The Great Facilitator – Maria Valeria Bridge in Esztergom: Bridging The Divide (For The Love of Hungary Part 26)

Over a thousand years ago Esztergom became the Hungarian capital. It continued in that role for two and a half centuries before the Mongols arrived bringing with them an apocalypse on horseback. Soon thereafter, Esztergom was reduced to ruin. The Mongol occupation of Hungary only lasted a year before they disappeared back into the dust of the Eastern steppes. Their influence lasted much longer, specifically in Esztergom. The Hungarian king at that time, Bela IV, moved his residence from Esztergom to Buda. Along with him went the political and administrative power of the Hungarian Kingdom. It was never to return. This had long lasting ramifications extending right up to the present. Budapest eventually grew into a metropolis of two million. Esztergom has a hundred times less population. Though Esztergom remains the seat of Catholicism in Hungary today, it gets much less attention despite holding a prime position along the Danube in a location that is less than half a kilometer from Slovakia.

Bridging The Danube - The Maria Valeria Bridge

Bridging The Danube – The Maria Valeria Bridge

A Reduced Role – A Tale Of Two Cities
One way of measuring Esztergom’s reduced role in Hungary is to compare the Maria Valeria Bridge which connects it to Sturovo, Slovakia (Parkany in Hungarian) with the Chain Bridge further down the Danube which famously connects Buda and Pest. The Chain Bridge was completed in 1849 as the first bridge built across the Danube in Hungary. When the Maria Valeria Bridge was finished in 1895, Budapest already had two bridges crossing the Danube and was about to add a third. The Maria Valeria Bridge went on to suffer an eight-year period from 1919- 1927 where it was incapacitated due to damage incurred by fighting between Czechoslovakia and Hungary following the First World War. It was during the Second World War that the original steel structure suffered a fatal blow. The Maria Valeria Bridge, along with the most important bridges in Budapest, were either blown up or semi-sunk in the roiling waters of the Danube. The Chain Bridge was reconstructed a mere four years after it was sunk. It took 57 years before the Maria Valeria Bridge was rebuilt. Obviously, Budapest took priority as the nation’s preeminent political and economic hub. It would have been unthinkable for the national capital to go without a bridge over the Danube. As for Esztergom it would have to wait until the Iron Curtain collapsed.

History was the first thing I thought of as I walked onto the Maria Valeria Bridge. It was impossible not to notice the neat little border post that was still standing on the left side of the bridge. Not long ago it had been manned around the clock. Now the post was little more than an exquisitely maintained relic. An artifact from a time when the borders of Eastern European nations consisted of something more than ideas. Membership in the European Union and Schengen Passport Free Zone for Hungary and Slovakia made customs checks, border posts and guards superfluous. It was hard to imagine how different things were just fifteen years before. There was no bridge and getting into or out of Hungary required a traveler to show the proper documents. The reconstructed Maria Valeria Bridge was a giant step in bridging that divide, but for Hungarians it was a throwback to a golden age. The Kingdom of Hungary had been exploding with economic growth when the bridge was built in the late 19th century. It tied a unified kingdom together, rather than two nations as it does today. At best, Hungary and Slovakia are not quite friends, but can hardly be considered foes. The bridge ties them to a common commercial culture.

20th Century Relic - Former border post at the Maria Valeria Bridge

20th Century Relic – Former border post at the Maria Valeria Bridge

Crossing Over – The Freedom To Take Sides
The Maria Valeria Bridge now allows motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians to cross over to either side of the Danube in a matter of minutes, if not seconds. The shrinkage of travel time and eradication of what was once a dangerous river crossing, can cause people to sometimes forget that the Danube is a real border in this area. It has often divided more than connected its northern and southern shores in modern times. The Danube was the great facilitator of commerce for centuries, but when the Maria Valeria Bridge was destroyed during World War II the river became an almost insuperable barrier to commerce. The present bridge on which I stood was both a facilitator of transport and commerce. Five years after it was reopened in 2001, traffic had grown twenty fold. The neighboring Slovakian town of Sturovo on the northern side of the Danube had suffered from endemic unemployment prior to the bridge’s completion. One out of every four people in the town were out of work. The bridge changed that situation for the better as cross border commerce soared. Esztergom and Sturovo became intimately reconnected.

A Bridge To History - Archduchess Maria Valeria of Austria

A Bridge To History – Archduchess Maria Valeria of Austria

The Return Of History – Past & Present Reconnected
A funny thing happened on the way to freedom and free trade along this stretch of the Danube. The divide between Esztergom and Sturovo was bridged by a return to Habsburg history in the form of an old name brought back to life. Maria Valeria was the youngest child of Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef and his beloved wife Queen Elisabeth (Sisi). Names have a weighty symbolism in this region for the history they represent. When the Maria Valeria Bridge was blown up in 1944, it would seem that this was the last anyone would hear of that name. The Habsburgs were history and after the imposition of communism nothing more could or would be said. A resurgence of nostalgia for the Austro-Hungarian Empire occurred after the collapse of communism. Never mind that the good old days were not so good, but they had been better than most.
Maria Valeria was a nostalgic rather than national name. One that could easily be resurrected when the bridge was reconstructed. There was opposition in the form of political correctness. Some felt that it would be better to avoid giving the bridge a name related to Austria-Hungary. The bureaucratically banal choice was “Friendship” Bridge. When the time came to choose between that apolitical name and the historically intriguing Habsburg one, imagination, history and nostalgia won out. The resonance of that lost world helped build a bridge that reconnected past and present.

Fascination Street – Saint Anna’s Church in Esztergom: A Spiritual Invitation (For The Love of Hungary Part 25)

All it takes is one moment to turn a place into something special for me. It is often a moment that manages to bring me closer to what fascinates rather than interests me. The difference between a fascination and an interest is the difference between something that lasts forever and something that is fleeting. Esztergom provided me with an unforgettable moment of fascination that six years later remains more than a memory. The moment of fascination arrived as so many memorable things in life do, unexpectedly. My focus in Esztergom had been threefold from the start. Go dip my toe in the mighty Danube, visit the Castle ruins and spend time at the giant domed Basilica.

The Basilica, on a distant hilltop half hidden by mist, was just coming into view. This would have usually been cause for excitement, but its dome looked so faraway as to seem unattainable. It only served to remind me of just how far I still had to walk. In the meantime, I proceeded to wander sleepy eyed down an anonymous street. I meandered past residences of people who I imagined were just as miserable as I was at that very moment. People who went to work for forty years, retired and slept for the rest of their lives. These false assumptions were more about my mood than a reality I could never really know. I had done next to nothing and was already exhausted by the perpetual gloom. I was caught somewhere between restlessness and listlessness.

