Flights Of Freedom – The Bridge At Andau: Birdwatching & The Old Iron Curtain

The average person who lives to be 70 years old will take about 195 million steps in their lifetime, the equivalent of walking 99,000 miles. Some steps are much more important than others. A few steps can be the difference from a person living a life of freedom as opposed to one under tyranny. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the autumn of 1956 when historic steps were taken by Hungarian refugees to cross a small footbridge into Austria. What is known as the Bridge at Andau (German: Brücke von Andau Hungarian: Andaui-hid) was a bridge to freedom. Thousands fleeing oppression in the wake of the 1956 Hungarian uprising against Soviet rule used the bridge to escape westward. Rarely has such a small, remote place taken on such critical importance, acting as a passage from east to west for 70,000 people on the road to freedom. I traveled to the Austria-Hungary border this fall to visit the rebuilt bridge and try to grasp its historic significance. The bridge was not what I thought it was going to be.

The reconstructed Bridge At Andau

The reconstructed Bridge At Andau

Judging A Bridge By A Cover – Fleeing To The Free World
My iconic image of the Bridge at Andau comes from a painting on the cover of the paperback edition of James Michener’s bestselling nonfiction book of the same name.  It shows a sturdy bridge with multiple buttresses crossing a modest waterway. The first time I saw the book’s cover I thought the bridge must be in Spain, for some reason Andau sounded exotic and like Spanish to me. I thought the book was probably some type of historical romance. The bridge looked like the kind of place lovers might stroll across. It is said not to judge a book by its cover. I might add that one should not judge a bridge by an artistic rendition. The actual bridge looked nothing like the one portrayed on the book’s cover.  Likewise, the title is misleading. There is no bridge at Andau. I discovered this after driving into the village under a beautiful blue sky interspersed with scattered, floating clouds. Andau is the village nearest to the bridge. To access the bridge from Andau requires a drive of another nine kilometers down a narrow, paved road.

Wooden sculpture along The Road of Woes

Wooden sculpture along The Road of Woes

The road had twice as many cyclists as cars traveling on it. Beside the road, ninety sculptures made out of wood and iron acted as startling counterpoints to the serene natural environment of the area.  One of these involved two wooden sentry boxes standing on either side of the road, each of them housing a bare chested, emaciated man dressed only in shorts. Another was of a naked old man carved out of wood. His hands placed over his midsection, with his face contorted in an excessively sorrowful expression. These sculptures go on and on and on, interspersed every hundred meters or so. The combined effect was of a sort of open air museum of human suffering. During the Hungarian refugee crisis of 1956, this route was known as the Road of Hope. Because of the sculptures it has been given an added name, the Road of Woes, a stark reminder of the human toll that was paid by everyone fleeing to the free world.

The Bridge At Andau in 1945

The Bridge At Andau in 1945

Bridging A Historic Divide – Opening Borders
The sculptures were eerie companions that haunted every kilometer of the drive from Andau to the bridge. At times I wondered whether I was on the correct road or not. Finally a guard tower appeared in the near distance and then another, surely the bridge must be nearby. There was a small parking area adjacent to a very stout and well-built wooden bridge. It looked nothing like the scene portrayed on the cover of Michener’s book. From what I have been able to find through research, the present bridge looks nothing like the historic bridge, which was rickety and ramshackle. The current bridge was built to last, not for historical accuracy. I have been able to find only one photo of the original bridge from 1945, when much of it was in pieces at the end of the Second World War. The lack of pictures is not surprising. People running for their lives were not stopping to take pictures in 1956.

The bridge was there for one reason, to get over the narrow Einser Canal, a waterway that was not especially deep or swift, but a barrier that must be crossed. I walked across the bridge into Hungary and back across in a couple of minutes. It was that simple now to cross the border. 21st century Europe’s relatively open borders were the counter-reaction to a 20th century Europe where nations, regions and ideologies were closed off or compartmentalized from one another. The present ease of crossing borders was an historical anomaly. Just over a decade ago there was the usual border control. A political as well as a physical divide has been bridged. Unlike by the end of November 1956 when there was no bridge left here. The Soviets blew it to bits. The border was then closed until 1989. This serene natural area had once been a closely guarded segment of the Iron Curtain.

The Einser Canal - along the Austria-Hungary border

The Einser Canal – along the Austria-Hungary border

Natural Instincts – From Birder’s Paradise To A Human Yearning
Impregnable and dangerous for decades, the bridge was now nothing more than a small historic site, something of an afterthought, to the area’s main claim to fame as part of the cross border Neusiedler See-Seewinkel (Austria) – Ferto-Hansag National Park (Hungary), most notable for its wetlands and birds. An ornithologist from Scotland was on the bridge keenly watching with binoculars for some strange species of birdlife to suddenly appear. While telling me about the bridge’s Cold War history – including a mention of Michener’s book – he would suddenly spy a bird in the distance, shout the species name and study its flight path with prolonged interest. How ironic that just thirty years before men in guard towers were sitting with binoculars waiting to catch a person trying to cross this border. Now a birding enthusiast stood on the rebuilt bridge waiting for the next birds to take flight, a purely natural instinct, not unlike the instinct for freedom that drove so many Hungarians to cross the Bridge At Andau in 1956.

Losing The Blood Countess – Elizabeth Bathory, Me & Cachtice Castle: A Deadly Date Deferred

A couple of weeks ago I had an opportunity to detour from western Hungary and take a side trip to visit Cachtice Castle (Čachtický hrad – Slovak, Csejte vára – Magyar) in northwestern Slovakia. This was a chance I did not take. It was the second time in five years I have passed up the opportunity to visit Cachtice, the infamous castle where “the Blood Countess” Elizabeth Bathory may or may not have committed some of her worst atrocities. Bathory’s ranking as the most prolific female serial killer in history has been increasingly disputed as modern historians closely study the accusations brought against her. What is not in dispute, Bathory’s enduring infamy.

In Hungary, where due to nationalist sentiments the Countess’ reputation is usually given a more vigorous defense, legend still manages to outweigh reality. Case in point, at the restored Bathory castle in Nyirbator, Hungary the exhibits include a mock-up of the countess bathing in a tub of a young female victim’s blood, as she was said to have done in order to preserve her beautiful complexion.  If the place in which Bathory was born promotes her in this way than it is easy to imagine her dreadful reputation in other areas of Hungary or across the border in Slovakia.

