Of Human Bondage – Florence Baker: Exploring Her Later Life (Part Two)

Florence Maria von Sass went from childhood in a prosperous Transylvania family to becoming an orphan overnight. She was only four years old at the time when she lost her mother, brother, and father. At that moment, her childhood came to an abrupt halt. Circumstances forced her to grow up fast amid war and revolution. The end of one part of her life indirectly led to the beginning of another part. One where she and the love of her life – Samuel Baker – would make history. It is remarkable that the first kindling of that fabulous romance began in a slave market. The peculiar institution of human bondage brought the couple improbably together. From the point forward, they became united as explorers and lovers.

In the mid-19th century, the city of Vidin was a bustling port along the southern bank of the Lower Danube. It had 26,000 inhabitants and a sizable military garrison that added another 8,000 soldiers to the population. At the time it was still part of the Ottoman Empire (the city is now in northwestern Bulgaria). An empire that would soon enough become known as “the Sick Man of Europe” due to its perpetual decline. It also looked increasingly backwards compared to a Europe on the cusp of modernity. One of the empire’s more lamentable traits was slavery. Anyone unlucky enough to find themselves as an orphan or refugee in the Ottoman lands could just as easily be sold into slavery. This was the situation Florence faced at the age of fourteen. While her life was on the verge of taking a turn for the worst, the man she would become inextricably connected with for the rest of her life had no idea of her plight.

Passionate pursuit – Lady Florence Baker

Distress & Discovery – Favorable Circumstances
Samuel Baker was in the throes of a hunting trip across central and eastern Europe with Sir Duleep Singh. A decade earlier, Singh had been the Maharajah (Great King) of the Sikh Empire. He was only a child at the time and would later go into exile. Baker, like Singh, was born into favorable circumstances. He was the son of a wealthy merchant. This afforded him the opportunity to indulge a wide range of interests which included writing, hunting, ranching and travel. Baker and Singh arrived at Vidin on the tail end of their trip. To satisfy Singh’s curiosity, Baker agreed to accompany him to Vidin’s slave market. He had no idea that this would change his life forever. One of the slaves for sale in the market was Florence. The teenager caught the eye of Baker who was nearly thrice her age. (The age of consent in Victorian Britain at the time was twelve).

It may have been love at first sight, but “purchasing” Florence was not without difficulties. As the story goes, the Pasha (governor) of Vidin outbid Baker. A life in the cloistered, oversexed world of the harem awaited Florence unless Samuel could find a way to free her from bondage. Baker’s passionate pursuit took the form of bribes to her attendants. They allowed the Englishman to spirit her away by carriage. The couple then made their way to Romania. Some accounts state that they married there, others are more ambiguous. The couple would have a much more formal wedding in Great Britain, but that was five years into the future. For now, they settled down in Romania. Rather than a life of sexual slavery, Florence would now walk in lockstep with Samuel as they moved toward an era of their famous discoveries.

Discovery channels – Murchison Falls (Credit: Rod Waddington)

Into The Wild – Abolitionism in Africa
While the acclaim surrounding Samuel and Florence comes from their trip into the unknown wilds of the White Nile, a later journey into the same region of Africa says a great deal about their humanity. In 1869, at the invitation of Ismail Pasha (Khedive of Egypt), Samuel undertook a military expedition to end the sale of slaves there. Given administrative control over the new region and appointed to a four-year term in office, Samuel took command of 1,700 soldiers (mostly made up of former convicts). Florence was with him the entire time. They met with resistance every step of the way. The slave trade was a lucrative enterprise, but Florence and Samuel fervently believed in its abolition. Convincing those who profited from it was another matter. Their attempt to end the slave trade failed.

At the end of Samuel’s time in office they left the area. They spent the final years of their life together both at home in the English countryside and traveling the world. Their love for one another continued as strong as ever. Despite the scarcely disguised snobbery and rigid class hierarchy of Great Britain during the Victorian era, the romance of Samuel and Florence Baker would endure. The couple stayed married until Samuel’s death in 1893 at the age of seventy-two. Florence never remarried and lived until 1916. Theirs was an otherworldly romance, hers was a remarkable life.

