Monthly Archives: June 2011

Sparkling in Prague

3-5 June

Temp: 28C

Prague

The lonely planet described Prague as the heart of central Europe. It also dedicates 60 pages to the Czech capital whereas a mere 16 pages offer Bratislava’s highlights. It’s famous for its fabulous beers, intricate architecture, and colourful history and seems to really hold something over Slovakia and Czech Republic. I certainly feel that Bratislava lives, lived and probably always will live in its shadow and many locals I’ve mentioned this to haven’t even visited it.

To describe my visit in detail would take too long and city breaks are hard to blog about, which is why Budapest never got a mention. Sorry Budapest, I loved you, but I had too much to say to blog about it. A moment by moment account of where I went and what I did would probably bore the readers who don’t enjoy my essays, so I’ll make this more of a photo blog and strongly advise you visit this fabulous capital one day. But don’t tell the Slovaks.

One of the many things people do in Prague is go to a classical concert. There is an abundance of cathedrals offering you recitals, concerts and operas at various prices, appealing to various types. We were walking down a small street past St Climent’s cathedral, when a man with a clipboard exclaimed “Hello beautiful ladies”. We exchanged looks, smiled and prepared to ignore him as time was precious and we had a long list of ‘to see’s’. “You are English aren’t you, I can tell you are English because you sparkle when you walk down the street”. Ok, so he got us on that one. Who’s not going to listen when you are told you sparkle by a stranger? He went to tell us that we looked like the type of  women who loved and appreciated the arts ( of course) and that we would understand and appreciate beautiful music ( yes) and that we would love to see a beautiful chamber orchestra in the cathedral tonight. Well we were intrigued at this point, but I was doing calculations and the displayed prices were not what I wanted to pay. “You are both students aren’t you?” Not wishing to argue we both nodded and the price was cut in half (we’d just gone from 25 Euros to about 12). He went on to explain the fabulous atmosphere that would only be improved If we were to come, because the musicians “will play for you, for your radiant beauty, if you sit in the front row”. Hmm, still not sure we wanted to part with 12 euros, we continued to nod and listen. “But I know that travelling is expensive, “he says, “and Prague is beautiful, but it’s so expensive, so I sell you the tickets for 10 euros”. Hmm, more interested. We get closer to the box office and he is showing us where he will reserve our seats “because we must be near the musicians for them to play for us. I suppose we weren’t showing enough enthusiasm, so he screws up his face and says “But, I know it’s difficult being young so I will make a special deal for you, 8 euros”. Ok, we went away to “get cash”, and talk about the pro and cons, seemed like a good deal, something neither of us could afford in the UK, so why not? And I have certainly never been sold tickets by being told I sparkle. “Yes please” we announced to our friend, handing over 150 crowns each and walking away, not really sure if we’d been had, but figuring it was about the equivalent of two beers so what did we have to lose?

We arrived 30 mins early as instructed and joined a long line of hopefuls outside the cathedral. Another clever marketing ploy of course: create a long line of an expectant audience and you are bound to attract the ones that originally weren’t interested. Wondering if everyone had had special reductions to pull them in I sneaked a peak at the tickets in people’s hands and saw that they were indeed showing the original price of 350 crowns. Pretty impressed, we followed everyone in, smiled at our friend on our way in. We quickly realised that the seats at the front had been promised to everyone and sat confortable somewhere in the middle, knowing that we really had played less than half of everyone else. The concert was a mixture of classics with some local composers: Smetana and Dvorak ( “ these are our famous composers from Prague, who you must listen to”)

I truly believe that you can buy experiences and in turn, some form of happiness, and this was definitely one of the highlights of the trip. Wandering around the city after the concert, deeling suitable cultured we stumbled across the Hard Rock Café. Now, not one to pass on the opportunity to eat one of the best burgers available and to have another addition to my collection, we juxtaposed our cultural evening with dinner at the HRC, complete with photos of me next to Chad Smith’s jumpsuit worn at the last RHCP gig I saw! Bonus.

Day 2 was spent wandering around Vysehrad and its gardens, having spent the previous day wandering round the old town, the downtown and Prague castle. Both days were bathed in sunshine, not rain as forecasted and laughter, good food and beer flowed freely to make a wonderful weekend, in an outstanding capital, with a fabulous friend.

