To Watch The World & Yourself Fade Away – Banksa Stiavnica

When you end up in the middle of a place you never could have imagined, in a town whose name you have never heard of, when you learn fascinating details about the place that they probably should have taught you in history class but never did and never will, then you know you are in Banska Stiavnica.

In Defiance of Disbelief – All the Banska Stiavnica’s
There are countless Banska Stiavnica’s and you never even noticed them. They can be discovered hiding throughout Eastern Europe. That’s because Banska Stiavnica is representative of all the Gyors and Soprons, the Sibius and Clujs, the Veliko Tarnovas and Plovdivs, the Lvivs and Uzhhorods that exist outside both historical and travel consciousness. They are all uniquely distinct cities, both large and small. Secret finds and fascinating surprises that capture, first your imagination and then steal your heart. They punch above their weight in atmospherics and aesthetics. Delightful in the way they soar through you and then seep back into your memory many months later. They are the delights of the selfish traveler, all yours and only yours because the people you keep company with back home would not even begin to consider visiting them.

One World Fades Into Another - A scene looking up and out from a corner in Banska Stiavnica

One World Fades Into Another – A scene looking up and out from a corner in Banska Stiavnica

Banska Stiavnica is a hallmark example for these types of places. It has a quaint grandeur all its own. This little city, with a population of barely ten thousand, has an outsized history which is betrayed by its current size and lack of prominence. A potted history of Banska Stiavnica goes something like this: It was a mining mecca starting in the early Middle Ages. First declared a royal free town in the mid-13th century by King Bela IV of Hungary (Hungarians call the city Selmecbanya), the town grew quickly into one of the most important mining communities in the world. Skilled German miners (Germans call the city Chemnitz) were invited by the Hungarian kings to provide the expertise and labor to excavate the vast silver and gold reserves in the area. The city enjoyed a series of recurrent booms spurred on by the ingenuity of miners and engineers.

Historic & Forgotten Firsts – The Hidden History of a Five Hundred Year Boom
Among the historic firsts that happened at Banska Stiavnica include the first use of steam driven mechanisms to expunge water from mining areas and the world’s first polytechnic university. Incredibly the good times ebbed and flowed for over five hundred years. By the late 18th century Banska Stiavnica was the third largest city in the Kingdom of Hungary, ahead of even Buda and Pest in population at that time. Strangely enough, while the population was at its pinnacle with 40,000-odd residents in 1782, the mines had already been in terminal decline for several decades. Lacking economic diversification, Banska Stiavnica soon faded into obscurity.

Stary Zamok (Old Castle) in Banska Stiavnica

Stary Zamok (Old Castle) in Banska Stiavnica

The city’s rich (quite literally) past is still physically represented by the superb architectural wonders straddling its serpentine streets. There are two castles within a ten minute walk of one another. The most impressive of these, Stary Zamok (Old Castle), is a three nave Romanesque style, part spiritual, part military fortress. What had started as a church had been fortified to fend off the Turks during the 16th century. It is an intriguing synthesis of the religious and the martial. In Namestie sv Trojice (Holy Trinity Square), at the city’s heart, stands a very large Baroque plague column. It attracts the eyes and humbles the heart, a monument to those who suffered the scourges of centuries past. Either side of the square is lined with Romanesque and Renaissance era burgher’s houses. Further afield the colorful buildings continue.

The Baroque Plague Column in Namestie sv Trojice (Holy Trinity Square)

The Baroque Plague Column in Namestie sv Trojice (Holy Trinity Square)

A Lifetime’s Worth of Discovery – Glory of the Faded & Forgotten
The city’s setting, in an expansive wooded valley with hills rising on several sides, lends an air of dramatic natural beauty. Taking it all in, the traveler gets the sense of a deep and penetrating history that pervades Banska Stiavnica. It is enough to make the traveler want to settle in for what might become a lifetime long sojourn of sipping coffee and reading historical tomes in sleepy cafés. Another alternative is just as inviting, to use Banska Stiavnica as a stimulus to continue teasing out all the hidden in plain sight places that lie in between the more well-known places on the map of Eastern Europe. How many other Banska Stiavnica’s are out there, likely a lifetime’s worth. For those who say that everything has been discovered, Banska Stiavnica and cities like it put the lie to that cliché. Discovery is not about some vague historical personage stumbling on the New World. Instead discovery is something deeply personal, finding a place where you find yourself.

The crazy thing is that for the completely curious, those who cannot wander far enough, who have to keep pushing into the deeper recesses of the atlas, there are always going to be more remote spaces and unimaginable places with semi-pronounceable names to discover. The idea that they are all out there waiting, is enough to set the pulses of wayward travelers racing. They are an avenue into a wider world, stretching across thousands of invisible kilometers, space and time captured by a wandering heart. True discovery lurks in these in-between spaces. The places you were never required to know or consider but forever exist in a state of suspended anonymity.

