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

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

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

A Happy Place - Royal Palace of Godollo in the Winter

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

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

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

Flashes of Life - An icy Hungarian motorway

Flashes of Life – An icy Hungarian motorway

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

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

The Final Stretch - M35 Motorway in Hungary

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Place In The World - An Aerial View of Obarok

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

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

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

Good enough to go - Room in a Hungarian Roadside Inn

Good enough to go – Room in a Hungarian Roadside Inn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nightmare Scenario - Winter Driving on the M1 in Hungary

Nightmare Scenario – Winter Driving on the M1 in Hungary

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

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

Shelter In The Storm - OMV as an oasis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Border control - Entering Austria from Hungary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Destiny or Destination - Breclav Railway Station

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the Night Train - Breclav railway station in the evening

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

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

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

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

Beneath The Cairn Of Peace – The Most Enduring Legacy Of Austerlitz (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Twenty-three)

Following our guided tour of the museum we arrived back at the entrance. Another guide then approached us, energetic, smiling and ready to accompany us to The Cairn of Peace Memorial (Pamatnik Mohlya miru). Looking outside at the torrent of snow continuing to fall, I wondered if this was such a good idea. We had a long drive ahead of us. After our visit we were planning to drive all the way back to eastern Hungary that same day if possible. The drive was going to be especially difficult considering the weather conditions. Nonetheless, we decided that after all we had driven through just to get here, a raging snowstorm was not going to stop us from visiting the Memorial. Thus, we set off with our guide to storm Pratzen Heights, not under a hail of bullets and shellfire as happened at the battle, but through a blinding storm of snowflakes.

War & Peace In Winter - The Cairn of Peace Memorial

War & Peace In Winter – The Cairn of Peace Memorial

Europe’s First Peace Monument – On The Verge Of War
For many of the 70,000 annual visitors to the Austerlitz battlefield, the Cairn of Peace Memorial is the main attraction. This is understandable since the Memorial is a tangible object, but it has little to do with the battle at the time it occurred or its aftermath. Instead, the Cairn was constructed over a century after the battle was fought. The memorial’s history is fascinating in and of itself, some of this history has little to do with the Battle of Austerlitz and more with a movement led by a pacifist priest and school teacher by the name of Alois Slovak. The idea for a peace memorial, which would be the first in European history, came from Slovak and his closest friends. The Austerlitz battlefield offered the proper location and context for this to take place. Nevertheless, the distance in time between the actual battle and the memorial’s construction left me wondering about its historical importance. Did it really have anything to do with Austerlitz? How could a manmade monument built in the early 20th century pay homage to those who lost their lives in that bloody battle? Those same questions must have been on the minds of those who decided to create the Memorial.

The fact that it was partly funded by public subscription likely influenced its main theme, a memorial dedicated to everyone who had died due to the battle. This was not limited to the warring armies. The memorial was also dedicated to all the civilians that perished. There were many who lived on or around the battlefield that were killed in the crossfire. It is an interesting concept because the area was largely populated by Moravians, who are ethnically Czech. Only a very small percentage of the Austrian Army that fought at Austerlitz consisted of Czechs. I asked our Czech guide about how the people of his nation felt about the battle. After all, it was largely someone’s else history. He said that Czech visitors to the battlefield were fewer than foreigners since “it does not have much to do with them.” While the battle was of great importance to European history, it ironically had little to do with the Czechs who lived in the area at that time. Thus, it is hardly surprising that French, Russians, Austrians and other European nationalities make up most of the visitors today, just as they made up most of the battle’s combatants in 1805.

Shield Bearer - One of four commemorative plaques on The Cairn Of Peace Memorial

Shield Bearer – One of four commemorative plaques on The Cairn Of Peace Memorial (Credit: Pudelek)

Fighting For Peace – Losing A Lost Cause
After a short walk through a bombardment of wet snowflakes we found ourselves standing outside the memorial’s entrance way. In front and above us stood the Art Nouveau creation of noted Czech architect Josef Fanta. The pyramidal shaped memorial is topped by an ellipsoid shaped planet earth inset with a Slavonic Cross, a symbol of redemption. The message meant to be communicated by the memorial is summed up in the explanatory quote, “The Cairn of Peace fights on the battlefield of the world for world peace.” In other words, the monument stands in opposition to warfare. This was a battle the memorial and those who advocated for it were destined to lose. The three governments – Austria-Hungary, France and Russia – who provided a good bit of the funding to construct the memorial were certainly not living up to peaceful ideals at the time. On the contrary, they were involved in an arms race that was about to turn lethal.

