Klausenberg To Kolozsvar To Cluj – A Transylvanian Transition: The 1900 Baedeker Guide (Part Three)

Baedeker was nothing if not thorough. Their Handbooks for Travellers contained thousands of details molded into itineraries such as the one that would carry me both backward and forward in time from Klausenberg to Bistritz. The seemingly infinite number of details culminating in a travel itinerary between two of Transylvania’s most important cities. To compare the information from 1900 with everything that had happened to the towns and villages along the route since that time makes for a fascinating journey. One that offers a kaleidoscopic view of a world that has been by turns lost or transformed and in some places, surprisingly unchanged. I began to read, reread and then study in intimate detail the Transylvania section of the Austria Including Hungary, Transylvania, Dalmatia and Bosnia Handbook For Travellers. The world of yesterday and today began to collide, creating something altogether new. Forming by way of comparison, contrast and contradiction. This development melded past with present, allowing me to see how much had changed and discover just how much had not.

Eclecticism & Electricity – New York In Transylvania
Before a turn of the 20th century traveler departed Klausenberg they would have taken some time to tour the city. Following the advice of Baedeker, they could book a room at the elegant New York Hotel, which happened to be the guide’s first recommendation. The New York was a striking four story edifice built in the eclectic style, reflecting that growing architectural trend. Among its most striking features was a turret that topped the apex where both sides of the hotel intersected. The interior offered a new class of comfort. There were 65 rooms, kitted out with plush furnishings. In addition, the hotel had its own generator allowing guests to enjoy electric light, a first anywhere in the city.

The New York also housed a coffee house which was the favorite haunt of numerous authors both those who lived in and visited the city. Among the clientele was Hungary’s most famous writer of that time, Mor Jokai. One of the present-day streets fronted by the edifice is named for Jokai. The hotel was the crown jewel for accommodation in the city. A place where travelers could rest and relax in refined luxury. The New York, like Kolozsvar had an ill-starred future ahead of it. It was later renamed the Continental Hotel.  When the German Army occupied Kolozsvar during the spring of 1944 it acted as the Gestapo’s first headquarters. After World War II it was turned into a youth hostel for students. In the 1960s it was renamed the Continental Hotel until it was sold in the early 21st century and shuttered for a planned conversion into a shopping mall.

Glitter & Rust - The former New York Hotel in Cluj

Glitter & Rust – The former New York Hotel in Cluj (Credit: Acquario 51)

Changing Faces  – Playing The Percentages
The New York Hotel was just beginning to realize its sparkling promise as the new century opened. At that time Baedeker reported Klausenberg’s population as 34,500. Figures given by Romanian sources today show the population at 50,000 (Hungarian sources provide a similar number). The total number is not as important as the percentage of each ethnic group in the city. Klausenberg/Kolozsvar/Cluj* was multi-cultural before multiculturalism happened to be a fashionable idea. In 1900 the city was overwhelmingly Hungarian. Magyars made up 82% of the population. Romanians were the second largest group with 14% and Saxons third at 3.5%. These figures are both enlightening and deceiving. In northern Transylvania, Hungarians were overwhelmingly urban dwellers while Romanians dominated the countryside.

The Hungarian figure was also boosted by 6,000 Jews, because they spoke Magyar as their mother tongue they were counted as such. As an individual class Jews were almost as numerous as Romanians in Kolozsvar and much more powerful due to their varied commercial interests and high rate of employment in the professional classes. Being a German publishing firm, Baedeker refers to the city by its German name, even though Saxons were a minute proportion of the population. Saxons had also been mentioned earlier in the Transylvania section. The introduction included information on each of the region’s five main ethnic groups – Hungarians, Romanians, Saxons, Szekeler and Roma. Hungarians would continue as the city’s majority ethnic group until the 1960’s.

The Romanian communist government’s policy of rapid industrialization went hand in hand with diluting the Hungarian share of the populace. After the execution of dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu at the end of 1989 the borders of Romania opened up to the west. Many of Cluj’s Hungarian residents fled to Hungary in search of greater economic opportunities. The upshot was that by 2011, the Romanian share of Cluj’s population was 81.5% almost the same as the Hungarian majority’s share in 1900. There was one major difference though, the population of Cluj was now 324,000, 16.5% of which was Hungarian. Cluj had become a Romanian city in a matter of a few generations.

A Fleeting Image - Old Kolozsvar

A Fleeting Image – Old Kolozsvar (Credit: fortepan.hu)

Strolling Down The Strada – From Aristocrats To Peasants To The Present
A visitor clutching their Baedeker had two choices when they arrived at Klausenberg’s main train station. They could either choose to head by rail for points further east or take a self-guided tour around the city using the Handbook for Travellers. Baedeker’s chosen route through Klausenberg started at the station then slowly headed westward towards the Belvaros (Inner city), an area stuffed with scintillating architecture. Buildings in the Belvaros showcased a much deeper past than the relatively new train station could offer. Getting to the heart of the city meant a rather long walk down Franz Josef utca. That same street still exists, but the name has long since been changed.

Instead of an Emperor, the street is now named after a peasant. Strada Horea commemorates one of the Romanian leaders of the Transylvania Peasant Uprising in 1784. The name may have changed, but the strada sill acts as one of the city’s main transport arteries. Travelers of the past and present followed the same paths. Now shops, restaurants and grocery stores line the route. A sure sign that capitalism in all its varied forms has conquered Romania in a little over twenty-five years. The transition from communism to a free market economy has been so rapid that the visitor is unlikely to even take notice. Only after crossing a bridge over the Somesul Mic River (Little Szamos) and entering the Belvaros does the true splendor of Klausenberg, Kolozsvar and Cluj begin to shine through.

*Note: Klausenberg (German), Kolozsvar (Hungarian) and Cluj (Romania) are used interchangeably throughout this post. In general a specific derivation of the name is used depending on what group administered the city, except in the case of Klausenberg which is used when referring to Baedeker’s text on the city.

A Turn Of The 20th Century Train Ride To Transylvania – Budapest to Klausenberg: The 1900 Baedeker Guide (Part Two)

In 1900, English and German travelers going on a journey to Transylvania would almost certainly have gone through Budapest. The Hungarian capital was the most prominent jumping off point for heading into one of the most diverse natural and cultural landscape in Eastern Europe. Going eastward out of Budapest meant starting in a counter intuitive turnabout of geographical logic. The city’s western railway terminal (Nyugati Palyudvar) was the jumping off point for Transylvania. This magnificent hall of transport had been constructed by the famous Eiffel firm of France a quarter century before. A turn of the century traveler would have entered the station in search of the cavernous ticket hall, which still manages to serve the same function today.

There they would have been able to purchase a ticket for the journey to the largest city in Transylvania, Klausenberg.* This was the route recommended by the 1900 edition of Austria Including Hungary, Transylvania, Dalmatia and Bosnia – Handbook for Travellers by Baedeker. Listed as Itinerary #69 – From Budapest to Klausenberg via Grosswardein – this rail trip is still offered today for the nostalgically inclined. It departs multiple times each day beginning at the same exact station as it did over a century ago. It is comforting to discover that despite all the geopolitical changes that rocked the region during the 20th century, Baedeker’s itinerary between the two cities is largely unchanged, at least on paper.

