An Austro-Hungarian State Of Mind – Bridge on the Leitha: Together One Last Time

Austria-Hungary or the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I never thought much about the way in which that name was ordered. It always seemed quite natural that Austria would be in front of Hungary. Austria is wealthy and more well known, Hungary still shadowed, if no longer shrouded in my mind, by its decades hidden away behind an Iron Curtain. Their capital cities belie these differences, Vienna is much larger and its sparkle much greater than that of Budapest. The two cities’ relationship is the same today as it was back in the days of empire. The way it was happens to be the way it is today. Then there is the not insignificant matter of semantics. To say Hungary-Austria just does not sound right.

There is also the matter of chronology.  Austria allowed Hungary into the empire, not the other way around. Austria came first and Hungary followed. Even the Hungarians recognized this as such. In a language that runs counter to every other European one, the Hungarians still managed to call the empire Osztrak-Magyar Monarchia. That needs little translation because it is the same thing being said in the same way. They who controlled the empire, controlled the way it was expressed and internally divided. This was a literal and spoken truth when it came to Austria-Hungary. The Austrians knew it, the Hungarians acknowledged it.

An Empire in Full - Map with names of Austro-Hungarian Lands

An Empire in Full – Map with names of Austro-Hungarian Lands (Credit: Wikipedia – Public Domain)

Austrian Rules – The Terms Of Discussion & Division
Just as the wording of the empire’s name was by Austrian design, so it would be much the same when the Leitha River was used as a naming convention. The river served as a useful topographic symbol when dividing the empire’s Austrian and Hungarian halves. This is not surprising since Austria always managed to control the terms of discussion and internal division in its relationship with Hungary. In an Orwellian bit of irony, both sides were equal, but one was more equal than the other. The Leitha would be a convenient place to divide the empire, at least in a colloquial sense. This meant taking liberties with the geographical and political situation between the two. Like everything else in the empire, using the Leitha was a hedge. That was because the Austrians nominally controlled Galicia and Bukovina, two provinces which were located northeast of Hungary. The Leitha was as distant from those two provinces as Transylvania was from the Tyrol.

There was also the issue of the Leitha’s length or lack thereof. The river runs for a total of 120 kilometers, nowhere near as long as the internal border where Austrian and Hungarian controlled parts of the empire abutted one another. Perhaps this was a case where the Leitha was the best that anyone could come up with as a dividing line. It just happened to be in the area where German speakers gave way to a majority of Hungarian ones and vice versa. Everything depended on which side of the Leitha they were on. After the compromise of 1867 formed the Dual Monarchy, colloquial expressions arose out of Vienna that were expressive of the way Austrians viewed the empire.

Cisleithania - Austrian ruled lands in red and dark gray/Hungarian ruled lands in light gray

Cisleithania – Austrian ruled lands in red and dark gray/Hungarian ruled lands in light gray (Credit: Wikipedia – Public Domain)

Superiority Complex – A Detrimental Delusion
The Austrian lands were Cisleithania, meaning “on this side of the Leitha.” Conversely, Hungarian lands were Transleithania. Tellingly, the prefix in that term denoted “beyond”. This meant Hungary was the other or the outsider. In other words, it was foreign, obscure and meant to seem lesser. The implication of using Cisleithania was that the Austrian side of the border stood for civilization, refinement and culture. While the Hungarian side, Transleithania was the wild east, a land beyond normal in the minds of the Austrian powers that be. Then again, what did it say that Austrian weakness forced them to bring in the Hungarians as equal partners. The Austrian’s superiority complex was delusional. They needed the Hungarians in order to maintain their status. The Hungarians would have gladly taken complete independence. Being one-half of the Dual Monarchy was the next best thing. More than the Leitha divided Austrians and Hungarians, but setting an internal border there met each other’s needs. As usual, the Austrians came out feeling better about themselves, even if deep down inside they knew it was just a cover for their own weakness.

Today, the Leitha is just another small river and not even that during certain seasons. The river’s greatest claim to notoriety is that it eventually flows into the mighty Danube. It has long since lost its geopolitical raison d’etre.  The Leitha is now lifeblood to farmers and others who live close by it in eastern Austria. The river’s historical resonance vanished along with the empire that once made it famous in the early 20th century. For those few who recall the stature it once held, the Leitha offers a fascinating example of the fluidity of borders, both real and imagined. For the Leitha was a real border to the inhabitants of Lower Austria, especially Vienna, who viewed it as a point of differentiation. It was also an imaginary border, one given definition by a colloquialism that was informed as much by the imagination as facts on the ground. This us and them mentality showed that when it came to Austria-Hungary, the ruling powers were not on the same side. Cisleithania and Transleithania were a subtle expression of a known truth.

A Different Kind of Blue - Transleithania in light and darker blueA Different Kind of Blue - Transleithania in light and darker blue

A Different Kind of Blue – Transleithania in light and darker blue (Credit: Wikipedia – Public Domain)

Bridging A Troubled Relationship – Unified & Divided
Many years ago, the famous American novelist James Michener wrote a work of non-fiction called The Bridge at Andau. The book centered around the story of Hungarians escaping to Austria and the free world during the 1956 Revolution by way of a small footbridge near the Austrian border town of Andau. Perhaps someone in the future will write a book with a similar title about a bridge and town close to the modern Austria-Hungary border. The book could be called Bridge on the Leitha (Bruck an der Leitha). Ostensibly a work of history, the title acting both metaphorical and factual. The “Bridge” on the Leitha would be the Austro-Hungarian Empire which brought two great peoples, Germans and Magyars, together one last time. This imperial experiment lasted for less than a half century, but in that short span of time the Leitha became more than a river, it also became a border which divided and united. A border which today no longer exists except to those who know their history.

