Darkness Gathered Around The Light – Vienna: A City Laid Low

One of the great things about Bratislava is its proximity to Vienna. It is less than an hour away by either train or bus. The trip is even shorter with a car. This closeness has paid dividends, with an influx of foreign investment that has made the city one of Eastern Europe’s economic engines. It has also brought many tourists, such as myself, looking to avoid the high cost of accommodation in Vienna. Bratislava makes a visit to Vienna possible for those who would otherwise pass due to the expense. I was one of those eager for a day trip to Vienna from Bratislava. There were several reasons why. The first of which was its reputation as one of the most enchanting and culturally rich cities in the world.

Despite its position in the eastern reaches of Central Europe, Vienna avoided falling into the Soviet sphere of influence during the Cold War. It is surprising to look at a map and realize just how close Vienna once stood to the Iron Curtain. The border with Hungary and Slovakia was just thirty kilometers away. The Austrians managed to stay on the western side of it by officially declaring neutrality. Soviet troops were withdrawn in the mid-1950’s. Ever since that time, Austria had become a shining example of social democracy and capitalism. Vienna was the showpiece of this success, a treasure chest of beauty, wealth and history. With thoughts of Vienna shimmering in my mind, I headed out of Bratislava on a morning train filled with anticipation.

Keeping up appearances - The Hofburg as seen from Heidenplatz

Keeping up appearances – The Hofburg as seen from Heidenplatz (Credit: Bwag)

Eerily Immaculate – Viennese Vanity
Oddly enough, my first visit to Vienna left me strangely unimpressed. It was much too nice for my liking. The public transport system was routed to perfection. The U-Bahn cars were shiny and sparkling, the stations eerily immaculate. The center was filled with baroque architecture, an imperial air of triumphalism pervaded the place. The Habsburg’s glittering Hofburg Palace was the epicenter of this aesthetic. It was thoroughly royal. The horse drawn carriages carting tourists to and fro were much too splendid, the statuary grand to the point of intimidation and the sidewalks swept so clean that I could have dined on them. I never actually entered the Hofburg because I felt the price was excessive, they demanded a mint to witness superficial lavishness. Witnessing this for the first time, I understood the feeling of Emperor Franz Josef’s wife, Empress Elisabeth (Sisi) who despised the staid atmosphere and rigid protocol of the royal court in Vienna. No wonder she spent so much time at Godollo, in the Hungarian countryside.

I could sense that the Hofburg was still a place steeped in tradition and living off reputation. The refinement played to people’s vanity, but it felt more like a ball and chain. Any moment, I expected to be forced to wear white gloves and tails just to walk around the place. Royal Vienna served to remind me of unchecked wealth, submission to central authority, stuffed shirts and stiff collars. This part of the city screamed “we are better than you and if you do not believe it just look around.” The Austrian capital was the first place I have ever been where buildings two, three and four hundred years old looked as though they were brand new. The vanity and pomp of imperialism covered the city at its core. None of this seemed real, wealth never does and that is one of many problems with it. The Viennese, like the Habsburgs, have a very high opinion of themselves. Their standard is the very best, but something about this snobbish sensibility I found incredibly distasteful.

Roman ruins in front of Hofburg entrance - Michaelerplatz in Vienna

Roman ruins in front of Hofburg entrance – Michaelerplatz in Vienna (Credit: Ralf Roletschek)

The Inevitable Afterlife – Ultimate Outcomes
The most memorable thing I saw in the center of Vienna had nothing to do with the Habsburgs or the Hofburg, though it was imperial in nature. Just outside the entrance to the Hofburg on Michaelerplatz were the ruins of Vindobona, a Roman military camp which had once stood on the very same spot. A crowd of onlookers stood around an exposed area that displayed a collection of foundations and walls. It was nothing impressive by the standards of ancient Roman ruins, but in this case location was everything. The constantly rotating audience’s collective expressions were of bemusement or disbelief. Juxtaposed against the majestic splendor surrounding them, these ruins were an extremely odd site, so odd in fact that no one quite knew what to make of them. It left the onlookers puzzled and curious. Watching people look at these last vestiges of Roman power in what was today one of the world’s great cities was much more interesting than the ruins themselves. I wondered if what we were all looking at was the very beginning of the greatness of Vienna or the inevitable afterlife of their own splendid city.

Almost all the ruins of Vindobona had long since been covered by newer developments in Vienna. The scant ruins in Michaelerplatz left visitors pondering the fate of empire. Imperial power had never looked so emasculated as it did here. The pile of ruins seemed to mock the Hofburg. This was the Vienna no one ever talked about, it was perplexing and for me deeply disturbing. Ironically, these ruins were likely left in situ as a way of connecting modern Vienna with the magnificence of ancient Rome. This raised a troubling question, if this was the eventual outcome of imperial ambition than why was the Hofburg promoted as a stunning example of civilization? All I could think of was that all civilizations have it coming, including modern Vienna.

A different reality - The tunic Archduke Franz Ferdinand was wearing when he was assassinated

A different reality – The tunic Archduke Franz Ferdinand was wearing when he was assassinated

The Sum Of A Tragedy –  Lasting Impressions
The most real thing in Vienna for me was its tragedy. The sum of it was confined to a room in the Austrian Military Museum. The museum housed several of the most important artifacts concerning the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which had triggered the outbreak of World War I, subsequently bringing the Habsburgs down and laying Vienna low. There was the car the Archduke and his wife had ridden to their death on that fateful June day in Sarajevo. There was the pistol which had ended their lives and led to the end of an empire. And there was the bloodstained tunic the Archduke had worn in the last moments of his life. It was torn, soiled and faded, morbidly fascinating and most of all real. It was kept far from the shimmering city center, in the gallery of a museum that most will never visit. This tunic was the beginning and that war was the end for Vienna. Followed by the start of something new and even more horrible. At the Austrian Military Museum I had found something that felt real in Vienna, a place where darkness gathered around the light.

A Path Paved By History – Bratislava’s Coronation Route: Long Live The Past of Pozsony

Rasto and I finished our awkward conversation at the Slavin Monument with both of us holding firm to our opinions, his pro-Russian, mine anti-authoritarian. Slovakia was still stuck between East and West. Rasto wanted his nation to straddle this divide, while I was adamant that a westward orientation would lead to greater prosperity and democracy. My opinion was stated with the zeal of someone who did not have a personal stake in the situation. My knowledge of Slovakia’s geopolitical situation had been cultivated thousands of miles and an ocean away from the country. I had no vested interest, other than wanting America to be on the right side of history. Rasto’s skepticism was understandable. He had grown up much closer to the Russian sphere of influence than the American one. Old alliances did not die with the Cold War and new alliances would take a long time to replace the powerful influence of the recent past.

