About fortchoteau1

I first learned about Eastern Europe and the various nations in the region by watching the Olympics. The 1984 Winter Games in Sarajevo was a formative experience in my life. I hold a B.S. in Political Science and a minor in History with an emphasis on International Affairs. My professional career reconnected me with Eastern Europe when I spent six years guiding tours and developing exhibits at a decommissioned Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missile site that had been designated a National Park. From that point I began to read more widely about Eastern Europe and starting traveling throughout the region. I have now made thirteen trips to Eastern Europe. Much of this blog is the result of those travels. In my professional career, I currently serve as the Director of a large museum in the Rocky Mountain West.

The Old Town Born Anew – Bratislava: Raising The Standard (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #23)

European cities are the land of paid parking. Trying to find a free spot can be next to impossible. In many ways this is not that much different from cities in the United States. The problem for me is not having to pay for parking. Instead, trying to figure out how to pay is the problem. The directions are not always in English which makes the situation more difficult. Couple that with the stress of just trying to find a parking spot while vehicles zoom past on narrow streets and the process can quickly become a nightmare. This was the case in Bratislava, where I found myself with an American friend whom I took to visit the Slovakian capital’s evocative Old Town. It is one of the most enchanting places in Eastern Europe, resplendent with historic churches, parts of the Old City walls and a coronation route for Hungarian kings. In other words, it was an experience not to be missed, that was unless we had trouble finding a parking spot.  

On The March – In The Main Square of Bratislava Old Town

Free Parking – Innovation At A Slovakian Shopping Mall
Our trip to Bratislava was unplanned. We had begun the morning just a few kilometers further up the Danube River at Devin Castle. It was a spur of the moment decision to look add Bratislava’s Old Town to our itinerary. There was only one problem, it was an autumn Saturday with beautiful blue sky and sunshine. Sounds great if you are not looking for parking. The Old Town would be packed with visitors, but where were we going to park? The answer came from an American innovation, the shopping mall. The idea has been around since my childhood. If you want people to visit a mall to shop reduce barriers to entry. Thus, the idea of free parking. We found the Aupark shopping mall across the Danube from the Old Town, on the far side of Sad Janka Krala, a beautiful urban green space. The mall had a free parking deck with which we availed ourselves. With the problem of parking solved, we made the 15 minute walk to the Old Town, crossing the Danube on the infamous SNP Most Bridge. The bridge is communism’s answer to UFO’s, such is the span’s absurd design.

Soon we were standing beside a section of Bratislava’s Old City walls, while cars raced passed on the nearby highway. I could feel the ground shaking beneath our feet. It is not often that we experience both past and present in such a bracing juxtaposition. The medieval walls were meant to keep the city safe from an enemy’s armed forces. Their engineers could never have imagined that they might be undermined by lorries and cars moving at a speed that would scarcely have been fathomable in their time. The old and the new here were barely compatible, but somehow motorways and medieval walls managed an uneasy coexistence. The Old Town of Bratislava was still coming to terms with the newer aspects of a capital city that was booming.

Past & Present – City Walls of Bratislava (Credit: Tyssil)

Blown Away By Bratislava – Insights From Within The Walls
An Off The Beaten Track guidebook I have to the Czech and Slovak Republics from 1993 has this to say about the Slovakia’s capital city, “Bratislava is in many ways a gateway to Slovakia without being a destination in its own right – and is not covered in this book.” The opposite of that statement is true today. Bratislava has grown into a city break destination for other Europeans. Its quaint Old Town has been spruced up to the point that it is not hard to imagine it being in Austria, rather than part of a former member of the Eastern Bloc. Walking with my friend through the Old Town five years after my initial visit it was hard to believe just how vibrant this part of the city had become.

People were crowded into restaurants, spilled over onto the sidewalk from cafes and were socializing in the squares. The buildings looked like they had all been given a fresh coat of paint. My travel partner was in a daze, it was sensory overload for him. He did not have any opinion of Bratislava before we arrived, but now he was blown away by the profusion of history, people, and culture on display here. We stopped at a street stall for gelato, a daily delicacy to be enjoyed while traipsing around the Old Town. A few footsteps later we found ourselves in Hlavne namestie (Main Square). That was when we heard drums echoing like thunder through the square. Music began to play as a crowd gathered round. There was a military march in progress, but not a modern one. Only someone from the Renaissance era would instantly recognize what suddenly strode in before our eyes. Reenactors dressed in garb that would have been more befitting of medieval troubadours began to parade through the main square. It was an impressively colorful group of cadres that lent themselves to photography. I took out my phone to try and capture the spirit they projected throughout the square. I snapped away, hoping that at least a couple of the images would be worth keeping.

Raising The Standard – In The Main Square of Bratislava Old Town

Flag Waving – A Parade In Progress
It was only later in the evening that I realized just how good one of the images had turned out. Standing close to those marching I snapped an image of a flag bearer whose blue standard unfurled behind him. The flag looked as though it were made of velvet. A bit to the right and partially hidden was another flag bearer, whose red and white flag could be seen. Behind these two flag bearers a few drummers marched, further back were soldiers carrying lances. Many of them were wearing colorful pantaloons. Velvety blues, lush reds, starched whites, and leathery brown were the colors showcased by this motley crew. The pageantry on display during that early afternoon was invigorating. I have never been much on reenactments, but this one was a renaissance, both in a literal and figurative sense. It felt festive, fun, and historically accurate. Whether it was or not, I had no idea. It was a dream born into reality before our very eyes. In concert with the colorful buildings surrounding the square, this was a feast for the eyes. Bratislava’s Old Town had been born anew.

A Hallucinatory Past – Nadasdy Castle in Nadasladany (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #22c)

Making a difference. Those three words can mean the difference between a good and a great experience when touring a historic site. My wife and I found out just how much of a difference one person can make while at Nadasdy Castle. On the day of our visit, there was only one person working there and that turned out to be the only person we would need. I have no idea what this man’s title was. I like to refer to him as the attendant because he was so attentive to our needs. If we had questions, he would answer them based upon his experience. This allowed him to delve into more than just the castle’s history, we also got a window into future funding efforts that had gone awry.

There was the Hungarian-American who tried to purchase the castle. There was the search for restoration funds from the state or European Union. There was a foundation that might be able to restore the castle to its former greatness. There was even reason for hope. An excellent restoration of the exterior had been completed. No small feat considering the castle’s size. The interior would need a great deal of work and funding. The attendant talked at length about how he really hoped the money could be found. It was a long and laborious process. One that would likely not come to fruition for years. In the meantime, he helped keep the doors open and visitors satisfied.

Going Gothic – Roman Catholic Parish Church on the grounds of Nadasdy Castle

On The Inside – Family Ties
The sun began to dip lower in the sky, as mid-afternoon slowly turned into late afternoon. It was time to say our goodbyes to the attendant who had been so gracious with his time, information, and sharing anecdotal experiences. As we were leaving, he walked with us across the grounds. Then he offered to take us inside the historic Roman Catholic Parish Church that stood at one end of the property. This was outstanding customer service coupled with kindness. The church was hard to miss and not just because of its proximity to the castle. It was a neo-Gothic confection, built of rustic red brick. The church was replete with design elements that made it look much older than its late 19th century construction date. Gables, bastions, a round tower, buttresses, a saddle roof. One would think that crafting all these elements would result in a gigantic building. In this case, though the church seemed large, it was much smaller than it looked. This became apparent when the attendant produced a key, unlocked the front door, and led us inside.

