11 October 2013

Between the woods and the water - The cauldrons of Kazan

Patrick Leigh Fermor started his journey in the summer of 1934, from the Netherlands to Constantinople on foot. He was only 19 years old then. The young englishman arrived to Hungary at Easter, 1935 when crossing the bridge near Esztergom over the Danube. Thanks to the sympathy of the pro-British Hungarian aristocracy he had spent the time of his life. He was wandering through Hungary and Transylvania from castles to mansions. He was warmly welcomed everywhere, and he was really surprised that he could have spoken to everyone in his own mother tounge.  He wrote his journals during this trip in which he mentioned the life in the Buda castle as well as sleeping with nomad gypsies. He visited the cemetery of Segesvár (Sighișoara, Schäßburg) and watched the eagles soar above the Carpathian mountains. He did not know, but he described a condemned society which had less then ten more years before it completely disappeared. With all the rural beetle collecting aristocracy, just like in Agatha Christie's novels.  Mr. Fermor tells also a tale of a long lost view of the Lower-Danube, which we present you on the Donauinseln blog.

"While the ship straightens course, we must take our bearings.
A traveller sticking to the usual route would have followed the Danube south, clean across Hungary and into Yugoslavia, looping east to Belgrade and following the north bank of the river across the southernmost extremity of the Great Plain. halting here, and looking east beyond the stacks of lopped reeds and the mirages, he would have seen mountains rising steeply out of the flat eastern horizon like a school of whales.
The northern half of these mountains, which drops to the left bank of the Danube, is the end of the Carpathians; and the southern galf, which soars from the right bank, though considerably lower than the northern range, is the beginning of the Balkans (The actual Great Balkan Range, as opposed to ’the Balkans,’ only begins on the other side of the Bulgarian-Yugoslav border.): a momentous juxtaposition. these two mountainous regions, seeming to grow in height and volume with every advancing step, look a solid mass; but, in reality, a deep invisible rift cleaves it from summit to base, delving a passage for the greatest river in Europe to rush through. I had reached this point from the other end; now I was in the western jaws of the rift and heading east again with dawn paling beyond the dark bends of the canyon and spreading rays of daybreak high overhead like the Japanese flag.

Road carved in rock in the Kazan
To starboard the dungeon-island of Babakai, where a pasha had chained up a runaway wife and starved her to death, was still drowned in the shadow. Then the sun broke through spikes and brushwood high above, and caught the masonry of the Serbian castle of Golubac – a prison too, this time of an unnamed Roman empress – where battlemented walls looped a chain of broken cylinders and polygons up to the crest of a headland; and here,with the lift and the steeping tilt of the precipices, the twilight was renewed. Spaced out under the woods, Rumanian and Serbian fishing-hamlets followed one another while the mountain walls straightened and impended until the river was flowing along the bottom of a corridor.

The dungeon-island of Babakai

The only other passanger, a well-read Rumanian doctor who had studied in Vienna, was bound for Turnu-Severin. Approaching the submerged cataracts ha warned me that the Danube, unhindered by mountains since the Visegrad bend, undergoes violent changes here. The slimy bed hardens to a narrow trough crossed by sunk bars of quartz and granite and schist and between them deep chasms sink.
The mountain walls, meanwhile, were stealing closer. A buttress of rock, climbing its flank, veered sharply south where it struck an answering Serbian wall which rose perpendicular for one thousand six hundred feet, while the width of the river shrank to four hundred; and, abetted by the propinquity of these two cliffs and the commotion among the drowned reefs and chasms, the foiled and colliding liquid sent waves shuddering upstream again far beyond Belgrade. The river welled angrily through the narrows, and the pilot stylishly outmanoeuvered them with swift twirls of the wheel. We sailed into the open. The treshold fell wide, the currents disentangled and a serene ring of mountains all at once enclosed us in a wide, clear dell of water. This was 'the Cauldron' of Kazan. Accompanied by gulls and resembling a steel engraving out of Jules Verne, we stole across the still circus under a tall and windless pillar of smoke.

Traian's inscription
When the boat reached the further side, it slid into the mountains again and the corridor led us from chamber to chamber. The river was constantly veering into new vistas of slanting light and shade; every now and then the precipices dipped enough for houses and trees and a blue or yellow church to huddle in a cranny, and the meadows behind them climbed steeply between peaks and landslides to join the dark curl of the woods.
On the left bank, daylight now revealed the Széchenyi road in all its complexity; and, even more impressive, an intermittent causeway was hewn just wide enough for two to march abreast along the perpendicular face of the right bank. Sometimes its course was traceable only by slots in the rock where beams had once supported a continuous wooden platform above the river. Trajan’s completion of the road Tiberius had begun (and Vespasian and then Domitian continued) was hoisted over the river, to carry the invading legions to the bridgehead for Dacia a dozen miles downstream. On the rock face above it a large rectangular slab was embedded: carved dolphins, winged genii and imperial eagles surrounded an inscription celebrating both the completion of the road and the campaign that followed it in AD 103. Time had fretted it into near illegibility. (I found it later. ’Imperator Caesar divi Nervae filius,’ the inscription ran, ’Nerva Trajanus Augustus Germanicus – Pontifex Maximus tribunitae potestatis quartum – Pater patriae consul quartum – montis et fluvius anfractibus – superatis viam patefacit.’ (’The Emperor Caesar – son of the divine Nerva – Nerva Trajan Augustus germanicus – High Priest and for the fourth times Tribune – Father of the country and for the fourth time Consul – overcame the hazards of mountain and river and flung open this road.’) After more twists. th gorge widened into the roads of Orsova."

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