The Balkans: Europe’s Crossroads Where East Meets West

I’ve taken a little break from blog writing while we were on a cruise on the Danube that took us through the Balkans, including Hungary, Serbia, Romania, and Bulgaria.  This is a beautiful area of the world and we experienced many of the charms of the region and its natural beauty.  Highlights included being entertained by Bulgarian singers and folk dancers, hearing many historical stories and folklore of the region, visiting lovely churches, taking an afternoon bike ride through the many green spaces in Belgrade (Sallie), visiting a museum dedicated to Nikola Tesla (John), going to the Bucharest opera, and so much more.

Belgrade, taken on my bike ride through the city

I will add, however, that this was not a leisurely little cruise where we stopped and disembarked to stroll through the streets of quaint little villages, rather, it was more like a crash course in the complex and difficult history of the Balkan region. Without reflecting on some of this, there is no way to explain our experiences over this part of our travels, but I’ll try not to get too much ‘into the weeds.’

The Balkans tumultuous history

Over the years the Balkan region has been home – and conquerable territory – to the Romans, the Ottomans, the Habsburgs, the Nazis, and the Communists.  The architecture of the region reflects the changes of serial occupation and corresponding changes in culture and religion. We saw a synagogue built in the style of a Mosque in Budapest, a church that didn’t look like a church from the outside – by design as they were not allowed to build something that looked like a church – but had incredibly beautiful frescoes inside, and Orthodox churches that were converted to mosques.

The Great Synagogue in Budapest has architectural elements of a mosque

Country borders were similarly fluid, expanding and contracting according to which victor claimed the spoils.  We had an information session on board our cruise to provide introduction to Serbia as part of the former Yugoslavia.  The Serbian speaker told us that his own grandmother, who was born in 1904, had lived in the same house for her entire life, but within her lifetime, which ended in the 1990s, the house was located in seven different countries.  As of this writing, the house has been located in eight countries since the turn of the 20th century. For this reason, he explained, ethnicity creates a stronger sense of identity for people in the region than nationality, hence the violence between ethnic groups in some areas.

Add to this that each country’s language has its own alphabet and, with the exception of the Romanian language, all have Cyrillic characters.  The circumstances of each country having a difficult and unusual language, generally only spoken within that country, barriers exist to interactions with other countries.  In addition to this, there are lags in economic productivity, largely due to the years in a communist system.  These have contributed to a “brain drain” of educated young people who frequently leave their home countries for better opportunities and higher pay elsewhere.

Communist era housing in Bulgaria

Effects of communism

In the twentieth century all four of the countries we visited were impacted by the two world wars, and, subsequently, spent decades under Communist rule during the Cold War. Emerging from the communist years has presented challenges throughout the region.  Each country experienced communism and its ending in their own way, but there were a number of similarities in experiences.  In every case, the communists confiscated homes within cities and farms in the country from the families who had owned them for generations.  The owners were either deported, sent to work camps or, in some cases, were deemed to be resistant to the communist rule and were executed.  The homes of the property owners in the cities were demolished and, in their place, boxy, gray apartment buildings were constructed to house thousands of people who were required to work in the cities.  The confiscated farms were made into co-operatives utilizing cheap laborers, such as gypsies.  In the post-communist years, attempts are being made to return farmland to the descendants of the previous owners.  The problem is that the new generations lack the skills and knowledge to operate a productive farm.

Bookends to our travel experience:  Budapest and Bucharest

Our Danube cruise began in Budapest and ended in Bucharest and we spent a few days in each of these cities.

Budapest is the crowning jewel of Hungary and is one of the most astonishingly beautiful cities I’ve ever seen.  To arrive in Budapest and take a look on both sides of the Danube, it is instantly clear that this city spent centuries preparing for a future of being the capital of one of the great countries of the world.  Both the scale of the buildings and intricacy of the architecture and design of so many Budapest buildings is awe-inspiring.  These include the Buda Parliament, the Hungarian Parliament, the Great Synogogue, the Budapest Opera house, and St. Stephen’s Cathedral.

St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Budapest

Budapest (and all of Hungary) was invaded by the Nazis in March of 1944, who wasted no time in deporting Jews to concentration camps or simply executing them. In a period of about two months, an estimated 430,000 Jews and other minorities were transported or killed.  In mid-May of 1944, Russian troops invaded and pushed back the Nazis and, as everyone knows, occupied Hungary until the late 1980s.  The joke in the city is that the Russians came to rescue them but then forgot to leave.

Bucharest is a beautiful city and is known as the Paris of Eastern Europe for its many buildings dating back to the 19th century that are the work of French architects.  While many of those buildings in remain in the “Old Town” of Bucharest, a number of them are in need of work or are under renovation currently.  Romania, which is actually relatively young, just becoming a country in 1859, was a monarchy for a relatively short time, from 1881 to 1947 when Soviet communists forced their king, Michael I, to abdicate. The monarchy years seemed to be happy and productive ones for Romania, while the Romanian communist years were possibly the most oppressive in the entire region.  Restrictions on birth control created unwanted babies that were subsequently abandoned and Romanians were imprisoned in their own country as they were not allowed to hold passports. 

Revolution Square in Bucharest

 In 1989, Romania was the last of the Eastern bloc countries to break free from communism with a bloody revolution in December of 1989 killing over 1,000 revolutionaries and ending with the execution of their dictator for decades, Nicolas Ceausescu and his family on Christmas Day.  The revolution and subsequent execution of the Ceausescus remains a disturbing part of the country’s history to many Romanians.

Some surprises

We are currently in our second week of Easter. Since the Balkans are a mix of Catholic and Orthodox Christian faiths, we have now had Holy Week and Easter for two weeks in a row, last week for the Catholic Church and this week for Orthodox. 

Tulips have been beautiful everywhere!

The other wonderful surprise has been all of the beautiful flowers we have seen — lilac and redbud are in bloom, in addition to so many tulips everywhere we went!

Oh, and the blue Danube?  It isn’t blue at all and never was.  That is just nonsense perpetuated by Johann Strauss and his waltz.

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