Midpoints of Nowhere – Shadow World: From Bohemia to Kremnicke Bane (Searching For The Center of Europe #3)

Remember the Grand Tour? It was a rite of passage from the 17th – 19th century for many aristocrats and wealthy travelers. Valuable experience would be acquired by those lucky enough to have the means to make a circuit around Europe and see the most famous cities and sites. The Grand Tour was considered an integral part of a liberal education. It went into decline when tourism began to gravitate toward the middle class and went mass market with package deals catering to a wider swath of travelers. Today, the Grand Tour hardly exists in its original form, though there are some parallels with aspects of modern tourism. Making a tour of Europe is still done by many college students in their gap year or those with the time and money to spend several months riding the rails from one stop to another.

A modern Grand Tour of Europe would take in some of the following destinations: Amsterdam, Paris, Barcelona, Rome, Vienna, the Rhineland, and Switzerland. I never went on a Grand Tour or thought of going on one. The closest I ever came to something approaching the concept was traveling between the famous trio of Central and Eastern European cities, Budapest, Prague, and Vienna, but I did not visit all three on the same trip for a good reason. A whirlwind tour is just that, a simple effort to see as much as possible in as little time as possible. That sounds like travel purgatory to me. Nevertheless. I have been thinking about another Grand Tour, one that would take a traveler into the very heart of Europe. 

In the Distance – View of Dylen (Tillenberg) (Credit: Lubor Ferenc)

Backwaters – A Different Kind of Grand Tour
Imagine a tour of Europe that started atop a mountain, Dylen, on the edge of western Bohemia. From there, the tour would travel eastwards to several obscure towns and villages including Kremnicke Bane Slovakia, Tallya Hungary, Dilove Ukraine, Suchowola Poland, Polotsk Belarus, Girija Lithuania and finally to Saaremaa Island off the coast of Estonia. While all these places are obscure, they have one thing in common, each has been designated at one time or another as the Center of Europe. Some of the claims are dubious, but all the sites have sort of marker and/or commemorative plaques. Such a tour might enlighten the previously unaware to how the proverbial “other half” lives in Europe. Those whose lives have little to do with citified Europe, high powered jobs, or political maneuverings. They are far removed from the glitz and glamor of national capitals. There is no evocative old town in like the one in Warsaw awaiting visitors, none of Budapest’s grandeur or Lviv’s fin de siècle elegance to greet travelers.

The Centers of Europe are towns that belong to another world, one where the horse drawn wagon cart can be a familiar sight and the population still struggles to make ends meet on meager pensions or whatever work is available. People still rely on garden plots for meals and imbibe copious amounts of spirits not just at parties, but as a way of life. Bicycles are the main mode of public transport and people watching is a spectator sport for pensioners whether from the curbside or windows. A world where digital devices are few and the age of technology does not yet control life. This shadow world is not just the forgotten or unknown Europe, it is the Center of Europe and the middle of nowhere. Let us now armchair travel to a distant world, deep in the heart of Eastern Europe.

Middle marker – A Geographical Midpoint of Europe marker which was placed atop Dylen in 1862 (Credit: PeterBraun74)

Moving East – Behind & Beyond The Iron Curtain
Germany is the unofficial Center of Europe, if not geographically, then economically and politically. The starting point for this tour is only a hundred meters from the German border. This is the closest spot anyone searching for Europe’s midpoint can get to Germany. That is because Dylen (Tillenberg in German) is a mountain on the western edge of Bohemia. According to local lore, Napoleon Bonaparte declared that Dylen was the geographic center of Europe. Others piggybacked on this claim. It is probably not a coincidence that a team of Austrian geographers also claimed Dylen as the center of Europe since it was in the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time and on the edge of the German Empire in the late 19th century. Later, Dylen was used for more insidious purposes as the Soviet Union set up an electronic listening station there during the Cold War. Today it is a lonely mountain top with lush vegetation and dark woods, a great place for hiking to the small stone marker place in 1862 at what had been declared as the geographical center of Europe. Dylen is a beautiful spot for sure, but also one of the most remote midpoints in Europe.

