Kaliningrad Russia Federation
Las Vegas, Nevada USA
Bratislava - Looking down one of the colorful narrow pedestrian walks toward the large open plaza where children played during my visit.
Greetings from Bratislava Slovakia,
The 09:45 Budapest train arrived in Bratislava station at 12:10. I took the opportunity while in the station to inquiry about onward train schedules. Because there is a possibility of visiting Kaliningrad as a part of a Baltic Sea cruise I wanted to check out transportation options from Slovakia to one of the Polish port cities on the Black Sea, either Gdansk or Wroclaw. None of the ticket sellers could speak enough English to understand my queries and all were short tempered with my inability to speak their language, Slovak [My one word in the language isĎakujem (JAH-koo-yehm) which means "thanks."]. One exasperated agent finally made me understand I should visit the international information window in a separate terminal location. The international information agent did understand enough of my needs to print out a train schedule for Warsaw, indicating as best as I could determine that any trip to the Baltic Sea coast would need to start in Warsaw. On the printed time table I saw the next direct train to Warsaw wouldn't leave until 22:58. There were other trains, but they all required quick changes of trains at intermediate stops, something I felt might be risky for anyone not speaking Polish.
Hanging across the exit passage from the arriving trains where all arriving passengers couldn't miss it, a prominent banner proclaimed: "Welcome to Slovakia." Given the cold welcome I'd received from the ticket agents I had to wonder if the sign might be a subtle reminder to railroad staff to be more friendly to foreign visitors! With the Warsaw train schedule safely tucked away I left the station and started my search for a hotel or alternately someplace to wait out the 11PM train departure time in eleven hours.
The Mercure Hotel is only a block from the train station, but their 99+ Euro sticker shock room rates made that a short unsatisfying visit. The receptionist noting my obvious pecuniary limitations suggested a really cheap nearby hostel. One quick look at the older, low budget Possonium Hostal and I moved on, though the description at their website makes it look like a pretty good value for anyone on a rock bottom budget.
About two blocks south of the train station I came upon the four star Hotel abba (their lower case spelling). The rack rate of 65 Euros didn't sound too outrageous until the receptionist noted breakfast would be an additional 12 Euros... plus various taxes. Pleading for a discount, she finally offered me the ten percent discount 73 Euro deal which included breakfast and all taxes. The abba is an excellent property and clearly worth all the posted stars. Compared to the Crown Plaza opposite the Presidential Palace at well over a hundred Euros per night, it is a good value for this expensive capital city.
The Hotel abba is nearly perfect; I say nearly because there are a couple management issues which need attention. First, the security box in the room was locked closed requiring a special visit by a maintenance guy who paused just long enough after opening it to suggest he might be expecting some reward for doing this little service, a service which would not have been necessary if the room had been properly prepared for a new guest. Second, loud and up beat music thrilled guests trying to enjoy a quiet leisurely breakfast. I'm sure the person who selected the music found it wonderful for shopping or beer drinking. Loud, fast beat music says: "Hurry up. Get moving!" That is not the message guests want to hear during their first cup of coffee in a hotel. In a fine hotel such as the abba something closer to wedding music is more appropriate, in my opinion. The reception staff have been uniformly friendly and all speak some English, most quite well. The decor is formal and cool colors, which probably is better appreciated during hot summer months, but not at all unpleasant with snow falling outside when it actually feels color coordinated!
After checking into the abba I walked down to the Centrum area of the "Little Big City" and noted that slogan on many of the numerous trams running around the Old Town area. Sensing something different about the city I noted few Western fast food outlets have managed to make inroads here. Infrastructure and customs have remained pretty much unchanged from earlier times. The history of the country and Bratislava in particular is full of conflict. The Old Town has been restored and rebuilt many times after being damaged by wars. Today, it might look a lot like it did hundreds of years ago when still a center of culture and commerce.
People, young and old stroll around in the freezing temperatures like on a warm spring day... except for all the down coats and fur lined hoods. Colorful cafes invite shoppers to stop for a coffee or quick lunch; I chose an obscure little pizza restaurant for a big, 2 person mushrooms and salami pie and a half liter of local beer to wash it down. Children play in the open plazas totally oblivious to the weather, like children everywhere. With such a long history there has been a lot of time for beautifying the city and I have never seen more outdoor sculptures in one place, many with humorous themes.
On my second day in the city I decided I'd like a wider taste of things Slovakian. A day pass for all the trams and buses is only 4.50 Euros. As I had already walked a lot of the Old City, all that afternoon I rode buses and trams around the periphery of the city and into the suburbs. During one of the rides I came across two Mac Donald's restaurants and jumped off the tram at one for a bite to eat. The young man behind the counter apparently spoke just enough English to take Big Mac orders, but made change for a ten Euros note when I had given him a twenty! With no common language and the possibility the error was deliberate I faced a dilemma. So, I just stood there pointing to the coins he had offered as change and then pulling my other Euro bills out and pointing to a twenty Euro bill. He mumbled "ten" while I remained standing still, finally calling his manager over who opened the cash register. Fetching the missing ten Euro bill and the receipt which showed 20 Euros tendered he sheepishly stepped back with a pathetic expression on his face. Given all the ambiguities in the situation I am still not sure if the "error" occurred by accident or intent. Ah, the joys of traveling in a foreign country where you speak not a word of the local language.
With flurries of snow falling and after only two nights in the capital city of Slovakia I hiked over to the train station to catch the 10:13 to Warsaw. The train started in Budapest a couple hours earlier and I admired everything about my second class seating compartment this time. During the seven hours trip north to the capital of Poland I could see the results of numerous recent snow storms; scenery along the route looked like pages from a Christmas picture book: all the trees burdened by snow bending their branches. I took lots of pictures, but most came out "black and white." I wonder why. The next postcard should come from somewhere in Poland... or possibly Kaliningrad, my ultimate destination for exploration of eastern Europe.
Fred L Bellomy