Guest column: A Tale of Four Cities
A tale of four cities
A quartet of places that showcases the best of human resilience.
Drubovnik. Plitvice. Budapest. Prague. Places I visited a few months before the pandemic swept over the world and effectively locked us down. While I was rubber-necking as hard as any other tourist, taking in the stunning sights and tucking into local fare with equal enthusiasm, I was also reading up on the history of these cities wherein I discovered a common leitmotif that fairly blew me away. These are places that rose up on the bedrock of conflict, were subject to destruction and near decimation but rose again, quite like a phoenix from the ashes.
Let`s take Dubrovnik in Croatia first. This top-rated tourist destination city on the Adriatic Sea , known as Ragusa in the 7th century, was under Byzantine, then Venetian, French and Italian rule. Political wars became the norm here. During World War II, Dubrovnik was part of the Nazi-friendly Independent State of Croatia, occupied by the Italian army first, then by the German army. In the early 1970s, the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA), attacked the city, and in 1991, when Yugoslavia was disintegrating, Dubrovnik was besieged by the Yugoslav People’s Army for seven months, and suffered significant damage from shelling. Today, unless the tourist visits the museums or takes a close look at the chart near the city gate mapping all artillery hits during the siege, they wouldn’t dream such a lovely place had such a violent past.
Stupid fights for land, was our driver/guide`s take on the bitter fighting at the Plitvice Lakes, also in Croatia, and his words ring true when I read the backstory of this tourist magnet. The stunning beauty of the sixteen cascading lakes in the National Park all separated by travertine dams, is overwhelming, but the Plitvice Lakes area has not always been the tranquil region it is now. Occupied by Ottomans and Habsburgs in rapid succession, Plitvice became a military frontier controlled by Serbian border guards from the 1500s onwards. Many decisive battles were fought close to the lakes, for many years, marking the area with blood.
The twin cities of Buda and Pest that straddle the River Danube also faced devastating attacks. The first settlers in gorgeous Budapest were the Celts. Then came the Romans, followed by the Magyar tribes, all settled after much fighting. In 1944, a year before the end of World War II, Budapest was partly destroyed by British and American air raids. The very next year, in the Battle of Budapest, the city suffered major damage caused by the attacking Soviet and Romanian troops and the defending German and Hungarian troops.
Ironically enough, when Hungary got free of Nazi Germany, the saviours moved in and Soviet military occupation began, to end only in 1991. From the 1960s to the late 1980s Hungary was often satirically referred to as `the happiest barrack’ within the Eastern bloc but there was much covert and overt resistance to the Soviet regime. This was indeed, a hard-won peace.
Finally, Praha, soaked in atmosphere and antiquity. Founded during the Romanesque era and flourishing in the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque eras, Prague was the capital of the kingdom of Bohemia. World War I ended with the defeat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the creation of Czechoslovakia, with Prague was its capital. The German army entered Prague in 1939. Interestingly, during WWII, two days before Germany capitulated, an uprising of the citizens against Germany occurred. The citizens continued to fight for their democratic rights through the 1967 Prague Spring, the 1989 Velvet Revolution and in 1993, managed the Velvet Divorce, after which Prague became the — buzzing — capital city of the new Czech Republic.
All these places were almost annihilated by either ethnic conflict, WWI, WWII, by Nazi Germany, by the Soviet regime. But everywhere, the citizens eventually rose to shuck off the shackles and regain their freedom. These cities are a paean to resilience and resolution, as also to a Renaissance of reconstruction.
And of course, you don’t need me to tell you the underlying message here, to point out the cartilage that supports the backbone of these four regions. It is the indomitable will of a people determined to acquire freedom, their fundamental rights as citizens, and a better life. Therein lies hope for the oppressed everywhere.
All photos by author.
This ran in THE NEW SUNDAY EXPRESS MAGAZINE of 14 February 2021.