Concrete Constructions – “Bunkerization” in Albania: Monuments To Megalomania

It is said that every country gets the leader it deserves. That is not quite true, because no country in the world deserved the leadership of Enver Hoxha. Hoxha’s forty-one year reign of staggering mismanagement and political malevolence in Albania was downright appalling. The regime he led was most notable for a backwardness not to be found anywhere else in Europe. The Hoxha regime provided a new definition to the phrase “regression to the mean.” The Albanian government was dishonest and depraved. The people were to be controlled rather than ruled, everything was done to keep power in the hands of one man, Enver Hoxha. For that, Albanians suffered grave injustices

Relief only came with Hoxha’s death in 1985 and the collapse of Albania’s communist government in 1990.  The nation finally had a chance to move on or at the very least to move forward. Unfortunately for Albania, a large proportion of its population, some 800,000 fled the country in the years since communism’s collapse. As for those Albanians left behind, there is always something left to remind them of the dreadful Hoxha years. Specifically, Albania is covered in concrete bunkers. These unsightly edifices pockmark the country’s otherwise beautiful landscape. To say that they are a constant reminder of the Hoxha regime is an understatement.

Bunker mentality - Concrete bunker on city street in Shkoder, Albania

Bunker mentality – Concrete bunker on city street in Shkoder, Albania (Credit: Jeroenverp)

Hunkering Down – War On Every Front
Some dictators secure their legacy by building monuments to themselves, Enver Hoxha built bunkers. At the midpoint of his long and terrifying tenure Hoxha became infatuated with bunker building. He ordered concrete bunkers constructed across every square kilometer of Albania. It was an infrastructure project of depressingly epic proportions informed by a dangerous combination of megalomania and stupidity. Meanwhile, Hoxha and his henchmen did not bother with building decent roads, because their construction efforts were consumed, quite literally, by a bunker mentality. The upshot was a profligate symbol of paranoia in almost every place imaginable. There are more concrete bunkers in Albania than the population of all but two of its cities.  From remote mountain passes to beaches, city streets to cemeteries, concrete bunkers grew like mushrooms. The policy that led to their construction was dubbed “bunkerization.” The kind of idea that a paranoid megalomaniac might find appealing.

The reasoning behind the bunkers was both ridiculous and predictable. Hoxha saw enemies everywhere, not only on the streets of Albania, but also casting covetous eyes on the nation’s territory. The Greeks were supposedly eyeing territory in the south. The Italians wanted to pounce on Albania’s Adriatic coastline. In the north stood Marshal Tito, a man who Albanians were told wanted to make their country another Yugoslav province. Hoxha’s vision of Albania’s future was the opposite of peace and prosperity. His dream would be most leader’s nightmare. It consisted of a multi-front war which would be led by NATO or Warsaw Pact forces looking to destroy Albanian independence. Thus, he needed to ensure his people’s preparedness at all costs. This was the reasoning behind the policy of bunkerization. Never mind that the policy made no sense.

The countries Hoxha claimed were potential invaders of Albania could never have afforded to occupy and rebuild a nation that by the standards of modern civilization was in a complete state of ruin. Members of Albania’s military and political apparatus who knew better did not dare voice their disapproval of Hoxha’s permanent state of war policy. Dissent was a virtual death sentence. Hoxha’s minions feared for their lives and marched in lockstep behind him as he led Albania into oblivion. It was an entirely emasculated nation. Hoxha’s diabolical leadership style was marked by regression rather than progression. Concrete bunkers were just the most recognizable symptom of a terrible illness that Albania contracted from Hoxha’s hard line brand of communism.

Getting defensive - Concrete bunker in an Albanian cemetery

Getting defensive – Concrete bunker in an Albanian cemetery (Credit: Elian Stefa & Gyler Mydyti)

Destructive Constructions – In Favor of The Imaginary
Building the bunkers was part of a decades long process to militarize the populace. Civil defense was taken with the utmost seriousness. Twice a month Albanians were required to take part in drills that often lasted for several days. They were even issued guns. Of course, the authorities kept the ammunition out of their hands. In Hoxha’s mind, Albania had to be ready for war at a moment’s notice and they were. Living under Hoxha’s regime required a wartime mentality, the only problem was that the real enemy was within. Albania’s government inflicted grievous wounds upon the citizenry. For instance, the spending on concrete bunkers came at the expense of nearly everything else in the economy.

Despite incessant professions of militarism during Hoxha’s campaign to keep Albania on a permanent wartime footing, the armed forces were badly equipped, poorly clothed and lacked modern weaponry. Meanwhile, the nation’s infrastructure fell further and further into disrepair. Every pound of concrete that went into the bunkers was a pound less that could be used to improve horrifically potholed roads. The concrete was also needed for building apartment blocks to alleviate a housing shortage. One bunker used enough material to build a two-room apartment. Unfortunately, the people had no say in the matter. Adding insult to injury, ordinary citizens were commandeered to keep the bunkers clean. Reality was ignored in favor of the imaginary.

The bunkers became hot spots for sex or other illicit activities kept from the prying eyes of state control. In truth, this was probably the sanest use of these structures. Scarcely any of Hoxha’s henchman cared to analyze their military efficacy. One Defense Minister who did publicly question their utility was promptly executed. The most common type of bunker was the pre-fabricated, dome shaped QZ Qender Zjarri (“firing position”) which could house one or two men at most who would fire out of a slit. Anyone trying to defend one of these bunkers in a shooting war would have been a sitting duck. The QZ was one of several types of bunkers Hoxha had installed across the country to fend off the invasions which were only imminent in his mind.

Scene stealer - Bunker in the Albanian Alps at Velbona

Scene stealer – Bunker in the Albanian Alps at Velbona (Credit: Elian Stefa & Gyler Mydyti)

Nowhere To Hide – Every Man Against Himself
In 1985 Enver Hoxha died and most of his worst ideas went with him to the grave. Bunker construction was halted not long after his death. In a tragic bit of irony, the bunkers were finally used in a shooting war during the early 1990’s as Albanians fought one another in a civil war to decide who would rule the country after communism collapsed. What no one seemed to notice is that Albanians had been fighting each other during the entirety of Hoxha’s reign. For forty-one years there was nowhere for Albanians to hide, not even in the concrete bunkers which covered their country.

 

Inspiration By Attempted Assassination– Zog: The Man Who Would Be King 

There is a tendency to discount Albania’s King Zog as a rather ridiculous pseudo-monarch. His popular bio goes something like this: a foolish incompetent, bad at almost everything except for deadly feuds, miraculously avoiding assassination and corruption on a breathtaking scale. It does not help Zog’s reputation that his name is ludicrously memorable. One cannot help but think that no self-respecting king would ever allow themselves to be called Zog. He had a comic strip character kind of name, except that the joke was on whoever crossed him. Zog was lethal when it came to his enemies.

As for his real name, Ahmet Mehtar Zogolli, it was much more difficult to pronounce or remember. The name smacks of something straight out of the Orient, with the usual connotations of despotic behavior and lurid intrigues. Not since Pepin the Short has a monarch been so degraded by his name. It does not help his reputation that Zog led Albania, a nation that was perhaps the most backward in Europe at the time, into oblivion. He fled in the face of Italian invasion, never to return. Zog lived out his life abroad on the proceeds of his thievery.

