Outside Of Eastern Europe – The Czech Republic: In The Middle of Mitteleuropa

If you want to upset a Czech refer to their nation as part of Eastern Europe. The Czechs do not consider themselves Eastern Europeans in any geographic, economic or cultural sense. There is a good argument to made that for the most part they are not. The strongest argument is based upon geography. The fact that Prague is further west than Vienna and almost as far west as Berlin is worth noting, unfortunately most of the world has failed to recognize this fact. Divisions of Europe in the media are still made along East-West dividing lines. Only when Europe is divided into three separate geographical spheres: eastern, western and central does the Czech Republic get grouped into something other than the east. Those who value nuance over the stereotypical will recognize that the Czech Republic’s location places it at the heart of Mitteleuropa, a historical and regional designation that was at its strongest prior to the World Wars. This region consists of historically German and Habsburg lands, with the Czech Lands of Bohemia and Moravia squeezed in between. It was, as it always has been, at the heart of Europe.

Things began to change during the Cold War when Europe was transformed into a bipolar world, with an Iron Curtain dividing it into eastern and western spheres. The Czechs fell on the wrong side of that curtain and are still largely seen as part of that sphere today. The Cold War severed the Czechs from their historical relationships with Austria and much of Germany. Suddenly, Bohemia and Moravia were east of center rather than at the center of Central Europe. The Czechs were cast into a new role, as members of the Eastern Bloc and Warsaw Pact under the Soviet sphere of influence. This situation may now be history, based on a long since vanished geo-political situation, but the stigma still exists. The Eastern Bloc legacy still casts a long shadow across the Czech Republic and affects how the nation is viewed by outsiders.

For many, the Czech Republic is not that far removed from Czechoslovakia, but for the Czechs nothing could be further from the truth. The Czech Republic is much richer, freer and progressive than the archaic communist state that hindered its growth for far too long. Nevertheless, the Czech Republic and Eastern Europe are still synonymous in for many people. The question begs to be asked, just how Eastern European is the Czech Republic.? The answer, like everything else in this region, is complex.

Central To Europe - The Czech Republic & Mitteleuropa

Central To Europe – The Czech Republic & Mitteleuropa (Credit: Grossgliederung Europas – NordNordWest)

Between Western Prosperity & Eastern Aspirations – A Post-Communist Utopia
Economically, the Czech Republic straddles eastern and western Europe. The Czechs have largely managed to escape from the dire economic legacy of communism and the chaos of the early 1990’s transition to capitalism and a market economy. The economy has grown to such an extent that it is the envy of fellow former Eastern Bloc members. Some commentators have gone so far as to call it the “Utopia of Eastern Europe.” Such hyperbole does contain many seeds of truth. For instance, the Czech Republic has a higher GDP per person than any of the nations that were considered part of “Eastern Europe” during the Cold War except for Slovenia. And its ultra-low unemployment rate is positively utopian when compared with those same nations.

The picture is different though when the Czech Republic is compared with Austria or Germany. It comes nowhere close to either in terms of economic development or GDP per person. Yet its close geographic proximity to these economic powerhouses has done much to aid its rapid development. It helps that these two nations shared a Mitteleuropa culture with the Czechs for over five hundred years. Taking the long view of the region’s history, communism is an aberration while the relationship between the Czechs and Germanic peoples has been nearly continuous. Due to that long-standing relationship the Czech Republic gets a high degree of direct investment from Germany and Austria due to its low labor costs, highly educated workforce and a population known for its strong work ethic. To a large extent, the Czechs act as an economic bridge for Europe, between western prosperity and eastern aspirations.

The Heart Of Europe - The Czech Republic's location in the European Union

The Heart Of Europe – The Czech Republic’s location in the European Union (Credit: David Liuzzo)

Stuck In The Middle – Back Where They Belong
Ethnically, the Czech Republic often gets grouped in with Eastern Europe because the Czechs are a Slavic people. The Slavs are virtually synonymous with entire swaths of Eastern Europe, think Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and the Balkans. It is also true for Slovakia and Poland, though both would rather call themselves, with some justification, central European. The Czechs are the furthest western outpost of the Slavic peoples. As such they do not have a great deal in common with their ethnic brethren further to the east. They are not Orthodox in religion, or for that matter very religious at all. A 2005 Eurobarometer poll showed that Czechs were the second least religious people in Eastern Europe, behind only Latvians. Those great innovators of the Cyrillic alphabet, Cyril and Methodius, spent a fair amount of time in the Czech lands, but the Czechs themselves use Latin script for their alphabet. Of course, the Czech language is a Slavic one, but the nation’s intellectual and cultural orientation is Central European.

Finally there is the issue of geography. The Czech Republic’s official tourism agency has used “The Heart of Europe” slogan on occasion, but in a scientific sense is this true? Perhaps the best way of answering that question is to figure out where the midpoint of Europe is located. Locating such a point has proven problematic, because it really comes down to the parameters used to find the midpoint. Due to these varying parameters, many different locations have laid claim to the geographic center of Europe. These include central Slovakia, eastern Hungary, western Ukraine, northern Belarus, eastern Lithuania and even an island off the coast of Estonia. If any of these happen to be correct than it means that the Czech Republic lies in western Europe. Of course, politics, culture and economics are not scientific in the same sense as geography. It might be better to say that the Czech Republic lies close to the heart of the European Union. Since the accession of Eastern European nations, the EU’s midpoint is now located in southern Bavaria. This places the Czech Republic just to the east of center, putting it right back where it was for much of the 20th century, stuck right near the middle.

 

The Fruits of His Many Labors – Agoston Haraszthy: A Hungarian Dream In California (Part Two)

Wikipedia contains a comprehensive list of famous Hungarian-Americans. The list includes 42 actors and actresses (who knew Rodney Dangerfield and the Phoenix brothers were of Hungarian descent), 28 filmmakers (ever heard of the exquisitely named Nimrod Antal), 47 sportspeople (who does not love Lou “The Toe” Groza), 41 scientists (looking to blow up the world, Hungarians have it covered with Edward Teller and Leo Szilard), 14 writers (Joseph Pulitzer to name just one), 26 musicians and composers (everyone from Peter Cetera to Flea to Paul Simon), 9 politicians and 33 others. That final category happened to be among the most intriguing. It contains a trove of past (Harry Houdini) and current (George Soros) luminaries.

I began checking the Hungarian-Americans list wondering if the name of Agoston Harazsthy might be listed. My heart sank as I scrolled further and further downward in what I began to believe was a vain attempt to locate his name. Just before giving up hope, I found his name heading up the “Others” list. At first, I thought this might be something of a slight, but then I recognized the names of Houdini, Soros and Estee Lauder also listed under the category. Many of the “Others” on that list, consisted of those who could not easily be pigeonholed. Haraszthy fit in well with this group. His own Wikipedia entry lists him having no fewer than twenty different occupations. Haraszthy was a man of many professions, but what would bring him lasting fame really began in earnest over the last twenty years of his life, most of which took place in California.

