That’s the question asked in many a household on the northern hemisphere these days.
This cat was clearly waiting for me to initiate the heating season.
When I explained to her that I try to abstain from using the heater as much as possible, for environmental, financial and geo-political reasons (especially here in Hungary, a country which is buying more, not less Russian gas), the cat soon found another solution.
And then, taking it from there, we found a joint solution to keep each other warm without fueling Russia’s war against Ukraine.
So, don’t lament about the high gas prices. Just get a cat!
One of the things I like about house-sitting is the arbitrariness of it.
Sometimes, I get invited to cities like Vienna, Berlin or Stockholm. Places that everyone would want to go to, with plenty of things to see, cultural activities to indulge in, and friends to make. (Well, maybe not in Stockholm.) Cities where nobody asks what on earth I am doing there.
But just as often, I get invited to villages in the countryside. Places like Oberstenfeld, Venta Micena or Chastre. Places that I never knew existed. Villages that I would never have visited otherwise. Where everyone wonders what on earth I am doing there.
I enjoy both of these categories equally, especially when they alternate.
First, I soak up big city life and everything it has to offer. Then, I retreat to a village, where I can read books all day.
This month, it’s village time again, as I find myself in Lepsény. That’s in Hungary.
There won’t be much to write about, not least because I find Hungarian an impenetrable language. Almost none of the words are similar to any other language I know. (The Hungarian language used to have many more loanwords from Latin and German. But in the 18th and 19th century, the age of nationalism, Hungarian linguists invented tens of thousands of new words to replace anything that sounded vaguely foreign. Thank you!) When I am at the supermarket, I can only buy things that are sold open or that have a picture on the packaging. As if I was illiterate. Today, looking for milk, I luckily found a carton that had a cow on it.
So, instead of stories, here are a few photos, for you to imagine life in a typical Hungarian village.
I don’t actually mind a small village, as long as the owners leave me a car or – even better – there is a train station. Having grown up in a village (in Germany) with terrible public transport myself, I am always amazed when small villages have a train station.
Lepsény, with a population of around 3.000 people, not only has a train station. It has, and that really blew my mind, direct trains to Budapest, to Zagreb and to plenty of other beautiful cities.
Also, I can always take a walk down to Lake Balaton.
More about house-sitting. After Kyiv, this is only my second cat-sitting in Eastern Europe. But I would love to come to this part of the world more often, in case you know anyone who needs a house/cat sitter.
In some months, the centenary of a historical event almost forces itself into the limelight. In October 1922, Benito Mussolini and his fascists came to power in Italy. Exactly 100 years later, a woman from the fascists’ successor party is elected prime minister in Italy. An open admirer of Mussolini is elected president of the senate. The dictator’s grave is a place of pilgrimage.
But we have covered Italy in this series before, when I introduced the proto-fascists of Fiume. And you have been reading about this in the newspapers and listening to it on the radio the whole month already. This series, however, likes to put the obvious events to the side and instead shine a light on the less illuminated spots of world history.
One of the countries unjustly neglected is Romania.
This finally gives me the opportunity to combine this history series with a travel story. And it so happens that I haven’t been to Bolzano or to Rome this summer, but in Alba Iulia. In German, the city is called Karlsburg, but because the it is now indisputably in Romania and no longer in Austria, I will use the Romanian name. After all, we don’t want to be like the Hungarians, who use their unpronounceable Hungarian names for all cities to which they lay irredentist claims, i.e. Gyulafehérvár or Károlyfehérvár or Erdélyifehérvár in the case of Alba Iulia. Buying a train ticket in Hungary to a city in a neighboring country is an ordeal each time, because the railroad staff insist on using the Hungarian name. Vienna is called Bécs, but if you mispronounce it, you end up in Pécs. Probably, the whole Hungarian tourism sector lives off foreigners who can never leave Hungary because they don’t know that Bratislava is called Pozsony and Cluj is called Kolozsvár.
But back to Alba Iulia, and with that straight to Italy again. Because what do we find in Alba Iulia?
The Capitoline Wolf with baby Romulus and baby Remus!
Because – to summarize things in a way which is only slightly oversimplifying – Romania is the real successor to the Roman Empire. This was the place where the Romans settled after having battled and then made up and mixed with the Dacians. This explains why Romania is that island of Romance language deep in Eastern Europe. If you ever go there and speak Italian or Spanish, you will be surprised by how much Romanian you can understand or at least read.
And that’s not some crazy claim by me or by Romania. Quite the contrary, it is also recognized by Italy. Because the wolf statues, which you find in front of almost any city hall in Romania, were given as presents by Italy. During the time of Mussolini! Shocking how everything is always connected with everything else, but we don’t have the time to get lured into that particular rabbit hole today.
Because we want to focus on 15 October 1922, when King Ferdinand I was crowned as King of Greater Romania.
