A Curtain Closes – COVID-19 & Travel in Eastern Europe: The Return of History (My Balkan Affair #45)

The woman at the piano in Szeged’s train station finished her Hungarian rhapsody. The silence after she stopped was just as riveting as the music she had been playing. To see beauty stripped to its barest essence was to have watched this woman play the piano. Her performance had been a striking example of how art can shift reality from the mundane to the magnificent in a matter of minutes. There are very few moments in life when we instinctively know that we have witnessed something remarkable, this was one of them. After she was finished playing, the woman picked up her child who was no longer near tears and went to the platform. In a few minutes, the woman along with many others including myself was boarding the train which would take us to Budapest.

Somewhere between Szeged and the town of Cegled, an hour up the line, my Balkan affair began to recede into a swirl of confused and captivating memories. The loss of memory was inevitable. My only solace was that it would be replaced by a sense of accomplishment which comes from the rare instance of a trip completed without even a hint of regret. Paradoxically, this left me feeling disconcerted by a premonition that this trip might never be topped. At this time, I cannot say whether it ever will be. The reason is that a global pandemic has postponed any further travels until an undetermined time in a future that remains mysterious.

Standing guard over silence – The Fat Policeman statue in Budapest during COVID curfew

The Gift of Hindsight – No Going Back
The gift of hindsight is good for something other than regret. It is how we make sense of history. All the course of human affairs can only be made sense of after the fact. That is when we look for trends that were invisible at the time. We tell ourselves later that they did in fact exist, we were just blind to the possibilities. I did not know anything about COVID-19 while traveling across the Balkans. I do not recall hearing a single word about while back in Budapest either. My only encounters with the virus would come way later when I was back in the United States. It was increasingly mentioned in media outlets until one day it descended upon our world and altered the course of life as we know it. With the gift of hindsight, I have come to believe that my last trip in Eastern Europe was meant to be just that, a sort of last hurrah. The kind of immaculate memory that one can vicariously live through for years. The past only becomes glorified as a golden one when the present has proven to be calamitous.

The beginning of 2020 was not the end of innocence, but it was the end of taking for granted the opportunities I have been afforded to travel throughout the region. Hindsight tells me that eventually things will get back to normal. I believe otherwise, there will be no going back in order to move forward. There has been a break with the past. Ominously, what comes next has become anyone’s worst guess. Taking a wait and see attitude has never been so worrisome, at least not in my lifetime. I keep thinking back to the summer of 1914 in Eastern Europe. It has been said that summer was among the most beautiful anyone can remember. The citizens of Austria-Hungary, the Russian Empire and all the other states in the region had no way of knowing that a storm was gathering and would soon break upon them. A storm of such scale and ferocity that it would transform the future into something unimaginable. There were historical forces at work which would alter the lives of millions for the worse. Are we living through another such nightmare or a speed bump on the road back to normalcy? It Is too soon to tell.

Emptiness – The Chain Bridge in Budapest during curfew due to COVID

Collision Course – The Present Future
I often comfort myself with the thought that everything I saw in the Balkans still exists. The walled towns of Budva and Kotor, the ruins of Stari Bar, the synagogue in Subotica and the Bar to Belgrade train still exist in the same state in which I left them. Perhaps next year they will be open for the taking by tourists. Perhaps not. It is comforting and frightening, mostly the latter, to think of just how empty each of these attractions must be at this moment. What does Budva become when there are no tourists to lay eyes on its medieval delights? What is Kotor without a line of curiosity seekers snaking their way up the mountainside in the quest to surmount Fort St. John? The ruins of Stari Bar have not been this silent since they were abandoned hundreds of years ago. When I visited Cetinje it felt like I was the only foreigner who dared brave that ice cold city during the winter. Now no foreigners dare brave it at all. The world of travel in the Balkans has turned insular. The region is back to being the preserve of locals. They finally have their cities, towns and tourist attractions back and not a Euro or dollar to show for it. Such is the state of a world no one saw coming. Expectations must now be adjusted accordingly. 

I imagine the Bar to Belgrade train still surging forward on its daily journeys filled with nothing but empty seats. A handful of passengers cover their mouths and noses with masks. They eye each with a shared sense of trepidation. Those plague columns that I have seen standing in so many Eastern European cities, now seem oddly appropriate. They are monuments to a past that was just as precarious as our present and future. The past, present and future have converged rather than collided. COVID-19 is a milder and more modern form of the plague. It has killed many and altered the lives of even more. Borders have closed, reopened and closed once again. The Balkans and the rest of Eastern Europe have not been this closed off since the Iron Curtain cordoned it off from the rest of the western world. The curtain that now stands today is translucent. We can see through it and dare not go beyond it. That curtain is something we have learned to hide behind. History has returned, the tourists have not. The pandemic has proven once again that history has its own logic, only in hindsight will we ever make sense of it.

Piano Woman – Szeged Train Station: Hungarian Rhapsody (A Balkan Affair #44)

The walk between Szeged’s bus and train stations was a bracing winter welcome to the city. The hand I used to drag my suitcase behind me was semi-numb in a matter of minutes. The air was biting, cutting right through me like an icy scythe. Long before I got close to the Tisza River, the humidity that coated the air hung heavy over the streets of Szeged. It was an unwelcome reminder of how water can make the cold that much more bitter. The walk was an eye-opening experience, not so much from the sights along the way as the cold which made me wider awake and ultra-alert. The walk was an endurance contest that I knew was winnable.

The goal was to get inside Szeged’s train station to warm myself and prepare for the final part of a journey that had carried me across much of Montenegro, a large swath of Serbia and now into the wintry marches of southern Hungary. I was almost too satisfied with the trip. This had the side effect of making me long to get back on the road or ride the rails for years on end. I did not want this journey to end, but I knew it had too. Obsession and restlessness had kept me in their grip for the past ten days. This dangerously intoxicating combination had pulled me to places I could never have imagined without seeing them for myself. Montenegro may have been no more and frost bitten Serbia a fleeting memory, but it was Szeged that would leave me with a final, indelible impression.

Melody maker - Piano in the waiting hall at Szeged Train Station
Melody maker – Piano in the waiting hall at Szeged Train Station

Palace of Transport – A Golden Sheen
Szeged’s train station was a sort of miracle made just for me. Five years earlier, I would have had no knowledge, let alone interest in it. Now it felt like an old friend who was there to greet me. This was the portal to another world, one of comfort and relaxation, the kind of place that I call home while traveling. The ticket window offered an endless array of options that could have led me astray for the rest of my life. I was not that fortunate on this morning because I was going back to Budapest, which I loved, but also loathed for signaling the end of my Balkan affair. I decided to prolong the ecstasy of this affair by delaying my departure for about an hour. This would provide me the opportunity to eat a bit of breakfast and do some reading while waiting for the siren call of the Hungarian National Railways notifying me that it was time to put my life once again in their hands. For me, the perpetual expectation of what is to come defines travel. In the meantime, I assumed that from now to the moment of my departure would be rather ordinary. I should have known better.

