A Twisted Fairy Tale – King Zog & Queen Geraldine: An Albanian Love Affair (Part One)

Imagine there was once a king from a small, exotic European nation that went by a strange name. The only thing stranger than the nation’s name was that of the king’s. This king had risen from tribal leader to politician and then to the most powerful person in a newly born nation. He was crafty, intelligent and utterly corrupt. His country was desperately poor. It lacked the infrastructure and institutions in which of a modern state. It was beset by feuding, capricious violence and poverty. By the mid-1930’s, the King was in his early forties, a bachelor who was looking to marry. He wanted a woman with an aristocratic background and lots of money. There were plenty of aristocratic women to choose from in interwar Europe. The aristocracy had taken quite a fall since the end of World War I. The King also needed a woman with money because of his spendthrift ways and addictive habits. He sent his sisters to Vienna and Budapest in search of a suitable match for him.

They would send him a photo of a beautiful lady taken at a dinner in Budapest. One of his sisters then invited this woman to visit the exotic nation. The woman who would be queen was elegant, attractive and came from an aristocratic background, but she was far from wealthy. Her family’s fortune had all but vanished. A meeting was arranged between the two. It was not exactly love at first sight. The King was twenty years older than the Queen and looked every bit of it. Despite each ones less than desirable characteristics, they wed not long after that first meeting and would stay together for the rest of the king’s tempestuous life. The modern fairy tale told in the preceding paragraph is the story of the first King and Queen of Albania. If the story sounds unbelievable, than it just go to proves that truth really is stranger than fiction.  The woman who became queen could certainly vouch for that.

Budapest Beauty - Geraldine Apponyi on her wedding day

Budapest Beauty – Geraldine Apponyi on her wedding day

From Countess To Queen – The Riches Of Royalty
Countess Geraldine Margit Virginia Olga Maria Apponyi de Nagy-Appony or as she was later known, Queen Geraldine of Albania, was born in Budapest during the First World War. She was the daughter of a well-connected Hungarian aristocrat, while her American mother was an heiress whose father was a leading diplomat. Countess Geraldine spent her childhood in such glamorous locales as Switzerland, the south of France, the Wienerwald in Austria and a family chateau in Czechoslovakia. It all sounds glamorous and by all accounts her childhood was a happy one, but her life was less than the stuff dreams are made of. Her father had died when she was only nine years old. After her mother remarried, Geraldine and her sisters were packed off to a boarding school in Austria. By the time she entered adulthood, her family fortune was exhausted. The Countess took up employment as a short hand typist. Her uncle, who was director of the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest, helped her procure a second job as a clerk in the museum’s gift shop selling postcards.

Geraldine ended up abandoning her two jobs to marry a man who had survived innumerable assassination attempts, pulled all-nighters at the poker table and smoked 150 cigarettes a day. Not exactly a great catch for a woman, but at least he was a king. She was also feted with outrageous sums of money. The vice-president gave her a velvet pocketbook with the equivalent of half a million dollars in it. She donated it to an Albanian charity. The couples’ wedding was a memorable occasion. The most important dignitary in attendance was the personal envoy of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Mussolini was said to be furious with Zog’s choice of Geraldine as his bride. He would have preferred that Zog marry an Italian, as Mussolini planned to incorporate Albania into his vision of a greater Italy. Another vile dictator also left his mark on the wedding. The couple drove to their honeymoon in a red Mercedes gifted to them by Adolf Hitler. It must have been quite the ride because Albania’s roads were in deplorable condition.

A Match Made In Albania - Wedding of King Zog and Geraldine Apponyi

A Match Made In Albania – Wedding of King Zog and Geraldine Apponyi

Stateless – A King & Queen Without A Country
During the 354 days of her reign spent in Albania, Queen Geraldine was given the royal treatment by King Zog. He expended a fortune to ensure that she was provided with every luxury. Much of the money Zog was wasting had been given to Albania by Italy. This was done to curry favor with the king. Mussolini hoped to use this small, primitive nation on the eastern side of the Adriatic as a stepping stone to eventually occupy Greece. Unfortunately for the Italians, Zog displayed ingratitude on a scale rarely seen before or since. He wanted their money for one reason only, to spend it as he saw fit. Italian advisers were crawling all over the Albanian government, trying to bring a sense of order and professionalism to it. Some of the funds went for infrastructure upgrades, but much of it was wasted on the King’s whims or for jewels, furs and other material items for the Queen. The Italians grew increasingly fed up with Zog’s behavior.

Heirs to the throne - Queen Geraldine & Crown Prince Leka

Heirs to the throne – Queen Geraldine & Crown Prince Leka

Just a week and a half after Geraldine had given birth to an heir, Crown Prince Leka, the royal couple fled the country. An Italian invasion made Albania a vassal state of Mussolini’s Italy. Some observers questioned why Zog had been hell bent on alienating the Italians. If his behavior had been a bit better he could likely have continued ruling the country under Italian occupation, but not as his personal fief. The king was too corrupt and cunning for the Italians to tell him what to do. Zog probably believed that the Italians would have had him murdered if he stayed in Albania. He was extremely paranoid and for good reason, Zog survived 55 assassination attempts in his life – a world record for a modern leader. There was no compelling reason for Zog to test his luck once again. Plus, Zog believed he had secreted away enough money in accounts outside of the country to allow the royal couple to live a wealthy existence for years to come. Thus, King Zog and Queen Geraldine went into exile. The King was to never see his homeland again.

Considerations Other Than Love – Marital Abyss: Franz Liszt & Countess von Sayn-Wittgenstein

His power to evoke passion was legendary. He could send women swooning just by running his fingers across the ivory keys of a piano. The world fell to its feet in the presence of his musical powers. He created, composed and conjured entirely new worlds of sound from multitudes of magnificent keystrokes. Females were especially prone to his mysterious musical powers. Because of this, he fell in and out of romance. In even greater numbers, he fell in and out of bed. Fathering any number of children with true loves and midnight mistresses. Because of his reputation for romances, both sweeping and fleeting, it is hard to imagine the Hungarian musical impresario, Franz Liszt, ever settling down in marriage. He never quite did, but he was willing to try. When the opportunity arose to marry a countess, Liszt was more than willing to oblige.

Franz Liszt - The photo is from three years before the attempted marriage with Countess zu Sayn-Wittgenstein

Franz Liszt – The photo is from three years before the attempted marriage with Countess zu Sayn-Wittgenstein

Reverence, Rudeness & Respect – Prestigious Possibility
Among the many personality traits of Franz Liszt, one of the more pronounced was his snobbery. Like most snobs, the one thing he could never stomach was others who thought they were better than him. There is nothing a snob abhors more than another snob. Liszt could not stand to be looked down upon due to the simple fact that he himself looked down on the world. His musical ability gave him an exalted position both socially and culturally. For Liszt, it was normal to be treated with the utmost adoration. This was not so much a privilege, as it was his right. Thus, if anyone in the aristocracy or royalty (the elite classes of Europe during the 19th century) did not show him the proper respect, Liszt would reciprocate with rudeness. Conversely, when treated with the proper reverence, Liszt could be gracious, humble and kind. One of Liszt’s great ambitions in life was to climb the social ladder. His musical talent opened the world of aristocracy up to him. He most often played for audiences filled with the finest aristocrats in Europe. During his concert tours he met large numbers of princes and princesses. It was the latter that offered him not only the romance he craved, but also the prestigious possibility of marriage into high society.

