A Curtain Closes – COVID-19 & Travel in Eastern Europe: The Return of History (My Balkan Affair #45)

The woman at the piano in Szeged’s train station finished her Hungarian rhapsody. The silence after she stopped was just as riveting as the music she had been playing. To see beauty stripped to its barest essence was to have watched this woman play the piano. Her performance had been a striking example of how art can shift reality from the mundane to the magnificent in a matter of minutes. There are very few moments in life when we instinctively know that we have witnessed something remarkable, this was one of them. After she was finished playing, the woman picked up her child who was no longer near tears and went to the platform. In a few minutes, the woman along with many others including myself was boarding the train which would take us to Budapest.

Somewhere between Szeged and the town of Cegled, an hour up the line, my Balkan affair began to recede into a swirl of confused and captivating memories. The loss of memory was inevitable. My only solace was that it would be replaced by a sense of accomplishment which comes from the rare instance of a trip completed without even a hint of regret. Paradoxically, this left me feeling disconcerted by a premonition that this trip might never be topped. At this time, I cannot say whether it ever will be. The reason is that a global pandemic has postponed any further travels until an undetermined time in a future that remains mysterious.

Standing guard over silence – The Fat Policeman statue in Budapest during COVID curfew

The Gift of Hindsight – No Going Back
The gift of hindsight is good for something other than regret. It is how we make sense of history. All the course of human affairs can only be made sense of after the fact. That is when we look for trends that were invisible at the time. We tell ourselves later that they did in fact exist, we were just blind to the possibilities. I did not know anything about COVID-19 while traveling across the Balkans. I do not recall hearing a single word about while back in Budapest either. My only encounters with the virus would come way later when I was back in the United States. It was increasingly mentioned in media outlets until one day it descended upon our world and altered the course of life as we know it. With the gift of hindsight, I have come to believe that my last trip in Eastern Europe was meant to be just that, a sort of last hurrah. The kind of immaculate memory that one can vicariously live through for years. The past only becomes glorified as a golden one when the present has proven to be calamitous.

The beginning of 2020 was not the end of innocence, but it was the end of taking for granted the opportunities I have been afforded to travel throughout the region. Hindsight tells me that eventually things will get back to normal. I believe otherwise, there will be no going back in order to move forward. There has been a break with the past. Ominously, what comes next has become anyone’s worst guess. Taking a wait and see attitude has never been so worrisome, at least not in my lifetime. I keep thinking back to the summer of 1914 in Eastern Europe. It has been said that summer was among the most beautiful anyone can remember. The citizens of Austria-Hungary, the Russian Empire and all the other states in the region had no way of knowing that a storm was gathering and would soon break upon them. A storm of such scale and ferocity that it would transform the future into something unimaginable. There were historical forces at work which would alter the lives of millions for the worse. Are we living through another such nightmare or a speed bump on the road back to normalcy? It Is too soon to tell.

Emptiness – The Chain Bridge in Budapest during curfew due to COVID

Collision Course – The Present Future
I often comfort myself with the thought that everything I saw in the Balkans still exists. The walled towns of Budva and Kotor, the ruins of Stari Bar, the synagogue in Subotica and the Bar to Belgrade train still exist in the same state in which I left them. Perhaps next year they will be open for the taking by tourists. Perhaps not. It is comforting and frightening, mostly the latter, to think of just how empty each of these attractions must be at this moment. What does Budva become when there are no tourists to lay eyes on its medieval delights? What is Kotor without a line of curiosity seekers snaking their way up the mountainside in the quest to surmount Fort St. John? The ruins of Stari Bar have not been this silent since they were abandoned hundreds of years ago. When I visited Cetinje it felt like I was the only foreigner who dared brave that ice cold city during the winter. Now no foreigners dare brave it at all. The world of travel in the Balkans has turned insular. The region is back to being the preserve of locals. They finally have their cities, towns and tourist attractions back and not a Euro or dollar to show for it. Such is the state of a world no one saw coming. Expectations must now be adjusted accordingly. 

I imagine the Bar to Belgrade train still surging forward on its daily journeys filled with nothing but empty seats. A handful of passengers cover their mouths and noses with masks. They eye each with a shared sense of trepidation. Those plague columns that I have seen standing in so many Eastern European cities, now seem oddly appropriate. They are monuments to a past that was just as precarious as our present and future. The past, present and future have converged rather than collided. COVID-19 is a milder and more modern form of the plague. It has killed many and altered the lives of even more. Borders have closed, reopened and closed once again. The Balkans and the rest of Eastern Europe have not been this closed off since the Iron Curtain cordoned it off from the rest of the western world. The curtain that now stands today is translucent. We can see through it and dare not go beyond it. That curtain is something we have learned to hide behind. History has returned, the tourists have not. The pandemic has proven once again that history has its own logic, only in hindsight will we ever make sense of it.

The Velvet Horizon – Beyond Subotica: Goodbye To The Balkans (A Balkan Affair #40)

Early departures, they are the bane of a traveler’s existence. Is there anything worse than spending your last night with a newfound love and knowing you will abandon it before the crack of dawn? This leads to restless nights in generic hotels, bleary eyed wakeup calls at 4:15 a.m. and half a gallon of coffee downed in a paltry attempt at semi-coherence. This was the situation I put myself in on consecutive days while leaving Novi Sad and Subotica. I should have learned my lesson the first time. Novi Sad was worth more than the time I spent there. That was even more so with Subotica. Why did I feel it necessary to leave the places I loved so soon? If I knew that answer my travels would not have been nearly so adventurous.

Only in retrospect would I come to lament my decision to leave Subotica on that early Friday morning. At the time I felt an inner urge, one of those all too irresistible compulsions which sent me in search of Szeged and myself. There was always another city I had to see, the seductive allure of something different. A mistress clothed in concrete, the harlot waiting on every obscure corner, that city sized brothel I could make love in for a few hours before dashing out the door and into the wider world to find another fling with my restless nature. I would exhaust myself by the time I made it to Budapest. Then the self-remonstrations and regret would set in. An inner voice would remind me that I should have stayed longer in Subotica. This would be followed by an all too common refrain of “I will be back.”

The Power of Nature - Sunrise over Vojvodina

The Power of Nature – Sunrise over Vojvodina

An Unspoken Friend – Impossible and Worth Imagining
The 6:30 a.m. bus from Subotica to Szeged did not sound appealing. Nonetheless, I purchased a ticket the night before departure. The walk from my accommodation to the bus station was long and cold, I spent most of it watching my breath materialize and disappear beneath the blinding glare of streetlights. The fifteen-minute walk was bracing. The Subotica bus station did not offer much in the way of relief. It was an architectural eyesore. The kind of place that looked like a hub for dubious activities and deviant behavior. It was better to stand shivering at a platform than to take my chances inside the station. Of course, at this hour there were not many around to partake of illicit activities or substances. As for myself, I felt compelled to join a handful of others who looked just as cold and cheerless as I did.

