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

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

The fertile horizons of eastern Slovenia - Prekmurje region

The fertile horizons of eastern Slovenia – Prekmurje region

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

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

Thatched cottages in Prekmurje

Thatched cottages in Prekmurje

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

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

Rural road in Prekmurje

Rural road in Prekmurje (Credit: petrainpika)

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

The Miracle of Marton Fucsovics – Hungary’s Top Tennis Player Realizes His Potential

In February it will be exactly one year since I wrote my first post mentioning Marton Fucsovics. At the time, he was Hungary’s top tennis player, but that was about the extent of his fame. Fucsovics was ranked #163 back then. He looked to be headed for journeyman status. In tennis parlance that means a career toiling away at second tier challenger events in provincial European cities. By the beginning of 2017, Fucsovics had been playing on the pro tour for five and a half years. The great promise Fucsovics had shown when he won the 2010 Wimbledon Boys’ Singles Championship looked to be a thing of the past. Then something remarkable happened, Fucsovics began to play the best tennis of his life. His rise in the rankings was steady. He achieved a career high of #109 prior to Wimbledon, after he won a grass court challenger event in Ilkley, England. This gained him a main draw spot at the All England Club.

In the autumn of 2017 the man who goes by the nickname of Marci, broke inside the top 100 for the first time ever. This occurred after he qualified for the main draw at the ATP Tour event in Basel, Switzerland where he made it to the quarterfinals before losing a close three setter to fourth ranked Marin Cilic. Fucsovics finished the season ranked at a career high of #85. As the self-anointed personal record keeper of Marton Fucsovics, I could not have been more pleased. His 2017 season was more than his small, but growing group of fans could have hoped for. Marci from Nyiregyhaza was on the verge of becoming a household name in his tennis starved homeland of Hungary if he could manage to stay in the top 100. As the 2018 season began, I began to worry if Fucsovics would be able to achieve the same high level of results he had during 2017. That worry has now vanished due to the miracle of Marton Fucsovics.

On the verge of a major breakthrough - Fucsovics ranking prior to the Australian Open

On the verge of a major breakthrough – Fucsovics’ ranking prior to the Australian Open

The Notable Nyiregyhazan – Scorching The Competition
Only two notable residents are listed on the English language Wikipedia page for Nyiregyhaza, a small city in eastern Hungary. One of whom is the famous children’s book author, Gabor Nogradi. The other is a female Hungarian pop singer by the name of Ibolya Olah. It should not be long before Marton Fucsovics’ name is listed alongside them. That is because Fucsovics is playing tennis at a level that has not been seen from a Hungarian since Balazs Taroczy in the 1980’s. To put it bluntly, Fucsovics has started off the season on fire and is now positively scorching. The analogy is appropriate since Fucssovics has garnered the best results of his career in Australia, where he is just as hot as the weather. He arrived Down Under in the Australian capital to play the Canberra Challenger as a warm up for the Australian Open. He proceeded to sail through the draw to the final with only the loss of a single set. In the final, he faced the Italian veteran Andreas Seppi. Fucsovics won the first set, but dropped the next two. Nevertheless, getting to the final led to his highest ranking ever at #80.

The result gave Fucsovics momentum as he headed to Melbourne for the Australian Open, the year’s first Grand Slam event. Grand Slam tournaments are where rising players solidify their status and the best players etch their name in history. Coming into the Australian Open, Fucsovics had never won a match in the main draw of a Grand Slam event, though he had come closest at the U.S. Open this past August where he lost in a fifth set tiebreaker to the Frenchman Nicholas Mahut. Coming off his runner-up finish in Canberra, Fucsovics had good reason to believe he could finally break through for his first Grand Slam tournament victory. This hope was tempered by the thought of what happened to Fucsovics last year at the Australian Open. He had lost in the first round of qualifying to a young Australian, Bradley Mousley, who was ranked #529 at the time. It would turn out to be the worst loss Fucsovics suffered in 2017. Of course, there was another way of looking at this result. Fucsovics could not do any worse at the Australian in 2018 than he had in 2017. He really had nothing to lose and everything to gain this time, including valuable ranking points.

Hungarian Hero - Marci signs an autograph for a young fan at the Australian Open

Hungarian Hero – Marci signs an autograph for a young fan at the Australian Open

Everything To Gain – The Confidence Man
His first round opponent was a fellow Eastern European, the diminutive Moldovan journeyman Radu Albot. The two had played four times previously, with Fucsovics winning three of those meetings. The Hungarian’s greatest advantage over Albot is physical. He is five inches taller than the Moldovan. Fucsovics power game would end up overwhelming Albot in four sets, as he won three-quarters of the points on his first serve. He also hit 13 more winners, while feasting on Albot’s weak serve, which he broke nine times. It is difficult to imagine just how big this first round victory was for Fucsovics. He gained a boost to his confidence that would bode well for his next match. He would be a decided underdog against the top ranked American player in the world, #13 seed Sam Querry.

Prior to his second round encounter with Querry, Fucsovics had never beaten anyone ranked higher than 36th in the world. Marci proved there is a first time for everything in 2018, as he defeated Querry in four sets. This time he won 82% of his first serve points. The key moment came in the second set when he was able to win a tiebreaker 8-6. Fucsovics also teed off when returning Querry’s second serve. Just like in the Albot match, Fucsovics won over half of his opponent’s second serve points. With this win, Fucsovics entered a new stage of his career. For the first time ever, Fucsovics had beaten a player in the world’s top 20. His reward was a third round match with a man he had already handily defeated earlier this year, the Argentine Nicholas Kicker. Fucsovics once again thoroughly dominated Kicker, only allowing him seven games. He did this with the same winning formula from his previous victories, winning 63% of Kicker’s second serve points and out slugging him from the baseline by hitting twenty more winners. Fucsovics’ confidence is now at an all-time high and it has showed. He has been steamrolling the opposition.