Itinerary 69 - From Budapest to Klausenberg via Grosswardein

Itinerary 69 – From Budapest to Klausenberg via Grosswardein

Delighting In The Details – First Class All The Way
Baedeker was the gold standard of travel guides in the late 19th and early 20th century. The breadth of coverage and detailed information they provided was unprecedented. The guidebooks eschewed opinionated commentary for a “just the facts” writing style. Baedeker’s itineraries are chock full of details that the latter-day reader will find of especial interest if they want to compare the same journey from past to present. For instance, the railway journey from Budapest to Klausenberg is listed as taking anywhere between 8 ½ to 13 hours. The trip today, which now includes a border crossing, can be done in about 8 hours. Thus, the speed of travel has increased, but not as dramatically as one might imagine. This is most likely due to the mountainous topography that trains must scale as they climb the Transylvanian portion of the route.

The comfort and ease for those who could afford to travel this route by train in 1900 would have been much greater, especially regarding food, than modern travelers have come to expect. A dining car was an integral part of the train. Such services are noticeably lacking today on all but night trains. And those that travel through the night offer a heightened version of the TV dinner as opposed to the elegant dining options offered on turn of the 20th century Hungarian trains. A traveler paid for this elegance. Baedekers lists a first-class ticket on this route as costing 9 florins. Calculated for inflation this would be the equivalent of 47 euros/55 dollars in today’s terms. A second-class ticket cost 6 florins or the equivalent of 33 euros/38 dollars. Today, the cost of a first-class ticket on the route is 51.50 euros/60 dollars, while a second-class ticket now goes for 34.50 euros/40 dollars. Prices have not changed and neither has much of the route.

Starting point - Nyugati Palyudvar (Western Station) in 1900

Starting point – Nyugati Palyudvar (Western Station) in 1900 (Credit: fortepan.hu)

Facts Versus Opinions – Taking The High (Rail)Road
Baedeker starts the itinerary by providing a thorough point by point description of the rail route between Budapest and Nagyvarad which crossed the Great Hungarian Plain. The guidebook’s author is mostly sparing with anything other than the details. Amid the facts are tidbits that might raise an eyebrow. The landscape is referred to as “a monotonous plain”. For anyone who has ever traveled this route that description rings true. Though the amount of historical and architectural information is much less than a modern reader might prefer, Baedeker aims to provide a step by step account of the stations and villages that the railway passes through. A fine example of this style can be found in the description starting with the train crossing the Theiss (Tisza River):

69 ½ M. Szajol (where the Arad line diverges, see p. 374). 75 M. Torok Szent Miklos; 81 M. Fegy-vernek. From (92 M.) Kis-Ujszallas lines run to the N. to Kaal-Kapolna (p. 347), to the S. to (18 M.) Devavanya and thence to (29 1/2 M.) Gyoma (p. 374), and to the E. to (58 M.) Grosswardein. — 102 M. Karczag (branch-line to Tisza-Fured, 28 M., see p. 369). 111 M. Puspok-Ladany (Rail. Restaurant)

Such information might be construed as gobbledygook. Then again, it was certainly preferable to staring out the window at a mind numbing landscape. Current guidebooks are quite the opposite. They skip the in between parts to expound on the larger towns and better known attractions. Baedeker did a bit of this, but their guidebook was more information than interpretation. From time to time, the authorial opinion of Baedeker managed to creep through. For instance, the traveler learns that Grosswardein is “a pleasant town”. Among its architectural attractions “is the tasteless Roman Catholic Cathedral” which stands close to the “handsome” bishop’s residence. The hills outside the town “yield excellent wine”. Such opinions are benign by the standards of modern travel guide writing. Nonetheless, they stick out because relatively few of them are to be found in the pages of Baedeker.

A Transylvanian Terminal - Kolozsvar Palyudvar (Klausenberg-Cluj Railway Station)

A Transylvanian Terminal – Kolozsvar Palyudvar (Klausenberg-Cluj Railway Station)

Ghost Journey -Passing Into History
In Baedeker’s defense, it must have taken a monumental amount of work just to assemble the Hungary and Transylvania portions of the Handbook for Travellers. Roads were in deplorable condition across most of the eastern areas in Hungary. The authors would have been largely limited to areas in and around railways. Travelers would have appreciated this thoroughness, where else could they learn that at the first station in Transylvania- Csucsa (Ciucea, Romania) – there was a restaurant. Such amenities are something modern train travelers would love to find in out of the way locales. The days of railway restaurants in small Transylvanian towns have long since passed into history, as have Baedeker’s Handbook for Travelers which once directed travelers to them.

The final stop on itinerary #69 was Klausenberg (Koloszvar/Cluj), the main hub of business, commerce and culture in Transylvania. A traveler who braved a trip outside of the main tourist season would have been especially interested in the city’s role as, “the headquarters of the numerous noblesse of Transylvania.” Baedeker remarked that because of this, “the town is very animated in winter.” Grand balls were held where aristocratic elegance was on display. One of the sites not included by Baedeker, but which can be visited today was the Banffy Palace. That was because in 1900 the palace was still the setting for the shimmering pageantry of what was once Transylvania’s greatest aristocratic family. The fact that the Banffy Palace can now be found in all the present day guidebooks, but not in the 1900 edition of Baedeker’s speaks volumes about the changes that have occurred since 1900 in Klausenberg. Baedeker had no idea of the transformation and tragedy still to come.

* Note on place names: Klausenberg is Kolozsvar in Hungarian and Cluj in Romanian; Grosswardein is Nagyvarad in Hungarian and Oradea in Romanian


A Passport To Practicality- The 1900 Baedeker Guide: Including Hungary & Transylvania (Part One)

It is 1900 all over again as I open a copy of Austria including Hungary, Transylvania, Dalmatia and Bosnia – Handbook For Travellers by Karl Baedeker. A new century has arrived and with it the 9th edition of a guidebook that had been growing in popularity since the first edition with information on Hungary had been published in 1868. At that time, Hungary was nowhere to be found on the title page. The same was true for Transylvania. Hungary only managed to garner a mere eight pages of coverage in its inaugural appearance. Transylvania received none. Times changed dramatically after that first edition. The marriage of Austria and Hungary in 1867 as the Dual Monarchy (Austro-Hungarian Empire) led to explosive economic growth in Hungary, nowhere more so than the capital city of Budapest. A growing middle class in Europe was searching for new places to visit on vacations. Baedeker helped lead them into a whole new world. The railway network in the Hungarian part of the Empire underwent a massive expansion, which in turn led to increased travel opportunities.

Places that were previously off limits to travelers due to distance, bad roads or topography could now be accessed via a railway network that cast its web into the farthest reaches of the empire’s eastern lands. Traveling to the eastern half of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for English and German language visitors almost always meant going to one of two large railway stations in Budapest, Nyugati (opened in 1877) and Keleti (opened in 1884). These were the shipping and receiving halls for tens of thousands of passengers, many of whom would be traveling around the country with their trusty Baedeker guidebooks in hand. These guides were an indisputable resource that no serious traveler to Hungary could do without. To learn more about this golden age of Hungarian travel, its uniqueness and how it differed from today, I took a closer look at what advice Baedeker offered to travelers.

