An Accident of History – Prague: Jan Masaryk & The Fourth Defenestration (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #38a)

While visiting Prague I was able to take advantage of the free tours led by guides who provide an intriguing introduction to the city’s history and culture free of charge. Participants can give tips at the end of a tour if they feel the experience was worth it. In my experience, the tours were always worth it. The guides were engaging, sometimes humorous, and always personable. Prague has such a wealth of history that several area specific free tours were on offer. I was able to take tours of both the Old Town and the Castle District (Hradcany) on separate days. Among the highlights of the Old Town tour was the guide. Teo was a young man from the Netherlands who had moved to Prague to be with his Czech girlfriend. She was the love of his life. Giving tours must have been a close second for Teo. He was an excellent guide due to his gregariously animated nature. He came to life while telling stories. He knew his facts, but the delivery set Teo apart. It was done with such charisma that I began to wish that there were Teos in every Eastern European city.

Fall from grace – Czernin Palace (Credit: Michal Kminek)

Throwing Down – Going Out The Window
Teo knew how to drive home a historical point with a telling anecdote. This was never truer than when he told our group about the three famous defenestrations that occurred in Prague. He recounted these stories with unforgettable zest while standing in Charles Square at the heart of the Old Town (Stare Mesto) near where the victims crash landed. He used the English slang term, “chuck”, when referring to the defenestration of seven city councilors being thrown (“chucked”) out the window of the Town Hall in 1419 by a mob of Czech Hussites, inaugurating one of the great religious rebellions in European history. In 1483, the same thing happened again in a rebellion against the ruling authorities. On both occasions, Prague’s burgomeister (mayor) fell victim to mob violence.

The third defenestration was the most famous and well known of these “accidents” of history. It happened when an angry group of Bohemian aristocrats became incensed at the Catholic ruling authorities for halting the construction of Protestant churches. They proceeded to storm the City Hall and toss Catholic officials out the window. Miraculously, all three of the victims managed to survive the 21 meter fall, but the uneasy peace between Protestants and Catholics did not. The incident was the spark that lit the powder keg which exploded into the Thirty Years’ War, one of the worst conflicts in European history. This incident was reenacted with zest by Teo. His animated body language included acting like he was tossing the victims out the window by himself. This led to many chuckles from the tour group.  His telling of the defenestrations was so memorable that I have never forgotten them.

Crash course – Town Hall tower in Prague where defenestrations occurred (Credit: Oyvind Holmstad)

When I showed up to go on a tour of the Castle District several days later, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Teo would once again be leading our group. Despite bone chilling cold, grim skies, and an icy wind, Teo was in fine form as he took our group on a multi-hour tour of the district. This time we heard many memorable stories, but nothing else about the defenestrations. That was not surprising since the first three occurred in the Old Town. Only later did I learn about what some have termed the fourth defenestration of Prague. It occurred in the Castle District on an early morning in 1948. There was only one victim, but that man represented one of the last bastions of democracy and integrity. He was all that stood in the way of a communist takeover of the Czechoslovak government. Perhaps Teo did not tell us about the so called Fourth Defenestration because the history was rather recent. Even today, there are still questions about who killed Jan Masaryk, the son of Czechoslovakia’s founder, Tomas Masaryk. Jan was the post-World War II Foreign Minister when he was literally toppled from power. His death is still an open wound in Czech history.

The founders son – Jan Masyrk (Credit: Bain News Services)

The Czernin Palace – A Fall From Grace
The free tour of the Castle District took us from one splendid structure to the next. All the architectural eye candy was a sight to soothe the eyes. With so much to see, we were bound to miss some impressive places. Perhaps that is why we did not make our way over to the Czernin Palace. This Baroque confection is the longest palace in Prague, measuring 150 meters in length across both its front and back. The palace has been home to the Foreign Ministry since the 1930’s. It also acted as the residence of the infamous Reinhard Heydrich, who was the Reichsprotector of Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia during World War II. Heydrich would end up getting assassinated by the Czechs. Fortunately, Jan Masaryk was not in Czechoslovakia during the Nazi occupation of his homeland. If he had been, there is little doubt that the Nazis would have had him arrested and likely worse. Instead, Masaryk spent the war in Great Britain where he did radio broadcasts that were transmitted to his occupied homeland. When the war ended, Masaryk retained the foreign ministry post he had held before the Nazi occupation. He held the position as part of the postwar National Front government.

Masaryk was an outlier in a government dominated by communists. Masaryk’s support for the Marshall Plan where the United States would provide financial assistance to rebuild Europe put him in the crosshairs of the communist government. The communists were working hard to marginalize anyone who disagreed with hardline Stalinism. To them, Masaryk was a dangerous man, especially since the son of Czechoslovakia’s founder was respected throughout the country. The communists needed him out of the way if they were going to impose communism on the country. Because of Masaryk’s lineage, dispensing with him would be difficult, but not impossible. Masaryk was too ardent an advocate for an independent and free Czechoslovakia, he was not going to go quietly if he went at all. The situation between Masaryk and the communist government was tense and adversarial. Soon it would be much worse.

“She Belonged To The All-Time Greats” – Zsuzsa Kormoczy: The Improbable Champion (Part Two)

On my bookshelf I have a wonderful volume called Eminent Hungarians. In it the author, Krisztian Nyary, tells the stories of Hungarians from all walks of life who became heroes through extraordinary acts of courage and perseverance. A few of these eminent personages were from the sporting world and several were Jewish. As I began to research the exploits of the Hungarian Jewish tennis star Zsuzsa Kormoczy I would not have been surprised to find a chapter dedicated to her in Nyary’s book. Her story was not included in the book, but it would have been a worthwhile addition. Kormoczy came from a tiny rural village in a relatively impoverished part of the country. She was a Hungarian Jew who managed to survive a time when they were being murdered on an industrial scale.

This petit woman, who would come to be known as “Suzy K”, excelled in a bourgeoisie sport despite playing under the watchful eyes of a Stalinist regime that considered anything formerly associated with the upper classes tantamount to treason. Kormoczy first learned to survive, and later to thrive at an advanced age, achieving tennis stardom. She did all this despite the adversity life had presented to her. Another school of thought might say her accomplishments were a product of the will and determination she had developed in overcoming numerous obstacles. After years spent overcoming discrimination, ideological conformity and injuries she found herself in the spring of 1958 on the cusp of greatness. The crowning achievement of a career which had been shadowed by so much darkness came in the City of Light, Paris.

Zsuzsa Kormoczy - In action

Zsuzsa Kormoczy – In action

Courting Greatness – A New Level Of Focus & Fitness
Coming into the 1958 French Open, Zsuzsa Kormoczy’s play was nearing its peak. She had already won two clay court tournaments along the French Rivera earlier in the spring. Now Kormoczy turned her attention to the game’s only Grand Slam event played on her favorite surface, red clay. Her past results at the French were promising. The year before she had been unlucky in having to face top seeded Brit Shirley Bloomer in the quarterfinals. Kormoczy was blown off the court, first by high wind gusts and then by Bloomer, managing to only win two games. She hoped 1958 would be different. Her preparation, specifically with fitness, was much more extensive than in the past. Kormoczy’s coach, Joszef Somogyi, worked her into prime shape with a training regime focused on running and gymnastics. Her fitness level would be crucial to success.

