Central Europe

It was getting dark as the train slowly rolled across the flat Carpathian Basin on this November evening. Fallow fields, plowed and waiting for spring; in the distance a thin band of trees. Occasionally I could see the white sharp roofs of ancient villages or close at hand an ancient farmhouse. It·fs a thinly populated area and seemed untouched for centuries. Fresh from the fine Natural History and Ethnographic Museum in Budapest, I knew that was a lie. The area was perfect for Easterners going west. Perfect for horsemen to gallop across the basin after the thick forest was removed. Wave after wave of invasions. First the Celts, then the Romans, then all sorts of tribes; I only recognized the name of the Slavs. Yes, Ghenghis Khan and his Tatars came through on their way to terrorize all of Europe, but they were neither the first nor last. Each group attacked the territory and then settled down to hate the next invaders. They have long, long memories and still loathe each other. I was told by a nice young Serb seatmate that today the greatest foes of the country are NATO and the EU. Radovan Karadzic should not be on trial for war crimes at the Hague. He is innocent; all accusations are lies, he assured me, and groups of protestors gather every evening in Belgrade. If his accusers were fair, he would be tried in Belgrade rather than being taken to another country for a show trial. As among other atrocities, Karadzic is thought to be responsible for the massacre of 8,000 Bosniak men and boys at Srebrenica as part of the 1992-1995 Bosnian-Serb war, it is hard to think of a show trial.
From Budapest to Belgrade the train was rather old. Very clean with new shiny rayon-looking seat covers, but the glassed-in compartments were common thirty years ago in England. Overall, I was reminded of grainy movies of World War II troop trains. And the train was very, very slow. I don·ft think it went over thirty-miles an hour. Not only did it stop at the few villages along the way, occasionally it would stop in the middle of farmland. After fifteen minutes or so it would resume its leisurely way.
There was also a different feel to this train. As I walked along the corridor looking for my assigned seat, I was told twice to simply sit where I liked. Smoking is forbidden on all European trains, but as we progressed, that was ignored. I quite enjoyed the freedom, as well as the young couple whose compartment I joined. Quite friendly. Then the young man I quoted above came along. He holds dual French-Serb citizenship so is fortunate as the Serbian government charges all citizens 2,000 Euros to leave the country; a fortune. He teaches in a local French school and told me each former Yugoslavian country has some different words. All can understand one another, but there are some differences. His family had lived in Zagreb before leaving for France, so recently he was put in charge of a group of Croatian students. He began talking to them but was interrupted and told he wasn·ft using Croatian words. He apologized and began again. ·gYou·fre still not speaking properly!·h they said and all departed. As I said, they all still hate each other. They have simply added NATO and the EU to the list.
As to the slow train, as the engine didn·ft seem especially old, I suddenly wondered about the tracks. Ah, yes, they dated back to the Austria-Hungary Empire. As that was from 1867 to 1918, light use of the tracks was prudent.
The train was due in Belgrade at 9:30 p.m. My friends had said they·fd meet the train, but first it slowed, then stopped. My Franco-Serbian friend went off to find information. He returned with the news that we would not be stopping at the main station. I was relieved as otherwise I would have no idea what was happening. We passed some urban buildings, then went underground and continued. After awhile the train speeded up a bit and we emerged into a pleasant, rather mountainous landscape. My friend said we were on the other side of town. I must admit it·fs the first time I ever went through a city and then returned. By the time we arrived back in Belgrade it was almost 11:00 p.m. I had been sure the McClears would have gone home and to bed, but there they were on the platform. When I told them of my surprise, they said they were quite accustomed to delays. They had dinner, then checked on the arrival time. So they had coffee and leisurely came to the station.
Central Europe is indeed an odd place to an innocent Alaskan. Budapest or Prague are the best places for the beginner to start. I attended a map conference in Budapest in 1997, and discovered Buda and Pest are two cities separated by the Danube. A number of bridges connect the two, the people were friendly, and the architecture lovely sandstone Baroque. There were also seven map shops; six in a convenient row and the other not far.
That and the charming small hotel with the garden café in the rear lured me back four years ago when granddaughter Maggie and I visited the old city. We had a very good time and I found a number of maps for the shop.
In 1997 I recalled I had a nephew from Sitka who had moved to Prague with some college friends as a summer adventure a few years previously. The other two had gone home but Rob began a small business. As Prague didn·ft appear too far from Budapest, I boarded the train and went to visit. We had a jolly few days and I had the best hot dog in the world from a street stall. I wanted to buy a fencing print for a friend. Rob admitted he didn·ft know the Czech word for fencing and had to get back to his business, so left me in the shop. I tried to mime fencing; en garde! Imaginary epee in hand. The young clerk looked more agitated every time I brandished my sword; she was looking around for help when I gave up and left. Then I got lost. A strange city where you can·ft even read the street signs is a problem. Finally I spotted a familiar street and with deep gratitude ordered the hot dog as I was starving.