That Ferdinand came from the German town of Sigmaringen, which is why his full name was Ferdinand von Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen. Now, if you know how bad the Hohenzollern family has been for Germany, setting all of Europe ablaze, committing war crimes, genocide and plundering the German people, you are going to wonder how anybody could be so stupid as to pick a Hohenzollern guy. Especially in 1922, after all of this was well known.
Well, if Romania had had a choice in 1922, they surely wouldn’t have made that mistake.
But Ferdinand had already been King of Romania since 1914. He had inherited the job from his uncle Karl, who, as Carol I, had been Prince of Romania since 1866 and King of Romania since 1881 and who had no surviving children of his own.
Newly established countries inviting a foreign prince to rule over them was nothing extraordinary at the time. In the 19th century (and in the United Kingdom until today), people could not imagine how a country could function without a monarch. And thus, countries like Greece, Bulgaria, Finland or Romania went looking for a prince, preferably a second- or third-born son, who couldn’t expect to inherit anything worthwhile at home. Someone like Prince Harry. Or like Eric Trump. If he isn’t in prison already.
Romanians first inquired with the Belgian royal family, but none of them was interested. Considering how Belgium governed in the Congo, this was a stroke of luck for Romania. Although Romania’s colonial history is nothing to be proud of, either.
The Hohenzollern family, on the other hand, were never plagued by lack of ambition. Also, Romania had gold. And thus, Prince Karl Eitel Friedrich Zephyrinus Ludwig von Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen accepted the job offer.
King Carol I made some good decisions and some bad decisions. Large infrastructure projects, the railroad, bridges across the Danube, and one of the most beautiful royal castles in the world, Peleș Castle.
When World War I began in 1914, King Carol I wanted Romania to join the war on the side of the Central Powers. For one because of the secret treaty with Austria-Hungary, but also because the German war emperor Wilhelm II was his cousin.
But Romania is both a peaceful and a Francophile country. (Because of the common Latin origin, Romanians find it very easy to learn French. And when they come to Paris, they think, “Oh, this looks almost as fancy as Bucharest.” But because Western Europeans dominate the cultural discourse, Bucharest is called the “Paris of the East” instead of the other way around.)
Romanians had no desire for war, let alone war against France. Moreover, they did not have too much sympathy for Austria-Hungary, because the Romanians living there (mainly in Transylvania) were suffering from the Magyarization policy. So they refused to serve in the war. Nationwide. The German-Prussian king was so enraged by this refusal to obey his orders that he died out of protest in October 1914, only two months into the Great War.
And that’s when his nephew, Ferdinand I, became King of Romania.
He happened to be married to a British lady (who, for reasons of gender equality, had also been crowned queen), so that war against Britain would have been a constant bone of contention at the family dinner table.
And so King Ferdinand I bowed to the will of the people, remained neutral until 1916, and then led Romania into World War I on the side of the Allied Powers.
Kaiser Wilhelm II was so furious about this, he had Ferdinand erased from the Hohenzollern family tree, although this probably left the Romanian king quite cold. Especially when it became clear that Germany and Austria-Hungary would be the big losers of World War I.
To illustrate the consequences of that war for Romania, I should finally make use of a map, I guess.
The area marked in piggy pink was Romania before World War I, practically the union of the principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia. This was the territory of which Carol I was first prince and then king.
When World War I was over, all the lilac areas also wanted to belong to this likable country: Transylvania (which is simply the name of a beautiful region in Europe, even if it makes you think of vampires), parts of Banat, Maramures, Crișana and Sathmar, the southern part of Bukovina and Bessarabia (the latter is today’s Republic of Moldova).
Suddenly, Romania was twice as large as before. That’s what happens when you’re on the right side in a world war and you speak a lot of foreign languages, so you can easily navigate your way around the peace conferences in Versailles, Trianon and so on.
Speaking of Trianon: I’m spending this month in Hungary, and in every little village here, there is a monument proclaiming that this treaty will never be recognized under any circumstances. The trauma of Trianon sits so deep, not least because it is constantly reactivated by the government, that I will have to dedicate a separate article to it.
Ferdinand I was already King of Romania, but because his workload had now increased considerably, the Romanians thought it only fair to ask if he wanted to continue being king. After all, no one should be forced to work overtime every night against his will. Besides, he would henceforth have to go on longer business trips with the notoriously slow Romanian railway. The king said, “I can do that,” and the Romanians were so happy that they vowed to have another coronation ceremony.
And because people insisted on building a new coronation cathedral for this purpose, it took until 15 October 1922, when Ferdinand I and Mary, King and Queen of Romania, were once again crowned King and Queen of Romania. I think this is a very healthy approach. Sometimes, you have to pause in life and ask yourself “Do I really still want this?” instead of mindlessly muddling along in the same job year after year.
Because I was in Alba Iulia this summer, I can show you some photos of the coronation hall and the coronation church. In the latter, the oversized (because of Greater Romania) crown still hangs from the ceiling.
