When I last set out to hike into a foggy morning in Hungary, I had discovered Roman ruins. Thus, on the next November day that was just as foggy, I set out again, excited what I would discover this time. In Székesfehérvár, I take the bus no. 32 all the way to the last stop, where the city ends and the countryside begins, and walk east, where the sun is set to rise.
I discover: nothing.
At least initially. The fog is so dense, if I wasn’t an early riser and could estimate the time by how hungry I have gotten in the meantime, I wouldn’t even know if it was ante or post meridiem. Or if the sun had already ceased to work and we were merely enjoying its last rays.
The only birds I hear are crows. Crows cawing derisively as they see someone marching to his doom and demise. Dead trees stick out of the moor like the arms of sunken bog bodies. Are they crying for help, or are they trying to warn me?
I did notice the green wagon, but I’d rather not check on it. People who live out here and haven’t spoken to another soul for years might overreact when there’s a sudden knock at the door.
One kilometer further down, a fire is still smoldering, and I see a few men disappear into the mist. Probably peat cutters who are stocking up for the upcoming winter. It’s gonna be a harsh one, they say.
Here, too, I pretend not to have seen anything. I don’t want them to take me for the estate administrator or the county policeman and start shooting at me.
Sheep are standing by the wayside, but not happily chewing and baa-baaing as usual. Instead, they stare at me with apathy. As if they are bewitched. Or want to warn me of getting bewitched myself.
Maybe the shepherd lives in the wooden wagon? Or the peat cutters were poachers? Then why the fire? Why is everything so eerie around here? Where the heck is the sun?
I like nature, I really do. But when you’ve been out in nature long enough, you’re happy about any piece of civilization. In this case, it’s the railroad tracks. Relieved, I decide to follow them.
After all, they have to lead to Székesfehérvár. Or to another town. And if I am lucky, which is usually the case, there will be a train and the driver will spot me, stop the train and let me hop on, instead of running me over.
But apparently, the railway workers are on strike today, because there ain’t no train.
As I finally reach the next station, having walked the whole way, I realize that this has been suffering from a strike, too. Ever since World War II, by the looks of it.
But what is this?!
No, I don’t mean the two horsemen of the apocalypse galloping past me without a greeting, their heads wrapped in hoods, one with a rifle over his shoulder, the other with a dead sheep over the saddle.
I mean this:
Between the trees, in the middle of a large clearing, a building, with what seem to be two horns, timidly peeks out of the still dense fog. And not a normal building, no, but a castle! No idea how that got here.
I’m glad that I am alone. Because by now, any companion would be begging: “Andreas, let’s get out of here!” And I admit, the calls of the crows, the bodies in the bog, the thick fog, the peat cutters, the fire, the horsemen who looked more like ghosts than people, it is all a bit eerie.
But also tempting, isn’t it?
Anyway, my general rule is: If there is a castle (or a secret military object), I will inspect it more closely. Nice country estate, with a large park. You can still see the fountain even.
On the door, there is a warning that uninvited intruders may be electrocuted. Not very hospitable. But walking all around the castle, I notice an open window to the cellar.
Just as I let myself drop through the open window in such a smooth way that it looks like an accident, it occurs to me: “Oops, how am I ever going to get out again?” Sometimes, it would be better to travel with a friend.
Especially because the inside of the castle is no longer quite stable. And because I almost crash through the ceiling a few times.
Whoops, that was close.
But such are the risks I take in order to reward those of you interested in the interior design of palaces with exclusive photos from my holidays.
And there is the solution for the way back, as you can see. Out of the beams that are lying around, I can build a ladder with just a little bit of craftsmanship – skills which I still have to acquire somehow, though. Because without a ladder, I noticed, it would be impossible to climb out of the basement. Surely, these wooden pillars can’t be the ones supporting the whole palace, can they? I start pulling and dragging, with the castle groaning and wobbling. I just hope that there is no one walking past outside who can hear or see anything.
Speaking of outside: The sun is slowly coming out. And this not only makes everything warmer and more cheerful, it also instills me with the care-free confidence needed to simply jump from the balcony, putting an end to all the miserable DIY attempts.
And lo and behold, in the time I’ve spent in the catacombs, getting lost in the castle and fiddling with my escape plans, it has actually turned into a beautiful day.
Compared to the spooky fog images from just a few hours earlier, this is rather kitschy now, isn’t it?
