Hungary and Romania, July-August 2008

Jack Campin

Written August 2008, added to later.
Last update:4 June 2009.

Note on names: Hungarian names have the surname first. Since there are many names that can be either a personal name or a surname, this is confusing when you don't know which order was meant. I've written all the names here personal name first. I've put some of the Hungarian accents in, but only those that display in Western European character sets, and not all of those. Almost every town and village in the northern half of Romania has both Hungarian and Romanian names; I've mostly used the Hungarian ones.

Back last week from holiday in Hungary and Romania. This was more planned than our usual holidays; I'd looked up the Hungarian dance house scene on the web ( after meeting the Budapest instrument maker György Bán in Slovakia in 2007, and figured that their music and dance camps devoted to the music of the Csángó Hungarian minority in Romania might be fun. They were.

This required a bit of linguistic guesswork. I don't know any Hungarian beyond a few musical terms and phrases from songs, and most of the information for 2008 hadn't been translated (the 2007 stuff mostly was). But I could figure out that there were two consecutive camps in the ethnically Hungarian part of Romania, and there was transport to get us there from Budapest and back. One was in Külsörekecsin (Fundu Racaciuni in Romanian), a small village in Moldavia, and the oither in Gyimesközéplok (Lunca de Jos in Romanian), a larger village in southern Transylvania.

There is an introduction to Csángó culture on the National Geographic pages supporting the article in their June 2005 issue. More historical, political and cultural information (mostly translated into English as well) at and; more about the culture (music and dance in particular) and many further links at, but the British flags don't produce a translation as you might expect. For the dance house movement itself, the report of an American academic conference about it is available on the web as a PDF document: Folk Music Revival and the Dance-House Movement in Hungary

I was surprised that we were the only people at either camp who were neither ethnically Hungarian nor resident in either Hungary or Romania. The Gyimes camp has been going for 12 years, its website is very well laid out and translated into English, and I've met other people in Scotland who've heard of it.

As it happened, Marion got some work in Greece just before, so she came via there while I flew direct from Prestwick. No problems with Ryanair on the way out, but I managed to leave my moneybelt at the security x-ray and only found out after getting off in Budapest. It waited at Prestwick for me, but meant I was a bit stuck for cash on arrival. The only forint-dispensing ATM at the terminal (Ferihegy 1) wasn't working, so I changed a Scottish 5 pound note at a crappy rate and made a bad decision about how to get into the city. I got the bus, which only goes as far as the Kispest end of the metro line: I figured that if I walked into the city centre I'd surely pass both an ATM and an affordable hostel or pension. It took several miles before I found an ATM (in the basement of the international bus station, vastly improved in helpfulness since I was there last in the early 90s) and I passed no accommodation within my budget. I did go through a small red light district (Marton utca); it might have been a cheaper option to go for a bed that already had a woman in it. I ended up around midnight at the Vasarhelyi Hostel in Buda, which was way overpriced, in awful condition (cracking plaster, lifts that didn't work properly) and felt like a battery farm for tourists, but was at least clean and central.

(Tip for Scottish tourists - or for that matter tourists from small towns in central Anatolia: don't expect to find anything like as many ATMs in Hungary as you're used to. There is one in most of the Budapest metro stations).

On looking around the following day, I found that almost all the accommodation in the city was ridiculously expensive compared with any other place I'd been recently (Scotland, Slovakia, Turkey), and booked a room in the Hotel Kulturinnov for the night Marion arrived. I found it thanks to András Török's brilliant little guidebook, I'd never have thought of looking inside otherwise. It has a wing of hostel-like rooms (clean but a bit tatty) in a 17th-century palace which is mostly used as a gallery space. You go up to the hotel part by a colossal marble staircase like something out of a movie set. The staff are very friendly and helpful, speak good English and their reception desk has the biggest collection of multilingual dictionaries I've ever seen outside a bookshop or library - they must be prepared for anything. We stayed there again on our way back; we didn't have much option, as most accommodation in Budapest was booked up by fuckwits visiting for a Formula 1 car event. (The city authorities actually want to encourage these dorks with their big boys' toys fixations. Jesus H Christ).

One useful place I discovered before heading off to Romania was the Castro Bisztro in the city centre (Madach tér). Friendly people, good food and coffee, and free Linux terminals. It's got a countercultural slant to it - if you wanted to find out about green or anti-globalization events, this would be a handy place to start, though doubtless there are many much more hard-core venues around the city.

