Tag Archives: Brasov

The forgotten war which made Transylvania Romanian

An interesting travel piece about Romania, which is actually more about history than travel. Worth a read if you want a quick overview of the formation of modern Romania. Perhaps 2019 will be the year you make your first visit. Feel free to drop me a line if you have any questions and I’ll do my best.

First published in The Telegraph

By Chris Leadbeater

Sometimes, the world can seem set in stone. You can gaze at the map and believe that it has always been that way – that the border which divides one country from another has always followed this mountain ridge or that river; that one celebrated place has always been aligned with the state of which it is declared a part; that a certain region, heavily associated with one nation, has always been a stitch in that particular tapestry.

You might certainly think this of Transylvania. There can be few segments of the European landmass which seem more closely linked to their domestic mothership. You might even argue that Transylvania is Romania, that Romania is Transylvania – a totemic emblem which defines the country in international eyes. True, the area’s image – all cape-swishing Draculas and sharp-turretted castles on lonely crags – may be a little on the Halloween side of things, but it is inseparable from the general perception of Romania; a tattoo on Bucharest’s arm which cannot be erased.

And yet, leaving aside questions of population and ethnicity, Transylvania has only been officially tied to Romania for a century. Indeed, an exact 100 years ago, in the mists of January 1919, it was, effectively, still in the process of becoming Romanian – soldiers inching west across its forested, furrowed contours, eating into terrain that was nominally Hungarian. The era of outsiders considering this enclave of vampiric legend and Gothic reputation to be a symbol of all things Romanian was still decades into the future (although Bram Stoker’s famous novel had been in print for 22 years, the broader silver-screen treatment that would turn Dracula into the stuff of global nightmares was not yet even a spark in the Hollywood directorial consciousness). Instead, the wider world did not look to Transylvania with much fascination at all. It was, rather, a region with no proper national identity; a bone for which several dogs had been prepared to fight – only without the strength to claim their prize conclusively.

Of course, it was not alone in this. The European pages of the atlas changed hugely in the second decade of the 20th century, as the firestorm of the First World War burned away a sizeable swathe of the old world and replaced it with something freshly etched. New and reconfigured states – Poland and Czechoslovakia among them – would emerge as the bullets and brutality of 1914-1918 killed off the two empires which had held much of the continent in their grip. The Austro-Hungarian realm which had extended its reach far beyond Vienna and Budapest was consigned to the past; so was the Ottoman sphere of influence, which had stretched its hands up from Constantinople (Istanbul), into the Balkans and beyond, for almost six centuries. Transylvania, which had long been caught between the two, found itself on the verge of a different dawn.

Romania itself was hardly a concrete piece of the European jigsaw as 1919 appeared. Although various parts of what now constitutes the modern country – Wallachia and Moldavia, as well as Transylvania – had existed as principalities since medieval times, a Romanian state (of sorts) had only really solidified in the late 19th century. Moldavia and Wallachia had both been under the Ottoman boot, but as the Turkish super-state entered its twilight years, so the pair had torn themselves free – initially, in 1859, as the United Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia, a halfway house still under Ottoman suzerainty; later, in 1881, as the independent Kingdom of Romania. It was still holding this precarious position when 1914 arrived, and the globe was spilled into the inferno.

Brasov spreads out around Piata Sfatului CREDIT: HOLGER METTE/HOLGS

Brasov spreads out around Piata Sfatului CREDIT: HOLGER METTE/HOLGS

Romania survived the First World War through a mixture of denial and deception – staying neutral for the first two years, then clandestinely allying itself with the Entente Powers (Britain, France, Russia et al) in the summer of 1916 via a secret treaty. This promised to give to Romania various slices of Hungarian territory with majority Romanian populations – in exchange for a successful assault on the latter’s less guarded east flank. It was a courageous move. And also, it seemed at first, a foolish one. Romania attacked to the north-west after declaring war on August 27 1916, but this brought a swift and vicious response from the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, the Ottoman Empire et al) – to the extent that, by December of 1916, Bucharest was in enemy hands. Left marooned amongst its foes by Russia’s withdrawal from the conflict in 1917, Romania sat on its haunches to lick its wounds – and effectively conceded its independence, as well as parts of its domain to both Bulgaria and Austria, via the harsh terms of the Treaty of Bucharest, on May 7 1918.