A Spiritual Invitation - Saint Anna's Church in Esztergom

A Spiritual Invitation – Saint Anna’s Church in Esztergom

Harmony In Dissimilarity – A Logical Symmetry
My grey mood suddenly vanished at the sight of a structure that focused my attention. Along the road of anonymity, I came upon a domed church with two smaller steeples. The entire edifice was designed in the round with a single exception, a neo-classically styled entryway with a columned portico. The design managed to incorporate two disparate styles into one. The columned portico looked as though it had been grafted onto the circular structure. At the same time, the church had a logical symmetry. In my experience, it is rather rare to see architecture with such stylistic dissimilarity that creates harmony. It may have been inspired by neo-classicism, but the overarching effect was of two disparate parts that had been made to fit together. I snapped several photos of the church. This was a memory worth capturing in my own personal memory bank.

The church looked to be well past its prime. Paint and plaster on the exterior were chipping and the Doric columns had aged without grace. This was a temple to faith that did not soar so much as survive. It reminded me of people who show their age. The church’s faded charm was entrancing and managed to make the architecture seem that much more meaningful. On either side of the steps leading up to the entrance, were two and half meter tall angels sculpted in marble. Each was grasping a large cross close to them, while they rested a hand on heart. Further out from the church was a pedestal with a mounted narrow cross of a golden Christ being crucified. Standing in front of this scene, looking back at the church, everything had been placed in near perfect symmetry. I found the setting so entrancing that it altered my sense of time. The time that had elapsed between while I was looking at the church ceased to exist. Fascination has a way of making the rest of the world disappear.

A Moment of Fascination - Angel outside Saint Anna's Church in Esztergom

A Moment of Fascination – Angel outside Saint Anna’s Church in Esztergom

A Last Wish – The Basilica In Miniature
At the time, I wondered why I had not read anything about the church prior to my visit. This exposed my ignorance, along with my fixation on the Basilica which to my mind dwarfed all other attractions in Esztergom. Ironically, I had stumbled upon a smaller, pseudo replica of the Basilica that predated its existence. Saint Anna’s Parish Church (Szent Anna-plebaniatemplom), also known as the Round Church (Kerektemplom) due to its architectural style, was constructed over a nine- year period beginning in 1828. The church was the brainchild of Archbishop Sandor Rudnay and was designed to mimic the Pantheon in Rome. Rudnay believed he would never live long enough to see the Basilica completed in Esztergom so a smaller version was the best he could hope to see in his lifetime. He died three years into Saint Anna’s construction, but not before he was able to perform a ceremony blessing the cross of its great dome. A week later he was dead.

The architect, Viennese trained Janos Packh, would also end up in charge of much of the design and construction of the Basilica. It was a massive undertaking, but his confidence must have been bolstered by the smaller version he had completed. Thus, Saint Anna’s acted as a sort of Basilica in miniature. In truth, the two churches similarities are largely confined to their exteriors. Later when I had the opportunity to compare the two, I found Saint Anna’s much more to my liking. It was human in scale and relatively easy to comprehend. The Basilica was too spacious and powerful for me, it inspired fear and awe in unequal measure. The difference between the two became clear, Saint Anna’s was the art of spiritual invitation, while the Basilica was the art of spiritual intimidation.

Fascination Street - The Road to Saint Anna's Church in 1938

Fascination Street – The Road to Saint Anna’s Church in 1938 (Credit:

The Art Of Discovery – A Place To Match My Imagination
It was that spiritual invitation that now drew me closer to not only the church, but also Esztergom. I continued onward in my search for that same feeling I had while standing outside Saint Anna’s. The Basilica may have been the city’s greatest symbol, but for me Saint Anna’s was its lifeblood. I would never be able to imagine Esztergom without it. The city had suddenly come to life. If Saint Anna’s could capture my imagination to such a degree, what other wondrous discoveries were just around the next couple of corners. In retrospect, I reached the pinnacle of my Esztergom experience at Saint Anna’s. Nothing else in the city would come close to the way I felt about it. Saint Anna’s was like a first love, perfect in an imperfect way. I found a place that matched my imagination. Then, now and forever.

A Lost Romance – Sleepwalking Into Esztergom: The Reality Of Arrival (For The Love of Hungary Part 24)

There are many romantic ways to arrive in Esztergom, unfortunately mine was not one of them. Possibly the most romantic would have been to arrive in this small, uniquely historical city by boat. Elegantly floating up the Danube upon its slate grey surface sounds rather appealing. Sadly, that opportunity had long since sailed away with the end of summer. By late September, Danube River cruises north of Budapest were not much more than a distant memory. Even if they had been still taking place, most cruises these days only stop in Budapest, Vienna and less frequently, Bratislava. After all each of these places is capital city, just like Esztergom was eight hundred years ago. Arriving in Esztergom by river cruise seems extraordinarily enchanting, but it has not been the preferred method of arrival since the 19th century.

If I had planned my arrival forty years earlier, which would have been quite a feat for a toddler lacking a passport, I might have been able to take a ferry instead. That was because the original Maria Valeria Bridge had been bombed into oblivion by retreating German troops the day after Christmas in 1944. When the original structure last stood, the bridge connected Esztergom with the Czechoslovakia side of the Danube’s northern shoreline. It was not rebuilt until just after the turn of the 21st century. By that time, Czechoslovakia had ceased to exist and the European Union (EU) had stepped in to fund half the cost. This was something of a shame for those who might prefer the novelty of a river ferry. Taking a ferry ride across the Danube after escaping the suspicious questioning of communist era border guards would have been less enchanting, but more memorable. The river ferry was now nothing more than a relic, much like border posts on either side of the Danube. The EU had changed this situation for the better, altering the course of history. Yet the river continues to flow unbroken between Esztergom and the Slovakian town of Sturovo. Today the border is as much an imaginary one as it is political. The Danube is and always will be the real border that divides Hungary from Slovakia.

Spanning The Danube - Maria Valeria Bridge

Spanning The Danube – Maria Valeria Bridge (

Avenues Of Transport – Distant Memories
The Maria Valeria Bridge had once been as much an avenue of transport to Esztergom as the Danube. This arrival option, at least in its original form, had been sunk along with the bridge. If such an arrival had been possible, it would have meant following in the footsteps of the young Patrick Leigh Fermor. At the tender age of nineteen he strode across the bridge and into Esztergom on Easter Saturday. This was in the spring of 1934 on his walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. Leigh Fermor immortalized his journey in a couple of classic works of travel writing. What could have been better than to follow in the footsteps of this intrepid traveler? There were only two problems. I was arriving from the south rather than the north and the bridge Leigh Fermor used had been resigned to a watery grave. I am a purist when it comes to recreating history, so the beautiful bridge that stands in its place today was a poor substitute in my mind.

