Budapest 1989 and 2015

Last updated: 31 July 2018

In Dec/Jan 2014/15 we undertook a Hapsburg three capitals tour, spending Hogmanay in Bratislava and three days or so apiece in Budapest and Vienna. Having finally finished tagging my Budapest photos here are some brief highlights from that fabulous city.

I visited Budapest for a long weekend in spring 1989, although from my photos it looks more like 1969 (pic). My photo of Castle Hill by the Fisherman’s Bastion even shows cars running free.

We arrived by bus on New Year’s Day from Bratislava, leaving for Vienna on 5 January by the rather pricier train from a chilly Keleti Station, passing through the deserted border town of Hegyeshalom. That was January – things were rather different at the station later in the year.

There’s something very special about Budapest, it’s much more of an enigma than other central European cities. At New Year there were plenty of tourists and aggressive tourist touts – tourism is clearly a year-long affair. There’s a sense of an economic sleight of hand going on.

We took in three shiny new things. First up, the new M4 metro line (pic), which finally opened in March 2014 after first being mooted in the early 1970s. The city’s four metro lines offer a pleasing design tour, with the M1, the Millennium underground, continental Europe’s first underground line (pic), joined in the 1960s and 1970s by Soviet style lines of the wide vaulted, marble halled type. The M2, deSovietised with cladding and adverts, shows its origins in its granite floors and beige pillars (pic), while the M3 is “where modernity has gone to die” (Owen Hatherley, in Landscapes of Communism), with chrome plated columns and square lamps against black marble (pic).

Next up, Kossuth tér, Hungary’s parliament square, redeveloped in March 2014 with the aim of restoring the square’s pre-1944 appearance, and now with open spaces and lawns at the expense of trees (pic), asphalt replaced by decorative stone, a new bike path and a 33m flagpole; the parliament’s new visitor centre, tastefully situated underground with a cafe attached, is totally generic – switch souvenirs and you could be in London’s Houses of Parliament.

Finally, Várkert bazár, a series of buildings and gardens on the slopes below Buda Castle,  opened in 1883, damaged during WW2 and functioning as a youth park from 1961 to 1984 when it was finally closed down; re-opened August 2014, with a neo-rust escalator and Gormley style figures among the attractions (pic).

There’s lots of lovely writing about Budapest, not least Caught by the River’s Tale of two soups: Neil Sentance’s Goulash and Nick Bellorini’s Stone soup. Writing on ‘Hungarian confusions’ in 1985 (with the subtitle ‘An eighth part of paradise’) Hans Magnus Enzensberger described the city as “an example of that architectural megalomania which Budapest’s proud citizens called eclecticism”.

I’ve spent whole days reading the wounds and splendours of the city of Budapest from its doors, walls, and nameplates. I think of it as an ambiguous, puzzling, dirty panorama. Every sign in this country seems to promise a secret to the flâneur from abroad and impresses upon him that he is condemned to remain an idiot, an illiterate…every house conceals a dream arcade out of Benjamin’s repertoire.

Compared with Copenhagen’s hyggelige Historicist buildings this stuff has a real edge, with a litany of jaw dropping buildings, from the Great Market Hall groaning with paprika souvenirs and the Gellert Baths, with that unmistakeable swimming pool smell, to the ‘Caterpillar House‘, aka the heart achingly stunning Párizsi Udvar (vid), and Ödön Lechner’s Museum of Applied Arts.

Newer buildings such as the National Theatre (Wikipedia) and Palace of Arts, part of the Millennium City Center under development on the fringes of the centre of Pest, provided contemporary context, as did the NowUs demonstration in front of the opera house on 2 January.

It being a tad parky we invested in a 24 hour ticket on our last day and proceeded to hop on/off the metro and tram until dinner time with the help of BKV’s itineraries, spotting the Xmas tram several times on the way. This leaves proper exploration of the city ring (now Nagykörút/Grand Boulevard but once the Lenin Ring) and UNESCO listed Andrássy út (see the Millennium Underground Walk; once Stalin Street, renamed the Avenue of Hungarian Youth in 1956, then People’s Republic Street until 1990) for a third, summertime, visit.