A Dream Realized - Buena Vista Winery

A Dream Realized – Buena Vista Winery

Dream Chasing – A Man For All Seasons
In 1849, Haraszthy sold off his properties in southern Wisconsin and prepared to move with his family to California. That same year, over 50,000 fortune seekers made the same journey across what would become known as the California Gold Rush Trail angling north and west across Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho and Nevada before arriving in the upper part of California. Haraszthy also went overland, but on a much more southerly route. He had a good reason for doing this since his California dream involved something other than gold. Haraszthy was in search of the perfect growing region for vineyards. His party consisted of 60 men, women and children with Haraszthy leading it safely to the San Diego area. There he began to work towards his goal.

True to his more recent past, Haraszthy soon found himself involved in a wide range of professions which included city marshal, stage coach operator, sheriff, proprietor of a butchery, elected state legislator and vintner. It was the last which most captured his interest. He tried many different types of imported vines on land in the San Diego area. It was not long before Haraszthy began to turn his attention northward to the Bay Area, purchasing land which he thought might be better suited to viticulture. Sure enough, Haraszthy was planting vines on the San Francisco peninsula in the mid-1850’s. The dreary, moist climate would prove impossible to overcome.

A Legacy of Quality - The Hallmark of Haraszthy

A Legacy of Quality – The Hallmark of Haraszthy

Staking His Claim – Success In Sonoma
During his time in San Francisco, Haraszthly was struck by the same gold fever that had lured hundreds of thousands fortune seekers to California. As he did so many times in his life, Haraszthly found a unique niche to pursue. He started a gold melting and refining facility, going into business with other Hungarians in the area. Haraszthy’s expertise gained him a position as the first assayer at the U.S. Mint in San Francisco. His new career took a turn for the worse when he was accused of committing fraud. After several years of legal battles, he was found not guilty of committing any crime. The controversy turned out to have silver lining, as Haraszthly was soon on the move yet again. This time further north and a bit inland to the Sonoma Valley, a landscape that was ripe for wine growing.

Haraszthy discovered the perfect California micro-climate for viticulture in Sonoma. He began to cultivate a wide range of vines on hillsides in the area. He soon found success after starting the Buena Vista Winery, which is still in business today. It was there that he constructed the first stone wine cellars in California. He publicized and promoted the region, sub-dividing some of his land for smaller plots which he gave to famous Californians as an incentive to take up viticulture in the area. He also turned back to writing once again, penning the first published work on wine growing in California. He was recognized as an authority by state officials on both viticulture and agriculture. His expertise and innovation led to Haraszthy becoming the first president of the California Agricultural Society.

Mysterious Circumstances – Excessive In The Extreme
With so much success, it is remarkable that Haraszthy did not settle down and enjoy the fruits of his many labors. A cursory review of his life reveals a man who was habitually restless, constantly striving for new innovations. He could never get enough of his passions. His appetite for wine growing was excessive in the extreme. He soon overextended himself, running into trouble paying down the heavy debts he had incurred while developing Buena Vista. He was struggling to make ends meet when his vineyards were struck by phylloxera, the outbreak of this deadly disease struck without warning. It caused vines to wither and rot. Haraszthy’s genius did nothing to combat its lethality. His dream slowly died right before his eyes, the feeling of helplessness must have been immense. In the past, he had been able to overcome all obstacles, whether financial or climatic, but against phylloxera he was helpless. Sadly, he was reduced to declaring bankruptcy. The end was near for him, not just in Sonoma Valley, but also in life.

The final act of Haraszthy’s life played out in a bizarre incident. In 1868, he moved to Nicaragua and threw all his energy into yet another enterprise. Haraszthy started a sugar plant, which was to be used in the production of rum which he would then import to the United States. This was another frontier that Haraszthy looked to conquer. That would prove to be impossible as Haraszthy mysteriously disappeared into a river. Searchers did not find any hard evidence of Haraszthy’s disappearance, no bones, no clothing, not a shred of hard evidence. He was just gone. Some posited that he had been attacked and eaten by alligators who frequented the river where he was last seen. Others thought it might have been foul play Whatever happened, Haraszthy’s disappearance left history with only one thing that has lived on well beyond his remarkable life, an incredible legacy.

The Ultimate Immigrant – Agoston Haraszthy: Hungarian Ambition Arrives In America (Part One)

There are certain people in history who did so many important things that it is hard to imagine how they had the energy, let alone the time, to do them all. One of these is the Hungarian, Agoston Haraszthy. The name will not be found in many history books in Hungary and hardly any in the United States. Haraszthy was not a king, minister, politician or general. He did not pass any major laws, issue important decrees or gain glorious victories on the field of battle. He was a nobleman and so much more. Haraszthy’s life was about action and innovation, travel and pioneering endeavors. Many of his endeavors have passed the ultimate test, that of time and yet only a handful of people know the name or remember what he did. This is such a shame because Agoston Haraszthy’s life was one of accomplishments, both great and small.

Agoston Haraszthy - The Great Innovator

Agoston Haraszthy – The Great Innovator

Every Breaking Wave – A Force Of Undeniable Vigor
To paraphrase a line from Marcel Proust’s great literary work, Remembrance of Things Past, the world was not created once and for all time, instead it is created every day. That would be a fitting epitaph for the life of Agoston Haraszthy. For he created and recreated the world every day of his life, such was his genius for innovation that he was constantly involving himself in new activities. These would take him halfway around the world, until his life finally came full circle. Life and thought flowed out of him like a river that carried ideas to distant shores. The river is a fitting motif for Haraszthy’s life as he was born close to one of the greats, the Danube in Futok (Futog in northern Serbia). He would mysteriously disappear in another river half a world away at the end of his life. Rivers and oceans were avenues of transport that allowed Haraszthy to chase his dreams to distant shores. He rode the crest of many waves to far off lands. And when those waves finally broke, he always found another one to drive him and his ideas forward.

Ambitious and enterprising. To understand everything Agoston Haraszthy accomplished, one must understand that he was the very essence of those two words. Haraszthy was a man with massive amounts of ambition that manifested through an incredible array of enterprising activities. These traits did not come from the pursuit of wealth or an impoverished upbringing. They came from something else, an unquantifiable surge of frenetic activity that stirred deep within him. One of the most fascinating aspects of Haraszthy’s character was that while he had the means to stay in Hungary and live the life of a nobleman on a family estate, he chose to do otherwise. His homeland may have been Hungary, but he lived for his dreams. These dreams he would pursue with an undeniable vigor. This vigor had time for family as well as work. Married at the age of twenty-one to Eleonora Dedinszky, the couple would soon have six children. There was also the existential motivating threat of the Austrian Emperor who looked at men such as Haraszthy with barely disguised disdain. Haraszthy had supported the Hungarian independence movement of Lajos Kossuth. The upshot of his involvement was that it forced Haraszthy to look for other opportunities outside his homeland. This did nothing to deny Haraszthy from pursuing the abiding ambition of his early life, travel to the United States.

