Tag Archives: Transylvania

From Ballroom to Basement

Transylvanian aristocrats at a wedding in 1928

Transylvanian aristocrats at a wedding in 1928

Exactly 70 years ago, on the night of March 2 to 3, 1949 all Transylvanian aristocrats – the majority of them Hungarian – had been deported by the Romanian regular and secret police – the Securitate, established by the Communist regime just a few weeks earlier. Between the hours of two and three in the morning all the aristocrats in the country were roused from their beds by armed men and loaded onto trucks. 7,804 people were deported from their homes that night while all their properties were nationalized. Jaap Scholten, – a Dutch writer with a Hungarian wife, living in Budapest – collected the untold stories of these people by interviewing the last living survivors and their descendants and published them in his book titled Comrade Baron.

Jaap has given an interview to Transylvania Now in two parts, shown here. Read the originals: Part 1 and Part 2.

How did you first hear about the nocturnal mass deportations of the Transylvanian nobles?

In 2006 I was writing an article about illegal logging in Transylvania for a Dutch newspaper and I was talking with a 63-year-old man on this subject in a shabby restaurant in Sepsiszentgyörgy/Sfântu Gheorghe. The man then told me he was an aristocrat and shared his story with me. He was only six years old when during the night of March 3, 1949 he and his entire family had been taken away in the middle of the night from their house. Police roused him from his bed and when he had to go to the loo one of them went with him with a gun at his back. The whole family was deported that night and took refuge in basements afterwards.

What made you decide to write a whole book about the topic?

As a Dutch I had a general interest in what happened to the nobility after the WWII in Hungary and in Transylvania, and I always thought somebody should write about it, but nobody did. So when I heard about the 1949 nighttime deportations, I just knew that I have to do it. Another reason was that my wife’s grandmother – who was a baroness and had her own stories – died around that time. Even though she was an aristocrat in Hungary and not in Transylvania, she had a very similar fate and – after the Hungarian Communist regime nationalized all of her family’s properties – she had to work for the rest of her life as a cleaning lady in hospitals. But she still remained full of energy with a good sense of humor for which I admired her very much. When she died, I realized that with all these people dying a whole archive of stories was about to disappear. This was the point when I decided to start interviewing people.

How did you start the work?

First I enrolled at the Central European University’s Department of Social Anthropology to learn how to research the topic in a more professional way. I thought an institute could help me show how properly conduct interviews and how to give the book a better structure. And I was right about it, I had very good professors. One of them, for example, a Turkish professor had studied the secret life of the Armenians who lived in Istanbul. And the situation of the Hungarian aristocrats in Transylvania during Communism was very similar. These people had essentially been erased from society, and they had to live underground. They were literally living in basements, and had to abandon their peerages, but secretly they still stuck to their traditions, even during the hardest of times. These people were doubly persecuted: first for being aristocrats and second for being Hungarians.

How many interviews did you conduct?

I interviewed about fifty people. Besides the members of three generations of the noble families, I also talked with researchers, professors and experts trying to get as comprehensive a view on the topic as possible. I found many of young people who – after the Romanian state returned their properties nationalized between 1945 and 1989 – went back to Transylvania, and had the energy and courage to rebuild at least some of their heritage. Then there was the second generation that grew up during Communism, whom I named “the lost generation” because they were already too old and exhausted to rebuild anything. And there was the third – and oldest – generation, which lived through all these things and which still remembered the time before Communism. These people were the hardest to find and I had to hurry because they were passing away even as I did my research.

Why did you choose Erzsébet, a 92 year old countess to be the main character of the book?

I once got in contact with three ladies. Two of them were already over 100 years old at the time, and Erzsébet was the „young” one. She was “only” 92 when we first met in her panel building apartment in Hungary. She was quite reluctant at first, but by the end of our first meeting we found out that my wife’s family is related to her family, and from that point on I was her cousin, her “Lieber Neffer” and she opened up eventually. I visited her 20 or 25 times to interview her and we always spoke German, but I also gave her my previous books in Dutch. And despite being 92 years old, she learned Dutch so she could read them… Her favorite was my first novel, Tachtig (Eighty). She especially liked my love for a bird which I found wounded in the forest, something that probably reminded her of her father (who loved animals) and of her happy days. She was full of amazing stories – like the one about the pet bear, Nicolai – and she also had a fascinating way of recounting them. This is the reason why I chose her to be the main character and I consider myself lucky that she was so generous as to share her life story with me.

Was Erzsébet her real name?

No. The oldest generation was the most afraid to speak with me, because they were still afraid of the secret service, afraid that the properties they got back under the restitution process could be expropriated again, should they talk to me about the past. That’s why some of them – including Erzsébet – have pseudonyms. But Erzsébet went even further: she also insisted that the book cannot be published in Hungarian as long as she is alive, so the Hungarian translation only came out after she died in 2013. Following her death I met her son, who told me that his mother normally didn’t trust anybody. There were only two or three people in her entire life she really trusted, and I was one of them.

Hungarian nobles being deported March 1949

She even asked you to help her in the restoration of their centuries-old castle, recently returned by the Romanian state. Has it happened yet?

Unfortunately not, and it is a really sad story. Every time I go back there, it is deteriorating further and I just don’t understand why the Romanian government cannot cooperate with Hungary to restore these mansions and castles. The Transylvanian cultural heritage is so vast and it deserves to be restored – I think abandoning it is a crime. A good number of Romanian architects and art historians who would like take part in this and it would also benefit tourism in the region. This would be good for both Hungarians and Romanians.

How was the book received?

I chose a subject which really captured my imagination but I was sure that I would be the only one. I thought nobody would be interested in such a book, but I was wrong. After it was published in 2010 it became a bestseller in the Netherlands and has since been translated into English, French, Hungarian and Romanian.

If readers like Comrade Baron so much, can we perhaps expect a sequel?

I’m thinking about it, yes. I have many more stories from Erzsébet than the ones included in the book The reason is that at a certain point I had to publish it, but I still kept visiting her even afterwards and she kept telling her stories. So one day I would like to publish these as well. In this future book I also would like to trace the life of the youngest generation. I would like to show their struggle to restore and maintain ruins of castles and manor houses out of loyalty to their ancestors: to repair a broken chain.

For more information about the book  and Jaap’s suggested Transylvanian tour go to: www.comradebaron.com

Buy Comrade Baron: A Journey Through the Vanishing World of the Transylvanian Aristocracy

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.

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.

The gravitational pull of a unique personality

Patrick Leigh Fermor, left, met Heinrich Kreipe, his former captive, at a reunion in Greece in 1972 which included the famous Greek TV show

Patrick Leigh Fermor, left, met Heinrich Kreipe, his former captive, at a reunion in Greece in 1972 which included the famous Greek TV show

We all discovered Paddy by different routes, but if one follows the thread of certain ideas, one can often find it leads to Patrick Leigh Fermor. My own journey started with my interest in Byzantine history; the link with Constantinople and Steven Runciman being my link. It was therefore a great joy to hear from a former colleague with whom I had lost touch some years ago. Chris Wares has discovered Paddy through his interest in the work of Antony Beevor, and after finding this blog he wrote to me explaining his own Paddy journey. He has agreed to me publishing it here. How did you first encounter Paddy? Maybe you can tell us in the comments section.

by Chris Wares

Unlike probably everyone reading this I have yet to actually read any of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s books. In fact I’m ashamed to say that a year ago I hadn’t even heard of the man. But over the past twelve months I have found myself being inexorably drawn towards the man and his books. Unknowingly at first and then, after what I can only describe as a sort of literary epiphany, I realised that I was in the gravitational pull of a unique personality, a name that kept turning everywhere I looked. Gradually I came to terms with the realisation that I would be compelled to read his books.

I am sure everyone has their own story on how they became acquainted with PLF but, as I stand on the precipice of opening one of his books for the first time, I thought I would describe how I arrived at this point.

It all began about a year ago when I read Crete: The Battle and the Resistance by Antony Beevor. Beevor is one of my favourite authors and so, while not being especially interested in the war in Crete, I was confident that my investment would be rewarded. Amongst the broad sweep of battle Beevor describes the tale of a British SOE soldier who possessed a larger than life character. A man who captures a German general from under their noses and then marches him across the mountains with half the German army on his tail. It was a scintillating story but the name of the hero didn’t particularly register in my mind.