At the time of my trip to Esztergom I knew little about Leigh Fermor other than what I had gleaned by thumbing through a couple of his works in Budapest bookshops. My ignorance of his travels was probably for the best. I would have felt pangs of envy at being unable to furnish a letter of introduction to Esztergom’s mayor as he did. And I certainly could not have received a warmer greeting. Leigh Fermor had been invited by the mayor to have a front row seat in the Easter Saturday evening services at the great Basilica which towers above the Danube. My arrival was to be neither romantic nor elegant. It would certainly not become the stuff of literary legend.

River Watching - Esterzgom in 1934

River Watching – Esterzgom in 1934 (Credit:

The Hidden City – A Mystical Veil
I found my way to Esztergom, the same way hundreds of other people do each day. I hitched my hopes to a train which carried me north until it slowly came to a halt at the halfway point. It could go no further due to ongoing repair work on the tracks. All passengers were shuttled to a bus for an uncomfortable ride north. This was not what I had in mind when I set out on a gloomy autumn morning to traverse by rail the sixty-five kilometers from Budapest to Esztergom. I had imagined Esztergom as a place chock full of historic wonders floating like a medieval fantasy above the sparkling Danube. Of course, my imagination was defeated by the reality of arrival. Rather than a quaint train station, I now imagined we would be disembarking at a non-descript bus terminal. In most cases, mass transport has destroyed the romanticism of arriving in a new city. Bus stations are defined by dinginess, no one can ever look happy in a bus station and even the most respectable individual becomes creepy. I should not have been worried, much to my astonishment the bus pulled right up to the train station. I looked at the station and thought it could have all been so easy. The excitement of arrival had dissipated after the detour.

Mystical & Invisible - Esztergom on a gray September day

Mystical & Invisible – Esztergom on a gray September day

To makes matters that much more irritating, the train station was a long walk from the historic part of the city. A gloomy fog managed to shroud the city in a depressing veneer of semi-mist. I felt as though I was sleepwalking into Esztergom. Nothing seemed real, including the fact that I was awake. This was not what I had expected, but that is what makes travel so fascinating and unpredictable. I departed for this daytrip with the idea that Esztergom would be stuffed with one architectural treasure after another. Visions of basilicas and castle ruins had been dancing in my head. Those still might lay somewhere out there in the all-consuming gloom. For now, Esztergom was a hidden city, more invisible than mystical.

An Enduring Work Of Scholarship – Kronprinzwerk: The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in Word and Picture

The fact that the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions is not surprising. The Dual Monarchy as it was known from 1867 – 1918, stretched from the Tyrol region of what is now northern Italy all the way to the remoter regions of Eastern Europe such as the Bukovina and Galicia. Beneath the umbrella of the monarchy an incredibly diverse array of ethnic groups, each with their own unique languages and customs lived for over half a century. There was a consistent pecking order among these groups with some more equal than others. Rights and responsibilities were weighted heavily in favor of Austrians and Hungarians. Trying to make a cohesive whole out of so many disparate parts was an incredibly complex process. Unlike the European Union, there were no universal principles allowing full equality under the law for all citizens. Many of the people who lived in the empire were mere subjects rather than citizens. Thus, it is quite surprising that the empire held together for as long as it did.

One of the oddest yet most historically enduring attempts to bring the empire’s subjects closer together was through the creation of a massive work of knowledge beginning in the 1880’s. Known as The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in Word and Picture. It was a monumental undertaking that would result in the publication of 24 volumes, an encyclopedic work that covered all regions and ethnic groups in the Empire. The brainchild of Crown Prince Rudolf Von Habsburg – the series was also known as the Kronprinzenwerk – it was meant to educate, illuminate and above all else make the empire’s disparate peoples feel part of a greater whole. This was to be done through the transmission of knowledge and learning. While strangely innovative, this idea did not achieve its intended effect. The bickering and plays for power among the empire’s subject peoples continued to worsen. Nationalism turned out to be a much more divisive force than imperial cohesion. What the landmark volumes did achieve has only become clear in retrospect, a reference work that provides historians with the kind of scholarship that offers insight into almost every aspect of the empire in the late 19th century.

Cover Story - The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in Word and Picture

Cover Story – The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in Word and Picture

Restless Radicalism – A Mind Boggling Endeavor
Crown Prince Rudolf von Habsburg’s legacy is mixed at best, deeply troubled at worst. He never rose to the position of Emperor, instead dying in a suicide pact with his young mistress Mary Vetsera in mysterious circumstances. This tragic affair tainted the way Rudolf has been viewed by historians. Politically there is little doubt that he was an almost complete failure. Forever at odds with his father, Emperor Franz Josef, a deeply conservative ruler who loathed his son’s yearning to reform the Empire. Rudolf was filled with ideas that were radical by the standards of that age. He was a liberal whose circle of friends was cut from the same cloth. The idea of transformative change was anathema the Emperor and his ministers. These officials ensured the Crown Prince’s ideas received a less than welcoming reception and that his room for political maneuver was extremely limited.

Largely locked out of politics, Rudolf sought other ideas that might improve the empire. This was how he hit upon the idea of a reference work that would cover every conceivable region and subject area in the vast lands of Austria-Hungary. The ambition and scale of the work boggles the mind. It would eventually take 16 years to produce 24 volumes with over 12,000 pages. The work was produced in both German and Hungarian language editions. A few volumes were also translated into Croatian. While impressive, the fact that the work was not translated and published in Czech, Slovak, Polish, Rusyn, Romanian or Italian seemed to be at odds with the project’s idealistic purpose of creating a transnational patriotism. As a matter of fact, some ethnic groups, most notably the Czechs and Romanians opposed publication of the work in any language.

Prince & Polymath - Crown Prince Rudolph von Habsburg

Prince & Polymath – Crown Prince Rudolph von Habsburg

A Monumental Work – The Ethnography Of An Empire
The logistics of creating and publishing the work was an undertaking of truly monumental proportions.  In 1884, Rudolf met with his father and asked for his support to begin work. A year earlier, he had formulated the idea of an ethnographic compendium covering Austria-Hungary. The field of ethnography had been growing in popularity throughout both halves of the Monarchy in the decades leading up to the 1880’s. Franz Josef quickly gave his approval. It would be overseen at the highest levels by Rudolf. Two editorial committees were formed to oversee the day to day work. This included not only text, but also drawings and paintings of significant landscapes throughout the Empire. Two literary luminaries, Austrian Josef Ritter von Weilen and Hungary’s most popular novelist of the time, Mor Jokai, led the committees. Despite a mandate for extensive coverage of the entire Monarchy, decisions on content and resolution of any controversies were to be made in Vienna.