In any case, it will become really kitschy a few hours later, when I get to the next castle. But that’s for another article.
Only later did I hear about Countess Báthory, who had murdered hundreds of young girls in order to bathe in their blood. But I don’t want to burden you with that story now. After all, you should visit and enjoy the castle without any bias.
You can also take bus no. 718, 8010 or 8013, which takes you very close to the castle. The bus stop is Csala Alsó. The ride from Székesfehérvár costs 400 forints (= 1 euro). The bus runs about every hour, even on weekends.
If you want to follow my route, take bus no. 32 from the train station in Székesfehérvár to the last stop, Kassai utca / Nagyszombati utca, and walk east from there, always following the path between the fields. At one point, you have to walk through a river, but it’s not deep, don’t worry. At the end of photo no. 5, you turn north/left, and soon you will see the castle. The walk takes no more than an hour.
If you have been walking for much longer without finding the castle, you got lost. Sorry!
But this is an honest and realistic travel blog. That’s why I don’t want to hide the fact that train travel also includes moments when you find yourself at the train station in Žiar nad Hronom in Slovakia before 6 o’clock on an October morning, waiting for the train to Šurany and for the sun to rise.
Once again, I noticed: The people who get up the earliest are railway workers and students. And of course travelers like me, who prefer to leave extremely early, if only to buy time to take it slow during the day, with spontaneous breaks whenever I feel like it.
By the way, the combination of getting up early, fresh air and chilly temperatures makes you both awake and puts you in a happy, energetic mood. Highly recommended!
And if you do need a coffee in order to wake up properly: The restaurant in front of the train station in Žiar nad Hronom is of course already open by 6 am. Of course I could also step inside the train station, with its warm waiting hall.
In many countries in Eastern Europe, the railway infrastructure is heaps better than in most other parts of the world. Even smaller stations will have opening hours either “from 4 am to 11 pm” or at least “always 30 minutes before the departure of a train”.
And at every station, even the ones where the train doesn’t stop, the stationmaster steps out of his cozy home to pay tribute to the passing train, his coworkers and the passengers.
Well, that’s how beautiful we could have it everywhere, if we hadn’t starved the railroads to death, depriving them of any investment. In many countries around the world, the railroad is a mere shadow of its former glory, with more and more lines being given up, stops cancelled, railway stations abandoned.
We should regard the railroad as a public service and as the veins that unite the nation and the continent, not as a profane corporation. In Slovakia, this almost philanthropic approach can also be seen in its prices. They charge about 5 euros per 100 km, and pupils, students and seniors can take the train for free. This also applies to foreign seniors, by the way, in case you were still looking for an affordable holiday destination.
Totally lost, I am fumbling through the Puszta fog, somewhere between Balaton and Buda, between Pannonia and Pest.
There is a surprisingly Romanesque church over here, a surprisingly communist star on the monument to the Soviet soldiers over there, and a river that I narrowly manage to avoid falling into.
And then, as I step out of the forest, I can spot the sun, slowly fighting its way through the mist. And a city. Or rather, ruins of a city, which seem to be uninhabited that very morning.
The fog feels that it has lost the fight, that an erudite explorer, our roving reporter, the successor to Indiana Jones will snatch the secret from its claws and jaws on that November day, and it vanishes as quickly as if it were urgently needed elsewhere. Minute by minute, it is turning warmer, sunnier, more colorful.
And I am standing there in awe, shaking my head in incredulity, and exclaiming again and again: “I can’t believe it!” Because before me, there is a city in ruins, so large, so vast, so beautiful and, above all, so surprising, here, in the middle of rural Hungary.
In my studies of history, I try to circumnavigate the ancient world as widely as Magellan circumnavigated the oceans. But still, I do catch up a few things here and there. And because the inscriptions on the dozens of tombstones are all in Latin, my guess is that this is some Roman stuff.
What many people don’t know, or if they do, then only due to my articles (example 1, example 2, example 3): The Romans were a pretty multi-cultural bunch and were not only at home in Rome, but all over Europe, in Asia and in North Africa.
This included Pannonia, which is in present-day Hungary. The city I have stumbled upon was called Gorsium and later Herculia. It was in its peak splendor between the 1st and the 4th century AD and received visits by quite a few emperors. If it used to be anywhere near as beautiful as it is now, then I can certainly understand why Trajan (the one with the column), Caracalla (the brutal one), Hadrian (“Build that wall!“) and Septimius Severus (who hailed from Africa and would therefore be turned away at the Hungarian border fence today) undertook the long journey.