The ultimate challenge - Fucsovics faces Federer in the 4th Round of the Australian Open

The ultimate challenge – Fucsovics faces Federer in the 4th Round of the Australian Open

Realizing Potential –  Scaling New Heights
It is hard to imagine a more thrilling tournament up to this point for Fucsovics. He has now guaranteed himself a quarter of a million dollars in prize money, a ranking in the world’s top 60 and most importantly a fourth round matchup with the player many consider the greatest ever, Roger Federer. It is a daunting, but well-deserved match for Fucsovics. He has spent the past twelve months working his way up to this point. Fucsovics has put himself in a great position with nothing to lose. Compared to where he was at this time last year, mired in the obscure world of tennis’ lower ranks, he has come farther than anyone could have expected. What led to his resurgence? There were big victories in Davis Cup, a title and multiple finals in Challenger level tournaments. These achievements did not necessarily point to his breakthrough at the Australian Open. Perhaps it has been something outside the world of tennis that has helped him scale new heights. Just two months ago, Fucsovics was engaged to get married. Success both on and the court have coalesced, leading to the miracle of Marton Fucsovics, a Magyar sportsman finally realizing his potential.

The Theft Of Innocence – An Attendant Mystery: Krakow To Budapest (Part Four)

Frantic, nervous and beside myself with a mixture of fear, worry and anger I found the attendant, a young man from Polish Railways who could not have been more than thirty years old. In extremely bad English he asked if we locked the door. I shook my head. He twisted the lock open and shut several times showing me how it worked. He finally left it at open and said, “Public.” What he meant was that if the door was not locked the compartment was open to the public. He was spot on. I felt angry for being so stupid. The attendant left. We continued to search, but less frantically. Our hope of finding the wallet was waning. Then the attendant suddenly reappeared and asked me to follow him to the area at the end of the corridor. This was where it led into the next train car. On the floor was my friend’s wallet, as though it had been tossed there by the thief. The money was gone (between $200 and $300), but his driver’s license and credit cards were still there. We both felt another wave of relief, at least all had not been lost. The money was not that big a deal compared to finding the wallet. Unfortunately, the incident marred the unexpectedly pleasant overnight train trip.

Compartmentalized - Sleeper Train Corridor 

Compartmentalized – Sleeper Train Corridor

Who Done It – Casting For Blame
It was only later after the initial shock wore off that we began to try and figure out what exactly had happened. In the absence of any other suspects, our suspicion fell on the attendant in our train car. This may not have been fair, but we had no one else to blame other than ourselves. The attendant had been the one who found the wallet, but that raised the question of if he was the one who also took it. His compartment was next to ours. He would have heard us coming and going to the bathroom throughout the night. One time during the early morning hours I glanced into his compartment. At the time he looked to be resting. That could have been a ruse or reality. He would have woken up long before us. What if he saw us sound asleep or knew when my friend was using the restroom and I was in a deep sleep. This would have been the most advantageous time to make a move for the wallet. Especially if he heard the door fly open.

If I would have woke up while the theft was taking place, he could have said that he was closing the door. How would I have known any better? There was also the fact that he discovered the wallet. It was lying in the open on the floor just outside of the bathroom. Close to where the entrance was into the next train car. Had it really been in that same place all morning? Many people woke up before us. Surely someone would have seen it and either taken the wallet or turned it in. The chance that it was lying there for an indeterminate amount of time, untouched less the cash, seemed slimmer than the attendant placing it there himself. Quite conveniently, as soon as the attendant came to get me and then led me to the wallet, attention was distracted away from him.

Strangers On A Train – Opportunistic & Ominous
The relief we felt when finding the wallet made us forget all about the attendant’s potential culpability until we got off the train. There was a moment of mild euphoria. Only after we exited the train at Keleti Station in Budapest did we begin to cast our suspicions towards the attendant’s role. There was not much we could have done, even if we were pretty sure it was him. He spoke broken English at best. We only spoke English. Neither of us spoke Polish or Hungarian. We were now in Hungary not Poland. The only way we would have been able to find out whether the attendant was guilty would have been for the police to search his belongings. There was not enough evidence for that to be done. Plus, there was an insurmountable language barrier. And what if it was not him? The thought was chilling.

There was a distinct possibility that someone came into our compartment. An opportunistic thief who made his way from one of the other train cars or was sleeping in the same car. This was more frightening because it would have been someone we would not have known and never would know. A total stranger. When getting off the train at Keleti I wondered if the culprit might be walking among us. No matter who did it, we had to live with the losses. In the overall scheme of our trip it was a violation, but relatively benign compared to what might have happened. My friend had his wallet back. His credit cards were all there. He could use them at any ATM and soon did. I had my wallet and our passports were safe. In sum, we had been lucky. It was a hard lesson learned.

The Mystery Never Ends - Keleti Station in Budapest

The Mystery Never Ends – Keleti Station in Budapest (Credit: Dwight79)

For All The Wrong Reasons – Out On The Edge
Now I knew that night trains were more than noise, nuisances and sleeplessness. The compartment was not isolated from the darker aspects of society. Safety and security were illusions that could easily be stripped away just as fast as my friend’s wallet. There are thieves everywhere and nowhere. People steal for a variety of reasons including to get by or top up their wages. In Eastern Europe, many people with professional jobs live on the edge economically. Several hundred dollars can last someone more than a month. For them it was worth the risk. The crime was likely committed not out of malevolence, but need or at worst greed. As Americans we were targets. Seen as cash machines and tourists. I would never consider myself or my friend as wealthy, but someone saw us as that, sometime late in the night or early morning. Our misgivings about the return trip turned out to be true. We were able to sleep, but we also got robbed. Our overnight train journeys from Budapest to Krakow and Krakow to Budapest had been memorable, but for all the wrong reasons.

Click here for: The Whole of the Moon – Stolen Hours: Krakow to Budapest (Part Three)

 

 

 

 

The Whole Of The Moon – Stolen Hours: Krakow To Budapest (Part Three)

I just could not let it go. Throwing the equivalent of sixty dollars down the drain was too much to stomach. I urged my friend to take the night train back with me from Krakow to Budapest. I did not want to surrender half the cost of a ticket no matter how minimal the loss. It would also mean an entire day spent in transit, wasting a precious day of sightseeing. These two factors made me overlook the painful memory of what had occurred just two days before on our trip from Budapest to Krakow. Surely if we survived it once, we could do so again. I tried to console my friend with the idea “that this would be the last time we ever had to do this.” Such flippant logic only went so far, because we were still going to endure it one more time. And that one time had been one too many. My friend was not happy about the thought of suffering another sleepless night or that “terrible banging noise”. Neither was I, but as much as I hated that first trip, it made for a hell of a story. In the pursuit of adventure and a good yarn I was ready to suffer it all over again.

