The International Journal of Sport and Leisure
(Some sport. Some leisure. Also, schistosomiasis.)
Galapagos Islands (5)
About Me (1)
Czech Republic (2)
Ecuador: Quito (5)
Egypt (Again) (7)
Honduras: Utila (4)
New York (??) (1)
Rio de Janeiro (2)
South Africa (14)
Temporary Update (2)
* I Stepped in Bratislava (Part 2 of 2)
* I Stepped in Bratislava (Part 1 of 2)
* Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau
* Don't Go to Krakow
* Party Time?
* Prague is Dead; Long Live the New Prague
* The Ugly Flight
* Pre-Prague Blog
* Dire Straits of Tiran
* Tuna, Trucks and Toilets
* Out Again...
* Diving the Thistlegorm: A Fatal Accident on the Red Sea
* Diving Dahab
* To Dahab
* Return to Cairo
* Home Sweet... Laziness
* Birthday Bonanza
* Leaving Luxor
* McDetox Days
* Karnak the Magnificent
August 03, 2005
I Stepped in Bratislava (Part 1 of 2)
Wednesday, August 3, 2005
No wonder the Germans called it "Pressburg."
Bratislava: It's not a very appealing name, is it? It sounds like something you wouldn't want to accidentally order off the menu at a restaurant; like some sort of organ meat, blood sausage or pig intestine (e.g. "the waiter brought out a platter of stewed kidneys, liver and braised Bratislava"); In the alternative, the word could also pass for something fairly nasty you might find you've inadvertantly stepped in (e.g. "Ricardo stormed into the room, slamming the door behind him. He was covered from head to toe in Bratislava"). I once met a girl in New York who had travelled extensively through Asia and most of the European continent, including some far more off-the-beaten-path places, but wouldn't get off the train when it stopped in Slovakia's capital: "Why on earth would I?" she asked rhetorically. She's not alone among other travellers I've met, most of whom make the trip from Prague to Budapest with a stop-over in Vienna, eschewing equidistant Bratislava as unworthy of the effort and incomparable with the former seat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Popular media doesn't help the city's image any either (to the extent people even think of it in the first place): The best part of the movie Eurotrip (a comedy in the spirit of American Pie and some National Lampoon films) might be when the intrepid group of student-backpacker protagonists accidentally find themselves stranded in Bratislava after hitching a ride with a man who they thought would take them to Berlin. Having just discovered the mix-up, they glance about in horror at their newly-found environment. Bleak, gray buildings and lonely, threatening streets surround them. A small dog standing on the side of the road snarls at them menacingly. In its mouth is a severed human hand.
"Yeah, I should go there," I thought. (I'm not so smart sometimes.)
I got up at 5 AM on Wednesday morning to take a cab from my hostel to Krakow's main train terminal. Cosmopolitan, modern and hassle-free, Poland had impressed me a lot more than I originally thought it would and so I was sorry to be leaving so quickly. Now that I am on a set time schedule, however, I can't afford to spend too much time in one place (and this is probably not such a bad thing).
The trip to Bratislava, and much of my time in Bratislava itself, gave me the impression that I was at a crossroads of Central Europe. I met and saw a wide range of people and encountered a number of quirky cross-cultural mixes. Nothing earth-shattering, but the juxtaposition was fairly interesting, at least in the beginning. After a while, however, I began to notice a vaguely surreal "Twilight Zone" feeling creep in.
On my 6 o'clock train to the Polish city of Katowice, I talked with a girl from Sweden and another girl from Ankara, Turkey, both of whom were travelling separately around Europe to very different places (Sweden from Prague to Croatia, Turkey from the Balkans up through Germany and back). On the connecting train I caught at Katowice (just barely because all of the information at the station was in Polish and few people spoke English), I talked with a Polish couple that was heading to Romania to spend a week hiking through Transylvania and seeing old castles. There were a number of French, Spanish, Italian and Scandinavian travellers around as well. August isn't exactly the best time to backpack through Europe if you want peace and quiet, though you will meet quite an interesting assortment of people.