On a concert tour in 1847 Liszt met the Polish noblewoman Countess von Sayn-Wittgenstein while performing in Kiev. The Countess lived in what was then the Ukrainian part of the Russian Empire. Her wealth was beyond belief. She owned multiple estates with thousands of serfs working the land. The Countess was something of a paradox. She enjoyed elite social status while at the same time being fanatically religious. The Countess wrote long winded books on religious subjects. Her literary output was lengthy in the extreme, with works that would put War and Peace to shame for their sheer volume of words. Such traits attracted Liszt to her. The Countess’ religious fervor was matched by his own. While the Countess’ social standing appealed to Liszt’s snobbishness. The Countess though, was much more to Liszt than just one of his many mistresses. He would eventually become an abbe (Catholic clergyman) in the Catholic Church. Their kindred religious spirits led to an unlikely romance between the two. By all accounts the Countess was unattractive, homely and serious minded. A sort of uber wealthy plain jane of Russian Ukraine. Liszt hardly cared because of her aristocratic background. There was only one problem, the Countess was married.

Countess Caroline Sayn-Wittgenstein in 1847 - The year she met Liszt

Countess Caroline Sayn-Wittgenstein in 1847 – The year she met Liszt

Life With Liszt – A High Price To Pay
The Countess’ husband was a Russian military officer who went by the exquisite name of Prince Nikolaus zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg-Ludwigsburg. They had one child, a daughter, but the couple were soon living apart. It was a marriage for the sake of titles, prestige and wealth. Love was not a consideration. The Countess spent years trying to get a divorce from Prince Nikolaus. She began living with Liszt in Weimar a year after they met. After two face-to-face meetings with the pope, she nearly succeeded. On October 22, 1861, the Countess and Liszt were due to be married in Rome. Liszt arrived the night before the wedding fully expecting to get married for the first time. The ceremony was scheduled to take place on his 50th birthday. It would never happen. Intervention by The Countess’ husband and the Russian Tsar stopped the marriage. The Russian government had impounded her estates.

If the Countess had gone through with the marriage, she would have lost a fortune. Her lone child, a daughter by Prince Nikolaus, would have had her marriage prospects irreparably damaged. Thus, the marriage failed. The Countess and Liszt eventually grew apart. She was disgusted by his numerous affairs. He was an inveterate womanizer who took the Countess’ love for granted. She eventually grew fed up and moved to Rome. What Liszt was doing with the Countess says much more about him than it does her. Liszt longed for adulation, an aristocratic title would have been another stepping stone to greater prestige. It never happened, but it did not stop him from trying. For the Countess, Liszt was like a dream that was slowly defeated by reality. The Countess was unique though. Her religious fervor knew no bounds. She was loyal to Liszt and that loyalty came at an astronomical price. She squandered much of her riches for the pursuit of passion and a spiritual kinship.

Countess Caroline Sayn-Wittgenstein with her daughter Maria in 1840

Countess Caroline Sayn-Wittgenstein with her daughter Maria in 1840

Romance & Religion – Kindred Spirits
In the end, a life together for Liszt and the Countess was not meant to be. After the attempt at marriage failed, the Countess became just another woman for Liszt in an unending succession of them. A few he loved, most he did not. The love that had existed between the two of them faded. In her post-Liszt life, the Countess spent years writing religious tomes. Her magnum opus was a 24-volume work, Exterior Causes of the Interior Weakness of the Church. Not exactly a page turner. It had the added drawback that on average each volume was over a thousand pages in length. No one remembers these books. For that matter, no one remembers the Countess von Sayn-Wittgenstein except for the romance and religion she shared with the famous Franz Liszt.

Click here for: A Place Touched By Tragedy – Incidental Contact: The Road To Mayerling (Part One)

They Call It An Accident – Road Risk In Romania: Terror Across Transylvania (Part Two)

While driving in Transylvania I had trouble figuring out what was worse, fearing for my own life or watching so many others risk their own. Over several days I documented the following incidents while traveling around Transylvania by automobile:

A Litany Of Near Crashes – The Open Road Takes A Toll
* Two men trying to fix their broke down van at the beginning of a curve. One of whom decided it was a good idea to stoop down behind the bumper with his back to oncoming traffic as he stared confusedly at the rear bumper.

* A man riding his motor scooter the wrong way against traffic on the main road through a village. He did not look worried, only in a hurry. His stern gaze was fixed on a path only he knew to follow. This man gets extra credit for wearing a helmet.

*One driver almost causing a head-on collision because he decided to pass three cars all at once. Passing the first car was fine, the second a bit more dangerous and the third proved nearly fatal. An accident was avoided at the last moment only because the oncoming car slammed on its breaks to allow the offender to jump back into the correct lane. It was one of those moments where it may have been more frightening for onlookers than the offending driver. I imagined the sound of glass shattering, the shrill scraping of metal on metal and the screams of humans writhing in pain. Fortunately, this feat of frightened imaginings was just that. That did not stop me from putting hand to mouth and saying aloud “oh my god.” A life threatening car crash was avoided by a hair’s breadth.

* In the town center of Cristuru Secuiesc (Szekelykeresztur), while coming up to a stoplight one car tried to change lanes with another car beside it. This should have resulted in the other car being struck, but both vehicles swerved wildly to avoid each other by a few inches. This resulted in three cars standing improbably parallel to one another on a two-lane street. No one so much as shook a fist or honked their horn. The situation seemed to sort itself out.

* One of the most unforgettable moments came when a woman in a BMW passed just before the start of a curve. She tore past the vehicle in front of her with reckless abandon. There was little doubt in the five seconds or so that it took for her to complete the pass that she was hell bent on making it happen. I was less worried for her, then the potential innocent driver who might be coming the other way. Fortunately, no vehicle approached from the opposite direction.

Passing fancy - Distracted driving decisions abound in Transylvania

Passing fancy – Distracted driving decisions abound in Transylvania (Credit: modestine4.blogspot.com)

Getting Ahead – A Race To The End
These were just a few of the crazy things I saw or experienced on driving in Transylvania. This recklessness cannot just be passed off onto Romanian drivers. Our route took me and my wife through a majority Hungarian area. I had seen Hungarians do the same wild driving at times back in Hungary, but never with the degree of risk or recklessness I witnessed at what seemed like every other turn in Transylvania. And the litany of near crashes listed above does not account for all the endless distractions that would appear and disappear with little rhyme or reason along Transylvanian roads. Dogs were nearly run down by speed demon drivers on multiple occasions. Men rode horses down sidewalks, a rather delightful sight, until I considered that such distractions might cause me to lose my focus on driving. There is a good reason I saw so few people using cell phones while they drove. Such a distraction was a sure way to have an accident. This precaution had nothing to do with the law. I never saw the police ticketing a motorist. Instead, the few times I did spot a police car, there were two men in it looking as though they were doing their best not to pay attention to the cars roaring past.