Maria Theresa coronation in 1741 - Bratislava

Maria Theresa coronation in 1741 – Bratislava (Credit: Johann Daniel Herz)

Minority Report –  Prosperity, Populaism & Pozsony
Speaking of the new replacing the old and the influence of history, I asked Rasto about Slovakia’s relationship with its old historical nemesis, Hungary. Slovakians had been under Hungarian rule from the Middle Ages until the end of World War I. Since that time, the two had been in recurrent conflict over the large Hungarian minority in southern Slovakia. Rasto thought the relationship was much better than it was made it out to be by the media and vote seeking politicians looking to stir up ethnic strife. The large Hungarian minority in the country had been restive during the 1990’s and early 2000’s with the rise of nationalist sentiment and extremist political parties on both sides. The situation had moderated quite a bit since those fraught times. This was largely due to economic growth and membership in the European Union for both Slovakia and Hungary. I knew that Slovakia’s economy had surged since 2004 when its government had instituted a 19% flat tax. Foreign investment, especially in the automotive industry, soared. In the years that followed, Slovakia became known as the Tatra Tiger due to it roaring economy.

When economic times are good, no matter whether it is in Slovakia or Zanzibar, nationalism tends to wane. Eastern Europe was no different. Despite the occasional flare-up, mostly stoked by politicians, Slovakia and Hungary were getting along as well as could be expected. Rasto said Slovakians were wary of Hungary, but would continue working with them. His attitude was cautious with a hint of optimism. Our conversation about Hungary and Slovaka was particularly appropriate since we were having it in Bratislava, known to Hungarians as Pozsony. No other city in the lands that had formerly been part of the Kingdom of Hungary was so important to Hungarian history. It had acted as the coronation site for the Kings of Hungary and home to the Hungarian Diet (Parliament) after the Ottoman Turks occupied central and southern Hungary during the early 16th century. It had continued in this role for 300 years. During this time, no less than ten kings and one queen (Maria Theresa) were crowned in the city.

Marker on the coronation route in Bratislava

Marker on the coronation route in Bratislava

This Is History – One Step At A Time
With Rasto’s circumspect attitude to Hungarians I was surprised when he asked me if I knew about the historic coronation route that winded its way through the streets of Bratislava’s Old Town.  I had no idea that the route could be followed. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was marked in the Old Town. The markers consist of 178 brass plaques embedded with the icon of a crown. They can be found along much of the historic route which begins at the Vydricka Gate close to St. Martin’s Cathedral where the King of Hungary were crowned (they were all Austrian Habsburgs). The gate does not exist today save for a few stone blocks that are now part of a house at Rudnay Square. Once the coronation had taken place at St. Martin’s the procession would begin in earnest. Red carpet was laid along the route for the newly crowned monarchs. As the royal retinue passed by, the crowd of onlookers would shout the Latin phrase “Vivat rex” which means “Long Live The King”. They then fought over scraps of the carpet which instantly had become valuable souvenirs.

Rasto and I picked up the route not far from St. Martin’s in a quiet section of the Old Town, where there was none of the usual clamor from restaurants and bars. He pointed out one of the brass plaques marking the route on Kapitulska Street. By this time night had fallen on the old town. The buildings were cloaked in darkness except for the illumination provided by the odd street lamp. Rasto pointed out a marker each time he saw one, soon he was walking ahead of me lost in another world. Then he finally slowed down, waiting for me to approach. When I did, he said in a low voice, “This is history.”  Many of the old historical buildings which stood on either side of the street looked the worse for wear. They had yet to be commercialized. Their walls were chipped and cracked while the street was empty. The only thing I could hear was the lowered voice of Rasto and the sounds of our footsteps. We were walking on a path paved not just by cobblestones, but also by history.

This is history - Kapitulska Street at night in Bratislava

This is history – Kapitulska Street at night in Bratislava

Time Travelers – Chance & Fate Along Kapitulska
Walking up Kapitulska Street on this warm spring evening I felt that time had melted away. If it is possible to live in both the present and past at the same moment, then I was there. The feeling was transcendent. No one else was on the street, except for the two of us. Yet in a sense everyone had been here, kings and queens, wealthy nobles, burghers and merchants, the high and mighty, the low and destitute. Slovaks, Hungarians, Germans and Jews all called these corridors of time their home. Kapitulska was an 800-year old avenue to the past that had been preserved just for our arrival. To experience this it took imagination and knowledge. Rasto was the ultimate guide, acting as a conduit to the past. There was something in the air that night, I could feel it. In the silence history could be heard, crying out across the ages for two men who were brought here by chance and fate, just like everyone who had come before them.

Click here for: Darkness Gathered Around The Light – Vienna: A City Laid Low

Concoctions of Conformity – Petrzalka: A Shadow Over Slovakia

In the late afternoon on a warm spring day I found myself standing outside the headquarters of Slovak Posta. I was waiting on my new acquaintance Rasto. He had promised to show me around a few places in Bratislava that he felt were worth seeing. After just a day and a half, I had pretty much exhausted the sightseeing opportunities in Bratislava’s beautiful yet compact Old Town. I was looking forward to gaining some insights through local knowledge. Seeing Bratislava through Slovakian eyes was my goal. Rasto arrived not long after the appointed time and informed me that he would go home to change clothes, but that I should come along with him. This began a strange odyssey.

A little bit less than awful - Petrzalka

A little bit less than awful – Petrzalka (Credit: Wizzard)

From The Bottom Up  – Beyond Bratislava
Rasto moved ultra-fast. I had to speed walk just to keep up with him. We went to a bus stop, where he failed to show me how to purchase a ticket. Instead he assumed I could figure out the automated machine on my own. This caused me to almost miss getting on the bus with him. He leapt onboard, pushing his way into the mass of people traveling home at rush hour. I was left to fend for myself, which meant doing the same as Rasto. Not being a native, shoving my way into the bus felt awkward and rude. He never told me which bus stop we would get off at. I was left to wonder if I was traveling with him or just doing my best to keep him in sight. The bus headed south across the Danube. Rasto jumped off after a couple of stops. I did the same without any idea where we were headed. Then I looked up to see an endless procession of high rise concrete flats piercing the skyline. This was Petrzalka, the enormous communist era housing estate that was home to Rasto and a hundred thousand Slovaks. Rasto took me to his car, unlocked it and told me I should wait there while he went into one of the apartment blocks and changed. He disappeared for an extended amount of time while I sat in his car, pondering the looming towers of Petrzalka.

Of all the places in the former Eastern Bloc still pockmarked with soul destroying communist housing estates, Slovakia may be the most bizarre. Slovaks adore nature, an affinity that comes from living in a land of towering mountains, sweeping valleys and lush forests. Such notable mountain ranges as the High and Low Tatras as well as the Carpathians are spread throughout the country. One of the few areas not graced by these natural protrusions is the Danube flood plain. The communists took care of that problem by planting the densest cluster of high rise apartment blocks anywhere in Central Europe. Petrzalka looks like a Lego set straight out of hell. Thousands of concrete panels were attached to one another to create high rises that conform to a standard of soullessness that has rarely been surpassed in the annals of totalitarian architecture. If I closed my eyes, cleared my mind and momentarily forgot where I was, when I reopened them Pyongyang would have come to mind. The only saving grace was that many of the blocks had been given a newer coat of paint. This failed to liven them up, but at least someone was trying.