If you want to know the level of prosperity in a provincial Hungarian city or village, look at the cleanliness of its local train station. Whereas almost all bus stations in Hungary are architectural abominations filled with strange characters, cheap cigarettes, stale pastries and a grimy aesthetic that threatens tetanus, train stations run the gamut from sordid to spectacular. The sheen of a lost golden age still manages to inform train travel in Hungary. And what could be better than when that sheen still gleams over 150 years since the first train began rumbling down the tracks here. Szeged’s station still manages to evoke something of the romance in railway travel. Its aged, but stately exterior and spotless interior made me want to stay longer, for a moment I thought how a person could spend a lifetime here observing the arrivals and departures for the entire range of human emotions. There were no teary eyed goodbyes on this day. Only a handful of travelers were waiting to take leave.

Judged by the immaculate cleanliness of the station, it was obvious that Szeged was the kind of town that had a high opinion of itself and rightfully so. It is famous throughout Eastern Europe for its late 19th century architecture, the product of a rebuilding that followed a horrific flood of the Tisza River in 1879 that destroyed much of the city. The station in which I stood was built in 1902 and had been pretty much untouched since it opened. Szeged managed to slip through two World Wars relatively unscathed. The station acts as a point of entry to the city for thousands of students and tens of thousands of tourists each year. This role made it the place where most outsiders would catch their first glimpse of the city. Thus, it was maintained in near pristine condition.

Stepping up – Interior of Szeged Train Station (Credit: Attila Brunner)

Melody Making – A Lasting Impression
As it was mid-morning on a Friday, all the commuters had disappeared into Szeged or departed by rail to points further north. A train to Budapest left just a few minutes after I arrived. This meant I had the entire station mostly to myself. My goal was to stay in the comfort of the cozy station, but also be within sight of the platforms. I headed to its upstairs area which I found quite fascinating. The station’s design is rather unique, as it is a multi-story affair. On the upper level is a spacious waiting hall. There is self-entertainment on offer in the form of a sleek black piano that anyone can play. Anytime I see a piano, I lament my inability to play anything other than the trombone which I have not touched in over thirty years. I doubt anyone in a train station would ever want to hear a trombone, but they might enjoy someone playing the piano. Fortunately, I was in luck when a young mother carrying her baby in a portable cradle proceeded to sit down at the piano. The baby was whimpering a little, but the mother had an astonishing method of calming her toddler.

The mother began to play the piano with methodical precision. Her fingers tap danced atop the ebony and ivory producing a uniquely Hungarian Rhapsody. For the next fifteen minutes the waiting hall was filled with the sounds of music that could melt the hardest heart. Nonetheless, they lulled me into a trance. I was not the only one. Soon one of the maintenance workers walking by stopped to listen. The mother played on never acknowledging the small audience which was held rapt by her piano playing. I imagined that she was playing a coda for the end of my journey. It was the sweetest sendoff I could have imagined. Ten days of nearly non-stop travel was coming to an end. My journey was in its final stages. Now I had a soundtrack to go with it. Beauty descended on everyone in that station as the mother played. Her impromptu virtuoso performance was timeless. The idea of arrivals and departures no longer seemed to exist while she played. Through her melody making she managed to defeat time and leave me with a lasting impression. One that I knew would last forever.

Click here for: A Curtain Closes – COVID-19 & Travel in Eastern Europe: The Return of History (My Balkan Affair #45)

A City Turned Inward On Itself – Szeged: The New Synagogue (A Balkan Affair #43)

Standing in the chill morning air at Szeged’s bus station was a rude introduction to one of Hungary’s greatest cities. The noisy clamor of engines, air perfumed with exhaust and the taste of diesel fuel on the tip of my tongue. This was a far cry from Szeged’s elegant fin de siècle Belvaros with its exquisitely eclectic buildings covered in electrifying pastels. Gripping the handle of my suitcase all I could think of was finding the fastest route to the train station. Using my phone to map out the route, I discovered that the leisurely stroll that I had imagined would be a few hundred meters at most, was instead a two and a half kilometer trek along narrow sidewalks. It made me regret not taking the earlier opportunity to follow the man who had offered to be my guide on the quickest route to the station. Now all I could do was start the long walk by telling myself that this was all part of a morning exercise routine. It would certainly be a workout. Dragging a suitcase filled with clothes and books while wearing a backpack full of other necessities was not ideal. At least the air was crisp and cold. It would a few minutes before I broke a sweat.

Another world – The New Synagogue in Szeged (Credit: Aron 96)

Secrets in Szeged – How Little We Really Know
My strategy was to stay off the main streets while cutting over to quieter and less crowded thoroughfares. Fortunately for me, foot traffic was light on this morning. I found this a bit surprising since the sky was clear. Nonetheless, a haze hung over many of the city streets. Whether that was mist from the nearby Tisza or smoky residue burned off by those heating their homes was never apparent. The city looked like it was simmering beneath some invisible force that stayed silent and could burst forth at any moment. There was an air of mystery and menace to these streets. Szeged was slumbering in the depths of a dry winter. Autumn was forgotten and spring was too far away for either hope or imagination to take hold. This was Szeged as few foreigners have seen it, a city turned inward on itself during the first few bleak weeks of the new year.  All I could do was walk at a rapid pace and proceed toward the station that promised to carry me back to Budapest.

The buildings along these streets were neither beautiful nor ugly, they were of little interest to an outsider. These were the places people called home. They would not give up their secrets to me. I knew behind the facades were people leading lives I might have found fascinating. Unfortunately, I had no way of accessing them. Thus, the streets were all but anonymous to me, an endless succession of narrow pathways through canyons lined with concrete and pavement. The trees were bare, stripped of their foliage by the season. Cars were parked on either side of the streets, waiting to whisk their owners away to work. I was moving toward the end of my journey in a place that held little of interest for me. Ironically, this was just as much, maybe even more, a universal part of every traveler’s experience. Areas where guidebooks would never go. The heart and soul of Hungary lives down these streets. What a pity that I could not possibly know what life was like here. The more I travel in Hungary, the more I realize how little I really know about the country. This feeling unnerved me at the time, it still does today.

Pre-war postcard – The New Synagogue in Szeged 1913

Prolific Passion – The Greatness of Lipot Baumhorn
Just when I had all but given myself up to passing through this cityscape without a second thought, I was confronted by a sight so sublime that it stopped me right on the street to stare in wonder. Before me stood Szeged’s magnificent and massive New Synagogue. I was not prepared for such a sight, even if I had been it is hard to describe the feeling that came over me. It is a massive structure. The second largest synagogue in Hungary (Dohany Synagogue in Budapest is the largest), many say it is the most beautiful, not only in the country, but in all of Europe. It certainly managed to live up to its reputation. Surrounded by an otherwise non-descript, residential cityscape, the New Synagogue looks like it came straight from another world. In a way it did. The world in which the New Synagogue was created no longer exists, it was destroyed by two World Wars and the Holocaust.