The driving mentality in Transylvania could best be summed up as do whatever you can to get their faster. If someone could cheat death for a few seconds by jumping a car or three ahead they seemed to think chancing life was worth the risk. About the only positive thing I could say about driving in the region was that the roads – with a few notably nightmarish exceptions – were much better than I could have hoped for. They were serviceable, which by the standards of Eastern Europe makes them above average. This made them a double-edged sword because better roads meant faster drivers. I found it a source of fascination how we would be driving along, no one else in sight, when suddenly a vehicle would appear behind me. Within seconds it would be inches away from the rear bumper, veering slightly to the left in the hopes a pass was possible. This happened so many times that I became increasingly paranoid to the point where I was constantly glancing at the rearview mirror waiting for the next would be road racer to appear.

Patchwork - A rural highway in Transylvania

Patchwork – A rural highway in Transylvania (Credit: modestine4.blogspot.com)

The Cost Of Recklessness – Circumstantial Evidence
In four days of driving in a wide variety of circumstances – through villages, over mountains, flanked by dark forests, across slanting mountain meadows, on straightaways and infinitely twisting roads I only came upon a single accident. This was the most surprising part of my driving experience in Transylvania. On our final day we were entering a village on the outskirts of Medias. While coming down a hill we noticed the flashing lights of an ambulance and police car. In the middle of the road were two cars, one had crashed into the front side of the other. No one looked to be hurt, but the cars were likely totaled. The culprits stood on the roadside talking with the police. Several villagers had gathered on the sidewalk staring at the accident. It was hard to tell what had happened, but I am quite sure it involved someone in a hurry, sheer recklessness and the need to get ahead at all costs. This smashup was going to cost someone a small fortune in car repair, but it not did cost them their lives. At least not this time.

Click here for: Nervous Wrecks – Driving In Romania: Terror On The Way To Transylvania (Part One)


Nervous Wrecks – Driving In Romania: Terror On The Way To Transylvania (Part One)

The fear struck me as soon I awoke. We were planning to travel for several days in Transylvania. This meant driving in Romania. Romanian roads had a notorious reputation, the reputation of Romanian drivers (including ethnic Hungarians who live there) was just as bad. I had visions of crater sized pot holes swallowing automobiles in one fell plunge, crazed drivers daring death along every stretch of straight away and near miss experiences causing something akin to cardiac arrest. Winston Churchill is reputed to have said that being shot at without effect is one of life’s most exhilarating feelings, the same could be said for escaping unscathed from the near miss of a head on collision while driving in Romania. Many of my fears would turn out to be true. Only the roads would be a bit better than expected, but this lone positive had its drawbacks as well. A smooth surface offered lead footed drivers the dangerous option of frolicking for too long in the oncoming traffic lane. None of these fears dissuaded me from driving in Transylvania, instead they played out along roadways that have led to more death than Dracula’s castle.

The ride of your life - On Romanian roads

The ride of your life – On Romanian roads (Credit: Romania-Insider.com)

A Meandering Minefield – Road Risk In Romania
My wife and I crossed the Hungarian-Romanian border at one of the more remote border posts, just beyond the eastern Hungarian village of Letavertes. This had been a deliberate decision on our part. We wanted to avoid the busier Artand-Bors crossing close to the city of Oradea (Nagyvarad) due to the heavy traffic and longer wait times. Our choice turned out to be a good one as we cleared the border in half an hour, not bad for this non-EU national. The road beyond, which led to the small Romanian village of Sacueni (Szekelyhid), was well maintained. I would soon learn that this was little more than a Potemkin road ruse that lured the unwary traveler into a false sense of carefree driving. The route we took wound its way through progressively hiller terrain in the western Romanian region of Maramures. Thankfully traffic was light, this turned out to be a blessing because the road conditions were nightmarish. Smoothly surfaced roadway was in extremely short supply.

The road was a minefield of uneven patches and half-completed repairs. It was the worst stretch of pavement I have ever had the displeasure of driving upon. In some places the patches had been re-patched multiple times, elevating certain sections of the roadway above others, making for an insanely uneven surface. Potholes were not nearly as plentiful as one might imagine since the Romanian solution to road maintenance was to pile them high with more pavement. An endless array of humps was where rubber met the road. A lack of automobile traffic was more than made up for by the ubiquitous horse drawn wagon carts trotting along at a tepid pace, their drivers all but oblivious to the technological terrors roaring past them.

Reckless Rapidity – Life & Death In Passing
I found myself constantly swerving to dodge not just the wagons, but also bicycling villagers and wandering Roma families who took up more than half of one side of the road without a care that their life might be in imminent danger. The idea of risk was a foreign concept along this road. The goal on this route was to circumvent Oradea, then reconnect with the E60 east of that city near the town of Alesd (Elesd). Getting there became an increasing battle with the worsening road conditions as the quality eroded further when crossing over hillsides. The thickets of forest flanking the roadway made conditions more dangerous, reducing sightlines to a few hundred meters at most.

Suddenly, a delivery truck appeared behind me. It closed in on our little Suzuki with reckless rapidity.  The driver lacking any inhibition that might mitigate his impatience. Soon I was being tailed by a string of these runaway monsters always looking to pass on the slightest of straightaways. This left me both frightened and distracted, a dangerous combination. The prospect of becoming involved in a head on collision increased with each kilometer. Trying to navigate the pockmarked pavement was bad enough. Now I had the added problem of trying to manage a tailgater less than a car length from the rear bumper. We were one brake check from a severe case of whiplash or worse. Finally, we crested a hill on the downside of which was enough space to allow our chief tormenter enough space to pass. A couple of other trucks behind him soon did the same. My sense of relief was palpable. Then I realized that this was not an end, but just the beginning. More dangerous driving loomed on the horizon. I tried not to think what might occur in the coming days on these death dealing highways.

Road risk - On a rural road in Romania

Road risk – On a rural road in Romania

Survival Strategies – The Ride Of Your Life
We soon arrived at the E60. This should have been a relief, but it turned out to be the exact opposite. The traffic increased around Alesd. With the surge of motorists, came a reciprocal surge in speed and risk taking. The long straightaways, with a kilometer or more of sightlines, were invitations for repressed race car drivers to satisfy their deepest longings for competitive calamity. When an opportunity to pass presented itself, most drivers decided it was worth risking their lives and everyone else’s by attempting to go around as many cars as possible. Sometimes several cars would attempt this highway hocus pocus all at once. A line of two, three or four cars would wrong lane it together. Forming a sort of 100 kilometers per hour battering ram that could challenge all comers. This chain automobile migration would sort itself out only at the last moment.

