Besieged By Sterility – Gyula Castle: Tidying Up History (Part Three)

Visiting the interior of Gyula Castle was not nearly as awe inspiring as viewing it from outside the walls had led me to believe. My first look at it across the reflective pond fronting the castle had left me in psychological limbo, somewhere between inspired and intimidated. This was as much fortress as castle. A stolid, squared off expression of Gothic martial architecture that had managed to survive for over 600 years. It was unlike anything else historic in Gyula, where all the other architecture dated from post-Ottoman times. The closer I got to the entrance, the easier it was to see why it was likely to stand another six hundred years, this was a structure that defined the phrase “built to last”. The solidity of the castle was impressive, its walls thick, rigid and all but insurmountable. It would have taken a siege of historic proportions to conquer Gyula Castle, as happened courtesy of the Ottoman Turks in 1566. As for what might lay inside, that was something I looked forward to discovering.

Open to history - Gyula Castle

Open to history – Gyula Castle (Credit: h_laca)

Interior Designs – A Semblance Of The Past
Before we entered, my mother-in-law begged off an umpteenth visit to the castle. In true Hungarian style, she brusquely told me there was nothing to be gained by another of what I suspected had been countless visits to the castle. She then promptly disappeared across the road into a coffee house. Thus, my wife and I were left to explore Gyula Castle on our own. It was less than a week before Christmas, which meant we pretty much had the castle to ourselves. Entering through a large wooden door, we found ourselves inside the old powder tower. It was here that we paid our entrance fee to a cashier which was quite reasonable by western standards, costing 1800 forints (equivalent to five Euros or six dollars). The ease of access was a reminder of just how much changes when a castle goes from making history to becoming part of it. Armies fought numerous battles to get inside these walls, while present day tourists do little more than open their wallets to gain access. That is exactly what we did.

The interior of the castle was in top notch condition, to the point that I wondered whether it could possibly have looked this nice during the Middle Ages. I sincerely doubted it. The castle lacked a sense of life. The sounds of people and animals, as well as the odor of food, that would have been so prevalent in the past were missing. Silence was pervasive. Everything was super clean and refined, only the austere furnishings hinted at a time when the medieval held court. Everything at Gyula Castle was kept in immaculate condition. There was a sterility to this history that was lacking in authenticity. This was not just a problem at Gyula Castle, but almost every castle I had visited in Europe. When it comes to history, tourism is both savior and enemy. Savior, since tourists visiting Gyula Castle pay fees that assist in its preservation. Enemy, because mass tourism only markets a semblance, rather than the reality of history. It is unlikely that many tourists could stomach what life had really been like in the castle. Death was a constant threat, peace was precarious and a rigid class hierarchy with a chasm between nobles, servants and peasantry governing daily affairs.

Descent into perfection - Looking down into the courtyard of Gyula Castle

Descent into perfection – Looking down into the courtyard of Gyula Castle

Revered Rather Than Feared – A Contemporary Medievalism
The twenty-four exhibition rooms at Gyula Castle only gave a hint of what life and death at the castle was really like. There was the usual range of medieval rooms with the lord and lady of the castle’s quarters, areas for cooking, baking and storage, in addition to a knight’s hall. Every castle seems to have a room set aside with armor and weaponry, Gyula Castle was no different in this respect. The sabers and swords shined in the exhibit cases, knight’s armor gleamed, all the weapons were polished as though they had been prepared for a dress parade. This presentation made these medieval accoutrements look like what they were not, benign. In truth, these were the tools of a horrific brand of warfare, where soldiers committed acts of extreme ultraviolence that would cause present day visitors to recoil in horror. Fighting was done at close quarters and was literally a fight to avoid enslavement or death. The armor and weapons’ stylized placement made them look like objects to be revered rather than feared. I began to suspect that the way each one was presented had less to do with history and more to do with contemporary interpretations of the Middle Ages.

The knight’s suit of armor was a fitting example. Polished and sparkling, it was there for the viewer’s admiration. This was a not so suitable stand-in for what was once a medieval weapon of mass destruction. Knights have a reputation for chivalry, the product of Arthurian legends and Sir Walter Scott novels, but the men hidden within these iron suits were the enforcers of their lords. They broke rival armies and if need be, entire populations of principalities. This was a world where might made right. That interpretation was not just missing from Gyula Castle, but every other medieval castle I have managed to visit in my travels.

Ghosts of the past - Gyula Castle at twilight

Ghosts of the past – Gyula Castle at twilight (Credit: Petr Kraumann)

Gothic Greatness – The Descent Into Perfection
The exhibits and interior at Gyula Castle were professionally done, but pretty much unmemorable. It was as though all the reconstruction, restoration and refinement had stolen the soul from this place. Gyula Castle largely lacked for drama unless one stood outside its walls, looked across the pond and up at this stern Gothic wonder. Conversely, drama could also be detected from on high. After I had ascended several flights of stairs, I found myself looking down into the courtyard. The arches, edges and angles of Gothic architecture gracefully descended towards the courtyard. This sight was worth the price of admission, here was a window looking out onto a past that had been preserved and perfected. It may have been sterile, but it was also stunning. The interior life of Gyula Castle flowed for centuries along each level of these glorious galleries. That symmetry had a beauty and style that left me with a lasting impression of Gothic greatness.

