The Days We Die – First & Last Goodbyes:  Leaving Banffy Castle Behind (An Invitation To A Vanished Past – Part Seven)

I always feel a deep sadness when leaving a place I have finally been able to visit. With my goal attained the question of “Now what?” consumes me. The feeling I have during these moments is reminiscent of how I used to feel on Christmas morning after opening all the gifts. An empty malaise, when hope and expectation are gone. The nothing that comes next would leave a void. When this happens with travel, the feeling can only be replaced by another seemingly impossible trip.

The sadness that consumed me as l walked away from Banffy Castle was much greater than what I had previously felt on other occasions. Perhaps that had to do with middle age and the realization that time was running out on me. There was little chance I would ever come back here. I have too many other places I want to visit. A return trip seems highly improbable. And yet Transylvania is a place that never really leaves you, even after you leave it. The mesmerizing beauty of its landscapes, its diverse blend of peoples, folk culture that infuses its art and architecture with a unique rusticity, all serve to create a sense of magical wonder that lingers in the memory.

A lasting impression - Banffy Castle

A lasting impression – Banffy Castle

To Live & To Leave – The End Of A Dream
After walking out the arched entrance way, I turned around on several occasions to catch a last glimpse of Banffy Castle. I was saying goodbye to a dream from which I was now just beginning to awaken. I only spent a couple of hours at the castle and had come to feel attached. Miklos Banffy had spent a large part of his life there. I wondered how Banffy must have felt the last time he saw his beloved home. It would have been a depressing site after the ravages of warfare. Perhaps he imagined trying to salvage what was left, to rebuild or reconstruct. Or perhaps he knew that all was lost. At that time the castle was as much rubble as ruin.  At least I had a choice whether or not to come back, Banffy ended up leaving Transylvania in 1949 for Budapest to be with his wife and daughter, knowing full well that he would not be able or willing to return. It had taken him several years just to get permission to cross the border from Romania into Hungary. A return would have been too difficult, especially for an old man whose health was on the verge of failing.

And would Banffy really have wanted to return? The castle was a smoldering pile on property that was no longer under his ownership. The communists were in the process of completely transforming Transylvania. At the same time, Hungarian aristocrats were branded enemies of the state. Banffy was lucky to be allowed to live and leave. He could just as easily have been arrested or even worse, shot.  A deep, penetrating sense of loss must have engulfed Banffy in the period between the end of World War II and when he finally left Transylvania four years later. There was no place in the Stalinist world for a man like Banffy. Humanist diplomats from ancient aristocratic families were persona non gratas. While toe the party line ideologues were in demand. This was a world that had been entirely rearranged by the war. Romanticism and sentimentality were out, brutalism and collectivization now held the region in an iron grip.

One last look - Miklos Banffy in his later years

One last look – Miklos Banffy in his later years

The Wicked Irony – A Spiritual Death
Cluj, the city where Banffy stayed during his final years in Transylvania, most have felt like a wicked irony. He had successfully negotiated it as an open city in 1944, sparing it the bullets and bombs of the Red Army. The man who had helped save a city full of treasures, had his own destroyed or in the case of his palace in Cluj, stolen from him. As a man of the theater he understood drama and tragedy all too well, but this was theater of the absurd on a whole new level with continuous acts of unreality. This included the fact that there was no time left for him to say goodbye. Maybe not being able to say goodbye was for the best, after all there was nothing left but memories to mourn. Sometimes goodbye means turning a cold shoulder to the truth, not so much in contempt as indifference. Banffy was a man of great passion I doubt he could have done this. It would have killed him. Then again maybe it did kill him. His life ended in Budapest only in a physical sense. Spiritually he died the day he left Transylvania for the last time.

I was leaving Transylvania, but unlike Banffy it would not be for the last time. Nothing stood in my way of returning other than work and money. Yet I would never be able to return here for the first time. I could not replicate my own experience. Coming back to the castle again and again would only be a futile attempt at recapturing a highly personalized piece of the past. It would be like an alcoholic or drug addict always chasing their first high. All returns are diminished. Innocence can only be lost one time. The thought of this engulfed me with sadness. I knew as I walked away, this goodbye was forever. And once again I was left with the question of “Now what?” My answer was a thumbs up and out, an attempt to flee faster than I had arrived. This meant hitchhiking, something that I had hardly ever done before.

A final glimpse - Banffy Castle

A final glimpse – Banffy Castle

Acts Of Rural Kindness – The Only Way To Say Goodbye
Here I was in a foreign land, unable to speak the mother tongue, with my red hair and southern accent I stuck out like a sore thumb. It was not long before a delivery van stopped to pick me up. In my experience, acts of rural kindness are universal and global, Transylvania was no different. The driver could not speak a word of English, but I knew the Romanian word for train station, “Gara.” He nodded in understanding. The ride was short and uneventful, retracing my earlier footsteps in a matter of minutes. This was the only way I could say goodbye to Banffy Castle and Bontida, to get away as fast as I could.

An Entire World On One Foundation – Banffy Castle: The Problem & The Solution (An Invitation To A Vanished World – Part Six)

“The radiant afternoon sunlight of early September was so brilliant that it seemed like summer.” That is the first sentence of Miklos Banffy’s The Writing On The Wall trilogy. I could have said much the same thing as I stood just inside the entrance to Banffy Castle in Bontida, Count Banffy’s home for much of his life. The sun shown down with a ferocious glare that felt out of season. Instead of early September, it was late in that same month, but it might as well have been July such was the heat. I was glad to have finally arrived at the castle after a four kilometer trek that had taken in much of the village. I was tired and haggard, the walk was not what I expected, neither was the castle. I had expected to find an evocative ruin, a bit of magic in the crumbling edifice. What I found was a place in a paradoxical state of disrepair and restoration.

The grandeur of ruin - Banffy Castle

The grandeur of ruin – Banffy Castle (Credit: Daria Virbanescu)

Grandeur & Glamour, Romance & Loss  – In Vacant Ruins
The hollowed out shell of several structures at Banffy Castle, including the main house and stables, provided hints of past greatness. Despite over a decade and a half of restoration efforts, the irreparable damage wrought by warfare was the most notable aspect of the castle as it now stands. There was not much left of the Baroque or earlier Renaissance stylistic elements that made the castle’s architecture so well known. To be quite honest if it was not for the literary renown of Miklos Banffy I seriously doubt there would be many visitors, if any at all, to what was left of the castle. There are hundreds of abandoned manor houses and ruined castles all over Transylvania just like this one. Banffy Castle was different from all the others because of Banffy’s portrayal of it as Denestornya in the trilogy. This brought people on pilgrimages to visit the ruins. It was certainly what had brought me here.