She breezed through the early rounds without any problems. Her first tough match came against Ann Haydon of Great Britain in the quarterfinals. Kormoczy was sick with a cold while the left handed Haydon’s game made her suffering worse. The Brit’s game was unorthodox, a contradictory combination of looping, topspin forehands and sliced backhands. Kormoczy came from 0 -2 down to win six of the next seven games and the set. She quickly fell behind in the second set 1-4. Her strategy of throwing Haydon’s rhythm off by drawing her into the net led to a quick turnaround. Kormoczy swept the final five games to take the match 6-3, 6-4. Her semifinal match against South African Heather Segal looked like it would be a grind after it took Kormaczy ten minutes just to win the first game. This turned out to be an aberration as Kormoczy surrendered only one game the entire match, easily moving onto her first Grand Slam Final where she was to play Bloomer, the woman who had blown her out the year before.

Zsuzsa Kormoczy - 1958 French Open

Zsuzsa Kormoczy – 1958 French Open Champion

Peak Performance – Springtime In Paris
Kormoczy may have been the underdog in the final, but she had one major advantage. In advancing to the title match she had yet to surrender a set. On the other hand, Bloomer had come from a set down three consecutive times just to make the final. She had to be suffering from fatigue after this trio of close calls. Once again Bloomer fell behind as Kormoczy took the opening set 6-4. Oddly enough, in the second set Kormoczy was the one feeling fatigue. As she related many years later in her autobiography, it may have been due to tiredness from nerves. Instead of expending what energy she had left in a likely losing battle in the second set, Kormoczy changed her tactics. She would cede the second set to Bloomer, but at the same time run her as much as possible in the hopes of tiring her out. The tactic worked as Kormoczy won the first five games of the deciding set. Bloomer fought back to 5-2.

In the next game, Kormoczy raced to a 40-15 lead and on her second match point she forced a long return from Bloomer. Game, set, match and French Open Championship to Zsuzsa Kormoczy. After playing international tennis on and off for two decades while surviving periodic bouts of tumult and terror she finally had reached the pinnacle of women’s tennis. At the time of her title, she was 33 years and 8 months old, making her the oldest French Open Women’s Singles Champion up to that point in history. This is a record that she still holds today. Kormoczy was a well deserving if highly improbable titlist. Self-belief carried her through all the ups and downs of a career that mirrored her life, periods of tumult followed by brilliance. In the process she became the only Hungarian female to win a Grand Slam singles title. A feat that has never been matched.

One of the All Time Greats - Zsuzsa Kormoczy

One of the All Time Greats – Zsuzsa Kormoczy

New Beginnings – Always A Champion
The 1958 French Open was not the end of Kormoczy’s career, but yet another beginning. Later in the summer she would advance to the semifinals at Wimbledon. The next year she once again advanced to the French final. She fell short in her quest for back to back titles, but went onto play several more years at the highest level, adding another title at Monte Carlo and also winning the prestigious Italian Championship. After retiring, she became a coach at Vasas, the same club where the Hungarian men’s great Balazs Taroczy played. She also led the Hungarian National Tennis Association. Kormoczy lived to the age of 84, a beloved and revered figure off the court just as much as she had been on it. After she died, Andrea Temesvari, Hungary’s second greatest female player of all time paid Kormoczy the ultimate compliment, saying “She belonged to the all-time greats.”

The Power of Perseverance – Zsuzsa Kormoczy: Hungary’s Greatest Female Tennis Player (Part One)

Many of my early memories of Eastern Europe came from watching international sporting events. Foremost among these were men’s and women’s professional tennis tournaments. The women’s events were just as interesting to me as the men’s. This was mainly due to the rivalry between the American baseliner Chris Evert and the Czechoslovakian serve and volley specialist Martina Navratilova. Navratilova usually won these highly competitive matches. She was the greatest women’s player of her time and one of the all-time greats by any standard. Due to her and Ivan Lendl I became familiar with the difficult to pronounce nation of Czechoslovakia. Both Navratilova and Lendl soared to the number one ranking and eventually became American citizens. Less well known, but no less interesting to me were the best Hungarian players of that time, Balazs Taroczy and Andrea Temesvari.

The latter was a Magyar beauty whose looks garnered her as much attention as her game. I can still recall photos of Temesvari in tennis magazines that focused on her blonde bombshell looks. Temesvari’s game never quite rose to the level of the hype around her. From an all-time high ranking of #7 in 1982, her career went through a series of fits and starts due to injury problems. In 1986 she teamed with Navratilova to win her only Grand Slam title, the French Open Doubles Championship. This was not the first time a Hungarian woman had won a title at the French Open. Forgotten by almost everyone was the first and only Hungarian woman to win a Grand Slam single’s title, Zsuzsa Kormoczy otherwise affectionately known to her family, friends and fans “Suzy K”. A Hungarian Jewish woman who managed to survive the Holocaust and triumph in the 1958 French Open.

Zsuzsa Kormoczy - Hungary's Greatest Female Tennis Player

Zsuzsa Kormoczy – Hungary’s Greatest Female Tennis Player (Credit: MTI Fotó József Szécsényi)

Delayed Development – War Changes Everything
Zsuzsa Kormoczy was born in the tiny village of Pely located within the flood plain of the Tisza River. Ethnically Jewish, she came of age during the interwar period when Hungarian Jews were facing unprecedented discrimination. This did not stop her from developing into a world class tennis player. At the tender age of twelve she won the Hungarian Junior Championships. She announced her arrival in top class tennis by winning the 1940 Budapest International Tennis Tournament. She had to overcome a bad fall in the final which left blood pouring from a cut on her knee. Down 1-6, 1-4 she rallied to win the title on her 16th birthday. Slight in stature, Kormoczy relied on strong groundstrokes. She was at her best on red clay, the dominant surface in continental Europe. What should have been the prime years of her career were interrupted by the looming threat of world war. An ominous foreboding of what was to come occurred in September 1940. After leading Hungary over Yugoslavia in the Mid-European Cup, Kormoczy was not allowed to play in the final against Germany due to her Jewish ethnicity. Her career prospects looked bleak as the war spread throughout much of Central and Eastern Europe.

Kormoczy’s development was delayed, as was that of so many others, by World War II. For five and a half years she would not play in any international tournaments. Unlike other top women’s players, Kormoczy’s life was also under threat during this time. Hungarian Jews from provincial areas were rounded up and deported to death camps in 1944. Luckily for Kormoczy her tennis skills meant she had moved far away from her home village of Pely on the Hungarian Great Plain. If she had not, more than likely the woman who would become Hungary’s greatest female tennis player would have perished at Auschwitz like hundreds of thousands of other Hungarian Jews. She was able to keep up with her physical training while in seclusion. In 1945 she came out of hiding and with the help of her coach constructed a tennis court on which to practice. The next year she played her first international tournament in over half a decade.

