The witness


“It is the year 1920. Salamon Tannenbaum is sitting in the inn of the Austrian Emperor, which was given a different name two years ago, but, just like Salamon Tannenbaum, no guest calls it the Three Deers Inn, as prescribed by the city. Furthermore, when Salamon throws his hat from one end of the room to the other, and always hits the hat-rack, he shouts: Moni has come to the Austrian emperor! And the sots present reply like this: may Good God give Him long life!”

Miljenko Jergović: Ruta Tannenbaum

In Sarajevo, which, with the exception of a few terrible years, has been avoided by history, and where the layers of time pile up on each other, from the small Turkish cemeteries through the Art Nouveau ledges to the Cubist buildings, like unstirred litter in the forest, there stands next to the Baščaršija bazaar, in Brodac Street, where the founder of the city, Beg Isa Ishaković in 1460 established his first dervish monastery, a small three-door stop. It is not known how long it has been closed. Perhaps it is one of those of which Ozren Kebo writes in his Sarajevo za početnike (Sarajevo for beginners), dealing with the 1992-1996 siege:

“The first month of April in war was marked by a great exodus. The wise fled in panic. The less wise did not know how to recognise the panic. The city was shutting down. At Baščaršija, two shops were still selling burek, one traditional food, one čevapčiči, with just two cake shops. Every morning a padlock appeared on a different one. It had been just two weeks since the first shots were fired and no one knew what kind of hunger was coming our way.”


This shop, however, has no padlock. Its shutter has been pulled down only halfway, maybe there was no time to do more before the escape. So the rusty inscription of the shutter label is still clearly visible.


“Patent Polivka & Paschka, Budapest”

We have already written about the imperial and royal shutter manufacturer Paschka from Csepel Island in southern Budapest, that its products still designate the boundaries of the former Monarchy. After a hundred years of destruction, they still can be seen in Lemberg and Košice, Bačka and the Böhmerwald. And, as we see, also in Bosnia, placed under Austro-Hungarian protection by the Berlin Congress of 1878. Wars and sieges subside, ustashas and chetniks come and go, but the shutter label to the Austrian emperor, just like the inhabitants of the city, perseveres.


Dissolving: The fall of Icarus

Pieter Brueghel the Elder: The fall of Icarus, 1560 (probably a copy after Brueghel’s lost original of 1558). Brussels, Royal Museum of Fine Arts

W. H. Auden: Musée des Beaux-Arts, Brussels 1938

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot

Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Brueghel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.



Kerry Skarbakka: Photo from the series Struggle

Bears are very good Turks


Mr. Zoltán Medve – in literal translation, Sultan Bear –, the Governor of Krassó-Szörény County was not the first bear to visit the island of Ada Kale. Even if we discount the medieval Hungarian and Vlach bear-leaders, whose animals appeared in the island’s market place not of their own will, we must not be silent about the renowned Maczkó Úr – Mr. Bear – who preceded his colleague only by a nose. That he preceded him is beyond doubt, for Mr. Medve paid his official visit to the island on 12 May 1913, but at that time the book about Mr. Bear’s visit to Ada Kale, from the pen of Zsigmond Sebők, was already for sale with great success throughout the whole of Hungary.

The book Dörmögő Dömötör utazása hegyen, völgyön és a nagy ládával (“Travels of Grunty Demeter – Mr. Bruin – through mountains and valleys with the great chest”), published in 1913, was the last volume in the series about the travels of Mr. Bruin from Maramureș – “Huszt Forest, Third Valley, Second Stream, Fourth Rock, Sixth Cave, not far from the rest place of the wolves, any of whom will willingly show you the way” – which had been published since 1883. It guided its large audience, the children of Hungary, to Budapest, the Tatras, and the Iron Gates on the Lower Danube. To many of them, this was the only source of knowledge about the most beautiful parts of pre-war Hungary.


Mr. Bruin and his two small cubs, Zebike and Pimpi visited Ada Kale on the way to the Iron Gates. To their credit, they did not get the annexation of the island ahead of their senior relative, but were satisfied with annexing some caviar, coffee and tobacco to their native Maramureș. A great stroke of luck, since seven years later an island under Czechoslovakian, and later Soviet, sovereignty would have caused much international complication on the Lower Danube between Serbia and Romania.

