Madness Is A Matter of Minutes – An Austrian State Of Mind: From Slovakia To Slovenia By Train

My next port of call after Bratislava was Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. I was looking forward to my train journey because most of the trip would take place in Austria, a ride through the magnificent mountains of Mitteleuropa. The allure of Austria had already drawn me away from Bratislava the day before my journey commenced. Vienna may have not been to my liking, but I had high hopes of a happy experience gliding through the alps on the steel rails of Austrian Federal Railways. A daylong jaunt from Slovakia to Slovenia gazing at spectacular and scenic nature was foremost in my mind. I would not be disappointed.

Riding the rails across Austria

Riding the rails across Austria (Credit: Haneburger)

On The Clock – Delayed Distractions
Just beyond Wiener Neustadt, the train began twisting and turning, snaking its way around snowcapped mountains and through thick forests. The scenery was so stunningly impressive that the journey seemed like one taken by a tourist train rather than an intercity route. I could hardly believe that for the cost of a regular ticket, passengers were provided with such magnificent panoramas. Gone was the vanity of Vienna, replaced by the beauty of alpine Austria. I felt the urge to give a full-throated yodel of approval, place a feather in my baseball cap and purchase a lifetime supply of lederhosen at the next stop.

There was only one drawback to the journey, the train car contained an innovation I have only experienced in Austria and hope to never see again, a time clock. One might ask, what could possibly be wrong with making sure passengers know the time? Well nothing, except for the fact that the clock not only told the time, but it also kept a running count of how much ahead or behind the train was running. Thus, if the train hit a stretch of the route with switchbacks and corkscrew turns it would fall a few minutes behind its appointed arrival time. Then on more even terrain, the train would make up the lost time. For example, the clock would show the train running three minutes late, then two minutes ahead of time. It went back and forth throughout the journey. Unfortunately, this clock distracted me from the enchanting scenery. It became an obsession for me, watching it change with each surge or short delay of the train.

Villach Railway Station - destroyed by bombing during World War II

Villach Railway Station – destroyed by bombing during World War II

An Obsession For Order – Carinthian Controls
This time clock on the train represented for me the ultimate symbol of a Teutonic neurosis bent on achieving the greatest efficiency. Managing time was ultimately an impulse of control. The constant reminder of whether the train would arrive earlier or later was a distraction from the beautiful landscape all along the route. Austrian Federal Railways made arriving at the correct time an issue of utmost importance. Most maddening of all, despite being behind or ahead of the arrival time throughout this leg of my journey, the train ended up arriving right on-time. This rendered all my clockwatching utterly pointless. Perhaps I should have been more grateful to Austrian railways, as they were helping me keep track of the time since I had to make a very tight connection. My train arrived in Villach, the second largest city in the Austrian province of Carinthia, at 12:46 p.m.  The connecting train was due to arrive at 12:53 p.m. I have always had a terrible fear of missing a connection. The timeclock had only served to exacerbate this fear.

Standing on the platform waiting with others for the train from Villach to Ljubljana I secretly wished I had missed my connection. Villach looked like a wonderful place to spend the afternoon. This small city of 60,000 people is set out along the Drau River with the alps looming in the near distance. Like almost every place I have ever seen in Austria it looked clean, tidy and well run. This was a far cry from its status at the end of World War II. Villach had been bombed an incredible 75 times during the war, 85% of its buildings had been destroyed. Later I would find a photo of Villach’s Central Railway Station at the end of the war, or I should say what was left of it. The roof was totally collapsed from bomb damage and the walls covered by debris. This photo could have been of almost anywhere in Villach at the time. To imagine that it would become the prosperous provincial city that exists today would have been unimaginable at the end of the war. I have the utmost respect for Austrian organization, industriousness and thrift. This ethos rebuilt a nation that lay in ruins just sixty years before. The world could do with more of their work ethic and efficiency, but the time clocks on trains need to go.

Carinthian beauty - View across the Drau River in Villach

Carinthian beauty – View across the Drau River in Villach (Credit: Gugganij)

Better Than The Rest  – Land of The Slovenes
The train to Ljubljana showed up right on time. I no longer had to worry about a time clock, since the rest of this journey would take place on Slovenian railways. Slovenia was the wealthiest of the former European communist countries, the richest of the seven nations that had been formed from the ruins of Yugoslavia and an outlier in the Balkans, a place of peace and relative prosperity. Nevertheless, the difference in development between Slovenia and Austria became apparent when I entered the Slovenian railway car. The seats were old and worn, the interior nowhere near as comfortable as the Austrian trains and everything had a retro feel to it. The compartments looked just like the ones found in Slovakia or Hungary, old but not obsolete. It was functional and that was good enough for me. Besides, there was no time clock to display delays.

Slovenia had a reputation as being Austria-lite, due to its relative prosperity, mountainous landscape and it historical connection with the Habsburg Empire which had ruled it for centuries. The breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990’s had brought Slovenia back to where many Slovenes felt it belonged, closer to Austria and Italy in the European fold. Since then, it had joined the European Union, converted to the Euro and been promoted as a post-communist success story. As the train crossed over the border into Slovenia, I imagined entering a prosperous little mountain kingdom. A fairy tale land of shining mountains and glittering lakes. I would soon discover the truth, both dirty and delightful.

Love At First Fright: Prague’s Powder Tower: Illuminating Shadows

My first full day in Prague was due to start with a World War II tour. The tour, which had received rave reviews online, proved to be forgettable. I mostly recall the guide reciting a litany of details and information that I could have learned from any standard book on the subject. The most interesting part was his ambivalence towards Germans. I had heard that Czechs were lukewarm at best in their attitude towards Germans. There was a long, bitter memory of the Nazi occupation and dismemberment of the First Czechoslovak Republic. Prior to that, there was sublimation of Czech national aspirations to Habsburg Imperial hegemony. The guide seemed neutral when it came to the subject of Germans. I found his attitude surprising. At the end of the tour, he informed me that his grandfather had been an ethnic German. Wartime guilt was not black and white according to him. His ire turned on the Soviet Union and their much longer and more recent occupation of the country. Other than this fascinating personal story, the most memorable aspect of the tour was its starting point.

Gothic Grandeur - The Powder Tower in Prague

Gothic Grandeur – The Powder Tower in Prague

An Explosive Situation – From Coronations To Conflicts
The tour began at the Powder Tower, which was one of thirteen gates that historically allowed entry into the Old Town (Stare Mesto). The name came from the tower’s role as a storage place for gunpowder, but it did not start that way. Prior to the Powder Tower’s construction, there had been another gate. Built in the early 1200’s, it was for some reason known as the Mountain Gate. By the late 15th century it had fallen into disrepair. The City Council of Prague chose to have what would be first known as the New Tower built on the site as a coronation gift for King Vladislav II in 1475. It was modeled after an existing tower built for the Charles Bridge a century earlier. The tower’s construction was not without difficulties. Riots in Prague caused Vladislaus to flee his palace, which was connected to the tower. This resulted in construction on the tower being brought to a halt. When Vladislaus moved back to Prague, he took up residence in the safety of Prague Castle rather than the Old Town. Because of this move, construction on the tower lay dormant for many years and the structure would not be completed until the end of the 16th century.