One of the most unique aspects of the project was its availability by subscription. This resulted in the publication of 397 consecutive installments on a bi-monthly basis. Eighty percent of these were published after Rudolf’s death. By that time, the project had gained momentum and would continue well beyond the life of its greatest promoter. Not surprisingly the first installments covered Vienna and Lower Austria. One can get a sense of the ethnic hierarchy of the empire by the order in which the 24 volumes were published. Discounting volumes two and three which were summaries of the nature and history of the Empire, six of the first ten volumes concerned Austria and two covered Hungary. Such remote regions as Galicia (#19), Bukovina (#20) and Bosnia-Herzegovina (#22) were among the last volumes published in full. Nevertheless, all areas were given extensive coverage by experts who were more often than not from those regions.

Making History - The 24 Volume Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in Word and Picture

Making History – The 24 Volume Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in Word and Picture

Reentry Vehicles – The Return To History
The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy In Word and Picture was almost totally forgotten after publication of the final volume in 1902 until its reemergence in the last decade of the 20th century. Interest was renewed after the Iron Curtain fell and history returned to Central and Eastern Europe. Many of the regions which had once been part of the Monarchy became independent nations during the 1990’s, including the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia and Slovenia. The volumes that had been produced on these areas provided historical and cultural context, insights that were of great use in understanding these newly born nations. The same was true for all the other areas covered in the project, lands that had been mostly forgotten until they moved from the periphery of European history back to its forefront. Likewise, Crown Prince Rudolf’s project and the 24 volumes which had resulted from it enjoyed a revival. An occurrence that neither he nor the editors of those vast tomes could have foreseen, let alone imagined.

The Right & Wrong Sides Of History – Vesna Vulovic: The Soul Of A Survivor (Part Three)

In an interview she gave to the New York Times in 2008, Vesna Vulovic said, “I just want a normal life.” That was understandable for someone who had fallen 33,300 feet into an afterlife of pain and celebrity, resurrection and gratitude. Oddly, the “normal life” comment had nothing to do with the crash of JAT Flight 367 during the winter of 1972. Instead, Vesna was discussing the fraught political environment in Serbia. Ever since the late 1980’s, when Yugoslavia began its descent toward a fratricidal war, Vesna had fought against authoritarian and nationalist tendencies that would end up bringing Serbia to its knees on multiple occasions. Vesna’s efforts in defense of democracy would cost her a great deal, but in the process she went from being a survivor to a fighter.

Staying Grounded - Vesna Vulovic in her later years

Staying Grounded – Vesna Vulovic in her later years

An Emerging Threat – Standing Up For A Democratic Serbia
In 1985, the Guinness Book of World Records had awarded Vesna with a spot in the annals of their famous record book for having survived the highest fall without a parachute. This served to further increase her celebrity status, especially abroad. She had long since enjoyed the same exalted status in her homeland. On flights abroad, she was instantly recognized by fellow Serbian passengers who often asked to sit beside her. She was viewed as both a living, breathing miracle and a lucky charm. She also enjoyed what would seem to be a secure career with JAT. The flagship carrier of Yugoslavia owed her that much for what Vesna had suffered due to the ill-fated flight in 1972. By 1990, Vesna’s job status was eroding. This was because she had brought attention to herself by vocally opposing the shrill nationalism and dictatorial government of Slobodan Milosevic. Vesna believed that Milosevic was leading Serbians into a no-win situation, pushing them away from west at a time when they should be moving closer. She rightfully saw isolation and war on the horizon. The government saw her as an emerging threat that must be dealt with.

Vesna was dismissed from her job with JAT in the early 90’s for opposing the Milosevic regime. Vesna’s fame did not protect her job, but it did protect her from the potential of arrest. Detaining Vesna would have caused too much trouble for the government so she was largely left alone. The Milosevic government also began to question her survival story. This was an undisguised attempt to undermine her fame and call her credibility into question. She may have been on the wrong side of the government, but Vesna would end up on the right side of history as Milosevic’s policies would help lead to Yugoslavia’s collapse, Serbian involvement in disastrous wars led to the loss of a great deal of territory. Being right was of little concern to Vesna. On the other hand, standing up for what was right for Serbia meant a great deal. She had overcome an incredible amount of physical issues to live a decent life, only to suffer as so many of her fellow countrymen did due to the disorder and chaos created by a tyrant.

Record Setting - Vesna Vulovic with Paul McCartney

Record Setting – Vesna Vulovic with Paul McCartney

A Life Upended – Trials Rather Than Triumphs
Just as Vesna’s dream had once been to travel westward, she also hoped that post-communist Serbia would move in that same direction. She believed that only by growing closer to the European Union could Serbians attain the peace and prosperity they deserved. Vesna was deeply troubled by how the world saw Serbians as war mongers and uber nationalists. It was a tragic outcome of being led by men like Milosevic who fanned the flames of ethnic hatred for their own narrow political ends. Ordinary Serbs, of which Vesna counted herself as one, were caught in the middle. The wars prosecuted by the Milosevic regime ruined Serbia’s economy. The general population was left to scrape by on meager financial resources. Despite such hardships the eventual collapse of the Milosevic era gave Vesna an unforgettable moment in the spotlight. This occurred when she, along with politicians and other famous Serbs, addressed a crowd in Belgrade after Milosevic was overthrown in 2000. The long road to recovery could now begin.

Life did not get much easier for Vesna after Serbia transitioned from autocracy to democracy. She lived in a ramshackle apartment on a pension of just 300 Euros per month in Belgrade. She was reduced to dying her own hair and using years old cosmetics when asked to make appearances for the media. She became more reclusive as the year’s passed, admitting that she became depressed and cried at the thought of surviving the crash and outliving both her parents. Fame could never fill the gap of all she had lost. The plane crash had upended her life. Normalcy would always prove elusive. In many ways her life reflected that of the Serbian nation, surviving rather than thriving. The fact that she survived was nothing short of incredible, but it had led to more trials than triumphs.

One Long Struggle – A Life Lesson In Reality
In another interview during the last years of her life, Vesna professed her belief that she had not been lucky at all. Her post-crash life had been a tremendous struggle. If she had been truly lucky than her life would have been much easier. She had turned to the Orthodox religion in order to cope with her circumstances. She preferred to view her survival as destiny. This helped her make sense of everything that ever happened to her.
That destiny came to an end in 2016 when she died in her Belgrade apartment alone. She lived forty-four years beyond the plane crash, much longer than anyone could have reasonably expected. She was living proof that miracles could happen, but what happened to her life in those decades after the crash was not a tale of happily ever after. Her post-crash life was more like a lesson in how to suffer and survive reality. Vesna Vulovic received a second chance on life and in many ways made the most of it. That she ended up struggling to make her way in the world is a reminder that miracles can have less than happy endings.