Beginning with the 5th century, the Romans vanished, leaving the steppe to the Huns, and Gorsium-Herculia fell into oblivion. It was not until the 20th century that excavations began, and perhaps Gorsium is less well known than Pompeii, Hadrian’s Wall or Palmyra because it was on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain until 1990. There is still no article in the English-language Wikipedia about this impressive ancient city. Even in the “New Pauly”, Gorsium gets only a few lines.
But it is well worth a visit! Even for people who know nothing at all about Roman tombs, columns and temples. The excavation site is laid out like a sprawling landscape park, with golden autumn leaves, Mediterranean trees, and cozy benches, perfect for sitting down with a book and a cigar.
And it’s probably worth coming back in a few years. Because allegedly, only 7% of Gorsium has been excavated so far.
So, what has been the most surprising place in the world for you to come across Roman history?
Gorsium is open daily from 10 am to 6 pm, at least officially. In reality, the area is too large to close it off.
The entrance fee is 1200 forints (= 3 euros), although the ladies at the ticket office allowed me to enter without paying. But that probably only works if you are as likable as I am.
From/to Székesfehérvár, the next major town, there is a bus every hour. The bus stop is in the village of Tác. From there, it is a short walk to Gorsium. (Caution: I am one of those people who actually always and everywhere says that it is “only a short walk”.)
Or you take the train to Szabadbattyán and either the bus from there or the foot/bike path along the river. I hitchhiked from Szabadbattyán (at the railroad crossing) and caught a ride after a mere few minutes.
The tobacco shop in Tác (not far from the bus stop) even has cigars. Perfect for a few pleasant hours in Gorsium! In memoriam of the poor Romans who had not yet invented tobacco and thus became extinct.
That’s the question asked in many a household on the northern hemisphere these days.
This cat was clearly waiting for me to initiate the heating season.
When I explained to her that I try to abstain from using the heater as much as possible, for environmental, financial and geo-political reasons (especially here in Hungary, a country which is buying more, not less Russian gas), the cat soon found another solution.
And then, taking it from there, we found a joint solution to keep each other warm without fueling Russia’s war against Ukraine.
So, don’t lament about the high gas prices. Just get a cat!
One of the things I like about house-sitting is the arbitrariness of it.
Sometimes, I get invited to cities like Vienna, Berlin or Stockholm. Places that everyone would want to go to, with plenty of things to see, cultural activities to indulge in, and friends to make. (Well, maybe not in Stockholm.) Cities where nobody asks what on earth I am doing there.
But just as often, I get invited to villages in the countryside. Places like Oberstenfeld, Venta Micena or Chastre. Places that I never knew existed. Villages that I would never have visited otherwise. Where everyone wonders what on earth I am doing there.
I enjoy both of these categories equally, especially when they alternate.
First, I soak up big city life and everything it has to offer. Then, I retreat to a village, where I can read books all day.
This month, it’s village time again, as I find myself in Lepsény. That’s in Hungary.
There won’t be much to write about, not least because I find Hungarian an impenetrable language. Almost none of the words are similar to any other language I know. (The Hungarian language used to have many more loanwords from Latin and German. But in the 18th and 19th century, the age of nationalism, Hungarian linguists invented tens of thousands of new words to replace anything that sounded vaguely foreign. Thank you!) When I am at the supermarket, I can only buy things that are sold open or that have a picture on the packaging. As if I was illiterate. Today, looking for milk, I luckily found a carton that had a cow on it.
So, instead of stories, here are a few photos, for you to imagine life in a typical Hungarian village.
I don’t actually mind a small village, as long as the owners leave me a car or – even better – there is a train station. Having grown up in a village (in Germany) with terrible public transport myself, I am always amazed when small villages have a train station.
Lepsény, with a population of around 3.000 people, not only has a train station. It has, and that really blew my mind, direct trains to Budapest, to Zagreb and to plenty of other beautiful cities.
Also, I can always take a walk down to Lake Balaton.
More about house-sitting. After Kyiv, this is only my second cat-sitting in Eastern Europe. But I would love to come to this part of the world more often, in case you know anyone who needs a house/cat sitter.
