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.

Making Out Like Bandits – Pilsudski’s Hoard: The Great Polish Train Robbery (Part Two)

Waiting is supposed to be the hardest part before undertaking acts of subterfuge. That was not exactly the case for Jozef Pilsudski when it came to the train robbery that he and his fellow co-conspirators (operating as a bojowki – small combat organization) planned to carry out in 1908. The daunting logistical challenges of procuring people and weapons, as well as planning everything down to the last detail led to a series of delays. This was understandable because the operation was going to be a matter of life and death. Life for Polish nationalism or death for the conspirators. With so much on the line, the timetable shifted from spring to summer then to autumn. Unspoken was the fact that Pilsudski, sequestered in the countryside outside of Wilno with Aleksandra, was enjoying the love of his life. He was not in any great hurry to see the plan through. After a succession of delays, Pilsudski and his closest colleagues decided to move forward with their covert operation at the start of autumn.  Unfortunately, things did not quite go according to plan.

Freedom Fighters - Jozef Pilsudski with his colleagues

Freedom Fighters – Jozef Pilsudski with his colleagues

Shrouded In Darkness – Learning From Failure
Without the benefit of modern street lighting, it is easy to forget just how dark it can be in the countryside at night. Just try to imagine finding your way along a marshy road in the Lithuanian countryside during the early 20th century. On the night of Saturday, September 19th, there was only the sliver of a waning crescent moon to guide the way. It is not surprising that many of the Poles involved in the first train robbery attempt got lost. They were traversing a landscape shrouded in darkness with little more than their senses to guide them. A deliberate decision was made not to use torchlight due to the fear of being discovered by Russian police. Along the poor roads they lost their way, wandering down a shadowy path to nowhere. Many of the conspirators were at a loss on how to find their way to the marshaling point near the station.

To make matters worse, a cart transporting bombs that would be used to disable the train got bogged down in the muck. There was no chance that it could get close to the station in time for an attack. Pilsudski made the wise decision to abort the attempt and try again a week later. In retrospect, the aborted attempt turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It helped Pilsudski and his co-conspirators refine their plan. They learned that traveling at night was difficult at best. Plans were made to start moving towards the staging areas during daylight hours. The cart, which was to carry the bombs and take away the loot, was reinforced to hold a heavier load. Everyone now knew exactly where they needed to be and how much time to allot for travel. The conspirators had also been fortunate, no suspicions had been raised during the aborted attempt. In the failure of the first attempt, lay the seeds for a successful second one.

Wanted Man - Russian poster calling for the capture of Pilsudski

Wanted Man – Russian poster calling for the capture of Pilsudski

Waiting On A Train – Bombs Away
All the conspirators were ready and willing to carry out the plan once again. As it had been envisioned, six men would take over the station and hold those inside at bay while four men would attack the train with bombs and disable the postal car where the money was held. Four were to get money out of the postal car. Another man was in charge of driving the one horse, two wheeled cart. Finally, three women including Pilsudski’s beloved Aleksandra were to ensure the money was stored in a safe hiding place. To say the operation was complex, did not do it justice. Pulling the robbery off would take courage and a lot of luck. It remained to be seen whether Pilsudski and his team were up to the challenge.

A week after the first failed attempt, Pilsudski and his conspirators were back at it on the evening of Saturday, September 26th. At 10:30 p.m., just as the train was pulling into Bedzany station, the Poles sprang into action. A couple of bombs were thrown at the postal and escort cars, immediately shattering the windows and knocking out any artificial lighting inside. Three of the conspirators were already in the station. They, along with a couple of other colleagues who soon joined them, subdued police and kept control of the stunned crowd of bystanders. The escort car held Russian troops that were unable to react in time. Shots were fired by the Poles as they entered the car. Amid the chaos, several Russian soldiers were wounded with one killed. Pilsudski was part of a small team that forced their way into the postal car with a combination of bombs and threats. They then made their way to where the money was stored.

Steel Will - Stretch of the old Warsaw to St. Petersburg railway line in Lithuania today

Steel Will – Stretch of the old Warsaw to St. Petersburg railway line in Lithuania today (Credit: Sarunas Simkus)

Hard Cash – Getting Their Money’s Worth
Stepping inside the room was akin to entering a bank vault. Pilsudski immediately noticed numerous bags holding coins, there would turn out to be fifty in all. The only problem was that these bags held silver coins much less valuable than gold ones. To make a financial windfall on the robbery would mean having to carry off a couple thousand pounds of silver coins. There was no way the lone two wheeled cart could hold this heavy of a load. Easier pickings, such as bank notes, were problematic as well.  Those that were discovered had the cashiers signature missing. It had been trimmed off the notes, making them useless other than for the deposit in the Russian treasury.

The Poles luck was not all bad. In another part of the postal car, they discovered some metal boxes with the proceeds from ticket sells. Several of these were opened with the help of small bombs or dynamite. Best estimates of the value of coins and currency stolen during the robbery was 200,000 Russian rubles, the equivalent of 10 million dollars in today’s terms. Pilsudski and his team had not stolen as much as they hoped. Nevertheless, the total would be enough to provide a great deal of financing for the development of Polish military forces, but first the conspirators had to elude arrest in a countryside that would soon be crawling with Russian troops.

Jozef Pilsudski’s Revolutionary Idea – Mission Possible: The Great Polish Train Robbery (Part One)

Try to imagine that after Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch carried out one of their successful train robberies in the American West, they had then used the stolen money to go into politics. Their political careers rise as they make their way toward the American presidency. Cassidy, Kid Curry and other outlaw luminaries then pass the presidency among themselves for many years. Such a tale seems far-fetched, to the point of fantasy. While this never happened in the United States, something similar did occur in Poland. In 1908 twenty Polish revolutionaries, including three future prime ministers, organized and carried out a train robbery in what was then the Russian Empire (present-day eastern Lithuania). The Tsarist government labeled the perpetrators as outlaws and failed to hunt most of them down. The successful raid supplied the revolutionaries with financial resources to help build a Polish military force that could liberate Poland from foreign occupation. At the same time, it helped the group’s leader make a name for himself while establishing his legitimacy as a man who would back up his words with action. The leader of this group was none other than the one man most responsible for the creation of an independent Poland exactly a decade later, Jozef Pilsudski.

Jozef Pilsudski - Official mug shot by Okhrana after his arrest in 1900

Jozef Pilsudski – Official mug shot by Okhrana after his arrest in 1900

Career Moves – Working On The Railroad
Bezdonys stands 30 kilometers northwest of the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. Bezdonys is what it has always been, a small rural village (population 743) where the slow pace of life matches the pace of progress. Even as Vilnius has grown and crept closer, Bezdonys has remained little more than a wide spot in the road. In the early 20th century, the village was a wide spot on the railroad, inhabited by peasants who worked the land around it. There was nothing especially notable about the village except for the fact that the Warsaw – St Petersburg Railroad ran through it. Built forty years before, the railroad brought a bit of modernity to a traditional society. The railroad also brought an opportunity for bojowki – Polish combat teams created by Pilsudski – to commit robberies that could help fund an independent Polish military force.