Bulletproof - Statue of King Zog in Burrel Albania

Bulletproof – Statue of King Zog in Burrel Albania (Credit: Attila Terbocs)

A Game Of Survival – Forms of Chicanery
With the gift of hindsight, Zog’s misrule in Albania seems rather harmless in comparison to the hardline Stalinism that would come to later dominate the country. In other words, Zog’s rule was bad, but it could have been much worse. His time in power moved Albania towards achieving a national identity, with a central government and modest improvements in communications and transportation. That may not sound like much, then again considering the state of Albania at the time – rampant poverty, mass illiteracy, epidemic levels of malaria and tribal violence – Zog was something of a minor success. He was a formidable politician, despite or more likely because of his inherent flaws. Zog’s greatest success was reserved for himself, as was the Albanian treasury. He had an ability to cheat death. Most famously by surviving more assassination attempts (55), than any head of state in modern history. Zog may have survived, but leading Albania during the 1920’s and 1930’s also meant taking a few bullets. Most famously on some stairs inside the Albanian parliament in Tirana on February 23, 1924.

To say that Albania during the 1920’s was a nation in flux would be a massive understatement. Its existence was hardly assured. Albania had only been a nation-state since 1912. In the aftermath of the First World War it looked as though it would become subsumed in a greater Italy or a greater Greece or a greater Yugoslavia. Instead it was left as it was, a struggling nation surrounded by external enemies and beset by internal discord. Its politics were riven by tribalism, blood feuds and endemic corruption. In other words, Albania, was a terrible mess. Trying to bring order to this chaos would take a leader the likes of which had not been seen in the land for centuries. That leader was nowhere to be found. The man who rose to the top was Zog. He did this through every form of chicanery known in the annals of bad government. Threats, assassinations, torture, payoffs, Zog would go to any lengths in building a base of power. His enemies largely played by these same rules. The difference being that Zog was much better at it.

Take a bow - King Zog greeting one of his Royal Guard

Take a bow – King Zog greeting one of his Royal Guard

Crisis Management – A Moving Target
By 1923, the Albanian government was in crisis. This was nothing new, since the government during this period was always in crisis. A vote was to take place that would hopefully lead to a decisive majority that would enact constitutional reform. Zog, who was Prime Minister at the time, hoped to expand his power through this process, but first he and his allies had to win the election. The opposition’s fear was that if Zog won, he would make himself a virtual dictator. The outcome was fraught with uncertainty, as the Zogist’s came within a whisker of winning a majority. Zog took to dispensing favors in the hopes of gaining enough allies to form a new government. The vote for one would take place in late February. This was a great opportunity for Zog, as well as for the opposition which felt it was their last chance to stop him.

Assassination was politics by other means, specifically violent ones. Zog certainly knew this since he was a target for assassins throughout his political career, including on the mid-afternoon of February 23rd.  Zog was making his way up the stairs to parliament where he was to rally support in the vote for a new government. While making a turn in the stairwell, an opposition supporter fired shots at him. Two bullets struck Zog. He was hit in the wrist, abdomen and thigh. This did not detain him from making his way to Parliament. A shocked crowd of deputies watched a reeling Zog make his way to a seat. Rather than call for immediate medical care which he obviously needed, Zog instead prepared to make a few remarks. While this dramatic scene was taking place, more shots rang out. The assassin had managed to make his way to the bathroom, locked the door and fired rounds from inside of it. He would eventually be forced to surrender. The greatest drama was back in parliament.

A chestful of medals rather than bullets - King Zog

A chestful of medals rather than bullets – King Zog

A Question Of Respect – Profile In Courage
The fact that the man who had just shot him was holding out did not keep Zog from saying a few words. Amazingly, considering the situation, these were delivered in his typically laconic fashion. “Gentlemen, this is not the first time in the world that such a thing has happened in a parliament. I ask my friends to leave it alone and deal with it afterwards.” He then proceeded to stay seated for several minutes. When his personal physician arrived, Zog finally allowed himself to be treated. He then made his way out of parliament under his own power. It was a crazy display of courage that would become legend to his supporters.

Meanwhile, the opposition must have wondered how they would ever rid themselves of Zog. Fortunately for them, political missteps in the coming months by a recovering Zog would lead to him fleeing the country a year later. This was but a brief respite. Zog would be returned to power a year later by Yugoslav troops. He would rule Albania for the next fourteen years. Zog was a remarkably resilient man, both physically and politically. He may not have been a great leader, but he was not a ridiculous one either. Any man who can give remarks a few minutes after taking bullets deserves respect, both then and now.

An Empire State of Mind – The Albanian Grand Viziers of the Ottoman Empire

In the center of Tirana stands a monument to Albania’s greatest hero, Skanderbeg.
It is not surprising that Skanderbeg would be venerated in this small Balkan nation’s most sacred public space. He is universally revered as both a freedom fighter and symbol of resistance against the Ottoman Turkish onslaught during the 15th century. Following Skanderbeg’s death, the Turks occupied and administered Albania for over 500 years. Skanderbeg’s military and political skills were the only things keeping the Turks at bay. He was a unifier, bringing more Albanians under his leadership than anyone up to that time. This was as close as the notoriously fragmented Albanians would get to unification until the 20th century. Thus, the Skanderbeg Monument occupies the most prominent space (Skanderbeg Square) in the nation’s capital –- just as he occupies the most important place in Albanian hearts. There is also the fact that any man reduced to a single name in the Balkans (for example: Tito) is a historical figure of outsized importance. Skanderbeg was certainly that. His life, legacy and legend dwarfs that of all other Albanian historical figures.

An Albanian Original - Skanderbeg Monument in Tirana

An Albanian Original – Skanderbeg Monument in Tirana (Credit: Wolfgang Pehlemann)

Ottoman Albanians – Hard to Find Heroes
Skanderbeg is the essence of Albanian national heroism. This is in stark contrast with the most prominent national figures of modern Albania, King Zog and Enver Hoxha. They are viewed as either ridiculously corrupt or horrendously malevolent. Men who put their own self-interest over the national one. Ironically, their faults and foibles make Skanderbeg’s historical legacy shine that much brighter. Strangely enough, though Skanderbeg was a Christian fighting Muslim, Albania is now a majority Muslim nation venerating a Christian. Five centuries of Ottoman rule transformed Albania. Yet there were also many Albanians who transformed the Ottoman Empire. Consider that other than Skanderbeg, the most famous and powerful Albanians in history were the numerous Grand Viziers this small Balkan territory produced. The position of Grand Vizier in the Ottoman Empire was essentially a Prime Minister, conducting the most important imperial affairs.