The glorious past - Banffy Castle in 1890

The glorious past – Banffy Castle in 1890

Walking around the grounds and through what was left of the structures gave me some idea of the environment Banffy lived, worked and loved in. Though most of the buildings were mere shadows of their former selves, it was enough to walk on a dirt floor, down a hallway or corridor while imagining what intrigues of passion and politics had occurred there. Or to look in a room, imagine Banffy in conversation with the woman who became the model for his main character’s ill-fated love in the trilogy, Adrienne Miloth. There was romance in these vacant ruins and also loss. Photos of the interiors, on signboards showed spectacularly lavish furnishings. A whole way of life had once existed within these walls, then in a thirty year period from 1914 through 1944 it had been all but vanquished. Every attempt at restoration and reconstruction of the castle since the 1990’s had been done in the hopes of reviving some semblance of the grandeur and glamour of the Hungarian nobility’s way of life.

The way they were - life at Banffy Castle in 1890

The way they were – life at Banffy Castle in 1890

A past that can never be quite restored - Banffy Castle

A past that can never be quite restored – Banffy Castle (Credit: Sipos Kinga)

The Power Of Art – The Power Of Place
What I found most interesting was not what had been lost, but the power of what was still standing. The ruins of Banffy Castle had outlasted the historical processes and events that had done so much damage to them. The fascist Nazis had pillaged and burned much of the castle in 1944, but within a year Nazism had been defeated and destroyed. The Soviet Army had also looted here, but the Stalinist system they represented had long since been resigned to the dustbin of history. Later the Ceaucescu regime had allowed parts of the castle ruins to be blown to bits during the making of a movie, but Ceaucescu would meet a bad end, executed after a show trial. His reign of terror was now only a memory, he and his system exposed as a megalomaniacal fraud. And after all the evil deeds perpetrated upon it, still a remnant of Banffy Castle stood, silent and stoic, symbol of a glorious way of life much admired, awaiting resurrection.

Slowly the castle was being brought back from the brink of extinction because the timeless values of the society it represented – honor, duty, loyalty – were always in demand. There was a lesson to be learned here, about the power of art and architecture to overcome the worst excesses of humanity. Miklos Banffy’s writing had eventually defeated armies, ideologies and dictators. The same could be said of the architecture of Banffy Castle, these ruins had a magnetic allure, communicating their power to the viewer. An entire world had been constructed upon their foundation.

The Writing On The Wall at Banffy Castle

The Writing On The Wall at Banffy Castle

Creating & Preserving – Banffy For The Sake Of Humanity
In the midst of all these epiphanies one little detail caught my eye and has remained with me ever since, scrawled on the wall in the stables was a question, “Are you part of solution or are you part of problem?” This work of scratch graffiti was more appropriate than the vandalizing soothsayer could have ever imagined. Banffy’s trilogy was called The Writing On The Wall in reference to writing that appeared on a wall during the feast of Belshazzar, which is recounted in the Old Testament book of Daniel. Each of the three titles in the trilogy: They Were Counted, They Were Found Wanting and They Were Divided were lines of warning. The question that had been scrawled on the wall could also be read as a warning, causing me to reflect on my own role in a world, much like Banffy’s, seemingly on the verge of ruinous upheaval.

Was I going to be part of the solution? Or was I going to be part of the problem, the cynicism and negativity, the extremist passions that threatened to destroy yet another world? The problem was clear, but what was the solution? Banffy may hold that answer for both me and humanity. The solution is art, art that reveals the world in all its various guises and disguises, art that cultivates understanding and combats ignorance. Art that can be found on every page of Banffy’s trilogy. Art that can be found by visiting the ruins and resurrection of Banffy Castle in Bontida. And art scrawled on the wall of a half-ruined stable, that made me reflect on what really matters, creating and preserving like Miklos Banffy did…for the sake of humanity.

Coming soon: The Days We Die – First & Last Goodbyes:  Leaving Banffy Castle Behind (An Invitation To A Vanished Past – Part Seven)

Tradition Never Goes Out Of Style – The Road Through Bontida (An Invitation To A Vanished World – Part Five)

On my next to last day in Cluj I made the pilgrimage to Bontida, home to the ruins of Banffy Castle, the place that looms largest in Miklos Banffy’s The Writing On The Wall trilogy of books. It felt odd purchasing a ticket at the train station in Cluj for a trip to what I believed was a small village. Usually I am buying train tickets to major cities or famous destinations in Eastern Europe, not to sleepy Transylvanian backwaters. I imagined that Bontida would only be served by a local bus at the end of some bone jarring road. Thus, it was a pleasant surprise when I learned that Bontida had a train station. While reading Banffy’s trilogy I had formulated an idea in my mind that the castle – which in the books is known as Denestornya – was in a remote, heavily forested area. I was mistaken. Bontida was a sizable village on the main rail and road route between Cluj and Dej. Bontida had a population of almost 5,000, much more than the usual village. I am sure the area was much less populated 125 years ago when Banffy called it home. The village and castle were intimately connected, both then and now. The trip to the Bontida rail station took only about 45 minutes by train. I would soon learn that the train ride was less than half my journey to the castle.

Bontida Train Station

Bontida Train Station

Disappearing Into The Distance – Carted Off
The Bontida station was not situated in a classic Transylvanian landscape. The only mountains were far off in the distance, a low dark rise off on the horizon. Instead of forest, I saw rows of corn with stalks withered yellow by the first frosts of autumn. I had expected to get off the train and gain sight of a ruined castle in the near distance. Instead I found myself walking out to a long, straight and narrow paved road which I hoped would lead to Banffy Castle. Bontida began here and stretched along both sides of this road for several miles. Modest homes of different shapes and sizes with chipped paint or no paint at all bordered the road. Several other passengers had disembarked from the train with me, including a couple of young gypsy men, one of whom managed to procure a bike. He rode circles in the middle of the road before pedaling past me and disappearing into the distance.

It was an unseasonably warm day considering the season. Before long I was sweating profusely despite the dry air. The road appeared to be unending. The faster I walked, the longer it seemed to get. Every once in a while a car would speed by scattering dust. My imagination began to wander, reaching back into the early 20th century. I could see an immaculate horse drawn carriage meeting Miklos Banffy at the railway station and quickly spiriting him home to his beloved castle. If only I could have been so lucky. There were still horse drawn vehicles, but instead of carriages they were carts.

The horse drawn cart is a staple of rural Romania. In many places they outnumber cars. While walking along, I thought about hitching a ride on one of them. What made these carts unique was the fact that they had license plates attached to them. Each cart that trundled past was officially registered with the authorities. These carts were more a part of Romanian road transport than a brand new Dacia automobile. They were also a reminder of the perceived “backwardness” of rural Romania. But were they really a symbol of “backwardness” or a way of life lost to central and western Europeans.

Banffy Castle - the final approach

Banffy Castle – the final approach

A Lost Way Of Life – Of Romance & Ruin
In the near distance I spotted a large mechanized harvester slicing through the brown stalks of corn. The old and the new, industrial and pre-industrial, existed side by side here. I noticed that the villagers who were out in their yards all looked to be over seventy years old, part of an aging rural society where tradition never goes out of style. Most of the elderly were tending gardens, while many also had chickens running around their grounds. The soundtrack to Bontida was medley of horse’s hoofs pounding on pavement and rooster calls echoing forth, even during the light of day. Here was a quasi-subsistence way of life. It was an approximation of how my grandparents once lived. There was something heartening about the whole scene. I came to Bontida looking for history and I had found it, just not the type of history I had expected. This place was full of living history for me, but to the villagers of Bontida it was nothing more than everyday life.