On hot days, I like to visit churches, to have a rest. However, Orthodox churches have no pews to sit down. Fortunately, right next to it is the Roman Catholic, i.e. the Hungarian church. Because the Hungarians (and Germans and other ethnic minorities) were, of course, allowed to continue living in Transylvania, although they all became Romanian citizens in 1920. In this part of the country, you still hear both languages, and there are cities, e.g. Târgu Mureș / Marosvásárhely, where half of the population speaks Hungarian. And landscapes like Szeklerland, where 90% speak Hungarian. The only important thing is, like here in Alba Iulia, that the Hungarian Catholic church must never be taller than the Romanian Orthodox church.
“Don’t support begging!” a sign says, as I exit the coronation church. That’s funny because the Orthodox Church is the most persistent beggar of all.
But you don’t go to Alba Iulia for the churches. Nor for the coronation hall. Not even for the very extensive museum. No, you visit Alba Iulia because of the citadel, where all these aforementioned buildings and the whole old town are located. A huge, heptagonal fortress, built – in order to avoid disputes between Romanians and Hungarians – by the Habsburgs. There used to be many such fortifications, but rarely are they so well preserved and – because the new town has established itself at a respectful distance – so clearly recognizable as in Alba Iulia.
I set out for a walk. On the one hand, it is stupid to do so exactly at midday, when the temperature is at its hottest. On the other hand, but I can’t know that yet, it’s clever because this is the only way I will be back before nightfall.
Because walking around the citadel of Alba Iulia is a Herculean task. (Probably that’s why Hercules had to go to the nearby spa, bearing his name, after this walk.) From the distance, you can’t see how winding and wide the paths are, but when you walk in the moat, the towering walls make you realize painfully how trapped and lost you are.
I will give the architects the benefit of doubt that their intention was to increase the defensive capability, not to lead harmless tourists to their deaths. But they should at least put up warning signs, informing unsuspecting visitors that it takes several hours to walk around the old town. The path keeps twisting and turning. The seven corners turn into many more intermediate corners, subcorners, side corners, ancillary corners. Soon, I have lost all sense of orientation. Fortunately, about every hour there is a water dispenser in the moat, which apart from that and myself shows few signs of life.
This fortress must be the largest fortification in the world. Or maybe the second largest after the Great Wall of China. But I am not even sure of that, because the Chinese Wall is not laid in such tricky folds that visually deceive about its length. Before each corner, I hope to see the staircase that leads back to the old town. But behind every corner, there is only disappointment. And fascination with the sheer size and indestructibility of this building.
Ferdinand I suffered a similar fate with Greater Romania as I did with my walk. He, too, had taken on too much and died of exhaustion as soon as 1927. The new king was his then 5-year-old grandson Michael I, who had quite an eventful life: becoming king while still in kindergarten, then overthrown by his own father, proclaimed king again during World War II, dictatorship, royal coup d’état against the dictatorship, changing sides in World War II (from Germany to the Allies), overthrown by the communists, exile, return to Romania after Ceaușescu’s downfall, arrest, renewed exile for five years, and yet another return to Romania.
The history of Romania is so exciting and multi-faceted, I really don’t understand why hardly anyone is interested in it. And as you can see from the photos: the country is easily worth one or rather several visits.
In the meantime, Romania has become a bit smaller again, because the Soviet Union cut off a piece after World War II, which is now independent as Moldova. People still speak Romanian there, even though they call the language Moldovan. But the only people who claim that there are big differences between the two are those who have never been to the other country. Honestly, the differences between German, Austrian and Swiss German or those of the English spoken north and south of Hadrian’s Wall are much more pronounced.
In both countries, you also see graffiti stating that Bessarabia (the historical and geographical designation for the territory of Moldova) is part of Romania. And sometimes, people march from Chișinău to Bucharest or vice versa to express this demand for reunification.
Even the Moldovan entry for this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, “Trenulețul“, is about a train ride between the two capital cities, stressing the similarities between both countries.
I once took the train to Moldova (and onward to Transnistria), and they really have such beautiful old trains with a living-room look. Each carriage has its own conductor who sells meatballs, pickles and vodka, handing it over the counter adorned with a flowery table cloth, like in your grandmother’s apartment. The vodka helps against plutonium, which is smuggled frequently in Transnistria. (That’s why I am relatively unimpressed by Russian nuclear threats. I believe most of the plutonium has already been sold on the black market.)
On the way back, I took the bus, and the driver slipped contraband to each passenger. Because no one else made a fuss about it, I didn’t want to be the spoilsport and also took a large bottle of clear liquid and a carton of cigarettes under my wing.
The reunification of Moldova and Romania is not even a bad idea. In any case, it would be the fastest way for Moldova to enter the European Union. They would just have to do what East Germany did in 1990 and simply join an EU member state, in this case Romania. That way, you don’t need to go through the tedious process of applying for membership, lengthy negotiations, and all that lawyer crap.
On the other hand, this would put the smugglers out of work.
I like going to cemeteries. Often, they are quieter and more pleasant than the local park. Some are of artistic value. And then, I learn a bit about the local culture and history.
