Empty-handed on the Amber Road: Leaving Balaton

This story represents a continuation of the earlier two series: Leaving a Continent, and 40 Hours on a Romanian Bus. As with the second series, this article tries to juxtapose the modern experience of traveling on Europe’s roads with background on the experience a traveler would have faced in Roman times. In the earlier series, this involved travel within the Roman Empire. This series explores the experience of leaving the Empire to travel deep into the Hercynian Forest.

This would almost be considered a precursor to the next series I hope to produce, a series of family history articles called “Rzeczspospolita,” an exploration of my wife’s ancestry and ancestral lands.

Bidding Marcali goodbye, or failing in real estate sales

The little marina at Balatonmariafurdo, lakeside of Lake Balaton. Photo by Jedimaster29 via Wikimedia Commons.

Istvan Kollar was what a friend in Boston would call an “angel”. These are the types of people who appear at the right moment in life to do the right things that help you on your way. For me, leaving a situation that was becoming increasingly costly and decreasingly likely to be successful was the right thing that Istvan encouraged me to do.

Although the property in Gadany is not a bad buy, it’s also not a place that serves well as a primary property, at least not in its present state. Without running water and sanitation, staying there is a bit like living in your own personal summer camp, albeit one with access to a bus that takes you to town, a wifi hotspot, and the spa.

The problem with selling the property I had been trying to sell has been a highly competitive market (everyone is selling as no one has any money in the present Euro crisis) and a lack of proper professional real estate representation (one that is at least enthusiastic about selling the property). That pretty much was my final report to the owner as I left to go home to my own family on Sunday, July 15.

As earlier noted, Istvan was the one who finally motivated me to leave. I can write, but I’m not a salesperson. I can consult, but I’m not someone who convinces people well to do something when it comes to face-to-face contact. And the cost of living in Europe today is much higher than it is in South America. Digging deeper and deeper into my parents’ support had become untenable.

So, as I had to in South America, I gave up in Hungary. I plotted out a route to get to Vilnius, and told my wife I was heading back to her. This was a stressful decision, of course, for everyone. I had plans to bring my wife to come live with me in another country, create a publication and leave small town Belarus behind, but without the sale, that wasn’t happening.

The skies rained a bit in this last weekend as I tried to do up a last Somogy Tales posting and repack. Taping up my badly falling apart bags, I finally left town on Monday, around 3 p.m. Istvan drove me to the station at Balatonmariafurdo, giving me a sandwich for the road, along with several tomatoes from his garden and a mild pepper before helping me buy a ticket to Budapest and leaving me to my train. The original plan was to buy at ticket to Warszawa from this station, but apparently the ticket seller was not equipped for international tickets. So I had to switch to Plan B, which was to make a very brief layover at Budapest-Keleti, and then board the supposedly 39-Euro train to the Polish capital.

I sat alone in my thoughts as the 4:08 p.m. train left for the biggest train station in Hungary. I remained alone in my thoughts as resort after resort on Lake Balaton went by, bathed in sun for the first time in a couple days.  Memories of my first arrival (by boat) at Balatonboglar went by with the station, as did those at Siofok, where a couple boarded; they were heading back from the Balaton Sound music festival for Bratislava. Without fanfare, the train pulled away from the lake for the last time at Balatonaliga, and both the lakeside resorts and Somogy quietly disappeared in the trees to the rear of the train.

Lake Balaton and the Celts before Roman times

An amber choker necklace taken from a Halstatt culture archeological dig, likely Celtic in origin. Photo by Flominator via Wikimedia Commons.

The Celts of central Europe emerged from the Bronze Age as early as 1600 BC, forming over a period of about 800 years a civilization that developed along the northern slopes of the Alps and westernmost Carpathians. Archeologists first discovered large-scale remnants of the culture at sites in Halstatt, Austria, and La Tene, Switzerland, in the 1800s, and it is by these names that they generally refer to similar remnants of Celtic culture. However, it is by Greek Historian Hecataeus of Miletus that we know these people from the name of one of the more prominently located tribes of the culture, the Keltoi.

