposits as far back as Roman times. A Roman road and settlement were both located in the area. For centuries, the Szamos River acted as a natural highway for salt to sprinkle out from the area to larger markets. The river’s role in transporting trade goods brought many tradesmen and travelers to the town. Once the railroad arrived in the latter part of the 19th century, many more people arrived and departed throughout the day. Some of these would have been travelers brought by Baedeker to the town.

Snapshots of Des in 1902 - From the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in Words and Pictures

Snapshots of Des in 1902 – From the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in Words and Pictures

Regime Change – The Harsh Hands Of Oppression
Many things have changed in Dej since Baedeker’s 1900 edition was published, one that has not is the paltry range of accommodation on offer. Baedeker lists two hotels worth staying at in the town, today TripAdvisor lists a grand total of three. Modern travelers have the additional drawback of not being able to dine at Des railway station restaurant which has long since disappeared. More substantial changes have taken place in the town’s population between then and now. The transformation of Des (Hungarian) to Dej (Romanian) is more than the superficial shuffling of a couple letters in the Latin alphabet. Baedeker remarks that Des population of 7,700 is “chiefly Magyar”. According to the 1910 census (the earliest one available online), 70% of the residents were Magyar and 26% were Romanian. In addition, there were over 400 Saxons. Today nearly nine out of ten people in Dej are Romanian, just 11% are Magyar while the Saxons have almost all vanished.

There is no mention of Des’ Jewish population in either Baedeker or the latest census (2011) for Dej. During the era of Austro-Hungarian administration, the Jews of Des were counted in with the rest of the Hungarians, because other than Yiddish, Magyar was their most common language. Thus, the Hungarian portion of the population was boosted by several thousand. There are only a handful of Jews left in Dej today. This is due to the catastrophic effects of the Holocaust followed by the resulting post-war immigration to Palestine by survivors. For good reason they no longer felt welcome in the town. It was Hungarian officials under German guidance that prosecuted the Holocaust in northern Transylvania (part of Hungary from 1940 – 1944) with such deadly malevolence. Ironically, Hungarians would soon feel the harsh hand of oppression during the Ceaucescu regime. In this way, the persecutor became the persecuted. The upshot is that Dej became a Romanian city, not only by nation, but also by ethnicity.

Rising Above All - The Calvary Reformed Church in Des

Rising Above All – The Calvary Reformed Church in Des

The Nature Of Transylvania – From Rural Idyll To Rural Disillusion
One thing that has not changed in Dej is the Calvary Reformed Church, an impressive work of Gothic architecture. Baedeker referred to it as a “Handsome Protestant Church of the 15th century”. This splendid edifice became a model for the many wooden churches found throughout Romania today. It was constructed over a seventy year period straddling the 15th and 16th centuries. A seventy-two meter tower was added in 1643. Since completion, it has become a soaring symbol that rises above everything else in the town. The church was well worth a stop in 1900 and still is today for any traveler interested in architecture. Baedeker’s text on Des also mentioned the nearby settlement of Decskana, a few kilometers to the southwest. The salt that brought Des most of its wealth derived from mines in this location.

As Des was the approximate midpoint of a journey between Klausenberg and Bistritz, it was also where the railway carriages were changed out. This made it a good place for the traveler to stretch their legs and enjoy a meal before embarking on the final half of their journey. When the train rolled back out of the station it began to head eastward. Now traveling along the Upper Szomas River Valley’s right bank, the scenery would have been lovely in the spring, summer and early autumn with cultivated fields in the surrounding countryside and low mountains hovering in the northern distance. Villages were a constant reminder of the rural nature of Transylvania. In 1900, the landscape between Des and Bistritz was much like it is today. The only major development in the countryside at that time and still today is agriculture. In 1900 this was a land only beginning to grapple with the demands of an industrial age. That age never really arrived, at least not in a sustainable sense. The railroad was possibly the greatest innovation to ever arrive in this area. It has carried and continues today to carry many locals away from rural Transylvania in search of greater prosperity elsewhere.

Renaissance Man - Prince Of Transylvania Gabor Bethlen (1613 - 1629)

Renaissance Man – Prince Of Transylvania Gabor Bethlen (1613 – 1629)

In The Beginning –  An Ancestral Residence
The latter half of the journey to Bistritz passed through many small villages and at least one larger town of note, Bethlen (Beclean, Romania), the “ancestral residence of the Bethlen family”. That surname denoted one of the most famous and powerful families in Transylvanian history. The Bethlen family provided Transylvania with its greatest leader, Gabor Bethlen, who ruled as Prince of Transylvania from 1613 – 1629. Prince Gabor reigned over an unlikely Renaissance in his homeland. Prince Bethlen’s Transylvania enjoyed nominal independence during a time when the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires were carving up what was left of the Hungarian Kingdom.  In 1900 the Bethlen name was still spoken with reverence and not just from a historical perspective. As the 20th century began, the Bethlen’s were still one of the most powerful and prestigious families in Hungary. In the coming years, Istvan Bethlen, would become Prime Minister of Hungary (1921 – 1931). He eventually died in a Soviet prison after World War II. His fate was not unlike that of so many other Transylvanian aristocrats. As for the town where his ancestors first realized their destiny, it is still there. Like so much in Transylvania it did not change very much, but the world around it certainly did.

Apahid, Aristocrats & Armenians -Klausenberg To Szamosujvar The 1900 Baedeker Guide (Part Five)

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.

Illuminating The Gepids - Artifact discovered at Apahida

Illuminating The Gepids – Artifact discovered at Apahida (Credit: Sailko)

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.

Former Splendor- Banffy Kastely in Bonczhida

Former Splendor- Banffy Kastely in Bonczhida (Credit: Karoly Cserna)

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.

Lasting Impression - Armenian Catholic Cathedral in Gherla

Lasting Impression – Armenian Catholic Cathedral in Gherla (Credit: Aladar Klenner)

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

Click here for: The Fortunes & Misfortunes Of Transylvania – Des to Bethlen via Baedeker The 1900 Baedeker Guide (Part Six)