Finding the lost edges of Transylvania

It was a real pleasure to meet Sandor Molnar the other day.

In his day job, Sandor works on the Via Maria – a cruciform shape of routes which link pilgrimage sites across central Europe. This will go on my to do list, jumping above the Camino de Santiago.

But I was here to talk to him about what he does in his spare time.

Since 2003 Sandor has organised walks along the old borders of what was the edge of a kingdom and an empire.

The Carpathians form a natural defensible boundary which in the east was home to the Székely, who were charged with defending the boundaries of Hungarian lands against the Ottomans.

The First World War and the subsequent Treaty of Trianon, saw Transylvania being ceded to Romania from the Hungarian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The border which had been so important, not just for the Hapsburgs but in earlier times Christendom as a whole, was now an internal border and much of the infrastructure was lost.

So Sandor has been leading expeditions along where the border would have been to see what they could find. In doing so, they have been following in the footsteps of the surveyors who during 1883-4 helped formalise where the border should go between what was then the Kingdoms of Hungary and Romania.

Sandor told me that in the first couple of years they didn’t come across anything – they only had a vague idea of what to look for. But with persistence, they started to uncover evidence, such as the following:

It shouldn’t be forgotten that Trianon is still a sensitive issue for many and some people would rather let sleeping dogs lie, but the artifacts Sandor has found give clues to the past and so have value to all of us, wherever we are from.

For those who want to know more Sandor has produced two guide books. One describes a trail along part of the eastern border from Valea Uzului through to Gyimes. The other follows a route in the south over the stunning Fagaras Mountains. A third is due out soon covering this year’s expedition.

Here are some photos of a recent expedition:

If you would like to get in contact with Sandor about the Via Maria or his border walks, visit http://hatarjarok.ro or contact Sandor at molnar.sandor@mariaut.ro

Transylvanian clothes shopping and Brexit

I’m nearing the end of my visit to the Transylvanian town of Miercurea Ciuc. I’ve run out of clean clothes and it’s also time for that rather deflating hunt for souvenirs. I can’t come home empty handed, but do I really need to bring back another armful of tat?

So when I come across a clothes shop with a sign saying ‘Second Hand’ and a big Union Jack painted alongside, I have a brainwave. 

How about I get myself some clean clothes and some pressies from here. 

I’m doing the eco-friendly reuse thing, I get a chance to moralise about waste and I get a big tick in the ironic present buying box. 

I take a peek inside. The retail space consists of a series of wooden bins. The things in each one look vaguely sorted into how you’d get dressed. First underwear, then t-shirts, shirts, blouses, trousers, skirts and jumpers with boots & shoes thrown into the final bin.

But no prices anywhere, so what does it all cost?

I was directed to a sign. 

Monday: 18 Lei per kilo – about £3, Tuesday: 16 Lei, Wednesday: 13 Lei, all the way down to Saturday when clothes can be bought for a bargain 5 Lei – just £1 per kilo. That’s about the same price as a bag of spuds.

Alas, it’s Monday. I seem to have come on the wrong day and I’ll be paying top whack.

But no! A fellow shopper explains how it all works. New(ish) clothes come over from the UK every Sunday. Monday shoppers get first pick and pay a premium for the privilege. 

I may be digging deep into my pockets today, but at least I get the finest pre-loved threads Britain has to offer.

It occurs to me that, whatever the actual quality of the stuff here, the fact that the shop owners are proudly displaying that the clothes are from Britain says something. Bringing clothes from Blighty means travelling through France, Belgium, Germany, Austria and Hungary. What’s so great about the clothes coming from the UK?

Despite the political bickering with our ‘European Friends’ over the last three years, being British still counts for something. 

Today, back in Westminster, politicians are arguing over the hows, whens and ifs of Brexit and it’s with that in mind I realise there is, as yet, one unemployed argument for a ‘clean break’ .

If the ports get snarled up with customs checks, the weekly clothes vans into Transylvania may get delayed by a few days and local shoppers will be able to get their hands on the good stuff on the cheap days.

Boom!

Hmm, there’s a flaw in this argument somewhere… 

But before that thought finishes, I realise that my clean clothes/souvenir hunting will have to take place somewhere else.

A closer inspection of the bins reveals a problem. 

If there’s one thing the clothes here could really do with, it’s a good wash.

The body chemistry of the best road in the world

I’ve never been into cars. Correction, I’ve never been into fast cars. 

I live life in the slow lane, especially now I have an electric car. Battery anxiety means never accelerating faster than a three-legged donkey.

So what would I make of what Jeremy Clarkson called the best road in the world?

I went to Romania’s Transfăgărășan to find out.

My first glimpse of it appeared whilst still deep in the Carpathian Basin. I turned a corner and then caught my first sight of the mountains marking the edge of Transylvania.

