Bosnia’s Beachhead – The Neum Corridor: A Not So Croatian Coastline

The morning I left Mostar the sea might as well have been a thousand kilometers away. The only water within view was the emerald flow of the Neretva River beneath the city’s famous 16th century Stari Most (Old Bridge). In Mostar, the Ottoman Empire seemed closer than any ocean. The landscape around the city was rocky and rugged. As the bus made its way out of the city and headed southward, the prospect of the Adriatic’s ebullient waters was still a long way off. The landscape of Herzegovina (the lesser known half of Bosnia and Herzegovina) was as harsh and unforgiving as the history that had set this land and its people on fire not so long ago. There were still visible signs of the Yugoslav Wars, such as the half-ruined house pockmarked with bullet holes that slumped sadly within sight of the highway. The structure was an unforgiving reminder that Bosnia and Herzegovina were still riddled with the residue of modern conflict. Soon though, Croatia was on the horizon in the form of a border crossing.

Running the Border - Highway to Neum

Running the Border – Highway to Neum (Credit: Anto Quahadi)

Stops for passport control at border crossings are still obligatory in the Balkans. While much of Europe has moved toward a world of porous borders, the Balkans are still a region where entry and exit is closely monitored. Only Slovenia has borders where one can whisk through at a hundred kilometers per hour. Unfortunately, this only applies to their borders with Austria and Italy. Meanwhile, Bosnians and Croats, Montenegrins and Macedonians. Serbs and Kosovars wait for permission in the form of a passport stamp to see them through to the other side. I received multiple reminders of the vagaries of borders and passport controls on the bus from Mostar to Dubrovnik. This was where borders had not yet collapsed. On the contrary, they seemed to close in from what seemed like all sides. It was also where I first came across a geographical and geopolitical anomaly, the coast of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Bosnia By The Sea – Balkanized Borderland
When I think of Bosnia’s geography, rugged mountain landscapes, rocky canyons and crystalline rivers come to mind. One thing that doesn’t, the Adriatic Sea. In the Balkans, the Adriatic is a Croatian or Montenegrin or Albanian sea. There is an even a sliver of coastline abutting the Adriatic in Slovenia, but the idea of a huge blue body of water lapping up on a Bosnian shoreline seems unimaginable. And yet it exists today. I saw it for myself not long after the bus closed in on the Croatian coastline. Soon we were pulling up to another border crossing, something we had just done less than an hour before. I did not understand why we were having to do another passport check. This made little sense unless Croatia had some kind of internal border to deal with a security risk. Soon I discovered that we were leaving Croatia to enter Bosnia or more appropriately, Bosnia by the sea.

Balkanization - The Neum Corridor

Balkanization – The Neum Corridor (Credit: Tomobe03)

Studying a map of Bosnia closely, one notices that the country’s border begins to dip southwestward until it gets close to the coastline. Almost all of the border never quite dips down to the sea. The long, thin strip abutting the coastline is part of Croatia with the exception of a 20 kilometer section where Bosnia juts forth and touches the Adriatic. This area is known as the Neum Corridor. I figured that the corridor must have been the product of a stitch up following the Yugoslav Wars. Terms such as enclaves, exclaves, corridors and autonomous territories are still alive and well in the former Yugoslavia. Why should the Neum Corridor be any different? My assumption that the corridor was a modern concoction turned out to be completely wrong.

The genesis of the Neum Corridor goes all the way back to the late 17th century. The three entities responsible for it, the Republic of Ragusa (Dubrovnik), the Republic of Venice and Ottoman Empire all no longer exist, but their geo-political maneuverings over three hundred years ago still demarcate one small stretch of shoreline. Back then the Ragusans sided with the Ottomans in their war against the Venetians. Much to the Ragusans displeasure, the Ottomans lost and ended up relinquishing a great deal of their territory in the Balkans. This placed the Ragusans under mortal threat from their great rival. To protect themselves, the Ragusans ceded strips of land both north and south of their republic to the Ottomans. The strip to the north is now called the Neum Corridor and was passed down through the centuries from Ottomans to Habsburgs to Yugoslavs. Today it falls within the boundaries of Bosnia and Herzegovina, much to the chagrin of Croatia.

The Bosnian Coast - Town of Neum

The Bosnian Coast – Town of Neum

Border Control – Entry & Exit Strategies
The major issue with the corridor is that it acts as a barrier to commerce and tourist traffic traveling along Croatia’s Dalmatian coast. As I discovered, passing through the Neum corridor is not exactly easy. Travelers first exit Croatia, then enter and exit Bosnia before reentering Croatia all in the space of 20 kilometers. A stretch of highway that in normal circumstances would take no more than 15 minutes to traverse, can take hours to pass through during the peak tourist season. Prior to Croatia’s accession to the European Union in 2013, passing through the border was a much more relaxed affair. On many occasions, border officials would wave vehicles through without checking passports. That has changed now that Croatia aspires to dismantle border controls with fellow EU members in order to join the Schengen Area of passport free travel. The EU demands stricter control of external borders and Croatia has willingly complied.

Fortunately, I passed through Neum in early October at a time when the busy season was over. Traffic was light and the border guards were indifferent. The entire crossing took only a few minutes. It was more a novelty than a nuisance, one that may not last much longer for those who want to avoid the corridor. The difficulties of travel along this strange Bosnian beachhead are due to be alleviated in the future. Croatia has received funding from the EU to build a bridge across the corridor to avoid this small stretch of Bosnia. The Bosnians are none too happy about the Croatians trying bridge the divide. They vehemently oppose its construction. Bosnia believes the bridge would hinder the development of port facilities at Neum. The situation will undoubtedly linger for years. Whatever the future may hold for this strange stretch of land, the Neum Corridor is sure to make its presence felt. History always manages to get in the way when it comes to Bosnia and the Balkans.

A Pistol Beneath His Pillow – Leka of Albania: The Failed Restoration (Part Two)

One would think that life as an exiled heir to a royal throne would be rather relaxing. There is little to do all day except meet with fellow emigres who generally agree with everything you say. Answering correspondence and taking calls are your most taxing pursuits. Surrounded by sycophants while living in semi-posh circumstances, you stay on as the guest of a dictator who guarantees your perpetual safety. You play a waiting game, hoping that circumstances beyond your control finally take a turn for the better. The heady days of dodging revolutions, ordering enemies imprisoned or shot and fleeing from mass movements that threaten your well being are a thing of the past, as is your claim to a throne which has long since been abolished. This is unfortunate but compared to the alternative – life in prison or execution – it’s not bad work if you can get it. That is unless you were Crown Prince Leka, heir to the Albanian throne. Leka aspired to greater things than being a royal has been. Enjoying the good life in Spain as a guest of Generalissmo Francisco Franco was never going to be enough for Leka.