The Celts were perhaps the earliest historically-traceable people to settle on the shores of Lake Balaton. These Iron Age tribes dominated this area, located just east of the main trade route between the Baltic Sea and the Italian peninsula – the Amber Road. Since far in prehistoric time, amber resin had made its way into central Europe through trade routes that followed river shores and sea coasts, and appeared on the graves in many burial sites across the continent. No doubt, amber was an early trading good distributed southward toward the Greek and the fledgling Roman states during the apex of Celtic culture.

Between 400 and 300 BC, Celtic tribes moved into Pannonia, forming a loose confederation between the Boii and Volcae kingdoms that displaced a number of tribes later regarded collectively by the Romans as Illyrians (the name originally given to the people of the Dardani Kingdom in present Albania and Macedonia by the Greeks). By 279 BC, hardly a lifetime after Alexander the Great’s rule, the Celts in Pannonia grew so organized that they carried out a major attack on the Greek states and Asia Minor. Indeed, after this fete, Celtic warriors were in much demand in Europe in the early half of the third century BC, being employed as mercenaries as far away as Egypt in that same period. However, a couple generations later, the Boii themselves were on the defensive, their Italian capital in present Bologna under attack by the Romans.

After the fall of their Italian kingdom, the Boii retreated into the Panonnian plains near the shores of Balaton, where they retained their eastern kingdom. The weakened Celtic state still managed to hold its own for another century at the head of a confederation of tribes that included the Taurisci, Anarti, Osi, Cotini, and Scordisci, but by 168 BC, after the last of the pirate kingdoms in Illyria was subdued in the last of the Illyrian Wars, the Romans again applied pressure against the Celts. To make matters worse, King Burebista rallied the Geto-Dacian tribes in present Romania that the Celts had defeated only a century or two earlier, and took back in 60 BC the rich mines of what is today the Transylvanian region of Romania. A simultaneous failure to take Roman Gaul far in the west that year brought Roman attention on this last Celtic kingdom in central Europe, and a couple generations later, the Boii of the Pannonian plains who still lived on the shores of Lake Balaton (named Lacosa Pelso, or Shallow Lake, by the invaders) were incorporated into the Roman Empire by the year 8.

What not to do when you can’t make a connection at Budapest-Keleti

Aerial view of Keleti station in Budapest. The Metropol train typically takes off from Track 6, the farthest right in this view. Photo by Civertan via Wikimedia Commons.

As the train rocked its way across the central Hungarian countryside, the Bratislava couple who boarded the train at Siofok started to worry. This wasn’t a good thing as they were to be on the same train I planned to take leaving Hungary, and they desperately wanted an estimate of how long they had to catch their train. When told, they were relieved. Of course, they already had their tickets.

For me, the approaching nightmare was difficult to ignore. I’d have to run to the international ticket sales, get through whatever line is there, and then run back to the right track, all while dragging around an over-packed large black bag, as well as a smaller black nylon sack and a computer bag. If I failed, likely I would be getting in a day late – not normally a problem, but my wife was taking hard-fought time off from work to help with the visa, and, well, I couldn’t be late.

As the sun went down, the train pulled into Keleti station in Budapest, the only train station I hadn’t been to in the Hungarian capital, and I bolted toward the station (as fast as an overpacked black bag would let me) toward the ticketing desks. I went down the stairs and found the domestic ticket sales. They directed me back up the stairs to the International Ticket Sales.

This little office was what I envisioned hell would be like if there was a special place for those who died with un-repented sins while backpacking. Just about everyone there probably had a bed at a nearby youth hostel, and would be traveling for many weeks after I returned to Belarus. The system required that you take a number, which I did. I had 45 places back from the number then being served.

Had the ticket tellers been servicing passengers at a rate of 8 per minute, I would have had no problems here. But the rate was more like one every 3-4 minutes. Doing the math, it was clear. I was doomed.

When one of the numbers appeared to have left quietly in disgust after taking a number many hours before, I jumped up and asked if I could jump ahead and buy my ticket, since the train was leaving in five minutes. When I was told no, I asked whether I should just go to the train and buy it there. Yes, sure, this seems like a good idea, the ticket seller said.

