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

Crossing the border into Austria I might be forgiven for thinking everything was going to be fine. Austria has a reputation as a sort of heaven on earth, filled with picture perfect villages, a glittering capital city and mountains that could make the most curmudgeonly begin yodeling. This was not the Austria we entered. The landscape was dead from winter. The slushy snow that had covered the roads in Moravia was melting away, leaving intermittent patches of barren ground. Besides a few flurries and the constant roar of an icy wind, it was grey sky and open roads. The way around Vienna looked to be clear. Of course, we were trying to make Debrecen before midnight, but that did not stop us from detouring to Rosenberger’s for one last roadside meal.

It was Rosenberger which spawned the beloved Landzeit that we ate at earlier in our trip. The Rosenberger we stopped at seemed to be living off its exalted reputation. The food was nothing memorable on this day. The restaurant had the air of an abandoned airport. Rosenberger was the forerunner of all the sumptuous roadside restaurants in Austria. It was started in 1972 and grew into a powerhouse based on delicious food and legendary service. Unfortunately, this one lacked that special magic of Landzeit. My expectations for it were too high. For that matter, it suffered the same unrealistic levels of expectations that I have for Austria in general. The soaring mountains, glittering capital and clean swept towns were nowhere to be found on this day.

The Way It Used To Be - Abandoned border station at Hegyeshalom on the Hungary-Austria border

The Way It Used To Be – Abandoned border station at Hegyeshalom on the Hungary-Austria border (Credit:

Giving Notice – The Return of History
Skirting the suburbs of Vienna, my wife and I stared at the backside of lorries for kilometers on end while driving past industrialized landscapes. It was hard to believe the Ringstrasse was less than half an hour away. We were experiencing the Austria never shown on tourist brochures. Perhaps it was the blustery weather, the now traffic packed motorway or the general malaise that accords a trip’s final moments that made Austria seem much less impressive than usual. This was probably to be expected. Let’s face it, dealing with road construction could defeat Disney. This was the first time I felt like Austria was like everywhere else. The one saving grace on this day was that the Austrian motorways were clear of snow. Crossing Lower Austria and the Burgenland in the far eastern portion of the country was like navigating a wind tunnel at 130 kilometers per hour. Wind turbines that loomed just off the highway were spinning with a sense of abandonment.

This day was about endurance. The idea of enjoyment had escaped me after leaving the Czech Republic. I was relieved when we neared the Austria-Hungary border crossing. There was no passport control, but border officials were slowing traffic down and taking a quick peek inside at each car’s inhabitants. This was the product of tightened border restrictions due to the refugee crisis a couple of years before. This slowdown was irritating since the Schengen Zone had spoiled me with open borders and full throttle entry into EU countries. This was the first sign I had seen of Europe closing in on itself. It was famously said that 1989 was the end of history. Communism and the Iron Curtain had collapsed, democratic capitalist societies reigned supreme. Nationalism, totalitarianism and a range of other insidious -isms had been exhausted by war, economic failure and intellectual irrelevancy. Well now we know that history never went away, it was always there. If only we had taken the time to look past our own triumphalism and notice.

Border control - Entering Austria from Hungary

Border control – Entering Austria from Hungary (Credit: My Friend)

Self-Induced Amnesia – A Borderless Existence
One of the more bizarre things about internal borders in the EU, is how they seem to hardly exist. If there had been no border personnel to remind us, the dividing line between eastern Austria and western Hungary would be imperceptible. Border guards in this area have become a novelty. Oddly, for two nations that had a historically fractious relationship, there is now nothing but an invisible line between them. In an irony so bizarre that it goes largely unnoticed, traveling from Austria into Hungary on the motorway is not even noticeable except for the large signs that welcome travelers. The border felt about the same to me as it does in the United States when crossing from Indiana to Ohio. If a sign did not say this is Austria or this is Hungary, who would know the difference. No one would have believed such a thing was possible 40 years ago. And now no one believes that anything other than the status quo is possible. The ability to suffer self-induced amnesia regarding recent history is in one sense admirable and in another, deeply disturbing.

Crossing the Austria-Hungary border could have been much worse. Waiting in a car to be waved through by windblown, listless representatives of Austrian officialdom is much better than languishing at ominous border controls that existed during the Cold War. Meanwhile, there was another Cold War brewing outside, but this one was natural rather than manmade. There was a wild wind swirling from seemingly every direction. The weather could not make up its mind what it wanted to do. This sent my emotions into schizophrenic spasms, segueing between moments of buoyant optimism followed by bouts of futile cynicism. Before long, I got the distinct feeling that we were headed into a storm, but since we had been driving in and out of them during our entire trip, this was not as frightening a prospect as it should have been.

Stopping Point – Frozen In Place
It was not long before the sky grew darker and the road along with it. This was the product of freezing precipitation that threatened to bring traffic to a halt. I suddenly realized that the terrain of western Hungary was not helping matters. Transdanubia as it is known, consists of rolling topography. I dreaded going downhill more than up. The roadway was a glistening sheen that was becoming slicker by the minute. It was not long before we gave up on the idea of Debrecen. The conditions became treacherous, with cars and trucks inching along. No one knew if they were on a sheet of ice or a rain slicked road. Soon, a line of cars stretched over several kilometers. No one wanted to chance more than 40 kilometers per hour. Every time I set foot on the brakes a nervous tension consumed me. An hour earlier I had been dreaming of getting back to Debrecen, now I was wondering weather we would make it to the nearest exit. Our journey had come to a halt, but it was nowhere near over. The search for a safe place to stay the night was just beginning.