The Powder Tower came by that name only in the early 18th century, as it was transformed into a storage unit for the most valuable of military incendiaries. This also made it a target. When Frederick The Great’s Prussian Army battled for Prague in 1757, the tower, along with the surrounding area, came under attack. Much of its Gothic era plastic decoration was badly damaged and would eventually be removed. The city suffered as well, with 900 houses destroyed in the fighting. The worst damage though, was inflicted on Frederick’s Prussian forces. They lost 14,000 soldiers in the fighting, failed to take the city and ended up retreating. From this point forward, the Powder Tower was more a relic of a bygone age, rather than of any real use for defensive purposes. This is reflected in the fact that from 1875 to 1886 the Austrian overlords of Prague allowed for its restoration in the pseudo-Gothic style it still sports today. The preservation of such a defensive work is telling. Obviously, the Austrians felt it no longer had any military significance.

The Powder Tower - prior to restoration in 1856

The Powder Tower – prior to restoration in 1856 (Credit: Andreas Groll)

From Modern To Medieval –  History Means More Than Reality
The Powder Tower still acts as a portal of entry between the New and Old Towns. For many centuries, it was the starting point for the Royal Route which led through the Old Town then up to the Castle for coronations. It proved to be a different type of portal for me. It was the first Gothic architectural feature I saw in Prague. There were many more to come. My reaction upon seeing the tower was of love at first fright. It was a stark and foreboding visual. The tower looked as though it had been severed from Dracula’s Castle and landed on a modern city side street. The tower may have been rigid and ominous, but it exuded a dynamism and charisma all its own. All other buildings surrounding it, whether large or small, were dwarfed by its presence. The Powder Tower’s effect on the street which it stood, was to make all surroundings disappear from the viewer’s eye. The tower’s singularity caused me to fixate on it. After passing through the arched opening of its lowest part, I felt as though another world had been entered. A world where history meant much more than reality.

I would soon discover that for all its charm, Prague is home to buildings that can intimidate as much as enthrall. The Powder Tower imposed itself on present-day Prague, a finite dividing line between old and new, modern and medieval. I did not actually ever go inside the Powder Tower. Only passing under its arched opening in the coming days on multiple occasions. The fact that I never entered its chambers left me to imagine the interior. I envisioned dark and cold stone corridors where narrow minded medievalists had once issued decrees without a hint of remorse. As a place of passage for merchants, soldiers and aristocrats that controlled access to a world of power, wealth and royal privilege. The Powder Tower made this past palpable for me. The past was no longer stranded in dusty tomes, lost kingdoms or forgotten dreams.

Artistic rendering of restored Powder Tower from 1911

Artistic rendering of restored Powder Tower from 1911 (Credit: Richard Moser)

A Dark & Dynamic Fairy Tale – Into Another World
That the tower still stood after four hundred and forty years, lording over the modern streetscape, was a testament to a powerful past that Prague preserved, a Golden Age Gothicism that was just as formidable and frightening, magnetic and alluring, intimidating and inspiring as it had been while dominating Europe. A dark yet dynamic fairy tale that had been kept alive for centuries to remind of the grandeur of the Gothic. A grandeur that could only be accessed in certain special portals such as Prague, a city that acted as a point of entry into another world. A world that still managed to exist on the other side of the Powder Tower, in the winding alleyways, narrow streets and illuminating shadows of the Old Town.

Click here for: High Water Marks – Prague’s Historic Floods: The Vltava Strikes Back

Poster Childishness –  The Discovery of Prague: Rejection Confessions

The time finally arrived for me to visit Prague. As much as I loathed the idea, I knew it would eventually happen. What did I have against Prague? Mainly its popularity. Since the Iron Curtain collapsed, Prague has become the showpiece city of Eastern Europe. For Americans, visits to Eastern Europe almost always entail a trip to Budapest and Prague. In many cases, only the latter city figures into their travel equation. Hordes of tourists descend on the city to enjoy its immaculate architecture, Old World atmospherics and world famous Czech beers. Prague has become the model for Eastern Europe and a place for tourists to check off the region on a bucket list. Every time someone mentioned Prague I would cringe in anticipation of what they were about to say: “It’s amazing” “You have to go there” “It is like a fairy tale” “I love Prague”. In many respects, Prague had become the golden child of European cities. I met more people who had been to Prague than Vienna. Vienna was further East, but Prague was still where hundreds of thousands of tourists received their introduction to the former Eastern Bloc.

Vltava River & Charles Bridge looking towards Castle Hill in Prague

For What They Dream Of – Vltava River & Charles Bridge looking towards Castle Hill in Prague (Credit: Peter K Burian)

Misty-Eyed Memories – Making The Gothic Sparkle
There was also the Prague that I learned about from an American expat post-college student who had found and lost love in the city. His name was Thomas and I spent a summer working with him collecting fees at a campground on a distant shoreline along the Atlantic seaboard. Thomas had taught English in Prague, and as I would later learn, so had innumerable wayward Americans who had no idea what to do after college. He had fallen in love with a Czech girl. He loved her so much that he cheated on her. The relationship had collapsed, but the love was still there, lost in a misty-eyed memory that came back in the constant banter about her beauty and intellect. These dreamy reminiscences were interspersed with exhortations on the superiority of Czech culture and beer. It was hard to figure out what he was more in love with, the Bohemian ideal of Prague or the lost woman.  They were likely one and the same. His story was fascinating, but Prague sounded like a place where expats went to avoid real life. That should have appealed to me. In this case though, I imagined a city full of over educated, lost expats drinking themselves to oblivion while discussing their philosophy of life in the basement of a café.

Reading up on Prague only added to my displeasure. From what I learned, Prague in the early 1990’s was affordable, edgy and chock full of historic wonders. This version of the city was covered in a thin veneer of grit that only added to the Gothic-Baroque-Mannerist-Art Nouveauesque architectural aesthetics. Then Prague was “discovered”. The discovery went from the tens to the hundreds of thousands, then into the millions. As the crowds increased, so did the prices. Prague went from cheap to affordable to expensive by Eastern European standards.  Perhaps Prague’s popularity was inevitable. The city itself had been left largely unscathed by the Second World War. Its historic core was intact. The Czech Republic’s economy was boosted by its proximity to Germany. Along with Hungary, it became a darling of the West, more Mitteleuropa than Eastern European. Prague was the post-communist success story everyone wanted to see. And so the city was given a good scrubbing, a glossy restoration that even made the Gothic sparkle.

