Travelers Clutching Their Baedekers – Transylvania & Modern Tourism: Following In The Footsteps (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #51)

While traveling through Transylvania I have often wondered why a road was routed through a certain area, especially when the terrain looked inhospitable. It would be a rather difficult and costly task to build a road through trackless areas covered in thick forest. Traversing such extremely rugged terrain is a daunting prospect. I assume that modern highways in Transylvania follow the wagon tracks from centuries past. Many of these travel corridors were blazed long before man settled the area. The first inhabitants most likely followed in the hoof prints of animal migratory paths. Such deep history is unknown to all but a few archaeologists.  Nonetheless, the topic of travel routes offers a fascinating connection of past with present. Current generations continue to travel in the footsteps of their most distant ancestors. In a much more constricted time span this also holds true for tourists and the itineraries they follow while visiting Transylvania. The first ones for German and English language travelers were set forth by Baedeker in the late 19th century. Since that time, travelers have been unwittingly following along those same routes set forth over a century ago.

The Indispensable Guide - Baedeker Guide Including Transylvania
The Indispensable Guide – Baedeker Guide Including Transylvania

Entering The Land Beyond The Forest – Riding In On Rails
The first time Transylvania appeared in a Baedeker title was in 1880 with publication of the Southern Germany and Austria, including Hungary and Transylvania: Handbook for Travellers. It also contained the first itineraries for the region published in what was the most popular travel guidebook of its day. This bestseller would bring in its wake thousands of tourists. The little known “land beyond the forest” was opening to a wider world. It is important to remember that the 1880 edition of the Travellers Handbook was published seventeen years before Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula. Stoker’s opening chapters forever framed the popular image of Transylvania as a haunting landscape of stormy castles, howling wolves and blood thirsty counts lurking in a primeval countryside. This was not an image Baedeker cared to cultivate. Instead, their guide was written with the growing middle and upper classes in mind. People who had the wealth and wherewithal to travel far out onto the eastern fringes of Europe.

To go where so few from western Europe and Great Britain had gone before, potential travelers needed a guidebook that was thorough and to the point. Fiction and myth were the stuff of novels. Baedeker was for the adventurous and cultured, travelers looking to take the path of least resistance through a landscape that most of the world scarcely knew existed. This meant creating itineraries that could be followed with relative ease. What made this most possible in the late 19th century was that great engine of technological progress and transport prowess, the steam locomotive. The railroad had been recently developed by following existing travel corridors through river valleys and over notable mountain passes. The railroad still traveled many of the age-old routes, but with one major difference, namely that it moved much faster and smoother than previous modes of transport. The age of leisure was slowly creeping its way by rail across Transylvania, bringing travelers clutching their Baedekers.

Eastern Express - Railway station and train in Klausenberg (Kolozsvar/Cluj)
Eastern Express – Railway station and train in Klausenberg (Kolozsvar/Cluj)

Following First Transylvanian Railways – Pre-existing Pathways
Baedeker itineraries for Transylvania were based upon city to city railway connections. The railways had been constructed after creation of the Austria-Hungary Dual Monarchy (Austro-Hungarian Empire) in 1867. For instance, the first itinerary in the Transylvania section was #70 Arad To Hermannstadt (present day Sibiu). This line was one of two rail corridors that provided points of entry into the western part of Transylvania (the other was via Grosswardein to Klausenberg). In addition, this route travelled into an area highly recommended in Baedeker’s Plan Of Tour for the region. The guide stated that “the most interesting parts of Transylvania are in the west and south.” Among the sites of interest on itinerary #70 included Deva, Karlsburg (present day Alba Iulia) and Hermannstadt.  This route, now available for tourists as well as regular passenger traffic, had only become possible in 1870 when the First Transylvanian Railways Company completed the line. The railway entered Transylvania via the valley of the region’s greatest river, the Mures.

Just as the rail line followed existing travel corridors so to did Baedeker’s itineraries continue to follow the railway as it surged westward. Hermannstadt was the most popular destination. It was the start of another itinerary, #71, which went to Kronstadt (Brasso) and one of the two main stops on itinerary #72 which started in Klausenberg (present day Cluj), also ending in Kronstadt. A fourth itinerary was tucked beneath the umbrella of itinerary #72 and likely the least traveled by tourists, as it went through northern Transylvania from Klausenberg to Bistritz. While all these cities were major destinations, the coverage by Baedeker was much more extensive for those adventurous souls who might decide to chance an excursion off the beaten track. This would mean either taking branch lines by rail, wagon road or in the more extreme cases heading off into the mountains on horseback. Each of these routes followed preexisting pathways, many of which dated back to the Middle Ages.

The Heart Of Transylvania - Hermannstadt (Sibiu/Nagyszeben) in 19th century
The Heart Of Transylvania – Hermannstadt (Sibiu/Nagyszeben) in 19th century

Credibility & Confidence – Advice Thoroughly Followed
Baedeker also offered what might be termed – at least in a visual sense – mini-itineraries. These were to be found within the regular itineraries, composed in a smaller than normal font size with extremely specific directions. The idea was to guide the reader from point to point with a litany of detail. This style was not for the literary inclined, instead playing to the data driven. Those who ventured well beyond the major cities must have come to appreciate this level of detail as they attempted to make their way through the rural landscapes of Transylvania. The best thing about Baedekers for travelers of that time was how they offered information that had been thoroughly vetted by experts. This added a degree of credibility and confidence. Travelers knew that if the directions and advice of their Baedeker was thoroughly followed a successful journey would result. In this way, Baedeker helped build up the tourist trade in Transylvania helping travelers to follow routes thousands of years in the making.

Click here for: Tales Of A Ticket Inspector- Constant Departures: An Austrian Railways State Of Mind (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #52)

A Hallucinatory Past – Nadasdy Castle in Nadasladany (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #22c)

Making a difference. Those three words can mean the difference between a good and a great experience when touring a historic site. My wife and I found out just how much of a difference one person can make while at Nadasdy Castle. On the day of our visit, there was only one person working there and that turned out to be the only person we would need. I have no idea what this man’s title was. I like to refer to him as the attendant because he was so attentive to our needs. If we had questions, he would answer them based upon his experience. This allowed him to delve into more than just the castle’s history, we also got a window into future funding efforts that had gone awry.

There was the Hungarian-American who tried to purchase the castle. There was the search for restoration funds from the state or European Union. There was a foundation that might be able to restore the castle to its former greatness. There was even reason for hope. An excellent restoration of the exterior had been completed. No small feat considering the castle’s size. The interior would need a great deal of work and funding. The attendant talked at length about how he really hoped the money could be found. It was a long and laborious process. One that would likely not come to fruition for years. In the meantime, he helped keep the doors open and visitors satisfied.

