On Hold in Bratislava

August 16. I woke up late after a very long night and was barely functional responding to Citroen Europass’ requests for information about the accident yesterday. I had wrecked my newly leased Citroen C3 the night before and had been lucky to have a landing place in my friend’s AirBnb in Bratislava. It took me a few hours to respond to complete the paperwork and set the wheels in motion for getting another car. The inside of the apartment was 90 F when I decided to buy watermelon at a market I spied out my window. I had a nice conversation with the fruit sellers and walked to the old part of town and ambassador embassies. There I discovered Horsky Park, a hidden gem where I imagined my paternal grandmother (Ilona Hensel) had spent time. The park had been inaugurated in the 1870s, while she was born in 1893.  The gamekeeper guarded animals from being poached, perhaps so that the king could have a fine hunt. The keeper’s cottage is still there. It was the first peaceful moment I’d had since the fiasco of last night, and a chance to breath and think about something different.  I loved this hidden park and resolved to come back. I easily climbed to the highest point near the castle, admiring the beautiful embassy buildings and the tip of a statue on the hill.

I walked along the castle grounds and through the main gates, admiring the results of rebuilding of the castle which was completed in 2010.  Before that, the castle had stood in ruins since a fire had destroyed it in 1811.  The French gardens in the rear of the castle are small but beautiful.  From there I descended the hill and crossed the ugly Soviet highway and Nový Most bridge.  Both were built in the 1970s and resulted in destruction of two-thirds of the old town, including the entire Jewish neighborhood below the castle.  There had been a proposal to build a bridge over the old town that would have saved it, but the communist regime deemed it too expensive. Too close for comfort (due to the damaging vibrations of the road) is St. Martin’s Cathedral, which served as the coronation church of the Kingdom of Hungary between 1563 and 1830. Maria Theresa was crowned Queen of Hungary there in 1743.  A side note: because of her gender, she was not allowed to be elector of Bohemia and had to find a co-ruler, which she did in her husband Francis Steven.  Despite her love for him and his position as co-ruler, Maria Theresa never allowed her husband to decide matters of state and often dismissed him from council meetings when they disagreed.

Long before the construction of the cathedral, the site had been the crossroads and contained the former center of the town, a market and probably also a chapel. Worship services were held at Bratislava Castle, where the chapter and provost’s office had their seat. As the visits became less bearable and the castle’s safety was threatened, King Emeric of Hungary requested the Pope Innocent II for permission to relocate the provost’s office into forecastle, and The Pope assented in 1204. The church was relocated in 1221, and was originally built in Romanesque style and sanctified to the Holy Savior. As the town grew into a city and received additional privileges in 1291, the sanctuary became insufficient for its needs. Construction of a new Gothic cathedral began in 1311 on the site of the earlier church and an adjacent cemetery. Construction continued until 1452 due to the difficulty of construction and lack of funding. For a period in the early fifteenth century, construction halted due to the Hussite Wars. In 1452, the church was finally completed and consecrated, however, work continued until the sixteenth century. A small but significant neighbor of the cathedral was the main synagogue, which stood next door for centuries until the Communist government demolished it around 1970 to make room for a new Nový Most bridge.  From there I wandered through the old town, and made my way back to the apartment for an early sleep.

August 17. I woke and reluctantly turned on the phone to respond to more car accident stuff, then took a taxi to pick up a rental car at the Bratislava airport which I had asked Citroen to organize for me.  I was told to return it and get another two days later, which seemed strange.  At the airport I called Citroen to clarify what they wanted me to do.  I’d gotten conflicting information about the next steps.  I suggested that they arrange for another Citroen.  Having just received the damage estimate from the garage in Hungary  (10,000 Euros damage and one month to fix), they agreed that it didn’t make sense for me to wait. They told me they would be in touch with me throughout the day and asked me to standby as they searched for an available car.

From the airport I drove to a lake that Zuzana had recommended near Bratislava and had a wonderful swim.  I felt like a new person as I emerged from the clean water.  There were people in their private nooks all along the shore, and I ended up swimming in the buff because I didn’t have a suit with me.  It really helped me start to unwind from the stress of the accident and its ramifications.  I then headed to the Eurovea Gallery where I met Marek, for help with mailing the accident-related paperwork to France. He and his partner Zuzana were kind enough to host me for a few days, which helped tremendously, as I had a place to recover and wait out the week or so until I was to pick up a replacement vehicle in Munich.  Later that afternoon, I took another walk to Horsky Park and then walked to a nice park in the center to meet Zuzana and her friend who spends the winter on the Canary Islands in a Buddhist community.  He just come back for from a week-long retreat in the mountains in Slovakia.

