Tag Archives: Romania

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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The Transylvanian Book Festival 2018

Following the success of the first two festivals, Lucy Abel Smith has taken the plunge again and has organised a third event for this year. It will take place as usual in and around Richis, a village in the Saxon lands of Transylvania, during the period 13-16 September.

The Transylvanian Book Festival was set up by Lucy Abel Smith in 2013 to promote the literature and landscape of Transylvania. It could not have been envisaged that over the space of 5 years, the success of the festival would lead to a second and, now in 2018, a third edition.

The idea is not to collect the big names on random subjects, as many other festivals, but to draw together those who have written or researched subjects relevant to Romania and the UK. It is important it takes place in the country and is about the country.

In 2018, some of the subjects are Louise XIV and a rebel prince; The Sublime Porte and the Transylvanian Princes; Queen Marie of Romania; Architecture in Romania between the wars; Patrick Leigh Fermor: Noble Encounters Between Budapest and Transylvania; The Vagabond and the Princess (the story of PLF’s affair with Princess Balasha Cantacuzino); Dracula – an international perspective; as well as music, poetry and film.

The Festival provides a relaxed venue for writers, musicians and academics to meet with audiences which are mainly English speaking, and takes place in Richis, once a Saxon village, which has a large hall and stage. Richis is surrounded by similar beautiful villages offering accommodation amid the foothills of the Carpathians. The Festival brings much needed income into these communities.

The excursions are led by locals and meals are produced locally from the Priest House by Tony Timmerman and her team. Tony is a trustee of Pro Richis – the village charitable trust to which all profits from the festival are given. Literary Festivals have a record in being re-generative and we hope that the festival, as well as building international friendships, will help bolster local Transylvanian tourism.

Discover more about the Festival at the Festival website or contact Lucy Abel Smith: lucy[at]realityandbeyond.co.uk

Important! Venue change – Routes of the Heart: Lucy Abel Smith’s Transylvania

Please refer to yesterday’s post here.

The RCI London have had to make a venue change to John Sandoe Bookshop as below. I’m not sure if you still need to get free tickets via Eventbrite link , but this says Sold Out. Don’t let that worry you: just turn up on the night. NB – the timing at the new location is earlier – 1830 start. The Eventbrite site still gives the old start time.

John Sandoe bookshop location here.

Dear All,
This is to inform you that, due to completely unforeseen circumstances, the “Routes of the Heart: Lucy Abel Smith’s Transylvania” event, scheduled for 22 November at 7pm, has been cancelled. The event is to be staged at John Sandoe Bookshop, 10 Backlands Terrace, London SW3 2SR on the same day 22nd November, between 6.30pm and 8.30pm.
We apologise for any inconvenience and look forward to welcoming you to all our future events.

Best wishes,

RCI London

Routes of the Heart: Lucy Abel Smith’s Transylvania

https-cdn-evbuc-com-images-25411158-126282815867-1-originalTransylvania, with its rich natural and historic heritage, enjoys a huge revival as a cultural and touristic destination. Historian Lucy Abel Smith is one of the British enthusiasts who have contributed, through her writing as well as various projects, to transforming this land of diversity and overwhelming beauty into a hotspot of unforgettable discoveries. The Romanian Cultural Institute in Belgravia is proud to provide the setting for the launch event of her latest book, ‘Travels in Transylvania: The Greater Târnava Valley‘, a new foray into the culture and history of central Romania.

When: Tuesday 22 November, 7pm
Where: Romanian Cultural Institute London, 1 Belgrave Square, SW1X8PH

Admission is free but by ticket from Eventbrite.

This charming and accessible guide takes as its focus the towns and villages of the Greater Târnava Valley, home to an exceptional cultural heritage. Here Romanian, Hungarian, Saxon, Jewish and Roma cultures come together in an extraordinarily rich mix, against the backdrop of some of the loveliest landscapes in Europe. The main towns are Sighișoara and Mediaș, with their towers and citadels. The villages are famous for their unique fortified churches and unspoilt rural way of life. The guide to the sights of the valley also includes sections on the plethora of flora and fauna, bee-keeping, winemaking and gypsy heritage, as well as an outline of the region’s complex and often turbulent history.

“There is still to be seen the stunning landscape, ancient farming methods and extraordinary botanical variety. But there is so much more. We travel through a fraction of ancient Hungary to encounter a vast array of the peoples of Central Europe, all up until recently living together, yet in distinct communities with different customs, architecture, costumes and languages. We find the Vlachs and the Szeklers, the Hungarians, the Saxons, and the the Jews, the Gypsies and others, such as the Armenians, who settled here to take advantage of this tolerant and diverse land in the very heart of Europe.” – Lucy Abel Smith

Lucy Abel Smith is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, a historian and art historian, specializing in Europe and the Balkans. She has been leading tours for Museum Societies since her early 20s, specialising in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Her first tour to Romania was in the early 80s for the then British Museum Society (www.realityandbeyond.co.uk). In 2013, Lucy Abel Smith founded the Transylvanian Book Festival (www.transylvanianbookfestival.co.uk), whose second edition has just been completed. Together with her husband, she hosts a contemporary sculpture show, ‘Fresh Air’, in their garden in the Cotswolds every other year, where they strive to exhibit the work of a sculptor from Central Europe. The artist whose works were exhibited in 2013 was Vlad Olariu from Cluj, Romania.

