After some time at home, it feels great to be back in Slovakia with my expectations even higher and my backpack even lighter than before. My flights from Buffalo to Budapest all went off without a hitch (something unheard of for about the last five years of my life). And although I’ve already passed through it before, I finally got my first view of Budapest’s stunning cityscape before moving on.
From Budapest, I headed to Kosice, Slovakia – one of 2013’s Cultural Capitals of Europe, for those who haven’t heard – to check in with HQ, and then onto my beloved Bratislava for the weekend. Since I’d already been to Bratislava a couple times before, I checked out some places outside of my usually old town rounds. Chris and I took a bus up to Slavín, which is a looming war memorial honoring Soviet troops who died liberating Bratislava from the Germans during WWII. The memorial itself was worth seeing, but the view of the city below and the residential neighborhoods we passed through on the ride up were even more interesting. Huge and strangely modern private residences are mixed amongst ambassadors homes and embassies. The American ambassador’s home is actually quite close to the memorial and in a moment of need, we briefly thought about asking to use the bathroom. That’s within our rights as American citizens, right?
After returning from Slavín, Chris and I, and our new co-worker Ryan, hit up brewpub and restaurant Meštiansky Pivovar as per a local’s suggestion. The place lived up to its hype with a warm atmosphere, good beer, absolutely scrumptious, reasonably priced food, and exceptionally friendly service, which is something that can be hard to find in Slovakia.
The next day we headed to Nitra, where we would be teaching for the week. Although it is the fifth largest city in Slovakia, I didn’t know much about it beyond its emboldened name on the west side of Slovakia’s map. It turns out Nitra is one the oldest cities in Slovakia. Sprawling down and around Zobor mountain, Nitra has anything you could possibly want as far as modern conveniences, from malls to cinemas to bowling alleys, in addition to a church older than the United States around just about every corner. This is quite logical seeing as the first Christian church in the Czech and Slovak Republics was founded here in the 9th century.
While the town proved to be a very pleasant place to spend a week teaching (and this, of course, is largely due to the students and teachers at the school) it might only be worth a day-long stopover for backpackers or tourists. Beyond the churches and the city’s castle which is basically, surprise, surprise, a church, the two biggest attractions are Nitra’s hills: Calvary and Zobor.
Calvary immediately grabs your eye, easing gently upwards through the stations of the cross on one side with a jutting, rocky face on the other. A small chapel and three crosses sit atop the hill, making for dramatic silhouettes with the right lighting. It takes only a few minutes to walk up after you reach the base, but provides an excellent view of the city. The best views, however, are taken in from the city’s other hill. The center of Nitra lies in the shadow of Zobor mountain, or perhaps more accurately, Zobor hill, while some of its nicer residential areas creep up the side. If you take bus number nine from the center you will be taken about halfway up the hill to where a network of trails begins. Take the blue and then the green to Zobor, to reach the summit of 588 meters. From here you will get a close-up look at the mountain’s transmitter, which looks like it could be something more exotic from a further distance. You’ll also see the whole of the city, the course of the Nitra River, expanses of farmland and a nearby mine. I’ve been told, on a clear day, it is possible to see 40 km or more, but we were just fortunate enough to get some golden haze through the previously overcast afternoon. The views were fantastic none the less. While you can hike to the summit of Zobor and back to the bus stop in about an hour and a half, a network of trails on the hill could easily keep you busy for an afternoon or longer.
We never had any great dining success to speak of in Nitra. Perhaps because it is a university town, there seemed to be a very high pub-to-restaurant ratio, making finding dinner difficult a few nights. Our students did introduce us to a teahouse called Čajovňa Epicure, which had a huge selection and a wonderfully laid-back vibe, one that was added to by the shoes-off beanbag area. My students also informed me there is a restaurant called Hoffer, which they claimed has delicious food and in their words “many animals.” I found one restaurant by this name in the city center that had more taxidermy than I have ever seen in one place, and on the way out of town there stands another Hoffer, with a wide variety of live animals outside, including ostriches. Which one they were referring to, I’ll never know.
After Nitra, my co-workers and I headed to Trenčin for the weekend. While I said Nitra may not be a must-see for those with limited time for their Slovakian sojourn, Trenčin is another story. Stay tuned for more!