Town Builder - Agoston Haraszthy the founder of Sauk Center, Wisconsin

Town Builder – Agoston Haraszthy the founder of Sauk Center, Wisconsin

Cultivating Opportunity – Taming The Untamed Frontier
The trip to America was the beginning of Haraszthy as a pioneer. America was a land made for pioneers, with an outsized canvas on which they could go about creating an entirely new world. Haraszthy first traveled to America in 1840 with a lone cousin in tow. The country they found was a young republic, one on the move. Expansion was the motivating force pulling pioneers westward. This suited Haraszthy who was not content to stop on the East Coast, instead he surged deep into the interior. He traveled to what is today the Upper Midwest. At the beginning of the 1840’s it was an untamed frontier. Upon a stretch of prairie in southern Wisconsin, Haraszthy created that future state’s first Euro-American settlement. Along the Wisconsin River he founded “Szeptaj”, which means “beautiful place” in Hungarian. After a succession of name changes it eventually became Sauk Center. Here was a settlement that had staying power, both as a town and for Haraszthy’s family. The reason for that was mainly due to Haraszthy’s initiative.

Among his enterprises included crop cultivation, raising livestock, constructing mills, running a store, developing a brick kiln and operating a steamboat. The one enterprise closest to his heart and a direct import from his homeland was the cultivation of vineyards. Haraszthy had worked closely as a wine grower with his father-in-law in Hungary. He now brought a talent for viticulture to the wilds of Wisconsin. Soon he was growing grapes and having wine cellars excavated on hillsides above the river. This was the beginning of the second oldest winery in the United States, one that continues today as the Wollersheim Winery. Such was the success of Haraszthy’s many enterprises in the area that Sauk Center became the first incorporated town in Wisconsin.

A Man On The Move – Travels In North America
Haraszthy was not alone during this time. He worked closely with his partner, another immigrant from England by the name of Robert Bryant. In 1842, Haraszthy managed to bring his entire family to Wisconsin. They would never again return to Hungary, at least not in the flesh. Agoston Haraszthy did return to Hungary in the form of words. As one of the first permanent settlers from Hungary in the United States he took it upon himself to report back to his countrymen about what he had discovered in this land of opportunity. The upshot of his efforts was a remarkable book known as “Utazas Ejszakamerikaban” (Travels in North America). At the time there was very little knowledge of the United States in Hungary, Haraszthy’s book expanded the information on offer exponentially.

The book’s value lay in its eyewitness account. It offered potential emigres a preview of what they would find in the United States if they chose to follow in Haraszthy’s footsteps. This would be of great importance in the years to come as the first wave of Hungarians immigrants left for America after the failed uprising of the 1848 Hungarian Revolution. Haraszthy would also leave his adopted home in Wisconsin during this time. In 1848, he like tens of thousands of others, was struck by the stories he heard of gold discoveries in California. Incredible opportunities awaited those with the energy and vitality to travel there. It was not long before Haraszthy was planning to make discoveries of his own in a new land of opportunity.

Chronic Absenteeism –Eastern Europeans Abroad: In Search Of Opportunity

I first became cognizant of Eastern Europeans heading abroad to pursue better economic opportunities 17 years ago while working for a summer on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Many seasonal stores and shops there employed Latvian students who looked by turns bemused and perplexed at finding themselves spending a summer far from the Baltic Sea. Instead they were on a barrier island along a stretch of distant American shoreline. I distinctly remember talking with one bored looking Latvian girl who was sequestered behind a gas station cash register. When I revealed a bit of my knowledge about her homeland, she looked at me as though I was crazy. Small talk was not her thing. She was there to earn money to tide her over for the coming year at university. The infusion of Latvian seasonal workers to the Carolina coast was nothing compared to what I experienced during my five years living in Wall, South Dakota.

High Plains Drifters – Eastern Europe in Western South Dakota
Wall is home to the world famous Wall Drug, a tourist hot spot par excellence. The drug store’s main claim to fame are its signs which dot interstates in all directions, hundreds of miles in advance of this kitschy attraction. Wall Drug signs can be found in such far flung locales as the North Pole, Nairobi and Amsterdam among many other places. In my travels, I have never seen a Wall Drug sign in Eastern Europe, but that has not stopped the drug store in recruiting legions of workers from these nations.  In that tiny town on the high plains of South Dakota there were Poles, Romanians, Czechs, Slovaks, Bulgars and Macedonians. Enough ethnic diversity to rival the old Austro-Hungarian Empire was settled down for a long, hot summer on the wind blasted landscape of rolling grasslands. I availed myself of the opportunity to hang out with these student age workers and discovered that several had already spent other summers away from their homelands.

Most of them hoped to eventually move abroad after they completed their degrees. Case in point, a young Polish woman who had worked the two previous summers in Wales. Her first job was working in a factory that mass produced baked goods. Putting dollops of cream on top of cakes paid more than many professional jobs did in Poland. Her mother held a decent government job in Poland but pay was mediocre and the work mind numbing. Cake factory work was no one’s idea of excitement, but the pay was worth it. She remarked that bartending in an English pub paid more than any job she could find back in Poland. Eventually after graduating university, she moved to Wales, found a good job and married another Pole who was there for the same reasons.

Rule Britannia - Eastern European living in Great Britain

Rule Britannia – Eastern European living in Great Britain

En Masse Emigration – Going West
The phenomenon of meeting Eastern Europeans far from their homelands continued on a trip around western Turkey several years later. It was there that I met a very nice young couple by the name of Andrew and Agnes. They were from Australia, or at least that was what I first thought. The couple had met while Agnes worked an internship in Australia, she was originally from Hungary. They had married not long before and spent the first year of their marriage on the island of Jersey in the English Channel due to her husband’s job. Agnes related her experiences of a winter spent living in relative isolation, suffering through endless, drenching rainstorms. This was not how she remembered life in Hungary, but she went where her husband’s work took her. A few years later I made the acquaintance of a would be Hungarian filmmaker. To support his projects, he was forced to find IT work, not in Hungary but Great Britain. He went there for the better wages. Working part of the year in Britain was more lucrative than a full-time job in Hungary.

Then there was my wife. Prior to our marriage and her emigration to the United States she spent a couple of summers working well-paying jobs at English language schools in Britain. When we met, she was considering moving there. One of her best friends worked for the United Nations and took a two year position in Jordan because it paid better than the one she had in Hungary. Another emigrated to Canada and immediately found a good paying job, soon thereafter she joined Toronto’s middle class. The more Hungarians I met, the more I realized how many upwardly mobile ones were leaving the country. This should not have been surprising, but it was for me. The media – especially in Great Britain – had been full of stories for years about Poles descending on their country in droves. There were fears throughout Europe of the dreaded Polish plumbers and legions of Romanians and Bulgarians emigrating en masse in search of economic opportunity.

