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.

When Everyone Can See You & No One Is Watching – The Prekmurje Region of Slovenia

Several years ago, I was having a conversation with a friend of mine from Slovenia who was surprised to hear how much I loved Hungary. She said that many Slovenians thought of Hungary as a rural country with agriculture as the main pursuit. They imagined it as a land filled with farmers toiling in fields and cultivating crops. My friend grew up on the outskirts of Ljubljana, the small cosmopolitan capital city of Slovenia, surrounded by natural beauty. To her, the mountainous landscape and wild nature which could be seen in the distance from her hometown was Slovenia. Her view of the country was framed by this point of reference, while farming was something done in a far-off land beyond her nation’s borders by people who spoke an unintelligible language. A century earlier, Ljubljana had been part of Austria-Hungary, but it was part of the Austrian half of that empire, as was much of Slovenia. Her perspective was valid up to a point, but I soon discovered there was not one Slovenia, there were many. One version of Slovenia would have surprised her, because it includes farmers toiling in fields, some of them Hungarian, but the majority native Slovenians.

The fertile horizons of eastern Slovenia - Prekmurje region

The fertile horizons of eastern Slovenia – Prekmurje region

A Lot Of Mountains, A Little Bit Of Everything – Slovenian Landscapes
It is hard not to think of Slovenia as a land of mountains. The country includes both the Julian and Kamnik-Savinja Alps, which offer soaring, snow-capped vistas. Many travelers to Slovenia come away with the impression that it is a sort of southern Switzerland, or Austria on the cheap, such is the allure of its landscape and the relative affordability of visiting this tiny Balkan country. Slovenia loves to cultivate the image of a mountainous nation to boost its tourist trade, which is a mainstay of the economy. Even the national flag helps sells the mountain ideal. The tallest peak, Mount Triglav, can be found gracing the flag. Slovenia does have many mountains, but it also has a region laden with limestone which is home to teeming vineyards aboveground and wondrous caves just below the surface. If that is not enough, there is also a tiny bit of coastline with the city of Piran glowing radiant on the sun washed slopes of the Adriatic Sea. Slovenia is blessed by natural diversity and beauty that is the envy of many a larger nation. At its most magnificent, imagine a country with peaks like those found in Switzerland, Carlsbad like caves and a tiny bit of Cote d’Azure coastline thrown in for good measure, that is stereotypical Slovenia.

One landscape that this portrayal lacks can be found cultivated on Slovenia’s eastern frontier, located in an area known as the Prekmurje. Imagine a combination of pancake flat fields, rolling terrain and bucolic hills stretching out onto a limitless horizon. It is this landscape, one usually associated with Hungary, that marks out the easternmost region of Slovenia. It is no coincidence that Hungarians have a deep history in the Prekmurje, as well as an influential presence there still today. The Prekmurje is the remotest and least visited part of Slovenia. One would think that in a country as small as Slovenia it would be hard to find a very remote area. Slovenia is almost the exact same size as Massachusetts, but it has three and a half times fewer people. The smallest proportion of the Slovenian population is not in a secluded landscape, tucked away somewhere deep in the mountains. Instead, it can be found out in the open spaces of the Prekmurje. It is one of those landscapes where everyone can see you, but no one is watching.

Thatched cottages in Prekmurje

Thatched cottages in Prekmurje

On The Other Side – A Land Beyond The Mur
The Prekmurje is a world apart and has been ever since it came under the control of Slovenians as part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, later to become Yugoslavia, in 1919. The region had been part of the Kingdom of Hungary since the 12th century, but the population had been majority Slovene for many centuries. In the chaotic aftermath of the First World War, there was a first half mad attempt at self-government, when the short-lived Republic of Prekmurje was formed. This was one of many revolutionary iterations that arose on what had formerly been the territory of Austria-Hungary. The Republic was soon dissolved and incorporated into the new South Slav Kingdom.

Not only was the region in a new country, but around this time it was given the name it is still known by today, Prekmurje, meaning “territory on the other side of the Mur River”. Prior to this, much of the region had been known as the Slovenian March. It was the Mur River that helped define and isolate the territory. Not until 1924 was the first bridge constructed over the Mur, providing a tangible connection with the new Kingdom to which it now belonged. Though it was under new administration, the way of life continued much as before, agrarian and centered around small villages. This has continued right up until today. Since the 1920’s the Prekmurje has been part of four different countries, Yugoslavia, Hungary again, Yugoslavia again and Slovenia. The overlords may have changed, but the way of life remained relatively the same.

Rural road in Prekmurje

Rural road in Prekmurje (Credit: petrainpika)

Lucky Landscape – Preservation Of The Pastoral
The Prekmurje is one of those timeless places that technology only managed to touch ever so lightly. The 20th century brought better roads and railways making travel times much faster, but it did not change what most people did for a living. Mechanization made farming more efficient and better transport brought agricultural products to market faster. Mechanization also meant less workers on the farm, which led to smaller families and those same transport links carried the young away to greater opportunities in cities. In a world transformed by the industrial age, the rural nature of the Prekmurje proved relatively immune to ideological, political and economic disruptions. The land itself was protected as much by luck as fate. Case in point, during the 1960’s when test wells were drilled in a search for oil around Moravske Toplice, hot springs were discovered. Now thermal baths rather than oil derricks can be found there. Remoteness and a lack of natural resources have preserved the Prekmurje’s pastoral character, but while the lifeways have stayed relatively the same, the people holding power in the region has undergone dramatic change.