The Good Soldier’s Spiritual Home – A City Of Madness & Mockery
The popularity and poster childishness of Prague grated on me to the point where I decided to willfully ignore learning much of anything about the city. I kept Prague at a safe mental distance, relegating it to a second-tier status, one of those places that I could care less about visiting. All this was done because of a foolish fetish for the out of the way, forgotten and relatively unknown in Eastern Europe. I had something to prove against Prague and to myself. My resistance began to breakdown when I started reading a book about the spectacular assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in Prague during the Nazi occupation of the city. I suddenly felt an urge to see the city which had played such a large role in the events that resulted in the murder of one of the highest ranking Nazi officials. I was especially interested in visiting the church where the assassins were trapped and then fought to the death.

Very few people get interested in Prague due to World War II. The city was almost entirely spared of physical destruction, but the human toll was an entirely different story. The Czech population suffered grave brutality at the hands of the Nazis. Heydrich’s assassination had been an anomaly, just as Prague’s escape from Allied Bombing had been a rarity in central Europe. I now had a reason to visit Prague, but I was still not entirely convinced. Soon thereafter, I became engrossed in the Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek, a novel that lampoons the madness of World War I. Prague figured heavily in the author’s life and is the spiritual home of Svejk. The Good Soldier Svejk was born from the cynical, anarcho-bohemian, ready for revolution Prague of the early 20th century. His Prague was the home of conspiracies and mockery, Svejk delighted in nastiness. Laughing out loud in the face of authority. What city and culture gave rise to such an attitude was worth exploring.

The path is clear - Charles Bridge just after dawn

The path is clear – Charles Bridge just after dawn (Credit: Estec GmbH)

Expectation Of A Destination – Extra Baggage
I could no longer hide my interest, Prague was going to be my next destination. As much as I hated to admit it, there was a sense of inevitability about visiting the Czech capital. What kind of self-professed Eastern European-phile would not visit Prague. It went with the territory so to speak. Would any American visit Eastern Europe multiple times without traveling to Prague? I must have been the only one to fathom such a heresy. I could not bring myself to avoid it. Prague had won me over the Atlantic. And thus I landed on a gloomy spring Sunday at Vaclav Havel Airport with little idea of what to expect other than the very best.

Click here for: Love At First Fright: Prague’s Powder Tower: Illuminating Shadows

The Theft Of Innocence – An Attendant Mystery: Krakow To Budapest (Part Four)

Frantic, nervous and beside myself with a mixture of fear, worry and anger I found the attendant, a young man from Polish Railways who could not have been more than thirty years old. In extremely bad English he asked if we locked the door. I shook my head. He twisted the lock open and shut several times showing me how it worked. He finally left it at open and said, “Public.” What he meant was that if the door was not locked the compartment was open to the public. He was spot on. I felt angry for being so stupid. The attendant left. We continued to search, but less frantically. Our hope of finding the wallet was waning. Then the attendant suddenly reappeared and asked me to follow him to the area at the end of the corridor. This was where it led into the next train car. On the floor was my friend’s wallet, as though it had been tossed there by the thief. The money was gone (between $200 and $300), but his driver’s license and credit cards were still there. We both felt another wave of relief, at least all had not been lost. The money was not that big a deal compared to finding the wallet. Unfortunately, the incident marred the unexpectedly pleasant overnight train trip.

Compartmentalized - Sleeper Train Corridor 

Compartmentalized – Sleeper Train Corridor

Who Done It – Casting For Blame
It was only later after the initial shock wore off that we began to try and figure out what exactly had happened. In the absence of any other suspects, our suspicion fell on the attendant in our train car. This may not have been fair, but we had no one else to blame other than ourselves. The attendant had been the one who found the wallet, but that raised the question of if he was the one who also took it. His compartment was next to ours. He would have heard us coming and going to the bathroom throughout the night. One time during the early morning hours I glanced into his compartment. At the time he looked to be resting. That could have been a ruse or reality. He would have woken up long before us. What if he saw us sound asleep or knew when my friend was using the restroom and I was in a deep sleep. This would have been the most advantageous time to make a move for the wallet. Especially if he heard the door fly open.

If I would have woke up while the theft was taking place, he could have said that he was closing the door. How would I have known any better? There was also the fact that he discovered the wallet. It was lying in the open on the floor just outside of the bathroom. Close to where the entrance was into the next train car. Had it really been in that same place all morning? Many people woke up before us. Surely someone would have seen it and either taken the wallet or turned it in. The chance that it was lying there for an indeterminate amount of time, untouched less the cash, seemed slimmer than the attendant placing it there himself. Quite conveniently, as soon as the attendant came to get me and then led me to the wallet, attention was distracted away from him.

Strangers On A Train – Opportunistic & Ominous
The relief we felt when finding the wallet made us forget all about the attendant’s potential culpability until we got off the train. There was a moment of mild euphoria. Only after we exited the train at Keleti Station in Budapest did we begin to cast our suspicions towards the attendant’s role. There was not much we could have done, even if we were pretty sure it was him. He spoke broken English at best. We only spoke English. Neither of us spoke Polish or Hungarian. We were now in Hungary not Poland. The only way we would have been able to find out whether the attendant was guilty would have been for the police to search his belongings. There was not enough evidence for that to be done. Plus, there was an insurmountable language barrier. And what if it was not him? The thought was chilling.

There was a distinct possibility that someone came into our compartment. An opportunistic thief who made his way from one of the other train cars or was sleeping in the same car. This was more frightening because it would have been someone we would not have known and never would know. A total stranger. When getting off the train at Keleti I wondered if the culprit might be walking among us. No matter who did it, we had to live with the losses. In the overall scheme of our trip it was a violation, but relatively benign compared to what might have happened. My friend had his wallet back. His credit cards were all there. He could use them at any ATM and soon did. I had my wallet and our passports were safe. In sum, we had been lucky. It was a hard lesson learned.

The Mystery Never Ends - Keleti Station in Budapest

The Mystery Never Ends – Keleti Station in Budapest (Credit: Dwight79)

For All The Wrong Reasons – Out On The Edge
Now I knew that night trains were more than noise, nuisances and sleeplessness. The compartment was not isolated from the darker aspects of society. Safety and security were illusions that could easily be stripped away just as fast as my friend’s wallet. There are thieves everywhere and nowhere. People steal for a variety of reasons including to get by or top up their wages. In Eastern Europe, many people with professional jobs live on the edge economically. Several hundred dollars can last someone more than a month. For them it was worth the risk. The crime was likely committed not out of malevolence, but need or at worst greed. As Americans we were targets. Seen as cash machines and tourists. I would never consider myself or my friend as wealthy, but someone saw us as that, sometime late in the night or early morning. Our misgivings about the return trip turned out to be true. We were able to sleep, but we also got robbed. Our overnight train journeys from Budapest to Krakow and Krakow to Budapest had been memorable, but for all the wrong reasons.