The only potential passenger who looked like he might be enjoying himself was a rather tall, broad shouldered man who stood a few feet away from everyone else while enjoying a cigarette. We struck up a sort of silent friendship when I managed to ask him if this was the correct spot to stand while waiting on the bus to Szeged. He nodded approvingly. A little later he signaled to me when a bus appeared and pulled up beside us. He made sure to show me where to put my baggage. This gracious and accommodating gentleman made me regret all my past attempts to learn Magyar. He would have been an interesting character to quiz. He was obviously Hungarian. The kind of man who could have given me insight into the relationship between Hungarians and Serbs in this region. Such a conversation was impossible, but worth imagining.

On the Scary Side - Subotica Bus Station

On the Scary Side – Subotica Bus Station

A Little Bit Like Home  – The Frontiers of Old Europe
The bus soon arrived, a metal missile that would propel us over the border and beyond the Balkans. Leaving Subotica was a strange goodbye to the Balkans. The Vojvodina region of northern Serbia never quite felt Balkan enough for me. It was more Mitteleuropa than mystery and intrigue. The ethnic diversity in both the Vojvodina and Subotica could have been Balkan, but it was just as much a throwback to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This was the way Old Europe used to be, with Hungarians, Serbs, Bunjevci and Croats living cheek by jowl. Those days had dissipated during and after World War II as tens of thousands were eradicated or forcibly exchanged. Some pockets of ethnic diversity still exist, usually where national frontiers meet. Subotica was one of them. It was a fascinating place. Most of Europe did not realize what it was missing, but I did.

The bus wound its way through the outskirts of Subotica and then down an empty highway that took us through one last town before we reached the border. Horgos, I liked the name as soon as I saw it on a sign. At this point I was grasping for something to hold onto. I did not want my Balkan adventure to end. For me, Horgos held as much meaning as Cetinje, Budva, Kotor, Bar, Belgrade and Novi Sad. It was the last link on a thread I had woven from the sublime shoreline of the Adriatic across the majestic mountains of Montenegro to the fallow, frost covered fields of the Vojvodina. Horgos made me feel like I was back in Hungary. It was a little bit like home.

The Final Journey - Horgos in Winter

The Final Journey – Horgos in Winter

The Power of Nature – Rising Sun, Setting Scene
Saying goodbye is never easy, waking from a dream is disconcerting, the end of a journey is haunting.  Feelings of melancholy and nervous anticipation consumed me as the bus made its way through Horgos and covered the last few kilometers as it closed in on the border. This was the end of one journey and the beginning of another. The sun was slowly rising over the vast plain that knew nothing of nations or borders. What were the malevolent designs of nationalists, fascists and communists when compared to the scene slowly materializing before me?

All the man made maelstroms that swept over this land were not half as powerful as this sunrise which knew nothing of war or ethnic strife. The power of man is nothing before the power of nature. I watched as the sky lit up. The horizon turned to velvet, a color only nature could create. Wisps of clouds floated above the earth. It was an unforgettable coda to an incredible journey. I knew this scene, much like my trip, would not last. It had to end somewhere and so it did.

Click here for: Going Home To Hungary – The Road To Szeged: Crossover Appeal (A Balkan Affair #41)

Love Your Neighbor as Yourself – The Jews of Subotica: Twisted History (A Balkan Affair #39)

It was not at Auschwitz that I realized what had been destroyed during the Holocaust. I found Auschwitz unfathomable, even more so when I visited it. On the other hand, it was while standing in the Subotica Synagogue that I comprehended the Holocaust’s venality. A community of people who could create something so beautiful and eternal was worth revering not destroying. Tragically it was the latter that occurred. The destruction of Subotica’s Jews was nearly complete by the end of World War II. Of the approximately 5200 who lived in the city at the beginning of the war, only 1200 made it back to the city and most of these fled to Israel not long after their return.

There was not much left of Subotica’s Jewish community by 1950. The unthinkable seemed set to happen. A community and culture which had once seemed so vibrant and vivid only a decade earlier looked like it was fated to vanish from the city. It is not an overstatement to say that Subotica’s Jews were on the verge of vanishing from memory. That never happened due to an ironic twist of fate. Subotica’s Synagogue, which is the greatest legacy of its Jewish community, rose from negligence back to prominence. Strangely enough, this incredible resurrection fits within the context of Subotica’s Jewish history. It was in line with other unlikely events that gave rise to Jews within the city. Two and a half centuries ago, an improbable trajectory started that continues right up through today.

Outlines of History - Subotica Skyline

Outlines of History – Subotica Skyline (Credit: Vladimirk)

An Empress’ Decrees – Moments of Decision
During the 18th century, the greatest influence in Subotica did not come from Serbs or Hungarians, but an absolutist female monarch who ruled large portions of Central and Eastern Europe. By her word or decree, this Empress had the power to change the fate of individuals as well as cities. Such was the power of Maria Theresa who ruled the Habsburg Empire for forty years (1740-1780) that she could single handedly make decisions influencing the region’s future for centuries to come. She did this by making several key decisions that affected Subotica’s long-term development. One of these decisions was whether to allow a Jewish man to settle in the city. It probably seemed relatively insignificant at the time. Only in hindsight can its lasting ramifications be discerned.

Maria Theresa was more known for expelling Jews from cities than allowing them access. By later European standards of anti-Semitism her measures seem somewhat benign, but on the Empress’ authority Jewish communities were expelled from Prague in 1744 and Buda in 1746. An extortionate tax she instituted three years later pilfered Jewish finances. In 1779, just a year before she died, Maria Theresa received a Jew by the name of Salamon Hajduska who had requested an audience with her majesty. Hajduska had been denied permission to live or work in Subotica.

The Empress showed her disdain for Jews by only receiving them from behind a screen. Nonetheless, the fact that Hadjuska had traveled all the way from provincial Serbia to Vienna made a great impression on Maria Theresa. She not only granted his request, but also took it upon herself to personally ensure that city officials provided Hajduska with the permits to now live and work in Subotica. After Maria Theresa’s son, Joseph II, became emperor in 1780, Jews gained a much broader range of civil rights. This in turn gave more of them the impetus to settle in Subotica. Salamon Hajduska’s refusal to take no for an answer and Maria Theresa’s willingness to accommodate his request, set in motion a process that brought thousands of Jews to Subotica.

The Jewish Heritage - Interior view of dome at Subotica Synagogue

The Jewish Heritage – Interior view of dome at Subotica Synagogue

Maria-Theresiopolis – A Dream Come True
Another decision of Maria Theresa’s that had a magnetic effect in bringing more Jews into Subotica and turbocharged its development occurred the same year of the Empress’ audience with Hadjuska. In 1779, Maria Theresa designated Subotica as a Royal Free Town, this gave it certain rights and privileges that led to a boom in trade and business. Subotica’s citizens could not have been happier. They showed their gratitude by changing the city’s name to the reverentially clunky Maria-Theresiopolis. Eventually the name would be changed back to Subotica, but irreversible forces of demographic change brought hundreds of Jews and Hungarians to the city and led to exponential population growth.