The Rich Get Richer – Westward Flows The Course Of Emigration
Knowing so many Eastern Europeans who had left, were leaving or planned to leave their homelands personalized the situation for me. I began to wonder how these countries could possibly replace all that talent and brainpower, the short answer is that they cannot. Many of their best and brightest have headed abroad in search of a lifestyle that their parents could only have dreamed of. The stultifying corruption of post-communist governments in Eastern Europe forced those without insider connections to emigrate to richer, westernized countries where their job prospects would be based on achievement and merit. This emigration, mainly to the most economically developed European Union member nations, is unprecedented in the history of Eastern Europe.

According to the United Nations, fully 6% of Eastern Europe’s population emigrated between 1992 and 2015. That figure computes to an 18 million people, equivalent to the combined population of Hungary, Slovakia and Lithuania. All that human capital is hard at work in western countries, innovating, creating and producing. The rich get richer. Meanwhile Eastern Europe fights to maintain its place in an increasingly globalized world. Strides have been made in many Eastern European countries to lure talent back home or keep it from going abroad. Trying to reverse a quarter century of emigration from east to west will take time and most importantly, money.

Breeding Like Hermits – Demographic Decline In Eastern Europe: 40 Million Missing Persons (Part Two)

The unprecedented decline of the population in Eastern Europe during the post-communist era (1990 – present) was more than just a simple rise in death rates and drop in birth rates. Many of the best and brightest from these countries were still alive and doing well, just not in their homelands. One of the most common traits of Eastern Europeans during this period has been an urge to move westward. On more occasions than I can recount, I have been told by Hungarians, Slovaks, Romanians and Latvians among others, that they are moving to central or western Europe as soon as possible. They are ready to turn a long-awaited dream into reality. Millions of Eastern Europeans have voted with their feet and fled to more prosperous places. The Romanians prefer Italy, Poles Great Britain, Hungarians Germany, Ukrainians Poland and Bulgarians almost anywhere but their own country. Millions of Eastern Europeans are now scattered across the continent.

This situation has been exacerbated by EU membership, for all but a few of these countries (Ukraine, Moldova and all the Balkan countries except for Croatia). The borders between East and West have all but dissolved in much of Europe – as their young, intelligent, upwardly mobile citizens flee to the west, draining their homelands of brain and manpower. Relatively few of them return for anything other than a visit. Better wages, abundant jobs and a comfortable lifestyle are what attracts them to western and central Europe. This trend has begun to abate over the past few years as more job opportunities have become available in the growing economies of Eastern European nations. The cost of living is also much lower. The migration westward has slowed, but not before it caused grievous harm to the economic growth prospects of Eastern Europe. For example, Slovakia has 80,000 unfilled positions due to skills and labor shortages. The people who would have taken those jobs are now living somewhere beyond the western horizon. Migration to the near abroad has sapped the region of millions of its most talented citizens. This trend has only added to the greatest regional population decline in modern history.

Downward Trend - Population Projections for Eastern Europe 2017 - 2050

Downward Trend – Population Projections for Eastern Europe 2017 – 2050

The Ever Deepening Decline – Future Uncertain
The reasons for the demographic decline in Eastern Europe cannot just be put down to mass economic migration. The problem is multifaceted. Start with the fact that economic hardship was a way of life throughout the 1990’s in every country east of the former Iron Curtain. The transition from communism to capitalism was a wild roller coaster ride at best. Living standards dropped as the state subsidized economic model vanished almost overnight. Unemployment soared as heavy industry buckled under the weight of international competition. Raising a family became increasingly difficult. Anyone that had thoughts of starting a family had to reconsider or do so under the most trying economic and social circumstances. Politics was fraught with instability and the future was uncertain. Just earning enough to live on was difficult. The societal instability caused birth rates to plummet. At the same time, economic woes and faltering health care meant death rates soared.

At the same time, many turned to alcohol and drugs for succor. Those who could migrate to other parts of Europe or far flung areas often did. Those left behind had to fend for themselves. The vast amount of state support that had sustained these societies over four decades was nowhere to be found. It was every man and woman for themselves. Many did not survive the experience. Those who did are to be commended. Since 1990, the United Nations estimates that the population of Eastern Europe dropped by 18 million. Nothing has ever been seen like this in a world predicated upon growth. And the demographic decline continues. In many of these countries the situation may get worse. If demographics are destiny then Eastern Europe is looking at a much less crowded future.

Fathomless Depths – Communism’s Last Legacy
The loss of 18 million people is hard to fathom, especially when the world population has enjoyed explosive -some might say frightening – growth. Eastern Europe’s population shows no signs of rising anytime soon. Currently, the region is home to the top ten nations with the fastest declining populations in the world. This situation looks primed to accelerate in the coming years. Keep in mind, these dire figures are based upon current trends and the aging of these societies. Bulgaria will be the hardest hit, projected to lose almost a quarter of its population by 2050. Ukraine and Poland are projected to lose over five and a half million people each. If one adds up the total projected population loss of all ten nations by the year 2050 it comes to almost 22 million. That would mean in a sixty-year period (1990 – 2050) Eastern Europe would have lost 40 million people. This figure is difficult to fathom and begs the question of what can be done to stop or at least slow the decline.

The region’s governments have tried a variety of policies. One of the most bizarre was a recent government campaign in Poland telling the populace to “breed like rabbits.” The statistics show they are still breeding like hermits. The campaign went nowhere. If a country as fervently Roman Catholic as Poland cannot stem the current trend, then it is doubtful any others can. There is a silver lining in this downward slide. Less people will mean more living space. As the rest of the world gets more overcrowded Eastern Europe is emptying out. Does it really matter if Bulgaria has 8.9 million people as they did in 1990 as compared with a projected 5.4 million in 2050? In the context of keeping a modern economy growing, it certainly does. Will there be enough workers to support pensioners? Most likely not. Some commentators have offered the suggestion of replenishing the population with migrants from the war torn Middle East as a possible solution. This is an exceedingly tough sell in countries that labored under Soviet occupation for over forty years. Resistance is bolstered by the fear engendered by population loss. If nations such as Bulgaria and Latvia, lose millions more people they could either cease to exist or be swamped by outsiders. These are issues no one wants to contemplate, let alone address. The only thing certain, is that the decline will continue. Communism in Eastern Europe may be over, but its painful legacy lives on.

Click here for: Terminal Illness – Demography & Demagoguery: The Post-Communist Population Collapse In Eastern Europe (Part One)

Terminal Illness – Demography & Demagoguery: The Post-Communist Population Collapse In Eastern Europe (Part One)

Since the collapse of communism in 1989 the quality of life in Eastern European nations has undoubtedly improved. Incomes have risen, consumer products are readily available, freedom of speech and press is now the law of the land (though there has been a great deal of backsliding on both of late) and fear of arbitrary arrest has all but disappeared. Communism was an economic, environmental and human disaster. Planned, highly centralized economies led to stagnation. Heavy industry was kept up by state subsidies. Not only was it terribly uncompetitive, but also led to environmental degradation. Human creativity was quashed. Millions were arrested and died at the hands of dictatorships purporting to represent the proletariat. Politics became an extremely narrow, toxic and often deadly business to be avoided at all costs. State sponsored corruption was endemic to the system, leading to societies where a small group of elites ruled over the masses.