The train reached Bratislava shortly after 1 PM. As I walked out of the station and down the street, attempting to sort out the most direct route to the city center, the sky darkened and the wind picked up. It had already clouded over when the train crossed the border into Slovakia (almost as if on cue) but it was getting grimmer by the minute and soon a dismal cold drizzle was falling. The wind scattered small piles of dead leaves, which seemed entirely out place in the summer. It felt like October.
Fortunately, the streets were clearly marked; somebody with the city's tourism bureau had clearly had the good sense to put up numerous signs in English directing people toward the old town, the city's visitor's center and several other points of interest. As I followed my map in the direction of a hostel, a woman walked by me with a small dog in tow. It looked harmless enough but was wearing a muzzle twice the size of its head.
Heading down one of the main streets in the direction of the old town, I noticed a number of old Habsburg-era buildings in yellow and faded golds and greens. For all of my fascination with such old, historic buildings, I'm still a complete idiot when it comes to architecture. I could identify as gothic some skeletal old church spires rising from behind a block of squat office buildings in the distance, but for the most part I couldn't say if I was looking at Renaissance, Baroque, or Rococonut-style houses. Neverminding my own ignorance, I was impressed by a lot of what I passed; you don't see this stuff in the US, these remnants of old empires, built with aesthetic attention to proportion and balance, full of meticulous, ornate detail.
That said, a fairly significant portion of the city that lay before me was stony and dim and redolent of the chunky, soulless 1950s Soviet architectural style that once dominated Western media depictions of places like Moscow and East Berlin. Yes, I passed a large park filled with carefully-tended lawns and gardens of flowers; yes, I saw impressive examples of 16th, 17th and 18th-century state buildings and opulent mansions. Unfortunately, however, much of the rest of the place was stark and nearly devoid of people. It had the run-down, ramshackle feel of a sprawling, abandoned industrial plant. (I should know; I'm from upstate New York.)
I slogged into the "Downtown Backpacker's Hostel." Lonely Planet's Europe on a Shoestring guide covers every country in Europe and accordingly can't afford to devote much space to most places, so it came as no surprise that only a few accomodation listings for Bratislava were given. Fortunately, the hostel was very close to the city center and had one (and only one) bed left free for the night. Unfortunately, the rate for that bed, in a room with six other people, was nearly $20 per night. While Eurotrip mocked the ridiculous divide in spending power between east and west, showing the characters live for a night like rock stars on their last $1.83 of pocket change, Bratislava is not even close to being a rock-bottom budget destination these days. Its not "expensive" compared to West Europe (not many places are) but $1.83 won't get you too far. It probably won't even buy you a severed hand.
I checked into my room, which was large, spacious and surprisingly clean. I had a single bed (without bunk) by the window, which seemed perfect because it was nearly 100 degrees inside. Even though I had been told that mine was the last bed free, the dorm was empty and devoid of any personal belongings. I had anticipated the usual trashed scene: Sheets on the floor, underwear on the ceiling, tipped over bottles of three-dollar, ninety-proof economy liver-rot and moldy granola bars plastered to the walls. Some guy with dreads and a "Puff the Magic Dragon" shirt on would inevitably be stuffed in a locker or under a bed somewhere. "Dude," he would say to me. "Duuuude!" Then pass out again.
Perhaps these people were in Vienna. In any event, I took a shower, made myself pretty and headed outside to see if there was any of that fancy "New Prague" smell going on about town.
I walked a few hundred feet in the light rain toward the road that ringed the old city center. In the near distance, on a hill overlooking the medieval old town it once defended, stood Bratislava's castle, which was built and rebuilt again over a period of at least 700 years. Whereas Prague's old castle features slender spires, gleaming towers and an over-all Disney-story fantasy feel, Bratislava's is a squat, brutish monolith. It looks like it was built with immense "Legos" and spray-painted gray. But it is big and it is old and they don't have any in New Jersey.