Greater Things To Come– Tribulations & Titles
In 1947 Kormoczy finally made her debut at a Grand Slam tournament, advancing to the quarterfinals at the French Open. This was a preview of greater things to come on the red clay at Roland Garros. In those days, Eastern Europeans such as Kormoczy only had two opportunities per year to win a Grand Slam title – at the French Open and Wimbledon – since overseas travel was extremely limited for Hungarians (she only played the U.S. Open once in her career). Kormoczy’s play in Europe was also interrupted by the imposition of travel restrictions by the Stalinist Rakosi regime that ruled Hungary with an iron fist during the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. She did not play at Roland Garros from 1949 through 1954. By this time, Kormoczy was thirty years old, a mother and had lost nearly a decade of her career to war and imposition of the Iron Curtain.

At one point during the 1950’s the Hungarian press, a mouthpiece for government propaganda, accused Kormoczy of only enjoying tennis when she played abroad. She also battled various injuries during this time. Throughout her career she suffered from chronic issues with kidney stones that would sideline her at inopportune times. Despite these tribulations she continued to persevere. Kormoczy’s resilience was nothing short of incredible and would finally pay dividends in 1958, the greatest year of tennis by a Hungarian woman in the sport’s history. Kormoczy won her first international tournament of that year in France along the Cote D’Azur. She was soon heading further east along the Mediterranean coastline to one of the most prestigious tournaments in tennis, Monte Carlo.

Coming Of Age – Right On Time
Kormoczy had already won twice at Monte Carlo, in 1948 and 1952. The 1958 women’s field was one of the toughest in the event’s history. Even a clay court player as accomplished as Kormoczy could only procure a #8 seed. In the quarterfinals she faced off against another two-time champion, the American Dottie Knode. Despite suffering the aftereffects of a toothache, Kormoczy prevailed in straight sets. In the final she downed another American, Mimi Arnold to become the first three-time women’s champion in the event’s history. Her next event would be the French Open. Historically this was the Grand Slam event where Kormoczy played her best. Two years earlier she had advanced to the semifinals. Now she was entering the French Open in top form and could be considered one of the favorites. One thing working against her was age. Kormoczy was 33 years old and no woman had ever won a title at the French anywhere close to her age. She was about to become the first.

Click here for: “She Belonged To The All-Time Greats” – Zsuzsa Kormoczy: The Improbable Champion (Part Two)

A Hole In The Heart of Europe – Belarus: An Uncrossed Border (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #37)

Belarus, the word evokes different thoughts, many of them quite distressing. Thoughts of autocratic rule, thoughts of a last refuge for the Soviet system in Europe, thoughts of an ossified, anti-democratic dictator able to bend the people’s will to his whims. From a political standpoint, there is not much good to say about Belarus’ history since the Soviet Union disintegrated. Then again there was not much good to say about Belarus during Soviet times either. One is the only number anyone needs to know when it comes to post-Soviet Belarus. That is because Belarus has had just one leader, Alexander Lukashenko, since it became independent. That number is an expression of how far democracy has come in Belarus.  And that is not far at all. An opportunity has been lost.

Last of The Soviets – Government House in Minsk (Credit: Nuno Godiho)

Dueling Identities – History & Mystery
Belarus is an obscure nation, even for someone like me conversant in Eastern European history and travel. It remains a nation of mystery and history, a land of confused and dueling identities. It is not quite Russia, though sometimes it is hard to tell. It is in Europe, but not really of Europe. At least, not the Europe of humanism and progress. This is a Europe that most of us are unfamiliar with, one of totalitarianism and regress. Belarus is an enigma, an Eastern European version of no man’s land covering a crucial region that lies on a geopolitical fault line between Poland and Russia. Paradoxically, this no man’s land is home to nine and a half million people. They live in an insular state. Rather than a bridge between east and west, it is more like an island unto itself. While there is a great deal of Russian influence when it comes to Belarus, Russia has not been able to assimilate it. The two nations are not one and are certainly not the same.

To the rest of Europe and the world, Belarus is a baffling place, a question mark that lies at the heart of Eastern Europe. The questions it poses are still awaiting an affirmative response. How much longer will totalitarianism rule this benighted land. Will Belarus ever be free of interference from big brother Russia? Will it ever become a popular rather than a pariah state? Answers continue to elude Belarusians. At least ones that would include respect for the human dignity and civil rights of all Belarusians. So much of the little that we know about Belarus is intensely negative. Will that ever change? History teaches us that nothing stays the same, but Belarus for the past thirty years has been changed, not for the better, but for the worse. At best, it has stagnated. At worse, it has ossified. Attempts to renew the country have been met with belligerence and brute force, tear gas and truncheons. The future does not look bright, but this is nothing new. Throughout the 20th century, Belarusians had a rough time of it.

East of center – Belarus and surrounding nations

All The Wrong Reasons – Looking Down On The World
With Belarus making headline news once again for all the wrong reasons, I have asked myself what do I really know about the nation? Beyond negative news blurbs and a handful of guidebooks, the only other things I know about Belarus comes from a series of disconnected experiences with the people and country. These are anecdotes, either personal or political, that provide a blurred window into a nation that seems to defy logic. I have started scouring my mind for anecdotal evidence of Belarus. After so many trips to Eastern Europe, it is hard for me to believe that Belarus is still such a mystery. A nation that is a gaping hole in the heart of my Eastern European travels, an uncrossed border, a chance not taken because of fear and logistics.

Coming close to Belarus and meeting Belarusians is the experiential evidence I have of the country. This has been the only way I could get beyond the dire drip feed of negative news emanating from the country. I have never visited Belarus and for obvious reasons do not plan too anytime soon. I am rather proud that I came as close I did on two separate occasions. The first was while visiting Chernobyl and the abandoned city of Pripyat. Ukraine’s border with Belarus was within a few kilometers of those sites. It is another in that seemingly endless series of tragedies that has befallen Belarus, that much of radiation from Chernobyl ended up on the Belarusian side of the border with disastrous consequences for the inhabitants.

The visit to Chernobyl did afford me a window into a natural world that ignores borders. This tip of Ukraine was heavily forested. It is even more so across the border in Belarus. Later, while flying from Kiev to Riga, my Baltic Air flight traveled over Belarus. I looked down from 20,000 feet at a nation of trees. From the air it was easy to see that forests covered a good deal of the country. Some 40% of Belarus is forest, including a swath of wilderness along the border with Poland that contains some of the last remnants of the primeval forest that once covered Europe. The forest cover makes for good hiding places. This cover allowed the partisan units of Belarus during World War II to wreaked havoc on the German supply lines and occupation forces. From above, the forests in Belarus added another layer of mystery. I could see the forests, but not the trees. This is an apt metaphor for Belarus. A foreigner can see the dictatorship, but not the people who suffer under it.