Such a false sense of safety in numbers was terrifying to watch from behind. I repeatedly felt that I was headed to the scene of an accident that might include me. Crashes were narrowly avoided by the magnanimity of drivers in the opposing lane who were constantly asked to save innumerable lives, including their own, by slowing down to allow the offending car enough time to reenter the correct lane. I figured their forgiveness had much to do with the fact that they were afforded the same kind of service several times a trip. There was an art to this survival strategy, both sinister and beautiful, as cars chaotically jockeyed for position then suddenly fell back into line at the very last moment. A tapestry of nervous tension woven by four wheeled vehicles unfolded before my eyes. One that was perfected by legions of drivers on Romanian roadways through years of nerve wracking experience. I wondered if I would ever grow accustomed to this organized chaos. That thought scared me almost as much as the driving because only then would I understand what it means to take the ride of your life.

Click here for: They Call It An Accident – Road Risk In Romania: Terror Across Transylvania (Part Two)

Forget Them Not – The Napoleonic In Hungary: A Battle At Raab, A House In Gyor  

Hungary is a country that has suffered from invasion and occupation by foreign armies on numerous occasions. Mongols, Turks, Austrians, Germans and Soviets, the list is long. Hungarians are more than glad to recount such foreign incursions and provide it as a plausible explanation of why their country never quite achieved greatness. It is true that the effects of occupation were grim, especially on national development. At times Hungary was the playground for empires, a pawn in a game of European power politics, used by outsiders in the service of their own interests.

Among the side effects of this historical trend has been the development of a Hungarian mindset that sees their nation as fated to suffer at the hands of great powers. This has blinded many Hungarians to a time when their territory, if not their men, escaped one of the worst European conflagrations. Hungarians were lucky to avoid the worst excesses of the Napoleonic Wars. The scars they incurred were largely indirect, unlike much of Europe which endured years of violent conflict that brought untold destruction. This was one of the few times time when Hungary was touched by peace, rather than the hard hand of war.

Monument to the Battle of Raab - On the outskirts of Gyor, Hungary

Monument to the Battle of Raab – On the outskirts of Gyor, Hungary

Same Place, Different Name – A Battle To Remember
Gyor, on the Kisalfold (Little Plain) of northern Transdanubia, was about the last place I expected to find a reference to Napoleon, just as Paris was about the last place I expected to find a reference to Gyor. The latter reference I discovered while visiting the Arc De Triomphe many years ago. I noted the many famous victories of Napoleon and the French Army listed on the monument, but there were some names I did not recognize. One of these, Raab, was at the top of a list on the bottom row. It left me totally baffled. I searched my memory trying to recall any mention of a battle by that name. Eventually I gave up. The name looked more like a misspelling or historical typo, rather than a famous victory.

Where was this mysterious Raab to be found? I imagined it was somewhere deep within the pages of unread history books. Little did I know that it was in northern Hungary hiding behind a very different name, that of Gyor. Connecting Raab with Gyor would not have meant anything to me, even if I had known about the Battle of Raab at the time. Only after traveling to Gyor did I have a better understanding of that connection. Raab is the German name for Gyor. Almost every Hungarian city also has a German name. This hearkens back to a time when ethnic Germans made up a large percentage of the urban population in cities of the Kingdom of Hungary. That was certainly true of Gyor. Because the main language of the Habsburg Army was German, the battle they fought on the fringes of Gyor with one of Napoleon’s armies became known to historians, except for Hungarian ones, as the Battle of Raab.

Touched By War - Battle of Raab (Battle of Gyor)

Touched By War – Battle of Raab (Battle of Gyor) (Credit: Eduard Kaiser)

An Indirect War – Fighting On Foreign Fields
Raab was the only large battle of the Napoleonic Wars fought on the soil of present day Hungary. While most of Europe was torn apart by war during the reign of Napoleon, Hungary was a place of relative peace. That was until the last week of spring in 1809. This was when a Hungarian noble levy that had raised 20,000 soldiers joined with 16,000 Habsburg regulars to face off against an army led by Napoleon’s able Italian viceroy, Eugene de Beauharnais. The Franco-Italian force consisted of 39,000 soldiers under his command. The two armies clashed just a couple of miles south of Gyor’s city center, where the village of Kismegyer is located. A fierce battle resulted in over 13,000 killed, wounded and missing. The Hungarian militia broke and ran at a decisive moment in the battle. 80% of those raised by the Hungarian noble levy fled. The Battle of Raab ended in a triumph for the Franco-Italian force. This defeat was enough to quell any further ideas about a Hungarian noble levy providing the Habsburgs with troops.

The effect of the Napoleonic Wars on Hungary turned out to be paradoxical. They did little damage and for many years were good for the economy. Noble landowners made out like bandits as the price of grain soared. Hungary was the Habsburg Empire’s breadbasket, providing the grain that fed the Imperial armies. Higher taxes and military recruitment in Hungary was shifted to its large population of serfs. Hungary supplied a million men to the Habsburg Armies, almost all of which came from the peasantry. Napoleon attempted to get the Hungarians to revolt against their Habsburg overlords. His efforts were in vain. The Habsburg Emperor, Francis II (1792 – 1835), made just enough concessions to keep the Hungarian nobility satisfied. In addition, the nobles were not going to support a radical French system of government which would probably bring about the end of their power. That probably turned out to be a good thing, judging by how independence turned out for Polish nationalists who supported Napoleon.

Plaque on Napoleon House - Noting the only night Napoleon Bonaparte spent in Hungary

Plaque on Napoleon House – Noting the only night Napoleon Bonaparte spent in Hungary

Sleepover – A Single Night That Lasts Forever
Hungary turned out to be an afterthought for Napoleon, but Hungarians in Gyor have not forgotten about him. On Kiraly utca 4 in the Baroque heart of Gyor’s Belvaros stands the Napoleon House. The brilliant Corsican only spent one night of his life in Hungary. The house which now bears his name was built from three different houses in the latter part of the 18th century. It was converted into a two-story Baroque house, which was its layout during Napoleon’s visit. Today it houses a municipal art gallery, but it is best known as the only place in Hungary where Napoleon bedded down for the night. If not for his stay there, the house would be just another example of elegant Baroque architecture.

Gyor’s tourism authority has done a good job of making that single night last forever. After hearing about it, I went to see the building. If Napoleon had spent more time in Hungary no one, including myself, would give a second thought to the house. On the other hand, Gyor is getting a bit of latter day repayment via tourism for what was lost to Napoleon’s troops. Those troops ended up looting and demolishing Gyor Castle. It seems that everywhere Napoleon went, destruction followed. Hungarians should be glad he and his troops never came back.

Click here for: The Bishop’s Tomb – An Act Of Faith (Vilmos Apor Part One)

A Traveler’s Need, A Tourist’s Want – Hungary Over Austria: Gyor Above Everything Else

I can hardly remember anything about leaving Slovenia. I was totally satisfied with my trip to that beautiful little alpine nation and had no regrets. My mind was also preoccupied because of the unusual position I suddenly found myself in. During most of my travels in Eastern Europe I have a good idea of exactly where I will be and when. That was not true this time. I had not made any plans for the latter part of this trip. After Slovenia, there was a five day stretch where nothing was pre-planned. This set me up for one of my favorite pastimes, deciding where I would go next. Initially I had planned on traveling further into the Balkans to visit the Croatian seaside city of Split. When I looked at the map this seemed like a totally reasonable idea, but the transit connections were a pain. Plus, I would have had quite a trip trying to get back to Prague in anything less than two days. Thus, I began to look somewhere in east-central Europe.