We went to Romania overnight on a bus provided by the folks who run I think they shopped around for the cheapest option - a Romanian company based in Cluj - and I wouldn't do it that way again. There was no change of driver in a 16-hour trip, and with so many of the passengers just starting off on their holidays, there was a lot of chatter late into the night so it was hard to sleep. The train is much slower but may be cheaper and would certainly be safer and more comfortable (allowing for a few miles walk at the end, or getting lucky and connecting with one of the few local buses).

I'd never seen Romanian money before. The new lei are made of plastic (I think this is an Australian idea) and stay clean much better than British notes. It's odd to use a banknote you can see through in places. I'd thought we could just use euros a lot of the time, but that was only feasible at roadside stops near the border.

Fundu Racaciuni (Külsörekecsin)

The nearest city to Külsörekecsin is Bacau (Bakó in Hungarian) - it's up a few kilometres of unmade road. We arrived on Sunday morning, and had trouble connecting with the woman we were to stay with - she was in church. There is a LOT of religion in the area; Catholicism is one of the main elements of Csángó identity - the Rumanians are mostly Orthodox.

To get the negative bit out of the way: this place had the most appalling public hygiene I have ever met with, and as I've been travelling all over Turkey since 1981, I'm not easily grossed out by Third World toilets. The house stayed in was on the village's main street, neat and clean inside, but the rear of it was a farmyard. It was like Old McDonald's farm: one pig, two cows, a few goats and dozens of chickens, ducks and turkeys. The toilet was an outhouse at the far side of this, and like all the others in the village, it was a shallow hole with a shed on top of it. No attempt at a septic tank, composting, or covering things up with ashes, chaff or sawdust. The door didn't close so you'd get chickens wandering in to watch. It wasn't heavily infested with flies, but enough to spread the germs around. (The reserve toilet paper in the photo is an old school text on the geography of Romania, which was a nice touch). The toilet in the village school (where the dance events took place) was much worse - apparently it was usually kept clean, but the janitor seems to have taken his annual holiday, and with so many of the Hungarians never having used a squatting loo before, a lot of people missed the hole. It seems the main germ hazard was in the drinking water; the camp organizers warned against it, but their caterers supplied it with meals anyway (not very bright). I stuck to bottled mineral water, which in Romania is excellent, and didn't get ill. About a quarter of the attendees got a case of Ceausescu's Revenge by the end of the week, which the locals attributed to the Evil Eye. By contrast, this shows the washing facilities outside the detached bathroom of an immaculately clean and tidy house in Bacau. I doubt it has mains plumbing either - hence the pump - but it proves some people in Romania have the concept of sanitation. And you really want that school toilet as a 1024x768 desktop background, don't you?

Our room had about six pictures of Jesus or the Virgin round the walls, including a glow-in-the-dark plastic crucifix. And there was a roadside statue of Jesus every few yards along the street. Maybe it worked for me. It didn't for Marion, who was completely flattened by the bug for a couple of days. I was curious to know what an insurance company would make of it if we submitted a claim for losses caused by the Evil Eye, but it didn't get that bad.

Absolutely every social interaction in Romania seems to be lubricated by pálinka (plum brandy). You can't arrive or depart anywhere without a shot of it, and it's the universal Romanian antibiotic, you have a shot of it with breakfast to keep the bugs at bay. We went native and it did actually seem to help Marion's guts. Surprisingly, we saw very few drunks; people drink steadily all day long, but there are nowhere near as many obvious alcoholics as in the UK. Also, hardly anybody smokes - the smoking ban in bars and restaurants isn't enforced, but there are too few addicts for it to matter.

I don't normally dance; I have no spatial intuition for the group formations of Scottish ceilidh dancing and gave up on it years ago. I was expecting to spend the week learning folk instruments, but the daily routine was dance classes in the morning, instruments and folk crafts in the afternoon, so I ended up learning Moldavian folk dances anyway. I found them much more intuitive than Scottish ones - you're either part of a huge circle or just have one partner to think about. And it was fascinating to learn how the dance and the tune fitted together - in Scottish dance this doesn't often happen, a dance may have many possible tunes and vice versa. These were utterly specific. The tutors (both for dance and music) were as knowledgeable as you could find. The easiest dancers to learn from were the old peasant women; I soon figured out that if I wanted to get the footwork right, just look across the room for an old lady in traditional costume. The best dancers were the teenagers, but they added their own show-off stuff and twirled at speeds I could never hope to match.

I also found that three hours of energetic folk dancing first thing in the morning is a good way to get fit. The main dance instructor, Tamás Tundik from Budapest, was superb and his warmup routines (slightly different every day) were the most effective I've ever seen.