Going Gothic – Roman Catholic Parish Church on the grounds of Nadasdy Castle

On The Inside – Family Ties
The sun began to dip lower in the sky, as mid-afternoon slowly turned into late afternoon. It was time to say our goodbyes to the attendant who had been so gracious with his time, information, and sharing anecdotal experiences. As we were leaving, he walked with us across the grounds. Then he offered to take us inside the historic Roman Catholic Parish Church that stood at one end of the property. This was outstanding customer service coupled with kindness. The church was hard to miss and not just because of its proximity to the castle. It was a neo-Gothic confection, built of rustic red brick. The church was replete with design elements that made it look much older than its late 19th century construction date. Gables, bastions, a round tower, buttresses, a saddle roof. One would think that crafting all these elements would result in a gigantic building. In this case, though the church seemed large, it was much smaller than it looked. This became apparent when the attendant produced a key, unlocked the front door, and led us inside.

The interior was a nice counterpoint to the exterior. It was much less grand and on a more human scale. Inside, a husband, wife, and son, who I assumed were the last Nadasdys to make their home at the nearby castle were laid to rest. I was especially intrigued by the dates on the tombs. The tomb of the father, Ferenc, said he had lived from 1907 – 1944. Was he killed in the war? I was almost certain that was the case. His wife outlived him by 46 years, she died a year after the Iron Curtain collapsed. Their son was born in 1937. The aristocracy would have vanished once and for all, along with his father near the end of the war. The son lived until 2013. He would likely have come back at some point to see if anything could be regained from what had been lost during his childhood. The church was peaceful, the tombs added a somber element. The Nadasdys were now gone, but their glorious name remained on these grounds, haunted by a past that must have been seemed hallucinatory to those who could still recall it.

From the heart – On the inside of the Roman Catholic Parish Church

For The Sake Of Posterity – A Silent Hero of History
Ironically, the preservation of the Nadasdy legacy at the castle, church and park was left to someone unrelated to the family. The attendant had become lord of the manor, at least during the day. He could rightfully be called the ultimate house sitter, a man entrusted with the stewardship of a site whose existence was in a constant state of limbo. His deep reverence for the place reminded me of how those who served the Nadasdy’s at the castle from 1876 at the time of its completion until its abandonment by the family in 1944, must have felt. The idea of noblesse oblige was in practice at that time. This was the inferred responsibility of nobles to act with generosity towards their subjects. Now that idea had been turned on its head. The castle’s caretaker was not only serving a legacy. He was also serving posterity by keeping the castle and its history alive. It looked like a wonderfully lonely job. The kind of job that was a calling.

The attendant was one of those silent heroes of history who toil in the shadows at obscure sites. Whatever this man was paid it could never be enough. If it was not for him, then we would have never been able to step foot inside the hallowed walls of the castle or church. Leaving Nadasdy Castle and the attendant was not easy. Sure, we had a bus and then a train to catch, but there would always be more of those coming, but there would never be another attendant like this one. That I was sure of. In all my travels around Hungary I have scarcely been so fortunate as to meet someone with such a sense of dedication, duty, and integrity. To my mind, he was making as much history as any Nadasdy ever did.

Family ties – Nadasdy family remains at the Roman Catholic Parish Church

Making A Difference – From The Heart
While I do not remember the attendant’s name, it hardly matters. For me he was more than a man, he was an experience. That was because he made us feel as though we were his special guests, people he could share his world with for a few moments. Those moments which make memories that last a lifetime. It is a cliché to say that one person can make all the difference in how we see the world, but in this case it was true. Every time I see a photo of Nadasdy Castle, I recall the kindness of the attendant. On that day, he gave us something much more valuable than a tour, he gave us his heart.

Click here for: The Old Town Born Anew – Bratislava: Raising The Standard (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #23)

A Man & His Castle – Nadasdy Castle in Nadasladany (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #22b)

The first thing I noticed about Nadasdy Castle was that it was unlike any other one I had seen in Hungary. It had been modeled after similar structures in England. The English way of life had been something of a fetish for Hungarian aristocrats in the late 19th and early 20th century. Nadasdy Castle was the physical manifestation of this fetish. I could not help but admire how much craftsmanship went into what amounted to a Neo-Gothic manor house rather than a castle. While it had elements of the latter, including a fine tower with crenellations, its essence was as a palatial residence. Construction of the castle took place over a three year period ending in 1876. One of the chief architects was Alajos Hauzmann, the same man who designed such famous buildings as the New York Palace and the Royal Hungarian Palace of Justice in Budapest. He, along with the Viennese educated architect Istvan Linzbauer, created an unforgettably eye catching confection.

Lord of the manor – The attendant at Nadasdy Castle

Life During Wartime – A Revolution On The Doorstep
The Nadasdy family had a long history in the area dating all the back to the late Middle Ages, but the land where the castle would be built had a much more recent lineage. In 1851, Leopold Nadasdy bought the property from another aristocratic family. After Leopold died, his son Ferenc took over its management. Ferenc saw to it that the small Baroque Palace which was already on the property was assimilated into the castle he commissioned. The completed castle incorporated modern accoutrements that were way ahead of its time. These included indoor plumbing, a central heating system and gas lighting. One fascinating novelty was the kitchen’s location in the garden rather than the main house. That led to one of the castle’s most eclectic elements, delivery of food via a rail system.

Unfortunately, my wife and I did not get to see any of these creature comforts when we entered the castle. The interior had none of its former splendor. This was understandable considering that Nadasladany had been along the line where the German and Soviet armies fought during the autumn of 1944. That splendor vanished when soldiers wreaked havoc upon it during World War II. They left their mark on the castle and it was not a good one. The sights and sounds that must have accompanied their willful acts of destruction and theft would have been awful to experience. The sounds of boot steps on marble floors, furniture being broken, and the shattering of glass were the sounds that accompanied the end of the aristocracy in Hungary. Most of them had fled by this time. Those who tried to protect their property, would not only lose it, but also their lives. This was revenge at the point of a gun barrel, a revolution that suddenly appeared on the doorstep. An unwelcome house guest bent on confiscation and destruction. To be sure, it was a sad end for a glorious residence or was it?

Splendid memories – In the Hall of Ancestors at Nadasdy Castle

Uncovering Dust – The Restoration Of A Former Greatness
The end, thankfully, never came. Instead, the front lines moved on and communism moved into Hungary. Former aristocratic mansions were commandeered by the state. Hungary was impoverished by the war and just as much so in its aftermath as the Soviets requisitioned anything they needed to rebuild their own country. Reconstruction costs were exorbitant. Manpower, material, and money were lacking. Nadasdy Castle offered valuable space that could be put to public use. This included being used by the local school system. We learned this from the attendant, a kindly, middle aged man who allowed us to roam at will through any of the rooms that were open to visitors. This was only interesting up to a certain point since there were few furnishings to see. One of the most sadly astonishing rooms, was a library with exquisite woodwork, but covered in dust and containing many frayed volumes. Despite the lack of furnishings and the general disrepair, it was still an exceptional experience because we were not following any specified tour route. We wandered around and were only confined by our imagination in trying to evoke the splendor that had once permeated the place.