That lonesome whistle - Waiting on a night train at Krakow Glowny

That lonesome whistle – Waiting on a night train at Krakow Glowny

Getting What You Pay For –  Train Games
There was one caveat though. My friend wanted to see if we could change the ticket from a six bed to a two-bed berth. In a spirit of guilt ridden magnanimity I approached a woman at the international ticket window in Krakow Glowny who spoke horrendous English which was matched by her terrible attitude. The only words I was able to understand were her increasingly loud exhalations of “no refund”. My desperate protestations were no match for her willful indifference.  She was too busy waiting to go on break or perhaps she was already on one. I returned to my friend with the sad, but not surprising news that we would still be bunking with four strangers. He recoiled at this idea. I tried to soothe his nerves by uttering a few useless analogies about how “it couldn’t be any worse than the other night” and “what difference does it make how many people are in the compartment, the banging will be just as loud.”

After a period of tense silence and a pensive stare, he said “I am going to see if I can buy us a two-berth compartment.” Back to the window he went. A little while later he came back looking relaxed and holding a ticket for the two of us in our own compartment. I quietly breathed a sigh of relief. At least we could suffer the return trip by ourselves. I offered to pay my share of the ticket. He was so elated by this small victory that he would not hear of it. We did not enter the train until just past 10:00 p.m. on a Wednesday evening. Our compartment seemed a bit roomier than before. That was because the third bunk was not pulled down. In effect, my friend had paid for our berths as well as a vacant one. We both expressed a sense of foreboding as the train began to pull away from the station. I was prepared for another nightmare scenario. Our lone hope was that we were in a different railway car. It was from Hungarian railways, rather than the Polish one we took to Krakow.

Poor saps trying to reason with cranky clerks - Ticket window at Krakow Glowny

Poor saps trying to reason with cranky clerks – Ticket window at Krakow Glowny

Thief In The Night –  Dreams & Nightmares
Our expectation of cracks, pops and bangs failed to materialize. The first few hours turned out to be a relatively smooth journey. In comparison to our first trip it was a dream, but as the train crossed over into a Moravian countryside cloaked in darkness my apprehension grew. At any moment the train might start belching forth those tortuous noises. I settled my nerves with a special melatonin drink to help me get a few hours of sleep. Soon I was in a trance, followed by a daze and then I fell asleep. Every hour or so I would awake. At one point I felt the train stop and heard voices outside the window. Peeking through a thin curtain I noticed we were in the small city of Breclav, a major railway junction in the Czech Republic which sits close to the Austrian and Slovakian border. I did not see a single potential passenger on the platform, only border guards walking back and forth. It felt like a dream.

A couple of hours before dawn I got up and went to the bathroom. When I reentered the compartment, I failed to fully shut the door. It swung outward and banged against the compartment exterior. I pulled it closed, but forgot to lock it. I then fell into the deepest  sleep I have ever experienced on a train. When I awoke, it was nearly eight a.m. and we were nearing Budapest. I felt totally refreshed from a good night’s rest. The train ride had been close to perfect. I mentioned this to my friend who was already dressed. His reply sent a shock wave through me. “My wallet is gone.” He was frantically searching his pockets, suitcase and the berth. I began to search as well. He had made the mistake of putting it in the netting hanger just above the bed. I had done the same thing on the first trip, but without any problems. I should have known better.

Another night another train - Krakow To Budapest on Hungarian Railways

Another night another train – Krakow To Budapest on Hungarian Railways

Relief & Recrimination – Lost & Found
It suddenly struck me that my friend had almost certainly been the victim of theft.
He believed his wallet was stolen when we were both in our bunks that night. My friend had distinctly heard the door to the compartment close loudly. It woke him up. He recalled looking at the door and then at me laying there asleep. This made him wonder if he had imagined it.  Whatever might have happened, one thing was for certain, someone else had entered the room that night. This violation made us suddenly vulnerable, feelings of fear, menace and anger descended on the compartment. Usually reserved and rarely prone to cursing, my friend spewed forth an expletive. We were both approaching crisis mode. I began to wonder what we were going to do.

At least I had my wallet, or did I? I checked my suitcase, unzipping one of the pockets. It was empty. Panic flew straight from my mouth, “My wallet and passport are gone too?” I felt lightheaded and a bit dizzy. My heart was pounding, hands shaking. Frantically I checked another area in my suitcase. That is where I found my wallet and both of our passports. A feeling of instantaneous relief passed through me, followed by guilt and shame. My friend’s wallet was still missing. I was the one who had left the door unlocked. He blamed himself, I blamed myself. None of this did either of us any good. We tried to recall what may have happened. He had gone to the bathroom as well. The theft could have happened while he was out. We both believed it had happened in the last couple of hours while I was fast asleep. He remembered hearing the door shut, I remembered nothing.

Click here for: A Hangover Without A Drop Of Alcohol – That Kind of Night: Budapest to Krakow (Part Two)

Click here for: The Theft Of Innocence – An Attendant Mystery: Krakow to Budapest (Part Four)

A Hangover Without A Drop Of Alcohol – That Kind Of Night: Budapest To Krakow (Part Two)

Four in the morning is a terrible time to be awake, especially if you have not slept a wink. The Budapest to Krakow overnight express was rattling its way through Moravia. Hideous sounds came from beyond the walls of our small, rattle trap compartment. Sounding like somewhere out there in the deep, dark night an army of industrial workers was tearing the train apart while it hurtled into the unknown. When the banging momentarily subsided, the merciless sensation of the train shifting from side to side would take hold. The rails were supposed to be straight, but I imagined them as shiny strings of steel spaghetti leading the locomotive through a foreign land.

The train was supposedly headed to Krakow, but it felt like a voyage into an unknown abyss filled with sharp bends and precipitate drops. One minute we would be roaring downhill.  Then the brakes would suddenly scream out in a piercing shriek. The sound effects emanating from the rickety bowels below us were more frightening than anything I had heard in a horror film. Once in a while my friend and I commiserated in our misery. “This is insane” “something must be wrong with the train” and always we came back to the same exasperated question, “What was that awful banging?”