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

Crossing the border into Austria I might be forgiven for thinking everything was going to be fine. Austria has a reputation as a sort of heaven on earth, filled with picture perfect villages, a glittering capital city and mountains that could make the most curmudgeonly begin yodeling. This was not the Austria we entered. The landscape was dead from winter. The slushy snow that had covered the roads in Moravia was melting away, leaving intermittent patches of barren ground. Besides a few flurries and the constant roar of an icy wind, it was grey sky and open roads. The way around Vienna looked to be clear. Of course, we were trying to make Debrecen before midnight, but that did not stop us from detouring to Rosenberger’s for one last roadside meal.

It was Rosenberger which spawned the beloved Landzeit that we ate at earlier in our trip. The Rosenberger we stopped at seemed to be living off its exalted reputation. The food was nothing memorable on this day. The restaurant had the air of an abandoned airport. Rosenberger was the forerunner of all the sumptuous roadside restaurants in Austria. It was started in 1972 and grew into a powerhouse based on delicious food and legendary service. Unfortunately, this one lacked that special magic of Landzeit. My expectations for it were too high. For that matter, it suffered the same unrealistic levels of expectations that I have for Austria in general. The soaring mountains, glittering capital and clean swept towns were nowhere to be found on this day.

The Way It Used To Be - Abandoned border station at Hegyeshalom on the Hungary-Austria border

The Way It Used To Be – Abandoned border station at Hegyeshalom on the Hungary-Austria border (Credit: fortepan.hu)

Giving Notice – The Return of History
Skirting the suburbs of Vienna, my wife and I stared at the backside of lorries for kilometers on end while driving past industrialized landscapes. It was hard to believe the Ringstrasse was less than half an hour away. We were experiencing the Austria never shown on tourist brochures. Perhaps it was the blustery weather, the now traffic packed motorway or the general malaise that accords a trip’s final moments that made Austria seem much less impressive than usual. This was probably to be expected. Let’s face it, dealing with road construction could defeat Disney. This was the first time I felt like Austria was like everywhere else. The one saving grace on this day was that the Austrian motorways were clear of snow. Crossing Lower Austria and the Burgenland in the far eastern portion of the country was like navigating a wind tunnel at 130 kilometers per hour. Wind turbines that loomed just off the highway were spinning with a sense of abandonment.

This day was about endurance. The idea of enjoyment had escaped me after leaving the Czech Republic. I was relieved when we neared the Austria-Hungary border crossing. There was no passport control, but border officials were slowing traffic down and taking a quick peek inside at each car’s inhabitants. This was the product of tightened border restrictions due to the refugee crisis a couple of years before. This slowdown was irritating since the Schengen Zone had spoiled me with open borders and full throttle entry into EU countries. This was the first sign I had seen of Europe closing in on itself. It was famously said that 1989 was the end of history. Communism and the Iron Curtain had collapsed, democratic capitalist societies reigned supreme. Nationalism, totalitarianism and a range of other insidious -isms had been exhausted by war, economic failure and intellectual irrelevancy. Well now we know that history never went away, it was always there. If only we had taken the time to look past our own triumphalism and notice.

Border control - Entering Austria from Hungary

Border control – Entering Austria from Hungary (Credit: My Friend)

Self-Induced Amnesia – A Borderless Existence
One of the more bizarre things about internal borders in the EU, is how they seem to hardly exist. If there had been no border personnel to remind us, the dividing line between eastern Austria and western Hungary would be imperceptible. Border guards in this area have become a novelty. Oddly, for two nations that had a historically fractious relationship, there is now nothing but an invisible line between them. In an irony so bizarre that it goes largely unnoticed, traveling from Austria into Hungary on the motorway is not even noticeable except for the large signs that welcome travelers. The border felt about the same to me as it does in the United States when crossing from Indiana to Ohio. If a sign did not say this is Austria or this is Hungary, who would know the difference. No one would have believed such a thing was possible 40 years ago. And now no one believes that anything other than the status quo is possible. The ability to suffer self-induced amnesia regarding recent history is in one sense admirable and in another, deeply disturbing.

Crossing the Austria-Hungary border could have been much worse. Waiting in a car to be waved through by windblown, listless representatives of Austrian officialdom is much better than languishing at ominous border controls that existed during the Cold War. Meanwhile, there was another Cold War brewing outside, but this one was natural rather than manmade. There was a wild wind swirling from seemingly every direction. The weather could not make up its mind what it wanted to do. This sent my emotions into schizophrenic spasms, segueing between moments of buoyant optimism followed by bouts of futile cynicism. Before long, I got the distinct feeling that we were headed into a storm, but since we had been driving in and out of them during our entire trip, this was not as frightening a prospect as it should have been.

Stopping Point – Frozen In Place
It was not long before the sky grew darker and the road along with it. This was the product of freezing precipitation that threatened to bring traffic to a halt. I suddenly realized that the terrain of western Hungary was not helping matters. Transdanubia as it is known, consists of rolling topography. I dreaded going downhill more than up. The roadway was a glistening sheen that was becoming slicker by the minute. It was not long before we gave up on the idea of Debrecen. The conditions became treacherous, with cars and trucks inching along. No one knew if they were on a sheet of ice or a rain slicked road. Soon, a line of cars stretched over several kilometers. No one wanted to chance more than 40 kilometers per hour. Every time I set foot on the brakes a nervous tension consumed me. An hour earlier I had been dreaming of getting back to Debrecen, now I was wondering weather we would make it to the nearest exit. Our journey had come to a halt, but it was nowhere near over. The search for a safe place to stay the night was just beginning.