Click here for: On Thin Ice – The OMV Oasis: Roadside Assistance in Transdanubia (A Czech Winter’s Journey: Part Twenty-six)

The One That Didn’t Get Away – Sopron: Hungary’s Most Loyal, Most Faithful

Sopron, known as “the most historic town in Hungary”, is a medium sized city of 60,000 located on the extreme western edge of Hungary, within just a few minutes of the Austrian border. Sopron’s catchphrase did not come easily. Its status as “most historic” is due to what did not happen there historically, as opposed to what did happen throughout the rest of Hungary on multiple occasions. The city was NOT ravaged by the Mongols in the 13th century, NOT taken by the Turks in the 16th or 17th centuries and it was left virtually untouched by the Austrians during the imposition of Habsburg Imperial rule. It even managed to avoid the worst excesses of the fighting at the tail end of World War II. Sopron seems to have pulled a Houdini act on Hungarian history, escaping the ravages of conquerors, rulers, invaders and of all things, peace treaties. Treaties brought about 20th century Hungary’s lowest point. This was a conquest by the stroke of pens rather than swords.

The center of Sopron, Hungary

The center of Sopron – a stunning aerial view of the most loyal town in Hungary (Credit: Civertan)

A Diabolical Irony – To The Defeated Goes The…
Famously, the Treaty of Trianon gave approximately two-thirds of Historic Hungary to Romania, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Yet there was another treaty which is rarely spoken of, but also partitioned a slice of Hungary. The Treaty of St. Germain-en-Laye gave the Burgenland, a German speaking part of extreme western Hungary, to Austria. This was an extremely bitter pill for Hungarians to swallow. After all, it was Austria that had led the Dual Monarchy into the Great War, a conflict that brought an end to both the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Historic Hungary. In a mind boggling paradox Hungary was being forced to hand over territory to an erstwhile ally that had played the leading role in its defeat. Here was an exceedingly rare case of “to the defeated goes the spoils.” To paraphrase a bit of Orwellian logic, “all defeated countries were equal, but some defeated countries were more equal than others.”

In his memoirs, The Phoenix Land, the famous writer and Foreign Minister of Hungary during this time Miklos Banffy states the situation as, “a diabolical irony. For centuries Hungarians had fought successfully to defend Hungarian land from Austria; but now, when the Allies had broken up the Austrian Empire, it was demanded of us that we should surrender to Austria land that had always been ours…This was a most perverse idea. It seems to have originated in the desire of the victorious powers to drive a wedge between Hungary and Austria…” It looked like Hungary was fighting yet another lost cause. In the case of Sopron, it turned out differently. Here would be that rarest of instances, where Hungary was actually victorious during the 20th century. A small victory, improbably won considering the historical context of the times.

Postcard of Sopron at the beginning of the 20th century

Postcard of Sopron at the beginning of the 20th century – even then it was part of the Hungarian half of the Austro-Hungarian Empire

Loyalty, Faith & History – All Along The (Firewatch) Tower
The Hungarians negotiated a plebiscite to take place among Sopron’s citizens. This would decide whether the city wanted to be part of Hungary or Austria. The odds of a victory were not exactly in favor of Hungary. The last pre-war census taken of the city in 1910 showed that Sopron’s population was 51% ethnic German, 44% Hungarian.  It probably helped matters for Hungary that there were independent Hungarian led militias in the area, answerable to no government. Though violence was minimal, the psychological effect of such force offered a hidden incentive for Sopron to vote for Hungary. The plebiscite was held just eleven days prior to Christmas in the winter of 1921. 65% of the citizens voted to keep Sopron and eight surrounding villages in Hungary. Sopron was given the title (depending upon the translation) “the Most Loyal” or “the Most Faithful” town.

Map showing Hungarian and Austrian voting patterns in the Sopron Plebiscite

Map showing Hungarian and Austrian voting patterns in the Sopron Plebiscite (Credit: Sarah Wambaugh Plebiscites Since The World War)

What Hungary gained can still be seen today as Sopron’s historic architecture is largely intact. The city’s Belvaros (inner city) is packed with buildings constructed in Baroque style. Out of 115 monuments and 240 listed historic buildings one of the most famous is also one of the tallest, the Firewatch Tower. The guards who staffed the tower for centuries not only kept a watch out for fires, but they also blew trumpets from the balcony every 15 minutes to keep the city’s citizens informed of the time. That’s quite a lot of trumpeting! Unfortunately, the Firewatch Tower guards could not stop the great fire of 1676 that would consume the upper half of the structure. That fire also burnt much of the original city to the ground. The rebuilding that followed, successfully meshed one architectural style with another. The tower’s base is built on the old Roman town wall. The cylindrical lower half goes back to the 12th century and is quintessentially medieval in character. The tower is then topped off by a Baroque balcony and helm roof. That’s nearly two millennia of history incorporated in a single structure. It can be said that the most historic town in Hungary also has one of the most historic structures.

The Firewatch Tower in Sopron

The Firewatch Tower in Sopron – landmark of the city (Credit: Vadaro)

The Heart Of A Nation
The Firewatch Tower is the place to get magnificent views of Sopron’s Belvaros (inner city). Looking out over its Baroque elegance one can see why the Hungarians wanted to keep this city part of their nation. The beauty and elegance on offer along these winding, cobblestones streets is aesthetically pleasing. It can almost lead one to believe that historically little has ever been lost by Hungary. An illusion for sure, but an alluring one nonetheless. Sopron can never make up for all that was lost of Historic Hungary in the aftermath of the Great War, but it offers every Hungarian a bit of solace. Here on the very fringes of Hungary can be found the heart of a nation, faithful, self-confident, forever loyal.