This Is How It Starts – The Hajmasker Barracks: To Visit A Vanished Empire

This is how it starts. On an atypically grey, summer Sunday afternoon I was marking time in my home, trying to find some sort of intellectual stimulation. Not an easy thing to do in an incredibly dull small town located out on the high desert of western America. The leaden skies outside had nearly lulled me to sleep. Drifting in and out of drowsiness I haphazardly searched the internet for random Hungarian topics. This is how happened upon a place in western Hungary called Hajmasker, a village of just over 3,000 people. Usually villages of that size in Hungary have a couple of 19th century churches, some well kempt, colorful houses each with the ubiquitous backyard garden and not much else of interest. Hajmasker stood out in a different way though. Viewing it on Google Earth, I saw that Hajmasker had all the accoutrements of a Hungarian village. What made it different were some massive Austro-Hungarian era military related structures.  These can be visited by the adventurous.

I felt a twinge of yearning, a delight in this discovery. Imagining that Hajmasker must be an obscure village in some remote, pastoral hamlet, I was shocked to learn that it stood astride the main route between Veszprem and Varpalota. I had traveled through the village by both train and bus on separate occasions several years back without the slightest knowledge of the treasure trove of Austro-Hungarian martialtecture just a short walk from the stations. Never once did I suspect the area as a place where I would be able to let my curiosity run wild. For me, anything related to the Austro-Hungarian Empire is worth seeing. Immediately I began to search for more information, while in the back of my mind I began to concoct plans to visit Hajmasker.

Hajmasker Barracks - Main building

Hajmasker Barracks – Main building

A Pervasive Sense Of Permanence = What Did Not Happen?
What does the village of Hajmasker have in common with Sopron, Salzburg and Zagreb, Vienna and Wiener Neustadt? Like each of these well-known cities, Hajmasker was home to an Austro-Hungarian artillery barracks. The difference was that the barracks in Hajmasker were the largest in the whole empire.  Almost a thousand soldiers might be stationed there at any one time. It was an instant village of sorts, but this one came with loud explosions as a major artillery range was setup nearby. In grandeur and style the barracks in Hajmasker could easily compete with much larger places. The main barracks building, now in the process of slowly decaying, looks like a giant manor house with a castle grafted onto it.

Festooned with turrets and spires, red roofed with massive gray walls, this building has all the hallmarks of imperial architecture, a foreboding mass of enormous grandiosity. And this is just one of many such massive structures which dot the grounds. The entire complex emanates a pervasive sense of permanence and why not? The ruling Habsburgs, the family behind the Austro-Hungarian throne, had ruled much of central Europe for seven centuries and Hungary for the past two when the Hajmasker barracks were constructed. It is evident by their construction that the barracks were built to last. And that is precisely what did not happen.

Hajmasker Barracks - Abandoned entrance

Hajmasker Barracks – Abandoned entrance

No Ordinary Occupation – Will They Ever Leave?
World War One changed everything, at least for a little while. The Hajmasker barracks were used to house prisoners of war during the conflict, by the end of which the eternal Hapsburg dynasty proved to be mortal. Austria-Hungary collapsed along with it. The barracks were there for the taking. Another empire would find them of use for their own military, but not before a quarter of a century had passed. In the latter part of 1944 the Red Army took control of Hajmasker. This would turn out to be no ordinary occupation, as the Soviets extended their stay for the entirety of the Cold War. Their occupation was equal in length to the entire history of the Hajmasker barracks prior to their arrival. They came to dominate the area. Two generations of villagers learned to live with the Soviets literally on their doorsteps. The soldiers left indelible marks on the barracks, stripping them bare of valuable items. The walls were papered over with Russian language newspapers. A pitiful degradation, as well as a representative example of Soviet scarcity, as their own system began to buckle beneath the weight of tiresome occupations in places such as rural Hungary.

One can easily imagine Red Army soldiers asking themselves, “What are we doing here? “ While the villagers in Hajmasker must have asked themselves a variant of that same question, “Will they ever leave?” A symbiotic relationship of mutual reliance developed down through the decades between soldier and villager. The Soviets traded gasoline for Hungarian wine. The former would be guzzled by the local’s automobiles and motorbikes, while the latter would be guzzled by the soldiers. More lethal concoctions were on offer courtesy of the Red Army, including machine guns, grenades and loads of ammunition. Hajmasker would be the first base vacated by the Red Army when it left Hungary in 1990. As this strained relationship finally came to an end, the barracks of Hajmasker became what they are still today, a vast scaffold of fin de siècle military architecture waiting in vain for another imperial occupier. The only occupation going on there today is a vacant one.

Hajmasker Barracks - The hope that never ends

Hajmasker Barracks – The hope that never ends

Internal Conflict – The Hope That Never Ends
Everything I have learned about Hajmasker has only made my need to visit the barracks that much greater. The fact that I came so close without even knowing of its existence will bother me until the day I visit or until the day I die. An obsession has taken hold of me that I cannot let go. Not until I have walked down those cavernous corridors and stood in the empty chasms of vanished imperial power. I have an intuition, an inexplicably powerful feeling that the barracks in Hajmasker will be worth whatever toil it takes to get there. It will be an opportunity to see lasting vestiges of Austria-Hungary, to resurrect the empire before it disintegrates. All this I want to believe, I have to believe, I need to believe. This is how it starts and I hope it never ends.

Obsessive Propulsive – Still Running: 2 A.M. Through The Streets Of Sofia (Travels In Eastern Europe #40)

Running is a ritual and an obsession for me. No matter where I am at, no matter how far from home, no matter what my schedule, a daily run has been a necessity in my life for well over a decade. Some might call my daily runs, a jog or even a trot. That is because I do not aim for speed, just to keep going for one hour. I have been told – quite correctly – that if I would take a day or two off every week my runs would be much better. That is heresy to me. If I can get in in an hour running each day, then I am satisfied. Life would not seem normal without the daily run. Trying to maintain such a rigid standard can be difficult, nowhere more so than while traveling.



Dogged Persistence – An Exercise In Cultural Understanding
I have been a lucky man when it comes to running during my travels, specifically in Eastern Europe. I have run along the Danube in Bratislava, Budapest and Belgrade, across the Stari Most in Mostar, the Charles Bridge in Prague and the Latin Bridge in Sarajevo, dodged traffic in Transylvania and cut corners across Krakow. Most of my runs have not been in or around famous sites, but in neighborhoods or other run of the mill places such as a sports club in Kispest and farm fields on the outskirts of Debrecen.  These places I recall just as fondly as the old cities of Vienna or Vilnius. The runs helped me familiarize myself with local areas and life, especially in Hungary. By running I have learned that many Hungarians have large ferocious dogs guarding their yards. I cannot count the times that I have been startled by a massive dog suddenly smashing their snout up against a fence, snarling and salivating at me. Anyone who would consider robbing a house in Hungary better be prepared for a fight to the death from an oversized rover ready to have them for brunch. Hungarian dogs have helped keep me aware of my surroundings.