Click here for: The Whole of the Moon – Stolen Hours: Krakow to Budapest (Part Three)

 

 

 

 

The Whole Of The Moon – Stolen Hours: Krakow To Budapest (Part Three)

I just could not let it go. Throwing the equivalent of sixty dollars down the drain was too much to stomach. I urged my friend to take the night train back with me from Krakow to Budapest. I did not want to surrender half the cost of a ticket no matter how minimal the loss. It would also mean an entire day spent in transit, wasting a precious day of sightseeing. These two factors made me overlook the painful memory of what had occurred just two days before on our trip from Budapest to Krakow. Surely if we survived it once, we could do so again. I tried to console my friend with the idea “that this would be the last time we ever had to do this.” Such flippant logic only went so far, because we were still going to endure it one more time. And that one time had been one too many. My friend was not happy about the thought of suffering another sleepless night or that “terrible banging noise”. Neither was I, but as much as I hated that first trip, it made for a hell of a story. In the pursuit of adventure and a good yarn I was ready to suffer it all over again.

That lonesome whistle - Waiting on a night train at Krakow Glowny

That lonesome whistle – Waiting on a night train at Krakow Glowny

Getting What You Pay For –  Train Games
There was one caveat though. My friend wanted to see if we could change the ticket from a six bed to a two-bed berth. In a spirit of guilt ridden magnanimity I approached a woman at the international ticket window in Krakow Glowny who spoke horrendous English which was matched by her terrible attitude. The only words I was able to understand were her increasingly loud exhalations of “no refund”. My desperate protestations were no match for her willful indifference.  She was too busy waiting to go on break or perhaps she was already on one. I returned to my friend with the sad, but not surprising news that we would still be bunking with four strangers. He recoiled at this idea. I tried to soothe his nerves by uttering a few useless analogies about how “it couldn’t be any worse than the other night” and “what difference does it make how many people are in the compartment, the banging will be just as loud.”

After a period of tense silence and a pensive stare, he said “I am going to see if I can buy us a two-berth compartment.” Back to the window he went. A little while later he came back looking relaxed and holding a ticket for the two of us in our own compartment. I quietly breathed a sigh of relief. At least we could suffer the return trip by ourselves. I offered to pay my share of the ticket. He was so elated by this small victory that he would not hear of it. We did not enter the train until just past 10:00 p.m. on a Wednesday evening. Our compartment seemed a bit roomier than before. That was because the third bunk was not pulled down. In effect, my friend had paid for our berths as well as a vacant one. We both expressed a sense of foreboding as the train began to pull away from the station. I was prepared for another nightmare scenario. Our lone hope was that we were in a different railway car. It was from Hungarian railways, rather than the Polish one we took to Krakow.

Poor saps trying to reason with cranky clerks - Ticket window at Krakow Glowny

Poor saps trying to reason with cranky clerks – Ticket window at Krakow Glowny

Thief In The Night –  Dreams & Nightmares
Our expectation of cracks, pops and bangs failed to materialize. The first few hours turned out to be a relatively smooth journey. In comparison to our first trip it was a dream, but as the train crossed over into a Moravian countryside cloaked in darkness my apprehension grew. At any moment the train might start belching forth those tortuous noises. I settled my nerves with a special melatonin drink to help me get a few hours of sleep. Soon I was in a trance, followed by a daze and then I fell asleep. Every hour or so I would awake. At one point I felt the train stop and heard voices outside the window. Peeking through a thin curtain I noticed we were in the small city of Breclav, a major railway junction in the Czech Republic which sits close to the Austrian and Slovakian border. I did not see a single potential passenger on the platform, only border guards walking back and forth. It felt like a dream.

A couple of hours before dawn I got up and went to the bathroom. When I reentered the compartment, I failed to fully shut the door. It swung outward and banged against the compartment exterior. I pulled it closed, but forgot to lock it. I then fell into the deepest  sleep I have ever experienced on a train. When I awoke, it was nearly eight a.m. and we were nearing Budapest. I felt totally refreshed from a good night’s rest. The train ride had been close to perfect. I mentioned this to my friend who was already dressed. His reply sent a shock wave through me. “My wallet is gone.” He was frantically searching his pockets, suitcase and the berth. I began to search as well. He had made the mistake of putting it in the netting hanger just above the bed. I had done the same thing on the first trip, but without any problems. I should have known better.

Another night another train - Krakow To Budapest on Hungarian Railways

Another night another train – Krakow To Budapest on Hungarian Railways

Relief & Recrimination – Lost & Found
It suddenly struck me that my friend had almost certainly been the victim of theft.
He believed his wallet was stolen when we were both in our bunks that night. My friend had distinctly heard the door to the compartment close loudly. It woke him up. He recalled looking at the door and then at me laying there asleep. This made him wonder if he had imagined it.  Whatever might have happened, one thing was for certain, someone else had entered the room that night. This violation made us suddenly vulnerable, feelings of fear, menace and anger descended on the compartment. Usually reserved and rarely prone to cursing, my friend spewed forth an expletive. We were both approaching crisis mode. I began to wonder what we were going to do.

At least I had my wallet, or did I? I checked my suitcase, unzipping one of the pockets. It was empty. Panic flew straight from my mouth, “My wallet and passport are gone too?” I felt lightheaded and a bit dizzy. My heart was pounding, hands shaking. Frantically I checked another area in my suitcase. That is where I found my wallet and both of our passports. A feeling of instantaneous relief passed through me, followed by guilt and shame. My friend’s wallet was still missing. I was the one who had left the door unlocked. He blamed himself, I blamed myself. None of this did either of us any good. We tried to recall what may have happened. He had gone to the bathroom as well. The theft could have happened while he was out. We both believed it had happened in the last couple of hours while I was fast asleep. He remembered hearing the door shut, I remembered nothing.

Click here for: A Hangover Without A Drop Of Alcohol – That Kind of Night: Budapest to Krakow (Part Two)

Click here for: The Theft Of Innocence – An Attendant Mystery: Krakow to Budapest (Part Four)

A Hangover Without A Drop Of Alcohol – That Kind Of Night: Budapest To Krakow (Part Two)

Four in the morning is a terrible time to be awake, especially if you have not slept a wink. The Budapest to Krakow overnight express was rattling its way through Moravia. Hideous sounds came from beyond the walls of our small, rattle trap compartment. Sounding like somewhere out there in the deep, dark night an army of industrial workers was tearing the train apart while it hurtled into the unknown. When the banging momentarily subsided, the merciless sensation of the train shifting from side to side would take hold. The rails were supposed to be straight, but I imagined them as shiny strings of steel spaghetti leading the locomotive through a foreign land.