Natural impulse - Sad Janka Kráľa, Central Europe's oldest park

Natural impulse – Sad Janka Kráľa, Central Europe’s oldest park (Credit: Svetoid)

A Little Bit Less Than Awful – New Realities
While sitting in Rasto’s car I had a bit of time to observe the comings and goings of Petrzalka. The housing estate has long been notorious for drug and alcohol abuse, high crime and suicide rates. This is all relative though. From what I witnessed, Petrzalka has a long way to go before it meets American standards of high rise housing depravity. It was a Friday evening and people were quietly going about their business. There were no young men loitering or drug dealers plying their trade. From an American perspective there was nothing menacing about the place. Aesthetically it did leave much to be desired. The housing blocks were concoctions of conformity. Everything looked and felt artificial. On a piece of land that experienced the ablutions of the Danube for thousands of years, one could scarcely have felt further from nature. Concrete and pavement were the lords of this urban jungle. These high rises had been a dream that soon turned into a nightmare for an urbanizing Slovakia.

It is ironic that not far from this behemoth housing estate stood Central Europe’s first public park, Sad Janka Krafa, on the south bank of the Danube. This was the equivalent of a green space on the edge of a superfund site. Long before communism planted the seeds of Petrzalka, nature had sculpted and shaped this same land into a series of periodically inundated islands. Man would eventually drain the area to make it suitable for farming. The word Petrzalka means herbs and vegetables. The land was quite fertile, but the communists used it to grow residential monstrosities rather than crops. They then left the inhabitants packed together, one atop another. Petrzalka was going to be a planned paradise, but that dream never materialized. Slovaks woke up to a new reality after the Cold War. The population of a small city was left stranded in Petrzalka to make the best out of a bad idea. Rasto had come to join them. A young, upwardly mobile professional like himself saw Petrzalka as a worthy and most importantly affordable place to live. From what I saw on the outside he was right. Would I want to live in Petrzalka? The answer is no. Could I live in Petrzalka? Of course.

Rooms with a view - Petrzalka

Rooms with a view – Petrzalka (Credit: Andrej Neuherz)

Looming Towers –  Surrounded On All Sides
After a few more minutes, a freshly clothed Rasto came walking briskly back to his car. He was ready to show me Bratislava. Little did he know that I found Petrzalka just as fascinating as the Old Town. Here was a communist era social experiment gone awry, but for lack of better housing options Slovaks from all walks of life still lived side by side with one another. Petrzalka had become part of Slovakia, but was not of it. It was a far cry from the mountainous terrain that covered most of the nation. The only mountains in this area were the looming concrete towers of Petrzalka, a shadow that a hundred thousand Slovaks have yet to escape.

Click here: Bipolar In Bratislava – The Slavin Monument: Eternal Glory & Tyranny

The Inheritors of Pressburg & Pozsony – Becoming Bratislava: Another World, Not Their Own

Bratislava. The name sounds fat and juicy, its reputation is much thinner. Of the four European capital cities which sit astride the Danube River – Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest and Belgrade – it is Bratislava which is by far the least known. Vienna has Mozart, the Habsburgs and Hofburg Palace, Budapest has the world’s greatest Parliament Building, a series of unique and historic bridges, plus two distinct sides of a sparkling city divided by the Danube. Belgrade is home to Kalmegdan Fortress and within spitting distance of the confluence of the Sava River with the mighty Danube. As for Bratislava it has well…what does it have. I was traveling there to find out for myself. Before my arrival, I did learn it had become a favorite destination for British stag parties, who had given it the name of Partyslava or alternatively, Bratislover. It was on the European cheap flight circuit, which was usually reserved for cities such as Cluj, Katowice and Kaunas. I had never met anyone who had been to the city. I did discover that it was near Vienna and located in the most untraditional (no mountains and forests) part of Slovakia, less than high praise for the city. Yet there was at least one thing about Bratislava that I found endlessly fascinating, its historically rich ethnic diversity.

Pozsony in the 16th century

Pozsony in the 16th century (Credit: Wolfgang Lazius)

Multiple Personality Disorder – Diversity By The Danube
Identity crisis, multiple personality disorder, tripolar, when it comes to ethnicity and the history of Bratislava the situation is insanely complicated. The fact that today 90% of the population is ethnically Slovakian is a mid-20th century construct. To understand its checkered ethnic history, start with the city’s various names. The name it has today, Bratislava, was akin to one of the initial iterations, Braslav, recorded back in the late 800’s. The settlement was likely named for a Slavic Prince, some sources state this as Braslav, others as Preslav. That name went out of style, but bore relation to the smattering of Slovaks that populated the area which eventually became the town. For eleven centuries it was known by other names. In 1844 members of the Slovak national movement began to call the city Bratislava, a name which had been created seven years before by a scholar who took it from a Bohemian ruler by the name of Bretislav I. The current name has only been officially in use since 1919, when the city was taken from Hungary and became part of Czechoslovakia. Prior to that it was known by either its Hungarian name of Pozsony or German name of Pressburg. Early derivations of Pozsony included Poson or Bosan, Possen, Pososnia or my personal favorites, Posonium or Bosonium, which sound like nuclear medievalism. Pressburg is just as convoluted with such variations as Presburch, Prespurch or Prespuerch, Brecesburg, Bresburch and Brezburc among many others.

It was not until after the First World War that the city got a Slovak name and ethnic majority. Nonetheless, Bratislava did not become the capital city of an independent nation until the Velvet Divorce of 1993, when the Czechs and Slovaks claimed irreconcilable differences, making the decision to end their less than amiable  geo-political marriage. Coincidentally, the city had a much longer history as the capital of Royal Hungary. When the Ottoman Turks occupied southern and central Hungary, Pozsony was designated the capital beginning in 1536 and continuing up until 1783. The Kings of Hungary were crowned inside St. Martin’s Cathedral until 1830 and the Hungarian Diet (Parliament) met in Pozsony until 1848. From what I read before my arrival, the greatest attraction in Bratislava hearkened back to this time, the Old Town.

View of Pressburg - postcard from 1900

View of Pressburg – postcard from 1900

Someone Else’s Home –  Teutons, Magyars & Slovaks
It was strange to think that not so long ago, the capital of what would become Slovakia, was hardly Slovak at all. And as much as the Hungarians loved to claim it as their own, the city had been dominated by Germans for many centuries. As late as 1880, a little over two-thirds of its inhabitants were ethnic Germans. Pressburg, as the Germans called it, was a good measuring stick for their decline and expulsion from Eastern Europe. Their dwindling number as a share of the city’s population tracks the historical events which buffeted Bratislava. 1880 – 68%; 1910 – 42% (effects of Magyarization policy); 1919 – 36% (city becomes part of Czechoslovakia); 1940 – 20% (World War II accelerates); 1950 – less than 1% (expulsion of ethnic Germans following World War II). First Hungarians and now Slovaks inhabitant a city whose oldest architecture and cultural currents have much of their roots in the dominance of German merchants.