By one calculation, there were 292 Ottoman Grand Viziers, 49 of these were of Albanian origin. This was second only to ethnic Turks in holding the empire’s second most powerful position. The position of Grand Vizier afforded a long list of Albanians the opportunity to exercise an unprecedented amount of influence over the empire. A Grand Vizier had power over all military and administrative appointments, as well as being the empire’s supreme judicial official. Grand Viziers could also command the army in battle. One Albanian family, the Koprulus, provided some of the most powerful Grand Viziers in Ottoman history, so much so that an entire era was named after them. The Koprulu era (1656-1683), saw several members of this powerful Albanian family reassert the empire’s dynamism through a series of reforms. These included anti-corruption measures. The empire was revived and expanded under their rule.

Survival of the Greatest - Koca Sinan Pasha served 5 terms as Ottoman Grand Vizier

Survival of the Greatest – Koca Sinan Pasha served 5 terms as Ottoman Grand Vizier

Grim Realities – The Grand Executions
Since Grand Viziers served at the Sultan’s pleasure, they could also be deposed at any time. This made their position precarious, if not downright dangerous. For instance, the aptly named Selim the Grim went through seven Grand Viziers during his eight years as Sultan. One of those was the Albanian, Dukakinoğlu Ahmed Pasha, who held the office for only two and a half months before Selim had him beheaded. While Grand Viziers executed affairs of state, they were also liable to end up the recipient of a very different execution. 44 Grand Viziers were executed and another 11 killed during rebellions. They were often sacrificed by the Sultan as scapegoats for campaigns or policies gone wrong. Albanian Grand Viziers were certainly not immune to this unkind fate. Take the example of Kemankes Kara Mustafa Pasha, who on multiple occasions attempted to save himself by resigning. After falling from favor due to lurid court politics, Kara Mustafa was executed on the orders of Sultan Ibrahim “the mad”.

One of the most intriguing Albanian Grand Viziers was Mere Huseyin Pasha. He was given the name Mere, which means “take it” in Albanian because he used this word when ordering his henchmen to behead enemies. Reputedly, Mere was the only Grand Vizier who did not speak Turkish. He served in the role twice with the second time proving fatal. No one knows if Sultan Mustafa I gave the order for his Grand Vizier’s execution by saying “Mere.” Not every Albanian Grand Vizier met a deadly end, one even managed to live a long life while holding down the job multiple times. Koca Sinan Pasha managed to survive all five of his terms as Grand Vizier from 1580 – 1596. The fact that he died in peace with a large fortune speaks to his talents as a politician and administrator.

Grand Viziers were not the only high-level Ottoman officials to come from Albania. There were also approximately one hundred Grand Masters of the elite janissary guard. They also dominated much of the upper ranks of the bureaucracy and military right up until the Empire’s waning days. To give but a couple of examples, two of the five Ottoman generals at the Battle of Gallipoli were Albanian. Two Ottoman Prime Ministers during World War I were also of Albanian descent. Some historians also believe the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk may have been an ethnic Albanian.

Ethnicities of all 292 Ottoman Grand Viziers - Albanian Grand Viziers are in lime green

Ethnicities of all 292 Ottoman Grand Viziers – Albanian Grand Viziers are in lime green

Ottomania – An Albanian State of Affairs
All these examples lead to one overarching question: Why were Albanians so prominent in the upper echelons of the Ottoman Empire? After all, Albania is not a very large place and its population base was smaller than many other areas of the Empire. One reason may be that Albanians were more willing to convert to Islam than other ethnic groups within the empire. This was a path to upward mobility that Albanians often followed. It was also a way to avoid extortionate levels of taxation that were imposed from the 17th century onward to religious minorities. Meanwhile, converts to Islam would not only pay lower taxes, but also receive land grants.

At a time when society and the economy were chiefly based around agriculture, free land was a major draw. Albanians took advantage of all these paths to gain an exalted place in imperial affairs. Yet five hundred years of Ottoman rule retarded economic and social growth in Albania as well as the development of a national consciousness. Paradoxically, since Albanians held many powerful positions within the Ottoman Empire they partly had themselves to blame. All the way to the end, they were as Ottoman as anyone in the empire.

The First Frontier – Leitha River: Austria-Hungary’s Internal Divide

The sun began to fade as evening slowly settled upon the Burgenland.  We were traveling along the eastern extremity of Austria, the non-touristy part where the Alps are a distant dream that evaporated long ago into the western horizon. The chill of autumn was in the air. It was just me and my travel companion, a fellow history buff, who a half hour earlier had been inspecting the Roman ruins at Petronell-Carnuntum. Now we were speeding eastward along the A1 motorway in Austria, racing against the dying light so we could make it back beyond the Hungarian border to our accommodation before nightfall. The border between Austria and Hungary was still many minutes away, when I spotted a highway exit sign for Bruck an der Leitha. The end of that name sparked a reminder. One that made me recall another border, one both internal and historical that was marked by the River Leitha.

My travel companion on this trip was an extremely knowledgeable American who was well versed in European history. The problem was that European history in the American education system is code for the history of Western Europe. Russia was also thrown in for good measure due to its historical heft. The idea of studying Austria-Hungary was anathema except for academics and armchair historians. The extent to which the history of Austria-Hungary has been taught in American schools falls somewhere between very little and not at all. It sometimes makes a cameo in discussions on the outbreak of World War I when some self-important Archduke gets gunned down in Sarajevo. Other than that, Austria-Hungary is viewed as an antiquated and almost anonymous empire, an aristocratic anachronism not worth bothering about. All this may seem like an exaggeration, but it is not. In all seriousness, even the most educated American history buff knows next to nothing about Austria-Hungary.

A Fluid Frontier - The Leitha River during snowmelt season (Credit Wolfgang Glock)

A Fluid Frontier – The Leitha River during snowmelt season (Credit: Wolfgang Glock)

A Little River – A Big Empire
None of that stopped me from pointing out to my friend that we were about to pass over the River Leitha on the A1. I told him that this had been the main internal border between Austria and Hungary during the Dual Monarchy. My comment elicited a rather bland reply of “Yeah.” The indifferent and perplexed tone of his voice was understandable. Indifference, because the Leitha is not a large river or especially notable in anyway. We could see little of it from the highway. Perplexity, because my friend knew nothing of this tepid river in reference to an empire that no longer existed. The border between the Austrian and Hungarian halves of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was marked by this little river. The Austrian half was known as Cisleithania, while the Hungarian half was Transleithania. The River Leitha thus played an outsized role in the split personality of the empire.

The Leitha’s role in dividing an empire is now largely forgotten. Since the border had long since disappeared in a political sense, it meant nothing to him or the tens of thousands of travelers who pass over it each day. It was strange to think that something which had been rather important not only to Austria-Hungary, but also to the frontiers of those two countries for upwards of a thousand years was now little more than what it had originally been, a small river. And at times, not even that. Due to canals and agricultural projects it is sucked pretty much dry by the time it arrives downstream. I knew that there was so much more to the Leitha than a dry stream bed. Such as its defining role in the region’s history.

