23 mar. 2013

Transylvanian country houses as seen by Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor (I)

*This article is written in English. The Romanian version will be available soon.


In summer 2011, in our researches on the web, we came across a book that was said to describe a young man’s travels through Central Europe, in the mid 1930’s. The book was called Between the Woods and the Water and it had been written by Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor. Luckily, one of us was studying in Berlin at that time, so we managed to find a copy of the book at the university library. What came next, amazed us: browsing the book, we found numerous accounts of Transylvanian stately houses and their owners, stories about their life style, about their relationships and rich depictions of their appearance and character. For us, it proved to be a real treasure, as today most to nothing remains to bear witness of those days, apart from some of the castles and mansions mentioned in the book, which are now mostly abandoned and derelict. 

Back in Bucharest, we decided to order the book as it hasn’t yet been translated and it’s rarely found in Romania. After the book arrived we started reading it thoroughly, pen in hand, browsing through our archive of photographs, both old and new, trying to retrace the author’s steps through the stately homes of Transylvania and to catch a glimpse of this lost world. What you will see in the following series of articles is the result of this work, which we hope will prove helpful for everyone interested. The articles contain excerpts from the book (in italics) combined with information on the stately homes mentioned and their owners, archive images and contemporary photographs. 

- EPISODE 1 -

Sharded beetles


The hills along the north bank grew higher and as the trees multiplied, I had the feeling of plunging inextricably in deep and unknown regions. By mid-afternoon I got to Soborsin [Săvârșin], where a Nádasdy chateau* lay secluded in the woods, and crossed a bridge to the other bank.

the castle in Săvârşin around 1900.

*The castle of Săvârșin had belonged to the Nádasdy family but at the time of Paddy Fermor’s visit belonged to the Huniady family, as we will see below. In 1932, the domain passes to the Mocioni de Foen family, and in 1943 was sold to king Michael the First of Romania. After being seized by the communists, it was given back to the Royal House of Romania and is now one of their main residences. 

the castle in Săvârşin in 2010 (more photos)

the mansion in Căpâlnaş in 1908
source - Horvath Hilda - Stílus, szellem, tradíció. A tórténelmi Magyaroszág kastélyai

After an hour or two, I loped exhausted through long shadows to the kástely [castle] at Kápolnás. Double flights of steps mounted to a balustrade terrace, where people were sitting out in the cool moment before the sun set; there were glimpses through French windows of lighted rooms beyond. Count Paul [Pál] Teleki, my kind geographic benefactor in Budapest, had written to the owner, who was his first cousin, and I had telephoned the day before. He was called Count Eugene of the same name [Teleki] – Jenö in Hungarian – and he got up and ambled hospitably across. […]

count Jenö (Eugene) Teleki
(source: private archive)

He was a tall, spreading, easy-going middle aged man, with gold-rimmed spectacles and a remarkably intelligent, slightly ugly and very amusing face […]. I knew he was a famous entomologist and a great authority on moths, especially those of the Far East, and he was said to keep two insect hunters permanently busy, one in China, the other in Japan, sending him back a steady flow of specimens. Lepidoptera were on parade in glass cases all over the house […]. Apart from this, he had all the instincts of a polymath: everything aroused his curiosity and sent him climbing unwieldily up the library steps. He delighted in gossip and comic stories, and he had a passion for limericks, the racier the better. […] He was much travelled and knew the British Isles very well; his English was nearly perfect and a nanny from the Highlands had left him with a stock of Scotch sayings […].

Ecaterina (Tinka) Mocioni
source - Teodor Botiş - Monografia familiei Mocioni

His wife, Countess Catherine – Tinka [Ecaterina Mocioni] – was tall, dark haired, fine looking, very kind and very intelligent, and widely read in quite different fields from his. In one particular, she was literally unique in this marooned Hungarian society: she was Romanian: but of an unusual kind. A number of Hungarian families in Transylvania had, in fact – however fervently Hungarian they became when they rose in the world – once been of Romanian stock. The Countess’s ancestors were from exactly this mould, except that, though they were Hungarian nobles, they remembered their origins and supported Romanian aspirations. Magyar may have been their earliest language for generations; but, as Members of Parliament, they always expressed heterodox views in the Budapest parliament. Count Jenö, scion of one of the great Hungarian Houses of Transylvania, was as deeply rooted in post-war resentment as any backwoods squire, though he was not emphatic in expressing it; while Countess Tinka, when occasion arose, was discreetly eloquent on the opposite side; and when one of them uttered controversial views, the other would later make it privately clear to a guest that they were nonsense […] They were extremely fond of each other and far too civilized for public contradiction.

There was a nice looking, rather spoiled son called Michael [Eugen ”Bubi” Teleki] and his Hungarian tutor at the castle, and a moving population of visitors; and one was aware of the Countess’s recently invalid mother in one wing of the building.

the mansion in Căpâlnaş in 2012 (more photos)

Library mornings

Dense woods shot up steeply behind the house. In front, wavering meadows sank gently towards the Maros but the steep woods were echoed on the northern bank. ”It’s only early nineteenth –century,” the Count said, referring to his house, “and perhaps a bit showy.*’’ Rusticated ashlars formed the first story, pilasters rose to a cornice and fluted Corinthian columns ran the length of a façade adorned with the masks of sibyls and nymphs and satyrs.

*The mansion was built in the second half of the 19th century after the plans drawn by the famous Austrian architect Otto Wagner in 1867, then only 26 years old, and it was inspired by the Petit Trianon of Versailles.