An Empire Of Obscurity – Crossing The Great Hungarian Plain: The Path To Gyula (Part One)

The idea had been a long time in coming to fruition. I hatched a plan years ago to visit Gyula Castle in the small Hungarian city of that same name. The problem was taking a trip to get there. Gyula is situated in the extreme southeastern corner of Hungary, just a handful of kilometers from the Romanian border. It is not on the way to anywhere else in Hungary. Unless you are from Gyula, go to university there or are traveling onward to Romania there is little reason to make the trip. In other words, if you travel to Gyula, that is about the only place you are going. Day trips are an option, but from Budapest that means one long day spent mostly on a train. By car it is much more feasible, especially if you can start somewhere in the eastern part of Hungary. These options fluttered through my mind from time to time, but I procrastinated for years. There was always a Sopron, Szeged or Szekesfehervar getting in the way when I traveled into provincial Hungary.

Empire of obscurity - The Great Hungarian Plain

Empire of obscurity – The Great Hungarian Plain (Credit: Károly Telepy – Polgár Galéria 88. Tavaszi Mûvészeti Aukció)

The Outlier – Fortress On The Frontier
Gyula became something of an outlier for me, an empty box yet to be checked off on a personal completion list. For years I delayed a visit, whether it was by indifference or accident I always found a reason for another delay. My one foray into the area was when I passed through by train after leaving Romania. Following a trip through the glowing mountains and shadowy valleys of Transylvania, a short stop in Gyula did little to tempt me into taking a detour for the rest of a day. The brief stop did serve to taunt me with a tangible reminder of what I had not yet accomplished, while also reminding me that sometime in the foreseeable future I would have to go back for a visit. That idea was followed by the passing of three and a half more years. Then ever so slowly it began to gnaw at me that I had not been to Gyula. Though the city was in a remote corner of Hungary, the castle was a definite must see. My wife reminded me of that on multiple occasions. One of my favorite books on Hungarian castles provided a tantalizing overview of the one in Gyula. As I would also later discover it was not the only thing of interest in the area.

Gyula is home to the only castle which survived the wanton destruction of the near constant warfare that plagued the southern region of the Great Hungarian Plain during the Ottoman Turkish invasion and occupation of the area during the 16th and 17th centuries. The castle had somehow survived and was the only one made of brick that was still standing in Hungary. The fact that neither the Habsburgs, Hungarians nor the Turks had destroyed it was highly impressive. I finally resolved within myself to visit Gyula Castle on my next trip to Hungary. For this visit, I would be joined by my wife and mother in law, whose car we would be taking. My mother in law had been to the castle on multiple occasions and saw no reason to visit again. This was not because she disliked Gyula. On the contrary, she said the castle and town were well worth a visit. It was the drive that she dreaded. A four hour round trip in a car sounds like torture to a Hungarian. Driving is something only done out of necessity. The idea of a joy ride was anathema to her, as it is to most Hungarians. A strange American idea that has yet to infiltrate the Hungarian mind and likely never will.

Altered State – The Southern Great Hungarian Plain
The route we took between Debrecen and Gyula would never be anyone’s idea of scenic. Traveling across the Great Hungarian Plain is a cross between sublime and mind numbing, The words Great Plain conjure up images of a dramatic landscape covered with grasslands and thundering herds of hoofed beasts buffeted by a dusty wind, but my experience on this day was quite different. The landscape is neither flat nor hilly, rising and falling ever so gently with a mixed land use pattern that includes a bit of forest, a bit more cropland and long expansive stretches of pasture that stretch off into a hazy horizon. Wetlands are interspersed haphazardly across these flatlands. We bisected a swath of the Great Plain by venturing southward from Debrecen. The further we traveled, the more distance there was in between villages. After we passed through the largest of the towns, Berettyoujfalu, our journey seemed to only get longer. This, despite the fact we were moving ever closer to Gyula.

On the Great Plain, space and time become elastic. They expand in accordance with the distance between objects, whether they be villages, watercourses or thickets of trees. Here was a landscape that after a thousand years of fitful, yet steady human progress was still left largely unconquered by man or technology. Modernity could never settle a mass in this region. It was too inhospitable, unsightly or ugly. For centuries much of this land lay submerged beneath water for months at a time. Slight rises became refuges for villages, surrounded by an ocean of shallow wetlands that would then transform from morass to muck depending upon the season. The marshes may have been drained, but this did little to lessen the isolation out along the frontiers of this empire of obscurity. Man’s best efforts had made this land usable, but it still only supported a scant population that was stranded far from centers of commerce.

Altered state- The Great Hungarian Plain

Altered state- The Great Hungarian Plain (Credit: Antal Ligeti)

Centers of Nowhere – Committing Nothing To Memory
Sleepy villages with forgettable names like Sarkadkeresztur, Kornadi and Zsadany were centers of nowhere. They were still standing, but I began to wonder how many other villages had evaporated into oblivion, slowly dissipating into a haze of horizon. All memory of them lost, except for some parched pages in a county history that would be rarely, if ever, read. We passed by or through all of this committing nothing to memory. The longer we drove, the more silent we became. At times we seemed to be running in place. There were few cars and fewer people. The landscape was pastoral desolation. It felt like we were moving across a perpetual frontier, towards an invisible destination located in a blank space. This felt so far from the Hungary I knew and loved, it felt like the middle years of life, where you lose sight of the start and the end. Where everything feels like forever. This was my path to Gyula.