Of human bondage – Samuel and Florence Baker

Broken Records – An Air of Mystery
A word of caution for anyone attempting to ascertain the facts of Florence’s life, especially the early years. Piecing together her childhood and teenage years is difficult at best. The records are extremely vague, to the point of non-existent. Once the massacre at Nagyenyed (Aiud in present day Romania) occurred in 1849, everything about her life becomes open to conjecture. Her time as a refugee, probable abduction, and life in Vidin prior to meeting Samuel is obscure. It is the product of hearsay and family stories passed down through the years. There was good reason for both Samuel and Florence to not divulge the truth. With Samuel knighted for his discoveries in Africa, this meant they gained the spotlight in an intensely aristocratic society.

There were those among the British elite who would look down upon the couple due to Florence’s backstory. Word eventually got to Queen Victoria about Florence’s past. She would never receive the couple, purportedly because of the way they had first come together. This is also why historians believe the couple is overlooked when compared with other explorers of that time. Livingston, Stanley, and Burton all became household names, but Samuel and Florence Baker are all but forgotten. In Florence’s case, this also has to do with the fact that she was female. That makes her exploits much more remarkable and well worth remembering.



Out of Transylvania – Florence Baker: Exploring Her Early Life (Part One)

Polite society in Great Britain knew her as Lady Baker, though she was more commonly known as Florence. She became famous after an expedition with Samuel Baker in which they searched for the holy grail of African exploration, the source of the Nile River. While they did not locate the river’s headwaters, they did become the first European explorers to see Murchison Falls and Lake Albert. Along the way, Florence saved the expedition from disaster as her negotiating skills fended off a mutiny by staff who resented the rigid leadership style of her husband. There were many other dangers along the way, everything from malarial diseases to freshwater crocodiles. This would not be the last time the couple found themselves in harm’s way on the African continent. Later she and Samuel would attempt to end the institution of slavery in a region that is today part of South Sudan. Their partnership was historic in every sense of the word.

By that standard, Florence and Samuel Baker were a match made in the Balkans. The couple proved to be excellent travel companions. Their passion for exploration and one another helped them overcome insurmountable odds. It is hard to believe that at the time of their Nile expedition the couple may not have been married (reports are conflicting on this). A formal wedding would take place four years later, in 1865 at a cathedral in England. Those in attendance might have noticed that Florence Baker spoke with a continental European accent. This belied her origins, which were a clue that she went from an upbringing deep in Eastern Europe to becoming one of the great female explorers of Africa.

Travel companions – Samuel and Florence Baker

Another World – Florence Maria von Sass
How does a woman in the 19th century go from an established Transylvanian aristocratic family to becoming an intrepid explorer discovering unknown parts of the African continent? The origins of historical figures can defy the imagination. This is the case with Florence Baker, who only went by that name in adulthood. Her life calls to mind the phrase, “you can’t make this stuff up.” That is because truth really is stranger than fiction, the proof written across the pages of history. Thus, when I stumble upon a historical personage or anecdote that seems too good to be true, I suspend disbelief in the knowledge that could be true. If human beings are involved, then it is well within the realm of possibility. Which brings me to Florence Maria von Sass, better known to history as Florence Baker. Her story is one that astonishes and inspires. It also shows how the vagaries of history can transform someone’s life into something beyond their wildest imaginations, even their own.

Florence was born in 1841 to a noble family in Transylvania of Hungarian descent. The 19th century in general was a suitable time to be born in the region for those of the middle and upper classes. Compared to prior centuries, wars were few, tradition dictated society and class status set the course for life. The region, like the rest of the Habsburg Empire, was slowly beginning to modernize. Those of noble birth had promising futures ahead of them or so they believed. The aristocracy were at the top of the class hierarchy. Owning land or being part of a merchant’s family offered the potential for prosperity. Ethnic Germans used thrift and their enterprising skills to carve out a prosperous life for themselves in Transylvania. They had laid down deep roots in the region. This was the world into which Florence was born. She had other ethnic attributes as well. Her father was a Szekely (Hungarian speakers in Transylvania) noble, which meant she had blood connections to the Hungarian ruling class as well.