A few weeks later I read Natural Born Heroes: The Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance by another of my favourite authors, Christopher McDougall. McDougall’s stories of long distance runners provide great inspiration for those that are needing motivation to get down to the business of training for a marathon. In the book McDougall writes of ancient Greek demigods who had discovered the secrets of endurance running. Switching to the twentieth century, he describes in reverential tones the superhuman endurance of a British soldier called Paddy who possessed the same qualities. It’s the same guy.

OK. So it’s a good tale and worth retelling but surely this was just coincidence. Sure, it’s a great yarn about the Battle of Crete and it also works as a modern day fable about god-like feats of endurance. But this was just one of those things right? The sort of tale anyone writing about Crete includes.

Then several months later I booked a romantic weekend in Brasov, Transylvania, for my wife’s birthday. A rare opportunity for us to get away without the kids and visit somewhere slightly off the beaten track. To get to know the place better I decided to do my homework and read up on Romania. These days, tied down by kids and mortgages, my wanderlust is largely restricted to armchair adventures. Travel books and histories providing an enjoyable way of vicariously travel the world.

I picked up Anthony Eales Blue River, Black Sea, a light and enjoyable read recounting his journey by bicycle and boat from the source of the Danube down to the Black Sea. Eales opens by describing how he decided to emulate the journey some guy called Patrick Leigh Fermor made in the 1930s down the Danube who also happened to kidnap a German general in Crete…. Hang on a minute? Kidnapped a German general in Crete? This can’t be the same bloke can it?

It’s at that point I turn to Google. Who was this guy? A good story can be a matter of circumstance; a combination of events that a person can just be caught up in. But appearing heroic in two separate dramas suggests a character that possesses something special. A man who “drank from a different fountain” as some might say.

I quickly found myself getting up to speed on the basics – SOE, renowned travel writer, author of three books about walking across Europe in the 1930s, the last of which was edited by Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper. This was sounding good. I like Colin Thubron. And Artemis Cooper? That’s a name that rings a bell? Of course! – she co-wrote Paris After the Liberation: 1944 – 1949 with Beevor (which I also just read).

Another Google search and I realise that Beevor and Cooper are married and obviously share an admiration for PLF. And – just to reinforce the impression that everything was in some way joined up and connected to the man – it turns out that Cooper is the daughter of John Julius Norwich whose A History of Venice I read in August. I was beginning to get the feeling that Patrick Leigh Fermor was something special. I was in the orbit of something that deserved further investigation.

My armchair exploration of Romania continued through the Autumn and it soon felt as if all roads led to Patrick Leigh Fermor. The author Nick Thorpe talks about him in The Danube: A Journey Upriver from the Black Sea to the Black Forest while travelling along the Danube in the opposite direction to Eales. Nick Hunt follows in his footsteps in Walking the Woods and the Water: In Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Footsteps from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn. William Blacker quotes him extensively in Along the Enchanted Way: A Story of Love and Life in Romania (which incidentally is one of the loveliest books I have read in a long time) and Dervla Murphy contrasts 1990s Romania with his descriptions of the 1930s in Transylvania and Beyond. Georgina Harding quotes him in In Another Europe: A Journey to Romania. At times it felt as if everyone who had ever visited Romania in the past 40 years had read his books.

With his writing venerated by so many, the signs were clear that I needed to read him for myself. Here was someone who is not only considered one of the best travel writers ever but someone whose books inspired so much else that I read and enjoyed. My curiosity piqued I enthusiastically went on a bookstore spending spree and purchased all three books of the trilogy as well as his biography.

The books have sat patiently on my bedside table for some time now, but the moment of turning that first page is fast approaching. Logically the trilogy should form part of my Romanian literary journey but I have purposely set them aside and held back until the moment is right. The books may be the finalé to my Romanian odyssey but I feel as if they may also be first steps of an entirely new journey.

It’s rare to have such a sense of anticipation ahead of reading a new book. Such a build up runs the risk of the reality failing to live up to the expectation and I am nervous that perhaps I may not find his books as exquisite as I have come to imagine them to be. But on the other hand I am reassured with the knowledge that I am following in the footsteps of many others.

And now to turn that first page and follow path that is well trodden; one which all of those who are reading this will have already travelled….

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

Travels in Transylvania: The Greater Tarnova Valley

The UNESCO World Heritage fortified church in Viscri

The UNESCO World Heritage fortified church in Viscri

Whenever I mention Transylvania to friends and acquaintances most express a strong desire to visit this land of mystery. Few however, can place Transylvania on a map and even less ever actually travel there. Readers of the Paddy blog will know that PLF passed through in 1934 and returned during communist times. I have had the privilege of working and travelling there, and it is through this association that I met Lucy Abel Smith who is the organiser of the Transylvanian Book Festival 2016 and author of this new Blue Guide.

If you are thinking of visiting Romania with all its cultural, historical, and natural riches, it may be difficult to decide where to start for it is a large country with a relatively small population. Transylvania itself is an area three times the size of Wales with diversity in all corners. The recently published Blue Guide Travels in Transylvania: The Greater Tarnova Valley helps by picking one area and offers a detailed insight from someone who has been living and travelling since the time of Ceausescu, describing a journey through this one part of Transylvania, the fabled “Saxon Lands” of the south-east that Lucy knows so well. It essentially takes as its theme a 120km long journey along the course of the Tarnova river from Odurheiu Secuiesc in the Gurhui mountains, westwards along the Tarnova valley via Ruritanian cities like the beautiful Sighisoara and ends in Blaj.

Lucy herself describes the area thus:

“… 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.”

The landscape that these peoples crafted and the architecture that they developed is both beautiful and unique. Accommodation is plentiful and will suit all budgets, with food on the whole being local and organic in many cases. It is easily accessible with flights from Vienna, London, and Munich amongst others, direct to Cluj, Turgu Mures, Bucharest, and soon Brasov. Above all the people are welcoming and it is safe. If you take Lucy’s excellent guide you won’t go far wrong. Your journey can be extended north to the baroque city of Cluj, west to Sibiu (a Saxon city and European City of Culture), or south to the large Saxon city of Brasov which is not far from the so-called Dracula’s castle (the violent warlord Vlad Dracul did live there) in Bran.

Lucy Abel Smith

Lucy Abel Smith

Lucy writes from a very personal perspective and is an engaging writer with an informative but never patronising style. She is an art historian and her explanations of church art – frescoes, altar-pieces and statues – are thorough but never boring. The guide is packed full of useful information, including accommodation details, and background history. There are some useful maps and illustrations. It could do with some colour photographs but other than this, the Blue Guide Travels in Transylvania: The Greater Tarnova Valley would be an invaluable aid for the independent traveller.

Malancrav, near Sighisoara, Romania

Malancrav, near Sighisoara, Romania

If you are thinking of an alternative holiday in Romania you could do worse than combine a tour of the Tarnova valley with a few days at the second Transylvanian Book Festival which runs from 8th to 11th September. Full details can be found on the Festival website.

For those who have any questions about travel in Transylvania I would be more than happy to attempt to answer them. See the About and Contact page for details of how to get in touch.

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.

Comrade Baron: A Journey Through the Vanishing World of the Transylvanian Aristocracy by Jaap Scholten

baronI am very excited about this and I know that some you will be too as you have asked about it on many occasions.

Comrade Baron A journey through the vanishing world of the Transylvanian aristocracy, is written by Jaap Scholten and will be published for the first time in English on 5 May 2016. The book was winner of the Libris History Prize 2011 and shortlisted for the Bob den Uyl Prize for best travel book 2011.

Comrade Baron will be launched at an event, hosted by BBC presenter, Petroc Trelawny, at the Hungarian Cultural Centre, London, on 4 th May. A best-seller in The Netherlands with more than 30,000 copies sold, Comrade Baron has been translated into French, Hungarian and Romanian. An extraordinary, passionate and important work, Comrade Baron is “in part, an oral history of a group we know little about, in part the account of a journey through one of the most beautiful and mysterious regions of Europe and in part a record of a Dutchman’s impressions on finding himself in an extraordinary milieu in the company of some exceptional families.”