In a Dry Season - The Leitha River without water

In a Dry Season – The Leitha River without water (Credit: Peter Haas)

Centuries In The Making – The Situation Is Fluid
The current situation, where the Leitha River no longer demarcates part of the border between Austria and Hungary, is the exception rather than the rule when it comes to the past thousand years of history in the area. The Leitha does demarcate a border today, but it is part of an internal Austrian provincial one between Lower Austria and Burgenland. This is quite a climb down from its historical role as a border between the Austrian lands and the Hungarian ones. At times, the Leitha as a border was just as fluid as the river itself. It all started with the Hungarians’ arrival in east-central Europe during the 9th century. They kept conquering westwards into the lands which now consist of Austria and Bavaria. This encroachment into German lands was finally stopped in the mid-10th century at the Battle of Lechfeld. Not only was the Hungarian advance halted, but the Germans began to reconquer parts of what is present day Austria. This counter movement to the east stagnated along the eastern shores of the Leitha.

Little did anyone know at the time that a near perpetual border had been set in place. To get an idea of just how long ago this was, consider that Hungary was not yet a Christian Kingdom, instead it was a principality. To its east was the Margravate of Austria, the easternmost appendage of the Duchy of Bavaria. The idea of nation-states did not exist during the Middle Ages, but borders did, even if they were as fluid as a river or in this case were made up of a river. One can easily imagine that the Leitha was much more wild and impressive in those days. A great deal more difficult to cross, especially in the springtime when the river flooded. This made it a formidable barrier, a more natural rather than political one. The Leitha as a political border in a legal sense was still many centuries in the making.

A Defining Relationship – The Other Side Of The Border
Fortresses were constructed on the Austrian side of the Leitha during the 12th century, helping to stabilize and solidify the border. Measures to secure it, made it that much more recognizable. Legal recognition of the border came in the early 15th century when a deed issued by the Hungarian King Sigismund set its placement. Yet it was the Austrians not the Hungarians who grew much more powerful in the region over the ensuing centuries. This allowed them to to define the terms of their relationship with Hungary and by extension, the Leitha as a border.

Bosnia’s Beachhead – The Neum Corridor: A Not So Croatian Coastline

The morning I left Mostar the sea might as well have been a thousand kilometers away. The only water within view was the emerald flow of the Neretva River beneath the city’s famous 16th century Stari Most (Old Bridge). In Mostar, the Ottoman Empire seemed closer than any ocean. The landscape around the city was rocky and rugged. As the bus made its way out of the city and headed southward, the prospect of the Adriatic’s ebullient waters was still a long way off. The landscape of Herzegovina (the lesser known half of Bosnia and Herzegovina) was as harsh and unforgiving as the history that had set this land and its people on fire not so long ago. There were still visible signs of the Yugoslav Wars, such as the half-ruined house pockmarked with bullet holes that slumped sadly within sight of the highway. The structure was an unforgiving reminder that Bosnia and Herzegovina were still riddled with the residue of modern conflict. Soon though, Croatia was on the horizon in the form of a border crossing.

Running the Border - Highway to Neum

Running the Border – Highway to Neum (Credit: Anto Quahadi)

Stops for passport control at border crossings are still obligatory in the Balkans. While much of Europe has moved toward a world of porous borders, the Balkans are still a region where entry and exit is closely monitored. Only Slovenia has borders where one can whisk through at a hundred kilometers per hour. Unfortunately, this only applies to their borders with Austria and Italy. Meanwhile, Bosnians and Croats, Montenegrins and Macedonians. Serbs and Kosovars wait for permission in the form of a passport stamp to see them through to the other side. I received multiple reminders of the vagaries of borders and passport controls on the bus from Mostar to Dubrovnik. This was where borders had not yet collapsed. On the contrary, they seemed to close in from what seemed like all sides. It was also where I first came across a geographical and geopolitical anomaly, the coast of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Bosnia By The Sea – Balkanized Borderland
When I think of Bosnia’s geography, rugged mountain landscapes, rocky canyons and crystalline rivers come to mind. One thing that doesn’t, the Adriatic Sea. In the Balkans, the Adriatic is a Croatian or Montenegrin or Albanian sea. There is an even a sliver of coastline abutting the Adriatic in Slovenia, but the idea of a huge blue body of water lapping up on a Bosnian shoreline seems unimaginable. And yet it exists today. I saw it for myself not long after the bus closed in on the Croatian coastline. Soon we were pulling up to another border crossing, something we had just done less than an hour before. I did not understand why we were having to do another passport check. This made little sense unless Croatia had some kind of internal border to deal with a security risk. Soon I discovered that we were leaving Croatia to enter Bosnia or more appropriately, Bosnia by the sea.

Balkanization - The Neum Corridor

Balkanization – The Neum Corridor (Credit: Tomobe03)

Studying a map of Bosnia closely, one notices that the country’s border begins to dip southwestward until it gets close to the coastline. Almost all of the border never quite dips down to the sea. The long, thin strip abutting the coastline is part of Croatia with the exception of a 20 kilometer section where Bosnia juts forth and touches the Adriatic. This area is known as the Neum Corridor. I figured that the corridor must have been the product of a stitch up following the Yugoslav Wars. Terms such as enclaves, exclaves, corridors and autonomous territories are still alive and well in the former Yugoslavia. Why should the Neum Corridor be any different? My assumption that the corridor was a modern concoction turned out to be completely wrong.

The genesis of the Neum Corridor goes all the way back to the late 17th century. The three entities responsible for it, the Republic of Ragusa (Dubrovnik), the Republic of Venice and Ottoman Empire all no longer exist, but their geo-political maneuverings over three hundred years ago still demarcate one small stretch of shoreline. Back then the Ragusans sided with the Ottomans in their war against the Venetians. Much to the Ragusans displeasure, the Ottomans lost and ended up relinquishing a great deal of their territory in the Balkans. This placed the Ragusans under mortal threat from their great rival. To protect themselves, the Ragusans ceded strips of land both north and south of their republic to the Ottomans. The strip to the north is now called the Neum Corridor and was passed down through the centuries from Ottomans to Habsburgs to Yugoslavs. Today it falls within the boundaries of Bosnia and Herzegovina, much to the chagrin of Croatia.

The Bosnian Coast - Town of Neum

The Bosnian Coast – Town of Neum

Border Control – Entry & Exit Strategies
The major issue with the corridor is that it acts as a barrier to commerce and tourist traffic traveling along Croatia’s Dalmatian coast. As I discovered, passing through the Neum corridor is not exactly easy. Travelers first exit Croatia, then enter and exit Bosnia before reentering Croatia all in the space of 20 kilometers. A stretch of highway that in normal circumstances would take no more than 15 minutes to traverse, can take hours to pass through during the peak tourist season. Prior to Croatia’s accession to the European Union in 2013, passing through the border was a much more relaxed affair. On many occasions, border officials would wave vehicles through without checking passports. That has changed now that Croatia aspires to dismantle border controls with fellow EU members in order to join the Schengen Area of passport free travel. The EU demands stricter control of external borders and Croatia has willingly complied.