Life After Death – Vesna Vulovic: Survivor’s Guilt (Part Two)

If there is life after death, then Vesna Vulovic may have experienced it. The only problem is she would never be able to remember what it was like. One moment she was flying 33,300 feet above east-central Europe, the next she was lying totally unconscious in the woods of Czechoslovakia. She never remembered the plane being blown apart, her fall or subsequent rescue. That was probably for the best. When Vesna awoke from a coma two weeks after the crash her body was ravaged. Both of her legs had been broken along with three vertebrae, multiple ribs and a fractured pelvis. Speaking of fractures, her skull had suffered a nearly fatal blow that led to hemorrhaging. She was also temporarily paralyzed from the waist down.

Oddly enough, even after she regained consciousness in a Prague hospital, Vesna was unable to recall those next two weeks for the rest of her life. A month’s worth of traumatic memories was lost to her. Despite all the injuries Vesna was somehow still alive, even if she could not remember what had happened to her. A doctor showed her a newspaper reporting on the plane crash and Vesna’s survival. She then proceeded to faint. Vesna was just as astounded as the rest of the world by her survival. She was a miracle, albeit a badly broken and battered one, but a miracle all the same. She had almost died, for all intents and purposes did die, at least consciously. And now she was coming back to life.

The Fateful Flight - Representation of JAT Flight 367

The Fateful Flight – Representation of JAT Flight 367 (Credit: Anynobody)

Distant Memories – Departures & Arrivals
One might think that the last thing Vesna Vulovic wanted to do after she regained consciousness was to take a flight back home, but that is exactly what she did. Her doctors decided that it was safe to transport her back to Belgrade. Sedation was suggested as a treatment to help her overcome the psychological trauma of flying again. Vesna insisted that she would be just fine. It was not courage, but loss of memory that made flying again of little concern to her. How could she be traumatized by an incident that she could not remember. Her final memory on the day of the crash was boarding the plane. There was also that hazy memory of the irritated passenger who she and her fellow crewmembers had noticed disembarking from the plane after its flight from Stockholm landed in Copenhagen. Could that man have had something to do with the crash? He was as distant to her as the memory of that fateful day.

There were other clues that something had been amiss with JAT Flight 367. A Croatian nationalist group had phoned a Stockholm newspaper to take credit for causing the crash. That same day, six people on a train traveling from Vienna to Zagreb were killed when a bomb that had been placed onboard. The Czechoslovakian Aviation Authority’s investigators would later attribute the crash to a briefcase bomb. Unlike most plane crashes, the focus was less on what had caused it or the passenger who had died. Instead, all anyone could remember was one extremely lucky survivor, Vesna Vulovic. Her survival was remarkable because much of it had to do with a lifelong health issue. Vesna suffered from low blood pressure.

When Vesna had first pursued a job with JAT as a flight stewardess, low blood pressure threatened to ground her career. In order not to fail a medical examination for the position, she drank profuse amounts of coffee before her blood pressure was checked. With caffeine coursing through her veins, she passed the test and soon took to the skies. Ironically, low blood pressure would also save her life. When the plane broke apart and went into free fall, Vesna’s health condition caused her to lose consciousness. When the cabin suddenly depressurized, her blood pressure problems meant her heart would not burst on impact. Vesna’s health issue had helped save her life.

Fallout - JAT Flight 367 after the crash

Fallout – JAT Flight 367 after the crash

Internal Damages – A Broken Home
Vesna might have survived the crash, but she was in dire physical condition. Repairing her battered and broken body required many surgeries, along with months of grueling rehab. Astonishingly, she was walking again after just ten months. Such an incredible turn in her personal fortunes also came at great cost to her family’s financial and mental health. Her parents were forced to sell both of their automobiles to help pay for the surgeries. That may not sound like much, but in Yugoslavia cars were highly prized possessions. As their finances deteriorated so did their health. The worry and stress caused by the accident took a heavy toll on both her mother and father. Each of them would die young. In an interview she gave many years later, Vesna said she believed the plane crash had ruined her parent’s life. The same held true for many aspects of her own life.

JAT allowed Vesna to go back to work for them, but not as a flight stewardess. Through no fault of her own she was literally an accidental celebrity. The airline believed that her presence as a stewardess would distract from the flights. It could lead to even more attention focused on the crash of Flight 367 which had been most likely caused by Croatian nationalists. This was something the Yugoslav government did not want the public to be reminded about. JAT decided to give Vesna a desk job instead. The life Vesna had longed for, one of flying to and from the great cities of Europe was no longer a viable option. She may not have died on the flight, but her dream of flying abroad certainly did.

An Incomplete Recovery - Vesna Vulovic in the hospital

An Incomplete Recovery – Vesna Vulovic in the hospital

Life’s Disappointments – A Sense Of Alienation
Vesna’s private life was not what she had planned for herself either. She got married and was later pregnant. Sadly, both ended in failure. Physically she still showed signs of her injuries, walking the rest of her life with a noticeable limp. Psychologically, she suffered from survivor’s guilt. And it was easy to see why. Everyone else on Flight 367 had perished. There was no one left who could really understand what she had experienced or the way she felt. The parents who had sacrificed almost everything to shepherd her back to health were gone as well. Vesna’s life may have been a one in a billion story of survival, the problem was that this also created a sense of alienation and loneliness. Her story was uplifting, a triumph of destiny over despair, hope over adversity. Everything that came after her remarkable survival was something of a disappointment. Life beyond death was an impossible concept to grasp. Perhaps Vesna’s most remarkable life achievement was that she never gave up. She always found something worth fighting for. This would include the cause of democracy in the 1990’s after Yugoslavia collapsed.

Click here for: The Right & Wrong Sides Of History – Vesna Vulovic: The Soul Of A Survivor (Part Three)

The Flight Attendant Who Fell To Earth – Vesna Vulovic: In The Direction Of Dreams & Nightmares

Pilgrimages are often made by the faithful to certain holy sites in central and eastern Europe. Despite communist imposed atheism on most of the countries in the region for almost fifty years, sacred sites, often centuries old, outlasted the tyranny of that godless system. Since the iron curtain fell, these places have hosted great masses of Christians who make a special trip to see them each year. Several of these can be found in the Czech Republic, home to multiple venerated sites. These include the Infant Jesus of Prague, a wooden statue of the baby Jesus gripping a globus cruciger (cross-bearing orb) in his right hand. This 16th century statue is often clothed in imperial regalia and topped with a crown. Pilgrims come and pray to the statue in the fervent belief that it will provide favors to them. Another site of pilgrimage is the Holy Mountain, just fifty kilometers south of Prague. This hilltop, overlooking the town of Pribram, is home to a basilica that houses the famed Our Lady of Sveta Hora. This 14th century Gothic statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary with the Infant Jesus, was venerated to the point that it was given a coronation by the Jesuits in 1732. Pilgrims visit the statue today in the hope that their prayers to it will be answered.