Cachtice Castle as it looks today

Cachtice Castle as it looks today (Credit: LMih)

A Horrific Appeal, A Deadly Allure
The horrific appeal of the Elizabeth Bathory story has boosted tourism in off the beaten path places such as Nyirbator and Sarvar, Hungary, home to a fine castle where the Countess lived for many years with her husband Ferenc Nadasdy. One would think that Cachtice would be the sinister set piece at the bloody heart of Bathory fanaticism. Her crimes there were the stuff of legend. She reputedly carried out appalling acts of torture with every device imaginable on young, innocent women. While the ruined castle gets its fair share of visitors, more often than not Cachtice gets overlooked. It is on the way to nowhere in particular unless one is traveling along the western border region of Slovakia. The reason I once again decided to skip a journey to Cachtice is because it does not hold the same allure for me that it once did.

I traveled to Sarvar Castle a few years back hoping to experience some of the trepidation and fear that had drawn me to the stories of Bathory’s bloody exploits. The castle is in excellent condition, but there was nothing eerie or evocative of the Blood Countess. I did not find much mention of what may or may not have occurred there in the late 16th century. My most enduring memory of that visit was of a mother and father with their children playing together on the grassy grounds. From what I have discovered through research, Cachtice looks to be a much different and wilder experience. I still plan on traveling there in the coming years, not so much to revisit the scene of Elizabeth Bathory’s purported crimes, but instead to contemplate her last years spent in solitary confinement and the final surreal night of her life.

Reconstruction of Cachtice Castle

Reconstruction of Cachtice Castle

Convicted In The Court Of Royal Opinion
My imagined image of Castle Cachtice is of a Gothic house of horrors. A ferociously intimidating mountaintop stronghold with iron grey gates, towering bastions set amidst a supernatural scene, where earth shattering thunderstorms and massive bolts of deadly lightning strike its bastions on a nightly basis. Of course, my overactive imaginings have been unduly influenced by Dracula movies and Edgar Allen Poe stories. Historically, Cachtice did not look anything like that and the castle’s present state is one of a crumbling ruin. The peacefulness which permeates the site today is not altogether different from the final years that Elizabeth Bathory spent at Cachtice from 1611 to 1614 after she was convicted in the court of royal opinion.

The countess never stood trial. She was not given the opportunity to defend herself in a court of law to rebut the accusations against her. The powers that be at the time, including the Holy Roman Emperor Matthias and the Hungarian Palatine (equivalent to prime minster) Gyorgy Thurzo made sure it was that way. The Emperor owed a large debt to Lady Bathory. Many historians now believe that the Countess was setup. She was a wealthy, powerful single woman, one of the largest landowners in Hungary and a potential threat to the emperor’s rule. The Countess also had powerful Protestant relatives in eastern Hungary, who with her help could possibly have made an attempt to overthrow the Catholic Habsburgs. She had to be subdued. A tribunal in December 1611 sentenced Elizabeth Bathory to perpetual life imprisonment. Stonemasons arrived at Cachtice and walled the Countess up in a room. This is where she would live out the rest of her life.

Elizabeth Bathory

Elizabeth Bathory

Passing Into Infamy
The Countess’ final years were spent in solitary confinement. A few family members came to visit. She also spent time writing correspondence. Her only other outlet to the world was a small opening where a guard would pass food to her each day. It must have been a lonely, depressing existence. Just a few years earlier she held the power of life and death over her servants. Now her only servant was a guard watching over her imprisonment. She had once been the most powerful woman in Hungary. Now she inhabited a small, drafty space in a forlorn castle along the borderlands. Few people in Hungarian history have fallen so far from the heights of power in so short a time. Was the Countess haunted by her crimes, seething with anger over the accusations that had brought her down or deeply depressed at what her life had become? Her enemies, including Thurzo’s own wife, came to the castle and stole away with much of Bathory’s jewelry. No one would have dared to do such a thing when she ruled over Cachtice. Now she was helpless to stop such petty plunder. Her land, her riches, her freedom had all been taken away, but madness was still there to accompany her all the way to the grave.

On the final night of her life, Sunday August 21, 1634, the Countess called for her guard and complained about having poor circulation, specifically in her hands. The guard told her that she was fine. He instructed her to lie down. With a pillow under her legs, rather than her head, she began to sing aloud in a beautiful, melodic voice. Where once there had been screaming, there was now only a sweet melody. These were the last words anyone heard from Elizabeth Bathory, with that she passed into history and infamy.


The Kiss Of Death – Bela Kiss: Austro-Hungarian Soldier, Ladies Man & Serial Killer

Many a man who went off to the battlefields and trenches in World War I was never the same again. Some were radicalized, others brutalized and all had seared into their consciousness the ultra-violent nature of modern warfare. Those who survived the war came back home transformed, nothing about life was ever the same again. Coming into contact with such forces of violence altered their lives forever. Yet in one soldier’s extreme and exceptional case going off to war was an escape from home. The battlefront was the perfect place to hide from the dark deeds he had committed in the years leading up to the outbreak of war. It may have also given him a chance to use the war as an outlet for his violent tendencies. One thing is for certain, no army ever had to train the Hungarian soldier Bela Kiss on how to kill. He already had plenty of experience by the time he joined the Austro-Hungarian army.

Bela Kiss - Sketch of a deranged killer

Bela Kiss – Sketch of a deranged killer

Looks That Kill With Hands That Strangle
There is a picture, not quite a photo, but a detailed sketch of the man thought to be Bela Kiss. The picture portrays a man from his shoulders up. He is dressed in an army uniform and sports a soldier’s cap. On the left is the upper half of a rifle barrel, which he must be clutching in his right hand. He has a broad face, solid chin and a dark mustache, waxed to perfection, sharply pointed on both ends. This is a good looking man, except for one very disconcerting feature. The look in his eyes is deranged with a dark, piercing quality to his stare. An intense, fanatical amusement can be detected in his expression. This is the look of a man who kills for pleasure. The artist who put together this depiction may have infused it with what was already known about Kiss.

He was handsome, charming and suave, a ladies man through and through. These qualities must have been useful in helping him procure his first and only known wife. The marriage did not last, which seems a bit unlikely. After all, they had a stable income, from Kiss’ work as a prosperous tinsmith in the village of Czinkota close to Budapest. They rented a nice cottage in a quiet area, surrounded by neighbor’s who suspected nothing. Perhaps it was their age difference which made their marriage difficult, than again maybe it was his madness. Kiss was 15 years older than his wife. The young wife soon found a new love and then they disappeared together. Only later would they be found dead.

The bodies of Kiss’ wife and her lover were discovered in 1916, two years after Kiss went off to fight in the First World War. While he was away at the front a deadly secret Kiss had been hiding was discovered in a cache of metal barrels he had been using, ostensibly to store gasoline. At least that is what his landlord had been told a few years before. One day the landlord grew curious and decided to see for himself. When he made a small opening in one barrel, the landlord recoiled at the horrible odor which emanated forth. Soon the police were called. Barrel after barrel contained human remains, twenty-four bodies in all, only one of which was a male, the lover of Kiss’ wife. Each of the bodies had been pickled in wood alcohol. The women were naked with ropes still fastened around their necks. Puncture wounds were also found on the bodies which had been entirely drained of blood. No one would ever figure out what had been done with the blood.