In some months, the centenary of a historical event almost forces itself into the limelight. In October 1922, Benito Mussolini and his fascists came to power in Italy. Exactly 100 years later, a woman from the fascists’ successor party is elected prime minister in Italy. An open admirer of Mussolini is elected president of the senate. The dictator’s grave is a place of pilgrimage.
But we have covered Italy in this series before, when I introduced the proto-fascists of Fiume. And you have been reading about this in the newspapers and listening to it on the radio the whole month already. This series, however, likes to put the obvious events to the side and instead shine a light on the less illuminated spots of world history.
One of the countries unjustly neglected is Romania.
This finally gives me the opportunity to combine this history series with a travel story. And it so happens that I haven’t been to Bolzano or to Rome this summer, but in Alba Iulia. In German, the city is called Karlsburg, but because the it is now indisputably in Romania and no longer in Austria, I will use the Romanian name. After all, we don’t want to be like the Hungarians, who use their unpronounceable Hungarian names for all cities to which they lay irredentist claims, i.e. Gyulafehérvár or Károlyfehérvár or Erdélyifehérvár in the case of Alba Iulia. Buying a train ticket in Hungary to a city in a neighboring country is an ordeal each time, because the railroad staff insist on using the Hungarian name. Vienna is called Bécs, but if you mispronounce it, you end up in Pécs. Probably, the whole Hungarian tourism sector lives off foreigners who can never leave Hungary because they don’t know that Bratislava is called Pozsony and Cluj is called Kolozsvár.
But back to Alba Iulia, and with that straight to Italy again. Because what do we find in Alba Iulia?
The Capitoline Wolf with baby Romulus and baby Remus!
Because – to summarize things in a way which is only slightly oversimplifying – Romania is the real successor to the Roman Empire. This was the place where the Romans settled after having battled and then made up and mixed with the Dacians. This explains why Romania is that island of Romance language deep in Eastern Europe. If you ever go there and speak Italian or Spanish, you will be surprised by how much Romanian you can understand or at least read.
And that’s not some crazy claim by me or by Romania. Quite the contrary, it is also recognized by Italy. Because the wolf statues, which you find in front of almost any city hall in Romania, were given as presents by Italy. During the time of Mussolini! Shocking how everything is always connected with everything else, but we don’t have the time to get lured into that particular rabbit hole today.
Because we want to focus on 15 October 1922, when King Ferdinand I was crowned as King of Greater Romania.
That Ferdinand came from the German town of Sigmaringen, which is why his full name was Ferdinand von Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen. Now, if you know how bad the Hohenzollern family has been for Germany, setting all of Europe ablaze, committing war crimes, genocide and plundering the German people, you are going to wonder how anybody could be so stupid as to pick a Hohenzollern guy. Especially in 1922, after all of this was well known.
Well, if Romania had had a choice in 1922, they surely wouldn’t have made that mistake.
But Ferdinand had already been King of Romania since 1914. He had inherited the job from his uncle Karl, who, as Carol I, had been Prince of Romania since 1866 and King of Romania since 1881 and who had no surviving children of his own.
Newly established countries inviting a foreign prince to rule over them was nothing extraordinary at the time. In the 19th century (and in the United Kingdom until today), people could not imagine how a country could function without a monarch. And thus, countries like Greece, Bulgaria, Finland or Romania went looking for a prince, preferably a second- or third-born son, who couldn’t expect to inherit anything worthwhile at home. Someone like Prince Harry. Or like Eric Trump. If he isn’t in prison already.
Romanians first inquired with the Belgian royal family, but none of them was interested. Considering how Belgium governed in the Congo, this was a stroke of luck for Romania. Although Romania’s colonial history is nothing to be proud of, either.
The Hohenzollern family, on the other hand, were never plagued by lack of ambition. Also, Romania had gold. And thus, Prince Karl Eitel Friedrich Zephyrinus Ludwig von Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen accepted the job offer.
King Carol I made some good decisions and some bad decisions. Large infrastructure projects, the railroad, bridges across the Danube, and one of the most beautiful royal castles in the world, Peleș Castle.
When World War I began in 1914, King Carol I wanted Romania to join the war on the side of the Central Powers. For one because of the secret treaty with Austria-Hungary, but also because the German war emperor Wilhelm II was his cousin.
