Slovak is as Slovak does

Trip Start Sep 07, 2005
Trip End Aug 18, 2006

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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Ten and a half months ago we assumed that by this point on our trip we would be complete experts and that we would deftly apply our skills as world travelers to help us easily navigate though any sticky situation and overcome any obstacle. As it turns out, after so much time on the road we must confess that we are now only marginally better at securing lodging, setting up overland transfers, and the many other logistical challenges that make a trip like this, well, challenging. If we have learned anything, however, it is that in many, if not all situations, the one thing that we have come to count on is the kindness of strangers. If it had not been for just such an act of kindness from a young Czech actress-in-training who was also making her way from Cesky Krumlov to Bratislava (via Brno), we may still be stuck at some small bus station wandering around and waiting for a bus that might never come. Fortunately, with a little of just the sort of help to which we have become accustomed and to which we have been and will continue to be so thankful, we eventually made it to Bratislava and found that after our brief stay in this Slovakian capital city we were very glad to have made the visit.

Bratislava is one of Europe's most recently anointed capitals, acquiring the title, as it did, in 1993 when the Velvet Divorce (following the Velvet Revolution in 1989, during which the united Czechoslovakia nonviolently shrugged off communist rule) severed Slovakia's ties with the Czech Republic. It seems the two countries just figured they were better off apart rather than together and therefore decided to go their separate ways. Of course, the fact that the Czechs were listed first in the national moniker eventually stuck in the craw of the Slovaks, who floated bills in the legislature proposing a national name change to Slovaka-Czechia. So it was probably time to move on.

But despite the fact it more recently acquired its status, we enjoyed Bratislava almost as much as its much more famous next door neighbor. True, there are fewer things to see and do in Bratislava than in Prague (or Frog, as we heard one five year old boy call it), but we were enchanted with Bratislava's leisurely pace of life and its small yet quaint old town situated on the banks of the Danube. And we can't blame it for being small - that responsibility lies with the Soviets, who apparently meddled a bit more here than they did in Prague. Their heavy handedness shows: two-thirds of Bratislava's old town was destroyed during the construction of the New Bridge, which spans the Danube. While it is an interesting futuristic looking bridge relying heavily on wires and tension to prop up what looks to be a spaceship-like pod mounted at the apex of the thing, we doubt it was worth knocking down several centuries of history to make way for it. Chock another one up to longsighted Soviet policy.

The remainder of Bratislava old town, though, really is quite picturesque, with the (by now) typical trimmings of cobblestoned streets, wrought iron lampposts, grandiose Baroque palaces, dour Gothic cathedrals and lively and lovely town squares (this one replete with a circular fountain decorated in cherubs with harps). Bratislava seems to have a sense of humor, though, because it prides itself on the slightly quirky and offbeat. The narrowest house in Europe is stationed here, as is the only bronze statue in the world halfway submerged underground (the statue is of a good natured city maintenance worker who is in the process of sticking his head out of a manhole). Even the main cathedral, St. Martin's, quietly attests to a nurturing of the whimsical. There, the elegantly carved wooden choir stalls situated in the nave of the cathedral, where monks and priests were to sit during services, boasted armrests that swooped upward, culminating in carved figures. These small statues included standard Christian symbols like storks feeding their young with blood from their pierced breasts, and less traditional vignettes such as dragons and dogs with snakes in their mouths, or cats tending to rats, or, our favorite, a raccoon cradling a book by three paws and quizzically scratching his head with a fourth. Our favorite thing about this city, though, was its love affair with al fresco dining in outdoor sidewalk cafes. Come nightfall, all of Bratislava, it seemed, poured into the old city to grab a table at one of the area's hundreds of restaurants, cafes, and pubs. People sat together for hours, eating, drinking, smoking, watching and talking until well after midnight.

Strolling through the streets, near packed tables with candles flickering in the dusk, we were inspired to sit down for a typical Slovakian meal. We selected one very traditional recipe, a buckwheat dumpling dish - the dumplings looked like the spaezle Cori's grandma used to make - smothered in a traditional Slovakian sheep cheese and sprinkled with fried bits of pork. The other dish was a patty of amalgamated chicken and pork parts submerged in a bowl of dill sauce, accompanied by potato pancakes on the side. Our description wouldn't lead you to believe the latter was tastier than the former, but it was. And that isn't saying much. It turns out Slovakian cuisine isn't one of the national high points: the cheese was sharp and tangy without any real favor, and the dumplings lacked flair. The dill sauce was bland, and the meat a bit dodgy, so the highlight was probably the potato pancakes. We tried to rectify our vision of Slovak cooking by rounding out the meal with some poppy cherry strudel, but that, too, was uninspired. This proves conclusively, once and for all, that Cori's family must not have come from Slovakia: her grandmother was and her dad is too skilled in the kitchen to have descended from these folks. Nevertheless, we enjoyed the ambiance and the easy, breezy atmosphere of Bratislava at night.

After another night in a decent and somewhat affordable private room, we awoke early the next day and soon declared that Bratislava by day also quite nice. After a short hunt around the old town for a flaky croissant or succulent fritter we eventually succumbed to our miserly tendencies and penchant for good old fashioned American fast-food, and made our way into the local McDonalds and ordered up one of our all time favorites, the egg mcmuffin. Wiping the shame from our faces and the grease from our lips we then made our way to the local ferry terminal to inquire about a trip up the Danube. This massively important European waterway connects Bratislava to nearby Vienna (which we visited briefly in way back in, gasp, 1997) and to a number of important sites within Slovakia. After a bit of hemming and hawing about prices and schedules, we eventually nixed a return trip to Vienna in favor of a shorter haul up the river to Bratislava's famous castle, Devin.

After a forty-five minute boat ride up the river we soon found ourselves gazing up at an amazing example of a naturally occurring fortification. The Devin castle stands at the intersection of the Danube and another large river (whose name escaped not only our own memories, but also those of the authors of our guidebook), and, as we learned from the free literature handed out by the Bratislava tourist bureau, has stood strongly in this same location since the 4th century BC. This massive structure with equally impressive walls was constructed from a unique rock formation that shoot up high above the surrounding country side.

Owing largely to its use of naturally occurring geologic features, several sections of this ancient stronghold have been endowed with odd proportions and peculiar anomalies. Despite its strange appearance, however, the castle seems to have done its job and done it well because across the ages this fortification was only penetrated a few times and each successive conqueror decided to make it part of this own system of defense. For this reason, the castle structure has been graced by the improvements, modifications, and expansions of well known conquerors from the ancient Romans to Napoleon himself.

In addition to our discovery that Cori's family must have carried their culinary talents from other more distant lands, another thing we will probably always remember when we think of Slovakia is its oppressive heat. As we wandered the castle grounds of Devin and as we strolled up and down Bratislava's lazy street cafes we were shocked at how hot we were. At first we thought it was just us and that our minds were wandering back to our hotter than blazes days on the Amazon or our time on that blessed Laotian bus, but after a quick look around to the other sweating tourists, panting dogs, and scantly-clad locals we knew that the heat was real. We definitely recommend a trip to Slovakia, and to Bratislava in particular, but if you do make the trip you would be wise to do so at a more suitable time of year.
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