Click here for: On Thin Ice – The OMV Oasis: Roadside Assistance in Transdanubia (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Twenty-six)

Bordering On Crazy – A Winter’s Drive To Cesky Krumlov (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Three)

My Eastern European travels have taught me as much about myself as they have about the region. One thing that has become increasingly apparent to me is how much I enjoy risky situations. How else to explain sticking with a plan that meant driving straight into a winter storm in Austria and the Czech Republic. Throughout the drive across Lower and Upper Austria, I kept telling my wife – and myself – that if the conditions got much worse than we would stop for the night and stay at a roadside hotel. The statement was made in a pathetic attempt to pretend I was being safe. I had no intention of stopping unless a blizzard descended upon us and made road conditions impassable. The closer we got to the border of the Czech Republic the more it looked like that just might happen.

Withering Whiteness – Adrift In A Swirling Snowstorm
The possibility of a blizzard began to loom as the wind whipped the snowstorm into a frenzy of thick, swirling flakes. Traffic slowed to a crawl as road conditions turned treacherous. The surest sign of this was the line of cars that queued behind our small Suzuki Splash. No one dared pass on an ultra-slick highway where visibility was suddenly reduced to a few meters. We slowed down to no more than 30 kilometers per hour. At times it felt surreal, like I was handling a sleigh rather than an automobile. The road could not be seen except for a barely perceptible two track. This was the path left behind by some anonymous vehicle that had long since vanished into the withering whiteness. Our goal now consisted of making it to the next village. The closer we got to the Czech Republic, the more distant Cesky Krumlov seemed. Our ultimate destination was hidden somewhere beyond the swirling snow that cast a blinding white veil over the surrounding area.

The final few Austrian villages took on an outsized importance. Rainbach im Muhlkreism would not be of note to any foreign tourist except for those who might possibly end up stranded there. Winding our way through the village center, I was heartened by the sight of a few establishments that might provide refuge in case of an accident. I felt a sense of relief when the road signage announced Leopoldschlagg, but then my heart sank as I realized that it lay somewhere off the thin strip of frozen highway which we now clung to as an icy, solitary lifeline. Anywhere more than a few meters off the roadside was terra incognito, a land whited out by a sea of swirling snowflakes. The idea of a guesthouse in one of these tiny burgs was no longer a quaintly romantic notion. Instead, it was the one thing that might save us from a ditch side disaster.

A Winter's Night - Cesky Krumlov

A Winter’s Night – Cesky Krumlov

A Fearful Desire – To Love & Loath In Unequal Measure
I was becoming increasingly fond of the idea of spending the evening at almost any roadside accommodation. Even the most remote village offered help or hope, though I continued to stubbornly forge onward towards the border. Somewhere amid this land of ice and snow I realized the gravity of our situation. We were in a foreign country, driving a compact car on dangerous roads consumed by a near whiteout. Traveling in conditions that we would have avoided at home. None of this was a good idea and could only be explained by my passionate urge for ever increasing risk, that or just wanting to get there. Was the risk worth it? In retrospect it never is. At the time, I could not help but continue. A conscious desire on my part to not let anything delay this journey, a willful impatience that disregarded common sense lay behind the urge to drive in the least desirable conditions.  An adrenaline rush from this perpetual tension kept me going. At one point my hand began to shake from nervous tension. Since I was a child I loved and loathed feelings of fear. The love was often greater than the loathing.

I tried to push away negative thoughts by stating that surely it could not be this bad on the other side of the border. Austria was known for mountains and snowstorms, the Czech Republic for beer and Bohemia. Such a line of thought was patently ridiculous. We were within a few kilometers of the border, it was not as though snowstorms obeyed tiresome stereotypes. Climatic conditions give no heed to man made boundaries, but that did not stop the Czech Republic from becoming a last, best hope. The Czech border was the lone goal. One that I had spent the past hour focusing on. I kept telling my wife that things might possibly be different across the border. I really had no idea, since I had never been in this part of Austria or the Czech Republic.  The slow crawl to the border crossing abruptly came to an end. We made an initial slow descent as we entered the Czech Republic. In just a few kilometers the snow began to miraculously subside. It no longer poured down upon us. Flakes floated innocuously in the air, many of them failing to cover the pavement. This likely had to do with the forest lining the highway which cut off much of the wind that had buffeted us throughout our final stretch in Austria,

A Land Beyond The Storm – Crossing Into Bohemia
The briefest respite from the storm was cause for joy. I could hardly believe our good luck. It was still snowing, but not nearly as hard. A small, but perceptible drop in elevation had made a world of difference. I did not want to lapse into overconfidence, but Cesky Krumlov was now within easy driving distance. Soon we were pulling into the first gas station we came upon in the town of Keplice. That was when I finally realized with a palpable sense of relief that the first leg of our journey was nearly done. One moment we were in a raging snowstorm, the next we were viewing the falling flakes with disregard. Our thoughts were now turning to the town we would be calling our home base for the next several days.

Cesky Krumlov had been a distant notion for years to me. It took a fair amount of convincing to get my wife to visit here, mainly because she rightfully believed that winter was not the optimum time to traipse around the provincial parts of southern Bohemia. I knew few who had visited what was said to be one of the most enchanting towns in Central & Eastern Europe. Cesky Krumlov had been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its medley of architectural wonders. This brought it a fair amount of notoriety, but everything in the Czech Republic was obscured by the fame of Prague. As we would soon discover the town was worthy of the many accolades bestowed upon it. In our case, it turned out to well worth the risk of a memorable and treacherous winter drive. I would not want to do that same drive again in such poor conditions, but if given the option I would likely take the same chance.