But Romania is both a peaceful and a Francophile country. (Because of the common Latin origin, Romanians find it very easy to learn French. And when they come to Paris, they think, “Oh, this looks almost as fancy as Bucharest.” But because Western Europeans dominate the cultural discourse, Bucharest is called the “Paris of the East” instead of the other way around.)
Romanians had no desire for war, let alone war against France. Moreover, they did not have too much sympathy for Austria-Hungary, because the Romanians living there (mainly in Transylvania) were suffering from the Magyarization policy. So they refused to serve in the war. Nationwide. The German-Prussian king was so enraged by this refusal to obey his orders that he died out of protest in October 1914, only two months into the Great War.
And that’s when his nephew, Ferdinand I, became King of Romania.
He happened to be married to a British lady (who, for reasons of gender equality, had also been crowned queen), so that war against Britain would have been a constant bone of contention at the family dinner table.
And so King Ferdinand I bowed to the will of the people, remained neutral until 1916, and then led Romania into World War I on the side of the Allied Powers.
Kaiser Wilhelm II was so furious about this, he had Ferdinand erased from the Hohenzollern family tree, although this probably left the Romanian king quite cold. Especially when it became clear that Germany and Austria-Hungary would be the big losers of World War I.
To illustrate the consequences of that war for Romania, I should finally make use of a map, I guess.
The area marked in piggy pink was Romania before World War I, practically the union of the principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia. This was the territory of which Carol I was first prince and then king.
When World War I was over, all the lilac areas also wanted to belong to this likable country: Transylvania (which is simply the name of a beautiful region in Europe, even if it makes you think of vampires), parts of Banat, Maramures, Crișana and Sathmar, the southern part of Bukovina and Bessarabia (the latter is today’s Republic of Moldova).
Suddenly, Romania was twice as large as before. That’s what happens when you’re on the right side in a world war and you speak a lot of foreign languages, so you can easily navigate your way around the peace conferences in Versailles, Trianon and so on.
Speaking of Trianon: I’m spending this month in Hungary, and in every little village here, there is a monument proclaiming that this treaty will never be recognized under any circumstances. The trauma of Trianon sits so deep, not least because it is constantly reactivated by the government, that I will have to dedicate a separate article to it.
Ferdinand I was already King of Romania, but because his workload had now increased considerably, the Romanians thought it only fair to ask if he wanted to continue being king. After all, no one should be forced to work overtime every night against his will. Besides, he would henceforth have to go on longer business trips with the notoriously slow Romanian railway. The king said, “I can do that,” and the Romanians were so happy that they vowed to have another coronation ceremony.
And because people insisted on building a new coronation cathedral for this purpose, it took until 15 October 1922, when Ferdinand I and Mary, King and Queen of Romania, were once again crowned King and Queen of Romania. I think this is a very healthy approach. Sometimes, you have to pause in life and ask yourself “Do I really still want this?” instead of mindlessly muddling along in the same job year after year.
Because I was in Alba Iulia this summer, I can show you some photos of the coronation hall and the coronation church. In the latter, the oversized (because of Greater Romania) crown still hangs from the ceiling.
On hot days, I like to visit churches, to have a rest. However, Orthodox churches have no pews to sit down. Fortunately, right next to it is the Roman Catholic, i.e. the Hungarian church. Because the Hungarians (and Germans and other ethnic minorities) were, of course, allowed to continue living in Transylvania, although they all became Romanian citizens in 1920. In this part of the country, you still hear both languages, and there are cities, e.g. Târgu Mureș / Marosvásárhely, where half of the population speaks Hungarian. And landscapes like Szeklerland, where 90% speak Hungarian. The only important thing is, like here in Alba Iulia, that the Hungarian Catholic church must never be taller than the Romanian Orthodox church.
“Don’t support begging!” a sign says, as I exit the coronation church. That’s funny because the Orthodox Church is the most persistent beggar of all.
But you don’t go to Alba Iulia for the churches. Nor for the coronation hall. Not even for the very extensive museum. No, you visit Alba Iulia because of the citadel, where all these aforementioned buildings and the whole old town are located. A huge, heptagonal fortress, built – in order to avoid disputes between Romanians and Hungarians – by the Habsburgs. There used to be many such fortifications, but rarely are they so well preserved and – because the new town has established itself at a respectful distance – so clearly recognizable as in Alba Iulia.