In the darkness of the early morning of 3 March 1949, practically all of the Transylvanian aristocracy were arrested in their beds and loaded onto trucks. That same day the Romanian Workers’ Party was pleased to announce the successful deportation and dispossession of all large landowners. Communism demanded the destruction of these ultimate class enemies. Taken away with just the clothes they stood up in, what happened to these once mighty families? Their stories, as told first-hand in this fascinating and enlightening book, are ones of hardship and fear but also of determination, solidarity, family tradition, resilience and indomitable spirit…

Jaap Scholten lives in Budapest, which is where, in 2006, he first heard about the nocturnal mass deportation of the Transylvanian nobility. Fascinated by their plight, he determined to track down as many of the older members of the former aristocracy as he could, recording their stories before they were lost forever. His journey took him the length and breadth of Transylvania (a magical land that comes to vivid life through descriptions in the book), to apartment blocks, slums and ruined castles, and brought him face-to-face with a group of rare and fascinating families with an extraordinary tale to tell.

Supported by a selection of black and white photographs and told through poignant and illuminating first-hand conversations, Comrade Baron is their story – from the days that preceded communism to after the communists came to power and through to the modern day.

Grand houses were exchanged for homes in cellars, attics, laundry rooms and sculleries and pleasure-seeking lifestyles for work in quarries, steelworks or domestic service. Interrogation was a daily occurrence and many were sent to hard labour in the Romanian gulags. Yet despite living under terrifying conditions, inflicted upon them firstly by Gheorghiu-Dej and later Ceauşescu, the aristocrats were leading a double life. Secretly gathering at night, they maintained the rituals of an older world – “they carried on kissing hands and using other formal gestures, their conversations were governed by long established rules… They met in cellars to play bridge, rummy and canasta. They read poetry aloud and made music. The older aristocrats taught the children foreign languages and gave them music lessons.” In contrast, as Jaap travels through Romania and observes the behaviour of the new Romanian elite –extravagant behaviour at parties and restaurants, driving their Mercedes and SUV’s – he recognizes what has been lost and consider how best to rebuild a country in a moral vacuum.

Jaap Scholten studied Industrial Design at the Technical University in Delft, Graphic Design at the Willem de Kooning Academy of Arts in Rotterdam (BA), and Social Anthropology at the Central European University in Budapest (MA). He is the award winning author of seven books, novels and short story collections. Comrade Baron is his first non-fiction book. Jaap has lived in Budapest since 2003. His Hungarian wife is of noble descent and distantly related to some of the families in the book.

“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.

Help to fund Wild Carpathia 4

After a glorious few weeks enjoying Italy, its food, landscape and sites, I am returned and will get some interesting posts up on the blog. First up is an appeal to help fund the fourth in the wonderful series Wild Carpathia which will be set in winter and called White Carpathia. Charlie Ottley and the crew are looking for £50,000 to produce the film expected to be released in summer 2016. If you love Romania as much as Paddy did (and I do) then please consider helping via the Kickstarter page where Charlie makes a very impassioned plea for your support surrounded by beautiful images of Romania. Together, let’s make this happen!

Here’s what Charlie says on Facebook:

Hello everyone and……help!. We need to make another Wild Carpathia urgently – to promote the beauty of Romania through the winter, and show the world what an amazing country this is, any time of the year, especially given recent bad press like The Romanians Are Coming on UK’s Channel Four. In light of further illegal logging and the recent scandal involving Schweighofer we must again highlight the plight of Europe’s last great forest.

We also need to protect the cultural heritage of Romania’s rural areas, by encouraging, Eco-tourism, sensitive development and modernisation. The film we must make to help do this, will be seen by millions of people across the world (the previous episodes had over 3 million hits online) and screened first on Romanian national television. We have half the money from foreign donors. Help us raise the other half so this can be a film for Romania by Romania, something we can all be proud of. Even a few euros each will make a big difference. And please forward this post. if you and your friends all contribute, we can make this happen – together. Click on the following link and go to our Kickstarter Campaign.

Enjoy the previous films here on You Tube.

Episode One: Wild Carpathia

Episode Two: From the Mountains to the Sea

Episode Three: Wild Forever

“Transylvania”: Bits and Bobs from the first Transylvanian Book Festival

Some notes and observations by my friend Chris Lawson from the outstandingly successful Transylvanian Book Festival that took place in September. This was written as part of his entry to the Anthony Burgess/Observer literary competition and I am grateful that he let me publish this.

Transylvania : by Christopher Lawson

Viscri church

Viscri church

FORTIFIED CHURCH IN TRANSYLVANIA

Lodgings

For bats

Hanging

Unauthorized

Like open umbrellas

In the armpits of walls.

When tourists come by

They crochet

Their legends,

Laughing softly,

With pigeon manure.

Transylvania, which I have known for almost 40 years, has one of the most stunning landscapes in Europe. Villagers live in handsome, colourful old homes on lanes lined with pear trees. Beyond their barns lie vegetable gardens, orchards and small farm plots. Farther out are meadows and pastures, carpeted with wildflowers, used cooperatively by the villagers for grazing animals and making hay. Imperious turkeys lead flocks of geese, ducks and chickens. Oak and beech woods cover the steep hillsides, where firewood is gathered.

In 1977, halfway through my teaching contract, Patrick Leigh Fermor, who died two years ago at the age of 96, published A time of gifts. In his trilogy, he depicts the Transylvania of the 1930s. The same year the notorious Madame Lupescu, widow of King Carol II, died in Estoril. Both events reminded me of another Romania and another time.

Following an invitation, I flew to Sibiu and was offered wine and tuica (plum brandy), with its wonderful golden colour, to accompany dinner. The following day, with friends, we walked into a valley and practiced FKK (nudity), just as Germans would in Germany. But here there was an element of protest against the highly puritanical Communist regime.

My hosts now live in Freiburg im Breisgau. Many of their former friends and neighbours from Sibiu live in the same city. Rroma (gypsies) have taken over the neat houses and orchards in Sibiu.

On another occasion, on a train journey, Adrian, an economist, invited me to stay in Sibiu, even though this was forbidden for foreigners. Shortly after our arrival at his apartment, his wife arrived, crying with triumphant laughter. Ceausescu had been to Sibiu on an official visit. The factories were closed and schoolchildren had the day off. They were supposed to line the streets, waving Romanian flags and cheering. But they had been directed to the wrong place. The streets were empty. There would be no pictures for the evening news.

Every week a group of friends gathered to watch Dallas. These young Romanians loved the beautiful women, the scheming menfolk, the huge cars and houses.

Sibiu now has a Saxon Mayor, Klaus Iohannis, who is re-elected with larger majorities by Hungarians and Romanians at each election. There are virtually no Saxons left. Iohannis has transformed Sibiu into a city which resembles one in Germany.

The spirit of Leigh Fermor infused the first Transylvania Book Festival, which took place in three Saxon villages from 5 to 9 September. Paddy was an exponent of leventeia, Greek for high spirits, humour, quickness of mind and action, the love of living dangerously and a readiness for anything. A handsome, bright-eyed teenager aged 18-19, Paddy had walked from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul, reciting verse as he walked, now staying in a hayrick, now in an aristocrat’s mansion. In wartime Crete, the dashing Paddy, Stanley Moss and a group of Cretan guerrillas abducted the German general commanding, drove him past 22 Nazi checkpoints, marched him through chilly mountains, and delivered him to Cairo.

Leigh Fermor was a great traveller and a sublime exponent of English prose.

Some 60 participants came to Richis, Copsa Mare and Biertan. The star of the show was Artemis Cooper, Paddy’s biographer. Her life of the great man, “An adventure”, is already a classic. She is also joint editor of “The broken road”, the long-awaited final book in his trilogy about his 1933-34 walk across Europe. Artemis sparkled. Another big name was Roy Foster, Professor of Irish Studies at Oxford, who spoke entertainingly on Bram Stoker and Dracula, first published in 1897 and never out of print since.

Jessica Douglas-Home, chairperson of the Mihai Eminescu Trust, one of the leaders of the fight to protect Transylvanian villages from Ceausescu’s lunatic systemization policy, was flanked by local Saxons, sundry poets and broadcasters, and the younger generation of burgeoning travel writers.

From the literary firmament came Beatrice Rezzori Monti della Corte, widow of Gregor von Rezzori, chronicler of Bukovina, and Elisabeth Jelen Salnikoff, grandaughter of Count Miklos Banffy who wrote a classic trilogy about the dying days of the Hungarian aristocracy. Presiding over this glitteringly impressive line-up was Lucy Abel Smith, an art historian resident in Transylvania several months of the year, who exuded energy, enthusiasm and good humour.

SHAKESPEARE

Shakespeare wrote about half of his late play Pericles (1608). His co-author, George Wilkins, a thoroughly disreputable and violent individual, a keeper of prostitutes, provided genuine inside knowledge of what went on in brothels which the fastidious Bard assimilated and made his own.