A Royal Family - Leka flanked by his wife Susan and mother Geraldine

A Royal Family – Leka flanked by his wife Susan and mother Geraldine

Armchair Warrior – Taking Target Practice
Crown Prince Leka was a man with the military on his mind, if not in his blood. The “Royal Minister of His Court” said from the time Leka was born, there had always been a pistol tucked beneath his pillow. He was being subconsciously and at other times not so subtly groomed for a militaristic upbringing. He was educated at the British Military Academy at Sandhurst. He then received a commission in the British Army as a Second Lieutenant or perhaps it was his imposing physical presence. At six feet, eight inches he certainly towered over everyone around him. Maybe his martial instincts stemmed from an effort to overcompensate for being heir to a throne not many in the western world took seriously. Whatever the case, Leka’s life was devoted to the martial arts. His main profession was as an armchair warrior and arms dealer, though publicly he claimed to be selling industrial and agricultural equipment to Middle Eastern nations.

Whatever his real line of work, it is indisputable that Leka was able to accumulate his own reserve of armaments. This in turn gave him credibility as president of the Military Council for the Liberation of Ethnic Albania. Leka always denied claims that he was an arms dealer, stating that such rumors were the product of Albanian communist propaganda that tried to undermine him. Later in life, he would sue and win two defamation lawsuits against French magazines that had referred to him as an arms dealer. As for his own collection of weapons, Leka needed these to protect himself from potential assassination. He feared throughout his life that the Albanian secret police were targeting him. There was certainly some truth to this story. Leka always professed a readiness to expel the communist government of Albania. Just how he might do this was open to question.

Keeping Up Appearances - Leka in suitable attire

Keeping Up Appearances – Leka in suitable attire

Armed To The Teeth – King For Less Than A Day
At his villa in Madrid, Leka trained or at least pretended to train liberation forces to free Albania from the communist yoke. This brought him attention from journalists and the Spanish government, which post-Franco did not need an Albanian pretender playing wargames on their soil or stating that he planned to overthrow the Albanian government. When a large arms cache was discovered in his home, the Spanish government forced Leka to leave the country. The next port of call for this pariah were pariah states, first Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe) and then apartheid South Africa. The only question for Leka was whether he would make it to southern Africa. When his flight across Africa stopped to refuel in Gabon, government troops surrounded it. The soldiers were under orders to detain Leka and deliver him to Enver Hoxha’s Albanian government who preferred his head on a stick rather than wearing a crown. True to his martial form, Leka appeared at the aircraft’s door brandishing a bazooka. Soon he was on his way to South Africa, where he and his Australian wife Susan would live until communism collapsed in Albania.

The ridiculous notion that Leka could someday reign as king became a possibility during the 1990’s as post-communist Albania was riven by economic shocks and political chaos. Only a man with pretensions to greatness, a massive ego and a daunting lack of diplomatic ability would have been arrogant enough to believe he could stroll into Albania and lead such an unruly nation into the bright uplands of democratic freedom. Leka was that man. For Albania, he was to become a royal pain in the ass. His first attempt to assume what he felt was his rightful inheritance took place in 1992. While trying to enter his homeland for the first time in over half a century, Leka produced a passport that had been issued to him by his own Royal government in exile. It listed his occupation as “king”. The Albanian authorities failed to see the humor in this quasi-official document, nor did they honor it. Leka was told that he would need a real Albanian passport, not a made up on. He was dutifully turned away. This only stiffened his resolve to return.

A Family Affair - Leka with his Australian wife Susan

A Family Affair – Leka with his Australian wife SusanA Family Affair – Leka with his Australian wife Susan

Optimistic Opportunism – Grasping For Power
All Leka needed was another opportunity. That opportunity arrived sooner than he might have expected. After pyramid schemes collapsed, leading to a financial crisis that destroyed the savings of Albanians, anarchy consumed the country. The government had trouble keeping any semblance of order. Shots were fired, people died, riots ensued. Albania was in complete turmoil. As the crisis worsened, Leka became a potential savior for Albania. A referendum was soon organized to decide whether Albania would restore the monarchy. Leka had high hopes that he would be victorious. His confidence was not shared by the masses. Two-thirds of Albanians voted against a restoration of the monarchy.

Leka was infuriated by the result and refused to accept it. He claimed the government had organized a campaign of voter fraud to defeat the referendum. He took to the streets with his supporters. After shots were fired, Leka’s stay in the country was short lived. Meanwhile, the populace was more concerned with their own personal financial distress than Leka’s failed power grab. He was forced to flee the country once again. In truth, the failed referendum may have saved Leka from an even worse fate. Albania was no place for political novices or pretenders to an obsolete throne.

Click here for: Rolling Up The Red Carpet – Leka of Albania: The Comeback King (Part Three)

The Right & Wrong Sides Of History – Vesna Vulovic: The Soul Of A Survivor (Part Three)

In an interview she gave to the New York Times in 2008, Vesna Vulovic said, “I just want a normal life.” That was understandable for someone who had fallen 33,300 feet into an afterlife of pain and celebrity, resurrection and gratitude. Oddly, the “normal life” comment had nothing to do with the crash of JAT Flight 367 during the winter of 1972. Instead, Vesna was discussing the fraught political environment in Serbia. Ever since the late 1980’s, when Yugoslavia began its descent toward a fratricidal war, Vesna had fought against authoritarian and nationalist tendencies that would end up bringing Serbia to its knees on multiple occasions. Vesna’s efforts in defense of democracy would cost her a great deal, but in the process she went from being a survivor to a fighter.

Staying Grounded - Vesna Vulovic in her later years

Staying Grounded – Vesna Vulovic in her later years

An Emerging Threat – Standing Up For A Democratic Serbia
In 1985, the Guinness Book of World Records had awarded Vesna with a spot in the annals of their famous record book for having survived the highest fall without a parachute. This served to further increase her celebrity status, especially abroad. She had long since enjoyed the same exalted status in her homeland. On flights abroad, she was instantly recognized by fellow Serbian passengers who often asked to sit beside her. She was viewed as both a living, breathing miracle and a lucky charm. She also enjoyed what would seem to be a secure career with JAT. The flagship carrier of Yugoslavia owed her that much for what Vesna had suffered due to the ill-fated flight in 1972. By 1990, Vesna’s job status was eroding. This was because she had brought attention to herself by vocally opposing the shrill nationalism and dictatorial government of Slobodan Milosevic. Vesna believed that Milosevic was leading Serbians into a no-win situation, pushing them away from west at a time when they should be moving closer. She rightfully saw isolation and war on the horizon. The government saw her as an emerging threat that must be dealt with.

Vesna was dismissed from her job with JAT in the early 90’s for opposing the Milosevic regime. Vesna’s fame did not protect her job, but it did protect her from the potential of arrest. Detaining Vesna would have caused too much trouble for the government so she was largely left alone. The Milosevic government also began to question her survival story. This was an undisguised attempt to undermine her fame and call her credibility into question. She may have been on the wrong side of the government, but Vesna would end up on the right side of history as Milosevic’s policies would help lead to Yugoslavia’s collapse, Serbian involvement in disastrous wars led to the loss of a great deal of territory. Being right was of little concern to Vesna. On the other hand, standing up for what was right for Serbia meant a great deal. She had overcome an incredible amount of physical issues to live a decent life, only to suffer as so many of her fellow countrymen did due to the disorder and chaos created by a tyrant.