The dancing was held in the village hall, which was attached to the school. It had recently been redecorated in garish green and purple, and when we arrived there was a collection of dayglo psychedelic posters on the walls - the sort of thing that Western teenegers had in the late Sixties: teh iconic portrait of Jim Morrison, dopehead cartoons by R. Crumb and Gilbert Shelton, that sort of thing. There were less of them on display every day.

The village

Where we stayed

We stayed in the village with Veronika Benke.

A group walk to the upper village across the stream

A visit to the whistle player Illes Balint

A group of us went to Csík, about an hour's walk north of Külsörekecsin, to visit the whistle player Illes Balint. He's 85 years old and walks slowly with a stick. Sitting down with a whistle in his hand, he lights up like a firework and could be 40 years younger. He has much more hair than I do and far less of it is grey.

Learning music, dance and crafts at the camp

They also tried to teach weaving, but this meant moving a loom from somebody's house and reassembling it in the school. The loom was such a ramshackle object and so hard to set up that it wasn't ready until near the end of the week. It seemed symptomatic of much of the decline in material culture here: not only was the loom itself a rather crude mass of unworked sticks, the shuttle had too rough a surface for it to fly across the warp properly. I suspect that what's happened here over the last few decades is that first local craftsmen who made tools like that were put out of a job by the Communists in favour of centralized factories, and then those factories were closed down by the business elite who took over from them, leaving neither small nor large scale producers for basic hand tools. Apart from a few obviously nuch wealthier farmers, most people in the village seemed to have tools that were either recently made crude bodges or else stuff that might have been useful thirty years ago but was now either beyond repair or getting near it.

The instrumental tutors were excellent: mine was András Hodorog the whistle/kaval/tilinko player, violin was taught by Aurel Mandache, one of the best folk fiddlers in eastern Europe. Both camps gave opportunities to hear and meet with dozens of first-rate local folk musicians.

Some YouTube videos of these musicians:

Food here was okay. Not brilliant, and since the local diet is based on cornbread, it should have been easier for Marion than it was - she's intolerant to both gluten and dairy products. Still, it was much easier than it had been when we were in Slovakia the previous year. The food labels either included a Western European language or were readable given my small Hungarian dictionary, school Latin and Romanian phrasebook - food packages in Slovakia are mostly printed only in Slavic languages. If the catering for the folkcamp people had been closer to the local traditional diet, it would have been a lot better.

The extent to which traditional culture had survived here amazed me. I knew about the music; the Csángó are (on one historical theory) a Hungarian group that arrived from Central Asia in a different wave of emigration than the larger groups (the Szekelys of Transyvania and the Hungarians of modern-borders Hungary), and some of their tunes are directly traceable to their Central Asian homeland, from which they have been separated so long that theirs is the oldest dateable folk music in Europe. Their language retains archaic features lost in modern Hungarian. But much of the material culture of this village is also still mediaeval. Most transport is by oxcart, and the older women still weave their own clothes and wear these traditional peasant patterns when working in the fields. (They do most of the work; the men are mostly working in other countries - one woman hosting a folk camp family had a husband who'd been working in Hungary for 17 years). The meadows are ecologically unchanged since the Middle Ages, with a far wider variety of grasses and wildflowers than you'd find in western Europe. In some ways it seemed like a glimpse into the future as well: this is what most of the developed world is going to be like when the oil runs out. Hopefully we'll have a better handle on the sanitation thing. (Much of the hygiene problem must be due simply to lack of labour power to fix things; bare survival is hard enough. And the electricity fails regularly, so refrigeration is undependable).

A ceilidh every night gets exhausting. The folkcamp is obviously the big event of the year for the locals, particularly children and teenagers. The small kids kept at it until nearly midnight every night before it became an adult scene. One regular at all the folkcamp events was a severely retarded boy of about 10; he wasn't treated very well by the other kids in the village and was obviously getting no more assistance from the state than he would have had in an institution twenty years earlier (Marion worked in such a place for a few weeks shortly after the fall of Ceausescu). He wanted to be involved in everything and followed the dancers and musicians around like a friendly puppy. He was mute; one of the folkcamp people was a speech therapist, and figured she could have got him talking in about a week of intensive work - but nobody in Romania was going to pay for that to happen. Marion thought he most likely had Fragile X Syndrome.

Leaving Külsörekecsin

The photos on the official website are here. The slideshow doesn't work for me (Firefox 3 on MacOS) but you can single-step through the gallery. There is another gallery of photos of Külsörekecsin here.