Shakespeare’s brothel scene takes place in Mytilene in Lesbos and contains the first reference to a Transylvanian in English, indeed in Western literature.

Pandar. Thou sayst true; they’re too unwholesome, o’ conscience. The poor Transylvanian is dead, that lay with the little baggage.

Boult. Ay, she quickly pooped him; she made him roast-meat for worms. But I’ll go search the market. [Exit]

Pandar, a procurer and pimp, discusses with Boult, his servant, the shortage of girls and how drab and diseased their prostitutes are. The “poor Transylvanian” has travelled to Greece to die of syphilis.

BROWNING

Much of Robert Browning’s familiar poem of 1842 about the Pied Piper of Hamelin is rooted in historical truth.

And I must not omit to say

That in Transylvania there’s a tribe

Of alien people who ascribe

The outlandish ways and dress

On which their neighbours lay such stress,

To their fathers and mothers having risen

Out of some subterraneous prison

Into which they were trepanned

Long time ago in a mighty band

Out of Hamelin town in Brunswick land,

But how or why, they don’t understand.

On 26 June, the Saints Day of John and Paul, in 1284, 130 of the town’s children in Hamelin (Hameln), Germany, totally disappeared. The town’s oldest record, dated 1384, states “It is 100 years since our children left.” A stained glass window (1300) in a Hamelin church which commemorated the event was destroyed in 1660.

King Geza II of Hungary (1141–1162) began the colonization of Transylvania in the mid-12th century to defend the southeastern border of his kingdom. A second phase came during the early 13th century. Saxons, as they were collectively known, were talented miners who could also develop the economy. The settlers came primarily from the Rhineland, the Southern Low Countries, Luxembourg and the Moselle region. To this day the Saxon dialect strongly resembles Letzebuergesch, the official language of Luxemburg.

Rats were not added to the story until 1599. Furthermore, the bubonic plague, the Black Death, did not reach Europe until 1348-1350.

The Saxons are an important element of Transylvania’s history. The vast majority of the Saxons have emigrated to Germany, but a few hundred still remain.

STOKER

Stoker wanted to call his novel Count Vampyr, or the Undead, when he discovered that the Romanian word Dracul meant Devil. He knew the legend of Vlad the Impaler from Wilkinson’s 1820 description of Wallachia and Moldavia. (But Wilkinson does not even use the name Vlad. He writes of Voivode Dracula.)

Vlad the Impaler was king on three separate occasions. He had acquired a fearsome reputation, but was also a defender of his territory against the Turkish invader. He ordered Turks and his Wallachian enemies to be skinned, boiled, decapitated, blinded, strangled, hanged, burned, roasted, hacked, nailed, buried alive, and stabbed. Impaling was his preferred method of execution.

Dracula scholars, notably Elizabeth Miller, argue that Stoker in fact knew little of the historic Vlad III except for the name “Dracula”. In Chapter 3, Dracula refers to his own background. Stoker directly copied parts of these speeches from Wilkinson’s book. Stoker’s gloomy, threatening Transylvania comes from books. The Irishman never travelled east of Vienna.

Stoker’s Dracula has many influences. Perhaps Dracula owes his existence to Celtic rather than Balkan sources. Stoker was born in the worst year of the great Irish famine and, although he lived most of his adullt life in England, he was steeped in Irish

mythology. Bram Stoker was just as fascinated by folklore and customs from his own country and other lands as well as those of Eastern Europe. Stoker was going to set his novel in Styria (Steiermark) when his attention was drawn to Transylvania.

Since the coup d’etat of 1989, there has been a marked increase in the number of books devoted to Romania and Transylvania. Of books published in the 20th century the most entertaining is Raggle-Taggle: Adventures with a Fiddle in Hungary and Roumania (1933) by that modern George Borrow, Walter Starkie, and the most exhilarating is Paddy’s Between the Woods and the Water.

I may be something of a romantic, but it is broadly true that, in Transylvania, Romanians, Hungarians, Saxons, Armenians, Jews and roma have been living peacefully with each other for centuries, a model for the rest of Europe.

Preserving Transylvania’s Heritage

You will recall that I recently brought to your notice the efforts of the Global Heritage Fund as it seeks to raise money for the building of a new brick kiln in the Carpathian mountains of Transylvania. This is a totally wonderful area. The landscape is beautiful; the fauna, including wolves, lynx, and brown bear, whilst still numerous is in danger; the cultural heritage is unique – German Saxons, Sekler Hungarians, Romanians and Roma living side by side; but there is little money to ensure that this region, that marked the border between medieval Christendom and the empire of the Ottomans is preserved, as corruption and neglect permits its steady decline.

There are now less than two weeks left for the Global Heritage Fund, in conjunction with the author of Along the Enchanted Way,  William Blacker, to raise the $20,000 that they need to build a new brick kiln in the traditional style, so they they can continue to restore the decaying houses and preserve this environment.

As a lover of Transylvania, I ask you to consider giving a few dollars towards this worthy campaign which will not only preserve the buildings in the traditional way, but also provide employment for local people so that they can continue to live in the area, and ensure a future for them all. To those who siad before that they would rather give towards Paddy’s house, I think I should say that whilst that is a worthy position, it is perhaps best to deal with what we have today, and there is talk of a solution for the house which may not require any further giving.

All funds will go to the project on the ground in Romania and I ask you to consider giving generously to the project by visiting the crowdfunding site here.

Some of my own personal images of the villages may inspire you further …

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Summer reading – The Transylvanian Trilogy by Miklós Bánffy

New BanffyMore Miklós Bánffy propaganda to make you go out and buy these fantastic books! They have recently been republished by Everyman’s Library.

You can buy them here. They were counted.The Transylvania Trilogy. Vol 1.

And of course, Elisabeth Jelen Salnikoff,  the elder granddaughter of Miklós Banffy will be speaking about her grandfather, his life and work at the exciting Transylvanian Book Festival 5-9 September; see you there!

by Julian Glover

First published in The Guardian , 5 August 2011

A few years ago a friend sent me three very large paperback novels – a trilogy about Hungary before the first world war – which he said I should read.

The Writing on the Wall, as the books are known (better than “the Transylvanian Trilogy”, the inadequate English alternative), did not look promising. Their covers were relatively austere and their author was a dead Hungarian aristocrat of whom I then knew nothing. They sat ignored until, by chance, I took the first of them to Spain one summer and, having nothing else to read, opened it.

Since then their author, Miklós Bánffy, has never been far from my mind. The elegiac wisdom of his writing makes him one of those people whose life you wish could have ended in something other than calamity. His three great novels, which are really one and should be read as such, are significant and addictive works. Word of their excellence is spread largely by private recommendation. I know no one who, having begun them, has not charged through to the end.

The three books – They Were Counted, They Were Found Wanting and They Were Divided – are at one level a sort of Austro-Hungarian Trollope, with sleigh rides in place of fox hunts and the Budapest parliament instead of the House of Commons. So far, so dull, you might think – except that Bánffy was a great storyteller (his factual account, in his book The Phoenix Land, of the 1916 coronation of the last Hungarian monarch is spellbinding), and wrote as a member of a class and the citizen of a country that had both been brought to ruin.

Bánffy published his books in Hungarian between 1934 and 1940. By then, the pre-first world war aristocratic tradition he describes was dead; or at least the political part of it, for the trappings lingered on – not least at Bánffy’s own great family castle of Bonchida, by then in Romania and destined to be partly destroyed by the Germans in 1944.

Bánffy died in 1950, his papers burned, his books out of print. One of the connected delights of this trilogy is that his daughter was one of the joint translators, and Bonchida (thinly disguised as Denestornya in the novels) is being brought back from a roofless ruin.

That will not return to us the Hungary of which it was once a part, and only a third of which remained in Hungarian hands after the 1920 Treaty of Trianon (an ill-deserved robbery). As Bánffy describes, some of this disaster was his fellow citizens’ fault – the product of their incestuous politics, their semi-subservience to the emperor in Vienna, and above all the closed nature of Hungarian society, which did not know how to deal with the continent beyond its borders. That remains true today: there is something mysterious about Hungary, and not only because of its isolated language.