In the flutter of anticipation, I felt like I should be providing a Clarkson-esque commentary on the relative merits of my hire car. I also wondered if I should have splashed out and hired something a bit sportier than a VW Polo.

That flutter dissipated as the miles passed – driving through village after village, past horse drawn carts, over train tracks and dams with the mountains only seeming to grow inch by inch. I realised that when I first saw the mountains, I wasn’t close, they were just very big.

But eventually, I did get to the start of the Transfagarasan.

I soon passed a performance car going in the opposite direction and felt the roar as he puts his foot down.

Then more cars came and I started to pass parked cars on either side stopping to take a picture, have a pee or buy little roast chickens.

A kilometre from the summit, the traffic came to a standstill. Tour buses turned the narrow path between the lines of parked cars into a single lane road and we all crawled to the top.

For the first time in my life, I felt sorry for the drivers of performance cars especially the ones with foreign number plates. How far had they come to sit in the sort of jam they could have had back home?

At least they could stop trying to drive fast and instead look at the nice scenery, which then begs the question. What’s the point of driving in dramatic places if you can’t take your eyes off the tarmac? Is driving on high bendy roads without falling off really that much fun?

But then I suppose it’s about chemistry. The search for the ultimate adreneline rush. I realised that the first performance car driver I came across had floored it out of pure fustration, after finally getting to an open, albeit flat and straight road. But even frustration produces adreneline, so he got what he came for.

This is where being a natural slow driver helps. By not getting riled by traffic the body is free to release a nice dose of seratonin brought on by being in such a special place.

My fellow traffic jammers spend the time trying to work out what’s missing.

The road had been ordered by the paranoid president Nicolae Ceaușescu in response to the invasion of Czechoslovakia 1968. Ceaușescu felt vulnerable and wanted to be able to move armed forces into Transylvania quickly. Building it was hard and dangerous. Offically, 40 people died building the road, but accounts of those who built the road have subsequently been pieced together and the true count of lives lost is into the hundreds.

So given the monumental achievement, where is the monument or memorial – the physical thank you?

Perhaps the road in itself is the monument.

After crawling to the summit and through the Bâlea Tunnel, the road cleared as I passed from Transyvania into Wallachia.

At the bottom, is the lake created by the Vidraru dam.

As well as the shameless Dracula tourist stuff.

I got some sweetcorn, coffee and breadstick rings called covrigi.

It was while I was munching on the covrigi that I had a nagging feeling. I had been on the ‘best road in the world’ but had I really experienced it? If the UK’s M25 was traffic free, wouldn’t become the best circuit in the world?

I looked at the satnav for a route back to where I was staying in Transyvania. There were two recommended routes. They involved going round either side of the Southern Carpathians and in both cases it would be quicker than going back over the top. If only Ceausescu had had Google Maps, he could have chanelled that effort into things that might have stopped him getting lynched.

I decided to let the crowds on each side of the mountains go home and then I might just get a clear run.

I went to refuel the car for my second go.

As the sun dipped behind the hills, I set off again this time heading north.

In the foothills, I got stuck behind a Dacia Logan weighed down by a roof box which slowed to a snail pace on each incline. There were hardly any places to overtake and I didn’t want to risk meeting a frustrated driver the other way.

Then we were joined by an Audi, who judging by the distance between him and my bumper, really wanted to get past. Overtaking both of us was near impossible.

This was great. Three of us in a pack, just like Top Gear. All we needed were walkie talkies, bad haircuts and some guitar-based rock on the stereo.

And then the magic was broken.

We came to a straight bit of road. The Audi changed down and left the two of us in a plume of oil smoke or was it frustration-fueled adreneline? I also overtook Captain Slow and made my way back up alone.

The traffic had all but gone. There were no queues and I was at the summit in no time. Now was my chance to do this iconic route properly.

Then I got back in my car and prepared to leave my comfort zone with the adreneline pump primed.

However, after a couple of bends I got stuck behind another slow driver. Then BMW joined behind. We were back in a pack of three and as I looked at the lower hairpins bends, I could see another pack of three. A pattern emerged. One slow driver followed by a cautious driver with an impatient petrol-head stuck fuming behind the two of them.

I pulled over to leave my pack and waited for some space to develop. After a while I knew I would have a clear run and set off. 

But even with this chance of a lifetime, I knew couldn’t go really fast. Who knows who would be coming the other way. I value living too much so I followed the pattern of my life and went at a sensible speed.

How lucky I did.

As I got to the tree line, a wild bear felt free to lollop across the road in front of me.

And so instead of adrenaline, I made do with a little dose of nature-induced serotonin.

The literary oasis of Massolit

Cities aren’t the most pleasant places during heatwaves and Budapest is no exception. So it was a relief to wander into the cafe/bookshop Massolit a spend a couple of hours in its shaded garden.