Sinister Secrets Of Deadly Intent – Demented Pleasures
Twenty-three of the dead were females, other than his wife Kiss had lured love seeking women in search of a husband to his home. Before being murdered, the women had been talked into turning over any money or valuables to Kiss. He then strangled them to death. For over a decade prior to the war he had been storing one body after another in the barrels at the cottage. One can only speculate as to why he kept the bodies pickled. Perhaps Kiss gained some kind of demented pleasure by having his victims close to him. Or maybe he did not want to chance taking them off-site where they might be discovered. His cover-up worked long enough. When the war arrived Kiss disappeared into the maelstrom of the Eastern Front. All he left behind was the grisly remains and destroyed lives of the naïve women he had seduced with deadly intent.

The only person who might have shared Kiss’ sinister secret was a hired housekeeper who had spent years working for him. She pled ignorance to the police, but Kiss had left her money in his will. She could receive the compensation if he was killed in the war. Her main contribution to the resulting investigation was showing police a locked, secret room that Kiss had forbade her to enter. Inside the police found thick files with letters from 175 women who had responded to an advertisement for a “lonely widower seeking female companionship.” Those unfortunates who answered the call in person received a date with death.

Missing Person – In Search Of A Fatal Kiss
After the discovery, police in Budapest put out a call for Kiss to be arrested. He was thought either to be in a military hospital convalescing in Serbia or to have been killed in battle on the Eastern Front. When the authorities went to arrest him in Serbia they found another soldier’s dead body in the bed where Kiss was said to recovering. This was just the kind of ghoulish ruse that had all the hallmarks of Kiss. Not only had Kiss stolen away, but he also may have stolen the dead man’s identity. He would use this identity to evade law enforcement or so it was said. No one really one if Kiss was dead or alive.

Over the next decade and a half there were various reports from people claiming to have seen Kiss, including in Budapest. One of the more chilling post-war claims came from a French Foreign Legion soldier who told of a fellow legionnaire named “Hoffman” – an alias that had often been used by Kiss – who bragged about his skill strangling with a garrote. The last purported sighting of Kiss was just as improbable as his crimes. In 1932, a homicide detective in New York City swore that he had seen a man fitting the exact description of Kiss exiting the subway at Times Square. Unfortunately, the potential suspect was never apprehended. This was the last time anyone may or may not have seen Bela Kiss. He disappeared just like his victims. The only difference was that no one knew how, when or where he died.

A Rich Relative At The Discount Store – Austria vs. Hungary In The 21st Century

While staying at a small hotel in Gallbrunn, Lower Austria I decided to try the on-site restaurant. This was one of only two dining options in this somnolent, tidy village on a late Sunday afternoon. The waiter recommended a wiener schnitzel with parsley potatoes. The serving was sizable and the food was delicious. We struck up a conversation with the waiter who had a Hungarian accent. It turned out that he was from the nearby city of Gyor in western Hungary. Like so many Hungarians who grew up on the other side of the border, he had come to work in Austria. The wages were so good that not only could he afford a flat in Gallbrunn, but he had also managed to purchase a home for himself in Gyor.

I had spent quite a bit of time in Gyor a few years ago. I recalled its quaint old town and prosperity in comparison with other places in Hungary. It was obvious that Gyor had maximized its proximity to Austria. The waiter agreed that this was true, but mentioned the fact that wages were still much lower in Gyor than in Austria. He said it was difficult for people in Gyor to save money and get ahead financially. On the other hand, the waiter in this tiny Austrian village, a 40 minute drive from Vienna, had managed to earn and save a sizable income. It paid so well that he had now been working at the restaurant for twenty-two years. When I asked him what the main difference was between Austria and Hungary he replied with one word, “Money.”

Civil Flag of Austria-Hungary

Partners, Rivals & Neighbors – Civil Flag of Austria-Hungary

The Rich Relative – Austria As Seen By Hungary
Austria and Hungary will forever be linked by their long and contradictory history. For just over half a century – from 1867 to 1918 – they made up the Dual Monarchy, also known as the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This was the most glorious era of a relationship that had been terribly deeply conflicted at times. The Habsburg Austrians imposed their will on Hungary with varying degrees of success from the 16th through the 19th centuries. This sparked several rebellions, most notably the Hungarian Revolution of 1848-49. Even when the two were united in the Dual Monarchy, the relationship was fraught with disagreements. The only way this empire could really work was to give each entity a large degree of autonomy. Following the First World War, Austria and Hungary became independent nations.

After World War II, the great divergence of their economies began. By end of the 20th century relations between the two nations were excellent, but the economic disparities were wide. This was due to the fact that Hungary was on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, while Austria was neutral. The latter enjoyed western investment and capital, while Hungary was restricted by its communist government and membership in the Warsaw Pact. After the Iron Curtain fell, the Hungarian economy opened up, but it has never managed to attain anywhere near the prosperity of Austria. This difference in wealth has led Hungarians to look westward with envy at their former imperial partner.

Austria has come to symbolize the wealth and prosperity of the western world to Hungarians. A closer look at economic and quality of life statistics shows why. Austria’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per person ranks 13th in the world at $51,306. That is nearly four times higher than Hungary’s at $13,881. Behavioral economists have shown that people most often base their economic status in life by comparing it with their neighbors. In other words, how rich or poor one feels is all relative. It is little wonder that Hungarians look to the west and Austria for their optimal standard of living. Even though Hungary borders seven countries and has a higher average income than four of them, Hungarians hold up Austria as their economic ideal. I have never met a Hungarian who compared their economic situation with that of say Ukraine, where Hungary holds a four to one advantage in average income.

“The Discount Store” – Hungary As Seen By Austria
Austria is seen as one of those countries – much like Switzerland – that is a land of eternal prosperity. Being wealthy for Austrians does come at a price though, specifically a higher cost of living. Austria’s cost of living is the 13th highest in the world, higher than that of the United States, while Hungary’s is one of the lowest in the European Union. Austrians are fond of referring to Hungary as “the discount store.” Since Hungary uses its own currency, the forint, rather than the Euro. Thus, prices are even lower than usual due to the exchange rate. Such western Hungarian cities as Sopron, Szombathely and Mosonmagyarvar are flooded with Austrians crossing the border for cheaper goods and services. Case in point, Mosonmagyarvar has 350 dentists, offering cut rate dental care to Austrians. A recent Hungarian government survey found that 160,000 Austrians cross the border annually to get their teeth worked on.

