Because of this, many districts of Berlin maintain a unique – sometimes even rural – character. Last summer, I explored Köpenick, Berlin’s easternmost district, for a day. Instead of explaining a lot, I guess I should just show you some photos, and you will get a better idea of what I am talking about.
With all the life taking place near or in the water, it almost felt like Venice.
That factory on the other side of the river is a brewery, of course. I mean, what else?
Köpenick even kept its own railway, which is connected to the German, European and global railway system at Wuhlheide station.
The train leads through an enormous forest, with restaurants, concert areas, playgrounds and yet more water. Here, you also find the stadium of FC Union Berlin, the football club, which has been playing in the first-division Bundesliga since 2019 and qualified for the UEFA Cup (or whatever they call that now) for the first time last year.
I guess there was a match that day, because I saw thousands of people in red UNION jerseys, as well as thousands of people in blue POLIZEI jerseys – the rival team, apparently. The blue team seemed a bit more aggressive, blocking all the roads and the tramway, but in the end, Union won 3-1.
Anyway, I really liked Köpenick.
And now, as luck would have it, I secured a house- and cat-sitting job in, you guessed it, Köpenick! In Müggelheim, to be precise, which is the easternmost part of the easternmost district of Berlin. And even more rural. In 1920, it was by far the smallest municipality to become part of Berlin. My hosts already warned me to look out for wild boar and foxes, whenever I open the door.
So, from next week, I will be in Berlin for two months. I just hope it will be as sunny and warm as it was on my last visit to Köpenick. And, if you are in the area, please say hello!
“Little Napoleon wants to be picked up on platform 2, please. And hurry, or he’ll lay waste to the whole town!”
Only when I hear this announcement and look out of the train window, I realize what should have been obvious all along: Waterloo, that word on everyone’s lips and wafting around in the collective memory of mankind, is a real place. A rather average small town in Belgium, to be precise.
By the way: The name Waterloo is Dutch, so you don’t have to pronounce it in English just because ABBA have messed it up. However, the town is on the French-speaking side of the inner-Belgian language border, so you’ll have to parlance French there. But be careful if you take the train from Brussels, because the route crosses Flemish territory for a short time. Between the stations of Linkebeek and De Hoek, you have to speak Dutch. English is also possible, but only if you are not Belgian. German, however, is forbidden, because German is one of the Belgian national languages, but only in another, separately designated part of the country. (Yes, Belgium is really that complicated.)
I react too slowly and thus only get off at the next stop: Braine-l’Alleud.
But this is not even wrong, because it is here where you find the world-famous battlefield, the acres of agony, the meadows of mayhem, the pasture of pain. Still, more than two hundred years after the fateful battle of 1815, the ground is drenched in blood, the clouds hang low, and the sky weeps.
That is to say, perfectly normal weather for Belgium.
Why anyone would schedule the battle of the century exactly here, of all places available, is beyond me. But Napoleon had a soft spot for depressing locations: Borodino, Ulm, Austerlitz, Jena, Moscow, Landshut, Leipzig.
It should therefore not come as a surprise that between battles, he often withdrew to isolated islands to recharge his batteries. (From a travel blogger, you now rightly expect links to reports about Elba and St. Helena. But since I haven’t been there yet, I’ll instead provide a link to my report from Caprera, where another great, combative, but all the less controversial person of European history spent the last years of his life.)
If you know Belgium, you already noticed something in the photos of the Waterloo battlefield. If you don’t know Belgium, you noticed nothing. And it is precisely this nothing that puzzles me.
Because all of Belgium is dotted with military cemeteries and mass graves. There is no village that does not have two or three of them. And even between the villages, in the open countryside, you stumble across thousands of corpses each time you go for a walk.
Only in Waterloo, there is not a single grave to be seen. Although the most famous battle in the history of the world was fought here. Somewhere, the 20,000 to 50,000 dead must have been buried, though. Not to forget all the dead horses, dogs and military cats.
But more on that later, because now – and it will remain the only joyful event of this gray winter month – the sun comes out. There is the Lion’s Mound, visible from afar and of rather practical use in a battle. However, as is often the case with large infrastructure projects, it was not completed until ten years after the battle. A tiny problem with the building permit or a shortage of construction material because some drunk captain blocked the Suez Canal, and poof, Napoleon lost the battle of his life.
Although there is a bitterly cold wind blowing, I drag myself up all 226 steps – everything for you, esteemed readers – in order to let my gaze roam over relatively unspectacular fields. I still don’t understand why you don’t just lead your army around the field when you know the enemies are waiting there. But then, I didn’t attend the military academy.