Record Setting - Vesna Vulovic with Paul McCartney

Record Setting – Vesna Vulovic with Paul McCartney

A Life Upended – Trials Rather Than Triumphs
Just as Vesna’s dream had once been to travel westward, she also hoped that post-communist Serbia would move in that same direction. She believed that only by growing closer to the European Union could Serbians attain the peace and prosperity they deserved. Vesna was deeply troubled by how the world saw Serbians as war mongers and uber nationalists. It was a tragic outcome of being led by men like Milosevic who fanned the flames of ethnic hatred for their own narrow political ends. Ordinary Serbs, of which Vesna counted herself as one, were caught in the middle. The wars prosecuted by the Milosevic regime ruined Serbia’s economy. The general population was left to scrape by on meager financial resources. Despite such hardships the eventual collapse of the Milosevic era gave Vesna an unforgettable moment in the spotlight. This occurred when she, along with politicians and other famous Serbs, addressed a crowd in Belgrade after Milosevic was overthrown in 2000. The long road to recovery could now begin.

Life did not get much easier for Vesna after Serbia transitioned from autocracy to democracy. She lived in a ramshackle apartment on a pension of just 300 Euros per month in Belgrade. She was reduced to dying her own hair and using years old cosmetics when asked to make appearances for the media. She became more reclusive as the year’s passed, admitting that she became depressed and cried at the thought of surviving the crash and outliving both her parents. Fame could never fill the gap of all she had lost. The plane crash had upended her life. Normalcy would always prove elusive. In many ways her life reflected that of the Serbian nation, surviving rather than thriving. The fact that she survived was nothing short of incredible, but it had led to more trials than triumphs.

One Long Struggle – A Life Lesson In Reality
In another interview during the last years of her life, Vesna professed her belief that she had not been lucky at all. Her post-crash life had been a tremendous struggle. If she had been truly lucky than her life would have been much easier. She had turned to the Orthodox religion in order to cope with her circumstances. She preferred to view her survival as destiny. This helped her make sense of everything that ever happened to her.
That destiny came to an end in 2016 when she died in her Belgrade apartment alone. She lived forty-four years beyond the plane crash, much longer than anyone could have reasonably expected. She was living proof that miracles could happen, but what happened to her life in those decades after the crash was not a tale of happily ever after. Her post-crash life was more like a lesson in how to suffer and survive reality. Vesna Vulovic received a second chance on life and in many ways made the most of it. That she ended up struggling to make her way in the world is a reminder that miracles can have less than happy endings.

Life After Death – Vesna Vulovic: Survivor’s Guilt (Part Two)

If there is life after death, then Vesna Vulovic may have experienced it. The only problem is she would never be able to remember what it was like. One moment she was flying 33,300 feet above east-central Europe, the next she was lying totally unconscious in the woods of Czechoslovakia. She never remembered the plane being blown apart, her fall or subsequent rescue. That was probably for the best. When Vesna awoke from a coma two weeks after the crash her body was ravaged. Both of her legs had been broken along with three vertebrae, multiple ribs and a fractured pelvis. Speaking of fractures, her skull had suffered a nearly fatal blow that led to hemorrhaging. She was also temporarily paralyzed from the waist down.

Oddly enough, even after she regained consciousness in a Prague hospital, Vesna was unable to recall those next two weeks for the rest of her life. A month’s worth of traumatic memories was lost to her. Despite all the injuries Vesna was somehow still alive, even if she could not remember what had happened to her. A doctor showed her a newspaper reporting on the plane crash and Vesna’s survival. She then proceeded to faint. Vesna was just as astounded as the rest of the world by her survival. She was a miracle, albeit a badly broken and battered one, but a miracle all the same. She had almost died, for all intents and purposes did die, at least consciously. And now she was coming back to life.

The Fateful Flight - Representation of JAT Flight 367

The Fateful Flight – Representation of JAT Flight 367 (Credit: Anynobody)

Distant Memories – Departures & Arrivals
One might think that the last thing Vesna Vulovic wanted to do after she regained consciousness was to take a flight back home, but that is exactly what she did. Her doctors decided that it was safe to transport her back to Belgrade. Sedation was suggested as a treatment to help her overcome the psychological trauma of flying again. Vesna insisted that she would be just fine. It was not courage, but loss of memory that made flying again of little concern to her. How could she be traumatized by an incident that she could not remember. Her final memory on the day of the crash was boarding the plane. There was also that hazy memory of the irritated passenger who she and her fellow crewmembers had noticed disembarking from the plane after its flight from Stockholm landed in Copenhagen. Could that man have had something to do with the crash? He was as distant to her as the memory of that fateful day.

There were other clues that something had been amiss with JAT Flight 367. A Croatian nationalist group had phoned a Stockholm newspaper to take credit for causing the crash. That same day, six people on a train traveling from Vienna to Zagreb were killed when a bomb that had been placed onboard. The Czechoslovakian Aviation Authority’s investigators would later attribute the crash to a briefcase bomb. Unlike most plane crashes, the focus was less on what had caused it or the passenger who had died. Instead, all anyone could remember was one extremely lucky survivor, Vesna Vulovic. Her survival was remarkable because much of it had to do with a lifelong health issue. Vesna suffered from low blood pressure.

When Vesna had first pursued a job with JAT as a flight stewardess, low blood pressure threatened to ground her career. In order not to fail a medical examination for the position, she drank profuse amounts of coffee before her blood pressure was checked. With caffeine coursing through her veins, she passed the test and soon took to the skies. Ironically, low blood pressure would also save her life. When the plane broke apart and went into free fall, Vesna’s health condition caused her to lose consciousness. When the cabin suddenly depressurized, her blood pressure problems meant her heart would not burst on impact. Vesna’s health issue had helped save her life.

Fallout - JAT Flight 367 after the crash

Fallout – JAT Flight 367 after the crash

Internal Damages – A Broken Home
Vesna might have survived the crash, but she was in dire physical condition. Repairing her battered and broken body required many surgeries, along with months of grueling rehab. Astonishingly, she was walking again after just ten months. Such an incredible turn in her personal fortunes also came at great cost to her family’s financial and mental health. Her parents were forced to sell both of their automobiles to help pay for the surgeries. That may not sound like much, but in Yugoslavia cars were highly prized possessions. As their finances deteriorated so did their health. The worry and stress caused by the accident took a heavy toll on both her mother and father. Each of them would die young. In an interview she gave many years later, Vesna said she believed the plane crash had ruined her parent’s life. The same held true for many aspects of her own life.

JAT allowed Vesna to go back to work for them, but not as a flight stewardess. Through no fault of her own she was literally an accidental celebrity. The airline believed that her presence as a stewardess would distract from the flights. It could lead to even more attention focused on the crash of Flight 367 which had been most likely caused by Croatian nationalists. This was something the Yugoslav government did not want the public to be reminded about. JAT decided to give Vesna a desk job instead. The life Vesna had longed for, one of flying to and from the great cities of Europe was no longer a viable option. She may not have died on the flight, but her dream of flying abroad certainly did.