If I have made these sound sour books, or purely political ones, then I have misled you. More than anything, they are human, and beautiful, and descriptive, and rooted in a land and its natural environment that are both gone forever and less far away than we might think. “The radiant afternoon sunlight of early September was so brilliant that it still seemed like summer,” the trilogy begins. This summer I urge you to read on …

Related articles:

Read more about Miklós Bánffy on the blog by clicking this link.

Help Build a Kiln in Transylvania

Malancrav, near Sighisoara, Romania

Malancrav, near Sighisoara, Romania

Global Heritage Fund UK and the Anglo-Romanian Trust for Traditional Architecture (chaired by William Blacker) have begun a project to protect and restore the cultural landscape of the Saxon villages of Transylvania.  The beautiful buildings are in desperate need of repair using only the traditional materials from the new kiln, and local people are in need of jobs. To address this, Global Heritage Fund is raising money to build a traditional brick and tile making kiln. Run by a Romanian expert, this kiln will directly employ locals and provide much-needed materials for the on-going work of restoration and conservation of the early vernacular buildings.

A crowd-funding site has been established to raise $20,000, of which they have raised almost $5,000,  and I support the attempt. If you would like to know more, and to donate, please visit the crowdfunding page here.

Transylvanian Book Festival Facebook page

FB pageThe new year has started off with a lot of activity for the team behind the very first Transylvanian Book Festival which will take place between 5-9 September 2013. The location is a great attraction, and those beautiful villages of the Saxon Lands in the Carpathian Mountains offer a unique location. More news coming soon.

The team hope that as many of you as possible can join themthere, but in the meantime, come on over and join the Transylvanian Book Festival page, by ‘Liking’ it on Facebook so you can keep up with the news and join in yourself.

Read more about the Festival here.

Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian trilogy to be published in new edition by Everyman’s Library

Count Miklós Bánffy

Count Miklós Bánffy

Many of the longer term readers will know that I am a true fan of the work of the great Hungarian-Transylvanian writer and statesman Miklós Bánffy. His Transylvanian trilogy is a masterpiece, and the autobiography, The Phoenix Land, re-published last year offers an insight to the character and soul of this intelligent, hardworking, and resourceful man.

Read more about Miklós Bánffy in the articles on the blog which you can find at this link.

I was recently contacted by blog reader Scott Walters from San Francisco who informed me about a new version coming out in 2013.

As you seem to be the go-to resource for all things Patrick Leigh Fermor, I thought you might be interested to know – assuming you haven’t heard already – that the English translation of Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvania trilogy (They Were Counted, They Were Found Wanting and They Were Divided), for which Paddy wrote an introduction and which you’ve blogged about on occasion – is going to be reissued this summer in hardcover by Everyman’s Library. Publication date is in July.

I’m thrilled about this – I’m a great fan of the trilogy and have long bemoaned the price of the existing paperback editions, which despite being reissued in 2010 still seem difficult to obtain at a reasonable price (though a Kindle edition is now available). That Everyman’s Library has opted for the work suggests that it’s finally attained the recognition it deserves. I posted an announcement on my blog, but should you put one on your Fermor blog I expect word will get out to more people who may be interested. All best, and a very happy new year.

I am grateful to Scott for getting in touch. Not so sure about the price issue as it affects UK readers. You can buy good copies of his work on eBay for around £8-£10. The Everyman versions appear to be coming out in July 2013 with a website price tag of $26 for a hardback edition.

All I can say is it is great that more people will read Bánffy, and that prices of books vary enormously depending upon where you are. Moral of the story is look around for bargains and read some Bánffy now!

The First Transylvanian Book Festival: 5th – 9th September 2013

The UNESCO World Heritage fortified church in Viscri

The UNESCO World Heritage fortified church in Viscri

If you enjoy literary festivals, want the opportunity to meet authors like William Blacker, and discover the romanticism and beauty of the Saxon lands of Transylvania whilst discussing the work of Patrick Leigh Fermor, then the place to be in September next year is the very first Transylvanian book festival which will be held during the period 5-9 september 2013.

Planning is well advanced. The event is being arranged by Lucy Abel-Smith who is an expert on Romania and has a house in the area. Her sister-in-law Caroline Knox is  assisting and has run the successful Boswell Literary Festival in Ayrshire for many years.

This will be your chance to join an exciting venture at its very beginning, in what I can assure you is one of the most beautiful places, full of history, romance and mystery right in the heart of Transylvania.

The list of authors who have agreed to speak is growing and includes William Blacker, whose acclaimed Along the Enchanted Way, has seen him hailed as heir to Patrick Leigh Fermor; Jessica Douglas-Home, author of Once Upon Another Time, will talk about the past under Ceausescu and her present work as chair of the Mihai Eminescu Trust, of which the Prince of Wales is Patron. Professor Roy Foster Oxford University and Historian expert on Bram Stoker and his influence on Literature; Michael Jacobs author of Robber of Memories.; and Artemis Cooper have been approached. Other talks will include writers from Romania’s strong literary tradition and will include those from the Romanian, Saxon and Hungarian communities whose work is internationally recognised.

Other talks will focus on the gypsies, the wolves, the wonderful wild flowers, life in the Saxon villages, Count Banffy’s epic ‘They Were Counted’ and inevitably the late Paddy Leigh Fermor. There will be organised walks, the opportunity for horse and cart rides in the beech woods, and the chance to take in some of Transylvania’s wonderful fortified churches

Accommodation will be in three villages in the heart of Saxon Transylvania: Copsa Mare, Richis and Biertan. All have fine churches and picturesque village houses that run as B&Bs. Minibuses will be on hand to transfer guests to picnics, visits and dinners. The costs are currently being finalised. Flights are not included but there are easy connections from Cluj, Turgu-Mures or slightly further afield, Bucharest. There will be a daily rate of entrance fees to the readings and picnics.

Please contact me – tsawford[at]btinternet.com – if you are interested in attending or would like to be on the circulation for more information. The organisers are also looking for sponsors either in cash or kind so please indicate if you or your company can help; all sponsors will be fully acknowledged in the programme and on promotional material, websites and in PR, and given complimentary tickets to events.

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In the forest above Viscri

Transylvanian hay-day – An afternoon’s diversion on the way to Constantinople, 78 years ago.

Between the Woods and the Water

As Nick Hunt is currently in the vicinity of the Hungarian-Romanian border on his walk in Paddy’s footsteps to Constantinople, I thought that it might be an appropriate time to publish this extract. It is one of the most memorable pieces of Paddy’s writing. What a way to spend a hot summer’s afternoon!

by Patrick Leigh Fermor

First published in The Spectator in 1986. This version 18 June 2011.

One day when we were invited to luncheon by some neighbours, István said, ‘Let’s take the horse’ and we followed a roundabout uphill track to look at a remaining piece of forest. ‘Plenty of common oak, thank God,’ he said, turning back in the saddle as we climbed a path through the slanting sunbeams, ‘you can use it for everything.’ The next most plentiful was Turkey oak, very good firewood when dry, also for stable floors and barrel staves. Beech came next, ‘it leaves scarcely any embers’; then yoke elm and common elm, ‘useful for furniture and coffins’. There was plenty of ash, too — handy for tools, axe-helves, hammers, sickles, scythes, spades and hay rakes. Except for a few by the brooks, there were no poplars up there but plenty by the Maros: useless, though, except for troughs and wooden spoons and the like. Gypsies made these. They settled in the garden and courtyard of the kastély with their wives and their children and whittled away until they had finished. ‘There is no money involved,’ István said. ‘We’re supposed to go halves, but, if it’s an honest tribe, we’re lucky to get a third. We do better with some Rumanians from out-of-the-way villages in the mountains, very poor and primitive chaps, but very honest.’

In a clearing we exchanged greetings with a white-haired shepherd leaning on a staff with a steel hook. The heavily embroidered homespun cloak flung across his shoulders and reaching to the ground was a brilliant green. His flock tore at the grass among the tree-stumps all round him. Then a path led steeply downhill through hazel woods with old shells and acorns crunching under the horses’ hooves.