And I still don’t see any graves. Nowhere.
Instead, there is a rotunda to marvel at, in which a 360-degree panorama of the Battle of Waterloo is shown. The building itself is also quite interesting, the whole interior is made of wood, with creaking stairs. The sound of battle is played over loudspeakers, and a few papier-mâché soldiers are dying in the most dramatic fashion, holding their stomach in horror.
This Waterloo Valhalla is supposed to take you back to the time of 1815, but I feel more like 1911, when the monumental artwork was opened, when the heroisation of battles and soldiers was still en vogue, and when no one could have guessed that just three years later, poor little innocent Belgium would become one of the main theaters of World War I.
Meanwhile, I have come up with a theory as to why there ain’t no graves around here.
Hold on to your hats, ladies and gentlemen: I actually think the Battle of Waterloo never happened.
I believe that Napoleon, Wellington and Blücher had no desire to fight yet another battle. Especially in such bad weather. They went to a cozy Belgian pub (best beer in the world!) and played cards instead. In the process, Napoleon wagered his hat, lost, and had to retreat. As men of honor, however, the three generals agreed, of course, that they would tell the press the story of an enormous battle. As Freemasons, they kept their word until their death.
At the museum in Braine-l’Alleud, on the other hand, they show exactly one skeleton. A battle with supposedly tens of thousands of dead, and then there is one skeleton? Which doesn’t even have a name. Even some peasant skeletons that wandered across the Alps 5000 years ago have a name.
The museum is a subterranean one, like an underground garage under the battlefield. This means that there must have been quite a lot of digging going on. And during that whole excavation, they only found one skeleton!
I mean, it’s pretty obvious that something is fishy here. Don’t you think?
But because this is a scientifically, academically, morally and intellectually honest blog with a strict honor code, I will not conceal the fact that the three historians Bernard Wilkin, Robin Schäfer and Tony Pollard have just published a different theory. It goes like this:
The dead, both soldiers and animals, were buried on the battlefield in the days and weeks following the battle in June 1815. This was done by the local population, because the surviving parts of the army had already moved on; off to new adventures. Whether the people around Waterloo were forced to do this, whether they did it out of piety, or whether they thought “that’s good fertilizer” is unclear. We should also keep in mind that burying soldiers yields clothing, boots, weapons and perhaps even tobacco for the gravediggers, so the work may well have been worthwhile.
From 1819, four years after the battle, the newspapers on the European continent suddenly began to publish tons of advertisements from British merchants desperately looking for bones. They would buy up all bone material, without quantity limits and at good prices. Because of the proximity to the seaports, these ads were placed mainly in northern Germany, the Netherlands, and France. (Belgium did not exist at that time; it would not come into existence until 1830 when it seceded from the Netherlands. Actually, Germany didn’t exist yet either, to be precise.)
The great thing about the bone trade was that it was unregulated. There were no export taxes, no import taxes, no customs duties. There weren’t even EU directives or regulations concerning the bone trade. (That’s why the British were still happy at the time.) It was a lucrative source of revenue, especially for the poor on the continent.
The farmers around Waterloo thought it only fair to dig up the piles of bones again and turn them into money. After all, the armies had trampled the entire harvest in 1815. Incidentally, this is a tradition that is being repeated every year in June ever since:
Honestly, if I were a farmer at Waterloo, I think I’d get between the lines of those re-enactors with their big bellies, fake mustaches and hidden cell phones and blast a few of them over the head with real buckshot. Maybe that would teach them that war is not a fun weekend in the countryside.
But back to the story: What the heck did Britain need bones for?
Well, you need to know that bones contain phosphate. And phosphate is a good fertilizer.
For centuries, the British (and many other peoples) had fertilized their fields by emptying their chamber pots in the field, to describe it in the least unappetizing way possible. Those of you living in the countryside know it all too well, the dirt, the smell, the manure, all the disgusting stuff. But at the time, the Industrial Revolution (and cinema) drew people to the cities. The rural exodus led not only to a lack of workers who would work the fields, but also to a lack of human feces.
Hence the panic search for bone material.
Of course, the traders were looking for horse, cattle and whale bones. But, in times of need, you also put a Prussian or a Frenchman into your field. No one is looking that closely, and everything is crushed into bone dust anyway.
That went well for a few years. But as is always the case with new businesses, regulation soon followed. Export duties were imposed. Health regulations were enacted, prohibiting the temporary storage of bones at home. And finally, opening graves was made a crime. (At least for European graves. In Egypt, of course, people were allowed to keep digging for all they were worth. That’s why we are still suffering from the curse of Uncle Tutankhamun).
