Madness Is A Matter of Minutes – An Austrian State Of Mind: From Slovakia To Slovenia By Train

My next port of call after Bratislava was Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. I was looking forward to my train journey because most of the trip would take place in Austria, a ride through the magnificent mountains of Mitteleuropa. The allure of Austria had already drawn me away from Bratislava the day before my journey commenced. Vienna may have not been to my liking, but I had high hopes of a happy experience gliding through the alps on the steel rails of Austrian Federal Railways. A daylong jaunt from Slovakia to Slovenia gazing at spectacular and scenic nature was foremost in my mind. I would not be disappointed.

Riding the rails across Austria

Riding the rails across Austria (Credit: Haneburger)

On The Clock – Delayed Distractions
Just beyond Wiener Neustadt, the train began twisting and turning, snaking its way around snowcapped mountains and through thick forests. The scenery was so stunningly impressive that the journey seemed like one taken by a tourist train rather than an intercity route. I could hardly believe that for the cost of a regular ticket, passengers were provided with such magnificent panoramas. Gone was the vanity of Vienna, replaced by the beauty of alpine Austria. I felt the urge to give a full-throated yodel of approval, place a feather in my baseball cap and purchase a lifetime supply of lederhosen at the next stop.

There was only one drawback to the journey, the train car contained an innovation I have only experienced in Austria and hope to never see again, a time clock. One might ask, what could possibly be wrong with making sure passengers know the time? Well nothing, except for the fact that the clock not only told the time, but it also kept a running count of how much ahead or behind the train was running. Thus, if the train hit a stretch of the route with switchbacks and corkscrew turns it would fall a few minutes behind its appointed arrival time. Then on more even terrain, the train would make up the lost time. For example, the clock would show the train running three minutes late, then two minutes ahead of time. It went back and forth throughout the journey. Unfortunately, this clock distracted me from the enchanting scenery. It became an obsession for me, watching it change with each surge or short delay of the train.

Villach Railway Station - destroyed by bombing during World War II

Villach Railway Station – destroyed by bombing during World War II

An Obsession For Order – Carinthian Controls
This time clock on the train represented for me the ultimate symbol of a Teutonic neurosis bent on achieving the greatest efficiency. Managing time was ultimately an impulse of control. The constant reminder of whether the train would arrive earlier or later was a distraction from the beautiful landscape all along the route. Austrian Federal Railways made arriving at the correct time an issue of utmost importance. Most maddening of all, despite being behind or ahead of the arrival time throughout this leg of my journey, the train ended up arriving right on-time. This rendered all my clockwatching utterly pointless. Perhaps I should have been more grateful to Austrian railways, as they were helping me keep track of the time since I had to make a very tight connection. My train arrived in Villach, the second largest city in the Austrian province of Carinthia, at 12:46 p.m.  The connecting train was due to arrive at 12:53 p.m. I have always had a terrible fear of missing a connection. The timeclock had only served to exacerbate this fear.

Standing on the platform waiting with others for the train from Villach to Ljubljana I secretly wished I had missed my connection. Villach looked like a wonderful place to spend the afternoon. This small city of 60,000 people is set out along the Drau River with the alps looming in the near distance. Like almost every place I have ever seen in Austria it looked clean, tidy and well run. This was a far cry from its status at the end of World War II. Villach had been bombed an incredible 75 times during the war, 85% of its buildings had been destroyed. Later I would find a photo of Villach’s Central Railway Station at the end of the war, or I should say what was left of it. The roof was totally collapsed from bomb damage and the walls covered by debris. This photo could have been of almost anywhere in Villach at the time. To imagine that it would become the prosperous provincial city that exists today would have been unimaginable at the end of the war. I have the utmost respect for Austrian organization, industriousness and thrift. This ethos rebuilt a nation that lay in ruins just sixty years before. The world could do with more of their work ethic and efficiency, but the time clocks on trains need to go.