I have also learned about the stoicism and reserve of Eastern Europeans on these runs. A smile is at best met with a shrug, greetings are ignored. The people I have met along these runs are not the superficial, perpetually smiling American types. Friendliness seems to be forbidden, they take a “do not talk to strangers” attitude seriously. I can see this in their look away avoidance, a willful attempt to ignore my existence. This left me with a rather lonely feeling, making me feel more foreign than I already was. Nevertheless, I would not trade my experience jogging down the cracked sidewalks and unkempt parks found in every former Eastern Bloc country. I have gotten to see so much that I otherwise would have missed. The drunks passed out in the woods in Warsaw’s Saxon Park , the Romanian soldiers slouching while standing guard in the early morning hours at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Bucharest, the empty serpentine streets of Sibiu just after dawn. My daily run may be an obsession, but in eastern Europe it has also enhanced my passion for travel and given me unforgettable experiences. My favorite run was also the toughest, one that coincidentally happened in the earliest hours of the morning, when I could see next to nothing and the experience devolved into a dream.

The Final Destination –Running To Stand Still
I crawled out of the bed in Sofia at 2 a.m. on a Monday morning, knocked back a cold cup of coffee and grabbed my IPod. It was time to go for a morning run, a very early morning run. This would be the earliest I had ever went running before. Why was I going for a run in a strange city, where I could not speak a word of the language or even read the alphabet at such an early hour? The only reasonable explanation – as though anyone going running at 2 a.m. can provide a reasonable answer – was that I had a 6 a.m. flight from Sofia to Paris. This would be followed by two more flights to get back home. If everything went according to plan I would not arrive in my final destination of Billings, Montana, until 10:00 p.m. This meant that it would be especially difficult for me to get in my daily run unless I did it in Sofia. I had barely slept during that short night. Even so I did not feel that tired. I was in a wired state of sleep deprivation, shaking slightly with a fast forward like motion sickness.

My nerves were on edge. I was kept awake for most of the night with worried thoughts of impending danger. What if I ran into a crowd of drunks or a gang of young males looking to kick the ass of a stupidly dressed stranger in sweats, a hoody and trainers on a street in Sofia during the wee hours of the morning? What if some corrupt police officer noticed me? I imagined being dragged away to the police station for questioning then missing my flight while trying to explain away this daily run madness. As I walked outside into the chill morning air, I noticed that the streets were deserted. There was scarcely any traffic except for the random taxi. I began to run down one of the main streets, a moving target in super slow self-propulsion. I quickly formulated a plan to safeguard my existence and remain anonymous. I would find a quiet, mostly dark side street, then repetitively run back and forth along it. This would be quite tedious, but the goal was to complete the daily run, not try for speed or stimulation. It was not long before I found such a street. For the next half hour I did little more than jog 400 meters one way and then do the same again in the opposite direction.

Isolation Chamber – Passing Thoughts
Boredom got the better of me halfway through the run. I found another street, rather well lighted where I could do the same thing. It was not much better, but at least it was different. With music blasting in my ears I lost track of everything. I was in another world, beyond Bulgaria. It was like being in an isolation chamber, alone with just my thoughts. This must be what it is like just before dying. Then suddenly I was frightened into reality. I found myself suddenly upon the heels of two people who were walking up the street in front of me. I almost ran into the back of them. They were startled, said something which I could not hear, then parted so I could pass. I accelerated out of fear and did not look back until several minutes later. When I did glance behind me, they were nowhere to be seen. I realized that they were probably more scared of me, than I was of them. It was not long thereafter that the run was finished. I was relieved to be done with it. My daily run goal for the day was attained. I could live another day in contentment. Now all I had to do was spend the next 24 hours traveling. I was not worried about the flights or the waits or the lack of sleep. My only worry was about tomorrow and the next daily run.

The Red Star of Sofia – Falling Up:  From The Sky Down In Bulgaria (Travels In Eastern Europe #39)

Boykan, our Bulgar guide, began the Free Tour with a short overview of the importance of Sofia in the history of the Balkans and Bulgaria. Today Sofia is one of the least visited European capitals, but it had once been of great importance. During the Ottoman occupation, which all Bulgarians, including Boykan, refer to as “the 500 years of slavery” Sofia was of prominence due to its location as the midpoint between Constantinople and Belgrade. Like so much of Eastern Europe, Sofia was a “used to” place. This was a recurring theme in the region’s history. The Bulgars “used to” have an empire, the Hungarians “used to” occupy large swaths of Eastern Europe, the Lithuanians “used to” have a massive kingdom and so forth. Sofia “used to” be important. As a marker of just how far they had fallen geopolitically, Bulgarians were elated when they were allowed into the European Union. This seemed to re-legitimize their importance. Sofia and Bulgaria were not what they used to be, but the decline provided some fascinating history, especially during the 20th century.

St. Nedelya Church after the assault in 1925

St. Nedelya Church after the assault in 1925

Terror In Bulgaria – An Explosive Situation
The inaugural tour stop was at St. Nedelya Church, which had also been the first attraction I noticed upon my arrival in the city two weeks earlier. At that time, there had been crowds coming out from a noon time service, the same was true today. A crowd gathering in and around a church is usually not of great interest, but once I learned the history of St. Nedelya that crowd took on a whole new meaning. The church looked ancient, but its Byzantine Revival architecture was deceptive. While there had been a church on this very site since the 10th century, the latest version was only consecrated in 1933. The church I attended while growing up in my little hometown of western North Carolina was older than the current iteration of St. Nedelya, so much for Old Europe. To be fair, any architecture in a region as riven by conflict as Bulgaria has been over the last thousand years has virtually no chance of still standing in its original form. The present St. Nedelya was the umpteenth version of the church. The previous one was irreparably damaged in the spring of 1925, during what has come to be known as the St. Nedlya Church assault. Boykan pointed out a memorial plaque which commemorated that event. A plaque can never do justice to what happened during the worst terrorist incident in Bulgarian history.

On April 16th, Holy Thursday, a funeral was held at St. Nedelya Church for General Konstantin Georgiev, who had been assassinated a few days earlier by communist radicals. The assassination was actually part of a larger plot to murder important Bulgarian governmental and military leaders who would attend General Georgiev’s funeral.  The act was carried out with almost perfect precision. During the funeral, 25 kilograms of explosives were detonated in the attic of the church causing the roof to collapse. 150 people were killed and another 500 injured. The church was condemned and had to be completely rebuilt. What our group stood looking at was the result of that effort. As crowds milled around outside, I tried to imagine what the scene must have been like on that horrific day. Terrorism does not care about churches or beautiful blue sky days, families or their loved ones. The ends can always be made to justify the means. And sometimes the terrorists eventually end up in charge.

