Tag Archives: Transylvania

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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Danube Institute video Noble Encounters

Many of you will have had a lot of enjoyment reading Michael O’Sullivan’s excellent book Patrick Leigh Fermor: Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania which was published in the summer.

Michael gave an excellent presentation at the Transylvanian Book Festival back in September. In anticipation of the London launch next week of Patrick Leigh Fermor: Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania, you may wish to dip in and out of this video by the Danube Institute featuring Michael and Dr. Tamas Barcsay (great-nephew of Miklos Banffy) talking about Paddy’s time in Hungary and the people he met there.

Find out more about the book and its background here.

You can purchase the book by clicking this link Patrick Leigh Fermor: Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania.

Anna Sándor de Kénos – BBC’s Last Word

Anna Sándor de Kénos

BBC Radio 4’s Last Word, obituary programme, speaks to Dr Michael O’Sullivan, author of Patrick Leigh Fermor: Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania, about the life of the late Anna Sándor de Kenos.

Go to position 22 minutes 10 seconds here for the start of the piece (may not be available outside of UK – sorry!).

Anna Sándor de Kénos, friend of Patrick Leigh Fermor – obituary

I have been able to find a copy of the obituary for Anna Sándor de Kénos and hope that you find it interesting reading.

Anna Sándor de Kénos, who has died aged 97, knew Patrick Leigh Fermor in Transylvania when he made his now legendary journey on foot, beginning in 1933, which took him from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople.

They met in July 1934 when he was travelling through Transylvania and Anna Sándor de Kénos was staying with some of her aristocratic neighbours.

This was the period immediately before Communism annihilated the almost feudal way of life of these ancient Transylvanian noble families which Leigh Fermor recorded in Between the Woods and the Water.

Anna Sándor de Kénos was close to the Csernovits family, one of whom, Xenia, became Leigh Fermor’s lover in 1934 and whom he later immortalised as Angela when the book appeared in 1986. She was also close to one of the book’s most enigmatic characters, Elemér von Klobusiczky, who features under the pseudonym Istvan.

Just over a decade later, on the bitterly cold early morning of March 3 1949, the majority of the Transylvanian aristocracy, including the Sándor de Kénos family, were arrested and taken away to internal deportation, Anna among them.

Like many Hungarians she fled Budapest in November 1956 when the Hungarian Uprising was still raging, settling first in New York. She spent the rest of her life helping many of her fellow dispossessed and impoverished aristocrats to settle in the United States. These included members of the Almásy family, one of whom was depicted in the film The English Patient (1996).

Her munificence extended to all Hungarians. However, it was with those still trapped under the repressive Ceausescu regime in her native Transylvania that Anna Sándor de Kénos’s real sympathy lay.

Though tiny in physical stature she earned the nickname “the titaness of Transylvania” for her fearless disregard for officialdom. This extended even to the intimidating Communist apparatchiks in Ceausescu’s Romania, which she revisited regularly from the mid-1960s.

Anna Sándor de Kénos, seated front left, with other members of the Transylvanian nobility in exile at the Plaza Hotel, New York, 1960

Anna Sándor de Kénos, seated front left, with other members of the Transylvanian nobility in exile at the Plaza Hotel, New York, 1960

Another favourite target was officious airport check-in clerks. Once, at Sarasota Airport, Florida, in the mid-1960s when checking in for a connecting flight that would eventually take her onward to Budapest, and laden down with massive overweight baggage containing clothes and food for the poor of Transylvania, she was ordered to pay a substantial overweight baggage charge.

Her response was to point to a lady on her left hand side and declare in a strong Hungarian accent: “Sir, as you can see, I weigh a mere 44 kilos, the lady on my left I reckon about 144, why don’t we split the difference in our combined weights, or perhaps you would rather have me take her with me and make her into a delicious Goulash for my poor people in Transylvania.” The charge was immediately dismissed.

At the age of 92 Anna Sándor de Kénos applied to a US bank for a 30-year mortgage of $100,000. Three years earlier she had walked the excruciatingly long route of the Csíksomlyó pilgrimage to a Marian shrine in central Transylvania, a journey that would have challenged pilgrims half her age.

It was an 
unusual undertaking because the pilgrimage is the highlight of the Catholic calendar in Transylvania and she was a devoted Calvinist. She told a friend that she did it because “anything that was banned under Communism must be good for the soul”.

Anna Sándor de Kénos, known as Annuska, was born on March 21 1921 in Deva, the capital of Hunedoara County, which had been ceded from Hungary to Romania by the 1920 Treaty of Trianon.