A window into the present and a reflection of the past - the allure of Banska Stiavnica

A window into the present and a reflection of the past – the allure of Banska Stiavnica

Stay (Faraway, So Close)
There is this idea with travel that if you go long enough and far enough, you will eventually have seen it all or at the very least exhausted your curiosity. Then abruptly the affair will end and you will retire to a cubicle and life of disciplined domesticity, climb the ladder into middle management, live a nice quiet life sleeping in on Saturdays and one day telling the grandkids you visited Banska Stiavnica. They will look at you like the crazy old man you have become, dreaming of the days when you owed the world nothing and tramped into parts unknown. There is another way this comfortingly sad tale might end. What if you went to Banska Stiavnica and never left. Decided to stay there and watch the world along with your life slowly grow old and familiar until, like this slumbering old mining city, it finally fades away.


Later Rather Than Sooner – Sibiu to Sighisoara By Rail

In 2007 Romania became a member of the European Union (EU). Since that time, the question has been raised about whether they should have been admitted as members. Critics believe that the country was not ready to join. The foremost reason cited was the level of corruption. Romania is plagued by opaque government and poorly functioning institutions. Everything from procurement to health care is prone to waste and graft. I have now visited Romania three times since its accession, but on these trips I have not personally experienced corruption. Of course, tourists are not applying for unemployment benefits or using the public health system. The closest most tourists get to experiencing the effects of the Romanian government is when using the public transport system. Accession to the European Union was supposed to help Romania improve their transport infrastructure. After traveling through Transylvania a month ago I would have to state unequivocally that Romania has a long way to go in order to catch up with developing countries let alone the rest of the EU.

Time Delayed Device – The Romanian Express
A memorable experience, occurred when my wife and I decided to take a day trip by train, traveling from Sibiu to Sighisoara, a place famed for its citadel, medieval old town and as the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler. We went to purchase our round trip tickets a day in advance. The ticket agent was a lady so helpful and pleasant that she felt compelled to lead us into a labyrinth of route iterations and timetable possibilities. We finally called mercy after a good ten minutes of migraine inducing options. Settling on the simplest plan, we were to leave Sibiu at 7:23 a.m., make one change at Medias and arrive at Sighisoara at 10:25 a.m. Even if one did not count the 19 minute layover in Medias, this was still over two hours and 40 minutes of travel time to cover a mere 80 kilometers. On the return trip, we would have a straight shot, but it would still take over three hours. Our main worry seemed to be making it to Medias for the connection. I had never been on a Romanian train that arrived on time. These trains were the ultimate in time delayed devices. Even the night express which took us direct from Budapest to Brasov earlier on the same trip was over two hours late. Then again that had been a thirteen and a half hour trip, so another two hours didn’t seem all that bad. On the trip to Sighisoara I would find out just how long hours or two can be.

The Most Polluted Town In Europe
The next morning, we left the station beneath clear blue skies. It was shaping up to be a beautiful Saturday, the time of departure was exactly 7:23 a.m. We were rolling along slowly, making stops at various villages along the way. Village life looked as though it had not changed much over the last hundred years. There were as many horse drawn wagon carts, as there were cars on the road. Cracked facades were the main hallmark of the houses and roosters crowed at nothing in particular. It was another spring day in the sleepy villages of Transylvania.

Slowly, ever so slowly the train crawled along, an ominous landscape came into view. The train stopped just outside one of the most depressing places I had ever seen. The land was scalded and scarred between the railroad tracks and a nearby town. Gruesome skeletons of abandoned industrial buildings were haphazardly arranged in the distance. The scene was toxic and nasty. This was the dustbin of heavy industry. I opened my guidebook to Transylvania, hoping that this unsightly monstrosity was marked. It was. The nearby town’s name was Copsa Mica. It was said to be the most polluted town in Romania. I later learned that many believe it is the most polluted town in Europe. I believe it. Copsa Mica was ruined by the heavy industrialization policy of Nicolae Ceaucescu. Two industrial plants had been the culprits. One produced carbon black for dyes, the other was a smelter. This has caused lead poisoning and lung cancer on a terrifying scale. The life expectancy for the citizens of the town is nine years lower than Romanian average.

Copsa Mica with Carbosin Plant in the distance  (Credit: Julian Nitszche)

Copsa Mica with Carbosin Plant in the distance (Credit: Julian Nitszche)

Welcome To Romania
While staring at this environmental disaster I reminded myself that next time someone tries to say a good word about communism, I will ask them to google Copsa Mica. It is a tragic, horrific concoction of ideology and industry. Copsa Mica made it hard to believe that we were still in Transylvania or that less than an hour away was the beauty and elegance of one of the first European Capitals of Culture, Sibiu. I have been to Chernobyl and the nearby abandoned city of Pripyat, but Copsa Mica looks much worse. Today over five thousand people still live in the town. With a shutter and clang, we pulled away from the unsightly, industrial wasteland and through Copsa Mica. I have rarely felt so relieved. Even with a couple of five minute delays, it seemed that we just might make it to Medias in time for the connection. We had to be less than ten kilometers away by now. And then the train began to slow, as we arrived at another village. The difference this time is that we just sat there. The engines shut down. This was followed by an uneasy silence. Minutes went by and nothing happened.