Construction of the Cairn of Peace took place in the years prior to World War One. In the darkest of ironies, the memorial’s dedication was to take place during the summer of 1914. The dedication was delayed by almost a decade due to the outbreak of hostilities.  By the time the First World War ended, Austria-Hungary and Tsarist Russia had vanished into nonexistence. The memorial now stood on the territory of the newly formed nation of Czechoslovakia. As such the Czechs had a say in its reinterpretation. A series of four plaques were later added below the ellipsoid, one of these displays a quote by Czechoslovakia’s founder and first president, Thomas Masryk, “not by the sword, but by the plough.” Tragically, these words were of little use when the Second World War brought more conflict to this intensely agricultural land. In the first three decades after the Cairn of Peace was constructed, Europe engaged in the two most deadly wars in human history.

The Legacy of Austerlitz - Inside The Cairn of Peace Memorial

The Legacy of Austerlitz – Inside The Cairn of Peace Memorial (Credit: Fejsinek)

Bound By Austerlitz – Descending From The Heights 
Entering the memorial was a somber experience. The square shaped chapel with its excellent acoustics magnified the guide’s voice. He politely explained that beneath a marble slab set in the floor was an ossuary containing thousands of bones. These remains were found scattered across the Austerlitz Battlefield. They were gathered together inside the memorial and placed in this common tomb. The remains include soldiers from all the opposing armies, along with innocent civilians. Archaeological research has proven that they came from a variety of ethnicities and backgrounds. French, Austrians, Russians and Czechs, soldiers and peasants, male and female. That which divided them in life no longer matters, now and forever they are bound together in burial beneath The Cairn of Peace. This is the greatest and most enduring legacy of the Battle of Austerlitz.

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

 

Heights Of Arrogance – Storming Austerlitz: A Genius Laid Low (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Twenty-two)

Everything was covered in snow. Our car, the leafless trees and the small museum/visitor’s center for the Battle of Austerlitz that had been at the mercy of the elements all morning was slumbering beneath a layer of wet snow. The nearby Cairn of Peace Memorial (Pamatnik Mohyla miru) was fringed with an icy frosting. Meanwhile, the snow continued to fall like white rain, weighing everything down. I never could have imagined that beautiful and deadly name of Austerlitz would henceforth be associated in my mind with a snowstorm. Thoughts of the great battle fought here were lost on me under a storm of soggy snowflakes and ice pellets. My wife followed close behind me hoping that we would soon find shelter indoors. Our sense of relief was considerable when I turned the knob, pushed inward and the door to the museum opened. It was hard to believe that the site was open to visitors.

A Transcendent Moment - Napoléon at the Battle of Austerlitz

A Transcendent Moment – Napoléon at the Battle of Austerlitz (Credit: François Gérard)

A Novel Approach – Guided By The Tour
We were soon met by two smiling staff members, a couple of younger Czechs who looked as though they could not be any older than thirty. We remarked that it was a surprise to see them, or that matter anyone, considering the weather. They shrugged the snowfall off as just a fact of winter. According to the two men, everyone had come to work that morning. Even so we were the only visitors on this grim morning. I soon got the distinct impression that they were glad to see us. Both men were upbeat, pleasant and ready to give us a tour of the exhibits. This was a level of customer service I was not used to experiencing in a museum. Usually one is left on their own to browse exhibits as they please. In this case, we were to be accompanied throughout our visit to the museum. We would soon learn that there was good reason for a guide to be with us throughout.

