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Posts Tagged ‘Slovakia’

Banská Štiavnica is a picturesque town somewhere in the middle of Slovakia. Our drive there was punctuated by a stop in Kremnica and by inadvertant detours caused by the confusing road layout. Once there, Bo dropped me at my accommodation, Hostel 6 (when the young woman on duty opened the front door – which was at the back – I told her I had a reservation and she said, ‘I know’; then she was confused by the fact that there were two of us, but only I was staying) and we went for pizza and a look around. I thanked Botond for everything he’d done for me in the past fortnight and we said goodbye.

In the morning, I did a bit of shopping for breakfast – including getting some individual teabags for about six cents each because I’d left all my tea at So-young’s apartment – ate and then got on with some sightseeing.

The town itself is very pretty, at least in the centre, with lots of cobble stone streets that are pretty noisy when driven over, yellow-painted buildings and various churches.

The Old Castle was an interesting stop. You got a few laminated sheets to read as you went around and could visit all of the towers (one contained cells and torture chambers) and the church in the centre – although the walk up on the inner side of the walls was off-limits.

I walked out to the Kalvária, a big procession of shrines and churches on the side of a hill outside the town, each representing a station of the cross. There were people, lots of youngsters, at work renovating it. The weather was bright and warm and it was pretty tiring. I rested for a while at the top and took pictures of butterflies. On the way back I went through the grounds of the Academy of Mining and Forestry (Banská Štiavnica was very important as a mining centre). It had lots of trees; not so many mines.

When I got to the New Castle at half past four or something, it was closed. There were quite a few people around the entrance; evidently they’d already been told it was closed, but they still hung around. I went back in the morning. It’s a square, white tower that looks a bit like a rocket and contains a modest museum with information about the wars with the Turks. Disappointingly, the only view from the top was through some small windows.

The previous evening, I’d wanted to walk to the railway station to see how far it was, but gave up part-way when a thunderstorm started. I went into a hotel for dinner – I was the only one dining (I had some not-very-spicy spicy chicken and pepper with rice and pancakes for dessert). After visiting the New Castle, I packed up an set off on the walk to the station; it was a fair distance – two kilometres – but it wasn’t too bad. The man at the station (a young guy with long hair and a beard – much like the two men who’d given me my tickets at each of the castles) wrote down all my connections to Poprad for me – of which there were three or four.

Everything went well until my final transfer, when I got on the train coming from Poprad to Bratislava along with the majority of the crowd of people who were waiting. It had arrived at about the right time, but left a couple of minutes early, so I should have known better. Even when the ticket inspector looked at my ticket, she didn’t say anything and I went after her to double-check. Of course, she didn’t speak any English, but she managed to communicate that I should get off at the next stop.

Having gone in the wrong direction for an hour and waited for the right train for another hour, I was about four hours late arriving in Poprad, which is in the north of Slovakia. On the train, I chatted briefly to an attractive, moderately pregnant (‘moderately pregnant’ being midway between ‘slightly pregnant’ and ‘heavily pregnant’) woman who was going home – to Poprad – to see her family. She told me she worked in the Gulf (UAE or Jordan or somewhere – I forget exactly) as a flight attendant for a private jet company.

Poprad Station is pretty big for what seems to moderately sized town (a ‘moderately sized town’ is midway between a ‘slightly sized’ one and a ‘heavily sized’ one). After orienting myself, I made my way to my hotel, Hotel Gerlach – which was just the other side of a park outside the station. Being in a proper hotel is always nice – for privacy if for nothing else. This one was cheap (I was in a twin room) and quite pleasant, considering.

In the morning I had a walk around the town; there’s not that much to see. After lots of toing and froing in one particular area, I located the tourist information centre and found out that getting a train the following day to Kraków would take all day; a bus to Zakopane just inside Poland would be better. I also got information on a couple of lakes in the area that Bo recommended I visit.

I headed back to the railway station and took a train up into the hills. Poprad is a popular tourist destination because it’s in a mountain range called the High Tatras (which sounds a bit like it should refer to the perky breasts of a tall woman). I didn’t many clear glimpses of them because the weather was cloudy most of the time I was there, but some of the peaks I saw were impressively jagged.