Click here for: The Shimmering Citadel – Gyula Castle: Last Of Its Kind (Part Two)

A Storied Work Of Survival – The Teleki-Bolyai Library: The Opening Of Another Chapter (Part Four)

Like so many institutions reliant upon a single person for their raison d’etre, the Teleki Library began to slowly degrade after the death of its founder, Count Samuel Teleki De Szek in 1822. Count Teleki had spent the final decades of his life ensuring that the library was properly cataloged and stored. For this role he had hired Targu Mures’ (Marosvasarhely) first librarian ever, Jozsef Szasz, to act as both caretaker and administrator of this extraordinary collection, both for preservation and scholarly purposes. Upon his death, Count Teleki left the library to his heirs, but designated the Transylvania Reformed Church as overseer of the collection. As the 19th century progressed the library became less a working institution than a sort of museum. Books were purchased that were not in line with the exacting standards set forth by the Count.

This situation was less than ideal. It was also not what Count Teleki had in mind when he envisioned the library as an educational tool. A year before World War I began, a foundation was established by one of the Teleki heirs to administer the library. This was supposed to help keep the library faithful to its original purpose. Little did anyone know at the time that Transylvania was on the verge of an unprecedented era of radical upheaval that would be brought about by warfare and radical ideologies. By the end of the decade, Transylvania would no longer be part of Hungary. Elite families, such as the Teleki’s, would feel a loss of power and prestige as the region now became a part of Romania. This would have only mild ramifications for the library.

On the Cusp of Change - The Teleki Library in 1942

On the Cusp of Change – The Teleki Library in 1942

Stolen By The State – Nationalization As Theft
It was not until after the Second World War that the library was confronted by the nightmare of communist control. Communism would also consume many of Count Teleki’s descendants, some of whom would suffer within the same walls that housed his incredible collection of books and prints. Romania’s communist party, with the assistance of Soviet occupation authorities, had been tightening their grip on the nation, including Transylvania, following the war. By 1948, they had complete control over the government and could enact whatever measures they saw fit. One of their main goals was nationalization. Nationalization in the context of postwar Communism was code for rampant theft. Everything would now be owned, or more to the point stolen, by the state. Aristocrats, such as those with the Teleki name, had the most to fear. They were targeted as class enemies. The Communists had a monopoly on violence. They could take whatever they wanted and that is exactly what they did.

The Teleki Library was soon nationalized. As for the Teleki family members who lived in or around Targu Mures they were robbed of nearly everything they owned by the communist state. Some were deported to labor camps, while others were humiliated by being forced to live in dire circumstances on the fringes of society. Chief among their woes was a lack of adequate housing which the communist government refused to provide them. This was how some of Samuel Teleki’s descendants came to inhabit a closet in the library. Another descendant took it upon himself to rob the library of several valuable treasures prior to fleeing westward. He took with him one of the most famous books in the library, the Corvina, the only Codex from the famed library of Matthias Corvinus. It would eventually end up in the United States. The library’s worst years were in the late 1940‘s and early 1950’s, but a troublesome situation also persisted to a lesser extent throughout the reign of Romania’s Communist Party.

For Future Generations - Teleki-Bolyai Library

For Future Generations – Teleki-Bolyai Library

A Rare Discovery – The Marginal Note Of Marosvasarhely
During these dark days the library was not kept anywhere close to the standards of Count Teleki’s original plan for the institution. Ironically, it was also during this time that the library acquired several collections from shuttered monasteries, churches, gymnasiums and private collections. One of these was the Library of the Reformed College in Targu Mures along with the Bolyai Museum holdings that celebrated the life and work of the father-son mathematical geniuses Farkas and Janos Bolyai. These items were combined with the existing holdings to create the Teleki-Bolyai Library as the institution is still known today.

The Reformed College library collection also provided the Teleki Library with its most famous holding, the Codex Koncz, a 14th century Latin copy of the Bible which had been discovered in 1860. The Codex Koncz itself is rare enough in its own right, but its most unique aspect only turned up in 1955. That was when two librarians at the Teleki Library came across a fifty-five word inscription in what has come to be known as the Marginal Notes of Marosvasarhely. It is the sixth oldest record of the Hungarian language. A rare find made all the rarer by its placement within the Codex. This is certainly the type of find that a passionate bibliophile like Count Teleki would have loved.

Flourishing Afterlife – A Library Open To Everyone
The library managed to survive the long dark night of communism that claimed so much of the aristocratic legacy in Transylvania. The fact that this massive collection of books outlasted the regime had much to do with indifference and neglect. The regime had better things to do then persecute old books. The library would not experience a rebirth until after 1989, when Romania’s communist state collapsed. This offered the Teleki-Bolyai Library a new lease on what has become a flourishing afterlife. Some of this rebirth took place outside of Romania in Basel, Switzerland where Teleki family members who had long ago left Transylvania created a foundation to support the library.

In 1999 the same type of organization was created in Targu Mures. It, along with several other state cultural entities, helped fund the complete restoration of the Wesselenyi House in which the library is stored. Today anyone interested in accessing the Teleki-Bolyai Library’s 200,000 volumes can do so in a reading room open to all. The fact that these reservoirs of knowledge are open to the public speaks volumes about the legacy of Count Samuel Teleki De Szek and the library he bequeathed to his beloved Transylvania.