I walked along the same road for almost four kilometers, after half an hour it became tedious. What I would later learn made me see this same road in a different light. In 1944 the Nazis looted Banffy Castle, which at the time held one of the most magnificent collections of paintings, furnishings and books in Transylvania. This was punishment for Miklos Banffy’s role in helping negotiate the peace that took Romania out of the war. In their usual, thorough Teutonic manner the Nazis cleaned out the castle’s valuables. They were packed into seventeen trucks, which were driven away from the castle probably down this very road I was walking along. The valuables did not make it back to Germany. They were blown to oblivion by allied bombing raids. The Nazis also left Banffy castle a smoldering ruin, setting fire to it before they left Bontida.

These flames of destruction were the castle’s final illumination before Transylvania was engulfed by the encroaching darkness of war, then communism and finally the venal machinations of the Ceaucescu regime. When all this turmoil and turbulence came to end with the execution the Ceaucescus on Christmas Day, 1989, Banffy Castle was nothing more than a hollowed out shell of its former self. Since that time there had been incredible attempts to resurrect it. What had been achieved over the past twenty-five years now stood before me as I made a final approach to the castle towards an arched entrance way, the portal to a past of romance and ruin.

Coming soon: An Entire World On One Foundation – Banffy Castle: The Problem & The Solution (An Invitation To A Vanished World – Part Six)

Ghost Sightings In Cluj – Monuments To The Wrong Memories (An Invitation To A Vanished World – Part Four)

In They Were Counted, the first book in Miklos Banffy’s masterful The Writing On The Wall trilogy, the main character Balint Abady is riding an overnight train from Budapest to Kolozsvar (Cluj). Just after dawn he wakes up as the train is passing through Banffyhunyad (Huedin) close to where he observes a fantastical, snow covered landscape, glowing radiantly in the bright morning sunlight. Somewhere between Banffyhunyad and the Sztana Tunnel, Abady spies the ruins of an old castle. Nearby he catches sight of the towers of a manor house, where his cherished, captive love Adrienne resides. It is a fleeting yet memorable glimpse, as though he were experiencing a dream rather than a reality. The landscape of Transylvania observed from a train has that kind of quality. I did not see any old castles or manor houses inhabited by beautiful aristocratic women on this stretch of the railway, but what I did see was a natural beauty just as romantic and dreamy. Here was a place that could possess the soul. I could have stayed on that train forever, only waking from this dream as the train came upon the outskirts of Cluj. The moment of arrival was jarring. Time suddenly had meaning again. One journey was over, another was just beginning.

St. Michael's Church In Cluj with the Matthias Corvinus Monument

St. Michael’s Church In Cluj with the Matthias Corvinus Monument

A Reminder Of Mortality –  St. Michael’s Intimidation
Cluj is a city of ghosts, but to see these ghosts you have to look past all the urban distractions to find the leftovers of empires and peoples past. The train station itself is ghostly. A strange thing to say since the station is bustling with travelers, police officers and an assortment of hangers-on. The station is an Austro-Hungarian confection dreamed up by Ferenc Pfaff at the beginning of the 20th century. The interaction of its architecture with crowds of people lends itself to an air of festive seediness. Nowhere is this more apparent than in front of the station, where taxi drivers noisily converse while awaiting potential passengers to swindle. Behind them stands the station, colorful, chaotic and grand. I picked my way through the clamor, ignoring the calls of “tak-si, tak-si, tak-si” directed at me. Weaving through the foot traffic of a much too busy sidewalk I made my way along Strada Horea (Horea Street). At a bridge crossing the somnolent Somesul Mic (Little Somes) River, the street suddenly became Strada Regelle Ferdinand (King Ferdinand Street). Many great cities are bisected by a river, but the tepid Somesul Mic looked like it had been tamed one too many times over the centuries.

Ten minutes after crossing the river I was brought to a halt at the city’s epicenter, Piata Unirii by the glorious Gothic ghost of Cluj’s Saxon past, St. Michael’s Church. All the distractions of commercialism and capitalism that had confronted me in my walk up to that point were obliterated by this classic example of a central European hall church. This was more than just a church. It was also a pivot point around which the city had developed. It took almost a century and a half to construct. Since its completion in 1487 (five years before Columbus arrived on the shores of America), St. Michael’s had haunted this square, towering over everything that had come and gone since then. The city was no longer Klausenberg (as the Saxons called it) or Kolozsvar (as Hungarians called it), the names and peoples associated with them had come and gone, but St. Michael’s stood, intimidating, austere and singular. It had outlasted conquering armies and ideologies, bombs from above and below, surely it would outlast everyone living in Cluj today and many more generations. St. Michael’s Church was a reminder of mortality. It would not last forever either, but it would last much longer than anything else in this city or at least it has so far.

Matthias Corvinus Monument in Cluj

Matthias Corvinus Monument in Cluj

Ghosts Of Provocations Past- A King & Mad Mayor
After settling in at my accommodation I walked back to the square later that day. That was when I noticed the spectral presence of the Matthias Corvinus Monument just to the south of St. Michael’s Church. Corvinus, native son of Cluj, perhaps Hungary’s greatest king, is portrayed here atop a horse in a magnificently regal and royal pose. His birthplace is located not far off the square. The statue went up the same year as Pfaff’s train station. It was a time of nationalistic self-confidence for Imperial Hungary, when the Magyars imposed their architectural styles and historical perspectives on their beloved Kolozsvar (Cluj), de facto capital of Erdely (Transylvania). But this zealous nationalism was born less from self-confidence and more of a deeply rooted insecurity. The overbearing nature of Magyarization belied doubts about Hungarian permanence in a land where they were distinctly in the minority.  This worry had led to such feats of excessive Magyar chauvinism as the Corvinus Monument.

The Romanians would prove that they were no better, even when in the ascendant. After the fall of communism, Cluj elected the ultra-nationalist Gheorghe Funar as mayor. The bench I sat on that day – while pondering St. Michael’s Church and the Corvinus Statue – had not so long ago been slathered with paint in the Romanian national colors. Funar was known as the “mad mayor”, reveling in acts of pro-Romanian nationalism. This ghost of provocations past had since been painted over, but the wounds they had caused ran much deeper. For some Hungarians did not stop running until they were at the border of Hungary proper. I had come to Cluj in search of a vanished past, but at Piata Unrii the past had not vanished. What remained was not invisible nor in ruins, but had been polished, painted and reinterpreted.  The past here was not banished only burnished. Monuments to wrong memories were everywhere. The reactions and counter-reactions of the ruling ethnicities had been created by a nightmare of insecurities. This place was deeply haunted. Ghosts of Saxon burghers, Magyar magnates and Romanian revolutionaries still roamed this square and the surrounding streets of the Old Town.