I descended some cobblestone stairs and walked down a narrow pedestrian street flanked with Rena-Bara-Roco-Whatever-style two and three-story houses. Old iron street lamps stood evenly on each side. Passing through arches decorated with swans and old codes of arms, I quickly reached a wider road crowded with cafes and boutiques (crystal, designer-wear, wine) and leading up to an old yellow clocktower. I kept walking.
Now I was impressed: The old town was beautiful and clean and almost entirely devoid of large crowds. Sure enough, it did resemble parts of Prague and Krakow (and Vienna and certainly Budapest), though it wasn't nearly so large and there weren't very many buildings constructed on such grand scales as those that can be found in the aforementioned royal capitals. The Primate's Palace, built in 1781, was one of the few such imperial structures of this nature (Napolean signed a peace treaty with Austrian emperor Franz I here in 1805). I walked randomly for a while, occasionally passing a group of tourists speaking German or Hungarian, but in some places winding up as the only person on the street. I don't think the rain had all too much to do with it; the city has enough tourism to do well, but not nearly so much as to transform it into a characterless trophy show-piece (I would later find that many of the cafes and restaurants on and near the main square did not feature menus in English, though I was at time offered a menu in German or French instead). The relatively high prices and extensive selection of high end goods offered in the specialty shops suggested a lot of German/Austrian patronage but the fact of the matter is also that the Czech and Slovakian republics have been doing quite well for themselves in recent years. I have read that the GDP per capita is now above 10,000 Euros per person in both countries. I believe that when I was in Prague in 2002, the same figure for Czechs was about 6,000 dollars.
After seeing the Franciscan Church (dating to 1297) I went back toward the clocktower to find a place to eat lunch. I sat down outdoors on a narrow street, at a table covered by a large umbrella. My waiter, a dour, solid, white-haired man of about 50, did not speak much English. The menu and a few basic words were enough to place my order. My options were classic Czech/Slovak. Avoiding the plentiful offerings of pig's-knucle specialities, I ordered garlic soup and a small steak topped with ham and cheese (their equivalent of the diet meal). The steak was entirely devoid of flavor, but it could have been that the garlic soup had shocked and awed my taste-buds into overwhelmed submission.
The bill came. It was about 80 Slovak Koruna (at 30 to the dollar) too high. I pointed this out to the waiter, who scratched his head and went back into the restaurant. He bolted back out a moment later, not with a tire iron (as I'd feared), but with the menu and a pen. He quickly jotted down a bunch of numbers and added them up, without showing me the menu. Then he frowned, crossed out the numbers and added them back up again. It was the same figure he'd shown me before. I shook my head and he began to tut-tut and jab his index-finger accusingly at the menu price list. Apparently, the side order of fresh mixed vegetables I had ordered (Campbell's diced carrots with part of an onion tossed in) was being billed as the full "mixed vegetarian entree."
"Ne," I said, and pointed to the far cheaper side order. My waiter looked furiously toward the restaurant door and stormed back inside again. I was waiting for the tire iron, but I think that if he pulled it out he must have used it on somebody inside instead. When he came back again, my bill was correct. "D'akuyam," I said, rising frommy table with a garlicky hiccup.
I headed off for another long walk. There was a public art display in progress throughout the city, a "Cow Parade," featuring life-size plaster or plastic or porcelain (damned if I can tell) statues of cows that have been painted and modified in a number of curious ways. One is covered with multi-colored paintings of hands and features a Michaelangeloesque, God-touching-Adam depiction on the center of its flank; another cow is rind-green with a watermelon back and middle, a bite missing from out of the top. And so on, but mostly well done and strategically interspersed throughout the city center. I wondered how the tour guides might put it: "And here we have the Primate's Palace, where a historic treaty was signed between two mighty emperors. And over here, a big plaster cow."