An Incomplete Recovery - Vesna Vulovic in the hospital

An Incomplete Recovery – Vesna Vulovic in the hospital

Life’s Disappointments – A Sense Of Alienation
Vesna’s private life was not what she had planned for herself either. She got married and was later pregnant. Sadly, both ended in failure. Physically she still showed signs of her injuries, walking the rest of her life with a noticeable limp. Psychologically, she suffered from survivor’s guilt. And it was easy to see why. Everyone else on Flight 367 had perished. There was no one left who could really understand what she had experienced or the way she felt. The parents who had sacrificed almost everything to shepherd her back to health were gone as well. Vesna’s life may have been a one in a billion story of survival, the problem was that this also created a sense of alienation and loneliness. Her story was uplifting, a triumph of destiny over despair, hope over adversity. Everything that came after her remarkable survival was something of a disappointment. Life beyond death was an impossible concept to grasp. Perhaps Vesna’s most remarkable life achievement was that she never gave up. She always found something worth fighting for. This would include the cause of democracy in the 1990’s after Yugoslavia collapsed.

Click here for: The Right & Wrong Sides Of History – Vesna Vulovic: The Soul Of A Survivor (Part Three)

The Flight Attendant Who Fell To Earth – Vesna Vulovic: In The Direction Of Dreams & Nightmares

Pilgrimages are often made by the faithful to certain holy sites in central and eastern Europe. Despite communist imposed atheism on most of the countries in the region for almost fifty years, sacred sites, often centuries old, outlasted the tyranny of that godless system. Since the iron curtain fell, these places have hosted great masses of Christians who make a special trip to see them each year. Several of these can be found in the Czech Republic, home to multiple venerated sites. These include the Infant Jesus of Prague, a wooden statue of the baby Jesus gripping a globus cruciger (cross-bearing orb) in his right hand. This 16th century statue is often clothed in imperial regalia and topped with a crown. Pilgrims come and pray to the statue in the fervent belief that it will provide favors to them. Another site of pilgrimage is the Holy Mountain, just fifty kilometers south of Prague. This hilltop, overlooking the town of Pribram, is home to a basilica that houses the famed Our Lady of Sveta Hora. This 14th century Gothic statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary with the Infant Jesus, was venerated to the point that it was given a coronation by the Jesuits in 1732. Pilgrims visit the statue today in the hope that their prayers to it will be answered.

These sites of pilgrimage are predicated on history, legend, tradition and the abiding belief that they have miraculous powers which can alter an individual’s circumstances in this world. Every year tens of thousands make the trek in search of transcendence. Whether miracles result from these visits is largely left to the mind of the believer. They say you have got to have faith, but what about reality. Reality is what most miracle searchers are looking to transcend, but reality has produced its own share of miracles. One of the most incredible happens to have occurred in the Czech Republic and rivals anything in the annals of Catholicism. Located close to the tiny village of Srbska Kamenice is a potential pilgrimage site almost entirely unknown. Very few people, other than niche tourists or locals visit it.  That is a shame. For miracles really do happen and not just to the religious, but also to people like you and me. The skeptics and cynics who walk among us just might have their minds changed on miracles if they stop at a parking lot along road 25854 in northern Bohemia. This is where a small monument marks the crash of JAT Airways Flight 367. It is as good a place any to contemplate the miraculous life and fate of Vesna Vulovic.

Memorial to A Tragedy & A Miracle - The Monument in Srbská Kamenice to JAT Flight 367

Memorial to A Tragedy & A Miracle – The Monument in Srbská Kamenice to JAT Flight 367 (Credit: palickap)

Rising & Falling Fortunes – Loss Of Altitude
Vesna Vulovic was born into a post-World War II Yugoslavia that was a good place to grow up for those forced to live behind the Iron Curtain. Tito-era Yugoslavia did not place the kind of tight restrictions on western culture and travel that other Eastern European nations were mandated to uphold while under the Soviet sphere of influence. The relatively relaxed Yugoslav administration allowed western pop culture to permeate the Balkans. A teenage Vesna could thus fall in love with the Beatles. That musical passion led her to take a trip to Great Britain following her first year of university study. Soon she was traveling onward to Sweden before heading back to her hometown of Belgrade. Somewhere along the way, Vesna fell in love with traveling. After she saw one of her friends wearing a stylish JAT (Yugoslavia’s National Airline) uniform, she decided to become a flight stewardess. She hoped this would offer her many more opportunities to journey abroad. Soon she was enjoying a life aloft, jetting across Europe. This surely made her one of the luckier young ladies in the communist world.

Vesna was only in her first year of working for JAT when she flew to Copenhagen in the winter of 1972. She was excited to visit the Danish capital for the first time. Such opportunities were the reason she had been so eager to pursue this new career. Though only twenty-two years old, Vesna’s career was quite literally taking flight. After arriving in Copenhagen she spent an afternoon shopping with some of her colleagues. After staying overnight, they were ready to fly out the next day. The plane they would be boarding arrived late from where it had originated from in Stockholm, Sweden. Vesna and the crew were slated to work the final two legs as it went first from Zagreb and then on to Belgrade. Vesna and several of her colleagues noticed an irritated passenger leaving the plane after it finally arrived from Stockholm. Perhaps this was due to its delayed arrival. In retrospect it may have been due to something else. This man was one of the last things Vesna would recall about the flight.

At precisely 3:15 p.m. on January 25, 1972, JAT Flight 367 departed from Copenhagen for Zagreb. Forty-five minutes into the flight, the narrow body DC-9 entered the airspace of Czechoslovakia. It was cruising at an altitude of 33,300 feet over the rolling hills and forested woodlands of northern Bohemia when suddenly the aircraft was torn apart by an explosion. All except one of the 28 passengers onboard were suddenly ejected from the aircraft where they fell from a height greater than that of Mount Everest to their deaths. Meanwhile, Vesna was wedged into the fuselage by a food cart, at least that was what later investigators surmised because she had no memory of the crash. When the fuselage finally fell to the earth its free fall was broken by trees and snowpack.

Serbian Stewardess - Vesna Vulovic

Serbian Stewardess – Vesna Vulovic

Crash Landing– A Precarious Position
Vesna Vulovic was somehow still alive after hitting the ground, though her chance of survival was precarious. A local from the village of Srbska Kamenice, Bruno Honke, heard her screaming in pain and found her covered in blood. In a stroke of incredibly good fortune, Honke was well versed in first aid from his experiences as a medic during World War II. If it had not been for his assistance, Vesna would have almost certainly died on the spot. Instead, she was rescued and transported to a hospital. The fact that she was still alive was nothing short of miraculous. The question now was whether she would survive.