Carinthian beauty - View across the Drau River in Villach

Carinthian beauty – View across the Drau River in Villach (Credit: Gugganij)

Better Than The Rest  – Land of The Slovenes
The train to Ljubljana showed up right on time. I no longer had to worry about a time clock, since the rest of this journey would take place on Slovenian railways. Slovenia was the wealthiest of the former European communist countries, the richest of the seven nations that had been formed from the ruins of Yugoslavia and an outlier in the Balkans, a place of peace and relative prosperity. Nevertheless, the difference in development between Slovenia and Austria became apparent when I entered the Slovenian railway car. The seats were old and worn, the interior nowhere near as comfortable as the Austrian trains and everything had a retro feel to it. The compartments looked just like the ones found in Slovakia or Hungary, old but not obsolete. It was functional and that was good enough for me. Besides, there was no time clock to display delays.

Slovenia had a reputation as being Austria-lite, due to its relative prosperity, mountainous landscape and it historical connection with the Habsburg Empire which had ruled it for centuries. The breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990’s had brought Slovenia back to where many Slovenes felt it belonged, closer to Austria and Italy in the European fold. Since then, it had joined the European Union, converted to the Euro and been promoted as a post-communist success story. As the train crossed over the border into Slovenia, I imagined entering a prosperous little mountain kingdom. A fairy tale land of shining mountains and glittering lakes. I would soon discover the truth, both dirty and delightful.

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

Darkness Gathered Around The Light – Vienna: A City Laid Low

One of the great things about Bratislava is its proximity to Vienna. It is less than an hour away by either train or bus. The trip is even shorter with a car. This closeness has paid dividends, with an influx of foreign investment that has made the city one of Eastern Europe’s economic engines. It has also brought many tourists, such as myself, looking to avoid the high cost of accommodation in Vienna. Bratislava makes a visit to Vienna possible for those who would otherwise pass due to the expense. I was one of those eager for a day trip to Vienna from Bratislava. There were several reasons why. The first of which was its reputation as one of the most enchanting and culturally rich cities in the world.

Despite its position in the eastern reaches of Central Europe, Vienna avoided falling into the Soviet sphere of influence during the Cold War. It is surprising to look at a map and realize just how close Vienna once stood to the Iron Curtain. The border with Hungary and Slovakia was just thirty kilometers away. The Austrians managed to stay on the western side of it by officially declaring neutrality. Soviet troops were withdrawn in the mid-1950’s. Ever since that time, Austria had become a shining example of social democracy and capitalism. Vienna was the showpiece of this success, a treasure chest of beauty, wealth and history. With thoughts of Vienna shimmering in my mind, I headed out of Bratislava on a morning train filled with anticipation.

Keeping up appearances - The Hofburg as seen from Heidenplatz

Keeping up appearances – The Hofburg as seen from Heidenplatz (Credit: Bwag)

Eerily Immaculate – Viennese Vanity
Oddly enough, my first visit to Vienna left me strangely unimpressed. It was much too nice for my liking. The public transport system was routed to perfection. The U-Bahn cars were shiny and sparkling, the stations eerily immaculate. The center was filled with baroque architecture, an imperial air of triumphalism pervaded the place. The Habsburg’s glittering Hofburg Palace was the epicenter of this aesthetic. It was thoroughly royal. The horse drawn carriages carting tourists to and fro were much too splendid, the statuary grand to the point of intimidation and the sidewalks swept so clean that I could have dined on them. I never actually entered the Hofburg because I felt the price was excessive, they demanded a mint to witness superficial lavishness. Witnessing this for the first time, I understood the feeling of Emperor Franz Josef’s wife, Empress Elisabeth (Sisi) who despised the staid atmosphere and rigid protocol of the royal court in Vienna. No wonder she spent so much time at Godollo, in the Hungarian countryside.

I could sense that the Hofburg was still a place steeped in tradition and living off reputation. The refinement played to people’s vanity, but it felt more like a ball and chain. Any moment, I expected to be forced to wear white gloves and tails just to walk around the place. Royal Vienna served to remind me of unchecked wealth, submission to central authority, stuffed shirts and stiff collars. This part of the city screamed “we are better than you and if you do not believe it just look around.” The Austrian capital was the first place I have ever been where buildings two, three and four hundred years old looked as though they were brand new. The vanity and pomp of imperialism covered the city at its core. None of this seemed real, wealth never does and that is one of many problems with it. The Viennese, like the Habsburgs, have a very high opinion of themselves. Their standard is the very best, but something about this snobbish sensibility I found incredibly distasteful.