In Romania, I was recommended a cemetery that is even supposed to be amusing: the merry cemetery of Săpânța.
It is only 20 km from Sighet. That should be manageable by hitchhiking. But at the turnoff to Satu Mare, I stand for 25 minutes just as unsuccessfully as the Jehovah’s Witnesses on the opposite side of the road.
Depressing. As if made for a day at the cemetery. But I don’t want to give up. Not yet. Instead, I walk a few hundred meters further out of town, until after the hospital, and try again. Here, already the third car stops.
The driver is from Slovakia, but lives in Maramureș. Or he is from here, but ethnically Slovak. I didn’t understand that exactly. But then, I don’t think it really matters around here either, because people still think in terms of Habsburg regions like Ruthenia or Volhynia or Galicia. All these nation states that were created after the First World War, that’s a rather newfangled thing.
The excessively large and excessively out-of-place concrete church in Sarasău is also rather newfangled.
But the stork nests on every second or third power pole preserve the village character along the road. Three or four storks are frolicking in each nest. The birds may be endangered elsewhere, but not here. And the child-delivering birds are quite fitting indeed for a country where abortion and contraception were banned until 1989, and where childless people had to pay an annual penalty tax amounting to something like a month’s income.
Remember the photos of the overcrowded orphanages that briefly opened the world’s charity checkbooks after the fall of anti-abortion activist Nicolae Ceaușescu? Well, now you know where all those children came from. But I guess we will soon see the results again of forcing women to give birth, in places like Poland and the United States.
As it happens, the friendly driver has to go to a hardware store in Săpânța, which is located just below the cemetery. This happens often with hitchhiking: First you think that no one is stopping at all. Then a driver comes along and takes you to your destination with pinpoint accuracy. I think this is the first cemetery for which I have to pass souvenir stands and snack bars and pay a small entrance fee of 5 lei (= 1 euro).
This cemetery is so famous because every deceased person receives a wooden plaque with a personal image and a poem about his/her life, most of them allegedly amusing.
Now I regret that I don’t understand Romanian. For a while, I can listen to a Romanian visitor translating to his Spanish wife, but after a while, it’s getting too obvious that I am always staying close to them.
Thus, like the illiterate worshipers of former times before the frescoes of the Moldavian monasteries, I am dependent on the pictorial narrative. Many carvings seem to revolve around the profession of the protagonists. A doctor with an airplane signifies that he once brought the vaccine to the village. Hunters, woodcutters, and butchers are shown at work. However, I fail to understand why a hunter’s membership in the Communist Party is so prominently highlighted.
Several carvings refer to the manner of death. Some offer real criminal cases, from involuntary manslaughter in road traffic to vigilante justice by chopping off the head of a cattle thief caught in the act.
Now, I just hear that those among you who speak Romanian, will step forward to translate these limericks. Mulțumesc!
There is probably no other village in the world whose history is documented in such detail. A treasure trove for ethnologists and microhistorians.
The church, as you can see, is also quite cute. However, the artists who decorated its interior in a rather serious and conventional way receive only a fraction of the attention and recognition. Perhaps they should have let Stan Ioan Pătraș take care of the church, too.
What is unfortunately missing from all the professions depicted on the graves is an exterminator. Because exactly at noon, swarms of large insects are attacking the cemetery and indeed the whole village.
From this biblical plague – I think it is the third or the fourth one – I seek refuge in the nearby forest. If you ever come to this mysterious gate in that forest, I advise you to go walk through it and follow the path.
Because it will lead you to the tallest wooden tower in the world. The church tower stands 75 meters tall and is located in a clearing, which I guess is the result of cutting down enough timber for the construction of said tower. The newly built Peri-Peri monastery next to it clearly shows which institution in Romania does most certainly not suffer from any lack of money.
For the way back, I am standing by the main road again, and this time the second car stops. The driver is happy to take me to Sighet, but wants 10 lei for it. That’s 2 euros for 20 km, a moderate price. In Eastern Europe it is not unusual that private vehicles take gas money. The amount is usually the same as the price of a bus ticket for the same distance.
And when the woman in the back gets out halfway and also gives the driver some money, I realize that he does this for a living. With the 10 lei, he can only afford one liter of “petrol combustibil” anyway, he complains, pointing to the display of a gas station we just passed. He is right. And that despite Romania having its own oil fields, which were heavily fought over in World War II.
The only thing bothering me about this kind of not-quite-hitchhiking is the carbon footprint. Because the driver didn’t really have to go to Sighet. And at home, his Ukrainian wife is waiting. They run a guesthouse together. It remains unclear whether she is from Ukraine or whether she is an ethnic Ukrainian from Romania. But as pointed out above, it doesn’t really matter, because modern nation-states, which have only been around for 100 to 150 years, have by no means supplanted the cross-border Carpathian identity. But on this topic, I can conveniently refer to another article of mine.
As he drops me off in Sighet, I realize that I actually don’t get it why people put so much thought into a grave. Personally, it would be embarrassing for me to take myself or to be taken so important, whether carved, painted or by poem. No, I’d rather be buried in some hole where no one knows me.