August 18. I had to leave the AirBnb flat that Marek and Zuzana had let me stay in for 2 nights.  I organized my things and then went for a long walk in Horsky Park and ambassador hill. I organized my things and Marek came to prepare the flat for guests and helped me move my bags to his car.  I headed south of town to cool off in a lake but the traffic was so horrendous that I took a dip in a small murky bend in the Danube.  Apparently everyone tries to get out of town on Fridays.  I headed back to catch a walking tour focusing on the impact of Communism on Bratislava.  We walked to various monuments and building projects that the Soviets had undertaken in the historic city, mostly to a bad end.  Zuzana had written the script for this walking tour and the other one about the history of the city based on what her grandmother told her about life there under the Communist regime.  It was depressing to learn of the myriad ways that the regime had destroyed the old town (to the tune of 60 percent) and built ugly block apartments and a bizarre bridge in its place.  I met Beata, the oldest daughter of my friend Monika who I had visited earlier this summer near Kosice, Slovakia, and her lovely boyfriend Anton.  We talked, ate ice cream, and walked around the old town.

August 19. I misplaced the car twice that Saturday.  I wasn’t able to find it after parking the night before near Marek and Zuzana’s flat.  I ended up using GPS to figure out which street I’d headed up after taking a swim in the Danube, and found it that way.  It was near the Blue Church, but I’d gotten lost a few times already looking for their flat and felt like I was in the Bermuda Triangle.  Around noon (after finally finding the car), I headed to Vienna, arriving there at 1pm just as the rain was starting. I must have been worried about losing the car again because I took a photo of the nearest cross streets, a rarity for me.  After asking for general directions at a chic interior design studio, I headed towards the old town.  I like walking in a roundabout way, and often discover hidden treasures that way. I came upon a beautiful Rococo church, the Catholic Parish Maria Rotunda, and had just sat when an organist and soprano began a duet.  Twenty minutes later, and mesmorized, I stumbled out into the rain, transformed by the music.  I felt transported to the Vienna of Mozart, Beethoven, and Hayden.  I walked the few short blocks to St. Stephen’s Cathedral (more commonly known as Stephansdom), the mother church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vienna and the seat of the Archbishop of Vienna.  It’s free to go inside and look around, though you can’t sit in front of the altar.  I didn’t feel like paying or listening to an audio guide, but had a nice time admiring the Gothic altars and stained glass windows.  The history of the church is vast and begins in 1137, when a treaty was signed which allocated land for the new parish church, which would eventually become St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Although previously believed built in an open field outside the city walls, the new parish church was in actuality likely built on an ancient cemetery dating to Ancient Roman times. This discovery suggests that an even older religious building on this site predated the St. Rupert’s Church, which is considered the oldest church in Vienna.

From there I walked past the palace and through the palace grounds, past the Rathaus and a summer-long outdoor film festival, to a neighborhood I didn’t know. It was fun getting lost on the small streets and alley way. At one point I stumbled upon a church where Brahms attended and a housing complex named after him.  He must have spent time in Vienna, though I don’t know his story.  After an hour or more of walking back, I found my way back to the Rathaus to see if any of the films were playing that night.  Unfortunately it didn’t start until 10 pm. Weary, I started walking more or less in the direction of my car.  It was starting to rain in earnest and I noticed that I only had 2 percent phone battery left. I asked two young men if they knew the area, but they were tourists.  I had remembered a large police building and asked a local about its location.  He pointed me to continue (it turns out) in the wrong direction.  Exhausted, getting wet and tired, I finally decided to listen to my gut, which said that it was the other way.  Just before my phone died, I looked at the photo of the cross streets and wrote them on paper.  Armed with new data, I asked a kind Austrian girl and she showed me the walking route on google maps.  Thank god for smart phones!  I’ve really relied on mine a lot during this trip.  Wiped out, I headed back to Bratislava and after a nice chat with my hosts, went to bed.  I resolved to visit the Kunsthistoriches Museum the next day.

August 20. As usual I was slow to getting started and finally left Bratislava at 11:15am after talking with Marek.  I arrived around 12:15pm and found a handicapped spot near the Kunsthistorisches Museum.  There were no other parking spots in the area, so reluctantly I parked there and prayed that my California placard would be honored.  The Museum of Art History or Fine Arts is housed in a palatial building on the Ringstraße and is crowned by an octagonal dome.  It is the largest art museum in the country. The Kunsthistorisches Museum was opened around 1891 at the same time as the Natural History Museum, Vienna, by Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria-Hungary. Both buildings were built between 1871 and 1891 according to plans drawn up by Gottfried Semper and Karl Freiherr von Hasenauer. The two museums were commissioned by the Emperor in order to find a suitable shelter for the Habsburgs’ formidable art collection and to make it accessible to the general public. The interior is lavishly decorated with marble, stucco ornamentations, gold-leaf, and paintings.

