Balkan tour in 1939

My father Augustin Heussen was born on the 20th of February 1921 in Krefeld, Germany. The following lines are summarizing impressions and experiences from his diary written during his 1939 Balkan tour.

After school on the 17th of July 1939 he was ordered to do his crop service in Königsberg, now Kalinengrad, in East Prussia which was compulsory during those times in Germany. Before leaving for his duties, he and his friend Werner Kessler agreed to meet in Vienna on the 16th of August to start a long planned Balkan tour by bicycle and other means of coincidental transport. Here follows a shortened version of his diary.

First leg of the Balkan tour from Vienna to Szeged

17.8 – 19.8 from Vienna via Pressburg, now Bratislava to Engerau then boundary Austria-Hungary, 20 km before Raab (Györ) to Budapest. Shelters for the nights were found in unfinished buildings or with friendly people from the countryside. They also had a little two man tent. After visiting places of interest of which Budapest has a lot to offer and having a good time with the local youth they left on the 22nd for Kiscumfelegyhaza via Kecskemet, where they put up the tent next to a small lake. The next day they traveled through the Hungarian Puszta to Szeged and further to the Yugoslavian border.

Removing Swastika flags from bicycles at Yugoslavian border

Border crossing went without problems only at the Yugoslavian customs control the two adventurers had to remove the Swastika flags from their bicycles. This day they drove to the edge of Subotica where they visited the lake and pitched up their tent next to the road.

They were invited by a lawyer for breakfast and had to drink a sixteen year old plum brandy and a little bit further on the way they were again invited for breakfast by a woman, who supplied them with 30 pounds of fruits, after they friendly denied a second cup of coffee. In Subotica they got 1000 Dinar at the bank which they obtained via the Clearing way, quite impressive for those times.

Over Bačka Topola, Mali Iđos the road took them to Novi Vrbas where the good road came to an end and they decided to camp next to the road, with self-made dinner in the dark. The next day took them via a proper Balkan road to Novi Sad. There they acquired newspapers written in German and the actual political situation was not rosy, but being young and optimistic the journey went on.

From Novi Sad through fruitful countryside they reached the small town of Nova Pazova which in those days was very much German orientated. They slept at the home of a brickyard manager in proper beds for quite some time ago. The traditional Slibowitzsch bottle made the round, with a resulting headache in the morning.

After a hearty goodbye the road took them via Batajnica and Zemun to Belgrade.


Over the Save bridge (old version) they reached the city. Accommodation they found in a student’s residence called Suevia where they met a German medicine student by the name of Richard Kehrer who was an excellent city guide for the two adventurers. In those days Belgrade had about 240,000 inhabitants, and centers around the fortress Kalemegdan which was surrounded by a beautiful park, from where they had a magnificent view over river and plain landscapes. They visited the parliament, main post office, ministries and the royal palace. What amazed them most was the multi-cultural population in the lively streets.

The evening brought them an unforgettable time with first traditional food prepared with mincemeat grilled on a grid. Afterwards they visited a harbor bar were Turkish belly dancers entertained and from there to the Ballaleika Cellar where 60% Russian Vodka was offered which surely resulted in a headache the next morning.

Šumadija, Ibar river valles and Kosovo

The 27th of August was a rainy day and they left Belgrade to the south. Soon they got a lift from a truck driver and drove for 125 Kilometers over Avala, Ralja, Topola and Božurnja to Kragujevac. They tented in the rain and on the 28th of August, my father’s name day they travelled via Slepak to Kraljevo.

The roads got worse but the landscape more beautiful. Kraljevo they thought would be an important town in middle Serbia, but turned out to be a place where pigs roamed the streets and disfigured the war memorial. Along the river Ibar the road took them past stately castle ruins and many springs o Ušće.

Further along the Ibar the mountains got less vegetated and higher. This led to occasional road damages during the rainy season. Through Raška, Kadavac, Dren and Slatina they reached the little town of Zvečan. In Zvečan they were entertained by a German engineer by name of Schmikalzy and heard the latest news from Germany. Nothing new this evening, everybody was hoping for peace, but war was eminent and even noticeable amongst the Balkan population.

They left Zvečan on the 30th of August and travelled up to Mitrovica. This was the first town on their journey with mainly oriental character, mosques with slim minarets and veiled women. Muslims did not want to be photographed, so the two had to be very careful when using their cameras.

From here the road got worse and worse, but the impressive Karst landscape made up for the lot of punctures they had to overcome and eventually they reached Peć (Peja) situated in a valley of Montenegro but habituated by a lot of Albanians. The bazaar was very impressive with lots of handicrafts presented in the alleys. They camped in a meadow outside town with a strong wind blowing down the mountains.


On the 31st of August the journey took them over the Čakor Pass near the Rugova Gorge (spelled in the diary Ragovaka-Klisura which I could not find in the web). They had to do a lot of pushing uphill, but downwards they could make up time and had a magnificent view of the landscape. They travelled up to Andrijevica where they had dinner with a Croatian family, but went further until midnight to reach the summit of a 1598 meter mountain pass. The next day it was up and down mountain roads over Mateševo, Kamen and Bioče to Podgorica.