On my journey to Kremnica, I had to stop in Bratislava for one night. I was not in the mood for writing those days, hence just a few photos:
Although I only had time for one afternoon walk and one morning stroll, I took quite a liking to Bratislava. And I began to wonder why so many elegant capital cities are located on the Danube River, with Vienna, Budapest and Belgrade being the other ones.
Definitely a city I would love to spend more time in! If someone ever needs a cat-sitter there, please let me know.
When you arrive at the train station, you can get a day ticket for zones 100+101 and one for the whole network. Because I wasn’t sure how far I would go by tram, I opted for the latter, paying 6.90 € instead of 4 €. It turned out that the cheaper one is absolutely enough if you are staying in the wider Bratislava region. (The more expensive one was actually a day ticket for the whole national railways service, which came in handy the next day.)
After my brother and I unexpectedly and rather accidentally discovered a secret Yugoslav submarine port in Montenegro (please read that story first, otherwise this one won’t make any sense), we were still completely excited and out of our minds until late into the night. We probably even drank a glass of Rakia or Amaro Montenegro. Or rather half a glass each, because we are sensible guys.
The next evening, I met with a Montenegrin friend who, for some unfathomable reason, had not yet noticed how cool and adventurous I was. So I proudly, enthusiastically, extensively and possibly with some embellishment told her about our adventure in the submarine base, on board of the warships and in the sights of the Montenegrin naval snipers.
Because my idea of romantic relationships is based solely on James Bond movies, I thought that she would reply: “Oh, Andreas, you’re such a hero! But if the Montenegrin Navy is after you, you will have to go into hiding. Luckily, I have a cozy cabin in the mountains, where we can hide for a few years.”
In reality, she said: “Oh, the submarine tunnels near Luštica? I sometimes swim all the way out there in the summer.” She said it in the same tone one would use to convey the information that one had stopped by the grocer on the way home to get some milk.
I was glad that it was winter, otherwise she might have invited me to join her and would have realized that I don’t know how to swim at all.
And then she suggested: “If you are interested in such places, you should visit the military airport near Željava. That was the largest underground air base in the world.”
“How can an airport be underground?” I asked, obviously as inexperienced in airports as I am in other things.
“Željava is located in the Plješevica mountains. The runways are above ground, of course, but the hangars are built into the mountain. And the pilots can start their takeoff underground, so they spend as little time as possible on the tarmac once they leave the mountain.” That is useful when you are worried about enemy missiles.
“We could actually visit it, because it’s all abandoned now. However, the area lies directly on the border between Croatia and Bosnia, so there are still mines everywhere in the forest.” Because Croatia is rather unfriendly to refugees, Afghans, Syrians and Iranians now spend the winter in these concrete bunkers. From time to time, one of them steps on a landmine and explodes. It is always sad to see when countries are hostile towards refugees, although, just a few years ago, their own population had to seek safety from a war.
And then she said, offhandedly: “The complex in Željava is also where the Yugoslav space program was developed.”
I didn’t say anything, but I guess you could tell that the existence of a Yugoslav space program was news to me. As it probably is to you.
And so I learned that Yugoslavia had the third largest space program after the USA and the USSR. But that Yugoslavia needed money and therefore sold its space program to the USA. That the families of Yugoslav engineers were told that their fathers, husbands or sons had died, but in fact they moved to Florida. And that NASA could fly to the moon only thanks to Yugoslav technology and experts.
If I did not believe it, I should simply look up which country was the first to be visited by the astronauts of Apollo 11 after their return, my friend said. She was right: Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin paid tribute to Yugoslavia. And why were Tito and Kennedy such close friends?
However, there seems to have been a problem. Some say that Yugoslavia had fudged the calculations, which is why quite a few Apollo missions blew up at launch. Others say that the CIA was against cooperation with Yugoslavia, which is why it was no coincidence that Kennedy was shot a month after his last meeting with Tito. Some say that the USA demanded that Yugoslavia pay back the billions received, and that this is precisely what led to Yugoslavia’s bankruptcy and consequent breakup. Others blame the USA for a more active role in that breakup, allegedly out of revenge for the space fraud.
Have you also been wondering why some towns in Germany have to put a “Bad” before their name?
Well, this happens when a town misbehaves. If they are found to have done so, they need to put the “Bad” before their name on all signs and in all correspondence for three years. It actually happens more often than not.
Usually, the reason is that the municipality has overspent its budget, especially on frivolous things like a fun park with water slides or some huge museum in a small place, where there will never be enough visitors for the revenue to recover the investment. But they can also get pilloried like this if they failed to guarantee safe drinking water or didn’t act against industrial pollution. Or when a bridge collapses, although in that case, it depends whether it was a local bridge, a county bridge, a state bridge, a federal bridge or a railroad bridge. German federalism is famously complicated.