And yet, there was still fight left in the dog. As the First World War turned finally and decisively in favour of the Entente Powers in the summer of 1918, Romania glimpsed its opportunity. And just as the rest of Europe was looking to stamp down the flames in the autumnal hours of 1918, a country which had appeared to be cowed in 1916 threw its last stockpile of fuel onto the bonfire. On November 10, one day before the Armistice on the Western Front, Romania re-declared war on the Central Powers – and, two days later, began a reinvigorated north-westerly military push into Hungarian land.

Its target was a Transylvania that, ethnically, it regarded as its own – but which had been long been a possession of either Hungary or the Ottoman Empire. It had been a formal element of the Austro-Hungarian empire since 1867 – but as the autumn of 1918 turned into another grim winter, much of it tumbled into Romania’s grasp. On December 1, the newly convened National Assembly of Romanians of Transylvania and Hungary loudly declared “the unification of those Romanians and of all the territories inhabited by them with Romania”. On December 7, Brasov (now the second biggest city in Transylvania) fell. On Christmas Eve, Cluj, the regional capital, went the same way. And as 1919 tripped over the horizon, and a distracted, weary continent felt its way towards the First World War’s flawed conclusion, the Treaty of Versailles (June 28 1919), Romania drove home its advantage. Satu Mare, pretty much on the modern-day border with Hungary, was captured on April 19. By August 4, when the gun-fire ceased, Romanian troops were patrolling the streets of the Hungarian capital.

Budapest would, inevitably, be returned to Hungary, but much of what was taken in this seismic nine-month postscript to the First World War – Transylvania included – was formally ceded to Romania in the Treaty of Trianon on June 4 1920. It is an agreement which still outlines much of the border between the two countries 99 years on.

Can you see the scars of this conflagration if you travel in the region? Not really. Romania has been through much worse in the intervening century, from a fascist government as evil as that which arose in Germany during the Second World War, to a Communist regime which was arguably the most oppressive of any behind the Iron Curtain. It is the breezeblock buildings of the latter epoch which give the Bucharest skyline its brute force (not least the gargantuan Palace of the Parliament, built by the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, which ranks as the heaviest building on earth) – but a tour of Transylvania will take you to places where you can see little evidence of trauma. It is rustic and agricultural, fields fanning out at the side of its highways – and even its cities have a certain quiet charm. Brasov is engagingly pretty, caught in the direct shadow of the Carpathian Mountains, spreading out around the flagstones of Piata Sfatului, cafes and restaurants fringing the edges of the square. Sibiu is, perhaps, even more attractive – a regional outpost which took its time in the spotlight as European Capital of Culture in 2007 and restored its medieval centre to something which looks more akin to Italy than the Communist East, gelaterias pinned to the perimeter of Piata Mare. Timisoara – in westerly Banat rather than Transylvania, but taken in the Romanian advance of 1918-19 – will surely benefit from taking on the same artistic role in 2021.

Sibiu was European Capital of Culture in 2007 CREDIT: JEAN-FRANCOIS

Sibiu was European Capital of Culture in 2007 CREDIT: JEAN-FRANCOIS

Yet hints that Transylvania has always been a European crossroads, home to people of different languages and creeds, are there if you search for them. The colossal Black Church, a Gothic bastion in Brasov, bears the names “Schwarze Kirche” (German) and “Fekete Templom” (Hungarian) as well as the more lyrical Romanian of “Biserica Neagră” – a gentle reminder that it was constructed in the 14th century by the city’s German speakers. The Lutheran Cathedral in Sibiu tells a near-identical back-story. Brasov’s onetime German name, Kronstadt (Crown City), is visible in its coat of arms.

You even find this connection to yesteryear in Bran, on the border of Transylvania and Wallachia, where the castle loosely connected to the Dracula yarn (and the most popular tourist attraction in Romania as a consequence) was also contructed in the 14th century, by Transylvanian Saxons (the region’s medieval inhabitants of German ethnicity). You cannot quite avoid the uber-vampire here – he haunts the tomato-puree-infused menus of eateries in the town, and the souvenir stalls below the fortress. But you can, if you pay attention to its history and culture, avoid the idea of Transylvania as a bloody Romanian cliche. It is far more fascinating and varied of heritage than that.