Click here for: Life After Death – Vesna Vulovic: Survivor’s Guilt (Part Two)

Survival Skills – Tito’s Luck: The 1979 Montenegro Earthquake

To survive as a dictator takes an extremely clever individual who is willing to do whatever is necessary to keep power. This often means resorting to measured brutality. A dictator must know not only when to act against enemies, but also calibrate how much force should be used. It is one thing to get rid of would be usurpers and dangerous political enemies, it is quite another to engage in continuous purges. The latter can lead to a counter revolt by those who think they might be next on a growing proscription list. The most successful dictators in history know when to act and how far to go (Note: For the record, I am not condoning dictatorship or authoritarian rule, just stating simple truths).

One of the best at knowing when to purge enemies in order to keep power was Yugoslavia’s longtime leader and erstwhile dictator Josip Broz Tito. His decades long grip on power in a region that imploded after his death speaks volumes about his skill in power politics. Like all dictators, Tito was obsessed with control and for the sake of self-preservation he had to be. Lose control, lose power, lose your dictatorship, lose your life. Tito never said those words in that was, but he didn’t have to. He understood this logic intuitively. Tito was going to do everything possible to never lose his grip on power and he never did, at least not when it came to ruling Yugoslavia.

The survivalist - Josip Broz Tito

The survivalist – Josip Broz Tito

A Matter of Control – Assassination Inspiration
Despite his longevity, uneasy was the head that wore the crown of leadership in post-World War II Yugoslavia. Tito was constantly threatened with assassination, much more by external foes rather than internal ones. After he broke Yugoslavia away from Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union, Tito was a marked man. By some accounts, Tito managed to withstand no less than twenty-two KGB originated assassination attempts. Some of these seemed like fodder for James Bond novels, the most notorious of which involved a box that would be opened and spray Tito with a poison gas. None of the attempts came close to being successful, nonetheless they must have made Tito contemplate his mortality more than a few times. It spurred him to even greater control of his own personal security and surroundings. Political preservation and self-preservation were inextricably intertwined, making them literally a matter of life and death. Tito instinctively knew this, but even the most powerful dictators, and was certainly one of them, still must deal with events beyond their control.

The most unpredictable of these do not always come from human adversaries, instead they sometimes arise by force of nature. Tito learned this lesson in the 1979 Montenegro earthquake which nearly took his life and rule from him. How does a dictator protect himself from an earthquake? The answer is one of two things, either they do not bother worrying about such infrequent cataclysms or they manage to get lucky. And when it came to keeping power in the Balkans it is sometimes better to be lucky than good. There is no better example of Tito’s luck than the exceedingly nasty 1979 Montenegro earthquake. It was certainly bad luck to have such a catastrophe strike the Yugoslav state in the first place, but not surprising since the area has been riven throughout history by repeated temblors. The quake hit during the spring of 1979 when on the morning of April 15 the coast of Montenegro and the near inland area was jolted by a 6.9 magnitude earthquake.

Damaged goods - Hotel in Budva following the 1979 Montenegro

Damaged goods – Hotel in Budva following the 1979 Montenegro (Credit: R McGuire/U.S. Geological Survey)

No Rest For The Weary – Mortal Dangers
By several standards of measurement, the 1979 Montenegro Earthquake was more powerful than the terribly destructive one that had leveled much of Skopje in Macedonia a decade and a half earlier. Not as much is heard about the Montenegrin quake because it did not strike a densely populated area or major city. In this case, it was not just the rumbling ground, but also the roiling sea which wreaked havoc along the Montenegrin coast as a six-meter high tsunami crashed into parts of the shoreline.
A great deal of the 1979 quake’s destruction was wrought upon the historic town of Budva which hugged the Adriatic Sea. Its Old Town sustained major damage to cultural properties, while local residences crumbled. The same thing occurred in many of the communities around the beautiful bay of Kotor.

On April 15, Tito was staying at Igalo, on the northside of the bay at one of his personal residences. He was spending time resting and relaxing in this vibrant coastal resort area. Tito was in the final phase of his life, an 86-year old all-powerful leader of a nation that only he could control. As unwieldy as Yugoslavia was to lead, it was nothing compared to dealing with an earthquake. One gigantic tremor and suddenly the omnipotent Tito felt his own mortality. When the quake hit Igalo, it was still rather early in the morning and Tito was reportedly resting. He, like hundreds of thousands in Montenegro, felt the full terrifying force of the ground shifting beneath their feet. Unlike other Yugoslavs, hundreds of kilometers away in Sarajevo, Skopje and Zagreb who felt tremors, Tito was much closer to the epicenter. He received nature’s greatest wake up call, a much more powerful and personal experience than he had with most natural forces in his life. He was lucky to escape without injury. In the past, Tito as Yugoslav leader had shown up to review earthquake damages, this time he was part of one.

Long live Tito - Graffiti in former Yugoslavia

Long live Tito – Graffiti in former Yugoslavia (Credit: anjci)

An Act Of Nature – Out Of Control Forces
Tito only lived one more year after his earthquake experience. As he faded in his final years, much of the Montenegrin coast that had been damaged by the 1979 Earthquake underwent a slow, yet substantial rebuilding process. The lifeblood of Montenegro has been and always will be its coastline, where trade and tourism thrive. The 1979 Earthquake turned out to be a major aberration in the area’s development, but one that would be overcome. As for Tito, the earthquake was a reminder of his mortality and the fact that some forces would always be beyond his dictatorial control. The earthquake did not take his life, but the end was near. No one survives forever, especially in the Balkans, not even Josip Broz Tito.

Clock Stopping – The 1963 Skopje Earthquake: Twenty Seconds Changes Everything 

The Balkans is a popular byword for fragmentation. The region became synonymous with ethnic upheavals that led to warfare and endemic divisiveness during the 20th century. The word Balkans was transformed in the 1990’s by the dissolution of Yugoslavia. This led to the term Balkanization, which stood for ethnic and political divisions into smaller and smaller units. Both Balkans and Balkanizing were almost always used in the context of geographic regions, empires and nations-states. Both terms are still defined by the region’s rancorous politics that continue right up to the present. Yet some areas of the Balkans have another history of breaking up, not from within, but below. Just like politics, earthquakes have had an unsettling effect on the region, most prominently in Romania and Bulgaria. They have also struck in other areas of the Balkans, including what was then the nation of Yugoslavia during the post- World War II era. One of the many earthquakes to strike Yugoslavia gained such infamous notoriety that it is still commemorated to this very day in a uniquely singular manner.

Monumental movement - Alexander the Great statue in Skopje

Monumental movement – Alexander the Great statue in Skopje (Credit: Diego Delso)

City Of Importance – Monumental Movements
The Macedonian capital of Skopje has gained a fair bit of fame for a major redevelopment project that took place in the city center from 2010 to 2014. The project was marked by huge doses of monumentalism such as a Triumphal Arch that caused one local wag to ask exactly what triumph was being commemorated. The Macedonian parliament building was crowned with glass domes, integrating symbols of modernity and deep history. Statues of historical personages that reach far back into “Macedonian” history tower over onlookers. This statuary references leaders from such disparate ages as the Serbian Empire, Macedonian-Bulgarian Empire, Byzantium and Classical Greece among others. This reflects an outsized yearning for Skopje to be something other than what it was, a provincial city that through historical forces beyond its control became a city of either great, minor or no importance depending on the time period.