Fortunately, I passed through Neum in early October at a time when the busy season was over. Traffic was light and the border guards were indifferent. The entire crossing took only a few minutes. It was more a novelty than a nuisance, one that may not last much longer for those who want to avoid the corridor. The difficulties of travel along this strange Bosnian beachhead are due to be alleviated in the future. Croatia has received funding from the EU to build a bridge across the corridor to avoid this small stretch of Bosnia. The Bosnians are none too happy about the Croatians trying bridge the divide. They vehemently oppose its construction. Bosnia believes the bridge would hinder the development of port facilities at Neum. The situation will undoubtedly linger for years. Whatever the future may hold for this strange stretch of land, the Neum Corridor is sure to make its presence felt. History always manages to get in the way when it comes to Bosnia and the Balkans.

Jozef Pilsudski Superhero – Grit, Guile & Greatness: The Great Polish Train Robbery (Part Three)

It is one thing to commit a crime, it is quite another to get away with it. With the gift of hindsight, most historians view the Bezdany Raid/Train Robbery by Jozef Pilsudski and his 19 fellow conspirators as a justifiable crime. There was no other way for the future father of modern Poland and his fellow Polish nationalists to find the funding necessary to support development of a military force that might one day free Poland. Historical perspective shows the raid as a great success, but nothing was assured at the time. As soon as Pilsudski and his men disappeared into the darkness of the countryside surrounding Bezdany (present day Bezdonys Lithuania), Russian authorities and Cossack soldiers were hunting for them. Escape was not inevitable for the Poles, while the consequences of getting caught would likely result in death. Pilsudski knew he and his co-conspirators faced long odds of survival, let alone ultimate success. Nonetheless, as they scattered into the night each hoped to live and fight another day. It is amazing how many did.

From beginning to end, the train robbery in Bezdany was supposed to last no longer than 45 minutes. The signal to take the money and literally run occurred when the next train – an hour behind the treasury train – due to arrive at the station came within earshot. When Pilsudski heard its whistle blowing, he called his men off. It was time to make for the exits, which in this case consisted of woods and wilderness, marshes, rivers and two tracks. The Poles melted away into the countryside. It was easy to get out of sight, not so easy to get out of mind. Soon there would be Cossack soldiers scouring the roads and paths in an all-out effort to capture the conspirators. Some took a boat to Riga in Latvia, others found their way through the darkness to safe havens, miraculously nearly all the men – save one – evaded capture that night.

Impenetrable - Forest on the edge of Bezdonys

Impenetrable – Forest on the edge of Bezdonys (Credit: VietovesLt)

A Harrowing Escape – The Flight To Safety
Robbing the train at Bezdany was much easier than getting the stolen money to a safe place. Some of the robbery’s proceeds were taken away on horseback, but the majority were carted away by Pilsudski and a veteran of his movement. They made their way slowly along the poor roads. The two wheeled cart buckled under the weight of over a thousand pounds of silver coins. The horse pulling the cart was moving incredibly slow. Pilsudski and his colleague were not far behind. Their ultimate destination was a cabin where Aleksandra and another woman awaited. The two men fought fear, sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion the entire way. If Cossack horsemen located them, there would have been no escape. It would have been a virtual death sentence for Pilsudski. Fortunately, the Cossacks went in the wrong direction when setting off for the Poles. This mistake likely saved Pilsudski’s life. That did not make his ordeal any easier.

After several harrowing hours in the darkness well before dawn, they made it to safety. Seeing Aleksandra must have been a great relief for Pilsudski, but this also meant much more had to be done. Several holes were dug where the proceeds were hidden away. Then Aleksandra and Pilsudski took a train toward Kiev. They were lucky to get out of the Vilna Govenorate alive. The Russian authorities were casting a wide net in trying to capture Pilsudski, who was fast becoming one of the most wanted men in Russia. From there it was on to Krakow and the relatively liberal lands of the Austro-Hungarian ruled part of partitioned Poland. It would not be until winter that Aleksandra, but not Pilsudski, returned with several others to dig up the buried treasure outside of Vilno (present day Vilnius Lithuania). It was a long trip that proved emotionally and physically exhausting for Aleksandra. The ground was frozen solid, causing no end of difficulty with the excavation. Then the coins and currency were packed and hidden in luggage that miraculously was transported all the way back to Krakow. When all was said and done, the money proved to be enough to support the development of a Polish military force. Ironically, the money taken during the robbery may well have been worth less than the publicity.

Into the wild - Landscape around Bezdonys

Into the wild – Landscape around Bezdonys (Credit: VietovesLt)

Fame & Misfortune – Polish Patriots & Prisoners
Sensational news reports of the robbery went out across Russia and Europe. Many of these were grossly exaggerated, providing Pilsudski and the Polish cause free publicity. While the monetary total of the robbery according to Pilsudski’s own accounting was 200,000 rubles, newspapers inflated that figure by a factor of five. Pilsudski quickly achieved superhero status, both at home and abroad. He became the face of Polish nationalism and resistance, living proof of what could be achieved through grit and guile. Those in the Polish Socialist Party who had questioned his courage and credentials were silenced. From this time forward, Pilsudski became the main figure in the movement to overthrow Russian rule. The image of a Polish David standing up to the Russian Imperial Goliath fit a narrative that had many in Europe cheering for the underdog. None of this would have been possible without the Bezdany Raid.

What became of the other men involved in the train robbery? In the early morning hours after the raid, one man was caught. An intense interrogation followed his arrest, but he could not provide very many helpful details to the authorities. The plan had kept many of those involved nameless, compartmentalizing the damage and keeping the conspirators mostly anonymous to one another. Eventually 5 of the 20 people involved would be apprehended. They were sentenced to an icy exile in Siberia which would not end until after the Russian revolution. Three of the conspirators – Tomasz Arciszewki, Aleksander Prystor and Walery Slawek – went on to become Prime Ministers of Poland after the nation was reconstituted following World War One.

Complete Focus - Jozef Pilsudski during the early 20th century

Complete Focus – Jozef Pilsudski during the early 20th century

Springboard To Power – The Legacy Of Bezdany
As for Pilsudski, he was blessed over the coming years with more successes than setbacks. He lived to first see an independent Poland reconstituted and then ruled over it as a virtual dictator. The Bezdany Raid was the springboard that elevated Pilsudski to a position as the most powerful Pole in modern history. It is quite possible that no other figure in modern history ever benefited as much as Pilsudski did from armed robbery. His role in the Bezdany Raid created a legend and eventually a nation.

Click here for: A Feeling For History – In Search of Pilsudski & Bezdany: The Great Polish Train Robbery (Part Four)

Making Out Like Bandits – Pilsudski’s Hoard: The Great Polish Train Robbery (Part Two)

Waiting is supposed to be the hardest part before undertaking acts of subterfuge. That was not exactly the case for Jozef Pilsudski when it came to the train robbery that he and his fellow co-conspirators (operating as a bojowki – small combat organization) planned to carry out in 1908. The daunting logistical challenges of procuring people and weapons, as well as planning everything down to the last detail led to a series of delays. This was understandable because the operation was going to be a matter of life and death. Life for Polish nationalism or death for the conspirators. With so much on the line, the timetable shifted from spring to summer then to autumn. Unspoken was the fact that Pilsudski, sequestered in the countryside outside of Wilno with Aleksandra, was enjoying the love of his life. He was not in any great hurry to see the plan through. After a succession of delays, Pilsudski and his closest colleagues decided to move forward with their covert operation at the start of autumn.  Unfortunately, things did not quite go according to plan.