Even in the countries which were ostensibly better off during this era (1948 – 1989), such as Hungary which was home to Goulash Communism and Yugoslavia where Titoism ruled with a much softer fist, the system could only be kept alive and quality of life improved (i.e. shelves with consumer products) by large loans from the western world. By the 1980’s both countries were deep in debt with economies that would have collapsed if the Iron Curtain had not first given way. And these were the supposedly successful communist countries. Yet for all this misery and the unsustainability of communism, it was also at the tail end of this era that the population of most Eastern European countries reached its greatest extent. Communism may have spread misery, but it certainly did not stop people from procreating enough to sustain the population. The same cannot be said today. While the quality of life has certainly improved, there is not nearly as much human life as there once was in these nations.

An Alarming Trend – Failure To Procreate
It is doubtful that many Hungarians would say that 1981 was a peak year in their nation’s history. At that time, Janos Kadar’s increasingly geriatric administration was in its 25th year. Hungary had attained the title of happiest barracks in the Eastern Bloc” due to a decent economy and its relative openness to the wider world. Conversely, the country was still in the grips of an ossified totalitarianism that showed no sign of abating anytime soon. It was also in that 1981 that the population of Hungary hit its highest level ever at 10.7 million. Since then the population has either declined or been stagnant for thirty-seven consecutive years. In 2011 the population of Hungary dropped below 10 million for the first time in half a century. It is unlikely to ever reach that level again, at least not in the 21st century.

Since the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, Hungary’s population has dropped by over half a million people. While this sounds dire, Hungary has plenty of company from other fellow Eastern European countries. In 1990, the year after the Ceaucescu dictatorship was overthrown in Romania, there was another reason for the nation’s citizens to celebrate. Romania’s population hit an all-time high at 23.2 million. Since that time, the population has fallen by over three and a half million. This is an alarming rate of decrease, due to many factors. The fact that communism could no longer keep Romanians hemmed into their own country meant that hundreds of thousands could immigrate abroad in search of better opportunities. Many have found just that and are unlikely to return.

Then there is the case of Bulgaria which does not offer any reason for optimism. People have been disappearing from this mid-sized Balkan nation since the year after communism’s collapse. The population of Bulgaria rose to unprecedented heights, an all-time high of 8.9 million in 1989. The very next year Bulgaria lost over 200,000 people. Perhaps they were obeying the tenant of that old wise saying of “getting out while the getting is good”. Amazingly, 1990 was not the most precipitous one year population drop of the post-communist period, worse was yet to come. In 2002 there were 280,000 less people in Bulgaria then the year before. In percentage terms Bulgaria has lost at least one out of every five citizens (other sources say one out of every four) since the rickety rule of long-time communist leader Tudor Zhivkov came to a peaceful conclusion.

Russian Cross - The black curve reflects the death rate dynamics, the red one corresponds to the birth rate

Russian Cross – The black curve reflects the death rate dynamics, the red one corresponds to the birth rate (Credit: Lihoborka)

Plummeting Population – Economic Growth, Demographic Decline
No Eastern European nation could escape the curse of a plummeting population, including ones that experienced a successful transition from communism to capitalism. For example, Poland has been one of the great success stories of the post-communist era. Economic reforms enacted in the early 1990’s have led to steady growth. When the rest of Europe went into recession following the financial crisis, Poland was the only country to sustain economic growth. One would assume that the demographic situation would also have been much better for Poland. That was not the case. The Polish population did increase for several years following the collapse of communism. Poland gained 550,000 people between 1990 and 1998 when the population peaked at 38.6 million. It has been all downhill from there. The current Polish population is now back to where it was in 1989. That trend will almost certainly continue in the years to come.

Further north and east the situation has been nothing short of alarming. Latvia has lost a quarter of its population since the Soviet Union collapsed, Estonia almost one-fifth. Russia suffered as much or more than anywhere else. The demographic decline there has been symbolically portrayed by what became known as the Russian Cross. This is where the birth and death rates are portrayed on a line graph. In 1992 – the year after the Soviet Union collapsed – the lines crossed as the death rate exceeded the birth rate. The situation stayed that way up through 2013 until the lines re-crossed. During that time span, Russia’s population dropped by 5.2 million. Put another way, Russia lost the equivalent of Norway’s entire population over a twenty-one year period. That is more than a crisis, it is a human catastrophe. Such dire examples beg the question of what exactly have been the causes of this demographic decline in post-communist Eastern Europe.

Click here for: Breeding Like Hermits – Demographic Decline In Eastern Europe: 40 Million Missing Persons (Part Two)

 

Surreal Shores – A Golden Dawn On The Bosphorus: The Orient Express By Boat (Part Four)

The passage by steamship from Varna to Constantinople was anything but romantic. For those who had traveled from the glitter and dazzle of Paris to the surreal shores of the Black Sea by train, the voyage across the water to Constantinople was a decided letdown. The passengers avoided the deck at all costs. A view of the sea was not worth chancing a confrontation with the throngs of refugees. The only thing standing between the bourgeois passengers and this primitive proletariat was a timber barrier and rope. The potential confrontation never took place as the passengers practiced the virtue of avoidance. They resigned themselves to “smoking” in their cabins. The smoking came not from cigarette or cigar smoke, but from a billowing black cloud emitted by the burning of low quality coal. Soon it had pervaded every compartment. Meanwhile the flat keeled Espero was battered and lashed by choppy waves in the tumultuous sea.

Panoramic view of Constantinople in the 1870s as seen from the Galata Tower (Wikipedia)

Panoramic view of Constantinople in the 1870s as seen from the Galata Tower (Credit: Wikipedia)

Technological Touchstone – A Question of Time
The ship had launched from the jetty in Varna at dusk. Just after the sun went down the temperature plummeted as an autumn chill gripped the air. A nice meal was prepared for the Orient Express passengers, but most of them were not in the mood for fine dining. This voyage was more about suffering than it was style. All the money in the world would not bring them greater comfort until they washed up on the shores of the Golden Horn at Constantinople the next morning. This watery journey would take a total of 14 mostly excruciating hours. The Orient Express had been a technological touchstone, but the Espero was a reminder of the way things used to be and still were for many travelers who had no choice but to travel by ship. Those who were fortunate enough to make this inaugural journey would be part of a relatively rare travel breed, a small group of people who had successfully completed the Orient Express route by train, ferry and steamship across land, river and sea. This cumbersome system using three types of transport would be the standard until 1888 when the Orient Express’ final rail links were opened in Bulgaria.