Enter at your own risk

Enter at your own risk (Credit: Man In Seat 61)


Beyond The Grasp Of Reason – Nightmare For A Memory

There was no sane explanation for what was wrong with the train. For that matter, there was no logical reason it stayed on the tracks. All we could do was hope for dawn and then Krakow. Out of sheer exhaustion I finally fell asleep. When I awoke, my friend was already dressed for arrival. He had slept even less than I had. His first overnight train trip had been horrific. It was as though we had been placed in a cage that had been beaten all night with iron bars. I looked out the window at a pastoral landscape covered in mist. This was Poland. It was hard to believe that we were close to Krakow. The previous evening was now a nightmarishly unforgettable memory. We were late for our arrival, but it hardly mattered at this point. Our only thought was getting off this train. I had a distinct feeling of unreality. Having survived this dangerous odyssey was beyond the grasp of reason.

Emerging from the compartment, I met several others in the hallway who looked the worse for wear. A bleary-eyed mother and her teenage son were standing slump shouldered while arguing amongst themselves. They conversed in English and turned out to be Americans. I struck up a conversation with them. They were traveling around Europe on a multi-month journey. I asked them their opinion of the train trip. The mother said this had been their first overnight trip on a train.  She was glad to have the experience, but never wanted to go through a night like that again. Then the inevitable question, “Did you hear that loud banging? What was going on?” Of course, I had no idea what had caused that nightmare of noise. I did not say it, but I disagreed with the mother. I would have gladly traded this trip for a pleasant daylong railway ride to Krakow. I had the feeling that everyone else felt this way as well. Every passenger who filed out of their compartment looked to be in tired disarray. It had been that kind of night. This journey had given me and my traveling companion a hangover without a drop of alcohol.

No Room For Comfort – Suffer The Night
The best we could say about the trip was that it had been an adventure. The exact opposite of the relaxing, sleep filled, smooth ride we had hoped to experience. A few weeks prior to this trip I had written a blog post expressing dismay that the Hungarian National Railways planned to cut overnight train services. This was part of a trend on many European railway lines. I still hope overnight European train travel survives, but I must admit that in its current form the days of romance, comfort and leisure on these trains has long since passed into history. The problem has as much to do with the passengers as it does the service. We live in an age of mass travel. To be affordable and competitive, night trains must pack many people within the wagon. Three and six bed berths do not leave much room for comfort. Space is extremely limited. The niceties of comfort have been largely done away with. Fine dining has been replaced by an improved version of the tv dinner. Forget a decent bathroom, these are barely above the level of rudimentary. I have begun to wonder if overnight train travel has survived in Europe only because of government subsidies and traditionalism.

The price is not right either. Overnight train travel is scarcely competitive with buses. These days it may actually be cheaper to fly. A traveler can fly between Budapest and many European cities on low cost carrier Wizz Air for a mere pittance. Bus rides between Budapest and Krakow can be had for as little as 10 Euros, about a fifth of the cost incurred by someone booking an overnight train between those two cities a day in advance. Admittedly flying is a hassle and long bus rides are exhausting in the extreme, but the cost and convenience are still tough to beat. Of course, on a train the passengers get to see the countryside. That is except for overnight trains, where they only see darkness. They can always pass the time as I did, trying to read by a very bad light, then tossing and turning restlessly on a ride through railway hell. Fortunately, I did not have to do this with five strangers, but that option had also been available. One could attain a level of discomfort scarcely sufferable, all for a bit of romantic nostalgia.

Arrival time - Krakow Glowny

Arrival – Krakow Glowny

Stoicism & Quiet Agitation – Mourning Arrival
My lone companion had suffered the trip much the same as I did, with stoicism and quiet agitation. When the train pulled into Krakow Glowny there was a sense of beleaguered relief, we had somehow made it. We were not rested and ready, only tired and weak. The first thing that came to mind was getting to our accommodation as soon as possible and sleeping the day off. This thought kept us going. Along with the idea that we could not possibly do this trip again. We had just two and a half days to change our minds

Click here for: Off The Rails – The Nightmare Train: Budapest To Krakow (Part One)

Click here for: The Whole Of The Moon – Stolen Hours: Krakow To Budapest (Part Three) 

Off The Rails – The Nightmare Train: Budapest To Krakow (Part One)

Some people never learn and I am one of them. Several years ago, I took a night train from Belgrade, Serbia to Sofia, Bulgaria thinking it would give me an extra day to visit the latter. It did, but unfortunately only after enduring a bone rattling train ride through the night. The morning after that trip I was the worse for wear. I did not enjoy the extra time I got in Sofia due to my sleep deprived state. I should have learned from that lesson. Overnight trains were not for me. In the intervening years I had marginally better experiences on overnight trains to Spilt, Croatia and Brasov, Romania. I never completely swore off overnight trains. The romance tended to outweigh the irritation I experienced. My enchantment with such train trips started long ago with the James Bond film, From Russia With Love. In it Bond travels with a beautiful Russian bombshell named Tatiana from Istanbul to Trieste. The dining car, elegant compartments, mystery and intrigue captured my imagination. Never mind, that Bond nearly gets strangled with a piece of wire. Or the fact that two other men are murdered on the train which never quite makes it to Trieste. I was still smitten with the idea of train trips through exotic European locales. After six years though, that allure would disappear on a single overnight trip from Budapest to Krakow.

Sleeper car for the Budapest to Krakow route

It looks so appealing – Sleeper car for the Budapest to Krakow route (Credit: Man in Seat Sixty-One)

Just One Night – Rationalizing A Rail Ride
The idea seemed sound. An older friend and myself would take the overnight train from Budapest’s Keleti Station to Krakow Glowny. This would give us an extra day to tour Krakow. Why waste a day sitting on a train, when we could sleep on one at night? An additional benefit of this plan was that it would save us from paying for a hotel room. The train would leave Keleti at 8:07 p.m. and arrive in Krakow the next morning just after 7:00 a.m. My friend, who is much older than I am, was all for giving it a try, but was wondering what it would be like. He had never spent the night on a train. I related my experiences both good and bad, but explained away the Belgrade to Sofia fiasco as a one off. After all that was Serbian and Bulgarian railways. Hungary and Poland were much farther along in their post-communist development. And besides it was as much about the overnight train trip experience as anything else.

We only had one misgiving. Our failure to book early enough in advance meant we could only reserve a three rather than two-berth compartment. This meant we would be bunking with a stranger or so we thought. Neither of us was excited by this prospect. We both loathed the idea of shared sleeping accommodations. My friend was a lifelong bachelor, after almost fifty years to himself, bunking down above or beneath a foreigner who came from an entirely different culture did not seem like an appealing prospect. We both agreed that this was just for one night and we could handle almost anything for a short duration of time. Luckily, the third person did not show by the time the train pulled out of the station. Less than half an hour after the train left, I noticed some loud popping and banging. I rationalized this as the train having a few issues getting adjusted. We slowly and nosily surged forward into northern Hungary.