The interior was a nice counterpoint to the exterior. It was much less grand and on a more human scale. Inside, a husband, wife, and son, who I assumed were the last Nadasdys to make their home at the nearby castle were laid to rest. I was especially intrigued by the dates on the tombs. The tomb of the father, Ferenc, said he had lived from 1907 – 1944. Was he killed in the war? I was almost certain that was the case. His wife outlived him by 46 years, she died a year after the Iron Curtain collapsed. Their son was born in 1937. The aristocracy would have vanished once and for all, along with his father near the end of the war. The son lived until 2013. He would likely have come back at some point to see if anything could be regained from what had been lost during his childhood. The church was peaceful, the tombs added a somber element. The Nadasdys were now gone, but their glorious name remained on these grounds, haunted by a past that must have been seemed hallucinatory to those who could still recall it.

From the heart – On the inside of the Roman Catholic Parish Church

For The Sake Of Posterity – A Silent Hero of History
Ironically, the preservation of the Nadasdy legacy at the castle, church and park was left to someone unrelated to the family. The attendant had become lord of the manor, at least during the day. He could rightfully be called the ultimate house sitter, a man entrusted with the stewardship of a site whose existence was in a constant state of limbo. His deep reverence for the place reminded me of how those who served the Nadasdy’s at the castle from 1876 at the time of its completion until its abandonment by the family in 1944, must have felt. The idea of noblesse oblige was in practice at that time. This was the inferred responsibility of nobles to act with generosity towards their subjects. Now that idea had been turned on its head. The castle’s caretaker was not only serving a legacy. He was also serving posterity by keeping the castle and its history alive. It looked like a wonderfully lonely job. The kind of job that was a calling.

The attendant was one of those silent heroes of history who toil in the shadows at obscure sites. Whatever this man was paid it could never be enough. If it was not for him, then we would have never been able to step foot inside the hallowed walls of the castle or church. Leaving Nadasdy Castle and the attendant was not easy. Sure, we had a bus and then a train to catch, but there would always be more of those coming, but there would never be another attendant like this one. That I was sure of. In all my travels around Hungary I have scarcely been so fortunate as to meet someone with such a sense of dedication, duty, and integrity. To my mind, he was making as much history as any Nadasdy ever did.

Family ties – Nadasdy family remains at the Roman Catholic Parish Church

Making A Difference – From The Heart
While I do not remember the attendant’s name, it hardly matters. For me he was more than a man, he was an experience. That was because he made us feel as though we were his special guests, people he could share his world with for a few moments. Those moments which make memories that last a lifetime. It is a cliché to say that one person can make all the difference in how we see the world, but in this case it was true. Every time I see a photo of Nadasdy Castle, I recall the kindness of the attendant. On that day, he gave us something much more valuable than a tour, he gave us his heart.

Click here for: The Old Town Born Anew – Bratislava: Raising The Standard (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #23)

A Man & His Castle – Nadasdy Castle in Nadasladany (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #22b)

The first thing I noticed about Nadasdy Castle was that it was unlike any other one I had seen in Hungary. It had been modeled after similar structures in England. The English way of life had been something of a fetish for Hungarian aristocrats in the late 19th and early 20th century. Nadasdy Castle was the physical manifestation of this fetish. I could not help but admire how much craftsmanship went into what amounted to a Neo-Gothic manor house rather than a castle. While it had elements of the latter, including a fine tower with crenellations, its essence was as a palatial residence. Construction of the castle took place over a three year period ending in 1876. One of the chief architects was Alajos Hauzmann, the same man who designed such famous buildings as the New York Palace and the Royal Hungarian Palace of Justice in Budapest. He, along with the Viennese educated architect Istvan Linzbauer, created an unforgettably eye catching confection.

Lord of the manor – The attendant at Nadasdy Castle

Life During Wartime – A Revolution On The Doorstep
The Nadasdy family had a long history in the area dating all the back to the late Middle Ages, but the land where the castle would be built had a much more recent lineage. In 1851, Leopold Nadasdy bought the property from another aristocratic family. After Leopold died, his son Ferenc took over its management. Ferenc saw to it that the small Baroque Palace which was already on the property was assimilated into the castle he commissioned. The completed castle incorporated modern accoutrements that were way ahead of its time. These included indoor plumbing, a central heating system and gas lighting. One fascinating novelty was the kitchen’s location in the garden rather than the main house. That led to one of the castle’s most eclectic elements, delivery of food via a rail system.

Unfortunately, my wife and I did not get to see any of these creature comforts when we entered the castle. The interior had none of its former splendor. This was understandable considering that Nadasladany had been along the line where the German and Soviet armies fought during the autumn of 1944. That splendor vanished when soldiers wreaked havoc upon it during World War II. They left their mark on the castle and it was not a good one. The sights and sounds that must have accompanied their willful acts of destruction and theft would have been awful to experience. The sounds of boot steps on marble floors, furniture being broken, and the shattering of glass were the sounds that accompanied the end of the aristocracy in Hungary. Most of them had fled by this time. Those who tried to protect their property, would not only lose it, but also their lives. This was revenge at the point of a gun barrel, a revolution that suddenly appeared on the doorstep. An unwelcome house guest bent on confiscation and destruction. To be sure, it was a sad end for a glorious residence or was it?

Splendid memories – In the Hall of Ancestors at Nadasdy Castle

Uncovering Dust – The Restoration Of A Former Greatness
The end, thankfully, never came. Instead, the front lines moved on and communism moved into Hungary. Former aristocratic mansions were commandeered by the state. Hungary was impoverished by the war and just as much so in its aftermath as the Soviets requisitioned anything they needed to rebuild their own country. Reconstruction costs were exorbitant. Manpower, material, and money were lacking. Nadasdy Castle offered valuable space that could be put to public use. This included being used by the local school system. We learned this from the attendant, a kindly, middle aged man who allowed us to roam at will through any of the rooms that were open to visitors. This was only interesting up to a certain point since there were few furnishings to see. One of the most sadly astonishing rooms, was a library with exquisite woodwork, but covered in dust and containing many frayed volumes. Despite the lack of furnishings and the general disrepair, it was still an exceptional experience because we were not following any specified tour route. We wandered around and were only confined by our imagination in trying to evoke the splendor that had once permeated the place.

One room that was restored to its former greatness was the Hall of Ancestors. Portraits of famous Nadasdy family members lined the walls. I took note of the Black Knight, Ferenc Nadasdy II and his wife, the Blood Countess, Elizabeth Bathory. They did not look menacing nor pleasant, just human. Framed for the sake of posterity, generation after generation of Nadasdy’s looked on. An entire Hungarian history lesson could have been taught just on the personages whose portraits adorned the walls at Nadasdy Castle. I would have loved to sit in this room for days, beneath the grim and gracious eminences while reading about the Nadasdy family’s exploits. Alas, that would not happen, but it did not stop me from imagining what this might have been like in another life or another world, one where the aristocracy was a thing of the present, rather than a thing of the past.