When the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 broke out, it would be the Jews and Hungarians of the city who fought side by side for independence from the Habsburgs. The Revolution failed, but liberation followed less than twenty years later when Hungary became an equal part of the monarchy in 1867. Austria-Hungary was a dream come true for Subotica’s Jews who gained equality under the law. The years between 1867 -1914 were a golden age for the Jews and the city. Their future looked bright until World War I darkened the skies above Eastern Europe. Subotica ended up being taken away from Hungary by the postwar Treaty of Trianon. In a convoluted twist of fate, the Jews got much of the blame for what happened to Hungary.

Moment of Silence - Memorial to the Holocaust at Subotica Synagogue

Moment of Silence – Memorial to the Holocaust at Subotica Synagogue

Building Blocks – The Synagogue as Symbol
The Jews who had helped build Subotica into a paradoxical blend of provincial cosmopolitanism were singled out as a fifth column. At first came oppression, then under fascism the policies soon turned toward eradication. Genocide made its way to Subotica, killing most of its Jews and a part of the city’s life along with it. The Synagogue was left to deteriorate. What was left of the Jewish community in Subotica could not maintain such a structure, in 1979 they gave it to the city on condition that restoration work take place. It was later used as an avant-garde theater, only leading to further degradation. Only after the collapse of communism, followed by the disintegration of Yugoslavia, could work really begin to recognize the Jewish Heritage of Subotica. That work focused on restoring the synagogue to its former glory.

After the World Monuments Fund (WMF) put the synagogue on a list of the 100 Most Endangered Sites, restoration finally became a priority. The WMF led the way with funding and expertise. The Hungarian government chipped in to pay for the interior restoration, as well as the grounds and fencing surrounding the site. This collective effort paid off when both the Prime Minsters of Serbia and Hungary spoke at its reopening. Their presence symbolized the change in attitudes towards Jewish history in both countries. It was another improbable twist in the fate of Jews, as well as their culture and heritage across the region.

Hopes & Fears – Nightmares & Dreams
Above the entrance to Subotica’s synagogue is a simple yet poignant message, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If only that message had been followed throughout history, Subotica’s synagogue would be filled with the descendants of those who were instead doomed by the Holocaust. Much was lost in the Holocaust, but the memory of Subotica’s Jewry remains within the synagogue’s hallowed walls. Now only silence fills the beautiful spaces inside those walls. Listen long enough though and out of that silence the past will come calling, an echo chamber of hopes and fears, dreams and nightmares, death and resurrection.

Click here for: The Velvet Horizon – Beyond Subotica: Goodbye To The Balkans (A Balkan Affair #40)

The Best Of Both Worlds – Subotica Synagogue: Heaven On Earth (A Balkan Affair #38)

I had come to Subotica for one simple reason, to search out and visit the city’s wealth of Art Nouveau architectural treasures. Using a locally produced booklet, I resolved to find as many of them as I could. This search took me on a short walk outside of the city center in the early afternoon. Using a small map in the booklet as my guide, I made my way down a couple of streets before walking right into another world, one created by Subotica’s famous synagogue. It is hard to describe what I saw at first glance and even harder to describe what I felt. I was shocked to find the synagogue’s exterior in perfect condition.

The synagogue looked as though it had just been completed yesterday. The centerpiece of the structure was a massive dome covered in unglazed Zsolnay tiles, further down were turrets at each of the four corners sporting cupolas. Windows were bordered with terracotta ornamentation. Another massive window formed the eye of a peacock’s feather. Even the wrought iron fencing separating the sidewalk and grounds had been fashioned into heart shapes. There was a uniquely exotic symmetry to the entire edifice, making it much greater than any of its constituent parts.

A Testament To Greatness - Subotica Synagogue Exterior

A Testament To Greatness – Subotica Synagogue Exterior

A Sublime Synthesis – Cultures Collide & Coalesce
The history of the Subotica Synagogue is just as unique as the structure. The design came from a proposal by a couple of Hungarian architects, Marcell Komor and Deszo Jakab, in an 1899 competition for a new synagogue in Szeged. Their proposal finished second, but Subotica’s Jewish community selected it for the synagogue they were planning to have built. At that time, the community was badly in need of a new house of worship. The existing synagogue was a baroque style building that was almost one hundred years old. It had been constructed when the Jewish population of Subotica was small. Throughout the 19th century, the situation of Jews in Austria-Hungary, and by extension Subotica, changed dramatically throughout the 19th century. At the turn of the 20th century, there were over 3,000 Jews in Subotica. By then, the city was the third largest in the Kingdom of Hungary and tenth largest in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Komor and Jakab’s design would mark the presence, prominence and permanence of the city’s Jewish community in this growing city.  It would also be the first and only synagogue in the world done in Hungarian Art Nouveau (also known as Hungarian Secession) style. It still is today. Yet fitting the Subotica Synagogue into any style does not do justice to its uniqueness. This is architecture without limits, timeless and eternal. The synagogue’s style was a symbolic synthesis of Hungarian and Jewish culture. A stunning display of assimilationist tendencies where two disparate cultures coalesce and form something entirely new. It might sound cliché, but the synagogue was the best of both worlds. Perhaps its most notable achievement was to make both those worlds better.

The Gates of Heaven - Subotica Synagogue Interior

The Gates of Heaven – Subotica Synagogue Interior

Heaven On Earth – In Perfect Harmony
Despite walking through an open gate toward the entrance, I had my doubts that the synagogue would be open. On more occasions than I care to recount, I have stood outside synagogues in Eastern Europe unable to enter. The day before in Novi Sad I had been unable to get past the fenced enclosure. On this day I was luckier than I imagined at the time. Not only was the Synagogue open, but as I would later discover it had recently undergone a complete restoration that took years to complete. It seemed that I had arrived at the perfect time. A young man wearing a yarmulke sold me a ticket that cost the equivalent of two dollars. Another man wearing a security officers uniform stood nearby. He was helpful and kind. All I had to do was leave my backpack behind to enter the hall of worship. After stepping inside, I realized right away that this was the closest thing I have experienced to heaven on earth.

The interior of the synagogue was a scene of spiritual enchantment. I stood in awed reverence for a few minutes and tried to absorb the aesthetics. This was both a house of worship and work of art without parallel. For me, the synagogue was an ecstatic dream brought to life. An emotional exuberance informed its sublime symmetry. Here was a design derived from the liveliest of imaginations. The colors inside were eyepopping, deep oranges, sea foam greens and golden browns that I would never have associated with a sacred space. Speaking of space, there was enough capacity to hold 1,600 people. On the ground level were row upon row of pristine pews that would have held the men. My favorite spot was the balcony where the women would have been seated. This area had enough seating for 550 women. The use of space, ornamentation and architectural elements were all in perfect harmony.

