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.

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

A turn of the 20th century traveler going from Klausenberg to Bistritz* was in for quite a journey. The trip by train took seven hours, today that same journey has been reduced to a little over three. The train only averaged ten miles an hour over the entire route. Such a leisurely pace had all the stealth of a snail’s pace by the standards of today, but in the golden age of European railway travel that amount of time was nothing short of transformative. Consider that before the railway was constructed travel between the two cities would have taken several days across dusty, bone jarring roads at the best of times. Traveling by wagon carriage included the added drawback of possibly being robbed or held hostage by highwaymen.

Conversely, the comfort and security of a railway carriage offered travelers an opportunity to see the countryside while enjoying a fine meal in luxurious surroundings. With so much time on their hands, it was a good thing that these travelers would have their trusty Austria Including Hungary, Transylvania, Dalmatia And Bosnia Handbook For Traveller’s by their side to guide them the entire way. The Baedeker of that era may have been less than forthcoming with narratives and historical details, but unlike modern guidebooks of today, they provided a linear account of towns, villages and sites along the way. The itinerary would have been of great use in passing time. Today it is just as much a pleasure for the modern railway enthusiast or armchair traveler to follow along with to see what has and has not changed since 1900.

Illuminating The Gepids - Artifact discovered at Apahida

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

Missing History – The Remnants Of Kingdoms & Aristocrats
The railway route from Klausenberg to Bistritz first went west and then after twelve kilometers headed north toward the city of Dej. Then, as now, the line followed the Kis-Szamos River up its valley (Somesul Mic). Along the way it passed close to or through many villages. The first of these was Apahida. Due to its proximity to modern Cluj, the village of Apahida has now been incorporated in a commune with seven other villages. Baedeker only mentioned that it was “a Rumanian village with about 1000 inhabitants”, but in 1889 a major archaeological discovery had been made in the village. Since that time several digs have brought to light other artifacts that have caused some scholars to believe Apahid stands on the spot where the capital of the Gepid Kingdom was located. The Gepids were an East Germanic tribe that joined the Goths in their invasion of the Roman province of Dacia in the late 3rd century. This invasion would lead to the end of Roman rule in what is now Romania. If Apahida was indeed their seat of power the remains of any Gepid settlement have all but vanished, much like this mysterious tribe did only a few centuries after their arrival.

At Apahida, the route turns north, crosses the river and soon passes by Valasul-Bonczhida (Bontida). The guide does not mention that nearby was Banffy Kastely. At that time, it had not yet become part of history, it was in the process of still making it. A beautiful Baroque manor, the Kastely was residence of the aristocrat, politician, author and theatrical director Miklos Banffy de Losocnz. Banffy would go on to enshrine his name in Hungarian and later International literature with his Transylvania Trilogy, a set of novels that offers the best portrait of the Transylvanian aristocracy in its waning days. The Kastely was looted and large parts of it destroyed by retreating German forces in 1944 for Banffy’s role in attempting to unsuccessfully negotiate Hungary’s exit from the war. What is left of the Kastely today is a mere shell of its former splendor despite years of restoration work.

Former Splendor- Banffy Kastely in Bonczhida

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

Armenopolis – Making Their Presence Felt
About a third of the way through the journey, Baedeker informed travelers they were arriving at a rather substantial town, Szamosujvar (present day Gherla). The town had a population of 5,800 in 1900 and it has increased more than threefold since that time. Baedeker mentions the two things for which Gherla still remains famous – and infamous – for today, its Armenian heritage and a state run prison. Lost among the notoriety of the disparate ethnic groups of Transylvania – Romanians, Hungarians, Jews, Saxons, Szekely and Roma – is the Armenians. Their history in Transylvania goes back to the mid-17th century when several hundred migrated to the area. Armenians were highly sought for their skill as merchants in trade endeavors. Transylvania was much more stable than other parts of Hungary during the 17th century, thus they gravitated to the area.

