The Best Things Are Free – Thessaloniki: A Tour To Remember (Part Two)

Thessaloniki was a throwback destination for me, a call back to my previously aborted plans of eight years before. It was not long after entering the city that I slowly began to slip back into the same type of traveler I was during my initial foray into the Balkans. On that journey, I met an American traveler who has long since been lost to me. He was the one who had first introduced me to the Free Tour in Bucharest. This novel arrangement was a way for European cities to showcase their hidden delights and secret passageways to the past. This was especially important for places that might be considered second tier cities such as Sofia and Sarajevo, Bucharest and Bratislava among many other places emerging from the deep freeze that was the Cold War. Due to free tours, I was able to stand where Romanians had in 1989 while demanding the downfall of Ceaucescu, sneak a peek at the Red Star that diabolical symbol that once graced Sofia’s skyline atop the Communist Party Headquarters and walk through the same area where parts of Schindler’s List were filmed in Krakow. The insights and acquaintances I had gathered on Free Tours remained some of my most pleasant travel memories.

The Best Things Are Free - Thessaloniki Walking Tour

The Best Things Are Free – Thessaloniki Walking Tour

This was before my travel became intensely personal, becoming centered chiefly on Hungary. The upshot was that I stopped searching for free tours. That was until one evening in Thessaloniki when the idea that there might be a Free Tour of the city suddenly occurred to me once again. Thessaloniki was the kind of second tier city that could use a bit of marketing to visitors from outside of Greece. Free Tours were done by locals, but not for locals. It was an opportunity for foreigners to gain local knowledge while getting in on the secrets and treasures hidden by the massive urban façades that had been imposed upon Thessaloniki. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that there were Free Tours scheduled for every day in Thessaloniki. One started close to the waterfront, while the other took visitors into Ano Poli, the evocative upper town. The next one was to take place at 5:00 in the afternoon.

The Secrets They Conceal – A City Exposed
The website offering information and directions for the Thessaloniki Free Tour directed everyone interested to meet their guide outside of the Electra Palace Hotel. This was in the city’s pulsating heart, a stone’s throw from the sea wall where locals and tourists promenaded each day. It was interesting that the Free Tour would start in a rather obvious place because the best thing about these tours was that they almost always focused on the quirkily quixotic. Local knowledge was the Free Tours greatest selling point. In this regard, the Thessaloniki Free tour would not disappoint. At the appointed time I found the guide holding a red umbrella while chatting with a growing group of travelers. A wide array of nationalities was represented. These included Israelis, Germans, Portuguese, Lithuanians, Belgians, Canadians, Americans, Hungarians and Turks. The guides name was Georgios, a rather tall, handsome Greek who looked like he was in his mid to late 20’s. He had the kind of natural warmth that lent itself to making friendships with strangers in a matter of minutes.

A New Beginning - The Electra Palace Hotel in Thessaloniki

A New Beginning – The Electra Palace Hotel in Thessaloniki (Credit: Leandro Neumann Ciuffo)

Georgios began the tour by asking everyone their name, nationality and to tell the group something they disliked. The latter was a source of great laughter, especially after a German woman said she did not like everyone looking at her while trying to answer such a question. It was not long before Georgios was giving us a quick rundown of Thessaloniki’s origins by anointing members of the group as certain historical figures important to the city’s founding in 315 BC. Before long we were headed off on a journey that drifted between past and present, myth and reality. The theme of Georgios’ program could best be summed up as finding the unknown among the known. He stated that Thessaloniki hides its treasures rather than displays them. The city could best be exposed and explained by finding what was hidden in plain sight. This was not so easy to do. While the ignorance of tourists concerning Thessaloniki’s past was understandable, for locals it was surprisingly the same. Few were aware of their ancestors or historical antecedents who had shaped the city. To understand the past meant going to places that on the surface showed no signs of the secrets they concealed.

Behind The Veil of Indifference – A Dilapidated Discovery
Georgios was a prime example of the indifference to the past shown by present day Thessalonians. He took the opportunity to call himself out for this indifference while sharing an illuminating story. Two years earlier Georgios had been leading a free tour when an Israeli, originally from Thessaloniki, told him about the building he had grown up in. He said that it was on one of the side streets just off Aristotelous Square, the city center’s pulsating heart. Georgios told him that this building did not exist anymore, since the area was wiped out in the horrific fire of 1917 when two-thirds of Thessaloniki was reduced to ashes. The man insisted that the house was not destroyed by the fire. He even produced a photo of it from years before.

Old Thessaloniki - The ever present past on the Free Tour

Old Thessaloniki – The ever present past on the Free Tour

Georgios had politely, but firmly maintained his stance that the building had long since ceased to exist. The man decided to show Georgios and the rest of the tour that the building was indeed still standing. He convinced George to allow them to take a short detour to the purported house. Sure enough, the house was still standing though it was in utter disrepair. When Georgios finished telling this story he pointed out the same house. It was still there, a multi-story structure in an all its dilapidated charm. Georgios used it as a prop to remind us to look closer at our own hometowns for those places that should be obvious to us, but of which we are blissfully unaware. The message was clear, take a closer look and the hidden will reveal itself. An amazing world was waiting to be discovered by each one of us. There was more of this to come on the tour.


