Bratislava and Vienna

IMG_6279.jpgI arose bright and early and packed my unwieldy backpack.  I had entertained the notion of leaving 2 bags of uncessaries behind in Monika’s attic, but remembered nightmares when I had left items somewhere and didn’t have time to double back for them.  I plan to visit Kosice in October, but have a full itinerary and may not get back till next May when I will return for more dental work to Budapest.  I caught a ride with Monika to Kosice, and bid her a heartfelt farewell, feeling so much gratitude for the extreme kindness and hospitality she had shown me.  I’ve never had anyone go out of their way for me like she did.  I could get used to it.  Her daughter and I wandered around the old town after her errand to extend her student bus pass.  We had a nice coffee at a lovely cafe on Dominican square across from the same said monastery, then she walked with me to the train station and we waited for the train, which was 20 minutes late.  I was taking the so-called fast train, only 5 hours to Bratislava, as it doesn’t stop often.  I’d hate to see the slow one.  I will miss her too, as we had a really nice time talking over the weekend about life and her recent trip to Iceland.  She’s a world traveler like me and a polyglot.  I admire her fluency in English.  She speaks Swedish and German as well.

I read the papers I’d collected at the House of Terror in Budapest summarizing the horrors inflicted on the Hungarians (and Slovaks, Czech, Romanians, Serbs, etc) during Nazi and Soviet occupation, whose 40 year reign left an indellible mark on the culture, in my opinion.  Of course I wasn’t here before, so I don’t know how different the mood was prior, but from all that i learned about how hard these people fought for their independence, risking life and limb to be free, I think that occupation couldn’t help but change them.  It was incredibly hot on the train, 35 C outside and probably 30 C (86 F) in the train.  As usual the ac was nonexistent.  I had a very nice conversation with Paul, a Welshman who was traveling back to Zilina after visting the UK with his daughter.  He has lived in Slovakia for 6 years teaching English for a living, first at schools and later privately to wealthy individuals and businesses.  He told me there are 1.02 million words in the English language, and that most people only know about 25,000.  He doesn’t drive for environmental reasons but gets tired of the slow public transport in Slovakia.  He told me that the country is still rife with corruption, and that many of the broken down factories that we saw from the train window had been sold for 1 Euro by Communist Party leaders to friends when the Soviets were pulling out.  In other words, some people struck it rich, and mostly they were connected with the Communist Party.  Apparently, most of the current Slovak politicians were former party members.  Some people say it will take several generations before the corruption rampant today from such good old boy networks will disappear.  We can only hope.

Appropos, he told me that Slovakia ranks 51 or so on the transparency index of 100 some countries, while Britain ranks 15 and the US 16.  Interesting.  He pointed out that with 6 times the population of Britain, that’s not too bad a number for the US.  He brought it up to highlight the problems of corruption here and the fact that it hasn’t gone away.  In his mind, everything is falling apart or broken in Slovakia.  As such he didn’t know how much longer he could handle it here.  But he did say he loved the people, who are kind, and the beauty of the land, which I was witnessing as we sped through the country, especially the section from Kosice to Zilina.  The train follows the course of the river Vah, which winds its way past castles like Strecno and Budatin.  He said that many people spend weekends in a small cottage next to a garden, which line many parts of the river.  He hopes someday to live in one of these all year round.  I was eyeing one as well, just for the setting if nothing else.  With global warming and the rise in temperatures in Slovakia, it might be doable.  Just since he arrived 6 years ago, winters are now snow-free, and ski areas have to make snow to operate.  He said the first winter was 20 below and there was a meter of snow on the ground.  Could be an anomoly, but it appears to be happening everywhere.

He and his daughter alighted in Zilina, and the train continued towards Bratislava.  Bored and hot, I walked 9 cars back to the dining car and ordered a cabbage soup and grilled cheese and ham sandwich.  I’ve been eating red meat since I arrived in Slovakia, as it’s much easier to find hearty fare here.  We finally pulled in to the Bratislava station, which I’d been curious to see as I had been told my great grandfather (my paternal grandmother’s father) designed it.  Unfortunately, what I saw couldn’t have been his design.  It was much too modern for a building from the 1880s.  So I will have to resort to google to find photos of the old station, if any exist.  I alighted thanks to the help of a kind gentelman who helped me get my pack down from the rack above (no easy feat) and made my way to the 93 bus.  I figured out the ticket machine, which was much more rudimentary than those in Budapest, and boarded.  I guessed that 2 stops was about right to get to the old town and made my way toward a hotel to drop my things.  Luckily, Hotel Tatra let me do so and I felt free as I walked unencumbered through the old town up to the newly rebuilt castle (completed in 2010) located on a hill overlooking the Danube.  In 1811, the castle burst into flames due to careless garrison soldiers. The fire even spread to parts of the old town.  There were attempted reconstruction efforts ever since, but the Soviet occupation forces ran out of money.  I’m thinking they had other priorities like building up their army.