Uncovering dust – The library at Nadasdy Castle

Getting Schooled – A Complete Education
Our tour of Nadasdy Castle was largely self-guided, but the attendant who had greeted us upon arrival was more than willing to show us true Hungarian hospitality. Coming down the stairwell between the 1st and 2nd floors, I slipped and tumbled down an entire flight of steps. Fortunately, I was not hurt, but this brought the attendant to my side. He then proceeded to tell me and my wife about his own uniquely personal connection with the castle. He had fond memories of it from his childhood when he attended school here. He showed where one of his classrooms had been located. Another space was where they played ping pong. Many things at Nadasdy Castle had changed since that time, but the man’s love for the castle never wavered. He fervently wished for a complete restoration.

I was ambivalent about the idea. I thought that adding more sparkle might dilute the experience for those who came to visit. Imagination is just as important in how we understand history, as reality. Reconstructions are often little more than poor approximations of the past. The present condition of Nadasdy Castle was a commentary on everything that had happened to Hungary from 1944 to the present. Looking around, I thought less about the Nadasdys and more about the attendant running around the castle as a child. He had now grown into a middle-aged man, one who pretty much had the castle all to himself. I was envious. He had become lord of the manor. It reminded me that sometimes a man’s home really is his castle. We should all be so lucky.

Click here for: A Hallucinatory Past – Nadasdy Castle in Nadasladany (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #22c)

The Tour Less Taken: Nadasdy Castle In Nadasladany (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #22a)

Is there anything more inspiring than a hilltop castle or palatial palace in Eastern Europe? These were the places where dreams were born and died. They are monuments to medievalism and testaments to vanished aristocrats, the last vestiges of historical eras and personages that have become objects of popular fascination. As such, visitors long to get up close and personal with the past through tours of aristocratic mansions and medieval castles. The visitor experience is meant to be both educational and entertaining. Some tours succeed, while others fail miserably. Success often depends upon more than just the information and interpretation on offer.

Group size can mean the difference between an intimate and inferior experience. Sadly, few of the tours I have taken offer what might be called the go it alone option. An overwhelming majority of tours cater to crowds, not to couples or individuals. Fortunately, there are still some places in Hungary, where visitors can go it alone and have a uniquely singular experience. One that is the product of serendipity and happenstance rather than prior planning. It involves being given all access to a place that only lucky few get to visit. This is the tour less taken, but much more memorable.

The Search for Splendor – Nadasdy Castle

Original Splendor – An Approximated Experience
In tourism lingo, the self-guided tour option usually refers to visitors being given the information via written brochure or audio transmitted through headphones. The visitor then follows a specified tour route through the site, making several stops along the way at the most interesting points. I have done several of these with headphones, including at Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna and Godollo Palace outside of Budapest. For all the information I heard on those tours, to this day I cannot remember a single thing. Contrast that with a much less formal tour I took of Nadasdy Castle, a splendid and sprawling structure in the countryside of western Hungary. A visit my wife and I made turned out to be one of the most memorable in our various travels around Hungary. On that day, we discovered a seldom seen treasure in rural Hungary.

Except for historical enthusiasts or those who like to visit the former residences of obscure aristocrats, Nadasdy Castle sees relatively few visitors. While it is not that far off the beaten path, getting there by public transport would turn out to be a time consuming process. Prior to our visit, I wondered what the experience of visiting Nadasdy Castle would be like. Photos showed an expansive Tudor style structure that was unique for Hungary. It looked like a cross between a manor house and castle. The kind of place one would expect to find in the English countryside. I knew that it was futile to get my hopes up too high, because palatial residences in Hungary usually have a splendid exterior and a less than engaging interior that was hollowed out long ago by the looting of Red Army soldiers during World War II. Many castles, palaces and manor houses in Hungary were then put to other uses such as retirement homes, sanitariums, and hospitals. Most of these places are just beginning to be restored back to an approximation of their original splendor. Nadasdy Castle would be no different.

An open gate policy – Entrance to Nadasdy Castle

There was another reason that Nadasdy Castle gets overlooked. The name is deceptive. While the Nadasdys were one of Hungary’s most powerful families from the Middle Ages forward, many family members fell on hard times after a conspiracy against the ruling Habsburgs was discovered. One of the ringleaders, Franz III Nadasdy was executed for his involvement in what was known as the Magnate Conspiracy. Franz III, was the grandson of Ferenc Nadasdy II, the man most famously known as the Black Knight for his military exploits while fighting the Ottoman Turks. Nadasdy Castle likely gets confused with another, more famous Nadasdy Castle in Sarvar. The latter was where Ferenc II made his home, along with his wife Elizabeth Bathory, who is infamous for reputedly being one of history’s most prolific serial killers. For Hungarians, the Nadasdy name does not denote infamy. It is covered in glory due to Ferenc II’s role as a military leader protecting what was left of Hungary in a time of great peril during the late 17th century. 

Taking flight – Nadasdy Coat of Arms as seen on exterior of Nadasdy Castle

Hurry Up & Wait – The Rural Route
My wife and I first visited Varpalota Castle, which was filled with interesting and informative exhibitions. There had been a good deal of money put into these exhibitions and for good reason. Varpalota sees more than its fair share of tourist traffic as it is on the main road between the historic cities of Szekesfehervar and Veszprem. Not far from Varpalota was our next destination, the small village of Nadasladany. Getting there would not be easy. We spent half an hour waiting on one of the local buses which ran rather infrequently to the village only ten kilometers away. I love public transport in Hungary, but there is always the problem of being on someone else’s schedule. This is especially true when traveling to rural villages in outlying areas. Time spent waiting is almost always longer than the time spent traveling while making these journeys. This was our experience while trying to get to Nadasdy Castle

Finally alighting at a bus stop in Nadasladany, we made the short walk to the stunning cream colored castle, though calling it a castle was something of a misnomer. A Baroque palace had once stood here, but during the 1870’s the mansion cum castle was completed. It was surrounded by a park that had seen better days. Case in point, there was a lake without water. The grounds were a bit ragged as well. Only later would I learn that though the castle was owned by the Hungarian state, it was severely understaffed, to the point that I only saw a single staff member at the site during this visit. The castle was of such magnificent stature I could only imagine how many staff it would have taken to keep the mansion and grounds in top condition. Unfortunately, the days when aristocrats had an army of servants to keep everything in immaculate condition had passed into history. Nadasdy Castle now had to stand on its own. That was proving more difficult than anyone could imagine, but at least it was still standing.

