Posts Tagged With: slovakia

Sojourn to Slovakia: Hangover Recovery and Ghost Castle

Of all the destinations I’ve seen in Europe, no country has wedded human-made and natural beauty with such success as little Slovakia. There are few places in the world where a vacation among cities can also pass as an outdoor spectacle, but one of these can be found nestled within the back roads that wind through the verdant Carpathian Mountains in which Slovakia is situated. The land has unknowingly been tailored to become a romantic getaway for the 21st century traveler; its history as a violently-contested territory, vied for by a disparate amount of groups—southern Hungarians, local Slovaks, cold Poles to the north, and brazen Tatar hordes to the east—has birthed impossibly-majestic castles that loom over lazy hamlets of medieval charm. The timelessness of the area still ticks on, thanks to the isolation ensured by the rugged terrain, and one is comfortably shielded from the stresses of the outside world by the looming mountains and incandescent fields of yellow rapeseed.

Prievidza: Getting There

As could be guessed, getting to this backcountry wonderland from the capital of Bratislava takes a bit of determination and planning, so waking up with the worst hangover-induced headsplitter of your life is really going to limit your progress eastward. On Thursday morning, I came to with a start on my hostel bed, in my clothes, and immediately knew I had missed the bus to Prievidza, the cute castle town where I was supposed to be headed for the day. Grasping my temple, in which my brain was hard at work grinding its halves together down the Corpus Callosum, I got all of my crap together and made for the reception to check out and get new bus and trains times to Prievidza. Not only had I missed my best transport option, but the schedule disruption was likely to throw off my Couchsurfing host Eva, who was to meet me at the bus station in Prievidza round noon.

Waiting in the rain for the bus to the train station felt like dying from poisoning, and along with this I was all but sure I would miss the last morning train to Prievidza and thereby screw everything up royally. It’s hard to have any wiggle room when you are trying to see an entire country in 4-and-a-half days. Thus, I bolted out of the bus when it hit the station and got a ticket to some goodness-forsaken town that had a connection to Prievidza, and jumped on the train with naught but seconds to spare before the conductors hopped on.

The ride was a messy one for me, purely in the mental sense, as I couldn’t sleep on my awkwardly-composed backpack and had no water to sake my post-binge thirst. When the trolley man unexpectedly came by with overpriced water I was clawing my way through my bag for Euros before I knew what was happening. The drink helped immensely, but a new problem presented itself when the train dropped me off at the nondescript destination where I had my connection (Its name lost to the pages of history/Google search). I was minutes away from missing my connection, as the bus terminal was miles from the railway station, but the station’s sympathetic railmaster drove me to the terminal just in time. You can always count on finding good hearts on the road.

A few liters of life-giving water and a bus ride later, I was in Prievidza, and waited at the station for an hour-and-a-half until a girl with black hair—my host Eva—showed up searching for no one in particular. I’m currently armed with a high-powered beard and a pair of Indigo spectacles, which makes me look like a total stranger compared to my profile on Couchsurfing, so I approached her and introduced myself by apologizing for the wait. She was totally chilled out and didn’t mind a bit about it, and we got on to friendly conversation quite readily.

Prievidza and Bojnice:

Eva was a great host to have. We spent the rest of the day just relaxing at her apartment, where she lives with her brother and mother, and talked about a hundred different subjects (e.g. Slovak culture, medical expenses, university, funny sounds in Arabic) until the sun went down. She made some really good cheesy chicken for dinner, which didn’t seem to be traditionally Slovak or anything but it hit my cramped-up stomach just right. Furthermore her two cats were a delight and I could feel the pet-deprived neurotransmitters in my noggin going crazy when I got to pet them and hear them purr. I treat everybody’s pet like my own, now that I haven’t got one!

The next day was castle time. Located nearby as the one saving grace of Prievidza, magnificent Bojnice Castle is home to the annual Festival of Ghosts and Spirits, an entertaining string of supernaturally-themed events that fuses just enough kitsch and artfulness to be a good time for local visitors. So what happens at a ghost festival? Well, special tours headed by a ‘parapsychologist’ are conducted through the uniquely-contrived hallways and chambers of the romanticism-inspired castle, which happens to be inhabited by mischievous ghosts that can argue, tell jokes, swordfight, sing, and dance. The local youth have a great time with it all as they constitute the white face-painted labor force tasked with populating the place. Eva recognized one of her high school classmates as a severed head which had a comic tussle with a murderous Mongol.