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Bratislava to Prague

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(Only 3 pictures, hard to do on a moving train, and I put them all twice, sorry!)

Friday 3rd July

Temperature 28C

Somewhere between Bratislava and Prague

Bratislava to Prague…

After a not so long week, but a hot, muggy Friday, where storm was spelled across the heavy sky, I made my way to the train station, armed with my suitcase, trusted Lonely Planet and this time my laptop, for a spot of writing on the train.

As I write now, I am travelling at a gentle speed through the Czech Republic passing through lush green valleys, which are dotted with wooden chalets suggesting a moderate country life.

Brno itself looked not so different from many towns in Slovakia. It is set on the side of a hill, so must have its token cobbled streets I imagine and I could see the spires of a church overlooking the city.

It’s no longer sunny, but just as muggy and as we pass a deep green lake bordered on one side with the train line and the other with a steep cliff wall, I see people standing swimming or standing around in swimming trunks.

I enjoy passing through such green pastures and thank myself, or indeed circumstance fot not having the opportunity to make this journey sooner, as I know I would not have benefitted from such enchanting landscapes.

The view has changed considerably now, as flat fields are rolling to the horizon, dotted with farmhouses and tractors at work. I’ve even seen cows for the first time in ages and if Inore the languages around me I could be in England look at the cow parslip, elderflower, pine trees and the poplars lining my journey.

And then you pass through a village of one storey houses with triangular roofs and you remember you are not in England.

The weather has changed and the sun has painted the landscape in bright hues and brilliant tones. The grass looks almost luminous and the villages appear to have newly painted houses. The water on the lakes and rivers glints as we glide past and the Czech Republic looks like a wonderfully romantic landscape begging to be explored.

Driny Caves

29/05

Weather: torrential rain

Temperature: 19C

Wet caves

I felt empowered and very British as I woke up this morning, looked out at the pouring rain and put on my walking boots. Rain? A problem? It shouldn’t be, I’m British!

There were some caves a student has recommended I visit some time ago, which I had previously planned and failed to accomplish due to lack of participants. This morning however, the fact that I got two “Sorry, not in this weather” text messages, only made me all the more determined to do it myself!

Luckily I enlisted another Brit, who unaffected by the weather embraced the elements whole heartedly as we made our way towards the caves.

Off the bus, we spent a few minutes wondering which direction to orientate ourselves in and briefly pondered the notion of taking shelter, but quickly realised the rain was not promising to lessen, so onwards was indeed the only option. The name of the caves and a very vague map ( now soggy) from google maps was all we had, as well as heaps of enthusiasm and motivation to prove to everyone that you can go out in the rain.

The hour walk through the pretty village took closer to 90 minutes, as we were mostly going uphill and against the rain oh and of course dodging 2 metre sprays from unsympathetic drivers who obviously thought that since we had decided to walk in the rain we deserved to get splashed by cars too…

At the summit we found to out delight a pub and a campsite and then a dismal sign telling us it was almost another km to the cave entrance. Onwards we trudge through woodlands which would surely look beautiful in sunlight. I stopped to ask a few sodden walkers if we were going the right way. Naturally my Slovak is so convincing they responded in English…

On finally reaching the cave entrance I was dismayed to see that the girl at the till looked positively pissed off when we volunteered out 5euros entrance fee. For a good five minutes it looked like we were the only customers until a few wet families arrived.

Into the cave we went. It was 7C inside and we were drenched. We shivered our way round a 60 minute tour of the most mind-numbing information I could imagine. I may have said this before, but I just don’t understand WHERE they find people like this! This was not the first time I have paid to be walked around something by someone who talks in such a monotone that clearly announces how much they love their job…

The caves were a maze of pathways, lit in various places to show various physical features, which were pointed out to us with torchlight and a drone from the guide. At one point she turned off the light, perhaps incase we didn’t believe it was really dark inside. I found myself wanting to venture down all the paths that were closed off and wanting to go off on my own. That’s not the done thing though, so I shuffled around with everyone else and pretended to be interested in what she was saying.

No photos were taken, as entrance of a camera was more than human entrance, which I simply refused to pay. You can check out the website pics here: http://www.ssj.sk/jaskyne/spristupnene/driny/

On our decent we stopped at a pub to dry out. The roaring fire almost made us take of our sodden shoes and hang them up ( I’m sure that would be alright at home) and the waitress on understanding we were English ( buggered up our order) used her best English to tell us we could have soup with Chicken or pork flesh. Yum.

