A Momentary Rapture – Subotica, Serbia:  Dreaming Of A Dreadful Curiosity (Travels In Eastern Europe #30)

If the train would have sat at the border crossing in Kelebija for another day, it would have hardly matter to me. I was in a state of euphoria. Just a few minutes earlier my passport had been stamped, I was now free to explore Serbia. I had crossed from suspect terrain, the netherworld of border crossing officialdom, to the land of possibility. For the next couple of hours I would feel as though the entire nation had opened before me. I was suddenly engaged in a wild thought experiment, imagining adventures and discoveries to come. My immediate goal was to arrive in Belgrade before nightfall, but that hardly mattered at the moment. My real point of arrival in Serbia came with clearing the border, now places such as Novi Sad and Nis – cities I was not planning to visit – were well within the realm of possibility. I did not really have the time to visit these places, but that hardly stopped me from dreaming of all the places I was capable of going in my momentary rapture.

Subotica Train Station

Subotica Train Station

Something In The Soil – Hidden Depths
The train made its first stop after border control at Subotica. I loved the town from the moment I first heard its name, which sounded eclectic to my ears. My visit lasted all of five minutes, just enough for the train to pick up passengers heading south to Novi Sad and Belgrade. The shortness of the stop made me long for more. Subotica has a long and very mixed up history, one of those places that is on the perpetual fringes of whatever empire or nation lays claim to it at the time. In the 20th century it was part of Austria-Hungary, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes which became Yugoslavia, then Hungary, followed once again by Yugoslavia and finally Serbia. For much of that time it was given a high degree of autonomy. It must be especially frustrating for its citizens to know that the city lies just outside the European Union, the Hungarian border a mere ten kilometers away. Subotica is a microcosm of the Vojvodina region of Serbia, which is home to 26 distinct ethnic groups.

One of the city’s most famous sons, the writer Danilo Kis, symbolizes its ethnic diversity. His father was Jewish, but magyarized the family’s last name in an attempt to avoid anti-Semitism. His mother hailed from Montenegro. Danilo was baptized as a Serbian Orthodox Christian. This helped him escape the deadly clutches of the Holocaust which consumed his father. He is now revered as one of Serbia’s 20th century literary titans, but his lineage shows that he was a little bit of many things, just like the region he first called home. The city has more Hungarians than Serbs and almost as many Bunjevci as Croats, though the latter two are often considered synonymous with one another. More of its citizens speak Serbian than Hungarian, but Catholics outnumber adherents of the Orthodox faith two to one. Subotica still looks as much to Hungary as it does to Serbia. Its history and culture are defined by the crazy, mixed up mélange of peoples that have called it home for centuries.

Map of Serbia -showing location of Vojvodina region

Map of Serbia -showing location of Vojvodina region

Land Of Deception –  A Multiplicity Of Diversity
Much of Eastern Europe was once like Subotica, with no ethnic group enjoying an outright majority. Two World Wars led the way for ethnic cleansing. Subotica was one of the few places left in Eastern Europe with such rich diversity. Prominent ethnic groups in the region, for instance the Bunjevci, were obscure to outsiders. The Bunjevci had roots in western Herzegovina then moved to Dalmatia and the Lika region of Croatia before arriving in the Vojvodina. Even the most educated and well-traveled Europeans know little about them. To call the Bunjevci obscure might have been an overstatement. Just trying to figure out their path to Vojvodina could make a scholars head spin. And yet they are only one of a multiplicity of groups found scattered across northern Serbia.

It was a pity I did not have time to explore Subotica and the surrounding region, it left me wanting more. Train travel has that effect on me. The pace of this train and multi-minute stops close to city and town centers offered tantalizing glimpses into places that I would otherwise never have known existed. Subotica is part of a long list of provincial cities that I have been allowed to catch fleeting glimpses of. They are soon gone, but never quite forgotten, places worth at least a memory and sometimes much more. The landscape of the Vojvodina, flat and pastoral, radiated outward in all directions as the train sped southward after leaving Subotica. Here was a land of deception. Many kilometers away to the east and west of where the train now traveled, this flatland was draining two of Europe’s great rivers, the Danube and Tisza, which converged in the region. Peering out the train window it was hard to imagine anything other than a mind numbing sameness of land and sky, the complete opposite of the Vojvodina’s diversity.