The only complication during his visit remained inner-Maramureșan, inasmuch as Uncle János Hörpentő (“John the Sipper”), the cousin and evil spirit of Mr. Bruin also took part in the journey uninvited, now traveling in the chest of Mr. Bruin, and now acting as an inhabitant of Ada Kale, dressed as a local Turk, Mustafa Herpendji, who keeps drinking and eating whatever and whenever possible ahead of the honourable bear and his cubs.

In the course of this short visit, the little readers only get to know the most important topoi about Ada Kale. That you can get there from Orsova on a boat. That Lajos Kossuth, MP of the lost war of independence of 1848-49, set off from here to exile in Turkey. That here you can already encounter the Orient, the bazaar, women wearing hijab, coffee and real Turkish delight. Mr. Bruin was not exactly an Ignác Kúnos. But this much was enough for a little schoolboy to whet his curiosity, and once he grows up, he will also set out to see this wonderful East, as did Sándor Kőrösi Csoma, Ármin Vámbéry, Aurél Stein, and many others.


“Orsova is a pretty town with some five thousand people. If you stop at the bank of the Danube, flanked by one- and two-story houses, you can see three countries. On the other bank is Serbia, to the left Romania, and on the Danube a small island shines in green, it is Ada Kale. This belongs to Turkey. […]

When the company was fed, Mr. Bruin asked:

– And now, what shall we do until evening?

– Come, my effendi, to Ada Kale, – said Mustafa, the Herpendji. – There you will get fine Turkish tobacco, fine Turkish coffee.

– Turkish tobacco? Turkish coffee? – 
happily asked Mr. Bruin. – That’s fine, my friend Mustafa Herpenji, I love Turkish tobacco, Turkish coffee, Turkish pipes, Turkish divans, Turkish comfort… Hehehe, bears are very good Turks. So, let’s go to Ada Kale.

The boat harbor was close, and an old Turk soon carried them over to Ada Kale. The Turk was a silent man – to the good luck of Mustafa-János Herpenji-Herpentő, because I don’t know how he would have replied to the questions of the Turks. The Turkish ferryman broke the silence only once. When the boat arrived under Orsova, they saw a creek flowing into the Danube. This was the Cserna. Then, a mountain observing himself in the river. This was the Cserna. And a mountain, which staring at itself in the Danube. This is called Alion Mountain. The old Turk pointed to the bottom of the mountain, where the Cserna runs into the Danube, and he said, in good Hungarian, although with a Turkish accent:

– Lajos Kossuth kissed the soil of Hungary there, when he had to say goodbye to it forever.”




“Ada Kale, or in Hungarian New Orsova, is a two-kilometer-long island. Most of it is occupied by the fortress, and inside the fortress, its streets, houses, and shops. It is inhabited by Turks, only the army is Hungarian, because, although the island belongs to Turkey, since Serbia gained its independence, it has nevertheless fallen so far away from the motherland, as a button that had been cut off the coat. So, Hungary undertook its defense.

This is an interesting little place. As Mr. Bruin entered the fortress gate, his mouth gaped in amazement. Here he found a world which was completely different from anything he had ever seen during his journeys. Here, the men wore not a hat, but a turban or a fez, and the women a long mantle that covered all their face, except for two holes for the two eyes. It looked like a masquerade. The merchants sold their goods not in glass-door shops, but in an open bazaar. There they were squatting, under tent-like carpets, on soft Oriental carpets. There they were selling all kinds of sweets, trinkets, beautiful Oriental rugs. It was a real Turkish world.

Mr. Bruin immediately stopped in front of a candy store, like a big bumble-bee on the sugar, and the two cubs like two little flies on the peach jam. They just foamed, sucked, swallowed, chewed, sipped the sugar, dates, dessert, Turkish honey, that even the serious Turk smiled.

– Well, never did I hear such noisy chewing, even when the Budapest students came to Ada Kale, and visited the candy bazaar!

But when it came to the payment, Mr. Bruin and the Turk did not understand each other.