Below: classic Budapest, Párisi udvar (1913).



Making connections: Bulgaria

Today let’s revisit Bulgaria.

Last April we went on an extended city break to Sofia. Despite being an eastern Europe fan of many years standing I was embarrassingly ignorant of Bulgaria, the only country the other side of the Iron Curtain I hadn’t visited before.

This seems to be a recurrent problem. Kapka Kassabova (much more below) calls Bulgaria “a country without a face” in the western mind, the shortest chapter in the book beginning with “an edifying sentence about its unjust obscurity”. Helpfully, her poem The travel guide to the country of your birth helps visitors get up to speed.

Rather more prosaically, Bulgaria:

  • borders Romania and the Danube (a 472km stretch of the river forming the southern border of the old principality of Wallachia, dividing Mitteleuropa from the Balkans) to the north, the Black Sea (194km of beach) to the east, Greece and Turkey to the south, Serbia and Macedonia to the west
  • is shaped like “an animal hide spread out, with the head end looking to Europe and the rear end sitting at the Black Sea” (Kapka again)
  • was part of Ancient Thrace, which also spanned parts of modern Greece and Turkey; famous sons include Orpheus and Spartacus
  • had its own golden age from the late ninth to the late tenth centuries, when its territory included today’s Romania, Macedonia, parts of Serbia and Albania, half of Greece, and European Turkey down to Gallipoli and Constantinople; Tsar Simeon’s mission in life was to be crowned as a Byzantine-Bulgarian emperor
  • was occupied by the Ottomans for nearly 500 years after two catastrophic defeats (in 1018 and 1396)
  • was on the losing side in both world wars, sustaining the highest per capita casualty rate in 1914-18, then saving most of its Jewish population from deportation in 1944
  • received Russian assistance in the 1878 War of Liberation, leading later to a special relationship with the Soviet Union and a possibly apocryphal tale about an application to become the 16th republic of the USSR; planes from Sofia landed in the domestic terminal in Sheremetovo
  • in a case of bad timing, joined the European Union in 2007; EU membership, like democracy, was previously fetishised but is now mainly associated with economic decline
  • is the birthplace of the Cyrllic alphabet, called after Cyril, one half of monkish brothers Cyril and Methodius, and celebrated on World Cyrillic Alphabet Day
  • claims yogurt and produces 10% of the world’s rose oil

The Danube, Ruse and Elias Canetti

How do you starting making some connections to a country and a culture? Prior to our Hapsburg capitals trip I was able to dive head-first into my bookshelves, and this time I found more about Bulgaria than I had initially anticipated.

Most Danube related books tail off before they reach Bulgaria, the notable exceptions being Nick Thorpe’s jurney upstream and Nick Hunt reworking Patrick Leigh Fermor (Seven days of thunderstorms | East and south | Summer metropolis).

In a chapter in his 1986 Danube entitled ‘Doubtful cartography’ Claudio Magris reaches the Serbian border at Kladovo wondering where he is, with “geography getting vaguer and vaguer”, and maps marking places that don’t exist and not marking those which do – on that note Kladovo seems to share a border with Romania rather than Bulgaria. Only two bridges cross Bulgaria’s Danube border – the New Europe Bridge, a road and rail bridge between the cities of Vidin and Calafat, opened in 2013, while the 1954 doubledecker Danube Bridge, previously known as the Friendship Bridge, links the cities of Ruse and Giurgiu (see this 2003 blog post). At 2224 metres it was for a while the second longest bridge in Europe. Dwarfed now by The Bridge (the Øresund Link, 7845 metres, 2000) for starters, it retains the title of longest steel bridge in Europe. For completists, there is also a ferry which takes 10 minutes to cross the Danube from Silistra, the Roman Empire’s easternmost town in Europe, to Calarasi.