Northwest by North - Budapest to Krakow by train

Northwest by North – Budapest to Krakow by train

Compartmental Consternation – Invisible Impediments
Soon we were getting ready for bed.  Just before turning the lights out we asked the conductor if anyone else would be joining us. He nodded in the affirmative and said something unintelligible in Polish. The one word I recognized was Bratislava. I assumed that another passenger would be joining us when we stopped in the Slovakian capital. Hopefully by then I would be too exhausted to care. I did not expect to rest very well, but figured as the night went on I would be able to catch several hours of sleep. My companion seemed unsure whether he would be able to sleep or not. He mentioned that he had survived sleeping in Marine barracks during boot camp. This could not be much worse. The problem was that these barracks were on wheels struggling to stay on tracks. We were constantly reminded of this not long after laying our heads down to sleep.

At random intervals the train car would be jarred by some invisible impediment. This would cause a commotion that threatened to toss me all the way over in my bunk. It kept happening as the night gave way to the earliest hours of the morning. That third possible passenger never showed and was forgotten amid the banging and clanging, popping and stopping. Here was a case where we tossed and turned, as much from the train’s wild tango with the tracks, as from our own efforts. Every so often I would pull the curtains back and peek through the window. There was complete darkness for a minute or two and then a lonely light in the distance. I thought to myself, this must be Moravia, but it could have been anywhere. We were cast adrift in a netherworld of travel.

A place not to sleep - beds in the Budapest to Krakow sleeper
A place not to sleep – Beds in the Budapest to Krakow sleeper (Credit: Robs World Adventure Blog)

Toilet With A Twist – Shaking & Shimmying
Several times in the night I made my way to the bathroom, which meant stumbling down a corridor while trying to keep pace with the constant shifts and jolts of the train.  Once in the bathroom I struggled to pee. The problem was that I had to brace myself for the inevitable jolting. My legs were set rigid as I struggled to straddle the toilet. At one point after finally starting to pee, the train began to weave, not along a curve or bend, but literally weave as though it was veering from side to side. My hips started shimmying. I was taking a piss while doing the twist.  Somehow. I managed not to pee all over the wall. I was rather proud of this depraved bit of dexterity, yet also deeply troubled by the train’s weaving. This train gave me the sensation of riding on a self-propelled bicycle directed by a madman.

At some point in the night my friend voiced his concern with the ear splitting banging noises that occurred with alarming frequency. It sounded as though someone was beating the train into submission with iron bars. My friend voiced his frustration by asking no one in particular, “What is that banging?” I had no idea, but whatever it was would not stop. I began to wonder if the train was going to survive this trip. The same could be said for us, its ill-fated passengers.

Click here for: A Hangover Without A Drop Of Alcohol – That Kind of Night: Budapest To Krakow (Part Two)

A Periphery As The Center – The Erdohat: Hungary’s Forsaken & Beloved Land

I used to think that the Nyirseg, a region in the far reaches of eastern Hungary covered by birch trees, dunes and reclaimed marshland was the remotest in the country. A place largely untouched by modern tourism. That was until I learned about the Erdohat, a region even further out on Hungary’s eastern frontier. It occupies the southern part of Szabolcs-Szatmar-Bereg County. The Erdohat is so remote that it has even managed to largely escape the internet’s attention. Google Erdohat and the search engine returns 527 results, compared with 60,900 for the Nyirseg. If the Nyirseg is Hungary’s land of beyond, then the Erdohat is the back of beyond. A place that shows a way much of Hungary used to be and parts of it are likely to become in the future. A glimpse of the country before industrialization and urbanization. The idea of cities is anathema to the Erdohat. The largest town, Fehergyarmet, has a population of just over 8,000 people. This is a land of villages, some have called it the quintessential Hungary, which is another way of saying traditional, rural and agricultural. A region where people still live off a combination of their wits and the land.

To another world - Szatmárcseké Cemetery

To another world – Szatmárcseké Cemetery (Credit: fuzlac23)

Notable For A Lack Of Notoriety – An Island To Itself
Time has a different meaning in the Erdohat, measured by lifespans rather than days or decades. It is pliable, rather than rigid. No one is in a hurry, because there is nowhere to go. Horse drawn trumps horse power. This all sounds wonderful for those urban dwellers who long for fresh air and natural beauty. The reality is much harsher. This is a hardscrabble land, economically backward. It is not so much forgotten, as forsaken. The way of life here would be more familiar to someone a century ago, even though the industrial age brought cars, paved roads and electricity. These are not of the essence, because modernity has touched this area lightly. Technology is kept at a distance as much by indifference as limited incomes. There is a refreshing simplicity about the area. A place that is most notable for its lack of notoriety.

The Erdohat is not a forgotten land, more like a forsaken one. Some might even call this the real Hungary, secure in the knowledge that they will never live there and only pay it a rare visit. It seems romantic from a distance, mostly by those who do not have to eke out a living on it. Isolation has been the rule rather the exception here for centuries. This isolation connects the Erdohat’s present to its deep past. The region was shaped by flooding that consumed the area south of the Tisza River. Swamp, morass, marshland was thus formed. This isolated many villages, making them islands unto themselves. The many invaders that ravaged or occupied other areas of Hungary showed little interest in trying to tame this wild land. The roads were bad, the villages secluded. The inhabitants were left to their own devices. If they wanted this land, they could have it. It was not easy, even for the hard-bitten locals to find high or dry land, let own scratch a living from the soggy soil.

18th century map of land cover - Szatmar Plain

18th century map of land cover – Szatmar Plain

A Truly Wild Land – The Few & Far Between
An 18th century map of the Szatmar Plain, which contains the Erdohat, shows a wide, contiguous swath of the area labeled as either mud or marshland. As part of an ancient flood plain it suffered innumerable inundations and continued to until the dawn of the modern age. This decided the area’s fate thousands of years before Hungarians attempted to tame it. Like all truly wild places, the Erdohat’s landscape had more influence on its inhabitants than they on it. That was until the great river regulations which transformed it during the 19th century. Drainage canals and ditches made the land much more inhabitable and receptive to agriculture. The area had previously been home to thick forests, but along with drainage of the land, much of the forest was removed to make the Erdohat suitable for agriculture. These changes never really did end the region’s isolation, though it brought more settlement to the region. It was geopolitics rather than the environment which confirmed the Erdohat’s remote status. When the borders of Hungary were trimmed after World War I, the Erdohat became the eastern edge of the country. A state of geography which still exists today.