These sites of pilgrimage are predicated on history, legend, tradition and the abiding belief that they have miraculous powers which can alter an individual’s circumstances in this world. Every year tens of thousands make the trek in search of transcendence. Whether miracles result from these visits is largely left to the mind of the believer. They say you have got to have faith, but what about reality. Reality is what most miracle searchers are looking to transcend, but reality has produced its own share of miracles. One of the most incredible happens to have occurred in the Czech Republic and rivals anything in the annals of Catholicism. Located close to the tiny village of Srbska Kamenice is a potential pilgrimage site almost entirely unknown. Very few people, other than niche tourists or locals visit it.  That is a shame. For miracles really do happen and not just to the religious, but also to people like you and me. The skeptics and cynics who walk among us just might have their minds changed on miracles if they stop at a parking lot along road 25854 in northern Bohemia. This is where a small monument marks the crash of JAT Airways Flight 367. It is as good a place any to contemplate the miraculous life and fate of Vesna Vulovic.

Memorial to A Tragedy & A Miracle - The Monument in Srbská Kamenice to JAT Flight 367

Memorial to A Tragedy & A Miracle – The Monument in Srbská Kamenice to JAT Flight 367 (Credit: palickap)

Rising & Falling Fortunes – Loss Of Altitude
Vesna Vulovic was born into a post-World War II Yugoslavia that was a good place to grow up for those forced to live behind the Iron Curtain. Tito-era Yugoslavia did not place the kind of tight restrictions on western culture and travel that other Eastern European nations were mandated to uphold while under the Soviet sphere of influence. The relatively relaxed Yugoslav administration allowed western pop culture to permeate the Balkans. A teenage Vesna could thus fall in love with the Beatles. That musical passion led her to take a trip to Great Britain following her first year of university study. Soon she was traveling onward to Sweden before heading back to her hometown of Belgrade. Somewhere along the way, Vesna fell in love with traveling. After she saw one of her friends wearing a stylish JAT (Yugoslavia’s National Airline) uniform, she decided to become a flight stewardess. She hoped this would offer her many more opportunities to journey abroad. Soon she was enjoying a life aloft, jetting across Europe. This surely made her one of the luckier young ladies in the communist world.

Vesna was only in her first year of working for JAT when she flew to Copenhagen in the winter of 1972. She was excited to visit the Danish capital for the first time. Such opportunities were the reason she had been so eager to pursue this new career. Though only twenty-two years old, Vesna’s career was quite literally taking flight. After arriving in Copenhagen she spent an afternoon shopping with some of her colleagues. After staying overnight, they were ready to fly out the next day. The plane they would be boarding arrived late from where it had originated from in Stockholm, Sweden. Vesna and the crew were slated to work the final two legs as it went first from Zagreb and then on to Belgrade. Vesna and several of her colleagues noticed an irritated passenger leaving the plane after it finally arrived from Stockholm. Perhaps this was due to its delayed arrival. In retrospect it may have been due to something else. This man was one of the last things Vesna would recall about the flight.

At precisely 3:15 p.m. on January 25, 1972, JAT Flight 367 departed from Copenhagen for Zagreb. Forty-five minutes into the flight, the narrow body DC-9 entered the airspace of Czechoslovakia. It was cruising at an altitude of 33,300 feet over the rolling hills and forested woodlands of northern Bohemia when suddenly the aircraft was torn apart by an explosion. All except one of the 28 passengers onboard were suddenly ejected from the aircraft where they fell from a height greater than that of Mount Everest to their deaths. Meanwhile, Vesna was wedged into the fuselage by a food cart, at least that was what later investigators surmised because she had no memory of the crash. When the fuselage finally fell to the earth its free fall was broken by trees and snowpack.

Serbian Stewardess - Vesna Vulovic

Serbian Stewardess – Vesna Vulovic

Crash Landing– A Precarious Position
Vesna Vulovic was somehow still alive after hitting the ground, though her chance of survival was precarious. A local from the village of Srbska Kamenice, Bruno Honke, heard her screaming in pain and found her covered in blood. In a stroke of incredibly good fortune, Honke was well versed in first aid from his experiences as a medic during World War II. If it had not been for his assistance, Vesna would have almost certainly died on the spot. Instead, she was rescued and transported to a hospital. The fact that she was still alive was nothing short of miraculous. The question now was whether she would survive.

Click here for: Life After Death – Vesna Vulovic: Survivor’s Guilt (Part Two)

Survival Skills – Tito’s Luck: The 1979 Montenegro Earthquake

To survive as a dictator takes an extremely clever individual who is willing to do whatever is necessary to keep power. This often means resorting to measured brutality. A dictator must know not only when to act against enemies, but also calibrate how much force should be used. It is one thing to get rid of would be usurpers and dangerous political enemies, it is quite another to engage in continuous purges. The latter can lead to a counter revolt by those who think they might be next on a growing proscription list. The most successful dictators in history know when to act and how far to go (Note: For the record, I am not condoning dictatorship or authoritarian rule, just stating simple truths).

One of the best at knowing when to purge enemies in order to keep power was Yugoslavia’s longtime leader and erstwhile dictator Josip Broz Tito. His decades long grip on power in a region that imploded after his death speaks volumes about his skill in power politics. Like all dictators, Tito was obsessed with control and for the sake of self-preservation he had to be. Lose control, lose power, lose your dictatorship, lose your life. Tito never said those words in that was, but he didn’t have to. He understood this logic intuitively. Tito was going to do everything possible to never lose his grip on power and he never did, at least not when it came to ruling Yugoslavia.

The survivalist - Josip Broz Tito

The survivalist – Josip Broz Tito

A Matter of Control – Assassination Inspiration
Despite his longevity, uneasy was the head that wore the crown of leadership in post-World War II Yugoslavia. Tito was constantly threatened with assassination, much more by external foes rather than internal ones. After he broke Yugoslavia away from Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union, Tito was a marked man. By some accounts, Tito managed to withstand no less than twenty-two KGB originated assassination attempts. Some of these seemed like fodder for James Bond novels, the most notorious of which involved a box that would be opened and spray Tito with a poison gas. None of the attempts came close to being successful, nonetheless they must have made Tito contemplate his mortality more than a few times. It spurred him to even greater control of his own personal security and surroundings. Political preservation and self-preservation were inextricably intertwined, making them literally a matter of life and death. Tito instinctively knew this, but even the most powerful dictators, and was certainly one of them, still must deal with events beyond their control.