It was a boiling hot day. On the way back from a cheerful feast, we went down to the river to look at some wheat. Overcome by the sight of the cool and limpid flood, we unsaddled in a shady field about the size of a paddock, took off all our clothes, climbed down through the reeds and watercress and dived in. Swimming downstream with lazy breaststroke or merely drifting in the shade of the poplars and the willows, we talked and laughed about our recent fellow guests. The water was dappled with leafy shade near the bank and scattered with thistle-down, and a heron made off down a vista of shadows. Fleets of moorhens doubled their speed and burst noisily out of the river, and wheat, maize and tiers of vineyard were gliding past us when all at once we heard some singing. Two girls were reaping the end of a narrow strip of barley; going by the colours of their skirts and their embroidered tops, braid sashes and kerchiefs, they had come for the harvest from a valley some way off. They stopped as we swam into their ken, and, when we drew level, burst out laughing. Apparently the river was less of a covering than we had thought. They were about 19 or 20, with sunburnt and rosy cheeks and thick dark plaits, and not at all shy. One of them shouted something, and we stopped and trod water in mid-Maros. István interpreted. ‘They say we ought to be ashamed of ourselves,’ he said, ‘and they threaten to find our clothes and run off with them.’

Then he shouted back, ‘You mustn’t be unkind to strangers! You look out, or we’ll come and catch you.’

‘You wouldn’t dare,’ came the answer. ‘Not like that, naked as frogs.’

What are these for?’ István pointed to the branches by the shore. ‘We could be as smartly dressed as Adam.’

‘You’d never catch us! What about your tender white feet in the stubble? Anyway, you’re too respectable. Look at your hair, going bald in front.’

‘It’s not!’ István shouted back.

‘And that young one,’ cried the second girl, ‘he wouldn’t dare.’

István’s blue eye was alight as he translated the last bit. Then without exchanging another word we struck out for the shore as fast as crocodiles and, tearing at poplar twigs and clumps of willow-herb, bounded up the bank. Gathering armfuls of sheaves, the girls ran into the next field, then halted at the illusory bastion of a hay-rick and waved their sickles in mock defiance. The leafy disguise and our mincing gait as we danced across the stubble unloosed more hilarity. They dropped their sickles when we were almost on them and showered us with the sheaves; then ran to the back of the rick. But, one-armed though we were, we caught them there and all four collapsed in a turmoil of hay and barley and laughter.

‘Herrgott!’ I heard István suddenly exclaim — much later on, and a few yards round the curve of the rick — smiting his brow with his hand. ‘Oh God! The bishop! The Gräfin! They’re coming to dinner, and look at the sun!’

It was well down the sky and evening was gathering. The ricks and the poplars and the serried rows of sheaves and haycocks were laying bars of shadow over the mown field and a party of birds was flying home across the forest. István’s hay-entangled hair was comically at variance with his look of consternation and we all laughed. Extracting strands of hay and the clinging barley, we tidied Safta and Ileana’s plaits, disordered by all this rough and tumble, and set off hand in hand with them for the river, István and I on tiptoe. ‘Poor feet,’ they murmured. After goodbyes we dived in and started the long swim back, turning many times to wave and call to those marvellous girls and they waved and answered until they were out of earshot and then, after a bend in the river, out of sight as well.

This piece first appeared in The Spectator in 1986; it forms part of Between the Woods and the Water (John Murray, £8.99). © Patrick Leigh Fermor, 1986.

Urgent! Can we help Nick locate Istvan’s kastely?

I know I could open BTTW but I might still find that I don’t know the answer so I thought in this electronic age the best thing would be to go viral with the question Can we Help Nick Find Istvan’s Kastely?

I received this note from Nick just an hour or so ago …

Tom

Thanks so much for your support with reposting some of my articles. I’m glad people seem to be finding them interesting. I’ve got one question about the Romanian leg of the journey — do you have any idea where Istvan’s kastely was? It’s somewhere east of Zam, near the river Mures, but there’s nothing more specific than that. I’ve had a lot of help on the other kastelys from someone called Ileana who works for this organisation – http://monumenteuitate.blogspot.com/ – involved in restoring and preserving historic buildings in Romania. She contacted me having found my blog somehow, and is really helpful. I’m not sure if she has any more clues about the location of Istvan’s place.
Hope all is well with you. Have you been travelling recently? Best wishes from Budapest… and soon from the Great Hungarian Plain.
Nick
Any clues or answers please email me or add a comment. I am sure we will crack this so thank you in advance!

Patrick Leigh Fermor The Art of Travel broadcast c.1990-1992

A recording of a BBC Radio 4 programme entitled “The Art of Travel” (broadcast c.1990-1992) in which Annette Kobrak interviewed PLF for about 26 minutes concerning his early life and his journey to Constantinople. There is some good discussion about his travels after Between the Woods and the Water, about Bulgaria and into Constantinople.

I am indebted to David Turner for taking the time to convert this to digital and very successfully too – the sound quality is excellent!

You can listen online or download (press the downwards pointing arrow on the right hand side menu bar of the player).

I have updated the Video and Audio page with the programme. Don’t forget to visit to find more interviews with Paddy.

Wild Carpathia

Sorry I just can’t help myself. Romania is so magical and beautiful; Paddy is reported to have said that after Greece he loved Romania the most. I have to share this video with you. It was funded by The European Nature Trust (TENT) which is based in Marlow, Berkshire. It’s mission is ” the protection and restoration of threatened wilderness, wild habitats and the wildlife living within them.” and it is focused upon Romania and Scotland.

This is a high quality version in English. Watch it and maybe support the work of TENT.

The all star cast includes lots of bears, even more mountains, and huge (but endangered) forests. Presented by Charlie Ottley, with Count Kálnoky, and HRH Prince Charles who thinks because he has some ancestral links to Vlad Dracul he has a ‘stake’ in the country.

Related article:

Lost in Transylvania

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

Along the Enchanted Way: A Romanian Story

It is all too easy get overly romantic about Romania, which is said to have come second only to Greece in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s affections. Whilst I can agree wholeheartedly with William Blacker when he describes the Romanian people as some of the most charming and civilised he has ever met, his story of his many years living in Transylvania is likely to polarise opinion about the necessity and pace of development in the Romanian countryside, but it is unlikely to disappoint as a tremendous read. 

By Tom Sawford

What can be more evocative to us than hearing the word Transylvania, and stories about a land that is still populated by wolves and bears that live in huge beech forests? Where many of the farmers still practice a form of agriculture that has changed little since the Middle Ages? A land where true Gypsies live chaotic lives dominated by music, dancing and the many local variants of clear sprit distilled from plums or pears? This is a frontier land where the kings of Hungary gave land to German Saxons in return for their promise to defend Hungary, and indeed Christendom, from the Tartars and the Ottomans, where even now the churches in the high Carpathian villages of Transylvania are also fortresses and places of refuge from deadly warbands and villains.

It was this world that William Blacker stumbled into in 1989 just at the time of the Romanian revolution, which, of all those dramatic events in that cold dark winter, was the bloodiest, ending with the summary execution of Ceausescu and his wife by firing squad after a quick trial. No drawn out Hague justice here.

After his first two relatively short visits Blacker made a decision in 1993 to move to Romania for an extended period and lived there pretty continuously until the late 2000’s. In that time he lived with a proud and hardworking peasant couple called Mihai and Maria in the fertile valleys of the Maramureş, a land that is 80% forest and is in the north of Transylvania near the border with Ukraine. It seems he was like the son they never had.

Willam Blacker demonstrates his scything skills

It was there that William bought his first scythe and learned to cut grass to make hay, stopping frequently during long working days to sharpen the scythe with a whetstone. Maria would carry lunch out to the fields and he enjoyed the opportunity of leisurely talk as they ate in the shade of a tree or a hayrick whilst they drank the local fiery spirit called horinca. A short nap always seemed to follow lunch and then it was back to work until sunset.

This pattern to his daily life in the Maramureş was only interrupted by the onset of the bitter cold, and the snow and ice of winter, which was a time when little work could be done, and was dominated by evening visits to neighbours, the downing of innumerable tots of horinca, and engaging somewhat self-consciously and half-heartedly in the formal courting processes of the countryside.

Natalia

In the end Blacker did not find a wife in the Maramureş but further south in the Saxon lands of Transylvania. He had walked through those vast and dark forests many years before and met a young Gypsy girl called Marishka. Some years later he returned to the village and encountered Marishka again, now a young woman, and her beautiful but flirtatious sister Natalia. Blacker fell in love with, or at least was under the spell of, Natalia and eventually they lived together for a brief but chaotic period. But it was the brave , uncompromising, and superstitious  Marishka that he later ‘married’. She bore him a son called Constantin who still runs with the Gypsy children chasing chickens and cuddling lambs in the village of Halma where he has a home.