Banffy Palace - historic postcard image

Banffy Palace – historic postcard image

The View From Above – Apparitions Of History
These apparitions from the history of Klausenberg, Kolozsvar, Cluj or whatever you wanted to call it were at odds with the youthful vibe of the modern city, full of thousands of happy, blissful university students. Their education was much different than mine. They saw what they wanted to see and I saw what I could hardly believe, the most frightening ghosts imaginable, ghosts that could be seen in the bright, broad daylight. Perhaps Miklos Banffy saw something similar when he looked down from the windows of the elegant Banffy Palace on the west side of the square. That masterpiece of Baroque elegance must have afforded him a magnificent view. He saw into this place and into these people. When I looked up at where he might have stood, all I saw was a ghost.

Coming soon: Tradition Never Goes Out Of Style – The Road Through Bontida (An Invitation To A Vanished World – Part Five)

Beyond All Recognition – Huedin Now & Banffyhunyad Then (An Invitation To A Vanished World: Part Three)

The train to Transylvania began to climb slowly out of the Crisana plains and makes its way along the northern edge of the Apuseni Mountains. With passport control done, I was now headed toward Cluj without anything else to detain me. The view from the train window was a mesmerizing distraction. The forest was an explosion of color, as fall foliage covered the hillsides. Dotting the landscape were pear shaped stacks of hay. From time to time the train would halt at a larger town where a few passengers would disembark. The landscape gripped me to such an extent that I began to imagine disembarking at one of these towns, disappearing into the woods forever and leaving the world behind. The serenity and peace I felt while looking at the scenery had a primeval allure, allowing me to entertain a dangerous idea that almost made sense.

Gypsy palace in Huedin

Gypsy palace in Huedin (Credit: Lutz Fischer-Lamprecht)

Banffyhunyad – A Vanishing Breed
At Huedin I saw the spires of unfinished Gypsy palaces glittering in the early afternoon sunlight. At times it felt like I was traveling through a world of fantasy and fiction. The fiction of Miklos Banffy’s Transylvania Trilogy felt close at hand. Most places looked as though nothing had changed since 1905, the year that the trilogy begins. This was deceptive, because Transylvania had changed irreparably since that time, especially for Hungarians. Take as an example Huedin, bigger than a village or town, but smaller than a city, with a population of 9,300. Up until the end of the First World War it was officially known as Banffyhunyad, signifying the fact that for five hundred years the Banffy family owned the entire town, as well as the surrounding area. Huedin may have once been part of such diverse polities as the Kingdom of Hungary, the Principality of Transylvania, the Habsburg and Austro-Hungarian Empires, but for centuries the real power lay with the Banffy’s, who were the crème de la crème of the region’s aristocratic nobility.

The 20th century changed this situation radically. In 1920 Transylvania became part of Romania and has stayed that way ever since with the exception of a short interlude of Hungarian rule during World War II. The change in national borders led to a slow, but dramatic transformation in Huedin’s ethnic makeup. Demographic statistics bear this out. In 1910, during the waning days of Historic Hungary, over 90% of the town’s population was Hungarian speaking. By 1930 it was down to 70%. Then during World War II Huedin’s Hungarian Jewish population was wiped out by the Holocaust. The most precipitate decline took place in the half-century following the war, with the anti-Hungarian policies of the Ceaucescu regime and then the fall of Communism, thousands of Hungarians fled westward. According to the latest Romanian census taken in 2011, Hungarians makeup only 28% of Huedin’s populace.

Huedin is a reflection of what has happened to Hungarians all over Transylvania. To put the demographic figures in perspective, imagine walking down the street in Huedin a century ago. The only language you were likely to hear was Hungarian. Walk down the same street today and you would be lucky to find a Hungarian speaker. Most of the storefronts now have words written in Romanian rather than Hungarian. The name of the town and train station has changed. A whole way of life, administrative, economic and cultural has largely disappeared. To get an idea of just how unique this vanishing has been, try to imagine the Romanians who make up the overriding majority of Huedin’s inhabitants today disappearing in the 21st-century. It is an inconceivable thought. How could such a thing happen? There is no possibility, but the same thing would have been said at the beginning of the 20th century.

Heading toward an uncertain future -Hungarian women walking past the Huedin town hall in 1939

Heading toward an uncertain future -Hungarian women walking past the Huedin town hall in 1939 (Credit: fortepan.hu)

Agents Of Change – The War At Home
Despite the cries of Hungarian nationalists who say the land was stolen from them or Romanian nationalists who say the land was always theirs, the truth of the matter is that two World Wars and the radical ideologies of communism and fascism acted as the ultimate agents of change in Transylvania.  In turn these historical events and trends were to transform society and the idea of nation-states. Miklos Banffy lived through much of this turbulence. Like other Hungarian aristocrats in the region Banffy went from exalted status to anachronism during his lifetime. He was a deeply humanistic man who believed Hungarians and Romanians could live together, share power and create a more equal society that better represented the interests of all ethnic groups. In a sense Banffy’s dream came true when Romanian joined the European Union in 2009. This boosted minority rights. The Hungarians in Transylvania today have more rights than any minority has ever had in the region. The same goes for the Roma. The Romanians are firmly in control of the country, but xenophobic nationalism has been moderated by a modicum of prosperity and a fitful, flawed democracy.

Is there still discrimination? Of course, but the situation is much better today for all groups than it ever has been historically. A critique of this opinion would likely mention that the Hungarian aristocracy has vanished. How could it be better for Hungarians? Well the majority of Hungarians in Transylvania a century ago were not aristocrats. The lowliest Hungarian in Transylvania today has exponentially more economic and political opportunity than the same Hungarian would have had 150 years ago. That fact does little to heal the psychological wounds of Hungarians who still feel the loss of Transylvania. On the other hand, no matter what extremist political parties try to stir up or the media says about inter-ethnic relations, the citizens of Transylvania are not at war. From everything I would witness while visiting the region people are getting on with their lives. This region has had enough of war, for now.

Huedin & the landscape of Cluj County as seen through a train window

Huedin & the landscape of Cluj County as seen through a train window

Obscured By Beauty – A Truth About Transylvania
From the train window Huedin looked docile if not dramatic. Mountains in the distance formed a compelling backdrop to the sleepy settlement. Nothing had changed and everything had changed, it all depended upon your degree of knowledge and personal perspective. Transylvania was a timeless landscape inhabited by a diverse and dynamic society. The beauty and tranquility that I witnessed from the train window were enchanting, but it also obscured the massive upheaval that had transformed this region beyond all recognition.

Coming soon: Ghost Sightings In Cluj – Monuments To The Wrong Memories (An Invitation To A Vanished World – Part Four)

Everything In Its Path – The Train To Transylvania (An Invitation To A Vanished World: Part Two)

A journey to Transylvania sounds mysterious, adventurous and a bit scary. This has much to do with the Dracula effect. One imagines being set upon by superstitious villagers and ominous aristocrats living in drafty manor houses. At every rail siding there is a false expectation that passengers will be greeted by howling wolves leaping out of some dark, dingy forest. At least that was what happened to Jonathan Harker. My experience was quite different. After all I was chasing ghosts courtesy of Miklos Banffy, not a vampire from Bram Stoker’s imagination.