The train was supposedly headed to Krakow, but it felt like a voyage into an unknown abyss filled with sharp bends and precipitate drops. One minute we would be roaring downhill.  Then the brakes would suddenly scream out in a piercing shriek. The sound effects emanating from the rickety bowels below us were more frightening than anything I had heard in a horror film. Once in a while my friend and I commiserated in our misery. “This is insane” “something must be wrong with the train” and always we came back to the same exasperated question, “What was that awful banging?”

Enter at your own risk

Enter at your own risk (Credit: Man In Seat 61)


Beyond The Grasp Of Reason – Nightmare For A Memory

There was no sane explanation for what was wrong with the train. For that matter, there was no logical reason it stayed on the tracks. All we could do was hope for dawn and then Krakow. Out of sheer exhaustion I finally fell asleep. When I awoke, my friend was already dressed for arrival. He had slept even less than I had. His first overnight train trip had been horrific. It was as though we had been placed in a cage that had been beaten all night with iron bars. I looked out the window at a pastoral landscape covered in mist. This was Poland. It was hard to believe that we were close to Krakow. The previous evening was now a nightmarishly unforgettable memory. We were late for our arrival, but it hardly mattered at this point. Our only thought was getting off this train. I had a distinct feeling of unreality. Having survived this dangerous odyssey was beyond the grasp of reason.

Emerging from the compartment, I met several others in the hallway who looked the worse for wear. A bleary-eyed mother and her teenage son were standing slump shouldered while arguing amongst themselves. They conversed in English and turned out to be Americans. I struck up a conversation with them. They were traveling around Europe on a multi-month journey. I asked them their opinion of the train trip. The mother said this had been their first overnight trip on a train.  She was glad to have the experience, but never wanted to go through a night like that again. Then the inevitable question, “Did you hear that loud banging? What was going on?” Of course, I had no idea what had caused that nightmare of noise. I did not say it, but I disagreed with the mother. I would have gladly traded this trip for a pleasant daylong railway ride to Krakow. I had the feeling that everyone else felt this way as well. Every passenger who filed out of their compartment looked to be in tired disarray. It had been that kind of night. This journey had given me and my traveling companion a hangover without a drop of alcohol.

No Room For Comfort – Suffer The Night
The best we could say about the trip was that it had been an adventure. The exact opposite of the relaxing, sleep filled, smooth ride we had hoped to experience. A few weeks prior to this trip I had written a blog post expressing dismay that the Hungarian National Railways planned to cut overnight train services. This was part of a trend on many European railway lines. I still hope overnight European train travel survives, but I must admit that in its current form the days of romance, comfort and leisure on these trains has long since passed into history. The problem has as much to do with the passengers as it does the service. We live in an age of mass travel. To be affordable and competitive, night trains must pack many people within the wagon. Three and six bed berths do not leave much room for comfort. Space is extremely limited. The niceties of comfort have been largely done away with. Fine dining has been replaced by an improved version of the tv dinner. Forget a decent bathroom, these are barely above the level of rudimentary. I have begun to wonder if overnight train travel has survived in Europe only because of government subsidies and traditionalism.

The price is not right either. Overnight train travel is scarcely competitive with buses. These days it may actually be cheaper to fly. A traveler can fly between Budapest and many European cities on low cost carrier Wizz Air for a mere pittance. Bus rides between Budapest and Krakow can be had for as little as 10 Euros, about a fifth of the cost incurred by someone booking an overnight train between those two cities a day in advance. Admittedly flying is a hassle and long bus rides are exhausting in the extreme, but the cost and convenience are still tough to beat. Of course, on a train the passengers get to see the countryside. That is except for overnight trains, where they only see darkness. They can always pass the time as I did, trying to read by a very bad light, then tossing and turning restlessly on a ride through railway hell. Fortunately, I did not have to do this with five strangers, but that option had also been available. One could attain a level of discomfort scarcely sufferable, all for a bit of romantic nostalgia.

Arrival time - Krakow Glowny

Arrival – Krakow Glowny

Stoicism & Quiet Agitation – Mourning Arrival
My lone companion had suffered the trip much the same as I did, with stoicism and quiet agitation. When the train pulled into Krakow Glowny there was a sense of beleaguered relief, we had somehow made it. We were not rested and ready, only tired and weak. The first thing that came to mind was getting to our accommodation as soon as possible and sleeping the day off. This thought kept us going. Along with the idea that we could not possibly do this trip again. We had just two and a half days to change our minds

Click here for: Off The Rails – The Nightmare Train: Budapest To Krakow (Part One)

Click here for: The Whole Of The Moon – Stolen Hours: Krakow To Budapest (Part Three) 

Off The Rails – The Nightmare Train: Budapest To Krakow (Part One)

Some people never learn and I am one of them. Several years ago, I took a night train from Belgrade, Serbia to Sofia, Bulgaria thinking it would give me an extra day to visit the latter. It did, but unfortunately only after enduring a bone rattling train ride through the night. The morning after that trip I was the worse for wear. I did not enjoy the extra time I got in Sofia due to my sleep deprived state. I should have learned from that lesson. Overnight trains were not for me. In the intervening years I had marginally better experiences on overnight trains to Spilt, Croatia and Brasov, Romania. I never completely swore off overnight trains. The romance tended to outweigh the irritation I experienced. My enchantment with such train trips started long ago with the James Bond film, From Russia With Love. In it Bond travels with a beautiful Russian bombshell named Tatiana from Istanbul to Trieste. The dining car, elegant compartments, mystery and intrigue captured my imagination. Never mind, that Bond nearly gets strangled with a piece of wire. Or the fact that two other men are murdered on the train which never quite makes it to Trieste. I was still smitten with the idea of train trips through exotic European locales. After six years though, that allure would disappear on a single overnight trip from Budapest to Krakow.

Sleeper car for the Budapest to Krakow route

It looks so appealing – Sleeper car for the Budapest to Krakow route (Credit: Man in Seat Sixty-One)

Just One Night – Rationalizing A Rail Ride
The idea seemed sound. An older friend and myself would take the overnight train from Budapest’s Keleti Station to Krakow Glowny. This would give us an extra day to tour Krakow. Why waste a day sitting on a train, when we could sleep on one at night? An additional benefit of this plan was that it would save us from paying for a hotel room. The train would leave Keleti at 8:07 p.m. and arrive in Krakow the next morning just after 7:00 a.m. My friend, who is much older than I am, was all for giving it a try, but was wondering what it would be like. He had never spent the night on a train. I related my experiences both good and bad, but explained away the Belgrade to Sofia fiasco as a one off. After all that was Serbian and Bulgarian railways. Hungary and Poland were much farther along in their post-communist development. And besides it was as much about the overnight train trip experience as anything else.