One room that was restored to its former greatness was the Hall of Ancestors. Portraits of famous Nadasdy family members lined the walls. I took note of the Black Knight, Ferenc Nadasdy II and his wife, the Blood Countess, Elizabeth Bathory. They did not look menacing nor pleasant, just human. Framed for the sake of posterity, generation after generation of Nadasdy’s looked on. An entire Hungarian history lesson could have been taught just on the personages whose portraits adorned the walls at Nadasdy Castle. I would have loved to sit in this room for days, beneath the grim and gracious eminences while reading about the Nadasdy family’s exploits. Alas, that would not happen, but it did not stop me from imagining what this might have been like in another life or another world, one where the aristocracy was a thing of the present, rather than a thing of the past.

Uncovering dust – The library at Nadasdy Castle

Getting Schooled – A Complete Education
Our tour of Nadasdy Castle was largely self-guided, but the attendant who had greeted us upon arrival was more than willing to show us true Hungarian hospitality. Coming down the stairwell between the 1st and 2nd floors, I slipped and tumbled down an entire flight of steps. Fortunately, I was not hurt, but this brought the attendant to my side. He then proceeded to tell me and my wife about his own uniquely personal connection with the castle. He had fond memories of it from his childhood when he attended school here. He showed where one of his classrooms had been located. Another space was where they played ping pong. Many things at Nadasdy Castle had changed since that time, but the man’s love for the castle never wavered. He fervently wished for a complete restoration.

I was ambivalent about the idea. I thought that adding more sparkle might dilute the experience for those who came to visit. Imagination is just as important in how we understand history, as reality. Reconstructions are often little more than poor approximations of the past. The present condition of Nadasdy Castle was a commentary on everything that had happened to Hungary from 1944 to the present. Looking around, I thought less about the Nadasdys and more about the attendant running around the castle as a child. He had now grown into a middle-aged man, one who pretty much had the castle all to himself. I was envious. He had become lord of the manor. It reminded me that sometimes a man’s home really is his castle. We should all be so lucky.

Click here for: A Hallucinatory Past – Nadasdy Castle in Nadasladany (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #22c)

The Tour Less Taken: Nadasdy Castle In Nadasladany (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #22a)

Is there anything more inspiring than a hilltop castle or palatial palace in Eastern Europe? These were the places where dreams were born and died. They are monuments to medievalism and testaments to vanished aristocrats, the last vestiges of historical eras and personages that have become objects of popular fascination. As such, visitors long to get up close and personal with the past through tours of aristocratic mansions and medieval castles. The visitor experience is meant to be both educational and entertaining. Some tours succeed, while others fail miserably. Success often depends upon more than just the information and interpretation on offer.

Group size can mean the difference between an intimate and inferior experience. Sadly, few of the tours I have taken offer what might be called the go it alone option. An overwhelming majority of tours cater to crowds, not to couples or individuals. Fortunately, there are still some places in Hungary, where visitors can go it alone and have a uniquely singular experience. One that is the product of serendipity and happenstance rather than prior planning. It involves being given all access to a place that only lucky few get to visit. This is the tour less taken, but much more memorable.

The Search for Splendor – Nadasdy Castle

Original Splendor – An Approximated Experience
In tourism lingo, the self-guided tour option usually refers to visitors being given the information via written brochure or audio transmitted through headphones. The visitor then follows a specified tour route through the site, making several stops along the way at the most interesting points. I have done several of these with headphones, including at Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna and Godollo Palace outside of Budapest. For all the information I heard on those tours, to this day I cannot remember a single thing. Contrast that with a much less formal tour I took of Nadasdy Castle, a splendid and sprawling structure in the countryside of western Hungary. A visit my wife and I made turned out to be one of the most memorable in our various travels around Hungary. On that day, we discovered a seldom seen treasure in rural Hungary.

Except for historical enthusiasts or those who like to visit the former residences of obscure aristocrats, Nadasdy Castle sees relatively few visitors. While it is not that far off the beaten path, getting there by public transport would turn out to be a time consuming process. Prior to our visit, I wondered what the experience of visiting Nadasdy Castle would be like. Photos showed an expansive Tudor style structure that was unique for Hungary. It looked like a cross between a manor house and castle. The kind of place one would expect to find in the English countryside. I knew that it was futile to get my hopes up too high, because palatial residences in Hungary usually have a splendid exterior and a less than engaging interior that was hollowed out long ago by the looting of Red Army soldiers during World War II. Many castles, palaces and manor houses in Hungary were then put to other uses such as retirement homes, sanitariums, and hospitals. Most of these places are just beginning to be restored back to an approximation of their original splendor. Nadasdy Castle would be no different.

An open gate policy – Entrance to Nadasdy Castle

There was another reason that Nadasdy Castle gets overlooked. The name is deceptive. While the Nadasdys were one of Hungary’s most powerful families from the Middle Ages forward, many family members fell on hard times after a conspiracy against the ruling Habsburgs was discovered. One of the ringleaders, Franz III Nadasdy was executed for his involvement in what was known as the Magnate Conspiracy. Franz III, was the grandson of Ferenc Nadasdy II, the man most famously known as the Black Knight for his military exploits while fighting the Ottoman Turks. Nadasdy Castle likely gets confused with another, more famous Nadasdy Castle in Sarvar. The latter was where Ferenc II made his home, along with his wife Elizabeth Bathory, who is infamous for reputedly being one of history’s most prolific serial killers. For Hungarians, the Nadasdy name does not denote infamy. It is covered in glory due to Ferenc II’s role as a military leader protecting what was left of Hungary in a time of great peril during the late 17th century. 

Taking flight – Nadasdy Coat of Arms as seen on exterior of Nadasdy Castle

Hurry Up & Wait – The Rural Route
My wife and I first visited Varpalota Castle, which was filled with interesting and informative exhibitions. There had been a good deal of money put into these exhibitions and for good reason. Varpalota sees more than its fair share of tourist traffic as it is on the main road between the historic cities of Szekesfehervar and Veszprem. Not far from Varpalota was our next destination, the small village of Nadasladany. Getting there would not be easy. We spent half an hour waiting on one of the local buses which ran rather infrequently to the village only ten kilometers away. I love public transport in Hungary, but there is always the problem of being on someone else’s schedule. This is especially true when traveling to rural villages in outlying areas. Time spent waiting is almost always longer than the time spent traveling while making these journeys. This was our experience while trying to get to Nadasdy Castle

Finally alighting at a bus stop in Nadasladany, we made the short walk to the stunning cream colored castle, though calling it a castle was something of a misnomer. A Baroque palace had once stood here, but during the 1870’s the mansion cum castle was completed. It was surrounded by a park that had seen better days. Case in point, there was a lake without water. The grounds were a bit ragged as well. Only later would I learn that though the castle was owned by the Hungarian state, it was severely understaffed, to the point that I only saw a single staff member at the site during this visit. The castle was of such magnificent stature I could only imagine how many staff it would have taken to keep the mansion and grounds in top condition. Unfortunately, the days when aristocrats had an army of servants to keep everything in immaculate condition had passed into history. Nadasdy Castle now had to stand on its own. That was proving more difficult than anyone could imagine, but at least it was still standing.