St. Nedelya Church as it looks today

St. Nedelya Church as it looks today (Credit: Stolichanin)

Long Shadows – The Death & Life of Communism
Twenty years after the roof was blown off St. Nedelya Church, the communist radicals were ruling the country. Communism’s long shadow loomed over Sofia and informed the tour. At one point a Bulgarian man who looked to be in his sixties was drawn to us. He must have heard Boykan speaking in English. He suddenly let loose with a rant of “Death To America” and yelled at all within earshot that “the Soviet Union will rise again”. Boykan hardly batted an eye. He calmly ignored the provocateur, than after we moved on told us how much of the older generation had trouble letting go of the past.  The upheaval experienced in Eastern Bloc countries during the fitful transition to capitalism had made many look back on the era of communism as a time of stability, a time of full employment and few worries about life’s necessities.

Even if the country was impoverished during that time, everyone shared in that poverty. The problem with communism was that it was static and intolerant of dissent. This made the system incapable of reform. Any hint of reform was met with the black boot of repression. This rigidity led to a total collapse from which Bulgaria had yet to fully recover. It would take generations before the legacy of communism would finally fade. Its symbols had disappeared much faster. One of these was the red star of Sofia. For decades a five pointed red star crowned the pinnacle of the Communist Party Headquarters building. When it was finally taken down, this red star was left propped up against a wall in the courtyard of Sofia’s Central Bathhouse and that was where it had stayed.

The red star of Sofia

The red star of Sofia

The Star That No Longer Shines – A Symbolic Message
Boykan was proud to offer us a peek at the red star. Without his guidance, we would never have known that it was hidden in plain sight behind a fence. Looking at it, I was astounded by how fragile and nondescript it looked. This symbol of Soviet might, that Bulgarians had been forced to look up to for years, was now abandoned. It looked rather lonely and pathetic. A few months later, the red star would be removed from the courtyard. It was taken away to be displayed at the forthcoming Museum of Totalitarian Art. When I first heard this, I was saddened. I felt that the red star should have been left where we saw it. It was a stark illustration of just how far the Soviet empire had fallen.  I could not thank Boykan enough for showing everyone the red star. Boykan was part of a new generation, pro-European, looking to the west. The generations that had grown up under communism were still struggling to make sense of this new world. The old stars from the east had fallen, including a large red five pointed star. It was tucked away behind a fence and propped up against a wall. Now it was history.

Ghosts In Daylight – The Largo: Sofia’s Spectral Presence (Travels In Eastern Europe #38)

Several stops on the Free Tour were in Sofia’s most famous architectural area, known as the Largo, home to some of the most outstanding examples of Communist architecture to be found anywhere in the world. The buildings themselves dwarfed our group. As our youthful guide, Boykan began to talk about these buildings, I wondered how his generation felt about what they had inherited. He, like other young Bulgarians I had met, were cautiously optimistic. This was totally opposite of the menace expressed by the architecture of the Largo. The future of Bulgaria – even a democratic one – would be decided within the confines of Stalinist-inspired structures. Aesthetically the buildings were impressive, if uninviting. Their style, a megalomaniacal neo-classicism enhanced by the ideological steroid of totalitarianism.

The Largo under construction in the 1950s - Party House in the background

Largo under construction in the 1950s – Party House in the background (Credit: stara-sofia)

The Nightmare Vision – Landscape Of Intimidation
The most magnificent or revolting of these buildings, depending upon one’s political persuasion, the Party Building, reminded me of a gigantic ship that had been anchored in the heart of Bulgaria. While the country sank into stagnation around it, this grim beast of a building stayed afloat. The Party Building was flanked on either side by a pair of sizable monoliths. Presently these structures housed, among other things, offices of the National Assembly of Bulgaria, the President’s Office and the Council of Ministers, as well as a department store, archaeological museum and hotel. Much of the current Bulgarian government worked out of the same buildings that the communist party elite had inhabited less than thirty years before. How much had really changed in the country from a political standpoint was open to debate.

The Largo is both the most enduring symbol of Bulgaria’s communist era and of the post-communist cronyism that plagues the country. The actors had changed, but the setting was still the same. Standing in the cobbled square, I found the inhuman scale of the architecture intimidating. Row upon row of windows lined these buildings. I had the feeling that someone or something was watching me, whether it was or not seemed beside the point. I could not shake the feeling of me versus the massive, a place where the individual did not stand a chance then or now. For all the showiness and symbolism of the Largo, there was a pervasive lack of transparency to the space, a sort of facelessness to these facades. It was difficult for me to envision what went on behind all those windows. Bulgaria was riddled with corruption, there was virtually no separation between government and business, one was used for the purposes of the other or vice versa. How could it be otherwise when the most important governmental space in the country was hidden behind monumental amounts of concrete and murky windows.

Lenin's replacement - The statue of Saint Sophia

Lenin’s replacement – The statue of Saint Sophia (Credit: Bin Im Garten)

Dream Quest – A Tantalizing Transparency
At least there had been a few superficial, yet symbolic changes to the Largo since the fall of communism. The ruby red star of Soviet power that once crowned the Party Building, had now been replaced by a Bulgarian flag unfurling in a gentle, spring breeze. A gigantic statue of Lenin on the western end of the Largo had been removed for a much smaller statue of the city’s namesake, Saint Sophia. Sophia had been selected because she was viewed as a non-ideological figure, symbolizing wisdom. She looked like a miniature goddess, her golden skin covered beneath the folds of an immaculate robe. The utter antithesis of Lenin, erotic rather than revolutionary, open armed instead of close fisted. If the statue of Sophia was viewed at a certain angle, a Unicredit Bank building stood positioned perfectly in the background. Perhaps Sophia was promoting the wisdom of capitalism, the benefits of which most Bulgarians had struggled to acquire amid the scourge of endemic corruption.

The west had won the Cold War and colonized Sofia with capitalism, paradoxically it was also the West that was inadvertently responsible for the Largo’s totalitarian architecture. In 1944, American and British bombers had badly damaged this area of the city. Once the rubble and ruins had been cleared away, the post-war Stalinist government decided to rebuild the area as a symbolic showpiece for the communist ideology. Despite such a gargantuan makeover, one set of ruins were not plowed under. These undergirded a greatness that had not been seen in Sofia since antiquity, namely that of the Roman city of Serdica. When I visited the Largo, the remains of Serdica could only be viewed by going underground. That situation has changed. Now visitors walking along the Largo can look down through glass at them. Ironically, this is one of the only transparent things to be seen in the Largo. It is also a reminder of Sofia’s former importance.

Serdica was made an administrative capital of the surrounding region in the first century AD. Two hundred years later, it gained eternal fame when the Roman Emperor Galerius issued an Edict of Toleration from the city in 311 AD. The edict was the first time Christianity was legalized in the empire. In the coming decades, Rome would increasingly turn to Christianity, but this did not save Serdica or the empire. In 447 AD the Huns destroyed the city, but it was rebuilt by the Byzantines. It would be several centuries later before the Bulgars appeared on the scene. The subterranean ruins of Serdica were impressive to look at, several streets have been unearthed. The remnants of what were once the city’s protective, eight-meter high, stone walls could still be seen in shortened form. I found these ruins interesting, but not much more than that.

