Banska Stiav-err… Bratislava!

St. Martin's Church

I was on my way to the beautiful town of Banska Stiavonica in Slovakia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (AKA really beautiful), when the train out of Bled was late. Trains in Eastern Europe were late half the time, but when they involved Slovenia they were late every time.

Ulrica, a German woman who’d gone hiking around here while her boyfriend was stuck at work, was my unplanned travel buddy. Together we arrived at the Plan B Café outside the train station in the Austrian town of Villach and explored it for the hour we had. Villach seemed to exist entirely around its train station. The view from the river was nice, but other than that it was several streets of restaurants and shops, a church, and nothing else. Where I expected to see houses on the outskirts were bare mountains. Where was the woman with a briefcase going so quickly? The only reason I can see anyone visiting Villach is to wait for another train.

Bled, Slovenia

Lake Bled

My itinerary was blank again, when someone in Budapest recommended Lake Bled in Slovenia. The first thing I saw off the Bled station was the Julian Alps, a smaller mountain range in northern Slovenia. Bled itself is a tiny, very popular tourist town built around a small but beautiful glacial lake of the same name, for which it is famous.

Lake Bled is an almost unbelievable shade of turquoise, so jewel bright I thought they must be throwing chemicals into it. But no, it’s the result of a high algae concentration. In the middle sits a little island, lush with trees and just big enough to stably hold an old church. People swim there or row across on canoes or pletnas, romantic little rentable boats lining the lake’s shore. Along the lake’s almost perfect perimeter is a cliff on one side, atop of which sits Bled Castle. This view – the castle, the island and its church, is a postcard, and likely one you’ve already seen.

Budapest: My Favorite Capital City

Budapest offers many great places to read, like outside the Parliament building

When I arrived in the crazy night-time traffic of Budapest, all the buildings looked like massive stone slabs. When I woke up the next morning and set out to explore, I met the most incredible architecture I’d seen. Every building weighs a million pounds in stone and is crested with impossibly intricate carvings. Budapest is like a stone forest, but it’s spacious and not oppressive. You never feel cloistered, or that people are looking at you. In fact, nobody seems to care what you’re doing. Budapest has an immediately noticeable laid back attitude stemming from the fact that life is less regulated. How so, you ask? For one, unlike meticulous Switzerland there aren’t lines painted all over the streets to tell you how far your pedestrian feet can venture into the road before you’re in the cars’ way. Walk where you want; move when a car comes.

Zdiar, Slovakia and the Ginger Monkey Hostel

Zdiar and the Tatra Mountains

After Olomouc, I went to the Ginger Monkey Hostel in a mountain village called Zdiar, right in the Tatra Mountains on the Polish-Slovak border. I hadn’t planned to visit Slovakia at all, but there was a flier in the bathroom door of Poets’ for this place, and the time seemed ripe to get away from towns and spend some time in nature. Plus, I was told I had to go there.

It was an all day trip, with a 4.5 hour ride on a slow train to the city of Poprad, then an hour-long bus ride to Zdiar. From the bus stop it was a short hike past the petrol station, the white, crumbling village church, and, just behind that, the hostel, a colorful cabin attached to another colorful cabin belonging to the Ginger Monkey’s Slovak neighbors. The first thing that happened when I came up to the porch was that I was attacked (lovingly) by two dogs, one being Wally, the hostel dog, and the other a black lab belonging to the local gardener. A bunch of people were sitting on the porch under the wooden monkey plaque, talking, and staring out at the row of mountains directly facing the hostel. It had taken me a good five minutes to walk up the Ginger Monkey’s driveway in the first place because I stopped a dozen times to turn around for that very view and take photos from every possible angle, capturing all the minute changes that suddenly jump out when you move five paces.

A Daytrip to Helfstyn Castle

Iron wrought Helfstyn sign

There are a lot of good daytrips from Olomouc: a couple of castles, the zoo, caves, and long hikes. I couldn’t not take one while I was there, so I chose the Helfštýn Castle ruins. The train stopped at Lipník nad Becvou, a very old, medieval town one tenth the size of Olomouc. You know a place is good when the first thing you see is a train station tunnel covered in painted scenes of fairy tales. There were fighting knights, princesses, celestial demons, and a puss in boots standing in the gate of a castle holding a flagon of beer.

It was a quiet and cloudy day with a bit of drizzle. I only saw a few people around. There was no man selling ice cream cones on the way into town as there had been in Karlstejn; I entered town without preamble and walked for fifteen minutes past colorful little houses and a single gas station until I reached a small, quiet town center. It was a scaled down version of Olomouc’s main square, which was a scaled down version of Prague’s main square. I felt like I was in a nesting doll of settlements. The statues here were smaller, the rows of equally quaint buildings closer together, only here they formed an L rather than an actual square. Under repainted white archways stood a vinarna (winery), whose windows blocked out light with heavy wooden doors fitted with iron.

