29 November 1999
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. Typically, the shitty guide books had almost no useful information about Bratislava at all, so we were kind of going in cold. The hostel we were in offered the 7th night free so we felt a bit odd leaving after six nights -- but it was more than time to leave Praha!
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 to the station we stopped and mailed a few things -- Czeska has AMAZINGLY cheap postage! As we walked 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 was 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 tunnel.
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 then 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 -- and part of it was that this big coat made us look like everyone else, not like an alien. 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!!! (Of course the Hungarians have told us that we got 'sucked in by Slovkian propaganda' and that it was much less time. It was probably somewhere in between, but it was a good demonstration of how these countries all distrust each other!
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 water. 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 now.
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!
© Copyright Mark Canizaro 2000
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