Our next planned stop was Bratislava, the capitol of the Slovak Republic, the
other half of the former Czechoslovakia before the VELVET DIVORCE (the splitup)
in 1992. Our guide books had almost no useful information about Bratislava at
all, so we were kind of going in cold. The hostel offered the 7th night free so
we felt a bit odd leaving after six nights -- but it was more than time to
The friendly people who worked at the hostel in Prague were really quite
helpful most of the time, and there was lots and lots of travel information
lying around -- especially flyers for various hostels. There were flyers for
hostels in Berlin, in Bucarest, Romania, in Dresden, and many for hostels in
Budapest. So one evening I went to the desk after looking through the travel
information and asked if they have a place that they recommend in Bratislava
and the woman looked up at me with contept in her eyes and said, "It's another
COUNTRY!" And went back to her paperwork. I was pretty taken aback. I went
upstairs to the kitchen and told Cheryln about it and then I said, "Well, I
guess it wasn't so velvet AFTER ALL!" There was a Canadian guy sitting at the
table who I thought was going to choke on his beer he was laughing so hard!!
The next time I asked at the counter about information on how to get to
Bratislava the clerk said, "WHY would you want to go THERE!?"
So I gave up on trying to get help from them. The information center at the
train station was very helpful in arranging our rather complicated ticket. We
were going to use the same Vienna - Dresden return ticket to get to close and
then just a quick jaunt over to Slovakia.
We walked across the center of Praha with our backpacks -- it was about 10
minutes to the train station (although everyone in our bunk room told us we
should take a taxi!!). On our way through the station to the train I decided
to use up the rest of my Czech money by buying an International Herald Tribune
-- an English Language paper published by the New York Times and Washington
Post. We see it around often, but it tends to cost about $3, which I cannot
afford. It was a bit cheaper in Praha. We were rather surprised to find
well written, fairly unbiased stories (including one about the upcoming WTO
convention and protests in Seattle)-- they must use different writers than for
the US versions!
Again we started the search for a compartment that would be comfortable. All
the compartments had people in them, but I found one with only one
person, a friendly looking older woman, in it and we sat down. We exchanged a
few Czech words and a few German words with her as we sat down and adjusted ourselves and her suitcase -- but a few minutes after the train started she spoke
to us in English and we started a conversation that lasted several hours, until
she got off at Brno. She is German, speaks French and English fluently.
She taught English to French speakers in Africa for years as well. She was
very interesting and pleasant and we exchanged travel tidbits about how to
utilize email, debit cards and train tickets to the maximum. In the end we
exchanged addresses and she invited us to come stay with her in Germany!!! It
was very enjoyable and we look forward to visiting her! The countryside on
this train ride was very pleasant, less industry, more nature. There had
been a heavy freeze and some rain and snow overnight in the moutains that we
crossed (out of the Bohemian basin) and the trees were all covered in ice -- it
was stunningly beautiful. Also there was a frozen fog for part of the way that
was really amazing.
When we got to Breclav, we had a very very tight connection and since our train
was late, it turned out we only had about 2 minutes. We found out from the
conductor that our train would be on platform 4, but when we got off the train,
we found that the platforms were not numbered!! We set out running, off down
platform two and down the stairs. Cheryln wanted to go right, but I tried to
go left. We went left and went up to two platforms, but neither had a train
on it. So we went back and to the right, but we still couldn't tell if that
was our train, so eventually (we are running at top speed with our full packs
on this whole time) we wound up back on the platform where our train had come
in -- my watch said the train should've left 2 minutes ago, but we had not
heard a train leave. I grabbed a guy in a train uniform, who turned out to
not be a conductor but rather a maintence worker, and asked him where the train
to Bratislava was. He pointed to the next platform, and then pointed us to the
train that next to us, suggesting that we just go through the train, out to the
platform on the other side and then hop on our train. We jumped on the
train, but there was another train employee blocking the doorway on the
otherside and she was NOT going to let us through. She pointed down to the
So we RAN back down the tunnel to the platform that Cheryln had originally
suggested and RAN to the first open door on the train where there was a police
officer blocking the door. Sweating, I asked the nearby conductor if it was the
train to Bratislava and he said yes, but the the Police officer asked for our
passports. (The border is very close.) Exasperated, we rushed to pull out our
passports, which were pretty well buried in our money belts where we keep them
safely. We were going as fast as we could to get them out, the train
should've left about 6 minutes ago, when the police officer, smiling waved us
to slow down and said, "Time! Time!" And we realized that they were not going
to leave us behind. Once we had done Czech passport control we got on the
train and plopped into seats! A few minutes after we were underway the Slovok
passport control came around, and once again it was this extremely sexy woman
-- this is a pattern I have noticed in Eastern Europe!!
When we arrived at Bratislava we got off the train, although it was not clear
if this was the central station or not. It turned out to be fine. We got
oriented pretty quickly... ATM, map and such. Then we asked at the tourist
info desk in the station about places to stay. We had been wanting to stay
in people's homes... and since we were not brave enough to try the random people
who stood outside of the train stations we had been talking about trying the
people who officially registered with the city info desk. We decided this was
a good time to try it -- although we really had nothing else to fall back on.