A Passion For Books – Count Samuel Teleki De Szek: Creating Transylvania’s Greatest Library (Part Two)

When it comes to collecting, there is the getting and there is the having. The end goal may well be the having, but the getting is often much more exciting. The thrill of the hunt, the art of the chase and the joy of the find can keep a collector searching for ever greater discoveries. Perhaps this was the reason that Count Samuel Teleki De Szek dedicated sixty years of his life to collecting books for a library that would surpass anything found in Transylvania at that time and still holds an exalted reputation today. As he went about creating one of the great libraries in Europe, Teleki spent more time collecting books than he did reading them. Accumulating 40,000 books is no easy task and was just as demanding as any course of study. At a time when long distance travel was extremely difficult, getting them back to Teleki’s estate in the heart of Transylvania was no small order. Despite such difficulties Teleki persevered.

His passion for book collecting, the humanities and scientific literature went hand in hand, spurring him onward to overcome all obstacles in the search for works of enlightened reason. This was the genesis of the world famous Teleki-Bolyai Library (Teleki-Teka in Hungarian/Bibliotheca Telekiani in Romanian). Starting in the mid-18th century his efforts began to pay off. The volumes he collected were those which stimulated Teleki’s interest in the intellectual achievements of the Enlightenment. He set out to methodically create a repository of the most up to date intellectual ideas of the age. This would slowly transform into a library of scientific and humanistic learning, not just for himself, but eventually all Transylvanians. Teleki spared little expense in his efforts to acquire the best volumes. He was a learned man on a mission, one that would span the rest of his long and eventful life.

An Open Book - Count Samuel Teleki De Szek and one of his many books

An Open Book – Count Samuel Teleki De Szek and one of his many books (Credit: Teleki-Bolyai Library)

Collector’s Curiosity – An Insatiable Pursuit Of Knowledge
Count Teleki was a man with a passion for learning. He sought to make his mark, by collecting an unprecedented amount of knowledge in his library and reforming public education in Transylvania. His library was part of that process. Both the scope and scale of it were unprecedented, especially when one considers how far Transylvania was from the great centers of European learning. Teleki was forced to cast a very wide net in searching for both the best and rarest books. His acquisition plan was informed as much by logistics as anything else. Documentation shows that he purchased books from twenty-five different European cities and towns. Though his collection was soon growing from the hundreds into the thousands he did not sacrifice quality for quantity. Rare books were sought with the same dedicated zeal with which he pursued more recent works that advanced the cause of enlightened humanism.

Among the rarer volumes, Teleki managed to procure fifty-two incunabula, books printed prior to the year 1501. One of the most valuable was a Corvina codex that had been part of Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus’ famous library (Bibliotheca Corviniana). And it was not just rare books that piqued Teleki’s collecting curiosity. He also managed to acquire over a thousand old Hungarian prints. Teleki was a man who knew great art when he saw it, most especially when it could be found in illustrated form within books. World famous artists such as Rubens and Durer, were examples of the type of world class artists whose illustrations were to be found in the books Teleki purchased. There were also fine editions of the greatest classical works and scientific reference works. Teleki spared no expense in building his collection.

Vienna Calling – Serendipity For A Master Planner
Serendipity also played a role in Teleki’s ability to acquire much of his collection. While he dedicated his life to collecting books and advancing education, politics was his chosen career. Befitting a wealthy aristocrat from one of Transylvania’s most powerful families, he rose to political prominence through the ranks of county administration. After a decade of successful public service in his homeland, Teleki was selected by the Habsburg Emperor Joseph II to serve as the Chancellor-Assistant of Transylvania in 1787. Then in 1791, he was named Chancellor of Transylvania, a position he would occupy for the next three decades until his death in 1822. These positions meant he would spend a great deal of the latter part of his life in Vienna. They also placed Teleki close to one of the most enlightened royal courts in Europe. Most importantly, he would now be living in Vienna, which was one of the epicenters of the European book trade. This put him much closer to important points of contact who could assist him in procuring both old and new works. His time in the city was crucial to acquiring a world class book collection.

During his time in Vienna, Teleki not only bought books, but also spent a considerable amount of time cataloging them. The upshot of this effort was the publication of a four-volume catalog of his library twenty-two years in the making. In this work, he laid out a plan for how the library was to be a public institution. The library would be housed in Marovasarhely (Targu Mures in Romanian), the Transylvanian city that was closest to his estate. The Baroque building in which it would be housed had been inherited by Teleki through his wife’s family. A separate wing for the library was constructed at the turn of the 19th century. That same wing still holds the library today. Proving that Teleki was not only a world class book collector, but also a master planner.

Chancellor of Transylvania - Count Samuel Teleki De Szek

Chancellor of Transylvania – Count Samuel Teleki De Szek (Credit: Teleki-Bolyai Library)

Reasonable Pursuits – A Humanist At Heart
Teleki was not just a bibliophile, he was also a publisher and an advocate for the advancement of education, science and culture. His philanthropic efforts included providing support for students from Transylvania to study abroad, offering them the same experience that had transformed his own life. He also funded a wide range of scholars. Teleki also managed to find time for publishing. His most notable literary achievement was twenty years in the making, as he managed to publish the complete works of Janos Pannonius, the Renaissance poet, diplomat and bishop whose writings were among the earliest humanist writings in Hungary. Teleki was a Renaissance man as well, though he lived, learned and studied in the Baroque period.  His efforts to accumulate, catalog and codify knowledge in the furtherance of enlightenment and reason took learning to a whole new level in Transylvania. His library collection has kept it there.

