TRANSYLVANIA
Bronwen Riley
Photographs by Dan Dinescu
Frances Lincoln, London, 2007
ISBN 978-0-7112-2781-1






When I was young, I dreamed of stepping back in time. I longed to find the magic wardrobe or secret passage that would spirit me to a distant age and show me how people lived before I was born. Years later, my wish was granted more easily than I could ever have imagined, when I boarded a night train in Budapest and woke up in Transylvania. As I looked out of the train window and saw the horses and carts plodding alongside, I knew that I had been transported into another time. Station-masters in smart uniforms stood to attention as the train passed their stations, almost as though the Austro-Hungarian Empire had never ended. Always looming in the background were the Carpathians, their jagged snow-covered peaks guarding Transylvania in a grand, sweeping crescent from unspeakable dangers further east.

In this compelling journey through the history and culture of Transylvania, Bronwen Riley explores a rural world that has largely disappeared elsewhere in Europe. The author looks at myths, old and new, encountering memorable characters and remarkable buildings in villages and remote hills and mountains. This is an extraordinary exploration of one of Europe's least known, but most fascinating regions.







Bronwen Riley lived for a time in the remote mountains of Transylvania, studying village traditions and learning Romanian. A Classics graduate, she specialised in post-Byzantine art in Romania at the Courtauld Institute, London. She has worked on newspapers and magazines, including Country Life, The Daily Telegraph and Tatler and is now managing editor of guidebooks at English Heritage.




Dan Dinescu always chose to work in places where he could fulfill his passion for photography such as the National History Museum's Aerial Photography section and the Museum of the Romanian Peasant. His photographs have illustrated a number of books and his work has been exhibited in Romania and abroad. He has a particular interest in the Maramureş villages.







Introduction

We are in Transylvania; and Transylvania is not England. Our ways are not your ways, and there shall be to you many strange things.
Bram Stoker,
Dracula

When I was young, I dreamed of stepping back in time. I longed to find the magic wardrobe or secret passage that would spirit me to a distant age and show me how people lived before I was born. Years later, my wish was granted more easily than I could ever have imagined, when I boarded a night train in Budapest and woke up in Transylvania. As I looked out of the train window and saw the horses and carts plodding alongside, I knew that I had been transported into another time. Station-masters in smart uniforms stood to attention as the train passed their stations, almost as though the Austro-Hungarian Empire had never ended. Always looming in the background were the Carpathians, their jagged snow-covered peaks guarding Transylvania in a grand, sweeping crescent from unspeakable dangers further east.

Later on that first journey, lost in the forest, we were rescued by a woodcutter who gave us a ride in his horse-drawn cart. We lay on thick sheepskins, looking up at the moon through the snow-laden trees. On subsequent journeys, while helping with the haymaking in high pastures, hearing magic spells, or being welcomed by people whose houses were lit by oil lamps and whose lives were governed by their religion and the seasons, I felt that I better understood life before the industrial age.

Transylvania is a land created for the romantic. It has all the elements of Romanticism - dramatic mountains and great forests, wild animals and ancient ruins, a rural landscape of great beauty with an assortment of picturesque individuals in traditional dress: gypsies, shepherds and the occasional hermit. Wood-cutters, witches, jolly millers, tragic orphans, bears and wolves live in the great forests and the towns and villages founded by Saxon settlers in the Middle Ages; it is a folktale come to life. Of course, not all fairy stories have happy endings. So, too, within a wildly romantic landscape are poverty, poor health and, never far away in the industrialised towns and cities, the ugly vestiges of a Communist past.

Many people believe that Transylvania is a fictitious country, like Ruritania or Narnia, and know it only as the birthplace of Dracula. Children may recognise it as the land where dragons live in the Harry Potter books or the country to which the Pied Piper spirited the children of Hamelin. Few of those who know that it exists could pinpoint it on a map without hesitation. Even its name has something slightly make-believe about it. Transylvania, the Latin for 'beyond the forest', is the expressive name that the Hungarians gave to a land in their domain for almost a thousand years. The Saxons who settled there in the Middle Ages called it Siebenbürgen, or Seven Citadels. None of these names would be out of place in a fairytale.

In one of their increasingly uncomfortable fireside chats, Bram Stoker's Count Dracula describes Transylvania to the narrator, Jonathan Harker, as the 'whirlpool of European races'. It is true that many peoples have occupied this land. Transylvania was fought over and longed for; it was a place where some races experienced great repression and others unimaginable freedom. Some swept over the land, usually on their way to richer pickings in the West; others settled there for centuries.