The passengers in the half empty car began to murmur and frown. A ticket checker was stopped and questioned by one man. Even though I can hardly understand a word of Romanian, one could tell that he was being quizzed on the problem. He patiently stood talking for some time. The passenger he addressed sighed when he was finished. Interpreting these gestures I guessed that it was going to be awhile. It was more than awhile. A good 30 minutes passed before the train slowly, ever so slowly began to roll again. We asked a young man of college age on the train if he could tell us what exactly had been the problem. He replied that the ticket checker claimed the line was undergoing construction. He also added for effect, “Welcome to Romania.” The final miles to Medias were prolonged by an excruciating slowness.

Romanian Railways - not exactly at your service (Credit: Marcin Szala)

Romanian Railways – not exactly at your service (Credit: Marcin Szala)

The Hurry Up To Be Late
We rushed off the train at Medias. Groups of bored looking people were listlessly waiting on several platforms. I rushed into the station, wondering whether or not we had missed our connection. The station was empty. It brought to mind an abandoned public latrine. Fortunately, some invisible being had updated the arrival times. The train to Sighisoara was late. Who would have thought? I felt a sense of foolish relief as I walked back out to the platform. My wife had joined the group of placid faced, would be passengers. It suddenly struck me, how much time do people spend waiting on trains in Romania? Could such a figure even be quantified? The inefficiency, the waste of it all. Could the beauty and romance of Transylvania’s landscape somehow make up for it? Perhaps, I was just being too western, too business oriented, too selfish. After all, at least we were on vacation. What about the poor souls who actually needed to get somewhere. Everyone standing on the platforms looked either complacent or resigned.

After a while the train that would take us to Sighisoara arrived. I find it exceedingly ironic that as soon as a late arriving train shows up, everyone hurries to get on fearing that they might be left behind. This is for good reason. Late arriving trains never dawdle at the station more than a couple of minutes. Instead their modus operandi is to never wait on the tardy, but to only stop for prolonged periods in the middle of nowhere. At least we were back on the tracks. This kind of progress couldn’t last and it didn’t. Sure enough within half an hour we were stopped yet again. This time the situation turned desperate. We waited longer than it had taken us to first arrive at this point. We really were in the middle of nowhere, not a village in sight.

How Far Is it? How Far Is It Now?
This time we stopped right where the adjacent line was undergoing construction. Our train stood still on one set of tracks while we stared longingly at the tracks still under construction. They gleamed in the sunlight, brand spanking new. This was of little consolation. We even saw construction workers, kicking a soccer ball, having lunch or standing around. The problem was that no actual construction work seemed to be going on. Soon a stale heat permeated the train car. An older lady in front of us, smiled knowingly. I shook my head in resignation. She acknowledged my frustration with a knowing glance. She soon questioned the ticket checker, who seemed to be giving her a minutes-long description for the cause of delay.

After he left the lady began to talk with us. She could not speak English and we could not speak Romanian. Trying to communicate was rather amusing, but I felt a twinge of sorrow. We understood enough to ascertain that she was going to see a friend in Sighisoara who was sick. I wondered how many times she had dealt with this same thing. I wondered if she had ever been on a train that was ever on time. I wondered if we would ever be on a train that was on time. I tried to blame the whole thing on Ceaucescu, but he had been dead for almost twenty-five years. It was corruption, waste, graft and whatever else I could conjure up that might shoulder the blame. A generation had passed, would this ever change. I went and used the bathroom, if you could call it that. When a train is stopped passengers are not supposed to use the bathroom. If everyone followed that rule, there would be chronic bladder bursting all across Romania. Finally, the train started rolling along once again. Could this really be happening? Would we make it to Sighisoara just an hour late? That was too much to ask.

Finally at the point of arrival - Sighisoara Railway Station

Finally at the point of arrival – Sighisoara Railway Station

Later Rather Than Sooner
We stopped again and again. The delays were not as lengthy, but nonetheless it was hard to believe we would ever get there. Finally we really started moving, perhaps as fast as 30 miles per hour. It was surreal. A few more twists and turns, then we were suddenly at Sighisoara. I could not believe it. The station was cute, tidy and trim. This was more like it. Only problem was that it had taken four and a half hours. We now only had two and a half hours to see the place. That worry paled in comparison to thoughts of the return trip. We could only hope that it would be less than two hours late. I shuttered at the thought of taking the same route. Perhaps by the late afternoon construction would have stopped. Then again, it had never started. Welcome to Romania!