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.
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.
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.
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)