My journey started far away from Transylvania in the heart of Budapest, the city in which Banffy died in 1950, far away from his beloved castle which was now in ruin. I found myself in the half light of dawn boarding a train at Keleti (Eastern) station. The greatest danger to me did not come from suspicious peasants, but that I might board the wrong train, since I was still half asleep. I did not have any problem finding the train, boarding it with time to spare. The train was uncrowded, spacious and comfortable. I settled in for what I thought was going to be a relaxing eight hour trip to Cluj. I could not have been more wrong.

Train preparing to leave Keleti (Eastern) station in Budapest

Train preparing to leave Keleti (Eastern) station in Budapest

Border Crossing – An Outsider On Board
There was ongoing work on the railroad line close to the Hungary-Romania border. We would have to get off the train in eastern Hungary at the town of Puspokladany, then cross the border by bus into Romania, before boarding another train at Bors. I would have to purchase another train ticket once I got to Romania. The bus ride went from an interruption to an irritation to a major annoyance. We first traveled along a series of bumpy secondary roads. After being jolted back and forth for almost an hour it was a relief to arrive at the border crossing into Romania. For over half of Banffy’s life there was no border crossing here, this area had been part of Greater Hungary. World War I had changed the situation and from a traveler’s standpoint not for the better. Even though Romania and Hungary were both members of the European Union (EU), a hard border crossing still existed. It was here that the adventure began for me.

It turned out that I was the only one onboard who was not a citizen of an EU nation. While everyone’s passport or identification card was returned to them within a matter of minutes, I was left waiting. After a while the silence of the bus was broken by idle chatter that became increasingly agitated. One man on the bus looked in my direction and said “it’s the American.” He was inferring that I was the reason for the delay. I sank lower in my seat as the wait continued. Never has an extra twenty minutes seemed so long. The passengers were restless for a reason, if we did not get through passport control in time, we would miss the train from Bors to Cluj. No one wanted to wait in a dreary village station for another train.

Border crossing at Bors Romania

Border crossing at Bors Romania

Desperate Pleas – The Ticket To Cluj
Finally a border guard showed up and handed my passport back to the bus driver who then gave it to me. I felt a sense of relief, while several of my fellow passengers let out sighs of exasperation. We were free to go, but the question was whether we could still make the train on time. When we arrived at the Episcopia Bihor station I ran inside to find a ramshackle interior, which turned out to be a nightmare of dreary carelessness. The waiting room/ticketing area looked dirty and felt even dirtier. It gave the unwelcoming impression of hell with a roof on it. To my surprise the attendant informed me that she did not take credit cards. Nor would she accept Hungarian forints. Desperately I tried to shove some dollars at her. Perhaps a bribe might work. She would have none of this. I had to pay with Romanian lei. My desperate pleas for help elicited a half intelligible response that directed me to a nearby establishment.

I ran out of the station to a bar/restaurant. The man behind the counter offered to change lei for dollars. I pulled out a wad of twenty dollar bills and received nearly everything that was in the register. When he tried to hand me a few dollars back, I signaled for him to keep it. I ran back to the station where the train had already arrived. With my heart pounding, I rushed back to the ticket window where the attendant dutifully sold me a ticket to Cluj. I burst out the station doors, climbed aboard the train and found a car half filled with passengers from my bus ride. Several of them smiled kindly at me, a reversal from half an hour earlier. Soon we were on our way.

Episcopia Bihor Train Station

Episcopia Bihor Train Station

The World Turned Dizzy – Change For The Worse

Miklos Banffy made this same journey by train many times during his life while traveling between Bontida and Budapest. He carried out a large part of his professional life in the Hungarian capital. At the age of 28 he was elected to the Hungarian Parliament. After World War I he was Hungary’s Foreign Minister for a couple of years.  He also served as the Director of the Hungarian State Theaters for five years. As the train rolled eastward out of Bors toward the city of Oradea (Nagyvarad in Hungarian) I wondered what Banffy had seen in his time along this same stretch of railway. I imagined that it was highly pastoral, with peasants toiling in the lush, pancake flat fields.

The current scene could not have been more different. The train passed by a wretched industrial landscape. An ugly, towering factory that looked like a nightmare conjured up by the Romanian dictator Ceaucescu scarred the skyline. The ground was pockmarked with the residue of heavy industry. The sight was ghastly in the extreme, quite a welcome for newcomers from the west.  I was not going to find anything of Miklos Banffy in this landscape. Then again he had written about a fading way of life that was on the cusp of major change. And the change had come, transforming everything in its path.

An invitation to a vanished world

An invitation to a vanished world

Click here for: Beyond All Recognition – Huedin Now & Banffyhunyad Then (An Invitation To A Vanished World: Part Three)

The Journey To Bontida – Transylvania Trilogy (An Invitation To A Vanished World – Part One)

The journey to Bontida and Banffy Castle began for me far away from Transylvania where both the village and castle are located. My journey began in the 6th District (Terezvaros) of Budapest inside Bestsellers bookstore. This fine establishment carries the largest inventory of English language books in the city. This includes an excellent selection of English language translations of Hungarian novels. This was where I first learned of The Writing On The Wall trilogy (Transylvania Trilogy in English) by Miklos Banffy. I spotted three large paperback books stacked side by side on shelves. Each had a rather austere and direct title. The first volume, They Were Counted, had a cover photo of a grand manor house with several people standing outside a double arched entrance. The second volume, They Were Found Wanting, showed three horse drawn carriages just outside another entrance to what looked the same manor house. The final book, They Were Divided, was a bit slimmer than the other two thick volumes. Its cover photo showed an arched exit from some type of walled courtyard or stable.

The usual celebratory blurbs for reviews written on the backsides of each volume recommended them to potential readers. My favorite of these was one from The Guardian which began by saying that the trilogy “charts this glittering spiral of decline.” Such phraseology and the fact that the books concerned Transylvania piqued my interest. This was a Transylvania of which I was unfamiliar, instead of vampires or legends of Count Dracula there was a vanished world of Hungarian aristocracy. I did not purchase any of the books right away, lugging around three volumes of a combined 1,392 pages for the rest of a trip that would take me on into Serbia and Bulgaria did not seem like a good idea at the time. I wrote down Banffy’s name and Transylvania Trilogy so I could order them when I got back home.

The Transylvania Trilogy of Miklos Banffy

The Transylvania Trilogy of Miklos Banffy

Creating A Universe All Its Own – The Magic Of Miklos Banffy
Several weeks later Banffy’s Trilogy arrived in the mail. It took me a couple of months to read all three volumes, but it was an experience so good that I plan on repeating it one day. For me the sign of a great book is that it creates a universe the reader can inhabit, a universe all its own that cannot be found anywhere else other than between that book’s pages. Banffy manages to create such a universe and keep it going across all three volumes. His writing is semi-autobiographical, reflecting personal affairs and acquaintances. It also delves deeply into the politics of Austria-Hungary, including the rise of ethnic nationalism in the lead up to the First World War. Banffy paints a vivid portrait of a fading aristocratic class that is depraved and demented, on the cusp of cataclysm. Even more impressively, Banffy brings the windswept plateaus, deep, dark forests and alpine landscapes of Transylvania to life. The fierce beauty and magical wonder of the environment are eloquently rendered.