Click here for: A Man & His Castle – Nadasdy Castle in Nadasladany (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #22b)

A Steeple Floating In The Sky – St. Martin’s Church In Feldebro: The Joy of Rediscovery (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #21)

Two quotes I always keep in mind while traveling around Hungary have come from a couple of my favorite travel partners. They came from my wife and mother in law. My wife once said, “there is something to see in every town and village in Hungary.” To my pleasant surprise I have discovered this to be true on innumerable occasions. Even the most downtrodden village almost always has a church or monument worth visiting. If nothing else, there are the atmospherics of the village with the cock’s crow echoing down dusty streets throughout the day and the sound of bicycle wheels spinning as the villager’s slowly traverse broken pavement. When it comes to travel within Hungary, my wife’s mother sees things very differently.

Though she is quite proud of my interest in Hungarian history, I have often driven her – quite literally – to distraction while traipsing around the countryside in search of some obscure historic site that she feels could not possibly be worth the bother. It was such a journey along country highways in Hungary that caused her to exclaim in frustration, “he stops and looks under every bush.” This was said after we got lost three times in search of a county boundary line. It was a backhanded compliment that I now wear as a badge of honor. I am sure much of my mother in law’s frustration comes from the fact that I have been known to go off course on a trip at the slightest hint of a historic site. Such a side journey brought us a memorable visit to the village of Feldebro and its Aprad Era (11th-12th century) church in the Tarna River Valley located in north central Hungary.

A Steeple Floating In The Sky – St. Martin’s Church In Feldebro: The Joy of Rediscovery

A Historic Treasure – Going Back In Time
The journeys usually start with a castle. I scour the map of northeastern and north-central Hungary for any castle within driving distance of my mother-in-law’s home in Debrecen. This has yielded fantastic day trips to castles in Sarospatak, Fuzer, Regec, and Holloko, among other places. The more we do these trips, the less castles there are to visit in these regions. Somehow, I always manage to find another castle that I overlooked. This was how I found Sirok Castle, a magnificently evocative pile at the eastern extent of the Matra mountain range. Getting there was not nearly as difficult as it had been in traveling to some of the other castles in mountainous areas of Hungary. We took the M35 and M3 motorways west from Debrecen, then took an exit to a rural road which led us northward through several villages and towns that seemed to run from one right into another. Along the way we passed through the village of Feldebro (pop. 1000), but I was so focused on Sirok I did not notice anything special about the village. The opposite was true on our return journey.

After visiting Sirok Castle we went back to the town of that same name where we enjoyed a late lunch at a lively restaurant. This respite gave me a chance to pursue my favorite pastime, studying my Cartographia Hungary Classic road map. It showed a red star next to Feldebro, meaning there was a monument, building or church of historical interest in the town. I fixated on that red star. At the very least it was worth investigating the side streets in Feldebro to find out what the red star denoted. Sure enough as soon as we got to Feldebro, I noticed a tall steeple back off the main road. The steeple rose above the village’s cube houses with rust red shingles. I turned us off the main street onto a side road that would take us in the direction of the steeple. I could see my mother in law already frowning. Here I was looking under another bush, but this search yielded a treasure of truly historic proportions.

A historic treasure – St. Martin’s Church in Feldebro

Positively Medieval – Medieval Hungary Between East & West
We pulled in front of St. Martin’s Church, a structure that looked positively medieval because it was. There was the stone church and a unique sub church. The former had been imposed upon the latter. The sub church was recognizable by the stones climbing a quarter of the way up the church’s façade. They had a different coloration. This part of the church had been part of the original Arpad Era structure. It was one of the few that had managed to escape complete destruction during the Mongol invasion in 1241. On this day, the church was closed. Unfortunately, we had no luck finding anyone who could open it to let us see inside. It would have been awe inspiring to view the medieval frescoes that still adorn the walls. Nevertheless, we were able to walk around the church. I snapped a series of stunning photos showing the church from several angles in the mid-afternoon light.

The church was made more dramatic by the fact that the immediate area around it was clear of foliage. Its situation gave the church a dominant presence, dwarfing the viewer. It was a humbling experience to stand outside those walls with the knowledge that the church’s founding went all the way back to the early days of Christianity in Hungary. Uniquely, the church was laid out in the style of a Greek cross. This signifies Eastern Byzantine influence. The tug of war for the spiritual soul of Hungary between East and West plays out in the architecture of the church. The sub-church being subsumed to the rest of the church. This could be seen by the metaphorically inclined as the sub-Church being a stand in for eastern Christianity and the rest of the church as an imposition of western Christianity. Architecture like art, ultimately reflecting history.

Seeing is believing – The sub church visible as part of St Martin’s Church Feldebro

Beating The Bushes – Steeple Chase
The church also has a fascinating historical importance due to one of Hungary’s earliest kings, Samuel Aba (reigned 1041 -1044) having once been buried here. This added gravitas to an already weighty history. The Aba family’s extensive landholdings included Feldebro. The church was used for family burials. Of course, time changes everything, including the history of an area. Feldebro was for one shining period at the heart of Hungarian royalty. Now it was a provincial backwater, a typical Hungarian village, but with one asset that had lasted the test of time. St. Martin’s Church was worth every bit of the time we spent there. It proved what my wife had said about there always being something to see in every Hungarian village. All you need to do is look under a bush or in the case of Feldebro, for a steeple floating in the sky.

Click here for: The Tour Less Taken: Nadasdy Castle In Nadasladany (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #22a)

Waiting For Sibiu – Brasov Bus Station: A Transylvanian Tale (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #20)

What was I thinking? The answer was that I was not thinking. At least that was what I thought when reflecting upon a bus trip my wife and took to from Brasov to Sibiu in Transylvania. The quickest way to travel between the two cities was by bus. At least that was what I believed before we headed to Brasov’s Bus Station (Autogara 3) on our final morning in the city. Brasov had been a delight, the kind of place that filled me with memories. The city was flanked by mountains and home to a hilltop fortress. It had an Old Town replete with evocatively painted pastel houses, a massive Gothic Church that towered over the surrounding structures and a 15th century Town Hall fronting the pristinely kept Council Square. Brasov’s public transport facilities were another story altogether. For instance, the railway station was an experience we did not care to replicate.

While the station was along one of the same lines that plied an Orient Express route, it had none of the fin de siècle feeling to be found at other places found on that historic railway. The main problem with the Brasov Train Station was that it had been rebuilt during the communist era and still looked the part. It was functionalist, impersonal and unavoidable, at least for anyone arriving or departing from Brasov by train. Looking to avoid a repeat visit to the railway station we explored other options. Due to schedule constraints, we decided that it was best to take the bus from Brasov to Sibiu. This led me to wonder what the bus station would be like since we had not seen it since setting foot in the city. Surely it could not be that bad, after all this was Brasov. Then again, the railway station had taught me not to allow hope to triumph over experience.

Busted up – Brasov Bus Station

The Worst of Times – Decades With A Dictator
To say that Romania had a hard time of it during communism understates the ghastly period scarred by the reign of Nicolae Ceaucescu. His dictatorial regime robbed the country of its resources, both natural and financial. It also robbed the Romanian people, as well as minority populations, of their dignity. While the nation was managed for the benefit of Ceaucescu and his wife Elena, the country deteriorated to an unbelievable extent. The population was spied upon and brutalized by the Securitate (Secret Police), an entity that was one of the state’s largest employers. By the end of the 1980’s, the Ceaucescu regime was the vilest in Eastern Europe. It would go to any lengths in carrying out the Ceaucescu’s increasingly whimsical policies. One of these was to pay off all debt owed by the country. If saving money meant cutting off electricity in the winter, then so be it. While most of the population froze, store shelves were empty from a lack of imports. This was a classic case where the people’s paradise was really a house of horrors.