An Open Book - Austria including Hungary, Transylvania, Dalmatia and Bosnia: Handbook For Travellers by Karl Baedeker

An Open Book – Austria including Hungary, Transylvania, Dalmatia and Bosnia: Handbook For Travellers by Karl Baedeker

Freedom To Roam – Getting Beyond Borders
Every Baedeker started off with the practicalities of travel. This was as it should be and remains to this day in most guidebooks. The first concern for any traveler then and now is money. The logic quite simple, without money a traveler would not be on a journey to Hungary in the first place. Baedeker’s 1900 edition tells us that Austria-Hungary has just switched over to the Crown as its main form of currency. The traveler should sure to carry a substantial sum of them since English money was of little use and only accepted in a few places. To secure the best exchange rate it was always better to change money within the empire rather than in nearby countries such as Germany. Passports were the next subject of concern. While they were not mandatory in Austria-Hungary, unlike other countries in Eastern Europe at the time, it was a good idea to have one anyway. They were a recognized form of identification. Some museums would not allow access unless the traveler showed their passport first.

The fact that passports were not required for travelers in the Empire is a striking illustration of how there were no internal borders in the Empire at that time. Today, the Empire has fragmented into whole or parts of no less than nine countries (Austria, Italy, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, Ukraine, Serbia and Croatia). The European Union has alleviated some, but not all the border crossing difficulties between these successor states. Austria-Hungary was a multinational polity long before the idea of a European Union existed. It connected disparate lands together under Habsburg rule. Baedeker also provided advice for those having to clear customs at border posts when entering Austria-Hungary. Best practices included being present when your luggage was inspected. Customs officials might well confiscate such offensive contraband as “playing cards” and “almanacks.”  While smoking was allowed on trains, the traveler was only exempt from paying duties on up to an ounce of tobacco and ten cigars. Anything beyond that was subject to a fee. Speaking of what a traveler could carry on the trains, luggage was permitted free of charge, depending upon the train and class of carriage a traveler could transport anywhere between 20 and 50 pounds of their belonging. Above these limits a modest fee was charged.

The Search For Ideal Conditions – Lined With Velvet
Such limits on luggage often were dependent upon the class of carriage in which one chose to travel. According to Baedeker there were up to four classes depending on the train. First class was luxurious by the standards of modern train travel. These carriages were “lined with velvet” and offered the best place to secure a window seat. There were usually plenty of spaces available in first class, most likely because second class was in much higher demand. According to the guide, second class carriages were close in comparability first class ones in England. The lowest class, fourth, could best be summed up as standing room only since it had no seating. Today on Hungarian trains, there are only two classes. The number of options when it comes to railway travel, whether of routes, accommodation or food, are much more limited today than they were at the turn of the 20th century.

One thing that has not changed between the past and present is expense or the relative lack thereof. Baedeker states that “Railway Travelling in Austria-Hungary is less expensive than most other parts of Europe.” The same still holds true today for Hungary and in most of the other regions that were once part of the Empire. Railways were surging with innovation, the same was not true for roads. Baedeker offers the memorable opinion that “the steam-roller is unknown in that country (Austria-Hungary).” The best roads were found in the Austrian part of the empire, but these were no better than “middling English roads.” Just like today, the worst roads were found in the east. A good rain was enough to halt travel by road, this was true even in the larger cities of Hungary. Thus, travel was best by rail, worse by road and the same as ever on foot. Baedeker might be able to provide the best information available for travelers to navigate their way around the region, but conditions in many areas were still less than ideal. That did little to stop travelers armed with the 1900 guidebook from heading into Hungary.

Click here for: A Turn Of The 20th Century Train Ride To Transylvania – Budapest to Klausenberg: The 1900 Baedeker Guide (Part Two)

The Baedeker Effect – Guided By A Book: Tempting Travelers Into Austria-Hungary

In 1868, a year after the historic compromise that created the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary (Austro-Hungarian Empire) and five years before Buda, Pest and Obuda would be combined to form the city of Budapest, the famed German travel guidebook publisher Baedeker released the first edition of their Southern Germany and Austria Handbook For Travellers. At the time and for decades thereafter, Baedeker was the top travel guide publisher in continental Europe. The 1868 Southern Germany and Austria guidebook is of especial interest because it was the first Baedeker guide to provide coverage of places in the Kingdom of Hungary. As such, the guidebook is both historical document and artifact, offering a window into travel in Hungary and beyond. Austria-Hungary was on the verge of explosive growth in tourism. This was at the onset of an age where the tourist industry was just beginning to develop in Hungary. As such this Baedeker guide offered a wealth of information at the time to travelers venturing further down the Danube. Today, it still offers a wealth of knowledge to those curious about what it must have been like to travel for pleasure in Austria-Hungary during the half century prior to the First World War.  Knowledge that illuminates a land that had been rarely visited by tourists before Baedeker guides helped make tourists find their way.

A Treasure For Travelers - Baedeker's Southern Germany and Austria

A Treasure For Travelers – Baedeker’s Southern Germany and Austria

The Near DistanceA Matter Of Travel Time
Befitting a region that was only beginning to shed its terra incognito image, Hungary and points further east in the empire were rarely visited by European tourists prior to the mid-19th century. As such, Baedeker’s coverage of the region in German and English language editions of its 1868 guidebook broke new ground. At the same time, these initial efforts were nowhere close to comprehensive. Travel was at the mercy of newly developed routes that trains and steamboats followed. The coverage of Hungary in the first edition was limited to just eight pages with three trip itineraries. In comparison, Austria was given a whopping 204 pages with 43 itineraries. Even Bohemia managed to garner 30 pages and six itineraries. Hungary had a reputation as part of the wild east, a pseudo Oriental outpost. For potential travelers such a stereotype made travel to the area seem like a downright scary proposition. Hungary would shed much of this image over the next fifty years. Being featured in Baedeker’s would go a long way to allay traveler’s fears.

The first itinerary for Hungary that graced the pages of a Baedeker covered a trip by steamboat starting at Ferdinand’s Bridge on the Danube in Vienna and then continued downriver to Pest. The second itinerary was a tour of Pest and Ofen (the German name for Buda), the third for a return journey by railway from Pest to Vienna. One of the most interesting details found in the text is the amount of time it took to travel between the two cities depending on the traveler’s mode of transport. A steamboat trip from Vienna to Pest in 1868 was anything but fast. It could be romantic, relaxing or incredibly tedious, but It was certain to be an unforgettable experience. The steamboat left Vienna at 6:30 a.m. and arrived on the riverbank in Pest thirteen hours later. Modern hydrofoils have cut that amount of travel time by over half. A water voyage between the two cities can now be done in as little as six hours today. The Baedeker guide also advised readers against taking the return journey by steamboat back from Pest to Vienna. This was because it took nearly an entire day – 22 hours – going upstream against the Danube’s strong current. Instead, the guidebook suggested returning by train.