The book’s core story revolves around an ill-fated romance between Balint Abady and the unhappily married Ady Uzdy. Surrounding the love affair is the decline and fall of a host of characters including Balint’s cousin Laszlo, Ady’s increasingly mentally ill husband Pal Uzdy and various personages who represent the decadence at the heart of aristocratic society in Transylvania during the waning days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Love, jealousy, duty, loyalty and betrayal all come into play. By the end of the third book I felt an intimacy with the characters, era and landscape that made them not so much larger than life, but a part of life. The life that was pervasive in Transylvania before it fell into perpetual decline.

Miklos Banffy - author of The Writing On The Wall Trilogy

Miklos Banffy – author of The Writing On The Wall Trilogy (Credit: Lipót Strelisky)

Resurrecting A Ruin – A World Back To Life
The books were so good that they made me want to experience this world for myself. I began to note the place names, wondering if any of them might still offer a window into the world Banffy wrote about. The logical starting point was Kolozsvar (known by its Romanian name of Cluj-Napoca today) which was mentioned many times. It was and still is today the largest city in Transylvania, the region’s commercial and cultural capital. After doing some research, I discovered that Banffy was buried in Cluj. Of greater interest, the manor house where many important scenes in the books are set was still standing in the village of Bontida, not far from Cluj. From what I could find much of it was in ruins, but was being restored. Known as Banffy Kastely, it suffered grave damage near the end of World War II.

Banffy had spearheaded a futile attempt to arrange peace with the Soviet Union to try and forestall the Red Army’s overwhelming onslaught into Hungary during 1944. Banffy was trying to pull Hungary out of their alliance with Nazi Germany, realizing that Hungary was on the edge of catastrophe. His peace overture ultimately failed. The Nazis retaliated by looting, burning and ruining much of the castle, including one of the best libraries in all of Europe. Following the overthrow of Romania’s communist dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu in 1989, the castle slowly came back into historical consciousness, helped in no small part by the publishing and translation of Banffy’s The Writing On The Wall trilogy. Efforts to make it something more than a mere ruin were being boosted by its present role as a heritage restoration field school.

Banffy Castle - a chance to chase ghosts

Banffy Castle – a chance to chase ghosts

A Chance To Chase Ghosts – Seeking Shadows & Light
All of this information had a magnetic effect upon me. I began to dream of visiting the castle, of walking in the footsteps of Banffy and his characters who seemed to exist in a timeless world of romance, passion and conflicting emotions. I felt a sense of enchantment, as though I could travel into a fantasy, albeit one that was filled more with shadow than light. Here was a chance to chase ghosts, perhaps even to catch a glimpse of one in some forgotten corner of a Transylvanian valley. Imagination began to overtake reality. Thus I planned to make the trek to Cluj via Budapest by train. From Cluj I would find my way onto Bontida, to see for myself what could be discovered of a lost world.

Click here for: Everything In Its Path – The Train To Transylvania (An Invitation To A Vanished World: Part Two)

Massacre At Madefalva – Tragedy Of The Szekely People

January in the Olt River valley of Romania is not for the faint hearted. Temperatures plummet to -30 degrees Celsius (-22 Fahrenheit) or worse. Snow covers the ground for several months. The inhabitants spend much of their time huddling close to wood stoves or other sources of heat. Time spent outside is kept to a minimum. The days are short and the long cold nights continue for weeks on end. Every year there is one event that breaks this bone chilling monotony, the commemoration of the massacre at Madefalva, also known by its Latin name of Siculicidium. The massacre occurred in the dead of winter almost exactly 250 years ago when over 200 Szekelys –a Hungarian speaking ethnic group – including women and children were murdered by Habsburg Imperial forces. The memory of that fateful night has been burned into the collective conscious of the Szekely.

Winterscape in Szekelerland - Harghita Mountains

Winterscape in Szekelerland – Harghita Mountain (Credit: Albertistvan)

Guardians of the Eastern Frontier – Independence or Imperialism
The village of Madefalva (Siculeni in Romanian) lies in the heart of Szekelerland, a name given to the mountainous region of the Eastern Carpathians dominated by the Szekely people. Scholars have not been able to determine exactly where the Szekely came from, but they have inhabited the area since the Middle Ages. Whether or not they are ethnic Hungarians has been the source of countless studies. One branch of scholars believes they descended from Turkic peoples who were Magyarized, while another branch posits the theory that they were Magyars (ethnic Hungarians) settled along the frontier. Whatever the truth, the Szekely are a Hungarian speaking island, amidst an ocean of ethnic Romanians.  Historically the Szekely enjoyed a privileged position in the region. They provided service to the Kingdom of Hungary as border guards on the eastern frontier. In return, they were given titles of nobility and allowed to administer their own affairs. They practiced self-government with their own courts and legislative bodies. Even during the Ottoman Turkish occupation across much of historic Hungary, when the Principality of Transylvania was a vassal state, the Szekelys were able to hold on to their privileges.

Szekely populated areas in Romania

Szekely populated areas in Romania

This began to change during the 18th century as the Habsburgs centralized control of the region. Habsburg rule tended towards absolutism. Increasing centralization took place during the long reign of Maria Theresa (1740 -1780). In Szekelerland, the Habsburg’s wanted to set up a border guard force that would be loyal to the crown. This was to include both Szekely and Romanian regiments. The recruitment was part voluntary/part compulsory. In response, the Szekely demanded that they keep their own leaders rather than come under the control of imperial officers. The Habsburg leadership would not hear of such a suggestion and were not willing to negotiate. Conversely, the Szekely were ferociously protective of their independence. They sought to limit outside influence in their affairs. The draft went forward, but was largely a failure. The Szekely that were drafted and reported had rifles issued to them. As resistance stiffened, they deserted and kept the weapons.

The Szekely continue to honor their traditions today

The Szekely continue to honor their traditions today (Credit: Derzsi Elekes Andor)

A Massacre & A Migration – The Consequences of Madefalva
Many of these Szekely made their way to Madefalva. The situation was turning into a test of Imperial control. Would the Habsburgs break the Szekely will? Could the Szekely hold on to the privileged existence they had enjoyed for centuries? On the snowy night of January 7, 1864 the Szekely were planning to meet in council at Madefalva to plan their next course of action. Unbeknownst to them, the Habsburgs were well aware of this meeting and planned to snuff out resistance before it turned into a full-fledged rebellion. In the frigid, snow covered town 1,300 Imperial forces struck swiftly, dealing a deadly blow to the unsuspecting Szekely. Over two hundred Szekely of all ages, from children to the elderly were murdered in a matter of hours. Thousands of Szekely fled into the mountains. They then left the region, traveling overland hundreds of kilometers to the east or south, eventually resettling in Moldavia or Bukovina. The Szekely leaders who were unable to elude capture suffered impeachment or worse. Resistance had been quelled.