Undiscovered Europe – Strusta Lake in northeastern Belarus (Credit: zedlik)

The View From Vilnius – Democracy & Dictatorship, Freedom & Oppression
The only other time I came close to Belarus was on this same trip. While staying in Vilnius, I became cognizant that Belarus was too close for comfort. Looking at a map made me realize just how close Belarus was to the Lithuanian capital. And the comparatively smaller sized Lithuania looked like it would not stand a chance if Belarus ever descended into geopolitical belligerence. This realization was different from how I felt while close to the Belarusian border in Ukraine. The latter has the size and resources to keep the Belarusians at bay. If anything, Ukraine is seen as a threat by the government in Belarus. Lithuania as an annoyance.

Belarus had a strange effect on my mentality while in Lithuania. It was hard to believe that two nations could be so politically different from one another, despite their proximity. To go from democracy to dictatorship was a thirty minute drive from Vilnius. For most people a thirty minute drive might mean going to another village, town or county. For people in this part of Europe, it was the difference between freedom and oppression. This was a trip that I would not dare to take.

Click here for: An Accident of History – Prague: Jan Masaryk & The Fourth Defenestration (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #38a)

The Final Act – Elena Ceausescu: The People Had Enough (Part Two)

Separating the fuse from the bomb is a difficult task. The same might be said of the effect Elena Ceausescu had upon her husband Nicolae’s reign over Romania from 1965-1989. Nicolae casts such a large shadow that it is easy to forget the importance of Elena’s role. Ironically, the shadow in which Elena stood was largely of her own making. The Ceausescus were a partnership, you could not have one without the other, but there was an odd asymmetry to their power sharing relationship that informed the outside world’s view of them. Nicolae may have been all powerful in Romania, but he was not one of the most powerful men in the world despite his attempt to become just that through the dark art of his personal diplomacy. On the other hand, Elena was one of the most powerful women in the world in the 1970’s and 1980’s. In continental Europe, no woman in politics came close to the level of control she enjoyed over both her husband and the state. Her wish could be his command. Her jealousy informed his view of allies and adversaries. Her vanity infused his greed. Her megalomania supplemented his own.

Cult of Personality – Nicole & Elena Ceausescu greet a crowd of supporters in 1986 (Credit: fototeca)

Clouded Perspective – “Mother of the Nation”
Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu enabled each other’s behavior. They were a true partnership in every sense of the word. One could not live without the other and in the end, neither of them would have to. There is no better example of this than the fact that the two were executed together. As they were bound together in life, so too in death. In the final moments before their execution on Christmas Day in 1989, Nicolae sang the Internationale and Elena shouted obscenities. Both were true believers, each in their own unique way. Nicolae carried a tune all the way to his grave, while Elena went down with fighting words on her lips. Nicolae invoked a higher cause in his final moments, one of comrades and communism, Elena descended into vulgarity. It was a fitting end to a pair of obscenely strange lives. A bit of unpoetic justice so to speak. Their fall was swift, but it had been a long time in coming.

The latter part of Elena Ceausescu’s life was informed by a personality cult built around her persona as the supposed “Mother of the Nation.” Her version of motherly love did not extend to the Romanian people. Insiders said she was terribly cynical and condescending in conversations concerning the populace’s needs. She derided them as “worms” who could never be satisfied despite the Ceausescu’s generosity toward the masses. While the population stood in lines for food, Elena indulged in elegant luxury products such as jewelry and fur coats. She also had her children spied on by the security services. Her “work” included a mandate to oversee education in Romania. This from a woman who only had an elementary school education, had to repeat the fourth grade, and dropped out of school at the age of ten. Among the many subjects she received bad marks in was behavior. Her educational background did not qualify Elena for any special standing in the realm of academics. That hardly mattered because she was Nicolae’s beloved wife. She was even awarded an undeserved honorary doctorate in chemistry.

Looking over his shoulder – Elena Ceausescu applauds a speech by her husband Nicolae (Credit: fototeca)

In The Line of Fire – “They Are Going to Shoot Us”
The cult of personality built up around Elena and her husband clouded their perspective to the point that they had little idea by the end of 1989 that public opinion had turned against them. The dire situation in Romania came to a head on December 22nd when the Ceausescu’s were forced to flee Bucharest by being airlifted by helicopter off the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party building. They barely escaped being lynched by a mob. This only allowed them a three day reprieve from rough justice. The Ceausescu’s were arrested in Targoviste while trying to make their way to a friend who managed a factory. The authorities, who at this point were more like vigilantes, put them on trial and charged them with numerous crimes, including genocide. They were not given due process or a fair hearing The couple had exhausted the patience of Romanians, the majority of whom wanted them to pay for their crimes. The payment would not come from the one billion dollars the Ceausescu’s had stolen from the state, instead they would pay with their lives.

The Ceausescu’s hour long trial made a mockery of jurisprudence, but those who criticized it missed the point. Nicolae and Elena were the fall guy and gal for those still holding onto power. The Ceausescu’s death sentence was used as an outlet for public anger. The combative Elena was infuriated by the courtroom proceedings. Perhaps her show of anger was a sign of the underlying anxiety she felt. She was not going down without a fight, but the only weapons she had at her disposal were words. And some of her most famous last words included the realization that “they are going to shoot us.” This was what she told Nicolae not long before they were lined up against a wall before a firing squad at a military based outside of Bucharest. The executioners were eager to get the dirty work done as soon as possible, lest anyone try to intervene on the Ceausescu’s behalf. They did not have to worry, no one was coming to the rescue. On the contrary, most Romanians were happy with the result. When the smoke cleared, Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were dead. It was an ignominious end for the ultimate communist power couple.

On trial – Nicole & Elena Ceausescu before their execution

Rough Justice – End Scenes
The shocking news of the show trial and resulting execution of the Ceausescus was reported across the world on the day it happened. This was December 25th, Christmas Day in the western world. Video of the execution was also widely distributed. The actual moment when the firing squad riddled the couple’s bodies with bullets was missed by those filming the execution. It seems that the gunmen fired as soon as they could. There were unfounded rumors that loyalist Ceausescu supporters were coming to save the couple. The gunmen did their job thoroughly. Later estimates were given of over a hundred bullet holes found in Nicolae and Elena’s bodies. There was never any consideration of whether to spare Elena from execution. Hatred of Elena was just as widespread as it was for her husband. The woman who had helped rule and ruin Romania was now dead. The country would never be the same, it would be better.

Check here for: A Hole In The Heart of Europe – Belarus: An Uncrossed Border (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #37)

The Mother of All Problems – Elena Ceausescu: Cult of Personality (Part One)

When you live a life based on lies, that is eventually what you become.