Lunca de Jos (Gyimeskozoplok)

We went to Gyimesközéplok (Lunca de Jos in Romanian) in Transylvania for the second dance camp. This was a bigger affair (200 rather than 40 attendees) and in a more developed place. Still no running water away from the village centre, but it has a sawmill so there's work for men who stay, and it's right on the railway line. The only showers were cold ones at the campsite, though. We were staying in a private house; a few chickens in a cage and two pigs, so not so much of an Old McDonald experience. The music and dance didn't work as well for me. There was no opportunity to learn both the dances and the music associated with them; you either did one or the other, and if you chose the instrumental option you were left with nothing to do for a large part of the day. You could also do craftwork, but some of it was only at a primary-school level and taken from books. (Some crafts were taught by local experts, though). It's mainly an event for dancers.

The Gyimes dances are showier than the Moldavian ones, with lots of heavy stamping, but less variety in form. And whereas the Moldavian dances all gave men and women strictly equal roles, the Gyimes ones often involved men showing off (doing a solo stamping routine in front of the stage, or circling their partner while doing fancy steps. I much preferred the Moldavian dances, and rather preferred their music too (it was extremely simple - mostly reels in B minor or D major - and repeated over and over again with tiny variations, producing an effect of high-speed trancelike serenity rather like western techno). Also, the Gyimes camp felt more impersonal, with less opportunity to form friendships, and without the core of old peasant women dancers and craftswomen that we had to learn from in Moldavia, it was lacking something. Also the food was mostly shite. There is no excuse for packet MSG soup, or pasta three meals running. The Gyimes camp cost about twice as much as the Külsörekecsin one, though still not a lot compared to a UK folk festival. There is a nice YouTube mini-documentary about the 2007 camp.

Gyimes is a string of three villages a few miles apart along a valley, all of them on a main road and the railway line. Most of the dance camp activities were in the middle one, Gyimesközéplok, which has a large community centre (labelled with a banner as "Isten Hozott" - "gift of God" - but more likely a gift of the Romanian Communists in the 1960s).

The campsite and the village

Music, dance and craft classes


There are more photos of the 2008 Gyimes camp on the Hungarian Folk Radio site. That's me (with moustache) in one of the photos of the whistle class. The tutor, Lehel Földi, is at the right in the white t-shirt. There are some very good YouTube videos of the 2008 camp which give a good idea of the dancing. There is one YouTube video of Zoltan Antal singing with his fiddle.

A day trip

We went for a day trip to the easternmost Gyímes village, which once marked the boundary (the "thousand-year border" though I don't know how that was counted) between the Kingdom of Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. It's the site of the ruined Rakoczi Castle. The trip involved a fairly stiff hillwalk about 1000 feet up a muddy ridge, with a spectacular view at the top, among mediaevally tilled fields - horses here, the Gyimes area is that bit more affluent than Fundu Racaciuni.

We went one evening to the westernmost of the Gyimes villages, where a few traditional-style houses scattered up the hillside have been expensively restored as a hotel and conference centre, with a very good small dance hall. This was the opening event for it, with speeches from local dignitaries, lots of kids in traditional costume, a vast cauldron of goulash, and a ceilidh. The evening began with a video tribute to the great local fiddler Janos Zerkula, who died early in 2008. Look him up on YouTube.

Back to Budapest

The two weeks we were in Romania had the worst floods they've seen in 100 years. Apart from the problem of slogging uphill through liquid turkey shit to get to the bog, the daily thunderstorms didn't affect us much. Külsörekecsin had been devastated by floods in the early 90s but there was no sign of it happening again.

Back to Budapest by the same bus. This was horrible. The starting time was weird, late morning. The driver took an odd route, mostly on back roads while in Romania - I think he may have been trying to avoid speed cameras but ended up going slower because of the road surface anyway. We had a change of drivers in the middle of nowhere outside Cluj. As soon as we got into Hungary we were stopped for a faulty light, had to go to the nearest garage to replace it, and waited for an eternity while the driver tried to fit the new bulb. Despite him driving like a bat out of hell, we only got to Budapest after most of the public transport had stopped running. The driver was determined to drop us at the original pickup point, miles out of town, and we didn't have enough forints for a taxi, even if we'd wanted one. We managed to compromise on a dropoff point which meant it only took us an hour and half to get to the hotel using the night bus service.

Marion was slightly ill with a recurrence of the bug while we were in Budapest, so we didn't get to see very much. Revisited the cogwheel railway; there is a very good restaurant at the top specializing in offal dishes - we'd been to it back in 1991 and it was still as good as we remembered. And we spent hours going round the ethnographic museum. At the moment it has a superb photography exhibit by Kurt Kaindl about the least-known minorities of Europe - the Sorbians, the Arbereshe and Cimbri in Italy, the Muslim Tartars of Lithuania, Assyrians in Sweden, German minorities in eastern Europe nearly obliterated in the aftermath of WW2 and so on. If you can't see it, buy the books. We went back to Gerbeaud's cafe but it's a ripoff now.