Timeless & Eternal - Subotica Synagogue

Timeless & Eternal – Subotica Synagogue

The Silence Speaks – A Testament To Greatness
While up in the balcony I noticed that on the pews were small gold plates that gave the names of worshipers. I looked at the names in a combination of wonder and horror. What happened to these women? Many of them went from experiencing perfect spiritual splendor in this synagogue, to the depraved horror of Auschwitz. From this to that. It was as hard to comprehend as the enormity of the Holocaust or the fact that Subotica’s Jews had risen to these heights of glory before calamity swept them away from Subotica. It was an unbelievable story that haunted an unbelievable building.

In the same balcony area, I studied the mesmerizing floral patterns on the stain glass windows made in Miksa Roth’s famed workshop back in Budapest. The colors were vivid and radiant, flowers permanently in bloom, much like all the lives that once passed through these same spaces. There was a profound joy in these design details. A warmth and happiness that everyone should feel. To reach back in time across an invisible divide and feel such joy, even for a moment, was the greatest gift of all. The Jews of Subotica knew this joy, they also came to know sorrow, but the synagogue they left behind preserved their essence.  It was a testament to greatness. Amid the synagogue’s silence, I could hear an entire world that can no longer speak for itself.

Click here for: Love Your Neighbor as Yourself – The Jews of Subotica: Twisted History (A Balkan Affair #39)

Fantasy As Reality – Subotica’s City Hall: The Outer Limits of Hungarian Art Nouveau (A Balkan Affair #37)

I can still recall a lecture spun by the magnificently eloquent J. Rufus Fears where he pondered the fate of Ancient Rome. He asked his students to consider what would be left of our own civilization thousands of years from now? He then provided a rhetorical answer in the form of another question: “Would it be a pair of golden arches?” Fears was of course referring to the ubiquitous symbol of the American fast food chain McDonald’s. At the time I recoiled in horror. When compared with Ancient Greece’s Parthenon or the Coliseum in Ancient Rome, the golden arches seemed superficially ghastly. I found the thought that this was how we would be remembered disturbing. The story comes to mind because my opinion of the symbolic value of McDonald’s golden arches improved immeasurably in Eastern Europe.

It all started after I visited the glittering McDonald’s that can be found in the former dining hall of Budapest’s Nyugati Station.  This is a magnificent setting that provides much more than Big Macs and Happy Meals. The Nyugati McDonald’s proved to me that the chain knows how to represent itself in the trappings of ultra-cool elegance. No wonder people flock to it, despite McDonald’s well-deserved reputation for serving up less than healthy fare. I figured no other branch of the chain could ever compare to what I experienced at Nyugati. I was wrong. Subotica’s city center McDonald’s matches it in most regards. It is housed in a ground level section of the Subotica City Hall. This is one City Hall that is anything but ordinary. Imagine a Disneyesque sense of style meets Eastern European fantasia. This is the place where I found more than a McDonald’s, I also discovered a building unlike any in Europe.

Fantasy as reality - The City Hall in Subotica

Fantasy as reality – The City Hall in Subotica

A Modest Proposal – Beyond The Realm Of Anyone’s Imagination
It is hard to believe today, but by the late 19th century, Subotica was a larger city than either Belgrade or Zagreb. With the city’s explosive growth, an array of fantastic buildings had been constructed which dwarfed older civic structures. The City Hall was an increasingly antiquated Baroque building constructed in 1828. When Biro Karoly took office in 1902 as the new mayor, planning began on constructing a new City Hall. Opinions varied among civic leaders, architects and engineers as to what should be the design, either back to the Baroque or an eclectic Hungarian style Art Nouveau (also known as Secession) structure. It was thus decided in 1906 that a competition would take place. The winning design was beyond the realm of anyone’s imagination except for Deszo Jakab and Marcell Komor, the two architects who put together the proposal.

The new City Hall was to be done up in the style of Hungarian Art Nouveau. A massive structure of over 5800 square meters, it would have two and a half times as much floor space. It would also sport a 76 meter high tower with a belvedere (open sided gallery) at the 45 meter mark offering all encompassing views of the surrounding area. There would be another tower as well, mansard roofs and two colored Zsolnay tiles. The building was to be laid out symmetrically with four entrances and four inner courtyards. A grand marble staircase would lead to the first floor which contained three halls. Each would have beautiful stain glass windows designed by master artisans. A plethora of stylistic detail taken from Hungarian folklore would embellish the façade and cover surfaces throughout the interior. Most surprisingly, it would cost less than a baroque style building. City leaders were in favor of construction starting immediately. How could they not be?

Sizing it up - Front section of the Subotica City Hall

Sizing it up – Front section of the Subotica City Hall

Jakab and Komor’s design was a one size fits all solution incorporating both public sector and private enterprise in one exceptionally eclectic package. Much of the city’s civil institutions would be housed inside the structure. On the first floor would be the city administration and county prefect. The next floor up would be home to the municipal police. Another floor would act as the city’s prison. The design also allotted space for commercial use, including a tavern and restaurant. There was only one problem with this proposal, the Hungarian State Council of Engineering in Budapest rejected it. The council called attention to what they perceived as design flaws. Mayor Karoly took action to save the proposal by enlisting assistance from the mayor of Targu Mures in Transylvania, where another Jakab and Komor designed City Hall was being finished. The two mayors traveled to Budapest where they met with and managed to convince the State Council that the proposal was feasible. The rest was architectural history.

A World Unto Itself – Once More With Feeling
I have no idea how many times I circled around Subotica’s City Hall, but it had to be at least ten in a single afternoon. I strode beneath its elegant arched corridors, backed far away from it and attempted to get the perfect picture before realizing that a single photo could never do this building justice. I tried to think of comparable city halls and was at a loss. As architecture goes, this was an astonishing singularity and that is precisely why it never has been replicated anywhere else. There would never be another one like it. Unfortunately, one of the great sorrows from my time in Subotica, really the only sorrow, was that I never did get to enter the City Hall. Tourists were allowed in during the winter only at noon. I did not realize that until it was too late.

Illuminati - Near the front entrance of Subotica's City Hall at night

Illuminati – Near the front entrance of Subotica’s City Hall at night

I was disappointed, but at the same time inspired. This meant that I would have to make a return visit and not just for the City Hall. There was something quite remarkable about Subotica. While much of that had to do with its Art Nouveau architecture. There was also the fact that it was a frontier town, a provincial city on the fringes of its host nation. Subotica did not seem Serbian or Hungarian or Croatian, more like a world unto itself. Every time I looked at the City Hall, I thought of Disney World, but this was much better because it was a reality rather than fantasy. It is still the seat of city government, the administering apparatus for over 140,000 people and a symbol of everything that is possible with the right amount of ambition, imagination and innovation. Above all else, it is home to a McDonald’s. In other words, Subotica’s City Hall has no parallel.

