Slovakia today is a very modern country, which, as a member of the European Union, has open borders with most of its neighbors. The capital city of Bratislava is within an hour’s drive from three of them, namely the Czech Republic, Austria and Hungary, and is an incredibly easy commute from the Austrian capital of Vienna. Slovakia has seen many changes in the last few decades that have made it completely different from what it was a mere quarter century ago when it was part of the Soviet satellite state of Czechoslovakia, and while evidence of that change exists everywhere, the best place to get a sense of the country’s dramatic transformation is right on the border with Austria, in a sleepy little town called Devin.
With a large hill overlooking the place where the Danube and Morava Rivers meet, Devin was always a very strategic location and, therefore, an ideal place for fortification. Forts have been on the land for centuries, starting with those built by the Celts and the Romans. Devin Castle was built during the thirteenth century and since has been conquered and used by the Ottomans, Napoleon’s French army and Hitler’s Third Reich. When the Communists took over, the castle was located just on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain and although it was open to the public as a tourist attraction, the two rivers below and the surrounding area were heavily fortified and restricted as a military zone.
The Iron Curtain descended upon the area around Devin and a wall was built on the banks of the Danube and Morava. For the first time in history, the area around Devin was designed to keep people in rather than keep them out. Nobody had access to the rivers, and those who tried to get access didn’t live to tell about it. From the top of the hill at Devin Castle, visitors could peer into Austria on the other side of the river and get a glimpse into the West like hungry orphans looking into a shop window of a bakery. I’ve heard stories of people who tried to get across the river in any desperate and innovative way that they could, including a man who nearly succeeded when he tried to hang glide his way from the top of the hill, but in the end was shot down like a bird.
In 1989, the people of Czechoslovakia protested against the one-party government in what became known as the Velvet Revolution, and as a result became the first country to open its doors to the west. Once the tightly shut border was opened, it burst like a dam as governments could no longer control the flood of people flowing out. As people of all nationalities began to make their way to Czechoslovakia and eventually to the west, there was no use trying to close the drapes of the Iron Curtain once more. Borders began to open everywhere and soon afterwards, the Soviet Union collapsed as fifteen nations – including Russia – declared independence from the USSR.
In this sleepy town, there was no longer any need for fortification. There was no purpose for a wall if people could get to the other side quite easily. So, in 1989, the once heavily guarded riverbank was demilitarized and the wall along it was dismantled.
Today, the Devin Castle remains a tourist attraction. From the top of the hill, we can still see into Austria, but now boats freely sail down the river and fishermen stand knee deep along the banks on both sides of the border trying to catch fish. On the Slovak side directly below the castle, there is a rusty metal foundation of a military outpost, one of the few reminders of its ugly past. Along the riverside now is a nicely paved pedestrian road where people jog, ride bicycles and rollerblade, or simply take a walk and enjoy the beautiful surroundings. Random monuments and sculptures dot the landscape. One of the most prominent monuments is located right where the Danube and Morava Rivers meet, a monument dedicated to all the people who were killed here trying to cross over to freedom. It’s hard to imagine that such a nice, peaceful area was once an area of so much oppression.
The beautiful pedestrian road continues up the Morava River away from the castle and towards the center of Devin a few kilometers away. There, it branches off onto a newly built bridge which crosses the Morava River and goes straight into Austria on the other side. Flags of Slovakia, Austria and the European Union fly on either side of the bridge, and hundreds of people cross freely, though many with heavy hearts as they realize it wasn’t always so easy.
As I stand in the middle of the bridge between the two countries watching people go by, I try to imagine what this place was like only twenty-five years earlier. Twenty-five years ago, I would have been shot dead where I stood; now I can freely explore the area. Twenty-five years ago, armies of soldiers roamed around patrolling the area; now, hordes of joggers and cyclists whiz by enjoying the ideal exercise route between two nations. Twenty-five years ago, this was the edge of the world for many people; now it’s a scenic gateway between east and west. Twenty-five years ago, there was a wall; now there is a bridge.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Yasunori Arikawa, better known in the Western world as Kenny Kurata, grew up in rural Iwakuni, Japan and urban Los Angeles. He has been living and teaching English in the former Soviet Union for the past eight years. He loves to travel though places "highly recommended" by others interest him far less than those that make people ask "Are you crazy? and "Where's that?" He also participates in four or five marathons and/or triathlons each year.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Yasunori Arikawa, better known in the Western world as Kenny Kurata, grew up in rural Iwakuni, Japan and urban Los Angeles. He has been living and teaching English in the former Soviet Union for the past eight years. He loves to travel though places "highly recommended" by others interest him far less than those that make people ask "Are you crazy? and "Where's that?" He also participates in four or five marathons and/or triathlons each year.