Click here for: A Final Resting Place – Shelf Life: The Library of Zsuzanna Bethlen de Iktar at Teleki-Teka (Part Three)

The Most Powerful Regret – A Life’s Work: The Teleki-Bolyai Library In Targu Mures (Part One)

Regrets are the great missed opportunities of life. Opportunities to have done something different, something better or conversely, to not have done something you lived to regret. Regrets are the silent recriminations that constantly whispering what might have
been in our ear. Regrets can also be a great motivator, a call to action the next time an opportunity arises. The hope is always that things will turn out differently this time. Regrets are also a part of travel. They inform the things we should have done and the places we may never go. They are the once in a lifetime chance not taken. I should know, since one of my biggest travel regrets came recently on a late summer trip to Transylvania. It occurred during a short stay in the city of Targu Mures (Marosvasarhely in Hungarian).

The Most Powerful Regret - Sign at entrance to the Bolyai-Teleki Library

The Most Powerful Regret – Sign at entrance to the Bolyai-Teleki Library (Credit: Sie)

Scintillating Style – A Euphoric Confection
The stay in Targu Mures was just for one night. The city made a good stopping point in breaking up a multi-day drive from Debrecen in Hungary to eastern Transylvania for me and my wife. We arrived in the late afternoon just as the autumn sun was slowly sinking towards the western horizon. The city was along our route to Szekelyland, the heart of which was still several hours drive further to the east. As such we only had a limited amount of time to spend in Targu Mures. Our short stay did allow us to walk through the city center where we looked at a clutch of beautiful churches. The houses of worship included a synagogue of scintillating stylistic impulses. The architecture of the Middle East, Moors and Mures River valley had been amalgamated into a euphoric confection of the otherworldly.

There was also the fabulous fin de siècle Prefecture and House of Culture buildings. Both were coming to light just as the sunset. The buildings glowed from the inside with a mysterious internal fire worthy of Transylvania. Targu Mures at dusk was a place of rustic enchantment. As twilight turned to evening it began to dawn on me that this city was worth more than a quick overnight stop. It seemed to be one of those “it’s what you make of it” kind of places. Far from overwhelming, but highly satisfying. In retrospect, I did not make enough of our stay. I failed to realize at the time that Targu Mures would become more than just a city for me, it would morph within my memory into a symbol of all the things I should have done. One place we walked past that evening, also became the one place I regret not visiting.

Scintillating Style - Synagogue in Targu Mures

Scintillating Style – Synagogue in Targu Mures

Checking Out – That Which Was Left Undone
Prior to our arrival in Targu Mures, I had read with great interest about the Teleki-Bolyai Library (Teleki-Teka in Hungarian/Bibliotheca Telekiani in Romanian). For bibliophiles it was a must see. The library contains 200,000 books, the core part of which are 40,000 volumes collected by the library’s founder and namesake, Count Samuel Teleki de Szek, long time chancellor of Transylvania and dedicated bibliophile. The Count’s passion for books mirrored my own. The library should have been the first thing we visited in the city. Unfortunately, we arrived too late in the afternoon. Thus, it got put off until the next morning. The next morning we could have visited the library, but impatience got the best of me. I decided that we should continue driving eastward into Szekelyland rather than wait until 10:00 a.m. for the library and accompanying museum to open.

Skipping the Teleki-Bolyai Library is something I have come to regret but one time and that has been continuously. I was the chief culprit behind the decision to skip Transylvania’s greatest library and one of the world’s best. All because I wanted to get an early start driving to Szekelyudvarhely (Odorheiu Secuiesc). What was I thinking? The only possible answer is that I wasn’t. The upshot of this hasty decision was that not visiting the library has become my greatest regret when it comes to missed travel opportunities. This is compounded by the fact that the more I learn about it, the more I realize just how much I missed. For this was no ordinary library. That is because it started out like so many gifts to posterity, with a great man and his dream.

Bibliophile Extraordinaire - Count Samuel Teleki de Szek

Bibliophile Extraordinaire – Count Samuel Teleki de Szek (Credit: Samuel Czetter)

Indelible Impressions – A Tour That Would Last A Lifetime
A mere twenty kilometers north of Targu Mures lies the village of Gornesti. Relatively few of its inhabitants call it by that name. Instead the village is known to locals by its Hungarian name of Gernyeszeg. That is because seven out of every ten of its inhabitants are Hungarian speaking. It is a sleepy place, not very far removed from a distant and deep past. That past gave Transylvania one of its most enlightened sons. For it was in Gernyeszeg in 1739 that Count Samuel Teleki de Szek was born into the aristocracy. His privileged family name afforded him educational opportunities that others could only dream about. He took full of advantage of this situation by availing himself of a first-class education. At the age of twenty he embarked on a program to study abroad. This took him to several of the great learning centers in Europe. The tour would last four years, making an indelible impression on the young Teleki. It was during this time that he began to develop a plan to create a library that would house great books focused on scientific reason. Ones that would convey the enlightenment to Transylvania one volume at a time.

Teleki was one of the few Transylvanians who had the ability and means to pull together such a library at that time. His study tour had gained him invaluable connections in the book trade of central and western Europe. It was from those regions that he would have to procure the books for his planned collection of enlightened scientific works. Acquiring the books was probably easier than having them delivered to his estate in Saromberke (Dumbravioara in Romanian).  It was a daunting task, as Transylvania was way out on the eastern frontiers of Europe, a place not commonly associated with world class libraries, book fairs or most importantly regarding the delivery of books, good roads. Teleki’s Library was not created in a day or a decade. It would involve a lifetime of effort, one that would take a monumental amount of fortitude. Count Samuel Teleki had the patience and dedication to see his project through to fruition. That would become readily apparent in the years to come.