Lipot Baumhorn is not a name that many architectural historians have on their minds, though they should. A Hungarian Jew born in 1860, Baumhorn was the foremost designer of synagogues in the Kingdom of Hungary prior to World War I. He designed and oversaw the construction of no less than twenty-two synagogues, including the New Synagogue in Szeged. It is a rare combination of Art Nouveau and Historicist styles which can be placed under the umbrella of Eclecticism. The Moorish and Byzantine elements are evocative of near Eastern influences, while the Art Nouveau explores Hungarian folk motifs. The new synagogue’s imposing style shows the permanence and solidity of a Jewish population that was close to the peak of its powers in Szeged when the Synagogue was completed in 1903.

It was not quite all downhill for Szeged’s Jews in the decades after the Synagogue was built, but it was close. The Jewish population of the city would peak in 1920 with 6,958. When the Holocaust struck Szeged, almost a quarter of a century later there were 4,161 Jews. Only about half survived deportation. Nonetheless, the survival rate is still amazing when one considers that three-quarters of Szeged’s Jews ended up in Auschwitz. Even for those who survived, the world they had known would never be the same. Many emigrated to Israel. As for the New Synagogue it had been used as a storage facility during the latter part of the war. It was then left to languish. It was only after the turn of the 21st century that restoration work began in earnest. I witnessed the result of those efforts.

From the sky below – The New Synagogue in Szeged (Credit: Civertan)

The Masterwork – To Last Forever
I was unable to get past the wrought iron fence which surrounds the synagogue, but the sight of it was enough to entrance me. I snapped a series of photos while looking with fascination at a structure that could not have possibly been more different from its surroundings. Baumhorn and Szeged’s Jewish community were obviously looking to make a statement with the structure. They were here to stay or so they assumed. History has few greater tragedies than the loss of a community which could create and inadvertently bequeath such an outstanding work of architecture to posterity. Though the Jewish community in Szeged has now dwindled to just a few hundred, the New Synagogue still speaks loudest on behalf of that community’s faith, devotion and imaginativeness. These were the traits of Szeged’s Jews and Baumhorn infused his design with them. They made the synagogue symbolically representative of the entire community. Looking at Baumhorn’s masterwork, I was struck by how the New Synagogue did not seem like a thing of the past, it looked and felt like a thing of forever.

Click here for: Piano Woman – Szeged Train Station: Hungarian Rhapsody (A Balkan Affair #44)

When Goodbye Means Forever – Szeged: A Date With Departure (A Balkan Affair #42)

From Szeged to Subotica would have been a forty five minute, uneventful bus trip if not for the Serbia-Hungary border crossing. Of course, the crossing was uneventful as well. In a strange way I found the seamless transition from one nation to another depressing. It was as though all the excitement and tension which had driven me from one place to the next during my Balkan adventure suddenly evaporated as soon as I entered Hungary. I was at a loss of what to do with myself. The moment I stopped feeling perpetual tension the trip was over, perhaps not in the literal sense, but certainly in a spiritual one. Being back in Hungary felt like returning home. Everything was familiar. The well ordered world of the Magyars did not seem so exotic to me. I was reminded by one of my favorite catchphrases, familiarity breeds indifference. Home is a place where we no longer notice the world or what we notice is so familiar that we take it for granted. Comfort is the enemy of observation. At this moment, Hungary felt comfortable.

Arrivals & departures – Szeged Bus Station (Credit: Sandor Zsolt)

States of Mind – Fear & Fatalism
As we approached the outskirts of Szeged, I felt no sense of fear or trepidation. Worry was a lost cause at the end of this journey. I hate to admit it, but fear has driven me to places in the world that I would never have visited otherwise. Stepping out into the unknown has been my motivation. Tempting fate is a dangerous way to live and for me the only way to really feel alive. On this day I lamented leaving Subotica for Szeged. Serbia will always represent something scary to me. A frightening fascination that is wildly seductive, a war that can be fought, but never won. Whereas Hungary was the home to which I always returned, in both my dreams and reality. Calm, comforting and serene. On this day Hungary brought me back to where I have always belonged. This was my state of mind and it bothered me. I hate saying goodbye. I will do almost anything to ignore the inevitable moment when there is nothing left to wait for. The awkward moment when departure from loved ones or strangers occurs. I always get an ominous feeling on the inside that nothing will ever be the same. That this might be the first and only time or that this might be the last time. Goodbyes have a stinging finality for me.  Fatalism is a disease, a psychosis for which there is no cure.

The Hungarian man I had met outside the bus in Subotica spoke to me physically rather than verbally after we crossed the border. He made signals with his hands and associated facial expressions to communicate a question. Was I taking a train to Budapest? Indeed, I was! He informed me though nods, knowing looks and hand signals that he would help lead me to where I needed to go. I was more than happy to follow. That was before something got lost in translation. I wanted to tell him that I was still debating whether to drop my luggage at the Szeged train station, so I could go have another look around at a city I remembered from a few years earlier as being one of the most beautiful in Hungary. My goal was to disembark at Szeged’s bus station, from there I assumed it would be a short journey on foot to the train station. My assumption would be proven wrong. I should have followed in the direction of my newfound friend.

All that remains is a memory – Street corner in Szeged (Credit: Istvan Csuhai)

All that remains is a memory – Street corner in Szeged (Credit: Istvan Csuhai)

The Day Felt Like Death – Losing A Newfound Friend
Once our bus arrived in Szeged it was surrounded by morning traffic and multi-story buildings. I glanced down the side streets hoping to catch a glimpse of the Tisza River, the watery vein which winds its way around the city. The side streets only displayed an elegant and endless urban cityscape. I was surprised when the bus slowed to a stop at a street corner. The Hungarian man who had taken me under his wing, got up out of his seat and headed for the door. He looked back at me with a beseeching glance that asked, “Are you coming with me?” I was confused. This was not the bus station. It was an anonymous street corner in a city where I did not yet have my bearings. I hesitantly chose to stay seated. The man gave me a confused look, but then cracked a smile while nodding a goodbye. He disembarked, collected himself and began to walk away. I knew right then that I would never see him again.

My heart dropped, I felt shaky, an absurd sadness fell over me. I just said goodbye to someone I had known for less than an hour. We could not even converse due to a language barrier and yet I felt a strange kinship with him. The kindness of strangers has the power to break down barriers. We were not an American or Hungarian in that moment, we were human. Here was someone who knew nothing about me and offered to help me find my way. That man made me feel welcome. Like I had a friend on what was an otherwise, dark and cold morning. I felt like I let him down. He was gone forever and was not reduced to what was sure to become an increasingly distant memory. For a few moments, the day felt like death in all its irreversible finality.

A date with departure – Szeged Train Station (Credit: Gábor Miklós)

Magnetic Morning – The Journey Home
The Szeged bus station was bustling an hour after dawn. Exiting the bus, I saw students everywhere. Szeged is a university town, which accounted for the pulsating energy that was so apparent at the station. While standing on the pavement inhaling diesel fumes and watching my breath materialize before me in the chill morning air, I realized the mistake I had made by not disembarking with my newfound friend. For some reason I had believed that Szeged’s bus and train stations would be close to one another. I could not have been more wrong. The man had gotten off the bus earlier, because at that point it was only a short walk to the station. I should have followed him. I had lost a friend, I had lost my way.