– Where is that Mustafa Herpendji? – said Mr. Bruin. – He would speak in Turkish with this Turk. Look, he’s nowhere just now, when he would be most needed!

But Herpendji–Hörpentő was clever enough not to be there, where he would have had to speak in Turkish. Finally Mr. Bruin agreed with the merchant, and then he sat down at the breezy porch of the Turkish café.

– Bring me Turkish tobacco, Turkish coffee, Turkish pipe! – he shouted.”



“Soon the Turkish coffee and Turkish tobacco was on his table. Sitting in the Turkish way on a carpet, he smoked the latter from a pipe called nargile. The fragrant tobacco floated around his head, made him sleepy, and soon he fell asleep, forgetting even the black coffee. The cubs also bumped with him. The Turks of the island gathered in the street, and asked each other:

– What is this? They are shooting with mortars in the fortress?

Oh, no, they were not. It was just the three bears who were snoring in the café. But who is this figure silently approaching the sleeping ones, and sipping their coffees one after the other? Yes, it is Herpendji–Hörpentő. Then, just as he came, he left, in silence, unnoticed.”



Soon Mr. Bruin woke up.

– Oh, I sneaked a little. Well, the coffee will come the more in hand… But where did the coffee disappear to, from my cup?

– And from mine? – was upset Zebike.

– And from mine? – whimpered Pimpi.

Mr. Bruin cried out angrily:

– Where? Where? Why do we ask it? It went down the throat of my alter ego! He has a devil, that he is able to get to wherever I am. Hey, you Turk! – he shouted –, coffee!

The waiter brought the steaming cups.

– You, Turk! – shouted Mr. Bruin. – Pour the coffee right in my mouth! Dont put it down, because my alter ego will immediately sip it – let him be suffocated on his name day!

The waiter poured the coffee into the respectable traveler. Mr. Bruin coughed, cleared his throat, because the hot coffee burned it.

– No matter if it burns me, at least I drink it on my money, and not my alter ego – he comforted himself. Then he exclaimed: But it’s already getting dark! Cubs, let’s say good-bye to Ada Kale, and go back to Orsova. Where’s that Herpendji? Let him carry the luggage to the boat. Waiter, my dear friend, didn’t you see Mustafa Herpendji somewhere?


The coffee owner knew Hungarian. He wondered:

– Who is that Mustafa Herpendji?

– Don’t you know him? He is a Turkish porter from here.

– From here? No Turk of this name has ever lived in Ada Kale.

– It’s impossible, my friend. For he had such a great turban, that it even covered his nose… it never let me see his face. And he spoke so well in Turkish! He said: djin, djin, choje to, djin, djin, potjesem.

The coffee owner smiled:

– But this is in Slovak, not in Turkish! – he said

Mr. Bruin shuddered.

– Oh my, how this wasp stung me!… Or rather this idea, more stingy than a wasp. I start to believe, that this Mustafa Herpendji was my alter ego. That Mustafa drank my beer, he ate my caviar, he sipped my coffee. That’s why he pulled the turban in his face, so we could not see his face.

– Hehe, what a fooldji he has made of you! – laughed Zebike.

– You cub, if you don’t shut up, you’ll get a slapdji! – grunted Mr. Bruin.”




After Mr. Bruin’s visit, the island began to fade from the Hungarian children’s horizon. Seven years later it lay behind new borders, fifty-nine years later it was submerged under the new water level. Today even the oldest bears of Maramureș can not easily say where Mr. Bruin had sipped his Turkish coffee. But since then, his adventures have not faded.