Click here for: A Passion For Books – Count Samuel Teleki De Szek: Creating Transylvania’s Greatest Library (Part Two)

They Call It An Accident – Road Risk In Romania: Terror Across Transylvania (Part Two)

While driving in Transylvania I had trouble figuring out what was worse, fearing for my own life or watching so many others risk their own. Over several days I documented the following incidents while traveling around Transylvania by automobile:

A Litany Of Near Crashes – The Open Road Takes A Toll
* Two men trying to fix their broke down van at the beginning of a curve. One of whom decided it was a good idea to stoop down behind the bumper with his back to oncoming traffic as he stared confusedly at the rear bumper.

* A man riding his motor scooter the wrong way against traffic on the main road through a village. He did not look worried, only in a hurry. His stern gaze was fixed on a path only he knew to follow. This man gets extra credit for wearing a helmet.

*One driver almost causing a head-on collision because he decided to pass three cars all at once. Passing the first car was fine, the second a bit more dangerous and the third proved nearly fatal. An accident was avoided at the last moment only because the oncoming car slammed on its breaks to allow the offender to jump back into the correct lane. It was one of those moments where it may have been more frightening for onlookers than the offending driver. I imagined the sound of glass shattering, the shrill scraping of metal on metal and the screams of humans writhing in pain. Fortunately, this feat of frightened imaginings was just that. That did not stop me from putting hand to mouth and saying aloud “oh my god.” A life threatening car crash was avoided by a hair’s breadth.

* In the town center of Cristuru Secuiesc (Szekelykeresztur), while coming up to a stoplight one car tried to change lanes with another car beside it. This should have resulted in the other car being struck, but both vehicles swerved wildly to avoid each other by a few inches. This resulted in three cars standing improbably parallel to one another on a two-lane street. No one so much as shook a fist or honked their horn. The situation seemed to sort itself out.

* One of the most unforgettable moments came when a woman in a BMW passed just before the start of a curve. She tore past the vehicle in front of her with reckless abandon. There was little doubt in the five seconds or so that it took for her to complete the pass that she was hell bent on making it happen. I was less worried for her, then the potential innocent driver who might be coming the other way. Fortunately, no vehicle approached from the opposite direction.

Passing fancy - Distracted driving decisions abound in Transylvania

Passing fancy – Distracted driving decisions abound in Transylvania (Credit:

Getting Ahead – A Race To The End
These were just a few of the crazy things I saw or experienced on driving in Transylvania. This recklessness cannot just be passed off onto Romanian drivers. Our route took me and my wife through a majority Hungarian area. I had seen Hungarians do the same wild driving at times back in Hungary, but never with the degree of risk or recklessness I witnessed at what seemed like every other turn in Transylvania. And the litany of near crashes listed above does not account for all the endless distractions that would appear and disappear with little rhyme or reason along Transylvanian roads. Dogs were nearly run down by speed demon drivers on multiple occasions. Men rode horses down sidewalks, a rather delightful sight, until I considered that such distractions might cause me to lose my focus on driving. There is a good reason I saw so few people using cell phones while they drove. Such a distraction was a sure way to have an accident. This precaution had nothing to do with the law. I never saw the police ticketing a motorist. Instead, the few times I did spot a police car, there were two men in it looking as though they were doing their best not to pay attention to the cars roaring past.

The driving mentality in Transylvania could best be summed up as do whatever you can to get their faster. If someone could cheat death for a few seconds by jumping a car or three ahead they seemed to think chancing life was worth the risk. About the only positive thing I could say about driving in the region was that the roads – with a few notably nightmarish exceptions – were much better than I could have hoped for. They were serviceable, which by the standards of Eastern Europe makes them above average. This made them a double-edged sword because better roads meant faster drivers. I found it a source of fascination how we would be driving along, no one else in sight, when suddenly a vehicle would appear behind me. Within seconds it would be inches away from the rear bumper, veering slightly to the left in the hopes a pass was possible. This happened so many times that I became increasingly paranoid to the point where I was constantly glancing at the rearview mirror waiting for the next would be road racer to appear.

Patchwork - A rural highway in Transylvania

Patchwork – A rural highway in Transylvania (Credit:

The Cost Of Recklessness – Circumstantial Evidence
In four days of driving in a wide variety of circumstances – through villages, over mountains, flanked by dark forests, across slanting mountain meadows, on straightaways and infinitely twisting roads I only came upon a single accident. This was the most surprising part of my driving experience in Transylvania. On our final day we were entering a village on the outskirts of Medias. While coming down a hill we noticed the flashing lights of an ambulance and police car. In the middle of the road were two cars, one had crashed into the front side of the other. No one looked to be hurt, but the cars were likely totaled. The culprits stood on the roadside talking with the police. Several villagers had gathered on the sidewalk staring at the accident. It was hard to tell what had happened, but I am quite sure it involved someone in a hurry, sheer recklessness and the need to get ahead at all costs. This smashup was going to cost someone a small fortune in car repair, but it not did cost them their lives. At least not this time.

