Monday, June 16, 2008

Bratislava and Krakow

[I'm squeezing two countries into one blog, as they're right next to each other and I only zipped over to see one city in each.]
Remember Czechoslovakia, that country whose name you learned in school and nothing else whatsover about? Well, it doesn't exist any more. As you probably know, the Czech Republic broke off from Slovakia in 2002 and they've been amicably divorced ever since. Tourists flock to Prague, the Czech capital, and rightfully so: by all accounts it's one of the world's beautiful cities (as I plan to personally confirm in a few days.) But how many go to Slovakia?
Unfortunately Bratislava, the capital, isn't nearly as stunning as Prague, but the Old Town and its castle were thankfully left alone by the communists, who concentrated on building their apartment blocks elsewhere in the city. It's worth a day or two to explore the pretty, crooked cobblestone lanes and try out the many cafes serving Slovakian, Hungarian and many other cuisines. There are even some playful bronze scultptures of characters like the ones pictured here.

Much of the rest of the city is mere modern cityscape. A bridge across the Danau left over from 1970's "modern" communist days has a UFO-like restaurant at the top, giving it a strange "hatted" look. I call it the Martian walker from "War of the Worlds".
I've been trying the beers of each country I've visited, and they keep getting better the further west I go. The Slovakian beers are really good. By all accounts the Czech beers, like Pilsner Urquell are the best, so I'm looking forward to that! Although I don't think it will be easy to top the great Romanian, Hungarian and Slovak beers I've tried. I know that sounds strange, as Americans are totally unfamiliar with them and therefore might be prone to sneer, but to them I have only this to say: come here and try them, and those haughty looks will be quickly replaced by smiles of amazement!

Back to the city: there's no underground metro but many handy trolley cars, trams and buses that criss-cross the city. I sometimes risked a fine by jumping on without buying a ticket first at a kiosk, but it just proved too temptingly easy to do! (And everyone else seemed to be doing it). I paid a hefty 5 euros in Vienna for a 24-hour transpo pass and only used it twice, so I didn't feel too guilty. Hey, I've gotta save money somewhere!
The castle is under reconstruction, but views from its grounds were pretty nice. It looks down on the Old Town and the rest of the city.
P.S. When I arrived the taxi driver asked me, in pretty good english, "Who next president be, Obama or McCain? Hillary kaput!" It seems every European on the continent knows more about U.S. politics than I do. Not that it's hard to keep up; the election minutae are broadcast in every country around the clock. I never realized the rest of the world cared so much about who our president will be. It's rather humbling; it should make anyone who doesn't vote ashamed, and make them think twice about who they vote for and how it will affect the rest of the world, instead of just voting on their own little personal agendas.
Oops, there I go, lecturing again. Sorry. Anyway, I spent 36 hours in the city and it was enough, I think, to get a good taste of it. It's an up-and-coming city of half a million that is fun to visit, has a long history, and makes good beer. I'm glad I checked it out. I also thought I saw a clone of Matt (in the green shirt), and fed a feisty little pigeon with only one foot, and that one was missing a toe.... it's amazing how they survive crippled like that. I also visited a nice little museum that told the history of Slovakia in the 20th century, with good coverage of early costumes, the Nazi and communist occupations, and the final liberation and nationalization of the country. It even had a decent exhibit hall on the diversity of life upstairs, except that some of the dioramas looked straight out of a 1950's biology book, and the main attraction, a lonely-looking mammoth, looked more shaggy than woolly.

Oh, and sorry, ladies, but I just have to mention that the eastern European girls are, well, hotties, to put it in terms my nephews will understand. I've included just one photo of LOTS that I took-- strictly for journalistic purposes, of course. To balance things out, I also include here a shot for the ladies of a typical clothing storefront, so you can see what some of the fashions are like here. I know, I'll probably get some women screaming at me for not taking photos of guys....

Anyway, after I checked out of my massive Hotel Kyjev (the only one I could get a room in) I snapped a picture of its gloomy, dimly-lit lobby to remind me that I was still in eastern Europe.

The second night I caught the overnight train (my first time) to Krakow, Poland. I spent a little extra and got a bed in a sleeper car (schlaftwagen), and I'm glad I did. As it was I had to share the little cabin with two other guys who were already asleep in the two upper berths by 11pm when I got on, so I quietly slid into the cozy little bottom bunk, found the nightlight, and read "White Fang" for a few hours, too excited to sleep. I probably couldn't have anyway, with the train screeching to a halt ever half hour, and clunking and unhooking cars at least twice that night.
But I did get some sleep and woke up in Krakow. That's what I love about trains: they take you right into downtown of the city. In fact I found a hostel right across the street from the station, where I got a cheap but decent little room (complete with giggling youths at night in the hallways), and went to check out the Old Town of Krakow. (You may have noticed that all these places have "old towns", the central historic areas where the cities had their starts, and are always the most interesting parts to visit.) Krakow is no different; it has a great city center. All these places have a main square or plaza; Krakow's is the biggest by far: 'Rynek Glowney' is 200 meters on each edge... it's so big, there's a giant cathedral on one side and still plenty of room around it. The rather haunting-looking photo here of the guy surrounded by animal pelts was taken in the central market place... I just had to take the picture, in spite of the gruesome surroundings.

Walking there I almost got run over by one of those huge, old, communist-era street trams (pictured) that glided up behind me; I had to do a quick jump to get out of the way. You can be sure I checked both ways before crossing streets after that! The city castle/cathedral complex up on a hill (where else?) was pretty interesting to visit. The buildings may not quite be the most beautiful in Europe, but it certainly was prime pigeon-feeding territory. There were little stands selling the round bread 'pretzels' you see everywhere, giant screens showing the European soccer cup games, and of course the obligatory horse-drawn carriages (with some quite beautiful horses) I keep seeing in all these cities, as well as an assortment of street performers and entertainers.

I also visited the National Gallery of Art, a modest collection but with some pretty surprising items, including Leonardo DaVinci's "Lady with an Ermine". I never knew it was there. Unfortunatly I wasn't allowed to take photos, but you probably know it.
Krakow isn't even the capital of Poland, that's Warsaw. But it used to be long ago, and still retains some of its old influence, I supposed. Anyway the museum had a nice little collection of Roman and even Egyptian art, the odd Rembrandt, and as I said the DaVinci. I think there's only about four women DaVinci painted, two in the Louvre, and one, of all places, in Washington D.C.'s National Gallery. So to find the fourth here in this old, somewhat lesser-known town was quite impressive.
That, and a nice dinner at a table on the square, followed by a tasty Polish beer, and I was a bit sad to leave. But it was time to catch another overnight train, this time with the whole sleeper cabin to myself... talk about luxury! See you in Prague!

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