I eavesdropped on a tour of the castle and learned some additional history, including the fact that the lovely old part of Bratislava below the castle along the Danube (including the historical Jewish quarter) was demolished by Soviets to build a modern looking bridge with a UFO shaped restaurant above.  All that Habsburg empire architecture dstroyed.  What a loss.  I’m not surprised, though, given the horrifically ugly architecture I’ve seen from Soviet architects in Soviet satellite countries.  They had no sense of aesthetic.  It was all utilitarianism and as ugly as possible.  How sad.  I wandered till dark and made my way back to my tiny room that I’d found for 22/night through air bnb.  The building is over 100 years old and I swear I can smell the musty odor of old cigatettes in the walls.  I keep the window open and hear a strange bell all night long, which turns out to be the bakery oven below my window signalling that it’s finished.  The joys of travel.

The next day I spent a few hours talking with potential housemates and rethinking my decision about who to live with.  My friend and housemate just gave notice and I was scrambling to find a replacement.  I don’t like making that decision in person, let alone remotely.  And I have a tendency to try to help the underdog, often sacrificing my own needs as a result.  That’s why I was torn over the decision.  I had a nice breakfast at a bistro on the main restaurant street, and discovered a lovely library in a folk art center where I am typing as we speak.  Then I made my way to the center of old town and explored the following museums: Johann Nepomuk Hummel (pianist/composer), Arthur Fleischmann (sculptor/cermicist), Red Crayfish Pharmacy (old pharmacy containers), Michael’s tower and museum of armaments, and Nedbalka Gallery (modern Slovak paitings from 1880s to present).  Around 7pm I wandered across the Danube over the green bridge (Stary Most), and through the park on the other side.  It was still hot, so I walked along the bank of the river and tried to cool off.  Turns out that’s where the poor folk fish for their meals and live, and stumbled upon a man gathering firewood and anther peeing in the woods.  Again, the joys of travel.  It was dusk by this time so I made my way back to the bike path and toward a pretty building with green spotlights.  I heard music or a film score and followed the sound to an outdoor film screening of the Coen brothers’ Hail Ceasar! What fun.  It was perfect antidote to a dryspell as I hadn’t seen a movie since May 12 when I flew to London, so I revelled in the experience.  I found that wandering around at 11pm wasn’t a problem, partly because the weather was so warm.  I found my way back to the flat and fell asleep, enjoying the adventures I had that day.

The next day was my last and I was rather sad as Id enjoyed Bratislava very much.  I left my pack at the place I was staying and decided to hit the city history museum and a few others.  I got an audio guide and learned plenty about the history of the town, which I enjoyed as my grandmother grew up there and Id never found out about her time.  i also found out that the train station my great grandfather was involved with building has long since been torn down and was built around 1905.  There was an exhibit of a famous turn of the 19th-20th century photographer who captured images of locals and the beautiful architecture of the walled town before it was heavily bombed in WW II.  What a gift to see those images and imagine Bratislava when my grandmother was a girl.  I imagined seeing the city through her exes and wondered at the beauty and culture she was accustomed to.  California must have seemed like a backwater compared to this vibrant jewel of a city.

I liked walking through the museum because it was as much an architecture tour as anything.  The museum was situated in the old town hall, which was a combination of several burghers home, a church-chapel, and a large meeting hall for town counsellors.  At some point an architect put a roof on all the buildings to make them more or less the same height.  There were several plans over the centuries to renovate that never were realised due to lack of money or time.  But what stands is a wonderful testimony to time and great art, and I revelled in every detail.  I had an hour before I had to catch the bus, so I wandered to the river and enjoyed the town, trying to find Green Inn cafe, which I found out was named after a historical 18th century inn.  It turned out Id bought the wrong bus ticket, or rather the right ticket for the wrong time.  I’m not used to military time, and thought 530 was 530pm, not 530am.  Wrong.  Luckily there was space on the bus.  I had to buy another ticket to Vienna.

