Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel

From the moment I decided to visit Eastern Europe I was obsessed with the idea of Transylvania. My mind conjured images of razorback mountains with rugged roads where one false move would send hikers plunging to their deaths. I imagined black-green forests so dense that not even the midday sun could penetrate and wolves howling beneath the spilled glitter of the Milky Way. Though I’d ignored the Twilight TV series that had gripped the collective fascination, I read Bran Stoker’s Dracula prior to arriving in Romania; as a result the Transylvania in my mind was also peppered with visions of vampires and Dracula. A romantic at heart, I desperately wanted to believe that this corner of the world was still remote, untouched, and mysterious.

However, Transylvania is a very large region in northern Romania, so when I left Turda I had a decision to make. I could head due south to Sibiu or southeast to Brasov. In the end I chose the latter for its proximity to Bran Castle, better known as Dracula’s Castle in tourism circles. I arrived in Brasov late one afternoon following a long, hot train ride, only to be held up by a taxi driver who tried to charge me more than four times the normal rate to take me to Old Town. Instead, I squeezed into a few inches of space on the stairs of an overloaded bus and held on for dear life as we careened around curves, simultaneously swiping at the sweat pouring down my forehead while trying to keep my suitcase from rolling out each time we jolted to a stop and the doors flew open.

Piata Sfatului, the main square in Old Town in Brasov, Romania, is dirty and sadly neglected

Piata Sfatului, the main square in Old Town in Brasov, Romania, is dirty and sadly neglected

After a delicious dinner and a good night’s sleep I left the frustrations of the precious day behind and headed out to see Brasov. Piata Sfatului, the town’s main square, was a disappointment. The central fountain was dry and trash was strewn around its base. Many of the stone pavers were chipped or cracked and some were missing entirely. A worker trickling water onto spilled ice cream stains succeeded only in making them stickier. Further along I found Nicolae Titulescu Park where I strolled through neglected rose gardens. Circling back, I followed a path alongside earthen fortifications built to protect the town during medieval times. A rank odor rose from a small stream that bordered the path and gray soap scum floated on its surface. Brasov seemed seedy, dilapidated, and poorly maintained – a town in decay. Read More

Salt. It’s on every restaurant table and in most every home. We reach for the shaker without regard for its provenance – where it comes from, how it’s processed, or the means by which it arrives on grocery store shelves. In the 21st century salt is an abundant, inexpensive commodity that we take for granted. Yet it wasn’t always so.

Though there is no written documentation to prove the use of salt in prehistoric times, it is commonly accepted that salt must have been an indispensable ingredient in eastern Europe as far back as 6,600 BC. As hunter-gatherer cultures began shifting to more complex economic systems based on farming and animal husbandry, salt would have been required to maintain the health of livestock, process milk, tan leather, preserve and season food. Salt was unevenly distributed across the region and by the Middle to Late Bronze Ages (16th to the 13th centuries BC), salt-rich communities were exporting to salt-poor regions in far southeastern Transylvania, west to the Hungarian Plain, and likely as far as the Balkan peninsula.

Salt crystals growing on the walls of one of the underground tunnels at Salina Turda Salt Mine

Salt crystals growing on the walls of one of the underground tunnels at Salina Turda Salt Mine

The first written records of salt production and trade in eastern Europe appeared during the Medieval Ages. A document issued by the Hungarian chancellery in 1075 mentions a salt custom house “in the citadel called Turda” and in a subsequent document dated 1271 “the salt mine in Turda” was offered to the Head of the Catholic Church of Transylavania. In the spring of 1552, a report made by royal inspectors called the salt mine of Turda the most important in Transylvania. Indeed, the salt deposits in this part of the Transilvanian plateau cover an area of about 17 square miles and average 820 feet in depth, with some deposits being nearly 4,000 feet thick! Read More

My long, difficult day of travel from Breb, Romania to Cluj-Napoca began when I hitched a ride with two Romanian-Americans who were making their annual visit to family. They dropped me at the train station in Baia-Mare, where I hoped to score a ticket with my first class Eurail Global Pass. With the exception of scattered chunks of plaster that had fallen off the walls, the circular waiting room was completely empty. I stepped up to the sole clerk standing behind an iron barred window and asked for a ticket to Cluj. My only option was a 3:30 p.m. train that would arrive at 8:30, a five hour ride for a drive that could be made in about 2.5 hours. The clerk muttered “autogare” (bus station) and pointed back the way I had come. I was learning what every Romanian has known for decades: in this part of the world, buses are often a much better option than the inconveniently scheduled trains.

With bus ticket finally in hand, I lugged my suitcase out to the bays to find my coach. Neither the bays nor my ticket were numbered and I saw no bus marquee with my destination, so I began querying everyone in sight by saying “Cluj-Napoca?” Finally, a young woman named Mikhaila, who spoke perfect English, came to my rescue. Since her elderly mother was taking the same bus, she showed me the correct bay and promised to stay around until we were both safely aboard. Curious, her mother asked my age. Mikhaila translated my answer: 61. Her mother’s eyes crinkled at the corners as she beamed and grabbed my hand. Her seat was directly in front of me and we spent the next couple of hours communicating with giggles and sign language. Too soon, she signaled that her stop was coming up. She gathered her things and took a few steps two toward the front of the bus, then turned and walked back to my seat. Leaning down, she planted kisses on both my cheeks and give my hand one last squeeze. She was still waving and blowing kisses as we pulled away.

An hour later the bus pulled up in front of the Cluj train station and I hopped out into 90 degree heat and worse humidity. I was exhausted but still had a mile to walk. Bedraggled and soaked in perspiration, I finally located my hostel, checked in, struggled up two flights of stairs with my luggage, and collapsed on the bed. And that’s where I probably would have stayed until morning…if I hadn’t been so hungry.

