The first day we woke up and had breakfast at the hostel, where at 8 am an enthusiastic cook filled our dishes with a heap of scrambled eggs, buttered bread and cheese, which we ate with an extremely bitter white yoghurt and, fortunately, a cup of good coffee. Later we finally got acquainted with our roommate, a Canadian sailor on vacation, who had kept me awake for several hours with long and anguished sleep-talking monologues in French.
Early in the morning Cluj appeared friendly and full of life. It was a wonderful, as well as cold, spring day and at every street corners there were old women selling baskets of daffodils, their heads covered with embroidered handkerchiefs and shawls. They were quite a show, and the bright yellow of the flowers alone was enough to bring us joy and promise a great day.
Our tutor was waiting for us in front of the statue of one of the Hungarians’ favourite heroes, King Matthias Corvinus, and then we walked together to the University. Finding your way in Cluj city centre is very simple, since you have plenty of monuments to choose as your point of reference, and it is also fun, because every statue has a strange story to tell.
If we want to generalise the situation, we could say that in the past Romanian and Hungarian Transylvanians, never got on very well. Among many other examples, their choice of historical figures for whom the monuments are dedicated bears witness to their divergences.
The monument to Matthias Corvinus, or “Matthias the righteous,” is an equestrian statue, part of the UNESCO World Heritage, and is located in Unirii Square, one of Cluj’s main squares. Built in the early ‘900, it was restored a few years ago with both Hungarian and Romanian fundings. It is interesting to notice that at least when it comes to King Matthias Corvinus there is nothing to fight about, except when you have to decide whether he was one of the greatest Hungarian kings and heroes, or a Romanian one. The fact that he was born in Transylvania, a highly disputed region, does not make the choice easier. Corvinus, or Hunyadi in Hungarian, was a Renaissance king, and an enlightened ruler. He’s one of the favourite Hungarian folk heroes, who have built around him a large number of tales and legends that confer him huge wisdom and a great sense of justice. Among his many victories and achievements, he is remembered for being the king who managed to humiliate the Austrians in war (1477-88) (ahahah) and to cast out the Turks from the Hungarian territories. He was practically the only hero to prevail on both the historical enemies of Hungary, a real myth, not to mention the fact that he was a cousin to Count Dracula.
Mihail Viteazul, also called “Michael the Brave,” is one of the most important Romanian national heroes , whom the city has devoted an equestrian statue, inaugurated in 1976, which competes with that of Corvinus. Viteazul is exalted as a hero for having unified the principalities of Moldavia, Wallachia and Transylvania under his rule, forming the nucleus of what today are the territories of Romania and Moldova. However, for the ethnic minority of Hungarians he represents the invader. Cluj, unlike other Transylvanian cities, was never occupied by Viteazul but rather enjoyed various privileges. Regardless of its “fancier” status, its inhabitants did nothing but conspire against him until his death, which took place by the hands of his Austrian allies. Hungarian Transylvanians have developed over the years a series of jokes targeting the equestrian statue of Mihail Viteazul and its sculptor who, actually, did not do a very good job (actually, it’s quite terrible). The Viteazul’s figure looks like a clothespin, a severe rider with his legs stiff and spread, oddly stuck on the saddle of his horse. Needless to say, Hungarians laugh very hard when they imagine all the possible tumbles and falls, if only the statue was real.
Baba Novak is a Serbian-Romanian hero and bandit. He was the right arm of Mihail Viteazul, and Romanians dedicated him a statue that stands exactly on the place of his execution, in front of the Tailors’ Bastion. The Austrians, seeking to regain the favour of the Transylvanian nobility, delivered Novak and other Romanian officers to the Hungarian authorities to be executed. It was not a quick execution, since the Hungarians put Baba Novak on a stake and periodically threw water on his body to stretch the torture. Then, what was left was impaled.
Avram Iancu (1824-72) statue is surrounded by erected horns. The monument is located in one of the main squares of Cluj, between the theatre and the Orthodox Cathedral. It celebrates the Romanian revolutionary Avram Iancu, who led the protests against the official union of Hungary and Transylvania (thus siding with the historical enemies of Hungary, the Austrians) and fomented peasant revolts against the Hungarian nobility, in favour of the abolition of slavery. Once again, the Hungarians have created a repertoire of jokes that make fun of the sculptor’s decision to put around the statue a series of giant horns, pointed toward each other. Depending on the nationality of those who look at them, the erected horns might be interpreted as either a praise or a not-so-subtle mockery of the masculinity of the deceased hero.
This “war of the statues” may seem only a silly skirmish or an expensive bickering, but for centuries Romanians and Hungarians have made actual war, and in a not too distant past (still well preserved in the everybody’s memories) Ceausescu regime heavily discriminated the Hungarian minority. There are various monuments around the city remembering the revolution and the fall of the regime: the memorial in Central Park — where hammer, sickle and chains are symbolically broken — or the flame of eternal fire that is always burning in front of the statue of Viteazul, one of the favourite gathering places for the celebrations of the regime. More in general, all around Cluj numerous graffiti can still be found which keep the memory of the past alive.