The field of Euro dreams

In 1989 an event took place near the Hungarian city of Sopron that led directly to today's expansion of the European Union. Simon Calder wasn't part of the picnic then, but he was there last weekend

As far as I can tell, only one patch of land on the planet goes by the name of the Pan-European Picnic Park. Getting there is no picnic, and you could find many better places to unpack a hamper and uncork a bottle of Bull's Blood. But the location demands to be visited. This is the place where, 15 summers ago, eastern Europe ended - in every sense.

As far as I can tell, only one patch of land on the planet goes by the name of the Pan-European Picnic Park. Getting there is no picnic, and you could find many better places to unpack a hamper and uncork a bottle of Bull's Blood. But the location demands to be visited. This is the place where, 15 summers ago, eastern Europe ended - in every sense.

Back in the summer of 1989, I wrote an ill-timed book. Travellers' Survival Kit: Soviet Union & Eastern Europe might as well have had a "Best before 1990" stamp on it. The title was fine for as long as the USSR and its satellite states existed. The section on crossing the Berlin Wall (legally) was particularly comprehensive; a shame, because the fence that divided the world was destined to be torn down in a few months and I would feel a proper Charlie about the checkpoints.

The previous summer, I had spent some time in the lovely Hungarian town of Sopron. Its history is as intricate as anywhere in central Europe. As the Roman city of Scarbantia, it lay astride the Amber Road, an important trade route between the Baltic and the Adriatic. As either Ödenburg or Sopron, depending on whether the Austrians or Hungarians were in charge, the city prospered in the Middle Ages. Sopron had the good fortune to be just out of range of the Turks' 16th-century excursions into central Europe. Its Gothic and Baroque core survived the squabbles between the imperial powers.

In 1921, the citizens were allowed to vote on their future, and chose to be returned from Austrian control to Hungary. That is why the city occupies a bulge of Hungarian territory protruding into Austria. Sopron took some hits in the Second World War, but the damage has been tenderly restored. It is hard to imagine a more inspirational place to write in than the centre of Sopron.

Unfortunately, Hungary's communist government demanded exorbitant amounts of hard currency from foreigners in search of a decent room. So I had opted to stay outside the city, in an unspeakably awful "youth hotel" called the Lokomotiv (and, despite the name, it wasn't handy for the station, either). "The cell-like rooms lead off a central corridor," I wrote, "and the hotel is inhabited by all manner of strange characters." Good training for a job on The Independent, at least. I survived on Albanian brandy and hand-rolled cigarettes. Yet more bad timing: had I been in Sopron a year later, I could have gone to the picnic.

Nineteen eighty-nine began with a war-mongering president in the White House, obsessed about an "Evil Empire". The axis that Ronald Reagan had in mind was the Soviet bloc, comprising the USSR and its seven obedient Eastern European states, from Poland to Bulgaria. Mikhail Gorbachev was in charge at the Kremlin. In some ways he was tougher than his predecessors: the Soviet president's idea of cracking down on alcohol abuse was to rip up the venerable vineyards in the Caucasus. But he was a reformer, and was prepared to allow the states in the front line of the Cold War some political leeway.

Last Saturday, all was quiet on the western front of eastern Europe - until a man with a gun yelled at me. I had cycled out from Sopron along Pozsonyi utca, the Bratislava Road. This ancient highway leads directly to the Slovak capital, which was once the Austro-Hungarian coronation city. Yet apart from a red squirrel that scampered across the road in front of me, nothing stirred. When I reached the barrier, I understood why. This had not been an official crossing point for decades. The man with the gun was in Austrian uniform, and his job was to keep the frontier of the European Union secure. In his neck of these reasonably attractive woods, that meant stopping people like me from venturing over the line into Austria. He shouted another warning when I pointed a camera in his direction, though in the absence of any Hungarian soldiers protecting their frontier against eastbound escapees, it was not clear who was supposed to enforce this rule.

Fifteen summers ago, it was so different. The frontier was the Iron Curtain, and this side of the border was thick with Hungarian guards keeping it tightly shut. Rather than a feeble red barrier across the road, prospective westbound travellers had to negotiate a "death strip" comprising a series of barbed wire fences. The line was punctuated by watchtowers and patrolled by guards considerably better equipped than my Austrian chum. Even without these accoutrements, it is a puzzling place for a picnic. The countryside comprises modest hills and patches of forest. But landscapes closer to Sopron are more attractive, not least the wooded hills that lead down to Lake Ferto, Europe's largest saltwater lake. But in the summer of 1989, the field by the border suddenly became the destination of choice for East Germans.