In 1908, the cool autumn air of Bezdany (as it was then known by its Polish name) was pierced by the shrill whistle of locomotives on Tuesday and Saturday evenings. The whistle came from treasury trains stopping at Bezdany station while on their way to St. Petersburg. The trains, which also carried passengers and the postal mail, were transporting tax revenues and other money out of Poland back to the Russian capital. One bojowki unit led by Pilsudski began to formulate a plan to rob the train and acquire a financial windfall. This was an exceedingly dangerous enterprise. If it was discovered, the Poles would either face exile or execution. Pilsudski knew the dangers that he and his force faced, but he was determined to try for another reason besides the money. There were questions within the Polish Socialist Party whether he would be willing to risk his own safety. In the past, he had always recruited other Poles to carry deadly missions in support of his dream to end Tsarist Russia’s suffocating rule over Vilna Governorate (a Russian administered region of partitioned Poland roughly coinciding with present day eastern Lithuania/western Belarus). Pilsudski was now willing to take matters into his own hands.

Jozef Pilsudski - The Young Revolutionary

Jozef Pilsudski – The Young Revolutionary

Months In The Making – Suspicion & Surveillance
Trying to rob a train in the Vilna Governorate was not easy. The Russian Empire’s Okhrana (Tsarist secret police) were constantly on the lookout for revolutionaries. They had good reason to keep a vigilant eye on the Poles. There had been several mass uprisings – most prominently in 1831 and 1863 – by Poles against Tsarist rule since the Russians had established control over the area following the Napoleonic Wars. Polish nationalists like Pilsudski were constantly under suspicion and surveillance. He had already been sent into Siberian exile for helping lead protests. Pilsudski knew that if he were caught trying to coordinate and carry out a robbery to help fund military activities that it would almost certainly cost him and his co-conspirators their lives. Fear was not enough to stop him. His critics in the Polish independence movement stated that up to this point, Pilsudski had not personally put his own life on the line for the cause. Pilsudski vowed that he would rather die for the cause of Polish independence then to live as a virtual slave under Tsarist rule.

The coordination and planning of the treasury train robbery was months in the making. Twenty Poles would be involved, three of whom were female. This included Pilsudski’s mistress, lifelong love and eventual second wife, Aleksandra Szczerbinska. She would prove crucial to the robbery’s ultimate success. The first decision was where to attempt the robbery. The most likely place was somewhere close to Pilsudski’s hometown of Wilno (present day Vilnius). Attempting the robbery in the city was out of the question due to the presence of Russian troops. Instead, it was decided to ambush the train at its second stop beyond Wilno, at the village station in Bezdany. There were only a handful of police for the entire village. Taking over the station and disabling the telegraph and telephone lines was of paramount importance. This would make it difficult for anyone to call for help. Even after a call for help went out, Russian soldiers would not be able to respond immediately. Pilsudski and his team then selected the 1908 as the best time to carry out their plan.

A Good Woman Is Hard To Find - Aleksandra Szczerbinska

A Good Woman Is Hard To Find – Aleksandra Szczerbinska

Risk Management – The Importance Of Luck
The where and when of the robbery was comparatively easy to decide. A more difficult challenge would be to coordinate everyone’s involvement. Pilsudski and his closest colleagues were careful about who they selected for the robbery. Because there were twenty people involved, this meant that there would be many potential suspects for the Russians to interrogate if anyone was caught. Information was compartmentalized and many of the conspirators had no idea who was involved or their identities. This way there was less chance that someone could sell the entire group out to the police. While Pilsudski and his confidantes minutely planned every detail, they were taking a massive risk. Success and failure in such an enterprise was a matter of execution and timing. And there was always the element of luck. Fortunately, luck was with Pilsudski and the Poles.

The Experience Of Denial & Arrival – Distant Shore: An Uncertain Journey To Odessa (Part Two)

Some of the best ideas for traveling in Eastern Europe are often the most unfeasible. Train travel is a nostalgic throw back to a bygone era, it is also insanely slow. A river cruise on the Danube sounds relaxing and romantic, unless you enjoy paying a mint to be surrounded by American pensioners who enjoy complaining about the lack of ice in their drinks at brunch. The open road by car offers unprecedented access and speed, but quickly becomes an irritation when you must find a parking space in a city, let along figure out how to pay for it. Bus travel offers an affordable way to see the countryside. Unfortunately, it is almost always exhausting after the first half hour.  Flying is cheap, saves time and offers a chance to see cities you would otherwise overlook. Conversely, some of those cities are overlooked for a reason. Chisnau anyone!

A Vision Unseen - The port of Odessa

A Vision Unseen – The port of Odessa (Credit Szymon Stasik)

A Dreadful Malady – Out Of Service
A journey by ferry across the Black Sea from Istanbul to Odessa sounded like a wonderful idea to me, that was until I really thought about it. A bit of research confronted me with innumerable problems. The first of these was trying to find a reliable ferry that kept regular hours and days of service. The only ferries I could find at the time were Ukrainian cargo ships. Since their mission was to carry goods across the Black Sea and passengers were an afterthought, this did not bode well for trip planning. Everything depended on availability and the vagaries of weather. Fortunately, I had a Turkish friend in Istanbul who was willing to check on this service for me. What little they managed to discover was just as nebulous as everything I found online. They were told that it was best to just turn up at the terminal a day or two in advance. Schedules which had once been set in stone were now open to change.

This news was discouraging to say the least. I was thousands of miles away from my point of departure, unable to get any assurance of when or if the journey would take place. Obviously, passengers were not a priority on journeys across the Black Sea. This information started me down a slippery slope that would lead me to begin reconsidering the journey. My next worry was seasickness, a dreadful malady which afflicts the unwitting traveler stupid enough to set sail without motion sickness tablets. The thought of spending a day and night on the roiling waters of the Black Sea surrounded by hard bitten merchant mariners while I begged for another bucket in which to dry heave, made me cringe. I have never been seasick, but then again I have never been at sea for more than an hour. The closest I ever came to an all day voyage was when I took four ferries in a single day along the Outer Banks of North Carolina. That had been enough for me to learn that my stomach was a bit on the queasy side.