The exhibits were a strange hybrid of traditional and quixotically new. There were the requisite artifacts such as weapons, shells and smaller accoutrements. Their uniqueness came from the fact they had been found on-site, other than that there was nothing unusual about them. While we perused these artifacts, our guide stood beside us the entire time. I had trouble understanding why he was accompanying us until we entered another room where the lights went down, the floor began to shift and we saw a film that gave us the first-hand experience of soldiers on the verge of battle. The multimedia production was partially operated by the guide, thus his presence beside us throughout the tour. The problem with this and the ensuing rooms was that the staging of such an elaborate production overrode our ability to comprehend the battle. It was an attempt to put the visitor inside the battle, replicating the experience rather than attempting to retrospectively understand what had occurred at Austerlitz.

After The Battle - Scene from The Austerlitz Phenomenon

After The Battle – Scene From The Multimedia Presentation at Austerlitz

Lost In The Process – Shades Of Genius
There were four parts to the multimedia presentation: Before the Battle, The Battle, About The Battle and After the Battle. It was a novel approach that did not quite come off as the exhibit designers had planned. Only the final part, After The Battle, where a life size figure of Napoleon meets and negotiates with the defeated Austrian Emperor made a distinct impression. The figures were so lifelike, the dialogue so real that it felt as though they were standing before us. It was remarkably surreal. After the tour ended we were offered the opportunity to view more artifacts. The exhibit flow – the traditional bookended by the technological – was confusing and strange. The guides made up for it with their eager to please attitude. Unfortunately, there was a great deal of information lost in the process. Foremost was a comprehension of the brilliant tactical genius displayed by Napoleon at Austerlitz.

In the days leading up to the battle, Napoleon had his forces surrender the high ground, known as the Pratzen Heights, something almost unheard of in military strategy. This fooled the Allied forces (Austrian and Russian), into believing that Napoleon’s French Army was weak and suffering from low morale. When the battle was joined on that historic winter morning in 1805, the overconfident and numerically superior Allies attacked the French Army’s right flank in force. By doing this they fatally weakened their center on Pratzen Heights. At 8:00 a.m. a ferocious French attack stormed the heights as the sun broke through the fog which had shrouded the battlefield. Napoleon referred to it as the “Austerlitz Sun”. The Allied center split apart. Napoleon’s other forces then launched attacks on both the northern and southern flanks of the Allied army forcing it to fall back on a nonexistent center which was now held by the French. It was an incredibly decisive victory for Napoleon. His mastery of tactics had led to a decisive victory, one that historians rank with the greatest in military history.

Blind Spots – A Sense Of Invulnerability
It is difficult to overstate the consequences of the Battle of Austerlitz. The French Army’s resounding victory ended The War of the Third Coalition and led to the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire. Most importantly, it had a lasting influence on Napoleon’s mindset. Many historians believe that in the wake of Austerlitz he developed a sense of invulnerability, lost touch with reality and was consumed by blind arrogance. Austerlitz was then, as it still is today, a singular masterpiece of military genius. Napoleon let this incredible achievement go to his head.

Ironically, the victory at Austerlitz played a large role in his downfall. The biggest lesson of the battle for me was where Napoleon’s brilliant victory took him, first to the heights of arrogance than defeat and exile. His generalship would never again rise to the level of greatness he displayed on the Pratzen Plateau. How could it? Austerlitz was the stuff of genius, but events in the future would prove Napoleon to be a mere mortal. In future years he was unable to replicate Austerlitz. That moment of brilliance was always beyond his grasp. History has a way of humbling everyone, even Napoleon.

Click here for: Beneath The Cairn Of Peace – The Most Enduring Legacy Of Austerlitz (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Twenty-three)

Austerlitz In A Snowstorm – A Battle Against The Elements (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Twenty-one)

Austerlitz, the word slides off the tongue. It sounds sleek, energetic and scintillating. The first time I formed an image of the word, brilliance came to mind. That was during my junior year in college. This happened while I was visiting with some fellow history buffs at Western Carolina University. One of them had just completed a paper on the Battle of Austerlitz and was proudly waxing poetic on the tactical genius Napoleon had displayed during what was universally acknowledged as his greatest victory. I cannot recall a single detail of what was told to me, but my fellow student said it with such reverence and barely disguised elation that I never forgot that Austerlitz was both a beautiful word and an event of world historical importance well worth remembering.