The center of Europe has shifted eastward multiple times and so does this journey. Eastern Europe as it is still known by many today – east of the old Iron Curtain – is from a geographical standpoint, central Europe. The marker at Dylen is the furthest western spot of any designated midpoint in Europe. A nation that has since vanished, Czechoslovakia, not only included Dylen, but also Kremince Bane, which is now located in Slovakia. The town is deep in the mountains of central Slovakia in an area blessed by nature. It was the surrounding hills and mountains which brought the larger town of Kremnice, just to the south of Kremnice Bane, a great deal of wealth. The area was mined for gold and other valuable minerals over the course of many centuries. The mines eventually played out and Kremnice became a backwater, while Kremnice Bane never even approached that level. Kremnice’s historic past and the area’s natural beauty have become a magnet for tourism.

Centerpoint – St. John’s Church with Geographical Midpoint of Europe marker in Kremnicke Bane (Credit: Fefeha)

Unscientific & Scenic – The Path to Kremnicke Bane
There is another tourist attraction just a bit beyond Kremnice which often gets overlooked. I know from experience since I spent several pleasant hours visiting the town a few years ago. Unfortunately, I failed to travel a couple of kilometers further north to Kremnicke Bane. On a paved road outside of the village stands the Geographical Midpoint of Europe monument, consisting of a large boulder with a couple of commemorative plaques attached. The granite boulder was set in 1815, when the spot was anointed the center of Europe. The claim may not have been scientific, but the site is certainly scenic. The monument offers a sort of two for one experience as it stands close to the Gothic inspired St. John’s Church. The location also offers a magnificent vista with rolling hills and mountains in the distance. It is an inspiring spot, perhaps the most evocative of all the places that claim to be the Center of Europe.

Click here for: The Center of Nowhere – Tallya, Sucholow, & Dilove (Searching For The Center of Europe #4)

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.

Click here for: Affirmation of An Obsession – Destiny’s Child: Stalking Alexander Asboth (Eastern Europe & Me #12)

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)

Making It Look Like An Accident – Jan Masaryk: The Fall From Grace (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #38b)

For some reason that I am unlikely to ever truly understand, I am attracted to danger. In other words, I feel most alive in moments most people dread. History is one way for me to satisfy my affinity for danger. I find reading about people in grave danger a source of fascination. That was how I came across stories from one of the most frightening places on earth during the 20th century. It had been said that fear ran so deep in the Soviet Union during the Stalinist era, that people kept a bag packed with clothing just in case they were arrested., The arrests usually happened at night. The potential arrestee might hear a car pull up to their flat or house. This would be followed by a knock at the door.

Opening the door, they would be met by NKVD agents (precursor to the KGB) who had come to take them away. Sometimes people did not answer the door. When the NKVD agents broke through the door, they would find an open window. The person being arrested had jumped out the window. In some cases, they were trying to escape. In other cases, they were committing suicide. Some people would even jump out a window to their death as soon as they heard a car pull up. They had no idea whether it was the NKVD or not, but they many did not care to find out. If there is a greater definition of fear than that, I have not heard of one.

In memory – Stone marking where Masaryk fell outside of Czernin Palace (Credit: Ervin Pospisil)

Sheer Despair – An Open Window
We will probably never know if Jan Masaryk, the Foreign Minister of Czechoslovakia, had a similar experience to Soviet citizens during the Stalinist era. It is plausible because of what happened the night of March 10, 1948, when Masaryk was either killed or killed himself. There were only two ways about it. Differentiating between the two has always been and will likely always be the problem. Was he aware that someone was coming to kill him? Did he hear a car pull up? Footsteps on the way to his residence? In Masaryk’s case. that someone would likely have been the NKVD or people trained by the NKVD not to arrest Masaryk, but to kill him. They would have been told to make it look like an accident.