Click here for: Intimidate & Inspire – Sizing Up Cesky Krumlov’s Castle (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Four)

From Fairy Tale To Austrian Reality – A Landzeit Love Story (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Two)

I never cared for fairy tales. They always seemed to be rather ridiculous in a childish sort of way. The only one I ever really liked was The Seven Dwarfs. That was because of my role as Sleepy Dwarf in a kindergarten play. My acting career pretty much ended with that performance along with my affinity for fairy tales. That this occurred at the tender age of six meant that fairy tales became an extremely forgettable experience for me. That was until I entered the Landzeit Strengberg Restaurant beside the A1 (West Autobahn) in northern Austria. My wife had been raving for hours about the quality and presentation of the food at Rosenberger’s and Landzeit in Austria. I had never heard an eating experience described in such glowing terms, especially one that involved a roadside restaurant. As an American experienced in thousands of miles of interstate highway travel such establishments conjured up images of an abandoned Stuckey’s in western Iowa and a “Shrimp Burger” that I wolfed down at a Jamestown, North Dakota truck stop café.  Thus, I was more than a bit skeptical about what these Austrian eateries might offer. My wife’s descriptions sounded more like a fairy tale and much less like reality.

Best in Presentation - A feast fit for royalty at Landzeit

Best in Presentation – A feast fit for royalty at Landzeit

A Feast Fit For Royalty – In The Most Tasteful Manner
As soon as we escaped from the increasingly snowy weather conditions along the A1 and entered the Landzeit Strengberg, I suddenly realized that everything my wife had been telling me was true. Imagine a feast fit for royalty. The innumerable food choices were displayed in the most elegant fashion. A young man wearing a straw hat and looking like he had just come from a farm was slicing sizable portions of the juiciest roast I had ever seen. My eye was soon caught by some glowing strawberries atop a layered cake that set my mouth to watering. Bavarian Pretzels baked golden brown awaited the grasp of some lucky soul. The lasagna looked so delicious that I immediately demanded that a delectable portion be placed upon my plate. The produce was positively Mediterranean, salads contained the freshest ingredients while the rolls seemed to have been the product of a master baker. It was a fairy tale made real. Before long I lost all self-control, spending 35 Euros on a meal for two in a matter of minutes.

While the weather continued to worsen outside, my wife and I blissfully enjoyed every morsel of our Landzeit meal. The place was as clean as the food was good. The serving and seating area were cafeteria style, but it felt more like a setting for aristocracy such was the glorious decor. The floors gleamed, the bathrooms were spotless and the music relaxing.  Roadside heaven was a place on earth, to be found at multiple locations across Austria. When we first entered the restaurant, I had noticed a sign sporting the photo of a besuited, very professional looking man. He looked pleasant, well-groomed and uber wealthy. This turned out to be Wolfgang Rosenberger, Managing Director of Landzeit. He is one of the heirs to the family business and a direct descendent of its founder. These roadside restaurants began almost fifty years before as the brainchild of the elder Wolfgang Rosenberger, a man who had first earned his leaving by driving gravel trucks for a power plant on the Danube. His resourcefulness had led him into the roadside hotel and restaurant business.

With the help of his wife, Rosenberger built his first rest stop along the highway during the 1960’s. After Wolfgang’s untimely death, his brother Heinz – a trained pastry chef – took up the enterprise. He opened the first Rosenberger’s in 1972 with the help of Wolfgang’s widow, Christine. Four years later, they opened their first roadside hotel. Since that time, Rosenberger’s and its offshoot Landzeit has grown into a 50 million business. Landzeit began due to a family dispute over inheritance of the restaurants and hotels after Heinz died in 1999. Today, there are both Rosenberger’s and Landzeits, managed by respective sides of the family all along the Austrian autobahns. They have become a national institution, known for offering traveler’s an incredible roadside meal in a pristine setting. I can certainly vouch for Land Zeit after my fantastical experience. The food was so tasty that I almost forgot that we still were trying to make Cesky Krumlov by nightfall. A goal that was looking less attainable after forty-five minutes of heavenly helpings at Landzeit.

The Ultimate In Temptation - Dessert at Landzeit

The Ultimate In Temptation – Dessert at Landzeit

Safety Concerns – Under The Cover of Snow
Well fed, if a bit somnolent after our immaculate meal, we were soon back on the A1. Snow, intermixed with rain, continued to come down in a wet spray that made driving conditions difficult. Somehow, none of the precipitation stuck to the road. It felt at times as though we were driving in a perpetual car wash. We could not see anything more than 50 meters on any side of the vehicle. By the time we approached the outskirts of Linz and began to head north, the weather began to get a bit better. The perpetual gloom had lifted enough to see the steely grey waters of the Danube sliding beneath a bridge. Daylight was fleeting as we began to make our way towards Freistadt on the S10 motorway and the Austria-Czech Republic border just beyond. A series of tunnels made the roadway a bit easier to navigate. Unfortunately, each time we exited a tunnel the weather had worsened.

We were going up in elevation, which meant that the temperature dropped, snowfall increased, and the road conditions quickly deteriorated. A few kilometers before the border, the road was completely covered in snow. Visibility was reduced to just a few meters. We led a line of slowly snaking traffic through snowy townscapes. I began to fret that we might be forced to spend the night in one of these small villages out of safety concerns. These concerns soon materialized in the form of red and blue lights as emergency personnel blocked one half of the roadway.   Four fire trucks, an ambulance and an army of first responders were crowded around what we expected to be an accident. Instead, there was no accident anywhere to be seen. Perhaps they had cleared it away already or maybe they were waiting for an accident to happen. This possibility was becoming a probability as we slowly slid our way across the Czech border.