The battlefield we did not see - Austerlitz in better weather

The battlefield we did not see – Austerlitz in better weather

Visiting Powers – An Intensely Personal Experience
I did not give much thought to Austerlitz (Slavkov u Brna in Czech) in the two decades after that quasi-magical narrative of the battle was imparted to me. Only a visit to Brno brought Austerlitz back into my consciousness. This occurred via some tourist literature left at the apartment my wife and I were staying at on the edge of Brno’s Old Town. After Brno we would be heading back to Hungary. Thus, I hoped to find one more attraction in southern Moravia worthy of a visit before our return. Flipping though the literature I discovered that Austerlitz Castle or as the Czechs called it, Slavkov Castle, was nearby. It was not so much a castle as a massive chateau with 115 rooms. Its historical importance was due to an armistice signed there between the Emperors of Austria and France after the battle. While Slavkov Castle looked like a fine place to visit, I was more intrigued by the actual battle site.

The importance of visiting the actual site of a battle cannot be understated. To stand in the same place where men fought to their deaths is both a fascinating and unsettling experience. Fascinating, because the fate of empires and peoples was decided in a matter of hours by men both great and flawed, famous and anonymous. Unsettling, because these visits always turn into an intensely personal experience. It causes me to put myself in their place. To ask the question of whether I would have been equal to the task at hand. Would have I cowered in fear and fled from death or fought to my very last breath? Would I have been slaughtered at the outset or survived to fight another day? These questions are impossible to answer, but always at the forefront in my mind. There was also the added sensation of walking the same ground where some of the most famous figures in military history plied their deadly trade. For these reasons, a visit to the battlefield of Austerlitz was a must.

Nowhere To Hide – A Landscape Turned White
Getting to Austerlitz should not have been problematic. The visitor center for the battle site is located at what is known as the Cairn of Peace (Pamatnik Mohyla miru). This monument was built in the early 20th century to commemorate those who lost their lives in the battle. It stands only 18 kilometers southeast of Brno. The drive there takes half an hour in normal conditions. What my wife and I soon discovered was that conditions were anything but normal. Snow had begun falling in Brno just before daylight. By the time we were on the road, it was snowing heavily. While visibility was decent, the road conditions were not. Wet, heavy snow interspersed with icy patches made the highway slippery. More than once, my wife asked me if visiting Austerlitz was worth driving in such poor weather? In a snowstorm probably not, but I fell back on the argument that this would be a memorable adventure. Such a line of reasoning did little to quiet her concerns. After all, how many people would be crazy enough to visit Austerlitz in a snowstorm?

After driving through the slush filled streets of Sokolnice, we turned off onto the road which lead to the visitor’s center. Our only problem, the road was nearly indistinguishable from the surrounding fields. The entire landscape was turned white from the snow. There was not an inch of bare ground to be seen, either on the road or in the fields. The lack of trees made me assume that these open fields were used for crop cultivation. They were likely to be lush, green and pastoral during the summer. We were a long way from summer and by the looks of the snowscape in front of us, a long way from anywhere. This was the famous Pratzen plateau that Napoleon reconnoitered prior to the battle. The Battle of Austerlitz had also been fought in the winter, a chilly Monday morning on the second day of December in 1805. On that day there was no snowstorm. The only thing falling from the sky was a hail of bullets and artillery fire raining down upon massed columns and ending the lives of 24,000 men.

Frozen conflict - The Cairn of Peace on a snowy dayFrozen conflict - The Cairn of Peace on a snowy day

Frozen conflict – The Cairn of Peace on a snowy day

Whited Out – Shrouded In A Swirl Of Snowflakes
As for our journey, we were left to fight our own battle. This one was against the elements. The road climbed slowly through a blindingly white landscape. With no landmarks to guide us, it seemed as though we would never reach our ultimate destination. The road kept rising before us while the snow fell so hard that it was difficult to see more than fifty feet in any direction. We both began to wonder if the visitor’s center would be open. I would not have blamed the staff if they decided to stay at home. The expected thrill of standing in the footsteps of Napoleon was lost in this eternal whiteness. Armies may have fought one of the most important battles in human history here, but traces of the fighting were covered in a thick blanket of snow. The present landscape was imperceptible. History had been whited out, as were my hopes of getting an idea a visual of the terrain over which the battle had been fought.