Click here for: Nervous Wrecks – Driving In Romania: Terror On The Way To Transylvania (Part One)


Nervous Wrecks – Driving In Romania: Terror On The Way To Transylvania (Part One)

The fear struck me as soon I awoke. We were planning to travel for several days in Transylvania. This meant driving in Romania. Romanian roads had a notorious reputation, the reputation of Romanian drivers (including ethnic Hungarians who live there) was just as bad. I had visions of crater sized pot holes swallowing automobiles in one fell plunge, crazed drivers daring death along every stretch of straight away and near miss experiences causing something akin to cardiac arrest. Winston Churchill is reputed to have said that being shot at without effect is one of life’s most exhilarating feelings, the same could be said for escaping unscathed from the near miss of a head on collision while driving in Romania. Many of my fears would turn out to be true. Only the roads would be a bit better than expected, but this lone positive had its drawbacks as well. A smooth surface offered lead footed drivers the dangerous option of frolicking for too long in the oncoming traffic lane. None of these fears dissuaded me from driving in Transylvania, instead they played out along roadways that have led to more death than Dracula’s castle.

The ride of your life - On Romanian roads

The ride of your life – On Romanian roads (Credit:

A Meandering Minefield – Road Risk In Romania
My wife and I crossed the Hungarian-Romanian border at one of the more remote border posts, just beyond the eastern Hungarian village of Letavertes. This had been a deliberate decision on our part. We wanted to avoid the busier Artand-Bors crossing close to the city of Oradea (Nagyvarad) due to the heavy traffic and longer wait times. Our choice turned out to be a good one as we cleared the border in half an hour, not bad for this non-EU national. The road beyond, which led to the small Romanian village of Sacueni (Szekelyhid), was well maintained. I would soon learn that this was little more than a Potemkin road ruse that lured the unwary traveler into a false sense of carefree driving. The route we took wound its way through progressively hiller terrain in the western Romanian region of Maramures. Thankfully traffic was light, this turned out to be a blessing because the road conditions were nightmarish. Smoothly surfaced roadway was in extremely short supply.

The road was a minefield of uneven patches and half-completed repairs. It was the worst stretch of pavement I have ever had the displeasure of driving upon. In some places the patches had been re-patched multiple times, elevating certain sections of the roadway above others, making for an insanely uneven surface. Potholes were not nearly as plentiful as one might imagine since the Romanian solution to road maintenance was to pile them high with more pavement. An endless array of humps was where rubber met the road. A lack of automobile traffic was more than made up for by the ubiquitous horse drawn wagon carts trotting along at a tepid pace, their drivers all but oblivious to the technological terrors roaring past them.

Reckless Rapidity – Life & Death In Passing
I found myself constantly swerving to dodge not just the wagons, but also bicycling villagers and wandering Roma families who took up more than half of one side of the road without a care that their life might be in imminent danger. The idea of risk was a foreign concept along this road. The goal on this route was to circumvent Oradea, then reconnect with the E60 east of that city near the town of Alesd (Elesd). Getting there became an increasing battle with the worsening road conditions as the quality eroded further when crossing over hillsides. The thickets of forest flanking the roadway made conditions more dangerous, reducing sightlines to a few hundred meters at most.

Suddenly, a delivery truck appeared behind me. It closed in on our little Suzuki with reckless rapidity.  The driver lacking any inhibition that might mitigate his impatience. Soon I was being tailed by a string of these runaway monsters always looking to pass on the slightest of straightaways. This left me both frightened and distracted, a dangerous combination. The prospect of becoming involved in a head on collision increased with each kilometer. Trying to navigate the pockmarked pavement was bad enough. Now I had the added problem of trying to manage a tailgater less than a car length from the rear bumper. We were one brake check from a severe case of whiplash or worse. Finally, we crested a hill on the downside of which was enough space to allow our chief tormenter enough space to pass. A couple of other trucks behind him soon did the same. My sense of relief was palpable. Then I realized that this was not an end, but just the beginning. More dangerous driving loomed on the horizon. I tried not to think what might occur in the coming days on these death dealing highways.

Road risk - On a rural road in Romania

Road risk – On a rural road in Romania

Survival Strategies – The Ride Of Your Life
We soon arrived at the E60. This should have been a relief, but it turned out to be the exact opposite. The traffic increased around Alesd. With the surge of motorists, came a reciprocal surge in speed and risk taking. The long straightaways, with a kilometer or more of sightlines, were invitations for repressed race car drivers to satisfy their deepest longings for competitive calamity. When an opportunity to pass presented itself, most drivers decided it was worth risking their lives and everyone else’s by attempting to go around as many cars as possible. Sometimes several cars would attempt this highway hocus pocus all at once. A line of two, three or four cars would wrong lane it together. Forming a sort of 100 kilometers per hour battering ram that could challenge all comers. This chain automobile migration would sort itself out only at the last moment.

Such a false sense of safety in numbers was terrifying to watch from behind. I repeatedly felt that I was headed to the scene of an accident that might include me. Crashes were narrowly avoided by the magnanimity of drivers in the opposing lane who were constantly asked to save innumerable lives, including their own, by slowing down to allow the offending car enough time to reenter the correct lane. I figured their forgiveness had much to do with the fact that they were afforded the same kind of service several times a trip. There was an art to this survival strategy, both sinister and beautiful, as cars chaotically jockeyed for position then suddenly fell back into line at the very last moment. A tapestry of nervous tension woven by four wheeled vehicles unfolded before my eyes. One that was perfected by legions of drivers on Romanian roadways through years of nerve wracking experience. I wondered if I would ever grow accustomed to this organized chaos. That thought scared me almost as much as the driving because only then would I understand what it means to take the ride of your life.