Roman ruins in front of Hofburg entrance - Michaelerplatz in Vienna

Roman ruins in front of Hofburg entrance – Michaelerplatz in Vienna (Credit: Ralf Roletschek)

The Inevitable Afterlife – Ultimate Outcomes
The most memorable thing I saw in the center of Vienna had nothing to do with the Habsburgs or the Hofburg, though it was imperial in nature. Just outside the entrance to the Hofburg on Michaelerplatz were the ruins of Vindobona, a Roman military camp which had once stood on the very same spot. A crowd of onlookers stood around an exposed area that displayed a collection of foundations and walls. It was nothing impressive by the standards of ancient Roman ruins, but in this case location was everything. The constantly rotating audience’s collective expressions were of bemusement or disbelief. Juxtaposed against the majestic splendor surrounding them, these ruins were an extremely odd site, so odd in fact that no one quite knew what to make of them. It left the onlookers puzzled and curious. Watching people look at these last vestiges of Roman power in what was today one of the world’s great cities was much more interesting than the ruins themselves. I wondered if what we were all looking at was the very beginning of the greatness of Vienna or the inevitable afterlife of their own splendid city.

Almost all the ruins of Vindobona had long since been covered by newer developments in Vienna. The scant ruins in Michaelerplatz left visitors pondering the fate of empire. Imperial power had never looked so emasculated as it did here. The pile of ruins seemed to mock the Hofburg. This was the Vienna no one ever talked about, it was perplexing and for me deeply disturbing. Ironically, these ruins were likely left in situ as a way of connecting modern Vienna with the magnificence of ancient Rome. This raised a troubling question, if this was the eventual outcome of imperial ambition than why was the Hofburg promoted as a stunning example of civilization? All I could think of was that all civilizations have it coming, including modern Vienna.

A different reality - The tunic Archduke Franz Ferdinand was wearing when he was assassinated

A different reality – The tunic Archduke Franz Ferdinand was wearing when he was assassinated

The Sum Of A Tragedy –  Lasting Impressions
The most real thing in Vienna for me was its tragedy. The sum of it was confined to a room in the Austrian Military Museum. The museum housed several of the most important artifacts concerning the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which had triggered the outbreak of World War I, subsequently bringing the Habsburgs down and laying Vienna low. There was the car the Archduke and his wife had ridden to their death on that fateful June day in Sarajevo. There was the pistol which had ended their lives and led to the end of an empire. And there was the bloodstained tunic the Archduke had worn in the last moments of his life. It was torn, soiled and faded, morbidly fascinating and most of all real. It was kept far from the shimmering city center, in the gallery of a museum that most will never visit. This tunic was the beginning and that war was the end for Vienna. Followed by the start of something new and even more horrible. At the Austrian Military Museum I had found something that felt real in Vienna, a place where darkness gathered around the light.

Click here: Madness Is A Matter of Minutes – An Austrian State Of Mind: From Slovakia to Slovenia By Train 

The Orient Express In Austria-Hungary – Romancing The East: An Initial Journey Into Exoticism

In the autumn of 1883 a romance began that would continue for the next one-hundred and twenty-five years in a wide variety of forms. This romantic endeavor crisscrossed large swathes of Europe several times a week.  It started in the cultural and artistic wonderland of Europe at that time -Belle epoque Paris – and ended in the exotic east, within sight of the Sea of Marmara, skirting the shadows cast by mosques and minarets in Ottoman-era Constantinople. This romance was none other than the Orient Express. Thousands of passengers took part in the journey, authors waxed poetic about it and the refined elegance it represented became the stuff of legend. Orient and Express were two words bound together by creativity and innovation. They expressed all anyone needed to know about the route. “Orient” symbolized the eastern frontiers of Europe. “Express” a technological wonder that could defeat space and time to make a novel approach into the near east.