Such monumentalism is also a convenient political device that allows the nation’s leaders to thumb their nose at Greece. The Greek state is a perennial thorn in the side of Macedonians due to its refusal to recognize Macedonia as anything other than an interloper trying to co-opt the Hellenistic legacy. Greece insists that Macedonia stop referring to itself by that name. According to Greece, the name Macedonia is an irredentist claim to the Greek territory of northern Macedonia. While most non-partisan observers consider this ridiculous, it has been a useful ruse for the Greeks to keep Macedonia on the outside looking in when it comes to such exclusive organizations as the European Union.

For their part, Macedonia’s leaders have used the Skopje redevelopment project to irritate the Greeks. Foremost among these efforts is a 26-meter high statue of Alexander the Great that might be one of the few things in history equal to the conqueror’s own ambitions. Such monumentalism is an attempt by Macedonia’s political elite to remake the city, and by extension the nation, into something greater than its history might suggest. It also distracts from one of the most revealing sites that represent the modern history of Macedonia. This site is none other than the old city train station, turned to ruin a half century ago and left in situ as a stark reminder of just how quickly everything can change in Skopje.

A mountain of rubble - Skopje post-earthquake in 1963

A mountain of rubble – Skopje post-earthquake in 1963 (Credit: State Archives of the Republic of Macedonia)

Bombing From Below – The End Of Progress
In 1689 the Austrian Army occupied Skopje, officially known as Uskub when the Ottoman Turks ruled over it. The Austrians had a terrible experience during their short stay in the city, suffering along with the locals from an outbreak of the plague which was raging in the city. The decision was soon made to retreat from Uskub. Before retreating, the Austrian General Enea Silvio Piccolomini decided the city should be burnt to the ground. From the moment that martial destruction ended until just before daylight on July 26, 1963, Skopje grew by fits and starts until it was home to a population of 170,000. That number was the most people to ever live in this city which had straddled both sides of the Vardar River since pre-Roman times. The modern progress of Skopje came to a catastrophic halt in just twenty seconds.  At 5:17 a.m. a 6.1 magnitude earthquake erupted from beneath the city center. Specifically, the epicenter was located beneath the city’s central square. Three buildings on that square immediately collapsed, including the grand bank building. Anywhere from 40% to 80% of the city’s structures were destroyed. Over a thousand people were killed, more than three thousand injured and a majority of Skopje’s citizenry were immediately rendered homeless.

The city was transformed into one vast ruin. The New York Times foreign correspondent David Binder, who arrived in a devastated Skopje just after noon that same day, likened what he saw from the air to the aftermath of “a heavy bombing raid”.  While flying into the city he noticed the “haze of brick and mortar dust which hung over the city.” As much as the earthquake tore Skopje apart, it also served to bring Cold War enemies from the communist and capitalist worlds closer together than they had been in decades. Since Yugoslavia was part of the non-aligned movement of nations that were officially neutral in the Cold War, all sides of the international community were welcome to provide much needed aid to the city. That is precisely what happened as Americans, Brits, Soviets and other nation states ignored political differences to launch a major humanitarian initiative. They provided food, water and shelter among other necessities of life that helped save tens of thousands of lives. From horror to humanitarianism Skopje rose from the rubble.

5:17 in Skopje - One thing that has not changed (Credit: Furmum)

5:17 in Skopje – One thing that has not changed (Credit: Furmum)

Tragic Timing – From Ruin To Relic
Skopje would have to be rebuilt in order to make it livable once again. This process was long, arduous and has never been entirely completed. The vast redevelopment project has overhauled much of the city center, but the most poignant relic of the 1963 earthquake still stands a few hundred meters from the main city square where the earthquake first struck. What was then the city’s main train station partially collapsed. The part still standing included an exterior wall with a clock. The clock stopped that morning at exactly 5:17 a.m. It remains there today. The clock hands have never moved since that moment, forever telling the time when tragedy struck Skopje and changed the city forever.

An Approximation Of The Past – Baedeker In Sarajevo: The Unknown Anniversary

A trip I did not take has haunted me for several years. Despite my most fervent wishes I could not make it to Sarajevo for the centennial commemoration of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie’s assassination by the Bosnian Serb nationalist, Gavrilo Princip. The assassination was one of the most consequential in human history. It led directly to the Great War, which killed or maimed tens of millions leading to a reordering of the geopolitical landscape that reverberates right up to the present. On June 28, 2014 a ceremony was held in Sarajevo at the spot where Princip carried out his deadly historical deed.  Due to the nature of my work, I was unable to travel during the summer of 2014. All I could do was read about the ceremony and dream about what might have been.

My disappointment was ameliorated by the memory of a visit I had made to Sarajevo in March 2011. On that trip, I visited the street corner where the assassination occurred. Little did I know that I could have done another centennial commemoration on this trip, one that had nothing to do with the assassination. That is because in 1911, three years before Princip fired those fateful shots, Baedeker published what was to be the last edition of their Austria-Hungary Handbook For Travellers. The firm had no way of knowing this at the time. Just as they had no way of knowing that Austria-Hungary would disintegrate a mere seven years later at the end of World War I. The 1911 Baedeker’s coverage of Sarajevo makes fascinating reading when compared to how one modern guidebook chose to interpret the city.

The Final Journey - Sarajevo on the inside

The Final Journey – Sarajevo on the inside

A Multi-Dimensional Portrait – The Way To See Sarajevo
The difference in descriptions of Sarajevo from the guidebook I used while visiting in 2011 versus that of Baedeker’s in 1911 are easily discernible. The Lonely Planet guide to the Western Balkans begins its description of the city with this chilling sentence: “In the 1990’s Sarajevo was on the edge of annihilation.” Contrast that reminder of the apocalyptic Yugoslav Wars with the detail laden description of the city by Baedeker: “Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, seat of the provincial government, headquarters of the 15th Army Corps, and residence of a Roman Catholic Archbishop, of a Servian (sic) Orthodox Metropolitan, and of a Mohammaden Reis-ul-Ulema, with 51,870 inhab. (18,460 Mohammedans and 6400 Jews) and a garrison of 5000 men, lies in a narrow valley of the Miljacka, at the foot and on the slopes of partly wooded hills rising to a height of 5250 ft.” Reading the former, one cannot help but sense that the city has just barely managed to survive a near death experience. The feeling that fate fell heavy handed on Sarajevo, no matter what else is said after that initial sentence – much of which is quite positive – cannot be shaken by the reader.

