A Recurrent Madness – The Meaning of Breclav (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Twenty-four)

We escaped from Austerlitz with both our lives intact. That might sound like an exaggeration, but not really. The entry road that led to and from Pratzen Heights was a lot more treacherous going down, then it had been on the way up. The gravel road was coated in snow which was rapidly turning to ice. We observed one unlucky driver resigned to a ditch. In the whirling whiteness it had been hard to grasp the deceptive topography Napoleon had so expertly used to his advantage at Pratzen Heights. The drive back to the main highway gave us a better idea of the hill’s subtle undulations. Fortunately, we were able to avoid careening down these historic slopes. Both my wife and I let out a collective sigh of relief when we found the blacktop a few minutes later. It was all downhill from here or so I professed to believe.

Destiny or Destination - Breclav Railway Station

Destiny or Destination – Breclav Railway Station (Credit: Josef Moser)

Tilting At Windmills –  The Powerlessness of Positive Thinking
In one of those fits of recurrent travel madness that worry me as much as those traveling with me, I decided that we might be able to make it back to Debrecen in eastern Hungary on the same day. Never mind that we were slipping and sliding across the frontiers of Moravia and we still had windblown eastern Austria to cross. Plenty of windmills would be tilting at us in the Burgenland. There was also the conveniently ignored fact that western Hungary was said to be due for inclement weather just as bad or worse than what we were currently driving through. And still nothing could stop my optimism, which was soon traveling down a highway of slush at 100 kilometers per hour.

I always find the end of my Eastern European journeys disturbing. The thrill of anticipation has long since passed with all those exciting thoughts of adventure now relegated to the rear view mirror.  My mind was firmly fixed on returning home, which meant heading for Debrecen out on the Great Hungarian Plain. By the time we began our homeward bound journey it was already late morning. The weather was gloomy at best, wintry at worst. This did nothing to detain me. There was no use dawdling in despair at some random roadside inn when we might be able to make it back well before midnight. My wife had heard such grandiose proclamations before and tended to ignore them. We both knew the truth, the weather would make the decision for us.

Living on the Edge - Location of Breclav in the Czech Republic

Living on the Edge – Location of Breclav in the Czech Republic (Credit: Kroton)

A Twinge of Excitement – On The Border
It was not long before we were closing in on the Czech-Austria border. This gave me the opportunity of returning to a town I knew only from a railway carriage window. That was where I spied a brightly lit platform. It had been sixteen months earlier, deep in a chilly autumn night, on a nightmarish-night train from Budapest to Krakow. I remember groggily waking and peering out the window where I saw an attractive female border guard. Her hair was pulled back and ticked beneath a stiff cap. She had been languidly strolling on the platform. There were several other guards interspersed as well. I faintly remember a twinge of excitement that always accords my arrival in another country. Then I proceeded to collapse back into my berth. That was my first and up until this wintry moment only impression of Breclav.

Breclav would have been just a memory to me, but a second visit seemed serendipitous, as though this was becoming both my destiny and destination. On this day everything was covered in wet snow. Flakes slowly spit out of an all-consuming grayness. The railway station, where I first became briefly acquainted with the town, looked inviting rather than menacing. There were no border guards to be found. On this day, Breclav was a sleepy place taking a long winter’s nap. Of course, all I was another drive by of Breclav, making a pass-through presence and nothing else. My wife paid no attention to my chatter about being back in Breclav. The writer in me sniffed irony, my wife sensed banality, hence the lack of a response. There was something about Breclav that I could not quite put my finger on. Minutes after our arrival we were leaving. The disquieting sense of familiarity dissipated, but I knew that a third visit lay somewhere in a distant future.

On the Night Train - Breclav railway station in the evening

On the Night Train – Breclav railway station in the evening (Credit: Vojtech Dockal)

A Return Trip – Past & Future Goals
One of the joys of travel in this part of Europe was how little I knew about most places. The logical corollary is how much there is still to discover. This makes traipsing around the hinterlands of Moravia seem that much more eventful. Every town or small city offers something new and by extension, something different. If you want to see the real Eastern Europe, it means going somewhere besides Budapest, Prague and Vienna. Breclav might as well be the South Pole by this standard. That second fleeting visit turned the town into something that would occupy my imagination long after departure. A question loomed in my mind, “what was the meaning of Breclav?” The answer was not clear and will not be until I return. In the meantime, a vicarious visit had to take place. This involved researching the town’s history to find out how Breclav came to exist in its current form.

Location and transport were and still are everything when it comes to the development of Breclav. The town’s situation, close to the confluence of the Thaya and Moravia Rivers brought people to settle the area as far back as prehistoric times. In the modern age, Breclav was selected as the first railway junction in Austria-Hungary. A function it still maintains today. My earlier train journey to Krakow brought me to this junction. Trains to Vienna, Prague, Bratislava and Prague all went by way of Breclav as well.  Discovering this, I suddenly realized that many years before I had stopped in Breclav on a train from Bratislava to Prague. Breclav had become a habit without me even knowing it. I discovered a sudden sense of affinity with the town. It was part of the story of a life spent in transit. Breclav is now more than a town to me. It is a dream, a hope, a goal, a return trip to both my past and an unknown future. What was the meaning of Breclav? I have no idea, but I intend to find out.

