Baroque-era spinach patties

Anna Bornemisza (c. 1630–88) was the daughter of an army captain, a noblewoman in her own right and, by marriage (in 1653, to Mihály Apafi), Princess of Transylvania. The story of her husband’s family, and the turbulent times they had to deal with, is covered in Blue Guide Travels in Transylvania: the Greater Târnava Valley. Anna was clever and highly educated. In fact, some historians accuse her husband of having no interest in or understanding of politics and of leaving key decisions to his nimble-witted spouse. Whatever the truth, Anna was also a devoted wife and mother of 14 children (only one son survived to adulthood). She wrote detailed household accounts, which have survived, as well as a famous cookery book (in 1680). Whether or not the cookbook was intended for the instruction of others or whether it was more notes for herself of successful recipes, I do not know. Perhaps the latter, because the recipes are far from detailed, and even by the standards of the times give almost no practical help. Her recipe for ‘Spinach Cake’, for example, reads as follows:

Take spinach. Wilt it in water and squeeze out the liquid. Add parmesan cheese and grated bread. Add mace, pepper, egg yolk and buttermilk. Cook and mix together. Make a cake from it and when it is cooked, serve hot.

It is difficult to make something when you have no idea what it is meant to look like or how it is supposed to taste. How to decide on quantities? We made ‘spinach cake’ for two. By ‘spinach cake’, we assumed a kind of patty, and we added the ingredients proportionally, in order to give it a stiffish consistency. That meant, for half a kilo of spinach, two egg yolks and about three tablespoons of breadcrumbs, with enough buttermilk to make it all stick together without turning to concrete and plenty of grated parmesan (interesting that the recipe specifies parmesan: what does that say about 17th-century trading relations between Tranyslvania and Northern Italy?). We didn’t use mace. It seemed more practical to opt for grated nutmeg, to avoid ending up with hard, gritty bits in the patty. It’s also worth noting that the recipe does not call for salt. And it does not need it. The parmesan fulfils that role.

It is very quick to make. Result? It doesn’t look very elegant or appetising but it tastes delicious. If we had had a set of chef’s forming rings, we could have shaped it better. But we didn’t.

Dracula: An International Perspective

The first thing you need to do, before beginning to consult this book in any detail, is to re-read Bram Stoker’s Dracula. If you haven’t read it, this volume of essays will inspire you to do so; but you will enjoy the essays much more if the story is fresh in your mind.

The editor, Marius-Mircea Crișan, Associate Professor at the West University of Timișoara, Romania, has assembled an impressive array of scholars for this collection, published last year in the Palgrave Gothic series, books which deal exclusively with the Gothic genre.

The book is formed of a collection of 15 essays, all looking at Dracula from different perspectives. To begin with, there is a lot of useful contextualisation, examining not just the Dracula myth itself, but the whole concept of the exotic, the strange and the eerie. In their essay entitled “Bloodthirsty and Remorseless Fangs”, examining the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe, Lucian-Vasile Szabo and Marius-Mircea Crișan do an excellent job in exploring how these terrifying imaginary spaces evolved. Too much intimate knowledge of a place will prevent it from ever being depicted as evil and haunted; but some cursory knowledge is obviously necessary to give credence to the narrative. Poe, we are told, consulted several books and periodicals on East-Central Europe before committing pen to paper. As the authors note, “fantastic actions are placed in a fictive geography inspired by elements of real ones.” One is reminded of the famous remark of Robert Louis Stevenson’s (himself a creator of Gothic fantasy with his Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) that “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign.” Nevertheless, this foreignness is essential. A reviewer of Dracula is cited by Szabo and Crișan as remarking that “the author seems to know every corner of Transylvania.” Of course he did not. But he managed to make his depiction seem convincing.

Such contexts are still with us. At the end of the volume, Carol Senf reminds us that we inhabit an age with an appetite for urban jungles: hence The Shining, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, etc.

It would take far too long to review every essay in this book. Instead, I have chosen one. Since travel writing is our business at Blue Guides, I was inevitably intrigued by Duncan Light’s “Tourism and Travel in Bram Stoker’s Dracula”.

One does not immediately think of Dracula as a travel book, nor of its protagonists as tourists. But Light, a lecturer in Tourism at Bournemouth University in the UK, manages to find many ways in which tourism plays a role in the novel. He begins by defining it for us, following the definition of the WTO:

Tourism is “the activity of visitors:; a visitor is “a traveller taking a trip to a main destination outside his/her usual environment, for less than a year, for any main purpose (business, leisure or other personal purpose) other than to be employed by a resident entity in the country or place visited.” It may seem obvious in a way, but it is helpful to have it set out like this.