When: Tuesday 22 November, 7pm
Where: Romanian Cultural Institute London, 1 Belgrave Square, SW1X8PH

Free entrance. Please book your ticket on Eventbrite.

Roumeli revisited? The Last Transhumance, a documentary film on shepherds


When I heard about this film it immediately made me think of the wonderfully compelling start to Roumeli and the story of the Sarakatsani, transhumance shepherds of Greek origin. This film by Romanian filmmaker and photographer Dragos Lumpan documents some of the last transhumance shepherds in Europe and Turkey. It is a record of something that will possibly completely die out in the next few years. Those Sarakatsani that Paddy mentions have almost all been absorbed into mainstream Greek society and the very first Romanian family that Dragos filmed gave up this lifestyle in 2008. It is interesting to note that despite writing for over forty pages about their origins, way of life, and most famously the details of their wedding ceremony, Roumeli is not directly mentioned in the Wikipedia references or bibliography; something that should perhaps be corrected.

Dragos Lumpan has 100’s of hours of footage from a project that has taken many years to complete, and he is now seeking some additional funding to help with post-producton costs. You may wish to help. Perhaps we can continue Paddy’s work by helping out a little? Dragos explains the importance of the project:

The title of the film wasn’t chosen for the sake of its dramatic sound. These ARE the last transhumances. These people and their way of life are not to be forgotten. Shepherds are strong enough to move mountains, which they actually did. They never back down and they never surrender to any obstacle. This is how they made their way into our history and this is how the history must remember them. The importance of this project goes beyond its artistic value. This film will be the last record of one of the things that shaped our history, out culture and ultimately our humanity.

The shepherds who still walk for hundreds and hundreds of miles in search of available pastures for their animals sleep outside most of the year, usually around their flocks protecting it.  They live in a parallel world not because they reject the modern times but because they embrace tradition. But the ones who still do it are fewer and fewer. The film will show the yearly cycle of life within these communities, showing their direct connection with nature cycle, with the astronomical calendar and with the people around them.

Transhumance represents a cultural heritage that has moulded for centuries the cultural landscape. Nowadays, transhumance is replaced by sedentary forms of sheep breeding. In many regions it is already extinct. The disappearing of transhumance affects not only the spiritual, social and cultural life, but also the mountain regions’ biodiversity.

To assist you can visit the Indiegogo page here. There are many rewards to those that can offer even modest amounts and a second movie trailer.

Dragos also has a website about the project with a number of photographs.

The 2016 Transylvanian book festival

IMG_4419Some of you will remember that the first Transylvanian book festival took place in 2013 and was a tremendous success. Typical comments were along the lines of “The Transylvanian Book Festival was not like any other book festival out there, it brimmed with excitement as visitors immersed themselves in the local culture to get a taste of the Transylvanian way of life, in a neatly packed event that transported you to a different world, one that has been suspended in time and that only now comes to light to the rest of the world.”

The organiser, Lucy Abel-Smith, is doing it again with another excellent line up of authors and events. This is a small festival with around 100 people attending each day, but one that permits those attending to mix and mingle with the authors in a way that is not possible at other events. All are tied together in the wonderful Saxon lands of Transylvania, in and around the village of Richis. It is more of a community of discovery than an event. And certainly a great holiday.

The 2016 festival runs from 8-16 September and places remain. The line up is varied and interesting, with excursions planned and many chances to sample the organic local food and excellent wines. The speakers confirmed so far include:

Anouk Markovits, author ‘I am Forbidden’
Alan Ogden, author ‘Winds of Sorrow’
Bronwen Riley, author ‘Transylvania’
Stephen Watts and Claudiu Komartin, poets who translate each other’s work
Bob Gibbons, botanist and author
John Wyse Jackson, author and founder of Zozimus Bookshop, who will speak on Walter Starkie
Dragos Lumpan, speaking on Transhumance
Mike Ormsby, author ‘Never Mind the Balkans, Here’s Romania’
Simon Fenwick, author who will speak on Joan Leigh Fermor
Bernard Wasserstein, author of ‘On The Eve’
Norman Stone, historian and author
Julie Dawson, speaking on the Medias synagogue
Zsuzsa Szebeni, speaking on Banffy’s designs

Find out more and how to book on the Transylvanian Book Festival website and enjoy this short video from 2013.

Jaap Scholten talks about Comrade Baron

Dutch writer Jaap Scholten knows a good story when he hears one. In the early 1990s, when his Hungarian wife’s grandmother began telling him about life before communism, he was entranced. This was the beginning of the road to writing “Comrade Baron: A Journey Through the Vanishing World of the Transylvanian Aristocracy,” Scholten’s first work of non-fiction and the first to be published in English, launched May 5th.

“I have enjoyed this book so much – such a great tale, with brilliant original research and source material, and so many stories, tragic, humiliating, painful, yet all engrossing and highly readable” Petroc Trelawny, BBC presenter and journalist.

“This is a classic in the lines of Patrick Leigh-Fermor and it should be on the shelves of anyone interested in Mitteleuropa.” Norman Stone, Professor of Modern History, Oxford.

You can buy Comrade Baron: A Journey Through the Vanishing World of the Transylvanian Aristocracy here.

The launch event for the book, hosted by Petroc Trelawney will take place on Wednesday 4 May 2016 at 7pm at the Hungarian Cultural Centre, 10 Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, London WC2E 7NA. Attendance at the event is free but booking is required on bookings@hungary.org.uk.