Eastern Europe Trip November, 2012
Romania, Transylvania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Serbia, Hungary. Bucharest to Budapest by river on a Viking Cruise ship up the Danube River. It seemed intriguing, despite the fact that it was to be in late fall, so Colleen and I signed on. Below is a copy of my journal, together with some of Colleen's observations.
Day 1: Made it to Bucharest but our luggage didn't. Had wonderful Romanian meal at small local restaurant last night. Drank a little Vino and then settled in after 30 hours on the road. Today we have private guide to tour Transylvania. Cold and crisp. Sure wish I hadn't packed my coat in my luggage. Colleen happy (easy for her, she has her coat) and if luggage doesn't arrive today she's going shopping for new clothes.
Day 2: Bucharest
Good news: Luggage located. Bad news: one bag in Chicago and one in Boston. Headed out on day trip to Transylvania. Beautiful weather.
Second day report:
Colleen: Just back from 11 hour tour of Transylvania. Guide Istfan was great-Dracula's Castle, gorgeous mountains, Russian orthodox churches and 10 hours of history and politics from Istfan. As your dad said, boy is that guy conflicted! A very enlightening look at post-Soviet Eastern Europe. Still no bags, but hopefully tonight. Tomorrow we will explore Bucharest or shop for new clothes.
Vance: The city (Bucharest) was bombed by first the Allies then, after Romania changed sides, the Germans. Blasted the place good. Still the capitalist system has taken hold and the city is vibrant and thriving.
Me with some short person (a photo of Colleen and me before a castle). Notice my coat. It was a loan from our driver. Good news. Luggage just arrived, had dinner and mucho wine. Now if I can just convince that short person to return to my hotel room!
Day 3: Bucharest, Romania
Today we walked around Old Town Bucharest. As this city was founded in 1300 AD you'd think there would be, you know, like really old buildings, right? Wrong Poncho. Two World Wars, two gigantic 20th Century earthquakes and 30 years of Russian dominated Communist disinterest in repairing the war damage have left this city reeling. Remember, Romania was allied against Russia until the closing days of WWII when it turned on Germany. Trust me, Russia was in no hurry or position to help after the war. Today Bucharest looks like most big European cities except that there are ruined, abandoned shells of buildings seemingly every block. Still the people are working, chipping away at the problem and I foresee a day (20 years?) when this city may once again be called The Paris of the East. Yesterday our private driver held forth for several hours during our drive to and from Transylvania on growing up under Communist oppression and then the shock and dislocation caused by the overthrow. You know me. I gently cross examined him. These are good, smart, educated people who seem determined to drag this country into the future. Doing so, however, will be quite the challenge.
Day 3: Colleen: Uh-oh……this river cruise was something Vance heard from someone….somewhere….about how wonderful these types of excursions were. I was a little dubious, knowing our penchant for being a little independent. Well, we just got our first look at some of our fellow travelers in the lobby. So far, not one under 75, and I'll bet not one Democrat in the bunch! I am going to have so much fun playing uproar…I KNEW I should have packed my Obama shirt. Headline: American on cruise found washed up on banks of the Danube.
Check on us periodically….. Seriously. Between the blue hair and the potbellies, we may be in trouble!
Vance: Potbellies? Old people? It's a cruise in Eastern Europe in the dead of winter for God's sake.
I wonder who Colleen was expecting. Brad Pitt? Seriously, I give a hoot about our fellow passengers. I'm enjoying myself and, besides, our side won the election! Bucharest is not located on the Danube, but about 50 miles north so we did a bus tour of the city and headed down to the boat. Nice accommodations. 150 passengers, 32 staff.. It is a giant, long catamaran and beautifully appointed. The staff all speak excellent English and are very accommodating.
Day 5: Bulgaria
OK so there is a certain monotony to visiting yet another war torn, Broke Dick Eastern European country and listen to the guide tell us, first, how bad things were under Communism, how much hope there was at its overthrow and how the very crooks who previously were in charge just continued in power, this time with full ownership of the means of production, and finally how the guide wistfully misses the full employment and two week paid holidays under the old regime. Monotonous yes, but nonetheless very telling. As best I can determine these people are industrious and motivated. However, their countries, having suffered two major wars and Communism are in ruins. The base problem seems to be the lack of capital.
Bulgaria is interesting. The oldest building or even extant city seems to be from the 14th century, testament to the fact that the Turks, who ruled this country for 700 years, had little use for building cities here. There has been inhabitation here for over 10,000 years and some of the most intricate and beautiful pre Christianity gold was found here, attesting to Bulgaria's glorious long ago past. Today it is drab and poor. We left the boat by bus today and toured two towns. Curiously neither Romania nor Bulgaria have built great river cities like Budapest in Hungary. The weather is turning cold and grey. We may have seen the last of autumn.