What I need - Historic street scene in Gyor

What I need – Historic street scene in Gyor (Credit: Tamas Konok)

Lurking Around The Fringes – Places Of Glory & Shame
Austria was the most obvious candidate. I certainly wanted to see more of Vienna and my train ticket from Ljubljana went back to the Austrian capital. I could have cut the train ride short and spent a few nights in Salzburg along the way. The only problem with this idea was my opinion of Austria. It is too nice, too neat, too clean for me. Every street looks like it gets swept several times a day. The historic sites are too well-kept, the old either looks brand new or like it has been recently reconstructed. Elderly Austrians have a strange vitality about them. Looking as though they could walk up the side of a mountain anytime they feel the urge. Austria is one of the wealthiest nations in the world and looks the part. I have a healthy respect for what Austrians have been able to accomplish post World War II, but I need grit and edginess, something that feels real, rather than a fairy tale. For me, city centers should not look like carefully curated museum exhibits. Instead, they need some cracked facades, buildings with flaking stucco or chipped paint, a few shadowy figures lurking around the fringes and a healthy dose of dereliction.

The truth of the matter is that when it comes to tourism, Austria is what tourists want. Getting what you want while traveling is really a matter of money. On the other hand, Hungary is what a traveler like myself needs. Getting what you need is more personality based. For reasons I have never quite been able to understand, Hungary is where I feel most comfortable. It fulfills a need for the semi-exotic and the lesser known. I like my grandeur and beauty with a drop of acid. The castles must be less than restored, palaces in a state of disrepair, the cobbled streets of old towns partially broken or busted, the baroque era buildings in need of a new coat of paint. Such a need led me back to Hungary less than a year after my first visit. I studied the map of western Hungary looking for cities that had historic attractions and were affordable. Places with checkered histories that had contrasting periods of glory and shame.

A history worth discovering - Boats at Gyor in 1845

A history worth discovering – Boats at Gyor in 1845 (Credit: L. Rohbock)

A Past Worth Discovering –  Touched By Destiny
In Hungary’s northern Transdanubia region, not that far from the Austrian border, I found a city that fit these parameters, Gyor. It is the sixth largest city in Hungary and the industrial powerhouse of the region. It also has quite a history, that includes Celts, Romans, Avars and the earliest administrative impositions of the newly Christianized Hungarian Kingdom. Gyor has benefitted from its proximity to the Austrian border. It is no coincidence that the wealthiest part of Hungary, outside of Budapest, is to be found in the region closest to the Austrian border. Even then, the relative prosperity of Gyor (population 129,000) pales in comparison to similar sized cities in Austria. For example, Salzburg – which is close in size to Gyor – has an average income ($52,803) over three times higher than Gyor’s ($15,790). This income disparity has had a corresponding effect on the level of development, including for tourism. As a result, prices are much lower in Gyor. A night in Salzburg would have cost me almost three times what it would have in Gyor. It did not take me long to get sold on making Gyor my base camp for traveling around northern and western Transdanubia for several days.

The more I read, the more intrigued I became with Gyor. It had many complicated layers of history to uncover. The city had been a bastion for the Habsburgs during the Turkish wars, a hideout for the Hungarian President of the National Assembly during the anti-Habsburg revolution of 1848, a hotbed of anti-Horthy pro-communist sentiment prior to World War II and it seethed with anti-regime sentiment during the Revolution of 1956. Gyor had a past worth discovering and from what I read much of it was still intact. Everything I initially learned about the city would have been less surprising if I had first consulted a map. Gyor provided proof for Napoleon’s saying that “Geography is destiny.”  I wondered if the great general thought of this when he spent the night of August 31, 1809 in the city. He was touched by destiny just like the Hungarian city he would never get to know.

Napoleon House in Gyor

Napoleon House in Gyor

First Person  – An Adventure in Onlyness
Gyor was destined by its geographical situation to be of outsized importance. The historic core of the city, Kaptalan Hill (Kaptalandomb), stands just above the confluence of three rivers, the Raba, Rabaca and Mosoni-Duna branch of the Danube. This placed Gyor at the intersection of a major east-west trade route, one of the most important in East-Central Europe. That orientation still holds today, as it is just off the main highway between Budapest (121.1 km to the east) and Vienna (122.5 km to the northwest). It is little wonder that Gyor gets overlooked. The relatively featureless terrain of the Kisalfold (Little Plain) that surrounds the city is not exactly a drawing card, neither are the endless rows of concrete apartment blocks which blight many of its residential areas. These drawbacks were minor, they could not me keep away. Gyor sounded much too fascinating and it held an added attraction for me. I did not know a single person who had ever visited the city. That was until my train from Vienna pulled into Gyor’s main station. Then I suddenly knew at least one person who had been to Gyor. That person was me.

Click here for: A Traveler’s Need, A Tourists’s Want – Hungary Over Austria: Gyor Above Everything Else

American Friendliness, Eastern European Reticence – The Meaning of Friendship: A Smile In Slovenia 

It has been my experience that the average American’s reputation among Eastern Europeans is not good. Oddly enough, this has little to do with politics, wars or economics. It has more to do with smiling, optimism and naivety. Of course, I am exaggerating a little bit, but only to a certain extent. Anyone who has spent time east of Germany in the Slavic world or in Hungary, Romania and the Balkans will notice that people in those countries rarely smile at strangers. They are not overtly friendly or outgoing (Romanians at times being a notable exception). As an American I find this fascinating. A multitude of experiences has led me to develop some theories about public introversion among Eastern Europeans.

Frowned Upon – Smiles Will Get You Nowhere
One reason for this lack of superficial friendliness likely has to do with the legacy of totalitarian rule. This is especially true among the older generations. Strangers were and still are not to be trusted in many Eastern European societies. For good reason, as a stranger might just work for the state and report on you for something. As ridiculous as this sounds, no American can imagine what it must have been like to live in a Stalinist society. Suspicion of everyone, including family and close friends was endemic to the system. Then there is the hard reality that Eastern Europeans have been conditioned by 20th century history not to have much to smile about. Two World Wars, multiple occupations, radical ideological impositions and corrupt governance are enough to make anyone mind their own business. Americans have been conditioned by history to have the opposite attitude, one of openness and optimism. The future is not to be dreaded because it is filled with promise.

Many Eastern Europeans I have talked to find the American sense of optimism irritating. Coupled with the smiling and lack of formality, this has led to a reputation for naivety. Some will go farther and tell you it is a sign of stupidity. One might think that this would lead to Americans getting taken advantage of when they visit the region, but I believe Eastern Europeans are so disconcerted by this behavior that they would rather run the other way. Perhaps, they believe that Americans are looking to take advantage of them through some sort of veiled trickery. Something gets lost in translation. Eastern Europeans understand Americans, about as much as Americans understand Eastern Europeans, in other words not very well. Americans are stereotyped as wealthy, big headed and self-interested. I have now had multiple Eastern Europeans tell me that the problem with Americans is that they are nice to your face, but friendship is totally on the surface. Americans are friendly to them not because they care. On the contrary they could care less.

