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

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

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

A lasting impression - Banffy Castle

A lasting impression – Banffy Castle

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

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

One last look - Miklos Banffy in his later years

One last look – Miklos Banffy in his later years

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

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

A final glimpse - Banffy Castle

A final glimpse – Banffy Castle

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

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

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

The grandeur of ruin - Banffy Castle

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

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

The glorious past - Banffy Castle in 1890

The glorious past – Banffy Castle in 1890

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

The way they were - life at Banffy Castle in 1890

The way they were – life at Banffy Castle in 1890

A past that can never be quite restored - Banffy Castle

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

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

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

The Writing On The Wall at Banffy Castle

The Writing On The Wall at Banffy Castle

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

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

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

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

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

Bontida Train Station

Bontida Train Station

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

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

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

Banffy Castle - the final approach

Banffy Castle – the final approach

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

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

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

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