Through War Torn Europe: An official trip after WWI told in the words of James Gordon Steese
Number Eighteen
Savoia Hotel, Trieste,
Wednesday, August 27th, 1919.
In Rome I received orders to the Balkans, with the official status of a diplomatic courier. I went immediately to Thos. Cook & Sons and got a berth on the evening train for Trieste. They told me that the Simplon-Orient Express, on which I had traveled from Paris to Milan, makes connections at Trieste shortly after midnight for Belgrade and Bucarest. Beyond that they could tell me nothing, not even whether I can go from Belgrade to Bucarest or must come back and start all over again. As for reserving a berth, it would take at least a week. They had neither a map nor a time table.

As that information was defined, though hardly satisfactory, I hired a courier and proceeded to see as much more of Rome as practicable. I was very lucky in securing the Vice-President of the Rome Archeological Society, a very cultured and extremely resourceful gentleman. Instead of telling me I was a fool even to think of doing Rome in a day, he appreciated fully the situation; that that was all the time I had, that we would eliminate all detail, but that I wanted him to show me several of the more important things, so I could carry away a few definite impressions of Rome and a very real desire to come back to see, at greater leisure, some of the things at which we would have time merely for a glance. As I had seen St. Peters, had also been in the Pantheon, and had been repeatedly all over town, I already had a little background upon which to build.

Taking an automobile for the morning, we visited the Baths of Caracalla, the Catacombs of San Sebastiano, the Cathedral of San Giovanni in Latevano, the other three main cathedrals, and the Vatican. We thus covered the more distant points by auto first. My guide was a mine of interesting information. By distributing an extra lire here and there, or by a word to some one he knew, we got into everything, even the private apartment of the Pope. In two of the cathedrals, he himself hunted around for concealed keys and took me behind the scenes. Excavations were still in progress at the Catacombs. The work was done by Austrian prisoners under the command of a priest. The priest understood English and French but spoke both as though he were chanting a Latin service. The effect was unusual and very difficult to understand.

In additions to the undisturbed tombs of many Christians of the first centuries of out era, I was shown a fragment of a flagstone bearing deep impressions of the feet of Jesus Christ, ocular proof of the “Quo Vadis” traditions.

The Vatican was the most interesting spot in Rome, of course. I was very sorry we had to hurry through. The priceless St. Gobelin tapestries are most impressive. In the workshop we saw the mosaic for President Wilson being finished, a mere $16,000 gift from the Pope. As a soldier, I noted particularly the Vatican Guards, in their Michael Angelo costumes. As uniforms they are ridiculous in the extreme, yet quite in keeping with their surroundings.

After lunch at the Ristorante Castello dei Cesari on the Aventine, we visited the Forum, Coliseum, many fountains, shops, etc. As my guide had himself superintended most of the recent extended excavations of the Forum, his explanations were unusually interesting. We had dismissed our auto before lunch and now picked up a carriage from time to time as needed, as the distances were all short. We did most of the usual things, including the pitching of a coin into the Fountain del Tritoni with a wish. After that one is sure to be happy and to return to Rome.

I had dinner at the Railway station and nearly mussed my train waiting for a bill. I finally got up and started out, whereupon I got prompt service and nearly got arrested. We reached Venice soon after breakfast. From then on the trip around the head of the Adriatic was very beautiful; the sea was blue and skirted by hills and palaces, very much like Switzerland, but the country was wilder and less well kept. Upon passing into Italia Irredenta, we crossed no man’s land again, with its two trench systems, wire, dugouts, etc.

From then on, almost into Trieste, the country showed signs of heavy fighting. All along the railway track, especially in the cuts, were numerous cave shelters cut into the soldi rock. The whole mountainside is very rocky and disagreeable looking ground to have to fight over.

Trieste is scattered along the narrow beach between the sea and the mountains. I got a carriage and drove around the town and up to the tower in the fort on top of the hill. From there a really magnificent view is obtained. The inhabitants all seem to speak German and are not particularly enthusiastic about Italy, or about being Italians again. The Fiume question is red-hot. There are lots of Jugo-Slavs about, who are particularly bitter against Italy.

This hotel is the headquarters for the military and diplomatic courier service to the Near East. The cafe is full of American officers and eight of us had dinner together. One of them, I find, is taking my train as far as Belgrade and has a first class compartment already reserved for us. My train leaves at 00:15 and is due at Belgrade tomorrow evening. It is then necessary to come back some three or four hours to a junction point and start again for Bucarest. No one known how long it takes to Bucarest. There is not even a map in the Railway Station. Every one is giving me lots of information about conditions as far as Constantinople, but It is all second-hand. I have failed to locate anyone who has actually been beyond Belgrade. No two give the same information and I can not pin anyone down to definite facts about several important items.

I succeeded in buying an indifferent map of the Balkans, but I have been assured positively that the railroads on the map are wrong, Anyway the service is greatly disorganized due to the coal shortage, scarcity of rolling stock, and the Bolscheviki in Hungary.

As I left Paris with one bag for a ton days’ trip, I have had to get some fresh clothing here and have left everything else with the hotel to be laundered by the time I return. Everyone tells me I an very optimistic, I have been unable to get a berth in a sleeping car. There are two on the train; one for Belgrade, the other for Bucarest, splitting at Vincovtsi, or so I am told. There is also a dining car which goes through to Bucarest.

End Notes and Bibliography