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Lost in Transylvania

Campaigners are hoping tourism will play a role in protecting the vast Carpathian forest

by Clive Aslet

First published in the Financial Times, 5 November 2011

I am sitting in a wooden hut in a forest clearing near Tusnad, aware of a distinct tingling in a delicate area – the part of my body that touches the plank forming a seat. It’s the effect of the sulphur. Outside there are hot springs and mud baths that gently bubble but the purpose of the hut is to take the gas neat. Lean down and, sulphur being heavier than air, it feels as if too much wasabi has gone up your nose. Stay down and you might not get up again. Don’t the EU health and safety regulators have something to say about this? Heavens, no. This is Transylvania, a world that seems to share more with the lyrical novels of Thomas Hardy than modern Europe.

And it is beautiful. Raise your eyes to the hills and you’ll see an openness that is barely credible to someone from a crowded, industrialised country. Look down and you’ll find a deliciously scented pasture that is a tangle of wildflowers and herbs. No habitation is visible beyond the huts where the gypsy shepherds live and milk their goats. A man forks hay on to a ­rum baba-shaped stack. Otherwise there’s nobody to be seen – hardly surprising when you discover the road in this valley is so bad that it’s touch and go whether you’ll get over the bridge.

In this arcadia you wake to the sound of cowbells. The breakfast honey comes from bees that know nothing about the varroa mite that afflicts their cousins in more intensively farmed landscapes. The grapes clustering by the wall of the wooden church are warm from the sun. Geese cackle among the vegetables growing in the yards of the village houses. You might have one of them for dinner. Food is local here. It has to be – the nearest supermarket is hours away.

Most wonderful of all are the forests. Generally, visitors get only a distant glimpse of them but I’m lucky: I am here with Paul Lister, who founded the European Nature Trust to preserve wild spaces such as the Carpathian Mountains, which are covered in forest. The Carpathians form an arc through many central European countries but the Romanian part is the most biodiverse. There are, for example, more brown bears here than anywhere else in Europe. Lister believes this area should be regarded as Europe’s equivalent of Yellowstone National Park.

The son of one of the co-founders of MFI, the once-ubiquitous British furniture retailer that ceased trading in 2008, Lister first came to Romania in the 1980s, buying product for the stores. That was during the Communist era, when the forests were managed to textbook standards, not least because the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu loved to hunt in them.

Since his fall, in 1989, the state forestry service has been in decline. Large areas of woodland have been returned to the families who originally owned them but now might live far away. As the price of timber rises, so does the temptation to clear-fell the trees and take the cash. While light regulation might be charming in a sulphur hut, it also allows illegal logging. Corruption is rife. There’s no middle class to get hot under the collar about nefarious activities. Little by little, the forest is being nibbled away. Lister is devoting his considerable energy to saving it.

Lister had already turned 40 before he discovered his purpose in life. The turning point came when his father, Noel, suffered a serious illness 10 years ago. “I realised that it was pointless trying to compete with him any more. I could never be a better businessman than him, so I decided to devote my life to something that I’m passionate about: conservation.”

Initially, he bought the 23,000 acre estate – now called “reserve” – of Alladale in the Scotland Highlands, with the intention of “rewilding” it by flooding peatbogs that had been drained and reintroducing the wildlife that would have been there in the heyday of the Caledonian Forest. The great Carpathian Forest, half of which lies in Romania, is the other side of the coin. The Highlands might have lost its biodiversity but Transylvania is teeming with it.

Last month, the documentary Wild Carpathia had its world premiere in Bucharest. Lister financed the project in order to show urban Romania the wonder that lies on its doorstep. “Which other western country has such a charming rural life?” he says. “If only Romania would follow the example of Costa Rica, where a third of the forests are now protected. The future lies in eco-tourism.”

That industry is just beginning to appear in a number of lodges and guest houses, not generally de luxe but comfortable enough and set in heavenly surroundings. Having arrived at Targu Mures airport (Wizz Air flies direct from several European cities), located in the middle of an empty savannah, I set out with Lister to sample a few of them.