When the newly born nation of Czechoslovakia was declared in the latter part of 1918 it did not look like Bratislava would become a part of it. Slovaks made up not the first (Germans), nor the second (Hungarians) largest ethnic group and only outnumbered the city’s Jewish population by 3,700. The Germans and Hungarians declared it a free city and renamed it Wilson Town. An attempt to curry favor in the coming post-war peace negotiations with the American President Woodrow Wilson, who promoted national self-determination in word if not deed. The sword was mightier than the pen, as the Czechoslovak Legion proved when it occupied the town on New Year’s Day 1919. This was the beginning of Slovak ascendance in Bratislava. In just a few years they were the largest ethnic group and along with Czechs dominated the administrative bureaucracy of the city.

Bratislava by the Danube

Bratislava by the Danube (Credit: Kiban)

Capital Of Anonymity – The Middle As Nowhere
After World War II ended Bratislava became totally Slovakian, yet the city had a problem that still exists today. This problem can be summed up in one word, Prague. The Czechoslovakian (and now Czech Republic) capital was not only where the epicenter of political, economic and cultural power was in Czechoslovakia, but continues to cast a long shadow – especially in regards to tourism – that Bratislava just cannot escape. Before my trip, I met countless people who had visited Prague, while I never heard a single person mention Bratislava. It was like a provincial city in a large country, the kind that only locals or wayward travelers visit. This anonymity is quite incredible when one considers that Bratislava is an hour’s drive at most from Vienna and just a few hours north of Budapest. It might as well have been on the dark side of the moon for most travelers, just not for me. Now I was on my way to Bratislava for a two and a half day visit with no idea what I would find. I was going in blind, a whole new way for me to see the city.

Click here for: Spaceship On the Danube – The UFO of Bratislava: An Alien Presence

The Orient Express In Austria-Hungary – Romancing The East: An Initial Journey Into Exoticism

In the autumn of 1883 a romance began that would continue for the next one-hundred and twenty-five years in a wide variety of forms. This romantic endeavor crisscrossed large swathes of Europe several times a week.  It started in the cultural and artistic wonderland of Europe at that time -Belle epoque Paris – and ended in the exotic east, within sight of the Sea of Marmara, skirting the shadows cast by mosques and minarets in Ottoman-era Constantinople. This romance was none other than the Orient Express. Thousands of passengers took part in the journey, authors waxed poetic about it and the refined elegance it represented became the stuff of legend. Orient and Express were two words bound together by creativity and innovation. They expressed all anyone needed to know about the route. “Orient” symbolized the eastern frontiers of Europe. “Express” a technological wonder that could defeat space and time to make a novel approach into the near east.

Orient Express - Advertising Poster

Orient Express – Advertising Poster (Credit: Jules Cheret)

From Dreams To Reality – All Aboard
The train would pull Europe and its eastern hinterlands closer together in a matter of days. The route made travel possible to places most people had only dreamed of. When the Orient Express first departed, those dreams were on the verge of becoming reality. Many of the stops along the line were much less exotic than Constantinople, but each was glamorous in its own way. Budapest and Bucharest, Vienna and Sofia, with their own unique allure. None of these were as exotic as Constantinople, but each offered a window into a wider world that Parisians or Londoners, aristocrats and journalists scarcely knew. Along the route, the world of Austria-Hungary was to be crossed. A multi-ethnic empire filled with people speaking a multitude of strange languages and adhering to antiquated folk customs. For the Orient Express ran right through the heart of the empire, the railway acting as an arrow piercing the heartland of both Austria and Hungary. The train’s passengers would be witness to an empire that was rapidly changing.

The inaugural journey of the Orient Express took place on October 4, 1883. There was a chill in the air as it pulled out of the Gare de L’est (East Station) in Paris. By the time dawn broke the next morning it was approaching Strasbourg, 300 miles to the east. The Express had entered the mighty German Empire, a land of progress that was fast leaving the rest of continental Europe behind. The explosive growth of the German economy was making it a world power. The Express made its way through Bavaria, with a stop at Munich on its first full day. Soon it would be crossing the border into the Austrian portion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At this point the train had been traveling for thirty hours. It was in the early morning hours of Saturday, October 6th that the Orient Express came gliding through the Austrian border town of Branau am Inn, passing not far from the residence of Alois Hitler, a customs officer. Five and a half years later a son would be born to Alois and his third wife Clara. That son would be named Adolf and change the world for the worse.

The first run of the Orient Express in 1883

The first run of the Orient Express in 1883 (Credit: Jürgen Franzke)

Advancing Into The Modern Age – Antecedents In Asia & The West
The Orient Express was now gliding along the 270 miles of railway that stretched between Munich and Vienna. By the late afternoon, it was pulling into the central station at Vienna where its passengers were feted by music from the Imperial Guards. The national anthems of France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey were played by the band, paying homage to each country the train would pass through on this inaugural journey. A huge dinner with champagne and wine was served for the passengers at the station’s restaurant. They were then invited to visit an electric lighting exhibition that had been kept open well past its closing time, just for them. Many of the passengers were too exhausted to attend, which was something of a shame. The exhibition was a showcase for how Austria-Hungary was advancing into the modern age. Trains, railroads and electric lighting were certainly notable achievements, but the stagnant political system which limited the rights of all its disparate nationalities – with the notable exception of a thin veneer of  Austrians and Hungarians – constantly threatened to derail the empire.

Slowly the Orient Express chugged further eastward through the night, making an obligatory stop at Poszony (present day Bratislava, Slovakia) to take on water and fuel. It was now in the Kingdom of Hungary, a land that no less a political figure than the Austrian, Prince Klemens Von Metternich, had once referred to as part of the Orient. The passengers onboard the Express were keen to see Budapest for the first time. The city had experienced explosive growth ever since Buda, Pest and Obuda (Old Buda) had been unified as a single entity a decade earlier. This was no Asiatic city, but a fast growing European metropolis. The railway station at Pest had antecedents in the west, specifically Paris, as it had been designed by the Eiffel Company.  The train’s arrival at mid-morning was greeted by a military band. This was followed by some Hungarian folk music topped off with a buffet that favored Magyar cuisine, specifically goulash.

The Early Years - Routes of the Orient Express 1883 - 1914

The Early Years – Routes of the Orient Express 1883 – 1914 (Credit: Alphthon)

All But The Memory – Ghost Of An Empire
From Budapest it was onto Szeged, a city where the damage from a catastrophic flood four years earlier was still visible. After the Orient Express pulled into the ramshackle station, a gypsy orchestra was sited coming toward the train. Their performance had been prearranged. They were invited to board the train, riding the Express to Temesvar (present-day Timisoara, Romania), where they were already slated to perform a concert that evening. It was a memorable two hour trip, with the strains of Roma music wafting through the restaurant car. The Orient had never sounded so close until that moment. Exoticism, mystery and mystique permeated the air. Once the gypsy orchestra departed, the train headed further east toward the Romanian border and out of Austria-Hungary. It was a memorable first journey through an empire that was not to last nearly as long as the rail route which now ran across the length of it. The Orient Express would still be running long after the Austro-Hungarian Empire had disappeared from all but the memory. All romances eventually end, but some last longer than others.