Deeply Personal – The Unvarnished Truth
I have made the mistake on several occasions of asking a Hungarian, “How are you?” This pleasant American conversation starter can turn bad real fast. To a Hungarian the question signals that you really want to know how they are feeling and that you care. They will then proceed to tell you the unvarnished truth, which can sometimes descend into a litany of complaints about almost anything that has been troubling them or gone wrong. Listening to the usual spew of pessimism can be off-putting to say the least. Than again, I was the one who asked how they were doing, so they told me. In other words, don’t ask unless you are prepared for the whole truth and nothing but the truth. This experience has dissuaded me from asking Hungarians how they are doing or feeling unless I know them well. I know the answer will not be what I was expecting. Conversely, such a question from a total stranger was not what they were expecting either.

One of the main gripes about Americans that I have heard voiced on numerous occasions is that they are superficial in their friendship. Personal relationships stay on the surface and do not know go any deeper. Americans are more interested in being liked and heard, than they are in being a true friend. In my opinion, this is based upon a misunderstanding. To an American being nice and outgoing is a social norm. Most Americans think this has little to do with true friendship. It is more like shaking hands, something most respectful people do upon meeting someone new. Friendliness is on a professional, rather than a personal level. Such hospitality is certainly good for business, but not for intimacy. Nonetheless, I must admit there is a fair amount of truth to the belief that Americans are more superficial in their personal relationships. I have noticed that friendships tend to be more intimate and personal in Eastern Europe. Conversations tend to go deeper, filled with emotion and sensitivity. The same goes for hospitality, once the ice is broken, the people want to give you the best experience possible. They feel compelled to take care of your every need.

Ljubljana Castle & Slovenia - Light In The Storm

Ljubljana Castle & Slovenia – Light In The Storm

Living Proof – Hospitality Slovenian Style
I mention this because that is exactly what happened to me in Slovenia. I found myself standing in Ljubljana’s Preseren Square waiting to meet my Slovenian friend. The one who I had first met when she spent a summer in a forlorn frontier town on the Great Plains in South Dakota. It was now four years later, she was eight months pregnant, feeling sick and suffering physically. Sure enough, at the appointed time she showed up with a smile beaming from her face. She trudged up to Ljubljana Castle with me, showed me around the Old Town and apologized that she was not feeling better. She had promised to take me to Lake Bled, later that day but in her current state there was no way it was going to happen. Then she came up with another option. Her partner could pick me up later that day and drive me to Bled. This despite a weather forecast calling for torrential downpours later that day. I told her that he did not have to do this. She insisted that I go with him. In addition, she promised to be better tomorrow. Her and her sister-in-law would drive me out to Kobarid several hours from Ljubljana to look at the World War I museum and battlefield there. All because she knew I was interested in this history.

I was stunned. When she was in America I took her around a little bit to see a few National Parks in the area, but it was really no problem for me. I did not expect reciprocal treatment especially from someone on the verge of having a baby. This Slovene’s idea of friendship and hospitality was incredible. It was the not first or last time I would experience the same thing in Eastern Europe. These people who walked around keeping to themselves were disguising the most wonderful inclinations. It would really be a stretch in the United States to find someone you had not seen in years who was willing to do whatever was necessary to provide the best experience possible. Friendship in Slovenia, as in the rest of Eastern Europe, was very different from that in America. It was much better. The next day and a half would provide proof of that.

Click here for: Slovenia’s Character Of Contradictions – France Preseren: Rejection, Rebellion & Remarkable Verse

Plumbing The Depths – The Ljubljanica River: Deep History In A Slovene Stream

My evening walk around Ljubljana’s Old Town had been captivating. The brightly lit civic and residential buildings, the quaint squares and maze of streets served to create an amazing atmosphere. One that revealed a secret world to those who were lucky enough to stumble upon it in the dead of night. The dim light that dawned the next day through a ceiling of luminous clouds exposed yet another secret, just as revealing in its own way. Retracing my footsteps from the previous evening I soon found myself back at the Triple Bridge, one of the Old Town’s most iconic structures. I had noticed it the night before, but never really considered the main reason for its existence, the Ljubljanica River. This watery thread that winds its way through the city, beneath bridges and within a stone’s throw of the elegant Baroque townhouses.  The Ljubljanica is a skinny stream by the standards of rivers, a serpentine waterway that acts as a set piece for the Old Town. Its tepid flow and smooth surface are deceptive though, this little river has had an incredible influence over the history of the area stretching all the way back to prehistory and continuing right up through today.

The Ljubljanica River flowing through Ljubljana

The Ljubljanica River flowing through Ljubljana (Credit: Mihael Grmek)

Bogged Down – A Museum In The Marshland
Watching the Ljubljanica flow languidly through the Old Town, I could never have imagined that such a tepid river held remarkable treasures that most archeologists only dream about. Artifacts both ancient and prehistoric, some of which predate the Slovenes arrival in this area by over 40,000 years, have been preserved in the silt-laden riverbed. For reasons that have yet to be fully identified, the Ljubljanica has yielded over 10,000 artifacts. Some scholars believe that the waterway was sacred and used as a place for cultic offerings. It is not by mistake that so much ancient material ended up settling on the bottom of the river. Several of these finds date all the way back to the Stone Age. Other finds from more recent times include the oldest known wooden wheel in the world (3,500 BC) and a 15-meter long Roman longboat. These finds have occurred along a twelve mile stretch of the Ljubljanica upriver from the city. A stretch that flows through the Ljubljana Marshes. This area of wetlands and peat bogs covers a little less than one percent of the country. This lowland marsh resulted in a natural preserve that has protected prehistoric pile dwellings and other wooden remnants of civilizations both primitive and advanced. The long evolutionary tale of civilization is foretold beneath the Ljubljanica.

The river is such a storehouse of archeological treasures that it has brought a more modern type of hunter and gatherer, those seeking to collect some of this buried treasure for personal gain. They have done so by illegally diving into the waters without a permit. Many of these treasure hunters were not Slovene, but foreigners from other nations who seek to excavate valuable troves of coins, trinkets and ancient weapons. Due to theft, the Slovenian government deemed the river worthy of protection as a cultural site. Since 2003, no one has been allowed to dive into the Ljubljanica’s depths without the proper permit. The law may have come too late. Because most of those who found buried treasure never reported it, artifacts were lost to museums and private collections while the exact places of discovery went undocumented. That makes it extremely difficult to create a coherent understanding of the area’s human history.