Jockeying for position with Czernowitz at the top of my places to visit list is now Ruse, the birthplace of Elias Canetti (on 25 July 1905), which Magris calls a “tiny reproduction of Vienna, with yellow ochre merchants houses and buildings laden with caryatids, the familiar atmosphere of hard working Mitteleuropa…the reassuring uniformity of the Danubian style”. The Romans built a fortress there in AD 70 to stand guard over the Danube, and while the town declined under the Byzantines and the Bulgarians it was restored and modernised by a Turkish governer, becoming the first station on the first railway line in the entire Ottoman empire in 1866, linking the Danube with the Black Sea at Varna. At independence Ruse was the largest and most prosperous city in Bulgaria, with the first bank in the country, known as Little Bucharest.

Canetti moved to Manchester in 1911, then in 1912 to Vienna and subsequently to Zurich, but the first 30 pages of The tongue set free (1997), his first volume of autobiography, are a paean to Ruse, then known as Ruschuk:

People of the most varied backgrounds lived there, on any one day you could hear seven or eight languages. Aside from the Bulgarians, who often came from the countryside, there were many Turks, who lived in their own neighbourhood, and next to it was the neighbourhood of the Sephardim, the Spanish Jews – our neighbourhood. There were Greeks, Albanians, Armenians, Gypsies. From the opposite side of the Danube came Rumanians…there were also Russians here and there.

Anything I susequently experienced had already happened in Ruschuk. There, the rest of the world was known as “Europe”, and if someone sailed up the Danube to Vienna [a four day journey], people said he was going to Europe. Europe began where the Turkish Empire had once ended.

Canetti’s parents were both schooled in Vienna, and the young Elias spent three summer vacations in parts of the old Austro-Hungarian monarchy: Carlsbad (now in the Czech Republic), Lake Worther (Austria) and Kronstadt (Siebenbürgen; now Brasov, Romania).  His parents conversed with each other in German, while the family vernacular was Ladino. Seven or eight languages were spoken in Ruse: “everyone understood something of each language. Only the little girls, who came from villages, spoke just Bulgarian and were therefore considered stupid.”

At the time of Magris’ visit Canetti’s house was divided into small apartments in a sort of crumbling limbo. Today it has been restored by the International Elias Canetti Society, who have produced the documentary film Ear Ohrenzeuge, “a unique walk through Elias Canetti’s childhood combined with selected excerpts (in Bulgarian and German) from his autobiographical books”.

Canetti calls Bulgaria the most unknown of the countries of the East, concluding thus:

Anyone who has seen…the spruce orderliness of Sofia and compares these with what obtains in cities or countries held up as paragons of civilisation is included to use the term ‘Balkan’ as a compliment, as others tend to employ the word ‘Scandinavian’.

Bulgaria after 1989

Eva Hoffman’s Exit into history (1993) echoes the feeling of unfamiliarity where we came in: Bulgaria is “beyond my preconceptions and prejudices…a few exotic echoes reverberate…the real site of Shakespeare’s Illyria, and also of ancient Thrace, the country of Orpheus; it’s the crossroads of Byzantine and Ottoman and Slav influences and of old trade routes…a country beyond the periphery; a remote place…self-contained and tucked away from the contemporary main drag”. Bulgarians make up for this with the “great, vertical density of their past…the cultural ‘sense of self’ which has accumulated over centuries…a sense of their own, independent sufficiency”, with the inferiority complex found in some other eastern European countries absent.

Bulgaria has an uneasy relationship with its neighbours due to the Balkan Wars and a number of territorial handovers more often than not involving Macedonia. (Magris on The Macedonian question: for a long time Bulgaria claimed Macedonia, both politically and ethnically. The question can be summed up in the story of the many named Mr Omeric/Omerov/Omerski – his original name, Omer, was Turkish). Relations with Yugoslavia were sour during the Soviet period, while her relationship with Romania “traditionally consisted of peering over the Danube to make sure the other is doing worse”.

It’s easy to lump ‘eastern Europe’ into one, but it was largely a Cold War construct. The Balkans, the space between Vienna and Istanbul, often viewed as provincial and peripheral, has a post-Ottoman legacy in common, almost post-colonial. All rather different from ‘central’ Europe, with whom the Balkan countries share a post-Soviet culture, although their histories of transition are different.

