Tag Archives: Transylvanian Book Festival

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

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Routes of the Heart: Lucy Abel Smith’s Transylvania

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

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

Admission is free but by ticket from Eventbrite.

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

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

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

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

Free entrance. Please book your ticket on Eventbrite.

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.

It took Joan to make him a gentleman

Joan Eyres MonsellSome of you may remember that Simon Fenwick was the archivist who was first tasked by Paddy’s estate to make an initial pass at cataloguing his personal effects and papers. I have bumped into Simon on a few occasions since Paddy’s death. In conversation he has told me that he is working on a book about Joan Leigh Fermor from her own papers and diaries, and one that will give us a very different perspective on Paddy and their life together. It promises to be somewhat revelatory.

Simon is a speaker at the second Transylvanian Book Festival where he will be in conversation talking about Joan and her life with Paddy. When asked for a little snippet of the sort of thing we might expect he gave me this:

You asked for an insight into their private life. Well, when they met Paddy may have been an officer but it took Joan to make him a gentleman. Paddy was totally undomesticated and remained so. He flooded baths and spilt drinks over sheets. He also smoked 100 a day, habitually set the bed on fire and woke up in clouds of smoke. In one of his letters Evelyn Waugh refers to Paddy and Joan as ‘the Nicotine Maniac and his girl’. Not unnaturally Joan and he had separate bedrooms although hers was invariably covered in cats which he wasn’t keen on. I suppose Paddy was quite a good advert for the fact that smoking doesn’t always kill you.

Further details of Simon’s book will be available here on the blog in the coming months. Information about the Transylvanian Book Festival can be found here.

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.

Transylvania Diary

Bran Castle — but don’t mention Dracula

A gentle and humorous review of the very first Transylvanian Book Festival.

By Thomas W. Hodgkinson

First published in The Spectator 21 September 2013

Ehe-Gefängnis. The word, strictly speaking (which is how one should always speak), means ‘marriage prison’, and refers to an austere cell maintained in some of the magnificent fortified Saxon churches of central Transylvania. When a local couple decided to divorce, they were first locked in this narrow room for several weeks. There was only one bed: single. There was one chair, one plate, one knife, one fork, one cup. The result was that within a few days, the couple would realise they didn’t actually need a divorce after all — not because they wanted to escape the hell of enforced proximity, but because they had fallen in love again.

I’m here in the pastoral heart of Romania, attending the first ever Transylvanian Book Festival: a three-day extravaganza of talks, tours and readings, featuring bitter poets, wry novelists and rueful academics, and all of them what you might call professionally interesting. This sets the conversational bar pretty high over lunch, I can tell you. For one thing, since arriving in Romania, I’ve learnt that you should never, under any circumstances, mention Dracula. I mention him once, but I think I get away with it. Then up steps Professor Roy Foster, warily, wearily perhaps, to speak of the unspeakable. And of course he turns it around, delivering a vampirically mesmerising talk, showing how Bram Stoker’s masterpiece is ultimately all about Ireland. And transgressive sex.

Along with war, one of the great narrative themes (laying aside, for a moment, transgressive sex) has always been the return from war, and returning home generally. The Odyssey and other stories about the Greeks returning from Troy, collectively known as nostoi, set the tone. Our word ‘nostalgia’, referring to a painful desire to return, can extend to the pain felt when you get home and find it isn’t what it used to be. Nostalgia is also a theme of this festival. The villages where we’re staying — Richis, Biertan, Copsa Mare — were built by Saxons in alien Romania in the 12th century, and sustained until 1990. Lured by the promise of a better life, many modern Saxons then moved to Germany. They called it ‘going home’, though often their new lives were in concrete blocks, while their derelict farms fell apart. Now, with the help of the Mihai Eminescu Trust, and in co-operation with the Saxons who remain, these old buildings are being restored. I had an idea of writing a spoof travel book, detailing my ten years spent living among the people of Chiswick. Or possibly even ‘amongst’ them, which always sounds like a more profound level of integration. But what I’ve seen here is curing me of the conceit.

A night on the tiles with William Blacker. His book Along The Enchanted Way, about his years living ‘amongst’ the people of northern Romania, also describes his passionate relationship with a gypsy beauty named Marishka. After midnight, we enter a bar in Richis, which is packed with gypsies, including brooding boys and a girl with what I can only call a bluge (my invented word for a cleavage that defies gravity). The place falls silent as we come in. Should I lose the straw hat? William has a discreet word with the barman, who slips on a CD of gypsy music, and soon the dance floor is all movement: clicking fingers and smacked thighs. I tap my foot dexterously to one side. Wine, then beer: oh dear. Beer, then tzuika (the local brandy): eureka!

My fiancée and I have the occasional argument, shall we say. Anya, who languishes in London while I whoop it up in Richis, is Russian, and her deadpan manner can be disconcerting. I asked her recently what kind of man she found attractive. ‘Clowns,’ she replied. While I’m here, lawyers push the sale of our flat in Chiswick, which is the size of an Ehe-Gefängnis. We’re after something bigger, within striking distance of central London. Hold your sides, if they hurt from laughing.

But I mustn’t complain about property prices, with so much of interest going on around me. Artemis Cooper speaking about Paddy Leigh Fermor; Jessica Douglas- Home on the Mihai Eminescu Trust, which she runs; young Nick Hunt reading from his forthcoming book about following in Leigh Fermor’s footsteps; and all presided over by the seraphic Lucy Abel Smith, mistress of ceremonies. This has been, quite simply, the best and most inspiring literary festival I’ve ever attended. But more even than the readings, what has made it special has been the beauty of the countryside, the warmth of the locals, and — dare I say it? — the incredible cheapness of Romanian beer, which in a bar sets you back about 50p a bottle. All of which has persuaded me I’ve no choice really but to move to Romania. Now I just have to tell Anya.

“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.