A Trek Through Transylvania
Lived: October 4th – 11th // 2018
Written: October 7th // 2019
We drive east from Budapest and the road is flat like a billiard table. Tractors turn off the main road and onto the grassy plane kicking up great big clouds of dust. Its all farm land and tangles of tumbleweed.
And how has this barren, flat, wasted expanse come to embody the romantic soul of the Magyars?
Petöfi verses curl through my mind like vines as the sun dimples down.
A road side restaurant appears and we pull of to the right. Pillows of catfish from the nearby Tisza melt into thick, brown gravy with globs of sour cream on top. Crispy vegetables with good red wine to wash it all down. Egri Bikavér, Hungarian for bull’s blood. We head back to the car and the sky has turned the color of orchids.
A tractor path leads us out into a straw field and Alexa lies on my chest as I rest upon the burning brush land. There is a lone, lingering acacia tree and its the only protrusion on an otherwise totally flat horizon. The tree is perfectly still. Everything is still on this European Sahara.
“Toldi? Like the night club in Budapest.”
“Yes… but first he was a warrior. You don’t know him?”
“He was a strong medieval farm boy and his name was Toldi. An old, Hungarian folk legend. The boy was greeted by a group of soldiers on horseback on their way to Budapest and when they asked him what direction the capital was Toldi lifted the nearest tree and pointed out his arm: that way.”
And now the blazing inferno collapses into its fluorescent climax. The reflection extinguishes on Alexa’s mirrored lenses like a nuclear bomb out in Los Alamos. And we continue on towards Cluj.
6 hours are at our backs and finally the crossing into Romania. This is Transylvania. We drive towards Cluj-Napoca, unofficial capital of Transylvania. The Hungarians call it Kolosvár and the Saxon German’s call it Klausenburg.
We speed into the night. The city of Cluj crests below the hills and its blanketed by nightfall. Our road is twisting up and up until finally there comes a rolling gravel path to the left through a grove of wicked looking trees.
Dogs bark viciously in the shadows – lone sentinels each protecting their own patch. We are desperate for sleep and finally, there at the end of the head-rattling road, is the mailbox number that we seek.
We meet our host Adrian. He is a lithe, soft spoken man and he and Alexa converse in Hungarian. Adrian leads us back across the haphazard stone path which wraps behind his house culminating in an enormous tree with a long-roped tire swing hanging out of its base. The tire rests gently against a supporting trunk. And in the middle of the tree is our home for the next two nights. A perfectly childish absurdity come to life, engulfed by leaves and criss crossed branches.
We sprawl out into our wooden cradle and next comes fast gulps of purple black sweet local wine. Three streams of wine jet into the back of my throat and I swallow deeply. Its time for sleep inside this magic treehouse world with stove flames licking the soles of our feet.
Morning arrives, crisp and cool.
And its even cooler beneath the bowels of the Earth. Creaky wooden steps and electric lights. Salina Turda, the great 13th century salt mine. How many lives have been lost since? I wonder.
We drive towards our second destination. Brașov, Brassó, Kronstadt. First, Sighișoara, Segesvár, Schäßburg. Lunch is beneath the black and gold Saxon clocktower, inside the dining gallery of a new hotel that tries to look old. It is a decent lunch and we climb up the steps afterwards walking on the cobblestones amongst rows of pastel buildings and through ancient mossy graveyards.
And onwards to Brașov. A fortification looms on the highest of the rolling distant hills. Cetatea Rupea. Golden hour comes and the sun is reflecting brilliantly off of two horses grazing upon the light soaked grassy hillside. The higher horse is sleek milk chocolate and the one closer to us is white dappled grey.
Fortified citadels like Rupea are scattered across these lands; idiosyncratic refuges standing tall on massive basalt upheavals. Tattered ruins and reminders of the past.
15 minutes from Brasov and the sun plunges rapidly to the Earth. We make it to the side of the road to take in the beauty and embrace. Everything feels good and new and I think I’m in love – really in love – for the first time in my life.
Outside of Bran Castle there is a place to buy freshly made kürtőskalács so we stop and eat. Sweetly battered, swirling grease and sprinkled cinnamon dust. They sell these chimney cakes in Budapest but the best in the world must be right here in Bran.
The castle is famous for its fictitious role as the home of Dracula. Although the real life Vlad Tepes (The Impaler) was in fact kept prisoner at the castle, it was never his home. “Dracula’s Castle” was the invention of coincidentally named Irish author Bram Stoker who never even visited the bloody place. But I did and it was marvelous.
After a quick visit to the the Rasnov fortified church in the town adjacent, we speed back to our accommodation in Brasov and drive to the Tampa Cable Car that will take us to the top of a mountain for sunset. Too late it’s closed. Now we’re sprinting up a mulch covered hill side with 30 minutes to spare. Not going to make it. I feel my asthmatic wheezes coming quick and Alexa is slipping on the mulch. This mid way point is not so bad after all with the light flitting through the trees and all by ourselves in the cool shadow of the forest.