The British did not want to yield to this over-regulation from Brussels, and sometimes I myself am surprised at the constants that world history has in store for us. To make matters worse, a better fertilizer was discovered, namely saltpeter. It came from the desert in Chile, from the town of Humberstone, which I have already explored for you.
On that trip, I almost died of thirst. The Atacama Desert is really as dry as they say. One day, it will kill me that I always want to check everything myself. Like back in Bolivia, when I wanted to test how altitude sickness feels. Or in Montenegro, where I climbed into dark shafts and discovered a secret submarine base. Let’s see what I will come up with in 2023.
But back to the bones. From the 1830s, the sugar industry took the place of British agriculture as a major buyer of skeletons of all kinds. And now it becomes really mind-boggling how politics, wars, economy, agriculture, science and just about everything is connected. That’s why history is so much fun!
In Europe, there was originally no sugar production. All sugar came from sugar cane plantations in the Caribbean and other colonies, which is why sugar is not only bad for your teeth, but also responsible for slavery. In 1806, as part of the small conflict that ended with the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon imposed the so-called Continental Blockade, an embargo against Great Britain and its colonies. Imported cane sugar became prohibitively expensive.
Unfortunately, people in Europe had already become accustomed to sugar. (That stuff is addictive, after all.) Thus, resourceful researchers set about finding a substitute. The German food chemists Andreas Sigismund Marggraf, Franz Carl Achard and Carl Scheibler experimented with various beets and eventually refined the regular beetroot into sugar beet.
And so, wherever the soil allowed it, sugar beets were grown and pressed into syrup. However, to generate the refined white sugar that pampered customers insist on, it has to be filtered. And this filtering is done with – you already guessed it – bone char. The sugar industry needed tons and tons of bones to make the sugar look pure and white.
And the industry was booming! Here, for example, you see the Royal Belgian Sugar Refinery.
But oops, what is that in the background?
No, that can’t be the Lion’s Mound from the battlefield of Waterloo, can it?! They would never put the sugar factory right next to the battle field! After all, that could give people the idea that the factory is crushing the soldier’s bones into refined sugar.
Well, as Horace said: “How sweet it is, to die for the fatherland!”
Because Belgium suddenly had so much sugar, it needed cocoa to build up its world-famous chocolate and pralines industry. Where can you find cocoa? That’s right, in the Congo! Again, everything is connected to everything else, this time in a particularly tragic way. To put it in a nutshell: If the Prussian engineers had not experimented with beetroot, the Congolese would not have had their hands chopped off. And it’s better not to think about why Kinder chocolateis called that way.
On the fields of Waterloo, as if to confirm the theory of the fellow historians, they are still growing sugar beets.
Because the local restaurant is too expensive and because the museum pulled the last euros out of my pocket, I pull a few beets from the field – for compensation. All the way back, I’m excited that I will have real Waterloo battlefield sugar beets, with residues of gun powder, for dinner. Only when I get home, I remember that I don’t know how to cook.
In the end, I simply chopped the beets and fried them in a pan. It was actually quite good. Napoléon appétit!
And, what edibles have you already pulled from world-famous battlefields? Gherkins from Gettysburg? Sweetcorn from Stalingrad? Tuna from Trafalgar?
It may seem counterintuitive, but Braine-l’Alleud station is closer to the battlefield than Waterloo station. From there, it’s only a few kilometers on foot. Or you take the bus with the “W” (for Waterloo) from either station.
The battlefield itself is open and accessible free of charge. The farmers only ask you to stay on the paths.
For absolute Napoleon fanatics, there is a 90 km long Napoleon route in Wallonia, along which about 150 museums, monuments and important places are lined up. Bu I think they only get to such a number because they list every tree stump that Napoleon rested on. (Like with Garibaldi in Italy.)
More reports from Belgium, the little country that always pushes itself into the center of world history.
It always makes me sad when people visit Germany, and their only plan is to see Berlin and Munich. Or maybe that silly castle in the mountains. Which is really just one of thousands of castles in Germany, but the tourists think there is only one, so they all flock to the same site.
Like in most countries, there is so much more to see in Germany!
Hundreds of medieval towns, thousands of castles, fairy-tale landscapes, and – because Germany only became a unified country in 1871 – a much more pronounced regional variation than in some other countries.
Now, if you are not quite as old, you may have thought: “Wait a minute, I thought Germany was only unified in 1990?”
And you have a point. Although this was a re-unification of what was only separated in 1945, even those 45 years of having been apart still show in the architecture, the urban planning and the people.
