The name ‘Transylvania’ has obvious fictional associations for most of us – a land of dark, menacing forests, forbidding rainswept mountain crags lit by lightning streaking and cracking across the night sky, sinister Gothic castles festooned with demonic gargoyles, inhabited by creepy Michael Howard-esque counts with serious dental issues.
When visiting Transylvania it’s easy to see where Bram Stoker found his inspiration – the crags, castles and forests haunted by bear and wolf are all there; medieval monasteries are home still to other-worldly bearded asetics and many villages seem little changed from the Middle Ages. Adding to the region’s aura of fairytale mystique, the name ‘Transylvania’ actually means ‘the land beyond the forest’.
I had visited the region for walking trips four times in recent years, but reading some of the fascinating posts on Paul White’s excellent blogsite about his life in an ethnic-Hungarian region of Romanian Transylvania has finally nudged me into writing up these trips.
The reason I first went walking in Transylvania was to accompany my friend Matt on a leg of his Round-the-World-Walk. Matt set off from Finsbury Park around 20 years ago and has walked as far as somewhere-or-other in Romania in some 30 stages of a week or a few days once or twice a year. At this rate, Matt, who will be celebrating his 50th birthday next month, should complete his circumnavigation by the time he reaches his 209th birthday.
I’ve accompanied Matt on around 10 legs of his walk and one of the things I enjoy most is the way he plans the route to take in the most interesting landscapes and settlements. The first walk I did with Matt was a real epic, a six-day traverse of the Karnic Alps, which form the border between Carinthia in southern Austria and Friuli-Venezia Giulia in northern Italy. Subsequent trips traversed the Karavanken Alps between Austria and Slovenia, the flatlands and rolling hill-country of Styria, the Slovenian salient of Prekmurje and the huge beech forests of western Hungary.
Crossing between Slovenia and Hungary provided us with one of our most ‘exciting’ experiences. We were so used to crossing back and forth at liberty across borders in western Europe that we overlooked the fact that Hungary wasn’t a signatory to the Schengen Agreement. It was a dark January afternoon when, cantering along a woodland path, we came to a clearing in the forest. A large, rusting metal sign announced ‘Achtung Minen!’. We had in fact stumbled on the Iron Curtain. Half-trusting that the minefield would have been cleared at the end of the Cold War, we tip-toed across no man’s land into Hungary. We continued on to the small village of Kercaszomor, which would have been a Red Army garrison town back in the day.
A very decent chap by the name of Istvan Toth put us up in his summer house for the night, which was very welcome as it was brass monkey weather. Well fed and rested, we set off in high spirits the following morning, greeting little old black-clad ladies with hearty cries of ‘Yo napod!’ – Hungarian for ‘Good day!’. It was most likely one of these little old ladies who called the border police. We were apprehended shortly after. They were plain clothes officers in a four-wheel drive and one of them was extremely stroppy. I always respond badly to stroppy or rude upholders of officialdom and unfortunately Matthew wasn’t with me when they pulled up as he’d gone of to find a shop while I was sat on a bench tending to some particularly gory blisters. This guy had obviously attended the Michael O’Leary Charm Academy and his finger-jabbing manner made me blow my top. Matthew returned in time to prevent all-out war, which was just as well as the policeman had just shown me his revolver.
It became apparent that they were intensely displeased that we had entered Hungary without their permission and had deduced that we were drug mules, people traffickers, pimps, paedophiles or an unholy amalgam of all of the above. Farcical scenes ensued as they bundled us into the back of their 4WD along with a large dog that happened to be strolling by, which they assumed was also part of our criminal gang. We were carted off to the slammer in nearby Szombathely. It really was a slammer too: iron bars the lot. The walls of our cell were covered in graffiti in many languages; it became apparent that this area was on one of the main people-trafficking routes into western Europe from Sarajevo.
Happily,most of the other policemen were perfectly decent and took us for what we obviously were – a couple of poncey Englishmen trying to walk around the world goddamit! Reassuringly, they seemed to regard their thrusty, young, gun-toting colleague as a bit of an idiot. An interpreter was brought in from nearby and the man was mortified about what had happened to us, but nonetheless we were to be deported and banned from entering Hungary again for 12 months. We had 24 hours to leave the country.