The Course Of A Falling Star – Albrecht von Wallenstein: Astrology & Assassination

“Ah my Wallenstein! They painted him blacker than he was” were the words cried aloud by Ferdinand II the Holy Roman Emperor. He reputedly exclaimed this phrase when he received the commander’s collar of the Golden Fleece that had been worn by his greatest general, Albrecht von Wallenstein. The collar provided final verification of Wallenstein’s assassination. Wallenstein had defeated numerous Protestant armies opposed to the Counter-Reformation during the first half of the Thirty Years’ War. These victories secured Ferdinand’s rule over much of East-Central Europe. Now Wallenstein, a name loathed by those who had once feared it, was dead. After his cry of anguish, Ferdinand ordered 3,000 masses spoken so that Wallenstein’s soul would rest in peace. Something he cultivated very little of in a life marked by conflict.

Was Ferdinand’s grief genuine? Despite the histrionics, it is doubtful. He was likely just crying crocodile tears. After all, he had been the one who ordered Wallenstein’s murder. The two men had not spoken to one another for six years. During that time Wallenstein had fallen out, then in and back out of favor. Once the emperor lost confidence in him Wallenstein’s fate was foresworn. It led to a blood-soaked climax in a bedroom at Eger (present day Cheb, Czech Republic) in northwestern Bohemia on a winter night in 1634. That incident was the final act in Wallenstein’s precipitate fall from power.

Albrecht von Wallenstein - The Generalissmus

Albrecht von Wallenstein – Generalissmus

“Difficult Times” – the Power Of Predictions
Despite his martial exploits, Wallenstein had been forced into retirement in 1630 by opposition from the Imperial Diet. He was a polarizing figure that managed to unite the Catholic and Protestant princes in German territory against him. Pressure was exerted on Ferdinand to remove him from command. For the next two years, Wallenstein spent in an inordinate amount of time dabbling in astrology. He hired Johannes Kepler, the famed astronomer to provide him with horoscopes. One of Kepler’s predictions proved uncannily prescient. In March 1634, the horoscope warned of “difficult times” ahead for Wallenstein. Truth be told, Wallenstein had already been suffering through many years of “difficult times” long before that prediction. During retirement he had fallen into heavy debt, to the point where he sold off much of his large landholdings, yet even then he was still forced to take out loans with very high interest rates. His inability to pay these back, pushed him to the edge of bankruptcy.

Wallenstein needed money, as much as he needed power. Both were connected, battlefield victories brought him power and money. One could be used in the service of the other, but only for so long as constant campaigning would allow. In 1632, after Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden dealt the Emperor’s forces several resounding defeats, Wallenstein was called back into service. The Generalissmo, as he was often called, proceeded to win several important victories. In 1632 he faced off against Adolphus and his army at the Battle of Lutzen. Adolphus was killed, but the battle resulted in a stalemate. Wallenstein had been unable to finish off what would have been a critical victory. He then searched for scapegoats, finding many among both his officers and common soldiers. Seventeen of them, including twelve officers, were executed. This only served to lower morale in the army and increase resistance.

The Course Of A Falling Star - Wallenstein Horoscope by Johannes Kepler

The Course Of A Falling Star – Wallenstein Horoscope by Johannes Kepler

Listlessness & Lassitude – Losing It & Then Losing It All
Wallenstein had lost his nerve on the battlefield. While off it, he was succumbing to a dreadful lassitude and became increasingly listless. He also betrayed the emperor’s trust, not allowing Ferdinand’s son to command armies in the field. This was a level of insubordination that Ferdinand could not tolerate. It was in direct contravention to Imperial authority. The Monarchy was greater than any one man, a fact that Wallenstein, swollen with pride and arrogance had long since forgotten. Meanwhile Wallenstein had not only been losing the Emperor’s trust, but he had also been plotting a separate peace with the Monarchy’s enemies. At one time or another he was in peace talks with the Swedes, Saxony, Brandenburg and France.

Meanwhile his army took up what looked to be permanent residence on the Ferdinand’s territory. While all this was occurring, Wallenstein became increasingly reliant on astrology in the conduct of his affairs. In other words, he was losing it and was on the verge of losing it all.  In 1634, during the second week of January, Ferdinand and his advisors met in Graz. There they decided Wallenstein would have to be brought in dead or alive. The former was certainly preferred over the latter. On the 24th of January, Ferdinand issued the order that relived Wallenstein of his duties and ensured that army officers were no longer under his command. Exactly a month later, a group of Scottish and Irish mercenary officers caught up with Wallenstein and his most trusted officers in Eger. Wallenstein had fled there, in hopes of making a deal and going over to the Swedish side.

Unwittingly, several of his most trusted officers agreed to a dinner invitation at Eger Castle (Cheb Castle). They were subsequently murdered about an hour into their meal. This left Wallenstein all alone at the burgomaster’s (mayoral) residence except for a nominal guard and servant who were quickly dispatched by the assassins. Wallenstein awoke before they made it into his room, but not in enough time to adequately defend himself. He was approached by Walter Devereaux, an Irish captain. Reports relate that Wallenstein attempted to ask for quarter, but Devereaux ran him through with a halberd, shouting “Faithless rebellious old villain” just before he committed the final act. With that, the most brilliant and faithless general in the Thirty Years’ War was dead.

The Killing of Albrecht von Wallenstein in Eger (Cheb), Kingdom of Bohemia

The Killing of Albrecht von Wallenstein in Eger (Cheb), Kingdom of Bohemia

Looked Down Upon – “The Mighty From their Seat”
The final word on the fate of Wallenstein lies in the memoirs of a contemporary observer, Michael Heubel, a commissioner of war and judge for the monarchy. “I saw the room in Eger with two side doors bearing the ineradicable stain of Wallenstein’s blood, and also the staircase down which his corpse was dragged feet first, he who only an hour before had been a great duke and is now become the least and most unworthy of all men – so swiftly can the Lord put down the mighty from their seat.” Wallenstein who had once aspired to be the most powerful man in the Holy Roman Empire – and may well have been – was now history. He would become a byword for egoism, vanity, megalomania, superstition and treason. Wallenstein, who had once brilliantly commanded armies that reordered the map of central and eastern Europe, was just a bloody corpse. His most lasting legacy would be Wallenstein Palace, forever standing in the shadows of the great Prague Castle. From where it would be looked down upon for centuries to come.

Click here for: Greater Than The Gods – A Palatial Reminder: The Vanity Of Albrecht von Wallenstein


The Dancing House In Prague – Searching For Stability: Fred & Ginger By The Vltava

Modern architecture is like modern art for me: sterile, lacking in charm and for the most part, incomprehensible. When functionality is the best thing you can say about a modern building, well then there is not much left to say. At least modern architecture in the United States can be explained away by the fact that America is a place constantly reinventing itself, with a history that is relatively new. The opposite is true for Europe, it is called the Old World for a reason and to my mind the buildings should reflect that. The modern architecture I am most familiar with in Europe was the Socialist realist style inspired by the Soviet Union. It has all the rigidity and unimaginativeness of a Stalinist Five Year Plan. Function dictates style.