Plumbing the depths -Diver in the Ljubljanica River

Plumbing the depths -Diver in the Ljubljanica River (Credit: Arne Hodalic)

Emona & Ljubljana – Worlds Born By The Water
Prior to the 20th century the most transformative historic era for the Ljubljanica was during the Roman Empire from the first through fifth century AD. Though the Ljubljanica only extends for a total length of 40 kilometers (25 miles), its role was vital to extending imperial authority through commercial activity. Standing on the riverbank in the center of Ljubljana today, it is difficult to imagine this relatively slender and shallow river supporting a thriving maritime trade or as a navigable watercourse. During Roman times the settlement of Emona was a busy river port. Boats were constantly coming and going. Six miles downriver from Emona, the Ljubljanica debouched into the Sava River. This tied the trade of Emona into both the greater Danube River Basin and the Northern Adriatic Sea. The Ljubljanica was central to Rome’s ability to exercise control over both the immediate area and its hinterland.

Few watercourses in the world, especially one so lacking in length, can match the Ljubljanica’s combination of natural and human history, let alone its scenic beauty as it flows through the center of Ljubljana. I first happened upon the river in the Old Town. Like so many, I was more enchanted by what stood above or beside the river, rather than the actual waterway. I even wondered for a moment if it was a canal. It was not long before I knew better. The Old Town is famous for the five beautiful bridges laid across the Ljubljanica. The most renowned of these is the Triple Bridge, a unique architectural concoction where the existing Central Bridge was widened with two lateral footbridges. The bridge was also kitted out with Renaissance balustrades and rows of lampposts that evoke a Venetian sensibility. This work was the brainchild of Joze Plecnik, Slovenia’s greatest architect who fancifully redesigned much of the city center during the post-World War I era.

The Central Market in Ljubljana - reflecting off the Ljubljanica River

The Central Market in Ljubljana – reflecting off the Ljubljanica River (Credit: Diego Delso)

At Center Stage – A Watery Thread
Plecnik was able to seamlessly integrate many of his architectural embellishments within the existing environment, including the Ljubljanica. Nowhere is this more apparent than the Central Market, a colonnaded pavilion that gently curves along the river’s right bank just upstream from the Triple Bridge. The integration of this colonnade with the river is seamlessly done. I could easily imagine the colonnade as a ship, floating atop the Ljubljanica’s placid waters. The colonnade was the star of this show, but in concert with the river’s reflective qualities. Here architecture interacted with nature, creating a new way of seeing the city. Plecnik’s imagination using the river to open up a whole new world of artistic possibilities. And in that world, as in all the other ones in this region’s history, the Ljubljanica was at center stage.

Click here for: American Friendliness, Eastern European Reticence – The Meaning of Friendship: A Smile In Slovenia 


One Moment For The Rest Of My Life –Ljubljana: The Magic Kingdom of Reality

On a mid-Sunday afternoon, under cloud covered skies, my train pulled into Ljubljana Railway Station (Železniška postaja Ljubljana). I was supposedly back in the Balkans, but I knew that Ljubljana was not viewed with the same disdain or fear as Belgrade, Zagreb or Sarajevo. The breakup of Yugoslavia brought immense suffering and loss of life to Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, but not Slovenia. In their secluded mountain redoubt blessed by good fortune, the Slovenes had enjoyed peace and prosperity. The halcyon years had begun in the early 1990’s and did not abate until the global financial crisis of 2007-2008. Even when the government’s finances faltered, Slovenia was easily bailed out of trouble due to the small scale of its economy. This was a nation that had been blessed by fate. As the capital, Ljubljana, was the main recipient of this good fortune. If only people could learn how to pronounce its bizarre name.

Right on time - Ljubljana Railway Station

Right on time – Ljubljana Railway Station (Credit: Nils Oberg)

Speaking In Slovene – Pronunciation Game
Ljubljana, the name does not exactly roll off the tongue. There is scarcely a more unpronounceable name of a European capital city. A close English friend of mind and Cambridge educated historian, found it good fun to pronounce Ljubljana incorrectly, calling it Jubel-jana. He always enjoyed having a good laugh at the Slovenian capital’s expense. There are many fun ways to pronounce the name incorrectly. These include Lou-lana, which sounds like a kind of 50’s dance number, L-yub-jana, good for throat clearing and L-jub-L-jana, how a small child might give directions. For the record, Ljubljana is pronounced lyoo-blyah-nah. I had to learn and practice the correct pronunciation until I could say it with some degree of confidence.

It is a pity that the name Ljubljana puts so many people off. If only they realized that it means beloved. This is a beautiful meaning for a name and if pronounced correctly it sounds elegant and exotic. Much better than its German derivation, Laibach. I would probably have never made a special trip to the city if it had not been for a Slovenian friend of mine. I had met her one summer while she worked at a job on the high plains of western South Dakota. She was trying to improve her English, which I considered excellent. Slovenes are polyglots, which is understandable when one realizes that the entire nation has a population of only 1.9 million, the same number of people as live in Nebraska. My friend was often given to comparing the cosmopolitan nature of Ljubljana with the wind swept, dried up frontier town she was stuck in all summer. Visiting Ljubljana, I would soon realize why she longed for home.

Vila Veselova - More Like A Mansion

Vila Veselova – More Like A Mansion

Close To Perfect – Mitteleuropa & the Mediterranean Meets the Balkans
It is not just the name that makes Ljubljana so different from other European capital cities. Size wise Ljubljana is tiny by the standards of European cities. With only 290,000 inhabitants, Ljubljana fails to rank in the top one hundred of Europe’s largest cities by population. Though located in the Balkans, it is not really of the Balkans. It is closer to Venice and Vienna, Munich and Zurich than to Belgrade. As I would soon see for myself, it had been influenced as much by Mitteleuropa and the Mediterranean as by the Balkans. My first impression of Ljubljana was as a place where people enjoy life. There was a pleasant spaciousness and provincial charm about the city. The early spring storm clouds hovering above the city were no match for its sunny disposition.

I soon found my hostel, Vila Veselova, where I had booked a private room. Vila Veselova was a two-story villa that felt more like a mansion when judged by the usual standards of a hostel. Calling it a villa certainly sounded much more glamorous. The exterior was painted in a fresh coat of ochre with burgundy trim around the windows. The villa looked like something that would have been built in Austria-Hungary. Ljubljana or Laibach as the Austrians called it, had been one of the nicer cities in the old empire. Sure enough, the villa turned out to be a century old. Upon arrival, I was looking forward to some Slovenian hospitality, having no idea what that meant. Of course, the girl who checked me in turned out to be Polish. Nevertheless, I was happy with my spacious room.

The location of Vila Veselova was close to perfect. The neighborhood was home to several embassies.  It was just a five-minute walk to the Old Town. Across the road was Tivoli Park where I could go for a run in the morning. Once I got settled, it was time to take a walk. I have never been able to contain myself when first arriving in a new city. I feel an uncontrollable urge to visit some part of it before the day comes to an end, no matter the hour or weather. My excitement is akin to Christmas morning, when as a child I would run down the stairs to find a multitude of gifts laid out under a sparkling tree. In this case, the gifts of Ljubljana’s Old Town were laid out beneath the night sky. It made me feel like a child once again.