Larger than life - The Largo in Sofia

Larger than life – The Largo in Sofia

Staying Power – The Free Tour
I could not help but wonder how Roman ruins had anything to do with modern Bulgaria. Maybe the point was to link Bulgaria and Sofia with the greatness of the Roman Empire. It was a strange, disconcerting connection. The ruins were worth seeing, but the giant buildings now towering over the Largo somehow seemed less worthy. I wondered if, in two thousand years anything would be left of the Party Building. Despite the colossal structure’s size, I doubted it. The Soviets were no Romans, their presence lacked permanence, instead it was spectral. A ghost that could be seen at any time and was just as frightening in the day, as it was at night.

Boykan led us away from the Largo to show us a few more of Sofia’s sights. I eagerly followed, soaking in everything he said. Just a couple of hours earlier, I had barely been able to entertain the thought of doing anything in a city that I felt was forgettable. I had been wrong, Boykan changed my opinion of Sofia. The Free Tour introduced and then interpreted Sofia as a place with a rich spirit, despite or perhaps because of its deep and dark history. All this left me enthralled. When the tour ended I thanked Boykan profusely, then began the walk back to my accommodation. It was not long before that last day travel depression started in on me again. This time it was different though, I felt it not because I wanted to leave Sofia, but because I wanted to stay.


A Second Chance For Sofia – Boykan The Bulgar: The Cure For Anti-Curiosity (Travels In Eastern Europe #37)

It was my last day in Sofia and I did not have the eagerness or energy to explore the city. I have always found the day before the end of a trip to be among the most difficult. The moment when there is nothing left to look forward to is fast approaching. A feeling of resignation sets in, putting an end to any ambition I may still have to explore. My thought process can best be described as: “it will all come to an end soon enough, so why bother.” Everything I see or do on the last day will be a painful reminder of all that I will leave behind.  The mysterious, the exotic, the otherworldly will soon vanish, replaced by forty hours a week of frustrations, made worse by the displeasures of domesticity. Such a fatalistic instinct does not lend itself to site seeing, it is more conducive to laying in the bed at midday with the curtains closed and covers pulled over my head. I have come to understand this as a form of travel depression. It is quite the opposite of the usual maladies that plague travelers such as bad flights, impure water and foreign food. Instead, my depressive malaise was induced by a counter-reaction to all the life altering experiences and magnificent memories that came earlier on the same trip.

A Second Chance For Sofia

A Second Chance For Sofia (Credit: Falk2)

Sleepless In Sofia – A Broken Relationship
To be honest, thoughts of re-experiencing Sofia did nothing to lift the cloud looming above my final day in the city. My flagging spirits were reinforced by thoughts of when I first explored the city two weeks earlier. I had found it confusing and disjointed. The main attractions, such as a clutch of magnificent churches and a fine mosque offered windows into the mysterious beauty of Bulgaria, both spiritually and architecturally, but I had trouble developing a coherent idea of the city or country after hopscotching around for a couple of days. The gigantic Stalinist structures in the government quarter had left me aesthetically intimidated. While the seemingly endless rows of concrete apartment blocks that loomed on the urban horizon were the height of soullessness, both literally and figuratively.

There was a disconnect between me and Sofia. I could never mesh the city’s beautiful name with what I felt while visiting it for the first time. My intuition told me there was something wrong.  In short, Sofia and I were headed for an inevitable breakup that I was looking forward to. My attitude was not helped by the fact that I had barely slept in the stifling hot box compartment of the night train from Belgrade. A couple cups of ultra-stout coffee kept me upright as I stumbled down the street wondering just what to do. I was not a day sleeper, even when at the point of exhaustion. Besides, I would likely be kept awake by the screaming sunlight of a brightly lit Sunday morning, thus I had a choice to make, either summon what strength I had left or hide beneath the bed sheets. This was likely to be my last day in Sofia, not just on this trip, but forever. I had to do something, but did not have the energy to formulate an independent plan. In my current state, all I could hope for was to be led around.

Free Sofia Tour Logo

Free Sofia Tour Logo

Motley Crew – Foreigners On A Free Tour
There was one thing that might provide an antidote for such overwhelming lassitude, the Sofia Free Tour. My friend Tim, who had first introduced me to free tours in Bucharest and Budapest, had recommended the Sofia tour. I discovered that the tour would meet at the noon hour, ironically outside what I imagined to be one of the least friendly places in Sofia, the Palace of Justice. The Bulgarian government is notorious for its opacity and corruption. I half-wondered if the tour was meeting at the Palace of Justice so the government could keep all foreigners under surveillance. In my groggy, zombie like state I found it to be an unsettling thought. Just making it to the meeting spot at the appointed time was a triumph. I was surprised by how many other foreigners were there as well. Tour participants numbered well into the double digits. All were foreigners, the lone exception being our guide.

I met a very handsome and well-spoken Spaniard who enjoyed having photos taken of himself. An older Swedish husband and wife couple. I admired the husband more than he could possibly imagine because of one simple fact, he was retired. His wife had taken a job with a multi-national company in Sofia. While she worked, he planned on hanging out. With a Swedish pension, he could live like royalty in Sofia. According to the husband, wine was very cheap in Bulgaria. From the look of glee on his face, he planned to enjoy many libations.  There was also a short, skinny and rather scared looking Argentine. I imagined his role in life was to look frightened. I just had to talk to him, if for no other reason than to ask how he found the courage to travel abroad. He looked terribly worried when I asked him where he had been. His previous stop had been Edirne in the European part of Turkey. It was famous for a beautiful mosque, I inquired if he had visited it. Yes, he had, but he was glad to get away from the city. I asked him why?

He said the Turks would not leave him alone. They kept trying to sell him things and followed him everywhere he went. He could not get away from them. Listening to this man, I began to get worried as well. Not so much about Edirne, as to how many nervous breakdowns he had each day. By the looks of it, he was on the verge of another one at any moment. There was also a Greek family, with an older mother who could not understand a word of English, but smiled pleasantly. I talked with her daughter about how I had planned to visit Thessaloniki, but the debt crisis had hindered that trip since all international trains into Greece had stopped running. She gave me a go to hell look that put the fury of Electra to shame.

Boykan the Bulgar - Sofia Free Tour guide

Boykan the Bulgar – Sofia Free Tour guide

The Optimistic Bulgar – A Guide To The Future
Our pleasant and affable guide, a young Bulgar by the name of Boykan, was there to greet everyone. He was young, still at university and very enthused about Bulgaria’s membership in the European Union. His English was excellent. The cold diffidence with which older Bulgars treated strangers was nowhere to be found. Communism was history, rather than a memory for Boykan. I was looking at an exemplar of Bulgaria’s future. Youthful optimism was something Bulgaria badly needed. As Boykan began the tour, his affable nature and intelligent discourse helped clear the cobwebs out of my head. This tour might be better than advertised. I was ready to give Sofia a second chance.