Jonathan Harker travels to Transylvania for two reasons that can allow us to class him as a tourist. He starts out on a business trip and, as Light, points out, “the business traveller effectively becomes a leisure tourist once the working day is over. Thus Harker takes part in many of the performances associated with leisure tourism. He carefully researches his destination in advance in the same way that a contemporary tourist might consult a Lonely Planet or Rough Guide.” (I cannot argue with this, except to regret that no mention is made of a Blue Guide! A modern-day Harker on his way to this part of the world might well consult Blue Guide Travels in Transylvania.) Harker also has the typical prejudices of a tourist: he compares everything with home, often unfavourably, and (rather patronisingly) describes the natives as “picturesque”.

There are other sorts of tourism examined by Light. Health tourism (visits to spas and so forth) is one; political tourism (visits to the scenes of major world events) is another. He ends with “dark tourism”, which involves visiting graves, burial sites, battlefields, the sites of murders or other atrocities. Jonathan and Mina Harker may have revisited Transylvania on a quest for the grave of Quincey Morris (after whom they have named their son, in gratitude for Morris’s aid in dispensing with the dreaded Count). We do not know. What we can be sure of, though, is that Dracula has spawned a dark tourism industry of its own. Many of those who visit Transylvania today are doing it for the frisson of travelling to the land of the vampire.

Transylvanian Book Festival

The third edition of the Transylvanian Book Festival was held on 13th–16th September, once again in the old Saxon Hall of Richiș, a village which nestles in a beautiful former wine-growing valley south of Mediaș, in the heart of Romania. Today the hillsides are bare of vines; instead there are fields of sheep, cattle and maize. Here men return from the meadows with scythes resting on their shoulders and the autumn hay is gathered in in horse-drawn carts. Time has not stood still here, but the hands of clock move slumbrously round the dial.

Mid-20th century oil painting of Richiș, by Imre Tóth. The village is little changed today.

Transylvania has an exceptionally complex history and has been home, over the centuries, to a large number of peoples. The Festival programme reflected this in its scope and breadth. Philip Mansel talked about Ferenc Rákóczi, the last Prince of Transylvania, who led a Hungarian rebellion against Habsburg domination in 1703–11. Defeated, he ended his days in exile beside the Sea of Marmara. Rákóczi had received support for his insurrection from Louis XIV, who is the subject of Mansel’s next book (details to follow on this website). Other Hungarian-themed talks were given by Thomas Barcsay, who spoke about his great-uncle Miklós Bánffy, author of the Transylvanian Trilogy; and Michael O’Sullivan, who presented his new book Noble Encounters, tracking down the families who played host to Patrick Leigh Fermor in the course of the ‘Great Trudge’ which forms the subject of Between the Woods and the Water.

The Saxon Lutheran heritage of the region, in danger of being lost since almost all the families emigrated to Germany in the 1990s, was poignantly presented by a concert of traditional songs in Richiș church by the Mediaș choir, as well as a visit to the splendid fortified church of Moșna, with its extraordinary twisted fluted columns supporting the net vault. After lunch at trestle tables laden with good things inside the walled enceinte, the local school master led a tour of two churches on the village outskirts: the brand new, glittering and glistening Romanian Orthodox church, and the tiny, disused Uniate church, which is planned to be opened as a museum since its Greek-Catholic congregation is no more.

Interior detail of the Romanian Orthodox church at Moșna.

Romanian speakers at the Festival included Maria Pakucs, who spoke about trading links between Transylvania and the Ottoman Empire; Ion Florescu, whose ancestor was a leading figure in the 19th-century Romanian struggle for autonomy and nationhood; and the Dracula expert Marius Crișan, who presented his book Dracula: An International Perspective (to be reviewed shortly on this website). Two films were also shown: one by Dragoș Lumpan on transhumance, the ancient drovers’ practice of moving grazing animals between winter and summer pastures (for details, see here); and the other by Dan Drăghicescu on Romania’s last king, Michael I, whose brave coup of 1944 led to his country abandoning the Axis cause and joining the Allies (for more on Drăghicescu’s work, see here).

Another book to be presented in Richiș was of course Blue Guide Travels in Transylvania: The Greater Târnava Valley, now in its second edition. Its author, Lucy Abel Smith, is the organiser of the Transylvanian Book Festival and a great champion of the Târnava Valley as a unique sliver of human cultural patrimony and ideal destination for the inquisitive traveller. The second edition of her guide includes a new chapter on Sibiu (where the collection of paintings in the Brukenthal Museum, including an exquisite Van Eyck and a remarkable Brueghel, is simply not to be missed) and new coverage of the villages of Dârlos and Șmig, whose churches have interesting early fresco cycles.

