Rasto and I finished our awkward conversation at the Slavin Monument with both of us holding firm to our opinions, his pro-Russian, mine anti-authoritarian. Slovakia was still stuck between East and West. Rasto wanted his nation to straddle this divide, while I was adamant that a westward orientation would lead to greater prosperity and democracy. My opinion was stated with the zeal of someone who did not have a personal stake in the situation. My knowledge of Slovakia’s geopolitical situation had been cultivated thousands of miles and an ocean away from the country. I had no vested interest, other than wanting America to be on the right side of history. Rasto’s skepticism was understandable. He had grown up much closer to the Russian sphere of influence than the American one. Old alliances did not die with the Cold War and new alliances would take a long time to replace the powerful influence of the recent past.
Minority Report – Prosperity, Populaism & Pozsony
Speaking of the new replacing the old and the influence of history, I asked Rasto about Slovakia’s relationship with its old historical nemesis, Hungary. Slovakians had been under Hungarian rule from the Middle Ages until the end of World War I. Since that time, the two had been in recurrent conflict over the large Hungarian minority in southern Slovakia. Rasto thought the relationship was much better than it was made it out to be by the media and vote seeking politicians looking to stir up ethnic strife. The large Hungarian minority in the country had been restive during the 1990’s and early 2000’s with the rise of nationalist sentiment and extremist political parties on both sides. The situation had moderated quite a bit since those fraught times. This was largely due to economic growth and membership in the European Union for both Slovakia and Hungary. I knew that Slovakia’s economy had surged since 2004 when its government had instituted a 19% flat tax. Foreign investment, especially in the automotive industry, soared. In the years that followed, Slovakia became known as the Tatra Tiger due to it roaring economy.
When economic times are good, no matter whether it is in Slovakia or Zanzibar, nationalism tends to wane. Eastern Europe was no different. Despite the occasional flare-up, mostly stoked by politicians, Slovakia and Hungary were getting along as well as could be expected. Rasto said Slovakians were wary of Hungary, but would continue working with them. His attitude was cautious with a hint of optimism. Our conversation about Hungary and Slovaka was particularly appropriate since we were having it in Bratislava, known to Hungarians as Pozsony. No other city in the lands that had formerly been part of the Kingdom of Hungary was so important to Hungarian history. It had acted as the coronation site for the Kings of Hungary and home to the Hungarian Diet (Parliament) after the Ottoman Turks occupied central and southern Hungary during the early 16th century. It had continued in this role for 300 years. During this time, no less than ten kings and one queen (Maria Theresa) were crowned in the city.
This Is History – One Step At A Time
With Rasto’s circumspect attitude to Hungarians I was surprised when he asked me if I knew about the historic coronation route that winded its way through the streets of Bratislava’s Old Town. I had no idea that the route could be followed. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was marked in the Old Town. The markers consist of 178 brass plaques embedded with the icon of a crown. They can be found along much of the historic route which begins at the Vydricka Gate close to St. Martin’s Cathedral where the King of Hungary were crowned (they were all Austrian Habsburgs). The gate does not exist today save for a few stone blocks that are now part of a house at Rudnay Square. Once the coronation had taken place at St. Martin’s the procession would begin in earnest. Red carpet was laid along the route for the newly crowned monarchs. As the royal retinue passed by, the crowd of onlookers would shout the Latin phrase “Vivat rex” which means “Long Live The King”. They then fought over scraps of the carpet which instantly had become valuable souvenirs.
Rasto and I picked up the route not far from St. Martin’s in a quiet section of the Old Town, where there was none of the usual clamor from restaurants and bars. He pointed out one of the brass plaques marking the route on Kapitulska Street. By this time night had fallen on the old town. The buildings were cloaked in darkness except for the illumination provided by the odd street lamp. Rasto pointed out a marker each time he saw one, soon he was walking ahead of me lost in another world. Then he finally slowed down, waiting for me to approach. When I did, he said in a low voice, “This is history.” Many of the old historical buildings which stood on either side of the street looked the worse for wear. They had yet to be commercialized. Their walls were chipped and cracked while the street was empty. The only thing I could hear was the lowered voice of Rasto and the sounds of our footsteps. We were walking on a path paved not just by cobblestones, but also by history.
Time Travelers – Chance & Fate Along Kapitulska
Walking up Kapitulska Street on this warm spring evening I felt that time had melted away. If it is possible to live in both the present and past at the same moment, then I was there. The feeling was transcendent. No one else was on the street, except for the two of us. Yet in a sense everyone had been here, kings and queens, wealthy nobles, burghers and merchants, the high and mighty, the low and destitute. Slovaks, Hungarians, Germans and Jews all called these corridors of time their home. Kapitulska was an 800-year old avenue to the past that had been preserved just for our arrival. To experience this it took imagination and knowledge. Rasto was the ultimate guide, acting as a conduit to the past. There was something in the air that night, I could feel it. In the silence history could be heard, crying out across the ages for two men who were brought here by chance and fate, just like everyone who had come before them.
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