This book cannot be described as a biography. Indeed, its subtitle ‘A Romanian Story  states clearly what Blacker is trying to achieve: to tell a tale. This he does convincingly with great charm and simplicity. However, we learn little about William’s other activities beyond farming and his somewhat turbulent love-life during his time in Romania.

We do know that he was concerned about the state of the buildings in the old Saxon villages following what can only be described as a mass migration of the Saxon people when Germany offered them citizenship in 1990. After 800 years of caring for their homes, village halls and churches, many wanted to seek what they thought may be a better life for themselves in the Fatherland. The twentieth century had not been kind to them as in turn they were forced to fight for the Germans, were taken away as forced labour by the Russians, and then continued to suffer under the Communist regime. The plaster on the walls of their homes crumbled; the roofs of their fortress churches leaked; and many Gypsy families occupied these buildings but in general failed to maintain them.

In Between the Woods and the Water, Patrick Leigh Fermor describes this Saxon village architecture as ‘… made to last and adorned here and there with a discreet and rather daring frill of baroque.’ The churches as ‘ sturdy … squat … with a tough defensive look’. In 1996 William Blacker published a pamphlet to highlight the plight of this unique heritage. This led eventually to the creation of a charity focused on the preservation and renovation of Saxon buildings. The pamphlet attracted the attention of HRH Prince Charles who is now Patron of the Mihai Eminescu Trust which  supports the maintenance of this heritage.

Viscri church

Prince Charles has since purchased two properties which have been renovated, which when not being used by the Prince on his annual visits to Transylvania, are available for rent as holiday homes. Whilst Blacker makes some mention of his campaign, and tells us about one or two specific projects that he undertook in the village of Halma, he could have mentioned more about his work in this field.  Clearly Blacker was leading a double life at the time; living and working amongst the country people, but also writing regularly to friends in England about this issue and most probably traveling backwards and forwards. However, he fails to tell us about this in any detail, and perhaps gives a slightly false impression of the Romanian focused continuity of his life at that time.  It was and remains an important part of his life and the story.

Prince Charles’s guesthouse in Zalánpatak, Transylvania

What Blacker does not shy away from is some aspects of the darker side of life in Romania. Whilst his time in the village of Breb in the Maramureş was perhaps the most idyllic, village life was frequently punctuated by tragedy. Death was not far away, whether by lightning strike, freezing to death in the long winter or drowning; tragedies that were often attributed by the deeply religious but also superstitious local people to magic and curses.

The rapid change in the lives of these villagers as economic development advanced is viewed negatively by Blacker. In his opinion they exchanged the hard work and seasonal cycles of their simple but ‘happy’ lives on the land for the unceasing demands and bondage of paid employment, and new forms of tragedy as tarmacked roads brought their own forms of death to the village.

Is it quite as simple as that? He fails to mention the crude outside toilets, the domestic abuse which is common in Romania, and the inability of the people to access medical facilities quickly in an emergency. He mentions a visit to a local vet where he obtains some penicillin for Mihai citing that the absence of a doctor, but the availability of a vet, demonstrated the priorities of the local people. Was that really the case?

His descriptions of the outright racism, exploitation, crude violence and corruption of the ex-communist police towards the Gypsies dominates the last period of his life in Halma (a name he has created to preserve the anonymity of his Transylvanian village). This is not unlike Miklos Bánffy’s descriptions of how some educated Romanian magistrates, tax collectors, and estate managers exploited the Romanian peasantry in his Transylvanian Trilogy. In the end Blacker is forced to make a stand resorting to the courts and a new generation of Romanian lawyers who fought for better rights and equality for peasants and Gypsies.

A Romanian Story  is a love story: of Blacker’s own loves, his love of Romania, and, with the exception of the corrupt, its people. It is full of romance and beautifully woven images of a way of life that is quite unknown to us in the West: one that has enormous attractions for us as many seek a simpler way of life. However, he also describes a country that is undergoing huge and increasingly rapid change.

Blacker is convinced this is to the detriment of the people of the Romanian countryside. My own limited experience makes me unsure. What I do know is that even those of my friends who are highly educated, and have what we might describe as good if still lowly paid jobs by Western standards, look upon their own country with enormous disdain and frustration as they experience widespread corruption, and poor standards in the delivery of public services. My answer to them is always that it is their generation that must remain in Romania and work for change. This may not come as rapidly as they would like, but they may be able to gift a better country to the next generation.

William Blacker has lived, loved and worked for change in Romania. ‘Along the Enchanted Way is a hugely enjoyable book that I highly recommend. In that I am in good company; Paddy described it as ‘a book close to my heart’. He was very supportive of William’s work which helps us to understand some of the many attractions of Romania and the challenges that remain. Read the book but remain aware that this is one man’s view, and that of someone who was able to make the choice to leave in the end.

For all that has changed the fact is that many of the agricultural practices that Blacker describes are still utilised; bears, wolves and lynx still roam in the vast forests; and the people are indeed charming, cultured and civilised. Perhaps we can all help Romania by visiting the country to marvel at its beautiful countryside, the unique flora and fauna, the mix of Baroque and Saxon architecture in Transylvania, and the famous painted monasteries? By supporting these rural communities we may enable enough people to remain in the countryside in improved circumstances to help preserve what remains of one truly unique part of Europe’s cultural heritage.

Related articles:

Paddy Reviews – Along the Enchanted Way: A Romanian Story

Prince Charles in Transylvania

If food be the music of love … Bánffy’s lover in Cluj (Kolozsvár)

I am currently reading two books. The first is a little known series that Paddy contributed to in 1962 about which I will say more very soon. The second is volume two of Bánffy’s trilogy. I am convinced of the semi-autobiographical nature of these books and I have become obsessed with trying to find the house in Cluj of the married woman, Adrienne, who becomes the lover of the hero Balint.

There are many clues, including street names, but Bánffy has been able to mix fact and fiction, and what is more, many of the street names have been changed from the traditional Hungarian to new Romanian names since 1918. I was discussing this with one of my work colleagues in Cluj, Boglarka Ronai, and I happened to say that I was convinced that Bánffy also had a lover in Cluj, and that Adrienne’s house in the story may have been based on this woman’s house.

We are not sure about the house part, but Bánffy did indeed have a long-term lover in Cluj, and Boglarka sent me the following article about her: Baroness Elemér Bornemissza née Karola Szilvássy. Quite bizarrely it is about a cookbook that she wrote. What is interesting is how the writer of the article positions the contributors to the cookbook within the context of the decline of the Hungarian nobility of Transylvania, and in some cases this had tragic endings. It was into this world that Paddy walked in 1934 as he enjoyed his long summer in Hungary and then Transylvania. I have not had the time to cross-check, but Paddy may well have met some of the characters mentioned in the article and written about them in “Between the Woods and the Water“. Many of those mentioned in the article were writers and members of a Hungarian-Transylvanian writer’s group, the Erdélyi Helikon. In the picture below I believe Count Miklós Bánffy can be seen second right sitting on the chairs.

Photo made at the second Erdélyi Helikon meeting at Marosvécs in 1927 (Banffy seated second from right?)

Here is the article by Iván Bächer from the Hungarian Quarterly. If ayone knows any more about the story or the people involved please get in touch with me:  tsawford[at]btinternet.com

The Taste of Old Transylvania

Baroness Elemér Bornemissza: Kipróbált receptek (Proven Recipes). Edited and with an Introduction by Ildikó Marosi. Csíkszereda–Budapest, Pallas—Akadémia Könyvkiadó, 1998, 153 pp.

A friend of mine brought a heartrending cookery book from Transylvania. At first sight the slim little volume looked ordinary enough; I expected some amusing oddity when I picked it up and read the name of the author—Baroness Elemér Bornemissza née Karola Szilvássy—and the title: Proven Recipes.

The cover showed a copperplate print of Marosvécs in the last century—I was able to identify it by the four sturdy corner towers. This Renaissance building on the site of the Roman castrum was, until recently, in the possession of the Kemény family—the descendants of János Kemény (1607–1662), Prince of Transylvania, who had fought the Turks and had been abandoned by the Habsburgs and Montecuccoli.

When I read the first recipe, I still thought I would be treated to a bit of “blue-blooded” diversion. Who in their right mind could take a recipe of Goose-liver paté à la Salzburg seriously, which requires three whole goose livers, of which two have to be soaked in lukewarm milk overnight, then fried with onions and white bread rolls previously also soaked in milk, then pounded in a mortar, pressed through a sieve, mixed with finely sliced truffles which had been soaked in sugared wine, then with more wine added, with cloves and pepper, and the whole mixture finely layered with the third goose liver, which had been fried, cut into thin slices, and then the whole thing finished in a hot oven.