All of which brings us to emigre/expat/international Kapka Kassabova (@Kapka_Kassabova), born and brought up in Sofia in the 1970s and 1980s, who left Bulgaria in 1992 for New Zealand, moving to Edinburgh in 2005. Her Street without a name: childhood and other misadventures in Bulgaria (2008; Amazonreview), a memoir cum travelogue, bookended our trip to Sofia. A two parter in two genres, and none the worse for it, the book combines “the irreverence of an expat and the curiosity of a visitor”.

Kapka has also written some thought provoking poetry, including the haunting line for rootless people everywhere:

Let me be a tourist in the city of my life.

Filling in more gaps is journalist Dimiter Kenarov, whose From Black to Black looks at the Danube from a rather different perspective. See too his piece on Georgi Markov, more known in English for the umbrella incident than his writing, and interview on East-Central Europe Past and Present, well worth the time of the prospective visitor to Bulgaria. 2018 update: on Julia Kristeva.

Interesting times

In a 2010 survey, Bulgaria came out as the unhappiest country in the world relative to income per capita. I’ll take this with the same grain of salt as Denmark’s constant chart-busting performances – you really don’t get an impression of boundless Danish joy on a day to day basis, and the Bulgarians seemed chirpy enough in the spring sunshine. In other eye popping statistics, 40% of Bulgarians smoke, and they have a flat income tax rate of 10%. The 2015 World Happiness Report, released just before we left for Sofia, showed Bulgaria in 134th place out of the 158 countries surveyed, way below any other EU country as well as the Palestinian Territories (108) and Myanmar (129).

Georgi Gospodinov‘s novel The physics of sorrow (AsymptoteNew Yorker | Three Percent | 2018 interview) came out in the UK last year, translated by Angela Rodel. Echoing the happiness surveys (and perhaps Ivan Vasov, who in Under the yoke (1889) wrote that “oppression has the privilege of making people happy…when the political arena is closed, society seeks consolation in the immediate good things of life)”, this feels like a good point to conclude my pre-trip research:

Gospodinov’s tuga [sorrow] is “a longing for something that hasn’t happened…a sudden realization that life is slipping away and that certain things will never happen to you, for a whole list of reasons—personal, geographical, political.

self portrait by Petar Dochev (1934-2005)

self portrait by Petar Dochev (1934-2005)


Bratislava: little big city

Update, New Year’s Day 2018: the Gdn does Bratislava

Where were you for Hogmanay? We were in Bratislava, watching the fireworks from our room behind the A on the first floor of the 1930s Carlton Hotel. The balcony was carpeted with snow and it was a chilly minus 2 Celsius, but nothing daunted the Slovaks circled the ice rink below to the strains of the hits of the 1980s. With around 10 minutes to go everyone set off for the banks of the Danube for a better vantage point.

I had few preconceptions about Bratislava, so it came as a wonderful surprise to make its acquaintance. Landing in Vienna we took the first Slovak Lines bus out of there, with the fare pretty much the same as the S Bahn into the big city. There was a certain step back in time feel about the coach, compounded by the bus station – the Bratislava area may be the second most prosperous region in central Europe but investment isn’t going into their transport hubs.

bus station, Bratislava

Welcome to Slovakia!

The only capital bordering two independent countries, a short hop from Vienna but psychologically rather more, the first sight you get of Bratislava is the cute whitewashed castle, followed by glimpses of the SNP bridge as the bus drives through Petržalka, a 1970s suburb on the ‘other’ bank of the Danube. Its tourist mojo seems to be working fine, with the neatly renovated 18th century old town pretty much clogged over New Year. But there is definitely more to Bratislava than that.