Out of Transylvania – Florence Maria von Sass

The War Comes Home – Revolutionary Trajectory
In normal times, someone with Florence’s family connections would have ended up wedding another person of noble descent. She would never have that opportunity because at the age of eight, the dark shadow of war fell over the region. The Hungarian Revolution of 1848 brought armed conflict to Transylvania. Law and order soon broke down. Hungarians in Transylvania and those who sided with them soon had a host of enemies closing in on them. This included the local Romanian population who needed little coaxing to support the Austrian Habsburgs. Oppressed for centuries, the Romanian peasants were on the bottom rung of the ethnic hierarchy of Transylvania. They took the opportunity to begin attacking Hungarians and looting their property. Centuries old enmities came to the fore and produced violent backlashes between peasants and landowners.

At Nagyeneyed (Aiud in present day Romania), where Florence was born, a massacre of the local Hungarian population led by peasants occurred in January 1849. They took the opportunity to take exact revenge on the upper classes. Accounts state that Florence witnessed the murder of her mother, brother and perhaps her father as well. Records of her early years are sketchy at best, but the incident sent her life spiraling into chaos. It put her future on a different trajectory, one more dangerous and fascinating than she could have ever imagined. The massacre made her a homeless refugee. She was fortunate to find shelter with an Armenian family, fleeing the area along with them when they decided to relocate to the Ottoman Empire. At the Danube River port of Vidin (located in present day Bulgaria), Florence went missing. She soon found herself attached to an Ottoman harem.

Into the unknown – Illustration of Samuel and Florence Baker together

The Peculiar Institution – Slaving Away
Slavery under Ottoman rule was feared by European inhabitants during a period stretching from the medieval to the early modern era. Ottoman occupation or raids meant the existing inhabitants of the Balkans, Hungary and Transylvania had to flee from their homelands. Either that or they risked capture and a life of slavery. Ironically, many Ottoman administrators were former slaves. Kidnapped children became soldiers in the Ottoman army. While slavery was a dreadful state of existence, there was at least opportunities for male slaves to secure prominent positions within the empire. For women, the possibilities were not as appealing. They often found themselves in a harem and forced to live a life of sexual servitude. This was the future that Florence faced while a teenager. As a captive, hundreds of kilometers from her previous home, there were insurmountable odds of ever finding freedom. The slave market in Vidin would decide her destiny. At the time, it did not look promising.

Click here for: Of Human Bondage – Florence Baker: Exploring Her Later Life (Part Two)


Waiting For Sibiu – Brasov Bus Station: A Transylvanian Tale (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #20)

What was I thinking? The answer was that I was not thinking. At least that was what I thought when reflecting upon a bus trip my wife and took to from Brasov to Sibiu in Transylvania. The quickest way to travel between the two cities was by bus. At least that was what I believed before we headed to Brasov’s Bus Station (Autogara 3) on our final morning in the city. Brasov had been a delight, the kind of place that filled me with memories. The city was flanked by mountains and home to a hilltop fortress. It had an Old Town replete with evocatively painted pastel houses, a massive Gothic Church that towered over the surrounding structures and a 15th century Town Hall fronting the pristinely kept Council Square. Brasov’s public transport facilities were another story altogether. For instance, the railway station was an experience we did not care to replicate.

While the station was along one of the same lines that plied an Orient Express route, it had none of the fin de siècle feeling to be found at other places found on that historic railway. The main problem with the Brasov Train Station was that it had been rebuilt during the communist era and still looked the part. It was functionalist, impersonal and unavoidable, at least for anyone arriving or departing from Brasov by train. Looking to avoid a repeat visit to the railway station we explored other options. Due to schedule constraints, we decided that it was best to take the bus from Brasov to Sibiu. This led me to wonder what the bus station would be like since we had not seen it since setting foot in the city. Surely it could not be that bad, after all this was Brasov. Then again, the railway station had taught me not to allow hope to triumph over experience.

Busted up – Brasov Bus Station

The Worst of Times – Decades With A Dictator
To say that Romania had a hard time of it during communism understates the ghastly period scarred by the reign of Nicolae Ceaucescu. His dictatorial regime robbed the country of its resources, both natural and financial. It also robbed the Romanian people, as well as minority populations, of their dignity. While the nation was managed for the benefit of Ceaucescu and his wife Elena, the country deteriorated to an unbelievable extent. The population was spied upon and brutalized by the Securitate (Secret Police), an entity that was one of the state’s largest employers. By the end of the 1980’s, the Ceaucescu regime was the vilest in Eastern Europe. It would go to any lengths in carrying out the Ceaucescu’s increasingly whimsical policies. One of these was to pay off all debt owed by the country. If saving money meant cutting off electricity in the winter, then so be it. While most of the population froze, store shelves were empty from a lack of imports. This was a classic case where the people’s paradise was really a house of horrors.