In retrospect, it is not surprising that the Ceaucescu’s were arrested, subjected to a mock trial. and summarily executed on Christmas Day in 1989. It is surprising that it did not happen sooner. This speaks volumes about the iron boot that the regime kept on the people’s throats. To this day, Romania shows signs of the ruinous economic policies that brought about the Ceaucescu regime’s collapse in 1989. While I have been to Ceaucescu’s grave and what might be considered his spiritual tomb, the sublimely megalomaniacal Parliament of the People in Bucharest, the one structure I find indicative of his regime is the Brasov Bus Station (Autogara 3). Let me be clear, this is not because Ceaucescu had anything to do with its design (at least not that I am aware of), instead it is because of the station’s condition and less than appealing aesthetics. It is a fine example of the lack of investment put towards infrastructure during that period. To say the station was down at the heel does not do it justice, downright seedy was more like it.

A real beauty – Brasov with the Black Church (Credit: Anton Stanley)

Random Strangers – The Experience of Loitering
Approaching the bus station was an unforgettable experience. There were no ticket sellers, at least not on this day. Potential passengers were left out in the cold, quite literally, as the platforms were open air with a minimal amount of cover. The pavement where we waited was broken and busted. We showed up half an hour before departure so we would not miss the bus. That was not as much of a problem as finding a bus. The platform area looked more like an abandoned lot, than it did anything resembling a public transport facility. It did not look safe, but in this case looks were deceiving. The station would have been a great stand in for a set piece in Samuel Becket’s classic absurdist play, “Waiting for Godot.” Rather than the two main characters waiting in a post-apocalyptic landscape for Godot, my wife and I were waiting for a bus to Sibiu in a derelict lot that looked like it had been through a war.

Trash was strewn about, a random stranger or two loitered and buses were few and far between. One of the more fascinating strangers was a man who kept going in and out of the actual station building adjacent to several of the bus platforms. The man never approached us, but he did go to others. It looked like he was trying to sell some sort of cologne. After scrutinizing his behavior, I wondered what he was doing here. Pretty soon, I began to wonder what me and my wife were doing here. We were lucky to have his presence to distract us. Watching the man’s activities gave us something to focus our attention on rather than the time we spent waiting. Soon we were joined by a young lady who looked like a university student. She stood silently, staring straight into nothingness. For the first time in my life, I knew what loitering must be like. Time had a different meaning at the Brasov Bus Station, as it barely seemed to exist at all.

Brasov at its best – The Old Town Hall and Council Square

Obstacle Course – The Power of Indifference
I grew increasingly impatient, to the point where I asked the lady waiting with us when the bus would arrive. She said it would be soon and pointed out that the buses were rarely on time. There was a hint of resignation in her voice. Finally, after what seemed to be an interminable length of time, a vehicle that was more van than bus arrived. It felt like a mid-day miracle. The station had looked like the place where nothing works right, but somehow it did. Sometimes I think the greatest thing about Romania is how the people overcome their circumstances. It takes a maddening amount of indifference to live with the endless obstacles and inefficiencies. Meanwhile, the driver sold us our tickets and helped pack the luggage. It was a relief to leave the Brasov Bus Station, but memories of the station have never left me. It was a memorable experience, one that I would not want to repeat again.

Click here for: A Steeple Floating In The Sky – St. Martin’s Church In Feldebro: The Joy of Rediscovery (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #21)

Eternal Libations – Kezmarok: The Wooden Articular Church & Pub (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #19)

Many years ago, I talked my mother into a side trip on the high plains of Montana. We were passing through the area on our way to visiting Glacier National Park. I wanted to see some of the obscure and often abandoned towns that dotted the high plains east of the park. Along the way, we came upon several communities that looked like they had not changed much over the past hundred years. Our explorations eventually brought us close to the Canadian border and the town of Sunburst, Montana. Sunburst was the opposite of its vivid name. Most of the buildings were well past their prime, that is if there had ever been one. My main reason for stopping in Sunburst was to look at the remnants of a small oil boom that occurred there in the early 20th century. Some of the old equipment used to pump oil from wells was scattered about.

Restored beauty – Wooden Articular Church in Kezmarok (Credit: Zuzana Medveova)

Spirits & The Spiritual – Bar None
While looking at the industrial detritus marooned in Sunburst, we just so happened upon a unique place. Sunburst was home to a church that had been turned into a bar. This was not as shocking as it might sound. Almost any town of note on the high plains will have one of each. In this case though, the bar had kept much of the church intact. After patrons finished drinking at the Mint Bar, they could walk right into the church to repent. I felt like this was one of the most novel and intensely ironic places I had ever visited. It was an idea that made a great deal of sense to me. I was surprised that it had not been done before. Many years later, in a land that could not have been further away from northern Montana, I visited the eastern Slovakian town of Kezmarok. That was when I came across a place strangely similar – only in reverse – to the bar turned church in Sunburst.

One of the most important religious buildings in Kezmarok, the Wooden Articular Church, has a history defined by duality. Where people now repent for their sins, they once drank to excess. Where citizens find spiritual sustenance, their distant forebears enjoyed alcoholic beverages. The Wooden Articular Church has stood much longer than the Mint Bar, but for all their differences in country and culture, I discovered that in at least one respect, Sunburst and Kezmarok have something in common. The irony of a church/bar or vice versa is not foreign to either town. The past was a different kind of place in both towns. In the case of two unique buildings, so is the present.

Prior to Restoration – Wooden Articular Church in Kezmarok (Credit: Sludge G)

In The Crosshairs – Fighting For Faith
Kezmarok was once in the crosshairs of history. The Reformation, followed by an Austrian inspired Counter-Reformation, took a heavy toll on the Lutheran community in the town. The Austrians connected Protestantism with the Hungarian nobility which had revolted against their rule during the late 17th and early 18th century. As such, the Austrians dealt harshly with anyone who was not a Catholic. They imposed draconian measures on Protestants, making it more difficult for adherents to worship when and where they wanted. Kezmarok, as one of the larger towns in what was historically known as the Spis region, had a large Lutheran community. They were given the right to build one church in which they would be allowed to worship. The restrictions put on the construction of the church speaks volumes. Just because their rulers also happened to be Christians did little to mitigate the strictness of laws imposed upon the Protestant community of Kezmarok.

