By Fernando Dameto Zaforteza, Deputy Director of Humanities
Last summer I travelled with a couple of friends to the former land of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in order to get to know the key player in XIX century European politics a bit better. As it was difficult to visit the entire former empire, we decided to concentrate on Austria, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. We had to leave the former kingdoms of Moravia and Bohemia, as well as the Adriatic Sea territories, for the future.
Since the Central European diet can be a bit heavy for Mediterraneans, we though it would be appropriate to travel by bike. It was a brilliant idea that allowed us to explore the country, you tend to go to the main cities, leaving aside the small towns were you get in contact with the truly local people. Furthermore, there is a fantastic bike path along the Danube that allowed us to travel without the inconvenience of riding alongside cars and lorries. It took us two weeks to go from Passau to Budapest. The Austrian path is excellent; the Hungarian, however, I would not recommend. In Transylvania we traveled by train.
It Is always hard to summarize a long trip in a blog post but if I had to choose three things I found most impressive on the trip, they would be: Hungarian monumentalism, the Austrian region of Wachau and multiethnic Transylvania. The size of the Hungarian buildings is amazing – take, for example, their parliament, if not the whole majestic Pest –as well as their statues – the one of King Mathias in Cluj-Napoca is probably the biggest sculpture I have ever seen. Wachau is an amazing canyon divided by the Danube; it is really green and sparsely populated. In Wachau you can find amazing monasteries (even though some of them invite more to dance than to pray) medieval castles in ruins, and finally the prehistoric statue of the Venus of Willendorf, which was a grateful surprise since we did not know it was there. Transylvania was possibly the biggest surprise of the trip; none of us expected the beauty of this fertile and multicultural land, with Saxon, Hungarian and Romanian villages. Although Transylvania was meant to be a relaxing week in the countryside, once you meet Transylvania you want to visit most of them, so we ended up waking up every day at 5am to fulfill that wish.
Good guides for this trip are Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Books –A time of gifts and Between the woods and the water- where he narrates his journey from London to Constantinople by foot in the mid thirties. He describes the places he visited, and his relations with the local people and analyzes its history. The only drawback is that you feel a bit jealous when he speaks about things that no longer exist. For example, because of globalization, it is no longer possible to identify the different ethnic groups by their customs. It is also impossible to see the incredible Turkish village in the Balkans that he spends an entire chapter admiring, since it disappeared beneath the waters after a dam was constructed. But some things haven’t change in 80 years: we also endured the approach of a Romanian granny asking if we were single, followed by, “in that case come with me to Sunday’s mass and I will introduce you to the beautiful women of our town.”
The Austro-Hungarian Empire ended with the Great War, with Austria and especially Hungary – who lost 2/3 of its territory – strongly penalized. Even though the empire is split between nations with different ethnic groups and completely different languages you can still feel the hand of the Habsburgs. For example, in most towns German prevails over English as a lingua franca and Mariensäule can be admired.
P.S. Avoid doing this bike trip with people from Pamplona who idolized the great Miguel Indurain as a teenager.