Getting Away With Murder- A Tomb Without Tito: The House Of Flowers (Travels In Eastern Europe #36)

After the death of Josef Stalin in March of 1953 a few letters were discovered on his desk under a newspaper. One of these was from the leader of Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito. The two men had fallen out in the late 1940’s when Tito decided that hardline Stalinism was not for Yugoslavia. This break with the Soviet Union was not without its dangers. Stalin was a man who brooked no opposition. He had shown time and again the ability to have his opponents murdered, even if they were living in far off exile on another continent. The assassination of Leon Trotsky in Mexico City is the most notable example of Stalin’s ferocious vindictiveness. In the case of Tito, Stalin planned to have him murdered just as he had done to thousands of others, but these attempts were unsuccessful. Even in Stalin’s last days before he suffered what would turn out to be a fatal stroke, he was still ordering attempts on Tito’s life. Why was Stalin so focused on killing Tito several years after the Yugoslav-Soviet split?

Strangely enough, Tito might actually have been one of the few people who actually scared Stalin. After all, Tito was one of the very few men to ever threaten Stalin and get away with it. The letter from Tito found on Stalin’s desk after his death stated quite clearly his intentions. “Stop sending assassins to murder me…if this doesn’t stop I will send a man to Moscow and there’ll be no need to send any more.” That is a remarkable statement. There is little doubt that Tito would have done his very best to carry out such a threat. He was no ordinary dictator. Tito was the very definition of a strongman. Not only did he issue a death threat to one of history’s most blood soaked dictators, but he also held Yugoslavia together for thirty-five years, a feat all the more impressive when one considers how the nation splintered into warring states a decade after he died. Tito was successful where others failed.

Josip Broz Tito

A different kind of dictator – Josip Broz Tito

In Life & Death – A Home For Tito
My visit to Belgrade offered me the opportunity to visit Tito’s tomb known as the House of Flowers (Kuća cveća). He was buried there after dying at the age of 87 while in Slovenia. It was a miracle he lasted as long as he did. The man known to adoring Yugoslavs as Marshal Tito had earned that title the hard way, by leading the partisan cause in World War II against three virulent enemies, the Nazis, fascist Croatian Ustashe and the Royalist Chetniks. At war’s end his Communist Partisans took power and managed to stay there, straddling the divide between East and West, communism and capitalism while playing each side off against the other. Tito emerged as a leader of international renown while spearheading the Non-Aligned Movement. For his efforts he would be revered, both at home and abroad. Following his death, Tito’s funeral drew an inordinately large gathering of international leaders and diplomats, making it quite possibly the largest state funeral in history.

They all came to pay their respects in the hills of Dedinje, an upscale area of Belgrade that Tito would call home in life and death. This was the area I visited on a gloomy March morning. Grey bellies of cloud hovered over the city, spitting random drops of rain. I disembarked at the bus stop closest to the tomb. The only other person who got off at this stop was a lady who looked to be heading home. In the 1980’s lines of people would queue to visit Tito’s tomb. The day I visited, no one else was around. The only people I saw on the property either worked at the ticket booth, mausoleum or museum. The Yugoslav Wars and the resulting disintegration of Yugoslavia had sent visitation plummeting. The tomb was closed for many years and when it reopened, Tito was no longer popular. The memory of the man was intertwined with the failure of Yugoslavia as a state, even if it that failure took place long after he died.

House of Flowers - The tomb of Josip Broz Tito

House of Flowers – The tomb of Josip Broz Tito (Credit: Clay Gilliland)

Reflections – Tito Is Yugoslavia, Yugoslavia Is Tito
An air of indifference hung heavy over the complex where his tomb lays. At one time it housed the Museum of Yugoslav History, displaying over 200,000 items in its collection. All the old exhibits were shelved after Yugoslavia collapsed. This part of the complex was now used as a gallery to display local artwork. The area around the tomb did have exhibitions that were linked to Tito. The most interesting of which was a collection of batons. These were part of a relay that would take place each year leading up to May 25th, Tito’s birthday. The batons were carried on mountaintops, swum across lakes and handled by parachutists jumping out of planes, among other displays of undying devotion to Marshal Tito. Tito was treated with the utmost reverence. In retrospect, these accolades were well deserved. He was the single irreplaceable figure in Yugoslavia. It is no exaggeration to say that without him the country would collapse, because that is precisely what happened.

Statue of Marshal Tito outside the House of Flowers

Statue of Marshal Tito outside the House of Flowers (Credit: Ferran Cornellà)

Visiting the tomb meant I was paying respect to both Tito and the ideal embodiment of Yugoslavia. Here was the final resting place of the man whose persona reflected a nation. I actually found the setting a beautiful place to mourn. Tito’s wish was to be buried here. For a man who was at best a benevolent dictator, at worst an iron fisted demagogue, the House of Flowers gives his legacy a veneer of refinement. The tomb is set in polished marble with lush plants around three sides of it. The setting is peaceful and stately, worthy of an exalted head of state.

It was a worthy place to bury a deeply flawed, but great man. Only later did I discover that Tito is not actually buried in the tomb. His remains lie in a nearby flower garden. Thus visitors pay their respects at a tomb without Tito, to a nation that no longer exists. It is a fitting final commentary on a man who spent his life holding Yugoslavia together and whose death ultimately led to its dissolution.



Balkan Waters – Meeting Point: The Danube & Sava Rivers At Belgrade (Travels In Eastern Europe #35)

My main reason for traveling to Belgrade was to check it off on a list of Eastern European capitals that I wanted to visit. By going to the city I would be able to call myself a traveler rather than a tourist. Allow me to explain. Very few people visiting Eastern Europe go south of Budapest along the Danube. Conversely tens of thousands of tourists ply the river’s waters on exorbitantly expensive cruises through Germany, Austria, southern Slovakia and northern Hungary, but they go no further than Budapest. I have met an overwhelming majority of older Americans who arrive or depart on such cruises from Budapest. I have yet to meet a single American who was following the Danube into Serbia.

I will often ask these people if they have plans to travel further down the river into the Balkans by boat. The answer is always no. I suspect that they believe the Yugoslav Wars have continued unabated since the Cold War ended. I assume that for most of these tourists a boat ride to Belgrade is a risk not worth taking. The Danube might as well end at Budapest rather than the Black Sea. The reality is that the river continues onward, following a course that stimulates little interest among holidaying westerners. Budapest or even Bratislava sounds more appealing than Belgrade. These people have little idea what they are missing out on. For that matter so do I. I have never taken a boat ride on the Danube, but I have stood upon its banks in Belgrade, pondering its place in the city.

