Slov- what – a?? Slovakia, Slovenia, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia…yes, it is confusing.
I was chatting with a Slovak today at the bus station, and he said that the question of “How do I get to Yugoslavia/Czechoslovakia (via bus, train, etc.)” still occurs pretty frequently…and the question comes mostly from Americans!
Neither county exists today, but even I had to read up on the history and do some fact checking. Luckily, many locals are eager to talk about their respective countries and the either peaceful (Czechoslovakia) or heart-sickening (Yugoslavia) separation of these former nations. I have had a re-education many times over depending on whom I speak with in certain parts of the Balkans. Here is a very brief not thorough at all run down.
Slovenia is a tiny, rather prosperous, beautiful country perched in the Alps. It was once part of the former Yugoslavia until 1991 when many of the republics seceded to form individual countries including Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, and Macedonia. There were many bloody battles, “horrific ethnic cleanses”, systematic mass rapes, and genocides that took place during this rather dark time in the old Yugoslavia (more on this war later). Slovakia, in comparison, is a much larger country with a relatively calm history. It was part of Czechoslovakia until 1993 when both the Czechs and the Slovaks amicably parted ways, and what we knew as Czechoslovakia became the separate countries of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, where I landed today.
Bratislava, Slovakia: Here I am in Bratislava, the capital city of lovely, but often forgotten, Slovakia. I have been pleasantly surprised with Bratislava, and I have extended my stay twice so far. This is mostly because the larger cities of Prague, Vienna, and Krakow were so touristy, and I appreciate the tranquility, dare I say sleepiness, of this city. Here, most of the “day” tour groupers leave by mid-afternoon, and the city is mine for the viewing pleasure for the rest of the day. I am confused because many recent visitors told me to only spend one day here or to actually skip it all together. And so far, it is one of my very favorites.
Having an awesome hostel always helps the experience too. My hostel of choice, Hostel Mansard, was fresh, clean, and oh so friendly. The reception brewed a pot of coffee whenever I walked in the door (they knew me well), and their little touches included hair dryers, reading lamps, quiet meditation corners, and a guest computer which all added up to make an inviting, relaxing space. If it wasnt for my very outspoken, conservative roommate, I would have rated my stay as a perfect 10.
Bratislava is located smack on the Danube directly between Budapest and Vienna. The bus ride from Vienna lasted only two hours, and I was settled in my hostel with a tea by mid-afternoon, checking out the free tours on offer, and snagging local advice about running paths.
Bratislava’s Old Town (it seems that every city has a section labeled “Old Town”) is traffic-free and simply idyllic for a wander or two. At the tip-top of the boulevard sits St. Michael’s Gate, the last surviving tower of the old city wall. In the evening, saxophonists, accordion players, and a lone tubist squat under the gate to take advantage of the wall’s awesome acoustics and to solicit donations, of course.
Visitors can cover Bratislava’s main sights in a few hours. but it is worth taking an extra day to people watch on the Main Square or walk up and down Michalska Street where there are many inviting cafes, restaurants, charming courtyards, and art galleries. I am told that in the busier seasons, the Main Square is packed with kiosks, fruit sellers, and souvenir stands. At this time of year, the Square looks like this. A bit empty, yet still inviting.
Bratislava has a handful of cute bronze statues scattered around the city, and visitors can play a “find the statue” game using a map from the local Tourist Office. This Napoleonic officer below, meant to be a sort of cartoonish revenge for the difficulties that the Slovaks had at Napoleon’s hands, resides in the Main Square.
Another statue, Schoner Naci, greets viewers with a wave of his top hat and a perky smile. He is a replica of a local from the 1960’s, a poor carpet cleaner who liked to dress up in the evenings, stroll through Bratislava, and offer gifts to the women he fancied.
Yet another statue is Cumil or “the Peeper” who peaks out of a manhole. Alas, there is no story behind “the Peeper.” He was created by the local artists just for fun, and visitors are free to make up their own story. Perhaps he just cleaned the sewer, is escaping via an underground tunnel system, or is simply looking up women’s skirts! There are several other bronze statues that I did not find, but it was especially fun to hang out near the ones I did encounter and watch other tourists stumble upon Cumil and his friends.
Another afternoon rolled by, and I decided that a stroll up to Bratislava Castle was necessary. Nearly six weeks and upteen castles into my trip, and I still look forward to photographing the fortresses and castle grounds. Though there was nothing special about Bratislava castle, walking around the imposing fortress, watchtower, and crumbling outer walls was interesting. This spot high on the hill also wins the Bratislava award for best views of the Danube.
I am loving Slovak food so far…..well, the types that I can eat that is. Many of the food in Eastern Europe-Central Europe-the Balkans consists partially, if not entirely. of meat so I can only enjoy the smells and the occasional taste. The national dish here in Slovakia is called halusky and is made of small potato dumplings, rich sheep’s cheese, and bits of bacon. It was a sinful, melt-in-your-mouth delight for all of the senses.
Oh my goodness, how yummy. I could only order half portions because the halusky was so rich and filling, but I went back a few times and then a few times after that.
Slovak Pub, a lively, local eatery and pub in downtown Bratislava was directly next to my hostel. They knew me by name near the end of my three days in the city. Halusky is definitely on my learn to cook list..which is getting infinitely longer.
Had I more time to spend in Slovakia, I would have left the prosperous capital city to venture up into the Propad region or eastern Slovakia. I do realize that “clean and pretty Bratislava” is not a true representation of the real, local Slovakia. A trip to the rough-around-the-edges rural Slovakia would give me a better view of how the country is recovering from its split with the Czech Republic and a glimpse into its authentic, rural countryside. There is never enough time for all of my travel to-dos!!