One of the more extreme measures the Austrians decreed was that no Protestant churches could be constructed within the town walls. They were not about to provide any type of protection to rival faiths. The size of the church was also proscribed by a clever ruse. The law said that a Protestant church had to be completed within 365 days of the beginning of construction. Such a timetable was lightning speed by the standards of that historical era. It was not unusual for a church’s construction to take several years under the best of circumstances. It would be difficult, but not impossible to meet such an accelerated timeline. The materials involved in the building were also limited. The Hungarian elite, which would usually have donated funds to build the church, had been gutted by the Austrians. Many of the nobility were either in jail or landless due to confiscatory policies imposed upon them to break their will to resist. The large German population was also viewed with suspicion. Trying to raise funds to build the church was a difficult task

Donations to build a Protestant church in Kezmarok came from as far afield as Scandinavia. The assistance with construction was a case of fellow Lutherans supporting their spiritual brethren. Financing the church was hard enough, finding the material to build it presented another problem. Fortunately, Kezmarok was situated in the shadow of the High Tatras. Wood was abundant, available, and cheap. It was used as the building material.  The nails that held the church together were even made of wood. The restrictions imposed upon the Protestants led to greater creativity during the construction. One part of what would become the church existed prior to construction. In what was perhaps the most humiliating of all the Austrian regulations governing construction, a royal committee chose where the church would be located. It was on a site that included a pub. The latter would be incorporated into the Wooden Articular Church. In this case, necessity was not only the mother of humiliation, but also invention. The pub would become the sacristy in the newly erected church.

Ready for a close up – Wooden Articular Church in Kezmarok (Credit: SchiDD)

Keeping The Faith – From Pub To Protestantism
The Wooden Articular Church is a protected monument that can still be visited today. It has changed from its initial iteration. Stylistically, the church went from being a Renaissance inspired construction, to an early 18th century Baroque one. A few elements from the original, including a baptistry and epitaph, can still be seen today. The transformation of the pub into part of the church is an important part of its earliest history. The Austrians thought they were putting Protestants in their proper place by relegating a portion of the church to the lowly status accorded a pub. As so often happens, their oppressive measures only served to strengthen the faith of the oppressed. In that resistance, the Wooden Articular Church in Kezmarok was constructed and soon became an integral part of the city. It just goes to show that the spiritual is much more powerful than spirits. If only the same could be said for the Mint Bar in Sunburst.

Click here for: Waiting For Sibiu – Brasov Bus Station: A Transylvanian Tale (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #20)

Mysticism, Fanaticism and Mayhem – Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln: Sociopath of the Century (Part Two)

Have you ever met one of those people who could charm the socks off strangers? The kind of person who could sell ocean front property in the middle of Russia to people who ought to know better. The kind of person you know is lying and yet you continue to believe in them when they have given you every indication otherwise. The kind of person you know is headed for disaster and you know that they know they are headed for disaster and yet continues to head down the road of no return because they just can’t help it. And the entire time they have convinced themselves of whatever the truth happens to be in their own deluded mind.

People like this usually fall under a range of classifications, including charlatans, grifters and sociopaths. If you have ever known someone like this, than you probably have a rough idea of what Ignaz Trebitsch- Lincoln was like. He was utterly convincing and uniquely depraved. He was terribly dishonest and fueled by self-belief. He was on the fringes of society and not far from the levers of power. He was ridiculous and supercilious. In short, he was a synthesis of mysteriously persuasive powers. Ones that carried him from a provincial Hungarian town to far off lands where he would sniff around the corridors of power. Ultimately, Trebitsch-Lincoln was a huckster who died far from a home he never really had.

Seeing into the future – Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln (Credit: K Koller – Wikimedia Commons)

Many Unhappy Returns – Less Than Brilliant Coups
World War I did not really end in central and eastern Europe in the autumn of 1918. Conflict continued to simmer from Germany to Hungary and all points eastward for several years. Revolutions sprouted and rotted on the vine, militias formed and flashed in a blaze of false glory before imploding, right and left wing movements rose and fell in the face of whatever was fashionable at the time. Democracy, autocracy, and dictatorship vied for supremacy. In this world, refugees scrounged for survival. Some were better suited than others to survive, and in a few cases thrive amid this precarious situation. Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln was one of the latter. After he was released from prison in Great Britain, Trebitsch-Lincoln made his way to Germany where an extremely shaky democratic government was struggling to fend off bids for power from the far right. Trebitsch-Lincoln sniffed out an opportunity with insurgents led by a Prussian journalist and civil servant, Wolfgang Kapp. Others involved were the former German army commander, Erich von Ludendorf and an obscure fanatic by the name of Adolf Hitler.

The Kapp Putsch as it became known, led to a two day takeover of the German government.  Trebitsch-Lincoln got himself a position as Press Secretary. In the process, he managed to meet Hitler, but the coup fell apart before the putschists could solidify their grip on power. This sent Trebitsch-Lincoln back to Austria and Hungary, in search of other right wingers who might pave a path to power. In these countries, the White International was a pro-militarist and uber nationalist organization. They had arisen in response to the threat of communism, which at least in Hungary was more than just an existential threat after the Red Republic of Bela Kun rose and fell in 1919. The Whites blamed Jews and Socialists for the postwar chaos and harsh terms of the Treaties of Versailles and Trianon.

None of this mattered to Trebitsch-Lincoln who long ago had eschewed his Judaism and sought out extreme rightists as kindred spirits. In his birth land of Hungary they had committed unspeakable atrocities against Jews on several occasions, something Trebitsch-Lincoln ignored. His hatred was reserved for the British, who along with the other Allies had imposed what he felt was an unduly harsh peace on the losing Central Powers. Trebitsch-Lincoln managed to wiggle his way into managing the White International forces archival documents which he proceeded to not so secretly sell to foreign governments. He was put on trial for treason in Austria and acquitted of the crime. With assassins in Hungary on his trail, Trebitsch-Lincoln had to flee abroad once again.

The bitter end- Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln as Chao Kung

Re-Oriented – On An Eastern Path
Trebitsch-Lincoln had worn out his welcome in almost every country in Europe where he had spent any length of time. Thus, it is not surprising that he decided to go further abroad than he ever had before. He made his way to China, a land beset by warring factions. It did not take long for Trebitsch-Lincoln to insinuate himself into the good graces of several warlords. As usual, Trebitsch-Lincoln did not manage to pick the winning side. He soon turned from martial to spiritual affairs when he made another head spinning about face in converting to Buddhism. This was probably the strangest and most improbable of the various guises he assumed during his life. Trebitsch-Lincoln never did anything halfway, he was a man who went to extremes and so it was with his newfound fondness for Buddhism. He rose from monk to abbot, took the name of Chao Kung, demanded that his followers turn over all their possessions to him and spent an inordinate amount of time seducing nuns.

Even by Trebitsch-Lincoln’s admittedly strange standards this was a spectacular turn towards the exotic. He took to his new role with zeal, traveling back to the west where he taught Buddhism. Whether or not Trebitsch-Lincoln believed in what he was preaching is an unanswerable question. What mattered was that he could get others to believe in him. And despite all his lies and fraudulent behavior, Trebitsch-Lincoln always believed in himself. Of course, Trebitsch-Lincoln could not help but involve himself in political intrigues, especially after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. A militaristic, authoritarian government was just the type of thing that piqued Trebitsch-Lincoln’s interest. He now viewed the Japanese as the best hope to rid Asia of the British Empire. His hatred for Britain only grew worse after his son, who was still living there, ended up getting executed for his role in a drunken robbery. Marrying his hatred of the British with his spiritual acumen, Trebitsch-Lincoln claimed that he was the successor to the Dalai Lama. This was a stretch even by his standards. A planned triumphal trip to Tibet went nowhere.

