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. 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.

Cover Story – Prague In Danger: City Planning (Eastern Europe & Me #11)

I feel sorrier for other people, than I do myself. I am being selfish by saying that, but I really do feel sorry for those who have little interest in the remote, obscure, and bizarre. A fine example of this mental malady which causes me to look askance at those without the same strange interests as me, goes back to a train trip I took from Vienna to Prague eleven years ago. For whatever reason, I began to scour my memory trying to remember the people I met on that journey. I was able to distinctly recall two women in their early 20’s who were making that same journey. They were sitting several seats away from me, but when I got up to stretch my legs, I could not help but notice the title of a book one of them was reading.

Ominous Beauty – Prague

Cover Story – Prague In Danger
Prague In Danger: The Years of German Occupation, 1939-45: Memories and History, Terror and Resistance, Theater and Jazz, Film and Poetry, Politics and War by Peter Demetz is a book about the city during World War II. The woman reading it did not seem to be exactly enthralled. She would read a page or two, then put it down. Then later she would pick it up again and do the same thing. Her behavior was the essence of disinterest. A good part of the journey, Danger In Prague sat on the table in front of her tempting me with whatever knowledge could be found between its covers. The book interested me, along with the question of why the woman was reading it.

After almost two weeks traveling in parts of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, and Slovenia on this trip, it was nice to see someone reading an English language history book. I can count on one finger how many Americans I have met on a train in Europe reading a history book. As such, this rare occasion called for striking up a conversation. Halfway through the journey I approached the two of them and asked if they were Americans. They replied in the affirmative. When I asked the one with the book if Danger in Prague was a good read, she nonchalantly replied, “it’s ok.” (Note: The book has many outstanding reviews) The sound of her response stated otherwise. At most, I detected that it was mildly interesting for her. The title probably caught her eye, I know it would mine. Intrigues, spying, shadowy characters, stories of horror, and heroism. Prague during World War II is a fascinating subject, but it would have been terrifying to experience.

Dangerous times – Nazis in Prague

Urban Explorers – An Intimate Perspective
I followed up my first question with another more mildly probing one. “Are you two traveling around Europe?” That was self-evident and a good way to learn more about their travels. The trip for them was predominantly educational. They were graduate students involved in city planning. They sported a Eurail pass which they used to visit multiple places in Europe. They rattled off a litany of the most famous cities, including Berlin, Paris, and Vienna among others. They were doing the same with Prague. In one respect, I envied them. To see a city through the eyes of an urban planner, rather than as a traveler would be intriguing. To me, Prague had been setup for maximum tourist potential. The serpentine streets in the Old Town, Charles Bridge leading thousands each day across the Vltava, Prague Castle perched upon a promontory.

The city was laid out in a picture-perfect manner. One that almost made me believe that Prague was created for tourists rather than its inhabitants. These two women would understand the reasons behind Prague’s development and the reasons for its street pattern. While the architecture of Prague was not lost on me, the reasons behind why buildings, squares, and streets were arranged in a specific manner was beyond my comprehension. Listening to them I envied their knowledge. Conversely, the fact they had been traveling from one famous European city to another sounded tedious. While I do not ascribe to the cliché that if you have seen one city, you have seen them all, I thought it was rather sad that these two would not spend time in smaller, less popular cities, let alone towns and villages.

Wandering around villages in Eastern Europe gave me a more intimate perspective on specific countries and the way people lived. Nothing excited me so much as a place in half ruin or a village that was left behind by progress. These are the forgotten failures of civilization, the places that cease to exist and will only be remembered by their inhabitants, if they are remembered at all. In life, I have learned much more from my failures than successes. I would think a city or town planner could do the same. I felt a bit sorry for those two women, but I realized then, as I do today, that was not their problem, it was mine. My view of travel centered more around me more than any specific itinerary. I could follow my curiosity through the countryside or a cityscape. My pursuit of place was both intellectual and romantic. A search for facts and feelings.

Perfect planning – Aerial view of Prague

A Far-Off Place – Intrigue & Mystery
One of the joys of being beyond higher education was that I no longer had anyone proscribing my interests. I now was free to read what I pleased, just as I was free to travel where I pleased. Academics built more upon knowledge than experience. They are a pathway to careers. I had done my time inside the ivory tower. I turned my back on it after graduating from university. I did not care to go back, only forward into some far-off place where I could not only learn about the world, but also myself.

I only spoke one other time with those two women, saying goodbye when we arrived in Prague. Our initial conversation had taken only a couple of minutes. For some reason that moment remains with me. That is probably because I can still remember Prague In Danger and the conversation that it spurred. There was an element of intrigue and mystery in that title. Seeing an American reading a book of history on a train as it rolled through Bohemia only heightened those feelings. The intrigue of that moment is still with me. I suspect it will always be.

A Way We Will Never Be – Esterhaza & Lost Possibilities (Eastern Europe & Me #10)

We all know you can never home again, but sometimes home pays us a visit far away from the place we inhabited during our childhood. And so it was at a family wedding in Mississippi where I saw my father for the final time, ten years before he would drop dead in a supermarket checkout line. When I learned of his death I did not cry. I probably never will. Some situations can never be saved, just as some are never worth saving. My relationship with my father was one of them. That did not keep me from subconsciously trying to recover some semblance of what had been lost or recreate what had never existed between the two of us. I did not haunt cemeteries, read obituaries, or call distant relatives to learn more about my father. There was no use. Our life was over before it had really begun. The calls never came, apologies never made, and both side laid blame.

My father was a distant figure who made extremely infrequent appearances in my life. I could count on one hand over a twenty-five-year period how many times I saw him. Those times were fraught with tension and anxiety. In each case, I tried to obey the parental advice “don’t talk to strangers.” The few times we met I was overwhelmed by a sense of disbelief that we might be even distantly related. I was only six years old when he left and my memories of him faded fast. What never did fade was the feeling of abandonment. This only became apparent to me as I grew older. That abandonment sent me wandering through the world. It took me years to realize that my travels, most prominently in Eastern Europe, were part of the search for something irretrievably lost. Ironically, the further I journeyed from home, the closer I got to finding it.   

Walking into history – Esterhaza

Restoration Without Recovery – A Partial Existence
He was a multimillionaire and an absentee father who left me, my mother and two siblings in what amounted to a mansion in the foothills of western North Carolina, one that we could barely afford to keep up. He retired in his forties to a yacht. He was living proof that money may not buy happiness, but it can buy you distance from your deepest fears. In the absence of my father, our family led a strange small-town existence. We lived in what looked too many like an idyllic existence, but it took everything we had just to keep the lights on. In so many ways this reminds me of those grand palaces in Hungary, such as Esterhaza, also known as the Hungarian Versailles. Esterhaza is found deep in the countryside of western Hungary, not far from the Austrian border in the village of Ferto. The palace’s exterior is a stunningly elegant example of Baroque architecture. The interior is a much different story.