Prior to 1919 the city was known as Prešporok in Slovak, but rather more familiarly as Pressburg in German and Pozsony in Hungarian. Until the 1920 Treaty of Trianon it was part of the kingdom of Hungary, serving as capital from 1536-1784, as coronation city until 1830 and as the seat of its diet until 1848, but with a definite German flavour throughout. From the 13th to the 19th century German speakers were the dominant group, with Hungarians reaching a par at around 40% apiece during the 19th century; Slovaks trailed in at 15% in a 1910 census. In 1919 the city became Bratislava, a name attributed to a misinterpretation of the name of a nearby medieval settlement and previously used only by Slovak patriots.

The old town houses a number of oversized Baroque edifices which have outgrown their role, such as the Primate’s Palace with the Hall of Mirrors where Napoleon signed the Peace of Pressburg after the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805, dissolving the Holy Roman Empire in the process. Famous visitors include Mozart, who famously played to Maria Theresa in the Pálffyho palác aged 6 in 1762, and less expectedly Hans Christian Andersen, who visited in 1841. When asked to write something about the city he said that there was no need to, as it was already a fairytale.

We liked:

  • the castle – resembles an upturned bedside table; burned down in 1811 and left to crumble for over a century, passing through in 1933 Patrick Leigh Fermor noted the “harlot’s nest” on the Schlossburg (sic)
  • St Elisabeth’s Church (1911) – the ‘blue church’; built in Hungarian Secessionist style by Ödön Lechner
  • Slavín War Memorial (1960) – a good walk uphill and flyover
  • SNP Bridge (1973) – parts of the Jewish old town were bulldozed to make way for this unique feat of engineering with a flying saucer shaped restaurant and observation deck on top
  • Slovak Radio Building (1983) – 80m high reversed pyramid, providing a contrast to the Slovak National Bank across the street

Less successful perhaps are the kitschy sculptures resembling living statues scattered through the town centre. Some recent public art has created controversy for other reasons, with the statues of Svätopluk I (of Moravia) outside the castle and of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, Czechoslovakia’s first president, in front of the Slovak National Museum illustrating the dilemmas faced by a new nation. (Update: Balkanist on public art as a means of promoting tourism.)

Lots of redevelopment plus a large population of expats working for international companies creates a lively international atmosphere and an interest in the city’s cultural heritage. Guided tours on offer include Jewish Bratislava from Bratislava Sightseeing (who also do segways, although probably not in the snow) and Communist tours from Be Free ToursVisit Bratislava and Authentic Slovakia, who also offer an Iron Curtain bike tour, as do Bratislava Sightseeing. EuroVelo’s Iron Curtain Trail runs along the Danube marking the border between Austria and Slovakia, with remains of bunkers still visible. Bratislava is also on EuroVelo’s Atlantic-Black Sea rivers route, which includes the Danube Bike Path, the most popular holiday cycle route in Europe. Crossing the SNP Bridge all were well signposted, with separate lanes for peds and bikes.

There are notionally five bridges across the Danube, although one is out of commission for the foreseaable. As you can see from this timelapse the amount of traffic would make a Gehlite suck their teeth, but justifies Bratislava’s slogan of Little big city. (Here’s a more touristy virtual tour.) Walking over the SNP Bridge to Petržalka we were diverted onto a Soviet era flyover, which further diverted us once we had crossed the river and made locating the Apollo Bridge back a bit tricky. They do love a flyover in old ‘eastern’ Europe.

2014-12-31 15.44.49


On the main road from Vienna, the river bank houses some scenic old inns such as the offputtingly named Restaurant Leberfinger. Bratislava did boast a reasonable range of vegetarian options, if on the heavy side – see Zylinder’s menu, and we found a splendid spot based around the revolutionary concept of allowing vegans, vegetarians and meat eaters all to eat together…

Petržalka, formerly a grey suburb, is now practically a town in its own right, with a population of nearly 120,000. The tower blocks have been renovated and given a coat of paint, while investment is pouring into the creation of new areas such as Digital Park Einsteinova and a shiny shopping mall. Not everyone can – or wants – to live in an 18th century old town. Here everything is on hand and there is a growing sense of community – everyone knows their neighbours. There may be lots of traffic, but there are also wide pavements and bike lanes, and green spaces making the most of the river. These 1960s urbanists may just have known what they were doing.