Click here for: A Man & His Castle – Nadasdy Castle in Nadasladany (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #22b)

Anything Is Possible – Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln: Sociopath of the Century (Part One)

Not long ago, my mother asked me, “Son, did those things you write about really happen?” My reply was a slightly bemused, “Yeah.” I understood why she might have her doubts. The town I grew up in western North Carolina – and where she still lives – is a long way from Eastern Europe, both geographically and psychologically. Nothing in my childhood experience, at least from a superficial standpoint, pointed me towards a future interest in Eastern Europe. There were no people of Eastern European descent in our immediate world. My mother had no idea that I became infatuated with the Eastern Bloc due to the Cold War, the Olympic Games and stumbling upon reference works on the Eastern Front of World War I in high school.

This led to what has turned into a lifelong fascination with the region, manifesting itself in a marriage, multiple trips to the Eastern Europe each year and an ever growing library of history and travel books on Eastern Europe. I am sure my mother still thinks it is bizarre that her youngest son is fascinated with a region that we as a family were not connected to in any tangible way. In retrospect, I should have answered my mother’s question by stating what I really believe, that anything is possible.  If she had replied with skepticism, I could have given her an Eastern European example which proves that “anything really is possible. The life of Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln.

Sociopath of the Century – Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln

The Art of Impossibility – A Fraudulent Life
I was having dinner in what had once been the garden of the Karolyi Palace in Budapest with the late historian and raconteur Norman Stone and author Michael O’Sullivan. During our conversation, I asked Stone whether he had heard of Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln. At the mere mention of the name, Stone suddenly roared to life as he recounted this notorious confidence man’s exploits in detail. This was quite a feat considering the amount of alcohol Stone had already consumed in the past hour. Keeping the story straight concerning Trebitsch-Lincoln’s life is a near impossible task. This was a man who assumed multiple personas and a variety of names while ingratiating himself with almost everyone he met. If character is destiny, then Trebitsch-Lincoln was the ultimate character, a man destined for depravity, demagoguery and disaster while leading one of the most bizarre and eventful existences in the annals of modern Europe. Recalling Trebitsch-Lincoln in Hungary makes sense, after all it was in a Hungarian provincial town on the banks of the Danube where his life began.

It is never a good sign when a town’s main claim to fame is a nuclear power plant, but that is the case with Paks, a town of some 20,000 Hungarians on the western banks of the Danube River approximately 120 kilometers south of Budapest. Other than nuclear energy, Paks has largely escaped notoriety. For instance, the most famous person from the town was a pharmacist, Gyula Nemes Abay, the author of many famous works on the history of pharmacies in Hungary. Abay is obscure even by Hungarian standards, but Paks has another son who was much more famous, or more correctly, infamous. One whose modest upbringing in the town did little to predict his later rise to international infamy.

Ignaz Trebitsch was born in 1879, the son of an Orthodox Rabbi in Paks. His father’s profession may have influenced his later life. He would get involved in the practice of religion and spiritualism on several occasions in the decades to come. Oddly, Trebitsch-Lincoln turned his back on Judaism. He left Paks along with his family when he was still a teenager. He managed to get accepted in the Royal Hungarian Academy of Dramatic Art. He did next to nothing at the Academy. Instead, he spent his time writing and selling travel stories to newspapers about his adventures in South America, a place he had never visited.

Anything Is Possible – Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln

Failing Upward – A Professional Grifter
The police soon took an interest in Trebitsch due to his affinity for petty theft. It is said that crime doesn’t pay, but Trebitsch would prove that cliché wrong time and again. He stole a gold watch at his sister’s residence, then sold it for enough money to travel abroad to Great Britain. He soon got baptized, then traveled back to the continent where he began to study at a Lutheran seminary. Soon he got himself a job as a missionary working to convert Jews to Protestantism in Quebec, Canada. He worked first for the Presbyterians and then later the Anglican Church. Such contradictions and wild inconsistencies in Trebitsch’s career choices were common throughout his life. The amazing thing, he was just getting started.  Trebitsch left Canada after controversy over his pay. It seemed that wherever Trebitsch went, fraud followed.

By 1903 he was back in Britain, making fast friends with the Archbishop of Canterbury and getting himself appointed to the equivalent of a parish priest position in the County of Kent. It was also around this time that Trebitsch added Lincoln to his surname. He would later claim that this was in honor of Abraham Lincoln. What honest Abe and this professional grifter had in common is hard to tell? Soon Trebitsch-Lincoln have up on mainstream religion as he made another powerful friend, Seebohm Rowntree, a man who had made millions in the chocolate industry. Not only was Rowntree a millionaire, he was also a powerful politician for the Labor Party who hired Trebitsch-Lincoln as his private secretary. Rowntree supported Trebitsch-Lincoln in running for the parliamentary seat of Darlington in 1909. This all took place while Trebitsch-Lincoln was still a citizen of Austria-Hungary. Incredibly he won the seat.

Success was not something Trebitsch-Lincoln was ever able to sustain. He suffered from money woes and was unable to run for reelection. Soon his focus turned back to Eastern Europe where he hoped to make his own fortune. Specifically, Trebitsch-Lincoln involved himself in the powder keg that was the pre-World War One Balkans, while founding the Anglo-Austrian Petroleum Syndicate. When he wasn’t trying to get investors to use their money to pump dry wells in the oil fields of Romania, Trebitsch-Lincoln was trying to create a cartel that would control all the pipelines in the area. He failed at this as well.

The Personification of Dishonesty – Ignac Trebitsch-Lincoln

Prisoner of War – On Both Sides Of Enemy Lines
The outbreak of World War I irreparably changed Trebitsch-Lincoln’s career trajectory. He was now able to offer his subversive skills to spy on the enemy. Just who the enemy was depended more on Trebitsch-Lincoln’s self-interest rather than any nationality or ideology. He started the war by working as a censor for the British while professing support for the Germans. Trebitsch-Lincoln was lucky to escape Britain before he ended up in prison. He soon washed up on America’s shores. This was where he wrote a famous book purporting to spill secrets on British spying. Keep in mind, that this was a man who only six year earlier had been a Member of Parliament in Great Britain!

The British were enraged enough by Trebitsch’s book to the point that they got the Americans to arrest him. Trebitsch-Lincoln then would end up being extradited and spending three years in a British prison. Up to this point in his life, Trebitsch-Lincoln was proving the point that the truth really is stranger than fiction. Even the most imaginative novelist could not possibly create a character so duplicitous and sell it to the public with a straight face. Who was Trebitsch-Lincoln? Was he British, Hungarian or Jewish? Was he devout or the equivalent a pad your own pocket evangelist? Was he a spy for the British or the Germans? By the end of World War I, Trebitsch-Lincoln had been an Orthodox Jew, Lutheran, Protestant missionary, oil company executive, writer, censor, spy, and prisoner. The amazing thing was that his life was about to get even more bizarre.

Click here for: Mysticism, Fanaticism and Mayhem – Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln: Sociopath of the Century (Part Two)

Inspirations & Aspirations – Subotica: The Destination, Rather Than The Journey (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #16)

It was not about the meal, but the men. It was not about the journey, but the destination. I only realized this after the fact. The meal and the men were in Subotica, that sublime Serbian city which hugs the Hungarian border. The destination was not only Subotica, but also Szeged, Odorheiu Secuiesc and Osijek. I stumbled upon tangible evidence that reconnected me to each of those places by way of Subotica. In a city that I had come to visit for its amazing array of Art Nouveau buildings, I found myself looking back at my previous pasts and finding inspiration for the future. This came to me while looking at photos I took during my time in the city. Most of the photos were of Art Nouveau buildings. These included multiple palaces, a synagogue and town hall covered with lavish decorative elements. Subotica was a place that put the “art” in architecture.