The best example for this is a small city in the very far east of Germany, which you have most probably never heard of. In fact, I hardly know any Germans who have visited it. It’s called Eisenhüttenstadt, which you could translate as Ironworks City or Steel Mill City.
That doesn’t sound very enticing, does it? It makes you think of that huge industrial area in the Ruhr region.
Which is not what comes to mind when people are looking for a holiday destination.
But Eisenhüttenstadt was in East Germany, the socialist workers’ paradise, and it was a city built from scratch in the 1950s. So, the city planners could build a perfect city, with wide avenues, with lots of green spaces, with palaces for plumbers, castles for cashiers, a balcony for every bus driver, and arcades for every assembly-line worker.
Walking around this town, you can feel the spaciousness, the airiness.
Or maybe it’s emptiness. Because from a peak of 53,000 people – with plans already in place to expand the city to 80,000 people -, the population has dropped to 24,000. That’s the problem when you are a company town, as many other towns around the world have had to learn. The steel plant is still active, but it employs far fewer people than it used to.
Meanwhile, the whole town has been protected as a monument – the largest in Germany. Walking around with awe, I realized that not only does Eisenhüttenstadt conserve socialist urban planning, it is also the only city in Germany, maybe in the world, where the time pre-1990s has been conserved with almost nothing new added.
In that supermarket, for example, they still had a poster calling “for a progressive relationship between supply and demand”. Now, those were the times, when you weren’t compelled to “buy 2 for the price of 1”, although you only need one.
Maybe I was just lucky, because I visited on a beautiful, sunny day in October, when everything would look beautiful everywhere. But if you ever come to Germany in spring or autumn, you may want to visit a place where not many tourists venture. (Although Tom Hanks loves the town, and a number of movies have been filmed here, understandably.)
On my German blog, I have a longer article about Eisenhüttenstadt, with many more photos, lots of history and a very friendly lady picking me up as I was hitchhiking. But it’s too much to translate it all. And I don’t even know if anyone of you is interested in urban planning and architecture. – If you are, you may also want to check out the Bauhaus architecture in nearby Weimar and Dessau when visiting.
I really like to help the victims of Nazi persecution. Or rather their descendants, considering that most people who survived that horror have passed away since. My main focus is on the restitution of German citizenship to those whose ancestors were once stripped of it by the Nazis. (Sometimes, it even happens that I get into a random taxi in Bolivia, and as the driver recounts his family history, I can tell him that he is eligible for a German passport.)
But then, there is another group of clients, and I am sure it’s coincidence that thus far, they have all been American: People who want to be victims of Nazi persecution.
These cases have nothing to do with the Nazis, they are not even political in any way. It’s usually a child custody dispute or some tax stuff. Little things. Nothing to get agitated about.
Yet, that particular type of client wants to turn their mundane dispute into a personal fight against evil, as if they were single-handedly storming the beaches of Sicily, Salerno and Normandy and killing every single Nazi on the way to Berlin. (Where they would then complain about the absence of the Berlin Wall and a McDonald’s.) Or maybe they have watched too many movies and not enough news and believe that Germany is still ruled by the Nazis.
For example, there was this one lady, from Florida, but living in Munich, who was late with paying her bill. Very late. Despite repeated reminders. When she realized that I wouldn’t yield, she finally paid and sent this e-mail:
Andreas, I paid today.
I told you I was in bad shape. Very bad shape in this Nazi nightmare.
To which I replied, with – for a lawyer – astonishing conciseness:
1- Thank you very much for the payment!
2- I recommend a short trip to Dachau and a visit to the exhibition there before making Nazi comparisons. It’s belittling to the real victims.
That advice was free. Because I am a nice guy, and I give people the chance to reflect on what they wrote. But always, really always, those people keep digging the hole they put themselves into.
If you knew my husband’s tactics I don’t think you would make that comment. Less than putting me in a gas chamber which is almost my wish at this point is that it all is humiliated me beaten me taking my kids away called me a whore and a slut in front of my kids to me there’s nothing worse than this and it’s an appalling behavior of abuse of power. But I guess it’s always the victim said allow themselves someway to be a little old so in the end it’s always the victim fault.
Oh, he also threw out my nine-year-old father and my mother out of the house that I used to own in Florida that I was stupid have to sign over to him that he will sell it in the company and I end up with nothing kids no home no life. After working for him for so many years. And too stupid to take care of myself.
By the way my family history is of partial Jewish descent the last name was like who fled to America rest of the family was annihilated by the German Nazis. I never held resentment which is why I was able to live in Germany and excepted as a tragedy of war . My experience has proven different and if I could to my life over again I would’ve skipped the German part. I was so understanding forgiving and in disbelief of cruel behavior that I even had children here. Anyway , A systematic premeditated intent to destroy the life of another person was just calling to spade a spade
To which I replied nothing, because as only a foreign speaker of English, the grammar had become too complex for me. Sorry.