The difference economically between the two countries has always been quite visible to me. The roads in Austria are better, the trains are shiny and sparkling, the houses are freshly painted in picture book villages. There is still a gritty feel to Hungary, a ”rough around the edges” aesthetic that can be seen in the rickety trains, the dusty villages where bicycles outnumber automobiles and the faded paint jobs with cracked siding on many a home. Hungary is more down at the heel, while Austria is a sublime fantasy. The latter can seem a bit eerie, almost too well ordered while Hungary looks as though it is still recovering from war. Economically it still is, from a very cold war that froze its economy in stasis for decades.

The EU – Good Work & They Get It
The European Union is trying to rectify the economic disparities between its members. This is made clear by the amount of EU structural funds Hungary gets compared to Austria.  Hungary has been allocated 25 billion Euros for 2014-2020 for a wide variety of economic, social and cultural development projects, while contributing 4.63 billion Euros. Conversely Austria has been allocated 4.92 billion Euros for that same period while contributing 5.73 billion Euros. In a sense Austria is helping keep “the discount store” open. While for Hungary, the EU – just like Austria – is good work and they get it.

Gaining Speed On Central Europe – Riding The Rails From Vienna To Budapest

I had been in Austria for all of an hour and was already looking to leave. I went to the Hauptbahnhof (Main Station) in Vienna looking to purchase tickets for the next train to Budapest. It was 10:15 a.m. I fully expected that within a few minutes I would be on a train moving across the frontiers of eastern Austria towards Hungary. I was wrong. It shocked me to discover that my departure would be delayed because the next train did not depart until 12:02 p.m. I found this highly irritating. Why was there not a train every hour between two of central Europe’s biggest and most important cities? Surely there was enough traffic to warrant such a schedule. After all, it had been tough just getting a seat reservation for the noon train. All I could now was to wait.

OBB Railjet train at Keleti (Eastern) Station in Budapest

OBB Railjet train at Keleti (Eastern) Station in Budapest – these trains carry passengers from Vienna to Budapest and back (Credit: Dezidor)

Laying Tracks – Transforming Travel In Austria & Hungary
Of course I was being self-centered. The main reason for my aggravation, this was the first of two trains I would be taking on my way to eastern Hungary. I had already been awake for 20 hours after three flights, including one that had crossed the Atlantic. The sooner I departed the better. It would only dawn on me later that the train journey between Vienna and Budapest at just two and a half hours was likely the fastest in this route’s history. The fact that I have made this journey several times over the past few years caused me to take it for granted. To view the time it takes to travel between the cities as excessively lengthy is myopic in the extreme. The longer perspective of history tells a much different story that made my journey much more fascinating.

Historically the land journey between the two cities was long and arduous. People in the early modern age – starting in the late 18th century – would have found it impossible to conceive that there would come a day when a person could travel roundtrip between the two cities in a single afternoon. Likewise, people today have no way of imagining what it must have been like to travel between Vienna and Budapest a couple hundred years ago. The revolution in transport has been so dramatic and successful in compressing distance and shrinking travel time that the old days of delay and danger have been completely forgotten.

Train traveling in lower Austria at the turn of the 20th century

The way it was – a train traveling in lower Austria at the turn of the 20th century

Prior to the industrial age in Hungary (first half of the 18th century) the country’s road system was poor. Any extended period of rain transformed the countryside into a bog ridden swamp with roads becoming little more than morasses. Wagon carts would become bogged down, sometimes able to travel only two miles (three kilometers) in a day. Road trips from Buda to Vienna and back could take, at best, over two days in a wagon cart, at worst, several weeks. Even the express mail carts took 30 hours. This may not sound too bad until one considers that travel conditions were less than ideal. There was always the constant threat robbery by highwaymen and exposure to the elements. The idea of comfort was anathema during this period. Lodgings were down at the heel or non-existent.

There was no concept of tourism, which still lay decades into the future. This was the state of travel between the two cities for the first nine hundred years of Hungarian history. All this changed with the arrival of steam locomotives and the railroad. Steam locomotive trains in Austria began running in 1838. Less than a decade later the first line opened in Hungary, traveling from Pest north to Vac during the summer of 1846. The first lines that would eventually extend from Vienna to Budapest were being laid by 1848. Following a period of disruption due to the Hungarian Revolution which started that same year, the two cities were finally connected by rail. This marks the onset of modernization, especially for Hungary through which must of the line ran.

Old watchtower from the Iron Curtain at Hegyeshalom on the Austria-Hungary border

Old watchtower from the Iron Curtain at Hegyeshalom on the Austria-Hungary border

Border Control – The Limits Of Progress
I rode an Austrian Federal Railways (Österreichische Bundesbahnen) train to Budapest. It was clean, efficient, punctual and much faster than the first trains to travel this same route a century and a half ago. When the line first opened it took a direct train about six hours to cover the route. By 1900 that had had fallen by a quarter to four and a half hours. The greatest advancements in decreasing travel time were made when Hungary started electrifying the railway line in the 1930’s. The decrease in travel time realized from this upgrade was slow to take full effect until the Iron Curtain fell in 1989. Before that waiting times while crossing the border could vary dramatically depending on the geopolitical situation and the whim of border officials on both sides.

Crossing the border from Austria into Hungary on this line was most noticeable to me because of two things. The train stops at Hegyeshalom, the first town on the line in Hungary when traveling eastbound. This is done so officials of Hungarian State Railways can board the train. They then proceed to recheck tickets once the train has started down the line again. Second, the level of prosperity in Hungary still noticeably lags behind that of Austria. The well-ordered Austrian villages with their freshly painted houses give way to rambling Magyar homes with faded facades and blocks of functionalist style, communist era flats.

Worth the journey - trains traveling from Vienna to Budapest arrive at Keleti (Eastern) Station

Worth the journey – trains traveling from Vienna to Budapest arrive at Keleti (Eastern) Station

Changing Times – Catching Up To The Present

The most memorable change for me between the countries became apparent when I saw the remains of the old border post station replete with a battered guard tower. This residue of past repression took up only a small part of a railroad siding, but across four decades it had cost travelers countless hours of time and some even their lives. Just thirty years before, a time when I was still in high school, this border post was still in operation, now I could cross the border with barely a thought. This was due to both political and technological transformations. Times had changed and so had travel times, this part of the world had now sped up or more to the point, caught up with the rest of Central Europe.

Traveling Across A Trampoline – Avoiding Death While Driving In Hungary

The main difference between driving in Hungary and the United States is quite simple. In the United States driving is for the most part pleasurable. In Hungary, driving is an intense, adrenaline fueled rush. This has everything to do with the drivers and little to do with the roads. After recently driving over five hundred kilometers on Hungarian roads I would say that they are about average in quality, though some would dispute this rating.