Updates: see Words without Borders’ feature on contemporary women’s writing from Slovakia and Wish I were here, an expat blogger currently living in Bratislava, plus my Flickr album.

Danubia and the myth of Mitteleuropa


  • 30 May 2018: fabulous piece by Mark Baker on the Danube and re-reading Magris 30 years on: “as I paged through the book I was constantly reminded of Central Europe’s über-rich cultural history. But I also found myself wondering how much of this would resonate with modern readers, for whom the Danube is just another waterway in the European Union. The answer is probably not very much, and that feels like a loss.” Indeed. He also highlights two further articles revisiting Magris, The Danube transformed (2003, New York Times) and Richard Flanagan on Why Claudio Magris’s Danube is a timely elegy for lost Europe (Gdn, 2016).
  • 2 May 2015: just back from Sofia, pretty definitely not Mitteleuropa and also not on the Danube, although not a million miles from either, brings us the story of Liberland, a self-declared microstate consisting of a wetland wilderness upstream from the point where the Danube is joined by the Drava, a borderland between Croatia and Serbia. More to be done on this stretch of the river, and also on the Rhine, rather less written about.

Before I kick off my latest batch of belated travel  blogs here’s my first book of the year, Simon Winder’s not unrelated Danubia (Amazon | GoodReads | Google Books). Reviews: GuardianNew York Times SpectatorTelegraph.

The Austro-Hungarian empire, at the heart of the alluring concept of Mitteleuropa, is a pyschogeographic gold mine – a “psychic and liminal space between east and west rather than an objective geographic reality, its borders imaginary, drawn and redrawn with each new historical situation” (Chris Haddix), erased almost unnoticed in a world of dichotomies after the Second World War. Writing in the New York Review of Books in 1986 (republished in the 1991 edition of The uses of adversity) Timothy Garton Ash explored its temporary rebirth – and in the early 1990s it briefly looked as if there just might be a middle way.

Simon Winder’s Danubia, the companion piece to his Germania, is a “personal history” of the mosaic of Mitteleuropa, taking political and especially military history as its main framework but seasoned with a host of sidesteps and even dead ends. Not entirely chronological and assuming an amount of prior knowledge on the part of the reader, it’s a long haul to get to my personal main event, typified by 1913 (“when Freud waved cheerily from a tram at Schiele and the Second Vienna School sang a capella to delighted cafe-goers”), but equally it’s a pleasure to bathe in the quirks of the Hapsburgs and their blundering incompetence, a quality they excelled in, and simply enjoy the ride.

On central Europe’s towns:

the standard full kit: electric tramways, an opera house, a whole lot of art nouveau, a bust of Schiller and a comically dreary monument featuring a statue of a lumpy woman with an ivy entwined sword and a palm leaf

On the Hapsburg jaw:

the women in portrait after portrait appear to have a sort of awful pink shoe attached to their lower faces

At the start of his bibliography Winder states that he has deliberately excluded Claudio Magris’ Danube (1986), along with Rebecca West’s Black lamb and grey falcon (1941), reprinted in 2006 with an introduction by of course! Geoff Dyer. Like Winder I find it impossible to avoid the gravitational pull of a growing canon of books and authors, and having dusted off my central European bookshelf am now embarking on Nick Thorpe’s The Danube: a journey upriver from the Black Sea to the Black Forest (Amazon), ie the wrong way, which looks like a good counterpoint to the rather blokey Danubia.

Also making a case to be read is Nick Hunt’s Walking the woods and the water (Amazon; blog), a 2011/12 retread of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s 1933 trek from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. Nick H highlights even more jolly japes in Paddy’s footsteps, including Travellers’ century, a 2008 TV documentary by Benedict Allan, Blue River, Black Sea (Amazon) by Andrew Eames, who “travelled the length of the Danube by bicycle, boat, and, for some reason, a green plastic bathtub” in 2009, and New York Times‘ journalist Matt Gross, who walked from Vienna to Budapest in 2010. A final PLF related find is this analysis of the literary and historical references in A time of gifts, crying out to be mapped.

