Arrival In Transylvania – First Impressions

The War Office, whose ways are dark and whose mysteries are inscrutable, had unexpectedly decreed that we were to exchange Galicia for Transylvania.

The unaccountable decisions of a short-sighted Ministry, which, without ostensible reason, send unfortunate military families rolling about the empire like gigantic foot-balls—from Hungary to Poland, down to Croatia, and up again to Bohemia, all in one breath—too often burst on hapless German ménages like a devastating bomb, bringing moans and curses, tears and hysterics, in their train, according as the sufferer happens to be of choleric or lachrymose temperament. Only those who have lived in this country, and tasted of the bitter-sweets of Austrian military life, can tell how formidable it is to be forced to pack up everything—literally everything, from your stoutest kitchen-chairs to your daintiest egg-shell china—half a dozen times during an equal number of years.

For my own part, however—and I am aware that I am considered singular in my views—I had little objection to being treated in this sportive fashion, as long as it gave me the opportunity of seeing fresh scenes and different types of people. There are two sides to every question, a silver—or at least a tin-foil—lining to every leaden cloud, and it is surely wiser to regard one’s self as a tourist than as an exile?

What if crockery perish and mirrors be shivered in the portentous flitting? Dry your eyes, and console yourself by gazing at mountains new and lakes unknown. And if furniture be annihilated, and your grand piano-forte reduced to a wailing discord, what of that? Such loss is only gain, for in return you will hear the music of unknown tongues and the murmur of strange waters. If the proceeding be often illogical, the change is always welcome; and on this particular occasion I secretly blessed the playful impetus which had sent our ball of fate thus high up in the air, to alight again in the land beyond the forest.

It was in the beginning of April that we started on our journey, and in Galicia we left everything still deep in ice and snow; but scarce had we passed the Hungarian frontier, and got down on to the broad plains, when a warm, genial breeze came to meet us and tell us that winter was gone. The snow left us by degrees, and with it the poverty-stricken, careworn expression peculiar to Poland; spring flowers ventured out of their hiding-places, singly at first, then in groups of twos and threes, till they grew to extensive patches of gold or sapphire blue, pressing up to the rails on either side of our way. Greasy kaftans began to give place to sheepskin bundas, and pointed mustaches became more numerous than corkscrew ringlets. The air seemed full of joyous music—the voice of the lark and the strains of a gypsy fiddler alternately taking up the song of triumph over the return of spring.

The railway communications are very badly managed, so that it was only on the evening of the second day (fully forty-eight hours) that we arrived at Klausenburg, where we were to stop for a night’s rest. It would hardly have taken longer to go from Lemberg to London.

Coming from the Hungarian plains, the entrance into Transylvania is very striking, as the train dashes along narrow winding valleys, where, below, a green mountain torrent is breaking over gray bowlders; and above, the cliffs are piled up so high and so near that only by craning our necks out of the carriage-window can we catch a glimpse of the sky above. Unfortunately, the early darkness had set in long before we reached Klausenburg, so that I had no opportunity of observing the country immediately round the town.

Fresh from Polish hotels as we were, the inn where rooms had been secured struck us as well kept and appointed, though I dare say that had we come from Vienna or Paris it would have appeared just fairly second-rate. The beds were excellent, the rooms clean; the doors could actually be locked or bolted without superhuman effort; the bells could really ring, and what was stranger yet, their summons was occasionally attended to.

I was somewhat disappointed next morning when daylight came round again and showed me the environs of the town. Pretty enough, but tame and insignificant, with nothing of the sublime grandeur which the entrance into the land had led me to expect. The town itself differed but little from many other Hungarian towns I had seen before, and had indeed an exclusively Hungarian character, being the winter resort of the Magyar aristocracy of Transylvania.

The present town of Klausenburg, or, in Hungarian, Kolosvar, lying three hundred and thirty-five metres above the sea-level, and built on the site of Napoca, a Roman city, was founded by German colonists about the year 1270-1272, and was for many years exclusively a German town, where Hungarians were only tolerated on sufferance and in one restricted quarter. By degrees, however, these latter obtained a preponderance; and finally, when the Unitarian sect made of Klausenburg its principal seat, the Saxons withdrew in disgust from the place altogether.