We only had one misgiving. Our failure to book early enough in advance meant we could only reserve a three rather than two-berth compartment. This meant we would be bunking with a stranger or so we thought. Neither of us was excited by this prospect. We both loathed the idea of shared sleeping accommodations. My friend was a lifelong bachelor, after almost fifty years to himself, bunking down above or beneath a foreigner who came from an entirely different culture did not seem like an appealing prospect. We both agreed that this was just for one night and we could handle almost anything for a short duration of time. Luckily, the third person did not show by the time the train pulled out of the station. Less than half an hour after the train left, I noticed some loud popping and banging. I rationalized this as the train having a few issues getting adjusted. We slowly and nosily surged forward into northern Hungary.

Northwest by North - Budapest to Krakow by train

Northwest by North – Budapest to Krakow by train

Compartmental Consternation – Invisible Impediments
Soon we were getting ready for bed.  Just before turning the lights out we asked the conductor if anyone else would be joining us. He nodded in the affirmative and said something unintelligible in Polish. The one word I recognized was Bratislava. I assumed that another passenger would be joining us when we stopped in the Slovakian capital. Hopefully by then I would be too exhausted to care. I did not expect to rest very well, but figured as the night went on I would be able to catch several hours of sleep. My companion seemed unsure whether he would be able to sleep or not. He mentioned that he had survived sleeping in Marine barracks during boot camp. This could not be much worse. The problem was that these barracks were on wheels struggling to stay on tracks. We were constantly reminded of this not long after laying our heads down to sleep.

At random intervals the train car would be jarred by some invisible impediment. This would cause a commotion that threatened to toss me all the way over in my bunk. It kept happening as the night gave way to the earliest hours of the morning. That third possible passenger never showed and was forgotten amid the banging and clanging, popping and stopping. Here was a case where we tossed and turned, as much from the train’s wild tango with the tracks, as from our own efforts. Every so often I would pull the curtains back and peek through the window. There was complete darkness for a minute or two and then a lonely light in the distance. I thought to myself, this must be Moravia, but it could have been anywhere. We were cast adrift in a netherworld of travel.

A place not to sleep - beds in the Budapest to Krakow sleeper
A place not to sleep – Beds in the Budapest to Krakow sleeper (Credit: Robs World Adventure Blog)

Toilet With A Twist – Shaking & Shimmying
Several times in the night I made my way to the bathroom, which meant stumbling down a corridor while trying to keep pace with the constant shifts and jolts of the train.  Once in the bathroom I struggled to pee. The problem was that I had to brace myself for the inevitable jolting. My legs were set rigid as I struggled to straddle the toilet. At one point after finally starting to pee, the train began to weave, not along a curve or bend, but literally weave as though it was veering from side to side. My hips started shimmying. I was taking a piss while doing the twist.  Somehow. I managed not to pee all over the wall. I was rather proud of this depraved bit of dexterity, yet also deeply troubled by the train’s weaving. This train gave me the sensation of riding on a self-propelled bicycle directed by a madman.

At some point in the night my friend voiced his concern with the ear splitting banging noises that occurred with alarming frequency. It sounded as though someone was beating the train into submission with iron bars. My friend voiced his frustration by asking no one in particular, “What is that banging?” I had no idea, but whatever it was would not stop. I began to wonder if the train was going to survive this trip. The same could be said for us, its ill-fated passengers.

Click here for: A Hangover Without A Drop Of Alcohol – That Kind of Night: Budapest To Krakow (Part Two)

A Little Girl & Her Father – Debrecen: When The Sun Shone The Brightest

In the mid-1970’s a little girl and her father went out one day to pick flowers for her mother in Debrecen, Hungary. It was the beginning of springtime. The trees were just beginning to blossom, but there was still a nip of cold in the air. The little girl, no more than four years old at time, was bundled up tight against the late afternoon chill. Her head and neck were wrapped in a scarf. Her father was dressed in trench coat and slacks. There was something extraordinary and memorable about the ordinariness of that moment which was captured in a photo forever. The photo shows the little girl clutching flowers she has gathered in her right hand, while looking toward the camera. Her father is holding her around the hips and is looking at her with a gaze of serenity and love. This scene must have been repeated hundreds, if not thousands of times over the coming years. Then one day many years later the father died, at least in a physical sense. He did not die spiritually. That is because his daughter carried the love he gave to her and his family forward into the world. Loved ones never really die, because they live on through the love they gave to others.

A Little Girl & Her Father - Debrecen

A Little Girl & Her Father – Debrecen

Broken Homes – The Curse Of Total War
The father never knew his father. He was more than likely dead before his son was born. Even if he was still alive it was in a concentration camp far away from eastern Hungary. On the day he died, the son would not have known what a father was and the father would not have ever seen his son. Europe in the 1940’s was filled with these types of tragedies, the curse of total war. Fathers went off to fronts, battle or genocidal ones and never returned. There was a void left in every nation and an emptiness occupying a multitude of hearts. Thus, sons and daughters grew up without their fathers. Their mothers were single parents not by choice, but by fate. The mother of the son in Debrecen, raised the boy the best she could under the circumstances. She had to be tough. Debrecen was badly damaged by the war, both physically and mentally. The economy was in tatters, the nation was trying to rebuild while the Soviets were exacting reparations a thousand thefts at a time.

The mother had been damaged even worse. She had narrowly escaped the clutches of the Holocaust. Her husband was Jewish and she was ethnically Hungarian. Such was the difference between life and death in those days of darkness. In the spring of 1944 her husband was walled off from her in the ghetto. Then a month or two later taken to the brickyard at Serly, before being deported beyond Hungary’s borders to hell on earth. And speaking of hell on earth, the Soviets and Germans fought a massive tank battle on the edge of Debrecen while the Americans bombed it from above. Hell from the ground up and the sky below. Soviet soldiers did unspeakable things that would only be recalled in recurring nightmares for the rest of women’s lives.

My Heart – Healing With Happiness
We can never know what the mother went through. The will to endure must have been strong, because there was no other option. The instinct of a mother to provide for her child gave her the will to overcome desperate circumstances. The son turned out to be highly intelligent. He had a gift for learning, which morphed into a love for medicine. The son without a father and a mother working a commoners job just to make ends meet, odd couples like these were the rule not the exception at that time in Hungary. Fortunately, there was a system in Hungary that could help the working class and those who excelled in school. Communism was a human tragedy for Hungary during the late 1940’s and 1950’s, but the system had its uses as well as its abuses. Free education was there for the taking, a brilliant mind could get you a degree and lead to a medical practice. It also led the son to meet the love of his life. Not far from the college at a restaurant that is still there today, the son met a woman of supreme intellect. One of the few who could match wits with him. They would come to refer to each other as my heart. For them there was the kind of love that sprinkles the world with a mysterious magic. Conjuring a romance out of every moment they spent together.

