At first glance, Guardhouse 30, is an unlikely looking pilgrimage site.
It was built in the 1890s to oversee rail traffic passing from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the Kingdom of Romania, but fell into disuse after the First World War when the border disappeared and Transylvania became part of modern-day Romania.
However, this is the place that in 2008 the Miracle of Gyimes Valley occurred.
András Deáky, a retired school teacher, who owns a B&B in the valley, decided to buy and renovate Guardhouse 30, which had been the scene of intense fighting in 1944 between Hungarian and Red Army units.
Initially there was local authority resistance to his activities. But he defiantly went ahead anyway and upon completion, organised an inauguration ceremony. This is when András’ miracle occurred. Rather than a handful of locals pitching up, an estimated 40,000 people came, creating gridlock for hours. How much social media was responsible for this divine occurrence is unclear, but that hasn’t stopped thousands flocking here every year at Pentecost.
András wasn’t finished there. He handed control of the Guardhouse to the local community and set to work on raising money and organising the restoration of the other buildings on the same site.
First the Chapel of Kontumác, then the former quarantine station. After that, the creation of a memorial to the Hungarian soldiers who died defending the valley against the Red Army in 1944.
One day, he hopes to restore the ruins of Rákóczi Castle, but for now, visitors have to make do with climbing up the steep steps to the ruins for a great view.
There is also a covered area where the Pentecost services are held and speeches made.
András hasn’t spoken at the last two occasions due to ill health (He is nearly 80). But in 2017, he had a clear message to the pilgrims. And it is one about unity, at least for Hungarians.
“It doesn’t matter if we are right-wing or left-wing. We Hungarians were never the same, but that’s not a problem. What’s more, it’s not desirable. The more diverse we are, the more valuable we are. But dear ones present, there are sacred things in the life of the nation that we cannot make fun of, none of us. Because as long as we Hungarians in Transylvania and you in Hungary hate each other in the colors of different political parties, there is no Hungarian future. We should put an end to this thing once, sit down at the table like civilized people, and agree on a national minimum that we all respect.”
While pilgrims mull over his words, they can trek up a path to the top of an adjacent hill where there is a traditionally-styled gate known as the Gate of Life, Faith, and Nation.
Passing through the gate leads to a set of wooden posts which usually appear on graves. Each post contains a key date in Hungarian history and a word:
Szabadsag, egység, hagyomany, kultura, jog, anyanyelv, csalad, haza, isten
Freedom, unity, tradition, culture, law, mother tongue, family, home/homeland, God
Beyond the posts is a set of wooden crosses which would seem familiar to any Catholic as stations of the cross.
But in place of the usual pictures of Jesus’ ordeals, there are names and locations of Hungarian towns and settlements.
While taking in the view I talk to Istvan, who is here with his wife and children. I ask him what all of this means to him. He sighs, and despite his fluent English, he’s lost for words.
Trianon? I suggest.
After the First World War, the former Austro-Hungarian Empire was broken up, loosely on ethnic lines, and large parts of the former Kingdom of Hungary were assigned to the victors like Romania, or to new countries like Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Hungary lost 72% of its territory.
The Hungarians living in places like Transylvania found themselves citizens of a different country, even if they were in the vast majority in their local area, like the Gyimes valley.
So how do Hungarians feel about this 100 years later? According to a recent survey nearly nine out of 10 Hungarians consider the treaty a national tragedy. Victor Orban put it more bluntly, “The West raped the thousand-year-old borders .. and made a death row out of our country.”
Walking back through the Gate of Life, Faith, and Nation, there’s a view of the castle, but also the beautiful valley, woodlands and the river Tatras which along with the railway and road pass seamlessly into Moldavia.
I go to the car park to get something to eat from one of the stalls. I buy a typical Hungarian snack, Langos and instantly make two new friends – stray dogs who wait patiently for me to give them the leftovers.
I’m left to ruminate with my two new friends on András’ legacy. On the one hand, he has shown what an individual can do when they put their mind to it. A retired teacher/B&B owner can restore neglected historic buildings and in the process bring thousands of people here to share in his dream.
But it’s a dream with troubling visions. For some, the dream is mindent vissza! (everything back!) – one where Hungary’s pre-Trianon borders are restored. Many proudly show badges in the shape of the former border… If they had their way, then Guardhouse 30 would become the border frontier once more.
But it’s a dream which willfully ignores some hard facts.
Here in Transylvania less than 20% of the population identify as Hungarian. Other former territories include Croatia and parts of Serbia which, given the bloody end to Yugoslavia, offer a reminder of where stoking ethnic tension can lead.
Occasionally there are scuffles here in Transylvania, as happened in the Uz Valley in 2019 over the treatment of war graves.
But for all the dreams, Hungary isn’t going to get it’s pre-Trianon borders back any more than the Hapsburg Empire’s going to reform.
So isn’t all this pining for a former border a little bit … masochistic?
It’s also blinkered.
Just a few hundred metres down the road into Moldavia is another memorial which isn’t on the pilgrimage trail.
Here is the Emil Rebreanu memorial.
Emil was an ethic Romanian serving in the Austro-Hungarian army during the First World War. He was every bit the war hero – decorated for bravery, injured and rapidly promoted while fighting on the Russian and Italian fronts. But then he was reassigned to fight on the new front which had been created when Romania joined the war. Faced with this painful dilemma, he decided to switch sides, but was caught deserting and hanged.
Emil’s brother Liviu wrote about it in his novel Forest of the Hanged which painfully recounts the difficulties faced by many soldiers in the multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian army.
The novel also sheds some light on the curious mixing of religion with ethnicity. In the end, the hero of the novel ends up meeting his doomed fate, but not before falling in love with a Hungarian and marrying her.
And that perhaps is the real story for many ethnic Romanians and Hungarians in Transylvania over the last century. They fall in love, marry, have children, travel, work anywhere they want in Europe, build a nest egg, buy a little home and get on with their lives in peace.
In the end, isn’t that the real miracle?