The “mother of the nation” allegedly shouted “you’re a motherf%$#er” in her final moments. Elena Ceausescu was never filled with motherly love when it came to her fellow Romanian citizens. Along with her husband, Nicolae, she helped lead Romania to ruin during the 1970’s and 80’s. She was one-half of a power couple that defined the last decades of communism in Romania. Whatever failures are ascribed to her husband, Elena must also share a large part of the blame. Like her husband, Elena was all powerful, until one day she was not.

Funereal Find – Going To Ghencea
Visiting Ghencea Cemetery in Bucharest was a must. I had come with my travel companion Tim to visit the Romanian capital on a spur of the moment decision when me for the first time at a hostel in Bulgaria a few days earlier. The idea was to see the ginormous Palace of the Parliament, the second largest building in the world and the most visible monument to the venal rule of Nicolae Ceausescu. Listening to stories about Ceausescu’s bizarre behavior was by turns fascinating and frightening. The stories intrigued us enough that we decided to visit his grave. When we did, I was shocked to find that a dignified grave in a nondescript setting among many other graves. There was neither a grandiose tomb nor an unmarked plot, instead it was so normal as to be disconcerting.

Buried beside Nicolae was his wife, Elena. This was not as surprising since they were inseparable in life and from the looks of it, also in death. They were partners in crime, amassing a fortune worth hundreds of millions of dollars at the expense of ordinary Romanians. Oddly, Elena was the subject of a personality cult propagated just as vigorously as the one that extolled the supposedly limitless virtues of her husband. This also made her just as hated as her husband when the Romanian Revolution broke out in December 1989.

Forever together – Nicolae & Elena Ceaucescu at Ghencea Cemetery (Credit: Falcodigiada)

A Communist Love Story – Nicolae & Elena
It was said that from the time Nicolae Ceausescu first saw Elena Petrescu in Bucharest he was so smitten with her that he never looked at another woman. Elena had grown up in a Wallachian village and come to Bucharest in search of work. With only an elementary school education she was not an intellectual by any stretch of the imagination. Then again, neither were the communists. She was able to find a job as an assistant in a lab. This would become the genesis of later assertions that she was a master chemist.  Elena joined the communist party in 1939 as it appealed to a woman who was looking to escape the relative poverty into which she had been born. It was through communism that Elena met her husband. This was her big career move, one that would pay dividends when Romania went communist after World War II.

Elena soon procured a position as a secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Even greater positions, power and prestige would come her way after Nicolae became the General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party in 1965. Elena’s prospects soared as Nicolae manipulated the party apparatus to benefit himself and his wife. Many believe that a trip to Red China in the early 1970’s was a decisive turn in her lust for power. It was there that she witnessed firsthand the machinations of Mao Tse Tung’s wife, Jiang Qing, also known as Madame Mao. Jiang had also been begun her rise to prominence as a secretary, in this case to her much more famous husband. During the Cultural Revolution, lasting from 1966 until Mao’s death a decade later, Jiang exercised an immense amount of power. She was highly influential in policymaking. By 1969, she had been appointed a seat in the Politburo. Soon she was surrounded by a cult of personality.

A passion for communism – Elena Petrescu at the age of 23

Red Romania – The Ceausescus Ascendent
In China, Elena had witnessed Madame Mao at the height of her powers. What Elena should have later noted was the fate of Madame Mao after her husband’s death. She fell out of favor and ended up committing suicide. There was a lesson in Jiang’s fall, but Elena, like all people who became intoxicated with power failed to heed it. Back in Romania, she attained one powerful position after another, culminating in her becoming a member of the Permanent Bureau of the Political Executive Committee. Elena now exercised more control over Romanian affairs than almost anyone else in the country, other than her husband.

At the same time her own personality cult began to grow. It reached critical mass with Elena being feted as an academic genius. For someone with an elementary school education, Elena had done very well for herself by rising through the party ranks. That was not enough for her expanding ego. She was awarded a doctorate in Chemistry. Scholarly works from her began to be published. Many at the time did not believe what amounted to patently false claims of Elena’s scientific genius. After the Ceausescu’s fall, the truth came out. These works were ghost written on behalf of Elena. No one dared to protest if they valued their life. If she turned against someone, they were doomed.

Dark ambitions – Elena Ceaucescu

Darkness Deified – Taking The Fall
Elena Ceausescu was a different kind of mother for her nation. One who was extremely vulgar and vain. She was notorious for being overtly concerned with appearances. Her rise went in lockstep with Romania’s fall. While Elena worried about such frivolous matters as published images showing her prominent nose, the country was being bled dry of resources by the Ceausescu’s policies. Unbeknownst to the population at large, the Ceausescu’s were secreting away huge sums of money in secret bank accounts abroad. Meanwhile, the shops were empty of consumer goods, the heat only worked part time in the winter and food became increasingly scarce. The entire time, no criticism could be voiced against either Nicolae or Elena.

The Ceausescu had reached the realm of near deification in public discourse. While the economy collapsed, public discontent began to simmer. Life in Romania was intolerable for almost everyone not connected to the regime. There were even murmurings of discontent among Ceausescu’s fellow cronies. The situation exploded after the military attempted to put down an uprising in the city of Timisoara. Someone was going to have to take the fall for the disaster Romania had become. Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu would be the prime candidates.

Click here for: The Final Act – Elena Ceausescu: The People Had Enough (Part Two)

Unleashed – The Balkans: War of the Stray Dog (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #36)

Anyone who has spent time in the Balkans has almost certainly been confronted by the problem of stray dogs. In Sofia, Bulgaria a group of stray dogs became my running companions for half an hour. In Sarajevo, I came across another pack wandering around a yard just before dawn. That was ten years ago. During my last trip to the Balkans I noticed the problem continues to persist. I never made it to the waterfront in Bar, Montenegro because I came across a pack of dogs whose barks were so ferocious that I did not dare tempt fate and did a quick U-turn within 100 yards of them. Such experiences have led me to think of the Balkans as the land of the stray dog. What I could never have imagined was that the Balkans was also where the War of the Stray Dog took place. This war proved that the truth is not only stranger, but also more sublime than fiction.

Ready for war – Armed forces supporting Bulgaria (Credit: Неизвестен)

Violent Absurdities – Perpetual Contentions
Many years ago while visiting a fort on the coast of Florida, I first learned about the War of Jenkins Ear. The conflict partly resulted from a violent absurdity that occurred when Spanish sailors boarded the merchant ship of Robert Jenkins of Britain and severed his ear. The war took place during the mid-18th century and lasted nine years. At the time, I thought there could not possibly be a more absurd way to start a war. That was until I discovered the War of the Stray Dog fought between Bulgaria and Greece in 1925. It was the culmination of strained relations between the two nations. The postwar World War I Treaty of Neuilly-sure-Seine, which had awarded western Thrace to the Greeks who just happened to end up on the winning side of the war. This became a point of perpetual contention between the two sides.