“When on Rákóczi street we passed before Manó Vidor’s bookshop, my father asked me whether I want a new book. He knew that a book was the most precious gift to me (and still it is). We entered the bookshop, and my father asked me which book to buy. I looked around excitedly on the shelves of the novels for the youth, and I discovered a rather thick Mr. Bruin book, perhaps the most exquisite fable book of Zsigmond Sebők: The travels of Mr. Bruin to the Iron Gates. That’s what I asked for. My father bought it, and right there, in the shop he wrote in it these unforgettable lines: “To my son Géza, on the day of the proclamation of the Hungarian Republic, and of the rebirth of Hungarian freedom, in Nagyvárad, on 31 October 1918, from your father.” I had this book until the end of the Second World War. I kept it as one of the great historical documents of my life. But it also belonged amaong my first important readings. In fact, here I read about the evil alter ego of the benevolent Mr. Bruin, Uncle Hörpentő. Only decades later did I realize that this masterpiece for children is actually a parody of Dostoyevsky’s novel Likeness. And, to tell the truth, since then I cannot take seriously this masterpiece of Dostoyevsky. It always reminds me of Uncle Hörpentő, the wicked bear, for whose jokes always Mr. Bruin must pay. And in the course of my life, if any inconvenience fell on me because of others’ inhumanity or meanness, I always calmly realized that now I am Mr. Bruin, and the malevolent, the wicked souls, the shady characters, the parasites all are in some way Uncle Hörpentő.”

Géza Hegedüs remembers like this Mr. Bruin’s Ada Kale adventures in his memoirs Preludes to an autobiography. From this inspiration sprung the historical novels which meant to my generation what the wanderings of Zsigmond Sebők’s bear had meant to him. The island of Ada Kale, like Hrabal’s house on the Dam of Eternity, submerged deep and flew up high, and now forever

floats above us, like the clouds of the ideal buildings on a Baroque painting.

“– Mr. Bruin for President! – shouted the bears.”

The last annexation


Alajos Hauszmann is one of the most significant representatives of Hungarian historicist architecture. Many buildings in Budapest are associated with his name. They include the splendid block of flats at Döbrentei street 8, whose commissioner was one of Hauszmann’s first clients and his old friend György Kégl (1822-1908) – a distant relative of Sándor Kégl, the renowned Iranologist and great friend of cats. The commission was probably also connected with an earlier, almost fatal accident. In fact, during a duck hunt, Kégl shot off an incisor of Hauszmann, who at that time was at the beginning of his career. Due to his guilty conscience, he payed close attention to him, as Hauszmann himself mentions in his diary.

On 22 and 23 April, during the Budapest100 festival of this year, this house was open to visitors. The stories of the former inhabitants were collected by Noémi Saly, the great monographer of Budapest, who also lives here. One of her own family stories was also included in her volume Példabeszédek (Parables, 2015):

“My mother moved to Döbrentei street in 1947. It was two years after the siege. Two of the three rooms in the flat were only covered by the starry or stormy sky, and the kitchen had no walls. The bathroom had also no roof, so the rain and snow fell steadily on the thick ceiling beams. […] She enters into the block of ruins, bathing in sunshine, and then, through the gilt beams, to the balcony. The Danube is blue, so she decides to stay.”

Some blocks away: Döbrentei street 16, seen from Attila street, in 1945. Source: Krisztián Ungváry / Fortepan

Many people spent shorter or longer time in the house from its construction to its nationalization in 1950. One of the first inhabitants was Rezső Abele, the former governor of Fiume, who moved to Budapest after his resignation in 1897, and lived here until his death in 1923. Although he changed the Adria for the Danube, nevertheless he kept the brand: both the governor’s palace in Fiume and the house in Döbrentei street were built by Hauszmann. Later, in the early 1920s, several prominent figures of the Russian monarchist emigration found new home here. Under the leadership of  Petr Glazenap, the former military governor of Stavropol, here operated from 1921 the administrative center of the White Legion, which tried to recruit former Russian prisoners of war in Hungary and anti-Bolshevist officers of the former Austro-Hungarian army for a war against the Soviet Union. Although Glazenap left to Munich in 1923, the former colonel of the Tsar’s body guard Vladimir Malama and his family, who had lived here since 1919, remained in the house. Their flat was home on a weekly basis for a political salon, whose purpose was to convince the local representatives of the Entente about the necessity to restore the monarchy in Russia. The club’s regular visitors included the Governor of Hungary, Miklós Horthy, who was on friendly terms with Malama. In 1925, the organization of the Russian emigrés was abolished by an order of the Foreign Ministry, but the Malama family remained in Döbrentei street. Vladimir Malama died in 1935 in Nice, but his wife, Anna Samoylova remained in Budapest. She died in 1950, allegedly due to the illness received in 1945 from the Soviet soldiers.