From the airport we drive to the Valea Verde Retreat at Cund: a journey of 40 minutes if, in this land of few signposts, you don’t get lost. It is owned by Jonas Schäfer, a German whose idealistic parents sold their house in Hamburg to come and help after the fall of Ceausescu in 1989. He is typical of the outsiders who forsee what Romania will lose if it goes down the wrong path. Accommodation is in a variety of rustic apartments formed from converted farmhouses. Before breakfast we hear the gypsy shepherd wheeling the milk churn up to the goats that are kept on the hillside; when we walk that way later, ­taking care to avoid some ferocious sheepdogs, the air is soft with the scent of the herbs that grow in the pasture. In the barn, which has been converted into a restaurant, we eat eggs from the hens roaming outside with shavings of truffle from the surrounding woods.

Next is Zabola, a yellow-walled chateau in Zabala, owned by the Chowdhury family, who returned to reclaim their estate, which had been expropriated by the Ceausescu regime. The 16th-century chateau sits in 34 hectares of parkland at the foot of the Carpathians. Guests stay in a recently renovated 18th-century outbuilding; a hunting lodge in the forest can also be rented for self-catering. Much of the food is from the two-acre kitchen garden. At dinner the dumb waiter rises, with theatrical effect, through the floor of the dining room, from the kitchen below.

Crocuses bloom in the fields along the bumpy road that leads to the tiny village of Zalanpatak. The charming guesthouse here is owned by Prince Charles, who through several charities works to conserve traditional buildings in the area. It has five bedrooms and a large wooden verandah overlooking the surrounding meadows.

I am tempted to say you might want to come and see this world before it disappears, but Lister believes that is defeatist. Visitors, he believes, will create a market for the felt slippers, home-made preserves and slipware pottery, perhaps helping the area to survive – along with the wolves and bears that live in the Carpathian forest.

Trophy hunters still go after the bears but other attitudes are beginning to prevail. Near Equus Silvania, a centre for riding in the wild Carpathian foothills west of Brasov, I spend an evening in a shaky wooden hide watching some of these fascinating animals. The shooting licence for this area has been bought by a local businessman who prefers to study bears, rather than kill them.

As dusk falls the bears sinuously slope up to food that has been left for them – the cubs gambolling, the mothers on the qui vive. You would not want to get between a mother and her cubs; the power of these animals is illustrated by the hide’s floor, part of which has been ripped away by a bear looking for food.

Equus Silvania is run by Christoph Promberger, a wolf biologist, and his wife, Barbara, a specialist in lynx. Both are campaigners for the forest and they arrange a helicopter to show me the extent of it. It is a warm day but rain is soon flecking the bubble of the machine as we swing towards the Piatra Craiului ridge. Roastingly hot in the summer but also damp, the conditions are ideal for trees. Below us, the hillsides are covered in a seemingly endless bristling mat of green pines, interspersed with the softer beech. There are few roads here and no sign of a dwelling, except for the occasional shepherd’s hut. Then into the headphones comes Barbara’s voice, pointing out an area – as bare as a badly shaved chin – where the trees have been felled.

Part of the problem is that forestry has little perceived value; according to Erika Stanciu, head of forestry for the Danube Carpathian programme at the World Wildlife Fund, it isn’t worth enough in exports for the government to make it a priority.

Over a plate of goulash on a terrace beside the charming Piata Sfatului square in Brasov, Lister unfolds two strategies for saving the forests. One solution is to unlock the carbon credits granted to countries such as Romania under the Kyoto Protocol, intended as a financial reward for not creating emissions that would otherwise have occurred. The other is rural development, a major plank of which must be tourism.

Little tourist infrastructure exists in rural Transylvania but that is part of its essence. You might not quite be in the position of Adam and Eve seeing a newly created world but you will certainly find it easy to be alone. At Equus Silvania I have breakfast with a woman from Switzerland, a country with grand mountains of its own, but who comes here to ride for a week or two at a time. She tells me, “Switzerland is like a garden compared to this.”

Clive Aslet is editor-at-large of Country Life