Freedom Fighters - Jozef Pilsudski with his colleagues

Freedom Fighters – Jozef Pilsudski with his colleagues

Shrouded In Darkness – Learning From Failure
Without the benefit of modern street lighting, it is easy to forget just how dark it can be in the countryside at night. Just try to imagine finding your way along a marshy road in the Lithuanian countryside during the early 20th century. On the night of Saturday, September 19th, there was only the sliver of a waning crescent moon to guide the way. It is not surprising that many of the Poles involved in the first train robbery attempt got lost. They were traversing a landscape shrouded in darkness with little more than their senses to guide them. A deliberate decision was made not to use torchlight due to the fear of being discovered by Russian police. Along the poor roads they lost their way, wandering down a shadowy path to nowhere. Many of the conspirators were at a loss on how to find their way to the marshaling point near the station.

To make matters worse, a cart transporting bombs that would be used to disable the train got bogged down in the muck. There was no chance that it could get close to the station in time for an attack. Pilsudski made the wise decision to abort the attempt and try again a week later. In retrospect, the aborted attempt turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It helped Pilsudski and his co-conspirators refine their plan. They learned that traveling at night was difficult at best. Plans were made to start moving towards the staging areas during daylight hours. The cart, which was to carry the bombs and take away the loot, was reinforced to hold a heavier load. Everyone now knew exactly where they needed to be and how much time to allot for travel. The conspirators had also been fortunate, no suspicions had been raised during the aborted attempt. In the failure of the first attempt, lay the seeds for a successful second one.

Wanted Man - Russian poster calling for the capture of Pilsudski

Wanted Man – Russian poster calling for the capture of Pilsudski

Waiting On A Train – Bombs Away
All the conspirators were ready and willing to carry out the plan once again. As it had been envisioned, six men would take over the station and hold those inside at bay while four men would attack the train with bombs and disable the postal car where the money was held. Four were to get money out of the postal car. Another man was in charge of driving the one horse, two wheeled cart. Finally, three women including Pilsudski’s beloved Aleksandra were to ensure the money was stored in a safe hiding place. To say the operation was complex, did not do it justice. Pulling the robbery off would take courage and a lot of luck. It remained to be seen whether Pilsudski and his team were up to the challenge.

A week after the first failed attempt, Pilsudski and his conspirators were back at it on the evening of Saturday, September 26th. At 10:30 p.m., just as the train was pulling into Bedzany station, the Poles sprang into action. A couple of bombs were thrown at the postal and escort cars, immediately shattering the windows and knocking out any artificial lighting inside. Three of the conspirators were already in the station. They, along with a couple of other colleagues who soon joined them, subdued police and kept control of the stunned crowd of bystanders. The escort car held Russian troops that were unable to react in time. Shots were fired by the Poles as they entered the car. Amid the chaos, several Russian soldiers were wounded with one killed. Pilsudski was part of a small team that forced their way into the postal car with a combination of bombs and threats. They then made their way to where the money was stored.

Steel Will - Stretch of the old Warsaw to St. Petersburg railway line in Lithuania today

Steel Will – Stretch of the old Warsaw to St. Petersburg railway line in Lithuania today (Credit: Sarunas Simkus)

Hard Cash – Getting Their Money’s Worth
Stepping inside the room was akin to entering a bank vault. Pilsudski immediately noticed numerous bags holding coins, there would turn out to be fifty in all. The only problem was that these bags held silver coins much less valuable than gold ones. To make a financial windfall on the robbery would mean having to carry off a couple thousand pounds of silver coins. There was no way the lone two wheeled cart could hold this heavy of a load. Easier pickings, such as bank notes, were problematic as well.  Those that were discovered had the cashiers signature missing. It had been trimmed off the notes, making them useless other than for the deposit in the Russian treasury.

The Poles luck was not all bad. In another part of the postal car, they discovered some metal boxes with the proceeds from ticket sells. Several of these were opened with the help of small bombs or dynamite. Best estimates of the value of coins and currency stolen during the robbery was 200,000 Russian rubles, the equivalent of 10 million dollars in today’s terms. Pilsudski and his team had not stolen as much as they hoped. Nevertheless, the total would be enough to provide a great deal of financing for the development of Polish military forces, but first the conspirators had to elude arrest in a countryside that would soon be crawling with Russian troops.

Click here for: Jozef Pilsudski Superhero – Grit, Guile & Greatness: The Great Polish Train Robbery (Part Three)

Jozef Pilsudski’s Revolutionary Idea – Mission Possible: The Great Polish Train Robbery (Part One)

Try to imagine that after Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch carried out one of their successful train robberies in the American West, they had then used the stolen money to go into politics. Their political careers rise as they make their way toward the American presidency. Cassidy, Kid Curry and other outlaw luminaries then pass the presidency among themselves for many years. Such a tale seems far-fetched, to the point of fantasy. While this never happened in the United States, something similar did occur in Poland. In 1908 twenty Polish revolutionaries, including three future prime ministers, organized and carried out a train robbery in what was then the Russian Empire (present-day eastern Lithuania). The Tsarist government labeled the perpetrators as outlaws and failed to hunt most of them down. The successful raid supplied the revolutionaries with financial resources to help build a Polish military force that could liberate Poland from foreign occupation. At the same time, it helped the group’s leader make a name for himself while establishing his legitimacy as a man who would back up his words with action. The leader of this group was none other than the one man most responsible for the creation of an independent Poland exactly a decade later, Jozef Pilsudski.

Jozef Pilsudski - Official mug shot by Okhrana after his arrest in 1900

Jozef Pilsudski – Official mug shot by Okhrana after his arrest in 1900

Career Moves – Working On The Railroad
Bezdonys stands 30 kilometers northwest of the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. Bezdonys is what it has always been, a small rural village (population 743) where the slow pace of life matches the pace of progress. Even as Vilnius has grown and crept closer, Bezdonys has remained little more than a wide spot in the road. In the early 20th century, the village was a wide spot on the railroad, inhabited by peasants who worked the land around it. There was nothing especially notable about the village except for the fact that the Warsaw – St Petersburg Railroad ran through it. Built forty years before, the railroad brought a bit of modernity to a traditional society. The railroad also brought an opportunity for bojowki – Polish combat teams created by Pilsudski – to commit robberies that could help fund an independent Polish military force.

In 1908, the cool autumn air of Bezdany (as it was then known by its Polish name) was pierced by the shrill whistle of locomotives on Tuesday and Saturday evenings. The whistle came from treasury trains stopping at Bezdany station while on their way to St. Petersburg. The trains, which also carried passengers and the postal mail, were transporting tax revenues and other money out of Poland back to the Russian capital. One bojowki unit led by Pilsudski began to formulate a plan to rob the train and acquire a financial windfall. This was an exceedingly dangerous enterprise. If it was discovered, the Poles would either face exile or execution. Pilsudski knew the dangers that he and his force faced, but he was determined to try for another reason besides the money. There were questions within the Polish Socialist Party whether he would be willing to risk his own safety. In the past, he had always recruited other Poles to carry deadly missions in support of his dream to end Tsarist Russia’s suffocating rule over Vilna Governorate (a Russian administered region of partitioned Poland roughly coinciding with present day eastern Lithuania/western Belarus). Pilsudski was now willing to take matters into his own hands.

