This was my second foray out of the Czech Republic to the Slovak Republic, eschewing crowns for euros…ok enough of the new vocabulary lesson. My traveling companion and tour guide Susan and I hopped the train in Vsetín at 6.20 am on Good Friday and headed toward the capital of the Slovak Republic, Batislava. Half asleep we almost got on the wrong train to someplace else. Luckily the right train was on the next track and made it just in time. I am getting used to running for trains although now, since my knee surgery I can do it pretty well. We found a compartment with three other people and settled in to the short trip to Horní Ledeč where we transferred to a super cool double-decker train heading for Púchov a town just over the border. There we waited for about 40 minutes to take another train to our destination, Bratislava. (Spelling note, “capital” is the main city of a country, like Washington, D.C. or Prague; “capitol” is the building where the government meets, like Capitol Hill in D.C.. I just thought you’d like to know. Just another public service announcement.)
Bratislava seems smaller than it really is. Supposedly there are half a million people who live there. By contrast, San Francisco has nearly 850,000 people crammed into an area of 7 miles by 7 miles. The capital is a combination of old and newish. The city itself also borders on two independent countries, Hungary and Austria and I think it’s the only city that does this. Since it was Good Friday when we arrived most of the museums that we wanted to visit were closed. The ever present castle on the hill could be seen from every venue we visited. We were too early to check in to the hotel so we left our junk with reception and began wandering. We spent our first day exploring Old Town and its narrow crooked streets. We ran into a young Irish couple who were going to bike it to Devín Castle about 9km from the city center. I almost said we could probably do the same, then I remembered my age, my recovering knee and my acute lack of interest in anything that had the word “exercise” in it. So we decided to take the bus on Saturday instead. They came all the way from Dublin to Bratislava…who knew? But at least the guy knew the name of my old neighborhood on the North side of the Liffey. That was a nice touch. We visited a number of churches including the Jesuit church on the town square and St. Martin’s where a bunch of Hungarian kings were crowned. We weren’t supposed to take pictures inside St. Martin’s Cathedral but I guess my hand slipped twice and I got two. We returned to the Saffron Hotel to check in and grab a nap before having dinner on the banks of the River Danube. (and yes, I did have Strauss’ music in my head every time I saw the river).
On Holy Saturday we packed off after breakfast to catch the early bus to Devín Castle just outside the city. Evidently the buses were free because the machine wouldn’t take my money and no one asked for tickets. I’ll take it. I like free. The weather was warm but a little windy. The forecast called for rain. We climbed the path to the castle cliff with no problems. As a matter of fact I was constantly amazed at how far I could walk without the usual pain I felt two weeks ago. The castle is built above the confluence of two rivers, the Danube and the Morava and was blasted by Napoleon in 1809 or something. Only the ruin remains. The area has been inhabited since stone age times. The foundations a Roman house in stone was plainly visible on the flat area near the top. OF course I always let my mind wander back in time thinking of the people who used to live there. Who were they? Did they have a family? Did they invent fried cheese. How did they feel being so far from home, etc. From the top of the cliff one could look over the river and see Austria. I also wondered that during the Soviet occupation of Slovakia if anyone swam or boated across the river to the West from this site. Yes, I do do a lot of reflecting when I visit historical sights. I can’t help it. There is this thing about our connection to the past that rattles around in my mind sometimes.
Back in the city and while wandering around the mall, we were treated to a great lightening storm and heavy rain. We decided to take a cab back to the hotel, dry off and rest for a bit before heading out again for a late dinner. The hotel provided us with a driver and we were back in old town searching for the subterranean restaurant recommended by the hotel, with our discount cards in hand. Walking our dinner off, the heavens opened up with another storm and we took shelter in the town square til it passed. Around the corner was the Jesuit church and made a mad dash in-between drops of rain to their Easter Vigil service. By the time the service was nearing an end, the rain had stopped (Jesuits control the weather I guess) and the entire church processed around the town square with candles and music and incense. The object was to bless the city which they did. Susan and I joined the procession for a while, then stepped back to take pictures.
Easter Sunday dawned bright and warm for our final day in Bratislava. The last item on our list was the Bratislava Castle. Surprisingly it was open and we could wander the halls and the rooms without a guide. Of course I knew that a tower was part of the journey and so we climbed the spiral staircase as well as a number of steep stairs to the top of the oldest part of the castle dating back to the 13th century. The view of the city as well as being able to see where Hungary and Austria are was spectacular. From way above it was great to see all the little streets and alleys we had walked previously and of course, the River Danube. Again, I was amazed at how easily I was able to scale the steps and am very glad I did.
It was time to head home so a quick stop at the hotel to pick up our bags and we were off to the train station to catch the 2 o’clock back to the Czech Republic and the place I’ve called “home” for these past months. I must thank Susan for her lists, maps and general laid back attitude for seeing stuff. It would have been more difficult if we were on a strict timetable like tours demand of people. Slow going allowed us to see things we wouldn’t have normally seen if we had to be at certain place at a precise time. Getting lost was the best part. But in reality we were never lost, just exploring off the beaten path.
and so it goes…