The scion of a 16th-century Transylvanian noble family who were long characterised by unflinching determination and optimism in the face of adversity, she was one of two daughters born to Béla Sándor de Kénos and his wife Etelka (née Buda de Galacz), who were then living on the family estate near Deva.

The family’s circumstances were, like so many other “class enemies”, greatly reduced from quite comfortable to an indigent state under Communism in Romania. Though deprived of all the privileges that would have come to one of her class, Anna Sándor de Kénos was never resentful of her reduced situation.

She worked in New York for the renowned cosmetics company created by her fellow Hungarian Ernö László, whose client list included the Duchess of Windsor, Greta Garbo, Ava Gardner and Jacqueline Kennedy, before giving it up to work as a theatre nurse.

Anna Sándor de Kénos in Budapest on her 90th birthday

Anna Sándor de Kénos in Budapest on her 90th birthday

She spent much of her life in Sarasota, keeping open house for Hungarian émigrés. On occasion she had as many as 50 guests for dinner. The only rule was that guests should make a donation for her charitable interests in Transylvania. After the collapse of Communism in 1989 she spent part of the year between Budapest and her native Deva.

Although Anna Sándor de Kénos never married, her name was linked for many years to a Transylvanian nobleman who also never married.

With the death of Anna Sándor de Kénos, the last living link to the Transylvania and Hungary of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between the Woods and the Water has gone. She is survived by her nephew, Daniel Lészay de Lésza.

Anna Sándor de Kénos, born March 21 1921, died May 18 2018

The last of the Noble Encounters

Anna Sándor de Kénos in 1960

Michael O’Sullivan, the author of the recently published Patrick Leigh Fermor: Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania writes to inform us:

It is with great sadness I write to inform the PLF blog readers that the last woman who knew Paddy in Transylvania in 1934 has died at the aged of 97. Anna Sándor de Kenós was thirteen when she met Paddy at the Csernovits mansion in Zam. She was from an ancient Transylvanian noble family and the doyen of the Hungarian ex patriot community in the United States where she moved after the 1956 Uprising against Soviet rule in Hungary.

An obituary was published in the Telegraph but it has some access restrictions.

My apologies to you all for the radio silence over the last few weeks. It was due to some personal reasons, and I now hope that all will get back on track with the blog!

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

Floral tourism: on the trail of Transylvania’s elusive crocus

Robin Lane Fox on Nemesis on an evening ride in the Carpathians, Romania © Harriet Rix

Robin Lane Fox on Nemesis on an evening ride in the Carpathians, Romania © Harriet Rix

In idyllic east European sunshine, I have been focusing on a crocus. It is not a purple or yellow-flowered hybrid, one of those Dutch fatties that city dwellers admire in spring. It is a lilac-flowered wild beauty, at home in Transylvania. Even in Romania, few realise the rare charm of its autumn flowers. It avoids main roads and towns, so I have had to ride to find it.

By Robin Lane Fox
First published in The Financial Times 17 October 2017

I recommend this sort of floral tourism. Mine was aimed at crocus banaticus, the iris-flowered crocus which has three big outer petals. I first discovered its distinctive beauty in the Bulletin of the Alpine Garden Society, that seminal influence on the prose-style of the great travel writer Norman Lewis, as he once told me in his sitting room in Essex. About 40 years later, the same crocus was discovered in the same bulletin by Harriet Rix in Devon, my indomitable companion on our ride last year into the high floral meadows of Kyrgyzstan. While we put brave faces on the mountain storms, we discovered a shared love of this crocus and pledged in mares’ milk to find it in its Romanian home. She, not I, realised that it overlaps there with Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between The Woods and The Water, the immortal tale of his walk from London to Istanbul. In summer 1934, the 19-year-old Leigh Fermor trod above our crocus, dormant in the Transylvanian grass, while he eloped with high-spirited Angéla, one of those “times when hours are more precious than diamonds”. Between the woods and the meadows we might find gems which flowered in their wake.

The crocus is named “banaticus” from early finds in the Banat, territory that became a bitter triangular contest between Hungary, Yugoslavia and Romania, until the Treaty of Versailles divided it between the latter two in 1919. The most recent reports of the flower are further east, so we began our hunt in the Transylvanian villages founded by German-speaking Saxons. In the 12th century, the offer of land and a tax-free life lured thousands of Saxons to migrate from the area of modern Luxembourg and settle in Transylvania. They strengthened the land’s defences and vitalised its crafts and crops, terracing the hillsides and growing apples and productive vines. Between 1980 and 1990, many migrated in reverse. They were sold by Ceausescu, no friend of village life, to the Kohl government in Germany who saw them as loyal voters. Before Ceausescu’s fall, up to 250,000 Saxons returned to take up German citizenship, leaving only a rump to maintain churches, crafts and houses.