Who would have time for all that today?

It was only when I read the foreword of more than thirty pages and then went through the recipes that my heart suddenly sank. Every single recipe permeated the air with transcience and death. What I held in my hand was the frozen, fossilized evidence of a social class, a culture and a world, which have been obliterated from the face of the Earth.

This class was the Hungarian aristocracy of Transylvania, which, as well as distinguishing itself in the culinary arts, maintained an extremely rich Hungarian tradition, culture and literature.

As Ildikó Marosi’s Introduction reveals, the book is the first publication of a hand-written cookery book. Besides being a fascinating document, an original collection of recipes found among the estate of János Kemény, the last titled resident of Marosvécs, it is invaluable also because in the case of most of the recipes the author also names the source: when and where the baroness had learned the secrets of preparing the dish concerned. And if we use Ildikó Marosi’s guide to keep track of the sources, then the book will, indeed, make heartrending reading.

Let’s get a foretaste of the names of people who cooked for Hungarian writers, poets and editors in Transylvania between the two world wars.

The author of the cookery book was Baroness Bornemissza née Karola Szil-vássy, daughter of the landowner Béla Szilvássy and Baroness Antónia Wass.

Karola’s character was captured in two novels by two twentieth-century Transylvanian writers of aristocratic blood, Count Miklós Bánffy (1874–1950) and Baron János Kemény (1903–1971).

Ever since her youth, Karola was a stunningly beautiful, unbridled and proud woman with a passion for fine food as well as for interesting, eccentric and talented people. She liked to have excitement around her, and when there were no scandals at hand, she personally intervened to remedy the situation. For many years, Karola had a housekeeper, who had been a convicted murderer’s lover, and whom she took into her house along with the hanged man’s child. Accompanied by one of her friends, herself a baroness, Karola travelled to South Africa—on rail, by boat and on a donkey—to erect a tombstone for her cousin, Albert Wass, who had died there while fighting for the Boers.

This extraordinary woman had a difficult time to find herself a husband; eventually she married Baron Elemér Borne- missza, but the marriage was a failure, and their only child died, so they lived separately, with Karola receiving a handsome allowance from her husband.

Between the two world wars, Karola made herself the heart and soul of the Kemény Zsigmond Society of Marosvásárhely, the publishing house Erdélyi Szépmives Céh, and the magazine Erdélyi Helikon. (Erdély is the Hungarian name of Transylvania.)

The society, which bore the name of the Kemény family’s greatest son, the novelist and liberal thinker Zsigmond Kemény, was formed after the writer’s death in 1876, and functioned until 1944. It acquired a unique role after Transylvania’s annexation by Romania in 1918, organizing and rallying the Hungarian writers and maintaining links with the mother country.

Erdélyi Szépmíves Céh was the most prestigious book publisher in interwar Transylvania, and Erdélyi Helikon, the magazine started by János Kemény, was published by them.

The writers who were associated with the publisher and the magazine—Károly Kós, Aladár Kuncz, Károly Molter, Jenoý Dsida, Benoý Karácsony and many others—annually gathered in János Kemény’s château in Marosvécs. On these occasions, Karola’s attendance could always be taken for granted, and all the memoirs name her as the spirit of the company. (below Karola is fourth from right)

In the castle park (Marosvécs?) 1942 From left to right: István Asztalos, László Szabédi, Albert Wass, Karola Bornemissza, Elemérné Szilvássy, Gizella Kemény, Berenice Kemény, Jánosné Kemény

In this way, Karola, the compiler of our cookery book, was at the centre of Transylvanian literary life, and her kitchen produced, from “proven recipes”, the fine food enjoyed by the writers and editors. Continue reading

Paddy Reviews “Along the Enchanted Way: A Romanian Story “

Paddy reviews  William Blacker’s book about his eight years living in rural Romania and is so inspired he let’s himself go “sends (my) thoughts winging back to earlier Moldavian scenes – to ghostly hospodars with their nearly mythical princesses in tall branched crowns, trooping around the walls of fortress-monasteries in frescoed processions.”

First published in the Sunday Telegraph 30 August 2009

Along the Enchanted Way: A Romanian Story

By William Blacker

‘Transylvania, the Banat of Temesvar, the Tatra mountains, Bukovina, Moravia, Bohemia, Wallachia, Moldavia, Bessarabia, the Carpathian range, the Maramures …’ these were the place-names in East Europe where William Blacker, a young, civilised and erudite traveller, hoped to settle and take root. The last of the names (pronounced Maramooresh) is a precipitous and ravishing Romanian region, where Blacker made his life-determining plunge into Europe, immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

The moment it fell, he headed for Dresden and then Prague, then further east still; he was in search of an older and wilder Europe. Soon he was hobnobbing with the descendants of Saxon families, brought there eight centuries earlier by Bela of Hungary to guard his eastern frontier from the Tartars, a transplanting which had changed everything. Seven western medieval cities had sprung up, monasteries and churches had followed, and the whole apparatus of the Middle Ages had come into being in the Carpathians.

An elderly Saxon couple took Blacker under their wing on sight, so did many others. The story teems with odd characters. One of them is an engaging, dissolute descendant of a Hungarian family who is the father of two fascinatingly beautiful girls, with a Romanian gipsy mother, with both of whom in succession William fell in love. Apart from their spirits and fine looks, these girls brought with them the whole geist of the gipsy world – its dialects, its manifold skills, its amazing singing and dancing and magic and, of course, as a tribe, its challenging knack of being forever at odds with the civic authorities. The wandering of their ancestors had brought the gipsies all the way from north-west India, through Persia and Egypt and the Levant, and scattered them over the West.

It was not just the Saxons and the gipsies that fascinated the new arrival. The Romanian influence proved equally strong. With the Magyar language to the west and Slavonic to the north and the south, and the Black Sea to the east, the Romanians speak the only Latin language in Eastern Europe, and they are proud of this linguistic heirloom. In AD 103 Trajan led his legions over his great Danube bridge, defeated King Decebalus and added the Dacian kingdom to the Roman Empire and the bas-relief of his victory was sent spiralling above his Forum in Rome and stands there still.

Romania is an extraordinary country. I remember it with great clarity, when I was 19, trudging from Holland to the Bosporus, those unending beech forests where the brooks fell from ledge to ledge, gathered in pools, or tumbled in waterfalls, where one could sleep in clearings among hollowed tree-trunks or ‘swing wells’ and scores of lambs, and be woken up by an old shepherd blowing down a bronze horn three yards long, a half-muffled and half- echo sound, like the trumpets of Tibetan shepherds. It was a world of icicles, birds calling, hayricks and scythes.

Perhaps to balance the complexities of his two love affairs, Blacker threw himself into raising funds for the upkeep and repair of the ancient buildings he had settled among. Like his friends, he was outfitted in rough white homespun and the padded and cross- gartered cowhide moccasins – opinci – which the upland shepherds wear all year.

William, who grew up on the South Downs and the north country and Ireland, brings all the skills of his unfettered upbringing to bear on Romania – horse-breaking, tree felling, haymaking and rick building – which, with a passion for the classics and literature and history, seem to have been a perfect run-in to this strange chapter of his life.

The rigours of snow covered the whole of his first winter. It was a time of rugging up soon after the early sunset and diving straight under the blankets and into The Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina by lamplight; in a later season the day would end with rowdy evenings at the Krcma – drinking tavern – of amazing dancing and song. I wonder if some of the evenings revolved, as in my young days, around a klaka of a hundred crones in a barn, all with spindles and distaffs and an endless gift for storytelling? One had to look out for the prints of wolves and bears on the way home.

This is a wild and captivating story, ending in great thanks to his neighbours in Maramures and Sighisoara – we are spared Vlad the Impaler – and also to his parents, who gave him such free reign in childhood. William Blacker has written a book close to this reviewer’s heart, and sends thoughts winging back to earlier Moldavian scenes – to ghostly hospodars with their nearly mythical princesses in tall branched crowns, trooping around the walls of fortress-monasteries in frescoed processions. With a change of pace these are followed by the author and his swarm of friends in a cantering troop of near-Lippizaners through the autumn beech woods. Nowadays it looks as though he might branch out much further south – down, down into Italy where, historically speaking, his nearest apposite neighbour might be Lars Porsenna of Clusium.