The lake at the end of the train journey was the tongue-tripping Štrbské Pleso. When I got there, the place was basically in the clouds, so there wasn’t much in the way of scenery to be seen. I walked around the lake – it was quite pleasant, but very wet – even more so when it started raining in earnest. It was quite touristy – there were lots of hotels and restaurants by the station – but, a short walk away, the small lake was surrounded by forest … I assume – it was impossible to see more than a few metres.

I had been planning on hiking up to the other lake, Popradské Pleso, but in view of the weather (and in view of the lack of a view), I just took the train back. Dinner was a nicely spicy pizza at a popular international restaurant on the main square.

In the morning, I got up early, checked out and headed over to the bus station. There weren’t too many people around, but there were a few. As I was waiting, an elderly woman came up to me and asked me something; I apologised and said I didn’t speak Slovak – but that didn’t stop her trying to tell me something for a minute. At the designated time, I got on the small bus and set off for Poland.

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Zürich to Bratislava was a fairly long journey: three local trains got me to Bregenz in western Austria then I took a seven or eight hour train ride to Vienna and finally another hour on to Bratislava Petržalka, the western, communist-era part of the city across the Danube from the castle and the old town. Botond was there to pick me up and we headed over to his estranged wife So-young’s place; she’d just left for a couple of weeks in Korea.

I didn’t do much sightseeing in Bratislava while I was there. I went into the centre a couple of times and had coffee and lunch at Shtoor, the café Habiba and I had been to when we had been in the city a few weeks earlier. My inclination to sightsee was pretty minimal – I was looking forward to having no responsibilities or schedule. I spent a lot of time on the internet.

On maybe the second or third day there, I managed to drop the shower door on my foot. The injury didn’t seem too bad at first and there was no sign that I’d broken a bone. My foot swelled up a bit and there was a fairly hard lump on my instep close to my middle toes. Afterwards, it developed a purple bruise that spread in a ring across my toes and down the side of my foot over a period of several days. I went out one day, walking to the centre, and when I came back, it was very sore. Bo and I talked about me going to a doctor, but I semi-deliberately prevaricated over it and eventually it showed signs of getting better.

On the first weekend, Botond’s brother, Zsombor (in Hungarian, ‘zs’ represents the ‘s’ sound in ‘measure’), joined us and we (ie, Bo) drove to Austria for a camping/swimming/hiking weekend. With my foot, I wasn’t up for too much hiking, but we found an ‘experience trail’ – a trail leading through a narrow gorge and up a stream with games and activities for children. It wasn’t too long, so I didn’t suffer too much.

We stayed near Erlaufsee, a lake nestled between forested mountains that reminded me a lot of the Lake District. There were probably hundreds of people sunbathing and swimming along its grassy shores. The weather was hot and sunny until early evening when it suddenly turned stormy. I’m not a keen swimmer, but I went for a dip in my borrowed shorts; the water was chilly compared to the air, but not bad once you got used to it. In the evenings, a few fireflies floated around like burning motes from a fire. I’ve never seen fireflies in the flesh before.

On the Saturday evening, we visited Mariazell to have a look at the church and have dinner before returning to our borrowed and partially erected tent. The following day, we visited Lunzer See, another pretty but less touristy lake, had a look at some ski lifts and stopped at Melk to see the palatial monastery on the way back to Slovakia.

The next weekend, Botond took me to Lake Balaton, a large lake in Hungary, where we stayed at a holiday home – actually two homes consisting of a pair of semi-detached houses – along with a group of Bo’s old friends, their girlfriends and a couple of their newer friends. The lake had no actual beach – its shore was ringed by reeds and a concrete wall from communist times – but there were grassy areas nearby for people to set up their towels and whatnot.

I went swimming with the men. Well, only Bo was interested in swimming in earnest; everyone else was content to wade out – the lake bed went down at a very shallow angle, so you could walk out a long way without getting a drop of water above the waist – and throw a frisbee and ball around (in some sort of ball-frisbee combo game that was either just improvised play or I didn’t get at all).