And towards the end of his life, from 1939 on, here lived Zoltán Medve Zoltán (1868–1943), the retired governor of Krassó-Szörény County, who at the peak of his career, on 12 May 1913 performed the last territorial expansion of Hungary, the annexation of the island of Ada-Kaleh.


Albeit the Interior Minister’s order required full confidentiality, the event quickly became known. The Népszava reported about it three days later, on 15 May, taking over the report of the Keleti Értesítő:

“On 12 May, the Monday of Pentecost, the Turkish island of Ada Kale near Orsova, was annected and immediately taken into possession on behalf of the Hungarian government by Dr. Zoltán Medve, Governor of Krassó-Szörény County.
It is reported from Orsova: On Monday at 12 noon, Governor Zoltán Medve, Vicegovernor Aurél Issekutz and Mr. Podhraczky, Chief Servant of Orsova, accompanied by a gendarme officer and four gendarmes, appeared in the island of Ada-Kaleh, and immediately went to the Governor’s building, where the Governor of the island, Sherif Eddin Bey received them.
Mr. Medve showed the decision of the Hungarian government, and he read its Hungarian text. This decision instructed the Governor to annex the island of Ada Kale in the name of His Majesty, and to immediately take it into possession.
Then, turing to the Vicegovernor and the Chief Servant, the Governor briefly outlined the importance of the event, and he entrusted them to strictly observe the traditions of the island’s population, especially the free practice of religion, and to act so that the inhabitants feel themselves equal to the other sons of the homeland. Finally he called on the Chief Servant as the administrative authority to take over the island as part of Krassó-Szörény County.
After the annexation was completed, a protocol was redacted. Governor Sherif Eddin Bey declared, that he cannot acknowledge the annexation, because he had received no instructions from the Turkish government. He is therefore obliged to refuse the signature of the protocol, and to protest against the occupation of the island. Governor Zoltán Medve referred to the decision of the Hungarian government, and declared, that he cannot take the protest into account. Nevertheless, he had no objections to the Governor’s remaining on the island, until he receives detailed instructions from his government. He also instructed the gendarmes to stay in the island as a sign of the annexation, and to take care of the order and peace. After this, the Governor and his escort left the island.
According to a more recent telegram from Orsova, on Tuesday evening Sherif Eddin Bey left the island, but nobody knows to where. Rumor says, that the Turkish government will oppose the annexation of the island in the most decisive way at the great powers.”



Despite the appearances, the annexation was merely a formal act, the last episode of the decade-long territorial debate. In fact, Ada Kale had previously been under Hungarian sovereignty. It was almost precisely thirty-five years earlier, on 25 May 1878, that the Monarchy, taking advantage of the Stan Stefano Peace Treaty which closed the Russian-Turkish war, occupied the Turkish island on the Lower Danube. The treaty, concluded on 3 March, had not decided about the possession of the island, only about its evacuation and the demolition of its fortress. Thus, the Ottoman empire in any case had to renounce the territory, whose possession was not irrelevant to the Danubian empire. In case they did not act, a neighboring competitor, Serbia or Romania could have laid hand on the island, laying in a comercially and tactically strategic point. In March and April 1878, the Austro-Hungarian diplomacy, which was already vigilant, made the decisive step, and after lengthy negotiations, on 21 May, with the tacit consent of the Russians, the representatives of the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman government agreed on the temporary Austro-Hungarian occupation of Ada Kale, postponing the final regulation.


The temporay occupation lasted forty years. The clearing up of the odd situation – a Turkish civil administration alongside with an Austro-Hungarian military presence – was from time to time on the agenda of the Hungarian party, but no progress was made until the annexation of 1913. The annexation took place in a political situation which was very similar to the occupation of 1878. The Monarchy wanted to prevent that during the new negotiations at the end of the first Balkan War any other Balkan state might require the island for itself. However, the integration into the Hungarian civil administration remained nominal – due not so much to Müdir Sherifeddin’s protest, but rather to the prudence of the Austro-Hungarian government, which did not want to overshadow the good relations with the Porta either in 1913, or later, in the war years. A Lex Ada Kale was never born. The “Ada Kale question” was finally resolved by the dissolution of the two parties, the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and the Ottoman Empire. The 1938 Sèvres and the 1933 Lausanne Treaty awarded the island to Romania.


