Jewels of Bohemia September 2016 Part 8
This morning I stepped out on our little balcony to gaze over the Danube in the early morning light. There is very little traffic or people to distract from the peaceful scene of the iconic river. The UFO above the bridge is still in the same position as last night, either taking off or landing :). As I stand on this balcony so far from Kansas, it is a good time again to remind myself how lucky Paul and I are in being able to travel this fascinating world!
Paul and I make our way to the breakfast room and survey the large spread of food that is laid out for the hotel guests. If you can’t find something you like at this buffet you are much to persnickety. There is a half-dozen types of juice to choose from, (I rule out the green colored juice immediately, Ick), along with meats, fruits, eggs, cakes, numerous types of breads and things we normally don’t eat for breakfast like vegetables. I place a piece of bread in the nifty “conveyer belt” toaster, watch the bread disappear and then come out the bottom toasted to perfection. Later I watch in awe as a woman about my age, alright an older woman, places five pieces of bread through the toaster and then adds them to her already food-heaped plate. Holy Smokes, that is a lot of food to consume.
Our group gathers in the lobby, yes, most are there before the scheduled time. This is a good time to share a conversation I overheard between Paul and Mr. D at some point in our tour when we still were struck by how people showed up so early before the actual rendezvous time. Paul comments to Mr. D that we should start coming an hour early to get here with the rest of the group and Mr. D replies, “No, I think we will have to show up the day before!” I had a good laugh over that line. Anyway, Milan introduces us to the local guide, a petite young woman named Nora who will tour us around Bratislava’s Old Town.
Nora takes us more-or-less along the same route as Milan did last night, through the parking lot, by the American embassy, (which is surrounded by a wire fence which didn’t set well with the locals when they put it up), and into the small square, (actual name is Hviezdoslavovo Namestie Pedestian Mall), which is full of tourists this morning. Nora talks about history, buildings, statues, etc. with us in excellent English as we stroll through the square. Much of what we cover with Nora was touched on last night but everything looks different in the bright sunshine. Milan has disappeared like magic again as our group diligently follows Nora around Old Town. Nora points out Bratislava Castle, gleaming white in the sunshine, where it sits atop the hill above the city. Our guide talks about St. Michael’s Gate which is a gateway located under a stately 14th century tower. We pass by a shop that sells a croissant filled with different fillings and we learn that is a Bratislava specialty. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the name of the pastry.
Nora leads us on to another small square and “tada” Milan the wizard suddenly appears, an impish smile on his face, and his black satchel bulging. Milan reaches into the magic bag and pulls out some of the Bratislava special croissants and gives us a choice of walnut or poppy seed. Oh, my gosh, I am still full from breakfast but I take one of the walnut pastries and bite into the half-moon treat. Yum, of course I eat every crumb of the delightful specialty.
We continue exploring with Nora who is quite funny and informative and not afraid to speak her mind. What a difference a few decades make on freely speaking because she tells us the story of her Grandfather who made a disparaging comment about the communists when they ruled and soon found himself working in a uranium mine. Nora also tells us that his health has suffered greatly from that forced work detail.
There is a lighter side to our tour such as the statue of a pleasant-looking man who is tipping his top hat. It seems the figure was erected in honor of a local man who would stand on this corner and tip his hat at all the ladies while giving them compliments. Because he so endeared himself with his kindness the people wanted a statue to honor him. I love that story. We also pass by the happiest city worker which is a bronze statue of a man part way out of a manhole. The fellow is resting his chin on the sidewalk and smiling. Why is he smiling? Because from this vantage point he can see up the women’s skirts as they walk by, thus the happiest worker in the city. HA! Naturally, we all rub the top of his head as is the tradition and many have their photo taken with the rascal.
As our tour winds down, we end up in the Pedestian mall, (I’m not spelling the full name out again), where we started from. As Nora is talking to us she suddenly looks towards two women and states “those are pickpockets”! All of us stare at the women who are dressed like tourists and appear to be part of a small group of tourists. The group is perusing crafts that are for sale in various stands that have been put up in the square for the day. Just to be ornery, I decide to take the pickpockets photo which results in the women immediately turning their backs to me. Well now. As we continue walking I look back occasionally and see one of the women is still shadowing a man in the group. I don’t know if the pickpocket gives up or if the woman got what she was after because later I see her walk away from the target. I can guarantee you that I would have never suspected these women at all as they seamlessly blended in with the tourist crowd!