Vojvodina landscape

The rural landscape of Vojvodina

A Lack Of Courage & Commitment– On The Edge of the Unknown
My Lonely Planet Guide to the Western Balkans had nothing to say about this area outside of its cities. Thus when the train stopped in Vrbas, I had no foreknowledge to frame an understanding of this rather modest sized town (population 23,000). Such places suddenly appear in my travel journeys and fill me with a dreadful curiosity. I find myself asking what would happen if I were to get off the train at these provincial places. Where would I go in a town I knew nothing about? Would I find anyone who could speak English? What would happen to me? I was not likely to ever find out, but the idea was both intriguing and frightening. The same reservations would have informed 99% of Serbia for me, a land I knew little about. I had been elated upon arrival in the country, but now that I was free to travel almost anywhere in the country, a mental barrier kept me on the journey to Belgrade. Every place I passed through was worth a dream, a dream of all the things I could have done, but deep down I lacked the courage to commit myself to the unknown.

A Ten Way Tie For Last Place – Tennis Triviality: A Fanatic Falls For The Hungarian Open 

You know your life has grown pathetic when a passion for Eastern European tennis has you transfixed by a few random results from a lower tier tour event that no one really cares about other than the Betfair folks, a few wildly enthusiastic tennis tour groupies and a promoter who has staked his entire existence on a week’s worth of mediocre matches. Yet such was the situation I found myself in last week as I spent several days searching for scraps of news and compulsively checking results from the Gazprom Hungarian Open in Budapest. The sponsor, a behemoth Russian energy giant not known for transparency, left a bit to be desired, but certainly provided packets full of prize money. My interest had little to do with the top players in the draw. I did not have one measly cent wagered on a match. Instead, I was almost certainly the only one out of 321,400,000 Americans obsessed with the outcome of a handful of matches featuring Hungary’s finest men’s tennis players.

These professionals were a motley group of journeymen at best, men whose one shining moment would either be a top 100 or top 1000 ranking. The kind of players who lurk in Davis Cup Group 2 Europe/Africa zone draws, dominating Andorra’s finest before being drubbed in turn by Belarusians. Cheering on Hungary’s finest men’s tennis players is almost always a thankless task. A kind of sporting chore that drove me to distraction for several days with thoughts of epicless efforts by clay court warriors with the names of Attila (of course!), Marton (very Teutonic with a fierce first service) and Zsombor (sounds like a sibling of Zamfir, that master of the pan flute who I once saw mocked in a Sprite commercial, I think). My hopes and dreams for one week were invested in the results these men might produce. I yearned for a few acts of greatness – such as a first round victory – while preparing for almost certain disappointment. In my zeal for transcendent obscurity, I overlooked a player in the draw with a deep, but less obvious Hungarian connection. I will get to that momentarily, but allow me to first set out a few of the facts surrounding last week’s tournament in Budapest.

Center court - at the Gazprom Hungarian Open held in Margaret Island in Budapest

Fill it up with dreams – center court at the Gazprom Hungarian Open held in Margaret Island in Budapest from April 24-30, 2017

Futility & Self-Flagellation  – The Plight Of Hungarian Tennis
The Gazprom Hungarian Open was nothing less than a landmark event for the Hungarian Tennis Association. It was the first time an ATP World Tour level event was held in Hungary. What in the name of Balazs Taroczy took so long? Hungary is a nation in love with football, water polo, rowing and handball. Tennis comes in about a ten way tie for last place. To everyone’s surprise Budapest stole a march on Bucharest, sweeping the tournament away from the Romanian capital, where it had been held since 1993. That is what a good or at least a wealthy sponsor can do for an ambitious promoter. Never mind that it was a 250 level tournament, the lowest tier of the ATP World Tour, this was akin to holding a Grand Slam event in Hungary. Wimbledon on the Danube anyone! The Hungarian Open was going to be a big deal, so much so hardly anyone in the world paid attention. Hungarian men’s professional tennis has these disappointments. Being a fan is an exercise in both futility and self-flagellation. Unfortunately only three Hungarian men were entered in singles, two in the qualifying and one in the main draw.  This shows the continuing dearth of talent for Hungarian men’s professional tennis players.

The results of those entered in the tournament were decidedly mixed. Seventeen year old Zsombor Piros played in his first ever tour level event. Ranked #1397, it is not surprising that he was unable to qualify for the qualifying. Instead, he needed a wild card just to gain entry and then proceeded to lose his first match in straight sets. Attila Balazs did better, winning his first qualifying match in an upset over second seeded and #79 ranked Dusan Lajovic of Serbia, before bowing out in a close match with an American hardly anyone has ever heard of, the exquisitely named Bjorn Frantangelo. Hungary’s great hope was the nation’s top ranked men’s player, Marton Fucsovics who made the most of his wild card entry by easily defeating Mikhail Youzhny in the first round of the main draw. Fucsovics then lost to a former world top tenner, Spaniard Fernando Verdasco, but not before nearly winning the first set in a tiebreaker. This ended a decent week for the Hungarians, but nothing really remarkable. A great depression started to consume me. I stared at the draw listlessly. All hope was gone. The idea that playing on home turf might inspire the Hungarian men to raise the level of their games was a good one, but the results never really materialized. The truth was they hardly ever do. Yet a ray of light broke through the clouds of defeat. I noticed the name of Laslo Djere, an ethnic Hungarian who happens to be a citizen from next door neighbor Serbia. Djere had the most memorable week of his young career, offering a triumph of hope over experience.