Close to perfect an M Highway in western Hungary

Close to perfect an M Highway in western Hungary (Credit: Pan Peter12)

Riding The Roads Of Hungary – Smooth, Serviceable & Nightmarish
The Motorway (M) (Autópálya) roads, which are equivalent to the interstate system of American roads are excellent in condition. This largely has to do with the fact that they are controlled access highways. Anyone driving on a Hungarian M road has to pay a toll in the form of purchasing a vignette. A ten day vignette costs 2,975 forints ($10.80 at the current exchange rate). The excellent quality of these roads speaks volumes about where that money goes, to their upkeep. Imagine smooth ribbons of pavement crisscrossing the country, this is the essence of the M roads. An added benefit to the driver of an automobile is that trucks must maintain a set speed and stay in the right hand lane at all times unless they are passing another truck. Additionally, trucks are not allowed on M roads on Sundays. Because of this, Sunday is an opportune time to travel by car.

One level down from the M roads are the primary main roads, known as E (Elsődrendő főút) roads. These see much more local traffic and vary in quality. They are major arterial roads that take a large majority of the traffic, primarily because there are no fees to use them. The E roads skirt the edges of major cities in many places. These roads are maintained relatively well. With the amount of traffic they carry, it is imperative that the E roads be in at least average condition. The other roads are the secondary main roads (Másodrendű főút)  and the local roads (Helyi út). These roads vary in quality from serviceable to nightmarish with potholes and busted pavement abounding. Driving on a local road can be like traveling across a trampoline at 50 miles per hour (80 kilometers per hour) due to the endless bounces and bumps. Everything from tractors to mopeds, BMWs and bicycles can be found using these roads. While the variety and quality of Hungarian roads was interesting, the drivers were another story. Some of them were flat out frightening.

The road less traveled - a rural highway in western Hungary

The road less traveled – a rural highway in western Hungary (Credit: Szabolcs Locsmandi)

A Road Turned Into A Speedway – Risking & Cheating Death
In the Culture Shock Hungary Guide, author Zsuzanna Ardo has this to say about driving habits in her homeland: “Hungarian drivers may come across as not particularly sensitive souls, often with a strikingly short fuse. The style of driving tends to be macho. Demonstrating courtesy towards fellow drivers and other road users is not very common; shouting, cursing and using threatening body language is.” While I did not experience much of the latter, the former was on display throughout. Macho driving is putting it kindly. Many Hungarian drivers seem to think that the main point of driving is to cheat death at every turn.

On more occasions than I could count, drivers attempted to pass the car in front of them no matter the risk. Numerous times cars zoomed up behind me, to the point where I feared getting rear ended while going 60 miles per hour. Then if they could not pass, their modus operandi was to stay right on my back bumper. The entire time they would be swerving to the left impatiently waiting for a split second opportunity to pass. It was not a question of if, but when. The only place they seemed to obey the posted speed limits was in villages, but as soon as they got beyond the village limits they accelerated, transforming a rural section of road into a speedway. Only on the M roads could I relax and enjoy the drive, but even this could be problematic.

Cautious and courageous - a bicyclist in a Hungarian village

Cautious and courageous – a bicyclist in a Hungarian village (Credit: Utracks)

Head On Hungarians – Passing On The Problem
When getting over to pass the numerous trucks that could not leave the right lane I had to check and double check to make sure that someone was not going 100 miles per hour (160 kph) in the fast lane. If I tried to ease over into the passing lane while this was happening, there was a risk of being sideswiped or rear ended. The worst experience occurred with frightening rapidity. This involved someone attempting to pass on a two lane highway with very little margin for error. Time and again I witnessed this fatalistic phenomenon. Head on collisions were narrowly avoided because the oncoming car hit the brakes just in time, in particular one death defying incident will likely stay with me forever.

After crossing the Danube River on a bridge in south central Hungary, I saw a Volkswagen sedan pulling a trailer filled with goods. The driver decided to pass a slower moving car. The problem was they only had about five seconds to attempt this pass. This put them squarely into the same lane as me, coming in the opposite direction. Suffice to say they had badly miscalculated and did not have enough time. A head on collision was only avoided because I had enough room on the right shoulder to get over and the car they were passing did the same on the left shoulder. The Volkswagen squeezed between us. The driver who had put everyone’s life in danger never flinched, proceeding on as if nothing had happened. The entire incident was over in a matter of seconds, but shocked me to the point that I expected it to happen again at any moment. The risk involved in such driving is breathtaking. Something in the Hungarian mentality drives these people, quite literally to put everyone’s lives on the line to save a few seconds of travel time.

Tamed By Two Wheels – The Bicyclists of Hungary
With skill and quite a bit of luck I managed to survive ten days of driving in Hungary. It provided me with a lesson in extremely defensive driving. It also gave me a healthy respect for the many bicyclists in the country. In some areas, bicycles outnumber cars by ten to one, but these are places that rarely have dedicated bicycle lanes. If driving is dangerous in Hungary, being on a bicycle takes risk to a whole new level. The strange thing is that the many Hungarian bicyclists I observed seem to have the exact opposite mentality of the Hungarian driver. They slowly and steadily pedal toward their destination. Perhaps they are saving their raw energy for the day when they can chance fate and get behind the wheel of a car. Then again, maybe they are being super cautious as the next car approaches.


Strangers, Friends & Enemies With Benefits – Crossing The Danube In Bulgaria (Travels In Eastern Europe #15)

My lasting impression of Ruse will always be the inquisitive, staring eyes of Bulgars. Their dark eyes and suspicious expressions followed me and my traveling companion Tim as we bought bus tickets for Bucharest. When we then proceeded to purchase food, the entire gathering of silent strangers followed us with intense stares. Their stares were not mean or harsh, but focused. They could not take their eyes off of us. It was obvious that we were foreigners, ethnically we looked the part. Tim, with his Asian features, was an obvious outsider. I was quite noticeable due to my red hair and fair skin, a rare trait in Bulgaria. Our every move was scrutinized by watchful pairs of eyes. We were guilty of being different.

The most disconcerting stare came from a middle aged man standing off to the side. Tall with broad shoulders, he could not hide his interest and not just in us. His eyes were fixated on our baggage. I half expected him to make an attempt at trying to steal them. After we got our food he slowly and deliberately approached us. I had my mind made up that he would either ask us for a cigarette or try a scam. Instead he pointed at our bags, than signaled towards a door. He was offering to keep our bags safe behind a locked door, which he would guard until our bus arrived. Strangely for such a suspicious acting character there was a mysterious charm about his behavior. Our intuition said to trust him and so we did. It turned out that he was a man you could trust, for a very small price.