In retrospect, it is not surprising that the Ceaucescu’s were arrested, subjected to a mock trial. and summarily executed on Christmas Day in 1989. It is surprising that it did not happen sooner. This speaks volumes about the iron boot that the regime kept on the people’s throats. To this day, Romania shows signs of the ruinous economic policies that brought about the Ceaucescu regime’s collapse in 1989. While I have been to Ceaucescu’s grave and what might be considered his spiritual tomb, the sublimely megalomaniacal Parliament of the People in Bucharest, the one structure I find indicative of his regime is the Brasov Bus Station (Autogara 3). Let me be clear, this is not because Ceaucescu had anything to do with its design (at least not that I am aware of), instead it is because of the station’s condition and less than appealing aesthetics. It is a fine example of the lack of investment put towards infrastructure during that period. To say the station was down at the heel does not do it justice, downright seedy was more like it.

A real beauty – Brasov with the Black Church (Credit: Anton Stanley)

Random Strangers – The Experience of Loitering
Approaching the bus station was an unforgettable experience. There were no ticket sellers, at least not on this day. Potential passengers were left out in the cold, quite literally, as the platforms were open air with a minimal amount of cover. The pavement where we waited was broken and busted. We showed up half an hour before departure so we would not miss the bus. That was not as much of a problem as finding a bus. The platform area looked more like an abandoned lot, than it did anything resembling a public transport facility. It did not look safe, but in this case looks were deceiving. The station would have been a great stand in for a set piece in Samuel Becket’s classic absurdist play, “Waiting for Godot.” Rather than the two main characters waiting in a post-apocalyptic landscape for Godot, my wife and I were waiting for a bus to Sibiu in a derelict lot that looked like it had been through a war.

Trash was strewn about, a random stranger or two loitered and buses were few and far between. One of the more fascinating strangers was a man who kept going in and out of the actual station building adjacent to several of the bus platforms. The man never approached us, but he did go to others. It looked like he was trying to sell some sort of cologne. After scrutinizing his behavior, I wondered what he was doing here. Pretty soon, I began to wonder what me and my wife were doing here. We were lucky to have his presence to distract us. Watching the man’s activities gave us something to focus our attention on rather than the time we spent waiting. Soon we were joined by a young lady who looked like a university student. She stood silently, staring straight into nothingness. For the first time in my life, I knew what loitering must be like. Time had a different meaning at the Brasov Bus Station, as it barely seemed to exist at all.

Brasov at its best – The Old Town Hall and Council Square

Obstacle Course – The Power of Indifference
I grew increasingly impatient, to the point where I asked the lady waiting with us when the bus would arrive. She said it would be soon and pointed out that the buses were rarely on time. There was a hint of resignation in her voice. Finally, after what seemed to be an interminable length of time, a vehicle that was more van than bus arrived. It felt like a mid-day miracle. The station had looked like the place where nothing works right, but somehow it did. Sometimes I think the greatest thing about Romania is how the people overcome their circumstances. It takes a maddening amount of indifference to live with the endless obstacles and inefficiencies. Meanwhile, the driver sold us our tickets and helped pack the luggage. It was a relief to leave the Brasov Bus Station, but memories of the station have never left me. It was a memorable experience, one that I would not want to repeat again.

Click here for: A Steeple Floating In The Sky – St. Martin’s Church In Feldebro: The Joy of Rediscovery (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #21)

Looking Down From A Great Height – Rasnov Citadel (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #8)

It is one thing to see the painting, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, by Caspar David Friedrich. It is quite another thing to have an actual experience that mimics the painting. Friedrich’s painting is a hallmark of romanticism. A lone man stands atop a rocky promontory, he has back turned away from the viewer while staring out at a series of majestic rocks and mountains which can be seen rising above a sea of fog. The man appears to be standing on the precipice of beauty and oblivion. He is shown in a moment of intense contemplation, pondering the scene before him and at the same time, pondering something deep within himself.