In the ensuing months, the draft was successfully carried out. The Habsburgs were now masters of the Szekely or so it seemed. Much of the Szekely’s historical autonomy was ended. Imperial officials now exerted control over the Szekely judicial, educational and agricultural systems. They interfered in everything from real estate to marital transactions. Yet on a micro level the Szekely were able to retain many of their age old traditions, including election of their own local judiciary and governing officials as well as decisions on infrastructure improvements. The distance and remoteness of Szekely communities from their Habsburg overlords contributed to their continued ability to enjoy a degree of independence.

Monument to the Siculicidium in Madefalva (Siculeni, Romania)

Monument to the Siculicidium in Madefalva (Siculeni, Romania)

Miracle of the Miraculous – The Szekely Achievement
Each January hundreds of Szekely gather in Madefalva to remember their ancestors who were massacred by Habsburg troops in January of 1864. They gather at the SICVLICIDIVM monument set on the Veszhalom (Hill of Death), a mass grave where the murdered Szekely were buried. The monument contains an obelisk topped by the mythical Turul bird, an enduring symbol of the Hungarian origin myth. It is the Szekely adherence to tradition, the memory of their ancestors and a ferocious spirit of independence that has allowed them to endure the darker moments of their history. They have long since overcome the massacre at Maldefalva, but still pay solemn tribute to those who were murdered on that chill winter night.

This is one of many such incidents that have marked Szekely history. Despite the absolutism of the Habsburgs, despite a 20th century campaign of Romanization and despite the depredations committed against the Szekely by the notorious dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu, the Szekely have endured. Paradoxically, the Szekely may have endured not despite, but because of the forces arrayed against them. These forces helped cultivate an exceedingly stubborn streak of independence that resisted ideology, modernity and tyranny. The continued existence of the Szekely, Szekerland and a unique culture is the most miraculous achievement of a miraculous people.

What It Is, Is What It Isn’t – Nyirbator: The Unknown Hungary

When I told a Hungarian friend that Nyirbator happened to one of my favorite places in his country that I visited he looked at me in astonishment. His reply was less than positive, “I can’t imagine anyone taking a trip to Nyirbator. They would have to pay me to visit that place.” Nyirbator is located in the far northeastern corner of Hungary, beyond the Great Plain that dominates the nation’s eastern half. It is a place few visit. Thus it suffers from the stereotypical view that “there is nothing there.” This is pretty much the same opinion that most Hungarians and travelers have of the northeastern portion of the country.

The ice coated train station at Nyirbator, Hungary on a cold winter day

The ice coated train station at Nyirbator, Hungary on a cold winter day

“There Is Nothing There” – The Opposite of the Truth In Eastern Hungary
Besides Hortobagy National Park – a landscape and wildlife refuge that looms large in the Hungarian historical imagination – eastern Hungary is seen as poor, flat and boring. It is a land of agriculture rather than industry, much less technology. Even during the late 19th century golden age of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, eastern Hungary was the poorest region in both the nation as well as the entire empire. It was even more downtrodden than Galicia (present day western Ukraine), a province known to as a byword for backwardness. Perhaps this less than desirable reputation is what makes a visit to eastern Hungary and specifically Nyirbator such an enchanting surprise. One will not find overwhelming prosperity in this small city, but neither will they find abject poverty. They will find a large provincial town that has a deep and rich history, once home to a great and tragic European family.

Nyirbator is one of those places you couldn’t imagine existed until you go there. At first site it is a miracle of matter of factness, an oversized village of cracked sidewalks, colorful squat sized houses, ever barking dogs and people going about their businesses with a noticeable lack of zeal. It seems that the 13,000 Hungarians who live in Nyirbator are asleep with their eyes open. Things may have changed over the years, but what use would it be to take notice. The traveler who makes it here probably got lost at least twice. It is a highly improbable destination, but that makes it no less charming. Nyirbator will never make off the beaten path lists. It is either on the unknown or forgotten path and that is how it will probably always be.

Even the most exacting guidebooks devote at most a page or two to Nyirbator. The main impetus for a traveler going there is more than likely vague. Maybe it was a couple of striking photos on Wikipedia of the city’s Calvinist Church and Bathory Castle. Maybe it was the well known (and feared) historical family name of Bathory. Then again maybe it was just a day trip, in the depths of winter to escape a day inside. Yet photos are one thing, the experience quite another. A nation and its secrets are not given up easily, sometimes these are best found in quiet, provincial communities. Places that still maintain remnants of a unique and fascinating past. The uniqueness is all the more striking because of its unexpectedness.

Bathory Castle in Nyirbator

Bathory Castle in Nyirbator

The Bathory’s – Nyirbator’s Royalty
Nyirbator’s fame comes from the Bathory family, who made the place their administrative center for the vast estates they held throughout the Kingdom of Hungary. The family crypt was placed here as well. Of course, the most famous of the Bathory clan turned out to be the woman known to history as the Blood Countess, Erszebet (Elizabeth). She is thought to have murdered somewhere between 35 and 600 girls. Yet the blood lust of one deranged family member should not overshadow the greatness of many other family members who were significant political, military and cultural figures.

Bathory is derived from the word “bator” which means brave. This certainly fit the description of one Istvan (Stephen) Bathory (1533 -1586) who was not only the leader of Transylvania, but also became King of Poland. He was the seminal military leader of his day and is now considered to have been one of the best Polish Kings in history. The Bathory family supplied multiple voivodes (governors) of Transylvania and palatines (prime ministers) of Hungary. Many different Bathory’s ruled Transylvania during the 16th and 17th centuries while other areas of Hungary were occupied by the Ottoman Turks. The Bathory’s golden age coincided with that of Transylvania’s, as the territory gained the status of a semi-autonomous state during that time.

Nyirbator bears tombs, churches, a mausoleom as well as one magnificent section of castle that were all bequeathed by the Bathory’s. Their rule over the town was total. They owned lots of land, virtually owned most of the people and even owned most of Transylvania (they had holdings in parts of 16 counties). Even the vampiric Erszebet (1560 – 1614) was wealthier than the Habsburg emperor at the time. When her husband Ferenc Nasdady (the famed Turk killing Black Knight) died it was said that it took months just to count her wealth.

The Calvinist Church & the Wooden Belfry in Nyirbator

The Calvinist Church & the Wooden Belfry in Nyirbator

Historical Justice – The Architectural Gems of Nyirbator
Two must-sees in Nyirbator reflect the town’s prominence in the Middle and late Middle ages. These are the Gothic-era Calvinist Church and the late Renaissance-style Wooden Belfry which towers close to it. The church was constructed in 1480. As such, it is a masterpiece of Gothic architecture, a style quite rare to find in Hungary. On a cloudless winter’s day when the sky is deep blue, the church’s blinding white exterior is a stark reflection of Protestant austerity. A stone’s throw away stands Nyirbator’s massive Wooden Belfry – the largest in Hungary. It acts as a counterpoint to the church, yet at the same time it’s hard to imagine one without the other. The wooden belfry’s spires and eaves recall Transylvania. This is a bit of historical justice.