Szamos uj var became the largest Armenian community in Transylvania and was first known by its Latin name of Armenopolis. By the late 19th century the Armenian community had become in the words of Baedeker “now Magyarized”, causing them to lose touch with the language and culture of their homeland. Baedeker does point travelers to the Armenian-Catholic Church (one of the largest churches in present day Romania) with “an altarpiece attributed to Rubens” It can still be seen today. Baedeker also mentions a fortress on the northern side of town that had been converted into a prison. It had been the last home for Sandor Rosza, one of the most famous Hungarian highwaymen. Rosza was a sort of rogue Robin Hood type of character who made a career robbing travelers on the Great Hungarian Plain. Later, under the Romanian communists, the prison took a much more sinister turn.

Lasting Impression - Armenian Catholic Cathedral in Gherla

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

Drowned Out – The Prison At Gherla
During the imposition of Stalinism, Gherla held imprisoned enemies of the state. Their confinement included a horrific re-education program consisting of bestial types of physical and psychological torture. This program was ended in the early 1950’s, but the prison could not escape even greater infamy. In 1970 one of the most infamous events in the prison’s history occurred when a flood hit Gherla. The prison warden refused to evacuate the prisoners from their cells which were slowly submerged. It is estimated that 600 prisoners drowned in this malevolent act of indifference. Fortunately, travelers in 1900 had no idea of the tremendous tumult the future would bring to Transylvania. Instead they could enjoy views of the Kis-Szamos and low lying hills prescribing the valley as they neared Dej, the mid-point of their journey and the most sizable stopover between Klausenberg and Bistritz.

*Note: Klausenberg is now Cluj, Romania and Bistritz is Bistrita, Romania

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

Arti-factual Details – Kolozsvar & Cluj Transformed: The 1900 Baedeker Guide (Part Four)

War changes everything or so it has been said countless times. Reading Baedeker’s 1900 description of Klausenberg (present day Cluj, Romania) I could not help but be struck by how much had changed in the city since the guide was written. These changes were the products of many historical forces, most prominent among them war and revolution. They transformed many aspects of the city beyond all recognition, while others such as the historic architecture survived the tests of terror and remained largely intact despite intermittent periods of turmoil. Though most of the buildings still stand – as either originals or reconstructions), the way many of them are viewed and interpreted has also changed. One of the best ways to understand these changes is by updating Baedeker’s description of Klausenberg and its sites.

Darkness on the edge of Cluj - Hungarian postcard of Kolozsvar in 1940

Darkness on the edge of Cluj – Hungarian postcard of Kolozsvar in 1940

The Place Stays The Same – The City Constantly Changes
The first sentence of the description states that: “Klausenberg, a town with 34,500 inhabitants, on the Little Szamos, founded by the Saxons in 1272, is the seat of the county of Kolozs, of a Reformed and a Unitarian superintendent and of a Magyar university (since 1872).” Among the revisions now needed for this sentence include the city name, which is now officially known by its Romanian name of Cluj-Napoca, though most residents just call it Cluj. The latter half of the name was added in 1974 when Romania’s communist dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu decreed that Napoca be added to Cluj’s name. This add-on was a reference to a pre-Roman settlement in the same area as the city. Ceaucescu wanted to stoke nationalistic sentiments to distract from his utterly corrupt, venal regime. Klausenberg, the city’s German name has become a distant memory, as are the Saxons who founded or re-founded (depending upon your historical perspective) the town. According to the 2011 Romanian census there were only 544 residents of German ethnicity left in Kolozsvar.

Just as Kolozsvar officially became Cluj, so too did the county name change. Kolozs County, which was part of the Kingdom of Hungary vanished after World War I.  The city then became part of Cluj County in Romania. Such name and administrative changes may seem superficial, but they are expressive of the extent to which Cluj has been transformed from a majority Hungarian to a majority Romanian city in the space of five generations. The Magyar University to which Baedeker refers was then the Hungarian Royal University and has now morphed into the Babes-Bolyai University, which provides tertiary instruction in the Romanian, Hungarian and German languages. It is today considered to be one of the top 700 universities in the world and has been an incubator for talented young professionals who have helped Cluj become one of the wealthiest cities in Romania. A welcome change from decades of internecine academic and administrative warfare to make the university’s education program exclusively taught in either the Romanian or Hungarian languages.