This did not sit well with the Bulgarians who coveted the region. After the treaty went into effect there were intermittent, cross border incursions by fearsome groups, particularly the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO) and another offshoot, the Internal Thracian Revolutionary Organization. Both groups would use whatever means necessary to try and wrest the region away from Greece. The IMRO was notorious for violence, including between its own leader and operatives. IMRO most famously captured, tortured, and murdered the Bulgarian Prime Minister Alexander Stamboliski. He had made the mistake of working with Greece and Yugoslavia to improve relations. Tensions between Bulgaria and Greece continued to fester after Stamboliski was out of the way. It would not take much of an incident to bring the two sides to blows, but no one could have imagined that incident would revolve around a stray dog.

Worth fighting for – Stray dog in Bulgaria (Credit: Melody Gilbert)

Running Wild – Going Beyond The Border
Even by the standards of the Balkans, the border region between southwestern Bulgaria and northern Greece is exceedingly remote. Strikingly beautiful, the area is covered by mountains with few good roads. To an outsider, the region seems like an improbable place for a war to start, but many parts of the Balkans continued to be contested ground, no matter how obscure, long after World War I ended. This was the case with the Demir Kapou pass in the Belasica Mountain range, which straddles the border between Bulgaria and Greece. Border sentries of both nations stared across an invisible boundary at each other. The enmity between the Greeks and Bulgars was pervasive, putting the sentries on hair trigger alert. That is probably the best explanation for what occurred on October 19, 1925 when a Greek border guard’s dog got loose and proceeded to run into Bulgarian territory. A Bulgarian soldier shot the border sentry dead. A little bit later, a Greek officer displaying a white flag went into the no man’s land between the two sides. This only made the officer and a private who had accompanied him easy targets. They were also shot dead.

Word of what happened on the border got back to Theodoros Pangolos, who had gained control of Greece through a military coup. This was just the kind of incident Pangolos could use to bolster his strongman credentials. He sent an entire corps of the Greek Army to the border where they were ordered to march into Bulgaria. They met tepid resistance. Along the way, they pillaged and burned villages. In addition, they killed approximately 50 people with this incursion. On the Bulgarian side, cooler heads prevailed. The Bulgarians appealed to the League of Nations to resolve the dispute. Panglos had demanded the Bulgarians pay a huge sum of money – six million Greek Drachmas – for restitution.

Ironically, Panglos had defeated his own cause by ordering the incursion into Bulgaria. The Greeks had gone from victim to perpetrator. They had also committed atrocities in Bulgaria. The upshot was that the Greeks were ordered to pay restitution for the damage they had caused. While the Greeks protested the League’s decision, they had little choice but to comply, since Britain, France, and Italy were in favor of this decision. The Greeks claimed they were not being treated fairly. That the League decided in favor of what the most powerful countries wanted. Of course, the Greeks were ignoring the fact that Bulgaria was a similar sized country.

A show of force – Тheodoros Pangalos

Barking Up The Wrong Tree – A Dog’s Life
The Bulgars may not have won The War of the Stray Dog on the battlefield, but they did win their case before the League of Nations. This infuriated Panglos. It also shamed him. Less than a year later, he would be ousted from his position as de facto dictator of Greece. The humiliating loss in The War of the Stray Dog did irreparable damage to his reputation. Panglos’ political career would never recover. Lost amid the diplomacy and mediation which resolved the dispute, was the fact that a stray dog had started the whole mess. Nothing is known about what happened to the dog. The incident stands as an instructive example of how misunderstandings can lead to war. This was especially true with the Bulgars and Greeks who assumed the worst about each other. A seemingly innocence action by a dog and its owner turned into an international incident. While the situation was resolved at the League of Nations, no one thought to enact another sensible option to make sure the same thing would never happen again, a leash law.

A Pole Apart – Hubert Hurkacz: Many Happy Returns At Wimbledon

Polish sport, much like the country itself, has historically been overlooked due to its much larger neighbors that have dominated international competitions such as the Olympic Games. Germany and Russia have had many more champions in both individual and team sports compared with Poland. This is not surprising since Poland has a much smaller population. Plus, Germany and Russia have given a great deal of financial backing to sports. Nonetheless, Poles have had many great sporting achievements and sportsmen. In football, Poland’s national team was a force to be reckoned during the 1970’s and early 1980’s, coming in third place on two separate occasions. Currently, one of the best football players in the world, Robert Lewandowski is Polish.

Moving forward – Hubert Hurkacz

A Run For The Ages – Taking Home A Title
Besides football, Poland has really made a name for itself in professional tennis over the past two decades. This has mainly come on the women’s side due to the exploits of Agnieszka Radwanski who made it all the way to the Wimbledon Final in 2012 where she lost to the greatest women’s tennis player of all time, Serena Williams, in three close sets. Radwanska attained a number two world ranking and won over $27 million dollars in prize money during her career before retiring in 2018. The only thing Radwanska did not achieve was winning a Grand Slam title. Poland would not have to wait long for another native daughter to send the nation’s tennis spirits soaring. At the pandemic delayed French Open last autumn, 20 year old Iga Swiatek went on a run for the ages.

The 54th ranked Swiatek had never won a tour level title in her career. In the 4th round, playing against Romania’s Simona Halep, she served notice that greatness had arrived. Swiatek thrashed Halep who was ranked #2 in the world at the time, 6-1, 6-2. What made the victory even more stunning was that Halep had beaten Swiatek 6-1, 6-0 the year before at the French. Swiatek continued her dominance in her next three matches, surrendering no more than five games to a single opponent. She ended up winning the title without the loss of a set. In the process, she became the first Polish woman to win a Grand Slam singles title. The question has now become when a Polish man might accomplish the same feat. The chance of that happening has become much greater since another Polish player is excelling at Wimbledon this year. Hubert Hurkacz has just become only the second Polish male to ever make the Wimbledon semifinals. The question is whether he will become the first to make the final and/or win the most coveted championship in tennis.

Always in style – Wojtek Fibak (Credit: Bert Verhoeff/Anefo)

The Art of Tennis – Wojtek Fibak
Polish professional tennis is now enjoying some of its better days. It cannot be called a resurgence because that implies Polish tennis once had a golden age. Besides Wojtek Fibak, pickings were extremely slim throughout the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s. Fortunately, Fibak represented Polish tennis well. He was an excellent player who won 15 singles and 52 doubles titles, there was really no one other than him to represent Poland in the upper echelons of men’s professional tennis. Fibak’s closest confidante on tour was Ivan Lendl. The two often traveled together throughout Europe, competing in tournament after tournament. They were accused of being renegades who were out to win as much prize money as possible. Ironically, they were both from communist countries, but knew how to make a mint out of the bandit capitalism that pervaded pro tennis at the time. Fibak faded long before Lendl. He then went into business, making another fortune and becoming one of Poland’s premier art collectors.