Click here for: Winter Conditions – Austria, Hungary & Europe Closing In On Themselves (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Twenty-five)

Austerlitz In A Snowstorm – A Battle Against The Elements (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Twenty-one)

Austerlitz, the word slides off the tongue. It sounds sleek, energetic and scintillating. The first time I formed an image of the word, brilliance came to mind. That was during my junior year in college. This happened while I was visiting with some fellow history buffs at Western Carolina University. One of them had just completed a paper on the Battle of Austerlitz and was proudly waxing poetic on the tactical genius Napoleon had displayed during what was universally acknowledged as his greatest victory. I cannot recall a single detail of what was told to me, but my fellow student said it with such reverence and barely disguised elation that I never forgot that Austerlitz was both a beautiful word and an event of world historical importance well worth remembering.

The battlefield we did not see - Austerlitz in better weather

The battlefield we did not see – Austerlitz in better weather

Visiting Powers – An Intensely Personal Experience
I did not give much thought to Austerlitz (Slavkov u Brna in Czech) in the two decades after that quasi-magical narrative of the battle was imparted to me. Only a visit to Brno brought Austerlitz back into my consciousness. This occurred via some tourist literature left at the apartment my wife and I were staying at on the edge of Brno’s Old Town. After Brno we would be heading back to Hungary. Thus, I hoped to find one more attraction in southern Moravia worthy of a visit before our return. Flipping though the literature I discovered that Austerlitz Castle or as the Czechs called it, Slavkov Castle, was nearby. It was not so much a castle as a massive chateau with 115 rooms. Its historical importance was due to an armistice signed there between the Emperors of Austria and France after the battle. While Slavkov Castle looked like a fine place to visit, I was more intrigued by the actual battle site.

The importance of visiting the actual site of a battle cannot be understated. To stand in the same place where men fought to their deaths is both a fascinating and unsettling experience. Fascinating, because the fate of empires and peoples was decided in a matter of hours by men both great and flawed, famous and anonymous. Unsettling, because these visits always turn into an intensely personal experience. It causes me to put myself in their place. To ask the question of whether I would have been equal to the task at hand. Would have I cowered in fear and fled from death or fought to my very last breath? Would I have been slaughtered at the outset or survived to fight another day? These questions are impossible to answer, but always at the forefront in my mind. There was also the added sensation of walking the same ground where some of the most famous figures in military history plied their deadly trade. For these reasons, a visit to the battlefield of Austerlitz was a must.

Nowhere To Hide – A Landscape Turned White
Getting to Austerlitz should not have been problematic. The visitor center for the battle site is located at what is known as the Cairn of Peace (Pamatnik Mohyla miru). This monument was built in the early 20th century to commemorate those who lost their lives in the battle. It stands only 18 kilometers southeast of Brno. The drive there takes half an hour in normal conditions. What my wife and I soon discovered was that conditions were anything but normal. Snow had begun falling in Brno just before daylight. By the time we were on the road, it was snowing heavily. While visibility was decent, the road conditions were not. Wet, heavy snow interspersed with icy patches made the highway slippery. More than once, my wife asked me if visiting Austerlitz was worth driving in such poor weather? In a snowstorm probably not, but I fell back on the argument that this would be a memorable adventure. Such a line of reasoning did little to quiet her concerns. After all, how many people would be crazy enough to visit Austerlitz in a snowstorm?

After driving through the slush filled streets of Sokolnice, we turned off onto the road which lead to the visitor’s center. Our only problem, the road was nearly indistinguishable from the surrounding fields. The entire landscape was turned white from the snow. There was not an inch of bare ground to be seen, either on the road or in the fields. The lack of trees made me assume that these open fields were used for crop cultivation. They were likely to be lush, green and pastoral during the summer. We were a long way from summer and by the looks of the snowscape in front of us, a long way from anywhere. This was the famous Pratzen plateau that Napoleon reconnoitered prior to the battle. The Battle of Austerlitz had also been fought in the winter, a chilly Monday morning on the second day of December in 1805. On that day there was no snowstorm. The only thing falling from the sky was a hail of bullets and artillery fire raining down upon massed columns and ending the lives of 24,000 men.

Frozen conflict - The Cairn of Peace on a snowy dayFrozen conflict - The Cairn of Peace on a snowy day

Frozen conflict – The Cairn of Peace on a snowy day

Whited Out – Shrouded In A Swirl Of Snowflakes
As for our journey, we were left to fight our own battle. This one was against the elements. The road climbed slowly through a blindingly white landscape. With no landmarks to guide us, it seemed as though we would never reach our ultimate destination. The road kept rising before us while the snow fell so hard that it was difficult to see more than fifty feet in any direction. We both began to wonder if the visitor’s center would be open. I would not have blamed the staff if they decided to stay at home. The expected thrill of standing in the footsteps of Napoleon was lost in this eternal whiteness. Armies may have fought one of the most important battles in human history here, but traces of the fighting were covered in a thick blanket of snow. The present landscape was imperceptible. History had been whited out, as were my hopes of getting an idea a visual of the terrain over which the battle had been fought.

Finally, after 15 minutes of oblivion I made out the Cairn of Peace standing on a hillside. Nearby was a building, shrouded in a swirl of snowflakes. We had arrived at our destination. There were some cars in the employee parking, but none in the area for visitors. Lights were on inside the visitor’s center. Hope was renewed as we prepared to step away from the battlefield and into a man-made environment that would attempt the impossible, approximating the experience of 150,000 men fighting for the idea of empire and also for their lives.

Click here for: Heights Of Arrogance – Storming Austerlitz: A Genius Laid Low (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Twenty-two)