The next morning we are about to leave and our car won’t start because I stupidly forgot to turn the headlights off the night before. In a fairly inconceivable time frame of 12 minutes, Lori, from the morning shift, had her father standing in front of our car with a pair of jumper cables. Can’t say enough good things about The Pines. All time great breakfast spread and a truly lovely, lovely place to rest your head for a few nights.
We double back past yesterday’s kürtőskalács joint in Bran but this time I opt for Lángos which is a more savoury dish of fried dough, sour cream and big strips of grated cheese. Alexa takes my leftovers and feeds it to an emaciated stray dog who has been circling our bench for the better part of the last half of an hour.
Then its time to go to the Bolboci lake which we read about over dinner the night before. But first there is the famous neo-renassaince Peleș Castle. It is up a steep ascent, passed rows of Romanian strawberry sellers. They have their strawberries shining in the sun packed fresh into green and turquoise cardboard boxes. Each seller is no more than 10 meters from the next one and they also have plastic 2-liter bottles filled with various shades of red syrupy wine. I wonder how this whole berry based economy stays going.
The palace is recessed into the woods and we walk by more strawberry sellers and some corn vendors too. A group of local musicians occupy a bench next to a uniformed police officer. He is showing them something on his phone.
Then its Bolboci. We drive through the vivid foliage. Peak foliage, an impossible mirage of red and orange and yellow and still green. None of those traditional color names really doing any justice to the cascading bursts of rusty leaves that whoosh past our little car.
Climbing higher now through the hills and they extend into mountains: a series of endless gargantuan sprawling out into the distant valley. Undulating enormities. Laughing faces covered in rust ridden beards.
The roads in this part of the forest are all hairpin turns and the supposed to be 5 km trip takes the better part of an hour. Finally we are approaching the lake and all of the sudden three lumbering trucks block the road. There is a chicken scratched sign next to the trucks and apparently our route to the lake is closed for winter. Alexa gets out of the car to talk to one of the men.
He doesn’t know if there’s an open road on the other side of the lake but some how he agrees to let us pass. I suppose he doesn’t really care one way or the other what happens once we get out of his way.
The lake is really a dam. It’s beautiful and isolated if not a bit less serene for its man made aspect. I drink a couple of cans of bright green Brasov beer while we make our picnic by the lake side. Kolbasz sausage, hard cheese, fresh paprika and zaucusca, a traditional Romanian amber colored eggplant spread, similar to the Serbian ajvar though not quite as good. It’s too cold to stay here for long and its getting dark.
Is our car reliable on these dirt roads in the closed off territory of a bear ridden national park? Perhaps. Perhaps not. We drive onwards and along the lake listening to Spanish guitar music.
The sky is a grayish lilac colored with some golden spots in the distance. It looks like an enormous deity is smudging out little glimpses through a fogged over window of the world.
We cruise down the hill as dusk falls and all that leads us were a pair of fading headlights. Dull luminescence on the cut up trek down into Glöd (which I later found out was the town used to film scenes for Borat’s home village in the movie). All these ramshackle houses whizz by our windows.
At various points along the dim road gypsy families huddle by piles of discarded wood and furniture bits. All the houses appear to be in a permanent state of construction. Some further along than others.
Two little chestnut colored kids chase each other on rusty tricycles, pink and red ribbons streaming from the handlebars. The motley maze continues for a 20 minute wrap around route and then we reach the base and sleep.
The next morning its time to set out on our penultimate day and the decision is made to drive the Transfăgărășan road. Across the patchwork lands we ride.
I begin to confide in Alexa for the first time about my addiction to my phone.
I have this dichotomy splitting inside of me, I tell her.
I feel the obsessive impulse to capture and document and treasure and share. Yet why? Why not enjoy the moment for what it is and what it is alone. Can’t you document in your mind? Does it have to be through the black mirrored soul destroyer? But isn’t that the tool for your craft! Don’t you feel most alive with the rectangle in the flat of your palm…
I think about my old memory box – how I always kept everything after my dad died. I never felt confident to let things perish. But now in my role as curator of my own life, I feel emboldened to capture and sift and sort and only let the truly meaningful dust settle at the bottom. What is the dust? Not the perfect image of the past, but rather what was really important.
I crave the truth, the distillation of absolute truth and meaning. But in this schizophrenic soul sucked world is it really possible? What if the entire centrifugal output of my demented research is to provide disappearing glimpses of window dressing? Is that the goal? To adorn other black glazed bricks between Kardashians and muscle bound freaks. What am I doing.
My head hurts and I think about my baser impulses. The craving for validation – not just from other but self validation as well. And why? Climbing up and up into the Transfăgărășan mists. Up and up and up and up we go.
And now we drive down the fanged serpent, rushing through the structured, engineered miracle. An exhilarating free fall feeling and I am alive with the liberating knowledge of my eventually pending mortality.
As the ride peters out into a flat expanse I listen to the steady beat that has accompanied the last thirty minutes of our ride. Horseriders Towards the Abyss. Its a pounding, folklore infused, chant like trance tune of an EDM track. I turn to the woman at my left and I realize that these cockamamie questions about the digital world aren’t so important right now.
Or perhaps they are more important than ever before.