Click here for: The Best Of Both Worlds – Subotica Synagogue: Heaven On Earth (A Balkan Affair #38)

A Fully Formed Fairy Tale – The Raichle Palace In Subotica (A Balkan Affair #36)

No one will ever accuse Subotica of subtlety. It shows itself off like a city sized supermodel. Greater men than me have fallen in love with its sensual architecture.  Upon my arrival I was confronted by a vision so wondrous that it caused me to question whether it was real. It all started when I walked out of the train station. While looking down a street directly opposite of the station, my eyes were met with the fantastical, creamsicle and color of butter creation otherwise known as the Raichle Palace. The eye-popping vibrancy of its colors, inspired by the brightly colored folk art and farmhouses from Transylvania, was apparent even from a distance. These were inspired The palace looks like a set piece from the Wizard of Oz, with its elaborate floral and heart ornamentation, carved gates, Murano mosaics and Zsolnay tiles. Perhaps the palace’s most unique artistic element is the entrance, which takes the form of an upside down heart recessed into the façade. Just as unique are the eclectic mix of materials utilized to bring Raichle’s vision to reality, these include ceramics, wood and wrought iron. They add detail so delicious that the Raichle Palace is a feast for the senses.

Grand Designs - The Raichle Palace

Grand Designs – The Raichle Palace

Architectural Anatomy – An Explosion of Feverish Creativity
Let me just start by saying that there was nothing in my experience to compare with the Raichle Palace. It was an imaginative singularity, a fully formed fairy tale brought to life. I am not about to claim that it was the most beautiful building I have ever seen, but the Raichle Palace was certainly the most unique. With its flowing floral motifs and curvaceous patterns, it set a new standard for architectural anatomy. Upon seeing it, I realized that there is Art Nouveau architecture and then there is Subotica’s Art Nouveau architecture. While Art Nouveau arose in the great cities of Europe such as Vienna, Munich and Paris, it took on national characteristics in Hungary. Hungarian Art Nouveau is also referred to as Secession, as it broke away from all previous art movements. The Raichle Palace is a hallmark of that style. It was also the first of many Art Nouveau inspired buildings I would see in the city. If there is one thing Subotica is known for, it is the magnificent architecture scattered throughout the city center.

One might think that this provincial city of a quarter million would practice a modicum of modesty. Maybe it once did, but during the early years of the 20th century an explosion of feverish creativity changed the cityscape of Subotica forever. Anyone who visits the city today, cannot help but wonder why Subotica became one of the great European epicenters of Art Nouveau. Much of this has to do with the work of Ferenc Raichle. His most famous work is more than a building, it is also a symbol of something much more powerful than an architectural revolution. It represents the power of self-belief and imagination to infuse the creative instinct. Ferenc Raichle, creator of the eponymous palace, was not just designing a palace to explode existing ideas of architecture, he was also creating a home for himself.

Prior Greatness - Subotica City Library Building designed by Ferenc Raichle in 1897

Prior Greatness – Subotica City Library Building designed by Ferenc Raichle in 1897

Growing Up – Present At The Transformation
Raichle was born in the northwest part of Vojvodina a couple of years after the Austro-Hungarian compromise of 1867. Following that event, the Hungarian half of the empire underwent an unprecedented economic, social and cultural transformation. Raichle’s life and career spans most of this time period. The artistic flowering of that historical era led to the Hungarian Art Nouveau movement. Its godfather was Odon Lechner, a university classmate of Raichle who pushed the boundaries of architectural innovation forward. Raichle took what he learned from Lechner and moved to Subotica in the mid-1890’s. His professional biography can best be summed up as the right person at the right place at the right time.

In the late 19th century, Subotica was well into what has been called its “golden age” of development. Only two years after the Austro-Hungarian compromise, the railway came to the city, acting as a spur that boosted agricultural exports in area known for its fertile farmland. The era of industrialization began rolling in right along with the railway. By 1895, Subotica and its growing bourgeois class was benefitting from sustained economic development. Local leaders were looking to further develop the city. Ferenc Raichle moved to Subotica with his eye on the opportunities it afforded to architects. Specifically, those who could design buildings that were both aesthetically and functionally pleasing. It helped that Raichle was well connected. He first rented a palace from the city’s mayor. Soon he was commissioned to renovate the face of the Nacional Hotel in neo-Renaissance style. That same year he was also the architect of the neo-Baroque National Casino Building.

A Remarkable Vision - Ferenc Raichle

A Remarkable Vision – Ferenc Raichle

Embellished By Audacity – From Competition To Commissions
In 1899, Raichle’s artistic breakthrough occurred when he did the design for two side by side rental properties. Each was embellished with an extremely audacious design. The first contained a relief of a nude woman laying on a crescent ark showered by sunlight. The second was adorned by decorative masks of female faces with their hair interwoven. These were the opening gambits in what would become the defining architectural style for both Raichle and Subotica. Over the next several years competition was fierce for commissions to build the city’s main synagogue and a town hall. Though Raichle lost both competitions, he did manage to design the Austro-Hungarian Bank Building.

In 1903 Raichle reached the pinnacle of architectural achievement in Subotica with the construction of his palace. Despite this success, he had many cut-throat competitors and was often the subject of fierce criticism. Much of the vitriol directed at Raichle stemmed from jealousy. His critics must have been especially galled to see the Raichle Palace every time they exited the train station. It was the first and last things visitors arriving by rail would see. The palace stood on prime real estate. Next door, Raichle designed another Art Nouveau masterpiece known as the Tenement Palace (currently the Hungarian consulate) with motifs that acted as a compliment to the palace.

A Legacy Secured – The Height of Success
In Raichle’s greatness was also the seeds of his failure. His tastes for the lavish and extravagant were not confined to architecture. He overextended himself financially. While he enjoyed a fair bit of success after moving from Subotica to Szeged, he was also forced to declare bankruptcy. He had made a fortune, only to spend it recklessly. His career never recovered, but his spirits did. Raichle spent his final years working as an architect in Budapest. Accounts state that he was content with life. Perhaps Raichle realized that his architectural legacy was secure. His meteoric rise to greatness, followed by a precipitate decline, would never matter as much as the buildings he left behind in Subotica. The Raichle Palace and his other works are symbols of an architect at the height of his powers. They have also become enduring symbols of Subotica, a provincial city whose architecture soars above all expectations.

Click here for: Fantasy As Reality – Subotica’s City Hall: The Outer Limits of Hungarian Art Nouveau (A Balkan Affair #37)

A Kingdom In Fragments – Subotica: Multiple Personality Disorders (A Balkan Affair #35)

Within half an hour of stepping off the train in Subotica I had a fantastic idea for a travel guide. Titled “Finding The Lost Cities”, the guide would be about those cities that were formerly part of the Kingdom of Hungary and then ended up outside the Republic of Hungary’s borders due to the post-World War I Treaty of Trianon. Each of these cities would be within an hour’s drive of the current Hungarian border. The guide would include an itinerary taking travelers from Eisenstadt, Austria to Bratislava and Kosice in Slovakia to Uzhhorod and Mukachevo in Ukraine to Oradea and Timisoara in Romania and finally Subotica in Serbia.

