The Living Waters of Transylvania
Fifteen minutes’ drive out of Székely-Udvarhely in Transylvania, we have to make another stop again. Stopping here is a Transylvanian customary ritual not to be missed. We are at Homoród, the famous natural sparkling mineral water spring. We grab our empty bottles, given to us by my great-aunt, Sárika néni, and make our way down the aged stone steps to the constantly flowing fountain. The strong mineral smell hits us as I notice the predominant orange coloured tint on the stones where the water spills onto the ground. Equal to its flow, are the people who make their pilgrimage to the pristine waters of this spring. It is not unusual to see the locals here filling cratefuls of one or two-litre bottles at a time, stacking them in hand or horse drawn carts to pull away, or these days more fashionably, by an upmarket European car.
While it may not be common knowledge today, Transylvania is a veritable gold mine of natural and healing mineral water springs, which are spread amply throughout the Carpathian Basin. In Borszék / Borsec, a town hidden away in the Eastern Carpathian ranges, the local word for Mineral Water was coined. Its name Bor-viz, in Hungarian, literally translates to Wine Water. The museum curator at Borszék told us the origins of this word. It derives from the 1890s, when Borszék was actually known worldwide for its incredibly powerful healing and refreshing mineral waters. At the time, it was exported to over 15 countries, reaching as far as South Africa, South America, the Middle East, North America and even as far as New Zealand. In 1890, one 750 ml bottle of water was more expensive than the finest equivalent bottle of local wine and thus, the term Wine Water was born.
In its heydey, in the early 1890s Borszék was the equivalent of a billionaire’s playground, where its extravagant, unique Transylvanian styled villas were frequented by Europe’s royalty and the incredibly wealthy. Surrounded by pristine pine forests, you might even mistake it for a village nestled away somewhere in the heart of the Swiss Alps.
A heavy economic depression in the mid-1890s put an end to Borszék’s international flavour and it was to lay dormant until the 1950s, when it became the worker’s paradise.
Under the communist state in Romania, the trade unions took control of the town’s villas and hotels and collectivised them. Membership had its privileges, only not in the way credit card companies throw this line around today. If you were a member of the Union, from the 1950s all the way up until the late 1980s, you would receive your complimentary two-week recuperatory holiday for you and your family members, all expenses paid, so that you could bath in and consume the healing waters. In fact, at that time, doctors working for the Union, would diagnose patients and prescribe that they drink 300 ml from Fountain Nr.3 and 200 ml from Fountain Nr.7. There were over 30 different varieties of fountains scattered throughout the town, each with its unique healing properties. Even today they are labelled for visitors stating their healing qualities such as rheumatoid arthritis, bowel problems, lungs, heart, thyroid, etc.
These days, however, one would not know what to make of the village, as most of it is in a grand state of rotting decay. The facades of these strikingly beautiful 120-year-old villas are all that remain of the once-grand hotels they used to be.
Our historical journey was jolted back to quite a deep and personal reality when the museum curator started to tell us about the workers of the mineral water factory when it was nationalised under the Communist government. He pointed to the wall behind us, where a life-size picture of the workers in the factory had been blown up as if it was a sort of wallpaper display. I heard my grandmother behind me gasp, as she looked upon the greatly enlarged picture. There, amongst the factory workers, was her mother, posing for the company picture in 1958.
You see, Borszék was the town where my grandmother grew up, and a stream of memories came flooding back to her on viewing this emotion-packed memento. This visit was a rather bittersweet trip down memory lane for my grandmother. A stark contrast, the exact opposite to what she remembered from her growing up when Borsec was a vibrant tourist town with people constantly coming and going.
Nevertheless, we really enjoyed our day there walking through the hills, taking in the most spectacular colours of a late spring floral bloom, drinking the waters, visiting the bear’s cave, soaking our legs in the painfully cold rheumatic wells and finishing our visit by eating at one of the new hotels, which are painstakingly trying to rebuild Borszék’s reputation as a place to come for health and well-being.
Borszék is indeed a hidden treasure, and while the waters are still sold today overseas for up to [easyazon_link identifier=”B007Q329YE” locale=”US” tag=”dreamtimetravel-20″]$10.99 USD for a six-pack via Amazon[/easyazon_link], not quite the cost of a bottle of wine but close, the curator revealed a secret. He told us that these waters were not the same as the waters of days of yore. With commercial demand even domestically being very high, the 300,000 or so litres of water that flow from them daily, are still not enough. This has led to the local factory, now in private hands, locking up the main spring to the public and according to the curator, filtrating, carbonating and blending the waters from a number of wells in the town. He finished by leaving an ominous warning to those that do not respect the gifts of Mother Earth. He told us that in the times past, whenever some entrepreneur tried to build a hotel around one of the given springs, the water would just up and disappear. The fountain would dry up and soon after the hotel would go broke.
With that said, I would not do the Eastern Carpathian Basin’s mineral waters justice if I did not also give honourable mention to a number of other strikingly refreshing and uniquely flavoursome watering holes. I will start with the Csíksomlyó fountain, just a couple of kilometres out of Csíkszereda, located at the base of what is commonly known as the Csíksomlyó ‘Bükk’ (named after the forest dominated by grand beech trees) under the Pilgrim’s Shrine.