History finally caught up with Esterhaza during the first half of the 20th century. When the Red Army swept through in 1945, the palace was pilfered. The family fled westward. The Esterhazy name, once the most elite in Hungary was suddenly a death sentence.  During the communist era, Esterhaza suffered from serious neglect before a restoration began. One which is in perpetual progress. Some rooms are immaculately restored, others in a state of partial restoration, while still others lay vacant. The restoration will never be fully complete because the splendor that once inhabited the halls of Esterhaza, now haunts them. The palace can never quite live up to its past. A way of life has been lost forever. The restoration may eventually be completed, the recovery never will.

A way we will never be – Inside Esterhaza

Life Expectancy – Equaling The Eternal
In its current form, Esterhaza has been partially put back together to provide a rough approximation of its glorious past, but there is no mistaking the fact that life left Esterhaza long ago. No matter how many square meters of marble still cover the floors, they will never replace what was lost. The palace’s value does not come from priceless material treasures, that is an illusion. Instead, the palace’s true value derives from aesthetic pleasures such as standing in the room where court musician Joseph Haydn led the performance of his string quartets. No amount of sparkling chandeliers can equal the eternal.  Haydn physically left the palace over two hundred years ago, but the love and inspiration of his creative endeavors can be felt in the room where some of classical music’s greatest works were performed for Miklos Esterhazy (also known as Miklos the Magnificent) and his guests.

A semblance of that genius still exists in those gilded chambers. The ambience is nothing short of spectacular and yet a sense of loss still permeates the palace. Life has left the building. The question of “What if?” hangs heavily in the air. What if the war had not happened? What if Hungary had not been overrun by the Red Army? It is cliché to say that “you don’t know what you got until it’s gone.” Well in the case of Esterhaza most are unaware of what Esterhaza really had to offer. It was less about lavish furnishings and more about life. Searching for the human side of Esterhaza today, is akin to chasing ghosts. I should know, since the search for them inadvertently brought me there and brought me back home.

Waiting for guests – Place setting at Esterhaza

Catching Up – Ghosts of a Possible Past
I have come to realize that the relationship with my father is akin to all that is missing at Esterhaza. By finding my way there, I was chasing ghosts of a possible past that existed deep inside of me. What my life would have been like with him is a “What if?” that will never be answered. That part of my life left long ago. Trying to find it would be painful and futile. I disowned the memory of my father long ago. Little did I know that it still lurked inside of me. Now I can see that it led me to Esterhaza as well as many other remote or abandoned sites in Eastern Europe. There is a reason I keep finding my way to these past their prime places. Some might say it is a love of history. That might be true. But it is not for the love of Hungarian history as much as it is my own personal history. That is something which I cannot escape. At Esterhaza my past caught up with me, my father almost did.

Click here for: Cover Story – Prague In Danger: City Planning (Eastern Europe & Me #11)

Answering The Call – Riga:  Echoes of Friendship (Eastern Europe & Me #9b)

No matter how much I wished to make the call from Riga to my friend back home, I knew it would not be easy. Making an overseas phone call without a smart phone was an exercise in irritation that required multiple steps and a great deal of patience. The process was fraught with petty difficulties that might easily cause things to go awry. For those of us who did not carry a smart phone on overseas journeys at that time we were always at the mercy of an archaic form of communication. This was in the form of a pay phone. As phone calls went, this was the equivalent of a string, paper cup, and tin can.

Echoes of friendship – Answering the call

Handheld Devices – Calling Cards
In remembering my phone call from Riga, Narvesen serves as the ultimate marker of memory. It was the setting for self-medicating with cough and cold relief as well as procuring an international calling card. Conveniently located a stone’s throw away from Narvesen was a pay phone, the closest thing to a museum artifact still in daily use at that time. Even in 2011, the pay phone was going the way of the dodo. They seemed to have more in common with the telegraph than the latest and greatest of digital technologies. Another relic of that recent era was the international calling card. This handheld device made millions for telecommunication companies fleecing those desperate enough to make impromptu international calls. Skype came in handy, but only if both parties to a call had access to a laptop or personal computer. I did, but my friend recoiled at any technology that might take him beyond the television.

Thank goodness that Narvesen and the nearby phone booth had everything I needed to overcome these technology deficit disorders. To be completely honest, there is no way to understate the role Narvesen played in this personal drama. For me, the mere mention of that name is evocative with Old Riga, Narvesens is synonymous with the capital of Latvia. I am sure many other travelers who visit the Baltic states feel the same, as do the region’s inhabitants. While doing research for this post, a Google map search in Old Riga for Narvesen turned up no less than twelve. And they are not just found in the city center, Narvesen is something of an institution in Latvia. The chain is based out of Norway. where its founder Bernard Narvesen first started the business after receiving a concession from the Norwegian State Railways in the late 19th century. This allowed him to sell newspapers, magazines, and other literature at railway stations across the country. This spurred the growth of Narvesen.  

Echoes of glory – Riga in the 16th century (Credit: Civitates Orbis Terrarum)

Bright Prospects – Baltic Empire  
One of Narvesen’s most successful forays beyond the borders of Norway has been in the Baltic States. By 2016, Latvia (249) and Lithuania (260) combined had more Narvesens than Norway (370). I will always remember Riga not as the Baltic region’s biggest city or for its wonderfully evocative Old Town, instead I will think of all those Narvesens. The bright glow of the store’s interior and the smartly kept shelves. This was the place I came to frequent more than any other in Riga. I doubt Rough Guide, Lonely Planet or Bradt Guides will tell you much about Narvesen, but they should. Anyone visiting Riga is likely to spend time there. Pardon the digression, but my love of Narvesen has stayed remarkably pure in the twelve years since I set foot in one. Without Narvesen, I would probably not have made my call back home. Nor would I still remember it.

Looking back, it is hard to imagine the trouble that went into making a continent-to-continent phone call at that time. First an international calling card was purchased at a place like Narvesen. Then the code was found by using one’s fingernail to scratch off a gritty grey substance. This would reveal a pin code that had to be entered prior to dialing a country code and phone number. This byzantine process was worsened by the directions on those cards. They were printed in what looked to be a one-point font. A magnifying glass would have been useful when trying to decipher the directions given in several languages. These had to be read and understood before entering the booth because the caller would be pressed for time. A line would often form outside the booth as others prepared to make their own calls. If all this was done correctly the phone would begin ringing half a world away. In my case, I waited with bated breath for an answer.