The most unpredictable of these do not always come from human adversaries, instead they sometimes arise by force of nature. Tito learned this lesson in the 1979 Montenegro earthquake which nearly took his life and rule from him. How does a dictator protect himself from an earthquake? The answer is one of two things, either they do not bother worrying about such infrequent cataclysms or they manage to get lucky. And when it came to keeping power in the Balkans it is sometimes better to be lucky than good. There is no better example of Tito’s luck than the exceedingly nasty 1979 Montenegro earthquake. It was certainly bad luck to have such a catastrophe strike the Yugoslav state in the first place, but not surprising since the area has been riven throughout history by repeated temblors. The quake hit during the spring of 1979 when on the morning of April 15 the coast of Montenegro and the near inland area was jolted by a 6.9 magnitude earthquake.

Damaged goods - Hotel in Budva following the 1979 Montenegro

Damaged goods – Hotel in Budva following the 1979 Montenegro (Credit: R McGuire/U.S. Geological Survey)

No Rest For The Weary – Mortal Dangers
By several standards of measurement, the 1979 Montenegro Earthquake was more powerful than the terribly destructive one that had leveled much of Skopje in Macedonia a decade and a half earlier. Not as much is heard about the Montenegrin quake because it did not strike a densely populated area or major city. In this case, it was not just the rumbling ground, but also the roiling sea which wreaked havoc along the Montenegrin coast as a six-meter high tsunami crashed into parts of the shoreline.
A great deal of the 1979 quake’s destruction was wrought upon the historic town of Budva which hugged the Adriatic Sea. Its Old Town sustained major damage to cultural properties, while local residences crumbled. The same thing occurred in many of the communities around the beautiful bay of Kotor.

On April 15, Tito was staying at Igalo, on the northside of the bay at one of his personal residences. He was spending time resting and relaxing in this vibrant coastal resort area. Tito was in the final phase of his life, an 86-year old all-powerful leader of a nation that only he could control. As unwieldy as Yugoslavia was to lead, it was nothing compared to dealing with an earthquake. One gigantic tremor and suddenly the omnipotent Tito felt his own mortality. When the quake hit Igalo, it was still rather early in the morning and Tito was reportedly resting. He, like hundreds of thousands in Montenegro, felt the full terrifying force of the ground shifting beneath their feet. Unlike other Yugoslavs, hundreds of kilometers away in Sarajevo, Skopje and Zagreb who felt tremors, Tito was much closer to the epicenter. He received nature’s greatest wake up call, a much more powerful and personal experience than he had with most natural forces in his life. He was lucky to escape without injury. In the past, Tito as Yugoslav leader had shown up to review earthquake damages, this time he was part of one.

Long live Tito - Graffiti in former Yugoslavia

Long live Tito – Graffiti in former Yugoslavia (Credit: anjci)

An Act Of Nature – Out Of Control Forces
Tito only lived three more years after his earthquake experience. As he faded in his final years, much of the Montenegrin coast that had been damaged by the 1979 Earthquake underwent a slow, yet substantial rebuilding process. The lifeblood of Montenegro has been and always will be its coastline, where trade and tourism thrive. The 1979 Earthquake turned out to be a major aberration in the area’s development, but one that would be overcome. As for Tito, the earthquake was a reminder of his mortality and the fact that some forces would always be beyond his dictatorial control. The earthquake did not take his life, but the end was near. No one survives forever, especially in the Balkans, not even Josip Broz Tito.

Dreams Dancing In The Distance – Romantic Notions: The Fortified Church at Szekelyderzs (Part Four)

Our gracious guide to the Szekelyderzs Fortified Church, Anita, patiently answered all our questions. She then led us out of the church back onto the lush green lawn inside the fortified walls. At this point, there was only one thing left to do, climb the Fortified Church’s bell tower. While my wife stayed behind chatting with Anita in Hungarian, I embarked on a climb to the top. Almost immediately, I realized that this was not going to be an easy task. There were five levels to scale using slanted ladders that doubled as the steepest set of stairs I have ever climbed. Some of the steps were nearly vertical. Each time I ascended a flight, I would find that scaling the next ladder was steeper and more dangerous than the last. The landings were not much better, at each one I could hear the planks beneath my feet rattling. Midway to the top, I realized that coming down would likely be much more dangerous than going up. That thought filled me with trepidation. I became more careful and reticence as I was beset by the thought of what might happen if I lost the courage to climb back down. Getting stuck in the tower for several hours until I could be rescued by a bunch of Szekely was a ridiculously romantic notion.

Keeping time - The bell tower at the Fortified Church of Szekelyderzs

Keeping time – The bell tower at the Fortified Church of Szekelyderzs

Living In The Shadows Of History – Standing On Its Own Merits
Such misgivings failed to stop my progress. I forced myself to keep climbing upwards. At one point I was forced to grip the wooden beams above me as an extra safety precaution. I had my mind set on getting to the top for no other reason than I thought there would be magnificent photo opportunities overlooking the village and surrounding landscape. Somewhere along the way it occurred to me just how much trust was placed in visitors to Szekelyderzs. People who were much less agile or sure footed than me probably attempted to summit the tower. This could possibly lead to dire results. Nonetheless, there was not a single sign warning anyone of the consequences. This was the sure sign of a less than litigious culture in Romania, especially compared to the United States. At your own risk meant just that. Such trust in common sense was refreshing, even if it might lead to accidents.

Very little of the property was off limits to visitors. A person was free to wander where they liked. Paying the entrance fee was obligatory, but in our case did not occur until the very end of our visit. At times, I had to remind myself that this was a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the most exalted designation a historical or cultural site could ever hope to attain. And yet there were no guards, security was nonexistent, nothing was enclosed within glass or sequestered behind bars. I would later learn that only the church priest knows the riddle that can open the medieval lock that allows access to the fortified church. This was tradition, the basis for nearly everything in these villages. Those who lived in Szekelyderzs (Darjiu Romania) were used to living around this history. They did not deify or sanctify the site any more than it needed to be, the fortified church stood on its own merits. It was still as much a part of community life as it had been five hundred years before. No one need erect signage stating that this was one of the premier cultural sites in Eastern Europe. It was up to visitors to figure this out for themselves. Just as it was up to visitors to decide whether they could safely scale the bell tower.

An incredible imposition - The Fortified Church at Szekelyderzs from above

An incredible imposition – The Fortified Church at Szekelyderzs from above

The Illusion Of A Rural Idyll – Beyond The Fortified Walls
By the time I made it to the top, my hands were shaking and legs beginning to quiver. I now faced another problem. This bell tower was still in use today. I had lost track of time, having no idea how close it was to the top of the hour. I tried to be mindful that a bone rattling series of rings might be forthcoming at any moment. My attention was soon drawn to the windows where I could look out over the village and surrounding countryside. Just below where I stood was the church. From above it was even more impressive than below. The immaculately tiled reddish-orange roof imposed itself on the view. It dwarfed anything else in the village beyond the fortified walls. Rooftops of the houses in Szekelyderzs were mainly clustered around the road that wound through the village. I noticed that the tiles on many of the roofs were chipped or missing.