Day 6: The Iron Gates
The Danube originates in the streams and meadows of the Black Forest of Germany and heads 1700 miles South and East, draining most of Europe east of the Alps and north of Italy. As it gathers steam it is joined by many smaller rivers until it becomes a mighty torrent rushing towards the Black Sea. However standing in its way is a confluence of two rugged mountain ranges, the Balkans and the Carpathian mountains, which collide at the border of Romania and Croatia. Through this barrier of sheer granite the Danube forced its way. In doing so it carved two successive chasms spanning over 60 miles. By all accounts the river at the bottom was frightening to behold and treacherous to navigate. Huge hunks of marble, schist and granite lay just below the waterline causing great rapids and whirlpools, effectively precluding any sustainable shipping below the gorge. The name of this gorge is The Iron Gates and no one, not the Romans, the Macedonians, Turks, or Greeks were even able to tame or bridge it. This in part explains the lack of major river cities east of the Gorge. There was no way to supply them, nor to return upstream with raw goods. Further, the river itself and its rugged mountains precluded most attempts at attack from the South or East. Thus the river became a natural barrier and national border for the majority of the Eastern European countries.
All that changed in 1972 when Czechoslovakia and Romania built at the foot of the Iron Gates a huge hydroelectric dam and two huge locks, creating a 100 mile lake through and north of the gorge. Although doing so drowned some incredible scenery and the remains of 10,000 years of inhabitation, for the first time in history the Gorge was navigable. Late last night we traversed the locks and this morning, after two days of river fog and gloom, the weather broke mild and clear and our sturdy little ship navigated the Iron Gates, still imposing with its towering cliffs of solid granite.
Day 7: Belgrade, Serbia
Two quotes: “Belgrade is one of the ugliest cities imaginable.” The Danube, A Cultural History, A.Beattie, Oxford University Press, 2010.
“Today we disembark in Serbia, which is not a member of the European Union. You must have your passport on you at every moment, and, God forbid, do not lose it. If you lose your passport in Serbia, it will change your life forever.” Marchai, Tour Guide, Viking Tours.
Now, to be fair, both quotes leave out much that is fascinating about this city and this country. Belgrade has had over 7000 years of continuous inhabitation. Located on a bluff at the confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers, it marks the World Champion crossroads of contested real estate. From the Romans in the Southwest, to the Macedonians in the West, to the Turks and the Byzantine Empire in the Southeast and the Slaves, Germans and Huns from the Northwest, this city has been the site of over 115 wars and was totally razed to the ground 44 times. Add the fact that it in recent history the country after World War II was gerrymandered forcing Slovenians, Croats, Serbians and Muslim Turks, all of whom harbored blood lust for the others, to live together and after the death of Tito, “ethnic cleansing” became virtually inevitable. Yugoslavia was the only Eastern Bloc country to receive Marshall Plan funds and Tito apparently spent all of it here in Belgrade. The city is thriving and energetic. Funds clearly were not spent to preserve and restore historic sites, but it is obvious that the city works. As for our tour guide, consideration should be given to the fact that he is Croatian, and the scars of the recent violence are still tender. Evidence abounds of the NATO bombing in 1997, but the heart of the city has been rebuilt. We have been blessed with warm weather, and for this we are most grateful, because it seems obvious that this place can get Butt Ass Cold. Tomorrow:
Day 9: Ruminations on Eastern Europe
Early this morning our boat docked at a border crossing between Croatia and Hungary, a European Union nation, and at 6 AM we were roused from bed to present ourselves for “passport face check”, a reminder as subtle as a smack on the nose that we live in a still divided world. Hungary always was the rebellious child of Communism, and was one of the very first to jump ship. Consequently it has been the recipient of Western largess and clearly has reaped the benefits of capitalism. The riverbank here is sprinkled with sparkling small villages, and as we approach Budapest there seems to be a palpable since of vibrancy.
Yesterday we spent the day in a small town in Croatia, the first to be reached in 1991 by the invading Serbian army. 1700 Croatian militia dug in and for 100 days held off an invading army of 70,000 soldiers who, months before, were fellow citizens. The Croatians in that small town, of course, were ultimately crushed, but their valor allowed the remainder of the country time to prepare and then to survive.
Two thoughts about America. First, in response to a question about the difference in mindsets between Eastern Europeans and Americans, our tour director said of America: “Your country was settled by crazy people, and I mean that in a good way. Those who went to America had courage, vision and hope. Those who remained behind had those qualities already crushed out of them.” Perhaps he is right.
Second, historians say America has never been subjected to foreign invasion and utter destruction. With this I disagree. In 1864, in the midst of a great bloodletting called the “Civil War” by the victors, the Confederate States of America was invaded by an army of the United States of America, one intent upon crushing the rebellious region.
That army, led by a brutal and efficient general, marched across Georgia to the sea destroying everything he found. Determined never again to allow the breakaway republic to consider independence, his army destroyed the entire infrastructure of the South, and his government, once victorious, refused to rebuild the region, subjected it to depravations and denied to it the very capital which is the lifeblood of capitalism. The scars of that bloody conflict, which pitted brother against brother, linger today. Over 150 years later the breakaway region still lags behind. First in poverty, last in literacy, and mired in mediocrity, it clings for pride to little more than the myth of a glorious past. That and its football teams.