For some unknown reason, I have always felt a kinship with the painting. Perhaps it is because I sense a hidden inner struggle going on within this man. He is contemplating not only the world, but also his life. I was lucky enough to have that same experience while on a trip to Transylvania. By a bit of serendipitous camera work, my wife unwittingly captured me in a somewhat similar moment. This happened in Transylvania, at a place we had known nothing about before our arrival. It would turn out to be a serendipitous and unforgettable experience.

From a great height – At Rasnov Citadel

Between Bran & Brasov – A Sublime Setting
Bran and Brasov in southeastern Transylvania are a mere thirty kilometers apart. The former is a town with one of the most famous castles in Europe, the latter is a city with an Old Town par excellence. Hundreds of thousands of tourists travel between Bran and Brasov every summer. They come to take in the scenery of Brasov’s medieval town center. They then travel to Bran by the busload to visit “Dracula’s Castle”, a rather ridiculous and quite successful marketing ploy that has driven hordes of tourists to Bran Castle. The real “Dracula”, Vlad the Impaler, never made his home at Bran. His only relation to the castle was when he may have besieged it in the mid-15th century. Bran Castle is one of those seeing is believing kind of experiences. This, despite the unsightly tourist schlock being sold just down the hill from the castle.  The roadside kitsch on offer does little to detract from the experience. It is still worth taking the time to visit, if for no other reason than to view its impressive battlements and traverse a dizzying array of spiral staircases.

Back in Brasov, the Old Town is full of charm and the setting, close to a mountain side, only adds to its aesthetics. My wife and I visited Brasov and Bran several years ago. It did not take us long to fall in love with the area. The air was crisp and clear, the climate invigorating, the medieval architecture worth its weight in stone and a near fathomless depth of history permeated everything. The interesting thing was that neither Brasov nor Bran was the most impressive place to discover in the area. Instead, it was at the midpoint between the two where we discovered Rasnov, a medieval hilltop citadel cloaked in a sublime fog. The ruined citadel stands high above the town of the same name. Those who make it to the citadel enjoy a spectacular view over the surrounding mountains and the town far below. It is a scene that imposes itself on the memory. The kind of experience that will remain with me for the rest of my life.

Beauty and Oblivion – Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich

A Lone Conquest – Taking The High Ground
Rasnov has an interesting way of advertising the ruined citadel. Just outside its walls, large white lettering that can be easily seen from the town below spells out the name. It is a bit reminiscent of the Hollywood sign. I have been to both and it is my conviction that nothing in Hollywood can quite compare to Rasnov Citadel. Perhaps that is why some of Hollywood’s brightest minds decided to film parts of the movie Cold Mountain at the citadel. There could scarcely be a more evocative setting. A movie can only do so much to convey the place’s power. Firsthand experience is necessary if one wants to get the full Rasnov experience. On the day of our visit, there was a feeling of chill in the air as a thin veil of fog had settled over the site. The scents of dirt and stone were palpable. The narrowly defined walkways among the ruins can be ankle breakers. There is nothing forgiving about the citadel or the ruins that have been left behind.

Everything inside the citadel, which was as much walled town as defensive fortress, was constructed to withstand a prolonged siege. There is little doubt that the fortress did that job quite well. From when it was first constructed by the Teutonic Knights in the early 13th century, until when its final usage during the 1848 Revolution, the fortress saw off every potential conqueror except for one. The lone conquest occurred in 1612 when Gabriel Bathory, Prince of Transylvania at the time, and his troops were able to take the citadel. They were lucky enough to secure knowledge of a secret route that the citadel’s residents used to procure water. At that time, the citadel lacked a water well. Once this lifeline was cut, it was just a matter of time before surrender. One conquest in five centuries is a testament to just how formidable an obstacle the fortresses walls and the imposing terrain was for an army to overcome.

Spelling it out – Rasnov Citadel (Credit: Dennis Jarvis)

A Journey Within – The Joys & Sorrows Of Travel
Speaking of terrain, the best way to get a feel for the citadel’s natural defenses is to walk there. The trek took a half an hour. During that time, I got a greater appreciation of the citadel’s natural defenses. I could not imagine an army loaded down with equipment trying to make this same climb. Most potential conquerors were likely defeated by the time they made it to the walls. I was certainly feeling the effects of the prolonged climb. Ultimate satisfaction only came when I was able to take in the breathtaking view from the top. Looking down from a great height, the town of Rasnov looked more like a miniature set piece. The town was tiny compared to the surrounding landscape. The roadways were ribbons with vehicles moving silently across them.