These cities are not nearly as well-known as Vienna or Budapest, but they offer a healthy perspective on historical reality that cannot be found in a national capital. While Budapest is now a Hungarian city to its core and Vienna is a glittering set piece inextricably aligned with Austrian national identity, cities such as Kosice and Subotica have multipolar identity disorder. The symptoms include a Hungarian minority, famous sons and daughters that do not share the dominant ethnic identity and history that resists simple nationalistic narratives.

I have spent time in all the cities listed above – except for the Ukrainian ones – seeing how the present has been imposed upon the past. In each place, I discovered that the manipulation, eradication or assimilation of ethnic and national identity were central to their development. More than anything, I wanted to look beyond face value and try to understand the complexities of these “lost cities.” The history of these cities was like a web that their inhabitants were caught within. I wanted to follow certain strands in that web and see where they led. Subotica was one such strand

Say That Again - Street Sign in Subotica

Say That Again – Street Sign in Subotica

All Mixed Up – A Little Bit of Everything
My train arrived in Subotica two and a half hours prior to check in. This meant that I needed to find somewhere to drop my luggage until noon. I soon found my way to the city center and Subotica’s tourist information center. Inside I met a man with dark hair and dark features who looked to be in his 30’s. He spoke excellent English. He kindly told me I could leave my luggage in the office while I had a walk around. After he gave me a rundown of where to go and what to see, I asked him about his own ethnic background, expecting to hear that he was a Serb. He surprised me by saying “I’m Montenegrin.” His parents had emigrated to Subotica.

A couple of hours later, a female university student with long chestnut hair and a look of quiet determination checked me into my apartment. She was proper, polite and to the point. We only spent a couple of minutes conversing, but it was long enough for me to ask about her ethnic background. She replied with a hint of exasperation, “a little bit of everything. We are all mixed up.” “All mixed up” is probably the best summation of Subotica’s complex ethnic makeup. Statistics bear this out.

There are more Hungarians living in the city they call Szabadka than any other ethnic group, but they are a plurality rather than a majority. There are more Serbs and Croats combined than there are Hungarians. On the other hand, Serbs outnumber Croats by three to one. Nearly equal in number to the Croats are a South Slavic ethnic group of mysterious origins known as the Bunjevci. Many of the Bunjevci were long since assimilated as either Croats or Hungarians, but over 13,500 in Subotica still maintain this distinct identity.

To make matters more confusing, in the last census 3,200 Suboticans stated that they were Yugoslavs. Obviously, this was never a distinct ethnicity. That did not stop several thousand hardcore holdouts who are keeping the memory of that troubled polity still alive, both in the census and their hearts. And this is not to mentions the smatterings of Montenegrins (1,349) and Macedonians (482), Roma (2,959) and Rusyns (172), Slovenes (169) and Slovaks (158). As all these numbers clearly show, Subotica is ethnically “all mixed up.”

The Center Of Their World - Directional Sign In Subotica to Cities tn Nearby Nations

The Center Of Their World – Directional Sign In Subotica to Cities tn Nearby Nations

Peeling Back The Layers -Unearthing A Lost World
Language is another tangled web in Subotica. Hungarians may be the top ethnic group, but there are 1.4 speakers of Serbo-Croatian for every one speaker of the Magyar tongue. There are likely two reasons for this. The first is that there are many more South Slavs than Hungarians in Subotica, the second is the incredible difficulty of learning Magyar. If you are what you speak, then Hungarians are one of the most distinct ethnic groups not only in Subotica, but also in the whole of Europe.

Adding a final layer of complexity, is the factor of religion. Roman Catholics outnumber practitioners of the Orthodox faith by over two to one. This is understandable considering that Hungarians and Croatians are predominantly Roman Catholic. An interesting outlier is the 2,700 Muslims in the city. These are part of the Yugoslav legacy of resettling certain populations to boost the region’s economic growth. A useful side effect from the Yugoslav standpoint was that it diluted Hungarian dominance in the area.

The Weight of History - Sculptures on a building in Subotica

The Weight of History – Sculptures on a building in Subotica

Missing Persons – The Weight of History
Only one thread was missing from Subotica’s ethnic, linguistic and religious tapestry, the Jews. According to the census only 89 still live in the city. This is not an insignificant number, but pales in comparison to the 4,000 that called the city home prior to the Second World War. They were an integral part of the city’s spontaneous growth during the late 19th and early 20th century. Many of them were assimilated Hungarian speakers. It was their tragic fate to be shipped off to concentration camps while under Hungarian rule.

The Jews of Subotica had once thrived within the Kingdom of Hungary and yet they were destined to die under the administration of Miklos Horthy’s Hungary and its puppet master, Nazi Germany. While the ethnic diversity of Subotica did not end – unlike so many other cities in eastern Europe – because of World War II, it was irreparably harmed. The census figures only offer a hint of what was lost. I would soon discover some of that lost world and much more while wandering around the streets of Subotica.

The Train To Subotica: Dying In Your Life/Dying In Your Sleep (A Balkan Affair #34)

Riding the rails between Novi Sad and Subotica took me on a journey through a land that looked frozen in time. The fact that frost had built up on scrub grass beside the tracks and the twisted limbs of trees had turned translucent only added to the sense of stagnation. There was a dramatic beauty in the semi-ruined townscapes and outbuildings in the countryside. I snapped photo after photo with my phone hoping the perfect picture would capture the rustic scenery. There was one scene that really caught my eye. Whether it was a barn or a barrack I have no way of knowing, but the early morning sun illuminated the side of a rustic and roofless building. The grass around it was flecked in frost. The building was caught somewhere between abandonment and ruin. It was the very definition of the phrase, “a long time coming.” What I imagined was a slow, glacial pace of unsightly decay made me wonder if anything ever really changed or everything just crumbled in rural Vojvodina.

Stationary – Along the Novi Sad to Subotica line

Generating Genocide – The German Experience

At the approximate midpoint of this journey, the train pulled up to a two-story train station in the village of Lovcenac. The town itself was a good distance east of the station. Farm fields could be seen in all directions. The fields looked as though they had been there since time immemorial. One could be forgiven for assuming that this landscape was timeless. I later learned that Lovcenac had been transformed by the 20th century. A breathtaking wave of historic change had swept over the town, it had been tormented by the whirlwind of modern warfare and buffeted by extreme racial and ideological ideas. All the problems usually associated with the Balkans had taken place in Lovcenac. Ethnic cleansing, forcible population transfers and demographic decline had unsettled and resettled this village of 3,100 inhabitants. The ethnic cleansing occurred in the latter part of World War II, when a century and a half of ethnic German settlement and successful development abruptly ended.

The communist partisans and South Slavic peoples exacted a deadly retribution for all that they had suffered during the war. The fact that there was no remorse is hardly surprising. After all, the German military command during the war had issued orders stating that for every German soldier killed by a partisan, one hundred Yugoslavs would be murdered. This led to a vicious cycle of violence that boomeranged on ethnic Germans in Yugoslavia. Any ethnic German was subject at best to expulsion, at worst confinement and eventual execution. The Germans of Lovcenac were symbolic of a much larger movement across eastern Europe. Ethnic Germans were thrown out of their homes, never to return. The lucky ones made it back to Germany, the unlucky ones ended up as collateral damage, pawns in a deadly geopolitical game of retribution.

