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.
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.
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.