Distant Memory - Sunset on the shores of the Black Sea

Distant Memory – Sunset on the shores of the Black Sea (Credit: Insider)

The Potential For Problems – A Less Than Stellar Seafaring Adventure
The potential for a less than stellar seafaring adventure, but a sickeningly memorable one, was definitely a possibility on a seagoing journey to Odessa. The cost for the journey added to my growing list of doubts. UKR Ferry Shipping Company charged passengers $750 for an individual berth, but it did come with a private bath which did not interest me in the least. The best deal was a berth for two in first class which went for $250. These charges included three meals a day. Of course, it was anyone’s guess what the quality of food might be like. This was troubling, but hardly the least of my worries. The water route between the two cities was notorious for human trafficking. Many lovely, but desperately impoverished and hopelessly naïve Ukrainian women had been lured away from squalid villages to set sail from Odessa with the promise of steady jobs. They had been lured into a terrible trap, forced to perform slave labor or worse in Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries. The idea of being a witness to these poor souls filled me with fear. This was the opposite of romance, it was depravity and decadence in the service of venality. Such issues were unlikely to affect me, but they were impossible to ignore

The list of drawbacks led to an internal conversation where I began to convince myself the journey was probably not worth it. I came to the realization that a Black Sea voyage would be expensive, none too pleasant and possibly dangerous. To make matters worse, a round trip journey had a very short turnaround time. A UKR ferry “usually” left on Tuesday, arrived on Wednesday and returned on Saturday. This would leave me little time to explore Odessa. I suddenly imagined wandering around the city in a daze. Then just as I was finally getting my bearings, the ferry would be setting sail once again. This only served to justify my increasing pessimism. It was a matter of time before I talked myself out of the trip. Odessa was a distant shore I would fail to reach by ship. Romance was trumped by reality which led to relief. I promised myself that a visit to Odessa would eventually be in my future. Eleven years later, that day has yet to arrive.

The Uncertain Arrival - Odessa Train Station

The Uncertain Arrival – Odessa Train Station (Credit: Alex Levitsky & Dmitry Shamatazhi)

A Bit Of Faint Hope – Pulling Into The Station
A few years after my imaginary trip from Istanbul to Odessa had been aborted I was staying at a hostel in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. There I engaged in a discussion with an American teenager whose mother was a Ukrainian émigré to the United States. Mother and son were traveling around the country, seeing sights as well as family. We began discussing all the places they had visited. The son said Odessa was by far his favorite. “You have to go. It is a wonderful city.” I felt the pain of regret as he spoke of the enchanting seaside city. His favorite aspect of Odessa was the arrival experience. “Classical music was playing” when their train pulled into the station. A sense of envy overtook me which was followed by a bit of faint hope. I now knew the best way to travel to Odessa, if only I could bring myself to do it.

A Window On The Wider World – Sailing Away: The Uncertain Journey To Odessa (Part One)

The trips not taken haunt me. They come back to me in the strangest places, at the strangest of times. These memories are ghosts that materialize and vanish seemingly without reason. The most recent occurrence took place while I was at a used bookstore in Akron, Ohio. It all started when I came across a book, part travelogue, part history titled the Black Sea by Neal Ascherson. I had been hoping to find something fascinating on the region. Discovering the book in a very thin section of Eastern European history, I worked hard to persuade myself to purchase it. While perusing the book, I came across several passages on Ukraine. That was when a thought suddenly arose of Odessa, that fabulous Black Sea port city with its magnificent multinational past and fatally tragic Soviet history.

I began flipping through the book once again. I soon came across passages on the Ottoman Turks. Suddenly my mind connected the two, not somewhere in the historical past, but in my own personal past. Over a decade ago I got the idea that I might return to Istanbul for the second time in my life. On this trip, I would be alone rather than with my best friend who accompanied me in 2008. The trip would be a romantic adventure, where I would board a ship in Istanbul for a voyage across the Black Sea, arriving a day later in Odessa. Though I had no idea if this was possible, I decided that such a trip was worth researching and possibly attempting. Thus, I set out on a distant and memorable journey, one more of imagination, than reality. A journey that eventually led to nowhere.

Distant Shores - The Vorontsov Lighthouse in Odessa

Distant Shores – The Vorontsov Lighthouse in Odessa (Credit: Nata Naval)

A Dream That Outlasted Reality – Port Of Entry & Exit
Before hitting upon the idea of a possible seafaring journey to Odessa I stumbled across the name several times while traveling. My closest brushes were trips through the same named places in Texas and Washington states. The former was a frighteningly ugly oil city out on the dusty flatlands of West Texas, the latter a small town in eastern Washington known for its fertile farmland that had been settled and cultivated by Germans from Russia. These settlers began their emigration to America by leaving from the bustling port of Odessa and crossing the Black Sea in the late 19th century. They left at just the right time, avoiding the cataclysms that would soon arrive in Odessa by both steppe and ship. Both American towns – along with eight others in the United States – were a long way from the bustling, cosmopolitan port city that has been a window on the wider world for Ukraine, the Soviet Union and Tsarist Russia since it was founded by Catherine the Great in 1794 and intensively developed under the vision of Frenchman Armand, Duc de Richelieu.

The city became a free port in 1819, which led to an even greater expansion of trade and investment. Merchants and associated industries grew wealthy off the grain trade exported from Odessa. The upshot was a beautiful Mediterranean style city stuffed with Italianate and French architecture on the edge of Ukraine. It was a dream that managed to outlast reality, surviving revolution, imperial collapse and a seemingly endless succession of catastrophic wars. For me, Odessa had to be seen to be believed. It was home to several notable sites including Odessa’s famed Opera and Ballet Houses along with the statue of the city’s greatest leader, Armand Duc De Richelieu, which stands at the pinnacle of the famous Potemkin Stairs. The allure of this mysterious port city focused my gaze firmly on a trip to Odessa.

Point of Entry - Duc De Richelieu Statue in Odessa

Point of Entry – Duc De Richelieu Statue in Odessa (Credit: Alex Levitsky & Dmitry Shamatazhi)

Imaginary Revelry – Ghosts In Broad Daylight
There was another side to Odessa I was unwilling to admit to myself during these moments of imaginary revelry. It was now located in Ukraine, a nation rife with corruption. The country was being run off a cliff by menacing oligarchs who were controlled an insipidly bad government for their own narrow interests. Odessa, one of the busiest port cities on the Black Sea, was a great place not just for history and atmospheric architecture, but also for smuggling, rent seeking, laundering money and human trafficking. These criminal activities washed up or sailed away from its magnificent warm water port. The present condition of Odessa (this was in 2010) was described by many journalists and travel writers as one of faded glory. The kind of place haunted by ghosts in broad daylight.

Traces could still be found of a Jewish population that held a slim majority on the eve of World War II, of the international financiers who were run off by the revolution and of the terrifying Stalinist purges which destroyed much of the city’s human capital. All of this occurred prior to the coup d’macabre, when the Nazis showed up and encouraged a crazed Romanian occupation force to wreak murder and mayhem on the local Jewish populace. If drama is conflict, then Odessa during the 20th century was a Shakespearean play with all the actors at war with one another. After their conflicts subsided, only an audience of astonished onlookers was left to sort through the wreckage. All along Odessa’s beautiful boulevards history’s miseries and mysteries were there for the taking, if only I could find my way there. Unfortunately, getting there from Istanbul by ship would turn out to be problematic.

