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Under construction

I’ve gotten presents that have been extravagantly beribboned and expensively wrapped and yet failed to live up to my expectations. I’ve also had the most amazingly appropriate gifts wrapped in newspaper and tied with a piece of string. Ya never know what you’ll get.

Oradea (Nagyvárad) is a little like that. Once the cultural capital of the Carpathian region, it’s still the cultural capital of Transylvania, if not the whole of Romania. Just 8 km from the Hungarian border, for years the city was passed back and forth between the two countries. And while the bus station and the 30-minute walk into town are nothing to write home about, when you turn the corner into the old town, even if it is under construction, it’s jaw-droppingly gorgeous.

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When I say ‘under construction’ I mean it. But not the sort of construction site that is closed off to the public. One where pedestrians get to walk alongside the JCBs and get up close and personal with the pneumatic drills, stumbling to their heart’s content, taking their lives in their hands as they do. But it’s worth the dust, and the stumbling, and the dicing with death because when it’s all done it is going to give other European squares a run for their money.

Moon Church (Biserica cu Lună)

Moon Church (Biserica cu Lună)

Unification Square, as it’s known, is home to myriad churches and a palace. Moon church is quite unique and with its astronomical clock that depicts the phases of the moon. Inside, it too is being restored. Oradea’s facelift runs deep.

The  Baroque Palace (Palatul Baroc) is built in Viennese style and has a total of 365 windows. Originally built in honour of Maria Teresa, up till 1945, it was home to the local Roman Catholic bishop. But then the Communists came and borrowed it, not returning it until 2003. 

Baroque Palace (Palatul Baroc)

Baroque Palace (Palatul Baroc)

 

Black Eagle Passage (Pasajul Vulturul Negru)

Black Eagle Passage (Pasajul Vulturul Negru)

Black Eagle Passage (Pasajul Vulturul Negru) is another gem undergoing renovations. And it’s still open for business. The numerous bars and cafés beneath the glass-roofed arcade are still plying their trade and the crowds keep coming. Parts of it are covered in builders’ plastic and scaffold but that doesn’t seem to bother anyone. The bits still to started on are magnificent. A night here alone would be enough to entice me back – I didn’t stumble across it until a few hours before my train so it needs to be revisited. Mind you, the jury is out as to whether Vultural means eagle, vulture, or hawk…  but no matter which bird it’s called after, it is something to be behold. 

 

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The Crișul Repede river divides the city in two and the other side is no less beautiful with its theatres and museums lining a long pedestrian street.

The Oradea State Theater (Teatrul de Stat Oradea) is one of over 100 theatres designed in Europe by two Austrian architects whose names I have yet to track down. A busy pair these two. [Note: from the inimitable IZ – the lads were Hellner and Fellner but apparently this one was designed by others due to some sort of money issues.]

And it was right across from here that we stayed. In the fab Astoria Hotel. Had I a trunk full of evening dresses, I could have stayed a month. 

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2015 Grateful 17

A late afternoon decision and the almost miraculous appearance of a local shark (illegal taxi driver) saw us heading towards Stana (Sztána), one of nine villages in the commune of Almaşu (Váralmás). As we bounced (I kid you not) along a dirt and gravel road, I realised why the Romanian map feels the need to show three classifications of road: main roads, asphalt roads, and dirt roads – the latter are well-travelled. Given that most rental car agreements would ban travel down such byways, it must put half of the country out of reach of tourists, which might explain why strangers in the more remote towns and villages are such a novelty. Transylvania is one part of Romania that would be a perfect home for a Rent-a-Wreck franchise.

IMG_0772 (800x600)IMG_0763 (600x800)Stana is Romanian for sheepfold. And there were lots of sheep and a few people and a nest of houses, and a church, two shops, and, strangely enough, lots of new-builds. Yep. Seems like EU money is pouring into this tiny community with a massive guest house going up on the outskirts of town. I’d heard that one of the conditions for getting these EU grants is that you have to undertake to have an indoor recreation area – which is why they have a table-tennis (ping-pong) table in the cellar. Go figure.

We were the only guests in the Kék Iringo, an old house that has been renovated to within an inch of its life. A shame really. But hey, we were treated like royalty and looked after like we were the last two women on Earth.

IMG_0761 (800x600) (2)A wander around the village included a beer outside one of the two shops – this would seem to be what passes for entertainment. There’s a lot to be said for passing the evening in the company of neighbours on the village streets – but were I living there, I’d wonder on those nights I stayed away whether I was the topic of conversation. That they build seats into the gateways and porches says so much for a tradition of meeting and mingling. I had thought it might be a bus stop but then remembered that there are no busses.