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Along the way, there was the Addams family, vain ghost girls screaming about developing wrinkles, a flamboyant vampire that looked like a blond Liberace, undead burlesque dancers, and hilarious paper hydras suspended on poles by unenthused boys hiding under a low-lit railing. The finale of the event occurred when all the supernatural hosts had a ball in the castle’s main hall and, immediately after showing up, I was led away by a smokin’ hot lady-specter to join the fun. Well, I danced with her for about a minute, during which time I tickled the crowd with my best worst dance moves, including the unstoppable Back Bender (Back to back, you raise the gal up), and then I fled back to Eva’s side in the darkness (I seem to be a target for this kind of shenanigans, and something similar went down when I was hoisted up onto a fashion show runway in Turkey last year. Of course, I didn’t let the spectators down then either).

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The tour ended when our parasychologist guide fell in love with a cowled ghost man who gave her a flower. Uh…right.

Despite this, and despite the entire thing having happened in the Slovak language, I really enjoyed it all and would recommend it to all possible visitors in the future. Just be sure to bring along a little Slovak girl to translate everything for you if need be!

Prievidza: Getting Away

Eva and I were waylaid by a Spanish man and his Slovak girlfriend on the way out of the castle for a picture, and I got the opportunity to show off my dreadful Spanish for fifteen minutes of strained talking, but it did the trick and we had a nice conversation about the Camino de Santiago and castles. I can’t say much in Spanish, but I can definitely make my love of ancient fortifications clear as day (OYE CHICO, ME GUSTAN LOS CASTILLOS MUCHOOOOO).

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After getting some marginal Slovakian ice cream in cones that were disgustingly soft, we got back to Eva’s flat and then realized that the last bus to Levoca—my next town—was leaving in minutes. For the second time on my trip, I had to run my ass to a bus station, this time with Eva panting next to me, and I thanked my lucky stars for getting there about 30 seconds before departure. With one sweaty hug and excited goodbye delivered to Eva, I got on the bus and had another wonderful evening of confusing connections and waiting at bus/train stations. Still, any opportunity to listen to a random album like Electric Light Orchestra’s Greatest Hits to discover two awesome songs should be valued.

Coming Up Next: Final days in Slovakia in magical Levoca and Bardejov

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Sojourn to Slovakia — Got Those Bratislava Blues

The amount of holiday time European nations give their citizens makes American expatriates incredulous and envious. To live in Poland and watch people enjoy 12 guaranteed non-working public holidays, plus an absurd 26 days of legally-mandated paid vacation from work, plus weekends, in just one year causes your capitalistic nerves to erupt with bewildered indignation as you stand before direct evidence that the stereotype is true: the EU is just one big leisure fest, swinging in the hammock with too much heavy petting and wine to manage tomorrow with a clear head and fortitude for the nitty-gritty necessities of proper economic management. This feeling of rough-hewn superciliousness continues to course through your stars-and-stripes emblazoned ego right until the day you drink the Kool-Aid of extra holidays yourself, and instead of dying on the spot, fall in love with the idea and are amazed that America hasn’t followed suit yet.

Extra holidays mean more time for enjoying life, obviously, and goodness knows how many prematurely burnt-out American workers are just three weeks of chilling out away from not going psycho on their co-workers with an M4. This different philosophy, working to live, is one of the reasons why working as an English teacher is an occasional pleasure; around here, you aren’t expected to slave away 10 hours a day with Saturdays until you die of some work-related cancer that your insurance won’t cover. Taking a holiday is now and then expected, and sometimes even recommended. Last month, my boss actually suggested that I skip work to visit the city of Prague for longer. Many American firms would rather fire you and get a new warm body in at the merest suggestion that you could add extra days onto an already-egregiously long public holiday (it’s Socialism anyway!). Maybe this experience will hurt me in the long-run because digging myself into soul-crushing work holes is something I don’t have the patience for anymore, but screw it, I’d rather have to come back to Europe to live and enjoy myself than slave away forever in unrelenting American businesses where profit and output mean more than living your one life well. (Remember, bros and lady-bros, YOLO – Yugoslavia outsources little otters)

For my latest period of vacation indulgence, I spent five days in Slovakia, formerly the butt-end of the spelling bee monster Czechoslovakia. Since the end of the Cold War, this mountainous Central European jewel has been puttering forward, getting its act together along EU lines, and now looks far more developed than its shambolic Iron Curtain incarnation. Like what I’ve seen with Poland, the transport is modern, the styles are all Western, and the youth have a surprising command of the English language and as part of this are obsessed with American culture. The only big difference between Poland and Slovakia that I noticed was that Slovakia is worse-off economically, which means that the youth are also jobless and bored as hell, spending most of their time plotting ways to abandon the beautiful green mountains where they were born and raised.

Going by city, I’ll recount my experiences of the country as I went West to East across its captivating landscape.