What the inaugural voyage gained in adventure by using such disparate modes of transport, it lost in time. Time was of the essence when it came to the Orient Express. The original timetable for the Paris to Constantinople trip showed that it should take 81 hours and 14 minutes. The inaugural journey ended up taking less than that, clocking in at 80 hours. Considering all the stops for ceremonies and side trips the Express had probably done much better than could be expected. Five years later, when the journey could all be done by rail the time was cut to 65 hours, saving over half a day. What made the journey by boat from Varna so ponderously slow was the weather. The open sea was an untamed wilderness of seemingly infinite space that ate away at the ship’s speed.

Dolmabache Palace as seen from the Bosphorus

Dolmabache Palace as seen from the Bosphorus

An Astonishing Sight – The Glory Of Constantinople
The Espero, was buffeted by a strong northeasterly wind that limited its average speed to just 12 knots (14 miles per hour). Thus, it is not surprising that the journey took from dusk to dawn for the ship to cover the Black Sea portion of the voyage. The passengers may not have enjoyed much of this seafaring adventure, but the final hours of it were nothing short of spectacular. The Espero entered the Bosphorus strait just as the sun rose. It was an astonishing sight. All the glories of ancient, medieval and more recent history were there for the viewing on both sides of the Bosporus. The ship passed by the rustic medieval castles on the European and Asian hillsides built to guard the entrance to the Bosphorus by the Ottomans. Both of the Sultan’s splendid palaces at Beylerbei and Dolhambache could be seen. The most marvelous sights were the domes and minarets that came into view from the city’s historic core. The ship entered the Golden Horn that morning, just as the city was coming to life.

A more dramatic entrance to one of the world’s greatest cities could not have been planned. All the troubles of the steamship voyage had been worth it. In a few more years, travelers on the Express  would not be able to have the same incredible experience. At the quayside, passengers were greeted by the Belgian Ambassador and some Turkish officials. The Belgian ambassador was there because the brainchild of the Orient Express was Georges Nagelmackers, the son of a Belgian banker. Nagelmackers had traveled with the Express on this inaugural journey. He must have felt an incredible satisfaction when he saw his dream of speedy and reliable transport with first class service connecting western Europe to the near east finally come to fruition.  The passengers had to be just as satisfied. In the process of this journey they had become part of history. Thousands of trips would take place on the Orient Express over the next one hundred plus years, but only one would ever be the first.

View of the Golden Horn from the late 19th century

View of the Golden Horn from the late 19th century (Credit: Tristram Ellis)

A Palace Of Transport – Many Happy Returns
The Orient Express passengers were transported by fiacre to the Pera Palace Hotel in Constantinople. They would relax in luxury. It is doubtful that the Pera’s refinement could best that of the Express. The Compagnie des Wagons-Lits which provided the cars and staff had set a high standard for service that was soon to become legendary. The Orient Express would become forever synonymous  with glamorous travel. The passengers who had just made the inaugural journey could certainly vouch for the focus on high quality customer service. They would get the same treatment on their return trip. The journey would seem shorter since there were no kings or queens to meet, no ceremonial welcoming committees, no officials to press the flesh and no side journeys to state of the art exhibitions. The return journey was more in line with what the Express would become, a palace of transport gliding along the steel rails of western, central and eastern Europe on its way to the mysterious Orient.

Click here for: The Orient Express By River, Land & Sea – Contemptuous Cargo: A Bulgarian Brush With Anarchy (Part Three)

The Orient Express By River, Land & Sea – Contemptuous Cargo: A Bulgarian Brush With Anarchy (Part Three)

The adventures for those taking the inaugural Orient Express continued late into the night at Bucharest. They were taken by fiacre to dine in the city. This came at the tail end of their longest side journey. A journey that had already resulted in a 300 kilometer round trip train ride into the foothills of the Transylvanian Alps, a walk through a torrential downpour on a muddy road in boot deep mud to a bizarre reception where they met King Carol and Queen Elisabeth of Romania. The passengers had gotten much more than they had bargained for since arriving in Bucharest early that morning. And their eventful day was not yet finished. When they got back to the city, a very late dinner was in order. They were now at a point beyond exhaustion. It was after midnight when the train pulled out of the Gara De Nord. Bucharest was soon to become an afterthought as they fell into sleep. The Express was now headed southward toward the Danube, on the other side of which was Bulgaria.

The first Orient Express brochure from 1887

The first Orient Express brochure from 1887

Heightened Suspicions – A Cold Greeting
The final stop in Romania would be Giurgiu set on the north side of the Danube. The town had been held by two empires (Ottoman and Russian) and one nation (Romania) at separate times over the past half-century. It looked the worse for wear as none of its occupiers had seen fit to repair the extensive war damage. In Giurgiu the passengers would exit the Express so they could be ferried by steamship across what the French journalist Georges Boyer called “the yellow waters”  of the lower Danube.  In later years the Orient Express would go by land all the way to Constantinople, but in 1883 the construction of a railway link through Serbia and Bulgaria was still being negotiated. This route would not be possible until 1888. That meant the latter part of the Orient Express journey would take place first across a spur line in northern Bulgaria and then via steamship from the Black Sea port of Varna to Constantinople.

Romania was exotic and rough around the edges, but Bulgaria would turn out to be downright wild. Bulgaria was a land of danger, tension and political intrigue. Only five years before, it had gained independence from the Ottoman yoke after the nasty violence of the Russo-Turkish War. The newly formed nation had yet to recover. It was ruled by an elite clique of Russian officers whose main duty was to keep it under the ostensible control of the Tsar.  The city of Ruse stood opposite Giurgiu on the south bank of the Danube. It still bore many scars from the fighting and was unappealing. The passengers were given a formal, but cold greeting at the station. The Russians were suspicious of the Orient Express’ intent, since it provided a strategic link between Bulgaria and western Europe. Tsarist officials saw this as a threat to the Russian sphere of influence. The upshot was that the Orient Express clientele was given an indifferent welcome before boarding another train that would deliver them to Varna.

The First Orient Express from the French publication L'Illustration

The First Orient Express from the French publication L’Illustration

A Brush With Anarchy – The Bulgarian Countryside
The passengers were glad to see Ruse fade into the distance as the train began to head eastwards. Soon a new fear came to occupy their imaginations, the threat of banditry. The train was now crossing a hard-bitten, dusty landscape. Instead of houses, there were hovels. Mud rather than stone or brick was the main building material. It was mixed with timber to produce homes that had not advanced in construction since the Middle Ages. The only markers of civilization were solitary mosques with minarets piercing the autumn sky. This was a society stuck in a medieval level of development. The peasants were not far removed from serfdom as they tried to scratch a subsistence living out of the earth.  In such a quasi-primitive state, crime had the potential to pay much more than hard work. This was not lost on the passengers, several of whom brandished firearms ready to fend off any attempt at robbery. Stories were told of how bandits captured stations along the route, robbed officials and attempted to burn them alive inside the structures.