Jozef Pilsudski - The Young Revolutionary

Jozef Pilsudski – The Young Revolutionary

Months In The Making – Suspicion & Surveillance
Trying to rob a train in the Vilna Governorate was not easy. The Russian Empire’s Okhrana (Tsarist secret police) were constantly on the lookout for revolutionaries. They had good reason to keep a vigilant eye on the Poles. There had been several mass uprisings – most prominently in 1831 and 1863 – by Poles against Tsarist rule since the Russians had established control over the area following the Napoleonic Wars. Polish nationalists like Pilsudski were constantly under suspicion and surveillance. He had already been sent into Siberian exile for helping lead protests. Pilsudski knew that if he were caught trying to coordinate and carry out a robbery to help fund military activities that it would almost certainly cost him and his co-conspirators their lives. Fear was not enough to stop him. His critics in the Polish independence movement stated that up to this point, Pilsudski had not personally put his own life on the line for the cause. Pilsudski vowed that he would rather die for the cause of Polish independence then to live as a virtual slave under Tsarist rule.

The coordination and planning of the treasury train robbery was months in the making. Twenty Poles would be involved, three of whom were female. This included Pilsudski’s mistress, lifelong love and eventual second wife, Aleksandra Szczerbinska. She would prove crucial to the robbery’s ultimate success. The first decision was where to attempt the robbery. The most likely place was somewhere close to Pilsudski’s hometown of Wilno (present day Vilnius). Attempting the robbery in the city was out of the question due to the presence of Russian troops. Instead, it was decided to ambush the train at its second stop beyond Wilno, at the village station in Bezdany. There were only a handful of police for the entire village. Taking over the station and disabling the telegraph and telephone lines was of paramount importance. This would make it difficult for anyone to call for help. Even after a call for help went out, Russian soldiers would not be able to respond immediately. Pilsudski and his team then selected the 1908 as the best time to carry out their plan.

A Good Woman Is Hard To Find - Aleksandra Szczerbinska

A Good Woman Is Hard To Find – Aleksandra Szczerbinska

Risk Management – The Importance Of Luck
The where and when of the robbery was comparatively easy to decide. A more difficult challenge would be to coordinate everyone’s involvement. Pilsudski and his closest colleagues were careful about who they selected for the robbery. Because there were twenty people involved, this meant that there would be many potential suspects for the Russians to interrogate if anyone was caught. Information was compartmentalized and many of the conspirators had no idea who was involved or their identities. This way there was less chance that someone could sell the entire group out to the police. While Pilsudski and his confidantes minutely planned every detail, they were taking a massive risk. Success and failure in such an enterprise was a matter of execution and timing. And there was always the element of luck. Fortunately, luck was with Pilsudski and the Poles.

Click here for: Jozef Pilsudski’s Revolutionary Idea – Mission Possible: The Great Polish Train (Part One)

Capital of Obscurity – Chisinau: A Non-Visitor’s Guide

Many years ago, I tried to stump a close friend and Cambridge educated historian with a trivia question. My question arose while we were discussing geography, specifically national capitals. My friend had always been dismissive of Eastern Europe as an underdeveloped region full of strange peoples who historically could not get their acts together. For him, the region was filled with superstitious peasants speaking unintelligible languages. Four decades of communism had only made matters worse, adding to a long history of despotic dictatorships. All this banter aside, our discussion turned to a sort of impromptu trivia quiz.

As I began to rattle off one Eastern European nation after another, he named each of their capitals with a startling indifference, as if to say: “Do you really think I don’t know the capital of Albania?” I should have known better. After all, this was a man who read the World Almanac while eating dinner. It was not long before I was running short of nations. Then I stumbled upon the one country that I thought just might have a capital that would escape his base of knowledge. At the very least this country might make him pause while deep in thought before excavating an answer from his memory bank. I said with barely disguised glee, “Moldova.” He paused, but only for a second before saying “Chisinau.” After that the game ended.

A Whole New World - Chisinau in 1980

A Whole New World – Chisinau in 1980 (Credit: Ion Chibzil)

Cheap Thrills – A Strange Place To Party
Anyone who can name Chisinau as the capital of Moldova is either an academic, a Moldovan or a madman. Of all the European capitals, Chisinau is by far the most obscure. How could it not be? Most people have little idea where Moldova is to begin with, let alone its capital. Those who do, myself included, have been known to get it mixed up with Moldavia, which is one of the three main regions of Romania. To make matter more confusing, Moldavia borders Moldova. Furthermore, Chisinau used to be a provincial capital in the Soviet Union’s most obscure republic before 1991. Moldova (Bessarabia when it was part of pre-1940 Romania) was never seen as an independent nation until the Soviet Union collapsed. For geo-political and economic reasons Moldova was not reattached to Romania. Thus, Chisinau ended up as a national capital. Today it is the sixty-first largest city in Europe and without a doubt, the most obscure capital.

I have only met one person who has been to Chisinau. This was a young British guy I talked to at a hostel in Kiev. He had just spent several days there with friends. I was interested to hear his impressions. When I asked him what it was like, he just shrugged. They were not really visiting Chisinau to sightsee. It soon became obvious why. He and his friends were traveling through Eastern Europe to party in cheap places. Chisinau has become known for its pulsating nightlife. It is also reputedly very cheap. As the capital of the poorest country in Europe how could it not be. This did not seem a legitimate reason for visiting unless you were young and looking to get drunk. Those activities did not interest me, but I was still intrigued by Chisinau.

Delusions of Grandeur - Nightlife in Chisinau

Delusions of Grandeur – Nightlife in Chisinau (Credit: Nicolai Mihailiuc)

Capital Investment – The Wealth Of Nations
At one time, I dreamed of going to every capital city in Eastern Europe. I rationalized this short-lived fantasy as an experiential way to compare levels of national development. I am sure it would be, but a capital often provides a skewed view of a nation. Capital cities are often promotional set pieces for a nation and home to most of its governmental institutions. National history and art museums, along with a grand array of cultural attractions, are to be found there as well. These are often more attractive to foreigners than they are locals. Another distinct trait of a national capital is that its inhabitants are almost always more prosperous than those who live in other areas of the country. Moldova suffers from terrible poverty by European standards, but Chisinau is by far its wealthiest city. It is responsible for 60% of the entire Gross Domestic Product of the country. Chisinau also provides a skewed view of Moldova. It is the closest thing to an urban metropolis in Europe’s least urbanized country. Only 43% or 1.15 million Moldovans live in an urban area. 71% of those live in the Chisinau metro area. These are extraordinary statistics in an increasingly urbanizing Europe. It seems that Chisinau is an urban exception that proves the rural rule when it comes to Moldova’s population.