A Stairway To The City - The Potemkin Stairs in 1905

A Stairway To The City – The Potemkin Stairs in 1905

Cargo Holds – Passengers As Appendages
Traveling by sea to Odessa was like the greatest things in life, it could not happen without a struggle. A struggle that took place, not so much within the city, but within myself. I soon discovered that only a single ferry line made the trip one or two times a week between Istanbul and Odessa. The infrequent journeys were at the mercy of cargo transport. These were Ukrainian ships running ferry services on the side. They were not making their money transporting passengers. Instead they were in the business of transporting goods. This made sense. Odessa is the busiest port in Ukraine. As such, massive amounts of cargo travels in and out of the country through it. Passengers are a mere appendage on such journeys. Traveling on a cargo ship to Odessa was not exactly what I had in mind. I was also beginning to realize the problem with my Odessa dream, it was shared by few others.

Click here for: The Experience Of Denial & Arrival – Distant Shore: An Uncertain Journey To Odessa (Part Two)

Capital of Obscurity – Chisinau: A Non-Visitor’s Guide

Many years ago, I tried to stump a close friend and Cambridge educated historian with a trivia question. My question arose while we were discussing geography, specifically national capitals. My friend had always been dismissive of Eastern Europe as an underdeveloped region full of strange peoples who historically could not get their acts together. For him, the region was filled with superstitious peasants speaking unintelligible languages. Four decades of communism had only made matters worse, adding to a long history of despotic dictatorships. All this banter aside, our discussion turned to a sort of impromptu trivia quiz.

As I began to rattle off one Eastern European nation after another, he named each of their capitals with a startling indifference, as if to say: “Do you really think I don’t know the capital of Albania?” I should have known better. After all, this was a man who read the World Almanac while eating dinner. It was not long before I was running short of nations. Then I stumbled upon the one country that I thought just might have a capital that would escape his base of knowledge. At the very least this country might make him pause while deep in thought before excavating an answer from his memory bank. I said with barely disguised glee, “Moldova.” He paused, but only for a second before saying “Chisinau.” After that the game ended.

A Whole New World - Chisinau in 1980

A Whole New World – Chisinau in 1980 (Credit: Ion Chibzil)

Cheap Thrills – A Strange Place To Party
Anyone who can name Chisinau as the capital of Moldova is either an academic, a Moldovan or a madman. Of all the European capitals, Chisinau is by far the most obscure. How could it not be? Most people have little idea where Moldova is to begin with, let alone its capital. Those who do, myself included, have been known to get it mixed up with Moldavia, which is one of the three main regions of Romania. To make matter more confusing, Moldavia borders Moldova. Furthermore, Chisinau used to be a provincial capital in the Soviet Union’s most obscure republic before 1991. Moldova (Bessarabia when it was part of pre-1940 Romania) was never seen as an independent nation until the Soviet Union collapsed. For geo-political and economic reasons Moldova was not reattached to Romania. Thus, Chisinau ended up as a national capital. Today it is the sixty-first largest city in Europe and without a doubt, the most obscure capital.

I have only met one person who has been to Chisinau. This was a young British guy I talked to at a hostel in Kiev. He had just spent several days there with friends. I was interested to hear his impressions. When I asked him what it was like, he just shrugged. They were not really visiting Chisinau to sightsee. It soon became obvious why. He and his friends were traveling through Eastern Europe to party in cheap places. Chisinau has become known for its pulsating nightlife. It is also reputedly very cheap. As the capital of the poorest country in Europe how could it not be. This did not seem a legitimate reason for visiting unless you were young and looking to get drunk. Those activities did not interest me, but I was still intrigued by Chisinau.

Delusions of Grandeur - Nightlife in Chisinau

Delusions of Grandeur – Nightlife in Chisinau (Credit: Nicolai Mihailiuc)

Capital Investment – The Wealth Of Nations
At one time, I dreamed of going to every capital city in Eastern Europe. I rationalized this short-lived fantasy as an experiential way to compare levels of national development. I am sure it would be, but a capital often provides a skewed view of a nation. Capital cities are often promotional set pieces for a nation and home to most of its governmental institutions. National history and art museums, along with a grand array of cultural attractions, are to be found there as well. These are often more attractive to foreigners than they are locals. Another distinct trait of a national capital is that its inhabitants are almost always more prosperous than those who live in other areas of the country. Moldova suffers from terrible poverty by European standards, but Chisinau is by far its wealthiest city. It is responsible for 60% of the entire Gross Domestic Product of the country. Chisinau also provides a skewed view of Moldova. It is the closest thing to an urban metropolis in Europe’s least urbanized country. Only 43% or 1.15 million Moldovans live in an urban area. 71% of those live in the Chisinau metro area. These are extraordinary statistics in an increasingly urbanizing Europe. It seems that Chisinau is an urban exception that proves the rural rule when it comes to Moldova’s population.

Moldova is mainly known for two things, wine and its beautiful monasteries. Vineyards do not sprout from Chisinau’s concrete constructions, while monasteries are refuges for contemplation not usually associated with cityscapes. Ironically, Chisinau does have a connection to one of Moldova’s most famous attractions associated with wine. Just fifteen kilometers north of the city is Cricova, home to the 2nd largest wine cellar complex in Moldova and one of the largest in the world. The cellars were created by the excavation of limestone, much of which went for the communist era buildings which can be seen towering across Chisinau. The city suffered major destruction, first from a catastrophic earthquake in 1940, then from aerial bombing and urban warfare during the Second World War. The limestone at Cricova was invaluable in helping form the less than desirable post-war architectural cityscape of Chisinau.

An Open City - The Gate of Chisinau

An Open City – The Gate of Chisinau (Credit: Serhio)

Concrete Realities – Skyscrapers of Stalinism
The Soviet legacy of Chisinau is both its main draw and its greatest drawback. Much of the city’s population lives in the stolid high-rise housing blocks which are the skyscrapers of Stalinism. These soaring eyesores allowed the city to grow from a population of just over 100,000 after the Second World War to 676,000 in 1991 when the Soviet era ended. They are often associated with the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras since those periods were when construction accelerated the most. The Soviet Union dumped a billion rubles into these constructions during the early 1970’s, transforming Chisinau with the infrastructure of brutalism. The city still lives in this long concrete shadow. The Soviet style city may not be appealing to tourists and is certainly not high on my list of must-sees, but it does hold a certain attraction. For those who want to get an idea of what a communist city looked like behind the Iron Curtain, Chisinau is a good place to start.