When I consider these things I think of Croatia, and Bosnia, and every one of these sad, broken war torn places and my heart weeps.
Budapest: Sundry musings
Buda is on one side of the Danube and Pest the other. It was only after the building of the Chain Bridge (a remarkable iron edifice, still in use today) in 1839 did they unite into one magnificent metropolis. The history of inhabitation, however, spans 12,000 years. Buda is located on a steep limestone bluff and, once the Romans discovered the geologic hot baths, her future was set. And what a future it was to be. There were, of course, the periodic obligatory invasions, sackings and renovations, a kind of urban and cultural renewal which saw waves upon waves of new genetic seed planted here. But, for our purposes, we will focus on the genetic progenitors of all Hungarians, the Magyars. Out of the foothills of the Ural Mountains in 896 AD they swept and, as best I can determine, planted their genes and culture indelibly upon these proud but snake bitten people.
To know the sense of history and place a people have of themselves, one should go to their gallery of national art, and so today we took in the Hungarian National Gallery of Art, located within the palace complex, high above the Danube on the top of Buda. Devoted to Hungarian artists, it traces room by room the history of what is now Hungary. Now most nations have heroic mythology about their pasts. Here's this prince resolutely defeating so and so. There's that one liberating his people from oppression. But Hungary, it seems, has always had a clear and stark vision of its past. Here are the invaders (usually, but not exclusively the Turks), capturing and sacking Budapest. There, the Hungarian prince lies dying on the field of battle. Everywhere the Hungarians are getting their asses handed to them. You see, Hungary is the ultimate poor side chooser. Align with A or B? Easy: whichever will ultimately lose. A recent example was WWII. First they pick Germany, and for their efforts get their city virtually leveled by Allied bombers. Then when things aren't going so well for the home team, they, like, start acting antsy and Hitler decides he can't trust them so he invades Hungary. Along comes Russia which takes its turn blasting away and ultimately draws them into the Eastern Bloc and into Communism. And none of this without great suffering by the people.
So what happens? Everything works out, right? Not exactly. You remember those Russian tanks in 1956 rolling into the heart of a great city. Leaders executed, the people punished. Yep, Budapest, 40 years before the fall of the Iron Curtain.
The second revelation depicted in the paintings is the true genetic material of The Church. Which Church? Christian, Orthodox, Muslim? It doesn't matter because “The Church” doesn't have DNA. Instead it is a virus. It has no army and denies any interest in the affairs of man, but, because it is composed after all of humans, has a desperate need for money and power. So it does what a virus does. Infest the body politic of the State, take over its DNA and replicate itself with members who now have dual allegiance and from whom it extracts money, power and protection. In cases of acute infection it can even direct the affairs of state, commanding it attack this one or that in its holy name.
Want to legitimize your claim to the throne after having your own brother beheaded? For a modest fee the Pope will trot over and bless you. After you kiss his ring. Not doing enough fiscally to support The Church, or waiver in your commitment to its tenets? Well, that's what Crusades are for. Here in this Gallery this same theme is played out ad nauseam. Now, I happen to be a believer. Guess I'm just not much of a Church admirer.
Colleen and I do so love this vibrant and beautiful city, but it's time we return home. Tomorrow Eastern Europe: Epilogue
Nationalism, greed, megalomaniacal leaders, twisted religious beliefs and envy of others have been mankind's handmaidens for as long as has recorded history. But the last 100 years have eclipsed all of history in the human infliction of harm upon fellow humans. World War I with its use of poison gas, enhanced weapons (think machine guns) and outdated military tactics (think horse cavalry charges against those machine guns). WWII: aerial firebombing of cities with phosphorus, frozen armies on the steppes of Russia, murdered Jews, Gypsies, and homosexuals (6 million and counting). You name it. Then the Iron Curtain: Gulag, tens of millions of political prisoners, ethnic cleansing ( as polite a word as ever was invented for rape, pillage, and murder). The list goes on but you get the point.
Now, we've all studied history. But it takes a 1700 KM river trip through the heart of this sad land, and visiting with people who lived through it, truly to understand the suffering and waste. Waste of human lives and human capital. Waste of human dignity and most of all waste of the rights we deem “inalienable”: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. Only, those “rights” aren't God made. At least they aren't God protected. No, for there exists within the soul of some humans an infinite capacity for evil. It is only through the courage, effort and sacrifice of right minded people that those same rights can be secured.
Communism was an idea embodied in the thought: “From each according to his ability. To each according to his needs.” Nice thought. In execution, not so good. Am I glad I went? Yes. Would I go again? No. At the risk of being, like, all sappy, THIS is The Land of The Free and The Home of The Brave. It's good to be home. God bless America and God bless every one of you.