For a different perspective see Dimiter Kenarov’s From Black to Black, a literary overview which starts and ends with the significance of the Bulgarian equivalent of R4’s Shipping Forecast:

For nearly fifty years the Danube was a demolished bridge, a liquid roadblock. The wall may have been in Berlin, but the truly impassable one was an invisible dam on the Danube, somewhere between Vienna and Bratislava…Today, to sail along the Danube is to see the new face of Europe, old as it is…The great changes of 1989 might have brought freedom to the people of Eastern Europe, Eames suggests, but it has been the freedom that comes from the sudden bursting of a dam wall, the waters inundating everything on their way downstream.

In an article about Freud’s Vienna as inspiration William Boyd asks: “Why do certain cities haunt the imagination? Not just the city itself but the city in a particular historical period.” He identifies the cause as a place in time you would like to have lived in yourself, but sadly the 1913 narrative was a post-war creation. According to Winder at that time Austria-Hungary “could probably have been summed up as a barracksridden, aristocratic and actively philistine place”, with its music viewed as having a merely museum-like quality (Der Rosenkavalier rather than Mahler’s Ninth), its writing disregarded and its painting and architecture swamped by the Paris art scene.

This society “only really appreciated in the rear view mirror” was preserved in the memoirs of countless exiles and the writings of in particular Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth, all soon eclipsed by a fresh wave of horrors. The keepers of the flame of the Hapsburg myth see the Dual Monarchy as a period in which a diversity of nationalities lived together peacefully in a well ordered, ideal fairytale world, compared with the series of “small and dirty cages of the new nation states” created after 1918, a dichotomy which persists into the 21st century.

Highlights from my Mitteleuropa bookshelf:

  • Frederic Morton’s A nervous splendor: Vienna 1888/1889, the year Crown Prince Rudolf shot himself
  • Gregor von Rezzori’s Snows of yesteryear on his childhood in Czernowitz  (“his very name a perfect Hapsburg amalgam”)
  • Bruno Schulz’s The street of crocodiles – Schulz lived in Drohobycz, where “oil deposits created a strange little semi-Americanized enclave of prosperity” near Lviv, and was shot dead in 1942 by a Gestapo officer

Just where is Mitteleuropa? The shifting borders are a thing of endless confusion – this timelapse doesn’t really help. Winder includes a map of how Kaiser Karl’s United States of Austria could have turned out, with names such as Carniola and Galicia which have vanished into history.

1913: a place in time

Last book of the year, more than likely, is 1913: the year before the storm (Amazon) by Florian Illies, translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside and Jamie Searle. I’m going to call this for curated writing – it’s a collection of anecdotes about historical and cultural figures mainly, but not exclusively, centred on Vienna and the German speaking world and arranged by month, a thing of beauty in conception and execution. Much more than one of those what happened on this day? lists it’s put together with wit and artistry, making you want to read on to find out whose got the sniffles now. And it doesn’t hurt that it references any number of writers and artists who feel like old friends.

Philip Oltermann notes Illies’ “novelist’s eye for detail and liveblogger’s sense of urgency”. (He also comments that those looking for a more international account might turn to Charles Emmerson’s 1913: the world before the Great War.) Written in the historic present, Illies’ 1913 doesn’t try to bring in the benefit of hindsight by showing a world hurtling into war, but reveals instead some of the smaller incidents which make up everyone’s life, then as now. He can’t resist occasional hat tips to the future however, noting that Stalin, Hitler and Tito were all in town at the same time and could well have passed each other in the street.

I’ve a couple more of these books of the year browning on my bookshelf – Philip Metcalfe’s Berlin 1933 (published 1989) and Frederic Morton’s A nervous splendor: Vienna 1888/1889, which it turns out he followed up with Thunder at twilight: Vienna 1913/1914 (published in 1979 and 1989 respectively), but it seems that the master of the genre may well be Walter Kempowski, who amassed a collection of raw material such as personal documents, letters, newspaper reports and unpublished autobiographies over a period of 20 years, published as Echolot (Sonar) auf deutsch. The final volume has just been published in English – Swansong 1945, translated by Shaun Whiteside (again), covering a mere four days.