Then again, Masaryk may have opened a window and jumped, not to flee, but to commit suicide out of sheer despair. Whatever the case, Masaryk’s body was discovered in the courtyard of Czernin Palace below the second story window to his bathroom. He was dressed in his pajamas, but in this case, Masaryk was not going to bed, he was going to be dead. Since that fateful morning when Masaryk’s body was discovered, there has been speculation about whether he committed suicide or was murdered. Circumstantial evidence points to the latter, but we will probably never know the truth. That has not kept people from having strong opinions on both sides of the matter. Theories of what happened to Masaryk continue to circulate today.

Wartime exile – Jan Masaryk (far right) in Great Britain during World War II (Credit: J.R. Bainbridge)

The Fall Guy – Push Comes To Shove
Jan Masaryk did not seem like a candidate for suicide. He was a level headed, fair minded diplomat, whose sense of duty to Czechoslovakia meant that he stayed in the government long after those opposed to its takeover by the communists had resigned. Masaryk was determined to do right by Czechoslovakia. That determination led to his death. Proponents of the theory that Masaryk committed suicide believe that he killed himself out of despair. Those who were close to him in the days leading up to the incident say that Masaryk had grown increasingly despondent over the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia and came to the realization that his position was hopeless. The official determination said as much, but since this came from the communist government many believe that it was a lie. Yet Masaryk’s own secretary believed suicide was the only explanation.

The counterargument is even more compelling. It states something to the effect that Masaryk was thrown out of the window to his death. Some have even called it the “Fourth Defenestration of Prague”, an allusion to the three times in history when crowds took matters into their own hands and tossed officials out the Town Hall window. Whereas those incidents were a case of Hussites or Protestants versus Catholics, in the case of Masaryk, it was ideology rather than religion which formed the basis for his murder. Stalinism was the most virulent strain of communism, one that would not tolerate any opposition. Masaryk’s mere presence in the government was a barrier to creating a totalitarian state. As such, he had to be pushed (quite literally) out of the way or more to the point, out of the window. When push came to shove, Masaryk became the fall guy.

The fallen – Jan Masaryk in coffin at his funeral

The Only Way Out – Death & Dishonor
Those who believe Masaryk was murdered by the NKVD or agents trained by them, point to his size. It would have been difficult for the heavyset Masaryk to climb out the window. And if he did jump, a forensic study done in 2004 shows that he would not have landed where he did. This points to Masaryk being forced out the window and tossed to an ignominious death. The proponents of this theory also point to feces being smeared about the bathroom. It is highly doubtful that Masaryk would have smeared feces before deciding to depart from the world. Another piece of circumstantial evidence concerned the fact that Masaryk had openly stated he would be traveling to London the next day.
The last thing the communists wanted was Masaryk in Great Britain fulminating against the communist takeover of the Czechoslovak government. This may have been the communist’s last chance to rid themselves of Masaryk.

Throwing him out the window was a convenient way of making the death look like a suicide. The communists then turned the entire suicide story on its head. They claimed that the western world had driven Masaryk to despair by harshly criticizing him for staying in his cabinet position. The National Front government was a mouthpiece for Czechoslovakia’s communists. This theory seems like a stretch. Masaryk felt he had to stay in the government or even worse would come after him. He, like all Czechoslovak citizens, was in no position to protest the prevailing government narrative. They knew that arrest or worse awaited anyone who did not tow the party line. If they had any doubts, the death of Masaryk reminded them of what could happen to dissenters. It may have looked like an accident, but the message was clear. Death was the only way out in communist Czechoslovakia.

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An Accident of History – Prague: Jan Masaryk & The Fourth Defenestration (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #38a)

While visiting Prague I was able to take advantage of the free tours led by guides who provide an intriguing introduction to the city’s history and culture free of charge. Participants can give tips at the end of a tour if they feel the experience was worth it. In my experience, the tours were always worth it. The guides were engaging, sometimes humorous, and always personable. Prague has such a wealth of history that several area specific free tours were on offer. I was able to take tours of both the Old Town and the Castle District (Hradcany) on separate days. Among the highlights of the Old Town tour was the guide. Teo was a young man from the Netherlands who had moved to Prague to be with his Czech girlfriend. She was the love of his life. Giving tours must have been a close second for Teo. He was an excellent guide due to his gregariously animated nature. He came to life while telling stories. He knew his facts, but the delivery set Teo apart. It was done with such charisma that I began to wish that there were Teos in every Eastern European city.