Fortunately for Eastern Europe, communism did not destroy most of the old architecture in this region. It was needed for everything, from alleviating housing shortages to administrative facilities. It may be distasteful to think of gorgeous churches turned into museums of atheism for forty years, but at least they were not destroyed. What did destroy much of Eastern Europe’s older architecture (I am using this term loosely, denoting anything prior to World War One) was the Second World War. Some older areas were almost totally rebuilt, such as Warsaw’s Old Town. While Minsk was reconstructed in Soviet style. One place that survived the war relatively unscathed was Prague. An overriding majority of its historic core remained intact. That does not mean it did not suffer some damage, most notably in 1945, when American bombers struck the city. This would eventually mean opportunities for reconstruction. This is how the Czech capital became home to one of the most bizarre buildings in modern times, Frank Gehry’s Dancing House.

Fred and Ginger - Dancing House at dusk

Fred and Ginger – Dancing House at dusk (Credit: Dino Quinzani)

Stepping Out & Stepping Up – Dynamism’s Duo
Fred Astair and Ginger Rogers may have finished their last dance decades ago, but they can still be found immortalized on Jiraskovo Place (Jiraskovo namesti) in Prague. A different Fred and Ginger now spend their days and nights locked together, not far from the banks of the Vltava River. The difference between Fred and GInger on the dance floor and the two together in Prague is stark. While the former was an incredibly dynamic duo who wowed the world with their dance steps, the latter is an eclectic modern architectural wonder designed by another tandem, architects Frank Gehry and the Czech Republic’s own Vlado Milunic. Their creation was given the name Fred and Ginger by Gehry, but it is more popularly known as The Dancing House. I understood why after viewing it from just across the street at the Alois Jirasek Memorial (Pomnik Aloise Jirasek) that contains the statue of the famous Czech poet and playwright Alois Jirasek.

It was another Czech playwright, Vaclav Havel, who was partly responsible for a new Fred and Ginger tripping the light fantastic in Prague. Havel grew up beside the area where the Dancing House now stands. During much of his lifetime, the site held the shell of a building that American bombers struck during the last phase of the Second World War. During the Cold War, Havel – who was a dissident famous for his unyielding opposition to Czechoslovakia’s communist regime – lived beside the abandoned site. Sometime during the mid-1980’s, before the Iron Curtain fell, Havel and Milunic who were neighbors, spent time discussing what could be done about the ruined property. They both shared an idea that it might eventually host a cultural center.

Something to look over - windows at the Dancing House

Something to look over – windows at the Dancing House (Credit: Mounirzok)

A Whimsical Appendage – Architecture As Ideology
After the Cold War ended Havel rose to the presidency of first Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic. This put him in a position where he could help move the project forward. Meanwhile, Milunic had teamed up with the soon to be world famous architect, in what would be one of Gehry’s most fantastical architectural concoctions. The result was a building unlike anything that had ever been seen, not only in Prague, but also in the world. The fact that the Dancing House is part of a block replete with 19th century buildings makes it easily noticeable. Perhaps that is also because it stands on the corner of a block. Looking like a whimsical appendage, one part of it is a glass tower which leans into the other part. As though the two were engaged in a dynamic waltz. This glass tower with its curved pillars narrows at the center.  While on the Vltava side, the building’s second part consists of undulated mouldings that produce a flowing effect. This part also contains unaligned windows encased in protruding frames, adding a three-dimensional effect. The structure is crowned by Medusa, a domed, twisted contraption of metal.

From whichever angle I chose, viewing the Dancing House was disorienting. It is meant to be more than just a building, it is an architectural statement, symbolic of Prague in transition. The stagnation and rigidity of communism, gives way to dynamism, fluidity and individuality, a transformative ideology. Havel’s dream of a cultural center never took flight. Ironically, capitalism put paid to that idea. Perhaps that should have been expected since the developer of the building was a Dutch insurance firm, Nationale-Nederlanden, which became ING Bank in 1991. The Dancing House may have been a statement, but it also needed to make money. A host of multinational firms have offices in the structure and there is even a French restaurant occupying the top floor. Such tenants are a sign of globalism grasping post-Cold War Prague.

The Dancing House - in black & white

Shall We Dance – Fred & Ginger in black and white (Credit: BRENAC)

The Glass Tower – Leaning Into An Uncertain Future
I must confess that the Dancing House was not to my liking. It was hard for me to see the point, other than to advertise Prague as a progressive, contemporary city at the heart of a New Europe. The building would have looked more at home in New York, Hing Kong or Dubai, those global centers of the contemporary. I did not feel that the Dancing House was unpleasant architecture, just that it was out of place in the New Town (Nove Mesto) of Prague. It did not fit with the rest of the surrounding area, but from what I understand that was a deliberate choice. The Dancing House’s glass tower may have symbolized Ginger leaning into Fred, but to me it represented Prague leaning into an uncertain future, while searching for something to stabilize itself against.

Click here for: Greater Than The Gods – A Palatial Reminder: The Vanity Of Albrecht von Wallenstein


The Most Powerful Name In Tennis – Attila Savolt: A Legend In My Own Mind

His name was memorable, his tennis results less so. Attila Savolt, a man with a name for the ages was one of Hungary’s all-time best tennis players. Long after his tennis exploits were forgotten, the name stayed in the memory. In my opinion, there has never been a name like it in the annals of men’s professional tennis. His first name conjured up images of a fierce warrior. Attila is both a name and a word with incredible historical connotations. Add “the Hun” behind it and images of barbarians on the rampage come to mind. Rather than across Roman borders, Attila Savolt’s rampage was up through the men’s professional tennis ranks. There was also his surname which pulsated with electricity. It evoked a charged atmosphere anytime it was spoken. Both names taken together sound edgy, energetic and full of fight. The name is his most memorable attribute, but Attila Savolt’s tennis exploits both on and off the court are what brought him to the attention of Eastern European tennis fanatics such as myself. Just saying his name aloud made me feel powerful, I could only imagine how his opponents felt.

Attila Savolt - More than just a name

Attila Savolt – More than just a name

Career Development – The Rise Of Attila The Hungarian
A person can find almost anything on the internet. This is especially true when it comes to sports, but one thing they will not find is a Wikipedia page devoted to Attila Savolt in Magyar (the Hungarian Language). There are pages for Savolt in English, German, Slovak, Polish and even a couple in Arabic. The oversight may have something to do with the fact that Hungarians are not particularly strong tennis enthusiasts. The lack of information given on Savolt’s background has left me wondering about the details of how he was able to develop his game in Hungary. Unlike child prodigy’s whose parents got started them on the game while they were toddlers, Savolt started playing at the tender age of seven in his hometown of Budapest. His opponent back then was his brother.

Savolt grew up idolizing the Swedish serve and volley maestro Stefan Edberg. Unlike Edberg, Savolt’s favorite surface was red clay since his greatest strength was strong baseline play. The lack of information on Savolt’s professional development is somewhat mitigated by the plethora of match results from the time he began playing tour level events in 1995. It is little wonder that Savolt’s tennis career is overlooked since his greatest results occurred almost entirely in second tier challenger events (one below the top tour level) that only true diehard tennis fans follow. Nonetheless, Savolt’s tennis career is impressive, if for no other reason than he rose to the top from a nation where tennis was an afterthought and developmental infrastructure for promising junior players was minimal.