Main building of Ljubljana University - at Congress Square (Congresni Trg)

Main building of Ljubljana University – at Congress Square (Congresni Trg)

Eye Catching –  Watching A Whole New World
There was hardly anyone on the streets. I had this charming cityscape of Mitteleuropa mostly to myself. I went window shopping on a whole new world. I stood outside restaurants and watched Slovenes downing glasses of rich red wine and eating sumptuous meals. I quietly walked through the winding streets and spacious squares of the Old Town, listening to muffled voices and high heels clicking across cobblestones. I spent much of the time strolling around Congress Square (Congresni trg) and the star shaped park laid out at its center. Around me were architectural confections of Baroque, Classicist and Neo-Renaissance design coated in an eye-catching array of colors. Here was the heart of Ljubljana, quietly beating on this one night.  It felt as though I had entered a magic kingdom of reality rather than fantasy. The kind of moment that I will spend the rest of my life missing.

Click here: Plumbing The Depths – The Ljubljanica River: Deep History In A Slovene Stream

Crossing The Karawanks – Villach to Ljubljana: The Other Side Is Midnight

One of the great joys of travel is the discovery of everything that is waiting to be discovered. People who have heard me talk about my travels in Eastern Europe will often remark that I have been everywhere, as if such a thing is possible, let alone plausible. This remark baffles me because I am constantly astounded by all the different discoveries I have made in the region. I often find myself in places I have never heard of, learning about things I could never have imagined. One such discovery occurred on my train trip from Villach to Ljubljana. I did not realize it at the time, but I was crossing a natural dividing line that defined peoples, places, cultures and borders. A north-south fault line by which Central Europe was separated from Eastern Europe. The present-day border between Austria and Slovenia was officially set in 1920, but this border is much, much older than that.

Millions of years old when measured by geologic, rather than biologic time. This border was not drawn by man, but by nature. It consists of the Karawanks range, a massive limestone protrusion of mountains which separates the Klagenfurt Basin of southern Austria from the Ljubljana Basin of northern Slovenia. The range, which at 120 kilometers across is one of the longest in Europe, creates a barrier that historically has helped define the political geography of the region. Today it divides Austria and Slovenia, six-hundred and fifty years ago the Karawanks divided the Duchy of Carinthia from the Duchy of Carniola. Modern engineering and transport innovations are now able to bridge much of this natural divide. I was able to cross it in the comfort of a train, the miracle of modern transport carrying me from north to south in a little over an hour. A journey made with such ease, that it made me momentarily forget just how difficult it used to be.

Mountain hut in the Karawanks - Golica Peak

Mountain hut in the Karawanks – Golica Peak (Credit: Ales Krivec)

Bordering On Insanity – Choosing Sides
My train from Villach made its way through the Karawanks at a slow, but steady pace. I was keen on getting a first glimpse of Slovenia. Unfortunately, it was impossible to figure out when and where the train crossed the border. When Slovenia joined the Schengen Area in 2007, the border posts with Austria were rendered obsolete. Unlike in the past when the train would have stopped for passport control, now it kept chugging through the valley. I was glad to avoid those old delays, but I must admit that I have always been excited by crossing borders. It is as though you are being allowed or denied special permission to enter a forbidden land. The other side is midnight, the unknown.

Some of my most memorable experiences in Eastern Europe have come at border crossings in Ukraine, Romania and Bosnia. To be honest, without a border crossing I was at a loss in finding the exact place where Austria came to an end and Slovenia began. My best guess is that I crossed the border somewhere in the darkness of the eight kilometer (five mile) long Karawanken Tunnel. This seamless crossing of the border did nothing to betray the rancor and violence proceeding its creation in 1920. It is hard to imagine now, but less than a century ago the area was fiercely contested between Slovenes and Austrians. In the aftermath of the First World War paramilitaries roamed the Karawanks. Nationalists on both sides of the range fought to ensure that as much territory as possible would be included in the First Republic of Austria or the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (the predecessor to Yugoslavia).

The border was only set after a plebiscite which decided that everything north of the Karawanks crest would be part of Austria, south of it would go to the Kingdom.  Though Austria was soundly defeated in World War II, the border held. Geography and geology had informed geopolitics. Nowadays, Slovenia is no longer looking to be separated from Austria. On the contrary, Slovenia wants to integrate its economy with Austria. The search for prosperity trumps past grievances. The border between the two has softened and is likely to stay that way. Communism and Yugoslavia look more like aberrations in Slovenia’s history. A return to the Austrian influenced past is taking place.

Railway tunnel through the Karawanks - On the Austria-Slovenia border

Railway tunnel through the Karawanks – On the Austria-Slovenia border (Credit: Robert 25260)

Mining The Mountains – Digging Up The Past
The fact that I was now in Slovenia did not truly become apparent until the train entered the outskirts of Jesenice.  This was the first sizable town the train stopped at in Slovenia. Jesenice was set astride the Sava River and surrounded by mountains. It should have been very beautiful, but it was not. There were grimy looking structures that bore the hallmarks of heavy industry. Piles of dirt and gravel were strewn about. This industrial blight screamed communism. It was certainly not the introduction to Slovenia that I was expecting. My guidebook for Slovenia did not have a single word on Jesenice. If I could have added an entry it would have said, “Jesnice is set in a lovely valley marred by derelict industry.” I felt the legacy of Titoism hung over this valley. For a moment, I wondered if I was in Slovenia or Yugoslavia. The communist mania for heavy industry marred many a beautiful landscape, so I should not have been surprised by what I was seeing. For some reason I thought Slovenia would be different. Not in Jesenice. Cleaning up this mess would take a whole lot longer than twenty-five years.

To be fair, industry has been part of Jesenice’s history for as long as written documentation of the town has existed. Ironworks were first located in the area during the Middle Ages. In the late 19th century the pace of industrial development rapidly increased, as industrialization led to more efficient methods of manufacturing steel. The largest boom occurred following World War II when the ironworks, smelters and steel mills were expanded in the effort to rebuild Yugoslavia from the extensive destruction caused by World War II. Like most communist spawned heavy industry, the early 1990’s sounded a death knell. The industrial behemoths in Jesnice could not compete in an efficient, market-oriented economy without massive state subsidies and protectionist measures. This led to the abandonment of outdated infrastructure as well as piles of residue. Some mining continued in the area, but it no longer could support much of the town’s economy. Thus, there had been population loss and economic recession.

The Way It Used To Be - Ironworks in Jesenice 1961

The Way It Used To Be – Ironworks in Jesenice 1961 (Credit: Joze Gal)

A Cloud Of Dust – The Yugoslav Past
Jesenice was the Slovenia no one talked about or just wanted to forget. Left to simmer in a cloud of dust by economic and political forces beyond its control, the town had seen better days. It was an unsuccessful story in a Slovenia that was looking forward, while at the same time turning its back on the Yugoslav past. History and a large proportion of the population had left Jesenice behind, so did the train. It moved on down the line, onward to Ljubljana, a city with a much brighter future. I was glad to keep on moving.

Click here: One Moment For The Rest Of My Life – Ljubljana: The Magic Kingdom of Reailty