Fall from grace – Czernin Palace (Credit: Michal Kminek)

Throwing Down – Going Out The Window
Teo knew how to drive home a historical point with a telling anecdote. This was never truer than when he told our group about the three famous defenestrations that occurred in Prague. He recounted these stories with unforgettable zest while standing in Charles Square at the heart of the Old Town (Stare Mesto) near where the victims crash landed. He used the English slang term, “chuck”, when referring to the defenestration of seven city councilors being thrown (“chucked”) out the window of the Town Hall in 1419 by a mob of Czech Hussites, inaugurating one of the great religious rebellions in European history. In 1483, the same thing happened again in a rebellion against the ruling authorities. On both occasions, Prague’s burgomeister (mayor) fell victim to mob violence.

The third defenestration was the most famous and well known of these “accidents” of history. It happened when an angry group of Bohemian aristocrats became incensed at the Catholic ruling authorities for halting the construction of Protestant churches. They proceeded to storm the City Hall and toss Catholic officials out the window. Miraculously, all three of the victims managed to survive the 21 meter fall, but the uneasy peace between Protestants and Catholics did not. The incident was the spark that lit the powder keg which exploded into the Thirty Years’ War, one of the worst conflicts in European history. This incident was reenacted with zest by Teo. His animated body language included acting like he was tossing the victims out the window by himself. This led to many chuckles from the tour group.  His telling of the defenestrations was so memorable that I have never forgotten them.

Crash course – Town Hall tower in Prague where defenestrations occurred (Credit: Oyvind Holmstad)

When I showed up to go on a tour of the Castle District several days later, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Teo would once again be leading our group. Despite bone chilling cold, grim skies, and an icy wind, Teo was in fine form as he took our group on a multi-hour tour of the district. This time we heard many memorable stories, but nothing else about the defenestrations. That was not surprising since the first three occurred in the Old Town. Only later did I learn about what some have termed the fourth defenestration of Prague. It occurred in the Castle District on an early morning in 1948. There was only one victim, but that man represented one of the last bastions of democracy and integrity. He was all that stood in the way of a communist takeover of the Czechoslovak government. Perhaps Teo did not tell us about the so called Fourth Defenestration because the history was rather recent. Even today, there are still questions about who killed Jan Masaryk, the son of Czechoslovakia’s founder, Tomas Masaryk. Jan was the post-World War II Foreign Minister when he was literally toppled from power. His death is still an open wound in Czech history.

The founders son – Jan Masyrk (Credit: Bain News Services)

The Czernin Palace – A Fall From Grace
The free tour of the Castle District took us from one splendid structure to the next. All the architectural eye candy was a sight to soothe the eyes. With so much to see, we were bound to miss some impressive places. Perhaps that is why we did not make our way over to the Czernin Palace. This Baroque confection is the longest palace in Prague, measuring 150 meters in length across both its front and back. The palace has been home to the Foreign Ministry since the 1930’s. It also acted as the residence of the infamous Reinhard Heydrich, who was the Reichsprotector of Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia during World War II. Heydrich would end up getting assassinated by the Czechs. Fortunately, Jan Masaryk was not in Czechoslovakia during the Nazi occupation of his homeland. If he had been, there is little doubt that the Nazis would have had him arrested and likely worse. Instead, Masaryk spent the war in Great Britain where he did radio broadcasts that were transmitted to his occupied homeland. When the war ended, Masaryk retained the foreign ministry post he had held before the Nazi occupation. He held the position as part of the postwar National Front government.