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Bratislava:

Bratislava is Prague’s abused little brother. It’s hard to put this any other way, considering the aesthetics of Slovakia’s new capital and its history as secondary city during communist times. You see, Bratislava was caught in a communist-era planning struggle wherein Prague was to be preserved as the ‘historical’ cosmopolis of Czechoslovakia, while Bratislava was to become ‘futuristic’. So in true communist style, rife with disdain for anything bourgeoisie or pleasing to the eye, the authorities rolled in the wrecking balls and destroyed 90-some percent of Bratislava’s charming old town to install baleful apartment blocks in its place. The tragic result is that Bratislava now has a very wholesome old town about three blocks wide, surrounded by a wasteland of brown and gray rectangles that look like despair incarnate. A few graces happen to save Bratislava from utter ugliness though, and they include the well-rebuilt castle above the town center and the languid Danube river. Taking everything into consideration, I’d say this plain little capital is worth two days of your time, or perhaps three if you’ve got good company. You’ll be able to enjoy far smaller crowds than Prague, which is a bonus that shouldn’t be overlooked.

My introduction to the streets of Bratislava was quite an intimate one. It all started when my backpack became caught in a closing door as I exited the downtown bus, and my desperate push to free myself from the then-departing vehicle launched me head over heels into the grimy sidewalk. Feeling ridiculous for the collapse, I had to laugh in embarrassment, and luckily only two lucky viewers got to savor my disgrace. I sustained a rip in my pants and some smarting bruises on my foot and hip, but thanks to youth I rebounded fast and found my way to a hostel-sponsored pub crawl with a Scotsman named Neil for company. Unfortunately, the pub crawl was marginal as Tuesday night isn’t a very popular night for partying, although the other men in the crawl (Yes, a sausage fest) where replete with over-excited confidence, testosterone, and booze. The night became interesting once the organizers of the crawl, two Slovak college students who were almost as lost as we were, guided our drunken butts to a student party of epic proportions at a university housing complex north of the city. The entire area was infested with piles of rubbish and inebriated young people, and us crawlers were jumping at the prospect of landing some pretty Slovak gal somewhere in the chaos. Instead, we all got too drunk to function and spilled beer over ourselves dancing to bone-rattling drum n’ bass music for a good two hours. It’s hard to chat up people when a 60 hertz sine wave of bass doom turns all your eloquent speech into sonic diarrhea. Nevertheless, I danced until 4AM, at one point moving from the outside party into a club blasting vapid trance music. Once my feet felt like overused anvils, I caught a ride back to the city center on a crowded morning bus while talking to a Kenyan-Tahitian student about racism in Slovakia. As the sun rose, I returned to my hostel and fell dead sleep.

The following day was no less notable. With the Scotsman Neil, we woke up achingly late and ventured up to the kitschy ‘UFO’ restaurant that’s seated upon the top of the bridge connecting the banks of the Danube. The view from the top is quite unforgettable, and you can gaze out into Austria and southern Slovakia on a good day. I’d say the best part is the bathrooms; while you do your business, you can look down over civilization from the large windows that expose everything below to you (and I suppose likewise is true, too). If you miss out on those wonderfully voyeuristic bathrooms, I’m sorry but you have wasted a trip to Bratislava.

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We also did the free city tour, as advertised all over travel internet sites, and had to sit through three hours of endless information told by a sporty Slovak girl whose explanations were enthusiastic but lacking in conciseness. Plus, the weather was a scorcher, and by the end of it everyone except for the bronzed Slovak girl was cultivating a gentle sunburn. I had heard far more facts about Slovakian heroes and dates than I cared for, and that’s saying something for a history lover like myself.

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After providing the not-obligatory but totally-morally-obligatory tip to the guide, we got some traditional Slovak grub at the unpretentious “Slovak Pub” that really hit the spot (try the bean soup). A nap at the hostel later, and Neil and I were down in the hostel pub debating the relevancy and possibility of Scottish independence in between gulps of screwdriver cocktails. Neil got quite belligerent when I suggested that Scottish independence isn’t seen by all Scots to be a good idea, and somehow we got onto arguing over the necessity of central banks in loud voices that scared off all ten guests from the bar’s basement. Neil’s staunch hatred of central banking and currency not backed up by gold would have made Ron Paul quite proud, though his understanding of the exact mechanics behind money valuation and interest rates was drunkenly faulty (not saying mine’s perfect). In any event, we settled the matter, drank more to forget about it, and then scouted the streets for a good time.

Despite our energy, not one was found. However, as we went pub-hopping along the abandoned night streets of the old town, buying bartenders drinks and wasting about a few days of my wages in the process, a pair of short, overweight prostitutes suddenly pounced on us, grabbing us by the crotches with garbled coos of “YES make the SEX”. I was genuinely afraid that I was about to be robbed blind. We broke free, but the nightstompers found us nearby later and I literally ran by them as they approached, in fear of my nuts. Please, watch out for these predatory chunkers before they upgrade from grabbing bystanders to straight up sitting on them. At that point, none of us will be able to escape with our junk or money intact.

Coming up next: Rural Slovakia and its Magnificent Castles

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