Though Transylvania proper is located a couple of hundred kilometers from Nyirbator, it was here during the mid-16th century that the Habsburgs agreed to return that land to the Kingdom of Hungary.  The church and belfry seem to be engaged in a conversation of dissimilarity and inseparability, this is perhaps an architectural parallel to the relationship between eastern Hungary and Transylvania. One cannot seem to exist without the other. There are other historical discoveries to be made in Nyirbator as well. These include a Baroque Minorite Monastery and the Istvan Bathory Museum. There is also a refurbished section of Bathory Castle replete with a series of astounding waxworks of both the Bathory family’s famous and infamous denizens. Each one of these attractions is within strolling distance of another.

A wintry path to the Calvinist Church & Wooden Belfry in Nyirbator

A wintry path to the Calvinist Church & Wooden Belfry in Nyirbator

What It Is, Is What It Isn’t: Getting to Know Nyirbator
It might be said that Nyirbator is an acquired taste. It is not for everyone or for that matter hardly anyone since most tourism in the city consists of those who live in the region or at most travel in from a couple of hours away. That being said, Nyirbator’s allure can best be summed up by the fact that what it is, is what it isn’t. It is not on the beaten path. It will never be filled with throngs of tourists and it is of no interest to the historically ignorant. It isn’t going to be featured on the front of any glossy tourist publications and it does not exist to charm or entertain. What it is though: is inspirational, authentic and unknown. The last of those is what it will probably always be. That is except for those lucky few travelers who stumble upon the remnants of its late medieval magnificence.

Sedentary Vengeance – Vlad Tepes (The Historical Dracula) Imprisonment at Visegrad

The real life historical Dracula, Vlad Tepes or “Vlad the Impaler,”  is most often remembered for the extreme bloodletting he unleashed in Transylvania and Wallachia – both parts of present day Romania – in the 15th century. During Vlad’s multiple reigns as Prince of Wallachia he displayed a level of cruelty unmatched in medieval history, which considering the times is really saying something. The list of those who suffered his wrath was long and notable. These included rich landowning boyars, Saxons, Ottoman Turks and Hungarian nobles. Vlad’s macabre designs were not only reserved for elites and foreigners. Peasants and the destitute were also among the many thousands of his victims.

Vlad Tepes - known to history as Vlad the Impaler

Vlad Tepes – known to history as Vlad the Impaler

Betrayal & Confinement– The Prince of Darkness at Peace
The popular conception of Vlad’s life might lead one to believe that he was forever at war, constantly engaged in torturing or killing his many enemies. To be sure there was plenty of that, but there was also a long period he spent in confinement, far from his homeland. During this time, he did not engage in warfare or for that matter much of anything. This period is much less well known and even less discussed. It took place along the Danube in Hungary. Beginning in 1462 he would spend a decade under house arrest in Visegrad at the summer palace of the Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus. During this time he was the political prisoner of the king. For ten years Vlad’s life was sedentary and domesticated. This is the polar opposite of the usual image of him as a bloodthirsty avenger. Vlad Tepes spent one-fifth of his life in relative solitude waiting for the moment when he could return to the warpath.

Why was Vlad imprisoned at Visegrad? The simplest explanation of Vlad Tepes’s imprisonment at Visegrad is that he was betrayed. In 1462 he had traveled to the Kingdom of Hungary seeking money from King Matthias to continue his campaigns against the Ottoman Turks. At this point, constant warfare had nearly bankrupted Vlad who was no longer able to pay his mercenary forces. Unbeknownst to Vlad, the king was in no position to loan him money. Matthias had his own financial worries. He had already spent a large sum of money that had been given to him by the Papacy for the purpose of carrying out expeditions against the Turks. He was more interested in cultivating the Renaissance in his homeland, rather than fighting yet another war.

Matthias took Vlad prisoner and had a letter drawn up showing that Vlad had actually proposed peace with the Turks. Thus Matthias had made it look as though Vlad had committed treason. This letter soon made its way to the pope. The upshot was that Matthias imprisoned Vlad for the foreseeable future. At the same time, the king had distracted the papacy with this incident. To the point, where they forgot about the debts Matthias owed them. As for Vlad, he was now a vassal of the Hungarian king. Confined to a palace in Visegrad, the feared Vlad would become a useful political tool.

Aerial view of the ruins of the Royal Palace at Visegrad (Credit: Civertan)

Aerial view of the ruins of the Royal Palace at Visegrad (Credit: Civertan)

Frozen In Fear – The Domesticated Impaler
What was Vlad Tepes up to during all those years? Was he plotting revenge? Planning an escape? Wondering if he would ever regain power? Did he spend his time walking in the lavish courtyard of the palace, staring at its magnificent hanging gardens, visiting with other guests who were staying in one of the palace’s 350 rooms? Did he examine the ongoing work at the palace? This might have brought about a stinging realization. The money which could have funded Vlad’s campaigns against the Turks was instead being used to adorn the palace with Renaissance style flourishes. What little information is available about Vlad’s time at the palace seems to confirm that he had not changed much. He was still able to satisfy his lust for torture. According to a Russian Ambassador to the court, Vlad occupied himself capturing birds, then cutting off their heads or plucking them free of their feathers. An Italian bishop reported that Vlad cut up mice and then impaled their body parts on small sticks.

In the hands of King Matthias, Vlad also became a political weapon against the Turks. When the Sultan’s diplomats arrived at Visegrad to talk over the terms of an armistice that had went into effect, they could not help, but notice that Matthias had Vlad present. The emissaries must have frozen in fear. This would have sent shivers through the entire Ottoman leadership. Almost certainly, the news of Vlad’s presence was relayed all the way back to Sultan Mehmed. After all, in 1462 Mehmed had ordered his army to retreat when he came upon a horrific sight, a forest of 20,000 impaled corpses left behind by Vlad and his mercenary forces at Targoviste in Wallachia. Eventually Matthias moved Vlad to a house further down the Danube at Pest before finally freeing him from twelve years of captivity. Vlad was sent back to Wallachia to deal with local forces that had allied with the Turks.

Statue of Vlad Tepes in his birthplace of Sighisoara, Transylvania (Credit: Sailko)

Statue of Vlad Tepes in his birthplace of Sighisoara, Transylvania (Credit: Sailko)

An Uneasy Peace – A Paradox at Visegrad
Most likely the years at Visegrad extended Vlad’s life. He was assassinated a mere two years after he had regained his position as Prince of Wallchia. He was forty five years old when he died. Vlad Tepes had lived longer than most of his kinsmen. Then again he had been singularly responsible for lowering the life expectancy in any area he occupied for long. The only exception in his life was his time at Visegrad. There, on the banks of the sullen gray Danube, amid the splendor and refinement of a Renaissance palace, the Prince of Darkness was confined to a life of uneasy peace.