One of Herod’s henchmen takes a comfort break during the Massacre of the Innocents. Detail of Brueghel’s painting in the Brukenthal Museum, Sibiu.

Anna: Female destinies in Transylvania

“Anna: Fictitious Female Fates” (Anna: Változatok székely asszonysorsra) is the title of a disarmingly thought-provoking exhibition at the Hungarian National Museum, on tour from the Rezső Haáz Museum in Székelyudvarhely (Odorheiu Secuiesc, Romania). It follows the fortunes of the imaginary Anna, a Hungarian-speaking Székely, born in east Transylvania in 1920, the year that Transylvania was awarded to Romania in the dismemberment of Austria-Hungary.

To participate in the exhibition (you can’t just view it; it is fully audio-visual), you need to download the sound files via an app. The show is divided into numbered viewing/listening stations, each with its own little set, each representing a stage in Anna’s life. You follow her around, listening as she tells her story.

Her childhood is much like that of any other rural Székely girl. Tough but not deprived. She gets a few years of schooling before putting her shoulder to the family wheel, tending crops and looking after the animals. In due course, the expectation is that she will marry.

And so she no doubt would have done, had it not been for the handsome boy at the village barn dance…

So far, it’s a Victorian novel. But Romania in 1920 was a long way from that world. These were years of turmoil and dislocation—and yet despite the disruption (or because of it), Anna arguably ended up with more opportunities than she would have done had her world not fallen apart. It’s difficult to review the show without including an enormous spoiler. Suffice to say that the boy at the dance is (of course) a rotter. Anna finds herself pregnant, ostracised and potentially ruined.

Then comes the bifurcation of the ways that makes this exhibition work. Anna, the undone village girl (and you, the visitor) are presented with two alternatives. Do you opt for (A): an abortion at the filthy hands of ‘Aunt Rebecca’, flight to the big city (Kolozsvár/Cluj) and a job as maid of all work in a wealthy Jewish household? Or do you take (B): the crippled, war-wounded older man your father finds for you, who needs a nurse and in return is prepared to adopt your child? (If I had to quarrel with any aspect of the exhibition, it would be this. Can we really believe in this middle-aged miracle of mercy, prepared to take soiled goods? It seems to be the one slightly false note.) In any case, you turn left into the “farmhouse living room” for option B and right to the “railway station” for option A—and in the end (don’t read this if you don’t want to know), it doesn’t matter which path you choose, because both will lead to the same urban tower block, where you will spend your declining years fed and warm but on your own and lonely, listening to the TV (when there’s electricity, this is ’80s Romania) to blot out the silence.

In the meantime you will have run the gauntlet of the Holocaust, Communism, collectivisation, industrialisation, defection to the West and the impending execution of Ceaușescu. And you will ask yourself: Do I have regrets? (Yes and no.) Would I start my life all over again if I could? (Absolutely. Hope always triumphs over experience.)

The whole exhibition is a subtly understated Gesamtkunstwerk. At first, you wonder if it’s going to be a bit amateurish. But you soon get sucked in and begin to notice that careful applied-arts and ethnographical research has gone into the choice of furnishings for each “set”. The items are not labelled; they speak for themselves. This is an exhibition which manages to impart its content without a single wall text. The historical events and background aren’t explained either. They are just the cards that Anna is dealt, the ingredients for the whole construct, and therefore you the listener are forced to try and make sense of them.

Appearing like a leitmotif at every stage of Anna’s passage is a bright white handkerchief embroidered with her name. She drops it at the foot of a haystack during the rough-and-tumble of that fateful barn-dance encounter. It’s a dainty thing, an item which, in the normal run of events, might have been expected to form part of her trousseau. One does have to wonder though, considering the political havoc that was to ensue, as Austria-Hungary was torn to shreds and stitched back together in a zany new patchwork, the social order turned completely on its head: would Anna’s life really have been better if she had held on to her maidenhead and married the boy next door? The answer isn’t obvious—which is what makes this show so successful. The cluster bomb which 20th-century history detonated upon society and its established institutions brought misery, it’s true. But opportunities as well.

Ultimately, “Anna” asks one of the most fundamental of all human questions. Can flouting the rules lead to greater happiness than obeying them? Our desire for self-determination, our rejection of socio-religious moral codes and our demand to inhabit a stable world and yet not to bow to all its laws, have led us to lonely isolation in urban tenements. But which is better? Loneliness on one’s own terms or the support mechanism of suffocating togetherness in a tiny village community, where if you overstep the mark, you’re out?

Thus doth the Great Foresightless mechanize
In blank entrancement now as evermore
Its ceaseless artistries in Circumstance
Of curious stuff and braid, as just forthshown.
Yet but one flimsy riband of Its web
Have we here watched in weaving…

The ‘Spirit of the Years’ speaks these lines at the conclusion of Thomas Hardy’s The Dynasts. Anna and her handkerchief might be a ‘flimsy riband’. But they are also part of the ceaseless artistry of circumstance.