The world below Rasnov Citadel was one of peace and tranquility, distance brought a new perspective. Later I would regain that perspective from the photo my wife snapped of me looking out over the landscape beyond the citadel. Much like The Wanderer Above The Sea of Fog, I was looking inward as much as outward. I had done something previously unimaginable by coming here, conquering not only a mountain, but also myself. Travel was about more than the Brasovs or Bran Castles of the world, it was about pushing onward to find a greater truth, one that is hidden within. Rasnov was not on any agenda or itinerary. As a matter of fact, I had never planned to visit it. That was how I arrived at Rasnov Citadel. Looking at that photo now, makes me wish I had never left. Such are the joys and sorrows of travel.

Click here for: The Kindness of Strangers – Keszthely: An Unexpected Guest (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #9)

Memory or Mirage Above The Mures River – Fortress Soimos (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #1)

In the spring of 2014 I saw a hilltop fortress flash by me. With sadness, I looked back for as long as I possibly could, only to watch the fortress – or was it a ruined castle – vanish into the distance. I told myself that someday in the not so near future I would return to visit it. The idea seemed romantic. A wayward traveler catches a fleeting glimpse of an evocative ruin, then travels halfway around the world for a return to a place he has never really been. The fortress would act as a metaphor for everything I had ever wanted, but somehow eluded my grasp. I had no idea of the fortress’s name and only a rough idea of the location, but that was enough to launch me into another dream. Like all dreams this one was largely lost to memory, only to be revived from time to time by an image that evoked thoughts of that mysterious wonder crowning a hilltop in western Romania.                     

Memory or Mirage – Fortress Soimos as seen from Lipova (Credit: LKenzel)

A Brooding Citadel – The Residue Of Extinction
My momentary glimpse of the fortress came on a train trip between the cities of Deva and Arad in Romania. The train was passing through a transition zone from the last vestiges of Transylvania onto the Banat, one of the most fertile regions in Europe. While gliding along steel rails flanked by the Mures River I noticed the mountains turning to hills as the train sped westward. Before the topography totally collapsed into farmland, the fortress appeared. It stood singular and austere, a silent, brooding citadel falling into ruin. The residue of an extinct kingdom that was once a hub of administrative and martial power, but now only the preserve of medieval scholars, curious tourists and young lovers looking for a hideout to satisfy their desires. My mind preserved the fleeting image of the fortress, in the hope that one day I would return for a visit.

Over the ensuing years I pretty much forgot about the fortress. On those rare occasions when it came to mind, I would promise myself that I was going to properly locate it and learn about its history. I would then proceed to lazily procrastinate until it faded from memory. The fortress only really came back into my consciousness when I traveled between Deva and Timisoara by automobile last month. I felt its presence lurking to the north. Unfortunately, in my zeal to finally see Timisoara I took a highway several kilometers to the south of where it is located. I did not have the time or energy after a long trip around eastern Transylvania, to go on what would have likely been a half day detour. And so an opportunity was lost. I must not have wanted to really see it that badly or perhaps I wondered if it had really been a mirage. I had no idea if what I had seen was real or a figment of an overactive imagination stimulated by travels around Transylvania.

Memory or Mirage – Fortress Soimos as seen from Lipova (Credit: LKenzel)

A Chance Discovery – Floating Above The Mures
All would have been almost lost concerning this mysterious fortress if not for a book I bought in Budapest and began reading after I returned home. A little over midway through Michael O’Sullivan’s recent book, Patrick Leigh Fermor: Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania, I came across a photo which gave me total recall of my view from the train four years earlier. On the lower half of page 188 was a photo of a partially ruined hilltop fortress. The caption stated that this was “Solymos, the castle of Janos Hunyadi”. The text mentioned that Fermor passed by this “physical landmark” as he followed the course of the Mures River from one aristocratic estate to the next. My pulse quickened. I turned to the inside of the back cover to look at the handy map printed on it. Fermor’s path of travel passed right through the same area that I did on that train west of Arad. Could Solymos Castle really be the fortress that had embedded itself so deep in my memory?