(Update, Dec 2015: I have one of his nine volume Deutsche Chronik series (Aus großer Zeit/Days of greatness, 1978/82), the final part of which (Alles umsonst/All for nothing, 2006; review), set in East Prussia no less, has just come out in English, translated by (obv) Anthea Bell.)

A further addition to the canon is Moscow 1937 (Amazon | The Atlantic | Times Higher), which I’m seriously considering investing in. Written by Karl Schögel, a lecturer at a university in Frankfurt an der Oder, this looks like classic curational writing, if enciting the adjectives encyclopaedic and exhaustive, something I also struggle with. A snippet in the London Review of Books describes Schlögel as “the most distinguished flâneur among historians of Russia”. Update, 12 Feb 2015: the Danish library service obliged. A stunning piece of work, readable but very, very long.

Shout outs too for James Fox’s documentary series Bright lights, brilliant minds (clips inc Café Central) on BBC over the summer, covering Vienna 1908, Paris 1928 and New York 1951, and The Enemies Projet’s Kakania (anthology), exploring the culture of Hapsburg Vienna.

So, books read this year: 22. A significant improvement on the all time low of 7 in 2012, but a long way to go to surpass 2006’s 39, when my LibaryThing records start, although I have been recording books read since 1992. Quite a pool of data there, which it could be fun to try to do something with.

Microcosms of Mitteleuropa

After we got back from Trieste I bought online a second hand copy of Claudio Magris’ Microcosms (Amazon | Google Books | Bookslut | Boston ReviewYale Books Unbound), first published in 1997 and translated by Iain Halliday, for barely more than the price of the postage. It has three remaindered stripes along the bottom. The back cover shows a louche raincoated figure who may or may not be Claudio, newspaper on knee and coffee cup at his elbow, surely taken in the Caffè San Marco in Trieste. On the flyleaf is his signature.

In Triste Trieste, a magisterial account of four books on Trieste I could never hope to emu

late, Nicholas Howe dubs Trieste “a place of unresolved geography” and Magris its “embodiment in writerly form” (meanwhile on p6: “one wrote or responded to yet another interview about Trieste, its Mitteleuropa culture and its decline…”).

“Writing is transcribing,” Magris has once said. “Even when an author invents, he transcribes stories and events that life has made him a participant in.” (source)

Out-Sebalding Sebald, Microcosms examines the borderlands of Istria and Italy, between the eastern Alps and the Adriatic. Starting in yhe L-shaped Caffè San Marco we move outwards to Valcellina (68 miles north west of the city in the Friuli foothills), to the liminal lagoons north of Venice, the forests around Mount Nevoso (or Mount Snežnik, at 1796m the king of the karst), Apsyrtides (the Greek name for the Croatian islands of Cres and Lošinj, separated only by a canal) and Antholz (in the south Tyrol, where 98.4% speak German as their first language). Finally we return to Trieste, as we surely must, to the public garden where the busts of Trieste’s writers are brought to life.

This style of writing, pulling together the strands of history, literature, real life and lived experience, seems particularly fitting for the post-exploration age of ‘we’ tourism – a simple narrative struggles to capture the layers and diversity of a travel experience. But where to shelve the book? A librarian by training and maybe at heart, many of my books are arranged by geographic area/country, but this one could sit in multiple categories. I suspect it, together with Jan Morris’ and Dasa Drindic’s Trieste and his own Danube, will find a home on the top of my central and eastern Europe bookcase, in their own separate section and resting on a mahogony shelf from India.

A fitting conclusion for our next trip, bridging 2014 and 2015 in three Mitteleuropean cities on the Danube. Compliments of the season – and Guten Rutsch!

The Brenner is the watershed between the Adriatic and the Black Sea, between the waters that with the Adige run into the sea of every persuasion and those that through the Drava flow into the Danube. Adriatic and Danube, the sea and continental Mitteleuropa, life’s two opposing and complementary scenarios; the border that separates them is a small black hole leading from one universe to another.