A Wealth Of Opportunities  – An Eastern Opening
More than any other method of transport, railroads were responsible for the advent of mass tourism in the 19th century, but In 1868 they were only beginning to become the engine that would propel tourism to a whole new level in Hungary. The line between Pest and Vienna was still extremely slow. A railway journey between the two cities took eight and a half hours. Despite its slowness, the speed with which the train traveled was revolutionary in comparison to wagon, horse or foot travel. Railway travel was also pleasurable. Passengers were free to read, eat, sleep and enjoy the scenery. The Pest to Vienna railroad offered up western Hungary’s countryside and a wealth of tourism possibilities. By the turn of the 20th century the travel time along this route would be cut in half. Today trains zip between Budapest and Vienna in just two hours and forty minutes carrying thousands of passengers each day.

One hundred and fifty years ago, time had a much different meaning in east-central Europe than it does today. Journeys were done at a more leisurely pace due to the simple fact that industrial transport technology was still rudimentary, but even the slowest railroad was revolutionary by the standards of earlier times. The growth of the railway network made those lands that fell under the administrative authority of the Kingdom of Hungary much more accessible to travel and tourism. This was a boon to Baedekers guidebook business. The amount of pages devoted to Hungary in later editions of the Baedeker Guidebooks demonstrated the expansion of rail connections into the eastern half of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1871, coverage of the area tripled to 38 pages with 14 different itineraries. By 1900, there was 110 pages of coverage with 29 itineraries. Trains led to tourism which led to growing demand for Baedeker.

An Eastern Opening - Baedeker's Southern Germany and Austria including Hungary and Transylvania

An Eastern Opening – Baedeker’s Southern Germany and Austria including Hungary and Transylvania

The World Of Possibilities – An Open Book
The most notable superficial change to the guide occurred in 1887 when the name was altered to Southern Germany and Austria including Hungary and Transylvania Handbook For Travellers. The latter two were now destinations in their own right. The glamour of Budapest, the sublime emptiness of the Great Hungarian Plain and the mysterious mountains of Transylvania were all now within reach. With a trusty Baedeker tucked in the pocket of their greatcoat, a traveler could strike out on a journey into an unknown Europe. Baedeker helped make that journey both possible and pleasurable.

An Enduring Work Of Scholarship – Kronprinzwerk: The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in Word and Picture

The fact that the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions is not surprising. The Dual Monarchy as it was known from 1867 – 1918, stretched from the Tyrol region of what is now northern Italy all the way to the remoter regions of Eastern Europe such as the Bukovina and Galicia. Beneath the umbrella of the monarchy an incredibly diverse array of ethnic groups, each with their own unique languages and customs lived for over half a century. There was a consistent pecking order among these groups with some more equal than others. Rights and responsibilities were weighted heavily in favor of Austrians and Hungarians. Trying to make a cohesive whole out of so many disparate parts was an incredibly complex process. Unlike the European Union, there were no universal principles allowing full equality under the law for all citizens. Many of the people who lived in the empire were mere subjects rather than citizens. Thus, it is quite surprising that the empire held together for as long as it did.

One of the oddest yet most historically enduring attempts to bring the empire’s subjects closer together was through the creation of a massive work of knowledge beginning in the 1880’s. Known as The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in Word and Picture. It was a monumental undertaking that would result in the publication of 24 volumes, an encyclopedic work that covered all regions and ethnic groups in the Empire. The brainchild of Crown Prince Rudolf Von Habsburg – the series was also known as the Kronprinzenwerk – it was meant to educate, illuminate and above all else make the empire’s disparate peoples feel part of a greater whole. This was to be done through the transmission of knowledge and learning. While strangely innovative, this idea did not achieve its intended effect. The bickering and plays for power among the empire’s subject peoples continued to worsen. Nationalism turned out to be a much more divisive force than imperial cohesion. What the landmark volumes did achieve has only become clear in retrospect, a reference work that provides historians with the kind of scholarship that offers insight into almost every aspect of the empire in the late 19th century.

Cover Story - The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in Word and Picture

Cover Story – The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in Word and Picture

Restless Radicalism – A Mind Boggling Endeavor
Crown Prince Rudolf von Habsburg’s legacy is mixed at best, deeply troubled at worst. He never rose to the position of Emperor, instead dying in a suicide pact with his young mistress Mary Vetsera in mysterious circumstances. This tragic affair tainted the way Rudolf has been viewed by historians. Politically there is little doubt that he was an almost complete failure. Forever at odds with his father, Emperor Franz Josef, a deeply conservative ruler who loathed his son’s yearning to reform the Empire. Rudolf was filled with ideas that were radical by the standards of that age. He was a liberal whose circle of friends was cut from the same cloth. The idea of transformative change was anathema the Emperor and his ministers. These officials ensured the Crown Prince’s ideas received a less than welcoming reception and that his room for political maneuver was extremely limited.

Largely locked out of politics, Rudolf sought other ideas that might improve the empire. This was how he hit upon the idea of a reference work that would cover every conceivable region and subject area in the vast lands of Austria-Hungary. The ambition and scale of the work boggles the mind. It would eventually take 16 years to produce 24 volumes with over 12,000 pages. The work was produced in both German and Hungarian language editions. A few volumes were also translated into Croatian. While impressive, the fact that the work was not translated and published in Czech, Slovak, Polish, Rusyn, Romanian or Italian seemed to be at odds with the project’s idealistic purpose of creating a transnational patriotism. As a matter of fact, some ethnic groups, most notably the Czechs and Romanians opposed publication of the work in any language.

Prince & Polymath - Crown Prince Rudolph von Habsburg

Prince & Polymath – Crown Prince Rudolph von Habsburg

A Monumental Work – The Ethnography Of An Empire
The logistics of creating and publishing the work was an undertaking of truly monumental proportions.  In 1884, Rudolf met with his father and asked for his support to begin work. A year earlier, he had formulated the idea of an ethnographic compendium covering Austria-Hungary. The field of ethnography had been growing in popularity throughout both halves of the Monarchy in the decades leading up to the 1880’s. Franz Josef quickly gave his approval. It would be overseen at the highest levels by Rudolf. Two editorial committees were formed to oversee the day to day work. This included not only text, but also drawings and paintings of significant landscapes throughout the Empire. Two literary luminaries, Austrian Josef Ritter von Weilen and Hungary’s most popular novelist of the time, Mor Jokai, led the committees. Despite a mandate for extensive coverage of the entire Monarchy, decisions on content and resolution of any controversies were to be made in Vienna.

One of the most unique aspects of the project was its availability by subscription. This resulted in the publication of 397 consecutive installments on a bi-monthly basis. Eighty percent of these were published after Rudolf’s death. By that time, the project had gained momentum and would continue well beyond the life of its greatest promoter. Not surprisingly the first installments covered Vienna and Lower Austria. One can get a sense of the ethnic hierarchy of the empire by the order in which the 24 volumes were published. Discounting volumes two and three which were summaries of the nature and history of the Empire, six of the first ten volumes concerned Austria and two covered Hungary. Such remote regions as Galicia (#19), Bukovina (#20) and Bosnia-Herzegovina (#22) were among the last volumes published in full. Nevertheless, all areas were given extensive coverage by experts who were more often than not from those regions.

