Friday, August 25, 2006
We got back at 6:30 and went for our last Slovakian meal - for starters, a selection of meats and cheeses with bread (including super-cheesy super-garlicky spread) then dgym had steak with blue cheese sauce and I had pork stuffed with sheeps cheese and peppers. After all that and the yoghurt-and-cheese topped greek salad, we were feeling a bit cheesed out.
On Thursday we got up at 6:30am, checked out of our luxurious residence and headed for the bus station. Unfortunately the 8am bus was full and the next was at three, so instead we went to the train station and got on the 9:20 Eurocity to Praha (We were discussing whether to call it Prague or Praha. I'm all for calling places by their proper names but at the same time it seems a bit pretentious. We like Bratislava all the more for not presenting us with this dilemma.)
The train was horribly packed to begin with, reminded me of the good old days in London rush hour, but we got a seat eventually. This time we managed to get on a direct train and realised what we'd done wrong on the out-journey: gone from the wrong station in Prague - we should have gone from Holesovice, not the main station.
We arrived in Prague at lunchtime, hungry and ready for some dumpling action. We went to Prague about a year and a half ago, so we know where to go and get dumplings (Kolkovna, Staroměstská metro) and we shared a dish of assorted meats, dumplings and cabbages.
Being encumbered with luggage, we only had a little wander around, tested the ice cream (decent enough but expensive) and found ourselves a park behind the main square, furnished with a murky pond, plastic fountain and huge tree that looked like it had been split in two by lightning. We sat around for a couple of hours, chilling and watching two little girls gradually empty the pond by means of plastic bottles.
In the evening we had dinner at an old favourite of ours, Titanic (near Muzeum but tucked right out of the way, we found it during a random wander). We both had steak, with potato pancakes and peas, all of which were fantastic - the steak was even better than I remembered it being. I don't think the prices had even changed since last time (yes, we're used to the English habit of pushing up prices by super-inflationary amounts every few months).
Prague is a busy, busy city - there are some beautiful buildings there and several years ago it was probably a lovely place to visit - but the tourist industry has gone insane there - too many people, too many souvenir stalls, Russian doll shops, overpriced restaurants - the contrast with Bratislava is amazing. Bratislava is a lot more relaxed, fewer tourists, not overrun by tacky souvenir shops, you can easily find a bench to sit on in the centre, and sure there are some overpriced restaurants but it's easy to find good ones. It also has some entertainingly bad jugglers. I hope Bratislava doesn't turn into Prague.
After dinner, we went to the airport and caught our flight home. Again we were delayed leaving, delayed arriving and our baggage took ages to come out - we got past customs at about 00:40, well after the last train home. So we spent another jolly night at Gatwick South Terminal (yes there have been previous jolly nights) except this one was a bit less jolly as it was noisy as hell, and they've changed the seating so there are fewer squishy benches to lie on. We probably got about half an hours sleep each, before catching the first train at 5:30.
And so we're back. Hopefully there's some nice pictures of the trip which will be posted shortly - in the mean time, look at a few of Pete's pictures, which includes pictures of our zoo trip, and of the scary highwire thing.
Wednesday, August 23, 2006
We have spent the past three days exploring Vienna. Sunday was really only a half day - we were all pretty tired on Saturday night, and Dgym and I were kept up by a huge grasshopper or cricket or something (it was about 3 inches long) that decided to hop into our room at about 2am, then jump and fly around for a bit and be very hard to coax back out of the room again. We eventually managed to trap it in the wash bag and set it free as far away from the room as possible, and it was about 4am by then.
So on Sunday we got a taxi to Petrzalka, the southern station of Bratislava and boarded the train to Vienna. The buildings of Bratislava disappear fairly quickly and quickly turn into fields and woods, with hills in the distance. Once in Austria we started seeing lots and lots of wind turbines, far more than we've seen anywhere else.
We arrived in Sudbahnhof and, not knowing how or where to buy bus or tram tickets (or which ones to get) we started walking towards the town centre.
The highlight of Sunday had to be the visit to the Eiscafe (which are even better in Vienna than in Germany, although more expensive) - we had just sat down outside the cafe with our overloaded Kugels when Pete pointed that Ant and Dec had just finished eating at the same cafe and were about to walk past us (for non-UK readers, they are English TV presenters). They were both shorter than you'd think, and quite scruffy. But apparently they gave me a really dirty look when I took a chair from a nearby unoccupied table (there were only three chairs to a table). I don't know why, as it wasn't their table. Maybe they heard us speaking English in an English accent, saw that we were of the generation who is supposed to recognise Ant and Dec on the street, and then I went in their general direction to get the chair, probably looked straight through them, and then walked off.
At least they have good taste in ice cream - I had lemon and blackcurrant - the lemon was at the bottom, and as I got to the bottom it combined with the taste of the cone to produce a cheesecakey flavour. Mmmm.
Dgym and I took the underground out to meet Maike in the afternoon, it was lovely to see her again - we played board games for a while and then went back into town to meet Rachael and Pete (who had spent the afternoon hiding from the rain) for dinner. We found an all you can eat sushi buffet and, well, ate all we could.