As you may have figured out from the above excerpts, these kind of people have more problems than inappropriate historical comparisons. In fact, it is just one of many red flags, which by now I have learned to detect early on, giving me the opportunity to gracefully decline any request to get involved in their personal battles and tribulations.
Or take this guy, who has been fighting to spend time with his children for years, which must suck big-time. However, child custody cases are severely contested in many jurisdictions around the world, and I am not sure the Gestapo comparison is appropriate.
I want a lawyer to find out if there are any restraining orders or anything else against me. I can’t imagine what anything else could mean, but lying and ignoring the law have not prevented German officials from acting badly. One of my other lawyers tells some horror stories from her 10 years of court cases to finally get one man his son.
Maybe not the same lawyer because this requires a bit of courage: I also want a lawyer to be around if the police act illegally with me like they did 5 years ago. (The Goettingen police arrested me on false charges, refused to let me talk to a lawyer, only let me out of jail after they confirmed they had nothing to arrest me on but told me if they saw me again they would keep me in jail regardless of the law). So I want a lawyer around who won’t meekly ignore illegal actions by the police, if there is any chance I meet with my kids. I may get some extra help (e.g. PhD psychologist) as observers so if the police do one of their Gestapo tactics again, others are present. This will remind them of how much trouble they will be in if the police act badly.
This may sound extreme, but after my experiences in Germany (also included judges clearly lying, in writing) tell me the law isn’t that important so I need to take extra measures to prevent that from impacting me.
Just to put things into perspective: The Gestapo was the Nazi’s secret police and played a key role in the suppression of any opposition and in the Holocaust. It was an instrument of terror.
Now, I am not saying that contemporary German police are all nice people. Quite the contrary, there is the problem of racial profiling, and each time I return to Germany from abroad, I really wonder why my country has one of the unfriendliest border police forces in the world. – But still, that’s very far from the Gestapo. I mean, in all of last year, there were 8 people shot dead by the police in Germany. (In the USA, it takes the police only three days to kill as many people. Or twelve days if adjusted per capita.)
Oh, you remember the “part of my family was of Jewish descent” from above? This is of course topped by “I have Jewish friends”, which is another warning sign, reminding me of people who “can’t be racist, because I have black friends / have been to Africa / like Puff Diddy”.
Let’s take this example:
I just discovered your website and think you took a great decision by closing your office and travel! I feel that you are the kind of Lawyer we could have hired, you seem loyal, honest and knowledgeable.
Here is the situation and I need your total honesty.
Our story: In 2012 (USA), (10 years ago!!!) we purchased a cell phone to our daughter and put her on the phone family plan and she started sending nasty pictures (pictures taken when she was on vacation in Hawaii 2 weeks with her friend. We were not with her on vacation! So being nice parents and buying her a trip in Hawaii was a big mistake that destroyed our lives) to her “friends” on line and when she was caught at her return, my husband smashed her phone in pieces and cut Internet access to protect her and deleted everything to protect her (because kids go to prison for that matter in America) and he was not aware she hid a pic on an Apple Ipad. The daughter blackmailed her father, furious that he destroyed the phone and said that she would make up a story if she did not get what she asked for. My husband refused and she reported false allegations to the police.
The Law Enforcement were not happy because the nasty pictures were destroyed and the police is mad at my husband for destroying the data because they could have caught her “friends” with her nasty pictures so the Law enforcement retaliated and gave my husband a false conviction, he was held for 5 years without trial (with false added allegations), tortured, included water boarding and in extreme psychological torture. By the way, our daughter of 12 years old was kidnapped by FBI and put for adoption because I did not want to collaborate and did not want to lie to get her back.
So because of that ONE picture that he did not take and that picture was found on the Ipad that he was not aware of, he was put on the Megan List (a cruel list that does not make sense where about 1 million people (included children from 5 years old are labeled absurdly Sex Offenders and are on that list that violates their human rights) have their lives destroyed and family members and friends are harassed by the police.
As soon as a person is on the registry in USA (Megan list/Sex Offenders list) his/her life is basically over.
They are labeled harshly Sex Offenders (in USA, you do not need to commit a sex crime to be on that list, if someone is caught to pee outside, two teenagers in love, mooning, touching a shoulder, sexting, sending pics, and even a five year old hugging a teacher… will end on the Sex Offenders Registry and basically it had been proven that life on the Megan registry is very parallel to the Dark History of Germany (branded passport, you cannot go to the park, library, live where you want…, people are on a Public List on Internet with their pictures and address and are murdered, commit suicide….