Using Google Earth I was able to locate Fortress Soimos (Cetatea Soimos) on a hilltop overlooking the Mures River. Between the river and hilltop on which the fortress stood were the railway tracks I had traveled along four years earlier. From mystery to materialization, first by way of a fleeting glimpse, then from flashes of a fading memory and finally the chance discovery of a photo deep within a book, this was how I finally found Fortress Soimos. A feeling of destiny fell upon me. At that moment I was over 9,000 kilometers and an ocean away from the fortress. That did not keep me from feeling as though I was standing outside the dilapidated stone walls of Soimos examining them for traces of the past. Within minutes of the discovery, I was researching Fortress Soimos with a genuine curiosity to learn more. I wanted to add color to that distant image that had lingered for so long in my mind.

The fortress was first constructed in the late 13th century, a byproduct of the Mongol Invasion which came close to destroying the Kingdom of Hungary in 1241-1242. King Bela IV who ruled Hungary from 1235-1270 decreed that castles and fortresses be constructed on hilltops as a defensive measure to ward off a future Tartar invasion. Across the next several centuries, Fortress Soimos was the property of such famous noble families as the Banffys, Bathorys and Corvins. Its most famous owner was Janos Hunyadi (Ioan de Hunedoara), the man whose generalship beat back the Turks most famously at the Battle of Nandorfehervar (Belgrade) in 1456. By the late 15th century, the fortress commanded a wide swath of the surrounding region that included 95 settlements. The Turkish occupation came relatively late (1552) and ended a century earlier (1595) than in many other areas of Hungary. By the 18th century it was being used as a military outpost. When it was finally abandoned in 1788 the fortress was slated for demolition, escaping this fate only due to its remote and difficult to access location. In the 18th century, it was declared a protected monument of historical importance.

High Upon a Lonely Hilltop - Ruins of Fortress Soimos (Cetatea Soimos)
High Upon a Lonely Hilltop – Ruins of Fortress Soimos (Cetatea Soimos)

Struck By A Mystery – High Upon A Lonely Hilltop
This information set me salivating at the thought of a future visit. It would be worth the long and tiring journey to stand in the place where kingdoms  were conquered, empires occupied and men who would never be known to history had fought and fallen with valor. Can there be anything more redolent of the medieval spirit than a fortress standing stark and lonely on a hilltop, a standard hoisted high above the battlements, rippling in an ill wind. Fortress Soimos was a place that had left its mark upon history. No longer important to anyone, save a man glancing out of a train having his heart carried away by a mystery.

Click here for: A Perpetual Hangover – Keleti Station: (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #2)

(Note: Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny is an intermittent series on places in Eastern Europe that have made a lasting impression upon me)

Crossing Over – Nine-Holed-Bridge: The Hortobagy’s Arched Wonder (For The Love of Hungary Part 23)

Visitors from across the world travel to Hortobagy National Park for a variety of reasons. These include a chance to see the csikos (Hungarian cowboys) in action, to catch a glimpse of ruggedly exotic animals such as Racka sheep and for world class birdwatching. All of these I found fascinating, but first on my list was the most famous and important architectural work associated with the Hortobagy. The Nine-Holed Bridge sounds like something one might find at a municipal golf course rather than part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While the bridge’s name is highly descriptive, it is also deceptive. A closer look at the bridge shows that the holes are actually arches. These help make the bridge an architectural wonder, unlike anything else found in the area.

Located along Highway 33, a half an hour drive from Debrecen at one of the main entry points into the park, this unique 19th century architectural artifact surmounts the serpentine Hortobagy River. At the time of its construction, the bridge was the longest in the Kingdom of Hungary. Today, it is a fascinating stopping point for tourists and architectural buffs, but when it was first conceived the bridge was a crucial piece of infrastructure, facilitating commerce and transportation. It bridged the watery divide between the Hortobagy and its economic hinterland. Without the Nine-Holed Bridge, the Hortobagy would have been a poorer place, both economically and architecturally.

Arched Wonder - The Iconic Nine-Holed-Bridge

Arched Wonder – The Iconic Nine-Holed-Bridge

A Developing Situation – Bridge Over Murky Waters
To understand the Nine-Holed Bridge’s historical importance as much more than a tourist attraction, it is crucial to realize just what it meant to the Hortobagy region when it was first constructed. Travel in this part of the Great Hungarian Plain was daunting and dangerous. Seasonal rains often turned the land into a morass overnight. Getting cattle, pigs and sheep to the region’s largest market in Debrecen could take weeks or months rather than days. At times, the Hortobagy was so inundated by seasonal flooding that only flat bottomed boats could proceed through the murky waters. The steppe was transformed as streams became rivers and rivers swelled into lakes. The latter was apparent at the Hortobagy River which was the largest watercourse crossed on the road to and from Debrecen.

