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Sunday, May 3, 2009

Contracting Spaces

Autumn, Bashkirtseva

Last week I travelled by car to Zagreb, Croatia for a day. The trip took 3h 10 min from central Budapest to central Zagreb, really fast. This reminded me of 2001 when it took me, my brother and Eli (his girlfriend at the time) almost a day to travel from Budapest to Zagreb. It is true that we avoided the Hungarian part of the motorway to save money, then swam in the Balaton Lake and again – avoided the motorway in Croatia to save more money so both approaches are incomparable.

To Be With You, Robert Kocsis

However, during the past 7.5 years (the time I have been in Budapest) I have lived two examples of contracting spaces. One is indeed Budapest-Zagreb. The pure travel time decreased from more than 5 h. to 3 h. The reason for that is the completion of the Hungarian part of the motorway prior to the last parliamentary elections.  Prior to that, the road was winding along Balaton and crossed numerous villages.

The second example is Budapest-Belgrade (Serbia). In 2001, it took us around 6 h. to drive there avoiding the 100 km. of Hungarian motorway (20 EUR at that time). Now, my benchmark for this travel is 4 h door to door provided our trip does not coincide with the exodus of Serbian and Turkish guest workers from Western Europe. This space will contract even further when the motorway in Voivodina (Serbia) between the border and Novi Sad is completed. An additional ½ h from the trip will evaporate. The next contraction will happen when the border disappears once Serbia joins the Schengen agreement one day.

However, the real revolution in travel in the Balkans will happen when – one day, many years from now – high-speed trains similar to the French TGV and the German ICE – are introduced in the region. Then, with the current technologies, the travel time from Budapest to Belgrade will be 1.45 h. I actually think that this would be a great regional project: a high-speed train Budapest-Belgrade-Nis-Skopje-Thessaloniki with a possibility to go east from Nis to Sofia and then Istanbul. I wonder if someone ever thought of that.

If we go back to the times before the trains, i.e. before mid-19th century I can imagine that the same 375 km took around three days to cover with a horse-driven car. Maybe those who were really in a hurry could make it in 2 days with a stop-over somewhere next to Szeged.

It is clear that this same contraction of space happens everywhere in the world and is going to continue for some time until teleportation becomes a reality.

It seems to me that what happens along the way is a transformation of human perception of the process of travel and of the geographical space. I can imagine that a couple of centuries ago travelers were much more focused on the trip itself than on the goal, the goal being so far away. Probably, there was a totally different culture of travel when travel meant telling stories, singing songs, spending the night on the way which meant more stories, more interaction with other travelers and an occasional travel romance.

A Bend in the Road, Ben Kiger

I also imagine that in the past the traveler had a more intimate relation with the surrounding nature. While now one can still observe the landscape from a car moving with 130 km/h, the perception is rather superficial as many of the details remain unnoticed and therefore lost to the traveler. The biggest loss is the smell of the terrain: the earth in the field, the dust on the road, the grass, the sea breeze, the mountain air and of course the interaction of the rain and the sun with all these. What a wealth of smells and images is gone!

The other difference is the physical sensation of moving. Now, with the availability of excellent car suspension, it is almost absent. One glides smoothly on the road (at least in Europe) and bumps and holes are more of an exception. It was definitely not the case in the past with the gravel roads or the earth roads and it seems to me that one was constantly shaken during travel. I guess some liked it, some – didn’t but everybody definitely ended the trips with a burning ass sensation.

Gravel Road, Kevin Leveque


Alessandra said...

One thing still remained the same: traveling by ferry to my island! Same time (9 hours instead of 50 minutes by plane) and same "smell of the sea" which is something I miss the most.

Ruslan said...

That's great. I hope the normal ferry will not be replaced one day by some speed boat gaining Sardinia in an hour:-)

Polly said...

I wish I could talk about the case of contracting spaces in Poland. Sometimes I think that we are light years behind anywhere else in Europe. And it's not getting any better. Why is it that roads are the most difficult things to improve in a developing country.

Jelica said...

Polly, it could hardly be worse than Serbia. Last year I read that it takes longer to get from Belgrade to Nis (a town in southern Serbia) by train now than it did when the line was first opened. The same article said that the average train speed in Serbia is about 30 km/h so it's a far cry from Ruslan's TGV.

willow said...

Sounds very romantic, bumpy roads and all.

julochka said...

i actually think that slow travel is the way to go...we took the train from copenhagen to skopje the summer before last and i loved the mindset that seeing the landscape transition outside the window at a slow pace gave me. i was in a job where i might find myself in singapore on a monday and constanza on a wednesday (and let me tell you, there are no direct routes between singapore and constanza) and i needed the slow pace that the train journey (especially once we left ljubljana and headed for skopje) afforded. it was good for my soul.

but i do look forward to the star-trek-style transporter, tho' i have my doubts as to whether it will come in my lifetime. :-)

Ruslan said...


Yes, I guess it was romantic but maybe often - boring. I hope it was more often romantic than boring.

I wanted to point to the different mindset that goes with the slow travel such as the one mentioned by Julochka.

I_am_Tulsa said...

I love the traveling part of slow traveling...of course, it hurts the bum...BUT like you say about the old times, it is when you can really focus on where you are now and enjoy the sights and changes of scenery or weather.
Oh, and beautiful art!

julochka said...

jelica--please email me about blog camp if you're really thinking of coming! :-) jknachti at gmail