I set out for a walk. On the one hand, it is stupid to do so exactly at midday, when the temperature is at its hottest. On the other hand, but I can’t know that yet, it’s clever because this is the only way I will be back before nightfall.
Because walking around the citadel of Alba Iulia is a Herculean task. (Probably that’s why Hercules had to go to the nearby spa, bearing his name, after this walk.) From the distance, you can’t see how winding and wide the paths are, but when you walk in the moat, the towering walls make you realize painfully how trapped and lost you are.
I will give the architects the benefit of doubt that their intention was to increase the defensive capability, not to lead harmless tourists to their deaths. But they should at least put up warning signs, informing unsuspecting visitors that it takes several hours to walk around the old town. The path keeps twisting and turning. The seven corners turn into many more intermediate corners, subcorners, side corners, ancillary corners. Soon, I have lost all sense of orientation. Fortunately, about every hour there is a water dispenser in the moat, which apart from that and myself shows few signs of life.
This fortress must be the largest fortification in the world. Or maybe the second largest after the Great Wall of China. But I am not even sure of that, because the Chinese Wall is not laid in such tricky folds that visually deceive about its length. Before each corner, I hope to see the staircase that leads back to the old town. But behind every corner, there is only disappointment. And fascination with the sheer size and indestructibility of this building.
Ferdinand I suffered a similar fate with Greater Romania as I did with my walk. He, too, had taken on too much and died of exhaustion as soon as 1927. The new king was his then 5-year-old grandson Michael I, who had quite an eventful life: becoming king while still in kindergarten, then overthrown by his own father, proclaimed king again during World War II, dictatorship, royal coup d’état against the dictatorship, changing sides in World War II (from Germany to the Allies), overthrown by the communists, exile, return to Romania after Ceaușescu’s downfall, arrest, renewed exile for five years, and yet another return to Romania.
The history of Romania is so exciting and multi-faceted, I really don’t understand why hardly anyone is interested in it. And as you can see from the photos: the country is easily worth one or rather several visits.
In the meantime, Romania has become a bit smaller again, because the Soviet Union cut off a piece after World War II, which is now independent as Moldova. People still speak Romanian there, even though they call the language Moldovan. But the only people who claim that there are big differences between the two are those who have never been to the other country. Honestly, the differences between German, Austrian and Swiss German or those of the English spoken north and south of Hadrian’s Wall are much more pronounced.
In both countries, you also see graffiti stating that Bessarabia (the historical and geographical designation for the territory of Moldova) is part of Romania. And sometimes, people march from Chișinău to Bucharest or vice versa to express this demand for reunification.
Even the Moldovan entry for this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, “Trenulețul“, is about a train ride between the two capital cities, stressing the similarities between both countries.
I once took the train to Moldova (and onward to Transnistria), and they really have such beautiful old trains with a living-room look. Each carriage has its own conductor who sells meatballs, pickles and vodka, handing it over the counter adorned with a flowery table cloth, like in your grandmother’s apartment. The vodka helps against plutonium, which is smuggled frequently in Transnistria. (That’s why I am relatively unimpressed by Russian nuclear threats. I believe most of the plutonium has already been sold on the black market.)
On the way back, I took the bus, and the driver slipped contraband to each passenger. Because no one else made a fuss about it, I didn’t want to be the spoilsport and also took a large bottle of clear liquid and a carton of cigarettes under my wing.
The reunification of Moldova and Romania is not even a bad idea. In any case, it would be the fastest way for Moldova to enter the European Union. They would just have to do what East Germany did in 1990 and simply join an EU member state, in this case Romania. That way, you don’t need to go through the tedious process of applying for membership, lengthy negotiations, and all that lawyer crap.
On the other hand, this would put the smugglers out of work.
I like going to cemeteries. Often, they are quieter and more pleasant than the local park. Some are of artistic value. And then, I learn a bit about the local culture and history.
In Romania, I was recommended a cemetery that is even supposed to be amusing: the merry cemetery of Săpânța.
It is only 20 km from Sighet. That should be manageable by hitchhiking. But at the turnoff to Satu Mare, I stand for 25 minutes just as unsuccessfully as the Jehovah’s Witnesses on the opposite side of the road.
Depressing. As if made for a day at the cemetery. But I don’t want to give up. Not yet. Instead, I walk a few hundred meters further out of town, until after the hospital, and try again. Here, already the third car stops.