Echoes of History – Old Riga at dusk (Credit: Diliff)

Comfort & Kindness – A Series of Possibilities
It was evening when I made the call from Riga. After twenty seconds, there was an answer. A familiar and trusted voice was on the other end of the line, it was Brian. He would always greet me with “Christopher.” The proper English mannerisms never escaped him, even when fifty years removed from the British Isles. He was happy to hear I was still alive, as well as my travels. With fondness he related how he had been following my journey through the photos I uploaded to the internet. He kept a Times Atlas of the world beside the sofa where he always sat. Peeling back the pages to find Eastern Europe, he followed me from point to point. One man’s journey was another man’s vicarious glory. For both of us, maps were a series of possibilities that offered infinite options to satisfy our curiosities.

The long-awaited call between us lasted less than twenty minutes. The length hardly mattered, it was the love we shared, the ability to reaffirm the deepest of friendships that always mattered the most. The comfort felt from hearing the voice of a kindred spirit, one that would echo across thousands of kilometers. The call brought comfort, kindness, and the knowledge that on this journey I was not alone, neither would I ever be. His voice still echoes in my ears and informs my imagination. 4,184 days, 17 hours and 58 minutes have passed since that call was made and it feels like today.

Click here for: A Way We Will Never Be – Esterhaza & Lost Possibilities (Eastern Europe & Me #10)

Making That Call – Riga: Land of Narvesen (Eastern Europe & Me #9a)

I never knew it would come to this. As I write, it is 1:28 a.m. on a Thursday morning in the middle of March 2023. This early hour at which I still find myself awake is not the product of insomnia, it is the product of memory. I am half a world and over a decade away from the place that consumes my thoughts. To be exact, I am 4,184 days, 17 hours and 58 minutes away from that moment in Riga. In my hand I have a calling card, in my mind I have a phone number, and I am standing inside a phone booth. It is so cold that I can see my breath. A pay phone is my conduit to contact someone I have longed to speak with since this journey began. This call is not an easy one to consummate. I am attempting to speak with someone who despises phone calls and refuses to answer unless he knows the time when I will call. I have already emailed one of his daughters who has been kind enough to let him know when I will call. He will be sure to answer. The call means the world to me, as I know it does to him.

Who is this person I must contact and why? There is no use taking the time to explain the deepest of friendships and purely unconditional love. There are some things in life you just know, this is one of them. There are very few things in life I have ever been sure of, except for this. Several weeks have passed since we spoke. There is much to discuss concerning my experiences in Warsaw, Krakow, Lviv, and Kyiv. He has no idea that I have made the leap from the banks of the Dnipro to the banks of the Daugava. Bounding over Belarus in a matter of hours in journeying from Kyiv to Riga. This great leap north will come as a surprise, but not a totally unexpected one. He knows me about as well as I know him. We are both impossible to predict, except for our adherence to habit. Mine is caprice, his is tea.

Land of Narvesen – As seen in Riga

Astonishing Anecdotes – Staying Out of Trouble
An American and an Englishman. One in the depths of alcoholic despair, the other cruising through the final years of his teaching career. When we first met, I was trying to pull my life back together after recurrent bouts with boos. He could have cared less about alcohol, but he always cared about me. I would always be the student and he the professor. His indirect manner had its way with me. Never quite telling me what to do, he inferred what would be in my best interest. For some reason he always listened to me. Spending hours taking in my ridiculous tales and wild dreams of destinies that might carry me far from home. I also scattered in a few words of advice, sometimes he even took them for everything they were worth.

He once told me that I kept him out of trouble. Many years after his death, his wife told me that I always spoke to his good side. I consider that to be the greatest compliment I have ever received. The truth was much messier, we both kept each other away from our dark sides. He escaped his with family, our friendship and by sitting in the same room for years on end telling a few fortunate souls the most astonishing anecdotes of history and of his upbringing in postwar Stockport. I listened attentively. We were going nowhere fast and that was a good thing. Ours was a match made in oblivion. His journey was from Cambridge to Cullowhee, from the heights of academia to the hills of Appalachia. He unwittingly rescued me from alcohol. I repaid him with weekly calls. This one would come from Riga, for the first and only time.

Old Riga – The historic city center from a distance (Credit: Karlie Kalviskis)

Night Sweats – The Evening Chill
Narvesen. The first time I heard the name it came by way of an Aussie accent. I needed drugs, bad. Not the illicit kind, but the ones you can purchase over the counter in almost any European country. I caught a cold not long after touching down in Riga. The difference in temperatures between Kyiv and Riga was substantial. The Ukrainian capital, where I had just spent four days was in the grip of an Indian summer. The city was enveloped in warmth, I can still recall sweating it out while running up, over, and around the hills above the Dnipro River. The weather in Riga could not have been more different. I can still recall that view from the plane as it descended over the land. The dark green forests, islands of water, and angry clouds moving closer towards the earth. This was Latvia, the middle child of the Baltic states. I knew very little about Latvia and only associated it with Lithuania and Estonia.

For all I knew, Latvia was another of those anonymous, postage stamp sized European nations. A place of relative prosperity and as I was about to discover, penetrating cold. Exiting the airport, the first thing I felt was a hypothermic chill in the air. This was just the beginning of shivering my way around Riga. The wind would sweep moisture off the Daugava River and into Riga’s beautiful Old Town. It was difficult to enjoy as an icy scythe sliced through the winding streets. I had not been in the city more than a few hours when I felt soreness in my throat, then came the congestion, followed by several nights of sweating through a fitful sleep. Thank goodness for Narvesen. The Aussie told me there was one right down the street from where I was staying. I found it with ease.

Magic act – Old Riga a starry night (Credit: Mariss Balodis)

Easing My Pain – A Degree of Fondness
The name of Narvesen will long live on my lips. I would soon discover other Narvesens in and around the Old Town. There seemed to be one on every street corner. Latvia will always be the land of Narvesen to me. Nothing was going to cure my cold, but at least they had a few things that could ease my pain. I still recall Narvesen with a degree of fondness. This is not only because of the relief I found there, but also because it played a leading role in my call home.

Click here for: Answering The Call – Riga:  Echoes of Friendship (Eastern Europe & Me #9b)

The Perils of Parenting – Prague: Glittering Unhappiness (Eastern Europe & Me #8)

The girl looked miserable and her mother even more so. I met them while on a Free Tour of Prague Castle. That day was one of the greyest imaginable. The mother and daughter duo were headed for stormy weather. Their mood just as grim as the sky which hung over the Castle District like a shadow. Anyone who has spent winter/early spring in Central or Eastern Europe will surely know what I mean., The sky turns to slate, a chill permeates the air and seeps into the skin. Stepping outside induces an immediate need to go back to sleep. Even the widest-eyed travelers find themselves in a perpetual fog as the day becomes one with the night. On this day, Prague’s ambiance was like that found in a funeral home. The day could hardly be differentiated from night.

