We went for a long weekend to Transylvania, Romania with our friends Ildiko and Lorand, to Târgu Mureș (Hungarian Marosvásárhely), the town where they grew up before immigrating to Hungary. While there we took a day trip to the Turda Salt Mine and the city of Cluj-Napoca (Hungarian Kolozsvár). We had such fun meeting Ildiko’s Mother — who prepared wonderful lunches and plied us with her special palinka — and their friends Julia and Mihaly.
The history of Transylvania and the ethnic tensions between the Hungarians and Romanians who live there is more complicated than we could hope to appreciate in a short visit or the reading we had done. Both Hungarians and Romanians claim a historic right to the region – the Romanians through a debatable theory that traces their linage to the Romans who occupied the region during the 1st century, and the Hungarians who trace theirs to the arrival of the Magyars in the 10th century.
Transylvania has had periods of autonomy but through much of its history was part of Hungary, until the Treaty of Trianon, at the end of WWI divided two thirds of Hungarian territory and inhabitants between Romania, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia. Since Trianon, Transylvania has been contested territory, becoming briefly reunited with Hungary during WWII, and a continuing source of conflict between its population of ethnic Hungarians and ethnic Romanians. There have been demographic shifts in which Hungarians have gone from the majority population in the region to minority through out-migration of Hungarians and through Romanian relocation programs designed to dilute the Hungarian population. There has been shifting control of the schools, periods in which the Hungarian language could not be used in public, controversy and violence over memorial recognition of Hungarian and Romanian historical figures, and recent tension over Hungary’s extension of dual citizenship and voting rights to ethnic Hungarians living outside of the country.
Ethnic Hungarians of my age appear to speak only rudimentary Romanian when necessary. Ildiko and Lorand took their school classes in Romanian but associated primarily with other ethnic Hungarians, so they grew up bi-lingual of necessity. Many of their generation or younger have left Romania. Their friend that we met had moved to Budapest for a few years, returned to Transylvania to be near family, but and appear to be thinking of leaving again. Ethnic Hungarians are a minority now in Transylvania and are treated as a minority by Romanians.
Transylvania countryside is a beautiful mix of rolling agricultural land and forests dotted with small villages and a few cities. Romanian nationalist sentiments are evident everywhere in the display of flags and many villages have replicas of the Roman Romulus and Remus sculpture in their town squares, asserting their claim of Roman origins. Targu Mures and Cluj are an urban mix of buildings dating to the Austro-Hungarian period – beautiful but often in disrepair – and Soviet era block housing – also in disrepair and ugly. Churches were either Hungarian style Roman Catholic (and an especially beautiful Gothic in Cluj) or Romanian Orthodox and there seemed to be new Orthodox churches under construction everywhere – another sign of Romanian nationalism. The dull Soviet greyness still so much in evidence is punctuated by striking Hungarian Art Nouveau buildings (the Palace of Culture in Targu Mures was spectacular) and the Hungarian yellow churches and public buildings of an earlier day, and more recent renovations in bright orange, blue, and neon green.
I hope the pictures below give a sense of our introduction to Transylvania.
TURDA SALT MINE with recreation area and underground lake