For three years, the town is then put under supervision of the respective state oversight authority
As a tourist, though, a city being branded a “bad city” shouldn’t dissuade you from visiting. This has nothing to do with the attractiveness of the city, let alone levels of crime or danger. Quite the contrary, many of those “bad” towns are really beautiful, as I recently experienced in Bad Münstereifel, Bad Mergentheim and Bad Kötzting.
Come to think of it, maybe those towns are often quite beautiful because they did overspend on frivolous things, like building parks and renovating their old towns?
I will soon be able to find out, as part of my quest to visit all geographical centers of Europe. Because one of these points, Mount Dyleň (Tillenberg) is on the Czech-German border, and the municipality on the German side is Neualbenreuth. Or Bad Neualbenreuth, as it has just been designated.
I wonder what they have done wrong. Hopefully, it wasn’t about tinkering with the border again.
Recently in Albania, three people were arrested as they tried to enter a former arms factory. The intruders from Russia and Ukraine said that they were bloggers and liked to photograph old buildings.
People who have seen too many James Bond movies are now arrogantly thinking: “Oh please, you could have come up with a better excuse!”
But I, as a world- and Balkan-experienced blogger myself, understand that this may well be true. On Mount Vrmac in Montenegro, I once met two young Russians who graciously allowed me to join them on their exploration of a military fortress. (Okay, one of the two I really suspected to be a spy, but for a different reason. More about this in the report of said trip.)
Along the coast of Montenegro, probably the most beautiful coast in Europe, there are dozens of these fortresses, all abandoned by now. They predate World War I, when Austria was still a maritime power and sought to protect its bays, harbors, and ships in the Adriatic. (Ironically, the end of Austria as a naval power began in the bay of Kotor in 1918, but that is another story, yet to be told.)
Because Montenegro is a laid-back, friendly country with responsible people, no one needs to cordon off these bunkers, tunnels, and munitions piles or put up signs yelling “No Trespassing!” at you in a rude voice. In the spirit of man’s emergence from self-imposed nonage, one simply decides for oneself through which entrances and exits to emerge and submerge.
As far as I have seen, these military installations have always been built with meter-thick walls, so they can’t really collapse. Hence, for your next family vacation in Montenegro, you can keep in mind that they are perfectly safe playgrounds for the kids.
Speaking of family holidays: When I lived in Montenegro, my brother and my mother visited me. (Every family is happy when at least one member leaves the capitalism rat race behind and becomes a vagabond, so they can visit me in a different country every year.)
And back then, I happened upon a story that shows how easily the curiosity of tourists can be misinterpreted as espionage. After all, it is quite natural to have an interest in ruins, abandoned airfields and military installations, isn’t it?
In any case, we were driving along the coast when, on Luštica peninsula, I spotted yet another one of those Austrian fortresses. I suggested that we take a look at the ruins and go explore them. My brother was excited, my mother was not. She prefers botanical gardens, coffee shops and bookstores. And at the time, she urgently wanted to be taken to a hospital.
Now, in democracy, two votes are more than one, so we decided that mom would have to wait just a little while, so that my brother could finally explore a Habsburg fortress from all sides and angles. It was raining cats and dogs, so my mom didn’t want to get out of the car. Ever thoughtful, I parked the car so that it was just in front of the cliff, with a perfect view of the stormy sea and the raging thunderstorm. That way, she wouldn’t be bored, I thought. I also left her a book, which anyone would admit is the pinnacle of thoughtfulness.
“We will only be gone for 15 minutes.”
My brother and I explored the fortress, climbed around a bit and took photos. These fortresses are all similar, probably built after the same model, planned far away in Vienna. But this one on Luštica peninsula had something which I hadn’t seen before: a shaft leading down into the depth of the fortress. Very deep down. So deep that we could not see the bottom.
Inside this shaft was a metal ladder. It looked pretty sturdy. Besides, there were two of us, so one could go ahead. If he didn’t make it back, the other one could still call for help. My brother is more tech-savvy than me and even had a flashlight with him.
Because I’m heavier, I was the first one to descend. If the ladder could support me, it would also support him. It’s hard to estimate how deep down it went, but it took a few minutes to reach the bottom. There, I found dead rats and, even more shocking, dead moles.
And then I saw something really disturbing: cables, metal pipes, electric wires, switch boxes. That didn’t look like World War I anymore. Honestly, it didn’t feel right. If I had been alone, I wouldn’t have dared to go any further, but the two of us explored the corridors and hallways, getting lost deeper and deeper in a labyrinth of cables, concrete and rubble.
Because we were deep inside the womb of mother Earth, we forgot about our own mother. We no longer paid any attention to time. That deep into the lithosphere, we didn’t even notice that the storm was turning into a hurricane.
Until we suddenly heard water rushing.
An enormous, thundering, powerful roar of water. As loud as the Victoria Falls on the Zambezi. Or like Iguaçu Falls in Paraná.
“We have to find the ladder and climb back up,” I shouted, over the din of the waters casting their echoes through the dark tunnels.