Following the expulsion of the Ottoman Turks from the Great Hungarian Plain, development of the region slowly began to proceed in the final years of the 17th century. Crossing what had become a trackless wasteland during a century and a half of Ottoman rule was a risk few cared to take. Every inch of the way was fraught with danger. Drowning in a sea of mud hole was a real possibility. Packs of hungry wolves lurked in the reeds as they waited to descend on unsuspecting herders. Stories abound of entire villages uniting to fend off ferocious attacks. There were also bandits and highwaymen ready to prey upon weary travelers. Taming this fetid land was a formidable task. To facilitate travel and make the region more accessible, a bridge was constructed over the Hortobagy River in the same place where the Nine-Holed Bridge stands today. By modern standards this wooden bridge would hardly be called substantial, but by the standards of the time it was a major piece of infrastructure.

Bridging The Hortobagy - The Nine-Holed-Bridge from the air

Bridging The Hortobagy – The Nine-Holed-Bridge from the air (Credit: Civertan)

Building Bridges – The Great Facilitator
The bridge’s role of facilitating commerce in the Hortobagy was key to creating a viable economic trade across a large swath of the Great Hungarian Plain. This development was aided by an unprecedented period of peace in Hungary during the 18th and most of the 19th century. It allowed the more marginal areas to enjoy relative prosperity as stock grazing increased. Massive herds loosely guided by shepherds pastured on every available piece of dry ground. The bridge over the Hortobagy helped support this industry as more and more animals were taken to market after grazing upon the sublime steppe. Predictably, the wooden bridge began to buckle under the strain of thousands of hooves pounding the planks into submission. Repair costs were exorbitant just to perform simple maintenance and upkeep. The cost was mainly shouldered by Debrecen. The city burghers could not afford to allow such a lifeline of economic infrastructure to collapse. A new, more durable bridge was soon deemed necessary. Architect Ferenc Povolny created a bridge based upon classical design, hence the arches.

Classicism, or more precisely neo-classical architecture, was emerging anew during what would come to be known as the Reform era in Hungarian history. Many great construction works were conceived during this time period. Povolny’s bridge was one of them. It was designed to be made of stone, as it would better stand the test of time. The only problem was finding the proper materials to construct it. The marshy soil provided little of the material necessary to create a permanent structure. The construction crews tried using sand from the area to build its vaults. This proved little more than an exercise in futility. An idea soon arose to look further afield for materials that might be of more lasting value. The search led northward to the wine growing region of Tokaj, where a local entrepreneur operated a small stone quarry set among his vineyards. Though the stone was quickly collected, the boat transporting it downstream sank due to the excessive weight of the stone. A construction project which should have taken a couple of years, stretched from 1827 until 1833 when it was finally finished.

Crossing Over - Storm on the Great Hortobágy

Crossing Over – Storm on the Great Hortobágy (Credit: Tivadar Kosztka Csontvary)

A Work Of Art – Bridging The Divide
The completed bridge was a work of art. One that was of both utilitarian and aesthetic value. It still is today. Visiting the Nine-Holed Bridge was a strange experience for me. To find such an exquisite piece of architecture on a largely featureless landscape was shocking. It also made the bridge’s appearance that much more appealing. I inspected the bridge from all sides, marveling at its widened entrance which soon narrowed, a design effect to funnel the livestock herded across it. Now automobile traffic races across the 170 meter long bridge in just a few seconds. A far cry from the days when thousands of Hungarian Grey Cattle sauntered across. Times have changed, but the bridge has stayed the same.

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

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

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

Beyond all expectations - Transylvania by way of Kispest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living Legacy - Karoly Kos in the Wekerle Estate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old Zilah - The Unseen Transylvania

Old Zilah – The Unseen Transylvania

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

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

Looking back - Panorama of Zilah in 1903

Looking back – Panorama of Zilah in 1903

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

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

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

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

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

Riding the rails - Train at station in Transylvania

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rising Above All - The Calvary Reformed Church in Des

Rising Above All – The Calvary Reformed Church in Des

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

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

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

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

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