Maggie and I got lost searching for the castle, but we found it after momentarily being on a wooded hillside with a barbed-wire fence and signs in several languages declaring it was a military reservation and no trespassing.
This time it was to be a sorta, kinda, Grand Tour. Several people had spoken of Krakow in Poland as an exquisitely beautiful old city, so I would fly into Prague, spend a few days with Rob, Svatka, and their delightful year-old Thomas before taking the train to Krakow. A day and night there, then back on the train to Budapest and eventually to Belgrade where friends had been teaching radio journalism, etc. for a year. Sweet Rob and Svatka, aided by the Belgrade McClears, had looked up the train schedules and set up everything, including hotels. I love to be pampered.
Flew from London to Prague without incident, and took a cab to the hotel. The Red Lion is the place to stay. A 14th century building well modernized. The entrance to the room was through an antechamber off the hall. This was wood, a hollow square, around 64 square feet, and about 8 feet high, with a closet in one side and a glass door into the room itself. That was huge; a double bed, a small dining table, couch and three chairs. Windows lined one wall. The only problem was the television. It turned out the black box on the floor was not a DVD player but the controls. That explained, I enjoyed the approximately 100 channels in several languages.
I asked the staff about the antechamber. The answer was something about air. I suppose drafts were meant, but then why from the hallway? Some things we are not meant to know.
On to Krakow a few days later. Had never been to Poland and over the years so many people told me I really should go to Krakow to enjoy its beauty. The Francuski Hotel Svatka recommended was truly nice; close to the town square and not expensive. Unfortunately, although the Town Square was large, overall Krakow seemed just a smallish Prague. The old town hall with an ancient tower seemed to be the Tourist Information Center. A sign on the door said tickets were sold there. I looked to the right where worn stone steps led up into the stygian spiral. There was no railing. If the stairs led to the info center, too bad. I was not going up there. I opened the ticket door and found the tourist center. I asked about map shops and was told there was one not far away, and given a map with the site marked. Finding the shop was a problem, but I finally located it. A tiny room and a man behind a counter who frantically motioned to me to wait. A few minutes later the elevator door across the room opened and an English-speaking woman descended. I asked about maps; she motioned me to join her in the elevator and we ascended upstairs to a room that looked more like a library than a shop. Various tables and chairs and people looking at books and making notes. The walls were book-lined. I was told to come into her office. By now I was intrigued and asked exactly what this was. It was the Cartographic Museum of Krakow. 4,000 maps donated in the late nineteenth century by the ·gOld Nobility·h. I thought of the end of the Old Nobility, but politely said nothing. Asked about treasures, she brought a large map. Hand-drawn and colored, it was a manuscript map of Poland by Wilhelm Hondius, 1650. The administrator said it was the only one in the world. I had never heard of the museum or Wilhelm Hondius, although Henricus Hondius is famous. I said as much to the woman, who seemed quite pleased when I took notes and said there could be a notice of it in the IMCoS journal, read by most map aficionados.
She also told me of a second map museum, across the Town Square and near it. She marked the map for me and we parted on excellent terms.
Back to the square and I spent the next forty minutes looking for the other museum. Finally found the street and found No. 12. It was a gutted stone building with workers carrying debris out in wheelbarrows. I walked inside, but the outside described it nicely. A nice woman escorted me out and next door where a security guard who spoke English was on duty. He said the address was an old one; it was at No. 10 and walked over with me. Along the way he confided that likely the workers had gone home at 2:00 p.m. although they weren·ft supposed to. At No. 10 he led the way upstairs to an office where a flustered woman explained there was no one there. It was around 3:00 o·fclock. The guard and I exchanged amused glances as he translated. I explained my IMCoS intention and she thrust a handful of bookmarks to me. They gave the name of the museum. Later I was told it was not a map museum at all, but a numismatics museum.
I thanked the guard and set off for the square. It had been highly entertaining. Along the way I realized I was hungry so went into a place advertising in English that it was the Cinema Café. The walls were decorated with posters and the menu was in Polish. The young waiter spoke enough English to tell me the special today was chicken. It was delicious and remained the best restaurant meal I had in Central Europe, although the Café Louvre in Prague was a close contender. Refreshed, I went back to the square and took a city tour with a charming young man who didn·ft mind my non-existent Polish, but invited me into his pedi-cab, zipped the clear plastic cover over the cab, and inserted an English language cassette about the glories I was seeing. Very interesting and there must be many English speakers in Krakow in the summer. (My adventures were in late October and early November.) He offered to drive me to my hotel after the tour, but it was only a few blocks so I walked back.