Making History - The 24 Volume Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in Word and Picture

Making History – The 24 Volume Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in Word and Picture

Reentry Vehicles – The Return To History
The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy In Word and Picture was almost totally forgotten after publication of the final volume in 1902 until its reemergence in the last decade of the 20th century. Interest was renewed after the Iron Curtain fell and history returned to Central and Eastern Europe. Many of the regions which had once been part of the Monarchy became independent nations during the 1990’s, including the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia and Slovenia. The volumes that had been produced on these areas provided historical and cultural context, insights that were of great use in understanding these newly born nations. The same was true for all the other areas covered in the project, lands that had been mostly forgotten until they moved from the periphery of European history back to its forefront. Likewise, Crown Prince Rudolf’s project and the 24 volumes which had resulted from it enjoyed a revival. An occurrence that neither he nor the editors of those vast tomes could have foreseen, let alone imagined.

A Trip to Everywhere – Balazs Orban: An Encyclopedic Life (Part Two)

To really appreciate one’s homeland perhaps it is best to leave it all behind and then return many years later to see it with a fresh perspective. As the poet T.S. Eliot rhapsodized, “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” The meaning of those words would have been familiar to Balazs Orban though they were written a half-century after his death. For it was Orban who spent thirteen formative years away from his homeland, Szekelyland in eastern Transylvania, before he returned with fresh eyes and an entirely different perspective. Those years away for Orban were spent traveling, writing, doing researching and in exile. In 1859, with tensions between the Hungarians and Habsburgs subsiding, Orban returned to his homeland on the far eastern frontier of the Hungarian Kingdom. A land of remarkable landscapes, full of untamed mountain wilderness, bucolic valleys and pristine lakes. This was where Orban’s life began in 1829. Thirty years later it was about to begin all over again as Orban set out on a historic journey to expose the heart and soul of his homeland.

During his travels away from Szekelyland, Orban had explored and written about many exotic locales in the Middle East. After returning to Hungary, he recognized that many of his fellow countrymen had as little idea about the Szekely people and the land they inhabited as they did about foreign lands. It might even be said that they knew even less. Orban yearned to combat this ignorance with knowledge. He planned on making Szekelyland accessible to all Hungarians, through an encyclopedic work that would cover such topics as ethnography, geography, history, culture, customs and architecture. The project was to be comprehensive in the extreme. No community would be left unvisited, no landscape uncharted, no castle, whether standing or in ruin, unstudied. The most impressive aspect of this undertaking was that Orban would be both the primary and only author of it. The project would put his formidable intellect along with his physical stamina to the test. Orban’s ambition and vision would be critical to its completion.

An Image Of The Past - The Fortified Church at Szekelyderzs from Balazs Orbans A Szekelyfold Leirasa

An Image Of The Past – The Fortified Church at Szekelyderzs from Balazs Orbans A Szekelyfold Leirasa

Research & Resourcefulness – The Journey Home
Balazs Orban was nothing if not thorough when it came to research and writing. This was especially true when he turned his attention to his native homeland. Orban spent several years visiting every Szekely settlement. This meant he traveled to over five hundred towns and villages, virtually every inhabited place. He did not limit his focus just to settlements either. Orban also documented anything of interest, from native flora and fauna to old ruins. His curiosity for all things Szekely was unmatched by anyone before or since. His field research was nothing short of incredible considering the difficulties of travel during this era.

Railroads had yet to arrive in Szekelyland. Travel by carriage meant traversing roads in all types of conditions, often dependent on the weather and season. Horseback was the best way to visit remote areas of which Szekelyland had a majority. Orban was extremely resourceful because he had to be. There was no other way to do his research, but through rigorous physical exertions. Whatever the situation demanded he was ready to make every sacrifice in pursuit of his goal to document Szekely life and customs for present and future generations.

The Greatest Szekely - Balazs Orbans grave in Szejkefurdo (Credit Tamas Thaler)

The Greatest Szekely – Balazs Orbans grave in Szejkefurdo (Credit: Tamas Thaler)

For six years, from 1862 to 1868, Orban was in the field working on his project. The result was a six-volume work published over a five-year period beginning in 1868. Titled Székelyföld leírása, each volume dealt with a specific administrative unit of historical Szekelyland. Almost immediately the work became the go to source for all things Szekely. No other work, before or since comes close to its thorough, comprehensive treatment. It was and still is today the greatest work on Szekelyland. It would eventually result in Orban being known as The Greatest Szekely. More important to him at the time, Hungarians now had massive amounts of information about the Szekely at their fingertips. The work filled a gap in knowledge that had been sorely lacking. Not only was A Székelyföld leírása encyclopedic, it was also innovative.

The volumes contained many images reproduced from photographs that Orban had taken himself. His newfound photography skills, which he had learned from Victor Hugo’s sons while in exile on the Channel Islands, resulted in some of the first photographic images ever taken of Szekelyland. Considering the difficulty of travel logistics in the region, it is incredible that Orban was able to transport his photography equipment and put it to such good use. The images he took are now held in the archives of the Romanian State Archives in the city of Marosvasarhely (Targu Mures). In 2012, they were put on display at the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest. This only seems right since Orban’s goal was to educate and enlighten Hungarians. The display of these photographs meant they were following the same path to recognition as A Székelyföld leírása, which was first published in Budapest. That same year Orban also moved to the city.

The Path Home - Szekely Gates on the trail to the grave of Balazs Orban

The Path Home – Szekely Gates on the trail to the grave of Balazs Orban (Credit: Christo)

The Visionary – An Essence Of Life
Balazs Orban passed the final days of his life far from his homeland. He would die in Budapest during the spring of 1890. At the time, there were more people living in the city than the entire population of Szekelyland. Budapest was the antithesis of Szekelyland’s rural, forested and mountainous landscape, but it had also been a large part of Orban’s later life. The publishing industry, as well as the Hungarian Parliament of which he was a long-standing member, were housed in the booming metropolis. Nonetheless, the true soul of Balazs Orban would always be with his people deep in the wilds of eastern Transylvania.

Fittingly, his remains would eventually be returned and interred back in his homeland. They were laid to rest in the spa town of Szejkefurdo (Baile Seiche), not far from the area where he had been born. The spa was the product of yet another of his visionary ideas. Orban had been instrumental in the construction of thermal baths from the hot springs that flowed out of the earth there. The resort boosted the local economy and brought tourists into the heart of Szekelyland. It was a small, but striking example of Orban giving back to the land and people he so passionately loved. At its very essence, that was the story of his life.