The inevitable outcome was marriage, then a son and a daughter. Trips to the Black Sea by way of a Trabant, family vacations along the Adriatic. In photos the son, who has now become a proud father, beams with happiness. Everyone who knew him said that this was a man who loved life. And he gave life, to the sick and the weak and the suffering. His profession was to heal others, not just with his mind, but also his happiness. Perhaps such enjoyment of life reflected an awareness that his own father had happiness and contentment stolen away from him by the Holocaust. Or maybe he realized how lucky he, the son, had been. If born only a year or two earlier, the likelihood is that he would have perished at a gas chamber in Auschwitz. Some people would say that it is better to be lucky than it is good. Well he was both lucky and good, some would even say great.

Greater Than Any River Of Tears – Memories Of A Father
There were so many days like the one captured in the photo. Taking his daughter for walks to gather flowers, holding her hand as she tottered along beside him, giving her hugs and kisses when he arrived home from the clinic. And as she grew older his love grew with her. It was a magnificent life up until the day that tragedy struck. The sickness came unannounced, creeping up on him when he was in the prime of life. In a cruel irony he diagnosed himself with a terminal illness. The man who had cured so many, could not cure himself. His family watched helplessly as he lost his hair and then they lost him. The memory of the father haunted a house on the edge of Debrecen. There was a silence that comes to a house when no one can sleep. There were muffled tears behind closed doors. Days of darkness even when the sun shone at its brightest.

Slowly, ever so slowly, the grief dissipated and the wellspring of enchanting memories returned to life. Never more so than the day his widow began looking at old family photos tucked away in a drawer.  There among the images, was one she set aside and would share with her daughter. It brought back a flood of memories much greater than any river of tears. Memories of the love, romance and beauty of life. Memories of a father who melted the hearts of everyone he met. None more so than the daughter he adored and the wife he loved with all his heart. In that one photo, there was a little girl and her father picking flowers for the mother. The mother who watched from behind the lens of a camera, capturing the love of their lives.

In memory of Erno Berenyi 1944 – 1990

A Gap In The Defenses – Suwalki, Augustow & Bialystok: Last Forevers (Travels In Eastern Europe #64)

The Seskotai to Warsaw portion of the train trip turned out to be a delightful journey. I had the Welsh couple to keep me company while the train rolled through the gorgeous countryside of northeastern Poland. It was at the height of autumn. The forests were illuminated with fall foliage, while the ponds and lakes which dotted the area shimmered in the afternoon sunlight. The Welsh couple I had met on the platform at Seskotai, consisted of a strikingly attractive, middle aged red-headed woman who worked some sort of office job close to Cardiff, while her stocky husband ran the farm they owned together. Both of them were pleasant and talkative, unless the subject turned to the English, whom they found particularly distasteful. If anything was wrong in Britain, then it was an Englishman’s fault according to them.

Their attitude had much in common with Eastern Europeans from small and medium sized nations that had suffered at the hands of much larger foes. As the English were to the Welsh, so the Poles were to the Lithuanians or the Germans and Russians were to the Poles. The couple were frequent travelers to Eastern Europe, coming to watch horse races each year in Brno, the Czech Republic’s second city. On these same trips they made time to visit other places in the region. They were now heading towards Brno to watch the races starting in a couple of days. The husband studied the rolling landscape with the eye of a farmer. He noted the many fallow fields, remarking that these could easily be cultivated. The Poles were leaving money in the earth. The lack of development in this region made its nature more spectacular.  The forests, fields and ponds literally glowed beneath a radiant, late afternoon splash of sunshine.

State of nature - The beauty of northeastern Poland

State of nature – The beauty of northeastern Poland (Credit: Lilly M)

A Most Important Unknown Place– Strategic Suwalki
I was entranced by the serene and pristine nature. This was matched by my fascination with the area’s history. Despite its beauty, I knew that this land had been fiercely contested by Poles, Lithuanians, Prussians and Russians for many centuries. The geopolitical situation had stabilized since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but could flare up at any time. Half an hour after crossing the Polish border, the train made a stop in Suwalki. Suwalki was not only close on the Lithuanian border, but to its north could be found the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad and to the south, Belarus. Nations that were to be feared rather than trusted.  The area was just as strategically important today as it had been during the first half of the 20th century. The flat narrow strip of land I was traveling through was a highly strategic security corridor for the European Union and NATO alliance.

Known as the Suwalki Gap, the only place the Baltic States border the rest of NATO. It is through this gap, that NATO troops would have to travel if they had to defend the Baltic States from a Russian attack. Conversely, Russia could sever NATO’s connections with Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia by closing off the gap by moving troops and armor into it. This land pockmarked with lakes and dark forests, rolling fields and rural farmsteads has not changed much over the centuries, either physically or geopolitically. Rumbling through it on a Polish train gave little hint as to its true importance to European and world peace. It was hard to imagine that a land hardly anyone knows, visits or cares about could become the setting for another World War.

The Suwalki Gap

The Suwalki Gap (Credit: Bruno Adrie)

A Primeval World – Beauty & The Beast
After Suwalki the next stop was Augustow, one of those places that was in the wrong place at the wrong time multiple times from 1914 to 1945. The First and Second Battles of The Masurian Lakes brought the German and Russian armies here in the fall of 1914 and winter of 1915. Polish and Lithuanian forces fought the Battle of Augustow around the area in 1920. Then during World War II it experienced multiple occupations, deportations and exterminations. Ethnic Poles were deported to Kazakhstan by the Soviets, the Jewish community was wiped out by the Nazis and the Soviets rounded up Polish Home Army members at the end of the war. As for the physical infrastructure of Augustow, seven out of every ten buildings were destroyed. With a history like this, it was a wonder that anything was left standing. Yet the main attraction of Augustow remained unscathed. The train skirted the Puszcza Augustowska, Polish for the Augustow primeval forest, In addition to the venerable woodlands. The train passed by several large lakes that the sunlight had transformed into pools of liquid fire. The natural world trumped the manmade all across northeastern Poland.