Orient Express - Advertising Poster

Orient Express – Advertising Poster (Credit: Jules Cheret)

From Dreams To Reality – All Aboard
The train would pull Europe and its eastern hinterlands closer together in a matter of days. The route made travel possible to places most people had only dreamed of. When the Orient Express first departed, those dreams were on the verge of becoming reality. Many of the stops along the line were much less exotic than Constantinople, but each was glamorous in its own way. Budapest and Bucharest, Vienna and Sofia, with their own unique allure. None of these were as exotic as Constantinople, but each offered a window into a wider world that Parisians or Londoners, aristocrats and journalists scarcely knew. Along the route, the world of Austria-Hungary was to be crossed. A multi-ethnic empire filled with people speaking a multitude of strange languages and adhering to antiquated folk customs. For the Orient Express ran right through the heart of the empire, the railway acting as an arrow piercing the heartland of both Austria and Hungary. The train’s passengers would be witness to an empire that was rapidly changing.

The inaugural journey of the Orient Express took place on October 4, 1883. There was a chill in the air as it pulled out of the Gare de L’est (East Station) in Paris. By the time dawn broke the next morning it was approaching Strasbourg, 300 miles to the east. The Express had entered the mighty German Empire, a land of progress that was fast leaving the rest of continental Europe behind. The explosive growth of the German economy was making it a world power. The Express made its way through Bavaria, with a stop at Munich on its first full day. Soon it would be crossing the border into the Austrian portion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At this point the train had been traveling for thirty hours. It was in the early morning hours of Saturday, October 6th that the Orient Express came gliding through the Austrian border town of Branau am Inn, passing not far from the residence of Alois Hitler, a customs officer. Five and a half years later a son would be born to Alois and his third wife Clara. That son would be named Adolf and change the world for the worse.

The first run of the Orient Express in 1883

The first run of the Orient Express in 1883 (Credit: Jürgen Franzke)

Advancing Into The Modern Age – Antecedents In Asia & The West
The Orient Express was now gliding along the 270 miles of railway that stretched between Munich and Vienna. By the late afternoon, it was pulling into the central station at Vienna where its passengers were feted by music from the Imperial Guards. The national anthems of France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey were played by the band, paying homage to each country the train would pass through on this inaugural journey. A huge dinner with champagne and wine was served for the passengers at the station’s restaurant. They were then invited to visit an electric lighting exhibition that had been kept open well past its closing time, just for them. Many of the passengers were too exhausted to attend, which was something of a shame. The exhibition was a showcase for how Austria-Hungary was advancing into the modern age. Trains, railroads and electric lighting were certainly notable achievements, but the stagnant political system which limited the rights of all its disparate nationalities – with the notable exception of a thin veneer of  Austrians and Hungarians – constantly threatened to derail the empire.

Slowly the Orient Express chugged further eastward through the night, making an obligatory stop at Poszony (present day Bratislava, Slovakia) to take on water and fuel. It was now in the Kingdom of Hungary, a land that no less a political figure than the Austrian, Prince Klemens Von Metternich, had once referred to as part of the Orient. The passengers onboard the Express were keen to see Budapest for the first time. The city had experienced explosive growth ever since Buda, Pest and Obuda (Old Buda) had been unified as a single entity a decade earlier. This was no Asiatic city, but a fast growing European metropolis. The railway station at Pest had antecedents in the west, specifically Paris, as it had been designed by the Eiffel Company.  The train’s arrival at mid-morning was greeted by a military band. This was followed by some Hungarian folk music topped off with a buffet that favored Magyar cuisine, specifically goulash.

The Early Years - Routes of the Orient Express 1883 - 1914

The Early Years – Routes of the Orient Express 1883 – 1914 (Credit: Alphthon)

All But The Memory – Ghost Of An Empire
From Budapest it was onto Szeged, a city where the damage from a catastrophic flood four years earlier was still visible. After the Orient Express pulled into the ramshackle station, a gypsy orchestra was sited coming toward the train. Their performance had been prearranged. They were invited to board the train, riding the Express to Temesvar (present-day Timisoara, Romania), where they were already slated to perform a concert that evening. It was a memorable two hour trip, with the strains of Roma music wafting through the restaurant car. The Orient had never sounded so close until that moment. Exoticism, mystery and mystique permeated the air. Once the gypsy orchestra departed, the train headed further east toward the Romanian border and out of Austria-Hungary. It was a memorable first journey through an empire that was not to last nearly as long as the rail route which now ran across the length of it. The Orient Express would still be running long after the Austro-Hungarian Empire had disappeared from all but the memory. All romances eventually end, but some last longer than others.