The Sava and Danube confluence at dusk

The Sava and Danube confluence at dusk (Credit: Wikipedia)

Two Great Rivers Converge – The View From Kalmegdan
All this comes to mind as I recall looking down upon the waterfront of the Serbian capital from the Belgrade Fortress at Kalmegdan Park. The river was deserted, its surface a glassy smoothness. A few boats were moored along the riverbank, but it was early spring, long before any tourist voyages would embark upon the Danube’s murky waters. The river was wide and full. And how could it not be? The Danube swallows its largest tributary by volume within sight from the heights of Kalmegdan. The Sava River is not considered one of the great rivers of Europe, but it should be. The Sava is a Balkan river through and through. It flows through the capitals of the three primary nations that the former Yugoslavia.

The Sava winds its way through Ljubljana in Slovenia, Zagreb in Croatia and finally debouches into the Danube at Belgrade. The city’s location at the confluence of the Sava with the Danube has ensured Belgrade’s importance in the region’s history. The saying that “geography is destiny” certainly seems apropos in this case, but what looks obvious to the historically minded is often obscured in the present. Only a handful of people come and go along either of these rivers today. I would guess that 99% of people traveling to Belgrade arrive by plane, car or as I did train. The Danube and Sava Rivers in Belgrade today have rendered lonely forces of nature by modern technology. They are crossed by bridge and hardly given a second thought.

Satellite view of the Sava and Danube confluence with Great War Island pinpointed

Satellite view of the Sava and Danube confluence with Great War Island pinpointed (Credit: Duja)

Wedding Of The Waters – Two Rivers Become One
Walking down by the rivers just below Kalmegdan Park was a strange experience. It was incredibly quiet. I felt like I was on the edge of a nature preserve rather than two forces of nature, the Danube and Sava, which wash the banks of this bustling city. Perhaps I had come to the wrong part of the river in Belgrade. My visit was certainly in the wrong season. Early spring was obviously a slow season for river traffic since there was none. It felt as though I had the both rivers all to myself. Only a few scattered stragglers walked close to the banks. I have read that tens of thousands flock to the waterfront during the summer, as opposed to the handful that I saw on my visit. On the opposite side of the Danube, trees lined the banks. No sign of development or humanity was within sight, though behind me stood a city of over a million people. The Danube’s width and breadth was intimidating. There was little doubt that it was swift and powerful. The river might be silent at the moment, but it had the ability to carry away anyone or anything that did not respect a deceptively forceful current. It was hard to imagine the Danube this way judged by its current state, a thick ribbon of dark water slowly surging under a leaden sky. The river seemed totally remote from its surroundings.

Soon I found myself standing opposite of where the Sava and Danube mingled. For both waterways to converge at this point was an incredible act of hydrological travel. By the time it arrives at Belgrade the Danube has traveled over 1,500 kilometers and the Sava nearly a thousand. The waters wed within sight of the aptly named Great War Island. For it was on this piece of land, that one attack after another had been launched against the city. Depending on what source you care to reference, Belgrade has been conquered anywhere from twenty to forty times. Each time it was destroyed and rebuilt in a style that favored its conqueror. Belgrade’s reconstruction was done by the hands of man, while Great War Island had been restored by nature. It looked less like a place to mount an attack on the city and more like somewhere to watch birds. Time and technology had made martial usage of the island obsolete. A staging ground for centuries worth of war, was now peaceful and serene. Contrast and paradox define the stretches of riverfront that can be seen from Kalmegdan Park

Confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers as seen from Kalmegdan Park during 2014 floods

Confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers as seen from Kalmegdan Park during 2014 floods (Credit: Wikipedia)

Rivers Run Wild – Back To Nature
A couple of years after I walked that sleepy waterfront, the Danube and Sava once again became their true selves. In May 2014 deluges further upstream led to massive flooding. One Serbian minister called the inundation of cities, towns and farmland the greatest natural disaster in the nation’s history. The flooding caused an estimated one and a half billion Euros worth of damage in Serbia. Belgrade escaped the worst of the flooding, but the rising waters came frighteningly close to causing a cataclysm. It was a reminder that the rivers were still wild and always will be. They could never really be tamed. I did not see such wildness in the rivers when I visited. The Danube and Sava in Belgrade were a study in serenity the day I walked along their banks, but I sensed that eventually these rivers have to run wild and return to a state of nature.

The Other Side Of An Invisible Barrier – Conversations In Belgrade: Rebellion, Recklessness & A Refugee (Travels In Eastern Europe #34)

The memories of Belgrade that remain with me have nothing to do with the places I visited in the Serbian capital. This is not because the city was unmemorable. Such sites as the confluence of the Sava with the Danube River, the tomb of Yugoslav strongman Josip Broz Tito, Kalmegdan Fortress and St. Sava’s Cathedral were all worth seeing. It was just that the people I met were that much more memorable. Some of them were Serbs, several were not. Belgrade for me became a collection of fascinating personal interactions that I have carried with me ever since that visit.

My personal interactions with Serbs began at a grocery store just down the street from my accommodation. While I was picking up some provisions for the coming days, I noticed that a man stocking the shelves was wearing a Green Bay Packers shirt. I asked him if he spoke English. He replied in the affirmative. This began a conversation about his love of American football, specifically the Packers. He discussed at length the Packers’ past season. Our meeting went on for some time as he helped me find some groceries. I knew American football had been gaining in popularity around the world and Serbia has a reputation as a sports mad place, but a fanatical fan of the National Football League in Belgrade was a surprise. The reach of American culture, including sports, is hard to fathom until it confronts you in the dairy section of a Serbian grocery shop.

The War At Home – Seething With Resistance
My next extended interaction with a Serb came at Kalmegdan Fortress. A gentleman who looked to be in his thirties was working at the ticket selling counter. His English was impeccable. We started out discussing modern history, which brought us to the subject of Serbia’s relatively recent wars. I asked his opinion on the breakup of Yugoslavia. He began to speak with great passion. Serbia had been misunderstood. The Serbs were trying to save the South Slavic peoples from much worse. They had been wrongly cast as the aggressor. What had happened to Serbia was nothing short of a tragedy. It was a great nation that was misunderstood and deserved better. I sensed a fervent streak of unforgiving nationalistic sentiment. Until I was shocked by what he had to say about Slobodan Milosevic, the leader of Serbia during the Yugoslav Wars, who was eventually put on trial for war crimes. I expected a full throated defense of this demagogic nationalist.

Instead when I asked him what he thought of Milosevic, the man launched into an extended commentary of how he spent years protesting the idiocy of this pseudo-dictator who had nearly ruined Serbia. He finished up by saying how sad it was that nationalists in the post-Milsoevic era carried out symbolically foolish actions such as vandalizing a McDonald’s to protest capitalism and foreign intervention in Serbian affairs. After we finished talking he became completely calm and polite. I had scratched just beneath the surface with this Serb and discovered a complex nationalism. There was ferocity, but it was more a symptom of frustration. This was the upshot of losing wars as well as constituent parts of the nation. Yugoslavia was gone, Montenegro was independent and Kosovo was well on its way to statehood. I had the feeling that Serbs, like the one who stood before me, would never accept this situation. Here was a nation that even after being brought to its knees, was still seething with resistance. I found this quality admirable and frightening in unequal measure.