Gray day – The view in the late afternoon from Prague Castle

Family Ties – The Coming Conflict
When a first-time visitor starts wishing for darkness to descend and put the day out of its misery, you know the situation is dire. This was my main thought as I tried to fight off sleep. The sky could not have been heavier. Even those with the sunniest dispositions would start begging for a cloudburst. Anything to break the monotonous weather. Some days seem longer than others, this one felt infinite. Thus, the mother and daughter duo were as reflective of the climate as they were of one another. I distinctly recall speaking with them after passing through the Golden Lane where Kafka once lived. Even in the permanent dusk that cloaked everything in dullness the pastel homes on either side of the cobblestone lane were of such warmth that it could not but help but make me feel better about the world. Unfortunately, beauty, charm, and history did nothing to brighten the mood of mother and daughter. They were headed for an epic row, their time on this tour was only serving to exacerbate the strain.

The coming conflict between them was quite simple. From what the mother told me, they had been on a sort of grand tour of Eastern Europe. I surmised the reason was to make the daughter more worldly. From the look on her face, it had only made her surly. I am not quite sure if she wanted to be in Prague, but one thing was certain, she did not want to be with her mother. After the latter told me about their trip it was easy to understand why. They were from New York City and the daughter went to an elite private school. The kind that probably made a mother-daughter trip to Eastern Europe sound like the sort of extracurricular activity that would look good on a college application. I was certain the mother had plans for her daughter that included an Ivy league school or some other institution of higher education whose yearly tuition cost more than the average salary of an entire Czech family.

The Golden Lane – Twilight in Prague Castle

Ball & Chain – The Parent Trap
The daughter had her eye on the door, an invisible one, that imaginary escape hatch where she would be released from the ball and chain of parental control. From the looks of it, the daughter was under intense pressure from the mother to excel in everything. This would guarantee a glittering life and lead to no end of unhappiness. I sensed illicit drug use, excessive drinking, and other acts of unspeakable behavior in her future. It was either that or a profoundly upper-class existence where everything was defined as superior. I have often wondered what it is like to be wealthy, if this iteration was any indication than I must consider my working-class roots akin to winning the lottery.

The scene between the two was rather depressing. I probably would never have noticed, but an inquiry about where my fellow Americans were from led to the mother inquiring about my travels. She seemed to be both fascinated and bemused by the fact that I had been traveling around Eastern Europe alone. This was something of a novelty to her because they were in throes of a rigorous travel schedule that had led to considerable angst bordering on exhaustion. The mother wore an expression of frustration, the daughter a look of repressed anger. This situation was eventually going to end badly for them. The unhappiness was palpable. Prague was not their final destination. Instead, the itinerary called for a visit to Budapest. They were probably not going to make it, either literally or figuratively. Each for their own reasons, they were looking for a way out of this self-imposed madness that had brought them both to the edge of sanity.

Exhaustion & angst – Sculpture at Prague Castle

Scandalous Ideas – Nothing But The Best  
I knew the mother must be desperate when she began asking my advice about visiting Budapest. With my strange southern drawl, public school education, and carefree attitude towards travel, I was not exactly wise in the worldly ways of the northeastern elite. My idea of a good day of travel was to experience the spontaneous and pseudo-seedy. I had been lurking around an abandoned district railway station in Prague earlier that day. For me, that was the right thing to do. I am sure the mother would have been mortified by such an idea and her daughter elated. And now the mother wanted my opinion of Budapest. Of course, I said it was incredible. That no Eastern European journey would be complete without a visit. I had a feeling that my reasons for visiting Budapest as opposed to theirs could not have been more different.

The mother wanted the daughter to gain a worldly education which meant she had to see the very best of everything. The idea of anything seedy would have been positively scandalous. My idea of Budapest at its best was seeing the shadow world that lurked in faded fin de siècle buildings and less touristy districts. I vaguely mentioned this aspect of the city, but it seemed lost on the mother. She already had her mind made up for the daughter. The trip had been too much. Budapest was a city too far. The mother said the daughter would need to get back home, to prepare for the rest of the spring school year. The daughter did not have much say in the matter, but her expression said it all. She wanted to be done with this trip, but not as much at that moment as she wanted to be done with her mother. Ironically, their Eastern European journey was going to end with a Free Tour in Prague. I imagined they had all the money in the world and none of it was going to buy happiness.

Click here for: Making That Call – Riga: Land of Narvesen (Eastern Europe & Me #9a)

Magnetic Attraction – All Too Human In Prague (Eastern Europe & Me #7)

Playing memory games used to be one of my favorite habits. I can still recall with joy the long drives across the United States where I would recite to myself various lists such as Roman Emperors, American Presidents, and Chinese dynasties in sequential order. I did not always get them right, but I found this to be a compelling exercise to sharpen my memory and provide me with a better appreciation of the power that chronology plays in history. This was not just a dull recitation of facts, these lists lent themselves to the power of interpretation.

For instance, I realized the comparatively low number of Roman Emperors in the 2nd century versus the number in the 3rd century showed just how chaotic the empire had become. Civil Wars and problems on the frontiers with barbarian invasions had led to emperors being replaced at an alarming rate. Later as my interest in Eastern Europe grew, I began to memorize lists informed by the region. These included all the counties and country seats in Hungary or as many battles as I could recall on the Eastern Front during World War I. This later evolved into various mental games such as trying to see how many names of cities, towns, and villages I could recall in various Eastern European countries. While some might consider this habit mind numbing, I found it both educational and joyous.

Out of focus – Tijo at Prague Castle

Fallible Blessing – Less Than Total Recall
Memory can be a blessing or a curse. For me it has mostly been the former, particularly when recalling my travels. One day a couple of years ago, I sat down and listed every one of my trips to Eastern Europe. This started with points of arrival and departure for each trip along with the year they occurred. I then added many of the places I visited on these journeys. This gave me a general, but not quite exhaustive list of everywhere I had been. I began to realize that there were many places that I could barely recall. Memory being fallible, I sometimes mixed up the dates and places of my travels. This was especially true when I returned to some of the same countries on multiple occasions. As one might imagine, I found recalling the first time I had been somewhere much easier to remember.

Nevertheless, I still struggled to recall places, people and events from those travels. When this happened, I knew that I needed do a better job of documenting my journeys. Breaking them down into days would have been helpful, but I was too busy traveling to really care. My main form of documentation became photographic images. This is ironic because I crave the literal. I would always prefer to work with words, but Images are much easier to make in the digital age. Photography with a smart phone lends itself to moment-by-moment documentation. Looking at a set of photos in the order which they were taken is an easy way to catalog a journey. Not long ago, I went through over a hundred photos I took of a visit to Prague in 2012. Looking back at those photos I saw mostly buildings rather than people. Yet one of the images did show someone I had all but forgotten until he popped up on my screen.