Masaryk was an outlier in a government dominated by communists. Masaryk’s support for the Marshall Plan where the United States would provide financial assistance to rebuild Europe put him in the crosshairs of the communist government. The communists were working hard to marginalize anyone who disagreed with hardline Stalinism. To them, Masaryk was a dangerous man, especially since the son of Czechoslovakia’s founder was respected throughout the country. The communists needed him out of the way if they were going to impose communism on the country. Because of Masaryk’s lineage, dispensing with him would be difficult, but not impossible. Masaryk was too ardent an advocate for an independent and free Czechoslovakia, he was not going to go quietly if he went at all. The situation between Masaryk and the communist government was tense and adversarial. Soon it would be much worse.

Click here for: Making It Look Like An Accident – Jan Masaryk: The Fall From Grace (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #38b)

Looking Into The Mirror – Vysehrad Abandoned Railway Station (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #34)

Like everyone else, I have looked into a mirror countless times. Unlike everyone else, I have never really seen my reflection. The person in the mirror is supposed to be me and in a physical sense it is me, but the mirror does not reflect my feelings of who I really am. To get an accurate reflection of myself, I have spent the past ten years traveling throughout Eastern Europe. Prior to that, I spent 15 years traveling across the Great Plains and western United States. I was looking for myself in all the obscure places. Sometimes I would come across a place that seemed to suit my self-image. A place that whether I liked it or not was a true reflection of how I saw myself. Not long ago, while searching through some old photos of a trip I made to Prague in 2012, I found one photo of a place that for a few fleeting minutes acted as a mirror in which I saw myself reflected. This mirror just so happened to be the abandoned Vysehrad Railway Station.

The Mirror – Vysehrad Train Station

Shades of the Past – The Rust In Rustic
A multi-day stay in Prague allowed me to see a bit of the less touristy side of the city. This was how I found myself the day before departure along the right bank of the Vltava River traveling to Vysehrad, the site of an old fortress that used to be one of the centers of power in Prague during the Middle Ages. That power gravitated away from Vysehrad to the Castle District (Hradcany). Today, the Castle District, along with the Old and New Towns, are the tourist hubs of the city. Fewer come to Vysehrad, but that make a visit that much more compelling. The old fortress holds a commanding position above the Vltava. It makes an excellent vantage point from which to look out across Prague. On my way to the heights of Vysehrad, I came across another impressive place, the abandoned Vysehrad Railway Station. It was the only place in Prague that I found had neither tourists nor locals. As a matter of fact, all it really has is the past. Because of that, I immediately fell in love with the station.

Some places age better than others. The abandoned station at Vysehrad, for all its dilapidation, had in my opinion, aged rather well. The station as it stood on the day I saw it, put the rust in rustic. In many places the white facade was covered with a patina of brown. The paint was either chipped, cracked or fading. While the windows looked like they had not been cleaned in ages, The station had style. Its elegance may have faded, but its grandeur was still intact. With a touch of imagination, the viewer could turn back the clock to the turn of the 20th century. It reminded me of an old aristocrat living in self-imposed exile. The old aristocrat no longer attends grand balls and gossipy social gatherings, just as trains no longer call at the station. The station wears the neglect and indifference well because it has character and integrity, those indisputable ingredients of greatness.  If the past has a shadow, then the abandoned station at Vysehrad casts it. Somewhere within that shadow can be found the station’s story.

Coming down the line – Train passing by the 19th century Vysehrad Station

Stuck At The Station – Waiting For Departure
The building of a station in Vysehrad was first proposed in the late 1860’s. The original station and railway lines took five years to construct and opened in 1872, connecting the Smichov District on the left bank of the Vltava River, with Vysehrad on the right bank and further onward to Franz Josef Station, as the city’s main railway station was known at the time. The abandoned Vysehrad Station which stands today replaced the original. It was constructed just after the turn of the 20th century in Art Nouveau style and was in use until the 1960s, after which it became a dumping ground. A renovation occurred during the 1980’s, but maintaining the station continued to be a problem and soon there was seepage from water which caused deterioration in the building.