Amid images of one eye popping architectural confection after another, there were a couple of rather simple, elegant, and delicious photos. Delicious may seem the strangest adjective of the three, but it is also the most appropriate. One photo I took in a coffee house, shows a slice of chocolate cake and a small cup of black coffee at my table. Other set pieces in this photo include a glass of water and small fork that sit tantalizingly beside the slice of cake. This is an image that makes me long for the cakes, pastries, and puddings I have so enjoyed in Eastern European patisseries. Yet the photo is more than just a reminder of sugary sweets, it is also a stimulation to the memory of a few men who entered my world one winter morning in Subotica. The other photo shows a series of signs pointing in all directions. They are signposts to my past travels and possibly future ones as well.

Cake & Coffee – Lunch in Subotica

Dropping Off & Dropping In – A Visit With Friends
Arriving in Subotica long before lunchtime presented me with a quandary. I did not want to carry a piece of luggage around the city for several hours while I waited for a 1:00 p.m. check in at my accommodation. Fortunately, I happened upon the city’s main tourist office where the attendant allowed me to drop my bag. Delivered from the shackles of that suitcase, I was now free to roam around Subotica for several hours. I chose to pass the time by wandering around the main town square before slowly branching out beyond it. This offered up plenty of opportunities to take photos of anything that caught my eye. Subotica’s Art Nouveau Architecture was a feast for the eyes. The buildings were coated in an array of radiant colors. The colors did not so much pop, as explode into me. 

Before long I found myself longing for a bite to eat. It was almost lunchtime, so I searched for something on the lighter side. In a matter of minutes, I spied a coffee house. Through the window I could see the usual selection of mouthwatering pastries. The sight of these was magnetic, pulling me inside where I took a small table near the window. I would be able to watch the world go by while I relaxed with coffee and cake. The waiter, an older gentleman who spoke no English, was unfailingly polite as I made my order with hand signs and scattered bits of broken Serbian. While waiting, I could not help but notice the vigorous conversation taking place among three men seated around a corner table in the coziest of confines. By their graying hair and relaxed demeanor, I was able to discern two things. They were pensioners as well as old friends.

The art in architecture – Art Nouveau in Subotica

While I enjoyed a bracing cup of coffee that sent my pulse racing, I watched these men vigorously engage in conversation with one another. Their conversation was animated by kindness, inquisitiveness and understanding. There is something entrancing about listening without comprehension to an unintelligible language being spoken. By carefully listening to the peculiar enunciations and expressions of emotion I could tell how the conversation was going. Words ebbed and flowed between the three men. I had no idea what they were discussing, but for me the topic was really their friendship. I, a loner in a strange city thousands of kilometers from home, was witness to something simple and enchanting. The coming together through conversation of three friends. At that moment, I thought to myself that this is what we should all aspire to in the later years of our lives. A sense of comradery and unity, that kinship with our fellow man that offers us the ultimate opportunity to be ourselves. This was something remarkable that happens every day and yet I have barely taken time to notice. We should all be so lucky as those men in Subotica.

Pointing the way – Signs in Subotica

Signing On – Pointing The Way
Only a few meters from the coffee house were a series of signs that I noticed not long after finishing up at the coffee shop. I had seen such signs before, in other Eastern European cities such as Lviv, Krakow and Belgrade. They point the way to other European cities in a variety of directions. I recall looking at one of these on my first journey to Eastern Europe, thinking how much I would like to visit all the different cities. It had scarcely seemed possible at the time, but after a decade of traveling across the region my perspective was quite different. I was now intimately familiar with several of the cities listed on the signs. I would never have guessed that when I first started my travels.

I could now look at a sign pointing the way to Osijek in Croatia and recall a train journey over the Danube there. Or that Odorheiu Secuiesc would conjure images of fin de siècle architecture in a modest sized city on the edge of southeastern Transylvania. Or that Szeged would evoke images in my mind of its pristinely preserved Belvaros. I was astonished that I had made it to all those cities, but I could not help but aspire to go further. Fortunately, one sign listed a place I had not been or ever heard of, Dunajska Streda in Slovakia. I wondered if I would ever make it there, the same way I wondered if I would make it anywhere in Eastern Europe a decade ago. Somehow, I had found those cities on the signs and now they had found me.  On that day, it was about the destination rather than the journey.

Click here for: From Discovery To Destiny – Konigstein: The Czech Connection (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #17)

Palace Intrigue – Mikosdpuszta: The Dream & The Reality (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #11)

My newest travel obsession began not long after I awoke on a recent Saturday morning. While scrolling through the seemingly endless dross that Facebook’s algorithm pumps into my news feed, I came across a post which captured my interest. I belong to a group with one of those typically bizarre Hungarian names, Elhagyatott regi epuletek Magyarorszagon. Roughly translated this means, “Abandoned old buildings in Hungary”. I cannot remember when or why I subscribed to this page, but I am sure it had something to with the photos that members post of abandoned buildings in Hungary. Unlike in the United States where abandoned buildings usually denote derelict structures in urban areas, Hungary has plenty of rural areas with dilapidated castles, palaces, manor houses and architectural oddities. Photos of these are often taken and uploaded by Hungarians who use their local knowledge to find and document old buildings throughout the country.

The crumbling facade – Mikosdpuszta (Credit: Zsolt Salamon)

The Crumbling Façade – A Beautiful Ugly
I am always surprised at how many abandoned historic structures exist in out of the way places in Hungary. Woods and fields in remote places are littered with the detritus of a way of life that vanished, quite literally, overnight. Many of the structures were once the homes of aristocratic families who abandoned them near the end of the Second World War. Many were gone before the Red Army arrived, if not, they suffered dire consequences. Their former homes were symbols that Soviet soldiers looked to smash. It is worth remembering that aristocrats still largely lived in the countryside until the 1940’s. They were wedded to a lifestyle not all that different from their distant forebears. Only a select few of their ancestral residences have been restored to their former glory. The cost and upkeep are huge barriers to restoration work.

The upshot is that Hungarians who care about historic preservation are kept busy exploring the hundreds of ruins in various states of decay. There are many pages and posts dedicated to these explorations.  They provide information on places I would have never thought existed until I saw the photographic evidence. This was the case with Mikosdpuszta. After looking at a post filled with some incredible photos of Mikosdpuszta, I decided to search for its location. I was surprised to discover that on multiple occasions I had been less than a half hour drive away from this Gothic Revival structure gone wild. It was hidden in plain sight, not far from Szombathely or Sarvar, both places I have visited before. That knowledge was both depressing and exhilarating. Depressing, because I missed a chance to visit Mikosdpuszta. Exhilarating, because I can pursue a visit on a future trip. This was what happened when someone posted photos of Mikosdpuszta, a place I was unaware of before I went online that morning.