The very nice policemen drove us to the bus station and waved us off as if we were old friends or nephews – that kind of thing. There then ensued a memorable road trip involving buses, trains and hitch-hiking, but that’s another story…
…Apologies for the extremely lengthy digression. Where were we? Ah yes, Transylvania…
My first visit to Transylvania was in January 2006. By design, I’d missed the previous few legs across the vast Hungarian Plain. Matthew had walked as far as the small town of Abrud on the last trip and this is where we arrived one freezing afternoon. The snow lay deep and the nightime temperature dropped below -20C. We stayed in a small hotel in Abrud so the freezing conditions wouldn’t be an issue until the following night when we would be under rip stop nylon. Our plan was to walk from Abrud to the small city of Alba Iulia over the course of several days using snow shoes. We would be crossing a range of 1000-metre-ish hills called the Muntii Trascau. I was looking forward to snow-shoeing, which I’d done once before, but I was a little worried about camping in -20C, which would be a new experience for sure.
We left the hotel well before dawn the next morning and it was bitter. It was the kind of temperature which sticks flesh to metal. I put my gloves on before opening the gate. We set off and soon picked up our path out of the village, donning our snow shoes as we encountered deep drifts.
Matt is an excellent navigator, which is hugely relaxing; it wouldn’t be good to get too lost in these conditions. On we plodded, through the rolling hill country, blanketed in it’s icy winter coat. Characteristic Transylvanian hay stooks were dotted around, presumably for livestock feed.
It was really blooming cold, even after the sun came up; so when we spotted a bothy-like wooden shelter, we had a nosey. A robust-looking and friendly lady was in residence and she invited us in for a hot drink and warm by her stove. She had a house in a nearby town she explained, but she preferred to stay up here in her cabin at times when her children and grandchildren could manage without her. It was a lovely wee billet and it would have been great to linger, but the day was short and the way was long.
We continued on our way and, unsurprisingly, there weren’t many folk out and about though we were passed by some chaps in an ox-drawn sledge. It took quite a while to get gloves off, camera out…
We followed the sled tracks and soon arrived at a small hamlet – to be greeted by the usual canine cacophany, which we had grown accustomed to as a feature of all Hungarian and Romanian villages. We topped up our water bottles (those were the days) with sweet-tasting water from a spring and continued out into a sizeable settlement-free area on the map.
The snow-shoeing was excellent and really there would have been no chance of walking without them, so deep was the snow. However, it was quite hard work because we had to lift the extra weight of the shoes and quantities of snow with each step; also, you had to lift your feet higher than usual as your shoe would sink a way into the snow with each step. Combined with the gravity-assisting weight of our backpacks (25kg or there abouts) it was character building stuff.
Despite the conditions, progress was good as the day drew on. By mid-afternoon, however, the light had begun to take on that unmistakable evening glow.
We decided to look out for a place to camp and settled for a clearing in some woodland. We pitched the tent and set about gathering some fire wood as the last sunlight slanted through the trees.
Matt got a roaring blaze going and we huddled around the campfire to cook and eat our dinner. The temperature was dropping tangibly. The evening was remarkably still and the silence was total. There was nothing for it but to get into the tents and bury ourselves in large quantities of goose down.
We survived the night, but Matthew had experienced a painful tightening of his hip muscle – due to the snow-shoeing. There would be nothing for it other than to get to the next village and bail out. It had been a long way to come for one day’s walk, but there was no option. I just hoped he’d manage for the next few hours.
We set off through the silent landscape; Matthew was struggling, though in a commendably manful fashion.
In a few hours, we were in dogshot of the village of Mogos; the howling usually starts half a mile or so from most settlements and Mogos was no exception.
We passed a stone with an unusual cross carved into it and the date ‘1941’.
Descending into the village we passed this rather organic looking thatched barn.
On arrival in the village we installed ourselves in the cafe and arranged for some transport to get us to Alba Iulia. While we were waiting for our lift we had a wander around the village. In the churchyard we found the grave of a young man, a soldier who had been killed fighting the Securitate, Nicolae Ceausescu’s hated secret police who took murderous vengeance on the Romanian people who fought to overthrow this most despotic of totalitarian regimes in the final weeks of 1989.
A long drive on some challenging roads ensued before we arrived at Alba Iulia, from where we would take a train to Budapest the following day. Looking at the view from our hotel window, it wasn’t hard to imagine the era of Ceaucescu’s regime.