When communism collapsed in Czechoslovakia, it was an opportune time for Czech Railways to do something different with unwanted assets. This included the Vysehrad Railway Station. It took a while, but the abandoned station was finally rented to private investors who proposed turning it into a cultural and entertainment space. Around the same time, Czech railways stated that they would renovate the station so it could once again serve the hundreds of trains that passed by it each day. The station was also designated a cultural monument in 2001. This afforded it protection from being torn down, but not from further dilapidation.

Like so many post-communist plans in the Eastern Bloc, the proverbial train has never really left the Vysehrad station when it comes to reopening the structure. The latest part of the seemingly unending saga to make it economically viable occurred when a company, TIP Estates, bought the station and surrounding land. Historic preservation turned out not to be the company’s forte. For instance, they tore down a waiting room on one of the platforms which was listed as part of the protected monument. Not long ago, the city of Prague proposed a purchase of the building. Unfortunately, the difference between what the city will pay and what the price demanded by the company was 50 million euros. A deal has yet to be made. The city is now talking about foreclosing on the property. The upshot is that the station has continued to deteriorate while its future is in limbo.

Waiting On A Train – Vysehrad Station in the early 20th century

Lost Glory – Alone, Austere and Formidable
Whatever happens to the station at Vysehrad, I will always have a fondness for that rustically regal edifice. On the day I discovered it, the skies were gloomy, the surrounding streets silent and the station abandoned. I had the station all to myself. It mirrored my mood of melancholy. The station’s essence was of lost glory that could never quite be recovered. I looked at that mirror and saw a reflection myself. The station was battered, but still standing. Alone, austere, and formidable, waiting for someone to notice it, but not caring if they did. There was more than a hint of fragility. At any moment, the station looked as though it might collapse. Then again it might still be standing fifty years from the moment I first laid my eyes upon it. I could only hope the same for myself.

Click here for: Medieval Miracle – Walls of Ston: The Great Wall of Europe (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #35)

Pleas For Mercy – The Plague Columns of Buda & Olomouc (Part Two)

One of the more fascinating photos from 20th century Eastern European history was taken during the coronation of the last King of Hungary/Emperor of Austria, Karl IV (Charles I) atop Castle Hill in Buda on December 30, 1916. Following a ceremony inside the Matthias Church, Karl proceeded to the Holy Trinity (Plague) Column where he took the coronation oath. The photo shows Karl with a glazed look on his face, holding a large cross in his left hand. His head is adorned with the oversized Hungarian crown sporting its iconic crooked cross.

Several Catholic prelates, looking officious and duty bound, stand to either side of the newly crowned king. The discomfiture on Karl’s face speaks volumes.  Here was a man whose talents could not match the moment or worse ones that were soon to come. World War I was going badly for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Karl’s reign was short and catastrophic. Less than two years after he was crowned king on Castle Hill, the war was lost and Karl’s reign was at an end.

The Man Who Would Be King - Karl IV taking the coronation oath at the Holy Trinity (Plague) Column on Castle Hill in Buda

The Man Who Would Be King – Karl IV taking the coronation oath at the Holy Trinity (Plague) Column on Castle Hill in Buda

Future Reckoning – Protection From The Plague
In retrospect, the coronation ceremony at the Holy Trinity (Plague) Column was the beginning of a process that would end with Karl dethroned and Habsburg rule coming to an end over 600 years after it began. It was also the last time a plague column would play such a prominent historical role in the affairs of a Central or Eastern European state. Following the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, most plague columns became what they still are today, Baroque era historical monuments of mercy. They still symbolized a time when communities gave thanks to God for bringing the plague to an end.

The Holy Trinity (Plague) column on Castle Hill has now become a photogenic opportunity for those who want to get a shot of it either separately or in the foreground of a photo focused on the spectacular Matthias Church. That was not what those who erected the Castle Hill column and similar ones like it throughout the Habsburg Empire originally had in mind. The first Holy Trinity (Plague) Column on Castle Hill was erected in the same spot back in 1706 to commemorate and give thanks for the plague of 1691 coming to an end. Three years later, another nasty outbreak of the plague followed.