In the year 1658, Klausenburg was besieged by the Tartars. The Turkish Sultan having deposed George Rakoczy II. for acting against his will, sent hither the barbarians to devastate the land. Burning and pillaging, the wild hordes reached Klausenburg (then a Saxon city), and standing before its closed gates, they demanded a ransom of thirty thousand thalers for sparing the town.

Martin Auer, the Klausenburg judge and a brave Saxon man, went out to meet the enemy with a portion of the required money. The Tartars threatened to murder him for not bringing the whole of what they asked, but Auer divined that not even the payment of the entire thirty thousand thalers would save the town from pillage. The Tartars intended to take the sum, and then to sack the city. So he begged to be suffered to go as far as the town gates in order to persuade his fellow-citizens to deposit the rest of the money; but when he had reached within speaking distance, he cried out to his countrymen, “Friends and citizens! I have come hither under the feint of persuading you to pay the rest of the fine demanded by the Tartars; but what I really advise is for you to keep your money and resist the enemy to the last; trust them not, for however much you pay, they will not spare you. For my part, I gladly lay down my life for the good of my people.” But hardly had he finished speaking when the Tartars, guessing at the purport of his words, laid hold of the brave Saxon and dragged him off to a cruel death.

A peculiar characteristic of Klausenburg are the Unitarian divorces, which bring many strangers on a flying visit to this town, where the conjugal knot is untied with such pleasing alacrity, and replaced at will by more congenial bonds.

To attain this end the divorcing party must be a citizen of Klausenburg, and prove his possession to house or land in the place. This, however, is by no means so complicated as it sounds, the difficulty being provided for by a row of miserable hovels chronically advertised for sale, and which for a nominal price are continually passing from hand to hand.

House-buying, divorce, and remarriage can therefore be easily accomplished within a space of three or four days—a very valuable arrangement for those to whom time is money. By this convenient system, therefore, if you happen to have quarrelled with your first wife on a Sunday, you have only to take the train to Klausenburg on Monday, become Unitarian on Tuesday, buy a house on Wednesday, be divorced on Thursday, remarried on Friday, and on Saturday sell your house and turn your back on the place with the new-chosen partner of your life, and likewise the pleasant arrière-pensée that you can begin again da capo next week if so pleases you.

I went to visit this street for sale, which presents a most doleful aspect. As the houses are continually changing hands, none of the transitory owners care to be at the expense of repairs or keeping in order; therefore rotten planking, hingeless gates, broken windows, and caved-in roofs are the general order of the day. A row of card-houses merely to mark this imaginary sort of proprietorship would equally fulfil the purpose.

The town is said to be unhealthy, and the mortality among children very great. This is attributed to the impurity of the drinking-water, several of the springs which feed the town wells running through the church-yard, which lies on a hill.

To our left, about an hour after leaving Klausenburg, we catch sight of the Thorda Cleft, or Spalt—one of the most remarkable natural phenomena which the country presents. It is nothing else but a gaping, unexpected rift, of three or four English miles in length, right through the limestone rocks, which rise about twelve hundred feet at the highest point. Deep and gloomy caverns, formerly the abode of robbers, honey-comb these rocky walls, and a wild mountain torrent fills up the space between them, completing a weirdly beautiful scene; but on our first view of it from the railway-carriage it resembled nothing so much as a magnified loaf of bread severed in two by the cut of a gigantic knife.

I do not know how geologists account for the formation of the Thorda Cleft, but the people explain it in their own fashion by a legend:

The Hungarian King Ladislaus, surnamed the Saint, defeated and pursued by his bitterest enemies the Kumanes, sought refuge in the mountains. He was already hard pressed for his life, and close on his heels followed the pagans. Then, in the greatest strait of need, with death staring him in the face, the Christian monarch threw himself on his knees, praying to Heaven for assistance. And see! He forsaketh not those that trust in Him! Suddenly the mountain is rent in twain, and a deep, yawning abyss divides the King from his pursuers.