After Fibak, Polish tennis went into a deep freeze. The Cold War may have ended, but there were few potential pros rising through the ranks. The thaw would only come after the turn of the 21st century. The highlight occurred at Wimbledon in 2014 when two Poles faced off in the quarterfinals. Jerzy Janowicz defeated Lukas Kubot to become the first Polish man to ever make the Wimbledon semifinals. He then took the first set off eventual champion Andy Murray before losing in four close sets. Janowicz’s future looked bright until knee problems darkened his horizons. At Wimbledon, he had achieved the tennis equivalent of a false summit, getting close to the pinnacle of glory only to fall backwards. Fortunately. there was another Polish hope on the way. It arrived in the form of Hurkacz. Hurkacz is not only the second Pole to make it to the Wimbledon semis, but he also has to be the only player in history who lost his last six matches prior to arriving at the All England Club. He had displayed better form earlier in the season when he won a Masters 1000 event in Miami.

Many happy returns – Hubert Hurkacz at Wimbledon 2021

A Wave of Confidence – Beating The Best
Coming into Wimbledon, Hurkacz did not have many expectations. He just wanted to break out of his recent slump. The grass at Wimbledon was as good a place as any to do that since Hurkacz plays a power game. On grass he can more easily impose his game on an opponent. He sailed through his first three matches without the loss of a set. In his 4th round match against second seed Danil Medvedev, Hurkacz lost two of the first three sets. His hopes of a comeback looked bleak since he was only 1-4 in five set matches. Improbably, Hurkacs managed to beat Medvedev by winning 12 of the last 18 games.

This set up a match against Roger Federer on center court. Federer is probably the best grass court player of all time, but he was no match for Hurkacz who rode a wave of confidence after Federer made a couple of costly errors in the crucial second set tiebreak. Hurkacz then became the first man to ever win a 6-0 set against Federer at Wimbledon when he closed out the match in straight sets. Like Swiatek’s run at the French Open, Hurkacz has been a surprise. Whether his run will continue all the way to the championship remains to be seen. The hopes and dreams of Polish tennis have fallen on Hurkacz’s broad shoulders. Can he carry the load? We will find out.

Goulash Wimbledon – Marton Fucsovics: Making Hungarian Tennis History

In 1948 Hungary was on the verge of being sealed behind an Iron Curtain. Communism was ascendant, the Red Army was settling in for a long occupation and Stalinists were preparing to arrest a seemingly endless list of enemies of the state. For Hungarian, leaving the country was becoming increasingly difficult. Everyone was being watched. Sportsmen were not immune from the prying eyes of an increasingly totalitarian state. This was long before international sports competitions became another arena in which the Cold War was fought. In the late 1940’s, Eastern European athletes who went abroad to play in international sporting contests were viewed with barely disguised suspicion. The authorities knew they would be in contact with foreigners. In a Stalinist system this was a huge red flag.

Foreigners were spies until proven otherwise. Anyone talking with foreigners was also suspected of being a spy. Thus, athletes from countries such as Hungary were in a compromised position as soon as they left the country. Furthermore, there was always the fear that they might defect. This could cause embarrassment to the incipient communist regimes that were supposedly creating a brave new world. Utopian ideals did not suffer defections. Why else would these supposed paradises have to erect an Iron Curtain to keep their citizens from heading westward. Getting out from behind the Iron Curtain in a nation administered along Stalinist lines often took extraordinary circumstances such as intervention from a powerful individual or organization.

Fortunately for Hungarian tennis star Jozsef Asboth, he had a patron that helped him travel abroad. His patron was not a fellow Hungarian, instead it was none other than the King of Sweden. Gustaf V provided a personal warrant that Asboth would return to Hungary after playing at Wimbledon. A year earlier, Asboth became the first Eastern European player to win a Grand Slam tournament, when he triumphed at the French Open. Asboth repaid the king’s confidence by making it all the way to the semifinals. Asboth would play Wimbledon three more times with his best result a 4th round showing in 1951. His 1948 semifinal showing was the last time a Hungarian man made it past the fourth round at Wimbledon. That was until Marton Fucsovics won his fourth round match at the All England Club on July 5th.

Ecstasy in victory – Marton Fucsovics after defeating Andrey Rublev at Wimbledon

The Fall & Rise – Hungarian Men’s Tennis at Wimbledon
Jozsef Asboth’s career collided with a communist state that made it difficult for him to play abroad. For instance, following his 1947 title, Asboth did not play at the French Open again until 1954. On occasion, Asboth would compete in some of the major tournaments, but there is little doubt that his career was curtailed due to a ban imposed on his travel by the Hungarian communist state. It would fall to other Hungarian players during the 1960s, 70’s and 80s to surpass Asboth’s semifinal showing at Wimbledon. The two who did the best at Wimbledon were Szabolcs Baranyi and Balazs Taroczy. They had one common failing after each made it to the 4th round at the All England Club in 1975 and 1980 respectively. That failing was Bjorn Borg who defeated them both. Neither Baranyi nor Taroczy was alone in losing to the cool, blue eyed Swedish assassin who won five consecutive Wimbledons. Meanwhile, after Taroczy retired in the late 1980’s Hungarian tennis went into a precipitous decline. Just having a Hungarian in the main draw at Wimbledon was a cause for optimism. Then in 2010 things began to change with the rise of Marton Fucsovics.

The Wimbledon juniors are a showcase for rising talent 18 years of age and under. Fucsovics only played the juniors once, but made it count when he did, rolling to the title without so much as the loss of a set in 2010. The Wimbledon victory also sent him to number one in the world junior rankings. The tall, muscular Hungarian looked like he might be a breakout star for a country sorely lacking in top level tennis talent. The road to success got much rockier after Fucsovics turned pro. It took him six years just to qualify for a Grand Slam event. In 2017 he played Wimbledon for the first time as a pro.  He was quickly ousted in the first round. The same thing happened again one year later. In 2019, Fucsovics finally won a match. He came into this year’s Wimbledon with a 1-3 record. His form in tournaments prior to Wimbledon was lacking. When Fucsovics drew the rising Italian player Jannik Sinner who was seeded 19th, it looked like he would not last long on grass. Fucsovics had other ideas as he proceeded to defeat Sinner in four sets. In the 2nd round, he only played two sets before his opponent, Jiri Vesely retired. Then in the 3rd round, Fucsovics managed to defeat the stalwart baseliner and #9 seed Diego Schwartmann. The wins boosted his confidence as he got ready to face his personal nemesis and stiffest test yet, the Russian Andrey Rublev in the 4th round.

Rocket shot – Marton Fucsovics in the fourth round at Wimbledon 2021

Breaking Back – Defying The Odds
Fucsovics had reason to be worried going into his match with Rublev. His worries can be summed up in five words, Paris, Rotterdam, Doha, Dubai, and Miami. Over the past 10 months, Rublev had defeated Fucsovics five times at those tournaments. The Hungarian had only been able to take a single set in five matches. Fucsovics and Rublev had met indoors and outdoors, on clay, carpet, and hardcourts, on three continents and yet the result was always the same, a victory for Rublev. Fucsovics set out to change this by getting off to a fast start in their match at Wimbledon. He came out serving rockets at Rublev. The Russian scarcely knew what hit him. Fucsovics put in 78% of his first serves in the opening set and won every one of these points. He also broke Rublev’s serve early. After winning the first set, Fucsovics’ energy level seemed to drop, he lost focus and Rublev imposed his game on the Hungarian once again. The Russian managed a break of serve early in the set. He soon took both the second and third sets. It looked like Fuscovics was headed for a sixth straight loss to the fifth ranked Russian. And then everything changed.