Instead, I would now have to trek a couple of kilometers to the train station. The air was cold and damp. The sun had yet to burn off the morning mist which was still rising from the streets. I was not looking forward to backtracking. It was about this time, that I made up my mind to depart from Szeged as soon as possible. Budapest was drawing me in like a magnetic. If Hungary was like a home for me, Budapest was my bedroom, the place I felt most comfortable. All I had ahead of me was a walk to the train station. Little did I know that the walk there would lead me to an unforgettable surprise.

Click here for: A City Turned Inward On Itself – Szeged: The New Synagogue (A Balkan Affair #43)

The Train To Subotica: Dying In Your Life/Dying In Your Sleep (A Balkan Affair #34)

Riding the rails between Novi Sad and Subotica took me on a journey through a land that looked frozen in time. The fact that frost had built up on scrub grass beside the tracks and the twisted limbs of trees had turned translucent only added to the sense of stagnation. There was a dramatic beauty in the semi-ruined townscapes and outbuildings in the countryside. I snapped photo after photo with my phone hoping the perfect picture would capture the rustic scenery. There was one scene that really caught my eye. Whether it was a barn or a barrack I have no way of knowing, but the early morning sun illuminated the side of a rustic and roofless building. The grass around it was flecked in frost. The building was caught somewhere between abandonment and ruin. It was the very definition of the phrase, “a long time coming.” What I imagined was a slow, glacial pace of unsightly decay made me wonder if anything ever really changed or everything just crumbled in rural Vojvodina.

Stationary – Along the Novi Sad to Subotica line

Generating Genocide – The German Experience

At the approximate midpoint of this journey, the train pulled up to a two-story train station in the village of Lovcenac. The town itself was a good distance east of the station. Farm fields could be seen in all directions. The fields looked as though they had been there since time immemorial. One could be forgiven for assuming that this landscape was timeless. I later learned that Lovcenac had been transformed by the 20th century. A breathtaking wave of historic change had swept over the town, it had been tormented by the whirlwind of modern warfare and buffeted by extreme racial and ideological ideas. All the problems usually associated with the Balkans had taken place in Lovcenac. Ethnic cleansing, forcible population transfers and demographic decline had unsettled and resettled this village of 3,100 inhabitants. The ethnic cleansing occurred in the latter part of World War II, when a century and a half of ethnic German settlement and successful development abruptly ended.

The communist partisans and South Slavic peoples exacted a deadly retribution for all that they had suffered during the war. The fact that there was no remorse is hardly surprising. After all, the German military command during the war had issued orders stating that for every German soldier killed by a partisan, one hundred Yugoslavs would be murdered. This led to a vicious cycle of violence that boomeranged on ethnic Germans in Yugoslavia. Any ethnic German was subject at best to expulsion, at worst confinement and eventual execution. The Germans of Lovcenac were symbolic of a much larger movement across eastern Europe. Ethnic Germans were thrown out of their homes, never to return. The lucky ones made it back to Germany, the unlucky ones ended up as collateral damage, pawns in a deadly geopolitical game of retribution.

Dawn Harvest – Off the Tracks in Vojvodina

Making Ends Meet – The Ebb & Flow of Montenegrins

Lovcenac was one of hundreds of towns dislocated from its past during the post-war period. The agent of change was first the Red Army, a sort of hell on wheels, rails, boots and horseback. They took the area and then handed it over to the Yugoslav communists who marched the German citizens off to perform forced labor. Their main church and cemetery were plowed under. The town was just as fallow as the surrounding fields following the war. Rebuilding the population started after the war when Montenegrins settled in Lovcenac. They had staying power. Today their descendants make up a large portion of the residents. The resettlement was successful, but the town has never really recovered demographically. Lovcenac’s population is a third lower than it was a hundred years ago. It is not just ethnic Germans who are missing. Young and upwardly mobile Montenegrins and Serbs have voted with their feet as well, escaping for greener pastures even though they were already surrounded by hectare upon hectare of pastures and fertile fields.

The hollowing out of rural Vojvodina has been no different than that seen in so many European societies. Since 1991, the town has lost a quarter of its population. Sometimes I wonder if anyone will be left in villages like Lovcenac a hundred years from now. This is a pattern being repeated all cross Eastern Europe. The first time I came across the physical manifestations of demographic decline was in northeastern Hungary. On the outskirts of villages, ruined houses were the lone traces of the inhabitants who left decades ago. Windows and doors were missing, large sections of plaster and paint had chipped off and weeds choked abandoned garden plots. These scenes are supposed to be reminiscent of the past, but they seem to be creeping portents of the future.

It used to be that war, disease and famine caused depopulation. Now low birthrates and an aging populace threaten to further marginalize regions such as the Vojvodina. From the window of my train I passed through a world in perpetual decline, where everything was tending toward decay. And yet I still felt hopeful that this region and its people would survive. This land, these towns and villages had been through much worse. There were people living up and down this train line who had witnessed the horrors of World War II. Somehow, they had managed to make it through to the present. By comparison, the present danger seemed rather benign. The difference between the problems facing Lovcenac in 1944 and those of the 21st century is the difference between dying in your life and dying in your sleep. The former happens in a moment of horror, the other in a moment of indifference.

Winter scene -The edge of a village in Vojvodina

The Final Stop – A Hungarian Foothold

After Lovcenac only a couple of stops remained before the train would reach Subotica. One minute I was peering out at the countryside, lost in dreamy wanderlust, the next I was preparing for imminent arrival. As I expected, the train was running behind by about ten minutes. Its tepid pace had become quite enjoyable. Slowly, ever so slowly the train crawled northward. Arriving at Backa Topola we were now transitioning into a Hungarian world. This may have been Serbian territory, but the town was majority Hungarian. 

Interestingly, when Backa Topola was first mentioned in recorded history during the mid-15th century, the town was then chiefly Hungarian. It still is today, five and half centuries later. This was deceptive. Backa Topola had been obliterated by the end of the Ottoman period, then risen from the wasteland to a vibrant community through the collective efforts of generations of Hungarian settlers. Unlike ethnic Germans in the Vojvodina, the Hungarians had managed to keep a tenuous hold on parts of this region. Their presence, both historical and current, was what now brought me to my final stop, Subotica.

Click here for: A Kingdom In Fragments – Subotica: Multiple Personality Disorders (A Balkan Affair #35)

The Novi Sad Massacre – Frozen In Time: On Thin Ice (A Balkan Affair #31)

The monoxylon in the Novi Sad Museum at Petrovaradin was a revelation. It made me wonder what else lay beneath or beside the Danube, in old river channels or washed away into the fertile fields that cover the area. I would later learn that another ancient boat of possibly Celtic origin is on display at a museum further to the south in Sremska Mitrovica astride the Sava River. Perhaps shipwrecks and buried treasure lurk beneath the turbulent waters of Serbia’s rivers. Looking out from Petrovaradin, across the Danube as it flowed away to the south, I did not consider that the river hid much gloomier history somewhere down in its muddy depths. From within my line of sight was an area on the opposite bank, where hundreds of Serbs, Jews and a handful of Hungarians met their death at almost the exact same time of year seventy-eight years before. The river may have swept their bodies away, but the memory remains.