Everyone seemed to speak English pretty well, but I suppose when it became apparent I was quiet, they mostly chatted in Hungarian. Still, it wasn’t a bad experience, just seeing the area and getting some reading done (I was enjoying Lord Jim).

On the second day, Botond and I went for a short bike ride together. Then, after lunch and icecream, everyone went their separate ways. Bo had lent me a Teach Yourself Hungarian book – which I didn’t make too much use of – but I learnt that the Hungarian name for the double-kiss greeting performed by Hungarian friends regardless of gender is a called puszi (sounds like ‘pussy’). I shook hands with the men when we said goodbye (one of whom said ‘Hello’, which functions like ‘ciao’) and puszied the women.

For the rest of the day, Botond took me to some nearby sights – the town of Keszthely and its palace and lakeside area, Szigliget Castle perched on one of several volcanic hills and the mill pond in a town called Tapolca.

Before I left Bratislava I was determined to do some sightseeing on my own and one day took the train back to Vienna to go to Schloss Schönbrunn. Getting to Vienna was easy enough – a return ticket from Bratislava’s main station was about €10. Navigating Vienna wasn’t quite so easy. I thought I’d take the subway but it turns out line 1 is closed, so I had to figure out which tram to take and from where.

I got there eventually, though, and queued up for a ‘classic’ ticket, which grants entry to all visitor areas of the palace and most of the grounds. The audioguide tour was pretty good and it wasn’t too crowded, so it was possible to linger comfortably and get a good look at the Imperial apartments of the Hapsburgs. A couple of my favourite rooms were one completely panelled with black and gold oriental lacquer work and another lined with dozens of frames painted blue to simulate porcelain, the frames filled with oriental-style drawings made by members of the imperial family.

I wandered around the grounds afterwards – much of which is free to access, but my ticket got me into the orangerie immediately behind the palace, the Gloriette up on the hill and the maze and labyrinth (which are mainly for children).

After that, I walked towards the city centre, had a look in the Schottenkirche, passed the film festival going on at the Rathaus and dropped by the Votive Church. Then I got a tram back to the station and the train back to Bratislava. Due to a misunderstanding, I got a bus home while Botond was waiting for me at the station.

It was great to spend time with Botond and to stay in So-young’s very nice apartment. Bo showed me how to make lecso (‘lecho’), a simple Hungarian dish of bell pepper, tomato, paprika and smoked sausage (or egg); we made and ate quite a lot of it. And, although I didn’t spend much time in the historic centre, Bratislava is a very pleasant place to hang out in. For the next stage of my travels, Bo took me to a town in the middle of Slovakia on his way home to Gödöllő near Budapest.

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Katharina, or Aliya, to use her Sufi name, one of the leaders of the camp, took us to the railway station at Biasca and we headed to Zurich for our last night together. We stayed at a hotel – although it described itself as Marc Aurel Apartments on Booking.com (a good website for finding accommodation that I’ve just started using) – that had no reception staff. We had to type part of our reservation number into a machine by the back door (one of the other guests helped us find it), which then produced our key.

We didn’t have long in the city, but, as we’d left early, we had enough time to look around with Isabel, who came over specially from Basel to meet us. We walked around, went to an English language bookshop, Orell Füssli, where I bought the book I’m reading now (you can see the title if you look at the text under my picture at the top right of this page), went to the lake, where the ladies fed crackers and pretzels to a flock of swans that gathered for the feast. Earlier on, I’d bought my ex-girlfriend a Swiss Army Knife as an early birthday present (she later reported that it had been stolen from her suitcase when she flew home).

Isabel went home and we returned to our room. In the morning we exchanged rather strained farewells, and thus ended another phase in both our travels and our lives. She took a train to the airport to fly to the States; I took a series of trains east through Switzerland, through the whole of Austria and arrived in Bratislava, capital of Slovakia once again. Botond picked me up late that evening and I spent nearly two weeks staying with him and travelling together at the weekends.

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Or, as the leaflet we got on an Austrian train put it, BratisLover.