The true value of the Erdohat for many Hungarians is that it evokes the rural, a magnetic attraction to the land. A unique culture still exists here, protected by insularity and cultivated by seclusion. To discover the Erdohat’s highlights one must seek out the few and far between places, ones that offer a window into the soul of a stranger land. Quaint folk customs and age-old traditions continue to thrive, the kind that make ethnographers and anthropologists salivate. Churches with wooden spires and belfries are among the most prominent architectural features. It only makes sense that one of the strangest and most iconic sights is to be found in a cemetery. The Szatmarcseke Calvinist Cemetery, located in a village of the same name, contains boat shaped wooden tombstones. Such markers infuse the cemetery with a distinct spirit. Nowhere to be found are the harsh concrete or polished tombstones which are hallmarks of modern cemeteries. The people may have died, but they are marked by this unique reverence. The way of life goes on in the Erdohat with no end in sight.

Reformed Church in Fehergyarmat

In the heart – Reformed Church in Fehergyarmat (Credit: Kalyob)

The Center Of A Nation – Back To Nature
Of course, like much of Hungary the Erdohat suffers from demographic decline, but suffering is nothing new in a landscape that was long known for its forbidding nature. Survival defines the Erdohat more than prosperity. Life is hard here and always will be. As the population declines, nature will slowly retake many of the old villages. Vacant houses crumble, villages die out. While sad, this also seems to be the natural state of things for this land. The Erdohat now consumes more people than it produces. If anything, it is becoming increasingly remote from the rest of Hungary. At the same time, it is a storehouse of nature, folk culture, rural life and traditional values that Hungarians hold deep in their hearts. The center of a nation found on the periphery.

A Little Girl & Her Father – Debrecen: When The Sun Shone The Brightest

In the mid-1970’s a little girl and her father went out one day to pick flowers for her mother in Debrecen, Hungary. It was the beginning of springtime. The trees were just beginning to blossom, but there was still a nip of cold in the air. The little girl, no more than four years old at time, was bundled up tight against the late afternoon chill. Her head and neck were wrapped in a scarf. Her father was dressed in trench coat and slacks. There was something extraordinary and memorable about the ordinariness of that moment which was captured in a photo forever. The photo shows the little girl clutching flowers she has gathered in her right hand, while looking toward the camera. Her father is holding her around the hips and is looking at her with a gaze of serenity and love. This scene must have been repeated hundreds, if not thousands of times over the coming years. Then one day many years later the father died, at least in a physical sense. He did not die spiritually. That is because his daughter carried the love he gave to her and his family forward into the world. Loved ones never really die, because they live on through the love they gave to others.

A Little Girl & Her Father - Debrecen

A Little Girl & Her Father – Debrecen

Broken Homes – The Curse Of Total War
The father never knew his father. He was more than likely dead before his son was born. Even if he was still alive it was in a concentration camp far away from eastern Hungary. On the day he died, the son would not have known what a father was and the father would not have ever seen his son. Europe in the 1940’s was filled with these types of tragedies, the curse of total war. Fathers went off to fronts, battle or genocidal ones and never returned. There was a void left in every nation and an emptiness occupying a multitude of hearts. Thus, sons and daughters grew up without their fathers. Their mothers were single parents not by choice, but by fate. The mother of the son in Debrecen, raised the boy the best she could under the circumstances. She had to be tough. Debrecen was badly damaged by the war, both physically and mentally. The economy was in tatters, the nation was trying to rebuild while the Soviets were exacting reparations a thousand thefts at a time.

The mother had been damaged even worse. She had narrowly escaped the clutches of the Holocaust. Her husband was Jewish and she was ethnically Hungarian. Such was the difference between life and death in those days of darkness. In the spring of 1944 her husband was walled off from her in the ghetto. Then a month or two later taken to the brickyard at Serly, before being deported beyond Hungary’s borders to hell on earth. And speaking of hell on earth, the Soviets and Germans fought a massive tank battle on the edge of Debrecen while the Americans bombed it from above. Hell from the ground up and the sky below. Soviet soldiers did unspeakable things that would only be recalled in recurring nightmares for the rest of women’s lives.

My Heart – Healing With Happiness
We can never know what the mother went through. The will to endure must have been strong, because there was no other option. The instinct of a mother to provide for her child gave her the will to overcome desperate circumstances. The son turned out to be highly intelligent. He had a gift for learning, which morphed into a love for medicine. The son without a father and a mother working a commoners job just to make ends meet, odd couples like these were the rule not the exception at that time in Hungary. Fortunately, there was a system in Hungary that could help the working class and those who excelled in school. Communism was a human tragedy for Hungary during the late 1940’s and 1950’s, but the system had its uses as well as its abuses. Free education was there for the taking, a brilliant mind could get you a degree and lead to a medical practice. It also led the son to meet the love of his life. Not far from the college at a restaurant that is still there today, the son met a woman of supreme intellect. One of the few who could match wits with him. They would come to refer to each other as my heart. For them there was the kind of love that sprinkles the world with a mysterious magic. Conjuring a romance out of every moment they spent together.

The inevitable outcome was marriage, then a son and a daughter. Trips to the Black Sea by way of a Trabant, family vacations along the Adriatic. In photos the son, who has now become a proud father, beams with happiness. Everyone who knew him said that this was a man who loved life. And he gave life, to the sick and the weak and the suffering. His profession was to heal others, not just with his mind, but also his happiness. Perhaps such enjoyment of life reflected an awareness that his own father had happiness and contentment stolen away from him by the Holocaust. Or maybe he realized how lucky he, the son, had been. If born only a year or two earlier, the likelihood is that he would have perished at a gas chamber in Auschwitz. Some people would say that it is better to be lucky than it is good. Well he was both lucky and good, some would even say great.