We moved at the end of 2021 to Germany to try to get a life and the American government with the help of the German Law Enforcement and vigilantes stalk us, snitch on her, report our location daily, telling neighbors, Doctors not to deal with us, shops refuse services…..
Basically we are treated like Jewish people were, sadly. Could you believe that?
A Holocaust Survivor man has his grand-son on the Megan List and mentioned the parallel with the Holocaust and said “no, not again!”.
We hired a Lawyer in Nuremberg, Germany where we live and after reading on your Blog how to hire a good Lawyer, I realized he was not a good fit because he portrayed exactly the “Lawyer” not to hire. He was not loyal, barely talkative, the authorities told him not to work with us anymore.
We consider ourself good and educated people and we did nothing wrong in USA or anywhere else. We would like to file for international human rights violation and against harassment.
We know that we will never get a loyal Lawyer so we would like to file a petition against the police, against USA too by ourself. Would you be able to help us? To tell us where to go to file or file for us, the form to use…We are from USA and we do not speak German enough to do so. Of course, we will pay you to do everything for us fast.
Is it something you could do? We have also other law suit we would like to do too.
We do not want to waste money with another Lawyer who will not help us.
Again, in my reply, I offered the chance to walk away from the unfounded comparison:
I am aware of Megan’s Law and its completely over-bearing consequences, although, based on my understanding of the law and of German history, I would not compare it to racial and anti-semitic persecution of whole groups of people.
I am also not quite sure what you want to achieve. There is nothing that a German lawyer or a German court could do to change a US federal or state law or indeed influence any US federal or state government action. Neither country is subject to the jurisdiction of the other country.
There is no international human rights court. (There is a European one, but it only deals with acts by member states of the Council of Europe.)
A different matter would be specific acts of harassment taking place in Germany.
And as always, the person did not take the clue, instead doubling down:
As I mentioned a Holocaust survivor compared the Megan Law himself with the dark History of Germany because his son is on the Megan List and that link does prove it,
I realized that they were generally more the YouTube-watching rather than the e-mail-reading folks, because what they wrote next sure sounded as if they hadn’t properly read my e-mail.
We want to abolish the Megan List in an International court because it is a violation of Human rights based on the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” and the Lawyer we had did say that it is also an International matter because the Megan List also exists in other countries.
But this time, I didn’t even recommend a visit, because the people sounded like they would just bother the poor museum staff. And as a general rule, historians are not any more interested in watching your YouTube links than lawyers are.
By the way, whenever I had a court case in Nuremberg, I tried to cheer up my client: “Hey, you gonna get divorced in the same courthouse where they hanged the Nazis!” It never worked.
When I return to practice as an attorney, I only want clients with a sense of history, please. Or at least with a sense of humor.
Suddenly, there were heaps of that crazy white stuff all over the place.
It did make the cold a little bit more agreeable, though.
Anyway, it was a good enough reason to leave the desk and computer for a day and get completely lost, because everything looked so different from its usual state of affairs. Even the signs, usually of much help to those us without fancy phones, were obscured. Luckily, I found back home just before darkness descended on this winter wonderland.
When I last set out to hike into a foggy morning in Hungary, I had discovered Roman ruins. Thus, on the next November day that was just as foggy, I set out again, excited what I would discover this time. In Székesfehérvár, I take the bus no. 32 all the way to the last stop, where the city ends and the countryside begins, and walk east, where the sun is set to rise.
I discover: nothing.
At least initially. The fog is so dense, if I wasn’t an early riser and could estimate the time by how hungry I have gotten in the meantime, I wouldn’t even know if it was ante or post meridiem. Or if the sun had already ceased to work and we were merely enjoying its last rays.
The only birds I hear are crows. Crows cawing derisively as they see someone marching to his doom and demise. Dead trees stick out of the moor like the arms of sunken bog bodies. Are they crying for help, or are they trying to warn me?
I did notice the green wagon, but I’d rather not check on it. People who live out here and haven’t spoken to another soul for years might overreact when there’s a sudden knock at the door.
One kilometer further down, a fire is still smoldering, and I see a few men disappear into the mist. Probably peat cutters who are stocking up for the upcoming winter. It’s gonna be a harsh one, they say.
Here, too, I pretend not to have seen anything. I don’t want them to take me for the estate administrator or the county policeman and start shooting at me.
Sheep are standing by the wayside, but not happily chewing and baa-baaing as usual. Instead, they stare at me with apathy. As if they are bewitched. Or want to warn me of getting bewitched myself.