Fucsovics did not just come out in the fourth set on fire, he was positively scorching. He took the set at love and then jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the fifth. After winning his ninth consecutive game, it looked like he finally had a handle on Rublev. In line with the rest of this rollercoaster match though, the Russian broke Fucsovics to get back on serve. Then Fucsovics broke back to assume what should have been a commanding lead. The only problem was that he still had to serve for the match. Sure enough, Rublev made it to break point, but Fucsovics won an extremely tense rally to get back to deuce. Two points later it was game, set and match to Fucsovics. He led out a shout of exhilaration and clenched his fist. He had finally made it to a Grand Slam quarterfinal. The first Hungarian to do it in 40 years and of course, the first one to make it this far at Wimbledon since Asboth’s charmed run in 1948.

The winner takes it all – Marton Fucsovics at Wimbledon 2021

Playing Favorites – Nothing To Lose
There is no rest for Fucsovics now. He has little time to enjoy his breakthrough accomplishment. In the quarterfinals he will face the best player in the world, Novak Djokovic. The Serb is going for his 20th Grand Slam title and still has a chance to be the first man in over a half century to win the Grand Slam, (winning all four major titles in a single calendar year). While Djokovic is heavily favored, Fucsovics faces little pressure. No one expects him to win. If he did, it would be a huge upset. Then again, Fucsovics has already defied the odds several times at this Wimbledon fortnight. Perhaps he can do so again.

Medieval Miracle – Walls of Ston: The Great Wall of Europe (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #35)

Deciding to go medieval with our love, eight years ago my wife and I explored the Dalmatian Coast on our honeymoon. The focal point was Dubrovnik, the famed walled city, perched on a clifftop above the Adriatic Sea. There are few places in the world that can live up to their popular image, but Dubrovnik was one of them. It was just as amazing as advertised. The architecture combined with the sea was breathtaking. Dubrovnik seemed at times more like a movie set than a place where real people had made so much history. It was as though someone created a medieval town in miniature and filled it with architectural treasures. Was Dubrovnik imagination or reality? At times it was hard to tell, but eventually reality in the form of fellow tourists crowded our visions of a fantasyland. It did took not take long for my wife and I to grow weary among the legions of tourists jostling for space in the cramped confines of the Old Town. Perhaps this was why I felt relieved when we departed by bus from Dubrovnik. The walled city is just not large enough to accommodate everyone who comes to visit. Upon leaving Dubrovnik, the bus headed northward hugging the coastline until it turned inland on the way to the Croatian capital of Zagreb. I figured we were done with this part of the Dalmatian Coast. I soon discovered that the Dalmatian Coast was not done with us.

It was not long after we left Dubrovnik that I noticed what looked like a long stone wall crawling up a hillside in the distance. It was large enough to be seen from the highway. The wall looked medieval, but I could not be sure. The wall’s length and size had to be quite impressive if it could be seen from so far away. I wondered at times if my eyes were deceiving me. What was this wall doing out in the middle of nowhere? Perhaps it was a mirage. The Dalmatian Coast was full of mirages except they always proved to be real. I thumbed through my guidebook in vain for information. The wall was large enough that it should have been mentioned. Perhaps I was looking in the wrong part of the guidebook. Then again, it might be one of those abandoned ruins that has fallen prey to indifference and neglect. As the bus wove its way around the Dalmatian coastline, the wall was soon out of sight, but it did not disappear from my memory. Later I would discover that the wall was not a mirage, it was another miracle of the medieval. I had caught my first glimpse of the Great Wall of Europe, otherwise known as the Walls of Ston.

View from afar – The Walls of Ston (Credit: Dennis Jarvis)

Walled Off – Salt of the Earth
“They don’t make things the way they used to” is one of the phrases that expresses humanity’s misgivings with the materialistic throwaway culture that is so pervasive in the modern world of today. The phrase assumes that older architecture and objects were built to last. And in my experience that is largely true. It has a great deal to do with the fact that in a culture of mass consumption, things must be built cheap and fast. The further one goes back in history, the more it seems that things were built to stand the test of time.  The amount of human effort that went into constructing buildings and manufacturing objects several centuries ago, lent itself to craftsmanship. There seems to have been a direct correlation between the length of time it took to make something and its survivability. As far as architecture goes, a structural work was a major undertaking and as such the planning was often meticulous, the construction even more so. The Walls of Ston are a good example of this.

The lengthy defensive work was built to help protect Dubrovnik and by extension, its economic vitality. In a lagoon just beyond Ston were salt pans. These were mined for what was one of the most valuable minerals of the Middle Ages. The walls of Ston were the outer most defensive works protecting both Dubrovnik and its outlying areas. The walls stretched for seven kilometers. Such were their importance to Dubrovnik’s security that the city leaders spared little expense in their construction. They brought in several Italian architects and artisans to design the intricate system. When the walls were completed during the 14th century, they sported 41 towers, 6 bastions and 5 fortresses, including a massive fortress overlooking Ston. The harbor at Ston was also fortified. The final product stretched from the shortest point across the Peljesac Peninsula from Ston to Mali Ston (Little Ston).

Great Wall of Europe – Walls of Ston (Credit: Anto)

From a tactical standpoint, the works offered immediate protection of the salt pans at Ston. These yielded a great amount of Dubrovnik’s wealth. Even today, the salt pans are still viable. They hold the distinction of being the oldest continuously mined salt pans in the world. In the larger strategic context, these fortifications were built to keep enemies far away from the city of Dubrovnik. That would have been too close for comfort. Thus, the idea was to foil or at least slow an attacker. From what I saw, the Walls of Ston were formidable enough to make an invading force think twice before attacking them. Even if they got past the walls and various fortifications, it was still nearly 60 kilometers to Dubrovnik. Obviously, any defensive works that could stand up to half a millennium of invasions were built to last. Their longevity speaks well of their construction.

A secure location – View of Ston from the walls (Credit: Jules Verne Times Two)

Called Away – Destiny & Dubrovnik
Viewing the Walls of Ston from a bus window for a few fleeting minutes would never be good enough for me. The prospect of visiting them was tantalizing. Before long I was imagining what it would be like to walk the length of the Walls of Ston. I told my wife about them and how we had to go back for a visit. If that meant going back to Dubrovnik, then so be it. She was up for it and so was I. The Walls of Ston act as a magnet. I can already feel them pulling us back down to the Dalmatian Coast. Once again, destiny calls and it is all because of Dubrovnik.

Click here for: Unleashed – The Balkans: War of the Stray Dog (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #36)