Eastern Connections – Burgenland: The Unknown Austria

While visiting Schloss Esterhazy (Esterhazy Palace) in Eisenstadt, Austria I spoke with an intelligent and energetic tour guide by the name of Pia. I asked her about tourism in this, the easternmost province of Austria known as Burgenland. The smile fell from her face as she gave a sigh of resignation. She said that the state authorities were working on getting more tourists to the area, but Vienna and the mountainous regions of the country dominated Austrian tourism. Anyone who has ever spent a fair amount of time in the splendid historic center of Vienna or in the Austrian Alps knows why these places are so popular. They have all the elements of popular travel: overwhelming charm, rich culture and spectacular natural beauty second to none.  How could the Burgenland, with its rolling hills and fertile fields, massive wind farms and tiny towns compete with the rest of Austria in the tourist trade?

Burgenland - eastern Austria

Burgenland – eastern Austria (Credit: Dave Knelsz)

A Land Apart – German West Hungary
The Burgenland is not going to be the first, second or third choice for very many tourists, but it certainly has much to recommend it. There is an understated, pastoral beauty to the countryside. A quaint refinement pervades the small towns scattered across the land. Vineyards that produce renowned wines cover many of the hillsides. A unique history much different from the rest of Austria adds an element of diversity. Burgenland is not a place for superficial tourism. There is no window shopping tourist attractions, no sparkling cities filled with haute couture fashion or world famous attractions. Instead it is for those who seek an acquired taste and subtle beauty. Burgenland is the remotest and least visited place in Austria, it also the least populated and smallest state. It is a land that borders more nations (Hungary, Slovenia & Slovakia) than fellow Austrian states (Styria & Lower Austria). A slender piece of territory much longer than wider, it stretches over 150 kilometers from north to south, but in some places is little more than 10 kilometers from east to west. There is nowhere else like it in Austria, a place where one can get left alone. In short, the Burgenland is a region apart from the rest of Austria. This separateness is informed by deep historical connections with its eastern neighbor Hungary.

The state known today as the Burgenland did not acquire that name or its current borders until the early 1920’s, when it became a constituent part of the newly formed Republic of Austria. Though Germans were the largest ethnic group for centuries on end, the region was actually part of Hungary for much of this time. It was usually referred to by the name Deutsch-Westungarn which means German West Hungary. Starting in the mid-11th century, the region was part of the medieval Kingdom of Hungary. For the next several centuries it was the western border zone of the Kingdom. The Habsburgs first gained control of this land in the mid-14th century, but two hundred years later handed it back to the Hungarians. During this time, the Hungarian population (Magyars) mainly consisted of border guards protecting the Kingdom’s western flank. Waves of German settlement did little to wrest it from control of the dominant Hungarian aristocracy. The local nobility was led by the powerful House of Esterhazy, one of Europe’s most powerful noble families.

Schloss Esterhazy in Eisenstadt, Austria

Schloss Esterhazy in Eisenstadt, Austria (Credit: Zairon)

Between Austrians, Hungarians & Croatians –  Voting, Fighting & Peacemaking
The Esterhazy’s were strongly pro-Catholic. To their great advantage they were closely allied with the Habsburgs. Because of this, they were able to acquire massive landholdings throughout the region. The ruling influence in the region up through the early 20th century was Hungarian in ethnicity, making it atypical from the rest of Austria. It was never part of the Holy Roman Empire and when the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary was created in 1867, it fell under the Hungarian ruled part of the monarchy know as Transleithania (east of the River Leitha). Interestingly enough, though Hungarians made up the ruling class, they were not the second largest ethnic group (behind Germans) in the region. They were outnumbered by Croatians who moved into the area during the mid-16th century after western Slavonia (part of present day eastern Croatia) was overrun by the Ottoman Turks. The most noticeable aspect of the Croatian presence left in Burgenland today are bilingual signs noting both the German and Croatian names of the villages.