Lucky Loser – A Career On The Margins
In 1996, just his second year on tour, Savolt broke through when he won his first challenger event in improbable fashion, doing it as a “lucky loser”. This oxymoronic term encapsulates the high and lows of a tennis journeyman’s career. A lucky loser is a player who loses in the final round of qualifying then gets into the main draw of an event after another player withdraws. Savolt made the most of this quirk at a tournament on red clay in Tampere, Finland. Ranked #289 at the time, he proceeded to win three of his five matches in deciding third sets, including the semis and final. Later that year he made it to the final of his hometown challenger in Budapest. Savolt was not through in Tampere either. In 1997 he repeated his championship run from the year before. This time as a main draw entrant. He rampaged through the draw without the loss of a set.

Challengers were Savolt’s forte. He won six singles titles at that level, all on red clay. He garnered the same amount of challenger titles in doubles during his decade long pro career. Each of these victories took place between 1996 – 2001. In line with the careers of many a journeyman tour pro, Savolt struggled at top tour level events, only going 37-58. There were a few highlights despite his overall match record. These included wins over the Czech Jiri Novak when he was ranked 14th in the world. His greatest upset occurred in the next to last year of his career when Savolt defeated #12 Tim Henman in Dubai. The latter victory took place on one of Savolt’s worst surfaces, hard courts. He also managed to make the third round at the French Open twice. Unfortunately, a combination of injuries and poor play combined to send Savolt’s career into a downward spiral. In 2004 he played his last professional match at an event far away from his homeland, losing in Bangkok to complete a season where he won only one out of twelve matches. Savolt’s playing days were over, a new career in coaching would slowly begin to take shape.

Coach & mentor - The next phase of Attila Savolt career

Coach & mentor – The next phase of Attila Savolt career

The Rise From Obscurity – Marton’s Mentor
After he retired from the tour, Attila Savolt was a name that my best friend – a fellow tennis fanatic – and myself would often recite as code for obscure men’s pro tennis tour knowledge. The name for us was redolent of obscure events, in out of the way paradises. that we could only dream of ever visiting. Any man whose workplace moved on a weekly basis to such exotic locales as Lugano, Umag, Cagliari and St. Poelten, to name just a few, we held in awe. For a couple of nine to fivers who were toiling away in the backwaters of the American workforce Attila Savolt was more than just a man, he was a legend. A man can always dream of a different, more wonderful life and Attila Savolt represented a dream that grew fainter as the years passed without any mention of him in the tennis media.

Then the rise of Marton Fucsovics changed everything. Another obscure Hungarian tennis hero was on the cusp of making his name known. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Fucsovics’ coach was none other than Savolt. One tennis journeyman – they have often been some of the best coaches – passing on sage advice to another. Fucsovics spent many years toiling away on the challenger tour just as his coach did. In 2016 Savolt took over as his coach and an ascent inside the top 100 followed. The hope is that Savolt can help Fucsovics achieve a level of greatness that he himself never quite attained. Fucsovics’ may end up surpassing Savolt in tennis accomplishments, but he will never surpass him in name recognition. Attila Savolt is a name to be reckoned with and one that I will always remember.

Attila Savolt, Attila Savolt Marton Fucsovics Coach, Marton Fucsovics Coach, Hungary Men’s professional Tennis, Hungary Tennis, Eastern Europe Tennis

High Water Marks – Prague’s Historic Floods: The Vltava Strikes Back

I was fortunate to visit Prague when I did. It was late March and the tourist hordes had yet to descend upon the city, though legions of Italian high school students tried to do their very best to replicate the noise, clamor and pushiness.  The sky was leaden during much of my visit, but the city was still intensely compelling. The gray bellies of cloud that lurked over Prague made its Gothic architecture look more menacing than usual. The same went for the Vltava River which divides the historic heart of Prague. The Stare and Nove Mestos (Old and New Towns) lie on the Vltava’s right bank, while Mala Strana and Hradcany stand on the river’s left bank.

The river’s dark waters flowed past this part of the city at what seemed to be a tepid pace. The Vltava may have been Prague’s river, but it meant little to me. Its name did not have the same cachet as the Danube, Rhine, Vistula or Volga in the pantheon of Europe’s historically great rivers. Staring at its waters, I wondered how Prague could have been saddled with such a relatively benign river. Such a thought exposed my ignorance of the Czech Republic, for the Vltava was not just Prague’s river, but the Czech nation’s as well. The Vltava’s waters looked less than inviting, while its depth, width and breadth did not make much of an impression. This was deceptive, for if I had been there during one if its periodic floods, my opinion of the Vltava would have been very different.

Ferocious flow - The Vltava River takes on the bridges of Prague

Ferocious flow – The Vltava River takes on the bridges of Prague (Credit: Ondrej Kofinek)

Dangerous & Deadly Inundations – The Drowning of Prague
When I think of a flood threatening a major European city my thoughts usually go back to a time before the 20th century, prior to the age of regulation and channelization of rivers. Before dams and their resultant reservoirs created relatively constant flows that mitigated nature’s precipitate excesses.
Prague was no stranger to dangerous and deadly floods. The present day riverscape of Prague is known as much for the historic Charles Bridge, as for the Vltava which flows beneath it. But if not for the river’s tempestuous ways, the Charles Bridge might never have been built. That is because its predecessor, the Judith Bridge, which spanned the river for 160 years, was irreparably damaged by the flooding Vltava in 1342. Construction on what would become known as the Charles Bridge began a decade and a half later. The bridge has battled the mighty Vltava ever since.

In 1784, the river became a gushing terror quite literally overnight. It rose an unprecedented four meters in a twelve-hour period. The fast flowing, forceful Vltava left five of the bridge’s pillars badly damaged, but somehow it withstood this severe test of nature’s swift force. The Vltava may not have been able to bring the Charles Bridge down, but it did leave plenty of destruction in its wake. Flooding of the Vltava took on an all too natural frequency between 1845 and 1890, as no less than four major inundations occurred. Then just as suddenly the forces of nature moderated. For five generations, the Vltava barely broke from its banks. A false sense of security set in, as the living memory of its once great floods died out.

Rising tide - Povoden in Prague during the 2002 flood

Rising tide – Povoden in Prague during the 2002 flood (Credit: Effenberger)

Nature’s Wrath – Ferocity Flowing Into The Present
All that distant history aside, nature has a way of reminding humanity of its wrath. This was the case during the summer of 2002 when the Vltava River was transformed into a raging torrent that threatened to subsume much of Prague’s most venerable quarters and tear the Charles Bridge from its historic role of bridging the Vltava’s turbid waters. A perfect storm so to speak, descended on the area as two low pressure systems carried warm, moist air up from the Mediterranean causing a deluge of precipitation over large parts of central Europe. Northern Bohemia was one of the hardest hit areas. To give an idea of the unprecedented nature of the flooding, consider the German city of Dresden, which sits astride the Elbe River. The Vltava is a feeder river for the Elbe (Labe in Czech), which recorded its highest ever gauge reading that same year, surpassing the previous record set in 1275. This in turn led to catastrophic water levels on the Vltava. While the deluge was considered a 100-Year flood by some, for the Czech Republic it went beyond anything the region had experienced in recorded history. The swiftness with which the flood struck was breathtaking.