In my mind today, the ticket seller’s place in the afterlife will be something like being on my side of the window for that singular act of misguidance. I rushed as fast as the black bag I was pulling would let me and caught the Metropol train to Berlin, and camped out at the vestibule of one of the cars. This was the run I would take to get to Breclav, the point to change for Warszawa. When a conductor approached, I asked whether she was the person from whom I should buy my ticket. She looked at me and asked, apparently making sure she heard correctly, if I had no ticket. I said, no, I have no ticket. She smiled and walked on.

Today, of course, in my mind, she too would be with the ticket seller in that little International Sales Office in the netherworld come the afterlife. When the train finally left the station, she and another conductor approached me, and finally told me that I couldn’t buy a ticket to Warszawa on the train, that they could only sell me a ticket to Szor on the Slovakia border, and that from there I would have to negotiate my travel with the Slovak conductors. The price of the ticket to the border was 5,000 HUF.

Granted, this amount, equal to about 15 Euro, seemed excessive, but surely this meant I would be taken pretty far along the route to Breclav, right? After they left, I looked at the map. No. This was the penalty fare for not having a ticket when getting on the train, about twice the normal amount. At this rate, I had no chance of making it to Warszawa, much less Vilnius.

Lake Balaton and the Amber Road during Roman times

The Heidentor at ancient Carnuntum, near the village of Petronell-Carnuntum in eastern Austria. Photo by Longbow4u via Wikimedia Commons.

As the Celts had done, the Romans seemed to settle their villas and towns near Lake Pelso (their name for Balaton) on the sites of artesian and thermal hot springs. Most of these were situated north of the lake on lands later taken over by noble families during the Middle Ages. As with these later settlers, the Romans planted vineyards near their homes with which to make wine.

Much of the territory that would eventually become Pannonia Valeria received produce from the gardens of these villas. Their farms looked down on the lake much the same as settlements along the north shore do today. The south shore likely was mostly swamps – when the Slavs later invaded the region, their word “boloto” would be used in renaming the lake to its present name of Balaton.

Roads stretched eastward from Lake Balaton toward the Roman regional capital of Aquincum, located in present Budapest on the opposite side of the river from the northbound train line. However, the area of greatest interest in this story was further west. It was in this far reach of present Hungary that the Roman-era Amber Road passed.

The actual trade route for amber into the Roman Empire is said to have passed from present Gdansk, Poland, southward through Wroclaw, and then across the Carpathians through Brno, Czechia, and then east of Wien, Austria, and then along Lake Nieusiedl into Sopron and Szombathely, Hungary, and then finally pass into the Roman Road system around Emona, or present Ljubljana, Slovenia. Branches of the route extended eastward along the Roman road system to Aquincum, and westward into Gaul, bringing the fossilized resin to a market that extended across the entire continental Roman Empire.

According to Pliny the Elder: “Pytheas says that the Gutones, a people of Germania, inhabit the shores of an estuary of the Ocean called Mentonomon, their territory extending a distance of 6,000 stadia; that, at one day’s sail from this territory, is the Isle of Abalus, upon the shores of which, amber is thrown up by the waves in spring, it being an excretion of the sea in a concrete form; as, also, that the inhabitants use this amber by way of fuel, and sell it to their neighbors, the Teutones.”

The Gutones are a people of the Wiebolk Culture that were the predecessors of the Goths, the Teutones were based at the time along with the Anglii, the Saxones, and the Heruli on the Jutland Peninsula of present Denmark, Mentonomon is the Greek name for the Baltic Sea, and the Isle of Abalus could be just about anywhere, but is probably the Curonian Spit, the curved dune bar that separates the Curonian Lagoon, a body of water shared by Lithuania and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, where amber continues to be “mined” in great amounts.

Amber’s importance to the ancients included not only burial rites. When melted in a regular fire, the rock will soften and eventually burn. Amber oil and pitch was also extracted from this translucent material for use in folk medicine and perfumes. Amber continues even to this day to also be used in jewelry.