Burgenland was handed to Austria in the chaotic years that followed the end of World War One. This was one of the more quixotic decisions of the Paris Peace Conference. Austria was the only nation that had been on the losing side in the war to gain territory afterwards. Burgenland was not given up without a fight by the Hungarians. Though they were outnumbered by ethnic Germans eight to one, a small, but fanatical band of Hungarian militiamen attempted an armed insurrection. Their efforts went for naught. Hungarian diplomats rather than armed men did a bit better. By agreeing to disband the militia, they were able to get a plebiscite vote held. Citizens of the city of Sopron, which had been the capital of the region and its only major city, voted in 1921 on whether they wanted to be part of Austria or Hungary.  Though at the time half the inhabitants were ethnically German, two-thirds voted in favor of staying in Hungary, thus Sopron (German: Odenburg) would not become part of Austria. A new capital for the new province of Burgenland had to be selected. Eisenstadt soon became the economic, political and cultural hub for the region as it still is today.

Haydnsaal at Schloss Esterhazy

Haydnsaal at Schloss Esterhazy

Schloss Esterhazy & The Haydnsaal – Burgenland’s Magnificence
Eisenstadt, is a reflection of Burgenland, neat and clean, with a bit of splendor represented most prominently by the Baroque luxury of the radiant Schloss Esterhazy glowing in the heart of the city. It was at the palace’s Haydnsaal concert hall that the famed composer Joseph Haydn performed some of his most famous works. It was also at the palace where he composed hundreds of musical pieces under the patronage of the Esterhazy’s. The palace acted as a preferred residence, especially in the winter, for the family. Today it is one of Burgenland’s most visited tourist attractions, but by no means the only one. The state of Burgenland offers up a largely forgotten Austria, likely to go unseen by most tourists. Perhaps that is the most compelling reason to visit.

 

A Family’s Home As Its Castle – Forchtenstein & The House Of Esterhazy In Burgenland

It is not hard to locate Forchtenstein Castle. All you have to do is travel to the tidy village of Mattersburg in the Austrian state of Burgenland. I found myself driving through the village, weaving my way through its cleanly swept, serpentine streets. Suddenly I looked up and amid the forested mountains, there was the castle soaring atop one of the foothills. It was set against a deep blue sky rising above the Rosaliengebirge Mountains. The stout, tiered defensive walls surrounding the castle were noticeable from several kilometers away, as were a couple of its towers shooting skyward. Forchtenstein was already impressive from a distance. I had read prior to my visit that the Ottoman Turks had never been able to take Forchtenstein. It was easy to see why.

Forchtenstein Castle

Forchtenstein Castle (Credit: Roman Klementschitz)

A Fortress & A Repository – The Duality Of Forchenstein
Forchtenstein Castle stands 867 feet (264 meters) above Mattersburg and the Wulkatel valley. Overcoming such a stout defensive position was beyond the military prowess of the Turks. Driving up from Mattersburg to the castle showed me why. The climb requires a car to go into the lowest gears to get up the steep, winding grade. It is hard to imagine how a medieval army could scale such heights with their weaponry and equipment intact. There would have been no paved road for use by the Ottoman forces, only a rough track filled with impediments and booby trapped by the Austrians. And if the Turks had taken Forchtenstein what would they have really gained, but a smoldering, dilapidated ruin that would have to be rebuilt and refortified. It never came to that. The cost of conquest was greater than any benefit. This was going through my head as I pulled into the parking lot just outside the castle walls.

Walking across the drawbridge and through the main castle gate I was immediately impressed by the size, scale and structural integrity of the castle. It was fairly obvious that Forchtenstein’s impregnable position had kept it safe from conquest since the first fortress was constructed on the site in the mid-15th century. Formidable and ominous were the two words that came immediately to mind. Here was a hilltop castle par excellence.  As I was soon to find out the last three hundred years at Forchtenstein had nothing to do with war and everything to do with one family. The House of Esterhazy dominated the castle’s history. In the process it also became a repository for preservation of the Esterhazy legacy. I witnessed this for myself while touring some – but certainly not all – of the castle’s impressive chambers.