On August 11th citizens began to get word through state television and radio that major flooding was probable along sections of the city which abutted the Vltava. Two days later, flood waters began to surge into low lying areas of Prague. Evacuation of the Old Town began that same evening. Fortunately, there had been enough advance warning to minimize the loss of life. Nonetheless, 19 people would die in the coming days and 40,000 citizens of Prague were forced to evacuate their homes. The authorities allowed each of them to take only a single suitcase of belongings when they fled from the rising waters. The Old Town was now vacant in the summer, a rare occurrence by any standard. Many tourists were left to fend for themselves, forced to sleep wherever they could find a spare bed. By August 14th, no less than 29 of the city’s metro stations were under water. Anyone chancing the streets in the districts of Karlin and Florenc needed a rowboat. The city zoo even had to be evacuated. The river had struck a decisive blow against an unprepared Prague.

Charles Bridge & the Vltava River - In the 2013 Flood

Charles Bridge & the Vltava River – In the 2013 Flood (Credit: Ben Skala)

A Lasting Memory – Preparing Prague For Disaster
The first major flood in 112 years had brought Prague to its knees and served as a chilling reminder of the Vltava’s ferocious power. The worst of the 2002 flooding only lasted for a few days, but the memory of it lasted much longer and influenced efforts to protect the city from another such disaster. The false sense of security that grew during the floodless 20th century was all but gone. Next time would be different and so it was. In 2013 the Vltava again burst over its banks, but this time there was much less destruction. Flood barriers that had been erected following the 2002 inundation held the rising tide of water at bay. Prague was safe, until the next flood.

Click here for: For The Rest Of My Life Or Just One Night – Prague Castle: St. Vitus Cathedral & The Golden Lane

Love At First Fright: Prague’s Powder Tower: Illuminating Shadows

My first full day in Prague was due to start with a World War II tour. The tour, which had received rave reviews online, proved to be forgettable. I mostly recall the guide reciting a litany of details and information that I could have learned from any standard book on the subject. The most interesting part was his ambivalence towards Germans. I had heard that Czechs were lukewarm at best in their attitude towards Germans. There was a long, bitter memory of the Nazi occupation and dismemberment of the First Czechoslovak Republic. Prior to that, there was sublimation of Czech national aspirations to Habsburg Imperial hegemony. The guide seemed neutral when it came to the subject of Germans. I found his attitude surprising. At the end of the tour, he informed me that his grandfather had been an ethnic German. Wartime guilt was not black and white according to him. His ire turned on the Soviet Union and their much longer and more recent occupation of the country. Other than this fascinating personal story, the most memorable aspect of the tour was its starting point.

Gothic Grandeur - The Powder Tower in Prague

Gothic Grandeur – The Powder Tower in Prague

An Explosive Situation – From Coronations To Conflicts
The tour began at the Powder Tower, which was one of thirteen gates that historically allowed entry into the Old Town (Stare Mesto). The name came from the tower’s role as a storage place for gunpowder, but it did not start that way. Prior to the Powder Tower’s construction, there had been another gate. Built in the early 1200’s, it was for some reason known as the Mountain Gate. By the late 15th century it had fallen into disrepair. The City Council of Prague chose to have what would be first known as the New Tower built on the site as a coronation gift for King Vladislav II in 1475. It was modeled after an existing tower built for the Charles Bridge a century earlier. The tower’s construction was not without difficulties. Riots in Prague caused Vladislaus to flee his palace, which was connected to the tower. This resulted in construction on the tower being brought to a halt. When Vladislaus moved back to Prague, he took up residence in the safety of Prague Castle rather than the Old Town. Because of this move, construction on the tower lay dormant for many years and the structure would not be completed until the end of the 16th century.

The Powder Tower came by that name only in the early 18th century, as it was transformed into a storage unit for the most valuable of military incendiaries. This also made it a target. When Frederick The Great’s Prussian Army battled for Prague in 1757, the tower, along with the surrounding area, came under attack. Much of its Gothic era plastic decoration was badly damaged and would eventually be removed. The city suffered as well, with 900 houses destroyed in the fighting. The worst damage though, was inflicted on Frederick’s Prussian forces. They lost 14,000 soldiers in the fighting, failed to take the city and ended up retreating. From this point forward, the Powder Tower was more a relic of a bygone age, rather than of any real use for defensive purposes. This is reflected in the fact that from 1875 to 1886 the Austrian overlords of Prague allowed for its restoration in the pseudo-Gothic style it still sports today. The preservation of such a defensive work is telling. Obviously, the Austrians felt it no longer had any military significance.

The Powder Tower - prior to restoration in 1856

The Powder Tower – prior to restoration in 1856 (Credit: Andreas Groll)

From Modern To Medieval –  History Means More Than Reality
The Powder Tower still acts as a portal of entry between the New and Old Towns. For many centuries, it was the starting point for the Royal Route which led through the Old Town then up to the Castle for coronations. It proved to be a different type of portal for me. It was the first Gothic architectural feature I saw in Prague. There were many more to come. My reaction upon seeing the tower was of love at first fright. It was a stark and foreboding visual. The tower looked as though it had been severed from Dracula’s Castle and landed on a modern city side street. The tower may have been rigid and ominous, but it exuded a dynamism and charisma all its own. All other buildings surrounding it, whether large or small, were dwarfed by its presence. The Powder Tower’s effect on the street which it stood, was to make all surroundings disappear from the viewer’s eye. The tower’s singularity caused me to fixate on it. After passing through the arched opening of its lowest part, I felt as though another world had been entered. A world where history meant much more than reality.

I would soon discover that for all its charm, Prague is home to buildings that can intimidate as much as enthrall. The Powder Tower imposed itself on present-day Prague, a finite dividing line between old and new, modern and medieval. I did not actually ever go inside the Powder Tower. Only passing under its arched opening in the coming days on multiple occasions. The fact that I never entered its chambers left me to imagine the interior. I envisioned dark and cold stone corridors where narrow minded medievalists had once issued decrees without a hint of remorse. As a place of passage for merchants, soldiers and aristocrats that controlled access to a world of power, wealth and royal privilege. The Powder Tower made this past palpable for me. The past was no longer stranded in dusty tomes, lost kingdoms or forgotten dreams.

Artistic rendering of restored Powder Tower from 1911

Artistic rendering of restored Powder Tower from 1911 (Credit: Richard Moser)

A Dark & Dynamic Fairy Tale – Into Another World
That the tower still stood after four hundred and forty years, lording over the modern streetscape, was a testament to a powerful past that Prague preserved, a Golden Age Gothicism that was just as formidable and frightening, magnetic and alluring, intimidating and inspiring as it had been while dominating Europe. A dark yet dynamic fairy tale that had been kept alive for centuries to remind of the grandeur of the Gothic. A grandeur that could only be accessed in certain special portals such as Prague, a city that acted as a point of entry into another world. A world that still managed to exist on the other side of the Powder Tower, in the winding alleyways, narrow streets and illuminating shadows of the Old Town.

Click here for: High Water Marks – Prague’s Historic Floods: The Vltava Strikes Back