Vivid & faded memory – As seen from Prague Castle

Passers By – All Too Human Experience
His name was Tijo, he spoke near perfect English and led several different Free Tours of Prague. I had not thought of Tijo in years until I saw him in one of my photos. I immediately recalled that he was from the Netherlands. Tijo had fallen in love with a Czech woman whom he met in Finland. They had moved back to Prague, which happened to be her hometown. The photo of Tijo was a memory trigger, helping me recall someone I had long since forgotten. This got me to thinking about all the other lost memories from my time in Prague. And for that matter, the lost memories of the people, places, and experiences I had in Eastern Europe. How many could I recall? There might be something meaningful – at least to me – lurking deep in my memory.

Prague was much more to me than world-famous attractions such as Prague Castle, Charles Bridge, Old Town Square, and the Astronomical Clock. Those are the sites which make for photogenic moments, but they also threaten to turn any visit into a vanity project. Photos are fine as proof of what someone has seen. What they cannot replicate is the human experience. And Prague for me, as in so many of my travels, was more about my interactions with people and places. The places I usually do not have trouble recalling, the people often get lost somewhere in my memory.  The ones I met in passing, the ones that met my eyes with a glance, the ones I felt were fellow travelers on a journey that like everything else in life would end all too suddenly. The ones who for whatever reason made an impression upon me and found their way into my memory bank. I have come to realize that it is time to open the vault and recollect forgotten treasures of these travel experiences.

Prague as people – On Charles Bridge

The Catch Basin – Tears In The Rain
While traveling, many of my human interactions seemed benign. Only in retrospect have I realized they must have meant something more to me. Otherwise, I would be unable to recall them. Perhaps it was the environment that made these interactions so memorable. I was alone, thousands of kilometers from home, at the mercy of a language I could scarcely understand. This brought me into contact with people I would come to know for only a few moments or minutes or hours at the absolute most. Their impressions upon me faded until one random day over a decade later they came back to confront me.

The people are inseparable from the places in which we met. Prague or Pula, Budapest or Bratislava, a squalid village or a scenic vista made them possible. The places act as miracles of magnetic attraction pulling wanderers from all over the world towards one another. If it was not for memory these moments would be lost in time like tears in the rain. Fortunately, I had a catch basin of cognitive recollection. And now the time has come to satisfy my thirst. To dive more deeply into a very personal past. This is my own personal voluntary memory project that begins in Prague and will continue across all my travels in Eastern Europe. I have no idea when this journey will come to an end. Hopefully never.

Click here for: The Perils of Parenting – Prague: Glittering Unhappiness (Eastern Europe & Me #8)

Love, Life & Loss – An Eastern European Education (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #44)

I have a rendezvous with an obscure destiny that has led me to spend the past decade researching, traveling, and writing about Eastern Europe. Why did a region that became largely anonymous to the world after 1989 gain such a hold on my imagination. Maybe it was all those international sporting events I watched during my childhood. The Cold War was much more than a political, economic, and military contest. There was also a cultural cold war that made its way to the sports world. Soviet hammer throwers, Bulgarian weightlifters, East German swimmers, Romanian gymnasts, and Yugoslavian basketball players were a source of endless fascination. The frozen faces of their coaches, the party men in dark suits watching from impenetrable perches, the rumors of rampant drug use, boycotts, and allegations of extreme partisanship by referees all made for must-see television. As an impressionable adolescent living in the foothills of western North Carolina, the sports world was my portal to what seemed like another planet.

Point of Departure – Windows in abandoned home in the village of Gederlek, Hungary

Intimidating & Mysterious – Cold War Curiosities
The Winter Olympics provided two of the moments which have stuck in my memory the longest. In 1980 they held in Lake Placid, New York where the United States faced the Soviet Union in the men’s hockey semifinals. I can still remember watching the television broadcast where announcer Al Michaels exclaimed, “Do you believe in miracles?” as the Americans pulled off an upset for the ages. Four years later, I watched Jim McKay in Sarajevo stand amid swirling flakes of snow. Events such as the Men’s Downhill Skiing competition was delayed due to the heavy snow. Little did anyone know at the time, but less than a decade later Yugoslavia would disintegrate. This would have dreadful consequences for Sarajevo which would endure death and destruction during a nightmarish siege.

There was also the international tennis tour where several of the world’s best players hailed from the Eastern Bloc, in particular Czechoslovakia. These players included Ivan Lendl, Martina Navratilova and Hana Mandlikova. Each one of them ended up in the west, but their frosty dispositions were intimidating and mysterious. They left me wondering what life was really like east of the Iron Curtain. I found these people and the places they came from compelling. No one, least of all me, had any idea that in the early 1990’s Czechoslovakia would also cease to exist. International sports events were my first window into a world that seemed well beyond reach. Only diplomats or exchange students led by official handlers were able to cross that divide. Every westerner who set foot in the Eastern Bloc was immediately under suspicion. It never occurred to me that in the very near future we would be welcomed in many of those forbidden places with open arms.

Miracle On Ice – American hockey players celebrate victory over the Soviet Union at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid

Recreating The World – A Subconscious Desire
My interest in Eastern Europe also stemmed from growing up during a period of heightened Cold War tensions. Now all but forgotten is the fact that during the first half of the 1980’s the world teetered on the brink of nuclear destruction as relations between the United States and Soviet Union were marked by distrust, fear, and paranoia. Eastern Europe was caught in the middle. As such, the region took on an importance that is hard to imagine for anyone who did not live through those times. For me, Eastern Europe was an endless source of fascination. I feel the same way today. That might be why I spend a fair amount of time trying to figure out why.

Of late, I have formulated another theory for my obsession with Eastern Europe. This one is not easy to admit because it is shrouded in darkness. To put it simply, I feel a strange kinship to its history of loss. A region whose history – particularly in the 20th century – was marked by so much loss is where I feel most at home. Sometimes I wonder what that says about me. I have been fascinated for as long as I can remember with abandoned places, obscure parts of the world that are largely unrecognized, remote locales where the history that happened there is either mostly forgotten or willfully ignored. Uncovering stories that should be well known and are not, takes a combination of curiosity and indefatigable effort. The task can seem thankless. Sometimes I wonder if anyone other than me is interested. Of course, we do not live for others – no matter how seemingly altruistic our actions – we live for ourselves. I am really searching in the Lviv’s and Ljubljana’s for myself.