With this part of the tour over we return to Hotel Devin for a short break to use the toilets and then board the bus for the drive up to Bratislava Castle. When we get to the street where we are to unload, Waessik must turn the bus around on a busy not exactly wide street and he does so with such alacrity that our group gives him a well-deserved round of applause. We disembark by the Parliament building where Nora talks in disapproving tones of their government. Gee, that sounds very familiar. We had learned yesterday from Milan that Slovakia was hosting the EU officials for six months, evidently the EU alternates around to the member countries every six months. Because of the EU presence we cannot get into the Castle so Nora just talks about its history as we stand outside gazing at the enormous white structure. Nora points out a building that was the stables long ago and says it was turned into a gym, including a sauna, for the politicians and intimates that perhaps the money could have been spent on more important concerns. Our guide repeats a joke the citizens like to tell which is that at least the stables is a proper place for the politicians since the people liken them to the posterior end of a horse. I thought that was pretty funny. There is a viewing platform near the castle which overlooks the Danube. Although it is hazy we can just make out the spinning wind towers in nearby Austria.
Waessik meets us at the load-up point and Nora says that her part in our Bratislava tour is over. All of us thank her for the informative tour she gave us and we say goodbye when the feisty woman gets off at a bus stop down the street. Our morning activity isn’t over yet as we are doing in home visits with local people now. We are leaving the historical part of Bratislava and venturing into the housing projects that were built in the communist days.
Waessik drives the bus over the Danube, (using a bridge of course), and Milan explains that we will divide into groups, each group being guests of a different family. Since Paul, Jennifer, Mr. D & Ms. C, and I are sitting closest to the front of the bus, we are being dropped off at the first stop. No one is waiting for us but we spy a young woman in a flowered dress running our way. A bit out of breath, she apologizes to us for being late, which we assure her is no problem. After introductions and Milan informing Stella when they will return to pick us up, we follow Stella to the cement block building where she resides.
When we reach the apartment where Stella, and her parents live, our hostess asks us to either take our shoes off or put plastic booties over them. We all choose to put the hospital-like covers on our shoes and then we are allowed to enter the apartment. Stella’s dark haired mother is there to greet us as we walk into the small hallway. We are then asked to wash our hands, which we do one person at a time in the tiny bathroom. I wonder if this is a normal procedure for guests in people’s houses or is someone here a bit of a hypochondriac?
Once we have finished the hand washing ritual, we follow mother and daughter into the sitting room. This room has been painted as colorfully as the bathroom and hallway, which maybe is a compensation for all the years they lived in the drab grey apartment buildings. The outside of many of the apartment buildings have also been painted in different colors now, thank goodness. The sitting room is crammed full of stuff. There are enough chairs in the tiny room for all of us to sit down but if you shift positions in your chair you risk bumping into something.
Once we have carefully settled into our seats, Stella welcomes us and then gives us information about her folks and herself. Her mother is an artist/model which is validated by the many paintings that cover the walls of the room. I believe her father is also an artist but works with wood, including making frames for paintings. Stella, who speaks English fairly well, is still going to University and hopes to get a degree in marketing. Her goal is to help her parents and friends with selling their products, perhaps via the internet. Stella’s mother, I can’t think of her name, doesn’t speak English so Stella is translating for us and her mom.
After visiting a bit, the two women retreat into the kitchen and bring back a generous bowl of ice cream for each of us. We spend much of our time together asking questions of one another. One of us asks Stella what her memories are of living under communism as a child. Stella replies remembering how hardline communists would scold you if you wore a bright-colored dress. She also recalled the long lines you had to stand in while shopping for everyday needs, plus what a treat it was if oranges or such were available. Then someone asks if they miss anything about communism. After a few moments of reflection, Stella translates her mother’s answer that it was easier to sell art work then. I didn’t quite understand the reason why this would be but I believe it was because people wanted something beautiful and colorful in their houses and that there wasn’t as much competition in those times as there is now. They both talk about how quickly more things became available once the Velvet Revolution took place. They also mention traveling to Austria just to look in awe of the variety and abundance of things available there for sale when the iron curtain came down.
We are asked about our professions and where we live, also what our religion is which I thought was rather interesting. Our photo book would have come in handy at this visit! Stella’s mom brings out a photo book full of pictures of herself posing with various works of art. We are then shown a large book about Slovakian artists in which her folk art is featured.
At one point in this visit, Stella begins telling us about some product that is supposed to cure a lot of ailments and cites how her stomach problems cleared up after taking it. We are having a little trouble following her but it appears that we can go on a website for the product and purchase it under Stella’s name. This is a bit weird. Stella announces that it is time to go as Milan and Waessik are due in a few minutes. Before we leave, Jennifer presents a sunflower dish towel to our hostesses to thank them for letting us spend an hour in their home with them. As we are preparing to leave, Stella asks if we would like to buy any of her mom’s paintings that are sitting on a small table. Well this is awkward. We hem and haw around then Ms. C states that they didn’t bring any money and Jennifer tells the duo that we don’t have room in our luggage to take one home. Both statements are completely true but I’m sure this is disappointing to the women.
