Starting to think seriously about my next vacation—only a few weeks away now—prompted by yet another flight detail change from United. The trip will start in Budapest, then float south along the Danube to Bucharest. On the journey, the boat will slip easily through the Iron Gate, the gorge separating Romania and the Carpathian Mountains on the north from Serbia and the Balkan mountain foothills on the south. Dams constructed over a 20-year period, ending in 1984, have turned what used to be a wild stretch of river into something more like a lake.
But the Iron Gates of my imagination, the ones I hope to see in my mind’s eye, are as they are described in Alan Furst’s thrillers. In his books, set in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, the Iron Gates were a perilous passage for desperate people—spies, refugees, terrorists, anyone caught up in the tightening net of loyalties and politics of a looming World War II:
“He would have to cross the Russian lines, would have to go through the white water at the Iron Gate, where the Duna [Danube] came crashing down onto the Wallachian plain to form the border between Romania and Bulgaria.” – Night Soldiers
“Europe was lost behind them—after the Iron Gate they were in a different land, a different time, running along the great plain that reached to the edge of the Black Sea.” – Night Soldiers
A few days in Budapest, an infamous spy town, is another something to look forward to:
“On 10 March 1930, the night train from Budapest pulled into the Gare du Nord a little after four in the morning. . . . In the station at Vienna, a brick had been thrown at the window of a first-class compartment, leaving a frosted star in the glass. And later that day there’d been difficulties at the frontiers for some of the passengers, so in the end the train was late getting into Paris.”—Kingdom of Shadows
“Difficulties at the frontiers”—we can imagine exactly what those difficulties were—“for some of the passengers”—and exactly who those terrified passengers were. Laced with foreboding, those lines open Furst’s thriller Kingdom of Shadows.
Other than a literary interest in things Budapestian, I have a family history interest as well. Legend has it that my grandmother (who died when I was a toddler) was a pastry chef in Budapest before immigrating to the United States. The disappointing kernel of the story is that none of her six daughters learned the art. She came from the generation that wanted to put the Old Country behind it. Truthfully, she had to have been quite young—twenty?—when she came over, so “chef” may be a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s a pleasant thought and one that will require eating as much pastry as possible in homage.
Another feature of this trip is a three-day add-on excursion into Transylvania—ancestral home of my grandfather, who came from a tiny village annexed to the marginally larger village of Székelykeresztúr (“Holy Cross” in Hungarian) in 1926. Google maps gives the larger town no more than 12 streets. My grandfather’s home was about eight miles from the medieval walled town of Sighisoara, birthplace of Count Dracula. I have Transylvania roots, for sure.
So, of course I enjoyed reading The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova, about a woman researching her family’s history who traverses that part of the world and at every step finds connections to Our Vlad. “Genuinely terrifying,” said the Boston Globe.
Lots to look forward to, and I have my reading for the trip all lined up:
- The Balkans: A Short History by Mark Mazower – my trip will skirt the top of this region
- Between the Woods and the Water by Patrick Leigh Fermor, subtitled “On Foot to Constantinople: The Middle Danube to the Iron Gates”
- Dracula, Prince of Many Faces: His Life and Times – by Boston College historians Radu R. Florescu and Raymond T. McNally. In the cover painting, The Count looks like he’s holding a cigar between his nose and upper lip.
I’ve provided links to amazon.com, in case you want more info about any of these books, but of course would encourage you to make any purchases at your local independent bookstore!