Here they heard about the invasion of Poland by the German Wehrmacht, subsequently they were not welcomed very friendly. Never the less they had to finish their journey and after having a good meal in Podgorcia, they camped about 20 kilometers beyond town.

On the 2nd of September during a very hot day they traveled another pass on a dusty and bad road to Cetinje. Before reaching Cetinje they had a beautiful view over Lake Skadar, which northern shores formed the border between Yugoslavia and Albania. In Cetinje the capital of the former Kingdom of Montenegro they took a longer break before pushing the bicycles over three saddles to the 1133 Meter high Lovćen Pass. The view from the top let them forget all the previous strain, with a view that is one of the most majestic in the whole of Europe.

Over the Lovćen road which winds by itself down through 37 serpentines, they sped down towards the coast and reached the picturesque town of Kotor. Kotor had 2500 inhabitants and many old buildings and the Fort originate from the Venetian past. Remarkable is the small Cathedral dating back to the 10th century. After having a decanter of vine and reading German newspapers they put up camp on a meadow on the towns borders.

Adriatic coast: Kotor, Herceg Novi, Dubrovnik

After photographing more of Kotor, they left on the 3rd of September for Dubrovnik. At the start the road took them all along the magic coastline of the Boka Kotorska with its extraordinary flora and beautiful little Renaissance villages. Over Risan, they reached Herzeg-Novi. Unfortunately the road beyond Herzeg-Novi deteriorated to such an extent, that they had to push the bicycles for many kilometers. 20 Km before Dubrovnik the road was tarred again, and the twosome could make up some time.

Driving along the Adriatic coast with palm and cypress trees, they kept wondering, whether  they are in Europe or in the tropics. They reached Dubrovnik in the afternoon and were overwhelmed by the location of the city, in those days counting 15,000 inhabitants and sheltered from North and east winds by the Srđ hill.

Founded in the 7th century the town was ruled as a sovereign city, even defended itself against the might of the former trade republic Venice. From 1814 it belonged to the kingdom of Austria and after World War I became part of the Yugoslavian kingdom. The old town and the city harbor were guarded all round by mighty bastions and ring walls and many old buildings like the Rectors palace, the Dogana now Sponza palace, the Dom as well as Franciscan an Dominican Monasteries dominate the cityscape.

After consulting the German embassy in Dubrovnik, they were advised to finish their planned Balkan tour at a quicker pace, since the local population was more sympathetic with the Polish people than towards the German invaders.

The night they spent, after a good meal and a couple of drinks in a park at the harbor, which was also the overnight rest place for local hobos.

Dalmatian riviera

They nearly missed the departure of the ship which would take them to Split, but although the loading bridge was on board already, helpful seamen assisted them to heave their belongings on deck. Many more Germans who had to go back to Germany were on board, but sailing along the Krast shore was spectacular, they even had a school of dolphins as travelling companions for three hours.

The first stop was the island of Korčula, but because time was running out, the passengers were not allowed to leave the ship. Past the island of Hvar the ship docked in Makarska. Again they could not leave the ship and further the journey went along the Dalmatian Riviera, which they reckoned was even more beautiful than the Italian counterpart, to Split, which they reached 17.30.

This was the end of their first ship voyage through the Adriatic Sea and the first step took them to the consulate, where they were assured that everything was in order.

They bought food at the local market and pitched up their tent in the vicinity of the town. Split counted 45,000 inhabitants and was one of the biggest and future orientated cities on the Adria in those days. The foundation of the town in 307 AD goes back to the erecting of a palace by the roman emperor Diokletian who hailed from Dalmatia. Hungry and tired from all the sightseeing they went at lunch time to the harbor to find a ship which could take them along further north. They found an Italian coal freighter and since the captain was not on board yet, they started a conversation with the cook, who invited them to a hearty meal which they could not resist and knowing that a long and hungry way lay ahead, they took full advantage of the offer. Unfortunately the captain was not permitted to take them along, so they had to leave the ship to find the next opportunity.

The next ship to leave was only destined for Friday the 8th September, and running out of funds was another problem. The night they camped on the seashore and whilst sleeping, Werner was robbed of his watch, bathing trunks and a pocket knife. To overcome the time they explored the surrounding areas of Split which had many historical sites as well as curious children who wanted to know more about the foreigners. On the 7th of September they went back to Split to change their last 20 Pengö into Dinars to buy two tickets for the ship to Lusak.

On the 8th they met another German couple who invited them to coffee and lovingly supplied them with ample supplies for the further journey. On board they met the family Klepzig from Hamburg and after telling them their distress of being completely broke Mrs. Klepzig took out her purse and gave them 100 Dinar which allowed them to buy tickets for their bicycles which otherwise they had to smuggle some way or other.

Through many islands and fine weather they reached Šibenik to load supplies and more passengers. They had time to visit the medieval town with the dome which belongs to the most interesting sacred buildings in Europe. After filling their canteens with sweet vine they boarded ship again.

A nightly journey past the Italian base Zara on deck of their ship, they reached Susak where after breakfast they crossed the bridge into Italy.

Now it was goodbye to Yugoslavia and both agreed to come back if possible.

Unfortunately that never materialized fort them. Now exactly 80 years later, and being a long time dream, my wife and myself are fortunate to visit some of the regions, but in a much more comfortable way.

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