A tragedy of untold proportions - Monument to the Victims of Fascism in Novi Sad

A tragedy of untold proportions – Monument to the Victims of Fascism in Novi Sad (Credit: Bojana Maricevic)

Losing The Way – Sign of the Times
When I first arrived in Novi Sad it was late morning. I had an hour to spare before checking in to my accommodation. This meant going on a walk down a few city streets. Without a map and only a vague sense of where the historic heart of the city was located, I began to walk. After 20 minutes I lost my way on to Jevrejska (Jewish) street. Within a couple more minutes, I was standing in front of the magnificent Neolog Synagogue of Novi Sad, a grand edifice done up in a monumental style that incorporated everything from secessionist and historicist architectural elements on the façade to a traditional medieval church layout.

Above it all rose a grand cupola, the crowning achievement of this masterwork designed by Lipot Baumhorn. Viennese trained, Baumhorn was the premier architect of synagogues in the Kingdom of Hungary prior to the First World War, designing some of the most splendid examples seen anywhere in Europe. Constructed over a four-year period beginning in 1905, the Neolog Synagogue was the fifth different synagogue to be built on this same spot since the first one was constructed in the early 18th century. The synagogue was the main place of worship for the 2,000 strong Jewish community of Novi Sad. Its size, solidity and grand design was symbolic of the confidence Novi Sad’s Jewish community had in their future. A statement that they were here to stay. Tragically, their history took a turn for the worse in the decades to come.

Into the depths - Looking across the Danube towards Novi Sad from Petrovaradin

Into the depths – Looking across the Danube towards Novi Sad from Petrovaradin

Wartime Intentions – On Thin Ice
Much further upstream along the Danube, the riverbank in Budapest is notorious for the wartime slaughter of Jewish citizens. Hundreds were taken down to the ice covered Danube in the winter of 1944-45 and executed by Hungarian Arrow Cross forces. The bodies would quickly disappear into the icy waters, not that the murderers cared. In some cases, the victims were shot out on the ice and left there as a grisly example of the regime’s wartime intentions. Lest anyone forget, the same thing had occurred just a few years earlier in Novi Sad, only this time the victims were not only Jewish. Novi Sad was a multi-ethnic city during World War II. The Hungarian authorities who had taken back over the area planned to ethnically cleanse it of Jews and Serbs. To make that happen, they needed a pretense. One was soon manufactured.

As the year 1942 opened, Hungary was in a difficult geopolitical bind. Their alliance with Nazi Germany had resulted in the recovery of Slovakia, northern Transylvania and the northern part of the Vojvodina region in Yugoslavia. Regaining these lands, lost due to the Treaty of Trianon, had been the major goal of Regent Miklos Horthy’s regime. Hungarians cheered their recovery, but the payment was bound to come due sooner rather than later. It came in the form of Hungarian troops demanded by the Germans for the Eastern Front in their war against the Soviet Union. The Hungarians did not want to send soldiers to the Eastern Front for good reason, the fighting was brutal and the winter conditions unbearable.

Hungarian military commanders conspired to convince the Germans that their troops were needed closer to home. Specifically, Hungarian soldiers had to deal with an “uprising” by partisan forces in the Vojvodina. It was not much of an uprising. The only evidence offered was a shootout with 40 partisans on a farm in the countryside. While this did result in the deaths of ten Hungarian soldiers, it was no one’s idea of a revolt. That was except for the Hungarian military, who used it to craft a retaliatory response beyond anything imaginable.

They called it an uprising - The Novi Sad Massacre

They called it an uprising – The Novi Sad Massacre

A Chilling Atmosphere – Frozen In Time
In early January, Hungarian forces began rounding up Jews and Serbs in local villages. This resulted in numerous atrocities. While some were deported, many were also murdered. Then on January 20th, Hungarian forces surrounded Novi Sad. No one was allowed in or out of the city. All forms of communication with the outside world were cut off. Then the terror began. Soldiers went from house to house checking documents. Some inhabitants were forced out of their homes to undergo further checks. Many of these were never to return. Adding to the chilling atmosphere. the weather was frigid with temperatures dropping as low as -29 C (-20 F). Hundreds of Jews and Serbs were marched out to the strand, a popular beach area in the summer along the banks of the Danube. They were about to meet a grisly fate.

Those who were not immediately murdered were forced to walk out on the ice. They were then either shot or artillery was fired in their direction breaking the ice. Hundreds of unfortunate souls died due to submersion in the river, their bodies might resurface days later downriver or never at all. Estimates of those killed throughout the region during this time number somewhere between 3,000 to 4,000. 1,500 (800 Jews/700 Serbs) of those were in Novi Sad. Many of these murders took place beside or on the Danube. In a strange twist of fate, the killings in Novi Sad caused an outcry in Hungary and were stopped after three murderous days.

Silence & Solace – The Memory Remains
The memory of this horrific act of ethnic cleansing has been long lasting. When the Yugoslav partisans, with the Red Army’s assistance, took back control of the city and wider region they meted out their own summary brand of justice.  Thousands of Hungarians were deported or murdered. Those on both sides who committed atrocities were never brought to justice. In 1971, a Memorial to the Victims of the Massacre was erected beside the Danube near the spot where so many lives were lost. An annual commemoration ceremony takes place every year at the memorial in remembrance of the victims. This dredging up of the past is cathartic, allowing those that refuse to forget a few moments of silence and solace. It also goes to show that the Danube may have been deep enough to bury bodies, but it will never be deep enough to bury memory.

Click here for: Europe Between North & South – The Novi Sad Train Station: An Invisible Border (A Balkan Affair #32)

The Prison of Nations – Petrovaradin Fortress: White Elephant of The Danube (A Balkan Affair #29)

I arrived at the Serbian Athens to visit the Gibraltar of the Danube. That is an exotic way of saying I went to Novi Sad to visit a gigantic fortress towering above the not so blue Danube. A fortress that on one infamous occasion was used to destroy the town it was helping to protect and whose greatest fame now comes from a techno music festival. History like this is always worth the bother. I made the journey from the streets of Novi Sad to the Petrovaradin Fortress in the early afternoon. I was proud of the fact that only six hours earlier I had been struggling to get out of the bed in Belgrade. Now I was taking my second taxi ride of the day with a bus trip squeezed in between. All so I could get to Petrovaradin. This was a long-awaited dream come true, but like all dreams, reality defeated it.

Tunneling under - Petrovaradin

Tunneling under – Petrovaradin

Sizing It Up – A Fortress In The Off Season  
The taxi driver told me I should come back in the summer when the wildly popular Exit Music Festival was taking place. The fortress, as well as the surrounding area, would then be in full blossom. He had a point. Seeing Petrovaradin in the winter stripped the fortress of any pretense of glory and its grounds of beauty. The weather was gloomy and the fortress even more so. The light was bad, colors were dull and besides a handful of scattered visitors, the place was deserted. I had the fortress mostly to myself. It was hard to know where to begin or end on the exterior ground. The defensive works were huge, sprawling in every direction. I wandered around the main complex aimlessly, stopping to look over the Danube at several different points. Taking pictures was a futile pursuit since no photo could communicate the size or scale of Petrovaradin. And this was just the surface works. Inside the hill was a seemingly endless tunnel system. I was not surprised to learn the fortress had never been conquered. Its sheer girth made it impregnable.