Massolit (the name of the literary society in Bulganov’s classic The Master and Margarita) is stacked high with books in English, French, German – all seem like gems.

With books everywhere, there’s just enough room for a counter which is filled with cakes and a coffee machine. The #IstandWithCEU sticker in the window shows where the people here fit on the political spectrum. The Central European University was recently hounded out of Hungary by the government.

I picked up a book on the politics of Transylvania which is where I was heading next and made for the garden round the back.

Judit, who looks after cafe, came out with some gardening gear and looked at the rampant herb patch.

‘I need to sort this all out today’ she sighed.

She saw the book I had bought and asked me what I thought of it so far. We then talked about the Transylvanian problem.

After the First World War, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was carved up into a series of new countries and formalised in the Treaty of Trianon in 1920. Over a million Hungarians who lived in Transylvania found themselves now living in Romania.

99 years later, with both Hungary and Romania being part of the EU and their citizens having the freedoms that go with it, surely this should all be water under the bridge?

Apparently not. As prime minister Victor Orban put it at a recent rally to commemorate Trianon: ‘while time heals wounds it does not heal an amputation’.

On Alkotmány Street, which leads up to the beautiful Hungarian Parliament, preparation is underway to build a 100 meter long memorial etched with the names of the 12,000 municipalities that had been in the Hungarian part of the Empire and, to quote one journalist, ‘torn from the motherland’. The monument will contain an eternal flame which will be sunken below ground so that it always burns below the surface. Whatever the metaphor, I’m sure the homeless will be particularly grateful for it in winter.

Parliament also voted to make 2020 a year of national cohesion, meaning cohesion with the parts of the former Empire. Votes like this have become particularly easy to win as the ruling Fidesz party was able to change the constitution which was in part helped by giving citizenship to Hungarian speakers who live in other countries.

Whilst some may have applied to get a Schengen passport and the easy US visa that comes attached, others do want to be part of a greater Hungary.

So, populism aside, why is Triannon still a burning issue in Hungary when Germany (or at least West Germany) and Austria came to terms with their losses?

Judit puts it succinctly: ‘People here didn’t get time to grieve. The regime just required them to just forget.’

In the recently spruced up little park which adjoins the garden, an old couple pick figs from the low hanging branches. They had been planted a few years back by a neighbour. Judit, looking a bit agitated – she still hadn’t set to work on the herb patch. Nevertheless, she took the time to talk to the old couple.

Amongst the figs there were also some new bird boxes. Judit sighs, ‘They look good but they are no use’.

‘The local government put them up but birds don’t just need a place to nest. They need things to eat, other places to fly to.’

She has a point, Pest, the eastern part of Budapest is densely populated and there is little greenery.

I wonder if that also isn’t the problem with Massolit. Like the nice little park that’s too isolated for the birds, isn’t this little liberal oasis too isolated from the rest of Hungary.

Shouldn’t the people here be out in the rural heartlands, like the old missionaries who went out on a cart with a bible. Shouldn’t these guys be out persuading the disgruntled masses to discard Victor Orban’s so called ‘illiberal state‘?

Perhaps they could take along a few enlightening books. Better still, take some coffee and cake. George Orwell found out on the Aragon Front in the Spanish Civil War the best recruiting tool was buttered toast. But I stow that thought and instead ask Judit what she has learned about the people who come to the cafe. 

‘You know the first thing most people ask me? Do you have a charging point for my phone and my laptop. When we started eight years ago, people used to come in and talk to each other. Now they just stare at their devices. They are in their own bubbles.’

Bubbles within a bubble?

It must be a bit annoying creating such a nice place and then see everyone who comes in just glued to their screens. But maybe her annoyance that people aren’t chatting to each other in the cafe and my annoyance that they aren’t preaching to the masses are both misplaced.

Who knows what these guys are doing and who they are chatting to.

Meanwhile, I can sit here, enjoy the shade and learn more about where I am heading by reading a good book, with a nice slice of cake and coffee.

If only I had somewhere to charge my phone. 

Do Budapest’s Ruin Bars help Ruin Liberalism?

I love Budapest’s ruin bars and in particular, Szimpla Kert, the oldest and arguably finest example.

Converting a dilapidated old factory into a hip bar isn’t anything new. But the idea of renovation by making everything worse is.

Arguably, the apparent ruin is more of a trompe l’oeil. The buildings are structurally sound and filled with greenery, quirky art and every surface is available for you to leave your own mark.

And what’s particularly appealing is that the alternative approach isn’t just skin deep. With a farmers’ market and shop, sustainable urban living is being actively promoted. You can even buy yourself a Victor Orban candle to burn.

So what’s the problem?

It was my second time in the place that I noticed something not quite right.