Maybe the shepherd lives in the wooden wagon? Or the peat cutters were poachers? Then why the fire? Why is everything so eerie around here? Where the heck is the sun?
I like nature, I really do. But when you’ve been out in nature long enough, you’re happy about any piece of civilization. In this case, it’s the railroad tracks. Relieved, I decide to follow them.
After all, they have to lead to Székesfehérvár. Or to another town. And if I am lucky, which is usually the case, there will be a train and the driver will spot me, stop the train and let me hop on, instead of running me over.
But apparently, the railway workers are on strike today, because there ain’t no train.
As I finally reach the next station, having walked the whole way, I realize that this has been suffering from a strike, too. Ever since World War II, by the looks of it.
But what is this?!
No, I don’t mean the two horsemen of the apocalypse galloping past me without a greeting, their heads wrapped in hoods, one with a rifle over his shoulder, the other with a dead sheep over the saddle.
I mean this:
Between the trees, in the middle of a large clearing, a building, with what seem to be two horns, timidly peeks out of the still dense fog. And not a normal building, no, but a castle! No idea how that got here.
I’m glad that I am alone. Because by now, any companion would be begging: “Andreas, let’s get out of here!” And I admit, the calls of the crows, the bodies in the bog, the thick fog, the peat cutters, the fire, the horsemen who looked more like ghosts than people, it is all a bit eerie.
But also tempting, isn’t it?
Anyway, my general rule is: If there is a castle (or a secret military object), I will inspect it more closely. Nice country estate, with a large park. You can still see the fountain even.
On the door, there is a warning that uninvited intruders may be electrocuted. Not very hospitable. But walking all around the castle, I notice an open window to the cellar.
Just as I let myself drop through the open window in such a smooth way that it looks like an accident, it occurs to me: “Oops, how am I ever going to get out again?” Sometimes, it would be better to travel with a friend.
Especially because the inside of the castle is no longer quite stable. And because I almost crash through the ceiling a few times.
Whoops, that was close.
But such are the risks I take in order to reward those of you interested in the interior design of palaces with exclusive photos from my holidays.
And there is the solution for the way back, as you can see. Out of the beams that are lying around, I can build a ladder with just a little bit of craftsmanship – skills which I still have to acquire somehow, though. Because without a ladder, I noticed, it would be impossible to climb out of the basement. Surely, these wooden pillars can’t be the ones supporting the whole palace, can they? I start pulling and dragging, with the castle groaning and wobbling. I just hope that there is no one walking past outside who can hear or see anything.
Speaking of outside: The sun is slowly coming out. And this not only makes everything warmer and more cheerful, it also instills me with the care-free confidence needed to simply jump from the balcony, putting an end to all the miserable DIY attempts.
And lo and behold, in the time I’ve spent in the catacombs, getting lost in the castle and fiddling with my escape plans, it has actually turned into a beautiful day.
Compared to the spooky fog images from just a few hours earlier, this is rather kitschy now, isn’t it?
In any case, it will become really kitschy a few hours later, when I get to the next castle. But that’s for another article.
Only later did I hear about Countess Báthory, who had murdered hundreds of young girls in order to bathe in their blood. But I don’t want to burden you with that story now. After all, you should visit and enjoy the castle without any bias.
You can also take bus no. 718, 8010 or 8013, which takes you very close to the castle. The bus stop is Csala Alsó. The ride from Székesfehérvár costs 400 forints (= 1 euro). The bus runs about every hour, even on weekends.
If you want to follow my route, take bus no. 32 from the train station in Székesfehérvár to the last stop, Kassai utca / Nagyszombati utca, and walk east from there, always following the path between the fields. At one point, you have to walk through a river, but it’s not deep, don’t worry. At the end of photo no. 5, you turn north/left, and soon you will see the castle. The walk takes no more than an hour.
If you have been walking for much longer without finding the castle, you got lost. Sorry!
But this is an honest and realistic travel blog. That’s why I don’t want to hide the fact that train travel also includes moments when you find yourself at the train station in Žiar nad Hronom in Slovakia before 6 o’clock on an October morning, waiting for the train to Šurany and for the sun to rise.
Once again, I noticed: The people who get up the earliest are railway workers and students. And of course travelers like me, who prefer to leave extremely early, if only to buy time to take it slow during the day, with spontaneous breaks whenever I feel like it.
By the way, the combination of getting up early, fresh air and chilly temperatures makes you both awake and puts you in a happy, energetic mood. Highly recommended!
And if you do need a coffee in order to wake up properly: The restaurant in front of the train station in Žiar nad Hronom is of course already open by 6 am. Of course I could also step inside the train station, with its warm waiting hall.