Click here for: They Call It An Accident – Road Risk In Romania: Terror Across Transylvania (Part Two)

Lost Luxury – The Hungarian Night Train: Passing Into History

Depressing news for travelers came out of Hungary this past week. MAV, the Hungarian State Railways (Magyar Allamvasutak), announced that beginning in December many of the international trains they operate would no longer have buffet or sleeping cars. The reason given, the great financial losses incurred by MAV in operating these services. I was saddened, but not surprised by this news. All over Europe, both east and west, such night trains are getting cut due to their unprofitability. My sadness stems from the fact that once these services are cut, they are likely to never come back. This is what happened in America, unless one includes Amtrak which offers an increasingly rare and less than desirable experience.

Slowly, but steadily, during a century and a half of European railway travel, comfort has been increasingly forfeited and services slimmed down in adherence to the profit motive. Speed, efficiency and the bottom line trump everything else. The romance and leisure of long distance rail travel is slowly becoming a thing of the past. Nothing seems more appealing to a traveler such as myself than departing from Budapest one evening and arriving in Munich the next morning. One day in the not so distant future that may no longer be possible. Then again, from my own experience, at least in Eastern Europe this style of travel went out long ago.

Portal to the past - Hungarian sleeper train

Portal to the past – Hungarian sleeper train (Credit: The Man In Seat 61)

Off Track – Looking Back Rather Than Forward
The Hungarian Railway History Park (Magyar Vasuttorteneti Park) is not exactly on the beaten path for tourists in Budapest. It is located north and east of the city center, an area where people work to live rather than vice versa. Though I have a passion for trains and the history of rail travel, I did not manage to visit the museum until my third trip to the city. The museum is not nearly as well-known as many others in Budapest, mainly because of its location and the fact that it is rather new. It did not open until the beginning of the 21st century, a year after a Foundation was formed to build the museum.  The foundation must have realized that there was much to preserve regarding the history of railways in Hungary. The museum can also be seen as a response to the fact that railway travel might already be in decline. Thus, it was time to look back rather than forward.

The golden age of rail travel in Hungary was the late 19th and early 20th century, a time when the pace of travel was speeding up, but still slow enough to offer a relaxing experience. Many of the rail cars on display at the museum were from this period. The ones that I found most engaging were dining and sleeper cars. The compartments in the sleepers looked so comfortable and cozy that I began to daydream about travel in an earlier era. I imagined myself tucked into bed in the early evening, reading a novel while traveling through a snow covered landscape in Transylvania on an overnight trip to Budapest. One of the dining cars I stepped into was the very scene of elegance. The place settings were immaculate, glasses and silverware sparkling, fine white linen. I imagined that the food would have matched the décor in excellence. Looking at all this served to reinforce the fact that railway travel was not what it used to be. I knew this from personal experience.

Train to Transylvania - leaving Keleti Station at night

Train to Transylvania – Leaving Keleti Station at night (Credit: Miroslav Volek)

Crossing Over – A Painful Awakening
The only MAV night train I have ever taken was the IC407 which runs from Budapest to Bucharest. I took this train to visit the old Saxon city of Brasov in eastern Transylvania. Boarding the train at Keleti Palyudvar (Eastern Station) in the evening I found the train clean and well kept, the compartment functional, but far from luxurious. The dining car was not on my agenda and from the looks of it on no one else’s either. Most passengers stayed either in their compartments or close by. My food selection was limited to what I bought in the station. Other services from the attendant were unmemorable, which meant it was good enough. The compartment was satisfactory, but felt a bit cramped. I had imagined a night train into the heart of Transylvania would be a romantic way to travel, stirring my literary sensibilities. The experience turned out to be much different. After a couple of hours I was ready for bed. The only problem was unlike in the early 20th century, there would be passport control to tear me away from the arms of Morpheus. This meant two stops, first on the Hungarian side of the border, then on the Romanian one. In 1900 there was no border to cross when traveling between Budapest and Brasov. Since that time the situation had regressed. Even with European Union membership for both Hungary and Romania, there were still tedious border controls.

Not long after falling asleep I was awakened by the call of “passports” from a Hungarian border agent. Less than an hour later the same thing happened on the Romanian side, only this time with a good deal of shouting. A drunken passenger had to be roused several times from his alcohol induced slumber to produce a passport. Less than an hour after this disquieting incident, the train pulled into Arad, a city on the frontier of western Romania, for an extended break. It was not until the wee hours of the morning that I finally fell asleep. I woke not long after daylight with stiffness in my lower body from the cramped conditions.

Night trains - from Budapest Keleti

Night trains – from Budapest Keleti

Old Romances – Left To The Imagination
By the time I arrived in Brasov, my romance with night train travel had ended. I was bleary eyed, agitated and ready for a hotel room. This was my jilted romance with a modern Hungarian sleeper train. This experience stripped away any illusions I had about the luxury and refinement of Hungarian night trains. I have had much the same experience throughout Eastern Europe. The night train has not gone away quite yet, but the legendary service and romantic odysseys have largely passed into history. Trying to recapture that past is a futile pursuit. Some old romances are best left to the imagination.

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

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

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

A lasting impression - Banffy Castle

A lasting impression – Banffy Castle

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

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

One last look - Miklos Banffy in his later years

One last look – Miklos Banffy in his later years

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

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

A final glimpse - Banffy Castle

A final glimpse – Banffy Castle

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