The base-camps for our adventures were Saxon houses restored since 1995 by the celebrated Mihai Eminescu trust. Its rentable properties range from double-fronted village houses to two fine manors at Richis and Malancrav with tempting libraries and rooms for up to nine guests.

We began in the Saxon heartland of Viscri whose fortified church gives a special sense of orderly Saxon life. Social ranks and the sexes were segregated in the congregation. Unmarried young men were sent up to the gallery from where they could look down on the plaited hair and hollow black headdresses of the unmarried Saxon girls. Only outside the church was contact possible, on a grassy circle that served as a dance floor. Inside, painted panels show sunflowers and lilies of the valley, “ladders to heaven” in German tradition, among roses and reflexed lilies. I thought of the red roses and “tiger lilies” that Leigh Fermor’s beloved Angéla pushed into his buttonhole at the train station as they took their sad farewell. Of crocus banaticus, there was no sign.

Crocus banaticus growing wild in the fields above Zalanpatak © Harriet Rix

Crocus banaticus growing wild in the fields above Zalanpatak © Harriet Rix

Evidence soon emerged. The main churches of the Saxon villages are Lutheran and in Brasov’s Black Cathedral, their choirs were to assemble and mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. As a noted soprano, Harriet was invited to join them and help with the higher notes. As a spectator with no religion, I was tagged with a wristband and allowed to watch from a front seat. While the choirs rehearsed, I researched the flower stalls of Brasov market and found two bunches of crocus banaticus on a flower-lady’s stall. She had no idea where they had been growing.

After Luther’s setting of Psalm 118, it was time to find out. Tagged by evangelicals, I set off for Copsa Mare where I met my Nemesis and fell in love. Nemesis is a 10-year-old Dutch warmblood mare, 17 hands 3, with a Czech passport. She is stabled nightly beside the tall dark Romulus who was once a gallop-on star in the film Prince Caspian. James and Rachel de Candole offer trips for up to four riders on their beautifully schooled horses, with picnics and overnight stays. Nemesis carried me smoothly past gardens of zinnias, cosmos and calendulas, flowers that I often recommend to readers here. White-flowered wild asters, another favourite, marked our ascent into beechwoods of exceptional beauty but as they also contain wild bears, we had to travel noisily. In Britain it is 12 years since I last halloaed legally for fox hounds. In Transylvania I have been halloaing to keep bears away.

In the crocus’s absence, nearby back gardens offered a big surprise instead — crops of exotic tuberose. An expert grower, Elisabeth, showed us the last tall stems of her crop before she sheltered their roots under winter covers. Tuberose is native to Mexico but it won favour with Maria Theresa, the Habsburg sovereign, and travelled east to the scent-loving Romanians. In rich acid soil, village growers water the plants that departing Saxons left in their care. They will either be gold or earth, they told Elisabeth, but she learnt the golden touch. Of the Banat crocus, however, she knew nothing.

In eastern Transylvania sightings of it are reported near villages of Hungarians, so we headed for a final hunt in Korospatak. There, horses are offered by Count Kalnoky, descendant of a great medieval line, but a sign saying “Shagya Club” marks his driveway, and at first we took it in an English sense. We reversed in haste, not realising it refers to crosses between Arab and thoroughbred horses. After an hour’s climb on brisk brown Rudi, I finally sighted our prey, lilac-blue crocus banaticus flowering leaflessly beneath beech trees.

The further we rode, the more it multiplied, always in damp semi-shade, never in open meadows. In the valley of Zalanpatak we found even thicker masses, including a rare white form, seldom in stock in any bulb-grower’s list. Spreading on the hillsides, were these crocuses natural escapees from gardens? Surely not: they have lived here for millennia, untroubled by Romans, Tatars and Turks who sacked the villages beyond.

In her superb book Peacemakers, Margaret Macmillan describes how the Banat, a “bucolic backwater”, was split between Romania and Yugoslavia in 1919. She warns that it may yet prove contentious territory. In antiquity, Philip, father of Alexander, won a great victory on what was called the Crocus Field in northern Greece. If fighting breaks out in the Banat, I now know my role. Mounted on Nemesis, I will guard the priceless crocuses in its hills.