The driver is from Slovakia, but lives in Maramureș. Or he is from here, but ethnically Slovak. I didn’t understand that exactly. But then, I don’t think it really matters around here either, because people still think in terms of Habsburg regions like Ruthenia or Volhynia or Galicia. All these nation states that were created after the First World War, that’s a rather newfangled thing.
The excessively large and excessively out-of-place concrete church in Sarasău is also rather newfangled.
But the stork nests on every second or third power pole preserve the village character along the road. Three or four storks are frolicking in each nest. The birds may be endangered elsewhere, but not here. And the child-delivering birds are quite fitting indeed for a country where abortion and contraception were banned until 1989, and where childless people had to pay an annual penalty tax amounting to something like a month’s income.
Remember the photos of the overcrowded orphanages that briefly opened the world’s charity checkbooks after the fall of anti-abortion activist Nicolae Ceaușescu? Well, now you know where all those children came from. But I guess we will soon see the results again of forcing women to give birth, in places like Poland and the United States.
As it happens, the friendly driver has to go to a hardware store in Săpânța, which is located just below the cemetery. This happens often with hitchhiking: First you think that no one is stopping at all. Then a driver comes along and takes you to your destination with pinpoint accuracy. I think this is the first cemetery for which I have to pass souvenir stands and snack bars and pay a small entrance fee of 5 lei (= 1 euro).
This cemetery is so famous because every deceased person receives a wooden plaque with a personal image and a poem about his/her life, most of them allegedly amusing.
Now I regret that I don’t understand Romanian. For a while, I can listen to a Romanian visitor translating to his Spanish wife, but after a while, it’s getting too obvious that I am always staying close to them.
Thus, like the illiterate worshipers of former times before the frescoes of the Moldavian monasteries, I am dependent on the pictorial narrative. Many carvings seem to revolve around the profession of the protagonists. A doctor with an airplane signifies that he once brought the vaccine to the village. Hunters, woodcutters, and butchers are shown at work. However, I fail to understand why a hunter’s membership in the Communist Party is so prominently highlighted.
Several carvings refer to the manner of death. Some offer real criminal cases, from involuntary manslaughter in road traffic to vigilante justice by chopping off the head of a cattle thief caught in the act.
Now, I just hear that those among you who speak Romanian, will step forward to translate these limericks. Mulțumesc!
There is probably no other village in the world whose history is documented in such detail. A treasure trove for ethnologists and microhistorians.
The church, as you can see, is also quite cute. However, the artists who decorated its interior in a rather serious and conventional way receive only a fraction of the attention and recognition. Perhaps they should have let Stan Ioan Pătraș take care of the church, too.
What is unfortunately missing from all the professions depicted on the graves is an exterminator. Because exactly at noon, swarms of large insects are attacking the cemetery and indeed the whole village.
From this biblical plague – I think it is the third or the fourth one – I seek refuge in the nearby forest. If you ever come to this mysterious gate in that forest, I advise you to go walk through it and follow the path.
Because it will lead you to the tallest wooden tower in the world. The church tower stands 75 meters tall and is located in a clearing, which I guess is the result of cutting down enough timber for the construction of said tower. The newly built Peri-Peri monastery next to it clearly shows which institution in Romania does most certainly not suffer from any lack of money.
For the way back, I am standing by the main road again, and this time the second car stops. The driver is happy to take me to Sighet, but wants 10 lei for it. That’s 2 euros for 20 km, a moderate price. In Eastern Europe it is not unusual that private vehicles take gas money. The amount is usually the same as the price of a bus ticket for the same distance.
And when the woman in the back gets out halfway and also gives the driver some money, I realize that he does this for a living. With the 10 lei, he can only afford one liter of “petrol combustibil” anyway, he complains, pointing to the display of a gas station we just passed. He is right. And that despite Romania having its own oil fields, which were heavily fought over in World War II.
The only thing bothering me about this kind of not-quite-hitchhiking is the carbon footprint. Because the driver didn’t really have to go to Sighet. And at home, his Ukrainian wife is waiting. They run a guesthouse together. It remains unclear whether she is from Ukraine or whether she is an ethnic Ukrainian from Romania. But as pointed out above, it doesn’t really matter, because modern nation-states, which have only been around for 100 to 150 years, have by no means supplanted the cross-border Carpathian identity. But on this topic, I can conveniently refer to another article of mine.