Changing Spaces - Courtyard of the Banffy Palace Art Museum of Cluj

Changing Spaces – Courtyard of the Banffy Palace Art Museum of Cluj

Becoming History – Grand Balls, Lavish Lifestyles & Illicit Romances
Further into the text, Baedeker adds a bit of local color when it states that, “Being the headquarters of the numerous noblesse of Transylvania, the town is very animated in winter.” The aristocrats have now all disappeared from Cluj. The memories of their grand balls, illicit romances and lavish lifestyles of haute couture that came shimmering to life on snowy Transylvanian evenings have faded from living memory. Those who were not wiped out by land reform in the 1920’s ended up suffering an even worse fate when the communists took over in the late 1940’s. They suffered wholesale looting of their estates, exile, sentences in prison camps or even death. There are still traces in Cluj from the waning days of the aristocratic belle epoque, most prominently on the west side of Piata Unirii where the Baroque styled Banffy Palace still stands today.

Baedeker does not mention the Banffy Palace and why would they? It was still a residence for one of the most powerful families in Transylvania when the guidebook was written. Today it is a tourist attraction that houses an exquisite gallery of art, consistently rated as the best on display in Romania outside of Bucharest. The palace’s transformation only took place because the aristocracy is now history in Transylvania. Becoming part of history sounds like a fascinating exercise in pseudo-immortality, but in truth it often involves catastrophic upheaval. It took a great deal of tumult in the first half of the 20th century for the Banffy Palace to no longer play host to winter balls. Now it is full of tourists brought there by guidebooks of which Baedeker was a forerunner.

Soaring Towards Another Century - St. Michael's Church in Kolozsvar in 1898

Soaring Towards Another Century – St. Michael’s Church in Kolozsvar in 1898

The Matter of Facts – Discrepancies, Documentation & Details
One thing that has certainly not changed in Cluj since 1900 is “the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Michael” which is the centerpiece of what is known today as Piata Unirii. It is the propulsive heart of modern Cluj just as it was for pre-World War I Kolozsvar. In the early 1990’s this same area was known as Piata Libertaii, in 1900 its official name was Matyas Kiraly ter (Matthias Corvinus Square). Baedeker referred to it as “the market-place”. Despite the constant name changes, the church at its center has remained throughout the city’s history as an excellent example of Gothic architecture, a Saxon hall church extraordinaire. Baedeker gave the dates of its construction as 1396 to 1432. For a guidebook that prided itself on getting every detail correct, the Baedeker text on Klausenberg has several errors. The cathedral’s construction took place from 1347 to 1487.

Baedeker also incorrectly lists the date of Klausenberg’s founding by the Saxons as 1272. The best documentation found to date lists the date as 1275. It is easy to point out the errors in Baedeker, but such discrepancies are understandable. It is likely that the authors were going by the best information available to them. The research for the guidebook was done mostly on the ground or at large libraries with the best resources available at the time. Experts were enlisted to help with each section. No matter how much expertise and scrutiny were given to the text, such information as historical facts and dates can be just as riven by change as the city was during the 20th century. New information and sources have come to light that change the facts upon which Cluj’s history is based. A guidebook like Baedeker that was the single best guidebook of its day is now an artifact. It too has become part of history.

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

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

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

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

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

Glitter & Rust - The former New York Hotel in Cluj

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

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

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

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

A Fleeting Image - Old Kolozsvar

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

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

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

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

Click here for: Arti-factual Details – Kolozsvar & Cluj Transformed: The 1900 Baedeker Guide (Part Four)

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

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

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

Itinerary 69 - From Budapest to Klausenberg via Grosswardein

Itinerary 69 – From Budapest to Klausenberg via Grosswardein

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

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

Starting point - Nyugati Palyudvar (Western Station) in 1900

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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