Click here for: Bordering On Crazy – A Winter’s Drive To Cesky Krumlov (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Three)

Stormy Weather – Debrecen To Cesky Krumlov (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part One)

She was worried, more so than usual. My mother in-law stood at the car checking, double checking and triple checking for anything that might possibly go wrong. Her level of anxiety manifested itself in questions and nervous glances. She even gripped me on the shoulder at one point. This was out of character for her. As my wife and I got into her car, which we were borrowing for a trip to southern Bohemia, my mother-in-law kept looking at us with an expression of worry. I could see the stressed look in her eyes despite the lack of light. The sun was just coming up over the great Hungarian Plain. We were leaving earlier than usual due to the lack of daylight in the dead of winter. Google Maps said the trip between Debrecen and Cesky Krumlov should take seven and a half hours if we took the shortest route. Of course, the amount of time was based on optimal travel conditions. I knew better, because I knew the weather was supposed to be worse. By looking at my mother-in-law I could tell she knew as well.

Wishful Thinking – Intermittent Worries
We had been on the M35 in eastern Hungary for half an hour when my wife said to me, “my mom was worried”. I hesitated, not wanting to ask why since I already knew the answer. After a prolonged moment of uncomfortable silence, I gave a quiet answer and got the reply I expected. It was the weather. The forecast for Austria, which we would be spending several hours driving across, was not good. Several times in the days before our departure I checked the forecast. Lower Austria showed intermittent snow while there was a 70% chance of snow in Linz. Cesky Krumlov also had the same forecast.

Noticing this, I tried the last refuge of a foolish traveler, searching for any shred of evidence to provide a false sense of security. Sure enough, I found something to ameliorate my worries. The snow accumulation was going to be light, only a centimeter or two. That was nothing! Especially in a land such as Austria where they knew how to deal with winter road conditions. I imagined a fleet of plows surging onto the A1 Motorway (West Autobahn). They would be there to ensure that snowfall need not keep anyone from meeting their schedule. It would be Teutonic focus at its finest. At least that was what I hoped was going to happen.

Difficult Driving - Less than desirable road conditions in Austria

Difficult Driving – Less than desirable road conditions in Austria

Tunnel Visions – The Gathering Storm
The drive across eastern and central Hungary was blissfully boring. Traffic was light, even around Budapest. It only began to pick up as we neared the Austrian border. There was also a noticeable change in the weather. The wind, which had been blowing forcefully at times, suddenly grew ferocious. Our little compact Suzuki Splash was whipped about within its lane. The roof antenna rattled, then began to bang on the rooftop. After awhile we grew used to this, unlike those times when the strengthening gusts nearly blew us out of our lane and into another one. When we stopped to fuel up and purchase our toll vignette for Austria at the last Hungarian highway rest station, I had trouble standing in place while pumping the petrol. On the horizon I could see the blades of Austrian wind turbines rapidly turning. There was a serious gale in progress which likely meant a storm was brewing somewhere beyond the horizon.

After crossing over into Austria the weather worsened. The wind continued to howl, then suddenly became visible in the form of a ghostly white mist. It would vanish and re-materialize in a matter of seconds. The mist threw a thin veil over the not so distant horizon. As we attempted to make our way around and beyond Vienna, the hills of lower Austria became increasingly obscured. I tried to act nonchalant about the deterioration in weather conditions. I chattered nervously aloud, stating that the hillsides could still be seen. I was just trying to make myself feel better about being foolish enough to drive all day in bad weather. You know the situation is getting out of hand when entering a tunnel brings instantaneous relief. I began to imagine how nice it would be if the entire A1 Motorway to Linz went through a tunnel.

Rumors of Greatness - Landzeit in Austria

Rumors of Greatness – Landzeit in Austria

Less Than Appetizing – Food Fairy Tales
My attempts at creating a false sense of security were soon defeated by a barrage of snow pellets striking the windshield. This was followed by snow showers interspersed with drizzle that limited visibility to less than a hundred meters. Amazingly, none of the precipitation seemed to be sticking on the roadway. I began to wonder if the Austrians had created some sort of magical system to melt snowfall along hundreds of kilometers of roadway. I did not trust the lack of snow buildup on the road. I took to the slow lane while all the other cars roared past. Trying to keep up with the flow of traffic was difficult. I noticed that I was going as fast in the slow lane as I had gone in the fast lane in Hungary. The speed limit had increased in Austria to 140 kilometers per hour (kph). Many motorists were availing themselves of the opportunity to push their speed to the limit. One wrong move and there would have been a colossal accident.

Austrian motorists did not seem worried, if anything they had become energized. This winter road race fit perfectly with the Austrian mentality, a nation of perfectionists with no room for error. The A4 was built for speed and efficient transport. No need to let a 40 kph wind with snow detain anyone. The entire time my wife kept telling me to keep an eye out for a Rosenberger or Landzeit. I soon learned that these were an Austrian roadside restaurant and hotel chain that she talked about in terms of a traveler’s salvation. I did not quite take her seriously since her description sounded more like a food fairy tale than the truck stop grub Americans suffered along forlorn freeways. It sounded a little bit too wonderful. This too good to be true left a less than appetizing taste in my mouth.

Roadside Attractions – The Guilt Trip
I wanted to make Cesky Krumlov by nightfall. That goal was beginning to look less than attainable as the weather slowed our travel time. We passed a Landzeit, but I did not care to stop. I argued that conditions were much too dangerous for such a frivolous delay. Then, after being subjected to a guilt trip the likes of which made our perilous journey seem pleasurable, I was pulling off an exit for a late lunch at Landzeit. This may not have been the safest decision, but it would turn out to be a fantastic one.