Actually I'm pretty sure there was at least one hostel in town, but we didn't
ask about it. They set us up with an apartment to ourselves near the center
of town. The owner of the apartment came to the station in his giant SUV and
picked us up and told us a bit about the city as he drove us the short distance
to 19 Moscva street and showed us the apartment. It was very nice, and we were
very happy to have a huge queen size bed and a kitchen -- although the price
was about double of what we had been paying in Prague!
After settling in we went out for a walk. It was cold. Actually it wasn't
much colder than it had been in Prague or Dresden (about 1 degree C) but it
felt MUCH colder, I'm not sure why. We were well dressed for it, so it wasn't
a problem. We were wearing our heavy winter coats that we had purchased in
Budapest. They protected us from much more than the cold. My coat is a lined
green German Army parka and Cheryln's is a big puffy black down coat. They
make us feel protected when we wear them. There is a great song by The Bobs
called Helmet -- it is about
a guy who feels completely protected and safe when he has any kind of helmet
on. We would often sing it when walking around with our coats on. They made
us feel strong and safe. Part of it was because of the the heavy, thick, warm
fabric. But a big part of it was something fimilar wrapped around us -- it was
like home. Like wrapping up in your own sleeping bag after a long day in
unfimilar places. They are our helmets! We like them a lot.
Bratislava is right on the intersection of the borders of Hungary (20 km),
Czech Republic (30 km), Austria (10 km) and Slovkia. Historically it was part
of Hungary (whereas Czech was historically part of Germany or Austria). In
fact we learned something interesting about Budapest when we were in
Bratislava!!! When we were in Budapest all the tours and histories spoke of
the period of Turkish occupation and the efforts of 'all of the Christian
world' which liberated it. They talk about how Budapest was occupied, 'for a
time' and it sounds like it was 6 to 18 months -- at least that is the
impression that we went away with as did other people we spoke to. Well, in
Slovkia we learned that Bratislava was the capitol of Hungary during the 350
year Turkish occupation of Budapest!!!
In the occasional snow flurries, we walked through the park a couple of blocks
from our apartment and the small street market next to it. We followed the
street on the other side which quickly took us to the center of town. We walked
through the center, which is wonderful -- kind of a miniature Vienna or
Budapest. The palaces and curches and old houses are tightly packed in the
city center with the winding streets and new shops. It was my favorite of the
big Central European cities! It was pretty and authentic with out being
oversold and fake feeling like Prague. It had a really good feel. And it was
packed with LOCALS, not foreign tourists!
We stumbled into the square, which was tight and cozy, unlike in Prague or
Vienna. There was a lovely little Christmas market in full swing... lots of
little holiday baubles for sale but mostly food -- all kinds of interesting
food. We got a wonderful potato pancake! (So good we got a second one!) and
I bought Cheryln a very cute little cat cookie. Then we wandered over to the
river. It had been a while since we had seen the Danube. I immediatly begain
humming the Blue Danube again, as I had the entire time we were in Vienna, and
driving Cheryln crazy.
So in our first few hours we had hit two of the four focal points of the city,
the square and the riverfront, that only left the presidential palace and our
next destination, the primary focus of the entire city, Tesco. When we first
looked at the maps of the city, we found it odd that Tesco, the British grocery
store, was marked on the map -- but it is in a central plaza which is a tram
nexus and it is HUGE. It seemed like the entire city was there. It was crazy.
We sat in the plaza outside Tesco for a few minutes contemplating buying some
zmrzlina (ice cream) but the shop as closed. Then we discovered a huge computer
operated sign which displayed the pollution levels at several major
intersections around town! It was really cool and we stood there in the dark
staring up at the sign, our faces lit with the red light it was emitting... we
must have looked really strange. It gave the precise levels of 6 different
pollutants and the percentage of the limit.
Then we went into Tesco. It was a madhouse -- everyone shopping after work.
You were not allowed into the store without a shopping cart, so there was a
crowd of people inside the horseshoe formed by the cashiers, waiting for carts
to come out. The store was enormous.
We got some snack foods and some dinner. Veggies, cous cous, bread, milk and
Then we went home and cooked dinner. On the way home we saw a huge green laser
pointing up into the sky from somewhere in the center of town.
Perhaps the most exciting thing to me about the apartment we were staying in
was that I got to use the European blinds that I had been seeing everywhere!
In almost every country in Europe there are these blinds on the outside of the
windows on almost every house in the city. Since they are on the outside, when
they roll down, they make the house look completely shut down. No light
escapes -- they look like the garage doors that stores in some US cities pull
down in front of their windows. I had wondered how they worked, and we had a
set on the apartment. There was a roller set in the wall above the window and
a strap, or band, that ran down beside it. I was excited.
We really liked the city, but we were not going to stay very long. We wanted
as much time in Poland as possible and we had to be in Italy by December 18th.
We were disappointed that we had not come earlier to Bratislava.
