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

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.

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

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)