Between Baia Mare and Kolozsvár the landscape is ancient and magnificent. There are more horse-drawn carts on the road than cars, variously loaded with dung, maize, hay, families, weary men, and elderly couples on their way to the nearest village shop. Fields are ploughed by horses, fields mown with scythes. Haystacks are built around three long stakes. Farm labourers sit in groups in the fields to eat. Three gypsy boys climb in a cherry tree. Further south, between Dej and Kolozsvár, I see a lone, angular, apple-green Claas Senator combine harvester in a field of grain, clouds of golden dust rising from it.
I’m on my way to the former palace of the Bánffy family and I’m intrigued as to what I’ll find. The surrounding estates and the castle came into the hands of the Bánffys in 1387. Over the course of the centuries the palace grew larger. In the seventeenth century a late-Renaissance extension was added, and in the eighteenth century a horse-shoe-shaped baroque building was constructed around it and a French garden laid out. In the nineteenth century the palace was extended in the Romantic style, with the addition of an English garden, an obelisk and a chapel. It was known as the Versailles of Transylvania.
The final stretch of road to Bonchida is made of loose hardcore. The building was blown up twice. To punish its last owner, Count Miklós Bánffy (1873-1950), the retreating Germans comprehensively looted the palace and undermined its walls with dynamite. Bánffy was a citizen of both Hungary and Romania and on 6 June 1943 he travelled to Bucharest in an attempt to persuade the Romanian government to side with the Allies. Hitler never forgave the Anglophile Bánffy. In 1944 Hungary contemplated abandoning the Axis powers and switching sides, which was reason enough for the Germans to invade the country on 19 March. On 24 August that year Romania joined the Allies.
The Germans filled seventeen trucks with art treasures and furniture from Bonchida before setting fire to the palace with its library of thousands of books and its centuries-old archive. The column of trucks full of Bánffy treasures was bombed on its way westwards by the Allied air forces. Nothing was ever recovered. In the 1970s the Romanian government arranged for the Nazis’ work to be replicated, and what remained of the palace was blown up for a feature film directed by Sergiu Nicolaescu. I’m not expecting to find much more than a heap of stones.
I park the car in front of the entrance to the Bánffy palace and walk through a large covered gatehouse towards a number of detached buildings. Practically all of them have new roofs, made of dark-red tiles. In every other respect they are ruins. The long main building lies to the right. It’s immense. On the most distant outside corner are round stumpy towers that I suspect must be the oldest structures here. At the far end, on the park side, is an English-looking Romantic extension made of stone. Everything has been shot to pieces, bombed and burned, leaving blasted walls. Nowhere can I find the remains of plasterwork or refined detailing. I walk through the carcass. In room after room I see the same rubble, but the door openings are still in line, so I can look deep inside as if through a tunnel with light at the end, a hundred metres away. You have to watch your step. There are large holes in the floor, with a long drop into the vaulted cellar.
To the left of the courtyard are the stables. The stone ornamentation around the entrance has been restored, including a group of sculptures at the edge of the roof. Inside, craftsmen are hard at work. The horses’ drinking troughs are hewn out of Transylvanian marble. Large pillars support the brickwork ceiling. This isn’t a stable, it’s a cathedral. Across from the entrance are three niches in the wall. I suspect they once contained statues.
There are several other buildings. The chapel tower is supported by a decaying wooden structure. It has a more dramatic lean to it than Pisa. At the far end of the stables stands a big ungainly building, possibly once the servants’ quarters. Students of art restoration from all over Europe are up on the scaffolding plastering, when they aren’t flirting.
At a little stall I buy postcards, black-and-white photographs of the palace in better times. The dining room strikes me as rather cheerless. It’s as big as a tennis court and in the middle stands a square table with four chairs around it, laid for four people, with a damask tablecloth. Above the table is a colossal chandelier. Another photo shows the landscaped garden, which is also rather sparse. It’s clear from the old photographs that the Bánffys were Protestants.
Miklós Bánffy died in the knowledge that the palace in Kolozsvár and the estates in rural Transylvania had been confiscated, Bonchida blown up and burned, all the art treasures, family documents, library and archives destroyed, his work was unavailable and forgotten, and he and his wife and daughter were cut off from the country he loved so much.
In Bánffy’s trilogy the village of Bonchida and the palace are lovingly described. He calls the house Dénestornya. Bánffy understood even in the 1930s that the aristocracy was doomed and in the trilogy the Transylvanian nobleman László Gyerõffy symbolizes its downfall, a man who gambles away his fortune and his estate at the gaming tables. This cousin of the protagonist is a man seemingly brought low by gambling, drink and apathy, but in fact he is eager to rectify the dishonour of having chalked up debts to a woman. Bánffy writes of him: ‘And at that time he had felt that there was something noble and uplifting, cruel but at the same time triumphant, in choosing social death over private dishonour.’ In retrospect the titles of Bánffy’s trilogy – They Were Counted, They Were Found Wanting, They Were Divided – sound ominous. It’s as if he’s referring to the night of 3 March 1949.
After the Second World War, Bánffy stayed in Transylvania to try to protect what was left of Bonchida and the Bánffy mansion in Kolozsvár, and to recover ownership of the Bánffy forests. His wife had fled to Budapest with their daughter in 1944. The border between Hungary and Romania was closed, so he was unable to reunite his family. In 1949, the year the Transylvanian aristocracy was robbed of all its rights and possessions, the Romanian communists finally allowed Miklós Bánffy to leave for Budapest. He died there a year later.
Comrade Baron. A Journey through the Vanishing World of the Transylvanian Aristocracy
by Jaap Scholten
Corvina Kiadó, 2013
404 pages, HUF 3990
The book is available at Bestsellers (District V, Október 6 u. 11) and at Massolit (District VII, Nagy Diófa u. 30).