The rest of the country between Klausenburg and Hermanstadt is bleak and uninteresting—it is, in fact, as I afterwards learned, one of the few ugly stretches to be found in this land, of which it has so often been said that it is all beauty. A six hours’ journey brought us to our destination, Hermanstadt, lying at the terminus of a small and sleepy branch railway. Unfortunately, with us also arrived the rain, streaming down in torrents, and blotting out all view of the landscape in a persistent and merciless manner; and for full eight days this dismal downpour kept steadily on, trying our patience and souring our tempers. What more exasperating situation can there be? To have come to a new place and yet be unable to see it; as soon be sent into an unknown picture-gallery with a bandage over the eyes.

There was, however, nothing to be done meanwhile but to dodge about the town under a dripping umbrella and try to gain a general idea of its principal characteristics.

A little old-fashioned German town, spirited over here by supernatural agency; a town that has been sleeping for a hundred years, and is only now slowly and reluctantly waking up to life, yawning and stretching itself, and listening with incredulous wonder to the account of all that has happened in the outside world during its slumber—such was the first impression I received of Hermanstadt. The top-heavy, overhanging gables, the deserted watch-towers, the ancient ramparts, the crooked streets, in whose midst the broad currents of a peaceful stream partly fulfil the office of our newer-fashioned drains, and where frequently the sprouting grass between the irregular stone pavement would afford very fair sustenance for a moderate flock of sheep, all combine to give the impression of a past which has scarcely gone and of a present which has not yet penetrated.

There are curious old houses, with closely grated windows whose iron bars are fancifully wrought and twisted, sometimes in the shape of flowers and branches, roses and briers interlaced, which seem to have sprung up here to defend the chamber of some beautiful princess lying spellbound in her sleep of a hundred years. There are quaint little gardens which one never succeeds in reaching, and which in some inexplicable manner seem to be built up in a third or fourth story; sometimes in spring we catch a glimpse of a burst of blossom far overhead, or a wind-tossed rose will shower its petals upon us, yet we cannot approach to gather them. There is silence everywhere, save for occasional vague snatches of melody issuing from a half-open window—old forgotten German tunes, such as the “Mailüfterl” or “Anchen von Tharau,” played on feeble, toneless spinnets. There are nooks and corners and unexpected flights of steps leading from the upper to the lower town, narrow passages and tunnels which connect opposite streets.

“These are to enable the inhabitants to scuttle away from the Turks,” I was told, my informant lowering his voice, as if we might expect a row of turbans to appear at the other side of the passage we were traversing. “There is our theatre,” he continued, pointing to a dumpy tower bulging out of the rampart-wall. One of the principal strongholds this used to be, but its shape now suited conveniently for the erection of a stage, and the narrow arrow-slits came in handy for the fixing-up of side-scenes.

Many more such old fortress-towers are to be found all over the town, some of which are now used as military stores, while others have been converted into peaceable summer-houses. At the time when Hermanstadt was still a Saxon stronghold each tower had its own name, as the Goldsmiths’ Tower, the Tanners’, the Locksmiths’, etc., according to the particular guild which manned it in time of siege.

From one of these towers it was that the Sultan Amurad was killed by an arrow when besieging the town in 1438 with an army of seventy thousand men.

The whole character of Hermanstadt is thoroughly old German, reminding me rather of some of the Nuremberg streets or portions of Bregenz than of anything to be seen in Hungary.

The streams which run down the centre of each street are no doubt as enjoyable for the ducks who swim in them, as for young ladies desirous of displaying a neat pair of ankles; but for more humdrum mortals they are somewhat of a nuisance. They can, it is true, be jumped in dry weather without particular danger to life or limb; but there are many prejudiced persons who do not care to transform a sober round of shopping into a species of steeple-chase, and who will persist in finding it hard to be unable to purchase a yard of ribbon or a packet of pins without taking several flying leaps over swift watercourses.

Much of the life and occupations of our excellent Saxon neighbors is betrayed by these telltale streamlets, which, chameleon-like, alter their color according to what is going on around them. Thus on washing-days the rivulet in our street used to be of a bright celestial blue, rivalling the laughing Mediterranean in color, unless indeed the family in question were possessed of much scarlet hosiery of inferior quality, in which case it would assume a gory hue suggestive of secret murders. When the chimney-sweep had been paying his rounds in the neighborhood, the current would be dark and gloomy as the turbid waters of the Styx; and when a pig was killed a few doors off—But no; the subject threatens to grow too painful, and I feel that a line must be drawn at the pig.