The photos showed a work of eclectic imagination which is now in dire need of repair. The same could be said for hundreds of other similar sites across Hungary. The difference for me was that Mikosdpuuszta, with its many turrets and gables was quite unlike anything I had seen in Hungary. The high quality images showed sublime scenes of decay, interiors so rundown and ugly that they were almost beautiful. The photos did more than make me want to visit the manor house, they also made me want to learn more about Mikosdpuszta. What I found was a compelling backstory, one that helped bring back to life the humanity behind the crumbling façade.

A glorious past – Mikosdpuszta in the 19th century

The Long Goodbye – Dueling Tragedies
It is hard to say which is more tragic, the current state of Mikosdpuszta or the lives that have been lost to history by its destruction. The manor house has a human history which can match its architecturally eclectic one. The brainchild of Mikosdpuszta was Baron Ede Mikos de Tarodahaza who oversaw its construction in a nine year period that ended in 1866. The palace was built in the middle of a forest atop an artificial mound. The Baron expended as much time and expense on the grounds which surrounded the palace. These included a couple of artificial lakes, horse stables and vineyards. Pavilions were also scattered about the immaculately sculpted grounds. The Baron’s youngest child, Gizella, ended up marrying the pretender to the Mexican throne. The couple made the manor house their home. The Baron willed the castle to Gizella and her sister Olga, rather than his son, Janos. The Baron had little use for his son’s dissolute lifestyle and did not want him gaining title to it.

Janos finally obtained rights to the castle three years after his father’s death. He spent a good deal of his time following rather strange pursuits, such as founding Hungary’s first science fiction magazine and writing a play about a real life Hungarian Robin Hood. His ventures failed to support his lifestyle. In 1881, he sold the castle to avoid being consumed by debt. This led to a new era at Mikosdpusta when a wealthy Viennese banker, Vilmos Zierer, bought the place in 1891. He was disciplined and industrious, the opposite of Janos. Zierer transformed farming on the property while successfully raising potatoes. Zierer was a modernizer, living out his dreams in a manor house that was more modern than anything found in the surrounding region. While architecturally the manor house was a throwback to past influences, it was filled with modern amenities such as its own power supply and central heating system.

At the same time, Zierer furnished the house with antiquities. Everything from painting to furniture was carefully arranged, adding ambiance to the architectural aesthetics. The Zierer’s owned the palace for over half a century. Their era of splendor came to an end when the Red Army arrived in 1945. The furnishings were either plundered or destroyed. The long goodbye had begun. Like all aristocratic residences across Hungary, the post-war communist government appropriated the property and found other uses for it more in line with their ideological doctrines. Among these was an education center for party members. Later it became a holiday resort for children. The collapse of the Iron Curtain could not stem the downward trajectory of Mikosdpuszta. Opaque private ownership did little for the manor house, other than allow it to decay even further.

Looking back into the past – Mikosdpuszta (Credit: Zsolt Salamon)

The Passion of Preservation – Dreams & Reality
Today, the greatest advocates for the palace’s preservation are the same ones who post photos like those on Facebook which captured my attention. These people have passion, but not the political or financial power to restore Mikosdpuszta. The palace stands lonely and crumbling, awaiting more visitors who see past the dereliction and reimagine the glory of those times when barons, bankers and their families lived a life that others can only dream about. That dream has a powerful allure, despite or perhaps because of the palace’s current state. Like many others, I want to have that dream, if just for one day. I hope to visit Miklospuszta in the future and see the place where dreams meet reality.

Click here for: The Cold, Harsh Reality – Borsa: Birthplace of Ferenc II Rakoczi (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #12)

Photographic Memory – The Two Girls: Normafa, Hungary 1900 (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #6)

It is an image that fascinates and haunts me in equal measure. Though it was taken seventy-one years before I was born, in a kingdom thousands of miles and an ocean away, during a period when an Emperor still reigned supreme, the photo still manages to touch something deep inside of me. Each time I look at the image it manages to transcend space and time, making me feel the presence of a specific part of the past. The photo to which I refer was taken in 1900, high in the hills above Buda in an area known as Normafa. The photo shows two young girls standing together while looking out at hills and mountains in the distance. They wear flatbill hats and have their hair done up in ponytails. One girl, in a dark day dress, points at something in the distance. While the other girl, looks out at whatever her attention is being directed towards. They stand beside a fence which surrounds a large tree.

I am fascinated with this photo because for me it captures the profound curiosity of youth, the innocence and joy of adolescence in early 20th century Hungary. Two young girls explore the world together while sharing a moment of discovery. Whatever these girls are looking at will forever remain a mystery. In that mystery lies much of the photo’s power. Are they playing make believe? They would not be the only ones. While looking at this photo, I also play make believe. Imagining their conversation, the joys they share, memories that hopefully lasted a lifetime. The girl pointing seems to be helping the other to understand what is in front of and beyond them. There is magic in these girl’s innocence and precociousness. And for children who could not have been more than eight or nine years old at the time, their whole lives were ahead of them, out there somewhere was a future that neither they nor anyone else could imagine.

Pointing the way forward – Two girls at Normafa in 1900 (Credit: Fortepan)

Fortepan – A Visual History Of 20th Century Hungary
A sense of astonishment gripped me the first time I saw the photo mentioned above. It would not be the last time. Such is the beauty and power to be found on Fortepan ( The website is what I consider to be the single greatest resource of Hungarian photography in the 20th century. It hedges the power of crowdsourcing to bring images of everyday life, architecture, and anything else captured by the photographic lens for most of the 20th century. Hungarians are free to upload images, most of which are part of personal collections, to the site. The photos are arranged in chronological order from 1900-1990. I do not remember exactly how I found my way to the Fortepan site many years ago, but what I do remember that photo of the two girls in Normafa was featured on the home page. It was an unforgettable find and this was just the start. At one point I went year by year, selecting my favorite image for each one. I knew many of the places in the pictures from visits to Hungary.

It was a different story with the people. They were strangers who soon became strangely familiar to me. For instance, that image with the two girls in the hills above Buda made me feel a personal connection. Whether the connection was to my childhood or travels, such images linked my past to the past in the photos. None of this image inspired time travel would have been possible if not for two old high school friends who in 2010 decided to start a free Online Photography Archive. They uploaded a personal collection of 5,000 black and white photos. Since that time, the archive has grown to over 146,000 photos. Anyone is free to download and use the images. The only requirement is that they give proper attribution.

Life goes on – Budapest scene in 1942 (Credit: Fortepan)

Capturing History – One Photograph At A Time
Those interested in the history of Hungary during the 20th century would do well to spend part of their time perusing these images. Fortepan contains a visual record of Hungary’s relatively recent past. The photos document the experiences and interests of Hungarians behind and in front of the camera. This was how history was made, one photograph at a time. The photos on Fortepan surprised me in ways that I did not expect. For instance, while Hungarian soldiers were fighting and dying on the eastern front during World War II, I discovered that the people back home were living comparatively normal lives. How could they not? Life goes on despite world historical events. Whether or not Hungarians were aware that the war was on the verge of upending their country is open to debate.