Stella escorts us to the bus where we again thank her for graciously having us in their home. We then drive around and pick up the other members of our group who are exuberant about their home visit experience. Let’s be frank here, one group was served liquor so that might have added to their happiness :). No really, we all enjoyed this unique experience of spending time with ordinary people and seeing how they live.
As we are driving back to the hotel, after talking about our home visits, Milan relates a story about living in the communist housing projects (Paul and I disagree if this was his own personal story so I have made it a generic story). Because all the buildings were the same color, height, with no landscaping, (can’t have any personal touches here), children would get lost trying to find their way back home. Honestly, how scary would that be!
This afternoon is free but Milan has promised to escort me to a pharmacy so Jennifer and Paul tag along. To make a long story sort of short I have been having terribly sore lips off and on for a couple of months. I’m not one to run to the Doctor so I waited until the day before our departure to see my doctor. She diagnosed my condition as cold sores and sent me to my pharmacist for a prescription. The pharmacist said that I should be fine in five days. A week later my condition was worse and I emailed my good friend Connie asking if she would contact my health clinic for advice. The doctor sent the name of a different medicine and said I should be able to get it at any pharmacy. Hence, our visit to the pharmacy. Thanks again Connie!
Paul printed the email from our Dr. at the hotel so we could show it to the pharmacist in hopes the staff would consider it equal to a prescription. I lay the email in front of the young woman who waits on us and point to the name of the medicine. The pharmacist nods and asks if I want the pills or the ointment. I tell Milan to ask her if there are any side effects of this medicine that I need to be aware of. Milan grins and says “why don’t you ask her; she is speaking English”. I can hear Paul snickering behind me and Jennifer says “hello” as I feel my face turn a bright red. I am so flustered that I forget to ask about the side effects but do ask if I can buy both items. The smiling pharmacist says of course and tells me how often to take and apply the medicine which turns out to be over the counter not prescription. Paul pays the very reasonable price for the medicine and we leave the pharmacy. In my weak defense, I have become so used to having Milan translate for us the past ten days I just blanked out the fact that the pharmacist was speaking English :). I profusely thank Milan for taking a part of his free time to help me out at the pharmacy. After Milan departs, I take my purchases back to the hotel while Paul and Jennifer find a bench in the Pedestian Mall to wait for my return.
Once I join up with Paul and Jennifer we decide to just wander through Old Town to see what we can see. There are more tented stands selling crafts in the main square so Jennifer and I decide to take a look at what is being offered. Paul finds a wall to lean against and people watches as we shop. Jennifer purchases a couple of crocheted angels for family members that are really nice and just as important, easy to pack. We step into the nearby church that stands next to Bratislava Old Town Hall. Mass is taking place so we stand quietly and listen to a soloist singing, what a beautiful voice she has.
The three of us decide to go in search of a place to eat and find a café that is selling Kozel beer which we prefer over Pilsner. We eat a light lunch as between the croissants and the big dish of ice cream at our home visit, we aren’t’ all that hungry. We just enjoy sitting at the outside table and watching life go on around us. The three of us agree that we just feel comfortable in Bratislava and like the laid-back attitude. Also, my sense of direction is working here unlike in Prague where I was always confused to my where abouts!
We decide to visit the St. Martin’s Cathedral and along the way we watch a one-man band serenading passersby’s. There is a group of young girls in costume practicing a dance routine on a side street, and a group of kids with musical instruments are preparing to perform near the cathedral.
Entering the quiet cathedral, Jennifer and I proceed to take photos of the opulent interior, as do two other tourists. As with all the cathedrals we have toured on this trip there is incredible woodwork, lavish alters and beautiful ceilings. A nun is kneeling in a pew at the front of the church in deep meditation. There are pews in the chancel where fairy tale-like creatures are perched on the end of some of the pews. In a corner is a large sculpture of a man on horseback cutting his cloak in half to share it with a destitute fellow. So many interesting things to look at in this cathedral. Paul walks up and tells us that he has just seen a sign that states “no photos”. How did we and the other people manage to miss that sign? Too late now, but frankly we have photos of just about everything in the church already!
The three of us return to the hotel to freshen up before our outing to a nearby village for wine tasting and dinner. We are in wine country after all.
Next blog, Wining and dining in a nearby village to end our day in Bratislava, and traveling to Hungary tomorrow.