25 August, 2010

Vacation Week 4b: Slovakia

Today I finally made good on my vow to return to Bratislava. I use the word "return" only in the very loosest sense, because my first trip lasted only about an hour and a half.

Back in 1991 I flew Czech Air to the then USSR for a summer study program at Moscow State University. Czechoslovakia was still a single entity but it had two capitals and some bored bureaucrat had decreed that every plane making a stopover in Prague also had to spend time in Bratislava.

(This was just the first bit of absurdity I'd experience that summer and it perfectly set the tone for my trip into the twilight zone of decaying soviet bureaucracy.)

So there we were, stuck at the airport. We weren't allowed out. There was nothing else to do but drink Czech beer, play cards and speculate about what might lay outside the walls of this heavily guarded compound.

Fast forward 19 years. I'm a lot grayer, have a family and a dog in tow, but I'm finally getting to see Bratislava!

Our arrival was perfect, one of my favorite moments of the day. We parked out on a public street and needed to pay for parking. I hopped out of the car and started searching for parking meters. nothing. Maybe we need one of those parking cards to show the time of arrival like we do in Germany? No dice.

Fully perplexed I went into observation mode: two different people passed me with what looked like a handful of lottery tickets which they had bought from a young guy in a bright orange vest. When I asked him about parking he smiled and asked me how long I'd be staying. I wasn't sure, so we decided I'd buy 4 hours worth of parking.

I gave him EUR 2,80 and he gave me 4 tickets and explained that I'd have to scratch off the day, month, year and time of day on each one. There was one ticket for each hour and I had to display them all easily visible on the dashboard. Each of these scratch-off forms was the size of a regular brochure and I saw some cars with 8 parking tickets laid out wall-to-wall all the way across the dashboard! (I can't believe I didn't take a picture of this! *kicking self*)

Coasting on my small victory in Ljubliana, I voted that we eat at a vegetarian restaurant again for lunch. (This was grudgingly accepted by S in exchange for a promise of a meat feast at a steakhouse for dinner.) We found an intriguing sounding place in the guidebook-- and re-entered the twilight zone. We were handed plates and two friendly guys doled out the gray, gloppy stuff of your choosing. (And there was a surprising variety of gray gloppy stuff to choose from!) We washed it all down with rosehip juice. It was all very bizarre and I was in heaven. S just seemed stunned.

Downtown Bratislava is surprisingly small, a fact that we didn't realize before we paid a king's ransom to tour it in a tourist train with no roof. The first 15 minutes we traveled 150 meters and the sun beat down on us and I laughed until I cried at the exasperated expression on M's face. The loudspeakers blared little tidbits about the historic buildings next to us and everything was then repeated in 3 other languages. Then the train lurched another 25 meters and the next little tidbit was given, etc.

Once the tour got underway, however, it was really worth it. A surprising number of famous composers including Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt and Chopin lived in Bratislava at one time or another. As apparently did Liszt's favorite one-armed piano protégé. (I really liked that particular factoid.)

Bratislava's got some beautiful rococo buildings and old churches and also the requisite number of wacky communist structures like the concrete UFO that dominates the skyline. Stately Bratislava Castle sits upon a hilltop and provides a magnificent view of the Danube and surrounding area. The city itself, however, has succumbed to the pressures of tourism, and is full of chain stores and noisy English lads on stag weekends. I'm really glad we went, but now my curiosity is sated and I can wait another 19 years before we do this again...


Anonymous said...

Hey Betsy,
Thanks for the diary and photos! Wishing you all well from Indy.
Lisa (formally of Stuttgart).

Goofball said...

love the last picture!

what a weird parking ticket system. aaaah why didn't you take a picture, why?

Expats Again said...

Thanks for introducing me to a part of the world I am very unfamiliar with.

anno said...

For a moment, I thought you were talking about the place on the Adriatic I had always wanted to see, but fortunately it only took a few minutes on Google to remember that that place was Dubrovnik. Not Bratislava. Whew!

Gotta say, even Bratislava's web site (http://visit.bratislava.sk/en/vismo/dokumenty2.asp?id_org=700014&id=1017) condemns the place with faint praise. Not a good sign... even if Liszt's favorite (he had more than one?) one-armed piano student once stayed there!

Betsy said...

Lisa: Hi! Nice to "see" you again! Hope all's well in Indy!

Goofball: I know, right?! Can't believe I missed the opportunity and threw our tickets away the other day so I can't even reinact the moment! :-P

Expats Again: My pleasure! :-)

Anno: Dubrovnik's on my list of places to see as well. Maybe we could go there together?

Chui Hsia said...

I laughed so hard. At everything. It was all hilarious. Thanks for saving me a trip to Bratislava! And especially thanks for the laughs.