Losing Control – An Icy Bridge At Godollo: The Right To Remain Silent (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Twenty-eight)

Godollo is a place that I have always related with happiness. It is a prosperous small city, west of Budapest. The town is most famously known as being home to the Royal Palace of Godollo, the favorite residence of Hungary’s most beloved Queen, Elisabeth I. Otherwise known as Sissi, the palace is a must see for anyone spending time in and around the Hungarian capital. I always had a positive feeling about Godollo, as though nothing bad could ever happen there. It is one of those places whose reputation precedes it. To my mind, anyone going to visit Godollo, might expect the sun to always be shining when they get there.

My opinion of Godollo was frozen in the fin de siècle, that was up until the point that I went across a deceptively icy bridge on the M31 that slices through there. In a breathtaking few seconds I felt myself losing control of the car. As the wheels begin to slide, I was frozen in fear. What happened next was a minor miracle. We struck dry pavement in time for me to gain control. We had crossed the bridge and the wheels now gripped drier pavement. The loss of control and the regaining of it happened so suddenly, that it was not until after it was over that I realized just how lucky we had been to escape unscathed. One moment we were on the edge of disaster, the next we were cruising across the Great Hungarian Plain.

A Happy Place - Royal Palace of Godollo in the Winter

A Happy Place – Royal Palace of Godollo in the Winter (Credit: EtelkaCsilla)

Travel As Near Tragedy – The Road To Mortality
The loss of control was a frightening reminder of how little control we really have over our lives. Control is not so much an illusion, as it is a delusion. I have always believed that we are the ultimate deciders of our fate. This is nothing more than an act of self-delusion. A ruse that allows me to make some sense out of the trajectory of my life. It is not until forces beyond my control intervene and push me towards the edge of disaster that I realize the road to mortality is paved with bad decisions, many of which I had made that morning and throughout the trip. A sheet of ice, an anonymous bridge, a twelve kilometer strip of pavement near Godollo, a lethal combination of these three components could have undone a week’s worth of adventure or forty-seven years of life for me and forty-five for my wife. Losing control and regaining it is a humbling feeling. I suddenly realized that I needed to be more careful, that the risk was not worth it and never will be. Moments like these, are the most important in travel. I want to forget them and know I never will.

Friends, family and casual acquaintances often think that my travels are filled with one fascinating discovery after another. The kind found in photo albums, with days spent amid world famous sites, breathtaking scenery and spectacular architecture. There is plenty of that to be sure. I am guilty of advertising this type of travel when I go back home with a phone full of photos. It is all so wonderful, but it never seems quite real for a reason. What my Eastern European travels have really been about are the same exact things that terrified me on that icy bridge, a loss of control, fear of the unknown and the taking of risk. I have crossed the icy bridge near Godollo countless times, sometimes with my wife in tow, sometimes alone. There is always the thrill of dodging death followed by the morose thought of what if. These experiences have taught me quite a bit, not about Hungary or the Czech Republic or Slovakia or wherever, but about myself. What I am capable of and what are my limits, what I can let go of and what I must hold onto for dear life.

Flashes of Life - An icy Hungarian motorway

Flashes of Life – An icy Hungarian motorway

Flashes of Life – Journey To The Other Side
The most memorable moment of this trip did not occur in the southern reaches of Bohemia or Moravia, it came while driving down the M31 on a gloomy winter morning. I survived that moment and learned a life lesson in the process about what it means to lose and regain control. The lesson was to always remain vigilant. Death awaits even in a positive place like Godollo. I should never have let my guard down because mortality is but a moment away. In the aftermath, I felt gratitude for having escaped with my life intact. Compared to that moment, the rest of the ride was uneventful. How can Hatvan or Gyongos compare to having your life flash before you? The answer is that they cannot compare.

I can barely remember anything about the rest of the drive eastward on the M3 and then the M35 to Debrecen. It was, as it has always been, a rather dull affair. The churned up, pitch black soil in the empty field was covered by dirty snow. This was some of the richest agricultural land in Europe, but no one would know that by how it looked on this day in the dead of winter. There were no traces of greenery or hints of the bounty which bursts forth in the springtime. This was a landscape waiting out the winter. The deeper into this land we drove, the more time seemed to slow. I was tired and shaken by what had happened earlier. Debrecen could not come soon enough. When it did, I pulled into my mother in laws driveway with a feeling of resignation. The journey home had been exhausting.

The Final Stretch - M35 Motorway in Hungary

The Final Stretch – M35 Motorway in eastern Hungary (Credit: MrSilesian)

Upon Arrival – A Haunting Thought
The journey ended where it all began, in a housing estate on the edge of Debrecen. A light dusting of snow was on the ground, but there was no hint of the icy conditions that had plagued our travels throughout Transdanubia and continued to stalk us until we got clear of Budapest. The near whiteout conditions at Austerlitz that started this snowy odyssey seemed as though they had occurred months ago. My mother in law was sitting in the house awaiting our arrival, reading one of the hundreds of books that line the shelves in her living room.

She asked in broken English how the trip went. I said “wonderful”, then rattled off a few of the more notable places – Cesky Krumlov, Brno and Prachtice – we had visited. I asked, “Have you been?” even though I already knew the answer. A deeply cultured traveler, there are few places in Europe she has not been. Her reply was pleasant and brief, “Very nice places.” Of course, I did know one place she had probably never visited, an icy bridge near Godollo. I did not mention what had happened there just a few hours before. The thought of what might have been was haunting. Sometimes the most memorable travel moments are the ones we would rather keep to ourselves. In this case, I reserved the right to remain silent.

Time Of Our Lives – The Hungarian Roadside Inn: A Place In The World (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Twenty-seven)

Is there anything more enchanting than the idea of a warm hotel while a winter storm rages outside? There is something quaint and homey about the idea. That was not where we found ourselves on this icy winter evening in western Hungary. Instead, we were in an anonymous room on the second floor of a roadside hotel that was nice, but nothing special. Outside, large lorries pulled in and out of the OMV station in a never ending succession of traffic sliding along at a snail like place. Nearby, the low hum of cars slow rolling their way along the M1 continued unimpeded well into the night. There was only one thing to do at this point, a bit of research about the area in which we were stranded.

To alleviate my latent stress from a not so desirable day of driving, I began to research the nearby villages of Nagyegyhaza and Obarok, west and east of the hotel. The glory of travel in Hungary for me is that everywhere is new. The upshot is that this heightens my sense of discovery. It also means many confrontations with obscurity. Villages that are hardly known to Hungarians become points of fascination for me. I would most likely never come this close to either Nagyegyhaza or Obarok again, or if I did it would be much like now, by complete accident. Thus, I decided to avail myself of the opportunity to learn a little bit more about these two villages. They were little more than the proverbial wide spots in the road, but as I have so often discovered in Hungary, the places that seem skimpy on the surface often have very deep roots.