Belgrade - city of protests

Belgrade – city of protests (Credit: Geologicharka )

A Constant Instability – Serbian States Of Mind
My final day in Belgrade I was not due to leave the city until the evening. I spent the afternoon hanging out with the owner of my accommodation. There was another employee on duty, a young college age woman. I first asked the owner what he remembered about the NATO Bombing of Belgrade in 1999. At the time he had been a teenager. “Me and my friends had a blast. We got drunk every night, partying like crazy.” He said nothing about damage to the city or the fear engendered by bombs and missiles descending on his hometown. Instead the bombing sounded like a lark, a reason to binge drink. Maybe this was a coping mechanism or just youthful delinquency. From my few conversations with Serbs I sensed a reckless exuberance, the kind of people who would give the world a middle finger while laughing in the face of fear. An exaggerated assumption on my part perhaps, but there’s was an attitude informed by rebellion.

Earlier in my visit to Belgrade I had walked up on a large crowd involved in a protest outside parliament. Several of the protestors began to shout at me, but not in fury. They seemed to be upset that I had not joined them. I mentioned this to my host who said “those protests happen all the time, but nothing will change. Those people are wasting their time.” That might have been true, but I had a feeling that Serbia was the kind of place always on edge, where instability was a constant. The instability that marked the 1990’s in Serbia was not an anonymous faceless force that had been resigned to the past. Its ramifications were widespread. I found myself face to face with these consequences while talking with a young Serbian woman who was watching the front desk at my accommodation. While making conversation I asked her if she was from Belgrade. No she was not. She had been born in an ethnic Serbian area of Croatia, but as a little girl was forced to flee the war along with her family. As she put it, “The area was no longer safe. We had to leave.” Her family had relatives in Belgrade. This had brought them to the city and they stayed. Going home was impossible even after the fighting ceased.

Nothing Else To Say – An Invisible Barrier
The woman telling me this could have been mistaken for an American college student. She looked and acted perfectly pleasant. It was hard to imagine that as a child she had been a refugee. I knew the stories of inter-ethnic violence during the Yugoslav Wars. Women, even very young women whether Serb, Croatian or Bosniak had been raped by the tens of thousands. Others had managed to escape just in time. This woman had escaped such horrors, but just the idea was horrific. Some things are best not left to the imagination. My conversation with her trailed off, there was an invisible barrier not to be crossed. The Yugoslav Wars were no longer the preserve of journalistic accounts or history books. They were a kind young woman working the front desk, who as a child had escaped death or possibly even worse. That was the legacy of the Yugoslav Wars, there was nothing else to say.

Second Impressions – The Old Versus the New Belgrade: A Stranger Kind Of Trust (Travels In Eastern Europe #33)

It was on the outskirts of Belgrade that I was suddenly struck by a bout of inescapable fear. This sudden fright coincided with the appearance of those looming communist monsters, the concrete apartment blocks that signaled Novi Belgrade (New Belgrade). These architectural atrocities were my first impression of the Serbian capital. Yugoslavia, under the dictatorship of Josip Broz Tito, had supposedly suffered under a much milder and more sensible form of communism than the Soviet Union. That may have been true, but the soulless, mass architecture of that system was the same as what I had already witnessed to a greater or lesser extent ringing the cityscapes of Sofia, Bucharest and Budapest. These high rises were the physical embodiment of a movement from fields to factories, as rural peasants were transformed into an urban proletariat.

Novi Belgarde - Tito's towers

Novi Belgarde – Tito’s towers

Central Planning & No Planning – On The Outskirts
The soul of this soullessness had been forged in the fires of heavy industry. Where the high rises stood was little more than a marshy backwater up until the mid-20th century. Then in 1947 the banks above the Sava River were transformed into a massive construction site, giving rise to what might be termed Tito’s towers. In 1949 the writer Lawrence Durrell, who was posted to Belgrade on a diplomatic assignment, had this to say: “As for Communism…a short visit here is enough to make one decide that Capitalism is worth fighting for. Black as it may be, with all its bloodstains, it is less gloomy and arid and hopeless than this inert and ghastly police state.” Hopeless was an appropriate term for what I felt upon sighting the towering beasts of Brutalism.

The population of Novi Belgrade soared along with the concrete towers, to the point where over 200,000 Serbs now call Novi Belgrade home, many rather would not. I found the sight of the apartment blocks frightening in the extreme, looking like some macabre Lego configuration shrouded in a shadowy grey. From first impressions, Belgrade looked like Bucharest on Stalinist steroids. Adding to my horror was the sight of a large Roma shanty town, that looked as flimsy as the looming towers were solid. Detritus was scattered everywhere, smoke rose from above several of the corrugated concoctions. Trash was strewn in all directions. A third world had sprung up in the shadows of a supposedly brave new world. Central planning and no planning side by side, the contrast could not have been greater. It was a hysterical expression of apocalyptic utopianism.  Belgrade was unlike any place I had ever seen and I was only on its outskirts. A feeling of intense foreboding came over me.

An air of ambition - Belgrade Main railway station

An air of ambition – Belgrade Main railway station (Credit: Dekanski)

An Air Of Ambition – Entering Old Belgrade
Fortunately the Belgrade Main railway station was a fiesta of optimism in comparison to what I had just experienced. The building was one of those late 19th century architectural confections that evoked ambition and an air of royalty. It was built at the same time that Serbia was trying to find its way as an independent nation.  The first passengers to embark on a train from the station were quite appropriately the King and Queen of Serbia. The station had also been a stop on the Orient Express. I felt something magical still lived in this station. I was now entering the older, more traditional Belgrade that had aspired to be accepted as a European capital rather than a Balkan outpost of the Ottomans. There was still a hint of the exotic in the Cyrillic lettering that covered signage. There was no mistaking that I was in the East, but still in Europe, if only the forgotten fringes.  All aesthetics aside the goal was to find my accommodation. The plan was to go there by foot.

From the looks of the taxi drivers loitering outside the station my decision was sound. They were a motley crew of men who looked like they smoked for a living. I ignored their offers of a ride which would have surely turned rapacious in a matter of minutes. I began to walk away from the station, towards the Old Town (Stari Grad). It was not long before I was questioning my self-made directions. The signage in Cyrillic sent me into further confusion. Darkness was slowly beginning to fall upon the city. It was time to ask for help. The only people nearby were a group of high school aged guys smoking and laughing. As a foreigner setting foot in Belgrade for the first time, my choice for help was not exactly a wise one, but I was tired. Plus I felt that strange, magnetic allure of a potential threat.