Esterhazy Coat Of Arms from medieval times

Esterhazy Coat Of Arms from medieval times

A House For Esterhazy – The Family Wealth
The first owners of Castle Forchtenstein were the Counts of Mattersdorf, a name that sounds a bit frivolous, unlike the location they selected as home for a 50 meter high keep and an adjoining great tower, parts of which are still extant at the castle today. The Counts soon turned to calling themselves by the much more intimidating title, the Lords of Forchtenstein. Despite their seemingly invincible home, this line of Lords could not escape mortality, eventually dying out. Forchtenstein then fell into the hands of the Habsburgs who leased it out for a century and a half before Emperor Ferdinand II gave the partly ruined castle, along with the title of count, to Nikolaus Esterhazy in 1622. Soon thereafter, Esterhazy brought in Italian stonemasons to build up its defenses. Nikolaus’ son Paul continued the building process and began adding Baroque elements to its interior.

Following Paul’s death in the late 17th century and with the Ottoman Turks banished from the region forever, the castle became a princely residence used to store the many treasures acquired by the western line of the House of Esterhazy. To say that the family was wealthy would be an understatement. During several periods the Esterhazy’s wealth actually exceeded that of the Habsburgs, making them one of the richest noble families in Europe.  At Forchtenstein I saw for myself the remains of their considerable wealth in two areas of the castle. The Esterhazy Gallery of Ancestors is a Baroque portrait gallery of the family that also includes other treasured items of interest. I also visited the Weapons Collection display, filled with room after room of martial accoutrements from the Baroque and Early Modern periods of European military affairs.

Aerial view of Forchtenstein Castle

Aerial view of Forchtenstein Castle (Credit: Privatpilot)

The Castle Of Fear – Faces & Phases Of Forchenstein
It is hard to describe just how many treasured works of art were on display in these exhibits. The amount and variety was astonishing. The exhibits included a family tree that was a stretch of ancestral imagination, a visual representation of the Esterhazy mania for genealogy. The connection with distant forebears was made explicit. Such notorious historical figures as Attila the Hun were portrayed in all their glory. Such a potential ancestor seemed patently absurd, but the intended meaning was clear, the Esterhazy’s had sprung from the roots of ancestral greatness. The most interesting painting for me had nothing to with an Esterhazy or their supposed forebears. Instead it was of all people, Vlad the Impaler. The Esterhazy’s had acquired the only painting ever to portray Vlad from head to toe. All other paintings showed only his upper body. The sheer novelty of the painting left me staring at it for quite some time. It also served to remind me of the sheer brutality of medieval life and warfare. That could easily be forgotten among all the Baroque treasures housed in Forchtenstein, but the castle’s notorious black tower (now white) at its center was a frightening reminder of what once went on at the castle.

Painting of Vlad the Impaler at Forchtenstein Castle

The only full body painting of Vlad the Impaler can be seen at Forchtenstein Castle

Forchtenstein had once been named the “castle of fear.” This was because those imprisoned in the castle would often be subjected to acts of sadism in one of the castle’s multiple torture chambers. One of the worst tortures involved being starved of food and water while strung upside down over the aptly named “Pit of Oblivion.” This would occur until death ensued. The Forchtenstein that exists today seems far removed from this world. The elegance and history on display is a paean to the House of Esterhazy, but one would do well to remember that the family first gained its wealth and acclaim as well as Forchtenstein Castle from their martial exploits.

 

 

Flights Of Freedom – The Bridge At Andau: Birdwatching & The Old Iron Curtain

The average person who lives to be 70 years old will take about 195 million steps in their lifetime, the equivalent of walking 99,000 miles. Some steps are much more important than others. A few steps can be the difference from a person living a life of freedom as opposed to one under tyranny. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the autumn of 1956 when historic steps were taken by Hungarian refugees to cross a small footbridge into Austria. What is known as the Bridge at Andau (German: Brücke von Andau Hungarian: Andaui-hid) was a bridge to freedom. Thousands fleeing oppression in the wake of the 1956 Hungarian uprising against Soviet rule used the bridge to escape westward. Rarely has such a small, remote place taken on such critical importance, acting as a passage from east to west for 70,000 people on the road to freedom. I traveled to the Austria-Hungary border this fall to visit the rebuilt bridge and try to grasp its historic significance. The bridge was not what I thought it was going to be.