I have come to the realization that during my travels in Eastern Europe, I subconsciously try to recreate the world in which I grew up. A broken home, trying to understand how a single person’s inexplicable actions left me wanting for the rest of my life, the impossible recovery of an irretrievable loss, the search for affirmation in every stranger’s eyes, the feeling of intense loneliness, and the even more intense feeling of wanting to be left alone. The pursuit at times can be gratifying and maddening, irritating and revealing. The strangest thing is that I have come to realize that eventually this land of loss will one day be lost to me. Sometime in the near or distant future these travels will come to an end. That will be one of the greatest losses of my life. Perhaps that is why I keep returning to the region to see what I can discover of its history, and through that history something of myself. As long as I travel in the region, the search for loss will continue. It is an affliction that I both desire and suffer.

Remnant – Symbol from the 1984 Winter Olympics in the mountains near Sarajevo (Credit: Hedwig Klawuttke)

Lost In Place – Distant Ancestors
Eastern Europe would seem to be a strange place to conduct such a search. At least for me. I have not a single Eastern European ancestor. And yet I feel to this very day a kinship to the region that I cannot quite explain. Perhaps it is that feeling of loss I see reflected in the crumbling castles, the derelict palaces, the half-abandoned villages, the vacant rural bus stops and those stillborn births of 20th century utopian dreams that morphed into nightmares. There is a level of loss to be found in Eastern Europe beyond compare. The things that once fascinated me have failed. The Czechoslovakia’s and Yugoslavia’s no longer exist, the cultural cold war is now nothing more than a notion that gets very little attention except in campus basements or in the memories of middle-aged men still fascinated by a world that helped form them. I am one of those men, forever looking for what was lost. I can never quite seem to find what I am looking for, but that will not stop me from trying until the love of life and loss runs out.

Click here for: Magnetic Attraction – All Too Human In Prague (Eastern Europe & Me #7)

The Last Outpost – Ghimes-Faget:  The Right & Wrong Side of a Transylvanian Border (Rendezvous with an Obscure Destiny #43)

There was a time when I believed that traveling to every county in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire was going to be part of my future. That has undergone a reconsideration due to the constraints of age and my interest in other parts of Eastern Europe. Theoretically, I still might make that goal, but travel, like life, is not a checklist. The point of travel for me is to catch glimpses of lost worlds. The lands that were formerly part of Austria-Hungary will forever be my favorite place to find them. That vanished empire reminds me of myself.

Austria-Hungary was a web of complex contradictions. The cosmopolitanism and intellectual ferment of Vienna juxtaposed with the illiteracy and squalor of Galicia. The austere Calvinism of Transylvania and the ornate spiritualism of the painted monasteries of Bukovina. The diversity of the old empire was positively kaleidoscopic while the ruling authorities were regressively reactionary. The empire was defined by its contradictions. I often feel the same way about myself. I have spent my life going to extremes. This has led me to search at the far ends of a vanished empire to explore the different sides of myself. What I have not always been able to do physically, I can more than make up for mentally. Between trips, I find myself dreaming of a distant frontier, on the extreme fringes of Transylvania at Ghimes-Faget.

The Last Outpost -Guardhouse #30 on the edge of Ghimes-Faget

The Last Outpost -Guardhouse #30 on the edge of Ghimes-Faget (Credit: Bodka)

Clearing Customs – A Passing Phase
In the mountains of eastern Romania stand one of the outstanding relics of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A hundred years after the empire’s dissolution, there remains a small four-sided building standing beside a set of railroad tracks. The building, painted in a coat of vibrant yellow with dark green shutters and a freshly tiled red stucco roof, stands just beyond a bridge over the Trotus River. The building’s exterior has been immaculately restored. A wreath wrapped in ribbons that are the same color as the Hungarian flag hangs close to the entrance. The building has a small plaque affixed to the façade stating that this was an old Austro-Hungarian guardhouse. The first and last one in the empire.

Ghimes-Faget is not the sort of place many people would know. It is a small commune (akin to a town) of 5,400 people in eastern Romania, best known for two things. The first is for its role as one of the largest settlements of the mysterious Csango ethnic group and a hub for their culture. The second, is its fantastical natural beauty. While that makes it memorable for those who discover it, that hardly means it is of national importance. In a nation of 20 million people with over 2,200 communes, a place like Ghimes-Faget is easily overlooked. An outsider passing through the town by train might be forgiven for thinking that the commune has a much greater importance than shown by its size. That is because of its train station which is both grand and massive.

It is the type of train station more often found in large cities. As a matter of fact, the same design and scale of a station can be found in two other cities, Szeged in Hungary and Rijeka in Croatia.  Those two cities have respectively, thirty and twenty-four times the amount of population that Ghimes-Faget does. What is going on here? Ghimes-Faget’s railway station offers a clue to the commune’s earlier history. A little over a century ago, it was both the final and first stop in Austria-Hungary, depending upon whether a traveler was entering or exiting the empire. A place where customs would be cleared while passage was allowed or denied. Ghimes-Faget was a town whose economy and its inhabitant’s employment largely depended on the border. That was until the border suddenly disappeared, ending an era in the commune’s history which had been several hundred years in the making.

Bordering On Obscurity -Ghimes-Faget today

Bordering On Obscurity -Ghimes-Faget today (Credit: Tibor Varkonyi)

Position Power – A Quirk Of History
Being a border town had its advantages as well as its drawbacks. Ghimes-Faget or as it was known in the pre-1920 era by its Hungarian name, Gyimesbukk, gained an advantageous economic position due to its location. This was where goods and merchandise were imported and exported, providing a much needed boost to the local economy. Customs officials and border personnel with their salaries and families came to live in the community. This advantageous situation was balanced out by one of its main drawbacks, insecurity. Changes in political or military affairs could cause Gyimesbukk to lose its status overnight. Once gone, its former importance would likely vanish forever. The same could be said for its economic prosperity. In retrospect, Gyimesbukk was one of those places held hostage by a situation over which it had no control. When it came to prosperity and importance everything depended on political developments that took place hundreds if not thousands of kilometers away.

Gyimesbukk’s role as a border outpost was a quirk of history, but one that had come into being long before the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  During the 18th and part of the 19th century it stood on the Habsburg side of its border with the Ottoman Empire. On each side were two different types of civilization whose innumerable clashes had eventually resulted in a peace that placed Gyimesbukk along a new political frontier. Of course, this one was artificial like all political borders. Its time predictably came and went. When the Ottoman’s receded, Romania was formed. Gyimesbukk then assumed the role it would play until after World War I. Once Austria-Hungary collapsed and the Treaty of Trianon was ratified the town became part of Romania. This was not the end of its role on a border though. For even today Ghimes-Faget assumes that position.