A Place In The World - An Aerial View of Obarok

A Place In The World – An Aerial View of Obarok (Credit: Bjoertvedt)

Staying Power – The Written Record
The first thing I always keep in mind about the distant Hungarian past is if it was not written down, than it might as well have never happened. In that regard, Obarok was mentioned as far back as the late Middle Ages, while Nagyegyhaza arrived in the historic record much later, the early 18th century, a decade after the Ottoman Turks were expelled from the area forever. The villages have survived for the same reason they arose in the first place, their geographical situation. Both are tucked inside the evocatively named Vali Valley. Over time, the two have become synonymous with one another. The short histories I found online about the two villages really told me next to nothing about them. Nevertheless, I did find it quite incredible that each had lasted so long. Even the younger of the two, Nagyegyhaza, was founded over 70 years before the Declaration of Independence was signed forming the United States. An American may scoff at their size, but not there such staying power.

The frame of historical reference in Hungary is much broader than the United States. Obarok is positively ancient by American standards. As for Nagyegyhaza, if it was part of American history, the village’s beginnings would fall within the early colonial era of history. A time period unimaginable to almost everyone except for the kind of history buffs that have long since been relegated to the campus basement. Hungarian historiography has a whole different way of defining age going all the way back to the 890’s when Magyars first came galloping on horseback into the Carpathian Basin. The vagaries of time and the parameters used to define historical eras are important to understanding how history is perceived. Obarok and Nagyegyhaza will never be prominent, but they will always be old by the standards of American history. The age of these villages is also humbling, they have outlasted countless generations and would certainly outlast me and my wife whether we made it home safely or not. In other words, some places were meant to last. When it comes to people, the exact opposite is true.

Good enough to go - Room in a Hungarian Roadside Inn

Good enough to go – Room in a Hungarian Roadside Inn

Time Travelers – A Waiting Game
Time becomes more than a force of nature when a person is stuck in a place longer then they ever imagined. Time becomes elemental to a traveler’s existence when they find themselves facing prolonged stasis. There is something maddening about being unable to move after spending countless days traveling from place to place. I spent much of the night passing time through reading and researching. I was hoping the hours ahead of me would disappear until morning came and we could take the motorway again. All we could do was the thing we had been doing our entire lives, wait. The only problem is that we were now aware of the waiting.  The snow and ice continued to fall from the sky. It covered our cars and the hotel parking lot. We spent the night slumbering under the cover of winter. The immediate future looked gloom. The only thing to do was wait until morning.

The arrival of morning was like the arrival of hope, it made everything seem more bearable. With a new day and the quickening pace of traffic on the M1, I felt a sense of optimism. This was not how I had envisioned my last night on our weeklong trip to and from the Czech Republic. Trips have a way of taking on a life of their own. This trip was a rarity, the kind of journey that closed a full circle. We had started in a snowstorm and now we were ending in one. In our journey’s end was its beginning. I was eager to complete this journey, almost too eager, as impatience began to gnaw at me just after sunrise.  Should we wait or should we go? If there was any question of what to do the internal argument swirling ended in me, the moment I saw cars proceeding down the M1 much faster than I could have hoped for considering the night before. After a four course breakfast at the OMV, consisting of two cups of coffee, a Coke Light (Diet Coke in the states) and a pack of chocolate cookies, I was raring to go.

The M0 in Hungary - A Ring Around Most of the Capital

The M0 in Hungary – A Ring Around Most of the Capital

M0 – The Morning Stress Test
It was not long before my wife raised the issue I knew was coming. She never fails to utter the two letters that strike fear into many a Hungarian driver, the M0. She verbalized what had been weighing on my mind as we closed in on Budapest. “You know this is known as the death zone.” I was certainly aware of the motorway’s nom de guerre. This was one of several occasions that she had seen fit to remind me of that ominous fact. It is easy to see why. Getting around Budapest on the M0, which wraps around the city, is a nerve wracking experience. Much of it has to do with ongoing construction, which never fails to go unfinished. For much of the drive we were isolated in a lane between barriers. These were supposed to ensure that we stayed within the proscribed concrete confines.

It was morning rush hour, with slushy snow still surfacing from time to time, the drive through heavy traffic was the ultimate morning stress test. We made it safely around Budapest on the M0 and turned onto the M31 which would connect us to the M3 leading out onto the Great Hungarian Plain. I had never thought much about the M31 and why would I. It is only 12 kilometers in length, a short connector between two of Hungary’s busiest highways. The M31 should have been nothing more than a short jaunt, the forgettable few minutes it was always meant to be. Suddenly, inexplicably, it became something much more, bringing about a moment I would not soon forget.

Click here: Losing Control – An Icy Bridge At Godollo: The Right To Remain Silent (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Twenty-eight)

On Thin Ice – The OMV Oasis: Roadside Assistance in Transdanubia (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Twenty-six)

There comes that moment when you are bound to ask the inevitable question, “How did I get us into this mess?” We were stuck in an ice induced traffic jam on the M1 in western Hungary and there was little hope of going very far. The cause of our current situation was my own chronic impatience. It had led me to ignore the gray bellies of cloud that had begun to loom on the horizon just beyond Gyor. The sky soon began to spit pellets of sleet and snow onto the motorway. Instead of stopping before nightfall and prior to a thin sheet of ice covering Transdanubia, I stubbornly forged onward. I did this in consultation with myself and that is exactly who I now had to blame. My lack of forethought had led to the moment of no going forward and no going back. We were stuck.

In a matter of minutes, I went from having visions of Debrecen dancing in my head to hoping we might make it to the next exit and find a warm hotel room where we could wait out this winter weather. I suspected that the hundreds of cars in front of us were asking themselves what next as well. They had a better excuse than I did for being out in this weather. This was their commute, whereas it was my crisis. Fifty kilometers ago the road had been clear. The wind was fierce, but that need not detain anyone. This had been the bluster before the storm. Then the situation had gradually gotten worse, until I suddenly realized that we were in danger of ending up in a ditch.

Nightmare Scenario - Winter Driving on the M1 in Hungary

Nightmare Scenario – Winter Driving on the M1 in Hungary

Dwindling Options – Hungary’s Version of the Highway Patrol
In defiance of fate, I decided that we should continue heading eastward. I began making ridiculous calculations in my head, such as how long it might take to get to Debrecen going 60 kilometers per hour. The thought of a nine-hour drive in an ice storm was not exactly energizing. We soon passed close to the city of Tata, which lies in a valley between the Gerecse and Vertes Mountains. As such, the topography had become increasingly rugged. This only served to heighten the danger of driving in the increasingly treacherous conditions. We were now on suspect terrain, inching our way towards Budapest. The Hungarian capital now seemed like an unattainable fantasy. From where we were sitting on the M1 to the city center would have taken less than an hour in normal conditions, now it was hours away at best and that was only if we wanted to risk our lives. My stress level increased exponentially with each tap of the brakes and slip of the wheels. We kept hoping to come upon an exit. What we found instead was almost as good, the green and blue illuminated neon of an OMV (Österreichische Mineralölverwaltung or Austrian Mineral Administration) gas station. Here was our proverbial shelter amid the wintry storm.