Click here for: From Fairy Tale To Austrian Reality – A Landzeit Love Story (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Two)

 

Tragic Destiny –The Mysterious Afterlife Of Mayerling: History For The Worse (Part Three)

The Mayerling Incident was a tabloid ready controversy filled with rampant speculation, salacious gossip, bizarre rumors of ridiculous conspiracies and mysterious cover-ups. Fact and fiction were interwoven to the point that they became inseparable. The powers that be changed their story multiple times. Something akin to an approximation of the truth slowly came to light. The press in Austria was heavily censored, but further west in France and Great Britain speculation flowed freely, some of this crossed back over the border into Austria. The entire drama threatened to undermine an already weakened and rickety monarchy that was already having enough trouble just trying to deal with social and technological changes. Someone would have to take the blame for this self-inflicted debacle and it would not be the monarchy. Rudolf’s femme fatale never stood a chance.

United by fate - Crown Prince Rudolf & Mary Vetsera

United by fate – Crown Prince Rudolf & Mary Vetsera

Obscured By Spiritualism – Underwhelmed By The Unresolved
The court of official propaganda and public opinion was not kind to Mary Vetsera. She was viewed as a willing accomplice of a mentally troubled Rudolf. Her age did not help matters. She was thirteen years younger than Rudolf, a mere teenager who lacked the emotional maturity to understand what she was getting herself into. Her mother had sought fame in the highest aristocratic social circles for a family that were newcomers on the Viennese social scene. Their background in the near east limited just how far the family might climb, but Mary would end up showing just how far they could fall. Her mother was not allowed to attend the daughter’s funeral. Mary was buried alone at a spot the Crown Prince had selected for the two of them. Instead, Rudolf ended up in the Imperial Crypt, but only after officialdom ensured that his suicide was ruled as the result of mental problems.

As for the Mayerling hunting lodge, it was transformed into a Carmelite Convent where nuns could eternally pray for Rudolf’s soul. A very odd thing to do to at a murder-suicide site. While the gesture was heartfelt – Franz Josef wept at the convent’s dedication – such a transformation was incongruous at best, insincere at worst. This was the main reason I found the Jagdschloss Karmel Mayerling to be one of the most underwhelming historical places I have visited. My suspicion was that there had been a tacit agreement to keep the exact truth of what happened obscured by spiritualism. Thus, it was decided to create something of a memorial and leave it at that. The fact that the mystery of Mayerling may or may not have been solved kept interest from visitors such as myself high. It drew me and thousands of others to the Jagdschloss Karmel Mayerling each year.  Probably not what the Habsburg authorities had in mind.

Tragic Destiny - Crown Prince after the Mayerling Incident

Tragic Destiny – Crown Prince after the Mayerling Incident (Credit Schuhmann – Bundesmobilienverwaltung MD 065518)

A Shattering Effect – From Debilitation To Destabilization
Today a very strict order of nuns resides at the Jagdschloss in relative seclusion. The chapel now stands in the spot where the main actions of the incident occurred or so I was told. The facts from the investigation of what happened that day were sealed and then destroyed by decree of Emperor Franz Joseph. His wife Elisabeth is said to have never recovered from her son’s death. The same has been said of the Emperor. The royal couple did stay married, though they grew further apart. Mayerling had a shattering effect on the future course of the Empire and the 20th century. Rudolf’s replacement as heir to the throne was none other than Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who would have his own tragic destiny.

As time passed after the murder-suicide at Mayerling, Rudolf, the once Crown Prince of Austria gained a reputation as a tragic figure whose death changed history for the worse. This was predicated on the assumption that if Rudolf had lived long enough to become emperor he would have reformed Austria-Hungary and the monarchy would have had a better chance of survival. Such an idea overlooks the fact that Rudolf’s health was already in rapid decline at the time of his suicide mainly due to venereal disease. He had contracted either gonorrhea or syphilis from his endless conquests of women. The disease only served to intensify a nervous condition that had plagued him throughout his adult life. He had also suffered from debilitating migraine headaches for several years.  Only thirty years old when he died, photos taken in the months before then showed Rudolf as a prematurely aged man.

Imperial Crypt - Crown Prince Rudolf's coffin lies to the right of his parents' coffins

Imperial Crypt – Crown Prince Rudolf’s coffin lies to the right of his parents’ coffins (Credit Bwag)

Resting On Turmoil – The Extent Of One Man’s Sorrow
The Crown Prince had been trying to alleviate his various maladies with morphine and heavy drinking. Those only served to have the opposite effect on his condition. In addition to his physical ailments, Rudolf’s marriage was a disaster. His wife, Crown Princess Stephanie of Belgium, was sterile because he had transmitted venereal disease to her. He did not find her physically or psychologically attractive, the two were a poor match. Their relationship only grew worse as the years went on. Each lived an increasingly separate existence. By the start of 1889, Rudolf was a man living on the edge. He had already tried to get Princess Stephanie involved in a lover’s suicide pact. She demurred. He did the same with one of his mistresses, an ex-singer, by the name of Mizzi Kaspar, who dutifully reported it to the police. The authorities failed to report this to either the Emperor or Empress. The upshot of all this was that Rudolf’s parents failed to realize the extent of Rudolf’s woes.

Rudolf would likely have died long before having the chance to assume the throne. Franz Josef did not die until 1916, twenty-seven years after the Mayerling incident occurred. By that time Rudolf would have been 57. There is only a very slim chance that he would have lived a quarter century longer suffering so badly from disease. Rudolf probably realized his condition would continue to deteriorate. The future for him looked bleak, both physically and politically. As for the latter, he had been frozen out of all decision making in the empire. He was considered untrustworthy, impulsive and at times had been downright subversive. Publishing his views in the liberal press under barely disguised fronts. His father would not hear of an annulment to Rudolf’s marriage. His mother, Empress Elisabeth, while close in temperament to her son, was consumed with her own mental and physical problems. It is little wonder that Rudolf ended his life, to have done it in such sensational fashion led to speculation that still continues right up through today.  Mayerling’s fame will forever rest on Rudolf’s turmoil.