Dawn Harvest – Off the Tracks in Vojvodina

Making Ends Meet – The Ebb & Flow of Montenegrins

Lovcenac was one of hundreds of towns dislocated from its past during the post-war period. The agent of change was first the Red Army, a sort of hell on wheels, rails, boots and horseback. They took the area and then handed it over to the Yugoslav communists who marched the German citizens off to perform forced labor. Their main church and cemetery were plowed under. The town was just as fallow as the surrounding fields following the war. Rebuilding the population started after the war when Montenegrins settled in Lovcenac. They had staying power. Today their descendants make up a large portion of the residents. The resettlement was successful, but the town has never really recovered demographically. Lovcenac’s population is a third lower than it was a hundred years ago. It is not just ethnic Germans who are missing. Young and upwardly mobile Montenegrins and Serbs have voted with their feet as well, escaping for greener pastures even though they were already surrounded by hectare upon hectare of pastures and fertile fields.

The hollowing out of rural Vojvodina has been no different than that seen in so many European societies. Since 1991, the town has lost a quarter of its population. Sometimes I wonder if anyone will be left in villages like Lovcenac a hundred years from now. This is a pattern being repeated all cross Eastern Europe. The first time I came across the physical manifestations of demographic decline was in northeastern Hungary. On the outskirts of villages, ruined houses were the lone traces of the inhabitants who left decades ago. Windows and doors were missing, large sections of plaster and paint had chipped off and weeds choked abandoned garden plots. These scenes are supposed to be reminiscent of the past, but they seem to be creeping portents of the future.

It used to be that war, disease and famine caused depopulation. Now low birthrates and an aging populace threaten to further marginalize regions such as the Vojvodina. From the window of my train I passed through a world in perpetual decline, where everything was tending toward decay. And yet I still felt hopeful that this region and its people would survive. This land, these towns and villages had been through much worse. There were people living up and down this train line who had witnessed the horrors of World War II. Somehow, they had managed to make it through to the present. By comparison, the present danger seemed rather benign. The difference between the problems facing Lovcenac in 1944 and those of the 21st century is the difference between dying in your life and dying in your sleep. The former happens in a moment of horror, the other in a moment of indifference.

Winter scene -The edge of a village in Vojvodina

The Final Stop – A Hungarian Foothold

After Lovcenac only a couple of stops remained before the train would reach Subotica. One minute I was peering out at the countryside, lost in dreamy wanderlust, the next I was preparing for imminent arrival. As I expected, the train was running behind by about ten minutes. Its tepid pace had become quite enjoyable. Slowly, ever so slowly the train crawled northward. Arriving at Backa Topola we were now transitioning into a Hungarian world. This may have been Serbian territory, but the town was majority Hungarian. 

Interestingly, when Backa Topola was first mentioned in recorded history during the mid-15th century, the town was then chiefly Hungarian. It still is today, five and half centuries later. This was deceptive. Backa Topola had been obliterated by the end of the Ottoman period, then risen from the wasteland to a vibrant community through the collective efforts of generations of Hungarian settlers. Unlike ethnic Germans in the Vojvodina, the Hungarians had managed to keep a tenuous hold on parts of this region. Their presence, both historical and current, was what now brought me to my final stop, Subotica.

Click here for: A Kingdom In Fragments – Subotica: Multiple Personality Disorders (A Balkan Affair #35)

Going Nowhere Slow – Novi Sad to Subotica: Mystery Train (A Balkan Affair #33)

A 6:33 a.m. departure from the Novi Sad station to Subotica seemed a bit on the early side. It may have had something to do with commuters taking this train 95 kilometers north to the city of Subotica. There were not many commuters, but when a train moves as slow as this one did, I can understand why an early start would be a necessity. Consider the fact that the train was scheduled to take 2 hours and 27 minutes to reach Subotica. That means the train took on average a minute and a half to cover a single kilometer. Taking a bus, while much more uncomfortable, would have meant almost an hour of time savings since the bus to Subotica only takes an hour and 35 minutes. A private automobile is even faster, covering the same distance in an hour and 7 minutes.

Suffice to say, the train was by far the most inefficient method of travel between Novi Sad and Subotica. For me, it would also be the most satisfying. It offered simple pleasures, a sort of acquired taste for travelers. Chief among these pleasures was a sting of eight towns and villages the train would pass through along the way. This journey would give me a glimpse of life in the outlying communities and rural hinterlands of Vojvodina. Places where I imagined time had long since stopped ticking, a backward region that had left the world behind. This was the hidden Europe, places that clung tenuously to their precarious existence.

Early Departure - 6:33 a.m. ticket for Novi Sad to Subotica

Early Departure – 6:33 a.m. ticket for Novi Sad to Subotica

Rear View Region – The Idea of Progress
How long it took to get from Novi Sad to Subotica was esoteric to me. I did not have to be at work or have anyone to meet in Subotica at a certain time. In might be said that there was nowhere I had to be and nowhere was exactly where I was going. That was the entire reason for taking this train in the first place. Time and deadlines are the products of a western, business oriented mindset, the very antithesis of travel. The slower, more relaxed pace of this train appealed to me. It might be put down to a lack of infrastructure upgrades or poor technology. Then again, it might be slow because no one taking it had any reason to be in a hurry. Everyone onboard when the train first set out looked relaxed, if not to say bored. There was no reason to hurry and even if there had been, the train was not going any faster.

One reason for the train’s slowness was because it stopped every ten kilometers or so at a village. Those stops became a source of fascination for me, as did the in between spaces which were covered with farmland. For me, Vojvodina was a land worth seeing. I had a feeling that the inhabitants would say the opposite. The idea of progress had a different meaning in this region. The Vojvodina had a lot of catching up to do. I wondered if they knew that the world had long since moved on without them. I wondered if they cared. This was a region that had enough of history during the 20th century. It had been consumed by empires, armies, failed nation states, Serbians, Hungarians and Germans. It had managed to survive all these storms. In what condition it survived, I would get to judge for myself.

Give Me Shelter - In a Foreign Field

Give Me Shelter – In a Foreign Field

Only a few minutes after leaving the Novi Sad station, the train slowed to a stop at Kisac. A town of 5,500, it was still a showpiece for an ethnic minority in the Vojvodina as 80% of the inhabitants were ethnic Slovaks. These were the descendants of those who had been settled in the region during the late 18th century under Habsburg policies to repopulate the area long after the Turks had been pushed out. The Vojvodina was chock full of places like Kisac, with ethnic Serbs, Hungarians, Croats and Romanians, among twenty-one other ethnic groups, inhabiting their own ethnic enclaves. The Habsburg Empire may have disappeared over a hundred years ago and the settlement policies that had brought the Slovaks to Kisac had ceased over two hundred years ago, but its lasting effects were still tangible.