On Monday we went to Schloss Schönbrunn to visit the zoo and see the beautiful grounds and buildings. The zoo was pretty good, among other things we saw little tiger cubs with enormous paws, tiny monkeys carrying even tinier baby monkeys on their backs, otters with friendly faces, giraffes, elephants, penguins, and in the rainforest house you could walk through a dark room full of bats.
We went back to Bratislava for dinner, this time we stayed out of the Old Town and went to a Slovak restaurant on the high street - much cheaper than the tourist areas, came to about £5 per head with beer and pudding and stuff and was very nice.
Rachael and Pete have those job thingys to go back to, so we put them on a coach to the airport on Tuesday morning and spent the rest of the day having a nice relaxing walk around and eating ice cream and chocolate on their behalf. Vienna is pretty expensive compared to Bratislava, although not as high as England prices - but food quality is excellent. We had a nice relaxing walk around. In the evening we met up with Maike again in a cafe with over 800 board games, which were all stacked up in huge piles everywhere. We spent the evening playing games and eating chilli con carne. We really liked the idea of this cafe - so we have decided when we settle down, wherever that may be, we will set up an internet cafe with board games, snacks and free wifi. You will also be able to get your bike fixed there.
We have finished with Vienna for this trip - we have one day left in Bratislava, and will spend Thursday in Prague. Three capital cities in a week's holiday is not bad going.
Rachael and Pete are joining us in Bratislava for the weekend - they arrived late last night at the same hostel we're staying in. Also arrivng at the hostel, at 6am, not very quietly, was our next door neighbour. (the rooms are arranged in pairs and each pair shares a bathroom). Which kept me awake until about 9 before they finally settled down or went out or something, and I could fall asleep again.
The four of us headed into town around midday, had some sandwiches and coffee and then headed up to the castle, where we found the da Vinci exhibition we had been looking for - with copies of his notes, wooden mockups of some of them and their modern-day equivalents - including a wooden model of the bicycle design, displayed next to a very nice carbon racing bike, mmmm. Except that the bicycle design was most likely not drawn by Leonardo - comparing the scruffy sketchy style of that drawing to the clean precision of his others, it's quite clear to see.
The castle has some nice views over the city surrounding regions - we were able to wave at both Hungary and Austria, and saw the huge panelak complex (lots and lots of blocks of flats) to the south of the city.
It was a bit cooler by then so we decided to cross over the river and have a go on the playground. Pete, being a vertigo sufferer, decided to stay on the ground. The three of us got practising on the lower level which, like the other levels, consists of a circuit of 8 or so stretches of different rope-based activities, each a few metres long - e.g. walking along a cable while holding onto two lengths of rope, or stepping between several loops of rope. (will post pictures when we get back next week). The difference between the lower level and the other two is that you can use the lower level for free, it's about a foot off the ground and you don't need safety gear. After mastering (well, sort of) the ground level, we hired our safety kit, were taught how to clip/unclip the karabiners, always have at least one of them attached to something, don't accidentally unclip somebody else, etc. and taken up to the second level.
At which point I discovered the vertigo I never knew I had (I'm absolutely fine on the rope bridges at soft play), was unable to get onto the ropes, waited a minute, tried to pull myself together and just go for it but realised my legs were shaking like hell and I'd completely lost my cool. Went back down to try and get more of a feel for things on the lower level by doing them with my eyes closed, but before I got half way around, I was sweating and still quite shaky. The upper levels hadn't looked scary before I went up there - but now, the more I looked at them, the worse I felt about them. So I went to sit with Pete and watch Rachael and Dgym, who were both doing really well - they both got all the way around the middle level and across the first leg of the top one before turning back and aerial-sliding back down. We were also watching a little Japanese boy on the middle level who had been really scared at first but the instructor lady was helping him around and he was doing really well. He made it all the way round eventually (well, you have to - once you've started, you have to either complete the circuit or go back the way you came).
Vertigo aside, this puts Slovakia waaay ahead in our "country with the best playgrounds" stakes. We had been impressed by the quality and variety of playground equipment in Spain and Poland (and there are even a few good ones in England), but this one blows them all away. It's fantastic that a facility like this is available, that you can stick your kids 20ft up in the air on a harness and watch them wobble along ropes and beams - and not at a huge cost (in fact, it's free if you get vertigo and chicken out at the last minute). Amazing playgrounds, free wifi, Italian ice cream, virtually car-free streets in the centre... Bratislava's definitely our kind of city. Tomorrow we're off to Vienna for the day.
Saturday, August 19, 2006
We have spent a lovely couple of days wandering around Bratislava.
On Thursday we slept till midday but were still quite tired. We had a huge lunch then sat by the Danube for a while, watching tiny shy lizards scamper back and forth when they thought we weren't looking. We then crossed the river via the covered walkway and sat on a bench under some shady trees to let our stomachs get on with some serious digesting (we were rushing so much on Wednesday we didn't have time to eat very well, so I think our stomachs were surprised to get food).