Yet when the photos were taken no one knew what the future would hold. They had no idea that the Red Army would have troops on Hungarian soil for forty-five years. Another surprise was to see the normalcy of life during communism, especially in the 1960’s forward. For good reason, the worst excesses of communism cover the pages of history. What about those who were not party members or politicians? The story could not have been more different. It was often said that Hungary was the happiest barracks on the Eastern Bloc. I am not so sure that statement is entirely true, after all Hungary had an astronomical suicide rate during this time. Nonetheless, the young still danced, families vacationed, the middle class wined and dined across the country. Thousands of images make this abundantly clear. 

Natural beauty – Two girls in meadow at Normafa in 1900 (Credit: Fortepan)

Magnificent Moments – Like Something Out Of A Dream
After looking at hundreds of images on Fortepan, I still find myself going back to those two girls at Normafa. Specifically, to another image I found of them that is just as striking as the one described earlier. In this photo, the two girls are sitting in a meadow. They must not be far away from where the first image was taken, there are hills and mountains in the distance. The two of them are looking out over a beautiful natural landscape. Somewhere below and beyond them is Budapest. The city was bursting at the seams with development. It was the fastest growing urban area in Europe during the final third of the 19th century. The future was filled with promise. Life was getting better for all Hungarians. It was the age of progress, everything seemed to be changing for the better.

Growing up during this time in a family of financial means, such as the two girls in the photos, must have been like something out of a dream, except for the fact that this was a reality in turn of the 20th century Hungary. Life was filled with adventure, curiosity, and discovery. I can only guess what those two girls were discussing. Perhaps their dreams of the future, that future would turn out different from anything they could have imagined at the time. They had no idea that those magnificent moments in Normafa could not last for them or their country. But that moment has lasted, captured in two images that have been transmitted from past to present through the power of Fortepan. The images have allowed me a window into another world, one that was about as good as it could get for those girls and for Hungary in 1900.

Click here for: Spiritual Echo Chambers – The Romanesque Church at Jak (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #7)

Pleas For Mercy – The Plague Columns of Buda & Olomouc (Part Two)

One of the more fascinating photos from 20th century Eastern European history was taken during the coronation of the last King of Hungary/Emperor of Austria, Karl IV (Charles I) atop Castle Hill in Buda on December 30, 1916. Following a ceremony inside the Matthias Church, Karl proceeded to the Holy Trinity (Plague) Column where he took the coronation oath. The photo shows Karl with a glazed look on his face, holding a large cross in his left hand. His head is adorned with the oversized Hungarian crown sporting its iconic crooked cross.

Several Catholic prelates, looking officious and duty bound, stand to either side of the newly crowned king. The discomfiture on Karl’s face speaks volumes.  Here was a man whose talents could not match the moment or worse ones that were soon to come. World War I was going badly for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Karl’s reign was short and catastrophic. Less than two years after he was crowned king on Castle Hill, the war was lost and Karl’s reign was at an end.

The Man Who Would Be King - Karl IV taking the coronation oath at the Holy Trinity (Plague) Column on Castle Hill in Buda

The Man Who Would Be King – Karl IV taking the coronation oath at the Holy Trinity (Plague) Column on Castle Hill in Buda

Future Reckoning – Protection From The Plague
In retrospect, the coronation ceremony at the Holy Trinity (Plague) Column was the beginning of a process that would end with Karl dethroned and Habsburg rule coming to an end over 600 years after it began. It was also the last time a plague column would play such a prominent historical role in the affairs of a Central or Eastern European state. Following the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, most plague columns became what they still are today, Baroque era historical monuments of mercy. They still symbolized a time when communities gave thanks to God for bringing the plague to an end.

The Holy Trinity (Plague) column on Castle Hill has now become a photogenic opportunity for those who want to get a shot of it either separately or in the foreground of a photo focused on the spectacular Matthias Church. That was not what those who erected the Castle Hill column and similar ones like it throughout the Habsburg Empire originally had in mind. The first Holy Trinity (Plague) Column on Castle Hill was erected in the same spot back in 1706 to commemorate and give thanks for the plague of 1691 coming to an end. Three years later, another nasty outbreak of the plague followed.

The authorities then decided to replace the first column with a larger, more dramatic one. It took several years to design and build this new column, but it must have been worth the effort since there was not another outbreak of plague in Budapest since it was erected in 1713. The Holy Trinity (Plague) Column that stands on Castle Hill today is not the original one. That one was lost during the Battle of Budapest in early 1945. A replacement was installed and for good reason. Historically, Holy Trinity (Plague) Columns were often shielded from wanton destruction because they were seen as spiritual symbols that helped protect cities from another plague.

Silent Witness - Holy Trinity (Plague) Column on Castle Hill in Buda

Silent Witness – Holy Trinity (Plague) Column on Castle Hill in Buda (Credit: Globetrotter19)

The Human Cost – Creating An Artistic Treasure
The most famous of these columns can be found in the Moravian town of Olomouc in the eastern Czech Republic. Standing 35 meters (115 feet) above Horni Namesti (Upper Square) in Olomouc’s city center, the Holy Trinity (Plague) column is the only such column in the world that has been deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There is good reason for that. The three levels around the column’s base include 18 sculptures of saints, the majority of which have a local connection. There is also a series of elaborately carved cartouches and reliefs of all twelve apostles. At the pinnacle of the column is a gilded copper sculpture of the Holy Trinity accompanied by the Archangel Gabriel with the Virgin Mary just beneath them. If that was not enough, the column also contains a small chapel.

Incredibly, all the painstaking work that went into creating this artistic treasure was done by locals between 1716 and 1754. The city decided to have it constructed as a symbol of gratitude after a deadly plague from 1713 – 1715 came to an end. Unfortunately, construction of the column and associated sculptures, statuary, gilding and ornamentation was a less than seamless process. This process for many turned out to be a curse rather than a blessing. For instance, the brainchild of the Olomouc plague column was architect Wenzel Rendor, who set forth his vision in a letter to the City Council when he stated, “To the glory of God the Almighty, the Virgin Mary and the saints I will build a column that in its height and splendor will be unrivalled in any other town.”

Unfortunately, Rendor did not live to see that vision realized, neither did the next three men who tried to complete the project. Finally, a fifth man by the name of Johann Ignaz Rokicky saw the project through to completion. Adding to the ominous human toll, the sculpture and statuary decorating the column defeated the lives of two more artisans. Even the creator of the magnificent gilded copper sculpture atop the column saw his health decline due to working with mercury. There was a tragic irony to how these men’s efforts met an ill-fated end. After all, most of them had survived the plague which led to the monument’s creation in the first place.