Stoicism & Stationmasters – Forgotten Frontier Posts
As the train picked up speed once again, the rails passed through fields of rich black soil. This churned up earth, interspersed with strips of green grass, was a not so soothing site for the eyes. In one field, I spied a single, small storage building, painted in a bright shade of red. A bare tree was growing beside and rising above it. Winter had stripped everything to its essence. A layer of frost had been lightly laid by the early morning hours upon the grass. A fine mist was slowly being burned off the fields as rays of sunlight began to burst through the cloud cover. A trio of villages, Stepanovicevo, Zmajevo and Vrbas soon came and went. They were scarcely distinguishable from one another. A handful of passengers entered the train, taking advantage of a lifeline that connects the villages of nowhere to the cities of somewhere.

Presence & Posture -Stationmaster at Kisac

Presence & Posture -Stationmaster at Kisac

At stop after stop, I watched with astonishment as stationmasters did their best to practice professionalism by meeting the trains and providing the proper signals. They did this no matter if anyone got on or off the train. I found myself wondering what life must be like for these solitary sentinels who pushed paper most of the day. When they were not selling a ticket or two, they waited expectantly for that moment seven or eight times a day for a train to arrive or depart. There was something romantic about these stationmaster’s presence and posture. All stood stiff backed with chests poked out, straightening their crumpled uniforms. These were the aging soldiers at some forgotten frontier post. Filled with pride, they saluted from in front of barely presentable stations with fading facades. Their faces etched in stone, a picture of determined stoicism. For me, stationmasters are a lasting measure of tradition. I will be forever grateful that I viewed them and the Vojvodina on that glorious morning.

Click here for: The Train To Subotica: Dying In Your Life/Dying In Your Sleep (A Balkan Affair #34)


Europe Between North & South – The Novi Sad Train Station: An Invisible Border (A Balkan Affair #32)

One of the common complaints I have often heard from eastern Europeans about traveling by train is their chronic slowness. There is a great deal of truth in this opinion. Most train routes, especially ones traveling between provincial cities and towns, takes longer than a car or bus would. The fact that trains usually travel on the straightest possible path only makes their slowness more excruciating. The more I traveled in Eastern Europe, the greater my dissatisfaction with trains. The roominess and relative comfort of a train would be offset by the amount of time it took to get from one place to another. Not to mention the fact that taking the train always meant that I was always on someone else’s schedule.

Exacerbating this problem, the trains I took usually did not arrive on time. In Hungary, the trains were only a few minutes late. In Bulgaria and Romania, they could be over an hour late. I always felt this tardiness was paradoxical, because it made me feel rushed. After arriving late at my destination, I would find myself rushing around trying to play catch up with my pre-formulated plans. I was constantly trying to make up for lost time. This seemed self-defeating. Leisure travel is supposed to eschew limitations, of which timetables are the chief culprit. The whole point is to better enjoy a trip. Rail journeys offer a reasonable pace, cost effective price and a wonderful opportunity to see the country which unfolds right outside the large windows which were made for slow motion sightseeing.

Riding a slow train is the equivalent of window shopping on the world. On my journey through Montenegro and then Serbia, I took two unforgettable train journeys. One was the famous Bar to Belgrade railway, the other was into the unknown, heading from Novi Sad north to Subotica, a provincial city par excellence that is located not far off the Serbia-Hungary border. The price was right for my ticket, only costing me a grand total of four dollars for what amounted to a two hour pleasure ride through countryside waking up on a winter morning.

Europe Between East & West - Novi Sad Train Station on a winter evening

Europe Between East & West – Novi Sad Train Station on a winter evening

Dividing Lines – Two Worlds In One
I awoke early on Thursday morning, excited about making the journey by train to Subotica. The night before, I had walked into the arrestingly cavernous Novi Sad station and purchased my ticket for the next day. After leaving the station I turned back around to find the glass face of the station aglow with fiery light. Filtered through the glass, it looked like the sun was setting inside the station. As I prepared to snap a photo of the brilliantly illuminated facade, a man in a black hat and coat walked into my lens view. He wandered back and forth, going towards the station’s entrance and then away from it. He began to walk back towards me. When he was about halfway between me and the station I began to snap away.

My best photo from this scene will go down as an all-time favorite. I immediately thought of a title for it, Europe Between East and West. This was because the man stood between white lights illuminating Zeleznicka Stanicka to his right (Train Station) and Зелезницка Станицка to his left. The lettering in both Latin and Cyrillic script was redolent of the East/West divide in northern Serbia. A division between Orthodoxy on one hand and Protestantism on the other. Hints of the orient versus Mitteleuropa. The man in my photo unwittingly stood beneath a symbolic dividing line between east and west or so I thought. Upon further reflection, there was another invisible dividing line present here. One that I was going to cross the next day when my early morning train left the Novi Sad station., a Europe Between North and South.

Europe Between East & West – Looking over the Danube at Novi Sad

The further north I traveled, the more I slipped into the orbit of a western oriented world. To the south was the Balkans, a place of intrigue and mystery. The closer I came to the Hungarian sphere of influence, the more it felt like the familiar. I was leaving behind the sensuality and mysticism of all that was eastern in Europe. North and south, east and west, it does not get more symbolic than the facade of Novi Sad’s train station. Here was a road map lit by Latin and Cyrillic lettering. I knew which way I would go, but the man in my picture still looked lost. Ironically, he was helping me find my way.

A Clean Break – Dirty Kinds of Drama
I always arrive at train stations too early. At least half an hour in advance is my personal standard. In the early morning hours at Novi Sad’s station the world was just beginning to stir. The ticket hall looked lonely and forlorn, the preserve of strangers and a handful of commuters. As I made my way to the platform ten minutes prior to departure, the bowels of the station had a sinister air about them. The smell of concrete and mildew with a hint of disinfectant was pervasive. This was the odor of resignation. It was one of those places that puts people on guard.

I felt as though I had walked onto the set of a horror film. The only thing lacking was a villain or gang of thieves. This was a place filled with a dirty kind of drama. Of course, nothing happened to me, it just felt like something should. After climbing up an unforgiving set of steps to arrive at the correct platform, I was shocked to find a modern train idling on the track. It looked like one that would usually be seen in Austria, rather than Serbia. I had expected to find an ancient locomotive pulling rickety cars. Instead, I found a sleek, modern train that looked like it was ready for takeoff.

All aboard – Novi Sad to Subotica (Credit: Katie Genter)

Stepping inside, I was pleased to find the train just a quarter full. Passengers could pick any seat they wanted. I found one by a large window that would provide me with expansive views of the countryside. As the train slowly began to pull away from the station, I knew it would be slow, probably arrive late and stop at every rural hovel along the route. I already knew that this would be more than a train ride, it would be a journey. One that would take me into the rural heart of northern Serbia, a place few cared to see or visit. For precisely this reason, the rail journey from Novi Sad to Subotica appealed to me.

Click here for: Going Nowhere Slow – Novi Sad to Subotica: Mystery Train (A Balkan Affair #33)