Finally, after 15 minutes of oblivion I made out the Cairn of Peace standing on a hillside. Nearby was a building, shrouded in a swirl of snowflakes. We had arrived at our destination. There were some cars in the employee parking, but none in the area for visitors. Lights were on inside the visitor’s center. Hope was renewed as we prepared to step away from the battlefield and into a man-made environment that would attempt the impossible, approximating the experience of 150,000 men fighting for the idea of empire and also for their lives.

Click here for: Heights Of Arrogance – Storming Austerlitz: A Genius Laid Low (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Twenty-two)

 

The Depths Of Human Experience – Brno: From Petrov Hill To Spilberk Castle (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Twenty)

If a visitor had only a day to spend in Brno they would do well to climb two hills. Specifically, those that are crowned by the city’s most popular tourist attractions. One is topped by a sacred structure, the other by a building with a startling history. These opposites attract over a hundred thousand visitors each year. The first and most famous is also nearly impossible to miss. The Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul stretches skyward from the top of Petrov Hill. The looming presence of this Gothic Revival edifice with its twin peaks – two 84 meter high towers – can be felt as soon as one gets close to the Old Town. From a roadway far below, I spied the Cathedral’s slender spires and Gothic girth towering high above the city. The Cathedral is one of Brno’s most famous architectural symbols, nothing else in the city comes close to comparing with its spiritual importance.

The other hilltop structure is more of an acquired taste. Spilberk Castle stands on a rock outcropping northwest of the Cathedral. It was from the Cathedral’s lookout tower that I spotted the castle. Unfortunately, that was as close as I would get to it. It was already mid-afternoon. With the winter daylight dwindling, my wife and I decided to forgo the castle. This was a decision that I would later come to regret. While it does not compare in grandeur or symbolism to the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul, Spillberk Castle has an extraordinary history. The Castle hearkens all the way back to the Middle Ages. For many decades it was a home for the Margraves of Moravia. Its history was darkened by several periods where it was used as a prison. Such was the castle’s infamy that it became known as the “Dungeon of Nations”. Famous rebels and revolutionaries, political and military prisoners of war who ended up on the wrong side of history were imprisoned at Spilberk. The structure was by turns a castle, fortress, prison, barracks and now acts as the city museum. It offers a fascinating window into the history of Brno as well as that of East-Central Europe. One filled with glorious highs and terrible lows that plumb the depths of human experience.

Surrounded - Spilberk Castle from high above

Surrounded – Spilberk Castle from high above (Credit: Michal Manas)

Brilliance Gone Bad – From The Top Down
Many bad things in history did not start out that way. A select few even began as something brilliant eventually gone bad. Spilberk Castle is illustrative of this rare historical phenomenon. The version of the castle that still stands today on a steep, rocky outcropping seventy meters above the surrounding city, bears little resemblance to its Gothic architectural roots. Only its eastern side provides a rough approximation of the castle during its earliest times. This is not so surprising when one stops to consider that the castle is seven and a half centuries old. It is a wonder that anything survives from this era at all. The castle’s glory days began in the 14th century when it became the seat of the Moravian Margravate. This began a long period when it was the nexus of power for the entire region. Over time, it was transformed from residential seat to a fortress that the power brokers of Central Europe coveted. Czech, Habsburg, Hungarian and Swedish armies all spilled blood and expended treasure trying to take Spilberk. The fortress could not be overlooked and had to be overcome. For the most part, it proved insurmountable.

By far the most famous usage of Spilberk was as a prison. Long before it became known as the “Dungeon of Nations”, the fortress housed a small prison. Over time this role was expanded, most prominently after the famous defeat of Czech forces at the Battle of White Mountain in 1620. The Habsburgs used their victory to establish long lasting rule over both the Czech land. Those from the on the losing side from Moravia found themselves imprisoned in dire conditions at Spilberk. This would prove to be just the beginning. In the coming centuries, Spilberk became known as a place of cruel and unusual confinement. By the late 17th century, the Habsburgs were placing some of their fellow Austrians who had betrayed the monarchy in the prison. Some prisoners languished in their cells, while others were forced to perform work on the fortress defenses.

