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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Walking the rusty line 2

Bratislava, Slovakia Friday 19 September 2003
North of the Danube there are just two road crossings from Slovakia to Austria across the March (Morava) river a pontoon bridge and a little ferry both new since the end of Communism in central Europe in 1989. Before this time, crossing the Iron Curtain was not easy. Things were better in Maria Theresa’s time, when a road bridge linked Vienna, just 45km to the west, with Bratislava, then known as Pressburg (German) or Poszony (Hungarian). In Bratislava itself, I stay very comfortably with Maria Bilikova and Graham Luffrum. The city suffers by comparisons with Vienna, Prague, and Budapest the old town is attractive but small, and separated from the castle hill by a dual carriageway. Many people, including Maria and Graham, live in Petrzalka, a vast 1960s development on the south bank to British eyes this looks depressing, but it works as a socially mixed place to live. I walk to the Dreiländereck where Slovakia, Hungary, and Austria meet: it is guarded by a couple of Austrian soldiers to prevent illegal crossings. Curiously there were very few such guards on the Czech-German or Czech-Austrian frontiers.

Sopron, Hungary Saturday 27 September
In the town square, an electronic clock counts down the days, hours, minutes, and seconds to Hungary’s accession to the EU on 1 May 2004. During the day I pass the Pan-Europäisches Piknik Denkmal (the all-Europe picnic memorial) (see opposite), marking the place where a crowd of Hungarians and Germans, under the guise of an al fresco meal, rushed the Iron Curtain in August 1989. The Hungarian government, already a multi-party system, had planned to dismantle the fence here in any case: the action by the picnickers attracted world attention and accelerated the fall of other regimes in Communist central Europe. Luckily the remaining Hungarian border guards didn’t shoot people crossing (illegally) into Austria on that day: now an Austrian border guard prevents people moving in the same direction (I’d nipped through a hole in the hedge out of the guard’s sight to enter Hungary).

Szentgotthárd, south-western Hungary Thursday 2 October
My small hotel also houses a Schweizer Zahnarzt (Swiss dentist), one of several here. I’ve read that Hungary is cheap for dental work, and that a short trip from Britain can include some good-value oral surgery. But why advertise as Swiss? I spend the evening drinking with some young men (research). One has a job in Austria, as a nightclub waiter near Graz 100km away, driving there each night. He’s waiting for a police certificate stating that he has no criminal record. Another is a computer graphic designer, mainly for Hungarian clients. A third wants to come to London to be a DJ I can’t give much useful advice, though I doubt his idea of starting as an au pair is very good.

Zgornje Jezersko, northern Slovenia Wednesday 8 October
Into Slovenia for the third time. The Seeberg pass (1,200m) has light snow. At the second crossing point two days earlier I was told that I should not cross there it is for locals only. There are several such crossings on the SloveneEU borders, particularly the border with Italy, and non-locals, even if on foot, are meant to use the few crossings on major roads. However, I always manage to blag my way through. The Seeberg Pass crossing is an official one, with fine new passport checkers’ offices and customs house, all built in the last few years with EU money. The customs officers will disappear in 2004 on Slovenia’s EU accession, and after just a few years the whole complex will be abandoned when Slovenia joins the Schengen agreement in 2008 or thereabouts.

Mount Pecs/Ofen/Forno, Slovenia/Austria/Italy Monday 13 October
My last Dreiländereck (three-country corner). As well as three countries, three language groups Slavic, Teutonic and Romance meet here, and there is a memorial. However, languages and peoples cannot easily be fitted within lines on maps, and Italy has a German-speaking minority, and Austria a Slovene-speaking one (a plebiscite after the first world war confirmed Villach/Klagenfurt as part of Austria rather than the new Yugoslavia).

Kobarid, Slovenia Thursday 16 October
Although I didn’t plan the route through the stunning scenery and pretty villages that are the staple of European tourism, Kobarid is undoubtedly an attractive place. It was Hemingway’s Caporetto the Italian name in A Farewell to Arms, and the Soca river (Isonzo in Italian) indeed runs blue past the bleached white limestone as in the book. There is a good museum devoted to the town’s role in the first world war. Gastronomic tourism is the new way to prosperity, and I dine on the famous river trout, with a group of Italians at the next table.

Trieste, Italy Monday 20 October
The end of my route I return to the sea, the Adriatic, rather than the Baltic where I started my journey at the beginning of August. Jan Morris has written much of this city, how it seems a sad place cut off from its hinterland by the arbitrary drawing of borders where none existed 100 years ago. The city was once the major port of the Austro-Hungarian empire insurance is still important, and actuarial science is taught at the university. Will Slovenia’s joining the EU, and the greater opening of frontiers to trade, allow Trieste to resume its role?

The first part of Martin’s travels appeared in the August issue.

Martin Lunnon has now returned to work at the Government Actuary’s Department, and has regained almost all the weight he lost on the trip