The terrace was the Count’s afternoon and evening retreat. He would sit and talk in one of the wicker chairs for hours or stroll disquisitively under a grey linen sunshade lined with green. […] But the library, with its thousands of books and its nets and vascular and collector’s gear, was his favourite haunt. He led me there after breakfast and I would explore with the step-ladder while he settled down at his table with a sigh of pleasure. Unpacking parcels covered with strange stamps and posted in the foothills of Fujiyama or at some river-port on the Yangtze, he would begin sorting out the contents with tweezers, inspecting them under a lens or a microscope and accompanying his task with a murmured multilingual commentary […] It was impossible to think of anyone happier. As far as I was concerned, boundless treasures beckoned: rows of encyclopedias in several languages, the cynical Latin verses of Janus Pannonius, a fifteenth century Hungaro-Croatian bishop of Pecs, ‘the Martial of Hungary’ […]; genealogies gleaming with scutcheons tricked or illuminated in faded hues and the marvellous and many-volumed ‘Geographie Universelle of Elyse Reclus. A score of temptations lured one to trifle the morning away. […]

His family had always been immersed in travel and science and literature. One branch [Samu Teleki] explored Central Africa and discovered lakes and volcanoes on the Ethiopian border; my Budapest friend [*Pal Teleki] had mapped archipelagoes in the Far East; Count Samuel Teleki, a wily Transylvanian chancellor in the eighteenth century gathered 40,000 books together in Marosvasarhely – Târgu Mureș in Romanian – in a library specially built for them, and gave it to the town; it was crammed with incunabula and princeps editions and manuscripts, including one of the earliest of Tacitus […]. A Count Joseph Teleki, travelling in France with his bibliophile cousin, became a friend and partisan of Rousseau and launched a clever attack on Voltaire, which ran into three editions; and here it was on the shelf: Essai sur la Foiblesse des Esprits Forts, Leyden, 1760.

My bedroom contained part of the library’s overflow: Henty, Ballantyne, Jock of the Busheveld, Owd Bob, The Story of the Red Deer, Black Beauty, The Jungle Books and the Just So Stories. There were any amount of Tauchnitz editions, industriously tunneled by insects […]. But the most important and revealing trove was half a dozen historical novels by the Hungarian writer Maurus Jokai [*Jokai Mor] (1824-1904), translated in Victorian days.

the castle in Hunedoara (source oocities.org)

His hosts, observing their guest’s increasing interest in the history of those parts, came up with the idea of going on a ‘historical jaunt’ with the automobile, ‘a solemn event in these regions of bad roads’. With the countess in the driver’s seat, they set off to Hunedoara to visit the castle. ‘The castle of Vajdahunyad, chief stronghold of the great John Hunyadi, a building so fantastic and theatrical that, at a first glance, it looked totally unreal,’ Paddy Fermour remembers in the book.

the castle today (source - Todor Bozhinov, wikipedia)

The Grand Veneur's Guests

So the first weeks of June slipped by with books and talk and jaunts and exchanges of visits.[…]They took me with them to luncheon at the Nádasdy chateau across the river [Săvârşin]; it was inhabited by a tall, distinguished couple: Hundyadis, like the hero, but not relations, I believe. A Hungarian diplomatist called Baron Apor was staying with them.[…]

A cousin of the Countess [Ioan Mocioni Starcea] lived at Bulci, a few miles away, and their family’s adherence to Romanian causes in the pre-war Hungarian parliament had stood him in good stead when it was over. With a high-bridged nose and receding chin, fiftyish, cosmopolitan, urbane and clever, he was an excellent shot, and King Carol [Charles the Second] had appointed him Grand Veneur du Roi, or Master of the Royal Hunt [in 1930]; […]. The Grand Veneur had a house-party from Bucharest, “He’s bringing them over for a bite!” the Count announced; and there was daily to-and-fro movement during their stay.

Apart from peasants and my hostess – who, in a way, only half counted – these were the only Romanians I had met; and, from the Regat or the ”Old Kingdom”, absolutely the first. One was a tall diplomatist with a monocle, rather aloof and quiet, a minister on leave called Gregoire Duca. His brother Jean [I.G. Duca], the last Prime Minister, had been assassinated by the Iron Guard six months before. ”A horrible lot of people,” Count Jenö succinctly said; then ”What a pity! Duca was the best politician in the country.”

The well-cut Paris country clothes and the pearls of the women, and their discreet but just detectable scent transported us to the pages of Vogue. All of them spoke English well, but, rather astonishingly, conversed among them in French as though it were their first language; and, strangely, so it was. One, extremely beautiful and with enormous green-grey eyes, was the daughter of a former Foreign Minister […]. Another woman – chalk white, dressed all in black with a long jade cigarette-holder and transfigured in a permanent cloud of smoke – was a passionate and famous bridge player and rather frightening; […]. When trim chauffeurs had driven them off in two dark and gleaming motor-cars, the Count suggested a wee drappie in the library and it was as we sipped that we learnt all about them. […]. ‘How smart they are,’ the Countess said, rather ruefully. ”They make one feel very rustic and dowdy.” […]

I had thought of a riddle during the night and sprang it on him [Jenö Teleki] at breakfast:
PLF, ‘Which is the most entomological of Shakespeare’s plays?’’
JT (after a pause), ‘I give up.’’
PLF, ‘Antennae and Coleoptera.’’
It was a great success and the words immediately wove themselves into the multilingual comment and soliloquy and the fragments of limerick that accompanied his task of unpacking and classification […]. While he adjusted the milled controls of his microscope, I settled with a pile of books and a peaceful library morning lay ahead.

But soon the Countess came in, looking troubled. Her mother had taken a steep and sudden turn for the worse: it looked as though the kastely might be turned into a house of mourning. My next stepping-stone had been arranged; it was the other side of the river at Zam, some miles upstream; and I determined, against polite demur, to set off in the morning.

Csernovits mansion in Zam (more photos)

[to be continued]…



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