Forty years of Hungarian rule, however, did not pass without trace. In the years of the occupation, the strategic significance of the island declined (only during the war it became important again, when even Egon Erwin Kisch, “the frenzied reporter”, wrote articles from here. Nevertheless, due to its situation and the neighboring Orsova and Hercules Bath, the island soon became a popular tourist destination, as it is attested by newspaper ads and postcards sent from here. But it attracted not only the touirsts. Turcologist Ignác Kúnos visited the island several times. His ethnographic research was aided by the local teacher and merchant Mehmed Fehmi, who, as attested by the postcards, also operated a printing press, and who, as the leader of the anti-annexation movement, was elected in 1914 the deputy of Ada Kale in the constituency of Constantinople. Kúnos held lectures and published articles on his visits to the island, and he published the materials collected by him in several volumes: the folk songs in 1906, the folk tales first in 1907 in German, in two volumes, then in 1923 also in Hungarian. Thereby he virtually saved a great part of the island’s ethnography and of the archaic Turkish dialect spoken here, almost seventy years before its sinking under the water of the Danube. Kúnos probably would have got to the island without the Hungarian occupation as well, but, alongside with the gradual disappearance of the Rumelian Turkish world, the popularity of Ada Kale in Hungary also contributed to his interest in the island. Seen from this point of view, the decades long Austro-Hungarian aspirations were perhaps not completely useless.

The first summary blog post on Ada Kale in Hungarian was published on Falanszter. The Dunai Szigetek (Danubian Islands) regularly publishes information-rich entries on it, with many little-known infos and images. In 2011, a large exhibition on Ada Kale was organized in Bucharest, whose catalog, Marian Țuțui’s Ada-Kaleh sau Orientul scufundat (Ada Kale, or the sunken Orient) will be soon presented by us.

Package tour to Ada Kale. Ad in Budapesti Hírlap, 17 June 1899

A genre postcard on Ada Kale: the original version (above), livened up with a few odalisques for a tourist trap (below)


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Tea and horse for sale


Along the tea-horse-road, on Shaxi’s marketplace. In the same square, in the Qing-era theatre, traditional performances every day. In Lijiang fresh yak milk and yak milk ice cream, in Dali pu erh tea compressed in bricks, in Nuodeng salt crystals from the local salt mines, in Baoshan antiquarian tables on the street, catering to the eye.


Along the tea-horse-road, as the south-western section of the Silk Road is called, the most different goods have traveled for thousands of years, from Yunnan and Sichuan up to Tibet and down, through Burma and Vietnam as far as India. The roads meandering in the plateau below the Himalayas, in the valleys of some of the world’s largest rivers, lead through the lands of dozens of ethnic groups and cultures, the string of towns of thousands of years, where you feel time being stopped.

We will travel along these roads and visit these towns in this November with the travelers of río Wang. We present our travel plans in detail, with maps and photos, in our usual blog encounter point, the special room of Selfie Bar, Budapest, Rákóczi út 29, on 27 April, Thursday, at 6 p.m. Everyone is welcome.

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The fifty shades of Latin


In the bird’s-eye view, one might have the comforting illusion that country borders are also language borders. Especially where the borders follow the ranges of high mountains that separate peoples, like the Alps or the Pyrenees. In Germany they speak German, in Italy Italian. In France French, in Spain Spanish (all right, in Catalonia Catalan). This is supported by the historical experience that in Eastern Europe, in the past century, the changes of state borders were usually followed by the forced resettlement or assimilation of peoples speaking other languages. So that, for example, on the two sides of the Ukrainian-Polish border, arbitrarily drawn in 1939, or of the German-Polish border, also so drawn in 1945, we can hardly find anyone speaking the language of the other side. However, when you happen to survey in the ant’s-eye view a more fortunate border zone, where neither the border nor the residents have moved very much over the past centuries, your experience will be quite different.