Into Old Belgrade

Into Old Belgrade (Credit: Wikipedia)

Beyond All Expectation – Everything Is Illuminated
Rather than being repulsed by danger, I was attracted to it. My irrational fear of Serbia was about to be tested. I approached these young Serbs with an exaggerated confidence, trying to project a strong image. I said “excuse me, do you speak English?” I then pointed at my hand drawn directions. These young men instantly stopped their chatter, at first they looked shocked. Then one of them composed himself and said, “Yes.” The rest of the guys looked more at their friend than me. They seemed to revere his confidence in talking to a foreigner. He soon had me pointed in the right direction. I thanked him and smiled at the group. They returned the pleasantry. As I was walking off, I could not help but notice how the guy who helped me was now being lauded by his friends. My first conversation with a Serb in Serbia had gone rather well and why should it not have? My fear of Serbia now seemed rather ridiculous. All it took to banish fear and prejudice was a single experience. Here was one of those priceless gifts of travel, suddenly Belgrade felt inviting.

It was not long before I arrived at the check in for my accommodation. The host, a Serbian man in his 20’s who spoke excellent English, informed me that my room was at an apartment a short walk from where we initially met. I wondered just exactly what the place would look like. There were not many reviews on the Hostel World website for this host when I booked the accommodation, but the few ratings given were top notch. I was nervous though, what if the place was a dive or I was being led into some clever ruse. Trust is essential when traveling in foreign lands, but suspicion is natural. I was always taught not to trust strangers, but this trip had forced me to do just that. There was no other choice but to hope for the best.

We entered a multi-story building through a darkened doorway, this led to a staircase. In a few moments we were at another door. The host turned a key and proceeded to open the door. In a matter of seconds I walked into an immaculate room. There was new furniture, shiny floors and a large flat screen television. My bedroom was spacious, while the bathroom looked fit for a Hilton not a hostel. This was beyond all my expectations. The Serb asked me if I needed anything else, I just smiled and said “this will do.”

Tomb Of The Known – Sirmium: The Roman Empire & Emperors Buried Beneath Serbia (Travels In Eastern Europe #32)

When I think of the Roman Empire my thoughts usually turn to the eternal city of Rome and the splendid ruins found there or the many sites scattered across southern France where the magnificent Pont De Gard aqueduct, arena in Arles and theater in Orange stand as testament to the splendor of Pax Romana. What does not come to mind are the Balkans and the area which is now part of the Serbian nation. That was until I stumbled upon some fascinating information while reading a guidebook on a train trip to Belgrade. This was how I first learned about the city of Sremska Mitrovica.

I read with interest about its prominence in late antiquity. At that time it was known as Sirmium. The city had been one of the pivot points on which the empire turned away from the west and towards the east, while playing a role in one of the seminal events in Roman history, the Crisis of the Third Century. This was a series of unceasing civil wars during a fifty year period beginning in 235 AD. The crisis irreparably weakened the empire. Among the many problems which beset the Roman world during this violent period were several emperors who came from Sirmium and its surroundings. The city bred a martial ethos that dominated the empire during the crisis.

Ruins of Imperial Palace in Sirmium - in Sremska Mitrovica

Ruins of Imperial Palace in Sirmium – in Sremska Mitrovica (Credit: mediaportal vojovodina)

A Very Bad Fate – Chaos Rules Rome
Less than an hour’s drive west of Belgrade, Sremska Mitrovica is located on the left bank of the Sava River. Its situation along the river has made it a prime spot for human habitation over the last seven thousand years. The apex of its development came in the centuries following its conquest and incorporation into Ancient Rome in 14 BC. Sirmium eventually grew to become one of the bigger cities in the empire, with an estimated population of 100,000. Military expeditions by such famous emperors as Trajan and Marcus Aurelius were outfitted from the city. Aurelius also kept a residence there. The city was conveniently located close to the imperial frontiers along the Danube, a region where the Romans were engaged in near constant warfare against barbarian tribes.

By the 3rd century AD, power in the empire was gravitating eastwards with Sirmium at the crossroads of this movement. No fewer than ten Roman emperors were born in the city over a 150 year period beginning in 210 AD. The first five of these emperor’s reigns were short lived, reflecting the perpetual state of crisis which brought and then banished them from power. They were all military men who knew violence intimately. The first of these five emperors was Decius Traian (249 – 251) who along with his son and co-emperor Herennius Etruscus (251) died in a swamp, killed by Goths at the Battle of Abrittus in what is now Bulgaria. Decius became the first, but certainly not the last Roman Emperor to die in combat. Then there was Quintillus (270), who would end up in Italy where he was killed after a few months on the throne.

Scale model of ancient Sirmium

Scale model of ancient Sirmium (Credit: mediaportal vojvodina)

Short Lived – Life & Death At The Top
Two emperors from Sirmium managed to escape a violent death, Hostilian (251) and Claudius II (251). Unfortunately they fell, as thousands of others did, to the Plague of Cyprian, a lethal epidemic that was most likely smallpox. There were also a couple of emperors who were not born in the city, but claimed the imperial throne while there in 260, Ingenuus and Regalianus. The former committed suicide by drowning himself after being defeated in battle, while the latter was murdered by the same people who had put him in power a few months earlier. This was an age of chaos and crisis. It seems that there was something about connections with Sirmium that brought tough soldier emperors to very bad fates. Finally in 284 the crisis ended and Sirmium was well situated to grow once again.

Though Sirmium continued to produce emperors, including Maximianus Herculius (285-310) and Constantius II (337 – 361), the empire had been fundamentally transformed by fifty years of crisis. The economy was in tatters, as trade routes had been irreparably altered. Personal freedom was sacrificed for collective security. The empire was in decline, but Sirmium weathered the changes better than most cities. Sirmium gained exalted status as one of four imperial capitals in the latter part of the third century, at other times the city was a provincial capital and capital of a praetorian prefecture. When the empire turned away from paganism and towards Christianity, the city became an episcopate. It was not until 441 when the Huns arrived that the city fell out of Roman control, yet Barbarian tribes such as the Gepidae made Sirmium the center of their world as well. Only when it was taken in the late 6th century by Avars was ancient Sirmium a thing of the past. Fortunately much of the Roman city was left intact.

The ancient and the modern - Sirmium and Sremska Mitrovica

The ancient and the modern – Sirmium and Sremska Mitrovica (Credit: Wikipedia)

The Great Unseen – Sremska Mitrovica’s Buried Treasures
Fourteen hundred years later much of Sirmium still exists, but cannot be seen. It has been submerged beneath modern day Sremska Mitrovica. It would be one of the world’s premier archeological sites if only what lies beneath the current city could be unearthed. With the exception of such tantalizing remnants as the Emperor’s Palace very little excavation has taken place. During the 1970’s an American team of archeologists proposed that Sremska Mitrovica be relocated to an entirely new area in order for a thorough excavation to take place. This did not sit well with the citizens or the government of Yugoslavia. The proposal went nowhere.  A large scale excavation of Sirmium has yet to take place.

While Roman history enthusiasts may salivate at the thought of an eventual excavation there is little chance of that. The site that most would love to see is a fully intact Roman Hippodrome, the only one left in the world. The problem is that it lies directly beneath the town center. Due to its size, there is no way of excavating the site without altering the existing town center.  Thus, one of the great treasures of antiquity is likely to stay hidden under the sleepy streets of Sremska Mitrovica.