Much the same could be said of Bialystok which was the next prominent place the train stopped. Like so many places in the world which are well endowed with natural beauty, Bialystok was on the edge economically. Ever since the collapse of communism, industry had fallen on hard times. This made it a Polish hinterland and not just in a geographical sense, but also an economic one. Its youth fled to more vibrant cities further west. Bialystok was a place to vacation or visit family in the surrounding area, but very difficult to make a living. The history of Bialystok, was pretty much the history of Augustow, just on a larger scale. Half the population and 75% of the city center was destroyed during the Second World War. It was rebuilt afterward. Unfortunately, this took place under the communist regime which left a dismal legacy of concrete and smokestacks. Looking out the train window it was hard to believe that nearby stood the last stretches of the primeval forest which once covered much of Northern Europe. Deep in these woods the European bison still roamed. This ancient world has been protected in the Białowieża Forest National Park. Comparing the surrounding nature to Bialystok was like a reality episode of Beauty and the Beast.

Momentary rapture along Polish Railways

Momentary rapture along Polish Railways (Credit: Grzegorz Saczyło)

Forever Fleeting – Momentary Raptures
After Bialystock, the stops increased, but were in less prominent places. The kind of towns that people leave, rather than visit. Lapy, Szepietowo, Czyzew, Malkina, Tluszcz. Before long we were on the outskirts of Warsaw. This would be my last train trip for at least six months. I was back to where I started two weeks before. Saying goodbye to the Welsh couple filled me with a wave of sadness. Not because we had that much in common, but from the knowledge that traveling brought me into contact with people and places that were otherwise foreign to me. I became familiar with another world, one that was forever fleeting. These were moments that I could only have for a limited amount of time. Somehow I would have to make them last forever.

Estonia’s Forest Brother: August Sabbe:  Fighting Beyond The Bitter End

About once a year I hear the story retold of World War II soldier Hiroo Onoda. Onoda was the Japanese intelligence officer who hid out in the jungles and mountains of the Philippines for over three decades. He continued fighting the war, believing Japan had never surrendered. For Onoda, the Japanese surrender was unfathomable. Only in 1974, after Onodo’s former commanding officer traveled back to the Philippines and convinced him that Japan had long since surrendered, did he finally give up the fight. Onoda’s single-minded zealotry has been viewed as symbolic of the Japanese mindset during the war. He may be an outlier, an extreme example, but Onoda’s fanaticism shows how seriously many fighting for the Japanese cause took their duty.

Freedom fighters - A group of Estonian Forest Brothers

Freedom fighters – A group of Estonian Forest Brothers

Beyond The War – Taking To The Woods
Hidden behind the iron Curtain and almost unknown to westerners, the same fanatical resolve was also to be found in several parts of Eastern Europe after the World War II officially ended. In Ukraine and the Baltic States, partisans continued to fight the Soviet regime throughout the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. Hiding out in the woods was a way of life for these fighters. None more so than those in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. They became known as Forest Brothers. Living a precarious existence, hiding out among the thick, dark woods and impenetrable lakes of the inland Baltic landscapes, these fighters managed to exact a considerable casualty toll on Soviet armed forces.

In skirmishes large and small, using guerilla tactics, along with their knowledge of the landscape, many of the Forest Brothers managed to evade capture for years. Still others perished not long after they took to the woods. By one estimate the fighting between the Forest Brothers and Soviet forces led to over 50,000 deaths. For all their courage and skill at wilderness warfare the Forest Brothers were up against more than they would ever be able to defeat. The Soviets could marshal an endless supply of soldiers and intelligence operatives, while the Forest Brothers had only a limited number of men to spare. The weight of numbers would turn out to be too much, but that did not keep a few men fighting well beyond the 1950’s.

August Sabbe (on the left) - Legendary Forest Brother

August Sabbe (on the left) – Legendary Forest Brother

Holding Out – The Lonely Fight
In southeastern Estonia, within a half hour’s drive of the Russian border, stands the tiny village of Paidra. Here the landscape is totally pastoral, with forests interspersed with fields and a handful of farmsteads. On the village’s eastern border runs the Vohandu River, on its western flank is Pikkjarv Lake. The greater area is surrounded by woods. This is a land that time forgot. Besides roads and humble dwellings, not much has changed in this land for centuries. One thing that has is the political system. It has now been over a quarter century since the Soviet Union collapsed and an independent Estonian state was re-established. The Soviet collapse was unexpected, but even more surprising was the fact that it occurred peacefully. That is because in parts of Estonia, the fight against Soviet power went on for decades. It is hard to imagine that a place like Paidra was a hotbed of rebellion, but it once was. The little village gave birth to one of the great Freedom fighters and final holdouts against the Soviet reoccupation of Estonia which took place in 1944.

August Sabbe was born under one empire and would die under another. In 1909, the year of his birth, Estonia as a nation was just an idea. The land into which he was born bristled under Tsarist Russian rule. When he died – if in fact he did die – in 1979, Estonia was a Soviet Socialist Republic, a small constituent part of the Soviet Union. Sabbe was not even ten years old when Estonia first gained its freedom. All through his teenage years and early adulthood he grew up in an independent nation. This all changed with the outbreak of World War II, first the Soviets, then the Nazis and once again the Soviets occupied Estonia. The latter occupation was harsh and deadly for Estonians, as tens of thousands were shipped off to Siberia, while the country was flooded with ethnic Russians who were seen as loyal to the Soviet regime.

Thousands of Estonian men took to the woods, in what became a valiant yet ultimately futile attempt to fight for their small nation’s freedom. By 1953 most of these fighters had either been killed or gravitated back to domestic life. August Sabbe was not one of them. Sabbe somehow managed to hold out, living by his wits, backwoodsman skills and aid from friendly villagers. Twenty-five years after the fight had been all but lost, Sabbe was still living in a bunker not far from his birthplace. As unyielding as Sabbe was in continuing the lonely fight for independence, so to were the Soviets in their efforts to apprehend any Forest Brothers that still roamed the vast woodlands of rural Estonia. Many of those who had helped Sabbe survive over the years, eventually grew older and died. He was forced to move closer to settlements. After a series of petty thefts close to the area Sabbe was from, the authorities began to take notice.

August Sabbe Memorial Monument - near the Vohandu River in Paidra Estonia

August Sabbe Memorial Monument – near the Vohandu River in Paidra, Estonia where he is said to have died

Open To Conjecture – Not To Be Taken Alive
In September 1979, while the 69 year old Sabbe was fishing in the Vohandu River, he was approached by two KGB agents posing as fishermen. Sabbe tried to pull a gun on the men, but he was not quick enough. They lunged at Sabbe and all three men ended up in the river. A fierce tussle ensued. When the KGB men finally pulled Sabbe from the water, he seemed to finally be subdued. Then suddenly he broke free from their grasp and dove back into the river. He would not be seen alive again. The river was quite shallow, leading some to believe that Saabe may not have drowned, but was killed. One thing is for certain, Sabbe would never be taken alive. He was true to the values of the Forest Brothers until the day he died. Whenever and however August Sabbe’s death might have occurred will always be a mystery, not unlike the man himself.