Slovakia is one of those places that most people don’t think about that much. I think the fact that it was the second part of the word Czechoslovakia might have a small part to do with that. The name ‘Czech’ is quite distinctive, whereas ‘Slovakia’ could be a city in Russia or a region of Bulgaria to untrained ears. It’s capital city, Bratislava, is also not a name that pops up that often in international headlines all that often. So, although we had done some research into the country, we didn’t really know what it would be like before we arrived.
I am reminded of a Joke our walking tour guide told us: Slovenia develops a nuclear bomb, and decides to start world war three. They launch a nuke at Las Angeles, and wait for the response. A few hours go by and they hear nothing. They then blow up New York, and again, no response from the Americans. Fed up, the president of Slovenia calls Washington and asks why they haven’t responded. The President of the USA, flabbergasted, asks how anyone can still be alive in Bratislava. Yeah, I didn’t find it that funny either…
As mentioned in the last entry, the train trip taught us a valuable lesson: Reserve a seat on a train if at all possible. It usually only costs a couple of dollars more, and in this part of the world it is truly a necessary thing, as they will happily sell as many tickets for a train as they can, regardless of how many seats there are.
The weather was hovering around the 30 degree mark when we boarded at Budapest, and we crammed onto the carriage. It was the style where there are enclosed boxes of 6 seats, with a walkway down one side. We made it as far as the walkway and were wondering what was taking so long for people to get their seats, when we realised that there were no more seats. So, we travelled the 4ish hours to Bratislava sitting on our packs or leaning against the wall, with no air conditioning and no way of opening the window.
There was some in-train entertainment however when the snack trolly guy tried to come through. Naturally, he was having a hard time, but most people understood that he was simply doing his job. Most people of course, except the Aussie girl a bit further up who demanded loudly that he turn his trolly around. After hearing her whine about how this is so ridiculous that she didn’t get a seat for the previous two hours, I almost wanted to say something, but I doubt it would have done any good. The apologetic waiter told her that he was just doing his job, and somehow managed to get past. Yet another Aussie abroad that lives up to the stereotype.
Finally, after the unpleasantness of the voyage, we arrive in Bratislava and get to our hostel. It was fairly modern, and had a beer garden, as well as two kittens who lived there. One feature that I might have forgotten to mention to Jess as we booked it was that there was a ‘Hostel’ (as in the film) themed bar down in the basement.
For those who don’t know, Hostel is a film about a group of backpackers that travel to Slovakia and end up getting kidnapped to be murdered by people with lots of money. Thankfully, this didn’t happen to us, and the bar proved to be a delightful place, decorated with all sorts of movie related paraphernalia.
Bratislava itself doesn’t seem like a particularly big city, and did not really feel like a capital city. However, it had a lot of the charm that we saw in Budapest, but was far less touristy. The old town area was well kept. It featured the second narrowest house in the world, which was anticlimactically now a kebab shop. According to our free walking tour guide, the most narrow house was in Amsterdam and was also a kebab shop. This is actually no longer the case, as at the time of writing this blog we had visited the one in Amsterdam. You’ll have to read the Netherlands entry once I’ve written it to find out what it is.
Along the tour we were shown many of the quirky sculptures and statues scattered about the city. One of the most popular is of the “Man at Work”, who is just taking a break. Unfortunately, a few years ago he was hit by a car and lost his head. Thankfully, he was quickly restored and they even installed a sign warning people of his presence.
Another quirky sight was the “Blue Church”, which has a rather unique art nouveau facade, making it look a little like something the smurfs would build. It’s no longer open to the public, but you can see inside, and it’s as strange as it is on the outside. There were people inside so I didn’t think it would be appropriate to take photos through the locked ironwork door.
After a few days in Bratislava, we headed for the High Tatras, a region in the East of the country with some beautiful mountain ranges. We stayed in the main city in the area, Poprad, at a hostel where we expected to be in dormitory beds, but because we were the first to check in, we were given the option of air mattresses in the sauna hut that doesn’t get used this time of year. We gladly accepted, which was a good thing, since Jess had come down with a rather nasty cold.
There is a tram from Poprad to a few different areas on the mountain, so it is easy to get to. We made the trek to Stary Smokovec, which had a funicular railway you could take up even further. We wandered around for a bit, but as Jess was not in the best of health, she decided to head back, while I went for a hike up the mountain. It was a fairly tough walk, the pathway being ‘paved’ with sharp, cantaloupe sized boulders, but well worth it, as at the end of my chosen path was the best thing I could have hoped for: A pub! In the middle of nowhere was a pub and restaurant that didn’t even have a connecting road. I passed a couple of people with keg-backpacks walking up the hill. I had no pack and found it fairly rough, so I can only imagine what it must have been like. That said, I am glad of their efforts, because it was one of the most satisfying beers I’ve ever had.
After enjoying some refreshments, I made the trek back down to the funicular station, only to find it closed. Lovely. I slogged it down the thankfully smooth road which ran parallel for about 2.2km, and after an hour wait, caught the tram back to Poprad.
After looking at accommodation in Poprad, we realised that there was nothing really suitable, so we instead looked at towns nearby to stay for a couple more days. We found a nice guesthouse in nearby Štrba. What we didn’t realise was that there was virtually nothing in this town. At all. We took the train from Poprad two stops down, and got off at the little train station, and found ourselves feeling a little uneasy, Jess especially.
Stopping for a moment to consider our options, a voice came from loudspeakers situated all over the town, and spoke for a while in Slovakian about goodness knows what, before playing some music, and then making another announcement. We still have not idea what that was all about. We press on for a bit, and because each house had two sets of numbers on it for some reason, we overshot the place. Jess had finally had enough and wanted to head back. As we did, a gentleman standing outside of a house got our attention and said “Hello! Australia!”. Well, I guess there was no backing out now.
The property owner did not speak a word of english, except for “Taxi”, but we did manage to get things sorted and get settled into our room. Later that night as we sat outside and ate our dinner, we were served numerous shots of slivovice, a local spirit with about 60% alcohol content. It was powerful stuff.
A day or two later, Jess was still not up for much, so I did what any caring, responsible boyfriend would do, and went out for the day on my own. In my defence, I had been doing daily supply runs back in Poprad, making the 4km round trip to the supermarket. In all honesty, I think she was glad not to have to listen to my nagging about staying hydrated.
I managed to flag down a taxi, which was driven by what looked like a 16 year old, and paid the princely sum of what worked out to be about $4 for the trip to Štrba Tatranska, a few kilometres down the road. From there, I caught a tram up to Štrbské Pleso, a lakeside area with a number of big hotels and ski lodges.
Before heading off, I made sure to have a good feed of Lángos, a local food that consists of a deep fried fladbread served with mild cheese and sour cream. Again, I am finding my mouth is watering recalling this delightfully tasty food.
This walk was a bit longer, and not quite as steep as my previous High Tatras experience, but was still fairly intense. Still, it was a beautiful area, with large mountains covered with pine trees. As I slogged up the hill, the trees got shorter and shorter until there were none left. Being a hot day again, this made things less comfortable, but I carried on. There was no pub at the end of this walk, but I was treated to some spectacular views. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.
A few days later we headed back to Bratislava, before heading to Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic. We made sure to book our seats this time.
In conclusion, Slovakia was almost the opposite to Hungary in that I had very little in the way of expectations, and I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. For such a little talked about country, it has plenty to offer, especially when it comes to outdoor activities, as well as natural beauty.
— Thomas 2015.11.15
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