A Little Bit of Light & A Lot of Darkness - Casemate at Spilberk Castle

A Little Bit of Light & A Lot of Darkness – Casemate at Spilberk Castle (Credit: David Novak)

“Dungeon of Nations” – Reversion To The Mean
The most famous Austrian imprisoned at Spilberk was the cruel, courageous and corrupt Baron Franz von der Trenck. Von der Trenck was notorious for allowing his troops to murder civilians and pillage settlements during the War of Austrian Succession. Despite his victorious record, von der Trenck’s actions were impossible to overlook. He was sentenced to life in prison at Spilberk, but the terms of his confinement were relatively mild. The same could not be said for many other famous prisoners which included French revolutionaries, Hungarian insurrectionists and Italian freedom fighters. A poet by the name of Silvio Pellico, who was imprisoned at Spilberk for his anti-Habsburg activities in Italy, brought the prison into the popular consciousness after he penned a book about his imprisonment there. In 1855, Emperor Franz Josef finally decided to close the prison. This supposedly put an end to its usage as an incarceration unit. That was wishful thinking.

Spilberk was soon converted into barracks after the prison was closed. As anyone who has studied the tragic history of 20th century history in Central and Eastern Europe knows, military installations were ripe for conversion by dictatorial regimes into political prisons. Spilberk was no different. After the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia they imprisoned Czech nationalists inside the barracks before transporting them to concentration camps. The Nazis eventually liquidated the prison and retrofitted it as a high end barracks for their own forces. This was in line with Spilberk’s and Brno’s fated history of Germanic dominance. What had started out as a splendid Moravian royal residence had been transformed into a martial and incarceration unit by Germans. World War II was both the apex and the end of this tragic history. The Czechoslovakian Army was the last resident of the castle, finally vacating the area in the late 1950’s.

Beautiful & Brutal - Spilberk Castle

Beautiful & Brutal – Spilberk Castle (Credit: Kirk)

A Reason To Return – Between The Castle Walls
Today Spilberk Castle is a museum that sees over one hundred thousand visitors a year. Learning its fascinating history has provided me with a reason to return to Brno for another visit. While Petrov Hill and the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul gets much of the foreign tourist focus, Spilberk Castle is the place to go for those looking to plumb the depth of Brno’s past. A site of brilliance, conflict and confinement, the entire experience of human history in the area is still being told between its walls.

Click here for: Austerlitz In A Snowstorm – A Battle Against The Elements (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Twenty-one)

Kubrick’s Impossible Film– Brno: An Unfinished Project In Moravia (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Nineteen)

Four letter words are easy to remember. Perhaps that is the reason profanity is so prolific. In the case of Eastern Europe, it was not the profane, but the urbane that caught my attention. I discovered a plethora of memorable city names spelled with only four letters. These included Pecs and Gyor in Hungary, Lviv and Kiev in Ukraine, Cluj in Romania, Riga in Latvia and Brno in the Czech Republic. The latter loomed in my mind the longest for two reasons. The first was that I had yet to visit the second largest city in the Czech Republic. Brno will never escape the shadow of Prague, in much the same way that Pecs will forever be obscured by Budapest. Secondly, I refused to count passing through on the train several years ago en route from Prague to Vienna as a visit. There was something tantalizing about pulling into and out of Brno’s grandiose station without disembarking. A quick stop at the station would not do for the historic capital of Moravia. I vowed to return one day, if for no other reason than to become one of the few foreigners who made it a point to visit Brno for tourism.

Unfinished Project - Archival box of materials from Stanley Kubrick's Aryan Papers at the University of Arts in London

Unfinished Project – Archival box of materials from Stanley Kubrick’s Aryan Papers at the University of Arts in London

The Best Example –  An Unfortunate Facade
Several years would pass without my giving much thought to Brno until I once again came across the city while reading about the unfinished projects of Stanley Kubrick, the American film director. Kubrick, best known for such iconic films as 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange and The Shining, was an unfathomably obsessive man, who spent years researching every little detail that would go into his films. He did the same thing on several projects that never came to fruition. Most notably a film about the life of Napoleon and a film on the Holocaust based upon a novel, Wartime Lies by Louis Begley. The narrative concerns a Jewish woman and her nephew who survive the Holocaust by assuming Catholic identities. They do so by receiving Aryan Papers, a title Kubrick gave to the screenplay he adapted from the novel. The film was going to be set in World War II era Warsaw. Kubrick needed a city to act as a stand in for the Polish capital. When it came to recreating the atmosphere and architecture of that time period there was no better place than Brno.