The Unchanged - Gyimesbukk Csangos

The Unchanged – Gyimesbukk Csangos

Bordering On Obscurity – A Home For The Csango
Ghimes-Faget continues to be both a final and first outpost, in geographical terms it always has been. For the commune is located on the southeastern extremity of Transylvania. One pass away from Moldavia. Mountains make better borders than political ones. The commune lies in the stunningly beautiful Trotus Valley, where the river of that same name runs through the commune. The town is now, as it has been in the past, a refuge for one of the smallest and most unique minority groups in Eastern Europe, the Csangos. No one quite knows where the Csangos originated from and that includes themselves. Ironically, the meaning of Csango in Hungarian means to wander or go away. They certainly have wandered further east than any other Hungarian speakers and that includes what is likely their closest ethnic kin, the Szekelys. It is thought the Csangos were originally Szekelys, another group whose origins are in doubt. The Szekelys predominate in eastern Transylvania, while most of the Csangos can be found in Moldavia, principally Bacau County. The exception is those Csangos who inhabit the commune that they still call Gyimesbukk.

The Csango’s adherence to traditional folkways, most noticeably in dress and ceremonial customs, makes them as close to a living specimen of the original Hungarians as one is likely to find. Their archaic dialect has more in common with Old Hungarian than any other derivation of the language. Much of this has been preserved by their isolation from outside influences. Outside of its role on the border, Ghimes-Faget is an ideal environment for Csango cultural preservation. The last outpost of an empire is now the same for a mysterious people. Ghimes-Faget’s place in the world is much like that of the Csangos, remote, undiscovered and stuck deep in the past. A place and a people bordering on obscurity. If only we could all be so lucky.

Click here for: Love, Life & Loss – An Eastern European Education (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #44)

Blinded By Reality – Basil The Bulgar Slayer (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny 42b)

If I had to name a favorite despot, it would almost certainly be Basil The Bulgar Slayer. Ever since I heard his name and honorific mentioned by Dr. Kenneth Harl in a lecture twenty years ago, I have enjoyed a strange fascination with Basil. His name demanded that I pay closer attention to his life and work. Basil overcame enemies at home and abroad to become one of the greatest emperors in Byzantine History. Because of his exploits, he was both hero and villain. That complexity makes him much more compelling as a historical figure. There is no greater example of this, than what Basil did after defeating the Bulgars at the Battle of Kleidion.

Victory at Kleidion – Byzantines defeating Bulgars (Credit: Chronicle of Ioannis Skylitzis)

Bleeding The Bulgars – Wars of Attrition
The ascension of Basil the Bulgar Slayer to legendary status started long before the Battle of Kleidon, where his army fought and won a decisive engagement that was the defining moment of Basil II’s reign as Byzantine Emperor. His defeat of the Bulgars at the battle may have been the most important victory Basil ever won, but the seeds of his success went all the way back to the late 10th century when he slowly, but inexorably gained the upper hand in his numerous battles with the Bulgars. It may not have the same cachet as winning a glorious victory on the field of battle, but reforms in the empire were the foundation upon which his later military victories were built. Most important of these were Basil’s reforms to the taxation system which made it fairer and more equitable across the empire. This reform checked the Byzantine aristocracy’s power. Basil never trusted the aristocracy and for good reason. They had tried to usurp his power, but Basil would not be anyone’s puppet. Instead he became the puppet master.

Basil’s reforms stripped the landed aristocracy of their power and centralized imperial control. For instance, he would allow payment in lieu of military service. The money that came into the state treasury was then used to pay for mercenaries who were loyal only to Basil. During his reign, the state coffers were overflowing with tax revenues. Basil was then to use that money to finance his military endeavors. The campaigns against the Bulgars were some of most important in Byzantine history. While most of them were only mildly successful, they slowly weakened the Bulgars. This put Byzantium’s biggest external enemy on the defensive.

The Bulgars did not have anywhere near the resources of Byzantium. And Basil’s army made sure they would lack them by frequently campaigning, especially in Macedonia. They pillaged Bulgar territory on an almost annual basis. After years of on again, off again warfare, the Bulgars had been sufficiently weakened. In essence they were losing a war of attrition. This strategic ploy by Basil made the Bulgars ripe for conquest. The final blow would come during the summer of 1014, when Basil’s army faced off against a force led by Tsar Samuel of Bulgaria. At the time, neither Basil nor Samuel perceived that from a historical perspective the battle would be a making or breaking point for both men. The moment of decision came at the Battle of Kleidion.

Moment of decision – Basil II passes judgment on a foe (Credit: John Skylitzes)

Delivering The Final Blow – The Battle of Kleidion
Tsar Samuel’s Bulgarian forces cannot be faulted for their preparation in advance of the Byzantine incursion into their territory. As for Basil and his army, they had been playing a long game with the Bulgars until they could deliver a massive blow that would crush the Bulgars. The only problem was knowing when and where to deliver that blow. Fortunately for the Byzantines, Basil II was a superb military commander surrounded by a trusted group of generals who would carry out his plan. In 1014, Basil prepared to strike once again into Bulgaria.

Due to years of attrition, Samuel’s forces could only go on the defensive. He figured their fortifications were stout enough to keep the Byzantines at bay. One of the passes his army secured was Kleidion, which led into the Strumsa valley. This route went into the heart of Samuel’s domains. When Basil’s forces tried to cross the pass, they literally hit a wall in the form of a timber palisade. An attempt to storm the palisade resulted in a high rate of casualties. The only way around it would have involved marching a great distance to either the east or west and then crossing the mountains. This was unfeasible because the distance was so great. By the time the Byzantines made such a detour, the campaigning season would have ended.

One of Basil’s commanders, Niketas Xiphias, came up with another idea. He took a small force with him to try and find a way over the mountains. He was able to locate a bypass by going over a mountain to the west. While Xiphias was getting his force over the mountains, Basil launched limited assaults against the palisade to distract the Bulgars. On July 29th, Xiphias’ force suddenly appeared in the rear of Samuel’s army. The Bulgars were now surrounded. When they turned to face Xiphias’ force, this allowed Basil’s army to breakthrough.

The Battle of Kleidon then turned into a complete rout. Those Bulgars who could, fled for their safety. Many more were killed and an estimated 15,000 captured. They were now at the not so tender mercies of Basil. He wanted to send a message to Samuel and the Bulgars that they would never forget. Basil had the prisoners divided into groups of 100 men. He then ordered that 99 of the 100 in each group be blinded. One prisoner out of 100 had only a single eye blinded. That way, one man would be able to lead his column back to Samuel. Imagine the sight (no pun intended) of 150 columns of 100 men each being led back to Tsar Samuel by a one eyed soldier. It must have been a horrific scene. History bears this out.