Such is the every-day aspect of affairs; but in rainy weather these little brooklets, becoming obstreperous, swell out of all proportions, and for this frequent contingency small transportable bridges are kept in readiness to be placed across the principal thoroughfares of the town. After a very heavy thunder-plump in summer, even these bridges do not suffice, as then the whole street is flooded from side to side, and for an hour or so Hermanstadt becomes Venice—minus the gondolas.

These occasional floodings give rise to many amusing incidents, as that of an officer who, invited to dinner by the commanding general, beheld with dismay the dinner-hour approach. He had only to cross the street, or rather the canal, for at that moment it presented the appearance of a navigable river. Would the waves subside in time? was his anxious question as he gazed at the clock in growing suspense, and dismally surveyed his beautifully fitting patent-leather boots. No, the waves did not subside, and no carriage was to be procured, the half-dozen fiacres of which Hermanstadt alone could boast being already engaged. The clock struck the quarter. “What is to be done?” moaned the unhappy man in agony of spirit, while the desperate alternatives of swimming or of suicide began to dance before his fevered brain. “A boat, a boat, a kingdom for a boat!” he repeated, mechanically, when it struck him that the quotation might as well be taken literally in this case, and that in default of a boat, he had three good steeds in his stables. “Saddle my horse—my tallest one!” he cried, excitedly; “I am saved!”—and so he was. The gallant steed bore him through the roaring flood, bringing him high and dry to the door of his host, with patent boots intact.

Meanwhile—to return to the subject of my first days at Hermanstadt—the rain had continued to fall for a whole week, and I was beginning to lose all patience. “I don’t believe in the mountains you all tell me about!” I felt inclined to say, when my first eight days had shown me nothing but leaden clouds and dull gray mists; but even while I thought it, the clouds were rolling away, and bit by bit a splendid panorama was unfolding before my eyes.

Sure enough, they were there, the mountains I had just been insulting by my disbelief, a long glittering row of snowy peaks shining in the outbursting sunshine, so delicately transparent in their loveliness, so harmonious in their blended coloring, so sublimely grand in their sweeping lines, that I could have begged their pardon for having doubted their existence!

As one beautiful picture often suffices to light up a dingy apartment, so one lovely view gives life and interest to a monotonous county town. It takes the place of theatres, art galleries, and glittering shop-windows; it acts at times as a refreshing medicine or a stimulating tonic; and though I saw it daily, it used to strike me afresh with a sense of delightful surprise whenever I stepped round the corner of my street, and stood in face of this glorious tableau.

The town of Hermanstadt lies in the centre of a large and fertile plain, intersected by the serpentine curves of the river Cibin, and dotted over by well-built Saxon villages. To the north and west the land is but gently undulating, while to the east and south the horizon is bounded by this imposing chain of the Fogarascher Hochgebirg, their highest peaks but seldom free from snow, their base streaked by alternate stretches of oak, beech, and pine forests.

At one point this forest, which must formerly have covered the entire plain, reaches still to the farther end of the town, melting into the promenade, so that you can walk in the shade of time-honored oak-trees right to the foot of the mountains—a distance of some eight English miles.

To complete my general sketch of the town of Hermanstadt, I shall merely mention that although our house was situated in one of the liveliest streets, yet the passing through of a cart or carriage was a rare event, which, in its unwonted excitement, instinctively caused every one to rush to their windows; that the pointed irregular pavement, equally productive of corns and destructive to chaussure, seems to be the remnant of some mediæval species of torture; that gas is unknown, and the town but insufficiently lighted by dingy petroleum lamps.

Probably by the time that Hermanstadt fully wakens up to life again, it will discover to its astonishment that it has slept through a whole era, and skipped the gas stage of existence altogether, for it will then be time to replace the antediluvian petroleum lamps, not by the already old-fashioned gas ones, but by the newer and more brilliant rays of electric light.


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