Reviewed by Annabel Barber.

Anna: Fictitious Female Fates” (Anna: Változatok székely asszonysorsra), runs until the end of April at the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest. For more on the Rezső Haáz Museum and the Székely area of Transylvania, see Blue Guide Transylvania: The Greater Târnava Valley.

Transylvania Launched

Blue Guide Travels in Transylvania: The Greater Târnava Valley was launched last week at a crammed reception in John Sandoe Books in London. Devotees of the shop will know that there is more floor space in it for books than for people—but luckily the afternoon rain gave way to clear skies and those who could not fit inside took the party onto the pavement. The author of this new Blue Guide, art historian and tour leader Lucy Abel Smith, spoke briefly about her book, which traces the course of the Greater Târnava river, visiting towns, villages, ancient manor houses, high pastures and castles along the way, knocking on doors in search of ever-elusive keys to museums and churches that harbour beautiful medieval altarpieces or works of exquisite stone carving. The Târnava river can be seen as a microcosm of Transylvania itself: it flows through lands that have been historically inhabited by the many peoples who have called this fascinating place home: Hungarian-speaking Székelys at its source above Odorheiu Secuiesc, Saxons at Sighișoara, Hungarians at Criș, Armenians at Dumbrăveni, Jews in Mediaș, Roma at Brateiu and Romanians at Blaj, the town that proudly asserts its identity as the cradle of the Romanian nation (Transylvania was joined to Romania in 1920, after the First World War).

Many thanks to John Sandoe Books for hosting the launch party. Lucy Abel Smith has a house in Transylvania, in the heart of the valley she writes about. She is the founder and organiser of the Transylvanian Book Festival.

The Transylvanian Book Festival

At the Second Council of Nicaea in 787, it was made compulsory for all new churches to enclose relics in their altars. The aim was to ensure that no church was founded without a genuine raison d’être. Today, faced with so many literary festivals around the world, the raisons d’être become vitally important in choosing which to go to. This month the Blue Guides sponsored two: Hay Festival Segovia, an offshoot of the original Literary Festival in the original Town of Books, Hay-on-Wye; and the Transylvanian Book Festival.

The latter took place deep in the heart of Transylvania, on 8th–11th September. It has impeccable metaphorical relics in its altar: those of Count Dracula. The historical Vlad Țepeș was in fact imprisoned in the citadel of Mediaș, one of the town on the Festival itinerary. Dracula might seem a hackneyed subject for a Transylvanian festival (he was far from the main theme of the event), but Marius-Mircea Crișan, who spoke about him, took a fresh angle on the subject with his ideas on Transylvania as the ideal locus for the horror genre: somewhere far enough away to be unknown yet still close enough to home for a frisson of terror to be felt.

Transylvania is still relatively unknown. Which makes it all the better a setting for a festival. The Transylvanian Book Festival takes a diffuse approach. The main events space is the old Saxon meeting hall in the village of Richiș. Participants are lodged in the village as well as in the neighbouring settlements of Biertan and Copșa Mare and the events themselves were held in Richiș, Mediaș (in its synagogue and Saxon citadel) and Alma Vii (whose citadel has recently been restored by the Mihai Eminescu Trust).

The Festival programme is diffuse as well. Its founder is Lucy Abel Smith (author of the recent Blue Guide to the region) and she put together a clever mix of history, travelogue, biography, fiction and poetry (for the full programme, see here). Interspersed among the bookish talk were delightful interludes of music and film. Dragoș Lumpan presented a preview of his forthcoming documentary on transhumance, the age-old practice of moving livestock on foot between summer and winter pastures. Benjy Fox-Rosen gave a recital of Yiddish music in the old synagogue of Mediaș, which for some was the highlight of the Festival.

The natural world also played an important part. The landscape of this region is broad and sweeping, made up of expanses of field, grassland, scrub and forest, and because historically this was not a feudal society, there are no enclosures. It is this, in the opinion of another of the speakers, the naturalist Bob Gibbons, that makes the area so exceptionally rich in wildlife.

Transylvania is a place that has had many identities in the course of its history and many peoples have called it home. What makes it such an exceptional place to visit is the inherited complexity of all of that, as well as the powerful sense of a destiny in the balance. Where will it go next? One of the most popular talks at the recent Festival was Bernard Wasserstein’s on the life and multiple identities of Trebitsch Lincoln, born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Hungary, who went on to become successively a Presbyterian missionary, Anglican curate, Liberal MP, Buddhist monk and Nazi agent. That’s quite a trajectory.