The Search For Lost Glory – Thessaloniki: Traveling To The Balkan Byzantium (Part One)

It only took me eight and a half years to return to a place I had never been. Bear with me, because this will require a bit of explanation. My first trip to Eastern Europe occurred in the spring of 2011. That was when I flew into Sofia, Bulgaria with a plan to travel overland to Thessaloniki in Greece to visit the Museum of Byzantine Culture and the birthplace of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. From there I would make my way to Serbia and then Sarajevo. There was only one problem with this plan. After Greece fell into a prolonged financial crisis, all international trains travelling across Greek borders were cancelled. The reason was simple and startling, the Greek government was in such dire financial straits that they could not afford international train connections.  While the rest of Europe and much of the world had suffered a great recession, the Greeks were suffering a full-blown depression. Not only would I not be able to take a train from Greece to Bulgaria, but even if I did get to Greece traveling overland from there would require bus trips. This was a thought I did not relish. Thus, I decided to make other plans.

If not by train than by plane - Flying over the Aegean Sea on the way to Thessaloniki

If not by train than by plane – Flying over the Aegean Sea on the way to Thessaloniki

Those plans took me from Bulgaria to Bucharest and eventually to Budapest and Belgrade. This plan B put me in Hungary for the first time. It would come to dominate my travels for years to come. Between 2011 and 2019 life kept getting in the way of a trip to Thessaloniki. There were trips to a multitude of Eastern European nations, including a return to the Balkans, but I never got any closer to Thessaloniki than I did on that first trip. The city slowly drifted out of my mind, until I noticed that Wizz Air made several weekly flights between Budapest and Thessaloniki. This meant it was finally time for that long forgotten Balkan journey. The trip would allow me to widen the southern circumference of my Eastern European travels. I could already trace the paths of my travels across the region in an expanding circle from the Baltics to the Balkans with Budapest the center point of this pattern. That circle would now extend further south to the glistening shores of the Aegean, where I would finally visit Greece’s second largest and much lesser known city.

The Gardeners of Thessaloniki – Digging Up Bones
At the Budapest airport I expected the check in at Wizz Air to be filled with the usual sharp elbows and chaotic jostling that had made my other experiences with the airline less than ideal. I was shocked to find not one person in line. The counter attendant was pleasant and helpful. I immediately surmised that Thessaloniki was not exactly an autumn destination. The attendant said there were 60 empty seats out of a maximum capacity of 170 on the plane. Thessaloniki was not a preferred destination for those traveling to Greece, especially this time of year. When people think of Greece it is either of sparkling islands or Athens. While this is understandable, it is also a shame. For the depth of history in Thessaloniki, along with its situation along the Aegean, make it well worth a visit.

The Gardeners of Salonica - French soldiers in the city during World War I

The Gardeners of Salonica – French soldiers in the city during World War I (Credit: The State Archives of the Republic of Macedonia)

The first time that I can recall hearing of Thessaloniki had nothing to do with Classical Greece. Instead, it was in connection to the First World War.  Historian Alan Palmer had written a famous history of the military campaign that originated from the city. It was entitled, The Gardeners of Salonika, after a pejorative name that France’s wartime Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau gave to the Allied soldiers who spent several years doing almost anything but fighting a military campaign. I never read Palmer’s book, but I also never forgot its title. The fact that a massive contingent of forces from seven different countries – led by large numbers of British and French troops – spent more time tending the land around them they did engaging the enemy is one of the war’s more bizarre ironies. To make matters even stranger, these same forces would later help spearhead a breakthrough offensive in September 1918 that led to Bulgaria becoming the first of the Central Powers to sue for peace. This led to a domino effect where each of the Central Powers soon did the same. Nevertheless, Salonica – as it was then known – became a byword for a stupendously stagnant military adventure characterized by do nothingness. Counterintuitively, this historical debacle made me want to visit the city even more.

Surrounded By History – Besieged By Modernity
There were innumerable other historical attractions to Thessaloniki. The amount of history that had occurred in the city since its founding 2,300 years ago was mind boggling. The tide of human affairs had washed over this port city again and again, leaving faint and illuminating traces of civilizations past stranded on an urban shoreline. Stretching from the glory days of ancient Macedonia through the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Turkish empires all the way up to modern Greece, the city played a starring role in the region. Thessaloniki had been sacked numerous times, riven by earthquakes, a large portion of it burnt to the ground and witnessed one of the largest Jewish populations of any city in the world disappear in less than thirty years. The grand stage on which this history played out was a natural harbor on the Aegean Sea. Conquering, occupying and ruling Thessaloniki guaranteed historical actors that grand stage. That stage had been on the verge of collapse in more recent years with Greece’s financial woes, but the city had been through much worse countless times before. Thessaloniki’s history had its own internal logic, one that resisted easy characterizations.

Besieged By Modernity - Roman Ruins in Thessaloniki

Besieged By Modernity – Roman Ruins in Thessaloniki (Credit: Annatsach)

The complexity of Thessaloniki’s past now makes it a magnetic attraction for the historically inclined. The only problem is selecting the proper starting point to access what bled so dramatically from one era into another. Thessaloniki’s past is less about chronology and more to do with an infinite number of curiosities. There were empires and ethnicities, the worse and worst aspects of humanity, mesmerizing architecture besieged by modernity, the disappeared and depraved. Solun, Salonica, Selanik, Thessaloniki, all the same place with somewhat similar pronunciations, but dramatically different pasts. This was a city that both buried and preserved its history. That past was a riddle waiting to be unraveled, with the joke on people like me who were both foolish and arrogant enough to believe they could somehow come to understand it.

Click here for: The Best Things Are Free – Thessaloniki: A Tour To Remember (Part Two)



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.