In contrast. Baedeker opens its introduction to Sarajevo with a withering amount of facts. While they might be construed as nothing more than hard data, these details leave much open to the readers interpretation. From this intro, the reader comes to understand that Sarajevo is a religiously diverse city. The words Catholic, Orthodox, Mohammaden and Jews are all found in a single sentence. At the same time, the reader also learns of a martial aspect – “15th Army Corps” “garrison of 5,000 men”- to be found in Sarajevo. The topographical description of the city’s situation “lies in a narrow valley” and “at the foot and on the slopes of partly wooded hills” is picturesque. The overall effect of Baedeker’s style is to create a multi-dimensional portrait. Modern guidebooks have the difficult task of trying to rescue Sarajevo from the shadows of its 20th century history. Baedeker had no idea of the future. Its job was to describe the present and past. And that is just what it did, making Sarajevo shine like a ray of sun within its pages.

The Old World - Baedeker in 1911 on Sarajevo

The Old World – Baedeker in 1911 on Sarajevo

Bazaar Transformations – The Near Abroad
To an astonishing degree, most of the sites in Sarajevo listed by Baedeker still existed when I visited. This, despite the destruction wrought by two World Wars and that internecine conflict of the 1990’s that was just as deadly. I was able to visit the Serbian Orthodox Church, Roman Catholic Cathedral and Husref Beg Mosque. At the latter, just as Baedeker advised, I was only allowed to enter the mosque “using the overshoes which the visitor must put on.” Business and commerce were largely segregated in much the same fashion in 2011 as Baedeker described a century earlier, with one sad caveat. The guidebook stated that in this “modern part of the town trade and business are mostly in the hands of Jews and Christians”. The Jews were decimated by the Holocaust, but the reconstructed, modern part of the city is a westernized, prototypically small European city center, largely run by the non-Muslim portion of the population.

Meanwhile the bazaar is still a vital part of the Old Turkish part of town where Bosniaks reign supreme. Conversely, many of the stalls are no longer run by Muslim merchantmen, but by attractive women. In 1911, Baedeker pointed out that many of the items on sale in the bazaar were not homemade, but reputedly came from Austria. A century later, I could not help but wonder how many of the “local” items such as rugs and copperware had been shipped in from Guangzhou. The influence of outsiders was just as pronounced in 2011 as 1911. Everything was supposed to have changed in Sarajevo during the 20th century, but I found the changes to be ones of nuance rather than degree.

The Edge of Innocence- Sarajevo before the Great War

The Edge of Innocence- Sarajevo before the Great War

An Unexpected Delight – Recreating A Lost Reality
Of course, Baedeker had no way of knowing that Sarajevo would prove to be the pivot point on which the world would turn away from peace and towards world war. They had no way of knowing that in their two excellent maps of Sarajevo could be found the place where fate and enmity would collude just a few years later, starting a process that would end up bringing an entire world to the point of collapse. It is both endearing and ominous to read Baedeker on Sarajevo a century after the fact. The no frills explanations of an astonishing city, one that Lonely Planet would later call an “unexpected delight”. An unexpected delight when what has come to be expected is war, upheaval and seemingly endless reconstruction. That was the Sarajevo I expected to see in 2011, thankfully what I discovered had much more in common with 1911. Reading Baedeker over a hundred years after its publication brought that lost reality back to me

Football Is War By Other Means – Fighting To The Finish: Dinamo Zagreb vs. the Red Star of Yugoslavia

The great Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz famously described “war is the continuation of politics by other means”. Clausewitz lived most of his during the first half of the 19th century, long before Europe was consumed by football madness. If Clausewitz had lived long enough to see the passions aroused by football he might have altered his famous saying to “football is the continuation of war by other means”. For the spirit of war has been pervasive on football pitches across Europe as fans of teams both domestic and national paint their rivals as enemies. They cry for blood and cheer for victory. In the interest of self-preservation, I have avoided the emotionally charged environment of football stadiums on visits to Eastern Europe.

On two separate occasions I have been warned off attending matches by locals. In Dresden, an English speaking local told me to avoid any matches involving the city’s clubs unless I was ready to engage in fisticuffs, racial taunts or worse. While in Berlin on that same trip I noticed police lined up at the entrance to U Bahn stations near the Olympiastadion. The reason for such a security presence was that a Hertha Berlin Sporting Club match was starting soon. Even though the city’s most popular football club sported a middling record at the time, there was still the threat of riotous behavior. From this activity I surmised that football matches were as much an invitation for animal instincts to run wild, as they were about cheering on your team.

Fans fighting at the 1990 Dinamo Zagreb-Red Star Belgrade football match

More Than A Game – Fans fighting at the 1990 Dinamo Zagreb-Red Star Belgrade football match

A Reputation For Violence – Proxy War
A few years later in Sarajevo, I inquired at my hotel about the possibility of seeing the stadium where the rock band, U2, had played a famous show in 1997. The owner of the hotel said the only way to get inside the stadium was to attend a football match. He then warned me that this was not a good idea for a tourist. He said that fan conduct often descended into violence. From what he said, it did not sound like a good idea for a local, let alone tourists, to attend a match unless they were looking for a fight. I erred on the side of caution, avoiding the stadium on match day. Sarajevo had seen enough war and bloodshed during the 1990’s, I did not care to see that experience replicated to a lesser extent at a football match.

Football and the Balkans have violent reputations based on warfare, both on the field and in the fields. Thus, it is not quite so surprising that prior to the Yugoslav Wars the football pitch was a proxy for battles between the disparate ethnic groups of a rapidly disintegrating Yugoslavia. The most notorious case occurred in Belgrade at a match between two domestic league titans on May 13, 1990. Following the death of Yugoslav dictator Josip Broz Tito, infighting among the various ethnic groups began to occur with alarming frequency. Domestic league football teams began to represent factions. In the case of Croatia, the Dinamo Zagreb team was known for their hardcore Ultra fans, the Bad Blue Boys (BBB). The BBB was ready for war in the stadium or countryside, whenever the situation called for it. They would prove highly adept at both. The BBB represented the height of Croatian nationalism during that time, cultivated by football loving strongman and soon to be president, Franjo Tudjman. Tudjman was a former general in the Yugoslav Army who had been intimately involved in the nation’s football scene.

Taking A Seat - Fans fighting in the stands at the 1990 Dinamo Zagreb-Red Star Belgrade match

Taking A Seat – Fans fighting in the stands at the 1990 Dinamo Zagreb-Red Star Belgrade match

Cauldron of Chaos – Seething With Discontent
The Bad Blue Boys were Tudjman’s vanguard force in what was soon to become a battle for independence. Their blood enemies were Red Star Belgrade, which was viewed as representing a Serb dominated Yugoslavia. Ironically, at that time Red Star included players who were Croats, Macedonians, Montenegrins and Bosnian Muslims. This hardly mattered to hardcore nationalists on each side. If they played for Red Star, then they were enemies of Dinamo Zagreb. While Red Star zealots felt the same about Dinamo Zagreb. The fuse of this volatile tinderbox of nationalism was lit by a match in the spring of 1990 between the two sides. Existing tensions were stoked to a fever pitch after Croatian elections placed a government in office that preferred independence. The scene was set for explosive violence. And that was just what happened in Zagreb’s Maksimir Stadium.