In many countries in Eastern Europe, the railway infrastructure is heaps better than in most other parts of the world. Even smaller stations will have opening hours either “from 4 am to 11 pm” or at least “always 30 minutes before the departure of a train”.
And at every station, even the ones where the train doesn’t stop, the stationmaster steps out of his cozy home to pay tribute to the passing train, his coworkers and the passengers.
Well, that’s how beautiful we could have it everywhere, if we hadn’t starved the railroads to death, depriving them of any investment. In many countries around the world, the railroad is a mere shadow of its former glory, with more and more lines being given up, stops cancelled, railway stations abandoned.
We should regard the railroad as a public service and as the veins that unite the nation and the continent, not as a profane corporation. In Slovakia, this almost philanthropic approach can also be seen in its prices. They charge about 5 euros per 100 km, and pupils, students and seniors can take the train for free. This also applies to foreign seniors, by the way, in case you were still looking for an affordable holiday destination.
Totally lost, I am fumbling through the Puszta fog, somewhere between Balaton and Buda, between Pannonia and Pest.
There is a surprisingly Romanesque church over here, a surprisingly communist star on the monument to the Soviet soldiers over there, and a river that I narrowly manage to avoid falling into.
And then, as I step out of the forest, I can spot the sun, slowly fighting its way through the mist. And a city. Or rather, ruins of a city, which seem to be uninhabited that very morning.
The fog feels that it has lost the fight, that an erudite explorer, our roving reporter, the successor to Indiana Jones will snatch the secret from its claws and jaws on that November day, and it vanishes as quickly as if it were urgently needed elsewhere. Minute by minute, it is turning warmer, sunnier, more colorful.
And I am standing there in awe, shaking my head in incredulity, and exclaiming again and again: “I can’t believe it!” Because before me, there is a city in ruins, so large, so vast, so beautiful and, above all, so surprising, here, in the middle of rural Hungary.
In my studies of history, I try to circumnavigate the ancient world as widely as Magellan circumnavigated the oceans. But still, I do catch up a few things here and there. And because the inscriptions on the dozens of tombstones are all in Latin, my guess is that this is some Roman stuff.
What many people don’t know, or if they do, then only due to my articles (example 1, example 2, example 3): The Romans were a pretty multi-cultural bunch and were not only at home in Rome, but all over Europe, in Asia and in North Africa.
This included Pannonia, which is in present-day Hungary. The city I have stumbled upon was called Gorsium and later Herculia. It was in its peak splendor between the 1st and the 4th century AD and received visits by quite a few emperors. If it used to be anywhere near as beautiful as it is now, then I can certainly understand why Trajan (the one with the column), Caracalla (the brutal one), Hadrian (“Build that wall!“) and Septimius Severus (who hailed from Africa and would therefore be turned away at the Hungarian border fence today) undertook the long journey.
Beginning with the 5th century, the Romans vanished, leaving the steppe to the Huns, and Gorsium-Herculia fell into oblivion. It was not until the 20th century that excavations began, and perhaps Gorsium is less well known than Pompeii, Hadrian’s Wall or Palmyra because it was on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain until 1990. There is still no article in the English-language Wikipedia about this impressive ancient city. Even in the “New Pauly”, Gorsium gets only a few lines.
But it is well worth a visit! Even for people who know nothing at all about Roman tombs, columns and temples. The excavation site is laid out like a sprawling landscape park, with golden autumn leaves, Mediterranean trees, and cozy benches, perfect for sitting down with a book and a cigar.
And it’s probably worth coming back in a few years. Because allegedly, only 7% of Gorsium has been excavated so far.
So, what has been the most surprising place in the world for you to come across Roman history?
Gorsium is open daily from 10 am to 6 pm, at least officially. In reality, the area is too large to close it off.
The entrance fee is 1200 forints (= 3 euros), although the ladies at the ticket office allowed me to enter without paying. But that probably only works if you are as likable as I am.
From/to Székesfehérvár, the next major town, there is a bus every hour. The bus stop is in the village of Tác. From there, it is a short walk to Gorsium. (Caution: I am one of those people who actually always and everywhere says that it is “only a short walk”.)
Or you take the train to Szabadbattyán and either the bus from there or the foot/bike path along the river. I hitchhiked from Szabadbattyán (at the railroad crossing) and caught a ride after a mere few minutes.
The tobacco shop in Tác (not far from the bus stop) even has cigars. Perfect for a few pleasant hours in Gorsium! In memoriam of the poor Romans who had not yet invented tobacco and thus became extinct.