Moldova is mainly known for two things, wine and its beautiful monasteries. Vineyards do not sprout from Chisinau’s concrete constructions, while monasteries are refuges for contemplation not usually associated with cityscapes. Ironically, Chisinau does have a connection to one of Moldova’s most famous attractions associated with wine. Just fifteen kilometers north of the city is Cricova, home to the 2nd largest wine cellar complex in Moldova and one of the largest in the world. The cellars were created by the excavation of limestone, much of which went for the communist era buildings which can be seen towering across Chisinau. The city suffered major destruction, first from a catastrophic earthquake in 1940, then from aerial bombing and urban warfare during the Second World War. The limestone at Cricova was invaluable in helping form the less than desirable post-war architectural cityscape of Chisinau.

An Open City - The Gate of Chisinau

An Open City – The Gate of Chisinau (Credit: Serhio)

Concrete Realities – Skyscrapers of Stalinism
The Soviet legacy of Chisinau is both its main draw and its greatest drawback. Much of the city’s population lives in the stolid high-rise housing blocks which are the skyscrapers of Stalinism. These soaring eyesores allowed the city to grow from a population of just over 100,000 after the Second World War to 676,000 in 1991 when the Soviet era ended. They are often associated with the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras since those periods were when construction accelerated the most. The Soviet Union dumped a billion rubles into these constructions during the early 1970’s, transforming Chisinau with the infrastructure of brutalism. The city still lives in this long concrete shadow. The Soviet style city may not be appealing to tourists and is certainly not high on my list of must-sees, but it does hold a certain attraction. For those who want to get an idea of what a communist city looked like behind the Iron Curtain, Chisinau is a good place to start.

A Recurrent Madness – The Meaning of Breclav (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Twenty-four)

We escaped from Austerlitz with both our lives intact. That might sound like an exaggeration, but not really. The entry road that led to and from Pratzen Heights was a lot more treacherous going down, then it had been on the way up. The gravel road was coated in snow which was rapidly turning to ice. We observed one unlucky driver resigned to a ditch. In the whirling whiteness it had been hard to grasp the deceptive topography Napoleon had so expertly used to his advantage at Pratzen Heights. The drive back to the main highway gave us a better idea of the hill’s subtle undulations. Fortunately, we were able to avoid careening down these historic slopes. Both my wife and I let out a collective sigh of relief when we found the blacktop a few minutes later. It was all downhill from here or so I professed to believe.

Destiny or Destination - Breclav Railway Station

Destiny or Destination – Breclav Railway Station (Credit: Josef Moser)

Tilting At Windmills –  The Powerlessness of Positive Thinking
In one of those fits of recurrent travel madness that worry me as much as those traveling with me, I decided that we might be able to make it back to Debrecen in eastern Hungary on the same day. Never mind that we were slipping and sliding across the frontiers of Moravia and we still had windblown eastern Austria to cross. Plenty of windmills would be tilting at us in the Burgenland. There was also the conveniently ignored fact that western Hungary was said to be due for inclement weather just as bad or worse than what we were currently driving through. And still nothing could stop my optimism, which was soon traveling down a highway of slush at 100 kilometers per hour.

I always find the end of my Eastern European journeys disturbing. The thrill of anticipation has long since passed with all those exciting thoughts of adventure now relegated to the rear view mirror.  My mind was firmly fixed on returning home, which meant heading for Debrecen out on the Great Hungarian Plain. By the time we began our homeward bound journey it was already late morning. The weather was gloomy at best, wintry at worst. This did nothing to detain me. There was no use dawdling in despair at some random roadside inn when we might be able to make it back well before midnight. My wife had heard such grandiose proclamations before and tended to ignore them. We both knew the truth, the weather would make the decision for us.

Living on the Edge - Location of Breclav in the Czech Republic

Living on the Edge – Location of Breclav in the Czech Republic (Credit: Kroton)

A Twinge of Excitement – On The Border
It was not long before we were closing in on the Czech-Austria border. This gave me the opportunity of returning to a town I knew only from a railway carriage window. That was where I spied a brightly lit platform. It had been sixteen months earlier, deep in a chilly autumn night, on a nightmarish-night train from Budapest to Krakow. I remember groggily waking and peering out the window where I saw an attractive female border guard. Her hair was pulled back and ticked beneath a stiff cap. She had been languidly strolling on the platform. There were several other guards interspersed as well. I faintly remember a twinge of excitement that always accords my arrival in another country. Then I proceeded to collapse back into my berth. That was my first and up until this wintry moment only impression of Breclav.

Breclav would have been just a memory to me, but a second visit seemed serendipitous, as though this was becoming both my destiny and destination. On this day everything was covered in wet snow. Flakes slowly spit out of an all-consuming grayness. The railway station, where I first became briefly acquainted with the town, looked inviting rather than menacing. There were no border guards to be found. On this day, Breclav was a sleepy place taking a long winter’s nap. Of course, all I was another drive by of Breclav, making a pass-through presence and nothing else. My wife paid no attention to my chatter about being back in Breclav. The writer in me sniffed irony, my wife sensed banality, hence the lack of a response. There was something about Breclav that I could not quite put my finger on. Minutes after our arrival we were leaving. The disquieting sense of familiarity dissipated, but I knew that a third visit lay somewhere in a distant future.

On the Night Train - Breclav railway station in the evening

On the Night Train – Breclav railway station in the evening (Credit: Vojtech Dockal)

A Return Trip – Past & Future Goals
One of the joys of travel in this part of Europe was how little I knew about most places. The logical corollary is how much there is still to discover. This makes traipsing around the hinterlands of Moravia seem that much more eventful. Every town or small city offers something new and by extension, something different. If you want to see the real Eastern Europe, it means going somewhere besides Budapest, Prague and Vienna. Breclav might as well be the South Pole by this standard. That second fleeting visit turned the town into something that would occupy my imagination long after departure. A question loomed in my mind, “what was the meaning of Breclav?” The answer was not clear and will not be until I return. In the meantime, a vicarious visit had to take place. This involved researching the town’s history to find out how Breclav came to exist in its current form.

Location and transport were and still are everything when it comes to the development of Breclav. The town’s situation, close to the confluence of the Thaya and Moravia Rivers brought people to settle the area as far back as prehistoric times. In the modern age, Breclav was selected as the first railway junction in Austria-Hungary. A function it still maintains today. My earlier train journey to Krakow brought me to this junction. Trains to Vienna, Prague, Bratislava and Prague all went by way of Breclav as well.  Discovering this, I suddenly realized that many years before I had stopped in Breclav on a train from Bratislava to Prague. Breclav had become a habit without me even knowing it. I discovered a sudden sense of affinity with the town. It was part of the story of a life spent in transit. Breclav is now more than a town to me. It is a dream, a hope, a goal, a return trip to both my past and an unknown future. What was the meaning of Breclav? I have no idea, but I intend to find out.

Click here for: Winter Conditions – Austria, Hungary & Europe Closing In On Themselves (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Twenty-five)