While on the 'other' side of the river, we paid a visit to the shopping centre. After a visit to the juice bar (where I had a custom combo of lemon, apple and ginger that might as well not have had the apple and ginger - very zingy and awakening, it's a good think I like lemons) Dgym showed me the way to the pet shop (he's been to Bratislava before) where we saw fish, bunnies, and most importantly, tiny tortoises feasting on pineapple chunks.
Outside the shopping centre is the ultimate playground - well, there's a normal kiddie playground and then there's an adventure playground with high wires, climbing wall, etc. I think you pay 50Sk to hire the safety equipment - there was a bit too much sunshine for comfort on Thursday but hopefully we will be able to do it on a cooler day.
Bratislava has city-centre wifi. Supposedly all three central squares (Main, Primatial, Frantiskanske) are covered but we could only get on in Frantiskanske - the networks seemed completely firewalled elsewhere. But there are always a few people sitting around with laptops, and it's really nice not to be the only ones!
On Friday I woke up two hours earlier than dgym, fully recovered, although he was still a bit knackered. So we decided on a nice relaxing trek around a museum (always surprisingly hard work). We'd been aiming for the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition at the History museum. Noting that it was called SNM (Slovak National Museum) we went for the first thing labelled as such, not realising that SNM is a group of museums. So we ended up in the Natural History museum instead, browsing a mammoth exhibition and a rock collection (not as extensive as the rock collection in the Prague museum).
We also had some pancakes on Friday. They tend to be filled with huge quantities of nuts, caramel, cream, fruit, etc. here. I think I'm more of a crepes-au-citron kind of person.
Today has been a crazy day of travel. When booking our trip to Bratislava, we discovered that direct flights there only go from Stansted, which is a real pain to get to. Our alternatives were either a 22-hour coach trip from London to Vienna, or flying from Gatwick to Prague and getting a 4-hour coach to Bratislava. We decided to go with the latter.
Flying was real fun. What with the current chaos in the UK, we had to get up at 7am to be at checkin three hours before our midday flight. The queues for security were huge, hardly surprising once you get there and have to remove your shoes, put them separately through the X-Ray scanner, undergo a body search, put your shoes back on and then have all your suspicious-looking items (laptops, baby milk, medicine, etc) scrutinised with various little machines and scanners. Our laptops turned out not to be terrorist equipment, thank goodness, so we were eventually able to board the plane, which took off about half an hour late.
Arriving late, and waiting ages for our bags to come through, resulted in the last bus leaving for Bratislava without us. Our backup option was to get the train.
If a Swiss person told you the Czech railways were a bit rubbish, you might not believe them. However, we are English, we know bad train systems when we see them, and we weren't very impressed with the Czech trains. Somehow the internet managed to lie to me and tell me that we needed to change trains at Pardubice, so we got on the Pardubice train at Prague. Our train sat outside Pardubice for about 20 minutes - we later learned this was most likely down to waiting for our connecting train to clear the platform. When we got into Pardubice, the clock said we'd missed it by 3 minutes but the info board seemed to think it was still hanging around and delayed by 10 minutes.
This station was particularly confusing in that it used two sets of numbers - as well as the platform numbers (1-4) it also had 'side' numbers (1-8) Each platform has two sides, I suppose a side is equivalent to a UK platform. It took us a while to figure that one out, it might have helped if they'd used two different numbering systems. We eventually found what might be our train on platform 4, side 1 - it had the right time and service number - but the lady on the platform told us it's going to Breclaw. In despair, we retreated to the ticket office and found out the time of the next train. We went to the platform and sat and waited. Now, the platforms have one display on each side. They tell you quite early on which platform your train will arrive (I suppose that is good) but once you're on the platform, no information is displayed until about a minute before the train gets in. That includes delays. You have to run back to the concourse for that. Our train was delayed for 20 minutes, we were on the platform so had no idea about this, and as our train's time came and went we got rather worried that it might have been and gone on another platform. Eventually, about 25 minutes after its due time, the info screen popped up to tell us that the train was arriving on this side and it was 20 minutes late. The train turned out to have come from Prague anyway. Never mind, eh?
However, to their credit, they do play charming little xylophone tunes before station announcements.
We reached Bratislava eventually at about 11pm. Not having a clue where in town we were, having no Slovak money, etc. but seeing some central-looking buildings in the distance, we headed for those. We eventually found our cash machine and a taxi and made our way to our dodgy student halls/summer hostel accommodation. Fortunately it was 24 hour check in. While waiting to be checked in, a Slovak girl waved at me and whispered the advice that "It's deessgaaahsting here". Well, we weren't expecting much for 10 quid a night and we've stayed in some pretty gross places. The room turned out to be not too bad. The bathroom and beds were clean, and those are the important bits. The bits inbetween are a bit shabby, just typical student halls stuff, and we try to avoid touching those bits - but it's only the third-skankiest place we've stayed in and at least we're not afraid to use the shower. :)