I want to go north from Catalonia’s northernmost region, the Boí Valley, one of the cradles of European Romanesque art, to France’s southernmost region, the Upper Garonne, to the pilgrimage church of Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges, which was for the inhabitants of the valley the nearest connecting point to the great Compostela pilgrimage road throughout the Middle Ages. The distance from Castilló de Tor, which guards the entrance of the valley, to the cathedral of Comminges, is just ninety kilometers, which you can cover in one hour and a half by car, including the obligatory slow downs.


The Spanish-language Wikipedia site of the destination, Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges informs us (the French one does not), that the little town is called San Bertran de Comenge in the Occitan language. Why is this interesting? Because the inhabitants of the town, although declining in proportion, speak this language. Occitan – the lengua d’oc, as Dante called it after the word oc meaning “yes”, and as opposed to his own lingua de sì –, the original Latin language version of Southern France has been increasingly pushed into the background by French in recent centuries.

But Occitan is also divided into various dialects, from eastern Provençal to western Gascon, the latter being spoken here, in the region of Saint-Bertrand. This dialect is known to all of us, as one of its most famous speakers was D’Artagnan, the fourth musketeer, who, as a rookie in Paris, was mocked simply for his Gascon accent. The Gascons were excellent soldiers, they formed the backbone of the King’s musketeer guard, and also represented a peculiar linguistic patch of color in 17th-century Paris. Another famous Gascon speaker was none less than the Virgin Mary. At least, in 1858 she said to Bernardette Soubirous, the shepherd girl of Lourdes, in the latter’s native language: Que sòi era Immaculada Councepciou, “I am the Immaculate Conception”, which it still emblazoned on the pedestal of her statue in Lourdes. No wonder, then, that the locals are proud of their ancient tongue, and in more and more towns they operate a nursery and primary school in this language, although no version of Occitan is officially recognized in France.




Crossing the Spanish or Catalan border, you would expect to hear only Spanish or Catalan. But the first café in the town of Bossòst, over whose streets the peak of Tuc d’Aubas hovers like Mount Fuji, bears the proud name Er Occitan – The Occitan –, and moreover, as marked by the peculiar definite article neither in Spanish nor Catalan, but in the Occitan language.



And the main language of the information board at the town’s 11th-century Romanesque church – whose northern gate is adorned with the loveliest Romanesque relief of the Virgin Mary – is also not Catalan or Spanish. But yet another, which I can only assume, for lack of competence, is Occitan. The assumption is correct, but not precise.



In fact, a few towns away, on the gate of the Romanesque church of Vila a board announces the hours and languages of the Mass for the settlements of the neighboring Aran Valley. Even the language of the board and the names of the days are peculiar. And in the center of the valley, in the town of Vielha – which is called Viella both in Catalan and Spanish, for nevertheless the former version is written at the entrance of the town – they celebrate Sunday Mass in the Aranès language.




Aranès or Aranese is the version of Occitan, more precisely of Gascon, or even more precisely, of Pyrenean Gascon, which, as the name indicates, is spoken in Aran Valley. This small area, which falls to the north of the ridge of the Pyrenees, but still belongs to Catalonia, and is home to the source of Garonne River. The dialect of its inhabitants is closer to the adjacent Occitan than to Catalan, from which they are separated by the ridge. The number of its speakers is less than ten thousand, yet it is the official language of the valley. Moreover, in 2010 it was adopted by the Catalan parliament as the third official language of all Catalonia, in addition to Spanish and Catalan. Thus Catalonia is the only state where a variant of Occitan enjoys official status.


Crossing the mountain, we get back to Boí Valley. This is already in Catalonia, therefore, we might assume, they speak Catalan. Yes, but what kind? The language they speak among themselves in the shops and pubs is appreciably different from the one you hear in Barcelona: it is deeper, they often say -a or -au instead of -e, the -er at the end of the words is pronounced , like in French, and a lot of Spanish words are used. This is the Ribagorçan dialect, spoken on both sides of the Catalan-Aragonian border instead of the official Catalan or Spanish. Even if the great linguist Joan Corominas considers this to be the “most archaic and purest” form of Catalan, you would have to cross quite a few valleys going south-east to hear the standard version of Catalan.

Romance linguistics teaches that by walking across the former Roman Empire from Sicily to Normandy, every pair of neighboring villages can understand each other. It is nice to see how this really works on a small scale.