Greater Than Any River Of Tears – Memories Of A Father
There were so many days like the one captured in the photo. Taking his daughter for walks to gather flowers, holding her hand as she tottered along beside him, giving her hugs and kisses when he arrived home from the clinic. And as she grew older his love grew with her. It was a magnificent life up until the day that tragedy struck. The sickness came unannounced, creeping up on him when he was in the prime of life. In a cruel irony he diagnosed himself with a terminal illness. The man who had cured so many, could not cure himself. His family watched helplessly as he lost his hair and then they lost him. The memory of the father haunted a house on the edge of Debrecen. There was a silence that comes to a house when no one can sleep. There were muffled tears behind closed doors. Days of darkness even when the sun shone at its brightest.

Slowly, ever so slowly, the grief dissipated and the wellspring of enchanting memories returned to life. Never more so than the day his widow began looking at old family photos tucked away in a drawer.  There among the images, was one she set aside and would share with her daughter. It brought back a flood of memories much greater than any river of tears. Memories of the love, romance and beauty of life. Memories of a father who melted the hearts of everyone he met. None more so than the daughter he adored and the wife he loved with all his heart. In that one photo, there was a little girl and her father picking flowers for the mother. The mother who watched from behind the lens of a camera, capturing the love of their lives.

In memory of Erno Berenyi 1944 – 1990

Order Of The Sword, Barrel Of A Gun – Balga Castle: The Life & Death Of Teutonic Prussia (Part Two)

There was a castle on a distant European shoreline that once towered atop a hill overlooking the placid, icy waters of the Vistula Lagoon (Frisches Haff in German). Ships plying trade routes along the eastern Baltic Sea could sight it from several kilometers away. It was as much fortress as castle, helping guard the sea lanes that brought the Teutonic Knights trade, wealth and power. Today the castle cannot be seen from the lagoon, as it only exists in ruined form. To view it, one must approach from the landward side. The dilapidated walls in a thicket of forest only becoming visible at very close range. It takes a bit of imagination to sense that this was once a place of great importance. It takes less imagination to understand that the ruins of this castle did not come to their present state by natural processes.

Today what is left of Balga Castle is located within Kaliningrad Oblast. Oblast is the Russian equivalent of a province and Kaliningrad is the smallest one in Russia. This is quite a downgrade for a castle that was an integral building block of a political and military entity that eventually became Prussia, a Great Power that reshaped the geopolitics of Europe on multiple occasions.  Balga Castle’s history may be long and storied, but like the Prussian state it became a part of, that history belongs to the past. The future of the site looks likely to continue as a remote and largely forgotten ruin, that will either slowly degrade or at best be shored up against the elements. They betray only traces of what happened here in the distant and not so distant past. Whether it was seven centuries or seventy years before, Balga saw both success and defeat on a grand scale.

Balga Castle - Artistic rendering of how it looked in the medieval era

Balga Castle – Artistic rendering of how it looked in the medieval era

A Permanent Presence – The Impregnable Fortress
In 1250 the Teutonic Knights converted Balga from a wooden fortress into a bricks, stone and mortar castle/fortress. The complex was laid out on a hexagonal plan with three wings that included bedrooms, a chapel and refectory, which was a larger room where the Knights took communal meals. The grounds of the outer ward contained warehouses and additional living quarters for clerks who were involved in a growing trade. A high tower was also raised in this area.  Several Grand Marshals of the Order made Balga their home. The complex would prove to be impregnable against martial foes. In other areas the Knights were not so fortunate. Following their defeat against a Polish-Lithuanian force at the Battle of Grunwald in 1410 their power began to wane. Over time, changes in the geopolitical situation in northern Europe forced the lands under the Order’s control to evolve.

Those lands eventually became the Duchy of Prussia in 1525.  Around this time, the castle still enjoyed great prestige as a home for George of Polentz, the first Lutheran bishop in the region and the man who launched the Reformation in Prussia. George shared an enduring trait with the Teutonic Knights, namely the suppression of pagan worship practices. For instance, he would not allow worship of the pagan god of thunder, Perkunas. George’s methods of suppression were less cruel, but no less effective than the ultraviolence that had been used by the Knights in their initial conquest of the area. When George died at Balga in 1550, its glory days ended with his life. By the 17th century, it was being scavenged for material to help construct a fortress at the port of Pilau (present-day Baltiysk) out beyond the lagoon on the Curonian Spit. The castle went from disrepair to disuse, largely neglected until one of its still existing wings was used to house a museum during the 19th century. Balga looked as though it would become the preserve of proud Prussian patriots and bored schoolchildren in the province of East Prussia. This sleepy existence would end along with everything else Germanic in the region at the end of World War II.

Ruins of Balga Castle in 1940 - before the war came to East Prussia

Ruins of Balga Castle in 1940 – before the war came to East Prussia

The Last Redoubt – On Distant & Deadly Shores
In early January of 1945, villagers in and around the Balga area began to hear rumors that the Red Army had entered eastern Prussia. By the mid-point of that same month the first German refugees arrived telling of horrific atrocities by Soviet troops. It was not long before a trickle became a torrent. Soldiers soon arrived. They were quartered in any vacant room that could be found. In February, the evacuation of all civilians was ordered. Many resisted, but a forcible evacuation was carried out when the Red Army closed in on the area. Evacuees first crossed the frozen Vistula Lagoon on ice. Later during the spring thaw, they were ferried across in whatever watercrafts could be found. The Red Army was on the verge of overrunning the entire province of East Prussia by mid-March. By this point, German military efforts in the Balga area focused on trying to evacuate the last soldiers and civilians.

German soldiers fought with total desperation because they knew surrender meant death or deportation at the hands of the Soviets. The fighting was fiercest in the Heligenbeil Pocket, also known by the more apt descriptive as the Heligenbeil Cauldron. This was where the remnants of the German 4th Army were destroyed in a maelstrom of viciously violent warfare. Many holdouts made their way to the Kahlholzer Haaken Peninsula where they setup a defensive perimeter that incorporated the ruins of Balga Castle. In the shadow of the Teutonic Knights once impregnable castle, the remaining German troops, consisting of those from the  Panzerkorps “Großdeutschland” and the 28th Jäger Division, held out to this marshy, fat finger of land. They sank vehicles in the Vistula Lagoon to try and defend themselves from the overwhelming forces of the Red Army.