Click here for: Visiting Vysehrad – Myth, Mystery & History: Looking Down Upon Prague

Uncovering The Cover-up – The Mayerling Incident: From Sin To Sanctuary (Part Two)

Once upon a trip while traveling in Europe, my wife said to me “there is something of interest in every village”. In this case she was referring to Hungary, but the same could be said of almost any other nation on the continent. That certainly includes Austria. Even the tiniest burgs have played host to many centuries of history and been home to thousands of people all with their own unique stories, some more famous than others. Mayerling was one of those places. I left Vienna behind for a hamlet that was not even the size of a village. At a glance it would seem to be a place of no importance. Such an impression would be patently false, for it was in Mayerling where an “Incident” occurred that would have vast ramifications for the 20th century. The “Incident” had carried me on a journey to the Jagdschloss Karmel Mayerling. I hoped to learn more, but the true value of this place would not be found written on any displays or outlined in the exhibits. Its power lay in an opportunity to stand in the footsteps of history.

Interior of the chapel at Mayerling

Interior of the chapel at Mayerling

Sinister Connotations – The Confines Of History
The reason why anyone visited the Jadgschloss was to see where the scandalous “Mayerling Incident” had taken place. I assumed that visitors like myself had read or been told about it beforehand. Thus, the true value of coming here was to match reality with imagination. To place one of the more infamous historical events within the confines of where it had occurred. Visitors would get to see the actual place where Crown Prince Rudolf forfeited his rights to the Habsburg throne, first by murdering a teenage mistress and then committing suicide. Those actions ensured Mayerling’s place in history. The hunting lodge where this tragedy took place would forever be associated with the death of an heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. The word Mayerling had taken on a sinister connotation in the wake of what happened in the early morning hours of January 30, 1889. Nothing would ever be the same again for this remote settlement and the hunting lodge that dominated the landscape.

The museum at Mayerling was pretty much what I thought it would be, nothing special. It was small, contained the obligatory information displays and a room set up to look as it did back in the hunting lodge’s 19th century heyday. No one would have paid a single euro to see this stuff. It was in the chapel where intrigue abounded. There was an altar placed in the exact location where the bed had stood that contained the bodies of Rudolf and Mary. The setting for the Mayerling Incident was now surrounded by stained glass windows, Christian symbolism and all the trappings of religion. This was one of the more bizarre re-imaginings of a place marred by tragedy. The fact that an altar with a cross, the most venerated symbol in Christianity, was placed in the same location where adulterers spent their final moments before a murder-suicide pact was carried out managed to shock me. There was something sadistic about placing the altar in such a location. It seemed to mock what had happened. Here was spiritualism in the service of obfuscation. The devil really was in the details of what had happened. The powers that be back then had decided to transform a bloody bedroom into a sanctuary to absolve sin.

An unhappy marriage - Crown Prince Rudolf and Princess Stephanie

An unhappy marriage – Crown Prince Rudolf and Princess Stephanie (Credit: Géruzet Frères – Österreichisches Staatsarchiv)

Open To Conjecture – Disputed Details
What happened at Mayerling on a brutally cold winter night in 1889 is still open to conjecture today. The “Mayerling Incident” was said to be a murder-suicide. Since that time, countless journalists along with professional and amateur historians have weighed in with an assortment of articles and books on what might or might not have occurred. The evidence is vague and ambiguous. It is also obscured by cover-ups. A short explanation goes something like this, Crown Prince Rudolf, next in line to lead the Austro-Hungarian Empire, supposedly murdered one of his many mistresses and then committed suicide due to a pre-arranged lover’s pact. Austria-Hungary’s version of Romeo and Juliet. Rudolf’s mistress, the 17-year old Mary Vetsera, was found in the bedroom with flowers folded in her hands as she lay dead from a gunshot wound. It is believed she died during the night, but the Crown Prince was seen that morning by one of his servants before going back to his bedchambers and shooting himself. No one knows what really happened, but by morning two dead bodies were discovered. Rumors and speculation were rife from the outset.

The details of this are still disputed today, complicated by imperial secrecy and conspiratorial politics. Some believe that Rudolf arrived at Mayerling utterly distraught following an argument with his father, the Emperor Franz Josef. Father and son were said to have quarreled badly in the preceding days, though there is no first-hand documentation of this happening. The emperor would most certainly have denied Rudolf the right to divorce his wife, Crown Princess Stephanie. Rudolf had already gone behind his father’s back in writing the Vatican to request an annulment of his unhappy marriage. To further exacerbate matters, it was thought that Rudolf had been in contact with Hungarian opposition figures whom the imperial administration loathed. One prominent theory holds that there was a plot to murder Crown Prince Rudolf. This was done to ensure his liberal ideas to arrest the empire’s continual decline could never be enacted. Franz Josef did likely feel that Rudolf was not worthy to succeed him.

Femme Fatale - Mary Vetsera

Femme Fatale – Mary Vetsera

From Trigger Man To Tragic Figure – Explanatory Evidence
Theories and opinions on the true cause of the Mayerling Incident have been rampant ever since news of it broke. Gossip and hearsay informed opinions as much as truth. This was aided by the suppression of information by the imperial authorities. This vacuum was filled by those with their own theories. Some hypothesized that the incident was really part of a French plot to weaken Austria and the Habsburgs. Then there was the initial conspiracy theory that Mary had poisoned Rudolf or maybe she shot him and then herself. The authorities needed some sort of explanation for what happened. The first “official” version was that Rudolf had died of a heart attack. Unfortunately for the House of Habsburg, Rudolf was almost certainly the trigger man. A trigger man who would soon become a tragic figure.