The Power To Melt Hearts – Wenckheim Palace: An Empty Dress (Part Five)

Approaching Wenckheim Palace on a mid-December day brought with it a strange feeling. Due to the time of year, it felt like we were the only ones around. As far as visitors went that was true. The parking lot adjacent to the palace looked like a wider extension of the driveway, it was nearly empty except for automobiles owned by the handful of employees who worked here. The lack of people gave our arrival a more intimate, personal touch. For me, it felt like we were coming for visit as old friends of the family, but there was no family to be found. I did not have to read a history book to imagine what had happened to the last Wenckheim’s to inhabit this palace. They would have been swept away, like so much else by the Red Army’s arrival in the autumn of 1944. I doubted any aristocrats stayed around to suffer the dire consequences that would have been forthcoming after being labeled class enemies on the spot. This would have likely meant execution or a fate even worse than death. The palace survived though. A lasting reminder of the lavish life that the Wenckheims, as well as many other aristocratic families throughout Hungary, led in the years before two World Wars consumed the countryside.

A Feat of Imagination - Wenckheim Palace in Szabadkigyod

A feat of imagination – Wenckheim Palace in Szabadkigyod (Credit: Mihaly Rakasz)

Metaphorical Messages – Redefining The Idea Of A Palace
Wenckheim Palace was a mystery to me and would remain so during my visit. There was very little literature or information panels in English. For that matter, there was not that much more written in Hungarian. The bookstore/sales area was bare bones. The entrance fee was nominal. It was rather obvious to me that Wenckheim Palace was badly in need of a budget and professional staff. The tours were self-guided by default. Everyone who worked here, either seemed preoccupied or bored. I was happy to learn that the palace had won a large grant from the European Union to restore much of the palace to its former glory. The work was slated to begin in a few more months. Until then, visitors were pretty much on their own. My wife and mother-in-law, both native Hungarian speakers, were not able to offer much in the way of interpretation either.

Learning about Wenckheim Palace would require some good old-fashioned detective work. This meant taking a closer look at the few details I could discern. My investigative work started with the latter half of its name. Calling it a palace, on the order of a Versailles or the Hofburg, did not quite do the building justice. Wenckheim was as much manor house as palace. There was even a tower, recalling what might have been a castle. I stared at its eclectically styled, neo-renaissance exterior without taking the time to enumerate the number of windows. If I had, the count would have come to 365, same as the number of days in a year. Inside the symmetry continued with 52 rooms, matching the number of weeks in a year. A final callback to the calendar related to the palace’s four entrances, corresponding with the number of seasons. Distracted by the palace’s architectural eclecticism, it was hard to notice such metaphorical messages.

Portal to another world - Wenckheim Palace

Portal to another world – Wenckheim Palace

A Feat Of Imagination – The Rural Residence Par Excellence
The palace had been designed to such symmetrical specifications on the orders of Krisztina Wenckheim, one half the aristocratic couple who commissioned the palace’s design and construction. It was built from 1875 – 1879. The architect was none other Miklos Ybl, a man who had studied and soaked up the architectural atmosphere in Vienna and Munich. He brought new ideas back to his native Hungary where he worked exclusively during the latter half of the 19th century. He would soon become the most in demand architect during Hungary’s golden age which followed the creation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1867. As Budapest boomed, following its unification as a single city in 1873, so did Ybl’s career. Many of Ybl’s most famous works date from this time. These include the Hungarian State Opera House, St. Stephen’s Basilica and the Varkert (Castle Garden Bazaar). His creative instincts were not confined to the capital, as he took his talents far afield into the far-flung provincial areas of Hungary.

This brought Ybl to rural locales where he achieved incredible feats of the imagination amid landscapes that had been previously known for agriculture rather than architecture. Wenckheim Palace would help change the rural idyll. Ybl’s services were coveted by all the major aristocratic families at the time. Only a few were able to command his attention. The Wenckheim’s had the money, power and prestige to purchase Ybl’s services to design a palace on the southern Great Plain. He did not disappoint his patrons with the Wenckheim Palace. It was a rural aristocratic residence par excellence. His fantastical creation was a regional icon where the uber-wealthy rural gentry gathered for grand balls and all-night parties filled with shimmering glitz and moonlit romance. These glory days have all but faded. I viewed the palace as just the scaffolding of what was once a grand social and cultural edifice.

An empty dress - Wenckheim Palace

An empty dress – Wenckheim Palace

An Indelible Impression – The Passion & Pathos Of Love
The current state of the palace could not have been much farther removed from the golden age. Walking through the large rooms it was apparent that the décor was not indigenous to the site. Period pieces of furniture had been placed in the rooms as much to occupy space as portray any sense of elegance. I assumed all the originals had been stolen during the Second World War. The presentation of such areas as the dining room, men’s and women’s salons and bedrooms were well done, but lacking in the prevailing haute bourgeoise spirit of that gilded age. There was one bedroom that did manage to leave me with a lasting impression. Laid out on a bed was a woman’s dress. Looking as though its owner had left it there as a ghostly reminder of a consummated romance. I imagined the dress’s former occupant as an alluringly voluptuous figure. For a moment, I could sense the passion and pathos of love that had once pervaded these chambers. Such romantic notions had long since vanished from this bedroom, but the tiny hint of them that remained was still powerful enough to melt hearts.

Click here for: An Anachronism In Action – Wenckheim Palace: Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Experience

Time Ticking Backwards – Getting A Taste of Old Gyula: The Way To Wenckheim (Part Four)

Gyula Castle had been worth the trip, but it was not the only attraction to be found in this small, compact city. Close to the castle was another historical site, the Almasy Mansion. On the drive to Gyula, my mother-in-law had mentioned a palace she had recently visited in the nearby countryside. I was a bit confused by this because none of my guidebooks mentioned any manor houses or palaces worthy of a visit in the area around Gyula. At first, I assumed she meant the Almasy Mansion, which was just a few hundred meters from the castle. My assumption turned out to be wrong.

I discerned from her smattering of English mixed with Hungarian that this was not the mansion she had been referring to. She kept saying the name Wenckheim, which meant little to me other than I had heard it mentioned before as Hungarian aristocratic surname. This bit of knowledge did little to alleviate my confusion, but it did add an element of mystery. I wondered if she might have something confused. Then I reminded myself that this was a woman who had spent her entire career working as head of a research library at one of Hungary’s most prestigious universities. Something was getting lost in the translation between us. Before the afternoon was over, I would discover what she had been trying to tell me.

Grounds for tragedy - Almasy Mansion in Gyula

Grounds for tragedy – Almasy Mansion in Gyula (Credit: Szalax)

Tragedy & Ecstasy – Deadly & Delicious Bits of History
The cool, crispness of winter had descended on Gyula. A gust of wind was enough to send us into shivers such was the pervasive chill in the air. There was limited daylight left on this mid-December day, thus we decided to skip a visit to the nearby Almasy Mansion. In retrospect, that decision was a mistake. We skirted the grounds of that immaculate mansion on the way back to our car. Later I would learn of the tragic history that had occurred here. The mansion had been the setting for one of those terrible episodes that crop up in Hungarian history with alarming frequency. In August of 1849, at the tail end of the Hungarian Revolution, ten Hungarian generals had surrendered on the mansion’s grounds. They had little idea of what was in store for them. Less than six months later these generals put to death by the Austrian authorities. They, along with three other generals executed at the same time, would become known to history as the 13 Martyrs of Arad (the city in which their execution took place). This incident is one of the tragic touchstones of Hungarian history. Getting to know it better would have to wait for another day. Instead, we set off to get a taste, quite literally, of old Gyula.