The English word “amber” is illustrative of the limits to which the ancient amber trade extended; the word derives from the Arabic word for the rock: “anbar”. This probably resulted from the arrival of a similar material, ambergris (according to the English Wikipedia page on amber, “a solid waxy substance” that can be found in the intestinal tract of sperm whales) to the Holy Land during the Crusades, during which time it was called by Latin speakers as “ambar.”

Theophrastus, the first to write about the amber coming from the Baltic Sea, called the material “electron,” which meant “formed by the elector” (“elector” being the sun, or the “awakener”).  Indeed, the modern word “electron” comes from George Stoney’s study of elementary charges in 1891, during which he used amber as part of his experiments.

The Poles and the Hungarians describe Baltic amber using their words for “burn stone” (“bursztyn” and “borostyan,” respectively), while the Lithuanians and Russians use their words for “sea resin” (“gintaras” and “yantar,” respectively), illustrative of how each of those more modern cultures view the material. Supposedly, the Goths would have called it “glaes,” a common word in that period that would much later evolve in the English language as “glass.”

How to escape from a train ride you can’t afford

The Cathedral at Esztergom, the seat of the Catholic Church in Hungary, as seen from the river shore of Sturovo, Slovakia. Photo by Ben Angel.

Outside the glass window, as night fell, the train pulled into Szor about the time I finished the math on what this train ride would cost to get to Warszawa. Outside, the hills of this stretch of river passed by, and were certainly beautiful to watch between unfolding a map and cursing one’s luck. This was the region that the Szechenyi family had lived in during the early years of Ferenc’s marriage. It was a shame that the dark was engulfing the view.

At Szor, the Slovak conductors boarded. The train was standing room only here as a huge group of kids had boarded and displaced the other passengers who hadn’t secured tickets either. At Sturovo, though the kids got off, and left the car less in chaos. I decided to jump off and try to buy a real ticket to Warszawa from here.

Sturovo, of course, was in yet another new country, Slovakia. In Slovakia, naturally, the language is Slovak, not Hungarian, not Russian, and not Polish. None of these languages worked on the gal at the ticket counter. However, I tried German with her, and this seemed to work. It was perhaps better that it hadn’t. The price to Warszawa she quoted as 69 Euros.

I looked at my available funds. That would get me to Warszawa with only 11 Euros, and no onward ticket. I thanked her and left the station.

As I dragged my over-packed black bag from the station toward the center of Sturovo, I realized I was doubly doomed. I would not only be late, but I wouldn’t have the funds to get to Vilnius. However, I did have still something on the order of 9000 HUF, or 27 Euros in my pocket, unchangeable outside of Hungary. I figured my best bet would be to get back across the Danube to that country, then get to a city with a bus station that serviced runs to Bratislava. From there, I could make it maybe to Warszawa.

I walked through Sturovo in darkness, and a huge cathedral lit up ahead of me as a beacon. I knew what this cathedral was. It was the seat of the Roman Catholic Church in Hungary. The cathedral was Esztergom.

I think the one Catholic structure I’ve seen that rivaled the Esztergom Cathedral was in Vatican City. The Vatican likewise sits on a river, the Tiber, but it doesn’t shine nearly as nicely as Esztergom does on the Danube. I walked the waterfront in an attempt to get to the bridge crossing. When finally I found the right road, my hands were already in pain from dragging my black bag around. I still had to make it across the Danube, though. As I crossed the bridge back into Hungary, the lights of Esztergom were shut off. It was apparently midnight.

Once across, it was apparent that in order to get anywhere with any speed, I needed to convert the black bag into a backpack, a move that broke the straps once before at the border between Chile and Peru. Once I did this, I was making good time passing the closed-up shops of Esztergom in search of the city bus terminal.

This I finally did at about 1 a.m. The first buses, however, were not operating until 4 a.m. A security guard found me waiting out the night, and took pity on me. He let me into the daytime waiting area, where I slept a couple hours on a bench next to a coffee dispenser.

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