The misery of war - Heiligenbeil Pocket in 1945

The misery of war – Heiligenbeil Pocket in 1945

At The Mercy Of Conquest – Apocalyptic Contortions
The forest, roads and ruins were strewn with the detritus of military activity. Trenches and temporary military camps were everywhere. The day of final judgment approached. The defenders had no good options. Either try to escape, fight to the death or risk capture. The last soldiers to be evacuated left the shoreline just below Balga on March 29th. With them went 706 years of German occupation and ownership of the castle and its surroundings. What had begun in 1239 at Balga as the result of Teutonic martial might, was lost in 1945 due to Teutonic military failure. Live by the sword, die by the sword. The modern Teutonic warriors, German soldiers, died in droves attempting to fend off a cataclysm of apocalyptic proportions. East Prussia now lay at the mercy of the Soviet Union. It would never be the same again.

Click here for Prussian Impressions & Impositions – Balga Castle:A Teutonic Ruin (Part One)

 

 

Prussian Impressions & Impositions – Balga Castle: A Teutonic Ruin (Part One)

To get to the essence of the beginning and end of an empire, kingdom or nation it is instructive to look towards the periphery. It is not at the most famous or populated places, such as a capital city or a king’s palace, where the essence of a polity’s early rise and final fall are to be found. Instead, it is in those less obvious places, on forgotten frontiers where the outlines of faded foundations are slowly succumbing to nature and irreparably eroded by time, that the beginnings of greatness or the final, fatal death throes of decrepitude can be detected. And so it is with Prussia, a name that evokes aristocratic Junkers, the resplendent coronation city of Konigsberg, German militarism and crusading Teutonic Knights.

From a Grand Order to a Duchy, then a Royal province turned into a Kingdom until exploding into an Empire, from subjugation to emasculation to complete and total annihilation. The withered remnants of a polity that had such a pronounced and lasting effect on seven centuries of history spread across the canvas of northeastern Europe and the Baltic region is now to be found in overgrown lots, the outskirts of a once great city now encased in concrete and a scattering of ruins barely recognizable that once were fortress Castles. These might have stood the test of time if not for the horrors of war. To discover a lasting essence of the eastern part of Prussia that no longer exists. an armchair historian or off the beaten path adventurer could do a whole lot worse than the ruins of Balga Castle.

Natural Wonder - The Vistula Lagoon and hilltop on which the ruins of Balaga Castle are located

Natural Wonder – The Vistula Lagoon and hilltop on which the ruins of Balaga Castle are located (Credit: Usadboved)

Conquered By Nature – A Forest Of Foliage Off The Frisches Haff
On the surface, the shattered ruins of the castle seem a strange place to investigate the rise and ultimate fall of what will forever be known as Prussia. The ruins of Balga are found far from modern Germany, amidst a forest of foliage, in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. Located far from the main roads, near no major towns, accessed on foot and better yet by the imagination. The ruins are as separated from the modern world, as they are from those days when Balga was a Teutonic Knights fortress. The castle has once again been largely overtaken by nature, a constant thread in both its medieval and modern history.

The ruins of Balga occupy a hilltop, but water was just as much a determining factor in its situation.  The castle was about a hundred yards off the shoreline of what was long known to the Germanic Prussians as the Frisches Haff (Vistula Lagoon), a relatively shallow body of water segregated from the Baltic Sea by a thin barrier of sand and forest known as the Curonian Spit. Not only was it close on the Frisches Haff, the castle also stood on swampy ground that turned it into a morass for many an attacking force.  It was this ground where the Teutonic Knights first set foot in 1237, attempting to subdue the fortress of Honeida, held by a clan of the pagan natives known as the Warmians. The Warmians, along with other clans in the Baltic region, were known as the Prusai (Old Prussians).

Balga Castle - where the Teutonic Knights reigned supreme

Balga Castle – where the Teutonic Knights reigned supreme (Credit: Christina Golubenko)

Old Prussians – A Northern Crusade
Ironically the name Prussia derives from those indigenous peoples who inhabited the region when the Teutonic Knights first arrived in the area during the first half of the 13th century. They were brought in on a crusade to Christianize the last pagan peoples in Europe. The Prusai were fierce warriors whose livelihood was largely dependent on plundering and raiding their neighbors. The Knights were invited to the area with a mission to bring the Prusai to heel. Following a decade of extremely violent warfare, the Knights were slowly making inroads in their battle with the Prusai. In 1237 their efforts focused on another strategic point of potential conquest, the fortress of Honeida. Taking it would be no easy task. The fortress stood on a veritable island due to the marshy ground which surrounded it. A raiding party first sent against the fortress was slaughtered down to the very last man. In 1239 Dietrich von Bernheim, Grand Marshal of the Knights, led a substantial force to avenge the previous defeat. A first assault on Honeida was violently repulsed. That is not surprising since the wooden walls were reputed to have been twenty-six stories in height. The Knights then decided to try starving out the defenders.

Under a flag of truce, one of the fiercest Warmian warriors, by the name of Kodrume, met with the Knights. Von Bernheim offered safe passage to the defenders if they surrendered and agreed to convert to Christianity. Kodrume returned to his fellow warriors and suggested that surrender was the best option. He was accused of betrayal and murdered. After this, von Bernheim decided another attempt to storm the fortress would be made. This time the Knights were successful, either killing or taking all the defenders prisoner. The Knights then set about transforming Honeida into a much more substantial and permanent base of operations. This roused the fury of the natives who soon revolted. They realized much too late that the Knights were not in the area to raid or plunder, instead they were setting up a continuous presence. Prusai efforts to retake Balga were defeated.

An example to all - Medieval Balaga Castle as seen from the Vistula Lagoon

An example to all – Medieval Balaga Castle as seen from the Vistula Lagoon

Order Of The Sword – Conquering Forces
It was through campaigns such as the one which conquered Honeida that the Teutonic Knights methodically expanded their presence in the region. Once their rule was established in an area, immigrants were brought in from Germany. The land was then broken up for cultivation and tied into a thriving trade network.  The military and economic prowess of the Knights was such that by the late 14th century the order had conquered what is today northeastern Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The East Baltic Sea became an avenue for their mercantile interests. Balga’s main function under the knights was to control naval traffic on the Frisches Haff. Balga had to be substantially built up, both for defensive purposes and to make an impression, causing those with designs on the region to think twice before attacking it. The Prussians were always good at making impressions. That was until modern times when the Soviet Union made not only an impression, but a deadly imposition. One from which the likes of Balga and Germanic Prussia would never recover.

Click here for Order of the Sword, Barrel Of A Gun – Balga Castle: The Life & Death Of Teutonic Prussia