On the bus home, as you might have guessed, the sun came out and  delivered a beautiful Spring afternoon…

middle Slovakia to Bratislava

May 22nd

Middle Slovakia to Bratislava…

Our journey home after a relaxing Spa experience, was a little testing…

We set off from Sklene Teplice knowing that instead of repeating the journey we had made here backwards, we needed to alight at the stop before the bus station in Ziar nad Hronom and change to a train, which was 3 minutes’ walk from the bus stop. With the itinerary glued to my hands I meticulously counted the bus stops and was somewhat pissed off to arrive at the bus station, knowing we should have got off at the stop before. Perhaps I should have asked the driver to warn us about the non-descript bus stop for the train station that was invisible from the road…

Off the bus at the bus station. This is a loose term in itself, as it is just a layby with two platforms and a kiosk selling magazines and cigarettes. I asked the driver if this was the train station, he responded by answering “Hlavna Stanica” (Main station), which I could clearly see didn’t serve trains. Oh bugger. Thankfully we had 55 minutes to make the “3 minute” walk, so I whipped out my phrase booked and frantically searched it for the “where is the train station?” part, which didn’t seem to exist. Also, on a Sunday evening there were slim pickings as to whom to ask this question!

I chose the lady in the kiosk and couldn’t remember the word for train, until she came out of her kiosk to mime a choo choo train, using the word “Vlak” (Train!). Hoping she might direct us across the road, she pointed us back the way the bus had come; indicating with her fingers that we walk 2 kilometres and it was 20 minutes. Not too bad I thought, but keeping my phrasebook close to hand for further clarification, we set off in that direction. Not trusting my own Slovak, I wanted to ask another kindly pedestrian in case we walked 20 minutes in the wrong direction. I was thumbing through, desperately trying to find the words for left and right when a man on his bike, waiting to cross the road, turned around and cycled towards us. He stopped so I asked “Kde je Vlak, prosim?” “Where is train please?” He responded in rapid Slovak (which always surprises me when I am holding a phrase book and know I just asked a grammatically incorrect question). He gestured in the same direction as kiosk lady, pointing to the right as well and saying the same numbers. He then asked us in Slovak which language we spoke: offering us Slovak, English, German or Polish. I chose English and he repeated his instructions confirming the direction and distance.

10 minutes later a car beeps at us and cycling man winds down his window pointing to the back of his car and saying (assumedly) in Slovak “I’ll take you to the station”. Using traffic to cause a natural hesitation we weighed up the pros and cons of his offer and on the strength of there being two of us, we took up his offer. Thank goodness we did! We drove a good 2 km, which would have taken more than 20 minutes and turned right into an unsignposted car park that had no indication of hosting a train station at all. Cycle man drove us to the door of the “station” A random building in the middle of nowhere, took us inside and pointed out the train to Bratislava on the timetable. We thanked him as profusely as we could in our limited language knowledge and bought our tickets.

Now for the next confusing bit. The lady in the station was holding her hands up and saying “ten minutes” as I was buying the tickets. I knew we still had another 25 minutes until our train. Perhaps it was delayed? Looked that word up and it didn’t match. Perhaps the previous train was delayed and we could get on that? We go out onto the “platform”. There are two benches. There are 5 railway tracks and some concrete walkways between them. The “station” doesn’t even have a toilet. A train groans into the station a few minutes later and people get off. I ask the girl on the next bench if this is going to Bratislava. A very clear No.

The next train literally limps in. It’s got 3 carriages, it’s not the time that I have on my timetable, but the ticket lady gives a reassuring nod, and the bench girl says “Bratislava” as it arrives. Trusting them more than the information I researched, we climbed onto the train, as it was literally a metre above the track! The train ambles out of the station and whilst I puzzlelled over the size and age of the train going 2.5 hours to Bratislava I felt pleased that we’d arrive home a little earlier – or so I thought.