An Expression of Gratitude - Holy Trinity (Plague) Column in Olomouc

An Expression of Gratitude – Holy Trinity (Plague) Column in Olomouc (Credit: Ondraness)

Taking Aim – A Target Rich Environment
Once the column was finally completed in 1754, Olomouc’s citizens were justly proud of their accomplishment. They did their best to protect it at almost any cost, including to their own lives.  An astonishing example of the value Olomouc’s citizens placed on the column came in 1758 when the city was besieged by Prussian forces. After Prussian artillery managed to hit and damage the column, several citizens cheated death by crossing into enemy lines to meet with the Prussian commanding general. An agreement was forged where the Prussians would aim at more useful targets, such as fortifications, people and homes. This led to several deaths and other destruction, but the Holy Trinity (Plague) Column survived. This might seem an outrageous example of the triumph of art and spirituality over human life and property. Then again, Olomouc’s citizens believed that the plague was much more destructive than any Prussian army. And as it turned out, they were right.

An Empty Room – Armistice of Villa Giusti: The End of Austria-Hungary

It is hard to say exactly where the Austro-Hungarian Empire began. Some would say when the Turks surged through the Balkans and arrived in Eastern Europe, so weakening the Kingdom of Hungary that it would undergo a slow, but steady assimilation under the Habsburgs. Others would say after the defeat of Rakoczi’s War of Independence in 1711. Hungary then had no other choice, but submission to Habsburg rule. These two examples are lacking in one regard. Though these historical events may have pushed Hungary ever closer to the Austrians, neither speaks to the equality between the two that was a hallmark of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Because the Dual Monarchy was officially formed in 1867, we might need to search for an event closer to that date.

An Empty Room - Site where the Armistice of Villa Giusti was signed

An Empty Room – Site where the Armistice of Villa Giusti was signed (Credit: Armistizo)

Starting Points – The End of A Beginning
To my mind, it is the Austro-Hungarian defeat at the Battle of Koniggratz (Hradec Kralove in the Czech Republic) in 1866 by the Prussian Army that signals the unofficial beginning of the Dual Monarchy. Fear is a great motivator, and it was fear that of absorption in a new German Empire that motivated the Austrians to look for an internal partner to help save the Monarchy. Despite, or perhaps because the Hungarians had rebelled against Austrian rule in 1848-49, Franz Josef and the Austrian leadership decided that union with Hungary made the most sense. The Hungarians had other advantages as well. They were the second largest ethnic group in the Habsburg Empire.

Hungarians were an unruly bunch that were as difficult to control as they were to please. There was also the personal chemistry and connection between Queen Elisabeth (otherwise known as Sisi) and Count Gyula Andrassy that led Elisabeth to lean on her husband, Franz Josef to consider the creation of a Dual Monarchy. Like most empires, there is not a single point that acts as a definitive starting point for the beginning of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. On the other hand, there was a defining event that solidified the Monarchy’s creation. The crowning of Franz Josef and Elisabeth as King of Hungary and Queen of Hungary at the Matthias Church atop Castle Hill in Buda on June 8, 1867. This symbolically united Austria and Hungary under the person of Franz Josef. It would stay that way until his death over a half century later.

Where History Was Made - Villa Giusti as it looks today

Where History Was Made – Villa Giusti as it looks today (Credit: Red Foxes)

An Empire’s Demise – Nails In The Coffin
If finding a starting point for Austria-Hungary is difficult, finding an end point is just as troublesome. Revolutions sprouted up like mushrooms across imperial lands from Transylvania to the Tyrol in the autumn of 1918. The revolutions were followed by splintering states as a plethora of obscure pseudo-political entities – such as the Republic of Prekmurje and Republic of Banat to name but two – arose and fell with hardly anyone taking notice. There were other events great and small which portended total collapse. King Karl relinquishing his throne, mutinies on the Eastern Front, the once glittering imperial capital of Vienna swelling with starving citizens. Many of the places and all the people involved in the Empire’s dissolution have long since vanished. Finding a tangible site associated with the empire’s demise is not easy.

One of the more interesting sites associated with the dissolution of Austria-Hungary can be found in a place where you might least expect to find it. In the Veneto Region of northeastern Italy, outside the city of Padua, stands the Villa Giusti, home to an empty room where the empire crumbled. For an empire that is usually associated in the popular imagination with aristocracy, grand palaces, glittering balls and gilded romances, the Villa Giusti is a fitting place to contemplate Austria-Hungary. One might be forgiven, to think the Villa Giusti would be more representative of the empire at its apogee rather than its conclusion. In those strange and historic days that made up the final phase of World War I, the Villa Giusti was one of the final acts in the imperial endgame.

The Dual Monarchy Disintegrates – End of War, End of Empire
Long before the First World War brought the Villa Giusti fame and notoriety, its history began not as a noble manor, but the result of martial efforts in the region. Historians believe the Villa first took shape as a medieval fortification before it was eventually converted to a residence. In the latter part of the 19th century the villa underwent a restoration that made it a bit more appealing, but it was never an aesthetic delight. The villa was owned by Count Vettor Giusti del Giardino, one of those European aristocrats who seems just as antiquated as the empire which crumbled to bits beneath the roof of his villa. Giardino was mayor of nearby Padua and appointed a senator in Italy during the war. His villa was used as a temporary residence for three months during the war by Italian King Victor Emmanuel who sought to avoid the aerial bombardment being inflicted upon Padua.

The Villa was selected for armistice negotiations at the beginning of November 1918 due to its proximity near the front and the fact that Austria-Hungary’s intelligence services knew little about it. The negotiations took three days and were contentious at times, causing the Italian commander Badoglio to threaten to break off talks on the final day. This broke the impasse and resulted in what became known to history as the Armistice of Villa Giusti. Effective within 24 hours, Austro-Hungarian forces were to cease all hostilities. They were also to withdraw from Italian territory and any territory that was disputed with Italy. And this was just the start. Triple Entente forces (France, Great Britain and Italy) would be allowed rights of transit through Austro-Hungarian territory which meant Germany would be facing a new front.

An Unexpected Setting - The Villa Giusti as it looked in 1967

An Unexpected Setting – The Villa Giusti as it looked in 1967 (Credit: Paolo Monti)

The Breaking Point – A Singular Event
Speaking of Germany, their forces were to be expelled from Austria-Hungary within 15 days. The Germans had propped the empire up throughout the war out of self-interest. The idea was for Austria-Hungary to fight on to keep Germany’s soft southern underbelly was safe from enemy incursions. Now Germany could face war on multiple fronts, while its forces in France were stretched to the breaking point. The armistice’s effect was devastating to both the empire and its allies. Austria-Hungary was left with virtually no means of defending itself against its enemies, internal or external. This meant that the Entente Forces had a free hand in the old imperial lands and revolutionaries could run amuck. Either could impose their will and implement whatever policies they felt were necessary. The war was over for Austria-Hungary, the empire was not far behind.

As for the Villa Giusti, it outlived the historic events that occurred within its walls. Today the room where the armistice was negotiated has been left in the same condition as it was at the time. Anyone can visit and contemplate a singular event that helped topple the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It is both strange and humbling to see where an empire that once encompassed the shores of the Adriatic Sea, massive mountains ranges such as the Carpathians and Tatras and across the rich agricultural lands of Hungary and western Ukraine, collapsed in an old, forgotten and decrepit villa. Those words, “old” “forgotten” and “decrepit” also describe Austria-Hungary at its end. At the Villa Giusti, the empire was finally put out of its misery.