Petrovaradin Fortress is the premier work of military architecture found along the Danube. It is situated atop Petrovaradin Rock, a promontory that people have found amenable to defensive purposes going all the way back to the Bronze Age five thousand years ago. Both martial and spiritual forces harnessed the site’s potential to protect themselves. The works included a Roman fortress and a medieval monastery. The fortress as it stands today got its start under the Austrians after they pushed the Turks out of the area. The initial cornerstone was laid in 1692, but the fortress was not completed until 1780. By the time of completion, the fortress was an unrivaled and impregnable defensive work of massive proportions. Most famously, were the multi-level series of underground tunnels stretching 16 kilometers (10 miles) in length.

View on the Danube - As seen from Petrovaradin

Looking over the Danube – As seen from Petrovaradin

Waging War – The Battle Against Boredom 
Petrovaradin may have been formidable, but it was also a white elephant. The Habsburgs expended a fortune in financial and material resources on the fortress long after it had been rendered obsolete. With the Turks banished from the area by the early 18th century, the 4,000 soldiers stationed at Petrovaradin had little to do other than to watch and wait. Warfare had also become increasingly mobile. Waiting for the enemy to attack or besiege a gigantic fortress was an increasingly outmoded way of waging war. Those stationed at Petrovaradin were resigned to the military equivalent of watching paint dry. The boredom would have been chronic.

Soldiering conjures up images of gallantry, pageantry and desperate acts of courage. Conversely, the men stationed at Petrovaradin passed endless hours drilling, drinking and socializing. They also spent time exploring its subterranean passageways and training to protect the fortress by utilizing them. There were plans for up to 30,000 soldiers stationed in Petrovaradin’s subterranean chambers to fire at the enemy from 18,000 loopholes. This fanciful and elaborate scheme never came to fruition. What was now the second largest fortress in Europe turned out to be a money pit. It was like tossing coins into a bottomless wishing well.

Telling time - Clock tower at Petrovaradin

Telling time – Clock tower at Petrovaradin

Raining Destruction – Less Than Friendly Fire
When war finally did break out during the Hungarian Revolution of 1848-1849, the fortress became the setting for what, quite literally, can best be described as a revolting military action. In a tragic irony, Petrovaradin’s guns rained destruction down on the city it was meant to protect. Hungarian soldiers used Petrovaradin to obliterate two-thirds of Novi Sad by shelling the city. The elegant, fin de siecle architecture that stands in the center of Novi Sad today was a direct result of the destruction wrought by the Hungarian Revolution. This was the only significant military action the fortress ever experienced. It found much greater use as a prison.

Austria-Hungary has been termed the “Prison of Nations” due to all the suppressed nationalities confined within the empire. Petrovaradin was a microcosm of this tension. Several famous Serbian and Croatian nationalists were once incarcerated inside its walls. The fortresses most famous prisoner was Josip Tito. The future Yugoslav dictator was confined inside Petrovaradin for professing radical socialist attitudes while he was a non-commissioned officer in the Austro-Hungarian armed forces. He would return many years later, bringing with him famous guests such as fellow dictator and Ethiopian leader, Haile Selassie. It was also under Tito’s regime that the fortress was transformed into a museum. One where I stood and wondered why anyone would ever conceive a fortress so elaborate, expansive and expensive. This was the Austrian state of mind, teutonic might organized with maddening thoroughness. The imperial ethos was based on total control.

Control Freaks – Telling Time at Petrovaradin
Nowhere was the Austrian urge to control more apparent than the baroque clock tower at Petrovaradin. It stands at the Leopold Bastion, a magnificent spot overlooking the Danube. The clock tower managed to manipulate both time and tax revenue. The hands of the clock are reversed with the longer hand indicating the hour and the shorter hand indicating the minute. Anyone who lived within sight of the clock tower had to pay a special municipal tax for the privilege of being able to tell the time. The whole idea was rather ridiculous, if not outright rapacious. Some might say the same thing about Petrovaradin.

Click here for: How Will We Be Forgotten: Petrovaradin: Of Sarmatians & Monoxylon (A Balkan Affair #30)

A Land Apart – The Vojvodina: Traveling To The Serbian Athens (A Balkan Affair #28)

The bus ride from Belgrade to Novi Sad took an hour and half. This gave me an opportunity to get a closer look at the Vojvodina countryside in January. It was exactly what I expected, frozen fields of upturned earth in every direction. This landscape stretched far off to the horizon. It was monotonous and trance inducing. The monotony was reflective of the region’s topography, but not its demography. The Vojvodina may be one of the flattest regions in Europe, but it is also one of the most ethnically diverse areas in Eastern Europe.

Conflict and conquerors have swept through the Vojvodina time and again. This has meant successive waves of depopulation and repopulation, migration and expulsion over the centuries. The result has been an unrivaled ethnic mix. Though Serbians at 66% make up by far the largest population group in the Vojvodina, there are no less than 24 other ethnic groups. They speak a variety of tongues, which account for the fact that there are 6 official languages. Due to its multi-ethnic, multi-lingual nature, Vojvodina was given a high degree of autonomy under Yugoslav rule. Today it still enjoys autonomous status as part of the Serbian nation.

Burning off the fog - Abandoned building in Vojvodina countryside

Burning off the fog – Abandoned building in Vojvodina countryside

The Ruling Class – Kingdom of Hungarians, Austrians & Serbs
What would Vojvodina be without ethnic diversity? The answer is a lesser place. The most prominent of Vojvodina’s ethnic minorities are the Hungarians. The more obscure include the Bunjevci (Roman Catholic Serbs) and Gorani (Slavic Muslims). It is the Hungarians who loom largest as the region’s most populous minority and whose history has had the greatest effect upon the region’s development. Hungarians have ruled over the area longer than anyone else. Their most crucial period of administration occurred from 1867 – 1918 when agricultural and industrial development of the region soared.

The Vojvodina was taken from Hungary under the postwar Treaty of Trianon and given to the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (changed to Yugoslavia in 1929). As late as the mid-1950’s a quarter of the population were ethnic Hungarians. Since 1989 that proportion has continually dropped due to a series of factors including the fall of the Iron Curtain, collapse of Yugoslavia and Hungary joining the European Union. These factors sent many Hungarians scurrying northward in search of better job prospects. I have always been intrigued by Vojvodina’s Hungarian past. The Magyar influence was both historically prominent and well known. Across many villages and towns in the far north of the region, Hungarians are still in the majority.

Brilliant monotony - Vojvodina Landscape

Brilliant monotony – Vojvodina Landscape

A Vanishing Presence – Ottomans, Austrians & Oblivion
Ironically, two ethnic groups which hardly figure in the area anymore are just as responsible for Vojvodina’s present-day ethnic mix. The first of these was the Ottoman Turks. Their invasion of the area, starting in the mid-15th century, swept away the Hungarians who mainly lived in the northern portion of the Vojvodina. Two hundred and fifty years later, at the tail end of the 17th century, it was the Turk’s turn to be thrown out of the region. The Vojvodina was then incorporated into the Austrian dominated Habsburg Empire as part of the Military Frontier. This area was setup along the border to safeguard against another Ottoman incursion.

