Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Trip to Transylvania

Matthias Corvinus, Hungarian King, Cluj-Napoca

Last week I went on the excursion to Transylvania. It was a five days of exploring the country rich with legends, myths and history. We stopped briefly in Hungary, but majority of our visit was focused on Romania. All in all it was a great trip with a lot of things worth seeing.

It was a long and boring drive to Oradea where we arrived so late we just had to skip it in order to stay on course for the next couple of days. We arrived late in the evening each and every day. I can safely say that by the third day we managed to discover of how to sleep on the buss in the best of the all bad positions. What can I say, if you are tall, like me, there is little you can do. Seats are too short, space for legs nonexistent and only thing you can do is to suffer it through.

First day was the worst. We had over 700 kilometers to drive to our final destination with only one thing worth seeing in Hungary, Zalavar, where there are still ruins of long forgotten Romanesque church that was important for the area in time of Christanization of Slavs. All in all, nothing special. Just a great amount of ruins. A couple of statues of Saints Cyril and Methodius, the pair that gave Slavs their alphabets, Glagolitic and Cyrilic. (word glagolitic comes form the old Slavic word for talking, if I still remember correctly). In any case the alphabets were needed to bring the faith to the pagans. The area was in time of Christianization a turbulent one, as more than one archdiocese wanted principality in the area. Salzburg, and Papal state come to mind.

The second day was more interesting. We arrived in Cluj-Napoca where we had organised visit to the museum of the university and a short lecture about the University's history. I must say I was impressed. The centre was old and grandiose. The mixture of three different cultures was clearly visible, but it still managed to retain unique feeling of its own old and historical importance. I loved how people talk about the old communist regime. It is clear that they drew a line and closed that chapter behind them. Something I cannot say for Slovenia, where people continue to beat on the dead horse... Maybe it is the difference in the severity of the two communist regimes.

Church of St. Michael, Cluj-Napoca

After we were done on the university, we were able to explore the city for ourselves. We saw couple of catholic and orthodox churches. Statue of Matthias Corvinus, which was colossal, epic, and truly impressive. Cluj is after all a birthplace of Matthias Corvinus, so it only makes sense. I was surprised how very bright and simple are catholic churches in Romania. A good example being the church of St. Micheal in Cluj. I am used to the splendour and ornamentation of unfathomable quantities. But in Romania, they seem to have embraced less is more way of thinking. If you go in a church anywhere in central Europe, the inside is very dark. Mostly because of all the gold, but in Romania, they are really really bright.

I checked out the ethnographic museum which was nice, and then climbed on the hill above the city where the Nation Heroes Monument was erected in the memory of the heroes in 1848 revolution. The current monument is the second I think. The first was destroyed 100 years after the revolution. My guess is because Communists could not stand a cross overlooking the city. But that is just a guess, I could not find any information why it was destroy beyond that the first wooden monument was destroyed.

We began our third day in Sighisoara, a well fortified citadel on the top of the hill. A short lecture of how feudal lords were relocating Saxons to the area in order to establish a strong mining "colony" and that was about it. There is not much to say in the cold morning, and only that much that you can see in a small citadel on top of the hill. It was nice, but nothing breath-taking. With exception of the climb up. That was breath-taking.

We first stopped in Brasov, where we could see the old Gothic cathedral of Saint Mary. After the great fire in 1689 it was known as the Black Church. Allegedly because of all the ash that blackened it. Church, because in meantime it became Lutheran. To me it looked more pale than any other, much of it because they started to renovate it. The inside once again, was as bright as possible. We had a short lecture in the national archives, where we heard how state demands of all its institutions and even private firms, like banks and similar to have unified archives. The country seems to thrive on bureaucracy, but this appears to be effective bureaucracy and not simply time-waster. Our guess was, this being the influence left by the Saxons.

Castle of the House Hunyadi

After Brasov, we went to Bran, which was a disaster in my opinion. It is an old castle that used to belong to Teutonic Knights, but later changed owners. As it stands, now is in private hands and short of transformed into circus show with Castle Bran being the castle of Count Dracula. So, not much worth to see in my opinion, but maybe something for the enthusiasts... While we are talking about Dracula, let us clear the confusion around the name. There was a man, Vlad II, who was a member of the Order of Dragon. Thus he was known as Vlad the Dragon, Vlad Dracul. His son, was son, so he was known as Vlad the son of the Dragon, or Vlad III Dracula. In any case, when Stoker wrote the book he used the old Slavic folk-lore and the horrible stories told of the Vlad III the Impaler to breath life into his book. The book is great, but the castle is in my opinion only a pale image of its former glory, before the legend of Dracula.

After that horror show we went to Sibiu. The next morning we took a closer look of the city fortifications and the Lutheran church. The fortifications were without equal. Remains of two brick walls, both thick at least 3 meters. The remains of city walls were indeed monumental. We continued our tour by visit in Alba Iulia where number of important dignitaries from House of Hunyadi are buried in the cathedral of St. Michael. Once again, church was very bright, Gothic in design. I found it fascinating how on one side of the street there was the cathedral of St. Michael, and over on the other side the nominal orthodox church of the area. A couple of statues of Romanian king and queen, but the complex itself was much more breathtaking. It was a fortress in 17th century, shaped like star.

After that we went on the castle of the House Hunyadi, where king Matthias Corvinus lived as a child. The castle was impressive. Nothing like that travesty of a Bran. Korvin Castle in Hunedoara is everything most of us ever imagined as the ideal castle. And that comes from me, who live in a city which has in its centre a castle on the hill. The castle is grand, massive, numerous generations and their imprints are visible in change of the style of architecture over the span of time. Moats, bear pits, cursed wells. The castle is rich with history, and has many fascinating stories to tell. A big plus was the option to check out the weaponry with which we could spar. The edge of the swords was not sharp, they were tourney blades, but that did not stop us from trying it under the guidance of their "knights".

Relief of battle between Romans and Dacians, Alba Iulia

Beside the castle though, the town itself, Hunedoara is city of ruins. It is ironic that the oldest building is the most preserved one at the same time. The town is a pale shadow of anything. The last remains of communist regime which started falling to ruin once the regime had fallen. Ugly buildings, apartment blocks all grey and forgotten. It all looks like something taken from a post apocalyptic setting.

The last day was once again mostly just travel. We stopped in Székesfehérvár (no, that is not something typed at random), where we took a quick look at where used to stand the grave of first Hungarian King Stephen, and where all the Hungarian Kings had to be crowned, standing on the grave of St. Stephen, while the archbishop put the crown of St. Stephen on their head. Nowadays, there are just ruins, so it is a shame. It is said that in its prime, the church was one of the largest in the area.

And that is it. A great journey, a lot to be seen. Transylvania is a region rich with history, and in many if not probably all a region whose cities look much the same as any other Central European cities. That surprised us all. We kind of expected to see carriage and horses every so often. One complaint I have though, is the lack of highways. That is one absolute nightmare. A journey that would otherwise take an hour max, takes three hours and then some.

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