On my first visit, I had been looking at the place. Now I was used to it, I started looking at the people in it. They all had something in common. I confirmed my suspicions when I spoken to a member of staff. Just about everyone was a tourist. Locals go to the more conventionally decorated Kisüzem.

Everyone, like me goes home with the impression that despite all the talk of Hungary being an illiberal state, it’s actually fine and you can be who you like – perhaps living around the corner in a secessionist apartment with flaky paint and high ceilings.

It’s a wider problem with Budapest’s Seventh District, the old Jewish quarter. The graffiti, buildings covered in stickers, vegan street food and an air of ‘anything goes’ might be a pull for some but shows a nervous local population that anything could happen without the guidance of the current regime.

So should ruin bars close?

Of course not. But visitors should not be allowed to come away with a feeling that all is OK when it isn’t. Perhaps first drinks should be free but only if you can give three examples of why the EU Parliament is seeking to apply sanctions.

However, there is an alternative. Go to Szimpla’s sister bar in Berlin.

short pig long-style

Food is everything we are. It’s an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma.

Anthony Bourdain

One of the great pleasures of travel is trying local food and in doing so, stepping into a local culture. For me in the Ukraine, that meant accompanying my beer with spicy pigs’ ears. I can confidently say I will never touch them again and it wasn’t because they tasted bad.

I like all food and when I don’t, it messes with my mind. Take andouillette, the French take great pride in this Troyens speciality made from pigs’ intestines, which is a gustatory form of Russian roulette. When well-seasoned, most mouthfuls are a pleasant, vaguely meaty experience, but then you get the one with the ‘bullet’ and suddenly your mouth feels like a farmyard. It doesn’t take much stretch of the imagination to guess where the flavour actually comes from. The French love of andouillette, or for that matter, geziers and fromage de tête seems to come more from their attachment to their peasant roots than to the taste. Even so, I occasionally give it a go when popping across the English Channel. I like all food so surely, one day I will come round.

However, eating pigs’ ears was crossing a boundary. Whilst chewing one of these softly-cooked moist nibbles, my brain issued a warning. Human.

The taboo which prevents us from eating our own species, despite having a burgeoning population, kicked in. There was no way in hell I was going to eat this. Who would? More to the point, why did the dish come with two forks?

I asked the waitress what she thought of pigs’ ears. She told me she wouldn’t eat them and didn’t know anyone who did. They had only just starting serving it as something to satisfy the ‘macho’ types.

With my next beer, I went for the real taste of Ukraine – sunflower seeds.

An unintended memorial

The South Ukrainian city of Kherson has two large administrative buildings, one for the city and one for the whole region.

The regional administrative building has an impressive neoclassical limestone facade. The city hall is a much more down-to-earth concrete affair. But there is another difference …

a large banner with the cartoon picture of a young woman with a red splash across her face and the words ‘Excuse me, but who ordered Handzyuk?’.

It’s a reminder that last July one of its employees, Kateryna Handzyuk, an anti-corruption activist, had been doused in a litre of sulphuric acid. She suffered 40% burns and died of her injuries three months later.

The attack came after she had accused two leading figures in the regional administration of being involved in a scam to carry out illegal logging.

At the time of the attack, there was a national and international outcry. Local police made a quick arrest, accusing someone who happened to have been out of town when the incident took place. They also assessed the incident to be ‘hooliganism’ rather than an attempt to silence her.

Friends of Ms Handzyuk started a campaign to have the case properly investigated, along with over forty other attacks on activists which had come to light. The case has now been escalated to Ukraine’s Security Service. However, to maintain the pressure, especially during the current presidential elections, a series of protests are taking place of which the following small, but vocal, protest was one.

On 28th March 2019 fifty or so protesters made their presence felt with firecrackers and flares in front of the regional building as members of the administration simply watched from inside.

In one final act, protesters sprayed the names of who they suspected of ordering her murder on the building’s facade and on the pavement in front.

And then it was over.

No sooner had the protest finished, than the efforts to remove the writing began, but it was a ham-fisted attempt. Rather than properly clean the pavement, they daubed what looked like grey cement over the writing in big squares with a paint roller.

As for the building, one of the men took an angle grinder to the limestone facade and started grinding away the walls leaving circular gouge marks in the stonework.

So now whoever enters the building will walk past the scarred walls and every time they look out of the window, they’ll see the big grey squares with the names of the accused captured within.

Let’s hope the case doesn’t end in such a blatant cover-up.

further reading:
https://www.facebook.com/gandziukgate
https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/odr/the-murder-of-activist-kateryna-handzyuk/
https://www.kyivpost.com/article/opinion/op-ed/tetiana-bezruk-why-ukraine-needs-an-investigation-into-the-murder-of-activist-kateryna-gandziuk.html
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-47201790
https://twitter.com/Jeremy_Hunt/status/1059439724979462146