Left the next day on the train for Budapest. I had hoped to stay again at the dear little Sissi Hotel there, but it was full so Svatka made reservations at the hotel next door. No garden café, but pleasant staff and okay room. A newish place thus no atmosphere, but breakfasts were good. There was also a computer in the lobby so I checked my e-mails. There was a computer in the room in the Francuski and another in the lobby at the Red Lion, so I wasn·ft too far behind. However, all of them had what I christened the Magyar keyboard. Since the languages use a slightly different alphabet, some letters like ·gz·h take the place of the ·gy·h in the Querty arrangement. There is also the ·gu·h with an umlaut that·fs popular. To add to the joy, if three sentences down you notice you typed ·gzou·h for ·gyou·h and correct it, before your eyes all the following sentences disappear. My replies were very short.
Had recalled Maggie and I found the main business district not too far. So I got directions and took the subway. All worked very smoothly and I got off where the nice desk clerk marked on the map she gave me and found the map shops a short distance away. Sadly, the six shops had dwindled to three and the seventh had vanished. The supply of maps had also dwindled since 2005. Noticed for the first time the very handsome National Museum across the street and went over to see it. I love museums and this was a dandy. Much larger than I thought, housed in a handsome Classical building. A large traveling exhibit on the ·gPrincess from Far Away·h filled several rooms. She was around the thirteenth century, sent by her father to Hungary to wed when that was royalty·fs habit with women. Cement an alliance, divert a could-be enemy, or simply get them out of the castle. This one was very beautiful, but we·fll never know her personality as noblewomen weren·ft allowed any.
The next day was Saturday, so after breakfast set off again for the shops. First I decided to visit the museum again, so had a lovely time with its displays, and a pleasant lunch in the coffee shop. Around three o·fclock decided I·fd better cross the street and see if there were any maps I found interesting. To my surprise, all were closed. Later several people wondered that I didn·ft know all downtown shops in Budapest close at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday. As the city·fs population is close to two million, I hadn·ft thought of that. I returned to the museum.
My last day was Sunday, so I knew nothing would be open. I did not want to take the underground again because of my habit of easily getting lost on public transportation, so I consulted my little map and found the Museum of Natural History appeared within walking distance. And so it was barely. From the street saw what appeared to be a dome nearby so walked blocks and blocks along a high wooden wall. No dome and the wall turned out to screen off playing fields, likely soccer. Walked back the several miles and went to the museum. It was wonderful. Recently moved to an old military building, it was the resting place at last for the hitherto fragmented collections I gathered were housed in any old place. This impression was reinforced because they were so proud of finally bringing all the parts together in a handsome renovated and large building. A very sweet young woman whose English was excellent, gave me a museum guide in English and showed me where to begin. (I speak no Hungarian either; in fact, none of the languages of Central Europe. I do know to never say ·gEastern Europe·h as I was told in 1997 they detest it. Apparently they think of Russia when they hear it and if there·fs one thing that unites the area, it is detestation of Russia.)
I had become interested in the earliest settlers in the area and the museum had the answers. One of the earliest was the fourth century·fs Attila the Hun. Yes, much of Europe had waves of invaders, but seldom this variety. The latest uprising in Belgrade was 2003.
Belgrade is the capital of Serbia. I had been in Zagreb in then Yugoslavia for a map conference in 1988, only a few years before the country collapsed. As an American, I believed the four languages and seven religions or perhaps it was seven languages and four religions, all living happily together. The British attendees had a different opinion. Why were the papers all on Croatia? Why weren·ft some of the other parts mentioned? Dubrovnik, the other destination, was also in Croatia. Very strange.
My hotel in Belgrade was quite centrally located and near the McClear·fs apartment, which was excellent as the weather, which had meant outdoor tables at restaurants, changed and it began to snow. It·fs an odd town; like Prague and Budapest some modern glass-and-steel vertical malls that existed sullenly with the ancient Baroque buildings. Although people appeared well dressed, the overall effect was a poor city.
Suzi was upset because cardboard bricks had made a Berlin Wall in a nearby square. The plan had been for artists to paint graffiti on it and then a celebration was planned. All Europe and England had been marking the 1989 demise of the wall. However, the snow and the wind had scattered the bricks and rather ruined the effect.
A couple of fine coffee shop meals and the next day left the McClears to their work and headed to the airport and London.
Sadly, although the McClears mention the weather turned warm enough for outdoor eating again, I will remember the city as gray and chilly. And poor.
No problem with the plane. It left exactly on time and shortly thereafter we were back in London.
Over the past thirty years much of Europe has become homogenized in an odd way. Yes, the languages are different and architecture varies, but nearly all the young people speak excellent English, people dress the same in Madrid and in Paris or London. Of course cultures continue to vary, but to the outsider the populace, whether on the lovely fast trains or on the streets, are far more alike than different.
Central Europe is still a strange and foreign area. Go visit before movies and television and the Internet turn it into Euro-American.