I bought less stuff than usual for a holiday: two furulyas, a kaval, some CDs and a couple of music books. Marion got herself a Moldavian costume to use at the Edinburgh international dance group. So we managed to both go and come back with only a carry-on bag each, within Ryanair's restrictions (okay, I pushed it a bit by carrying a three-foot kaval as well, with no packaging at all).

I didn't take many photos in Budapest - the place is very well documented already.

Bottom line: I want to do this again next year, but I'll try to do Külsörekecsin and another nearby camp rather than Gyimes again, and NO WAY am I using that bus next time. And I'll try to get a new edition of András Török's guidebook to Budapest, as even that old 2001 edition I had was one of the best guidebooks to anywhere that I've ever read. I'll also check a bag so I can take my koboz/cobza.

A few further observations

Facities in Romania

There was a surprisingly good range of small general stores in Külsörekecsin, none of them with signs (at first sight they all look like private houses). There was a small supermarket in Gyimes but less non-food shops (there is a pharmacy and a small clothes shop which keeps limited hours, otherwise you have to go to one of the villages on either side along the road through the valley). Külsörekecsin had a bus service (4 times a day?), Gyimes had no public transport I noticed apart from the railway. Gyimes has a bank but it wouldn't change euros; there's no ATM in either place, so there's no way to get money unless you have a Romanian bank account. There was no public internet access in Külsörekecsin, though there was a rather sad-looking gaming centre for teenage boys. There was an internet cafe in the cultural centre in Gyimes, with friendly and competent operators. Mobile phone coverage was good in Külsörekecsin (it looks a bit surreal to see an old lady driving an oxcart while chatting on a mobile), but the signal in Gyimes was mostly weak or nonexistent - people congregated with their mobiles on the front steps of the cultural centre, one of the few spots with a strong signal.

Music and dance notes

The hall in Külsörekecsin had a concrete terrazzo floor; the hall in Gyimes had a bouncy wooden one. I wonder if this affected the dance style? Stamping doesn't have much effect on concrete, but 200 people all stamping at the same time makes an awesome noise on wood.

Many of the dances had words, and people would sing along even in very fast and energetic numbers. One oddity of the Gyimes dances, which I've never seen anywhere else, is that with some tunes, people will do multiple dances at the same time - there might be four different kinds of couple dance and a circle dance or two going on at once. One of the singalong dances ("Golya, golya" - "Stork, stork") goes to the tune of "John Brown's Body", which the Hungarians think is a Central European tune. Another familiar tune is the one used for the wacky conga-like "Pingvin" (penguin) dance - it's a variant of the American bawdy song "Yes, My Darling Daughter".

Folk music techniques used a few unique local tricks. The older fiddlers had a strange left-hand technique - because the strings were never stopped a semitone above open, their "first position" was higher up the neck than usual, and the thumb was occasionally used to stop a B on the G string. You can read off some of the style from the wear pattern on an old fingerboard; almost all the wear is on the two upper strings.

The drum used in Külsörekecsin was basically the same as the Turkish davul or Bulgarian tapan, but instead of doing the light strokes on the lighter skin, they usually hit the drum shell. One player added a cowbell hanging off the tension cords.

Whistle technique emphasizes the high end of the range more than British Isles technique does; whistles are made with a narrow and pronounced reverse-conical bore to help with this. The standard one is in A. The player often hums a deep note while playing - this gives a sort of buzz to the tone (like a flute equivalent of the trompette on a hurdy-gurdy) and helps the high notes sound. The Moldavian kaval (five-hole whistle the size of an alto flute and played using the first and second harmonics) uses the same humming technique, but it's too quiet to be much used as a dance instrument.

String accompaniment used the koboz/cobza in Külsörekecsin (see the cobza page on my website) and the gardon (string drum) in Gyimes. The gardon may have even more annoyance potential than the bodhran does: an agriculturally constructed small cello with four strings all tuned to a low D, three heavy strings beaten with a stick and a light one plucked hard enough to snap against the fingerboard (or, for one player at Gyimes, beaten with a metal cigarette case). No left-hand stopping of the strings, no retuning, just that D all the time no matter what key the tune is in. Historically, it was played by the melody player's wife. The skilled parts were latching on to asymmetric rhythms (rare in dance tunes but common in songs) and in taking on the role of dance caller at the same time - the dances weren't really called in the way Scottish ones are, but the gardonista would liven things up with enthusiastic shouts.

More Csángó music and dance resources

Related files on my site

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