The reconstructed Bridge At Andau

The reconstructed Bridge At Andau

Judging A Bridge By A Cover – Fleeing To The Free World
My iconic image of the Bridge at Andau comes from a painting on the cover of the paperback edition of James Michener’s bestselling nonfiction book of the same name.  It shows a sturdy bridge with multiple buttresses crossing a modest waterway. The first time I saw the book’s cover I thought the bridge must be in Spain, for some reason Andau sounded exotic and like Spanish to me. I thought the book was probably some type of historical romance. The bridge looked like the kind of place lovers might stroll across. It is said not to judge a book by its cover. I might add that one should not judge a bridge by an artistic rendition. The actual bridge looked nothing like the one portrayed on the book’s cover.  Likewise, the title is misleading. There is no bridge at Andau. I discovered this after driving into the village under a beautiful blue sky interspersed with scattered, floating clouds. Andau is the village nearest to the bridge. To access the bridge from Andau requires a drive of another nine kilometers down a narrow, paved road.

Wooden sculpture along The Road of Woes

Wooden sculpture along The Road of Woes

The road had twice as many cyclists as cars traveling on it. Beside the road, ninety sculptures made out of wood and iron acted as startling counterpoints to the serene natural environment of the area.  One of these involved two wooden sentry boxes standing on either side of the road, each of them housing a bare chested, emaciated man dressed only in shorts. Another was of a naked old man carved out of wood. His hands placed over his midsection, with his face contorted in an excessively sorrowful expression. These sculptures go on and on and on, interspersed every hundred meters or so. The combined effect was of a sort of open air museum of human suffering. During the Hungarian refugee crisis of 1956, this route was known as the Road of Hope. Because of the sculptures it has been given an added name, the Road of Woes, a stark reminder of the human toll that was paid by everyone fleeing to the free world.

The Bridge At Andau in 1945

The Bridge At Andau in 1945

Bridging A Historic Divide – Opening Borders
The sculptures were eerie companions that haunted every kilometer of the drive from Andau to the bridge. At times I wondered whether I was on the correct road or not. Finally a guard tower appeared in the near distance and then another, surely the bridge must be nearby. There was a small parking area adjacent to a very stout and well-built wooden bridge. It looked nothing like the scene portrayed on the cover of Michener’s book. From what I have been able to find through research, the present bridge looks nothing like the historic bridge, which was rickety and ramshackle. The current bridge was built to last, not for historical accuracy. I have been able to find only one photo of the original bridge from 1945, when much of it was in pieces at the end of the Second World War. The lack of pictures is not surprising. People running for their lives were not stopping to take pictures in 1956.

The bridge was there for one reason, to get over the narrow Einser Canal, a waterway that was not especially deep or swift, but a barrier that must be crossed. I walked across the bridge into Hungary and back across in a couple of minutes. It was that simple now to cross the border. 21st century Europe’s relatively open borders were the counter-reaction to a 20th century Europe where nations, regions and ideologies were closed off or compartmentalized from one another. The present ease of crossing borders was an historical anomaly. Just over a decade ago there was the usual border control. A political as well as a physical divide has been bridged. Unlike by the end of November 1956 when there was no bridge left here. The Soviets blew it to bits. The border was then closed until 1989. This serene natural area had once been a closely guarded segment of the Iron Curtain.

The Einser Canal - along the Austria-Hungary border

The Einser Canal – along the Austria-Hungary border

Natural Instincts – From Birder’s Paradise To A Human Yearning
Impregnable and dangerous for decades, the bridge was now nothing more than a small historic site, something of an afterthought, to the area’s main claim to fame as part of the cross border Neusiedler See-Seewinkel (Austria) – Ferto-Hansag National Park (Hungary), most notable for its wetlands and birds. An ornithologist from Scotland was on the bridge keenly watching with binoculars for some strange species of birdlife to suddenly appear. While telling me about the bridge’s Cold War history – including a mention of Michener’s book – he would suddenly spy a bird in the distance, shout the species name and study its flight path with prolonged interest. How ironic that just thirty years before men in guard towers were sitting with binoculars waiting to catch a person trying to cross this border. Now a birding enthusiast stood on the rebuilt bridge waiting for the next birds to take flight, a purely natural instinct, not unlike the instinct for freedom that drove so many Hungarians to cross the Bridge At Andau in 1956.