Márton Fucsovics - Hungary's top ranked men's tennis player

Márton Fucsovics – Hungary’s top ranked men’s tennis player (Credit: Diliff)

Cut From A Different Mold – Hungarian Tennis Stars By Way Of Serbia
A little known fact hidden in plain sight is that the greatest ethnic Hungarian tennis player in history and one of the all-time great women’s players was Monica Seles. Though she started her career playing under the flag of Yugoslavia, Seles grew up in Novi Sad, which is now part of Serbia. The city is located in the Vojvodina region of northern Serbia, home to 250,000 ethnic Hungarians. The Hungarians of Vojvodina were stranded there after the post- World War I Treaty of Trianon severed the region from Hungary and made it part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. Monica Seles’ ancestors were among many ethnic Hungarians who stayed in the area despite their minority status. Few know about Seles’ Hungarian roots. I figured it out because I love to know a lot about nothing in particular, tantalizing myself with trivialities. The connection with 21 year old Laslo Djere is obscure, but good enough to keep me engaged in my forlorn hope for some kind of Hungarian tennis greatness. Djere was born in the town of Sentes, whose demographic makeup is 80% ethnic Hungarian. It is the kind of place no one will ever visit, unless they live there.

Until March, Djere had shown little promise of making a breakthrough on the World Tour. He had never won a world tour level match and only qualified for the main draw in a handful of events. His greatest feat had been qualifying for the French Open in 2016 before losing in the first round. His record in Challenger events was not exactly raising hopes either. He had managed runner-up finishes at Milan and Cortina in 2016 on red clay, his favorite surface. By April 2017, Djere was ranked #184, but his recent results were some of the worst of his career. He lost in seven straight challenger events, the last five losses of which he failed to win a set. The only reprieve was a one week drop down to the satellite tour where he gained a confidence boost by winning a small event in Croatia. I do not know what boggles the mind more, the minutiae of Djere’s 2017 swoon or the fact that for some unexplained reason he started playing like a top one hundred player in April.

Laslo Đere - anything is possible

Laslo Đere – anything is possible (Credit: Frédéric de Villamil)

Drizzle & A Dream – Laslo Djere’s Moment In The Rain
Perhaps winning the satellite event helped turn Djere’s game around. Two weeks later he achieved a career first, qualifying for and winning a first round match at the world tour event in Marrakech, Morocco. He nearly made it to the quarterfinals, losing in a taut three set match to Albert Ramos. Then it was on to Budapest where he exceeded all expectations, including my own. Djere barely made it through qualifying by winning two close matches. He then sailed through his first two matches in the main draw. That set him up against Fucsovics’ slayer, Fernando Verdasco in the quarterfinals. The match was played in less than ideal conditions, as rain fell intermittently. This helped Djere, as the slow conditions dented Verdasco’s powerful game. Nonetheless, the Spaniard won the first set and held match point in the second. Down on serve 30-40, 4-5, Djere pulled off a shocker. After saving match point he went on to win the set in a tie-breaker, then handily won the final set 6-2.

It was an incredible result, one that I could scarcely fathom. The next best thing to a Hungarian in the semis was an ethnic Hungarian who spoke the language. Though Djere subsequently lost in the semifinals, he had won four main draw matches in Marrakech and Budapest. That is four more ATP World tour level matches than he had ever won on tour before. Djere could have rubbed a rabbit’s foot raw his entire career and not expected to get this lucky. But was it luck or skill? The coming months will likely answer that question. Perhaps I am mistaking a sneeze for a hurricane, but his latest results are nothing short of miraculous. Could Djere, by way of Serbia, be the answer to Hungarian professional tennis fanatics wishes? Does anyone care? I do.

Unrealized Potentials – Traveling the Tisza River

Thousands of tourists cruise the waters of the Danube River each summer. Along the way they have the opportunity to pass through four European Capitals, Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest and Belgrade. They might also float by such historic cities as Ulm, Regensburg and Linz among many others.  Those traveling further down the Danube to Belgrade might fail to notice one of its most important tributaries across from the non-descript Serbian village of Novi Slakamene. It is here that another important European river has its mouth. This river is the largest left bank tributary of the Danube, though rarely given much thought or recognition. It is called the Tisza. Unlike the Danube’s most famous stretches that flow through the heart of Central Europe, the Tisza is both naturally and culturally an Eastern European river from its headwaters high in the Carpathian Mountains of Ukraine to its meandering course across the Great Hungarian Plain all the way down to its mouth in northern Serbia. The Tisza has a rich, distinct history almost entirely unknown. Though it lacks the cultural cachet and name recognition of the Danube, the Tisza has its own delights, offering adventure and discovery of the unknown.