Coming soon: Tragic Destiny –The Mysterious Afterlife Of Mayerling: History For The Worse (Part Three)

A Place Touched By Tragedy – Incidental Contact: The Road To Mayerling (Part One)

The trigger that started World War One was pulled on a street corner in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The starting gun for that incident went off much earlier, twenty-five years earlier to be exact. At least that is what some scholars believe. That is because on the night of January 29,1889, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Crown Prince Rudolf committed suicide along with his young lover at a royal hunting lodge in the tiny village of Mayerling, just 25 kilometers from Vienna. The death of the Crown Prince, only son of Emperor Franz Josef and his wife Queen Elisabeth, meant that the succession passed down to Franz Ferdinand. In effect putting him in the direct line of fire to be murdered in Sarajevo a quarter century later. What has become known as the Mayerling Incident is famous both for the geopolitical outcomes that resulted from it and the endless conjecture about what exactly happened at the hunting lodge on that fateful winter night.

Scene of the crime - Mayerling Hunting Lodge of Crown Prince Rudolf in 1889

Scene of the crime – Mayerling Hunting Lodge of Crown Prince Rudolf in 1889

Anything But Normal – Lone Passenger, Strange Journey
Sopron was a great place to stay for a day trip to Vienna since it was only an 80 minute train ride away. Thus, I availed myself of the opportunity to visit the city for the second time on this trip. After sightseeing in the city center for a few hours I decided that there was still time to visit Mayerling. It interested me for two reasons. The first was because of what had happened there. Second, it was relatively remote for an attraction in the area. There was a reason I had never met anyone who had been to Mayerling. When all the glitter, sparkle and festive atmospherics of central Vienna are in front of you, traveling out to a wooded hinterland in search of a murder-suicide site is less than appealing to most normal people. Well I never wanted to be normal, thus visiting Mayerling appealed to my ego. I would be the first in my family to visit there, as though that meant something to anyone other than me. In addition, I could come home with a story to tell bored relatives, oblivious friends and legions of coworkers who would care less what some Austrian royal light weight had done to himself and his mistress. I told myself that Mayerling would be worth the bother of getting there.

Mayerling was not that far from Vienna, but it might as well have been in another world. To get there I first had to take the metro, then a tram, followed by a bus. It only takes half an hour to drive to Mayerling from central Vienna, but by public transport it took an hour and a half. The final leg by bus was quite scenic as it winded through rolling, forested countryside. Low mountains began to appear in the distance. In these woods I imagined royal hunting parties in the autumn, everything done according to protocol. Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef was especially fond of hunting, keenly interested in all aspects. It was a sad irony that his only son would come to a tragic end in a lodge that was associated with one of the Emperor’s few passions. The former hunting lodge was to be found in a small mountain valley. I was the lone passenger to get off at Mayerling. As the bus departed I suddenly felt abandoned.

Mayerling - A Strange Journey

Mayerling – A Strange Journey

Pushed Astride – Austrian Manners
The village of Mayerling was more like a settlement or what back home in the States would be called an unincorporated community. There were some scattered residences, a guest house and the centerpiece of this otherwise forgettable hamlet, the Jagdschloss Karmel Mayerling. What had once been an Imperial hunting lodge, then a church and convent of the Discalced Nuns was now a museum. I sensed a feeling of forlorn remoteness about Mayerling. It was a blustery day with a decided bite in the air. It felt like winter had not quite left the area, after what had happened here I wondered if it ever did. Rather than repel, the forlorn nature of the area fascinated me. A fitting prelude to a place touched by tragedy. I quickly made my way toward the museum. There was a handful of others visiting the museum at the same time as me.  An Austrian family nearly ran me over when I was headed into the museum where the “Mayerling Incident” occurred.

This was not the first time I had experienced the pushiness of Austrians. Despite the neat, well ordered world that could be found throughout the country, the Austrians I encountered, while gracious and helpful, were also habitual line jumpers. This came as a complete surprise to me. I assumed, quite wrongly, that since Austrians were ethnic Germans, they would act exactly as Germans do in Germany. I soon learned just how wrong my assumption had been. For instance, while standing in line at Vienna’s central train station waiting to purchase tickets, three older men decided to walk around me and take their place at the head of the line. When I tapped one of them on the shoulder and ordered the group back behind me, the men looked positively shocked. They did not fuss or fight over position, but I could see on their faces a sudden awareness that line breaking was not to everyone’s liking.

Entrance to the chapel area of the former hunting lodge - Inside is the museum of the Mayerling Incident

Entrance to the chapel area of the former hunting lodge – Inside is the museum of the Mayerling Incident

Childish Distractions – A Rude Awakening
This was not first time I had noticed that the lines in Austria were not straight and narrow like those in Germany. This was one of several things that separate Austrians from Germans, differences of nuance rather than degree. This was never truer than when that family at Mayerling muscled me out of the way. They were going to be first, no matter what rudeness was involved. Of course, this ended up triggering the same impulse in me. I stepped right in front of them again, then made it quite apparent I was holding my place. This bit of childish chicanery distracted me for a moment. Then I turned my attention to the reason I was visiting Mayerling, to see where Crown Prince Rudolf and his teenage lover spent their final moments.

Click here for: Uncovering The Cover-up – The Mayerling Incident: From Sin To Sanctuary (Part Two)

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