The Austrians brought stability and settlement, inviting in a host of different ethnic groups to resettle what was a despoiled wasteland. The German influence proved decisive, encouraging mass migration to the area. Along with migration came peace and prosperity. The ethnic Germans, like the Ottomans before them, were swept away by conflict, in their case the Second World War and its violent aftermath. Today there are very few traces of either Turks or Germans, their actions have been resigned to the dusty pages of history books. The Serbians, who have been in the region the longest, have managed to outlast all other rulers. All the peoples that have been woven into Vojvodina’s ethnic tapestry were nowhere to be found on the bus taking me to Novi Sad. From the words spoken by passengers, everyone seemed to be Serbian.

Of course, there was no way for me to tell otherwise. Thus, I contented myself by viewing the scenery which was non-scenery. That was until the highway crossed the Danube. Central and Eastern Europe’s most famous river looked just as gray as the sky. There was not much excitement to be had while looking at it on a day like this. The trees lining the riverbanks were bare. Nothing moved except for the dreamy flow of the river, sliding along at a barely discernible pace. In past decades, the river would have been frozen solid at the height of winter. Those days were a distant memory for this mighty river. It lay naked and exposed, a sheet of misty glass laid upon the landscape. This was the stuff mediocrity was made of, a scenic highlight that made me long for sleep.

Crystal Clear - Vojvodina in January

Crystal Clear – Vojvodina in January

Turning To Technicolor – An Applied Science
The bus trip seemed much longer than it actually took. When the bus arrived in Novi Sad, I was shocked by the liveliness around the station. There were university students laughing and socializing everywhere. This was like a shot of caffeine to my senses. The gray day had suddenly turned to technicolor. It was a welcome introduction to a city known as the “Serbian Athens.” Today, it is home to thousands of university students as well as the nation’s oldest theater. In the past, Novi Sad has been a center of learning and culture for Serbs since the 18th century. Most of the great Serb novelists and poets in the decades prior to the First World War spent time living and writing in the city.

During this period, the city was ironically under Austrian and then Hungarian rule. This resulted in Novi Sad and the Vojvodina coming under the influence of Central European culture rather than the rest of Serbia and the Balkans. Even today it is still somewhat a world apart, especially owing to the city’s emphasis on education which continues to provide Europe with highly intelligent professionals. This became apparent when I met one of Novi Sad’s native sons. A man of medium height, who looked to be in his early 30’s, with dark features and warm, intelligent eyes checked me into the apartment that I had booked a short walk from the bus station.

The man told me that his mother would usually be the one who checked people in, but she was unavailable. I was amazed how fluently he spoke English. I did not detect much of an accent. There was a good reason for that. Though he was from Novi Sad, the man was only back visiting for the holidays. He lived in London, working as an investment banker for a major financial institution. His education had begun right here in the “Serbian Athens”. Hundreds of years after Novi Sad was given that nickname, it still applied.

Click here for: The Prison of Nations – Petrovaradin Fortress: White Elephant of the Danube (A Balkan Affair #29)

Closer To Chaos – Going Beyond Belgrade: Busting Loose (A Balkan Affair #27)

The morning after a long journey is always brutal. I have not taken a drink in over twenty years, but the way I felt after my Bar to Belgrade railway trip reminded me of some my worst hangovers. I woke up drained and confused. Where was I at? Where had I been? Where was I going? Those questions were the story of my life on the roads and rails of Eastern Europe. I had spent the past three nights in Kotor, Bar and Belgrade. The day before, I traveled through three countries. My mind and body had not yet caught up to where I was at. Now I needed to collect my wits about me as well as my belongings, catch a ride to the central bus station in Belgrade and buy a ticket for an hour and a half journey to Novi Sad. The thought of this did not seem nearly as appealing as when I first planned it.

I had already spent time in Belgrade eight years ago, thus a day sightseeing in the city did not really interest me. Especially when the Vojvodina lay just to the north. Ever since I first passed through that region of mind bending flatness, sublimely fertile fields and complex ethnic diversity, the idea of a return trip captivated me. The fact that a relatively forgotten stretch of the Danube flowed through the area and past Petrovaradin, one of the largest fortresses in Europe, made the region a must see. All this lay somewhere in the distant past or a future that scarcely seemed conceivable as I slowly raised myself out of the bed that morning. I had to keep going, the question was, as it always has been, why? A restless spirit demands to be constantly satisfied.

Bridging the Danube – Liberty Bridge into Novi Sad (Credit: danilography – Pixabay)

Joy Ride – The Stuff Of Feverish Dreams
It took me an hour to really get going, but I had little choice. The night before I had made the fateful decision to meet the proprietor at 8:00 a.m. for a ride to the bus station. I went to the front desk and was promptly ushered into a bar/dining room where I was offered some very powerful coffee. The proprietor was in fine form, gregarious and outgoing. He proceeded to show me photos on his phone of a trip he took to Greece every year. This, along with his family, were the highlights of his life. Running the hotel was a job, one that did not pay as well as he would have liked. Nonetheless, if attitude counts for anything, this Serbian gentleman was a very wealthy man. I could tell that he was someone who enjoyed life. Even though he was quite full of himself, his larger than life persona grew on me almost instantly.

As he drove me in his Volkswagen to the bus station, we passed down the road I had stumbled along just twelve hours before. The abandoned tram line was more beat up and busted than I had realized during my walk the previous night. The surrounding forest was covered in an icy frost that coated everything from treetops to undergrowth. It was a world all made up for the winter, dead trees and dead leaves beneath a leaden sky. The idea of summer seemed the stuff of feverish dreams in such a setting. The proprietor and I sped through the streets until rush hour traffic brought us to a halt. That’s when I asked my two favorite questions when traveling through the former Yugoslavia. What did you think of Tito? and Did you ever see Tito?

Taken for a ride – Belgrade Bus Station

Father Knows Best – The Cult of Tito
The proprietor surprised me. I could tell by the tone of his voice that he admired Tito. Though he had not ever seen or met Tito, his father had on many occasions. The proprietor’s father had been a famous doctor who was well known for his medical work. He traveled to the United States and Canada on occasion. Tito himself had honored his father. And in turn, the father had told the son that Tito was a very gracious man. This chimed with almost everything I had ever heard about Tito while traveling in the former Yugoslavia. Never once had I heard a disparaging remark made about Tito.

This was a considerable achievement that spoke volumes about the man especially considering what a disaster communism had been. Everyone I have spoken with regarding Tito does not blame him for the dissolution of Yugoslavia. On the contrary, he is still seen as a force for South Slavic unity. Only Tito could hold the country together. In hindsight, I believe this to largely be true. Tito was a remarkable man, delaying what now seems inevitable. Even if his time in power ushered in massive deficits and economic crisis after his death, Tito was the glue that bound Yugoslavia together. Slippage may have occurred during his tenure, but dissolution was still decades away. For that, Tito will always be remembered as a success.

