Since The Day I Was Born – Intimations of Mortality In Slavonia: Sarajevo to Pecs on the Drava Intercity (Part Three)

Slavonia, that forgotten northeastern corner of Croatia spread out and expanded ahead of the Drava Intercity. Here was a land beyond tourism. The stereotypical Croatia of shimmering coastline, glistening islands and brilliantly bright, white limestone landscapes tumbling into the sea might seemed a million kilometers from here. This was the Pannonian Plain, land of rich, fertile fields and a flatness stretching into infinity. This was a region that was unlikely to see outsiders. Mass tourism, which makes up a disproportionate share of Croatia’s economy, left this land untouched. Slavonia was as much a landscape of the imagination as coastal Croatia, just not a popular one. There were fields, sky and villages upon which a person could paint whatever picture they so pleased. There was an inordinate amount of space to draw upon. For me it was a landscape of yesteryear, when agriculture ruled economies and manpower harnessed to horsepower was the lone industry. Slavonia was a labor in every sense of the word, a labor of love and life for those who had been able to bend this land to their will and a labor of unceasing toil and monotony for those who had barely been able to scratch an existence out of this earth. A place of many different emotions, buried somewhere beneath its rich soil.

One tree landscape - Slavonia

One tree landscape – Slavonia

Self-Deception In Slavonia – Seeing It All, Seeing Nothing At All
If a person was forced to drag themselves across Eastern Europe, it is the Slavonia’s they would spend most of their time crossing. Eastern Europe is more than people it is also a land, often agricultural in nature, informed by boundlessness. The great Hungarian Plain, the Black Earth region of Ukraine and the steppe land of Wallachia come to mind. These are lands that quickly become familiar, cultivating indifference. After staring out the train window for an hour, I felt like I had seen everything there was to see in Slavonia. This bit of self-deception is what happens when a person thinks they have seen it all. In truth they have seen nothing. Yet the landscape of Slavonia did lend itself more to contemplation than sightseeing.

My chief preoccupation became progress, based upon the fact that the train had sped up once we entered Croatia. Some of this had to do with the topography flattening out, but it also became obvious that Croatia was more prosperous than Bosnia. The locomotive was the same, but the rails were in better shape. We glided along at 50 to 60 kilometers per hour. Another sign of progress: the ticket checker was much less disheveled and more professionally attired than his Bosnian counterpart had been. He also enforced respect. When I lazily propped my legs on the empty torn leather seats, he told me to keep my feet on the floor. The message, “This is Croatia. We have standards here and take them seriously. And so will you.” I liked him and the country much more for it.

Croatian flag unfurls at the border crossing into Slavonia

Croatian flag unfurls at the border crossing into Slavonia

Osijek On The Drava – A Fetish For Obscurity
I must admit that I loved traveling across Slavonia, mainly because I have a fetish for obscurity. The fact that it was not well known made me want to learn more about it. My Lonely Planet Western Balkans guidebook covered Croatia in 91 pages. Slavonia received just 3 pages of this coverage. Or put another way it received a little over 3% of the text on Croatia, even though it is home to 22% of Croatia’s land and 18% of the population. Slavonia is a place for people to live, not visit. Its main drawing card has always been the fact that it is the land of three rivers, with the Sava, Drava and Danube either crossing or bordering the region. Of those three, the Drava is by far the least well known. There was an obvious reason for this. The Danube has Vienna and Budapest astride it banks. The Sava has Ljubljana and Zagreb. The two rivers converge impressively at Belgrade.  Meanwhile the Drava has Maribor, Varazdin and Osijek, all nice provincial cities, memorable only to locals.

The train I rode on was named for the Drava and the one time we crossed it, was at Osijek. This was by far the biggest city on the river. After seeing only villages, towns and small cities, arriving at Osijek was something of an event. I had never heard of the city, which of course piqued my curiosity and at the same time made me feel utterly ignorant. How could I not know about Osijek? This was THE city in Slavonia, an economic, administrative and cultural hub. It was also a major city in Croatia. I knew less than nothing about it. I thought to myself, next time someone tells me how much I know about Eastern Europe and the Balkans, I will have to admit that I was completely ignorant of Osijek. As I am sure they will be as well. The more we learn, the more we realize how little we actually know.

From the train window Osijek looked clean and prosperous. The train station was bounded by what had to be one of the larger rail yards in Croatia, with lines strung out over a wide area. The station itself looked to me like an over extended Bavarian Inn, a strange sight to be found in Slavonia’s flat lands. Perhaps the architect had some sort of quixotic alpine nostalgia in mind while designing it. After leaving the station we crossed the Drava. It was a languid, watery ribbon casting sparkles in the early afternoon sunlight with greenery lining the banks. In the distance, church spires poked skyward over the city.

Drava River at Osijek, Croatia

Intimations of Mortality – Drava River at Osijek, Croatia (Credit: Ex13)

The Dreams That Disintegrate Inside Of Me
Looking back now, the thought of Osijek depresses me. I have never been able to revisit the city. I now wonder if I will ever get back there at all. I am getting older, with only so many opportunities to visit Europe. The Osijek’s of the world will have to wait, possibly forever. When I first started traveling in Europe, I had this illusion that I could visit everywhere and see everything. Such a megalomaniacal desire was absurd, but so real that I could feel it. Now it has disintegrated inside of me. I only made it to Slavonia once, visiting Osijek via a train window. I experienced the beginning, middle and end in a matter of minutes. It was a little bit like life lived at warp speed. There was never enough time to do everything I wanted. Even worse there was never enough time to do everything I imagined. I had been running out of time since the day I was born. It was a lifetime later, contemplating an obscure Croatian provincial city, when I finally began to take notice.

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