Ticket man. Tickets handed over. Shakes his head and says something we don’t understand. Oh dear. “ Prepacte, nerozumien po slovensko, hovorite po anglicky?” “ Nie nie”, shaking his head. “Sprechen sie deutch?” Kerry tries, “Nie” I try the same question in Slovak, then try French and then Spanish. All our language options exhausted Ticket man only speaks Slovak. It’s clear by his distress that we are on the wrong train, but he doesn’t have the language to tell us what to do, and we have no idea how to find out. Does anyone in the carriage speak English he asks, no, no, no ( which I found very hard to believe of the teenage girls sitting behind us) This is beginning to get stressful as the ticket man is trying to explain that our train terminates in Levice and will arrive there after the last train departs to Bratislava. That much I understand. He tries to show us the problem on his electronic ticket machine, but since I can’t ask him when the next train is, or where we get off the communication becomes quite stressful. He writes down the name of the stop, which I presume to be where we get off and knowing that we were due to catch the last train to Bratislava, a wave of panic surges up inside me as I really don’t understand what we have to do! I am rapidly flicking through the phrasebook of now useless phrases, as the poor man wants so desperately to be able to tell us himself. He gestures that he will come back, and wanders off down the train. 5 minutes later he returns with some new words and a phone. “Please” he says, handing me the phone to read a text message that another passenger has typed for him, or he’s had a translation sent to him. It reads something like “ You are featured in Nova Bana. You will off the train and wait the next train to Bratislava. You will use the ticket in material now”. He seems please with himself and then asks “ok?” “Yes, Ano, Thank you, dakujem”, he gets his electronic thing out and we count the stops until we have to get off. He manages to get to six in English, and repeats the name of the station we need. Off he goes and comes back a few stops later with some new English words: “ next station”. When our station comes up, he arrives again to make sure we get off and we alight in another middle- of- nowhere-one-building-on-a-railway-line station. Our instructions are to get on the 20.19 train and when 20.19 comes on the clock, but no train arrives, we start to get very nervous. Thankfully though we see the headlights of the train in approaching and it’s an 8 carriage modern cross country train, obviously the one we were supposed to have caught in the first place.

Thank goodness for that!

banska stiavnica

Banská Štiavnica

A pleasant mining town in the middle of Slovakia, 240 km, 3 ½ hours by bus from Bratislava acted as our host for a very relaxing weekend away.

The medieval mining town found fame the first time in the 14th century and is now a tourist attraction which UNESCO declared a world heritage site in 1972. It comes complete with epic views, tea houses, pensions, one hostel and steep picturesque cobbled streets.

Due to said steep cobbled streets, the bus drops you off a good mile out of the centre. By the time we’d lonely planet-mapped our way to the hostel we were well in need of a good sit-down. The journey here had been hassle free, making a seamless change in Ziar nad Hronom onto a local bus for the last 40 km, which wound up and down and meandered through hilly forest land with breath taking views before plonking us in the not-so-picturesque industrial part of town.

Arriving at the hostel there was a green post-it note addressed to me from Barbora, who runs Hostel6 telling me she was out the back gardening and to come and find her when we’d arrived. Her and Bucci, her dog, greeted me warmly, equally covered in mud and happy to welcome their new guests. After dealing with keys, dropping bags off and Barbora saying “Pay me when you want” we headed back down the cobbled streets with her map, towards much needed caffeine fix at “Crazy Lady” coffee shop – that’s a translation by the way. Time passes quickly in these places and afternoon swiftly becomes evening when you are pacing the streets of a town as charming as this: eager to turn every corner and look down every street. Alas we realised that by the time we’d done all the outside things in the sunshine all the indoor attractions had closed. Still, we had managed a walk around the old castle as an art festival was packing up its things and then hiked up to the new castle to admire more spectacular views, after visiting a wooden Bethlehem moving model and worked up a good appetite for bryndzové halušky, one of Slovakia’s national dishes. Hard to describe, but, the “Bethlehem is a small room with a miniature carved moving Bethlehem scene. I say miniature and I mean it takes up 3 walls of the room and details every type of worker and activity related to the nativity scene.   

I had previously tried and disliked bryndzové halušky in Bratislava, likening it to overcooked macaroni cheese with very strong cheese sauce. Horrified by this description, Barbora sent us to a pension where I must try it again, because “this is where we make the cheese”. I am pleased I gave it another shot as this was a truly different culinary experience, which I had with venison, at a ridiculously cheap price. This didn’t seem right until I sat down and thought about the number of Bambis there are jumping around central Slovakia and was heartened by the fact that what was on my plate would have been running round a forest days before, not living in a factory. At least I hope so and please do NOT feel free to correct me on this one.