From above, the village looked quaint and unpretentious. A rural idyll to those who do not have to fight the elements or agricultural markets to eke out a living. This part of Romania was naturally blessed, but economically depressed when compared to the rest of the European Union. As part of what is known as the Centru (southern Transylvania) economic region it has an income per person that is just 54% of the EU average. I was not surprised. Rural life often looks inviting to those who have never lived within its economic strictures. The road through town showed multiple signs of agricultural life. Looking down at one stretch of road I counted four tractors and just a single car. Further out in the distance were the fields and meadows that provided a livelihood for so many of the villagers.

A romantic notion - The view above and beyond Szekelyderzs

A romantic notion – The view above and beyond Szekelyderzs

Limitless Possibilities – Walking Into Another World
The landscape looked beautifully bucolic. I felt the urge to give everything I had ever known up and begin walking towards the highest hillside in the distance. Then follow the forests and grasslands into another world, one filled with limitless possibilities. Dreams of months spent wandering around Szekely Land began to dance in my head. It could be the subject of a fascinating book and a different life, one that I lacked the courage to pursue. A man can still dream in Szekelyderzs. My imaginary process was interrupted by a rumble of thunder as dark clouds floated onto the horizon. A storm had suddenly formed. A reminder that forces beyond our control are always waiting outside the walls that we build to protect ourselves. Forces, that I was unwilling to confront.

The Ancient Comes Alive – “They Want To Be Buried Here”: The Fortified Church at Szekelyderzs (Part Three)

We went to Szekelyderzs (Darjiu, Romania) hoping to see something dramatic. The fortified church certainly did not disappoint. The photos I had seen of it beforehand were stunning, but nothing could compare to standing inside the walls and looking up at centuries’ worth of history formed from stone and mortar. The church’s exterior was resplendent and intimidating while the fortress walls were stark and impenetrable. Each structure in the complex was in surprisingly good condition. It did not take me long to realize that what surrounded me was an icon of Szekely architectural history. Nothing else we would see in the region during the coming days was comparable to the magnificence of these battlements that had repelled innumerable invaders. Above it all, soared a bell tower that hovered over the village it had helped sustain both spiritually and culturally for ages.

To the light - Inside the church at Szekelyderzs

To the light – Inside the church at Szekelyderzs

A Witness To History – Tradition & Trust
The fortified church complex was full of surprises, the most memorable of which was an English speaking guide. One that would provide insights into both the architecture and Szekely Land. Her name was Anita. She was tall, skinny and kind, with brown hair that fell just beyond her shoulders. When searching for the correct word in English, she would sometimes twirl her fingers around a lock of hair. Though of high school age, she still had many such girlish impulses. Her knowledge of the fortified church was impressive. She spoke with an intimacy that came from being part of life and history in this forgotten land. Life and history in Szekely Land had given rise to traditions. And these traditions had been carried forward into the present by villagers who had not forgotten the practices of their forebears. A fine example of this was the first place Anita showed us, the larders where local villagers stored foodstuffs right up through today. I imagined that many of her ancestors had done the same.

After we entered the church, she related the legend of St. Ladislaus slaying the Cuman Warrior, portrayed in an exquisite medieval fresco that was painted nearly a century prior to Columbus landing in the New World. I could not believe what I was seeing, this fresco and patches of several others covered the wall. They dated back to the early 15th century. None of them were protected by glass or armed guards, no cameras kept a close watch. The only visible thing standing between visitors and these frescoes for an entire summer was a high school girl. Yet there was something invisible and infinitely more secure which protected them, trust. Those in charge of visitor services at the fortified church have placed a remarkable amount of trust in the young docent. From what I experienced their trust had been rewarded. Her level of seriousness, focused interpretation and knowledge of both the church and Szekely history was spot on.

Preserved by trust - 15th century fresco inside the church at Szekelydersz

Preserved by trust – 15th century fresco inside the church at Szekelydersz

Austere Reminders – Inside The Hallowed Hall
Getting up close and personal with history at Szekelyderzs was a welcome respite from my usual experiences with museums in wealthier countries, including my own. The fortified church was not just part of the past, but also the present. The idea of preservation here was not inclined towards curation or climate control. Instead the past was preserved by keeping alive age-old traditions. The bastions along the fortified walls were still used by the villagers as storage for meat. The church was an active Unitarian one, with regular weekly worship services. I picked up one of the hymnals covered by a hand knitted dust jacket. In a few more days a villager would be holding this hymnal, reciting songs their ancestors had sung for centuries. Everything in the church looked ancient yet alive. The sky blue pews, life like frescoes still vibrant after six hundred years, intricately carved wooden chandeliers and the ornately crowned pulpit, it was all living history.

Anita led us over to the southside of the church where she pointed out a brick in the wall. Carved on it was a runic inscription dated to 1274. This was the lone visible clue as to the Romanesque Church which had once stood on this site and had been replaced by the Gothic inspired edifice we now stood within. The brick was an austere reminder that the church had stood in some form or fashion since the earliest days of Szekely settlement in the area. The person who carved the inscription on this stone had no idea that seven and a half centuries later people would be standing in front of it marveling at this symbol of time tempered immortality. It was just about as close to forever as any history in Szekelyland can get.

The ancient comes alive - Interior of the Church at Szekelyderzs

The ancient comes alive – Interior of the Church at Szekelyderzs

Working The Land – A Szekely State Of Mind
We were soon back outside asking Anita a few questions about what life was like in Szekely Land for a young person. Until we met her, everyone we had seen in Szekely villages had been middle aged or older. Now we were lucky enough to find the opposite, a Szekely teenager. Anita said that many young Szekely left the region looking for better opportunities, usually in Hungary. She said that almost everyone eventually comes back. “They love this land, they want to be buried here.” I asked her if she had been to Hungary and if so, what did she think of Hungarians? Yes, she had been there. She paused to answer the second part of my question. Then a bit embarrassed, she nervously remarked “they are nice, but spoiled. We try to be humble.”

She explained that Hungarians had it much easier in their own country than the Szekely did in their homeland. From what I had seen so far, I had to agree. The economy was rural, people still lived off the land. The Szekelys were a linguistic island in a country that they were still somewhat strangers within. Hungary was richer, more materialistic and modern. The way of life in Szekely Land looked rich and rewarding, but nothing came easy. This was a land where you had to work for everything. I asked Anita if she would leave Szekely Land to go to university?” She said there were some good universities in Transylvania that she could attend. And then added, “I want to come back. I love it here.”