As it was, I only had 6 hours, barely enough to skim the surface.  The only other time I was there, I spent too long in the Egyptian and Near Eastern Collection and Collection of Greek and Roman Antiquities, and I resolved to spend my time with the paintings and the secular treasury.  Unfortunately, I spent too long in the Coin Cabinet, as there was a special exhibit about Maria Theresa and her use of medals to promote herself (a kind of ancient advertisement) and reward her subjects.  Once I made it to the picture gallery, I particularly enjoyed the collection of Dutch Masters’ paintings, in particular Rembrandt, Rubens,  van Eyck, and Vermeer.  Other famous works included those by Dürer, Tintoretto, Arcimboldo, da Messina, Caravaggio, Raphael, Velázquez, Brueghel the Elder, and Gainsborough. The museum’s primary collections are those of the Habsburgs, particularly from the portrait and armor collections of Ferdinand of Tirol, the collections of Emperor Rudolph II (the largest part of which is, however, scattered), and the collection of paintings of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm, of which his Italian paintings were first documented in the Theatrum Pictorium.  One of the museum’s most important objects, the Cellini Salt Cellar sculpture by Benvenuto Cellini, was stolen on May 11, 2003 and recovered on January 21, 2006, in a box buried in a forest near the town of Zwettl, Austria. It was featured in an episode of Museum Secrets on the History Channel. It had been the biggest art theft in Austrian history.

I left exhausted and walked up the trendy shopping street where I had parked my car.  I saw an old man playing a strange looking stringed instrument with a bow.  He turned out to be from Varna, Bulgaria, and we proceeded to communicate in very broken Russian.  He told me that the mafia was hounding him and extorting money from him, and I suggested that he might prefer Bratislava, as I wasn’t aware of any mafia ring there.  I told him I’d give him a ride after walking around for another hour and headed to Karlsplatz to see the church and admire the grounds.  There were tango dancers in the square, and they danced very nimbly to the Argentinian music.  Watching them I felt home-sick and wished I were further south where passionate dancing is a tradition. I left feeling responsible for my Bulgarian friend and afraid he would think I’d left him.  I tried to park my car near his spot but it was a pedestrian zone, so I ended up walking about 15 minutes to get him.  He was still there, playing music, and seemed very grateful that I was taking him away.  The next evening, when I checked on him in Bratislava, he told me that he wasn’t making much money here and wanted to catch a bus to Munich. So I went to the bus station with him and found someone who spoke Russian.  I asked him if he could explain how to catch a bus to Munich and even he seemed to have difficulty communicating with my musician friend.

August 21. This was the day I had promised Citroen I would visit my damaged car which was being housed in a Citroen garage in Tatabánya, Hungary.  I also had to exchange my rental car at the Bratislava airport for another one, and after doing that drove for two hours to Tatabánya.  When I arrived, I emptied the car of trash and tried to clean it as well as possible.  I wanted to return a clean car to Citroen, despite the fact that it was damaged.  I was feeling really sad about the car’s state and the damage it had sustained, and told it so.  I believe that inanimate objects sometimes are imbued with something akin to feelings, and I was very attached to my blue C3.  It had been my friend and companion throughout the past 3 1/2 months, listening to me curse other drivers, providing me a bed at times (I’d sleep on the back seat on my ExPed mat), and allowing me to see places that I probably could never reach with public transportation. I felt like I’d injured a good friend, and was having difficulty forgiving myself for the accident, despite the fact that the driver whom I’d hit had almost no tail lights and was going too slowly for the lane he was in. I told the car I would take the branch I’d been carrying which had doubled as a tent pole to a special place in the woods and give it a good send off, which I did in Czech Republic a few days later. The people at the garage were very nice and told me the information that Citroen had asked me to find out.  I bid them and my car farewell, hoping that the car would one day be fixed.  Citroen decided that because of the extent of the damage, they would have it hauled back to France (I assume to repair it there).

I needed some food and drove to find a post office to pay the police fine of 100 Euro that I’d been charged at the time of the accident.  The post office said they couldn’t, so I asked a bank teller.  She told me that it wasn’t possible because I didn’t have a Hungarian bank account.  I told her that I’d driven two hours from Bratislava to pay the fine (which was true, though I had a dual purpose). She thought for a moment, then told me that she would deposit the money in her own account and pay the fine for me.  She was really kind and went beyond the call of duty.  I told her I liked her town, and she said she didn’t and was leaving soon for Austria.  I thanked her profusely and tried to walk up to a statue in the hills but it seemed that the path was blocked, so I drove to Györ to explore the old town.  The town center was lovely and I enjoyed walking its streets and enjoying the historic buildings, particularly the castle, Széchenyi Square, and the Lutheran church.  It has had a long history beginning in the 5th century BCE with the Celts. It is the most important city in northwest Hungary.  After walking across the bridges spanning the Danube and enjoying a piece of cake in a cafe, I headed back to Bratislava.


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