But my brother was more adventurous: “Let’s go see where the water is coming from.” Maybe he was also more brave because he knows hot to swim. I don’t. Our family is very poor, so they could only afford swimming lessons for one of us.
So we fought our way through the intertwined tunnels, now always following the unmistakable sound of the masses of water. It became more rhythmic, like a waterfall being turned on and off. Or like strong stormy waves slapping against a quay wall.
And suddenly we stepped into a room, no, a hall. The size of a submarine hangar. And that was probably what it was: We had discovered a secret submarine base of the Yugoslav Navy.
From the photos, you can’t even imagine how enormously huge and gigantic everything was. Especially when you’ve just crawled through small, dark tunnels and suddenly find yourself in this cathedral of seafaring. It’s like walking through the narrow streets of Rome and then stepping into the Pantheon.
The best way to get an idea of the dimensions of the submarine base is to remember the type of ships for which it was built:
“The Hunt for Red October” is closely interwoven with family history, because it was the last film that my grandfather and I saw in the cinema together. This was in 1990, at the end of the Cold War and shortly before he drowned. This was the same grandfather who had lived in Yugoslavia for a few years in the 1940s under dubious circumstances. Had he built that submarine port back then? For whom had he spied? Why had my grandfather – in West Germany, mind you – taught me the Cyrillic script? Were we, his grandsons, now to be lured into a trap? Why was no one in this family permitted a peaceful life?
All these were questions that didn’t even occur to us. The water kept sloshing over the edge of the pool, and we had to be very careful not to be washed away. The concrete was slippery and full of holes, and there was no railing. Of course, we still ventured all the way to the front, where the rain was lashing down, the wind was blowing, and the sea was greedily snapping at us.
And there, further north on the coast, we spotted two ships. We climbed – rather daringly – to the other side of the submarine port. There was a hole in the wire fence. And we pretended not to understand the sign, which – for once – said something against trespassing. But then, who in the world speaks Montenegrin?
As we approached, the two ships didn’t look all that crispy anymore.
We took a run-up, jumped on board and looked around: Ammunition for anti-aircraft guns. The galley log, with entries from spring 2006, the last days before Montenegro’s independence. A radar set that was still emitting radioactivity. A helmet in a pool of blood. What had happened here?
Just as I was posing for a souvenir photo, someone on the shore shouted at us to get the hell off the ship. Whoever it was, he sounded mighty pissed. We obeyed the order, already suspecting that we were in for a teeny bit of trouble.
It was a soldier who wanted to know how anyone could be so stupid as to walk into a Montenegrin Navy base in broad daylight, climb onto warships and take photos there. All the while, he kept his hand on his gun holster. He looked even angrier than he had sounded.
“We are terribly sorry for the inconvenience, comrade,” I said, using the salutation “druže”, because the soldier looked old enough to appeal to his nostalgic feelings for Yugoslavia. (Lesson #1: As a prisoner, you must try to make your captor like you. That makes it much harder for him to kill you.)
“We went for a walk on the coast because I wanted to show my little brother that here is the most beautiful coast in all of the Adriatic.” (Lesson #2: Compliment the country you’re in. Everyone likes it when foreigners praise their country. – Lesson #3: Show that you have responsibility for others and that this is not a one-on-one situation. Younger siblings, innocent cats or old grannies are perfect for this purpose.)
“We saw the submarine tunnels first and were absolutely amazed. Really fascinating! And then the ships here, it’s all so incredible! We thought this was a naval museum.” (Lesson #4: It’s much better for the captor to think you’re stupid and naïve than dangerous and shrewd.)
The soldier took his hand off the gun.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“From Germany,” I said, glad that we were from a NATO country. Montenegro had joined NATO in 2017, so we were allies. It would be dicier if we were Russians or something. In 2016, there had been a Russian-backed coup attempt in Montenegro, which went strangely unnoticed by the rest of Europe. Like all the warnings about Russia, even if they come from Russia itself. But that’s another topic.
“Let’s see your passports,” the soldier ordered.
Stupidly, we had left our passports in the car. Despite lesson #3, I did not mention that we also left our mother in the car. I did not want the soldier or his colleagues to question her. Because, as cool and thoughtful as my brother and I were acting, we most certainly had not inherited that trait from our mother. And escalation was the last thing we needed.
The soldier spoke into his radio, which was good. As long as there is communication, no shots are fired.
The soldier’s commander came up with the same idea I had thought of already: One of us would return to the car, get the passports and come back. The other one would stay behind as a hostage. It was clear that I would stay and my younger brother would go.
So my brother had to walk back through the dangerous tunnels, shafts and the submarine port, all alone, probably explain to our mother why we were gone a bit longer than expected, get our passports and make the whole long arduous journey yet another time. In the rain. And try not getting lost, not falling down some hole and not getting killed.
The soldier guarded me with wary eyes, his hand back on the gun. I looked at the ground with an innocent puppy look, pretending to be insanely worried about my brother.