As he drops me off in Sighet, I realize that I actually don’t get it why people put so much thought into a grave. Personally, it would be embarrassing for me to take myself or to be taken so important, whether carved, painted or by poem. No, I’d rather be buried in some hole where no one knows me.
On my journey to Kremnica, I had to stop in Bratislava for one night. I was not in the mood for writing those days, hence just a few photos:
Although I only had time for one afternoon walk and one morning stroll, I took quite a liking to Bratislava. And I began to wonder why so many elegant capital cities are located on the Danube River, with Vienna, Budapest and Belgrade being the other ones.
Definitely a city I would love to spend more time in! If someone ever needs a cat-sitter there, please let me know.
When you arrive at the train station, you can get a day ticket for zones 100+101 and one for the whole network. Because I wasn’t sure how far I would go by tram, I opted for the latter, paying 6.90 € instead of 4 €. It turned out that the cheaper one is absolutely enough if you are staying in the wider Bratislava region. (The more expensive one was actually a day ticket for the whole national railways service, which came in handy the next day.)
After my brother and I unexpectedly and rather accidentally discovered a secret Yugoslav submarine port in Montenegro (please read that story first, otherwise this one won’t make any sense), we were still completely excited and out of our minds until late into the night. We probably even drank a glass of Rakia or Amaro Montenegro. Or rather half a glass each, because we are sensible guys.
The next evening, I met with a Montenegrin friend who, for some unfathomable reason, had not yet noticed how cool and adventurous I was. So I proudly, enthusiastically, extensively and possibly with some embellishment told her about our adventure in the submarine base, on board of the warships and in the sights of the Montenegrin naval snipers.
Because my idea of romantic relationships is based solely on James Bond movies, I thought that she would reply: “Oh, Andreas, you’re such a hero! But if the Montenegrin Navy is after you, you will have to go into hiding. Luckily, I have a cozy cabin in the mountains, where we can hide for a few years.”
In reality, she said: “Oh, the submarine tunnels near Luštica? I sometimes swim all the way out there in the summer.” She said it in the same tone one would use to convey the information that one had stopped by the grocer on the way home to get some milk.
I was glad that it was winter, otherwise she might have invited me to join her and would have realized that I don’t know how to swim at all.
And then she suggested: “If you are interested in such places, you should visit the military airport near Željava. That was the largest underground air base in the world.”
“How can an airport be underground?” I asked, obviously as inexperienced in airports as I am in other things.
“Željava is located in the Plješevica mountains. The runways are above ground, of course, but the hangars are built into the mountain. And the pilots can start their takeoff underground, so they spend as little time as possible on the tarmac once they leave the mountain.” That is useful when you are worried about enemy missiles.
“We could actually visit it, because it’s all abandoned now. However, the area lies directly on the border between Croatia and Bosnia, so there are still mines everywhere in the forest.” Because Croatia is rather unfriendly to refugees, Afghans, Syrians and Iranians now spend the winter in these concrete bunkers. From time to time, one of them steps on a landmine and explodes. It is always sad to see when countries are hostile towards refugees, although, just a few years ago, their own population had to seek safety from a war.
And then she said, offhandedly: “The complex in Željava is also where the Yugoslav space program was developed.”
I didn’t say anything, but I guess you could tell that the existence of a Yugoslav space program was news to me. As it probably is to you.
And so I learned that Yugoslavia had the third largest space program after the USA and the USSR. But that Yugoslavia needed money and therefore sold its space program to the USA. That the families of Yugoslav engineers were told that their fathers, husbands or sons had died, but in fact they moved to Florida. And that NASA could fly to the moon only thanks to Yugoslav technology and experts.
If I did not believe it, I should simply look up which country was the first to be visited by the astronauts of Apollo 11 after their return, my friend said. She was right: Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin paid tribute to Yugoslavia. And why were Tito and Kennedy such close friends?
However, there seems to have been a problem. Some say that Yugoslavia had fudged the calculations, which is why quite a few Apollo missions blew up at launch. Others say that the CIA was against cooperation with Yugoslavia, which is why it was no coincidence that Kennedy was shot a month after his last meeting with Tito. Some say that the USA demanded that Yugoslavia pay back the billions received, and that this is precisely what led to Yugoslavia’s bankruptcy and consequent breakup. Others blame the USA for a more active role in that breakup, allegedly out of revenge for the space fraud.