The following day we walked the other direction from our apartment through the
residential areas to the large outdoor marketplace. One of the things that was
a specialty at this market was roasted pumpkin seeds -- many many merchants had
HUGE bags of them for sale by the cup or sack. There were lots of clothes and
electronics and such in addition to a lot of food. It was cool. Then we
walked over to the old communist era market hall which was packed to
overflowing with stalls and kiosks. I bought high power AA batteries for my
palmtop for 25% of what the same batteries cost in Germany. Walking across
this big intersection with the snow flurries and the big grey buildings, it
reminded me of Moscow (even though it was August when I was in Moscow!).
From there we caught a tram (there was a really cool ticket machine at the
tram stop) towards the center of town. We didn't really know where to get
off, so we just got of when things looked interesting. We saw a newstand that
had a copy of the Herald Trib, but no news about Seattle.
We were on a large busy street with lots of shops, but we suspected that the
Presidential Palace was just a block or two a way, so we walked past it.
Slovakia is not an active democracy like most of the other Eastern European
countries... it is functionally autocratic -- so the presidential palace is the
center of the government of the country. This was the fourth of the four
centers of activity in the city. From there we went to the tourist information
center in the town center. They were friendly, but not at all helpful.
We had one particularly pressing question -- we didn't know if we needed to
register with the police in this country or not. In most Eastern European
countries (and some western) it is necessary for foreign travellers to register
with the police during their stay. Generally this is taken care of by the
hotel (consequently, giving the hotel your passport is a part of the drill when
checking in all the time) -- HOWEVER, we were not staying in a hotel, so that
duty fell to us. Maybe. We had gotten lots of conflicting information, some
said yes, some said no, some said only for more than 3 days and so for and so
on. She couldn't answer our question for us, unfortunately. But we did do a
bit of planning for where were going to go next and how we were going to get to
Poland. And oh yeah, we finally decided that, yes, we WERE going to Poland
So we went back to the Christmas market in the town square and were looking at
the food, with little idea of what most of it was, but pretty certain that most
of it had meat. I finally got brave enough to ask a merchant (once I found one
that was not completely crowded) what was on the cool looking rolled up
pancakes we were seeing. He told me it was just butter, so I bought two and
we ate them quickly. YUM.
We hurried off towards the river where there was a sort of highbrow shopping
district. We went there because we had decided to do something we had never
done before. We were going to the US embassy. We figured that THEY should
be able to answer our question about registering with the police. We went by,
but they were closed for a 2 hour lunch break -- so we walked up the hill to
the Castle. Yes, another city another castle. This one was on a very steep
hill and they had built a highway along the base of it, actually cutting off
the church from the castle!!! We read some things that said that the highway
was undermining much of the castle, old town and the old church, both from
construction and from ongoing vibrations. The castle was nice, but not
overwelming. The view from up there was pretty great though. Across the
river we could see one of those enormous communist housing developments that
the American Propaganda machine was so critical of. It was dozens, even
hundreds of high rise buildings arranged with walkways and green space between.
It was a stunning sight and it looked very frightening. We decided that we
needed to explore one of these sometime.
Eventually it was time to head back to the Embassy. After being searched and
questioned thoroughly we were lead into a room with five windows, only one open
and were told to go to that window. We waited 32 minutes while they ran
around working in the office ignoring us. When someone finally came to help us
she said that no, we did not need to register with the police, but they would
like us to register with them, "in case of civil unrest or if we lose our
passports." Of course the embassies ALWAYS want to know when you are in the
country, but it is not something that any travellers ever do. Also they
talked a lot about how many people lose their passports, but then were
surprised when we had ours in money belts under several layers of clothing. I
think that the only people they see are those who are not careful with their
passports. All in all it was a VERY strange experience. I am keeping track of
how much time we have spent in each country and we didn't really know if that
45 minutes counted as being in Slovakia or in the USA.
We went across the street to a bookstore we had seen the night before which had
two free 15 minute time limit internet terminals to check our email. While we
were waiting in line, a young woman with an Aussie accent said she recognized
us from the Prague hostel (we didn't remember her) and struck up a
conversation. Her name was Megan -- she was 18 and spending a year living in
Slovakia. We wound up wandering around the city with her and eventually going
to a cafe and having hot chocolate and talking for quite a while. It was very
interesting -- we learned a lot! She was going to a Hungarian school, and
since a large percentage of the population is Hungarian I guess that is not
uncommon. She told us about various places in Slovakia (including the home town
of Andy Worhol's parents) and she explained to us the laser we had seen.
As a piece of artwork in the centuries old downtown they have a big green laser
which runs down the middle of the street about 10 meteres high. There are
mirrors and prisms on buildings to bend it around corners and such. It is
EXTREMELY cool! They even designed the Christmas decorations that hung over
the streets with an open center so the laser could go through. We saw the
mirrors and so forth, but we never got to see the laser. I was very
dissappointed. The reason we never saw the laser was that, after we showed
Megan the cool Pollution monitor sign and went to Tesco, I was working on a
serious migraine, so instead of going back into the center we went home and
had dinner and went to bed. At Tesco however, we stocked up -- we got a new
can of Isostar (gatorade type drink) powder and a kilo of organic oatmeal --
both necessities that we had run out of!