On the road again – A1 motorway out of Belgrade (Credit: Orjen)

Crowd Control – Every Student For Themselves
There are moments in travel when I ask myself why I am doing this? Many of those moments have come at bus stations. The Belgrade Bus Station induced in me that same thought. It was cold, ugly, crowded and as close to chaos as anywhere I have been in Eastern Europe. With the central train station out of service, an overwhelming majority of those looking to get out of Belgrade had descended upon the place. Getting a ticket to Novi Sad turned out to be easier than getting on the bus. I only had a few minutes to spare which greatly increased my stress level, When I got to the designated spot for boarding, I joined a crowd rather than a line. It might best be described as every student for themselves, as the majority were college age Serbs.

Sharpened elbows and trickery were necessary here. I navigated near to the man who was collecting baggage storage fees. He would then load the suitcases into the underbelly of the bus. When it came my turn, he ignored the offer of payment in dinars and said something in Serbian. A wave of anger flashed through me. I was getting on that bus and my suitcase was going into storage one way or the other. I demanded the man’s attention once again. He looked surprised and grabbed my suitcase placing it in the baggage storage. He refused to take the dinars I held in front of him. Almost immediately I realized that he had wanted me to store the bag myself in return for no fee. It was a kindly gesture that suddenly made me feel as though I belonged. The sky was still leaden, but my day brightened considerably. The trip to Novi Sad just got shorter.

Click here for: A Land Apart – The Vojvodina: Traveling To The Serbian Athens (A Balkan Affair #28)

Off The Grid – A Balkan Back of Beyond: The Bar to Belgrade Railway (A Balkan Affair #25)

The stretch of railway between Podgorica and Uzice on the Bar to Belgrade express might best be characterized as “Off the Grid”. That phrase is often used in the United States to define places not connected to the electrical grid that are inhabited by self-sufficient communities that seek freedom from any type of governmental control. Along the railway, I would define “Off the Grid” as passing through a Balkan back of beyond with wildly beautiful landscapes that include inhospitable karst plateaus, wild emerald rivers, trackless forests and remote mountainscapes. The towns in between are small and unknown to all but those who live in or around them. No one is ever going to take much of an interest in Priboj or Prijepolje, they are outliers, geographically, economically and politically. And that makes going “Off the Grid” in Serbia that much more special.

Off the Grid - A river in the mountains on the Bar to Belgrade Railway

Off the Grid – A river in the mountains on the Bar to Belgrade Railway

A New Generation – Basketball Before Bosnia
If someone really wanted to get a good idea of life in Serbia, they could do worse than visit the remote towns straddling the railway. This would be in direct contrast to visiting the capital city of Belgrade. Capitals in every country I have visited are filled with cosmopolitan sophisticates and an inordinate number of professionals. Conversely, a city or town in a remote region feels more authentic. Provincial places lack pretension. They know their standing and do not pretend to be anything other than themselves. I was lucky enough to spend half of the journey with two sons of provincial Priboj. Matija and Svetozar were the first Serbians I had ever met who had no memory of the Yugoslav Wars. They came a generation after the fire and fury of that tumultuous period had melted away.

Matija and Svetozar were more interested in basketball than Bosnia. They spent their youth following a bouncing ball rather than running from bombs. Both lamented the fact, that Serbia was still seen as a warlike nation. Their life experience had been otherwise. It was enlightening to see Serbia through their eyes. As such their worries had nothing to do with politics. They were focused on their university studies and getting a good job after finishing school. A sense of normalcy had returned to Serbia. This was progress.

Powering Up - Hydroelectric plant on the Detinje at Uzice

Powering Up – Hydroelectric plant on the Detinje at Uzice

Getting Lit – An Electrifying Presence
There was more progress when the train arrived in the city of Uzice. After eight hours traveling through wilderness, the lights of Uzice looked like an oasis of fantasy. Matija and I had been discussing Nikola Tesla when he reminded me that on this same day in 1943, Tesla died in the United States. The Serbian genius had also brought electric light to the world. Oddly enough, so had Uzice. Matija reminded me that Uzice had been home to one of the world’s first hydroelectric power plants. Built in 1899, according to Tesla’s principles, “Pod Gradom” (Surburban) was constructed on the Detinja River. The Bar to Belgrade railway followed the Detinja’s river valley through this area. I never would have known it though, since nightfall had long since descended. In a land where artificial light had made a world of difference, we were surrounded by darkness.

As the train slowly approached Belgrade our conversation became more tepid as weariness took hold. I began to focus on the immediate future, which would entail a walk to my accommodation after arrival. The train journey might as well have ended right there for me. My mind was somewhere else beside the present. One disappointing aspect of this journey was that it would not end at the fin de siècle Belgrade Train Station that I had so enjoyed upon arrival eight years earlier on my first visit to the city. Belgrade was getting a new train station that was still under construction. Thus, my journey would end at Topcider Station a fair distance from the city center. Topcider was comparatively tiny, but it had some very interesting history. The station stands at the spot where the first train in Serbia departed on its way along the Belgrade to Nis railway. The station was destroyed during World War I and was rebuilt in the early 1930’s with a waiting room for the royal family whose Beli Dvor (White Palace) stood nearby.

During World War II, only the waiting room portion of the station survived another bombing. Following the war, Yugoslavia’s strongman Josip Tito used the former royal palace as a residence. His famed Blue Train was kept close by and would depart from Topcider when he set off on excursions. Not long ago, Topcider was refurbished and reopened to service rail traffic until the new station is finished. I would have preferred to arrive in the center of Belgrade because there would have been more accommodation options nearby. Instead, I would be disembarking at Topcider. I booked the nearest hotel thinking it would be an easy one kilometer walk.

Lighting The Way - Nikola Tesla

Lighting The Way – Nikola Tesla (Credit: Napoleon Sarony – Marc Seifer Archive)

Topcider Station – An Anticlimatic Arrival
When the train finally pulled up to Topcider Station our arrival time was 30 minutes later than planned. The entire train journey from Bar to Belgrade took eleven and a half hours. I had been on the train for so long that I half expected it to begin pulling away before anyone could depart. Topcider was the final stop and something of an anticlimax. The point of arrival was quaint rather than grand. I had just completed one of the great European rail journeys, but Topcider station was not a fitting end of the line. It looked more like what it was and had always been, an auxiliary station hidden away in an area that was frequented mostly by locals.

Matija and Svetozar took time to turn me in the supposed direction of my accommodation. I snapped a rushed photo of them together before we departed. Befitting our main topic of conversation, I promised to stay in touch by purchasing a couple of Luka Doncic basketball jerseys for them. Our shared passion for basketball might help us reconnect in the future. That was certainly my hope as I walked off into the night and disappeared into an all consuming darkness just beyond the station. Somewhere out there in this cold and foggy night a hotel awaited my arrival. I was going “Off The Grid” in Belgrade.

Click here for: A Walk In The Dark – The End of the Line: Bedtime In Belgrade (A Balkan Affair #26)