Pulling into the OMV was a welcome break from keeping an iron grip on the steering wheel in a futile effort to exercise a modicum of control over the car. To our surprise, we found several officers of the Hungarian version of the highway patrol standing inside. They had decided to make this station their evening hangout. They stood around sipping coffee while seemingly oblivious to the fact that the motorway had turned into a chaotic morass. These men had that look of complete indifference which is the eternal resting face of every Hungarian police officer. They affected an attitude of genteel neutrality, which might also best describe the face they present to the world. These officers have never failed to impress as well as perplex me with their willful nonchalance. I have never once seen them get excited. Perhaps their stoic demeanor is a way of keeping the enemy guessing. There were no enemies on this night, only beleaguered travelers contemplating their rapidly dwindling options.

Shelter In The Storm - OMV as an oasis

Shelter In The Storm – OMV as an oasis (Credit: SJu)

Opposites Attract – A Winter Haven
I coaxed my wife to ask the officer’s their opinion of the road conditions closer to Budapest. I watched with bemusement as an officer and his colleague answered without a hint of emotion. Watching the officer talk was fascinating. He offered up an emotionless monologue, a neither here nor there kind of conversation. He would have made a great poker player. Though he gave little outward hint of negativity, I could tell by the length of his monologue that he did not think travel was a good idea. This was rather obvious since he and his colleague were not on the road either. My wife reported back to me that one of the officers said traveling to Budapest was only in a madman’s best interest. The road was a sheet of ice and conditions were only going to get worse. I had the confirmation now needed to start imagining an evening spent in some roadside inn. At this point, any roadside inn would do, the nearer the better. The officers pointed out that there was a hotel connected to another OMV station. It was very close, hardly a kilometer away as the crow flies. There was only one problem, it happened to be on the opposite side of the motorway.

A plan was soon hatched. We would head eastward in search of an exit that would allow us to do a prolonged U-turn and get back on the motorway in the opposite direction. We would then head westward, back the same way we came for a few kilometers. This would bring us to the OMV where had a hotel stood nearby. The hotel would turn out be rather quiet and quaint. Amazingly, we had little trouble getting to the hotel and procuring a room. The ad hoc plan worked to perfection. Probably because I was not the one making it. Dinner was procured at the OMV. There is something quite wonderful about having a fistful of dark chocolate bars for supper. The fact that we were now safe brought an unspoken elation. It is comforting to be in a nice warm room after fearing for your life only an hour earlier.

Click here for: Time Of Our Lives – The Hungarian Roadside Inn: A Place In The World (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Twenty-seven)

Winter Conditions – Austria, Hungary & Europe Closing In On Themselves (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Twenty-five)

Crossing the border into Austria I might be forgiven for thinking everything was going to be fine. Austria has a reputation as a sort of heaven on earth, filled with picture perfect villages, a glittering capital city and mountains that could make the most curmudgeonly begin yodeling. This was not the Austria we entered. The landscape was dead from winter. The slushy snow that had covered the roads in Moravia was melting away, leaving intermittent patches of barren ground. Besides a few flurries and the constant roar of an icy wind, it was grey sky and open roads. The way around Vienna looked to be clear. Of course, we were trying to make Debrecen before midnight, but that did not stop us from detouring to Rosenberger’s for one last roadside meal.

It was Rosenberger which spawned the beloved Landzeit that we ate at earlier in our trip. The Rosenberger we stopped at seemed to be living off its exalted reputation. The food was nothing memorable on this day. The restaurant had the air of an abandoned airport. Rosenberger was the forerunner of all the sumptuous roadside restaurants in Austria. It was started in 1972 and grew into a powerhouse based on delicious food and legendary service. Unfortunately, this one lacked that special magic of Landzeit. My expectations for it were too high. For that matter, it suffered the same unrealistic levels of expectations that I have for Austria in general. The soaring mountains, glittering capital and clean swept towns were nowhere to be found on this day.

The Way It Used To Be - Abandoned border station at Hegyeshalom on the Hungary-Austria border

The Way It Used To Be – Abandoned border station at Hegyeshalom on the Hungary-Austria border (Credit: fortepan.hu)

Giving Notice – The Return of History
Skirting the suburbs of Vienna, my wife and I stared at the backside of lorries for kilometers on end while driving past industrialized landscapes. It was hard to believe the Ringstrasse was less than half an hour away. We were experiencing the Austria never shown on tourist brochures. Perhaps it was the blustery weather, the now traffic packed motorway or the general malaise that accords a trip’s final moments that made Austria seem much less impressive than usual. This was probably to be expected. Let’s face it, dealing with road construction could defeat Disney. This was the first time I felt like Austria was like everywhere else. The one saving grace on this day was that the Austrian motorways were clear of snow. Crossing Lower Austria and the Burgenland in the far eastern portion of the country was like navigating a wind tunnel at 130 kilometers per hour. Wind turbines that loomed just off the highway were spinning with a sense of abandonment.

This day was about endurance. The idea of enjoyment had escaped me after leaving the Czech Republic. I was relieved when we neared the Austria-Hungary border crossing. There was no passport control, but border officials were slowing traffic down and taking a quick peek inside at each car’s inhabitants. This was the product of tightened border restrictions due to the refugee crisis a couple of years before. This slowdown was irritating since the Schengen Zone had spoiled me with open borders and full throttle entry into EU countries. This was the first sign I had seen of Europe closing in on itself. It was famously said that 1989 was the end of history. Communism and the Iron Curtain had collapsed, democratic capitalist societies reigned supreme. Nationalism, totalitarianism and a range of other insidious -isms had been exhausted by war, economic failure and intellectual irrelevancy. Well now we know that history never went away, it was always there. If only we had taken the time to look past our own triumphalism and notice.

Border control - Entering Austria from Hungary

Border control – Entering Austria from Hungary (Credit: My Friend)

Self-Induced Amnesia – A Borderless Existence
One of the more bizarre things about internal borders in the EU, is how they seem to hardly exist. If there had been no border personnel to remind us, the dividing line between eastern Austria and western Hungary would be imperceptible. Border guards in this area have become a novelty. Oddly, for two nations that had a historically fractious relationship, there is now nothing but an invisible line between them. In an irony so bizarre that it goes largely unnoticed, traveling from Austria into Hungary on the motorway is not even noticeable except for the large signs that welcome travelers. The border felt about the same to me as it does in the United States when crossing from Indiana to Ohio. If a sign did not say this is Austria or this is Hungary, who would know the difference. No one would have believed such a thing was possible 40 years ago. And now no one believes that anything other than the status quo is possible. The ability to suffer self-induced amnesia regarding recent history is in one sense admirable and in another, deeply disturbing.