Spirited work – Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln as Chao Kung

A Remarkable Failure – The Last Legacy
It was not long before Trebitsch-Lincoln was back at it again with another ultra-right wing movement. In a sort of odd throwback to his time in Germany two decades earlier, Trebitsch-Lincoln began to scheme for some way to get in with the Nazis. Mysticism was the bizarre currency in which he now traded. Trebitsch-Lincoln contacted the German attache in Tokyo in a bid to help him negotiate a meeting with Hitler. At this meeting, Trebitsch-Lincoln wanted to persuade Hitler to end the World War. To prove his otherworldly powers, Trebitsch-Lincoln planned on having three wise men of Tibet come out of a wall at the meeting. Incredibly, a message with this information was sent to Berlin. It was angrily rejected.

Trebitsch-Lincoln’s antics were too much, even for fanatics like the Nazis. He was seen as an exotic charlatan who was of no value to them. For that matter, he was of no value to much of anyone as the war continued. He fell ever deeper into obscurity. Just as strange as his life was Trebitsch-Lincoln’s death. For a man who had spent much of his life causing consternation and controversy, he succumbed to a strangely banal fate at Shanghai in 1943, dying from a stomach ailment while living at the Shanghai YMCA. Perhaps he was poisoned, perhaps he died of natural causes. Truth was something that did not go well with Trebitsch-Lincoln’s life. He was mourned by few and later remembered for a remarkable life that ultimately ended far from a Hungarian homeland for which he never really cared. All his adventures in politics, religion, spying and mysticism eventually came to nothing. The same could not be said for his astonishing life, which if nothing else, proves that anything is possible.

Click here for: Anything Is Possible – Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln: Sociopath of the Century (Part One)

Anything Is Possible – Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln: Sociopath of the Century (Part One)

Not long ago, my mother asked me, “Son, did those things you write about really happen?” My reply was a slightly bemused, “Yeah.” I understood why she might have her doubts. The town I grew up in western North Carolina – and where she still lives – is a long way from Eastern Europe, both geographically and psychologically. Nothing in my childhood experience, at least from a superficial standpoint, pointed me towards a future interest in Eastern Europe. There were no people of Eastern European descent in our immediate world. My mother had no idea that I became infatuated with the Eastern Bloc due to the Cold War, the Olympic Games and stumbling upon reference works on the Eastern Front of World War I in high school.

This led to what has turned into a lifelong fascination with the region, manifesting itself in a marriage, multiple trips to the Eastern Europe each year and an ever growing library of history and travel books on Eastern Europe. I am sure my mother still thinks it is bizarre that her youngest son is fascinated with a region that we as a family were not connected to in any tangible way. In retrospect, I should have answered my mother’s question by stating what I really believe, that anything is possible.  If she had replied with skepticism, I could have given her an Eastern European example which proves that “anything really is possible. The life of Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln.

Sociopath of the Century – Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln

The Art of Impossibility – A Fraudulent Life
I was having dinner in what had once been the garden of the Karolyi Palace in Budapest with the late historian and raconteur Norman Stone and author Michael O’Sullivan. During our conversation, I asked Stone whether he had heard of Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln. At the mere mention of the name, Stone suddenly roared to life as he recounted this notorious confidence man’s exploits in detail. This was quite a feat considering the amount of alcohol Stone had already consumed in the past hour. Keeping the story straight concerning Trebitsch-Lincoln’s life is a near impossible task. This was a man who assumed multiple personas and a variety of names while ingratiating himself with almost everyone he met. If character is destiny, then Trebitsch-Lincoln was the ultimate character, a man destined for depravity, demagoguery and disaster while leading one of the most bizarre and eventful existences in the annals of modern Europe. Recalling Trebitsch-Lincoln in Hungary makes sense, after all it was in a Hungarian provincial town on the banks of the Danube where his life began.

It is never a good sign when a town’s main claim to fame is a nuclear power plant, but that is the case with Paks, a town of some 20,000 Hungarians on the western banks of the Danube River approximately 120 kilometers south of Budapest. Other than nuclear energy, Paks has largely escaped notoriety. For instance, the most famous person from the town was a pharmacist, Gyula Nemes Abay, the author of many famous works on the history of pharmacies in Hungary. Abay is obscure even by Hungarian standards, but Paks has another son who was much more famous, or more correctly, infamous. One whose modest upbringing in the town did little to predict his later rise to international infamy.

Ignaz Trebitsch was born in 1879, the son of an Orthodox Rabbi in Paks. His father’s profession may have influenced his later life. He would get involved in the practice of religion and spiritualism on several occasions in the decades to come. Oddly, Trebitsch-Lincoln turned his back on Judaism. He left Paks along with his family when he was still a teenager. He managed to get accepted in the Royal Hungarian Academy of Dramatic Art. He did next to nothing at the Academy. Instead, he spent his time writing and selling travel stories to newspapers about his adventures in South America, a place he had never visited.

Anything Is Possible – Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln

Failing Upward – A Professional Grifter
The police soon took an interest in Trebitsch due to his affinity for petty theft. It is said that crime doesn’t pay, but Trebitsch would prove that cliché wrong time and again. He stole a gold watch at his sister’s residence, then sold it for enough money to travel abroad to Great Britain. He soon got baptized, then traveled back to the continent where he began to study at a Lutheran seminary. Soon he got himself a job as a missionary working to convert Jews to Protestantism in Quebec, Canada. He worked first for the Presbyterians and then later the Anglican Church. Such contradictions and wild inconsistencies in Trebitsch’s career choices were common throughout his life. The amazing thing, he was just getting started.  Trebitsch left Canada after controversy over his pay. It seemed that wherever Trebitsch went, fraud followed.

By 1903 he was back in Britain, making fast friends with the Archbishop of Canterbury and getting himself appointed to the equivalent of a parish priest position in the County of Kent. It was also around this time that Trebitsch added Lincoln to his surname. He would later claim that this was in honor of Abraham Lincoln. What honest Abe and this professional grifter had in common is hard to tell? Soon Trebitsch-Lincoln have up on mainstream religion as he made another powerful friend, Seebohm Rowntree, a man who had made millions in the chocolate industry. Not only was Rowntree a millionaire, he was also a powerful politician for the Labor Party who hired Trebitsch-Lincoln as his private secretary. Rowntree supported Trebitsch-Lincoln in running for the parliamentary seat of Darlington in 1909. This all took place while Trebitsch-Lincoln was still a citizen of Austria-Hungary. Incredibly he won the seat.