Olomouc

Holy Trinity Column

I wanted to see more of the Czech Republic. The back of the Prague map at Sir Toby’s listed some popular places and the logical next destination, where everyone headed after Prague, was a quiet little town in southern Bohemia called Ceský Krumlov. Its maze of medieval alleyways twisting around an unusually large castle reportedly took you back to the fourteen century, but with a sewage system. And there were 200 bars for 15,000 people; surely here I could stumble into my time-traveling medieval tavern and be set on adventure. The downside was that with so much charm oozing around every corner its tourist population topped its actual population in the summertime, and Prague had thoroughly worn me out on that account, not to mention the clubs, pubs, and busy big cities accounts, too.

I scanned the map further and the name “Poets’ Corner Hostel” caught my eye; sounds like just the kind of place I want to be, I thought. But it was in a town called Olomouc, in the opposite direction of Ceský Krumlov.

“What’s in Olomouc?” I asked the girl working at the front desk.

“Oh, nothing,” she rolled her eyes. “It’s the kind of place to go if you want to write a book for two days.”

Historic Prague

A slice of Prague

Ever since some family friends took a spontaneous trip to Prague five years ago and returned singing its praises, it shot to the top of my list of places to see, and on this trip, Prague was the city I was looking forward to more than any other, a lone bright star in an otherwise dark and obscure Eastern European sky. Visions of a dark, gothic paradise beckoned; if I was going to wander around narrow streets and stumble into a dim underground bar invited in by a single lamp swinging from its door and be transported to another time, it was going to be in Prague.

Unrealistic expectations aside, like most people who visit in the height of summer, I was let down. Prague wasn’t dark; it was Disney dark. Its buildings were painted in pleasant shades of peach, pink, cream, and powder blue, it was filled with colorful overpriced kitsch shops by the Charles Bridge, and every old, crumbling, looming church topped with threatening black spires was swarmed by loud tourists who wouldn’t let each other take a single photo. To say Prague was touristy is a gross understatement; every hour of every day people rubbed elbows in the historic districts, fighting each other to see the astronomical clock. The atmosphere in this pretty area was strictly commercial, which I found very unappealing.

Everything But the Main Course: The Outskirts of Prague

One of the creepiest things I have ever seen.

Someone described Prague to me like this: “it’s dark, it’s gritty, the buildings are covered in gargoyles, it comes at you!”

Prague’s train station was a multistory complex with a dollar store feel to it. A Burger King, generic coffee places with sparse seating, and stores selling tacky zebra striped handbags I often spot on Russian women at home desperately geared toward every tourist created the bleak atmosphere of a mall around closing time. There was even a stand in the middle of the ground floor devoted to rhinestones.

Here I quickly discovered the benefit to being a Russian speaker in the Czech Republic: Czech is written in Latin script, so it’s like reading Russian written in English (or like reading the emails I wrote home). Czech and Russian aren’t similar enough to be mutually intelligible, but they’re similar enough that when I saw the sign “sever,” I instantly knew that it meant not “to cut,” but “north.” Getting around was a cinch. I would’ve struggled more in Russia, at least until my reading speed picked up.

Berlin: See It Before It’s Gone

Berlin in sum

I was going to skip Germany altogether; I’m not one for sausage and beer. Plus, my main reason for going, Neuschwanstein Castle, was under renovation and offered obstructed views only (and turned out to date from the late 1800s, too new for my fairytale castle). But when I saw Cédric’s photos of the East Side Gallery, I decided to make a stop to a city I never planned to visit at all: Berlin.

Am I glad I did! It’s by far the most interesting place I visited. And how else would I have learned that Germany is basically America? It’s wealthy, spacious, and has an abundance of warehouses on the outskirts of towns. It doesn’t get more American than that.

As the train rode through Germany’s flat, forested landscape, I noticed that it looked exactly like Pennsylvania. Not Maryland, not Virginia, but distinctly Pennsylvania with its brown and green shades. When the Germans set out to see the world, they must have arrived at present-day PA and exclaimed, “This looks familiar!” and just stopped there.

I arrived in Berlin Hauptbahnhof, an impressively huge modern complex that made me think, yup, this is Germany, alright, and was delighted by the diversity of people walking through the station and the busy yet casual atmosphere helped by all the sun spilling down through the glass domed roof. I could settle here, I thought, reluctantly taking to the city at once.

From One End to the Other: Switzerland Part 3

Aboard the Glacier Express

The rest of my time in Switzerland was a little of everything. Cédric’s family and I drove across the country (a 3 hour drive with traffic) to their hometown of Gebenstorf near Baden in the German part. The first thing I walked into was South Park in German. It was strange to hear a dub of Cartmann.

My visit fell on the Baden festival, the biggest festival in Switzerland which happens once every five years (cinquennially?). Every five years they alternate between the small and big versions of the festival. This year it was the small one.