Matthias Corvinus Statue and Saint Michael's Cathedral on Unirii Square

Matthias Corvinus Statue and Saint Michael’s Cathedral on Unirii Square

Groaning, I forced myself to shower, change clothes, and go in search of food. I didn’t have to look very far. Three blocks away, just beyond Unirii Square, with its burbling fountains and stately Saint Michael’s Cathedral, I found Boulevard Erolior (Heroes Boulevard), a quasi-pedestrian mall lined with shops and restaurants. The signboard touting gourmet coffee at Olivo Cafe caught my eye and I settled into an overstuffed leather banquette just inside the front door, where I could people-watch as I ate dinner. Read More

From the lush green floor of the valley I gazed toward the encircling dusky blue mountains. Puffy white clouds drifted lazily across the sky, allowing the sun to peek through just enough to make the afternoon comfortably warm. A week earlier the village of Breb, Romania, had been sweltering in a heat wave that caused wells to run dry. But my arrival was timed perfectly – temperatures had moderated to the mid-70′s, perfect walking weather.

With only one paved road, I relied on footpaths that wandered through gardens overflowing with colossal heads of cabbage and fat ears of golden-tasseled corn. Ruby-red tomatoes were bursting their skins and green-black zucchini hung heavy on their vines. Stealthily, I opened a wire metal gate and crept through a farm yard, passing just a few feet from the front door of an old wooden cabin constructed from wide wooden planks, dovetailed together without the aid of nails. I felt like a sneak-thief but the owners of the hostel where I was staying, Babou Maramures, insisted that walking through private property was perfectly acceptable; everyone uses the footpaths, including cows, chickens, and pigs.

Every home has a huge gardens, which provides all the fruits and vegetables for the family

Every home has a huge gardens, which provides all the fruits and vegetables for the family

In years past, almost every home in Maramures County had an ornate wooden gateway (poarta maramuresana) at its entrance. During my walks around Breb I spied several of these hand-carved portals, which featured astrological symbols, flowers, animals, people, and in one case even a complete tree of life. Unfortunately, as older gates weather and deteriorate they are not being replaced; these days only wealthier families can bear the cost of such an elaborate portal. However every yard still holds at least one tall wooden tub with a heavy wooden lid. In late summer, apples from the area’s abundant orchards are tossed in and left to ferment. The resultant mash is distilled into Tuica, a fruit brandy that has greater than 50% alcohol content, much the same as the Palinka produced from plums just over the border in Szatmár, Hungary. Read More

Had I only stayed one day in Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg county, as planned, I would have left believing that the meandering rivers, lush orchards, and bucolic villages were pretty, but otherwise uninteresting. Fortunately, one day turned into five and this region, rife with legends that have been handed down from father to son and grandparents to grandchildren for generations, revealed its secrets to me like a flower blossoming from a tight bud.

My adventure began in Mátészalka, the second largest city in the county and home to the Szatmari Museum. After a leisurely walk around the grounds to view the museum’s impressive collection of traditional wooden carriages, coaches, and sleds, my hostess Zsuzsa Méhész whisked me off to lunch so that I could recover from the five-hour sweltering ride on the rickety old train that had carried me from Debrecen.

Carriage and coach collection at the Szatmari Museum in Mateszalka, Hungary

Carriage and coach collection at the Szatmari Museum in Mateszalka, Hungary

An hour later, full of Hungarian pickles and vegetable soup, I was more than ready for round two, The Route of Medieval Churches. The Great Hungarian Plain, situated on the eastern frontier of Western Christianity, was once littered with churches. Though most were destroyed by the Mongol invasions of the 15th century, those that remain are concentrated in the Szatmár region, which was largely spared because mounted armies could not easily navigate marshlands created by rivers that regularly flooded the area.

The late Romanesque style church in Csaroda is the star of this collection. Between the end of the 13th and the beginning of the 14th centuries the Csarnavodai family, which owned the village at that time, built the church as their private place of worship. The Read More

The pungent scent of over-ripe fruit perfumed the air in Panyola, Hungary on the day I arrived. Limbs heavily laden with Nem tudom plums dripped over garden fences or scraped the ground in fields where trees stood in orderly rows.

“Almost everyone has a small orchard or at least a few trees in their yard,” said my host, Zsuzsa Méhész.

This tiny purple plum is the sole ingredient in Hungarian pálinka, a traditional high-alcohol content fruit brandy that has been produced since the Middle Ages. Villages in the Szatmár region of far eastern Hungary are famous for their pálinkas but none more so than Panyola, where the intersecting Tisza, Túr and Szamos Rivers create an ideal micro-climate for the Nem tudom plum. Locals insist the name, which means “I don’t know” in English, is derived from a long-ago conversation when someone who was asked the name of the plum replied “Nem tudom.” The name stuck.

Trees heavily laden with Nem tu dom (I don't know) plums are found throughout the Szatmár region in eastern Hungary

Trees heavily laden with Nem tu dom (I don’t know) plums are found throughout the Szatmár region in eastern Hungary

The Panyola Pálinka Distillery was almost as tenacious as the plum’s name. First mentioned in a document dated 1752, it survived through innumerable geopolitical upheavals, two World Wars, and a major flood in 1970. When other distilleries were ordered closed during the Soviet Era, Panyola’s facility remained open because János Kádár, the communist leader of Hungary from 1956 to 1988, liked his pálinka. Ironically, it was the fall of the Soviet Union that finally signed the distillery’s death warrant. Under communism, vital businesses were not required to be profitable. Though the distillery had always produced a superior product, no attention had been paid to bottle design and labeling, marketing was non-existent, and no one had the knowledge or expertise to turn the plant into a money-making enterprise. After a few years of struggle, it was closed in 1997. Read More