The next morning, after a later night than planned (wine at 1.50€/glass) we spent the morning (afternoon) on the terrace of a tea house which boasted 100 different types of tea. Again epic views over the town as we enjoyed a truly relaxing hour before heading to the bus station ( this time by taxi!) en route to our booking at Sklene Teplice – one of Slovakia’s many, very cheap, mineral water spas.

This was possibly the best 7.50€ I’ve ever spent. The whole village is basically a spa complex, with its selling point as the only cave bath in Slovakia. The description was slightly deceiving I have to say, as I was really hoping we would literally be crawling into a cave to have a bath! The Lonely Planet increased my disappointment by promoting it as a Splunking Spa, so when I stepped into a tiled pool, with one wall as part of a cave, I deemed rather less primitive than imagined. We entered the building, which was half cave, half modern spa. The assistant took our tickets and said something incomprehensible and to my surprise didn’t speak a word of English. She managed to relay instructions by mime and being good teachers we managed to communicate equally. Then pointing took over mime as some instructions were written in English. We showered and entered the “cave”. I say it like this as it only had one wall of cave, in which 42 C of calcium and magnesium rich water was running down and filling the pool. 20minutes was recommended but 42 degrees in a confined space meant I lasted a little less than recommended. The assistant showed us silently into the “relaxation” room, where we were wrapped in blankets, laid down and left to listen to relaxing music and enjoy a large fish tank on one wall of the cave. 20 minutes later we found ourselves sitting on massage chairs that I kid you not massaged everything from your head to your bottom, and your hands to your feet for 20 minutes. Feeling fully refreshed and satisfied on exit food was whole heartedly enjoyed before waiting for the bus in the sunshine to take us home…

ghosts and ghouls

Bojnice Castle

Another overdue blog post about a castle I visited weeks ago.

Every May, Bojnice castle holds the International Festival of Ghosts and Spirits. For an international festival, I was fairly surprised to not encounter a single person who spoke English, or any information presented in perhaps the most international language, but anyway…

A hot Spring day and a two day festival that most of Slovakia had come to participate in meant even jumping the queue involved a standing time of 2.5 hours (and that’s jumping in a less than half way!). Time was passed with occasional trips to numerous stalls littering the area selling honey wine, ice cream, corn on the cob, barbecued food, candy floss and pancakes to name but a few. I guess they thought about it, but somewhat stupidly didn’t think to offer anyone toilet facilities. I wonder about the Slovaks: they so often get it almost right.

I soon understood the reason for the lengthy queue. You enter the castle in groups of 30 and are taken on a tour of the darkened castle, to watch a series of re-enactments (75mins worth actually) of stories involving the ghosts of past castle residents. It’s all based around the May Ball, which a distant queen held as a reunion for all previous inhabitants of the castle. The tour, songs and theatre all performed in Slovak meant that I don’t have much evidence of actual stories to share, but I did indeed enjoy the general idea. We were lead through each room, where we were shown some aspect of each character’s life: either their death or a significant moment, complete with trip down a dark corridor where dead people jump out and touch you, take your hand or just try to scare the shit out of you. One of the final rooms was indeed the ballroom, where all the characters are assembled and the audience are also invited to dance. I was propositioned by a dead man, who tried to take my hand. I politely declined, as I really couldn’t imagine the conversation I would have whilst ballroom dancing with a dead Slovak lord from the 17th Century….

Being an adult it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, save for the silly people who thought it a good idea to take their unsuspecting children on a ghost tour where “dead” people jump out in your face. There were some hysterical children whose parents should have been sent home in my opinion.

The town Bojnice doesn’t have anything to offer worth writing home about, but had certainly cashed in on the expected volume of people with an array of market stalls offering you a range of local and mainstream products. I was particularly taken (as were my companions) but two jewellery makers, dressed somewhat traditionally making pieces out of glass and precious stones. I stood fascinated watching a man make glass beads out of pieces of coloured glass with a blow torch. Wanting to buy that I then spotted what his wife was making: beautifully unique hand crafted pieces with precious stones and metal. Next time you see me, check out my fabulous Turquoise angel necklace!

I am starting to love Slovakia more and more for its quite literal hidden gems here and there. It really is a country that needs to be discovered and with time running out I will be frantically squeezing in as much as I can….

Until next time….

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