The guardhouse of miracles and grievance

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.

Photo: https://maszol.ro/

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.

Yes!

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.

source: wikipedia

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?

The peasant of the future

It’s a hot, sunny afternoon in mid-October and I’ve come to Trifolium Farm in Transylvania to meet Jonas Mertens, a native Belgian, who has moved here to take up peasant farming.

The farm nestles in the Gyimes valley, the Hungarian speaking borderlands of Transylvania and Moldova.

It’s beautiful, but this isn’t why Jonas, is here (although I’m sure it helps).

Jonas looks every bit the part. He has a full quivering moustache that any Hungarian hussar would take his hat off to and a jaunty felt hat that they would probably swap their moustaches for.

He has welcomed me to his ample but modest plot, to come and learn more about why he and his wife have chosen to live here.

At first glance, it does seem like an odd decision and bucks a trend which is seeing many people, particularly the young, leaving rural Transylvania to find easier, better paid work elsewhere.

It becomes rapidly clear that Jonas has his head screwed on and moving here isn’t just some romantic dream. But before learning more, I have some new friends to make. Twenty-four nosey and noisy Saanen goats. In caprine terms, these are the elite.

Fourteen of them provide around forty litres of milk a day, which is used for making on average two six-inch cheeses.

Judging by the way they are walking, it’s time for them to be milked. Levi, a neighbour, does the milking while Jonas’ four-year-old daughter helps in her own way. The milking parlour is modern, clean and compact.

The milk is taken to a small on-site dairy, and stored in a fridge until the following morning when the cheese will be made. It’s now time for dinner and a chance for me to talk to both Jonas and his polyglot wife, Kata, about the life they have chosen.

We have a halloumi, beetroot and mixed leaves salad, which is all from the garden, accompanied by a bottle of wine from another farmer.

The halloumi has the trademark salty squeak, but the texture is less rubbery than the stuff I’m used to from the supermarket. We eat it with bread and ricotta infused with wild garlic. This feels like the life – nice farmhouse, nice valley, nice food, great company.

But it isn’t all cheese and wine parties.

Jonas, in gym parlance, is ‘ripped’. The muscles on his arms attest to the hard work and long hours put in over the summer in gathering hay. Two tons is needed for each goat.

‘I get a bit fatter over the winter’ Jonas smiles.

Hay is gathered by hand from the surrounding hills between July and September. It’s made a little easier by using a modern hay cutter which is like a large hair trimmer on wheels. But it’s still a big job. Wouldn’t it be easier use bigger machines or just take the goats up to the hills?

‘Not if we are to maintain biodiversity’

‘Scientists have been here and studied the meadows. We have to keep to the old ways of making hay to preserve this incredibly rich environment’

In terms of public awareness, biodiversity is the poor cousin of climate change, but it is every bit as important. As the name suggests, it’s a measure of the variety of species within a given habitat. The broader the range of species, the better it is at self-regulating and adapting to change.

Studies have shown that allowing meadows in hilly areas to grow over the summer and then cutting them down is better for biodiversity than allowing animals to graze, or leaving them alone. Otherwise the thuggish plants will dominate.

And here is the problem. Young people are often reluctant to carry on their family farming ways and look to easier and better paid work elsewhere.

The upside for Jonas is that he can have all the hay he wants for free.
So, what are their plans for expansion?

‘We may get up to about thirty milking goats, but no more. It depends on Ludo and Troy’

They are his two male goats who have been taking a backseat role all year. In a week or so, they will need to become the stars of the show and impress the ladies.

‘Thirty? I ask, why not 300 or 3,000?

‘That would completely miss the point,’ he says.

‘There is only so much hay I can gather, even with neighbours or volunteers helping. I also want to demonstrate you can have a good life staying small.’

Rather than building a cheese empire, Jonas has several projects on the go, and more in the pipeline. Jonas and Kata have built a holiday home that will appeal to walkers in the summer and cross-country skiers in the winter. They also run tours of their farm for visitors who want to learn more about what they do and try their products. And being part of a village means neighbours helping each other out.

Finally, I start to see what Jonas means. Instead of putting all your eggs in one basket, maintaining a diverse set of activities makes for a viable lifestyle, much like the meadows he harvests.

If one thing fails, you have other things to rely on. That way you self-insure. You also stay physically and mentally stimulated. You create a more rounded, balanced life. It isn’t an original idea. It’s what peasants have been doing for millenia.

Jonas’ community stretches well beyond the Gyimes Valley. He is an active member of Ecoruralis and ALPA, two organisations that support small scale farming and help promote good practice, share information and seed banking. Last week two volunteers turned up through the WWOOF scheme to help out while they learned more about the farm.

When you factor in the volunteers, his connections with other peasant farmers through Ecoruralis as well as visitors like me, Jonas has a better social life than most of us. Jonas stifles a yawn. It’s eight thirty. Bedtime.

At 5:30 the next morning I get up – surprisingly as fresh as a daisy. Jonas is busy on his laptop and the goats will soon need milking.

We had a breakfast of, can you guess what?

Yep, cheese.

I tried a three-month-old hard cheese which was rich and satisfying, another was flavoured with locally picked chanterelles and a third, the youngster, which was only two months old.

As much as I liked the three-month-old cheeses, the two-month-old was particularly interesting. It had been made in the height of summer and had a bubbly texture, which was as pleasing as the rounded flavour.

I took a few photos, said goodbye to the goats and went with Jonas to the holiday home he owns in the valley opposite, as well as his new project – a barn conversion. It used to be where the local woodsman lived. ‘We had to rebuild his house, which had rotted, but he made the barn from all the best wood that passed through his hands.’

I had a look around and then left a busy Jonas to carry on with the barn conversion.

I wanted to learn more about the science behind peasant farming and so went to Miercuea Ciuc to meet Gergerly Rodics who has been working on studies of biodiversity in the area. Gergerly confirmed what Jonas had told me. He also gave me an insight into the work done over the last decade to learn about and promote eco-friendly farming practices which will be shared in a later post.

Having spent time with Jonas has made me wonder what lessons we can all learn.

We don’t need to become peasant farmers to realise that we are small parts of a bigger whole, socially and environmentally. It may be a cliche, but the sum of the parts can be far greater and we should be aware of the collective impact our own choices make.

Also, diversity is important in our individual lives as well in society. Focussing on one activity and trying to scale up may feel right, but it isn’t necessarily wise. Staying modest in size and using spare time and resources diversifying may provide a better model.

But perhaps the most important thing I have come to realise is:

I love cheese.

To learn more:
http://trifoliumkajo.ro
https://ecoruralis.ro
https://www.acceslapamant.ro
https://wwoof.org.uk/

Or see the goats in action…

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.