Something as simple as getting on a train shouldn’t be stressful, but when you’re in a foreign country you can never be sure exactly what the right form is. When we boarded our train to Vienna at Zagreb Station we found ourselves in a carriage divided up into old-fashioned compartments. Some of them had Reserved signs on them, but Habiba seemed to want to ignore this and take one. There were very few other passengers around. Eventually, we went into the next carriage, which was completely empty and took two seats there. It was very nice, actually – all the seats had power outlets for people to run their computers, charge their phones etc.

We arrived on time at Wien Meidling. We then had four or five minutes to transfer to a local train for Südbahnhof S-bahn. Then we had ten minutes to walk to Südbahnhof Ostbahn. There weren’t any signs pointing people in the right direction out on the street. Habiba said, It’s this way, and we walked to a pedestrian crossing. I looked around and saw the other station behind us. We half walked, half ran there. Our train was at the nearest platform and we got on board with five minutes to spare.

We had thought that our change of train might cause problems, so Habiba had asked our host in Bratislava to meet us half an hour after we were due to arrive. We arrived on time again and waited in the cold wind outside the station for half an hour.

Our host in Bratislava (capital of Slovakia) was Lauren, whom Habiba had worked with in Seoul. Also living in Bratislava was Botond,  my own friend and erstwhile colleague from Korea. We spent lots of time hanging out with them both; they were both working, though, so the daytimes were mostly our own. Lauren had a nice flat that she had shared with someone else up until the day we arrived – so we had a bedroom to ourselves (although the next occupants dropped by occasionally to leave stuff). One strange thing about the place was that you needed to swipe an electronic fob at the front door in order to both enter and exit the building. An inconvenience for us and a potentially fatal flaw in case of fire.

The area we stayed in is full of communist era panel tenements, but the old centre of the city is much more atractive, with lots of historical buildings, stone-paved streets and various cafés. On our first evening, we met Botond at the main square, Hlavné námestie, and he took us on a brief tour of the area, showing us, in particular, a series of whimsical modern statues: a French soldier leaning on a bench, a worker up to his chest in a manhole, an early 20th century charmer, Schöner Náci, and a paparazzo sneaking a photo round a corner.

Other sights that we explored in our nearly five days there included Michael’s Gate,

Bratislava Castle,

St Martin’s Cathedral,

the Primate’s Palace (an archbishop’s winter residence),

Nový Most (the New Bridge), with its UFO crown, which spans the fast-flowing Danube,

Slavín, a communist era monument where thousands of soldiers are buried,

and I went alone to Devín Castle a little outside Bratislava on the coldest, windiest day of our travels since Turkey. Waiting for the bus (I just missed the once-an-hour service and had to wait an hour for the next one), I met a Spaniard who told me about the way Spanish women take advantage of tourists. At a bar, a girl would come up to him and say, Buy me a drink. When he asks, Why?, they say, Sorry, I thought you were Italian.

Bo also took us on an evening trip to a lookout tower in nearby Austria called Königswarte. Because of the Schengen Area, since we entered Slovenia on our way to Austria there have been no passport controls; the immigration posts that span the roads between Slovakia and Austria are completely deserted. We parked up in a small village and walked up a forested hill, passing a station with several large satellite dishes to a wooden tower. From the top you could see all of Bratislava and the countryside, including scores of wind turbines in the Austria fields. On the way back to Bo’s car, we spotted a couple of deer in the woods.

One of the culinary highlights of this leg of our trip was trying a dish called halušky, a stew of sauerkraut and red pepper with sour cream. At Lauren’s, we made a big stew and a pan of mashed potatoes that lasted several days. Lauren recommended a coffee shop called Shtoor; it had good capuccinos and nice cheesecake; it had lightshades in the shape of coffee cups and bowler hats.

Habiba and I went into an antiques shop in a small, old shopping mall in the city centre, where I bought a set of old Slovak coins – the currency before the country adopted the eruo was the koruna or crown. Eight coins cost €4 (I haggled the man down from €5.)

Our stay in Bratislava was our most relaxing yet – Habiba and Lauren got on like a very silly house on fire and we had good internet access at her place, which we took advantage of. Lauren let us use her keys, so her home felt like our home.

On Friday evening, Botond came over to drive us to his hometown – Gödöllő, about 30km from Budapest, capital of Hungary. Lauren finished her temporary job on the same day and was due to fly back home to Manchester the following day.

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