The Byzantines under defeat the Bulgarians & Tsar Samuel dying in front of his blinded soldiers (Credit: Manasses Chronicle)

The Judgment of History – Pathological Motives
When the blinded men finally made it back to Tsar Samuel, he was said to have been mortified by the sight of his disabled soldiers standing blindly before him. At that point, Samuel had either a heart attack, stroke or seizure. He died soon thereafter. Basil had psychologically destroyed his greatest foe. It would take four more years before he managed to completely conquer Bulgaria. That conquest assured his legacy. Blinding the Bulgar prisoners assured he would never be forgotten by Bulgars who still loathe him and Greeks who still love him. Basil really was a Bulgar slayer. One who would go down in the history books as both famous and infamous. Basil deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest Byzantine Emperors in the empire’s long and checkered history. He will most likely be remembered only for slaying and blinding Bulgars. Judging by his actions, Basil would probably be fine with that.

Click here for: The Last Outpost – Ghimes-Faget: The Right & Wrong Side of a Transylvanian Border (Rendezvous with an Obscure Destiny #43)

Making A Name For Himself – Basil The Bulgar Slayer (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny 42a)

I can still remember the first time I heard his name. It was one of those moments that catches your attention and captures the imagination. It happened on a long drive between Arizona and the East Coast twenty years ago. I still have not forgotten the moment that I heard the name along with the story that gave rise to it. I was listening to the World of Byzantium by Dr. Kenneth Harl, an outstanding series of twenty-four lectures on the Byzantine Empire produced by The Teaching Company (now known as the Great Courses). I would hope that anyone who comes across a name like Basil the Bulgar Slayer in the annals of history takes notice. I certainly did. Somewhere out along Interstate 10 in West Texas, I put the cassette for Lecture 18 – Imperial Zenith, Basil II into the tape deck. Within seconds, I heard Harl tell of Basil II’s exploits in elevating the empire to its peak during the Middle Ages. From that moment right up through today, Basil the Bulgar Slayer has remained in the back of my mind.

Basil’s incredible reign, which lasted almost half a century (976 – 1025), set a record for longevity in the Byzantine Empire. During this time, he regained much of Anatolia, Armenia, Bulgaria, and Georgia. Basil checked the power of the landed aristocracy and co-opted their finances to pay off debt incurred by the peasantry. He fought many successful military campaigns. Just three years before his death, he was still out on campaign. Basil’s achievements were of such magnitude that those who came after him found the standard he had set impossibly high. It only took a couple of generations for those achievements to dissolve after he died in 1025. Outside of Byzantine scholars and armchair medieval history buffs who have an interest in Byzantine history, few have heard of the emperor. It is a shame. Anyone with the name and attached honorific of Basil the Bulgar Slayer is worthy of greater notice.

Covered in Glory – Emperor Basil II

Enemies Within & Without – The World of Byzantium
The history of the Dark Ages and early Middle Ages in Eastern Europe is rather obscure, at least to westerners. That is especially true the further south one ventures. The era can seem like little more than a succession of strange invasions by Slavs, Turks, and Finno-Ugric peoples who either held their own (Bulgars and Magyars) or were relegated to obscurity (Avars and Khazars). During this period, Byzantium was constantly under threat. Its hold over imperial hinterlands such as the Balkans was tenuous at best. This situation was made worse by the Byzantine leaders who fought among themselves. Enemies within the empire were as frightening as external enemies.

The Byzantine elite was filled with dangerous intriguers all vying to build a power base. Lurid court politics at the highest levels was a way of life. Anyone, including close family members, was capable of duplicitous behavior in the hopes of gaining a prized position. It was survival of the cleverest. No one was safe, certainly not emperors. Several of Basil’s predecessors may or may not have been poisoned to death. The best that one could hope for if their plot failed, was to be mutilated or blinded before being sent into permanent exile. This was a fate that Basil managed to avoid, if only by a narrow margin.

Of all Basil II’s successful exploits, he will always be remembered for how he received the honorary title of Bulgar slayer. He was able to deal with the Bulgar problem that had plagued Byzantium for over a century. The Bulgars had overrun much of the empire’s territory in the Balkans and formed the First Bulgarian Empire. Like every empire in world history, the Bulgarian one would not last, but it would take one of the greatest emperors in Byzantine history to bring the Bulgars to their knees.

Formidable foe – Monument to Tsar Samuel in Sofia (Credit: Vladev)

Battling The Bulgars – At The Gates of Trajan
Ironically, Basil’s battle with the Bulgars was initially marked by setbacks in which he almost lost his life. An early defeat that nearly turned catastrophic occurred when he attempted to besiege Serdica (modern day Sofia, Bulgaria). Despite siege equipment and three weeks of assaults, the attacks failed to produce any positive gains. The siege took a turn for the worse when the Bulgars came out from behind the city walls and successfully assaulted Basil’s force. With his army’s siege equipment now in tatters and suffering from hunger, Basil directed a retreat. The march back to Byzantine territory ended in disaster for his army. A surprise attack on his army was planned and executed by the man who would become one of Basil II’s greatest archenemy, Tsar Samuel.

Basil’s army was surrounded and ambushed at the Gates of Trajan, a narrow pass in the Sredna Gora Mountains. As Basil’s forces retreated from Serdica there was growing disorder in his ranks. The soldiers heard rumors that the Bulgars had blocked their way over the mountains. Tsar Samuel’s forces were able to encircle the Byzantine army and destroy most of it. The imperial seal was also lost in the battle. Only an elite force of Armenian fighters was able to slip over the pass and avoid destruction. Fortunately for Basil II, he was with this group. Though he was wounded, he would live to fight another day. It would be almost three decades before he would finally exact his revenge on Tsar Samuel and the Bulgars.

Passing through – Ruins of a fortress at the Gates of Trajan (Credit: manevpe)

Making Examples – Seeds of Vengeance  
This resounding defeat at the hands of the Bulgars did not help Basil II back in Constantinople. Soon enough, another in a long line of potential usurpers, Bardas Phokas, proclaimed himself emperor. It was at this point that Basil made a decision that would ensure his security into the foreseeable future. He betrothed his sister to Vladimir of Kiev. In exchange, Basil was given 6,000 Varangian warriors, ferocious soldiers from the far north. Basil and the Varangians quickly went on the offensive. Phokas was soon defeated and sent into exile.

Three generals who had led rebel forces against Basil were executed. He made examples out of them by having each executed in a different manner. One was hung, another impaled and the other crucified. The message was clear. Anyone who committed treachery against Basil would pay with their life. Basil’s vengeance was swift and sure within the empire. It would take him longer to exact revenge upon the Bulgarians, but when he did the result would be so unforgettable that it is still remembered today.

Click here for: Blinded By Reality – Basil The Bulgar Slayer (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny 42b)