The Way It Was - Szazeves Cuksraszda in Gyula

The Way It Was – Szazeves Cuksraszda in Gyula

Gyula is most famous for two attractions. One of course is its castle. The other is Szazeves Cukraszda, which in translation means “the one hundred year old patisserie”. It is purportedly the second oldest patisserie in all of Hungary. The name is something of a misnomer, since Szazeves was started much longer than a hundred years ago. The patisserie opened in 1840 and since that time, despite multiple revolutions, two world wars and the imposition of ideologically extreme governments, Szazeves has managed to both survive and thrive. It is one of the most famous patisseries in the country and rightfully so. In addition to delicious coffee and a full range of mouthwatering deserts, it is also home to 19th century period furnishings which are more than museum set pieces, they are used by customers. This provides a magical environment in which customers can step back in time to experience the look and feel of Cukraszda culture at its height. This was one of the great gifts that the ruling Austrians bequeathed to Hungary at the outset of the early modern period and running right up through today. Szazeves Cukraszda is a striking example of this phenomenon.

Bourgeois At Its Best -– A Feeling Of Quaint Formality
As soon as we entered, time ticked backwards over a hundred years. It was hard not to feel a bit out of place because everything inside Szazeves looked or felt like it had come from Hungary’s pre-World War I golden age. The servers wore period outfits. For us, suits and dresses would have been more appropriate, such was the style and elegance on display. The place had a feel of quaint formality that has been all but lost in mass, technologically driven societies. The atmosphere in Szazeves was splendid, we were surrounded by what was the height of bourgeois society. While sipping a hot white chocolate I could sense for just a moment that sense of noble social refinement that was pervasive in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Szazeves may have been in a small provincial city, but the empire style décor and Biedermeier furniture made it seem much grander, as though we were in Vienna rather than Gyula. Perhaps that was the real value of Szazeves, it allowed for the re-creation of an era that has been lost to history. Plus, the desserts were delicious.

A fantastical reality - Wenckheim Palace in the late 19th century

A fantastical reality – Wenckheim Palace in the late 19th century

After filling our bellies full of delightfully delicious desserts and copious amounts of hot chocolate, we drove back out of Gyula. My mother-in-law now directed us. Our route at first followed the one we had taken into town, but at an intersection we made a left rather than right turn. Gyula quickly vanished from view and we were soon out in the countryside. The road was bumpy and not very well maintained. I could not imagine there would be anything to see out here, let alone a palace. The roadside was lined with trees and brush. Beyond that were turned up fields that lay fallow. There was nothing memorable about this landscape. The only excitement was caused by the constant jolts our car received from the road. After a few minutes we came to a small village, Szabadkigyos, which was tidy but unimpressive. We then turned down a slim street which led to a more wooded area. A large mansion painted in a vibrant shade of ochre beamed brightly in the afternoon sunlight. It was a brilliant symmetry of gables and spires, towers and turrets, verandas and weathervanes. This was Wenckheim Palace.

Click here for: The Power To Melt Hearts – Wenckheim Palace: An Empty Dress (Part Five)


The Fruits of His Many Labors – Agoston Haraszthy: A Hungarian Dream In California (Part Two)

Wikipedia contains a comprehensive list of famous Hungarian-Americans. The list includes 42 actors and actresses (who knew Rodney Dangerfield and the Phoenix brothers were of Hungarian descent), 28 filmmakers (ever heard of the exquisitely named Nimrod Antal), 47 sportspeople (who does not love Lou “The Toe” Groza), 41 scientists (looking to blow up the world, Hungarians have it covered with Edward Teller and Leo Szilard), 14 writers (Joseph Pulitzer to name just one), 26 musicians and composers (everyone from Peter Cetera to Flea to Paul Simon), 9 politicians and 33 others. That final category happened to be among the most intriguing. It contains a trove of past (Harry Houdini) and current (George Soros) luminaries.

I began checking the Hungarian-Americans list wondering if the name of Agoston Harazsthy might be listed. My heart sank as I scrolled further and further downward in what I began to believe was a vain attempt to locate his name. Just before giving up hope, I found his name heading up the “Others” list. At first, I thought this might be something of a slight, but then I recognized the names of Houdini, Soros and Estee Lauder also listed under the category. Many of the “Others” on that list, consisted of those who could not easily be pigeonholed. Haraszthy fit in well with this group. His own Wikipedia entry lists him having no fewer than twenty different occupations. Haraszthy was a man of many professions, but what would bring him lasting fame really began in earnest over the last twenty years of his life, most of which took place in California.

A Dream Realized - Buena Vista Winery

A Dream Realized – Buena Vista Winery

Dream Chasing – A Man For All Seasons
In 1849, Haraszthy sold off his properties in southern Wisconsin and prepared to move with his family to California. That same year, over 50,000 fortune seekers made the same journey across what would become known as the California Gold Rush Trail angling north and west across Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho and Nevada before arriving in the upper part of California. Haraszthy also went overland, but on a much more southerly route. He had a good reason for doing this since his California dream involved something other than gold. Haraszthy was in search of the perfect growing region for vineyards. His party consisted of 60 men, women and children with Haraszthy leading it safely to the San Diego area. There he began to work towards his goal.

True to his more recent past, Haraszthy soon found himself involved in a wide range of professions which included city marshal, stage coach operator, sheriff, proprietor of a butchery, elected state legislator and vintner. It was the last which most captured his interest. He tried many different types of imported vines on land in the San Diego area. It was not long before Haraszthy began to turn his attention northward to the Bay Area, purchasing land which he thought might be better suited to viticulture. Sure enough, Haraszthy was planting vines on the San Francisco peninsula in the mid-1850’s. The dreary, moist climate would prove impossible to overcome.

A Legacy of Quality - The Hallmark of Haraszthy

A Legacy of Quality – The Hallmark of Haraszthy

Staking His Claim – Success In Sonoma
During his time in San Francisco, Haraszthly was struck by the same gold fever that had lured hundreds of thousands fortune seekers to California. As he did so many times in his life, Haraszthly found a unique niche to pursue. He started a gold melting and refining facility, going into business with other Hungarians in the area. Haraszthy’s expertise gained him a position as the first assayer at the U.S. Mint in San Francisco. His new career took a turn for the worse when he was accused of committing fraud. After several years of legal battles, he was found not guilty of committing any crime. The controversy turned out to have silver lining, as Haraszthly was soon on the move yet again. This time further north and a bit inland to the Sonoma Valley, a landscape that was ripe for wine growing.

Haraszthy discovered the perfect California micro-climate for viticulture in Sonoma. He began to cultivate a wide range of vines on hillsides in the area. He soon found success after starting the Buena Vista Winery, which is still in business today. It was there that he constructed the first stone wine cellars in California. He publicized and promoted the region, sub-dividing some of his land for smaller plots which he gave to famous Californians as an incentive to take up viticulture in the area. He also turned back to writing once again, penning the first published work on wine growing in California. He was recognized as an authority by state officials on both viticulture and agriculture. His expertise and innovation led to Haraszthy becoming the first president of the California Agricultural Society.