Crossing the Austria-Hungary border could have been much worse. Waiting in a car to be waved through by windblown, listless representatives of Austrian officialdom is much better than languishing at ominous border controls that existed during the Cold War. Meanwhile, there was another Cold War brewing outside, but this one was natural rather than manmade. There was a wild wind swirling from seemingly every direction. The weather could not make up its mind what it wanted to do. This sent my emotions into schizophrenic spasms, segueing between moments of buoyant optimism followed by bouts of futile cynicism. Before long, I got the distinct feeling that we were headed into a storm, but since we had been driving in and out of them during our entire trip, this was not as frightening a prospect as it should have been.

Stopping Point – Frozen In Place
It was not long before the sky grew darker and the road along with it. This was the product of freezing precipitation that threatened to bring traffic to a halt. I suddenly realized that the terrain of western Hungary was not helping matters. Transdanubia as it is known, consists of rolling topography. I dreaded going downhill more than up. The roadway was a glistening sheen that was becoming slicker by the minute. It was not long before we gave up on the idea of Debrecen. The conditions became treacherous, with cars and trucks inching along. No one knew if they were on a sheet of ice or a rain slicked road. Soon, a line of cars stretched over several kilometers. No one wanted to chance more than 40 kilometers per hour. Every time I set foot on the brakes a nervous tension consumed me. An hour earlier I had been dreaming of getting back to Debrecen, now I was wondering weather we would make it to the nearest exit. Our journey had come to a halt, but it was nowhere near over. The search for a safe place to stay the night was just beginning.

Click here for: On Thin Ice – The OMV Oasis: Roadside Assistance in Transdanubia (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Twenty-six)

A Recurrent Madness – The Meaning of Breclav (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Twenty-four)

We escaped from Austerlitz with both our lives intact. That might sound like an exaggeration, but not really. The entry road that led to and from Pratzen Heights was a lot more treacherous going down, then it had been on the way up. The gravel road was coated in snow which was rapidly turning to ice. We observed one unlucky driver resigned to a ditch. In the whirling whiteness it had been hard to grasp the deceptive topography Napoleon had so expertly used to his advantage at Pratzen Heights. The drive back to the main highway gave us a better idea of the hill’s subtle undulations. Fortunately, we were able to avoid careening down these historic slopes. Both my wife and I let out a collective sigh of relief when we found the blacktop a few minutes later. It was all downhill from here or so I professed to believe.

Destiny or Destination - Breclav Railway Station

Destiny or Destination – Breclav Railway Station (Credit: Josef Moser)

Tilting At Windmills –  The Powerlessness of Positive Thinking
In one of those fits of recurrent travel madness that worry me as much as those traveling with me, I decided that we might be able to make it back to Debrecen in eastern Hungary on the same day. Never mind that we were slipping and sliding across the frontiers of Moravia and we still had windblown eastern Austria to cross. Plenty of windmills would be tilting at us in the Burgenland. There was also the conveniently ignored fact that western Hungary was said to be due for inclement weather just as bad or worse than what we were currently driving through. And still nothing could stop my optimism, which was soon traveling down a highway of slush at 100 kilometers per hour.

I always find the end of my Eastern European journeys disturbing. The thrill of anticipation has long since passed with all those exciting thoughts of adventure now relegated to the rear view mirror.  My mind was firmly fixed on returning home, which meant heading for Debrecen out on the Great Hungarian Plain. By the time we began our homeward bound journey it was already late morning. The weather was gloomy at best, wintry at worst. This did nothing to detain me. There was no use dawdling in despair at some random roadside inn when we might be able to make it back well before midnight. My wife had heard such grandiose proclamations before and tended to ignore them. We both knew the truth, the weather would make the decision for us.

Living on the Edge - Location of Breclav in the Czech Republic

Living on the Edge – Location of Breclav in the Czech Republic (Credit: Kroton)

A Twinge of Excitement – On The Border
It was not long before we were closing in on the Czech-Austria border. This gave me the opportunity of returning to a town I knew only from a railway carriage window. That was where I spied a brightly lit platform. It had been sixteen months earlier, deep in a chilly autumn night, on a nightmarish-night train from Budapest to Krakow. I remember groggily waking and peering out the window where I saw an attractive female border guard. Her hair was pulled back and ticked beneath a stiff cap. She had been languidly strolling on the platform. There were several other guards interspersed as well. I faintly remember a twinge of excitement that always accords my arrival in another country. Then I proceeded to collapse back into my berth. That was my first and up until this wintry moment only impression of Breclav.

Breclav would have been just a memory to me, but a second visit seemed serendipitous, as though this was becoming both my destiny and destination. On this day everything was covered in wet snow. Flakes slowly spit out of an all-consuming grayness. The railway station, where I first became briefly acquainted with the town, looked inviting rather than menacing. There were no border guards to be found. On this day, Breclav was a sleepy place taking a long winter’s nap. Of course, all I was another drive by of Breclav, making a pass-through presence and nothing else. My wife paid no attention to my chatter about being back in Breclav. The writer in me sniffed irony, my wife sensed banality, hence the lack of a response. There was something about Breclav that I could not quite put my finger on. Minutes after our arrival we were leaving. The disquieting sense of familiarity dissipated, but I knew that a third visit lay somewhere in a distant future.

On the Night Train - Breclav railway station in the evening

On the Night Train – Breclav railway station in the evening (Credit: Vojtech Dockal)

A Return Trip – Past & Future Goals
One of the joys of travel in this part of Europe was how little I knew about most places. The logical corollary is how much there is still to discover. This makes traipsing around the hinterlands of Moravia seem that much more eventful. Every town or small city offers something new and by extension, something different. If you want to see the real Eastern Europe, it means going somewhere besides Budapest, Prague and Vienna. Breclav might as well be the South Pole by this standard. That second fleeting visit turned the town into something that would occupy my imagination long after departure. A question loomed in my mind, “what was the meaning of Breclav?” The answer was not clear and will not be until I return. In the meantime, a vicarious visit had to take place. This involved researching the town’s history to find out how Breclav came to exist in its current form.

Location and transport were and still are everything when it comes to the development of Breclav. The town’s situation, close to the confluence of the Thaya and Moravia Rivers brought people to settle the area as far back as prehistoric times. In the modern age, Breclav was selected as the first railway junction in Austria-Hungary. A function it still maintains today. My earlier train journey to Krakow brought me to this junction. Trains to Vienna, Prague, Bratislava and Prague all went by way of Breclav as well.  Discovering this, I suddenly realized that many years before I had stopped in Breclav on a train from Bratislava to Prague. Breclav had become a habit without me even knowing it. I discovered a sudden sense of affinity with the town. It was part of the story of a life spent in transit. Breclav is now more than a town to me. It is a dream, a hope, a goal, a return trip to both my past and an unknown future. What was the meaning of Breclav? I have no idea, but I intend to find out.

Click here for: Winter Conditions – Austria, Hungary & Europe Closing In On Themselves (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Twenty-five)