The authorities then decided to replace the first column with a larger, more dramatic one. It took several years to design and build this new column, but it must have been worth the effort since there was not another outbreak of plague in Budapest since it was erected in 1713. The Holy Trinity (Plague) Column that stands on Castle Hill today is not the original one. That one was lost during the Battle of Budapest in early 1945. A replacement was installed and for good reason. Historically, Holy Trinity (Plague) Columns were often shielded from wanton destruction because they were seen as spiritual symbols that helped protect cities from another plague.

Silent Witness - Holy Trinity (Plague) Column on Castle Hill in Buda

Silent Witness – Holy Trinity (Plague) Column on Castle Hill in Buda (Credit: Globetrotter19)

The Human Cost – Creating An Artistic Treasure
The most famous of these columns can be found in the Moravian town of Olomouc in the eastern Czech Republic. Standing 35 meters (115 feet) above Horni Namesti (Upper Square) in Olomouc’s city center, the Holy Trinity (Plague) column is the only such column in the world that has been deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There is good reason for that. The three levels around the column’s base include 18 sculptures of saints, the majority of which have a local connection. There is also a series of elaborately carved cartouches and reliefs of all twelve apostles. At the pinnacle of the column is a gilded copper sculpture of the Holy Trinity accompanied by the Archangel Gabriel with the Virgin Mary just beneath them. If that was not enough, the column also contains a small chapel.

Incredibly, all the painstaking work that went into creating this artistic treasure was done by locals between 1716 and 1754. The city decided to have it constructed as a symbol of gratitude after a deadly plague from 1713 – 1715 came to an end. Unfortunately, construction of the column and associated sculptures, statuary, gilding and ornamentation was a less than seamless process. This process for many turned out to be a curse rather than a blessing. For instance, the brainchild of the Olomouc plague column was architect Wenzel Rendor, who set forth his vision in a letter to the City Council when he stated, “To the glory of God the Almighty, the Virgin Mary and the saints I will build a column that in its height and splendor will be unrivalled in any other town.”

Unfortunately, Rendor did not live to see that vision realized, neither did the next three men who tried to complete the project. Finally, a fifth man by the name of Johann Ignaz Rokicky saw the project through to completion. Adding to the ominous human toll, the sculpture and statuary decorating the column defeated the lives of two more artisans. Even the creator of the magnificent gilded copper sculpture atop the column saw his health decline due to working with mercury. There was a tragic irony to how these men’s efforts met an ill-fated end. After all, most of them had survived the plague which led to the monument’s creation in the first place.

An Expression of Gratitude - Holy Trinity (Plague) Column in Olomouc

An Expression of Gratitude – Holy Trinity (Plague) Column in Olomouc (Credit: Ondraness)

Taking Aim – A Target Rich Environment
Once the column was finally completed in 1754, Olomouc’s citizens were justly proud of their accomplishment. They did their best to protect it at almost any cost, including to their own lives.  An astonishing example of the value Olomouc’s citizens placed on the column came in 1758 when the city was besieged by Prussian forces. After Prussian artillery managed to hit and damage the column, several citizens cheated death by crossing into enemy lines to meet with the Prussian commanding general. An agreement was forged where the Prussians would aim at more useful targets, such as fortifications, people and homes. This led to several deaths and other destruction, but the Holy Trinity (Plague) Column survived. This might seem an outrageous example of the triumph of art and spirituality over human life and property. Then again, Olomouc’s citizens believed that the plague was much more destructive than any Prussian army. And as it turned out, they were right.

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

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

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

A Happy Place - Royal Palace of Godollo in the Winter

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

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

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

Flashes of Life - An icy Hungarian motorway

Flashes of Life – An icy Hungarian motorway

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

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

The Final Stretch - M35 Motorway in Hungary

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Place In The World - An Aerial View of Obarok

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

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

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

Good enough to go - Room in a Hungarian Roadside Inn

Good enough to go – Room in a Hungarian Roadside Inn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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