Aerial view of the Danube Bridge (former Friendship Bridge) spanning the Danube River between Bulgaria and Romania

Aerial view of the Danube Bridge (former Friendship Bridge) spanning the Danube River between Bulgaria and Romania (Credit: Yavor Michev)

The Unknown Danube –  A City Called Ruse
Ruse is the largest city on the stretch of the Danube River that borders Bulgaria and the fifth largest in the entire country. That is notable, though it is hardly ever noticed. A host of spectacular cities are known for their placement on Europe’s most famous river. When the Danube comes to mind, thoughts of it are inseparable from Vienna and Budapest and to a lesser extent Bratislava and Belgrade, all capital cities which the mighty river flows through. With that kind of competition Ruse does not stand a chance. Nearly all tourist cruises of the river end at Budapest. The lower Danube that skirts Bulgaria and Romania scarcely exists in the popular conscious. That is a shame, but also an opportunity for more adventuresome travelers.

Unfortunately I did not have time to explore the Bulgarian portion of the Danube, let alone Ruse. I regret seeing nothing more of the city than its bus station. It would have been great for cocktail conversation to say that I toured one of the great cities on the Danube, Ruse. That will never happen since I cannot stand cocktails or the conversation that goes with them. Not to mention the fact that Ruse commands little to no interest, even among hardened travelers, except for the fact that it has a bridge over the Danube. For Bulgaria and neighboring Romania that makes it a very big deal.

Bridging a troubled relationship postage stamp from a 1948 stamp portraying the future bridge over the Danube River between Bulgaria and Romania

Bridging a troubled relationship postage stamp from a 1948 stamp portraying the future bridge over the Danube River between Bulgaria and Romania (Credit: Karen Horton)

Imperial Forces – Romans And Soviets Bridging The Danube
On July 5th, 328 AD the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great was present at Oescus (the same place exists today in Bulgaria) for the opening of what would be the longest bridge ever constructed in the empire. Known to history as Constantine’s Bridge, it was built largely of wood with abutments on each end acting as gates. The bridge spanned the Danube from Oescus to Sucidava (Corabia, Romania’s present location). Running over a mile in length, the bridge was in use for at least forty years. It would be over sixteen hundred years later before another bridge would span the lower reaches of the Danube. Neither Bulgaria nor Romania was capable of achieving such an engineering feat. This was due not to a lack of scientific knowledge, but instead political disagreements and territorial disputes that proved intractable.

These disputes were mainly over the region of Dobruja through which the lower Danube flows. Even after these were settled the two sides still could not agree on how or where to bridge the Danube. The solution came from of all places, the Soviet Union. Following the end of World War II with the imposition of hardline Communism a new force was brought to bear upon the situation. Under the guise of Communist solidarity and with the will of Stalin bearing down upon the parties, a bridge was constructed in just two and a half years. Opening in the summer of 1954, it was ironically named the Friendship Bridge. Former enemies were now forced into a friendship of convenience that benefited the strategic and economic needs of their Soviet overlords. Over a mile in length, the steel truss bridge has in more recent times become known as the Danube Bridge. Today it bisects an internal border of two European Union members. This bridge would be our corridor to Romania.

Friendship Bridge (now Danube Bridge) from Ruse, Bulgaria to Giurgiu, Romania

Friendship Bridge (now Danube Bridge) from Ruse, Bulgaria to Giurgiu, Romania (Credit Tiia Monto)

Crossing Over – From Many Centuries To A Few Minutes
Our crossing of the Danube was rather easy. The baggage guardian summoned us at the appointed time for our bus ride. The fee for his services was the equivalent of a couple of dollars. He led us not out into the main bus terminal, but through a back door and down a stairway. We were in for a pleasant surprise. There was no “bus” to be found. Instead we were part of a group of four taking a maxi taxi (a hybrid car/bus vehicle) to Bucharest. The vehicle looked almost new, it was a shiny Volkswagen that could have seated several more passengers. The driver was yet another suspicious looking person, who spoke no English and would stay almost completely silent throughout the ride to Bucharest. He was there to do his job without conversation or pleasantries. Crossing the Danube from Bulgaria had been extremely difficult for centuries on end, but now we crossed the bridge in a few minutes to Romanian border control. The Danube Bridge was hardly worth noting. It was nothing more than a large bridge, over a large river. It had taken so long, to build something so simple, a historical metaphor for the idea of progress in the Balkans. Nothing came easy in this region.

The World That Will Not Go Away – A Thousand Year Plan On A Bus Ride To Ruse (Travels In Eastern Europe #14)

The bus ride from Veliko Tarnovo to Ruse was the usual sleep inducing experience. I have no idea what it is about buses, but a person can be wide awake, fueled with adrenaline when they board and within a half hour they are reduced to a comatose state. The good part of bus travel is that it is for the most part a silent, contemplative experience. Passengers rarely raise their voices above a whisper. The downside is that even something as short as an hour long trip can seem like a marathon. Time inside a bus is suspended. There is an unreality to the sleepy silence that pervades the cabin. It as though everyone on board has lost all emotion. If you ever want to get forty adults to all be quiet at once, put them on a bus and start driving.

Waking The Dead – Surviving A Bulgarian Side Road
As the bus made its way through northern Bulgaria I fell in and out of sleep. My traveling companion Tim was in a separate row of seats.  Each of us had separately taken different sports, hoping to get a pair of seats to ourselves. This did not work as planned. We sat a third of the way from the front which soon filled up. I was beside a woman who was polite and preternaturally quiet. I had the window seat which turned out to be more curse than blessing. This trapped me for the length of the ride. Unable to stretch my legs I spent most of the ride trying not to brush my arm or leg against the lady. This made me ridiculously self-conscious, the pervasive silence added to my restrictive demeanor. At first, the landscape was one of barren hills covered with leafless trees. The transition from winter to spring had stalled. Winter chill, mixed with spring warmth had left the landscape half thawed. It had a depressing look to it, giving me a feeling of sustained mediocrity. As the bus traveled north, the landscape slowly opened up, fewer trees and more agricultural land. For the half of the bus ride there was really nothing of note. It was not until we pulled off the highway for a stop at a town that the ride took on air of excitement.

Up to this point the road had been relatively smooth, a little bumpy in spots, but serviceable. Then we exited the main highway. What happened next was a wake-up call of seismic proportions. The bus was thrown into upheaval as it encountered a roadway consisting of collapsed concrete and crater sized potholes. Somehow the bus stayed upright, but passengers sitting side by side were tossed into one another, bounced around and attempted to steady themselves. I was jolted wide awake. After an initial reaction of wonderment and horror I prepared myself for more aftershocks and tremors. Fortunately this only went on for about five minutes, yet it was bad enough that my back was lucky to survive the experience.