The Orient was turning out to be much more anarchic than anyone could have possibly imagined. There would be no problems, at least not on this train, but the tension would not subside, even when they arrived on the shores of the Black Sea.  The only stop between Ruse and Varna was the depressingly ramshackle town of Sheytandjik. It lived down to the Turkish meaning of its name, “Little Devil”. Alone and exposed out on the poverty stricken frontier, it suffered from the lawless chaos that plagued the Bulgarian countryside. Sheytandjik was a strange place to stop for lunch, but it was on the schedule. The partridge served up to them was nearly indestructible due to its rubbery consistency. This was not so much lunch, as it was an endurance contest to see who could finish any part of it. A delicious repast of Turkish desserts did go some way in ameliorating memories of the main dish.

Roundabout - The first route of the Orient Express in 1883 is shown on this map

Roundabout – The first route of the Orient Express in 1883 is shown on this map

A Seething Mass – Into The Black Sea
At Varna the rail journey came to a rather depressing end. Beggars and officials were the only one there to greet those travelers from the Orient Express. They would now board a steamship, the Espero. It was run by the Austrian Lloyd-Triestino Shipping Company and had sailed from the port of Trieste in Austria-Hungary several weeks earlier. The final stretch of the journey would be to Constantinople by way of the Black Sea and through the Bosphorus Strait, a distance of almost 300 kilometers. The seagoing voyage would be fraught with tension. This was due to some extra passengers who had been sold tickets allowing them to travel on the ship’s deck. These were Turks who had lost their homes and property due to the Bulgarization of the countryside. They had been living in subhuman conditions for quite some time, as was apparent from the body odor which wafted over the timber barrier which kept this seething mass of refugees from coming into contact with passengers of the Orient Express. The Turkish men looked at the wealthy foreign travelers with undisguised hatred. The passengers recoiled in horror. This was bound to make for a memorable voyage to Constantinople.

Click her for: The Orient Express Enters The Orient – Romania: Strangely Familiar & Totally Foreign (Part Two)

The Orient Express Enters The Orient – Romania: Strangely Familiar & Totally Foreign (Part Two)

The inaugural journey of the Orient Express took a decided turn towards the east once it crossed into Romania. This was where western Christianity gave way to eastern Orthodoxy. It was a land with deep historical connection to the west going all the way back to when the Romans conquered and colonized what then known as Dacia in the early 2nd century AD. By the latter part of the 19th century Romania was viewed as a dark and mysterious hinterland of Europe. Some called it part of the Balkans, others said it was just an appendage. The people spoke a Romance language akin to Italian and French, but they were ruled by a German who had been forced on them by the Great Powers. Romania was an odd country, surrounded by Bulgars, Slavs and Magyars, it did not fit in with any of its neighbors any more than the Magyars did with theirs. It did have the saving grace of a language which looked and sounded intelligible. As the furthest eastern outpost of Latin Europe, Romania was strangely familiar and totally foreign all at once.

At the Iron Gate

At the Iron Gate (Credit: Lazlo Mednyanszky)

Passing Through – Porta Orientalis
The Express would cross the border just beyond Orsova, a town whose history over the prior three centuries had been a proving ground for various empires. It had been the plaything of Ottomans, Habsburgs and Hungarians, with a fate formulated in treaties decided far from it in places with such scintillating names as Passarowitz and Sistova. A border town that was always on the wrong side of something, Orsova in 1883 was squeezed between Austria-Hungary and Romania. Considering the numerous times that it had been passed back and forth by interlopers, the town’s current geopolitical situation likely meant little to its inhabitants who somehow managed to outlast invaders. The newest one was not Turkish or Tatar, but technological. The Orient Express had much in common with all its former conquerors, in that it was also just passing through.

The final stopping point to be crossed on the Austro-Hungarian frontier was appropriately named Porta Orientalis. The passengers on board the Express had little idea what lay beyond. The moment of crossing into Romania must have been as fascinating as it was historic. The Express had brought them to this stretch of frontier by way of a valley with low, thickly forested mountains on either side. It was a strangely beautiful preparation to enter the great beyond. It was here that the Orient Express had finally arrived in the Orient. No one onboard knew what was in store for them. Twilight would soon descend upon the Express, as it in turn descended upon the Iron Gates. The passengers were allowed a fleeting glimpse of this natural wonder just before sunset.

Peles Castle in autumn

Peles Castle in autumn (Credit: TiberiuSahlean)

Through The Iron Gates – Above & Beyond Bucharest
The Iron Gates, an evocative and forbidding term of description, was where the Danube took revenge upon those foolish enough to test its tempestuous waters and surrounding boulder strewn landscape. Skirting this chasm of wildness was an undertaking that frayed even the steeliest of nerves. Making this transit was best done after dark. That way the passengers would not see the frightening aspect of a terrifying fate flashing before their eyes. It was here that nature raged at its wildest. Eddies, whirlpools and boulders threatened to swallow or impede the unwary. Fortunately, the Express’ locomotive driver proceeded with caution, slowing the pace of travel to a crawl. In this fairy tale dreamscape, full of menacing beauty, one side was bordered by the southern edge of the Carpathians, the other by the beginning of the Balkan Mountains.

The Express, like the river, slithered through the Iron Gates. A couple of hours before dawn, the Orient Express entered Bucharest where it was met by representatives of the Romanian State Railways. No state officials or royalty was there to meet its arrival. This unceremonious welcome obscured what was to come. The passengers were slated to meet King Carol and Queen Elisabeth (who preferred to be called her literary name of Carmen Sylva), but not in Bucharest. Instead the meeting was to take place 120 kilometers to the north amid the magnificent Bucegi Mountains, at the newly constructed Peles Castle.

The Orient Express was shunted onto a sidetrack, then began to steam northward. It traveled through an incredibly diverse array of landscapes in a comparatively short amount of time. After leaving the cityscape of Bucharest it entered rolling farmland. This was followed by the growing city of Ploesti, its surroundings pockmarked with wooden derricks from one of the world’s largest oil fields. Then there was a climb into ever deepening forest along the Prahova River valley, before the Express pulled into the small station at Sinaia. The King and Queen were not at the station or anywhere in the town at that time. They were sequestered high above in their palace. No one knew what the plan was for meeting them. In the meantime, the passengers enjoyed a large lunch on the veranda of the just completed Grand Hotel Noles. Finally, an officer of the palace guard showed up to tell everyone that the royal couple would receive the passengers at the palace.

Queen Elisabeth of Romania and Carol I of Romania

Queen Elisabeth of Romania and Carol I of Romania

Talentless Amateurs – Meeting The Royals
There were no carriages for transport to the palace, thus the passengers were forced to make their way up a muddy road. They were soon inundated by a torrential downpour. One journalist who made the trek stated that the road to the palace was better for mountain goats than people. By the time they arrived, the passengers were muddy and drenched. The palace was an architectural atrocity of grotesque faux grandeur. It had taken separate efforts by an Austrian, a German and finally a Czech architect to achieve such a state of dissymmetry. While its considerable cost had exacerbated the already dire state of Romania’s finances. In the Hall of Honor, the royal couple (both minor German nobles imposed upon Romania) who could barely stand to be around one another, greeted the passengers. The King and Queen were dressed in ridiculous outfits. The former in a general’s dress uniform, while the latter was in a flowing Romanian costume which served to accentuate her expanding waistline.

