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)

Ghost Sightings In Cluj – Monuments To The Wrong Memories (An Invitation To A Vanished World – Part Four)

In They Were Counted, the first book in Miklos Banffy’s masterful The Writing On The Wall trilogy, the main character Balint Abady is riding an overnight train from Budapest to Kolozsvar (Cluj). Just after dawn he wakes up as the train is passing through Banffyhunyad (Huedin) close to where he observes a fantastical, snow covered landscape, glowing radiantly in the bright morning sunlight. Somewhere between Banffyhunyad and the Sztana Tunnel, Abady spies the ruins of an old castle. Nearby he catches sight of the towers of a manor house, where his cherished, captive love Adrienne resides. It is a fleeting yet memorable glimpse, as though he were experiencing a dream rather than a reality. The landscape of Transylvania observed from a train has that kind of quality. I did not see any old castles or manor houses inhabited by beautiful aristocratic women on this stretch of the railway, but what I did see was a natural beauty just as romantic and dreamy. Here was a place that could possess the soul. I could have stayed on that train forever, only waking from this dream as the train came upon the outskirts of Cluj. The moment of arrival was jarring. Time suddenly had meaning again. One journey was over, another was just beginning.

St. Michael's Church In Cluj with the Matthias Corvinus Monument

St. Michael’s Church In Cluj with the Matthias Corvinus Monument

A Reminder Of Mortality –  St. Michael’s Intimidation
Cluj is a city of ghosts, but to see these ghosts you have to look past all the urban distractions to find the leftovers of empires and peoples past. The train station itself is ghostly. A strange thing to say since the station is bustling with travelers, police officers and an assortment of hangers-on. The station is an Austro-Hungarian confection dreamed up by Ferenc Pfaff at the beginning of the 20th century. The interaction of its architecture with crowds of people lends itself to an air of festive seediness. Nowhere is this more apparent than in front of the station, where taxi drivers noisily converse while awaiting potential passengers to swindle. Behind them stands the station, colorful, chaotic and grand. I picked my way through the clamor, ignoring the calls of “tak-si, tak-si, tak-si” directed at me. Weaving through the foot traffic of a much too busy sidewalk I made my way along Strada Horea (Horea Street). At a bridge crossing the somnolent Somesul Mic (Little Somes) River, the street suddenly became Strada Regelle Ferdinand (King Ferdinand Street). Many great cities are bisected by a river, but the tepid Somesul Mic looked like it had been tamed one too many times over the centuries.

Ten minutes after crossing the river I was brought to a halt at the city’s epicenter, Piata Unirii by the glorious Gothic ghost of Cluj’s Saxon past, St. Michael’s Church. All the distractions of commercialism and capitalism that had confronted me in my walk up to that point were obliterated by this classic example of a central European hall church. This was more than just a church. It was also a pivot point around which the city had developed. It took almost a century and a half to construct. Since its completion in 1487 (five years before Columbus arrived on the shores of America), St. Michael’s had haunted this square, towering over everything that had come and gone since then. The city was no longer Klausenberg (as the Saxons called it) or Kolozsvar (as Hungarians called it), the names and peoples associated with them had come and gone, but St. Michael’s stood, intimidating, austere and singular. It had outlasted conquering armies and ideologies, bombs from above and below, surely it would outlast everyone living in Cluj today and many more generations. St. Michael’s Church was a reminder of mortality. It would not last forever either, but it would last much longer than anything else in this city or at least it has so far.

Matthias Corvinus Monument in Cluj

Matthias Corvinus Monument in Cluj

Ghosts Of Provocations Past- A King & Mad Mayor
After settling in at my accommodation I walked back to the square later that day. That was when I noticed the spectral presence of the Matthias Corvinus Monument just to the south of St. Michael’s Church. Corvinus, native son of Cluj, perhaps Hungary’s greatest king, is portrayed here atop a horse in a magnificently regal and royal pose. His birthplace is located not far off the square. The statue went up the same year as Pfaff’s train station. It was a time of nationalistic self-confidence for Imperial Hungary, when the Magyars imposed their architectural styles and historical perspectives on their beloved Kolozsvar (Cluj), de facto capital of Erdely (Transylvania). But this zealous nationalism was born less from self-confidence and more of a deeply rooted insecurity. The overbearing nature of Magyarization belied doubts about Hungarian permanence in a land where they were distinctly in the minority.  This worry had led to such feats of excessive Magyar chauvinism as the Corvinus Monument.

The Romanians would prove that they were no better, even when in the ascendant. After the fall of communism, Cluj elected the ultra-nationalist Gheorghe Funar as mayor. The bench I sat on that day – while pondering St. Michael’s Church and the Corvinus Statue – had not so long ago been slathered with paint in the Romanian national colors. Funar was known as the “mad mayor”, reveling in acts of pro-Romanian nationalism. This ghost of provocations past had since been painted over, but the wounds they had caused ran much deeper. For some Hungarians did not stop running until they were at the border of Hungary proper. I had come to Cluj in search of a vanished past, but at Piata Unrii the past had not vanished. What remained was not invisible nor in ruins, but had been polished, painted and reinterpreted.  The past here was not banished only burnished. Monuments to wrong memories were everywhere. The reactions and counter-reactions of the ruling ethnicities had been created by a nightmare of insecurities. This place was deeply haunted. Ghosts of Saxon burghers, Magyar magnates and Romanian revolutionaries still roamed this square and the surrounding streets of the Old Town.

Banffy Palace - historic postcard image

Banffy Palace – historic postcard image

The View From Above – Apparitions Of History
These apparitions from the history of Klausenberg, Kolozsvar, Cluj or whatever you wanted to call it were at odds with the youthful vibe of the modern city, full of thousands of happy, blissful university students. Their education was much different than mine. They saw what they wanted to see and I saw what I could hardly believe, the most frightening ghosts imaginable, ghosts that could be seen in the bright, broad daylight. Perhaps Miklos Banffy saw something similar when he looked down from the windows of the elegant Banffy Palace on the west side of the square. That masterpiece of Baroque elegance must have afforded him a magnificent view. He saw into this place and into these people. When I looked up at where he might have stood, all I saw was a ghost.

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