Survival instincts - A Bulgarian villager collecting branches

Survival instincts – A Bulgarian villager collecting branches

A Thousand Year Plan – Surviving Bulgaria
What came next was just as unsettling. The “town” we stopped in contained an abandoned factory that was an icon of dereliction. It looked like someone’s idea of a sick joke at the Communist Central Planning Committee. It was an unsightly mass that made junkyards look edenesque. The windows were shattered with loose wires protruding in all directions. Rust grew like moss on industrial detritus strewn all over the place. It looked like a person might get tetanus just by touching something inside the building. It was obvious that the factory had been placed in this rural netherworld as a sort of make work project. More to the point, it was a “Make Communism Work” project that had not worked in years. For some reason it reminded me of my elementary school, likely because of its elongated, rectangular shape and flat roof. This low rise nightmare of five year plans past was a fitting monument to the ossification and death of communism, both ridiculously optimistic about what the system could achieve and utterly depraved in its execution. Just looking at it made me want to start drinking again after over a decade of sobriety. I shuttered to think that anyone could live in the ramshackle town surrounding it, but people somehow did, but by the looks of things not very well.

After collecting a passenger the bus began to pick its way through the potholes back to the main highway. Then as if scripted, walking out of a copse of woods on the other side of a field, appeared a crowd of older men and women, the latter wearing headscarves. They were carrying large bundles of sticks in their hands and on their backs. This could have been any day in the last thousand years of Bulgarian history. Nothing had ever really changed in these rural hinterlands. It seemed that the more people and ideologies tried to change things, the more tradition became entrenched. They were integral to survival. These people carrying their bundles of sticks were acting out of an instinct for self-preservation. The system they relied upon was based on self-sufficiency and nature. It was the only one that had proven consistently reliable in the Bulgarian countryside. The system may have looked primitive, but it worked. This was because it was based purely on human instinct. Beliefs in the party or ideology had been proven worse than useless. They were destructive to human life and the environment, the antithesis of how Bulgarians had survived and would likely continue to survive for centuries.

Open Wounds – The Exhibition of Experience
The Bulgarian National Historical Museum in Sofia does not contain an exhibition hall for the communist era though it is housed in the communist dictator Todor Zhivkov’s former residence. This absence is best explained by the fact that most Bulgarians would probably like to forget those four decades of hardship and stagnation. The recent past strikes a raw nerve and is still an open wound that has not yet healed. This history is slowly dying every day. It lurks in downtrodden villages, towns and cities with gutted factories that are still experienced by those unlucky enough to be left behind in a world rusting all around them. Looking out the bus window into this morass, I was looking at a world that will not go away.

A Hostel Situation – The Way To Ruse & Romania (Travels In Eastern Europe #13)

Two men were quietly conversing among themselves while sitting in a kitchen at a hostel deep in the mountains of Bulgaria. All the while rain played a percussive rhythm on the rooftop. If this had occurred during the Cold War it might have been the opening to a spy thriller, but this was the 21st century, at a hostel where backpackers and freelance travelers hunkered down, exhausted from partying and pleasure seeking while plotting their next adventure.

Hostel Mostel in Veliko Tarnovo

Hostel Mostel in Veliko Tarnovo

Eavesdropping In Eastern Europe – Changing Plans, Making Friends
The two young men I overheard were speaking English and by their accent I could tell they were Americans. Their discussion concerned the easiest way to get from Veliko Tarnovo to Bucharest in order to see the infamous Palace of the Parliament, the piece de dictatorship of the Romanian communist ruler, Nicolae Ceausescu. I fixed a cup of coffee while eavesdropping. One of the men, with a tall, rangy build, dark hair and a thick New Yawkish accent was heading out the next morning on the first bus he could find to Ruse, Bulgaria, a city on the Danube that sat just across from the Romanian border.  There he planned to get a bus north to Bucharest. The other man, an Asian-American who looked to be just out of college had a friendly demeanor and was planning to stay an additional day in Veliko Tarnovo. The man leaving promised to send the other one travel information on buses headed from Ruse to Bucharest. After hearing this, I decided to introduce myself and was met with almost instantaneous friendship.

The New Yawker, was from the city, but now taught English in China. He had done a remarkable amount of travel in Eastern Europe. Every place that came up in our conversation, from Skopje to Sarajevo, elicited an affirmative response. He rattled off one anecdote after another. In Pristina, Kosovo a local had “rolled out the red carpet” for him, happy to finally meet an American. The Kosovar had an abiding affinity for Americans because they had saved him and his country from the wrath of Serbia. In Bosnia, he had been detained in a holding cell for a night because he had been caught with a bottle of prescription Xanax. His “arrest” was in an effort to elicit a bribe. He did not give in and so was let go the next morning. In Tirana, the capital of Albania, he had visited the Pyramid, a bizarre monument/cultural center built by Europe’s most insular communist regime. It was now a kitsch tourist attraction, quite a change from its former use as the “Enver Hoxha Museum”, a surreal honorarium to the super paranoid lunatic leader. And so the tales of travels near and bizarre went on. The other young man asked me if I wanted to check out Veliko Tarnovo with him the next day. I readily agreed. This led to a change in my trip plans for the better.

Palace of the Parliament In Bucharest, Romania

A Plan Changer- Palace of the Parliament In Bucharest, Romania (Credit: Marco Almbauer)

The Allure Of A Remarkable Monstrosity
Traveling alone is a wonderful way to see the world, but can lead to intense periods of loneliness. Put a person in a country where they do not know the language, alphabet or culture and they will eventually feel a need for the familiar. The anti-social self may begin to long for conversation and friendship. I experienced such a feeling after several days to myself in Bulgaria. When the chance presented itself for a few days traveling with a fellow American I jumped at the opportunity. This changed my trip itinerary. Instead of doubling back through Sofia and then transiting through Belgrade to Sarajevo, I would now be traveling to Bucharest and flying from there to Sarajevo.  This suited me for more than just social reasons. It was not just companionship that I sought, but also the chance to see the second largest building in the world, the Palace Of The Parliament, a remarkable monstrosity of Ceausescu’s abysmal rule, a monument to failed ideology and personal tyranny.

The young man I would be traveling with, Tim, was extremely interested in Eastern European history. Unlike me, he was too young to have experienced the fall of the Iron Curtain. This did not stop him from spending hours discussing the countries of the former Warsaw Pact and their recent Cold War history. He was on a three month trip around Europe before he settled down to start a career. He had spent considerable time – over a month of his trip – in the Balkans. Tim was now of the opinion that the Balkans were the most interesting part of Europe with their kaleidoscopic history of struggle, horror and contradiction.