IMG_0647 (800x600)A few days earlier, while driving from church to church, we’d passed a number of sheep stations. Our driver warned us about the dangers of marauding sheepdogs, who do their  best to ensure full employment for walking guides. The shepherds, apparently, make cheese on the spot. And, when I think of the age I’ve reached without ever questioning where ewe cheese comes from, I’m shocked at how surprised I was to think of sheep being milked. Sometimes I really doubt my own intelligence.

IMG_0795 (600x800)We’d planned to walk over the fields to the next village of Petrinzel (Kispetri) in time for a Reformatus service at 10am. In the distance we saw a horse-drawn cart ferrying other churchgoers from village to village in a scene that could have been plucked from The Little House on the Prairie. So much so that I could have sworn I heard the theme tune as Laura’s freckled face flashed in front of me. We could see the church in the distance and the path was relatively well-worn. We’d not get lost.  But then we saw the sheep and later we saw the dogs (all three of tIMG_0797 (800x600)hem). The shepherd obviously didn’t see us as no amount of waving would get him to look our way. And dressed as I was in my Sunday best rather than usual hill walking gear (if I had any), I did sort of stick out. The sheep seemed determined to thwart us. Just as we thought the coast was clear, the dogs came back. Three attempts we made, walking a little further each time before doubling back. Eventually, at 10am, just as the service was starting, we gave up.

Everyone carries a big stick when they walk further than the village. Kids can play in the streets but not venture out into the hills. Which is a shame, given the gorgeous countryside they have as a back garden. Traffic, which is practically non-existent, doesn’t keep you awake at night – but howling dogs do. And just when you get off to sleep, the roosters start crowing. Were I to live here for any length of time, I’d go demented. I need my sleep. And on the rare occasion that I fancy a walk, I’d like to be able to walk from A to B unaccosted.

IMG_0781 (600x800)We all live different lives. Yes, there might be overlaps and similarities, but each life is unique. Every now and then it’s nice to get a new perspective, to get a  glimpse of how other people live. It’s fun to play what if and imagine how well I might fit in, how I’d adapt. If nothing else, it makes me appreciate what I have. And while living the experience is wonderful, and being treated like royalty is something not to be dissed, the simple joy of sleeping in my own bed is one I’d not trade for the world.

Yet again, I’m grateful for the wanderlust, for the need to see new places and experience new things. I hope it’s something I never grow out of. As Mae West supposedly said ‘you only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.’

 

 

 

 

Severed tongues and ghettos

I’ve been dreaming a lot more than usual lately. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I’ve been sleeping a lot more than usual lately, too. I have a bug and have had it for about 10 days now. It comes and goes and my voice comes and goes with it. So I’ve taken to my bed as often as I can and stayed in it for as long as possible. More sleep, more dreams. Hardly surprising.

Yet two dreams in particular stand out. And they’re topical enough for me to comment on them and to invite your interpretation.

In one, all the Jews and Roma in the city of Budapest were moving en masse into the VIIIth district. Streets leading into the district were being closed off with ornate Transylvanian gates. Those living here will know that the VIIIth is often referred to as the ghetto and that in and of itself is nothing new. In my dream, I was running around trying to convince people NOT to move. And not because I live in the VIIIth and didn’t want to be locked in – that wasn’t an issue. My argument was that they shouldn’t be locking themselves in but rather locking their accusers out. I’m still not sure I see a difference but in my dream there was one – quite a definite one.

IMG_5221 (800x600)The answers I received to my series of whys – why are you moving, why all together, why now – were the same. ‘We need to stand together and face our oppressors as a united group.’ I thought it a little too much like easy pickings – I thought of how easy it is to eradicate a problem or issue when it’s contained. When I tried to argue more, pointing to the ghettos of yore and what happened back in the 1940s, I was told repeatedly that a) I was not Hungarian; b) I was not Jewish; and c) I was not Roma so therefore I simply couldn’t understand. This still troubles me.

It could be a reflection of a conversation I had some months ago with a 30-something-year-old professional in which they asked how long I intended to stay in Budapest. I said it depended on who won the next election. They asked why. I said that I didn’t want to live in a society that elected politicians who talked of putting Jews on registers because they posed a threat to national security; I didn’t want to live in a country that seemed so openly anti-Roma in its policy (and I’m still smarting from the Azerbaijan fiasco). They couldn’t see my point. ‘Why should it bother you?’ they asked. After all, ‘you’re not Hungarian, not Jewish, not Roma – so why should it bother you who is in government? But that was a couple of months ago….