Soon, a sergeant approached on a speedboat. To my relief, he was younger, friendlier and more relaxed. He immediately suggested that we move to one of the nearby buildings because it was raining. Then he offered me a cigarette. I declined, thanking him, but offered him a cigar. He declined, thanking me. We talked a bit, but more about Montenegro in general, how beautiful and interesting it was (lesson #2), that I was studying history (lesson #1) and that I wanted to show my brother this beautiful country (lesson #3).
Because I didn’t want to ask anything about ships or the Navy or other suspicious stuff, we soon ran out of things to talk about. My brother stayed away for quite a long time, and I began to suspect why. The older soldier was getting grumpy, the younger sergeant was getting bored, and I just hoped that they hadn’t sent a patrol to look for our car.
After about 45 minutes or so, my brother returned, running. He wanted to show that he had hurried. We handed the sergeant our passports. He took a notebook out of his pocket, and I saw that it was already full of names, addresses, and passport numbers. Apparently, curious photographers and bloggers enter these premises on a regular basis. I was relieved. It looked like in Montenegro, you didn’t get in trouble until you illegally entered a military base for the second time. A laid-back country, very likable.
“Did you take any photos?”
“Yes,” my brother admitted and showed his cell phone. After all, the soldier had been watching us on the ship. There was no point in lying. Besides, who sets out on this dangerous journey and then doesn’t take any photos?
The sergeant looked at the images and ordered us to delete the ones with the two ships. When he got to the photos of the submarine base, he said: “Oh, you can keep those. The submarine tunnels are no longer a restricted military area, so that’s not a problem.” I don’t know if I’ve said it before, but Montenegro is an extremely nice and friendly country.
“And you, do you also have a cell phone?” he asked me.
I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket, and he had to laugh. Which is what happens regularly when people see my phone.
“All right,” he said, “that’s it. If you want, you can stay here for a while, so you don’t have to walk back in the rain.” You may have noticed it already, but I’ll say it again: Montenegro is the friendliest and most amicable country in Europe!
But we preferred to set out immediately, because we still had our dear mom, who had been waiting for a few hours more than the promised 15 minutes. And because our mother is not from Montenegro, but from Germany, she would hardly be as relaxed as Montenegrin sergeants who caught two espionage suspects red-handed.
As soon as we both crawled through the fence, my brother said: “It took me so long, because I copied the photos onto the laptop.”
“That’s what I thought,” I said with a grin, feeling proud of my younger brother. It was particularly smart that he hadn’t deleted the photos on his phone, which would have only made us suspicious. It’s a real joy to work with professionals.
Our mom, on the other hand, was not proud at all. Quite the contrary. She was pissed off. And the more my brother and I were happy about the successful outing, the angrier she got. Maybe it was because the heavy rain had loosened the gravel on the slope and the car had already slid down the cliff a bit. I didn’t really think of it as a problem, because there was still at least half a meter between the car and the sea.
“But I left you a book to pass the time,” I tried to de-escalate the situation.
“Yeah, from that fucking Radoje Domanović, writing about people falling down into a canyon!”
“Oh.” I had given her an anthology of Yugoslavian storytellers to get to know the country and its people.
“And that stupid Ranko Marinković writes about heads being cut off. That didn’t make it any better.”
“Oh.” Next time, I should remember to bring some funny books.
“And can we finally go to the hospital, please?”
Oh dear, I think I had forgotten to explain before why my mother wanted to be taken to the hospital. A few hours earlier, she had broken her foot. I wanted to show them Zalazi, a village in the mountains, very high up. It’s in ruins, completely deserted, but you have a fantastic view over the bay of Kotor from there.
Unfortunately, I had only been there once, with a local hiking group, so that I didn’t have to pay too much attention to the path. Of course we got lost in the alpine territory, had to stumble across the rocks, where my mother fell and got injured so badly that we had to carry her back to the car.
For just one day, I guess all of this was a bit much for her.
Ever since, none of my family have visited me again.
I am always impressed when someone manages to learn German. It’s not the easiest of languages – though not the hardest, either – and every 50 kilometers or so, it is pronounced in a completely different way. Even I, as a native German speaker, don’t understand all fellow Germans. Let alone the Swiss.
One curious account of learning German comes from Patrick Leigh Fermor, who as an 18-year old boy walked across all of Europe, from Holland to Istanbul. On foot. Setting out in the winter of 1933/34.
In his (highly recommended) book “A Time of Gifts”, he describes how he picked up the language during the part of the journey that led him through Germany: He bought a German translation of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and, knowing the English original by heart, put two and two together, and – swoosh – he was fluent in German. Just like that. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy, as Shakespeare would have rhymed.
Not being a genius like the 18-year old hobo who had gotten kicked out of school and was sleeping in barns and ditches, I was always a bit skeptical about this account.
But now, somebody discovered an interview with Patrick Leigh Fermor from 1989, in which he – 55 years later – still remembered passages from the German translation of “Hamlet”. [Watch from minute 10:35.]
Extraordinary. And he also learned Hungarian, Romanian, Romani, Greek and Turkish on the same walk.