I spent another day in Veliko Tarnovo with Tim dodging downpours while exploring the Old Town, then we set out on a chilly, but bright Monday morning for to our first destination Ruse. The New Yawker had sent word that maxi taxis (a cross between a small bus and a car) were easy to get in Ruse. We should have no problem crossing the Romanian border and find ourselves in Bucharest by late afternoon if all went well. Veliko Tarnovo had been a gem of a town to visit, with layers of history, a rich architectural legacy and an old town filled with quaint shops. Maybe this was why it was such a shock when we got to the bus depot. It was little more than a vacant lot covered with busted pavement. Buses entered and exited haphazardly, people wandered about aimlessly. There was hardly any organization. Instead groups of people stood loitering in small crowds. The place looked dangerous, but was actually benign. It would be an especially good place to get bit by a stray dog. I suddenly felt like it was the 1980s in Bulgaria all over again.

Veliko Tarnovo - One last look

Veliko Tarnovo – One last look (Credit: Nikola Gruev)

Bulgaria Shrugs Its Shoulders – A Changing Of Time
The bus finally did arrive, just not on time. I began to understand that time had a very different meaning in the Balkans. It was elastic, a guideline rather than a rule of thumb, something useful, but that could also be ignored. My experience was that nothing quite ran on time in Bulgaria and no one was really bothered by it, just as they were not bothered by the condition of the bus terminal. I imagined Bulgarians as a nation of people who collectively shrug their shoulders at the state of their nation. The bus terminal was just another unsightly mess, in a Bulgarian landscape that was filled with them.

Where I Will Always Live Forever – The Church of St. Demetrius of Thessaloniki In Veliko Tarnovo (Travels In Eastern Europe #12)

There is a certain place that has stayed with me for years after visiting, a place that still speaks to me across space and time, a place that I was drawn to at first sight and will stay in my heart forever. This place is the Church of St. Demetrius of Thessaloniki in Veliko Tarnovo. A reconstruction of the famed Bulgarian Orthodox church – where the uprising of Asen and Peter was proclaimed against the Byzantine Empire and which led directly to the creation of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom – that sits beside the dark tranquil waters of the Yantra River. I felt a magnetic attraction to this brick and stone structure due to a combination of its presence, beauty and natural setting. This attraction gripped me well before I knew or understood its historical significance. Set below the walls of Tsarevets citadel, the church can be easily overlooked, but it caught my eye and possessed my imagination, just as it has for Bulgarians over the past 800 years.

The Church of St. Demetrius of Thessaloniki in Velika Tarnovo

The Church of St. Demetrius of Thessaloniki in Velika Tarnovo (Credit: Klearchos Kapoutsis)

A Reconstruction Of Radiance – Architectural Transcendence In Tarnovo
Reconstructions are usually something I try to avoid, being a history purist at heart I long to see an original building, not a pale imitation. The cliché that “there is no substitute for the real thing” usually applies, but the Church of St. Demetrius in its present form changed my view on this. Without a reconstruction the church would not exist except for a pile of stony ruins. That is because the original building was destroyed within a century of its construction. This was due to an earthquake in the latter half of the 13th century. Over a half century later a replacement was built. This would stand for half a millennium as part of a larger monastery complex, the church occupying only its southeastern corner. By the 19th century, the church had fallen into disrepair due to years of plunder by thieves. Then in 1913 a second earthquake destroyed the latest version of what remained of the church. This left only a couple layers of medieval frescoes and an apse (a semicircular niche). These scant ruins were the only thing to work with as an eight year reconstruction project took place in anticipation of the 800th anniversary of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom in 1985. This effort yielded what stood before me that murky March afternoon when I approached it. A scene of swirling clouds threatening rain with the church in effervescent glow, an unforgettable illumination set against a stormy backdrop.

How was it that a single piece of architecture could exert such a magnetic pull on me? It was not as though I had any compelling interest in Orthodoxy, medieval Bulgarian history or Balkan sacral structures. For me there was a bright radiance about the church, perhaps it was the color of the stone and brick work contrasted with a dark and foreboding mountain landscape. I imagined that the church was forever in bloom. The decorative ornamentation covering much of its exterior added a touch of Byzantine inspired exoticism. Blind arches gave it a pleasing symmetry, while the multi-colored brick work added a sense of style. The church looked strong, solid and dignified, like it had been built to last the ages. This was quite the effect since the structure I saw was only twenty-five years old. A wave of emotion poured over me. This was all the more impressive since the church was closed and I never could step inside.

St. Demetrius of Thessaloniki depicted in a 12th century mosaic

St. Demetrius of Thessaloniki depicted in a 12th century mosaic

Mystique, Mystery & Miracles – Saint Demetrius Of Thessaloniki
Being unable to enter only added to the church’s mystique for me. I wanted to know what lay behind those stone walls, to go deeper and penetrate all the layers of history and spirituality cloistered within the church. There was no way that I could gain access, but that would not stop me from learning more about it, specifically the life of the saint whose name it was given. Saint Demetrius was once a real flesh and blood human being. That fact seems obvious, but once a person achieves sainthood – even to non-believers – they become almost supernatural. Who was this man that had this church deep in the heart of Bulgaria named for him? Demetrius was not from Bulgaria, such a place or people in the Balkans did not exist during his lifetime. He was a Christian from the city of Thessaloniki who was murdered when run through with spears during the Roman persecutions in 306 AD. A century and a half later his veneration as a saint began in the same city where he had been murdered. Ironically he was credited with several miracles that later saved Thessaloniki from Slavic invaders, the ethnic kin of Bulgarians.

Written accounts of Demetrius life did not appear until five hundred years after his death, nevertheless he became one of the most venerated saints in the Orthodox world. His connection to the church at Tarnovo was vague in the extreme, basically in name only. This did not stop Demetrius from becoming the namesake for one of Bulgaria’s most important churches. Perhaps that is because he could be whatever the Bulgarians needed him to be, a performer of miracles, a saint who answered the call of their prayers, a figure who brought them strength and courage when they needed it most. An abstraction firing a faith that burned down through the centuries and right up to the present. The relevance they found in him then and now was perhaps the greatest miracle of all.

An Open Door To The Power Of Art - The Church of St Demetrius of Thessaloniki

An Open Door To The Power Of Art – The Church of St Demetrius of Thessaloniki (Credit: Klearchos Kapoutsisiki)

A Saint Made Out Of Stone – The Power Of Art
In much the same way, the Church of St. Demetrius of Thessaloniki became my saint. One created not from flesh, blood or abstraction, but created instead from brick and stone. The church was a miracle that brought a power and presence to me beyond myself. It made me believe, in what I was not quite sure, but I believed all the same. This attraction was mysterious and incomprehensible, an emotional allure that transcended all logic and reason. I felt a sense of strength from the moment I first saw the church. Standing outside those reconstructed medieval walls, studying the details of its design, there was a connection for me that transcended past and present. It went beyond history, beyond reality, to a place where time evaporated. It was art in the purist sense, a place where I will always live forever.