Brno, unlike many places in the Czech Republic such as Prague, did not escape World War II unscathed. The city and surrounding area were badly damaged by Allied aerial bombing and street fighting that accompanied the Red Army’s taking of the city during the final weeks of the war. Over 1,200 buildings and at least that many lives were lost due to the fighting. The rebuilding process was nothing short of spectacular, with Brno’s Old Town now one of the best examples of an Eastern European cityscape of the first half of the 20th century. Kubrick and his aides did an incredible amount of research on the city before deciding that it would be the perfect set for The Aryan Papers. Kubrick’s attention to detail and penchant for massive amounts of research has left a rich archive of source material.

Bombed Away - Aerial Image from Allied Bombing of Brno in August 1944

Bombed Away – Aerial Image from Allied Bombing of Brno in August 1944

Almost Famous – The Impossible Film
Kubrick and his team went so far as to book Brno’s city center for filming. It would be cleared of traffic and the buildings festooned with Nazi flags. A cinematographer was chosen, while actresses and actors were selected for the lead roles. The filming would never take place. This was mainly because Kubrick was defeated by the depressing nature of the subject matter, believing it impossible to compress the horrors of the Holocaust into a two hour film he instead decided to move on to another project. An additional deterrent was the release of Schindler’s List. Steven Spielberg had beat him to the punch, even though Kubrick believed Schindler’s List was too uplifting. The opposite of what his interpretation would have been of the Holocaust in a film. While Krakow in Poland became justifiably famous for the scenes of Schindler’s List filmed there, Brno went back to its role as a beautiful backwater city in southern Moravia. The city Kubrick never put on film made me want to visit Brno one day to see its old city center. Many years would pass before I had the opportunity to discover it for myself.

The Brno of today is markedly different from that of the relatively recent past, especially when it comes to ethnicity. The core city has a population of 377,000, which is approximately 40% more than lived there at the beginning of the Second World War. Today’s population is almost entirely made up of ethnic Czechs. In the 1930’s there were over 10,000 Jews and 50,000 ethnic Germans. Almost all of these were either sent to concentration camps or subject to expulsion at the end of the war. For centuries, Germans knew the city as Brunn, a conurbation that lives on in much of the city center’s exquisite architecture. While present-day Brno is given much of its dynamism by another group, students. There are some 89,000 studying at one of several universities that call the city home. I would discover a youthful vibe to Brno, a counterpoint to much of the cityscape’s venerability.

Self-Centered - Brno's Zelný Square during the late 19th century

Self-Centered – Brno’s Zelný Square during the late 19th century

Murky Origins – A Tribute To Human Determination
Like most visitors to Brno, my wife and I started in the city center. A better place for us to begin was with the city’s name, specifically to understand the origins of Brno. After all, that four letter word had loomed large in my memory for many years. I soon discovered that it had a much different meaning than what I could possibly imagine. The city’s name likely derives from the Old Czech term “brnie” which can be defined as swampy. Modern Brno looked the opposite of that term. It was elegant, neat and clean, but the town’s origins are quite literally murky.

The settlement that would eventually become Brno formed not far from the confluence of the Svitava and Svratka Rivers (located to the south of the present day city). In addition, several smaller streams flow through the area. Thus, the name fits the geomorphological characteristics of the area, even if it is no longer visible to the visitor. How a city that came to be so elegant and beautiful grew out of a swamp is a tribute to human determination coupled with Czech, German and Jewish ingenuity. That, along with over a thousand years of human history, has refined Brno it into the Moravia’s lone metropolis, one that would have to be explored in greater depth.

Click here for: The Depths Of Human Experience – Brno: From Petrov Hill To Spilberk Castle (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Twenty)