Posts Tagged With: Bratislava

Biking Through the Old Iron Curtain

Ever since I saw it suggested in a hostel’s guidebook, riding my bike from Bratislava to Austria and back earned a spot on my Eastern European bucket list. I think transporting yourself over international borders with your own two feet is always pretty neat, but it’s even more intriguing when that line is as significant as the one between Slovakia and Austria. While the infamous Iron Curtain may have fallen nearly a quarter of a century ago, the separation of East and West Europe during the communistic era still accounts for an obvious divide today.

 The Carnuntum - Schloss Hof - Bratislava passing through Austrian Fields.

The Carnuntum – Schloss Hof – Bratislava passing through Austrian Fields.

May 1st, or May Day is a national holiday in Slovakia. Since we were teaching near Bratislava, it was the perfect day to execute our international cycling plans. A half-hour train ride took us from Senec to Bratislava’s main station. The day before I had called Bike Rentals Bratislava and reserved two bikes for 12 Euros with a 30 euro deposit a piece, which is pretty reasonable in my opinion. When we arrived at the Tesco near the Old Town, I just called the guy up, and five minutes later we had our bicycles. The man and his partner were extremely friendly and organized. After taking our information and money, they showed us the main features of the bikes and allowed us to be on our way.

The bikes themselves were in great shape and came with saddle bags stocked with a helmet, tire repair kit, pump and first aid kit. After ensuring everything was in working condition, we whizzed around the Old Town a bit to warm up our rusty legs. Before long we we’re zooming over the New Bridge, affectionately known as the UFO Bridge because of its questionable communistic design, and turning onto a path we knew ran along the Danube.

Chris strikes a pose on his snazzy bike.

Chris strikes a pose on his snazzy bike.

Before we had come to Bratislava I tried to look into different bike routes to and from Austria. I had almost no luck besides a blogger who described a very highway heavy route to Heinburg, a small city a few kilometers over the border, and back. I’m not a big fan of highways, or returning the same way I’ve come for that matter, so I did some map research of my own. I decided we could from this starting path, we could definitely veer into some different villages in Austria and cross back into Slovakia in order to return on the opposite side of the Danube.

When we first merged onto the bike trail, two things became very apparent. First, some highway riding was unavoidable if we wanted to stay on the main bike path. Second of all, based on our fellow riders, we were severely underdressed for the occasion.

I’ve come to realize Europeans are all about their active gear. You will never catch any Slovaks in the mountains without trekking poles or coordinating waterproof pants and jackets and the same seems to apply for the cycling world. While I had just barely opted for running shorts and a t-shirt (jeans seemed like a good idea if we were going to hang around the city after), everyone else we passed was decked out in spandex, cycling jerseys, sleek sunglasses and fancy helmets. I expected this from the elite, hardcore Tour de France trainees, but when we were flying past people huffing and puffing through the first two kilometers in their intense gear, I was slightly amused.

We continued along the masses of professionally clad cyclists for 15 minutes or so before we came to the border crossing. It actually didn’t hit me that the bar and abandoned building we passed indicated the Slovakian-Austrian border until we were several minutes past it. It seemed too fast and anti-climactic to have already crossed into another country, let alone another country that was completely off-limits two decades ago. But, no matter how quickly it had happened, we were in Austria now, meaning that, as long as we made it back to Bratislava, we would have accomplished our goal.

At this point, however, we knew we wanted to go much further than just the border. The temperature was perfect for biking, and the path moved into a quaint Austrian Village, Wolfstahl, soon after the border crossing. It was here that we started to see purple signs indicating some bike path called the Carnuntum – Schloss Hof – Bratislava Tour. We figured if there were going to be trail markers  around, we might as well follow them. It turned out to be a great decision, as it led us off the main road and snaked through the village.  I would like to note that, as the first village we encountered after crossing the old “Iron Curtain” line, Wolfstahl was a world away from the suburbs of Bratislava a few kilometers to the east.  The winding streets marked by German signs led to charming houses with large gardens. Most importantly, there was not a block of apartments in sight.  Of course, we are comparing city and village, but Wolfstahl looked distinct from any Slovak village I’d ever seen. The truth is, the technical divide between East and West may have ceased in 1989, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still feel it.

A map we came across documenting different cycling routes in the area.