After a few hours in the gray, bleak weather, I'd explored 90% of the heart of the old town, doubling back on a number of streets a few times. I was tired and decided to stop at a coffeehouse to have some espresso. One of the classic, old world cafes on the main square fit the bill. It looked like it hadn't changed any in at least a hundred years, if not longer. I sat down and stared out at the rain and the fading light. "Interesting," I thought, "but what is there to do here?" I thought a bit, thumbing through my Lonely Planet. I could see the castle, visit the Primate's Palace or see the Municipal Museum. Yawn. I just didn't feel like it. "So what's the point in staying?" I asked myself. I couldn't think of anything. Bratislava was interesting and I was glad I'd come and seen the gem of the old town it had to offer --- and without having my hand viciously mauled off in the process. But could I move on the next morning in good conscience? Sure I could. Besides, it was cold and rainy and dreary and bleak out. And dreary. And bleak.
I found an internet cafe, that ultimate killer of time and money (but then again, I have a blog to try to keep up). After some time, I headed off for dinner. I didn't want anything Slovak again, so I was fairly excited when I saw a place called "The Dubliner," with signs advertising classic Irish fare. A beer and something solid didn't sound bad in the miserable weather. The pub had the comfortable low lighting and dark wood paneling typical of its kind. I went in.
Finding a table, I picked up the menu, then nearly dropped it in shock. I shouldn't have been shocked; I was in Slovakia, so it made sense that the menu would be in Slovakian. They don't give you Japanese menus at New York sushi restaurants, now do they? As I looked around at the men in rugby shirts and football jerseys, I realized that most were Slovakians. No kidding. The fact of the matter is that in most any other place I have visited, the Irish pubs have been expat bastions nearly devoid of the locals and filled with rowdy commonwealth sorts. Not so here, though I suspect there were a few Celts and Brits scattered here and there.
The waitress brought me an English menu. "What would you like to drink?" she asked. I asked what kind of beers were on tap and she ripped through a list of different brews. I was shocked again: I couldn't pick out a beer she named that wasn't Czech or Slovakian. Surely that was just criminal; this was damned Irish pub! My outrage lasted all of two seconds, however. I didn't want a Guinness anyway and the Czechs and Slovaks make some of the best beers in the world. Its like getting angry because you found out that the burger joint you just wandered into serves only prime-cut aged angus (for the same price as a Big-Mac).
Twenty minutes later I sat drinking a Staropramen and eating a salmon steak in chili sauce. It was good, though not so very typically Irish. I spent most of my meal reflecting on the oddity in front of me. On the immense flat-screen TV in the center of the room was a "sporting event." Men occasionally paused from their meals and conversations to watch this sporting event. The sporting event was not football, rugby, or even cricket. It was a women's equestrian event. "Just what the hell is this place?!" I thought. "What planet am I on?" Everything was a little too incongruously tossed together and it got me thinking: There is an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem called Mea Sharim. When I was in Jerusalem, I had a chance to walk around and get lost in its streets, which in places resemble the same 18th-century Lithuanian shtetl/ghettos that the residents' ancestors once lived in. As I sat there watching horses jump hurtles on the big screen, it occured to me that the Hassids living in Mea Sharim are just about as authentically Irish as "The Dubliner" is. (Good Staropramen is a strong redeeming factor, however.)
I got back to my hostel at about 10 PM, cold and worn out. After picking up some laundry I'd dropped off earlier, I headed up the stairs to the dorm. I was wondering what rancid slob-a-thon would be in progress when I got there. What sweaty, crunchy, hippie-backpacker, flea-hive, tree-scum freakball would be munching soya beans in my bed with his socks off?
It turned out that I was sharing a room with five very attractive Spanish girls (plus one boyfriend), most of them medical students. (It was enough to make me sick.) When I entered the dorm one of the girls was talking to her father; when she hung up I managed to recall enough Espanol to ask what part of Spain they were all from, where they were travelling to, and so on. Although we wound up switching over to English after a while, before my head exploded in mid-preterite-imperfect-tense-with-gerundio-conjugation, I now have the e-mail addresses for some local guides (and medical coverage) when I finally manage to get myself over to Spain.
The Spanish were heading for Vienna in the morning, then to Prague. "I'm heading for Budapest," I told them. That was my plan. Bratislava, I decided, had been a pleasant excursion, but not one to last for more than 24 hours.
Right. I was stepping out of Bratislava first thing upon waking up.
Posted by Joshua on August 3, 2005 02:41 PM
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