Mysterious Circumstances – Excessive In The Extreme
With so much success, it is remarkable that Haraszthy did not settle down and enjoy the fruits of his many labors. A cursory review of his life reveals a man who was habitually restless, constantly striving for new innovations. He could never get enough of his passions. His appetite for wine growing was excessive in the extreme. He soon overextended himself, running into trouble paying down the heavy debts he had incurred while developing Buena Vista. He was struggling to make ends meet when his vineyards were struck by phylloxera, the outbreak of this deadly disease struck without warning. It caused vines to wither and rot. Haraszthy’s genius did nothing to combat its lethality. His dream slowly died right before his eyes, the feeling of helplessness must have been immense. In the past, he had been able to overcome all obstacles, whether financial or climatic, but against phylloxera he was helpless. Sadly, he was reduced to declaring bankruptcy. The end was near for him, not just in Sonoma Valley, but also in life.

The final act of Haraszthy’s life played out in a bizarre incident. In 1868, he moved to Nicaragua and threw all his energy into yet another enterprise. Haraszthy started a sugar plant, which was to be used in the production of rum which he would then import to the United States. This was another frontier that Haraszthy looked to conquer. That would prove to be impossible as Haraszthy mysteriously disappeared into a river. Searchers did not find any hard evidence of Haraszthy’s disappearance, no bones, no clothing, not a shred of hard evidence. He was just gone. Some posited that he had been attacked and eaten by alligators who frequented the river where he was last seen. Others thought it might have been foul play Whatever happened, Haraszthy’s disappearance left history with only one thing that has lived on well beyond his remarkable life, an incredible legacy.

The Lost World Lurking On A Lower Shelf – A Transylvanian Trilogy At Bestsellers: Budapest Bookstores (Part Two)

Forints (Hungary’s currency) started flying from my wallet the moment I began perusing the shelves and stacks at Bestsellers. I scooped up a copy of Sandor Marai’s Embers, a book I would come to dearly love. I have read this same copy twice. There were also a couple of books on Budapest and Hungary by British authors that I had never seen anywhere else and thus had to purchase. One was by Bob Dent, who moved to Budapest a few decades ago. He wrote a fusion of journalism, travel and history. His Every Statue Tells A Story on the statues, sculptures and monuments of Budapest has become one of my most beloved books. This was the first of multiple purchases through the years of Dent’s books at Bestsellers.

Another memorable find was A Country Full of Aliens by Colin Swatridge, a tale of what he learned about modern Hungarian life, culture and idiosyncrasies while teaching in Hungary. Swatridge’s perspective was so revealing that I have recommended it multiple times to anyone hoping to gain a better understanding of the country. Many of the cultural nuances Swatridge discusses at length in the book I would later discover to be spot on. The store was also where I first found and fell in love with Bradt Travel Guides, which along with the Rough Guide series, I have found to be the most indispensable guidebooks. Bradt has without a doubt the most extensive guidebook coverage of Eastern European nations. Guidebooks specifically dedicated to overlooked places from Belarus to Bosnia, Macedonia to Montenegro and a personal favorite, a guide dedicated to travel in Transylvania. These were the type of hard to find, but easy to read and highly informative books that soon made Bestsellers one of my all-time favorite bookstores.

The Transylvania Trilogy by Miklos Banffy

The Transylvania Trilogy by Miklos Banffy (Credit: Arcadia Press reissue covers)

Cracking Open A Whole New World – Fictional Non-Fictions
My most evocative memory of Bestsellers has nothing to do with leather armchairs or the smell of freshly unpacked books or the arrival of a new daily edition of the International Herald Tribune, though I must admit that each of these added immeasurably to my experience. The atmospherics on offer at Bestsellers have always been aesthetically pleasing, but they were no match for a serendipitous discovery I made on a lower set of shelves that held the English translations of Hungarian literature. This was where I found a set of books that I now believe had been waiting on me my entire life. Bestsellers was the first place I ever came across Miklos Banffy’s Transylvania Trilogy. The mention of Transylvania in the title made me pull out the books and begin browsing their contents.

I was intrigued by their austere titles, They Were Counted, They Were Found Wanting and They Were Divided. These titles were direct to the point of tragic. They had a predictive quality that spoke of stormy relationships in a lost world. The kind of lost world that could be recreated by an author who knew it intimately. Banffy was Hungarian, but he was also a Transylvanian and above all else, a humanist. The books may have been fiction, but from the back blurbs they sounded just as historical as any history book. Their sizable proportions did nothing to hinder my interest. What I would later discover was that the Transylvania Trilogy was a sort of Hungarian version War and Peace with Remembrance of Things Past thrown in for good measure

They Were Found Wanting – The Power Of Less Than Happy Ending
I knew next to nothing about Banffy, but this attracted rather than repelled me. The titles were the initial hint that there was romance in these books that would not end well, but how many romances ever do end well. Happy endings are for Hollywood movies and Harlequin romances, not novels born from the dark forests and epic mountain landscapes of Transylvania. I felt an intense urge to read all three books cover to cover as soon as I picked them up. And that is what I would do, but not right away. I surprised myself by waiting to purchase the Transylvania Trilogy. I did not want to lug the entire set around with me for a couple of weeks. Instead, I would wait until I got back home, then order them online.

Banffy’s books followed me all the way back home to Montana. Over several months I read the trilogy ever so slowly. And my first impression of this trio of volumes would turn out to be true, here was a lost world of romance and aristocracy, a Hungarian Kingdom that no longer existed except for each time I cracked open the trilogy. This was the beginning of a journey into pre-World War I Transylvania that would eventually drive me to go there and chase down the ghosts of an unrecoverable past. A past that I was able to glimpse in all its shimmering, shattered glory. A past that first came to me on a lower shelf at Bestsellers. That has kept me coming back to Bestsellers more times than I can possibly count.

Return Engagements – Shelf Life
The reasons I keep returning to Bestseller are twofold. The first is obvious, the great books on offer. Ones that I am unlikely to find anywhere else, shelved together side by side in neat rows. The sections on Eastern European affairs and associated nations is unparalleled. The second reason I return, is in the hopes of finding a lost world lurking on some lower shelf. Each time I revisit Bestsellers, one of my first stops is the section of English translations of Hungarian literature. I always pick up the same editions, with the same covers of the Transylvania Trilogy.

Then I begin to thumb through one of the volumes. I want to go back to that initial visit. A time when I knew nothing more than the word Transylvania, with its connotations of clifftop castles, a deathly aristocratic count by the name of Dracula and dreadful discoveries to come. This stereotype led me to select The Transylvania Trilogy. I have never regretted for a moment that impulse. And it would not have happened without that remarkable bookstore which made it all possible.

Click here for: Objects Of Intense Desire – Entering The Comfort Zone (Budapest Bookstores Part One)