Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Bratislava, Slovakia

I can distinctly remember sitting in our family room on Deering Island last December looking at a map of Europe and deciding we should visit Slovakia, if only to discover how different it is from Slovenia. Well now we know.

We have just spent two days in Bratislava, and once again, we were very pleasantly surprised. This is a city where I thought I might have to carry a fake wallet in the event I was held up at night. But it wasn’t necessary. Bratislava turned out to be a very cultured, lively, and safe city.

From the train station we took a tram to the downtown Tourist Centre. It was very well organized with extensive brochures in almost a dozen languages. We arrived without a hotel reservation assuming we would have no trouble finding a place to stay. We were right. We were presented with an extensive choice of accommodation, ranging from very luxurious hotels to pensions and hostels and private accommodation.

Our preference was a hotel, but we were encouraged by the lady behind the counter to consider a private apartment. It seems many of the local residents leave town in July and August and rent out their places for some extra income. Since we had had such good luck in Ljubljana, we agreed and were soon whisked away in a taxi to an apartment in what seemed to be a very nice part of the old town. Ten minutes later, we were sitting alone, holding the keys to a very large apartment with far more space than we needed. We carefully wrote down the address and marked our location on a map to ensure we didn’t get lost after a night on the town. We then set off to explore. It was Friday night.

Like Slovenia, Slovakia does not consider itself part of Eastern Europe. It thinks of itself as being in Central Europe, at the heart of everything. For those of you who like me can’t figure out which country was once part of which, Slovakia used to be Czechoslovakia until the country split in 1993 (without a referendum, I might add) .Today, compared to Slovenia, Slovakia seems to be struggling economically, but there are signs that things are improving. There is an impressive number of construction cranes in the downtown; the bars and restaurants seemed very busy, albeit on Friday night; and the cost of many things is approaching a par with Hungary and Slovenia.

The old town is full of very grand and impressive buildings and public spaces. While many buildings need exterior repair and renovation, I was particularly taken by the amount of public art, the number of cultural institutions, and what felt like an overall creative ambience.

I was surprised to find a Jewish Museum that celebrates the contribution of the Jews to the life of the city before the Second World War. There were numerous palaces, churches, and a castle overlooking the city. At the National Museum, which forms part of the castle complex, we saw three excellent traveling exhibitions on French tapestries, Giotto frescoes, and the engravings of Albrecht Durer.

Like Budapest, the city is bisected by the Danube. It is not the Blue Danube. It’s almost the same colour as the Fraser River outside our house. We took a short cruise traveling under some very impressive new bridges. We were told that one was constructed in two halves that were swung into place, connecting in the middle. (Of course they met perfectly; the engineers from this part of the world are very capable!) At the top of one new bridge sits a revolving restaurant that no doubt helped fund its construction.

This was just one example that capitalism is alive and well in Bratislava. There are many other examples, such as the number of large billboards around town on the sides of multi story apartment buildings. Can you imagine that being permitted in capitalist Vancouver? I also saw some interesting new apartments, including this multi-coloured block that reminded me a bit of Albania.

While we enjoyed wandering around the city and meeting some charming local people, we do have one complaint. The food. Traditional Slovakian food is not something we will yearn for. I will not be recommending this city to David and Barbara Gillanders who select their travel destinations, in large part, based on the quality of the local restaurants. Most Bratislava restaurants seem to cater to those who like stewed beef combined with chicken livers, onions, garlic and peppers, on a bed of sour cream. (Ok, to be fair, there are other choices, but there sure are a lot of goulashes made from different animals in very heavy sauces.)

After two days it was again time to move on. We spent Sunday morning sitting in our large apartment, backing up photos on DVD’s while watching BBC World. Suddenly, the announcer said Vancouver has just been voted the most livable city in the world, beating out Melbourne, GenevaZurich. “We can’t let them get away with this” he said. “Let’s take a look.” What followed was a 10 minute trip around town with CBC’s Margaret Gallagher and Jamie Mah. Then they went off on the train to Whistler and whale watching on Vancouver Island. and Our city and province looked pretty good, and got the thumbs up from the BBC!

At the train station, before setting off for Prague, we had two remaining tasks. When we purchased our train tickets from Budapest to Bratislava, we were told it was cheaper to buy return tickets than one way tickets! So we wanted to give away the return portions to someone who might use them. I also had some unused Bratislava transit tickets. I mention this since they were unusual in that Bratislava tickets are priced on the time traveled, not the distance. I had never encountered this before, and didn’t want to see the time go to waste.

At 12:25 a train destined for Berlin arrived at Platform 1. Learning from our past mistakes, we used up our remaining korunas to stock up on hearty sandwiches in case we got hungry before Prague. Of course, this time there was an elegant dining car on the train. The trip was pleasant, although unbelievably hot, since this part of Europe is going through an unprecedented heat wave. Hopefully it will over before our next trip from Prague to Krakow. In the meanwhile, we are looking forward to at least days in Prague, and maybe longer if there are complications with the Russian Visas.

As for Bratislava, we will be back. Despite the food, this city is definitely worth a return visit. We also think Slovakia would be an easy country in which to rent a car and explore the surrounding countryside with its numerous UNESCO sites, spas, castles, palaces and even a model town. Check it out, before it becomes as expensive as Slovenia.


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