Our Guiding Light

Since the Purple path served us well at the start, we decided to keep with it as long as it took a fairly logical route. Before long, we ran across a sign that showed what a jackpot we had hit with the purple path markers.  The Carnuntum – Schloss Hof – Bratislava trail actually took us upon almost the exact route I had been trying to research before, with a bonus section that traveled through some extra sections of the Austrian countryside.

It was quickly settled that we would follow this, and we did, through over 20 miles of Austrian towns, villages and countryside. The scenic route even led us past golden yellow fields, underneath a castle, over the Danube and through a national park. At one point we could have easily continued to Vienna, and the only older man on the bike path not decked out in spandex from head-to-toe was eager to direct us. But alas, we had class to teach in the morning and couldn’t guarantee we could return in time.

These fields of yellow surrounded us when we first crossed the border.

These fields of yellow surrounded us when we first crossed the border.

The Danube as it flows past Heinburg.

The Danube as it flows past Heinburg.

Looking like a bit of a dweeb crossing over the Danube.

Looking like a bit of a dweeb crossing over the Danube.

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Return to Slovakia and the Hills of Nitra

Bratislava Castle from under the UFO Bridge

Bratislava Castle from under the UFO Tower of the New Bridge

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.

Art in the bus station under the New Bridge

Art in the bus station under the New Bridge

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?

A child plays beneath the Slavin memorial

A child plays beneath the Slavin memorial

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.

Overlooking Bratislava from Slavin

Overlooking Bratislava from Slavin

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.

Nitra and Calvary Hill from Nitra's "Castle"

Nitra and Calvary Hill from Nitra’s “Castle”

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.

My fellow teachers on top of Calvary Hill

My fellow teachers on top of Calvary Hill

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.  Continue reading

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Looking Back on Bratislava

Thus far, in my three months teaching in Slovakia, Czech Republic and Austria, my path has crossed both Prague and Bratislava twice.  I spent this past weekend soaking in the holiday spirit in a much more decked-out Prague than I saw in early October. The weekend before that, I revisited Bratislava as its Christmas decorations and festivities first came together.  While Prague was undeniably a scene of seasonal perfection, with its traditionally decorated tree and softly twinkling lights. However, the masses of people bottlenecked among the main markets reminded me of just how much I love the much lower-profile capital city of Bratislava, and yet how little I have mentioned it here.

The "Man at Work" Statue. Allegedly is the most photographed thing in the whole city.

The “Man at Work” Statue. Allegedly is the most photographed thing in the whole city.

On both of my visits to Bratislava, I have been struck by how livable the city feels.  As you walk through the old town, the buildings and cobblestone streets look similar to those of Prague, but you can’t help but notice how many more locals dine next to you in cafes and how much more elbow room you have, even in the main square. You feel as though you are seeing a snapshot of the city’s everyday routine.  Dogs are being walked, groceries are being carried, lives are being lived.  Despite having low expectations for the city based on lack of hype from other backpackers, I found myself having to pry myself from it both times Sunday afternoon called me away.

Low quality phone picture. High quality Christmas Market experience.

Low quality phone picture. High quality Christmas market experience.

If there was ever a question about how I felt about the city, the Christmas market confirmed my affection. While it held the same smoky huts filled with sausages, crepes and mulled wine, and the space was crowded without a doubt, the feeling was entirely different. Few words of English could be heard and the giant crowd dancing around a man with an accordion could sing along with each word of the Slovak folk songs.  The small gifts sold in stands did not all proudly bear the name of the city, unlike those in Prague, most likely because most people would not be nearly as impressed. But to me, that made them much more appealing. The electric blue flashing lights on the tree may have been a little over the top, but the overall experience, like most of mine in Bratislava, just felt authentic.

Looking out from Devín Castle onto the Morava.

Looking out from Devín Castle onto the Danube.

This is not at all to downplay the impressiveness Prague.  The city left me in awe and I had a fantastic time each time I was there. There is a reason people flock there and I will go again the first opportunity I have.  But when I look back on my time here, Prague will be a highlight, but Bratislava will be my soft spot. So here are some snippets from the not-nearly-enough time that I spent there. Maybe you’ll be inspired to check it out yourself.

(P.S. If further inspiration is necessary the city’s Shtoor Cafe, pictured further below, is the home of 1.30 Euro bottomless coffee in a continent of baby-sized instant Nescafes.)

The mighty Danube flowing below the castle.

The mighty Danube flowing below the castle.

After climbing up the castle walls, Chris strikes a risky pose.

After climbing up the castle walls, Chris strikes a risky pose.

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