Throughout its history, Transylvania held a distinct position as a frontier zone on the border between East and West. The Carpathian Mountains form a natural boundary between the old principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia that, together with Transylvania, now make up modern-day Romania. Transylvania's architecture and its mixture of people are a product of its history as precarious border country. The Transylvanians absorbed eastern and western influences, creating something original out of them. Many people have claimed Transylvania as their own, feeling strongly that it belonged to them. The Italian academic and writer Claudio Magris describes its tangled history as 'an intricate web of disagreements, cross-purposes and clashes'. It is almost impossible to find a neutral history of Transylvania, and accounts of the origin of its inhabitants and political events vary widely according to the author's nationality.

For most of its recorded history, Transylvania was Hungarian territory and became part of the Habsburg Empire in 1691. Its fortunes were bound up closely to those of Central Europe. Following the Austro-Hungarian Empire's collapse in 1918, it was surrendered to Romania. Romanians regard Transylvania as the 'cradle' of their culture, claiming their descent as a nation from Roman colonists and native Dacians, a branch of the Thracians, whose capital, Sarmizegetusa Regia, was in the heart of Transylvania. The Hungarians still revere Transylvania as the place where the purest forms of their culture are preserved.

Faced with such a rich array of peoples and histories, this book is selective and focuses on the Saxon towns and villages, the isolated settlements of the Apuseni and the rich traditions of Maramureş. This subjective viewpoint will no doubt be controversialin a country that has been fought over for so long, everything is potentially contentious. The region known as Maramureş is included, which, although historically under Hungarian rule, was officially never part of Transylvania.

Transylvania is unique now in Europe, for here can be found a primal life in the forests and mountains alongside wild animals. This way of life was once common to all Europeans but is now completely lost. The region, on the very edge of Europe, seems also to be on the edge of time. It contains a link with a remote history that stretches back well into pagan times. The past hangs heavily over the land. There is something about this country that makes people yearn for it, for lost nations and empires, for a rural innocence that may never have existed.

This book portrays a way of life, miraculously preserved into the twenty-first century, that is fast disappearing. The country presented in these pages is one of rural loveliness: there are no ugly apartment blocks, polluting factories or distressing orphanages. Romania receives much negative press, and one rarely hears anything but its worst aspects.

One of the greatest surprises for the visitor to Transylvania is this sense of a place that is remarkably different, that is somehow set outside time and preserves a life and a landscape lost to the rest of Europe. This is not a recent phenomenon but one that travellers have remarked on for centuries. Even before the fictional Count Dracula had been invented in the late nineteenth century, travellers to Transylvania expressed amazement at a country that seemed not just old-fashioned but of another world. Jules Verne set his gothic novel, A Castle in the Carpathians, here in 1895. Emily Gerard, whose accounts of life in Transylvania in the 1880s provided inspirational background material to Bram Stoker's Dracula, described it as a hiding place for the supernatural, untouched by the advance of science.

Max Weber, the German sociologist, wrote about the disenchantment of the world, by which he meant that people once saw the world in which they lived as enchanted and this belief has been in decline ever since. Romania is the last place in Europe that despite, or perhaps because of, its recent past still retains some of that magic. There is only a hint of it now, in remote villages and in the mountains and forests. Visitors saw this magical, fragile world already under threat a century ago, warning that the traditions, superstitions and even parts of the population itself were in danger of extinction. Somehow that world struggled on through two World Wars. It was kept artificially alive by the great economic failure of Communism. Now capitalism and membership of the European Union will wipe out in a handful of years what Communism failed to do in nearly 50.

The disappearance of the Saxon population has been one of Transylvania's great losses. Less than a year after the Romanian revolution of December 1989, three-quarters of the Transylvanian Saxons returned to Germany, almost 900 years after their arrival. Right up to that time, they had preserved dress, customs and a dialect that would have been more familiar to Hans Holbein in the sixteenth century than to a modern-day German. It was no wonder that some people thought the Pied Piper had spirited away the children of Hamelin to Transylvania.

Now mainly the old are left and the sight of anyone in traditional dress is rare, although a visitor to a Saxon church may still hear the occasional greeting of Grüss Gott from a Saxon who chose to stay behind. Although so many have gone, their extraordinary fortified churches and villages remain, as does the surrounding countryside with a rich diversity of wildflowers, birds, insects and animals that was lost in Western Europe years ago. The dilemma now is what to do with a precious European landscape largely untouched by the modern age.

The photographs by Dan Dinescu in this book capture lives of great simplicity in a setting of unimaginable beauty. Transylvania has an unmistakable allure as a mysterious place where uncommon things happen. Here one can still find characters from a pre-industrial landscape, familiar now only from history books and childhood tales. It is a world of all our pasts, reassuringly familiar yet thrillingly different.