Personality wise they were no better than their dress. The King was his usual aloof self, only interested in forestry and botany. He was bored by the entire ceremony. Meanwhile, the queen who styled herself a literary genius, recited reams of inane verse to the French journalist Edmond About, who she desperately wanted to impress. The passengers were shunted through several despicably ornate rooms. At one point they were confronted by King Carol’s art collection which was nothing more than a series of works by the Old Masters reproduced by the hands of talentless amateurs. When this depressing visit had run its course, the passengers were escorted out the wrong way, mistaken for laborers and treated with rudeness. It would not be until ten in the evening before the train arrived back in Bucharest. Thus, went the horrifically memorable visit of the Express’ first passengers to an Oriental leader. It had been a day of decadence and decided lack of taste.

Click here for: The Orient Express In Austria-Hungary – Romancing The East: An Initial Journey Into Exoticism (Part One)

Click here for: The Orient Express By River, Land & Sea – Contemptuous Cargo: A Bulgarian Brush With Anarchy (Part Three)

From The Orient Express With Love – Secret Agent Man: Following In James Bond’s Footsteps

My initial interest in the Orient Express in Eastern Europe did not come from Agatha Christie’s famous mystery, Murder on the Orient Express or Graham Greene’s thrilling novel Stamboul Train. These outstanding literary thrillers were not to my liking as a teenager. Instead my fascination with the train and its route came to me through the movies. As a teenager I fell in love with the early James Bond films. They offered a powerful sense of place to viewers. One of my favorites quickly became From Russia With Love. The locations showcased or spoken of in the film brought into my consciousness for the first time the European side of Istanbul, the heart of Yugoslavia as well as an Italian border city by the name of Trieste. The coup de grace came with Venice, where the final scenes were filmed. These cities and the train trip to or through them was enough to send my imagination soaring. I never forgot them or the film that first brought them to my attention.

Later in life, I would have the opportunity to visit each city shown in the film, sometimes going to the exact same locations where the movie was made. This was either entirely accidental or the fulfillment of a subconscious yearning, all done in the service of feeding an interest in exoticism. I did not know do this in a single trip, but across several. Piecing together a From Russia With Love city setlist. I only realized it was complete a couple of years after my last visit. In a sense I was a spy, keeping a private watch on these highly personal places. I might never travel the old Orient Express in its entirety or become a secret agent, but the places were still there. It was an astonishing feeling, to look back after multiple trips realizing what I had inadvertently accomplished. I had visited these venerable and famous stations where the Orient Express was never to return.

Simplon Orient Express poster

Simplon Orient Express poster

Murder, Mystery & Mystique – Danger On A Train
From Russia With Love can be viewed as an homage to the Orient Express. This was not what the filmmakers intended, but the train ended up just as much a character in the film as any of those played by the actors. The Express and several stations where it stops play a large role in the film’s latter half. Bond travels on the train with a beautiful Russian cipher clerk, Tatiana Romanova, as they attempt to make their way west to safety with a Lektor cryptographic device. All the while they are pursued by a death dealing operative of the international criminal organization, SPECTRE. The train scenes are replete with romance, drama and adventure. The compartment and restaurant cars are lavish while the setting is full of mystery and intrigue, nowhere more so than the train stations at Istanbul, Belgrade and Zagreb.

At the train station in Istanbul, Bond and Romanova make their getaway while pursued by a Russian agent. In Belgrade’s station, Bond tells the son of a Turkish colleague that his father died under conflicting circumstances. Then at the Zagreb station, Bond is due to meet a fellow 00 operative on the platform. Instead he is met by the Spectre agent sent to murder him. From Russia With Love’s compelling storyline is dramatically enhanced by the Orient Express and the stations encountered along the route. I would only later learn that the route was not that of the original Orient Express, but an offshoot. The first run of the Orient Express occurred in the autumn of 1883. Necessity, popularity and geopolitics eventually led to the creation of other routes in the years between the World Wars. The most popular of these was the Simplon Orient Express which began in 1919.

Route of the Orient Express Trains from 1921 to 1939

Route of the Orient Express Trains from 1921 to 1939 (Credit: Wikipedia)

The Path To Progress – Into The Balkans & Beyond
It was the Simplon Orient Express route which Bond and Romanova travel during From Russia With Love, this time going from east to west. The Simplon was also the route famously followed in Christie’s murder mystery. The name Simplon was taken from a rail tunnel that was opened in 1906 below the Simplon Pass on the Swiss-Italian border. This tunnel made a new railway route to Europe’s eastern frontiers feasible.  In 1912, the Simplon route which already ran from Paris to Lausanne, through Milan and then to Venice, was extended to Trieste, Austria-Hungary. This service might have been called the less than Orient Express.

Fighting in World War I, along the Italian Front led to the closure of rail service to Trieste, as battle lines encroached on the route. The Simplon would be reopened and greatly expanded in the years after the war ended. The expansion was a result of the postwar peace process. The western powers needed a rail route to Eastern Europe that avoided Germany and what had formerly been the lands of Austria-Hungary, which were now two separate nations struggling with economic chaos and political upheaval. Thus, the Simplon would continue eastward from Trieste (now an Italian city) into the heart of the Balkans, going through Zagreb, Vinkovci and Subotica towards its final stop at Bucharest. Another spur headed from Vinkovci to Belgrade, where it divided again, going either to Athens or Constantinople (the city’s name was officially changed to Istanbul after the Republic of Turkey was formed). It was in Istanbul that Bond and Romanova made their initial getaway, boarding at Sirkeci Station. Romance and danger awaited them.

Logo of the Compagnie Internationale Des Wagons-Lits which ran the Orient Express

Symbol of Quality – Logo of the Compagnie Internationale Des Wagons-Lits which ran the Orient Express (Credit: Murdockcrc)

Into & Out Of Trouble – Route Of Least Resistance
The Simplon Orient Express was the preferred travel route for the wealthy, politically connected, intellectually refined and haute bourgeoise during its heyday. Agatha Christie traveled it many times with her second husband, an archeologist. It would not have been uncommon for high ranking diplomats or spies to be found onboard as well. This was especially true during the Cold War. Intrigue and danger were an exception though. One that proved the Simplon was a vital lifeline for businessmen, politicians and tourists during decades of east-west tensions. It may not have been the “original” Orient Express, but it was just as worthy. The fact that spurs of the Simplon led to Venice and Athens only added to the fascination with it. James Bond knew this was the easiest route back to safety. It was the path of least resistance for him, as well as for generations of Europeans. The Simplon may not have been the original Orient Express, but it just might have been better.