Map of the Tisza River and the southern part of the Danube

Map of the Tisza River and the southern part of the Danube

Taming the Tisza – Placing Nature In A Straitjacket
Like all major rivers in Europe, the Tisza as it exists today is very different from its original form. The most dramatic changes to the river have occurred over the last two hundred years. The forces of industrialization, technological change and modernization all in the name of economic development reshaped the river. In the process, the Tisza’s flow was transformed from a serpentine course to a relatively straight and much more navigable waterway. Staring at the languid waters of the Tisza today, one gets the sense that the river is rather benign. This is deceiving. Not that long ago the Tisza was a wild, dangerous river that periodically inundated the surrounding landscape, tormenting villagers who relied on its waters for their livelihood. The project to tame the river took decades. It was massive, especially by the standards of the 19th century. When it began in 1846, the river stretched 1,419 kilometers (880 miles), equivalent to the distance from Amsterdam to Budapest.

By the time “regulation of the Tisza” was complete, the river had been considerably shortened. 453 kilometers (280 miles) of bends and ox bows had been cut off. Ships and barges were now able to travel further up the Tisza into the heartland of the Kingdom of Hungary.  This expedited commerce, especially the transport of grain. The areas through which the Tisza flowed became a breadbasket for the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  In the late 19th century, the river had taken on its present form. With the Tisza’s development, cities along its shores also grew, but never to the extent that those along the Danube did. Cities such as Szeged and Szolnok blossomed, but never grew in size anywhere close to the extent of Budapest or Belgrade. The Tisza had become what it still pretty much is today, an important, albeit economic backwater. In essence, a vital artery for the region it drained and flowed through, but of no greater significance outside of its adjacent region.

The Tisza at Szeged, Hungary

The Tisza at Szeged, Hungary – the largest city on the river (Credit: Zsolt Varadi)

Tourism & the Tisza – A Confluence Of Pleasures
The same could be said of the Tisza’s present day tourism potential. If one is looking to get away from the crowds on and along the Danube, then following the Tisza can certainly result in a unique experience. Those traveling on the river are most likely to start in Tokaj, Hungary, the center of a UNESCO World Heritage Wine Region Cultural Landscape. They then cruise down to Szeged, famed for its beautiful turn of the 20th century architecture that stemmed from a massive effort to rebuild the city in the wake of catastrophic flooding from the Tisza in 1879.  Further down, the river meets the mighty Danube at Novi Slankamen in the Vojvodina region of Serbia. That is as far as most travelers are likely to venture along the Tisza, they have little idea that the most interesting areas are much further upstream.

The adventurous need to seek out the Tisza’s wilder upper reaches. The provincial hub of Rakhiv, Ukraine is the top destination for this area. Almost totally unknown even today, Rakhiv has only become accessible since the fall of the Iron Curtain. The Tisza proper begins here as the waters of the White and Black Tisza, streams that flow down from the highest reaches of the Ukrainian Carpathians unite at Rakhiv. This is a much different version of the Tisza than the more familiar one in Hungary.  The river’s current is swift and sure as it runs through a valley that it helped carve over many millennia. This is not the place for genteel cruising. Instead it is a playground for recreational paddlers with the river running swift and sure, the nature wild and untamed.

The Upper Tisza at Rakhiv, Ukraine

The Upper Tisza at Rakhiv, Ukraine (Credit: Ivan Bil)

Eastern Approaches – Against The Shores of Progress
Incidentally for all the remoteness of its upper reaches, the Tisza flows within a few feet of what was once deemed the geographical center of Europe. Just 15 kilometers from Rakhiv is the small village of Dilove. This was where the center of Europe was located by a team of Austro-Hungarian geographers in 1887. Today this designation is open to much debate, but it is striking that all of Dilove’s competition can be found in Eastern Europe as well. Who would have thought that the obscure upper reaches of the Tisza would run right through what many consider the geographical center of Europe? Most fascinating of all, for both paddlers and travelers, is the fact that the upper Tisza straddles the Ukraine – Romania border. On one side stands a society still trying to escape from the legacy of Soviet influence, on the other a member of the European Union. This is one of three stretches along the Tisza where this occurs. The others are the Ukraine – Hungary and Hungary-Serbia border. The Tisza as it stands today is not just a river, but also a border, where the old Eastern Europe washes up against the shores of the new.