I watched as the corn fields rolled past, and the large wind generators just over the Austrian border.  Bratislava is 5 km from Austria and 13 km from Hungary.  But this corner of the 3 countries look the same.  Agricultural.  I arrived in Vienna around 7pm and had to haul my behemoth pack down stairs and through 2 underground trains till I got to the right stop.  The guy whose place I was staying said he’d meet me but he was nowhere to be found.  Luckily I figured out how to access free wifi and texted him.  Sometimes its good to have a data plan.  He showed me the room, which was dingy and moldy but roomy.  It was to be a hot 4 days, so I was glad I had a bit of air circulation as there wasn’t a fan.  After dropping my pack I walked along the boulevard toward the centre, stopping to have some pho noodles at an asian place.  It was the first time I’d had good Asian food since arriving in Greece May 12, and I enjoyed the fresh veggies and broth.  I continued to wander down toward the old walled city of Vienna, and made it to Karlsplatz.  There was a big pop fest that weekend, and the bands I heard as I walked through the square sounded inaudible and grinding.  Is it my advancing years or would I have thought as much 30 sears ago?  Perhaps.  I crossed the square to the main opera house and admired its beautiful architecture.  I saw that they have a city bike program and tried to register near St. Stephen’s church, but got an error.  I decided to register via internet so I could use the bikes over the next few days.  I walked to the palace and wandered through the narrow streets and cobbled lanes.  Vienna is indeed a beautiful city.  I came upon an open air film festival showing operas at 930pm nightly in front of the Rathaus (the town hall).  Naturally I partook, and enjoyed 3 nights of Orpheus, Hansel and Gretel, and a night of various arias.

The next day I decided to go to the main tourist information and get some maps and suggestions on which museums to see.  They suggested the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Art History Museum) and the Belvedere.  Over the course of the next 3 days I only made it to the Kunsthistorisches Museum.  This museum was built in 1891 near the Imperial Palace to house the extensive collections of the imperial family. With its vast array of eminent works and the largest Bruegel collection in the world, it is considered one of the most eminent museums in the world.  Numerous major art works of European art history, among them Raphael’s “Madonna in the Meadow,” Vermeer’s “The Allegory of Painting,” the Infanta paintings by Velazquez, masterworks by Rubens, Rembrandt, Dürer, Titian and Tintoretto are housed in the paintings gallery. The Egyptian and Near Eastern Collection contains fascinating treasures from mysterious cultures long past.  There was a special exhibit on celebrations and festivities, mostly those put on by nobility, but I didn’t see the whole thing because I got bogged down in the Egyptian and Near Eastern Collection.

I bought a 3 for 1 combo ticket so I could also go to the Kunstkammer Vienna and the Ephesus-Armor-Musical instruments museum. Kunstkammer means cabinet of curiosities, and contains many of rarities from the former treasure chambers and cabinets of curiosities of the Habsburgs opened again in March 2013. The collection is one of the most significant of its kind in the world and displays precious artworks from the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the Baroque era. The highlights are the collection of Emperor Kaiser Rudolf II.  The Kunstkammer was fascinating.  My 2 favourites was a large agate bowl carved from a single stone and the crown that one of the Habsburgs had made for him as a personal crown.  It turns out that regents only wore the main crown on coronation day, after which it was set aside in the treasury or elsewhere for safe keeping.  If they wanted to wear a crown, therefore, they had to have one made for them.  This crown spared no expense and was covered with rich gemstones.  It is apparently one of very few in the world that still has the gems affixed to it.  Most would have the gems removed and stored or used for other purposes.

Every night after I finished with the museum, I would wander or ride a bike.  One evening I discovered the lovely park garden that was built behind the palace next to the conservancy (hot house for flowers and butterflies).  Another I found the beautiful gallery where they show Lipizzan horses, the breed associated with the Spanish Riding School in Vienna.  Apparently they’re on summer vacation, so no shows were happening.  I admired the interior of some of the most ornate and beautiful churches I’ve ever seen, namely St. Stephen’s Cathedral and St. Michael’s and St. Peter’s Church.  My neck hurts from looking up.

On Monday, my last day, I’d hoped to leave my pack at the flat till 630pm when I could haul it to the international bus terminal for a joyful 20 hour bus journey.  Unfortunately that was not to be, so I spent much of the day trying to find a place to keep the pack, eventually deciding to leave it at the bus station in a locker, which I hadn’t known was there till I did a reconnaissance mission to scope it out.  I didn’t sleep well the night before worrying about where Id leave my pack as I didn’t know there were lockers at the station.  As it turned out, I got the last one and had to haul my pack over my head to get it in the tiny cubby.  I also needed to figure out where I’d be going in France, and sat down at a computer to look at google maps.  I had a list of places that I’d gotten online, but had no idea distances or locations.  I don’t know whether I’ll be getting a GPS from the car company in Marseille, so I needed to do some research just in case.  I decided to lease rather than rent a car for 3 months rather than rent, as I’d had too many problems with border restrictions when renting in Greece and inquiring in Hungary and Slovakia.  It averages out to 25 USD per day, and I’ll get a new Citroen diesel that is supposed to get 45 mpg.






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