Dinamo fans began hurling stones at Red Star supporters. The fences separating the two sides were no match for an acid solution that Red Star fans used to cut through them. Barriers were then torn away. Soon the two sides were engaged in a wild melee that engulfed all areas of the stadium. The players became involved as well, with one Croatian player managing to kick a Yugoslav police officer who was trying to detain a Dinamo fan. The only thing that saved the Red Star players from possibly fatal violence was an airlift by helicopter out of the stadium, spiriting them away from this chaotic cauldron. Hundreds were injured in the fighting, which included shooting, stabbing and stoning. It would not be long before the violence morphed from football games to outright war. In the waning days of Yugoslavia, football allegiance was aligned with nationalistic passions and ethnic hatred. The BBB soon took to the front lines in eastern Croatia, many of them were killed in battle. Football and warfare, warfare and football, it was hard to tell the difference as one beget the other.

A Degree of Normalcy – Keeping Your Distance
It took an entire decade of warfare before the nations that had been part of Yugoslavia came to anything approaching peace. It took at least that long for some degree of normalcy to return to the area. Football in the 21st century is much tamer in the region than before, but then again how could it not be. The threat of violence still exists at matches in the Balkans and eastern Europe just as it does across the continent. Football matches are a place where the marginalized, dissolute and frustrated can allow their worst impulses free reign. The stadiums have become a venue for overt racism that would not be tolerated in other public forums. Many people choose to be safe rather than sorry and stay away from the matches. I would still like to attend some football matches in eastern Europe for the experience. Perhaps one day I will. For now, I prefer to keep a safe distance.

From The Orient Express With Love – Secret Agent Man: Following In James Bond’s Footsteps

My initial interest in the Orient Express in Eastern Europe did not come from Agatha Christie’s famous mystery, Murder on the Orient Express or Graham Greene’s thrilling novel Stamboul Train. These outstanding literary thrillers were not to my liking as a teenager. Instead my fascination with the train and its route came to me through the movies. As a teenager I fell in love with the early James Bond films. They offered a powerful sense of place to viewers. One of my favorites quickly became From Russia With Love. The locations showcased or spoken of in the film brought into my consciousness for the first time the European side of Istanbul, the heart of Yugoslavia as well as an Italian border city by the name of Trieste. The coup de grace came with Venice, where the final scenes were filmed. These cities and the train trip to or through them was enough to send my imagination soaring. I never forgot them or the film that first brought them to my attention.

Later in life, I would have the opportunity to visit each city shown in the film, sometimes going to the exact same locations where the movie was made. This was either entirely accidental or the fulfillment of a subconscious yearning, all done in the service of feeding an interest in exoticism. I did not know do this in a single trip, but across several. Piecing together a From Russia With Love city setlist. I only realized it was complete a couple of years after my last visit. In a sense I was a spy, keeping a private watch on these highly personal places. I might never travel the old Orient Express in its entirety or become a secret agent, but the places were still there. It was an astonishing feeling, to look back after multiple trips realizing what I had inadvertently accomplished. I had visited these venerable and famous stations where the Orient Express was never to return.

Simplon Orient Express poster

Simplon Orient Express poster

Murder, Mystery & Mystique – Danger On A Train
From Russia With Love can be viewed as an homage to the Orient Express. This was not what the filmmakers intended, but the train ended up just as much a character in the film as any of those played by the actors. The Express and several stations where it stops play a large role in the film’s latter half. Bond travels on the train with a beautiful Russian cipher clerk, Tatiana Romanova, as they attempt to make their way west to safety with a Lektor cryptographic device. All the while they are pursued by a death dealing operative of the international criminal organization, SPECTRE. The train scenes are replete with romance, drama and adventure. The compartment and restaurant cars are lavish while the setting is full of mystery and intrigue, nowhere more so than the train stations at Istanbul, Belgrade and Zagreb.

At the train station in Istanbul, Bond and Romanova make their getaway while pursued by a Russian agent. In Belgrade’s station, Bond tells the son of a Turkish colleague that his father died under conflicting circumstances. Then at the Zagreb station, Bond is due to meet a fellow 00 operative on the platform. Instead he is met by the Spectre agent sent to murder him. From Russia With Love’s compelling storyline is dramatically enhanced by the Orient Express and the stations encountered along the route. I would only later learn that the route was not that of the original Orient Express, but an offshoot. The first run of the Orient Express occurred in the autumn of 1883. Necessity, popularity and geopolitics eventually led to the creation of other routes in the years between the World Wars. The most popular of these was the Simplon Orient Express which began in 1919.

Route of the Orient Express Trains from 1921 to 1939

Route of the Orient Express Trains from 1921 to 1939 (Credit: Wikipedia)

The Path To Progress – Into The Balkans & Beyond
It was the Simplon Orient Express route which Bond and Romanova travel during From Russia With Love, this time going from east to west. The Simplon was also the route famously followed in Christie’s murder mystery. The name Simplon was taken from a rail tunnel that was opened in 1906 below the Simplon Pass on the Swiss-Italian border. This tunnel made a new railway route to Europe’s eastern frontiers feasible.  In 1912, the Simplon route which already ran from Paris to Lausanne, through Milan and then to Venice, was extended to Trieste, Austria-Hungary. This service might have been called the less than Orient Express.

Fighting in World War I, along the Italian Front led to the closure of rail service to Trieste, as battle lines encroached on the route. The Simplon would be reopened and greatly expanded in the years after the war ended. The expansion was a result of the postwar peace process. The western powers needed a rail route to Eastern Europe that avoided Germany and what had formerly been the lands of Austria-Hungary, which were now two separate nations struggling with economic chaos and political upheaval. Thus, the Simplon would continue eastward from Trieste (now an Italian city) into the heart of the Balkans, going through Zagreb, Vinkovci and Subotica towards its final stop at Bucharest. Another spur headed from Vinkovci to Belgrade, where it divided again, going either to Athens or Constantinople (the city’s name was officially changed to Istanbul after the Republic of Turkey was formed). It was in Istanbul that Bond and Romanova made their initial getaway, boarding at Sirkeci Station. Romance and danger awaited them.

Logo of the Compagnie Internationale Des Wagons-Lits which ran the Orient Express

Symbol of Quality – Logo of the Compagnie Internationale Des Wagons-Lits which ran the Orient Express (Credit: Murdockcrc)

Into & Out Of Trouble – Route Of Least Resistance
The Simplon Orient Express was the preferred travel route for the wealthy, politically connected, intellectually refined and haute bourgeoise during its heyday. Agatha Christie traveled it many times with her second husband, an archeologist. It would not have been uncommon for high ranking diplomats or spies to be found onboard as well. This was especially true during the Cold War. Intrigue and danger were an exception though. One that proved the Simplon was a vital lifeline for businessmen, politicians and tourists during decades of east-west tensions. It may not have been the “original” Orient Express, but it was just as worthy. The fact that spurs of the Simplon led to Venice and Athens only added to the fascination with it. James Bond knew this was the easiest route back to safety. It was the path of least resistance for him, as well as for generations of Europeans. The Simplon may not have been the original Orient Express, but it just might have been better.