The picnic in the country was organised by Otto van Habsburg, an Austrian Euro MP, and Imre Pozsgy, Hungary's most reform-minded communist. After the Soviet crackdown in Hungary in 1956, such an act would have been unthinkable before 1989, when political opposition began to be tolerated in Hungary. Starting in June, they planned a picnic for 19 August, 1989 - within yards of the Austrian frontier. They had even obtained permission from Budapest to make a symbolic hole in the fence. The picnic slogan became "Break it down and take it with you". Even in the pre-internet age, word spread so effectively that between 10,000 and 20,000 picnickers turned up. The event was intended to be purely a protest against the Iron Curtain, and the organisers assumed that after cutting the token hole in the fence, and allowing the picnickers temporarily to trespass in Austria, everyone would go home and the Iron Curtain would be patched up. They reckoned without the contingent who arrived from Germany, no doubt slightly embarrassed, in a wobbly fleet of Trabants.

Not all the good citizens of the German Democratic Republic agreed with the national motto, "Forty years of success". East Germany was isolated from the West by the Berlin Wall and the post-war division between Soviet and Allied zones. But in the summer of 1989, word got around that something was happening in Sopron. East Germans had long been allowed to travel within the Eastern bloc, because their masters believed the Iron Curtain hermetically sealed the communist states from the West. The families who set off from Berlin, Dresden and Karl-Marx-Stadt, ostensibly going on holiday, were actually seeking a new life. Convoys of Trabants began to rumble down the crumbling autobahnen leading south. By the afternoon of 19 August, 150 East Germans had joined the picnic.

In the startling political upheavals in Eastern Europe in 1989, Czechoslovakia had a more telegenic revolution, and Romania a more moving release from oppression. Yet Hungary started it all. The festivities were due to start at 3pm, but the organisers' press conference over-ran. At the frontier, the East German contingent made a break for the border. The Hungarian guards stood by as their ideological comrades poured across the line. They were taken to West Germany's embassy in Vienna, and then on to their new homes. As for the Trabants, they were abandoned, and soon the streets of Sopron carried noticeably more traffic. Even now, the city has far more of these eccentric vehicles than anywhere else in Hungary.

As news of the escape filtered back to East Germany, the trickle of Trabants became a flood, and the woods around Sopron filled with discarded vehicles. Under pressure from East Berlin's hard-line leadership, the frontier was sealed. Instead, migrating East Germans sought refuge at the West German embassies in Budapest and Prague. The Eastern European bubble had been punctured, and could not be repaired. Within 11 weeks, the Berlin Wall had fallen; two summers later, the Soviet Union collapsed, and Washington had to look for fresh enemies. At the celebration of the unification of Germany, Chancellor Helmut Kohl said, "The soil under the Brandenburg Gate is Hungarian soil."

Today, the Pan-European Picnic Park is maintained as a shrine to freedom. All manner of organisations have established memorials in the meadow, such as a pagoda presented by the Japanese-Hungarian Friendship Society. The Hungarian Academy of Sciences has planted a fan of trees in the adjoining field. But for the most dramatic mementoes, you need to find the quarry outside the village of Fertorakos. The stone used to build Vienna was dug from here, but enough remains for dramatic sculptures to be arrayed along the road on the theme of barbed wires transforming into wheat at the touch of a human hand.

Back in town, the church bells chimed while the digital timer on the Baroque town hall continued counting down the seconds to today, when Hungary and most of its former Warsaw Pact pals become part of the European Union. The people will earn the right to travel freely. As from today, we're all friends - apart from Arnold Schwarzenegger's compatriot with the semi-automatic, who will remain in place until Hungary's frontiers with Ukraine and the former Yugoslavia are deemed to be sealed. Perhaps the Ukranians and Serbs are already planning their picnics.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The nearest airport is Vienna, accessible from London and Manchester on Austrian Airlines (0845 601 0948, www.austrianairlines.co.uk) and British Airways (0870 850 9 850, www.ba.com). From the airport, you can travel by train in about two hours via central Vienna and Wiener Neustadt to Sopron. To approach the area from the north, you could travel by train to Eisenstadt and connect by bus to Mörbisch-am-See, but from here you will need to walk for two miles to the main road, from which buses run hourly into Sopron.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Tourinform, the local tourist office, is at Elokapu 11 in Sopron (00 36 99 338 892, tourinform.sopron.eu). It opens 9am-12.30pm and 1-5pm daily except Sunday (and until 3pm on Saturdays). The Pan-European Picnic Foundation is organising the next event on 19 August 2004. Details from the foundation at Ibolya utca 45, 9000 Sopron, Hungary (00 36 99 316 296, www.sopron.hu/paneu-piknik).

Additional research by Sarah Collings

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