In a second dream this week, I was taking care of two children aged about 8 and 10, boy and girl. They weren’t my kids. I don’t know how I ended up minding them or who they belonged to. We seemed to be living out of the back of a truck which was nothing out of the ordinary as in my dream, buildings were all commercial and static and living accommodation transient.Life was trundling along just fine (surprising in itself!). Then both of them decided, for no apparent reason, to cut off their tongues. Which they did. No tears, no blood, no histrionics. They came to me smiling and handed over their severed tongues, each of which had two overlapping layers. I freaked on the inside but stayed calm on the outside. I found some ice, boxed up the bits, and called the ambulance, managing all this in Hungarian (aren’t dreams great!). My biggest problem was that I forgot to label the bits and couldn’t tell which tongue belonged to which child. It was this and not the cutting of tongues that was causing my angst.

I’m left wondering whether these two dreams are related – whether there is something I don’t want to say or have said – whether I am more concerned than I think about the state of the nation… Perhaps I just need less sleep.

Any thoughts?

The best of two seasons

If you’ve ever driven the Richardson Highway between Valdez and Anchorage, Alaska during the couple of weeks when the leaves turn, you will know what I mean when I say that the scenery is like a painter’s palette. I’ve heard of people going to New England for the Fall to see nature’s mesmerizing display and since Alaska, while I’ve seen nice autumns, I’ve not experienced anything quite like the drive through the forests of Tranyslvania.

For a thousand years, up until WWI, Transylvania was associated with Hungary. Back in the 10th century, the Hungarian Székely settled in what is still called Erdély (‘beyond the forest’ – the literal meaning of Transylvania). With two-lane roads wending their way through the mountains, the colours were breathtaking. Passing few cars and seeing no-one but a series of lone, chain-saw wielding men, it was as if we had the place to ourselves. The higher we went, the colder it got and then we crossed over – from autumn to winter – that wonderful moment when it is neither one nor the other but a bit of both.

Given the choice between hot and cold, I’d go for cold any day. There’s a limit to the amount of clothes you can take off and if you’re not near the sea or a substantial body of water, heat is miserable. But cold – especially contintental cold  – that’s more than doable.

We were trying to get to Saint Anna lake but as we dodged fallen, snow-laden branches, pragmatism won out. The lake will have to wait for another day but the legend, and its swans, reminded me of the Children of Lir.

Way back when, even before the 13th century, two brothers lived in the area. One day, a stranger, driving a beautiful chariot with six horses, called to one of the brother’s castles. They had a party and in a gambling game of some sort (probably dice), one of the brothers won the stranger’s chariot and horses. The other brother, not to be outdone, found a better chariot and went to the village to find the 12 most beautiful women, to pull it. [I wonder if this might be the source of that Irish saying – she’s a horse of a woman?] But the chariot was too heavy for them. They couldn’t move it. The brother became angry and started beating them to death. Before she died, the most beautiful of them all, Anna, cursed the castle. A terrible stormed brewed and the castle sank into the earth. A lake appeared in the crater and on it swam 12 swans. When the birds touched land, they changed back into girls and all but one went back to their village. Anna stayed and built a small chapel and stayed there til she died.

Pilgrims still come in their droves and many young people come in the hope of finding a partner. Again, I’m reminded of Ireland and that childhood prayer: Holy St Ann, holy St Ann, send me a man as fast as you can. Definitely worth a trip back in the spring.

 

Making coal from wood and hats from mushrooms

Well, you learn something new every day. There was I thinking that coal came from the ground – as in the famous Castlecomer coalmines in Co. Kilkenny. I had never heard ‘making coal’ until a recent visit to Transylvania exposed me to a whole new world.

From as far back as the 19th century, the process of ‘wood charring’ was practically a home industry in this part of the world. Piles of cut wood (boksa) are covered with soil and leaves. The hollow inside is filled with dry branches. The boksa is then lit from the top and burns very slowly for about a week and half. Then the soil is removed and replaced with coal powder and left until the fire goes out. And voila – you have coal. Or more technically, charcoal. You can even do this at home!

Now, if this wasn’t enough for my mind to take in, we stopped in the village of Corund (Korund) where apparently 5000 craftspeople make their living from pottery. And 90 families make their living by making ‘things’ from mushrooms – hats, bags, magnets, toy mice, ties – it reminded me a little of the cork craft in Portugal but this is a lot more like leather/suede. Simply amazing.These craft traditions are handed down from father to son, mother to daughter, and despite the growing amount of kitsch that’s appearing alongside the handcrafted stuff, it’s pretty impressive. Although like so much of the craftwork in this region, because the same patterns and colours are used, it looks a little mass produced even if it’s made by hand.