Success was not something Trebitsch-Lincoln was ever able to sustain. He suffered from money woes and was unable to run for reelection. Soon his focus turned back to Eastern Europe where he hoped to make his own fortune. Specifically, Trebitsch-Lincoln involved himself in the powder keg that was the pre-World War One Balkans, while founding the Anglo-Austrian Petroleum Syndicate. When he wasn’t trying to get investors to use their money to pump dry wells in the oil fields of Romania, Trebitsch-Lincoln was trying to create a cartel that would control all the pipelines in the area. He failed at this as well.

The Personification of Dishonesty – Ignac Trebitsch-Lincoln

Prisoner of War – On Both Sides Of Enemy Lines
The outbreak of World War I irreparably changed Trebitsch-Lincoln’s career trajectory. He was now able to offer his subversive skills to spy on the enemy. Just who the enemy was depended more on Trebitsch-Lincoln’s self-interest rather than any nationality or ideology. He started the war by working as a censor for the British while professing support for the Germans. Trebitsch-Lincoln was lucky to escape Britain before he ended up in prison. He soon washed up on America’s shores. This was where he wrote a famous book purporting to spill secrets on British spying. Keep in mind, that this was a man who only six year earlier had been a Member of Parliament in Great Britain!

The British were enraged enough by Trebitsch’s book to the point that they got the Americans to arrest him. Trebitsch-Lincoln then would end up being extradited and spending three years in a British prison. Up to this point in his life, Trebitsch-Lincoln was proving the point that the truth really is stranger than fiction. Even the most imaginative novelist could not possibly create a character so duplicitous and sell it to the public with a straight face. Who was Trebitsch-Lincoln? Was he British, Hungarian or Jewish? Was he devout or the equivalent a pad your own pocket evangelist? Was he a spy for the British or the Germans? By the end of World War I, Trebitsch-Lincoln had been an Orthodox Jew, Lutheran, Protestant missionary, oil company executive, writer, censor, spy, and prisoner. The amazing thing was that his life was about to get even more bizarre.

Click here for: Mysticism, Fanaticism and Mayhem – Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln: Sociopath of the Century (Part Two)

Worth Its Weight In Old – Perast: A Lost Legacy of Franz Joseph (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #18)

I did not expect to find the old emperor hanging out in Perast. I figured the Montenegrins were long since through with Emperor Franz Joseph (reigned 1848 – 1916). After his death, the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed just a couple of years later. Every other successor state in the Habsburg domain beyond Austria banished him to the dustbin of history. While I saw his beloved wife, Queen Elisabeth, immortalized in statuary by the Danube in Budapest and across from the train station in Trieste among other places, the emperor who had ruled for an unfathomable 68 years was nowhere to be seen in the territories which he had once ruled over. This was why seeing Franz Joseph in Perast came as such a surprise.

Montenegro was always a fringe area on the empire’s southern frontier. Historically, it had not been a core land of the crown, but one obtained during the early 19th century. Austrian rule never had the deep roots in Perast that others, such as the Republic of Venice, did. The Venetian influence was on display throughout the town in the old mansions that stood facing the Bay of Kotor. The sunny disposition of the seaside also made Perast seem much more Mediterranean than Mitteleuropa. The town reminded me of southern Europe rather than the middle of it. What could possibly be left of the relatively short rule of Austria-Hungary in Perast? I found the answer in a most unlikely place.

Hanging around – Bust of Emperor Franz Joseph in Perast

Unfinished Business – A Towering Discovery
A stunning view of the Bay of Kotor was the first thing I noticed upon entering Perast. The sparkling blue bay was the ultimate distraction. Once I managed to refocus, my eyes were attracted to St. Nicholas’’ Church. Its 55 meter high bell tower drew my attention as it soared into a piercingly blue sky. The church was a magnetic attraction with its own unique allure. It marked a sort of midpoint in the town and a starting point for my explorations. On this day, the church was not open for viewing. That is not so surprising when you consider that the church has never been finished. What I found surprising was the fact that construction on the church began during the 17th century. Looking at the exterior, it was hard to figure out what had been left unfinished. The church was a formidable stone structure, one that fit in well with the rest of Perast. This grand old edifice rewarded me with several excellent photo opportunities.

As I snapped image after image, I focused on getting photos of the bell tower. This took me to the side of it, where I spotted a bust attached to one side of the wall. It was in between some scaffolding that had been erected for restoration work on part of a wall. Staring at the bust, I did a double take. It was hard to believe, but the mutton chop whiskers and regal visage were unmistakable. It was Emperor Franz Joseph. What the old emperor was doing hanging around – quite literally – on a wall at St. Nicholas’ Church was beyond me. The bust was sculpted out of a rustic red material which gave it a certain sheen of distinction. I studied the bust from several angles, its situation seemed to defy gravity. I could see how it might have been grafted on to the wall, but the fact that it had stayed there for at least a century was nothing short of incredible. Weathering and war had not been able to dispose of the old Emperor’s bust. It had withstood the vagaries of ideology and regime change. It stood as a lasting symbol of a lost empire, one whose death knell was sounded in the Balkans.

Unfinished business – St. Nicholas’ Church in Perast

The Emperor Vanishes – Deceased To Exist
There was something ironic and rather endearing about the bust’s survival. If this had been in Austria, I would have thought nothing of it. In Perast, it was the ultimate outlier, a forgotten artifact worth its weight in old. Busts of Emperor Franz Josef must have been a common sight across the empire during the late 19th and early 20th century. Photos of the Emperor would have been a common sight on posters and postcards as well as in civic buildings. Franz Joseph was the ultimate symbol of Austria-Hungary. A unifying presence for the distant and disparate lands of a political entity which stretched from the Adriatic shoreline to the plains of eastern Galicia (present day western Ukraine). Even though the empire was coming apart at its ethnic seams, Franz Joseph acted as a steadying influence. His visage denoted more than a man. He was the essence of stability and longevity. And then after sixty-eight years on the throne, he was gone.

It would not be long before images, busts and statues of Franz Joseph disappeared right along with the empire. The most famous and revered representative of an empire which no longer existed vanished from the public square, posters, and postcards. He went into missing person mode, as the chapter of history he helped write was ripped out of history books. The supposedly benign emperor was viewed as a historically malignant force by the successor states that were formed from the dissolution of Austria-Hungary at the end of World War I. Yugoslavia, the new home for Perast and Montenegro, was more than happy to throw off the Habsburg yoke. The South Slavs now ruled themselves and had little use for those who had repressed nationalist sentiment. Borders changed, flags changed, and forms of government changed. The world of Franz Joseph became an anachronism. Any representations of the emperor disappeared overnight. Oddly, this is the opposite of what happened on the side of St. Nicholas’ Church.

Above and beyond – Looking out from Perast at the Bay of Kotor

A Montenegrin Mystery – Living In Obscurity
For whatever reason, the old emperor had staying power in this small, sequestered area of Perast. The bust’s survival remains a mystery to me and probably always will. Nonetheless, it reminded me of just how far the empire reached and a legacy that has been largely lost. It was in places like Perast where the old emperor still lived in obscurity. There are worse things than having been forgotten, never having been known in the first place is one of them. That was something Franz Joseph never had to worry about, but his legacy is another matter.   

Click here for: Eternal Libations – Kezmarok: The Wooden Articular Church & Pub (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #19)